I am listening to R&B with my Aunt Mae upstairs in our house that was once a single family, then a duplex, then a single family again when we lived there. We’re just at the top of the stairs on the landing. She’s teaching me how to do The Rock, and I don’t know if she has a daughter yet, but I think she does, and the sun comes through the windows making the whole room yellow, and it’s brighter because in the room behind us, my mother painted the walls and ceilings yellow, dipped her hands in brown paint that was close to the color of her own skin, and patterned the walls and ceilings with her large handprints. Maybe this was before the ceiling caves in with the weight of age and neglect due to Reagan-era economics (this is why I hate Reagan—he helped to make us poor—but this was before that, I’m sure). Maybe Carter’s still president? Maybe I’m kind of standing on my aunt’s feet as we rock back and forth on the landing? This is before I’d hang from the landing by my hands, over the stairs, daring to let go so that I would die and my sisters saying, “Let go, let go.” But that’s the sweet memory I go to when I get upset lately: my aunt and me doing The Rock and all the memories from that time happen in summertime. It is as if my childhood was always summertime.
Lately, I’m listening to Stevie Wonder a lot. From Songs in the Key of Life, in particular. At first, doing so felt irresponsible, but as I listened for intricacies I may have missed in an earlier listening, I considered it deep listening, much like looking closely at a written text is deep reading, that feeling of irresponsibility subsided. I was surprised at how multi-layered his songs are. For instance, in the song “As,” Wonder says to the auditor that he will love them always, but that’s not exactly true; he offers many apocalypses: “Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky.” “Until the ocean covers every mountain high.” “Until the trees and seas just up and fly away.” “Until the day that 8x8x8 is 4.” How can you trust an “always” like that? And this is a love song, a ballad, really, but there is something desperate sounding about it, how the first line continues until he hits the word “always” the first time. And something about the harmony of the background singers makes it suspect. Still the rhythm brings it all together, and I want to rock with my aunt back on the upstairs landing of our house in Milwaukee.
I move from Songs in the Key of Life to Innervisions, particularly the song “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing.” I am sure it is a political treatise. At the beginning of this song, which I’m sure Wonder wrote for me, he begins with chatter. It sounds like an invitation for globalization. Call it neoliberalism if you want, but I’m just going to call it groove: “You know, Paris, Beirut, you know, I mean Iraq, Iran, … you know/ I speak very very um, fluent Spanish.” The song is Latin-esque and he’s a savior in the song, he’s the way home. It’s cheery: I’m here for you, he says. It has that polyrhythm that Middle and South America made famous. It’s jazzy, too and since it’s Stevie, it’s full of funk.
But it’s in e flat minor. And that refrain in Spanish, “Todo ‘stá bien chévere,” makes me think that things aren’t so great. Why tell us not to worry when there is nothing to worry about? And if there are no worries, why the up-tempo Latin rock? Stevie Wonder is a genius. He did The Pixies’s contrast of happiness with creepiness before The Pixies did it. Spanish, Iraq, Iran, Beirut, Paris. He didn’t write this song for me; he wrote it for us.
My Aunt Mae is beautiful in a quiet way. She is one of the few grown women in my family who I grew taller than. She is built sturdily, though she is short and thin. Like all the women who helped raise me, her voice is melodious but I can’t see her singing. When I first heard Chaka Khan and knew that she was Chaka Khan, Rufus was an afterthought and I had decided that if Mae were to be a singer, she’d be as free as Chaka Khan. Though my aunt’s hair was always kept low in a modest afro, I knew that she was as outrageous as Chaka Khan in her own way. I can’t tell you why I always associated the two, but I can’t think of one without the other.
There is a clip of Chaka Khan with Rufus on Soul Train. I’m sure anyone could find it on YouTube. Don Cornelius, who would eventually die by a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, introduces the band as Rufus, which was the band’s name. But to see a woman singing in front of six musicians introduced with such a masculine name is a little disconcerting. The song they sing is one that always made me a little uneasy with its funky bass line that walks slowly along with Khan’s singing and the wah wahing of the guitar. Then that robotic voice of the talkbox that answers some of Khan’s lines adds to the creepiness. It’s a love song, but jazzy and upbeat. Still, it’s a little creepy.
Chaka Khan is skinny here on this Soul Train episode. She has an inny belly button that is exposed. She wears a midriff shirt and bell-bottoms. Her hair is long and floppy. She’s smiling through the lip-syncing. She looks nothing like Aunt Mae; still, they are like sisters to me.
The lyrics to the song, Tell Me Something Good, begins, “You ain’t got no kind of feeling inside,” which frightened me when I was a kid. I associated that line with the robot voice. I imagined an unfeeling created thing that a woman looks to for comfort. It felt, even with Khan’s animated vibrato, unnatural. But still, it made me want to dance. And guess who wrote this song? Not only did Stevie Wonder give the song to Rufus, he showed Chaka Khan how to sing it.
On YouTube, that most glorious of all tubes, you can find Stevie Wonder singing a version of “Tell Me Something Good” on a talkbox. You can also find a version where both Wonder and Khan sing the song together and you want to be there. You want to talk to them afterwards about those days back when they shared youth together. You want to ask them about their jam sessions. You want to be a part of their shared history. Here, Khan is bigger, sweaty (the rolls of fat on her neck glisten), hair still big, and she’s still sexy. And she scats. She’s amazing. Wonder’s hair has receded. Wonder solos on the instrument he’s made famous, the synthesizer, and he looks happy to be doing something so fun for money. He sneaks in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Dude, just go listen to it.
But how is Chaka Khan like my aunt? Chaka Khan celebrates blackness. Don Cornelius, in another “Soul Train” appearance, likened her to Sly Stone, but he made a mistake, and called her a “black Sly” instead of “female Sly” at first. Khan says, “Well, I am black and I am sly.” It was a stupid thing for Cornelius to say; let her be her own woman. And maybe that’s my connection with Chaka Khan and my aunt: they embrace their blackness and their womanhood. I never felt that Khan was trying to appeal to a white audience by changing her appearance. I never felt a performance of an other outside of her own performance as her self. I could say the same for my aunt. Really, Aunt Mae comes to mind when I think of the term “black woman.”
It’s not normal for me to listen to old R&B or R&B of any kind. It’s not my music of choice—I’m a rock and roll fan, a trip hop fan, a techno fan, a punk rock fan. But I’m so far from home and from the women in my life like Aunt Mae, that I feel this kind of music will bring me closer to them. After November 8, I felt a sea change. I fear, being so far away from home, that I cannot be comforted by the life I created here in New England. I want so badly the arms of my mother, the sturdiness of my father, the music of backyard barbecues and the love of everyone who watched me grow up, like my Aunt Mae. Donald Trump is such a contrast from Barack Obama, and the climate of hate he has brought with him is downright jarring. He wants an America that he’s never defined, and I want the America before he was elected. Maybe he is the catalyst to the music I’m craving, and maybe the hate he’s ushered in makes me nostalgic for a greatness that has never really existed: I’m a Regan-era child. I know I don’t want to go back to the 80s, but the direction we’re moving now with the Trump administration is hardly forward.
I am listening to Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, finding the political in songs that aren’t political—even though Wonder has written some songs that have clear political arguments—but I am also going back to those R&B songs that are explicitly proselytizing, like Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” or Curtis Mayfield’s almost any song he wrote ever, and I’ll sing along with my own falsetto to their falsettos. With these songs, it’s depressingly fun to find what has changed and what remains the same.
But for all this—for the songs of my mother and my aunt’s heyday—I am listening to these songs because, I believe, I am in need of comfort. I’m trying to make sense of the world around me, a United States that seems more misogynistic and racist than ever in my lifetime, and I need someone to tell me that it will be okay. I need to feel that I can be a woman and be black in this present cultural climate. I’m trying to do that by pulling back into the past via music and my memories, by evoking the black women who were comfortable with being themselves and proud of their identity.
Photos provided by the author.