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By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.


Friday, June 26, 2009.


“Schumaw”—like some ancient African dialect that only he, James Brown, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Macy Gray, and quiet as it’s kept, Lil’ Wayne quite understand. Random utterings like “Mama-ko, mama-sa, ma-ka-ma-ko-ssa” and even Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango can’t quite claim it. The point is that this was some deep knowledge and there was never any explanation for it—like that riff in the middle of “Remember the Time” that can’t even be transcribed. Much the same with the infamous audition tape—the grainy black & white one, where the lil’ boy is singing JB and moving through an archive of masculine movements known only to Mr. Brown, Mr. Wilson—and quiet as it’s kept, Mr. Presley.


Mr. Gordy was hooked, not quite knowing what he had and misreading the lil boy as some kind of novelty, like that lil blind boy, who asked for his freedom only to return with Music On My Mind under one arm and genius under the other. But that boy had almost a decade of seasoning before the breakthrough; this other cat was 10-years old, singing about stuff he ain’t supposed to know about.

Ask him who he dug and the boy say “William Hart.” What? Yeah, William Hart. Like what this 10-year-old know about The Delphonics, and then you listen to “Can You Remember?” from that first
Jackson 5 joint and it’s like damn—this boy ain’t real. Smokey must have thought the same thing listening to the playback of “Who’s Lovin’ You?”—the b-side of the original hot ish, “I Want You Back.” Naw, Smokey, flip that ish over. I mean damn, you did write this joint right—and you did record this joint right? But damn if that ain’t yo’ song no mo’. And the rest was history.

My story with the boy started just a bit after that. Call it a serious boy crush and who could blame me, he was like the prettiest M’fer we’d ever seen, especially with the Apple Jack on his head. I talking from the beginning, like I listened to that ABC album on 8-Track—years before I figured out what the actual album sequencing was like. Years later I danced with my mother to that album’s “I Found that Girl” at my wedding.


The boy was my first muse—literally. Used to copy lyrics from those early albums—“Darling Dear,” “Wings of Love,” “In Our Small Way”—and sent them in secret notes to the first shortie who really caught my eyes. Got the idea peeping an old episode of the ABC Afterschool Special where the boy’s “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going” played in the background and I got that queasy first love thing in my stomach. The song that’s on the album with the rat. Boy was on some queer ish even them. Shame the boy wasn’t free to be on some Ziggy Stardust ish, but what’s a little black boy to do in the mid-1970s.

Boy tried to get his own freedom in the late 1970s frequenting dance clubs like 54, checking the scene, watching cats like Gamble and Huff work the boards, and when he and them other boys took control over their own music and that young boy hooked up with Quincy Jones, all was magic.


Young boy found his own muse in the scarecrow, easing on down the road to the Emerald City—“can you, feel it, brand day?”—and damn if those early videos for “Rock With You”, “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” and “Can You Feel It” don’t feel inspired by The Wiz. Truth be told, Off the Wall was the crown jewel—ish was still innocent, earnest, organic. Thriller seemed contrived—like that young boy was trying to sell 20 million records. Find the boy’s true fans by asking “Thiller” or “Off the Wall”? If they say the former, than you know that were on some Johnny/Janie come-lately ish when that young boy took claim to the world.

The rest was a blur, like if you drop like 26 millions sales, what exactly do you do next? The young boy never figured that out and the less it was about the music, the more surreal the ish got. Then it became about young boys, except he was now a grown ass-man, though true be told, if I’m to believe that this grown ass man was fondling young boys, I also got to believe the ass whumpings that occurred at the hands of that once young boy’s daddy.


That boy spent a lifetime seeking a meaningful freedom, perhaps from the tyranny of family, but later from the tyranny of celebrity. And yeah perhaps Mr. Presley, Ms. Monroe and those four British mop-tops could relate, but when that young boy was hitting his half, half of them were dead—and they never had to deal with MTV and 24-hour cable networks in their prime.

I will shed a tear sometime soon, not for the man who breathed his last breath today, but for that young boy that helped to define the me that I be. That young boy was special and it’s that young boy that I choose to remember today.


Dr Mark Anthony Neal is a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. 

Dr Neal is a  frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio’s News and Notes with Farai Chideya, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com. Neal’s blog “Critical Noir” appears at Vibe Magazine.

He is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999) and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003). He is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for NYU Press.


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