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By Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan (in Exile)


 

Thursday, March 12, 2015.

 

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? was the product of a hard-earned battle with the head of his record label, Berry Gordy.  Gaye’s brother-in-law perhaps rightly thought that Gaye was squandering his  mainstream success by recording a protest album.

 

Gaye had the last laugh; What’s Going On? was not only a commercial success—achieving   multi-platinum status and becoming Motown’s best selling-album at the time, the recording also became a template for every imagined Black protest album for nearly three generations. Indeed during every generational nadir of Black social life, the call is for that generation’s What’s Going On?

 

In his seminal book on Black Cultural Politics, the Richard Iton cites the anti-apartheid protests of the mid-1980s as a narrative “last hurdle” for mainstream R&B. As Iton write, “with the formal end of apartheid, even such nominal references to racial hierarchy and marginalization would largely disappear from the lyrics of R&B recordings.” (In Search of the Black Fantastic, 127).

 

If there was a male R&B artist, John Legend notwithstanding, that we might expect to be up to the task of at least matching Gaye’s intent, if not his execution, it would be Raheem DeVaughn.  Though his Twitter handle claims his status as “The Love King,” his oeuvre provides evidence of an artist who has consistently addressed social and political issues that seemingly have been jettisoned from R&B for at least a generation.  

 

With songs like The Love Experience’s Until,”  The Love and War Masterpeace’sBulletproof” (channeling Curtis Mayfield) and the recent collaboration with Kenny Dope (of Masters of Work fame) and Chicago’s Rhymefest on “Final Call,” (“I’m back on my ‘Marvin Mayfield’)—a song recorded in 2014 to acknowledge the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day Celebration--DeVaughn has cultivated a solid fan base that expects him to regularly find that balance between the sacred (the sexual) and the profane (the political) in R&B.

 

Like the political accounting  that Gaye’s What’s Going On? documented in the aftermath of the killings—Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton, Robert Kennedy, George Jackson, to name just a few—and the heightening of State repression with the incarceration of Angela Davis, Huey Newton and the Attica Uprisings being prime example, it might be expected that DeVaughn’s new music might serve ideally as a soundtrack this moment of #BlackLivesMatter.

 

Though DeVaughn’s Love Sex Passion might seem more concerned with buttressing the most commercial aspect DeVaughn’s brand—a bunch of little warblers nipping at his heels—it perhaps poses other questions.  Like how does one index desire, pleasure, one’s appetite and even need for the carnal in the midst of trauma and crisis?  Love Sex Passion is not without precedent.

 

Love Sex Passion falls somewhere in the same tight-fitting jeans that inspired  Gaye’s Let’s Get it On, his full-length follow-up to What’s Going On?,  and Bob Marley’s Kaya. Tracks from the latter were recorded alongside Marley’s classic Exodus, yet the sweetness of songs like “Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love” are a reminder of the warm bed that awaits, even the revolutionary; the love letters shared between George Jackson and Angela Davis, serving as exhibit L.

 

Less a retreat from the politics of the moment or even an alternative site to pursue a sensuous and sensual Black life, the pursuit of love, sex and passion establishes a politics of its own. For example, Gaye’s “If I Should Die Tonight” (from Let’s Get It On) takes on even more significance because it was recorded in an era when the losses were real and often; again thinking about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton laying next to his pregnant partner Deborah Johnson on the night that he was murdered.  

 

Yet the relationship and sexual life that Hampton and Johnson obviously shared with each other was part of the “toolkit for survival,” if you will, that is often given short shrift in our collective memories of movement.  Writing about the Black lives that mattered during the antebellum period historians Jessica Marie Johnson and Treva Blaine Lindsey ask readers to consider notions of pleasure and desire in the life of Harriet Tubman: “We do not imagine the adrenaline rush she may have felt, the pleasure she might have taken in dodging slave catchers, patrols, police. We do not imagine nights where she may have touched herself to extend the feeling, slipping her fingers inside her clothes and between her thighs to hang onto the sparkling rush…” ("Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom").

 

Raheem DeVaughn’s vocal style, which relies on a level of emotiveness often at odds with the profitable images of Black masculinity that circulate in the music industry, provides a sonic mapping of that “wetness” that Johnson and Lindsey refer to in their essay.  DeVaughn may be the most erotic male R&B vocalist of his generation, doing so in a way that often transcends lyrics.  Thus DeVaughn has eroticized the Political, and in the instance of Love Sex Passion, he politicizes the Erotic.

 

Undergirding standout tracks like “When You Love Somebody”  on DeVaughn’s Love Sex Passion is that recognition there is always somebody, somewhere, waiting for you; and sometimes we don’t make it back home.  In the case of  “Black Ice Cream,” there’s the creamy mouthful of joy in the private darkness of another night spent on the street, hands-up--a narrative more compelling because of the examples of Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell.

 

The most successful artists are able to sustain their career by being aware of the needs of the audience. After a summer and autumn of attending to matters of Black Lives, Raheem DeVaughn’s Love Sex Passion demands that we also attend to the matters of Black Love.

 


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books including Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). He is the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University.

 

 

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Black Love...Matters: Raheem DeVaughn’s Love Sex Passion

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