America to this day seems to be some kind of tricky, experimental, societal invention. The music of America is fundamentally aligned and embedded with that same volatile, flavorful, healing energy. It is the gumbo in the crockpot struck by lightning, almost given special supernatural powers. Grown out of the flares of Hades plus the seeds and rains of heaven. From the field chants to the gospel shuffle in the churches, the hymns and hums of gritty blackbelt soiled Delta Blues to wildly scintillating jazz flowing out of the streets and clubs of New Orleans. Yes, this is black music, therefore it is American music with a distinct African back bone – the drum- the bass- the heartbeat!
The special thing about free expression, and the best thing about music is the fact that a manmade instrument extending beyond your person isn’t even necessary. This is clearly evidenced in the fields, on the chain gangs, in the churches where acapella voices seem to penetrate the sky. We’ve seen that with the emcees flowing on the corner with the beat of the concrete. All of this is a movement through expression, pure spiritual resistance. It is something that people can always keep and carry with them, no matter how destitute or disenfranchised. This music has saved lives, it has bestowed many people with hope, purpose and self-worth. Music is not just music, for some who don’t practice religion, it serves the same intended purpose.
Music coincides with people and nature. It travels, adapts, updates and sometimes it reverts back to days of old. At times we need reminders, songs we’ve been estranged from for a long time. Songs that bring us back to the water, back to the road ahead. Regardless it is important to understand and appreciate the origins of the people of the music. When one understands the story and the foundation, one can more readily access the meaning and importance of the said artform.
My father was born in 1957 in Columbus, MS and my mother was born in 1959 in the same town. She was born in a part of town called “Catfish alley”, being the segregated south “Catfish alley” was a “negro” business district where the “negro” clinic was located. Coincidentally Columbus is the birthplace of Tennessee Williams, and 45 minutes north lies the township of Tupelo, MS (of course the birthplace of Elvis Pressley). I am the youngest of four children and although I am the only one in my immediate family not born in Mississippi, my roots remain just as deep.
My father’s mother was Martha Evans , a short deep brown complexioned woman who mothered and raised 9 children. Only carrying a third grade education, Martha cleaned well-to-do white families homes for a living. My father’s father was Garo Evans, he worked fire watch at a local factory and loved his whisky and women. He died in his 40’s when my father was three, incidentally my father hardly drank and was a very dedicated parent.
My mother’s mother (Big Mama) was Arna Mae Brownridge. Arna Mae was actually born in Pickens County, Alabama in 1916, she played organ and piano in the church in addition to occupying a day job as a school teacher. My mother’s father James Brownridge (Big Daddy) became a southern Baptist preacher and a school principal, although he didn’t graduate high school until the age of 27 due to chronic health issues (e.g. malaria, etc.). James Brownridge also enlisted in the military and served in WW II. When I was born he was already suffering from dementia along with many other issues, he died when I was 3.
I recall visiting Mississippi several times throughout my life, it always seemed to be “of a different time” regardless of how fast the rest of the world was moving. I always felt as if it was planted and knitted into my DNA, I knew I was given something special that not everybody can readily connect to let alone recognize and appreciate. As a youth I always felt the wealth of substance even as other stable false senses of security were in question.
I often wonder exactly how my life would be if I were born and raised strictly in Mississippi? How much does environment impact ones innate personality? If my father did not join the Air Force at 18, what would he have done? Would if my mother hadn’t the desire to depart Mississippi? I was born on Williams A.F.B. (nearby Phoenix, Az) in 1982. I was the last of four children and I was not planned, in fact I was going to be aborted originally. My mother actually went to the abortion clinic and broke down inconsolably. She told my father, “It’s just one more mouth to feed”. I was an induced labor (two weeks early), my mother strategically did so in order for us to relocate to the Las Vegas area within a week of my birth. We resided in Clark County for the first four years of my life, so my first memories involve Vegas, N. Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada.
One thing that remains arguably as strong as my sense of smell in regard to memory, is my sense of music and what it conjures, sparks, and recalls. Many of the places my father was stationed were outside of the southern United States, therefore in the pre-internet/ pre-spotify/ I-pod days you only had a few mediums to receive music. The primary sources in the 1980’s in which to enjoy music were T.V., record stores, and the radio. My first memories of the radio were riding around Las Vegas with my father in his 1986 manilla Toyota Corolla, or with my mother and/or the whole family in her 85’ Chevy station wagon. You had the tape decks, the 8 tracks, plus the radio but in some vehicles the radio was all you had, if that.
I remember my dad would listen to top 40 radio, which of course in pop music included some black artists and black music as well. Las Vegas even at that time did happen to have an R & B (Black radio station) too, that of course was a favored option in addition to the pop stations. In the same breath there was most certainly often times a vinyl record player bumping in the house, belting out anything from The Eagles, to Marvin Gaye and Patti Labelle. My family always loved music, but didn’t necessarily always get along. The music brought us together, there were many songs you didn’t and couldn’t hear on the radio. Some music was “too black” for mainstream radio in particular at that time, though lines were still and are always merging.
We have to remember how condemned black music has been, particularly let’s say in the 50’s. The 1950’s were a time when white U.S. citizens were quoted on television, remarking with such disdain on how they didn’t want their children listening to “jungle”/”ni**er” music. From this common fear I guess of being tainted, brewed and grew the same seeds of prejudice that previously produced such ridiculous depictions as we see portrayed in “Refer madness” or in the myth of “the boogie man”. The two aforementioned clips of history directly stem from stereotypes particularly related to jazz music.
The early 1980’s brought forth yet another experimental and vivacious period in music and American culture in general. However, lest we forget that this happened to be the same era in which initially MTV played very few black artists before Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking epic music videos. Needless to say that at that time there weren’t as many “urban” media outlets as it would be referred to today, sometimes that left a gap in experience and connection when it came to an African-American nomadic military family originally from the deep south. I remember a bit later on in my childhood, my father would refer to “black” radio stations. Contingent upon where we lived often times I was only familiar with such a thing when we passed through certain major cities, and/or the south.
As we traveled to visit family or to relocate, when it came to the “black” radio stations I recall a sense of grounding and familiarity that I couldn’t receive from other radio stations. For a little black boy who often times was surrounded mostly by caucasians (particularly at school), it gave me a sense of belonging as if I were born into a special club. I was often the navigator in my family after a certain age, I began studying road maps by the time I was four and soon after could navigate at least a whole 12 hour trip off of memory. I began to utilize my same memory bank to recall the “black” stations as we traveled America.
When you are traveling through unfamiliar towns, cities, and regions local radio is the best way “to taste the air”. To this day this actually rings true as radio remains the quickest and most direct way of tapping into the true pulse of the city (without even having to stop). In particular, we should specifically emphasize the role of independent community listener powered radio; college radio, news radio, etc. These local community driven outlets represent the actual unique terroir of colloquial voice, spirit and experience most distinctly.
From my birth up until about the age of 12 my family participated in a significant amount of relocation. We visited Mississippi many times throughout all of this and kept some of the same traditions, for example, how you refer to your parents and grandparents. It was quite simple; Mama, Daddy, Big Mama, and Big Daddy. However, I was a bit confused on what to call my paternal grandmother. We often times called her “Daddy’s Mama”, she didn’t seem to mind that as much as “her” or “she” (which understandably could be offensive to anyone while in their presence).
Ms. Evans always had a spotless, immaculate home; beautiful garden and flowers in the front and backyard adorned into a perfectly manicured fragrant lawn. She had two main rules when you stepped into her house: #1. “No whisky” (which is the plural of any form of consumable alcohol). #2. “You can’t play them Blues on Sunday”(Blues being the plural form of any secular music). As we were growing up Ms. Evans didn’t hesitate to warn myself and other siblings that “There’s demons in them tapes!”, referring specifically to the rap/hip-hop cassette tapes owned and played by my older brothers. I use to think that was the craziest, most outlandish thing “Demons in the tapes?”
In the early 90’s my father would confiscate those demon infested ghetto- gutter life tapes. He would stash them and throw them away because of the degree of roguishly vulgar language they contained. Admittedly at that time I wasn’t the biggest hip-hop fan, not just yet. My parents were newly separated around this time and my father was a single parent, he never had a whole lot of time for BS before let alone then. Some hip-hop was more palatable to me than others at that time, I was kind of a “softy” compared to my brothers and that had a lot to do with it. At that time I was more of an R and B, pop-rock type of guy. I heard original songs in my head even then, just some words and some melodies. I wanted to be kind of like Babyface or somebody but didn’t identify as a singer, and I didn’t want to be upfront (just one of my little secrets I kept inside).
After my parents separated when I was 7 a lot of things changed when we went to Texas with my dad. We lost houses, vinyl records, a Nintendo, and of course eventually the earth presence of dear loved ones. You lose money, time, and even dreams possibly but we never lost the music. In fact, the music seemed to grow and expand with time. It grew in depth as we grew; there was “baby makin’ music”, it made you know how if feels to fall in love, be in love, and to make love well before you knew how to do any of those things. You had “gangster rap”, “conscious hip-hop”, eventually “neo-soul” a modern futuristic throw back to the civil rights era even. For me, this was just the tip of the iceberg because ultimately I would dig all music as long as it was “music”.
In the 90’s my recollection recalls two main big hitters when it came to national urban radio personalities, Tom Joyner and Walt “Baby” Love. The main shows they had in syndication at that time were countdowns on the weekends, as you would have your Casey Kasems or your Dick Clarks in the regular pop world. They would showcase either a top 25 or 30 for that week, of course not playing every song on the list and saving space for interviews in addition to the often inspirational words of wisdom. One specificity when it came to black radio in those days, one common thread in so many parts all over the country was Gospel music on Sundays. On a Sunday morning in the south and Midwest the weekly countdowns were the only time you would be spared the audibles of Gospel music when it came to black radio. However, even then particularly with Walt Love you would often have at least one inspirational Gospel track and artist highlighted at some point.
Often times the Gospel music I experienced on Sundays and ultimately learned to appreciate was my only exposure to “Church” music or culture. We didn’t really go to church, separated or together neither one of my parents seemed too interested in church to be completely honest. They believed in God and we were aware of religion but many other factors came into play. My mother although first pregnant at 15 was actually quietly a lesbian the whole time, and procreated with the only man that she ever loved. She knew my father since he was 15 and she 13, but he was literally and figuratively from the other side of the tracks. So even in the black community in the segregated south there was still “another side of the tracks”. My mother being a preacher’s daughter and the youngest of seven had quite a lot to bare, she has inspired me tremendously in so many ways. However, she never made us go to church for obvious reasons related to her past, upbringing and shame.
By Sunday afternoon or Sunday night on urban radio you would usually hear the regularly scheduled secular program once more, but some stations of course played Gospel all the time anyway. One specific thing I noticed at a young age about television and radio in general, is that it seemed somewhere right around the Mississippi river the call letters would change. I lived “out west” all of my life until the age of 12 nearly 13. By “out west” I am referring to the Southwest, Midwest, etc. All of the radio and television stations were K*** and in Mississippi they were W***, it didn’t seem too strange I guess although for me at that time Columbus, MS was the edge of the whole world or even universe. I was so curious as to what was beyond to the East in the W airwave country, and eventually I would find out.
In 1994 my father had to go overseas once again to the Azores and couldn’t bring his children with him. We were living in Oklahoma City at the time and my mother had actually moved to OKC in the summer of 93’ with her girlfriend , fully aware that duty would call for my father and we would have to be taken care of. At the time Oklahoma City had one black radio station although it was a town of between 4 and 500,000 in the city limits alone, with a black population of around 15 percent. When my father, brothers, and I moved to OKC in the summer of 91’ there wasn’t a black radio station at the time. It felt like yet another “black music desert”, that is until the first day of spring in 1993. The FM radio frequencies were a bit crowded in OKC, you did have a contemporary jazz station and a Christian Rap station (believe it or not) but unfortunately you did not have the distinct vibe of a true urban station until March 1993. As I stated before the FM dial was a bit crowded so the new black station had to broadcast on AM and wasn’t actually 24hours, after around 11 PM the airwaves from Mexico would interfere (I always thought the battle of the airwaves was kind of cool).
It was called Power Jammin’ 1140 and for us at the time in Oklahoma County, OK it was about the best thing they had and not just on air. The signal would pop and hiss as you went under powerlines but we didn’t care, they played all the jams that otherwise you would have to purchase from an actual record store or consume via videos on BET, Yo MTV Raps or something. In OKC BET was available on cable TV but that wasn’t always the case in all of the places we lived previously. An hour and a half up the road from the capital of Oklahoma heading NE is Tulsa, of course historically known for the major 1921 domestic terrorism incident known as “Black Wall Street”. Tulsa even in the 1990’s had a black radio station on FM- Mix 102.3, and it was a smaller city although still the second largest in the state.
The story of Oklahoma for me is particularly important because it represents a crossroads in my life, I was 12 years old when we left for Asheville, NC. My mother lived in NW OKC just to the west of downtown and just north of the stockyards near the fairgrounds. It wasn’t the best of neighborhoods and she certainly wasn’t a fan of the school systems in that area, there was a lot of gang violence, etc. She didn’t want my brothers and I attending school around there for the fall 1994 semester, so in the summer we moved to WNC because my mother’s girlfriend at the time had parents in Asheville. The year we moved away was the year before the infamous OKC bombing, and it was surreal.
1994-95 proved to be the continuation of a very interesting, expressive and pivotal time in hip-hop music. Hip-hop in the mid-nineties was sort of a teenager approaching the end of their high school tenure, and I was at the beginning of adolescence in a new place and it was very exciting and intimidating. I was the new kid, an outsider once again and I think hip-hop in the corporate world was feeling that vibe. In WNC I was exposed exclusively to the civilian life more so than ever before up until that point and initially most of my friends were black, and I was mostly in black and mixed communities. I was more directly exposed to the lifestyle that was spoken about in hip-hop lyrics more so than ever before. When there are people you consider comrades whom you harbor love and care for, it makes it a lot easier to understand where they are really coming from.
I wish I could tell you a million stories such as recording tapes from the black stations out of Charlotte in 1996, and you had to rig the wire a certain way on the big stereo to get the signal just right in Asheville. I would name all the songs and artists I can remember from that time, the people, family, friends, or even strangers that exposed me to certain songs and artists for the very first time. As life goes not every story is sweet, not every step is easy. I reflect upon the moment when I was about 9 years old when my paternal Grandmother warned of the “demons in the tapes”, and I remember how it was a bit scary fearing that I might be taken away by the devil forever.
I’ve pondered these things you hear old folks say when you’re a kid, I ruminate upon them as an adult and I see them differently many times. I remember “Daddy’s Mama” cooking some of the best fried chicken I can remember, and I liked catsup on the side and I asked her if she liked catsup. She said, “No, I can’t eat catsup it makes my head hurt”. Once again, I thought that was crazy old lady talk. My Grandmother had high blood pressure, I imagine the catsup filled with sugar and salt would make her head hurt. So, back to the demons in the music, why would we not think there are demons in the music? So many times people died to express themselves, to call out and relieve the pain of any struggle. They cry out, scream and rage to release trauma in hopes of getting and feeling better in order to sing a sweeter and more joyful song of sunny love. So yes Martha Evans I do believe that there are indeed “demons in them tapes”, and sunshine in the gutter!