Stormy Weather in a Time of Global Warming
Poet and author Ed Pavlić on “soul in music” and a vital (and continuing) tradition of Black performance
The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Black Star continues through to December 22.
Intended to bolster Black support for the US and Allied war effort, the 1943 musical Stormy Weather recounts the rocky romance between a “started from the bottom” dancer played by tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson and a star performer played with nearly metaphysical elegance by Lena Horne. Having built his career by scaling the mountain on the steep side, Robinson’s character reassuringly holds no social or political grudges, except a subtle disdain for the “hip speech” and modern style of the zoot suiters (who were famous for their disavowal of support for the war). Horne’s character seems to have been born to be at the top, but she nonetheless retains a solid and determined connection to both everyday people, and to her right to her own career.
Surrounding this flimsy, nearly non-existent plot is an incredible array of Black talent: from the masked genius of the vaudeville duo Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller to Katherine Dunham’s sinuous modern dance, from soft-shoe scratching on the Mississippi riverboats to Cab Calloway’s big band playing for the Nicholas Brothers’ vernacular dance duo, in one of the most virtuosic scenes in Hollywood history. The “showcase” structure of the film is intended to connect (if not unify) disparate and at times conflicting styles of Black performance, and thereby draft the whole troupe into service as proud propagandists for the US and the Allies.
In the last weeks of 2017, when Obama’s presidency at times feels like distant history, Stormy Weather’s declaration of Black patriotism certainly has a bygone ring to it, but myriad subtleties in the way the film performs bonds within a community continue to resonate in powerful ways. For instance, when recently listening closely to contemporary soul performers — SZA and Ravyn Lenae, among others — I found what I heard there clarified by Fats Waller’s performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in Stormy Weather, which makes an angular call to community — if not unity — all its own.
One might think that the star performers crowding the Twitter feeds of the millennial generation would have a hard time connecting to performers like Waller, who have one foot in the vanished vaudeville tradition. Instead, as we’ll see below, those connections are still very much alive, and we in the audience are still very much in need of them.
The basic dilemma is that between individuality and community. Lyrically speaking, that’s the introspective (seeing within) versus what I call the inter-spective (seeing between). If modern/contemporary life and freedom emphasize individual rights, ownership, identity, then soul music — or soul in music — presents a complex counter-discourse of collective purpose and mutual consequence. Unlike soul music, which is a musical genre dating from the 1950s, soul in music names an inter-spective emphasis across historical periods and genres of Black performance.
To frame the issue, consider two classical sources: first, in The German Ideology, Marx writes “the first premise of all human history, of course, is the existence of living individuals”; second, in the 1981 track “I Know You I Live You”, Chaka Khan sings “Without me you’d stumble / and without you I’d fall / without each other we would not be at all.”
This dilemma is old. Imagine, for instance, Frederick Douglass’ description of slaves singing in his first autobiography, published the same year as The German Ideology. Douglass describes his memory of songs sung by slaves that clarify a collective predicament in ways that resist would-be “rational” responses to suffering.
They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out—if not in the word, in the sound;—and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. . . every tone was a testament against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.
In his narrative, Douglass certainly positioned himself as a historical individual, but his description of the music is far closer to Khan’s concept of being circa 1981 than Marx’s circa 1845. For Douglass, the music testified to Black history’s first premise: mutuality.
To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.
So what is the first premise? Is the basic logic of our being, our thought, our world view, introspective — a matter of my true self first, and then a matter of matters radiating in socially polluted waves out from that centre? Or is life an inter-spective situation, formulated in relationships that radiate inward, from the riffs of which I paste together myself and my world in profoundly if not essentially social and overlapping ways? Surely, as Marx, Douglass, and Khan knew in their own ways, everyone needs both senses of self and experience. Nonetheless, the modern/contemporary world insists upon the former and soul in music stresses the latter.
Taken as a tradition deeply invested in the inter-spective, soul in music keeps track of relationships at various scales, both private (intimate, familial, social, erotic) and public (social, communal, even national). But the basic form and idiom of a soul song is most often addressed to the intensity of private life, the love between two people. Derived from gospel — a music, as Douglass stresses above, that emanates from a body of faith and connection far beyond a romantic couple — soul in music refers to and, often subtly, connects different registers of experience in ways held separate by modern/contemporary expectations. Despite the need for experience to be ordered and coherent, to be rational, hard divisions between the facets of our lives can be unhealthy, dissociated, alienated. So, as with the propaganda role that Stormy Weather was intended to serve, soul in music mobilizes an array of healthy connections against the dangers of division. With one foot in the romantic form of the soul song, and the other in the gospel image of the self as part of a beloved community, soul in music recasts the modern emphasis upon (and alienation of) individuals into connections across systems of division within and between persons and peoples.
In her 1969 essay “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person,” June Jordan clarified the radical stakes in the struggle between a life alive to its relationships across the world’s divisions and a worldview based upon rationalized individuality as promoted in modern North American life: “We know the individuality that isolates the man from other men, the either/or, the lonely-one that leads the flesh to clothing, jewelry, and land, the solitude of sight that separates the people from the people, flesh from flesh.” Jordan credits Black music and culture with exposing the history which says its “first premise” is “living individuals” while withholding basic human and citizen’s rights from people because of their race and sex. Seen in this way, Jordan argues, the American myth amounts to a “logical bundling of lies that mutilate and kill.” Soul in music presents a wide and diverse array of alternatives to this dangerous mythology.
Often in concert with racial segregation and institutional rationalization, the norms of the nuclear family and romantic love have quarantined otherwise connective energy. Meanwhile, the modern family structure has often been curiously aligned with the idioms and forms taken by soul in music, the “soul song.” But the music’s roots in the gospel tradition push those songs toward more widely inter-spective roles in our world. Feminisms across generations have detailed, and resisted, the ways in which women are particularly endangered by the historical structures of division, including the modern family. So lyrics that give voice to soul in music often straddle dimensions (intimate, private, public) and relationships (lover, friend, neighbor, citizen) of different types.
OK, now here’s what all this has to do with Fats Waller.
In Stormy Weather, a film trying to pass as a traditional love story, Waller’s performance catches the conflict and liberates the energy of soul inter-spection from its formal limitation in the lyrics of romantic devotion. In the film, performing for a black audience in a Memphis speakeasy, a thoroughly theatrical Waller, eyebrows boomeranging, sings:
No one to talk with / All by myself / No one to walk with / But I’m happy on the shelf / Ain’t misbehavin’, saving my love / For you, for you, for you, for you.
As if the way to keep a secret was to sing it in a club, Waller plays to the black audience in the movie, whom he keeps in confidence. At the same time, he sings to the mostly white audience of the movie in 1943, which he has been employed to entertain. So the form and text of the lyrics signal an unfailing devotion from one person to another, and — since Stormy Weather, remember, was an American propaganda event — also that of a citizen (were Black folks citizens in 1943?) to his nation.
But, with an energy that bristles between these dimensions, an angularity in Waller’s performance bursts the limitations of the form as both song and propaganda. Much has been made of Waller and other Black performers’ ability to address a diverse community by saying one thing that implies many things — what Michael Ondaatje, in his 1984 piece about Waller “In a Yellow Room,” describes as “the fact that Fats Waller was talking to someone over your shoulder as well as to you.” Thinking in racial and national terms, in 1979 James Baldwin wrote that Black English developed out of the need “to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me ... and in a way the white man couldn’t possibly understand ... cannot understand, until today.”
As is clear from the video of Waller’s Stormy Weather performance above, each time Waller proclaims his devotion in song, he gestures toward a different person in the audience. Untrue to the song’s form but in a profound (if angular) alignment with the gospel structures of soul in music, Waller’s “For you, for you, for you, for you” is most emphatically not a line about personal devotion or political patriotism — it’s a song about free love, in personal and national terms. The Black American aim in WWII was widely known as “double V”: victory over fascism in Asia and Europe, as well as over segregation (fascism) at home. Closer to home, Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” testifies in a playful way to love’s freedom from singular focus, or, as the poet Adrienne Rich once put it, “from vows that constrict the soul.” In ways that are still controversial in 2017, the same applied to anthems.
Consider a contrary contemporary instance. The brilliant Amy Winehouse wrote and performed powerfully in and around the soul idiom throughout her too-brief career, and her innovations are alive in the voices of scores of contemporary singers, from Adele to Jorja Smith. But mostly, Winehouse sang torch songs about an isolate love. In “Wake Up Alone,” for instance, the dream of connection awakes to the so-called sober reality of what Marx called history’s first premise, and what June Jordan called “the solitude of sight that separates.” Describing an individuality she can’t find her way out of, Winehouse sings:
This face in my dreams seizes my guts / He floods me with dread / Soaked in soul / He swims in my eyes by the bed / Pour myself over him / Moon spilling in / And I wake up alone.
In performance there’s an unmistakable power in Winehouse’s version of soul in music, but it’s a dangerously narrowed vision — something like the pinprick of sunlight from a magnifying glass trained on a dry leaf. Since I was a teenager at least, I’ve wondered how the world I heard about in soul lyrics — for instance, Frankie Beverly and Maze’s 1983 “We Are One” — sounded like intimate life, but also like social life. Was Frankie’s “we” a couple, a family, or a community? At times — for instance, Luther Vandross’ 1986 “Anyone Who Had a Heart” — I could even hear a frustrated dream of a redeemed national life flash in the verses. Was Luther singing to a hard-hearted lover, or to his cold-hearted country in the Reagan era? Soul in music stresses and explores the links between those registers of address. Songs like Winehouse’s “Wake Up Alone” diminish the range of that complex play of intimate/personal and social/political resonance. Many of our inherited, modern/contemporary cultural assumptions do far worse than that.
Due to an angular but living relationship with its gospel roots, and no matter what the lyrics say they’re saying, soul in music is rarely — quite possibly never — sung strictly about one person. Usually, that’s blues in music, a necessary accompaniment to the radiating mutuality of soul in music. Confusing the two — which basically leaves one waking up alone with the blues + more blues — can be dangerous. It can be fatal. Soul in music makes sure no one is ever alone like that. With personal as well as national relationships on his mind in the 1980s, James Baldwin said that he thought real mutual love gave one the personal strength and clarity to pack one’s bags; devotion, on the other hand, made people helpless. It seems that a certain human power depends upon the ways that personal and mutual life connect. Those connections play out complexly across the Black musical spectrum, all routed through what I’m calling soul in music. Living much of his life abroad, Baldwin clearly felt the same way about a Black citizen’s love of country.
Recently, I’ve been stunned by the specificity of how some contemporary singers of soul in music have picked up on Waller’s move in Stormy Weather almost verbatim. SZA’s 2017 album CTRL opens with the voice of the artist’s mother talking about the need for control and the danger of losing it: “That was my greatest fear, that if I lost control or did not have control, things would just, you know, I, it would be, fatal.” And much of CTRL’s lyrics read like personal diary entries about the deep, deep weeds of human involvement, entries that test and question our capacity for relationship. How much of each other can we handle? Nonetheless, SZA’s lyrics elude becoming trapped in the strictly personal–singular version of what at times passes as soul.
SZA’s lyrics are like diary entries, but they open outward, not inward — they’re communalized, mobilized against “the logical bundling of lies” that divides and rationalizes our world. On October 9, I stood in The Tabernacle in Atlanta with 2,000 Black women, many if not mostly less than half my age — one of whom was my daughter — and we all sang SZA’s diary entries. I could see and feel once again how CTRL, in the tradition of soul in music, entails a powerful putting out rather than a protective pulling back; again and again, it’s about giving, not keeping. SZA’s lyrics are sung out of and to the frustrated need to share in a culture obsessed with ownership and pervaded by “a logical bundling of lies” about individual first premises. In no ways simply, SZA’s soul in music helps heal the injuries of individuality. These songs expose how the hard divisions between us echo blindnesses and silences within us, and how the whole matter of division and individuation can, indeed, be seen as a system that mutilates. SZA marks and offers alternatives to how the “logical bundling of lies” becomes “the solitude of sight that separates.” Conditioned by the world around us, we’re always recovering from the assumption that individuality is and/or should be the first premise of our lives.
In “Supermodel,” CTRL’s first track, SZA sings about social mirroring, how we see ourselves with the help of the way others see us. I first noticed her doing this in a 2016 song, “Consideration,” which she wrote and performed with Rihanna. Rihanna sings: “I needed you to please give my reflection a break from the face it’s seeing now.” She’s asking: “could you please intercede in the way I see myself?”
Again, according to the American myth, allowing others to mediate our personal reality means inauthenticity, weakness, and it leads to chaos; soul in music indicates otherwise. In “Supermodel,” SZA sings:
I could be your supermodel / If you believe / If you see it in me / See it in me / See it in me
I don’t see (it in) myself, / Why I can’t stay alone just by myself / Wish I was comfortable just by myself / But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.
With Waller in mind, I thought I’d heard the move SZA makes in that last line before. So I was very interested to learn that her line “But I need you, but I need you, but I need you” doesn’t describe an obsessive fixation on one person. Instead, it echoes the inter-spective tradition of control-by-sharing at the core of soul in music, and it echoes precisely Waller’s “for you, for you, for you, for you.” In June 2017, SZA told Vulture “Needing to be loved and what I’m singing about isn’t even about men, it’s needing to be loved in general: by myself, my friends. I know on ‘Supermodel,’ when I say, ‘I need you,’ I know each time I said that I was saying something different, I was talking to someone different. I feel like there are mad people in my life that wonder if I need them, so I was kind of reassuring them that I do.”
So the need SZA describes in “Supermodel” isn’t about a deficient individuality at all. Love isn’t a singular obsession, prisoner to monogamy, a doomed duel of egos, of envies, of vanities. Love presents the possibility that the fact of human mutual consequence — the first premise of an alternative history—can be redeemed, can be transformed into power. SZA describes her needs as a powerful connection to people whom, in turn, in being needed, find reassurance not anxiety. Her lyrics depict mutual purpose and collective power, not a siphoning and depletion of an individual’s autonomy. So, a phrase that reads as weakness in American terms — “I need you” — here takes its rightful place, describing a crucial communal valence of Black power. Soul in music provides our most sophisticated vocabulary for that power. SZA flips that need around in “20 Something,” the album’s last song, singing to the end of one relationship: “I gotta say I’ll miss the way you need me, yeah.”
On June 9, 2017, SZA talked with the rather literal-minded hosts (Angela Yee, Lenard McKelvie, and Raashaun Casey) on The Breakfast Club. Trying to broaden the hosts’ sense of her lyrics, SZA said “a lot of these things have double meanings... [they’re] metaphorical, very figurative.” Likewise, in the tradition of soul in music — and specifically the part about circulating rather than concentrating love, such as we see in Waller’s performance — we can approach SZA’s song “The Weekend,” which describes women who time-share a man, from one of its figurative angles. In “The Weekend,” SZA sings love out of the monogamous bind of isolation:
My man is my man is your man / Her, this her man too
Of course, taken literally, this is mapping out some difficult (and very common) personal terrain. But approached figuratively, heard through the tradition of soul in music, it’s also a line about how people’s lives overlap, how we share each other. Such connections obviously exist over time; a paraphrase might be, “My wife is my wife was your woman, His, she was his woman, too.” It’s tough for people — maybe men most of all? — to coexist with those kinds of connection. They infringe upon a dangerous sense of love as ownership. For SZA’s part, according to figures even deeper in the gospel roots of soul in music, the line describes relationships that aren’t about private ownership at all. It’s very nearly a line about crucial everyday connections: my son’s teacher is your wife; the electrician is your sister’s man, or your man’s sister; the Uber driver is someone’s cousin, etc. SZA’s line sketches a pressurized proximity of life in a community, what June Jordan describes as the “appropriate arena for the appearance and shaping of a person.” This proximity contains twisted and damaged relationships, ones it’s dangerous to romanticize, but ones it’s much worse than dangerous (personally, I think it’s genocidal) to render irrelevant. SZA’s lyrics brilliantly depict that tenuous and precarious balance.
Black performances of overlapping familiarity have their brilliant and vexed history as well. One sequence in Stormy Weather features the great vaudeville act performed (often in blackface, as in the film) by Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller. The act featured two characters who communicate effortlessly according to shared understandings which are never stated. The result is fluent communication and good feelings — inter-spective intelligence at its best. Late in the skit, Lyles’ character exclaims, “Now that’s why I like talking to you. ’Cause you and me can seem to agree with one another!”
According to racist stereotypes, this performance depicts impaired individuality, persons of deficient intelligence who can’t think in complete sentences. The racist implication was that Black people obviously couldn’t be citizens of a democracy if they couldn’t function as autonomous free-thinkers. But, on the other hand, in addition to the genius comic rhythm of Miller and Lyles’ give and take, the act depicted friends — really, lovers — who complete each other’s sentences. Also, as noted by Baldwin above, the skit depicts a way of concealing material that would be dangerous if overheard by the wrong person listening over your shoulder. Once politicized and removed from its offensive package, inter-spective personhood such as that performed by Miller and Lyles would be the core of the mobilized collective power that pushed American democracy closer to obeying its own laws and practicing its ideals. In this way, Miller and Lyles’ fluid togetherness presents a resonant ancestral branch of SZA’s overlapping figures in “The Weekend.”
Recognized as part of the tradition of inter-spection in soul in music, SZA’s song “Garden (Say it like dat)” becomes a call to actively create the bonds of community. Such acts of creation respond directly to the knowledge that people are capable of doing anything and everything to each other — well beyond the horrors of nature. (We’ve seen what we’re capable of. We’ll see it again soon.) And, so, soul in music testifies that community and care aren’t naturally occurring phenomena, they must be created. Seen in that lyrical light, a line such as the one below, which depicts a woman’s gullibility, a scar on her autonomy and self-interest, becomes a line about the necessity of believing in the process of creating love in community. Call it counterintuitive; call it oppositional trust. That tradition of creating and believing has its aesthetic values as well. SZA sings:
’Cause you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me, you’ll never love me / But, I believe you when you say it like that.
In practice, instead of sketching a pitiful fool for love, SZA’s line celebrates the genius of inter-spection, the ability to say things in such a way that they produce results that radiate between people. This celebratory aspect might not seem obvious, but no one had to explain it to the audience on October 9 in Atlanta, who sang that line along with SZA to the roof. The celebration resounded, resounds still in my memory.
Beneath the celebration, we find also a down-to-earth realization that we participate in the creation or destruction of relational possibility. At its best, from Fats Waller and Miller and Lyles and many others in Stormy Weather to SZA this fall, the tradition helps us perform that creation. And that creates the point of view from where we identify the “lies that mutilate and kill.” It helps us believe what we need to believe while understanding that those needs and beliefs signal collective wealth not poverty, mutual power not individual weakness. None of this is safe; those who create collective power and mutual consequence bear risks. The other option, defending emotional scraps we personally own, is far more dangerous.
In 2017, amid many storms, I’m thankful that I see and hear plenty stormy weather-isms going on in the culture around me. Amid contemporary singers, I hear a generation trying to be more open about connections embedded in the tradition of soul in music. That tradition responds directly to the “logical bundling of lies” masquerading as history in which “the first premise is the existence of living individuals.” These songs sing the science of soul in music and improvise with the intelligence of communal purpose, the sophistication of mutual consequence. They sing from a history where the “first premise is the existence of living,” functioning community. Communities in which, as James Baldwin put it in “To Crush a Serpent,” the last essay he published during his life: “Complexity is our only safety and love is the only key to our maturity.” To which he added in conclusion, “And love is where you find it.” As we saw in Stormy Weather and in the songs above, love is also were we create it, and believe it when we hear it like that.
Building upon this angular tradition of speaking in, through and beyond forms of soul music, in “Unknown” (from her beautiful 2017 EP Midnight Moonlight) Ravyn Lenae sings: “Nothing’s the way it seems when things go wrong.”
When spoken, that sentence might sound like a banal witticism. Sung by Lenae in the tradition of soul in music, the line swings open and we walk inside. “Nothing’s the way it seems when things go wrong” resounds with traditional, inter-spective wisdom. From that point of view, we see lives broken by fraudulent certainties, conditioned by a history that’s “a logical bundling of lies that mutilate and kill.” Our spoken (and social media) world too often resemble guarded podiums of owned certitude. Set in the tonal soundscape of “Unknown,” which is set in soul in music’s tradition of inter-spection, “Nothing’s the way it seems when things go wrong” implores us to a maturity that engages problems, that accords them their proper mystery. It’s a call to respect trouble, not to disregard and quickly dismiss it in the name of individuated efficiency and narrow self-interest. In the logically bundled mythic realm of individuals, trouble can resemble a cyber-cipher one can “un-friend,” an e-mail one can pretend to never have seen. Like it is in a family, trouble in a community requires a very different kind of engagement. Soul in music hones that social intelligence and offers sophisticated ways to engage.
Just as Stormy Weather gathers together a diverse community of performance, contemporary soul in music deploys social intelligence in communal repair, often in suspension of certainty. The music’s sonic intensity makes shared mobility out of a would-be owned and stationary point of view, inter-spective multiplicity and mutuality out of would-be introspective singularity and self-interest. So soul in music suspends the either/or contingencies of speech; so songs sing far more than they say. The deepened and expanded lyrical options of song make us capable of creating our shared history. It focuses our action against “lies that mutilate and kill,” lies that condition us to think of individuality as history’s “first premise.” Twisting a phrase from “Permeable Membrane,” Adrienne Rich’s 2006 essay about the purpose of poetry, we can say that soul in music is radically lyrical: it casts the experience of relation intensified, intensifying our sense of possible relation. Baldwin said that our safety is complexity; our history is each other. So soul in music opens the radical possibilities of life between us, as Rich put it, “in the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are with each other.” Isn’t that where we want to be? What did I miss?
In “Unknown,” Lenae’s lyrics closely echo Winehouse’s words in “Wake Up Alone,” but Lenae connects to the gospel — communal — structure beneath the romantic form of the soul song. So Lenae’s voice sounds in a radical, lyrical historical register when she sings:
Every time I / Close my eyes I / Dream about your face / Nothing can replace
Every time I / Close my eyes, your / Voice I can't retrace / Nothing can replace / Nothing can replace
With SZA and Waller’s performance of pronouns above, who knows how many faces Lenae can’t replace, how many voices she can’t retrace? Certainly, nothing can replace what soul in music can teach us about “community as the appropriate arena for the appearance and shaping of a person.” Even Lenae’s calls, later in the song, of “I’m on my own” float over a bass so deep it penetrates the body, echoes inside the ribs, carries across space — through walls, across multiple lanes of a boulevard — texturing emptiness, patterning chaos. Part SOS, part existential acknowledgement, maybe even cut with a little modern pride (why not?), her sound pre-supposes a community she “can seem to agree with” within range of her singing voice.
Unlike Winehouse, singers like Waller, SZA, and Lenae don’t have to wake up alone. This is not just a personal, but also a historical situation. An experience of mutuality redeemed from a history that insists upon individuation didn’t grow up out of nature, it was created by people — more often than not women — in history who needed to believe it and, so, learned to sing it like that. Soul in music comes from the creative tradition of sustaining company sustained, of singers who sing to you and to another you always over your shoulder, and to another someone’s someone over their shoulder. In this way, soul in music engages and connects across and works against what June Jordan called “the solitude of sight that separates.” In our contemporary moment, in what seems like ever-stormier weather, in the heat of warmings global, singing in the shadow of Fats Waller and in the echoes of so many others, and in ways that resound with the tradition of soul in music, Ravyn Lenae sings for all of us:
I’m only lonely when the fake sh— on me.