In memoriam: Ike Turner, Buddy Miles, Teo Macero, and Arthur Lee
"Music won't have no race, only space...." an eternal lyric sung by that titanic philosopher Marvin Gaye, echoing many other dusky voices, from that of pioneer Afronaut Estevanico the Black, whose exploits across the sixteenth century, protoAmerican West supersede words, to the United Kingdom's newest alt-country composer Lightspeed Champion. This sensibility is at the core of the Afro-Baroque aesthetic currently being revived as Arthurian legend King Arthur Lee, that is. From punk-haired black girls in East New York City digging his hybrid soul on the subway through their iPods, to the foremost articulators of the genre's lush, neoclassical Afropean clash his Los Angelean heir Stew and the Houston-born boy-king Devonte Hynes, aka Lightspeed Champion the Arthurly is wrecked no mo'. And it's way past prime time for the original Love man to be honored on the black-hand side.
PASSING PHASES AND STAGES
The lure of fair Europa held sway over Arthur Lee's next-gen singer-songwriter from Crenshaw-Adams in South Central Los Angeles: Stew. No more "California Dreamin'" or uneasy rock for this brer who eschewed his colored cloister for liberation abroad. Only Stew's Negro Problem followed him to Western Europe and then to Gotham, where he's brought it to the Great White Way in the format of Passing Strange (2007). What makes this choreo-poem Afro-Baroque is that at this play's core it's a conjure of sacrifice lush and hybridized sonic bleeding for those Negro chillun who are nominally free but not weightless enough to swing a ride on ancient Kemet's Ark of a Million Years.
Akin to Lightspeed Champion, Stew is the product of a God-fearing background and is prone to vanguard aesthetic allusions in parallel to his younger counterpart's preoccupations with a blend of meditation, country, gospel, punk, Rocky Horror, French minimalist composer Alain Goraguer, and my friend Galt MacDermot's Afro-fusionist musical score for Hair. The elder art-punk Stew can go head-to-head with the Afro-punk whippersnapper over Arthurly's thorny crown, and nothing goes over so well during Passing Strange as the first act sequence when two costars, Daniel Breaker's Youth and Eisa Davis's Mother, enact their tense separation in homage to European avant-garde cinema.
Yass y'all, Passing Strange, which was incubated at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and Sundance Institute, is a bona fide masterpiece, yet not without flaw. On the structural tip, even with the move from downtown to midtown requiring a tightening up of the boho flow, the second "abroad" act still lacks a satisfying resolution and includes less of Stew's meta-Pentecostal exhortations and fourth wallsmashing. And some aspects of the play are problematic, mostly on the score of gender politricks. On Broadway, Davis's embodiment of her Mother role seems whittled down somehow but I ain't gon' get into the thick of what goes on between black men and they mamas. Then there's the grumbling from my historian sibling and others about the play's valorizing of the second act's European muses above the sacred black feminine. The title is derived from Shakespeare's Othello, and after almost two decades of experience observing America's black rock scene, it has struck me repeatedly the degree to which many black male rockers feel they can only truly rock by acquiring a baby mama who resembles Joni Mitchell circa 1970 or, nowadays, Feist. This, even when these black Atlantic boys believe Monika Danneman murdered their beloved Saint Jimi!
Still, Stew's genius doesn't make me want to put the hoodoo on him or Passing Strange.