Stew & Lightspeed Champion evoke the Afro-Baroque between the boom-bip bip and the ballot
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.
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. Rather, when he exhorts freedom from the podium with Arthur's Little Red Book, Stew makes me wanna holler in Little Richard's whoo-hoo! and reach back to my Baptist pastor granddaddy's church in Georgia for my pious MLK Jr. hand fan with the wavy popsicle stick handle.
To wit: I have seen Passing Strange several times since being taken to see it for my birthday last spring at the Public Theatre (Mayday! Mayday!). While I applaud its leap to Broadway as a lifelong supporter of black difference and arts, my obsession with it is purely personal. Aside from Stevie Wonder at a distance, whose mother died a month before mine in 2006, no one feels my pain nor comes as close to articuutf8g the loss as Stew's play. A mid-Atlantic chile from the opposite coast, I, like Stew, come from a restrictive Christian background A.M.E. partisans on the maternal side and preaching as virtual family biniss on the paternal that would condemn and cast me out for my atheism. Like me at an Allmans concert, Passing Strange is a spook in the Broadway buttermilk, probing the deep history of rock 'n' roll incubation and conservatism in the black church.
Although Stew's a decade older than I, I also spent my youth in the '70s plotting how to dance my way out of the constrictions of the black bourgeoisie horrorshow. And I loved punk and other subcultural provocations for the anarchic possibilities they presented in terms of society and style. Above all, I, too, long mistook songs for love until now, when I'm in the grips of a hurt that music ultimately cannot heal. But while I appreciate my education abroad, I differ from Stew on the Europa-as-Utopia tip. Nothing breeds contempt like familiarity.
Stew's alter-ego, Youth, comments that, "America can't deal with freaky Negroes!" So there's always been black in the Union Jack, leastways when it comes to rock 'n' roll from Brian Jones's ace boon Jimi Hendrix through to today's new eccentric Lightspeed Champion. The UK has been perennially more hospitable to creative Africans who would be free, despite Ruth Owen of Mama Shamone's faintly damning radio doc of last year, which took the pulse of the black rock orbit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lightspeed Champion reminds me less of this 'n' that name-checked Britpopper than Modesto's recently retired armchair critic of freeway flight and exurban strip-mall anomie: Granddaddy's Jason Lytle. Perhaps this cracked Americana element stole into the proceedings since Hynes recorded his solo debut in Omaha amongst the cabal of Bright Eyes' Saddle Creek-dippers, but it seems such wry "from inside the scene looking out" songs as "Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk" suggest the subjectivity of a disaffected young man looking for a room of his own far from the urban, madding crowd of druggies, chavs, and black authenticity dealers that surround its narrator. Like Lytle's renovation of country and western with an emphasis on restoring the western part of the early twentieth century modern genre from the perspective of what happens when America's run out of room for expansion Lightspeed Champion's brand of high lonesome is borne out of England's dreaming during the insular nation's nightmarish era of being "overrun" by immigrants, urban blight, and various forms of terrorism.
It is rather fascinating that Texas-born Hynes should have escaped parochial black American life due to his itinerant parents' lifestyle only to seek out Omaha-as-omphalos for requisite head space to craft his new opus, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge (Domino). Why? Precisely because it's his attaining maturity in England that permitted Hynes to become the swooning, anxious, vulnerable almost to the point of fey version of black manhood that pervades his finely wrought songs. His brand of Afro iconoclasm which got him signed as a Test Icicle at 19 and now gets him fêted for sepia twang in his early 20s would have encountered far more roadblocks on American shores where young black males are required to be consistently hard and never punks (catch the final season of The Wire). Plus ça change, eh, Josephine et Jimmy? Of course, Hynes's will-to-flight was telegraphed from childhood when he penned a comic about a superhero from Planet Voltarz whose power derived from wielding mathematical equations. The superhero's moniker? Lightspeed Champion, whose power in maturity will likely rest on "touring until I die."
When he performed at that East Village hip cloister Mercury Lounge before a small fawning audience sporting about a record six Negroes, the fur-helmeted Champion in David Ruffin's black glasses, a self-willed superhero and Urkel-in-Little Richard's hairpiece, seemed to be signaling that the secret power propelling him out of the dystopic urban milieu he described was not merely blowing up in America but striving to refine a hyperliterate and well-enunciated language to get his Romantic apologias across. And don't let the widescreen alt-country symphony "Galaxy of the Lost" fool you our Devonte's still black enough for ya, with his disc being inspired by a lot of hip-hop and by closing his debut with an ode to his Mama: "No Surprise (For Wendela)." If Falling Off the Lavender Bridge does the biniss projected, this postmodern Professor Longhair is on his way. Watch his space.
Despite the decades of separation, Stew and his fellow black Atlantic jumper Lightspeed Champion are both still seeking newer sonic horizons, even as that campaigning purveyor of "Them Changes," B-rack Obama, is traveling electric miles to paint the White House black.