On Saturday 18th February I sat watching the ‘private’ funeral ceremony for Whitney Houston – so private that it was streamed live on BET and around the world. The previous week tributes had poured in all around the world with Black people grieving the loss of our shining queen – ‘what a great loss’, ‘what a talent’, ‘what a voice’. I know it is generally considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, but you know me, I have to talk the truth.
I was never really a fan of Whitney. Like Michael Jackson though undeniably talented, her music was always a little bit too saccharine/pop for my tastes.
After they’d finished screening Whitney’s funeral, BET went on to show their annual Honours Awards Ceremony. Among those honoured were musical legend Stevie Wonder, film-maker Spike Lee, World War II heroes the Tuskeegee Airmen, and poet/author Maya Angelou. Also honoured on the night was Mariah Carey.
We were told that she has sold 100 million albums, received five Grammy Awards, and had 18 number one hits and is the most successful female artists of all time. Now I have a few Mariah tracks in my i-pod, – quite a few more than I have from Whitney – but it didn’t seem right that she should be up there on stage, being honoured at the same time as Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder and Maya Angelou. I don’t care how many albums she’s sold, she’s no Stevie Wonder. And she’s certainly no Aretha (who also performed at the show that night). Infact in my mind she’s not even up there with Mary J
You see what Aretha, and Mary J have, that Whitney didn’t and Mariah doesn’t, is that elusive quality called ‘soul’. Sure Whitney had a great voice in her prime, and at the BET Honours we were told again and again of Mariah’s five octave vocal range, but its not just about the technical abilities – its about the feelings that their voice can evoke in the listener. All of the great soul singers Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin and more recently Mary J. Blige have that soul in bucket-loads. It doesn’t matter whether they are technically gifted vocalists or not, what matters is how their voices make you feel. When you listen to Marvin or Donny they can bring a lump to your throat, or a tear to your eye, or send a tingle down your spine. They bring the pain – that pain that all Black people carry around with them, and when we see an artists expressing their’s, we feel better for it – its called catharsis. Could James Brown even really sing? Most of the time he was screaming and hollering – but it did the trick. You didn’t need to understand what he was saying to understand what he was feeling. ‘Soul’ is just not just a style, or a technique, it’s a feeling. When I listen to Mariah and Whitney I don’t get that feeling.
Sorry but ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, ‘How Will I know’, and ‘ I Will Always Love You, just don’t do it for me.
Comedian Chris Rock entitled one of his stand-up movies Bring The Pain, and Richard Pryor made a career of mocking his own personal suffering. By laughing at their pain we get relief from ours. And when you really check it, that’s what Black music is all about – acknowledging that pain, wallowing in it for a while, and then trying to rise above it. Pretending that the pain doesn’t even exist is not a healthy long-term solution.
Chris Rock – bringing the pain
It may be unpopular to say it, but even the recently departed Amy Winehouse had more soul than Whitney. (Just listen to ‘Love is A Losing Game’ from her Back To Black album for confirmation). How a Jewish girl from London could express herself with more feeling than a Black girl who was born in New Jersey and grew up singing in the church I don’t know, but when you hear it, its undeniable.
I’ve no doubt that Mariah and Whitney and Michael had more than their fair share of pain – their well-documented personal problems and the battles with addiction are testament to that, but they never shared that pain in their music.
Mariah and Whitney may have been pop princess, and Michael Jackson may have been the King Of Pop but Aretha will always be the Queen of Soul, Mary will always be the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and James will always be the Godfather of Soul, because they could bring the pain.
In the words of an old song from Loose Ends, “feels so good, words can’t explain, Its got to be the sweetest pain.”