Monday, April 12, 2004

Living Colour: Racial Representation and a Small-Town Teenhood

by Joy Burnett, graduate scholar

I don't know very many things about being teen-aged in the 21st century, beyond what I learn from MTV, my little brother, and the students I teach in English 1010 at Wayne State University. I don't even know much about being teen-aged in the 1990s - unless the first few years of the decade count. What I can talk about with some authority is being a teen in the late 1980s and early '90s, in a small town not more than half an hour's drive from downtown Detroit. The town had and still has a Mayberry aspect - small post office, large white middle-class population, and acres of farmland and high school football fields. The growing-up process was quite peaceful in this environment, beyond the usual teen-angst episodes (the occasional car wreck or keg party out in the woods, among other incidents). I was never really aware of any large-scale conflicts or struggles beyond a fight in the schoolyard or two parents duking it out at a kid's t-ball game until I was well into my teens.

In the midst of this middle-America fantasyland, a seemingly harmless school program was waiting to make its mark and forever change the racial consciousness of a whole class of students. In an effort to raise cultural awareness in high schools, some institution (of which I unfortunately can no longer remember the name) launched a nationwide poster and public-service announcement program during my sophomore year of high school. Walking down a '50s-esque school hallway with a stack of books in my arms one day, I saw a poster that would start me on a path of exploring issues I had never before considered in my own life. I had schoolwork, sports, whatever dating experiences I could convince my parents were absolutely necessary for my survival, and a few other activities. After seeing that poster hanging in the school hallway, however, I had a new crusade: to learn as much as I could about a new hard-rock band that had captured my attention unlike any other.

The poster featured photography of the band Living Colour and promoted their second album, Time's Up, released in 1990. I had seen the video for their wildly popular tune "Cult of Personality" on MTV, from their debut album "Vivid," and heard from some of my more adventurous friends that their music was … different. Different in a way that just might change what is categorized as American music. I was ready for a change, because the sounds of Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey were starting to annoy even my teen-aged ears. The school guidance counselor responded favorably when I asked for the poster after its month on the hallway wall. I taped it to my bedroom wall, right next to my Beatles Sgt. Pepper poster, and a picture of Debbie Gibson that had been ripped from a teen magazine.

Several cassette tapes (remember those?) went into heavy rotation on my boom box, as I got bootlegged copies of Vivid and Time's Up from one of my more liberated friends. The reaction of certain family members had shown me that having this poster and following this band was going to be much different than taping up Debbie Gibson. They didn't really give Debbie much notice. Little did I know that my innocent act of hanging a poster would create a political struggle in my house. "What will people think of you when they come in here?" they said. "We're just looking out for our little girl. We're not racist, but …" And that "but" would trail off into nothing. If anyone here needs a reminder of who Living Colour was or has never before heard of them, they were a band that broke down many color, sound, and cultural barriers by being one of the only black groups to tackle the traditionally white-dominated hard-rock genre.

At first, I thought it was best just to keep this particular obsession to myself. I changed my mind later on, but my early days with Living Colour were spent alone in my room, looking at the poster and reading lyrics. My anger at the racism of my family fed into my understanding of the music. I'd study their lyrics, from my folded cassette jacket card, just like I studied my Scarlet Letter and Romeo and Juliet for English class. Two of the songs had the most power in fueling this anger were "Pride" and "Someone Like You" from Time's Up.

In "Pride," frontman Corey Glover sang of the multiple perceptual issues related to racial representation and categorization. An excerpt here from the lyrics demonstrates that Living Colour were attempting to fight against certain stereotypes and perceptions that had been placed on not only themselves, but the whole of American history and culture:

When I speak out loud, you say I'm crazy
When I'm feeling proud, you say I'm lazy
I look around and see the true reality
You like our hair, you love our music
Our culture's large, so you abuse it
Take time to understand, I'm an equal man
History's a lie that they teach you in school
A fraudulent view called the golden rule
A peaceful land that was born civilized
Was robbed of its riches, its freedom, its pride.
--- "Pride," from Time's Up

In "Someone Like You," Glover presented a story of racially motivated police brutality, Even in my naïve and sheltered state, I felt like I was right there with him when he vented his rage. His targets included not only racist and violent members of the police forces, but also apparently apathetic political figures, drug dealers, and men that abandon the young women who are their partners in procreation and parenthood. In the following excerpt, Glover writes of how such societal trends and climbing crime rates created a negative atmosphere for the children of his neighborhood:

Do you remember the times of laughter
Children playing, life was so sweet
Before our city forgot us
And let the druglord take our street
Pacify me politician
Pacify me with your lies
Blind to the peoples' suffering
Deaf to the childrens' cries
But I know what to do with someone like you.
-- "Someone Like You," from Time's Up

Unlike Glover, my personal understanding of police brutality was limited to when a cop gave one my friends a particularly harsh speeding ticket, but my perceptions of American society as a whole were changing, little by little. Representations of prejudices and struggles of which I had never even been aware were creating a new consciousness that would fuel my hunger for a broadened worldview.

Of course, I had my teen-idol tendency too. Besides the fact that they looked really cool (Corey wore Body Glove suits and had multi-colored braids - remember?), what I liked most about Living Colour was that they tempered their anger and seemed to create something useful with it. Although their rage at discrimination and injustice was difficult for me to understand - I was in the 99% majority crowd in my town, since there were only about five black families living there - my teen sensibilities did understand what rage and indignation were all about. Also, they spoke a language that I understood. Not just the words, but the MUSIC … the wailing riffs of guitarist Vernon Reid (who is still sought after in music circles) and stomping bass lines spoke the language of Metallica, Motley Crue, and others - the language of the '80s American hard rock band. This was a language that I had only begun to understand, but it hit me harder than any rap had thus far. The racial issues that were so forcefully and skillfully rapped about by Public Enemy, Ice-T and others were intriguing to me, but the sounds were so new that I concentrated more on the music than what they were saying. When Living Colour was speaking their music with sounds that I already knew and was starting to love, I heard and analyzed every word.

Living Colour indeed occupied a unique place within American music, for a brief and exciting period of time. People would say, "A black rock band? Why don't they do rap like everybody else?" I always felt like the anger expressed in their music was more suited for dirty guitar and hard drumming anyway, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of their anger was directed at those narrow-minded critics, particularly after their second album was released. Bass beats and synthesizer loops were great for Run DMC, but in Living Colour there was a power that needed more backup support. They used sounds from earlier periods in music history as well - I didn't realize it at the time, but they had also inherited the sounds of Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and the Who. I'm not exactly putting them on the same level with these bands, but maybe this was a part of their own intelligent way of appropriating the white, middle-class-dominated culture in which they had grown up. The band name was even inspired by the opening to "The Wonderful World of Disney" when the voiceover would say "brought to you in living color."

The band members' relationships with white musicians were alternately close, supportive, and adversarial. Mick Jagger himself had actually discovered the group in New York, took them on the road as an opening act, and helped get them signed to Epic Records. He also sang backup vocals and played harmonica on their first couple recordings. From all accounts, the band enjoyed a close working relationship with the Rolling Stones' frontman for many years. The band also, however, took shots America's so-called King with the hilarious "Elvis Is Dead" on Time's Up, with a guest appearance by Little Richard. The song's lyrics presented a new interpretation of the Elvis Presley phenomenon: "A black man taught him how to sing … and then he was crowned king … they dressed him up and sent him to Vegas, and now the masses are his slave - slave, yes slave - even to the grave. I've got a reason to believe we all won't be received at Graceland…" The band's commentary on the sharing (and sometimes stealing) that had occurred between black and white America since even before the birth of rock and roll were usually couched in humor, but always pointed and effective.

This music and these experiences -- when thinking of representations of adolesence, within and beyond cultural boundaries -- brought me to a realization that boundaries even existed. When nearly everyone in your town is cut from the same cookie cutter, the boundaries usually seem fairly inconsequential. It's true what they say about a small town - the biggest fight you'll have is probably just right over your own fence. That said, my thinking and wondering about racial and other issues encouraged me to consider societal conflict in a way I never had before.

I had never felt anything other than sorry for the girl in my class who started dating a black football player and found herself the subject of taunts like "n****r lover" (edited by LC BLOG) and others that I choose not to repeat. I'd never thought much about how people I knew would so carelessly say hateful things like, "Oh, they just think slavery never ended," and "Our taxes just pay for welfare," and then look to me for a form of young, impressionable approval. Maybe it took me longer than other kids who lived in cities and knew more about how the world worked, but what I quickly came to feel was ANGER - an anger that at once surprised and delighted me. Anger can be a call to action - and my anger turned into the urge tell everyone I knew about how we didn't have to be prejudiced like that, and how there were better ways to find unity and that it was the responsibility of us all. I often thought that my words were preachy and being spoken to unwilling audiences, but I didn't care. I felt that something was really wrong with the way we were all redefining and confining each other with our words and beliefs that I didn't want to stop.

In 1992, just after I graduated high school, I got to see Living Colour perform at the State Theatre in Detroit. Two of my three brothers joined me - one of them even having made negative comments regarding the poster in my room. Seeing them live on stage, and understanding their message, they both came to appreciate the band and wanted to go see them again when they toured. Unfortunately, the band broke up three years later, in 1995, but I'll always remember that night when my small-town brothers and I got to see them play their unique brand of hard rock.

I wish could find a print of that poster. My copy was discarded a few years back with other items that I'd only miss later, on that trip back to the parent's house when you excise your old yearbooks and uniforms and love notes once and for all from the basement or garage. I've since lost or broken the cassette tapes too - but they've been replaced by CDs. What also stays with me are the strong memories associated with the poster, the band, and the songs that were a part of the teen identity I was constantly struggling to create.

Musical acts like Living Colour occupy a space within American pop culture where black meets white -- and the outcomes are not always pretty. These societal conflicts are not confined to America, of course, but are particularly messy in a land where unquestionable freedom is so highly prized, and yet kept so far from the reach of many people. When Amnesty International has to establish a presence just to help Detroit address its police brutality problem, things are definitely still left to be said - not just for our own city but for America as a whole. Living Colour's sometimes joyous, yet often scathing lyrics have an even greater relevance in today's American society - and the teenager still inside me can't wait to hear what they'll say next.

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