Technologies of Gospel

Circuits and Networks of Sacred/Secular Innovation

That Time Marlon Riggs Called Prince an Ethnic Notion

by | May 9, 2016 | Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventism

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that. But it came very close, didn’t it?

It’s not just the proper churchladies who engage in so-called “respectability politics”, not by any stretch; white-glove-testers come from all walks of life, including some sectors that might surprise you; folks like some cultural nationalists, anti-bougie authenticity monitors, and the Nation of Islam.

In the enflourishment of think pieces and hindsight accolades about the artistry and character of Prince, let’s not forget the authenticity and moral panics he caused and artistic condemnations he engendered, even from those one might think ought to know better. Looking back on it, it’s kind of comical. Especially in light of what we know about midwestern/Plains Gospel, Black migrations “north”, and what can happen to artists creating new artistic forms in the crossfire of the sacred and the secular.

I first viewed Marlon Riggs’ otherwise incredible Ethnic Notions (1986) documentary some time in late 1990, and experienced the panning of the camera over promotional materials of contemporary Black artists as a gut punch. Since then, I’ve always wondered which of the minstrel-era characters/archetypes each artist was supposed to fall into.

“Damn, damn, damn,” my gut said, as Esther Rolle voiced the narrative:

Mammy, Sambo, Pickanninny, Coon, Uncle; the great-grandparents of modern images of Blacks, these caricatures did as much harm as any lynchmob.
True, their hurt was often indirect, yet because of this, they left wounds that have proved far more difficult to heal.
These are their descendants. As we turn to contemporary culture, how will we judge? How do these images reveal about our innermost fears, our hopes, our most enduring fantasies?

At that point, the musical score fades up a refrain of “Camptown Races”, one of the most famous, egregious minstrel songs there is.

Any lynchmob. Really? Were these rational-rhetorical questions to ask about artists like Diana Ross, Isaac Hayes, Grace Jones, or Bill Cosby, whose own forays into Black Respectability kept him in the news well into the late 2000’s? Or do they come from someone feeling some kind of way.

As regular readers of Technologies of Gospel know, “crossover” is a big theme at this blogspace, including the crossover elements of the sacred into the secular, indigenous African-American religious concerns into various mainstream forms. I have a fascination with how, exactly, they did it. And the “why” isn’t always so obvious as it might appear.

One thing the world is discovering in the wake of Prince’s death is his musical versatility. From the stories of him having mastered dozens of instruments to the jaw-dropping 35+ years of live footage, fans already knew this about him. I would like to explore his virtuosity in what Duke Ellington once called “the Negro idiom” (in those terms, with that capitalization). In the last post, we went through “The Second Coming”, and suggested some possible religious interests that might have gone into the song. In an upcoming post, we’ll underscore various elements that show up in it.

So my answer to my own questions are pretty obviously “no”.

Mary Watkins did the music for Ethnic Notions. One of her more famous gigs was with Bay Area legend Linda Tillery, who brought a much-needed funk/gospel/blues infusion to what then was known as “women’s music”, an influential Lesbian Separatist Feminist cultural endeavor.

Watkins was out of the Bernie Worell school of 70s funk keyboards: classically trained, and master of the Moog.

Check out Mary Watkins on keys in Linda Tillery’s “Freedom Time”

A Guy Called Gerald picked it up in the ’00s, and put it into “Humanity” (2000)

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