An earnest musicologist explores the makings of 20th-century “Aframerican” music: doo-wop to soul, rhythm and blues to hip-hop, gospel to gangsta.
Black music, Kempton tells us, has been the object of white depredation since the days of W.C. Handy. Born in the ubiquitous church choirs, nurtured on black vaudeville’s “chitlin’ circuit,” the art refused to be kept within bounds. Ma Rainey mixed gospel and blues; Sister Rosetta Tharpe broke out of the “race record” market. White cover versions of black records became unnecessary. Thomas A. Dorsey (“Father of Gospel” and author of “Precious Lord”) tutored Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. It was Curtis Mayfield’s time, no longer Stepin Fetchit’s. Sam Cook (later more elegantly “Cooke”) warbled “You Send Me” and crossed over. James Brown did his considerable thing. In Detroit, Berry Gordy Jr., an inept pimp but a remarkable musical autodidact, established Motown, America’s greatest black musical enterprise, allowing Smokey Robinson and Diane Ross to soar. In Memphis, Stax Records had Otis Redding. Suge Knight marketed “ghetto niggaz” like Ice-T. Until he succumbed to a hail of bullets, Tupac Shakur vied with Dr. Dre. With a sensibility as black as any white author could possibly muster, Kempton raps about scuffling and struggling, road perks of drugs and sex, all the stuff about the boyz that didn’t make the trades. The prose, fervid and relentless, describes people not simply employed, but indentured. Major labels steal from sharecropper artists; banks hold “the whip handle” to wield “an overseer’s lash.” It’s all boogaloo all the time, with no mention of any noteworthy interchange with country and western (“hillbilly,” as Kempton disses it), Fisk Jubilee music, or the Brits. The syntax is so elaborate that verbs are hard to find. There are no photos or discography, and a companion CD would have been wonderful. Yet the text, in its way, is significant.
Funky, detailed, and, with elbows thrust out, it’s all rock-and-roll.