Arthur Kempton was born in New Jersey and was formally schooled at Harvard University. He has been a senior administrator in the Boston Public Schools and an educational consultant. He has also been a radio disc jockey and in Boston took over the legendary Sunday morning radio program "For Lovers Only" on the then WTBS (before MIT sold the call letters). He has been a contributor to The New York Review of Books and has recently published Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music. He lives with his wife in North Carolina.
Boogaloo is a detailed history of Black American music using gospel patriarch Thomas Dorsey, soul singer Sam Cooke, entertainment mogul Berry Gordy and visionary George Clinton as touchstones for examining both black culture and black music against a larger social context. Luc Sante observes in the New York Review of Books, "It is difficult to do justice to Kempton’s book in a brief review, since while his primary story line is concerned with the sorry evolution of African-American pop-music enterprise, much of the book’s heart lies in asides, in brief studies of lesser figures—his account of the deep and versatile but lower-keyed singer-songwriter-producer Curtis Mayfield is, in a few pages, as rich as anything in the book."
I was an avid fan of "For Lovers Only " and for years before and after, the music that Kempton so dearly loves. Boogaloo is a both a respectful compendium of details about black popular music and a shrewd and thoughtful overview of the intersection of black and mainstream culture. As a sombre grace note Kempton in his Afterword quotes the man he calls the hip-hop nation’s Billy Graham. Louis Farrakhan addressing a conclave of music industry players intones, "You’re already leaders of the world, and it’s frightening folks in power. All over the world you have taken the children of the rich…and now those in power are asking, ‘How do we get our children back?’"
Robert Birnbaum: Boogaloo would be a fine as a text for 20th century American history course. What was the starting point for writing this book on Black American music?
Arthur Kempton: A life-long passion. I was raised in a household, apart from some opera and some classical music that was almost entirely devoted to black music. Mostly jazz and a lot of Joe Turner. My father was a devotee. By the time I was seven, eight, nine years old I had been taken to black churches all over New Jersey and became a kind of choir groupie. By the time I was eleven, I was waking up—in what was then my mother’s house in suburban New Jersey—on Saturdays saying, "I have to get out of here." Sneaking away, having saved lunch money and pitched quarters in school bathrooms, and getting on the bus and going to the Apollo Theater—you’re from Chicago…
RB: Yeah, I went to the Regal Theater.
AK: My favorite all time form of entertainment was the urban stage show.
RB: You got your money’s worth, for sure.
AK: The going price then in 1964, maybe, was $1.65 for six or seven acts and a movie. If you got there before noon on a Saturday you got in for 65 cents and a free record. Growing up almost equidistant from New York and Philadelphia I spent my childhood in the Uptown [Theater] in Philly and the Apollo [Theater]. I got a job pretty much as soon as I could in a record store and then I went into radio so I could get free records. I have been thinking about this [subject] for forty years. I am at an age and have had to do enough of it where I am just not interested in explaining myself. Suffice it to say I had the benefit of as good a human education as an American could have. I understood early that if you are interested in American history, in some way the purest lens that you can have on it is black American history. I was also conscious from the time I was thirteen or fourteen years old that this music was, in effect, a literature of the street and I developed a kind of literary sense about it. Moreover, I got to college and become aware black intellectuals were interested in jazz, mostly. Popular music was devalued and has continued to be in many ways. There has not been a lot of serious writing about it.
AK: Well, Peter Guralnick wrote a book called Sweet Soul Music that was mostly about Stax [Records].
RB: I looked at your bibliography and the one book that looked enticing to me was on the Chess Brothers, Phil and Leonard.
AK: Do you know Robert Pruter’s work?
AK: You ought to. It’s called Chicago Soul. He’s not a writer, it’s not a "written" book, but he’s published two books. He’s a researcher. One of these guys, who is like me in a way. I say in the book that I am my only original source. Basically, what I am doing is illuminating old facts. But he is one of these guys that clearly was around, of our age. And it’s almost an encyclopedic book about—he’s written two—one’s called Doo Wop, about ’50′s Chicago groups and one is called Chicago Soul. I would recommend both. The University of Illinois Press, by the way, probably does more interesting black music stuff than almost anybody else—both of those books are printed by them.
RB: As I started to think about placing your book in the pantheon of music books, I thought of Guralnick, David Hadju’s Lush Life and Positively Fourth Street and the Nick Tosches’ books on Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis because I see these books as putting their subjects within a social/historical context.
AK: That’s kind of you, This book has been out a couple of weeks, mostly the critical reaction is coming from the hinterlands. Luc Sante‘s reviewed it in the New York Review of Books. The fact that he wanted to do it suggests that he gets what this is. In many ways this book is a reproach to rock critics who, as far as I am concerned, are the ashcan of journalism—which is a fairly degraded profession anyway.
RB: I don’t remember anyone pointing out that Mick Jagger looted American culture or that Janis Joplin was a second-rate screamer. No one lately, if ever.
AK: I would only suggest that you listen to Erma Franklin’s version of "Piece of My Heart" and then listen to what Janis Joplin did and dare you this disagree with me.
RB: I know the song and I agree with you.
AK: Mick Jagger. As you may recall their first American hit was “It’s All Over Now" but Jagger is a note-for-note copy (of the Valentino’s version). The second hit was “Mercy Mercy” by Don Covay. There was always this side of me, even then that said it was wonderful that these English kids love and respect black music but when do you love something enough to leave it alone. And they really didn’t. None of them as far as I am concerned, ever produced anything worth listening to. My tastes are cardinal…
RB: I remember radio stations [I think they were black stations] having contests between the Beatles and the Temptations…
AK: That didn’t happen in…I grew up in the Philadelphia cultural orbit. Philadelphia was this strange, hermetic culture where there was no British invasion. The white kids in Philadelphia danced as well if not better than 80% of the black kids in the rest of the country.
RB: No British Invasion? What about American Bandstand?
AK: American Bandstand was not of Philadelphia. There was this guy named Jerry Blavat who was this Jewish street kid fell in love with Frankie Lyman in the late ’60s and used to run around and bust up shows where Frankie Lyman imitators like Little Butchie Saunders and others were. He then graduated to radio and became this huge figure in mid ’60s Philadelphia youth culture and had the best music show ever, on television. Everybody who came on performed live. He gave his entire show in 1965, forty-five minutes except for commercials to James Brown, so he did forty-five minutes live. So yeah, Philadelphia was a very interesting place. I remember seeing a group called the Magnificent Men who were some white boys from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who had a very strong regional hit in the summer of 1967 called “Piece of Mind.” They opened the show at the Uptown with the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Impressions, and turned out the show, albeit basically on novelty appeal. So there was this interesting cross culture going on. That stuff passed over me. I don’t own a Beatles record. That stuff was never relevant to me.
RB: So you are an R&B, soul, boogaloo purist? Do you listen to other kinds of music?
AK: Absolutely. Well, sure I listen to jazz. In 1971 I spent a couple of weeks listening to Jamaican music but always preferred the Meters, frankly. Joseph Modeliste, who I believe was the greatest of all boogaloo drummers…New Orleans music is American reggae, reggae complexified. So, yeah, I am a purist.
RB: When did you start writing Boogaloo?
AK: Here’s how it happened. In 1991 I began to write occasional pieces for the New York Review of Books. I was mostly in the public education business from thirty years. Then an editor at Pantheon called me up and said, "Are you interested in writing a book?" I said, "Yeah." This book took four years for me to write, so I guess [I started in] 1998 but in some sense I began the work that resulted in the book in 1991 when I wrote a piece called "Native Sons," sort of about sneakers and hip hop for the NYRB. I waited a long time actually, out of sense of…
RB: Waiting for someone to ask you? [laughs]
AK: For somebody else to do it. Actually in the early ’80s I began a show on WILD here called "The Arthur Kempton Time Tunnel." I had a sense that there was this large upscale generation of black kids who comprise what I call the "equal opportunity generation." More kids had gone to school and had gotten middle-class jobs then any other generation in the history of America. I got this sense that there was this fairly significant up scale Essence magazine, Black Enterprise market for this music because they had grown up on it and that really wasn’t being addressed at all. So I started this show and in the course of this show I began to do, musical biographies. Along the lines of what is now like Behind the Music, that VH-1 does—that kind of thing. Writing radio scripts—about eighty of them. In a sense, I began researching the book that long ago. North Carolina Mutual, which was the largest black insurance company, had a brief fling in radio where they had string of five stations. So the program director at WILD who became a friend of mine left to become program director of those stations and for about six months I was doing the "Time Tunnel" on a syndicated basis. I would say that’s when it began, in the writing of those radio scripts.
RB: Tell me about the title. Boogaloo was a specific dance. But in this context you are using it in more sophisticated way.
AK: Beginning in the late ’60s some of us began referring to what was then called soul music as boogaloo. Interestingly enough, also in the late ’60s there was in New York a kind of fusion going on between Latin and black music personified in Joe Bataan.
RB: Joe Cuba also?
AK: Yeah, although he preceded it. They named their musical genre after dances and so hence the beginning of Latin bugaloo.
RB: Spelled differently. Spelled b-u-g-a-l-o-o.
AK: It’s interesting because you know of course, Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo. It was a really seminal piece of work in 1970. You might remember his concept of "jus’ grew." The term boogaloo, as I was writing it, began to assume that. When I discovered this wonderful remark by George Clinton. Someone asked him "Where did you come up with this idea of ‘all around the world for the funk’?" And he replied, "Did you ever read Mumbo Jumbo?" But that came later. Basically the term ‘boogaloo’ was meant to apply to soul music.
RB: There are lots of anecdotes and information but one of them really made me laugh hysterically. The quote from Morris Levy, "If you want royalties go to the England."
AK: He’s the model for that character on the Sopranos, Hesh. Morris Levy is a fascinating character. When I began writing this book. Frankie Lyman was going to be in it but he basically had a one-year career. There wasn’t enough story there. But Morris Levy is a real story. One of the best scenes in Fredrick Dannen’s book Hit Man is at a UJA dinner for Morris Levy where all these old scoundrels who used to run the music business get together and talk. He grew up with the Gigante Brothers, Vincent the Chin. The other brother is Father Gigante who redid housing in the South Bronx during the Seventies. He, Levy, grew up with these guys and was an associate of the Genovese family. There was a very interesting book by a reporter from the LA Times, about how Levy subverted MCA records and that whole cutout business was a Mafia business and Levy was indicted and going to trial when he died. And Irving Azoff, who makes a brief appearance in my book, and the rest of those guys were all involved in that.
RB: Morris was an equal-opportunity thief. He stole from everyone.
AK: Absolutely. Sure. The funniest remark was Ruth Brown’s about Atlantic, and how when you dealt with Morris Levy you expected to be raped, but with Ahmet Ertegun it was more like date rape. And given the social class distinction that sums up the nature of the business.
RB: In Boogaloo you carefully dissect two figures, Berry Gordy and Suge Knight. Are you assuming neither is ever going to read this book?
AK: [Berry] Gordy, of course, comments on nothing. I’d be interested in his reaction. In some ways, he is the hero of this book. One of the things that has been asked by a few interviewers (who really haven’t read the book,) "did you discover any thing in the process of writing this book?" The answer is probably no, but what I have discovered is a deepened appreciation of Gordy. To my mind, he is as great an American industrialist as JP Morgan or John D Rockefeller, and a robber baron. He invented the modern music business, in many ways.
RB: Your admiration is somewhat diluted because of the script you are running along his story, the Iceberg Slim quotes.
AK: Well behind every great fortune is a great crime. Of course, Gordy became a pimp in the music business after having been a trick.
RB: Not much of a pimp. He had to take the bus to his stroll.
AK: When he was a songwriter and his lawyer explained to him that he really wasn’t going to get paid the thousand dollars he was owed, he built a vertically integrated fortress around himself to fend off the predations of the business. There must be thirteen memoirs written by former Motown people and in every one of them—almost every one of them—there is a scene where somebody is half way out the door. And they come to see Gordy and Gordy says, "Don’t worry I’ll always take care of you." That was the Godfather’s kiss. A really remarkable, complicated man for whom I have a lot of admiration— partially because he comes out of a tradition which is mostly lost. That old school that understood at a certain level that it’s always unwise, no less unwise today, for a black man in America to appear to have too much money or to be seen too conspicuously with white women. He never had partners. These current entrepreneurs start out with partners and are basically share cropping. Gordy cashed in half a billion dollars and has said nothing. I would love to sit down with Berry Gordy. He will never acknowledge any of this that has been written.
RB: I first thought about this when I read Thomas King’s book on David Geffen — that out of context one tends to vilify these guys. But then when you think about the shark pools they swim in…
AK: Absolutely. That’s one of the things I hoped to show, if not tell because I tried to be assiduous about that. You look at the careers of a Geffen and Azoff and the advantages that they had. And also a Neil Bogart, for example. Then you contrast that with Gordy. Whatever can be said about Gordy, his accomplishment is really quite extraordinary. Do you remember this fraudulent artist in the early ’80s, Mark Kosabi that had this workshop on the Lower East Side of New York and he had this whole group of kids who mass-produced pictures under his signature. What Motown accomplished would be as if there were two or three Mark Kosabi paintings hanging in every great art museum in the world. I remember, as you remember, in the late ’60s when public tastes especially of the newly minted rock critical establishment began towards wilder strains, Motown was disparaged as a factory. There has never been anything like it in the music business. You had talent stacked so deep there that George Clinton got turned away and Ashford and Simpson, after having written all those Margin Gaye-Tammy Terrell hits, had to leave. It was really most extraordinary. And two things that stick in my mind, his two maxims. One is evoked in this scene of Gordy storming through the office at Motown at five thirty on a Friday afternoon seeing who is there and who is not and saying, "Money is not on strike." And then this when he would remind subordinates that "he wasn’t the boss, logic was." A fascinating man!
RB: When you mentioned the remark that Motown was a factory I was thinking about the Standing in the Shadows of Motown film and the Funk Brothers. In your book you mention that Eddie Holland is chewing out one of the studio musicians and the guy says, "You all’s music all sound the same anyway."
AK: They were all jazz musicians. Detroit was this extraordinarily fertile jazz town, and they had absolute contempt for Holland, Dozier and Holland. One of the most gratifying things that has come out in the last couple of weeks after the book has come out, I have done a lot of interviews on black radio. And there is a guy in DC, Joe Madison, who is a rather big deal thereabouts. He said to me he was talking to Duke Fakir of the Four Tops when his producer brought the book into the studio. And Madison said he looked in the index under Four Tops and started reading passages of the book to him. I’m not terribly complimentary of the Four Tops. And Fakir said, "It’s all true."
RB: You said Jocko Henderson was the greatest deejay ever. Who was he?
AK: Jocko Henderson claimed—he may still be alive, if he is he is in his eighties—to be the original rapper. One of the reasons hip hop has always interested me more as sociology than as art is because I grew up in the era of black personality radio. Jocko was an artist. Jocko rhymed everything. And had voice, had delivery and diction and had gone to college… and he was a master. There was very little that I heard thirty years later that I hadn’t heard before. There was this whole school of shit talking black radio disc jockeys that were stars at seventy five dollars a week.
RB: And the all the payola they could get.
AK: Oh sure. But Jocko was in a class by himself.
RB: Pervis Spann the overnight disc jockey at WVON [in Chicago] affected this country bumpkin kind of character and I think he was a rhymer.
AK: Let me ask you a question? There is a performance description of Gene Chandler in there.
AK: One of the things that I tried to evoke was the feeling at those shows
RB: Reading that triggered my own recollections of the shows at the Regal.
AK: I am hoping they are similar memories. You know, the first six rows would be teenage girls and it was a very different audience than the mindless screamers who would attend the Beatles. They would look to find something wrong first. They would demand a certain quality of performance before they would submit themselves to it and if they didn’t get I they could be absolutely brutal. I remember a case of guys walking out on stage with their zippers open or people showing up…there was this really fine group out of Detroit called the Fantastic Four who had a lead singer named "Sweet" James Epps. He was a three hundred-pound man in a continental suit. He was so big the toes of his white loafers were curled up and there was this collective "ugh’ emitted from the front rows when he came on stage. To watch guys—and that’s what the preface is about—to watch guys overcome that on the strength…
RB: Like Billy Stewart.
AK: On the pure strength of performance, galvanized me. It always did. I’ve heard it said that a lot of writers wanted to be singers but If I could do that I would have traded anything—I’m not even sure the game is the same anymore—it wouldn’t mean anything anymore. And, of course, those moments became rarer and rarer. I remember twenty five years ago at Paul’s Mall here [in Boston] when a group called Bloodstone had a song out called "Outside Woman" and Harry Williams—who was another one of those fat, greasy, ugly men—walked out into the audience and sang "Outside Woman" for twenty minutes, sweating in people’s drinks. And everybody was transfixed.
RB: Well, the game has changed. Can you imagine such venues these days?
AK: A lot has happened that I find distressing. It is true I am a cultural conservative. That has nothing to do with they way that term is ordinarily applied. This music really was the map of an emotional landscape for me when I was fourteen or fifteen. The content about the music was mostly about relationships. I don’t know what kids use for that anymore? Most of what passes in the widely disparaged rhythm and blues genre these days— to call something rhythm and blues is to dismiss it —is so vapid. One of the things I did in answer to the question of "what did you discover in doing this?" I wouldn’t call it a discovery but who would have thought— it has something to do with historical perspective and the lessons of history—I don’t know who among us would have ever thought that the most influential singer of the last quarter century would turn out to be Donny Hathaway.
AK: If you listen to these kids today they are all second and third generation echoes of Donny Hathaway but on Prozac, the emotion is absolutely flattened out. As you know Hathaway apart from the work he did with Roberta Flack, never made any money to speak of as a singer. The only successful record he had was that Christmas record, which is a fine record and gets played every year.
RB: Didn’t he do successful cover of Leon Russell’s "A Song for You"?
AK: Yes, he did a lot of fine work but had no commercial appeal to speak of, on his own. And has this enormous influence and these kids have no idea who he is. What began to happen is that some time around the middle ’70s people started to concern themselves less with making great music than with making perfect records. And so what you have now is the logical outcome of that —which is all these voices which are indistinguishable to me, one from the other, all the emotional content of the songs flattened out, all the rough edges gone. All the stuff that used to appeal to me, what I am is what the jazz people used to call a "moldy fig."
RB: [both laugh] You were asking about what the model is for relationships, and the first thought I had was, "Did you ever hear the use of the word ‘whatever’ so much?" As if that word is a sufficient answer or response. It’s hard to believe that there is such a diminution in affection and connection
AK: And literacy. One of the points that I tried to make in this book is that those semi-anonymous Motown writers…the literary quality of those songs. I mean what does it say about what’s happened to public education? Curtis Mayfield was a tenth grade drop out, okay. Smokey Robinson did a year or two of junior college. Chicago and Detroit are two of the worst public school systems in America, but if you at look those ninth-grade English teachers back then, you remember that they taught us a little Shakespeare. When you look at Mayfield’s ability—there is a song he did early on, called, "Can’t You See." "I’m a ship tossed and driven under thundering clouds above/and one day I’ll drop my anchor in the harbor of your love/And we’ll go sailing, keep right on sailing/On the breakers of our love." The combination of those old Reverend Tindley church hymns and the ninth grade English curriculum in Wells High school produced some real passable literature. The fact of the matter is that that is an extremely well turned extended metaphor. While the rappers are capable of flashes of verbal flair and occasionally real originality, metaphor doesn’t exist.
RB: The most interesting person in the book for me, or most mysterious, is Tupac Shakur’s mother. Is there more of a story there?
AK: Well there is a whole era to talk about there. Afeni Shakur had the starring role in the Panther 21 trial…if you look at the arc of her life, it really describes what has happened to this country between 1968 and today. I have never met her. My father [much admired journalist Murray Kempton] knew her and always spoke highly of her. In fact, she came to my father’s funeral. I think he would have found tremendous irony in this, a revolutionary who ended up turning her aggressions on the tending of her son’s estate. Tupac—and I don’t own a Tupac Shakur record—for whatever reasons, was the James Dean of his generation. He’s a poster on walls all over the world.
RB: I think your take on him will be a revelation to readers of your book as opposed to the public perception.
AK: One of the things that fascinated me about what is going today is the fact that seventy per cent of the kids that buy gangster rap are white suburban kids. The only other time really in my lifetime when music percolated up from the urban streets unmediated was the doo-wop era. It can be argued that what the doo-wop era did—for the first time large numbers of white kids were developing indirect relationships with black voices and I think imagining the people behind those voices, prepared—certainly in New York and several other places— a generation of white kids for the civil rights movement. What is hip-hop preparing its generations of white aficionados for? Part of the point I was trying to make is that black kids who buy this music understand that at a certain level this theater. I don’t think that the suburban white kids do. This is a society increasingly distanced, people just exist in these small compartmentalized worlds, seen through computer screens and video games. So here you have white kids buying this music, and they are not at all interested in knowing or meeting the people who are making this music or even thinking of them. What they are buying is attitude.
RB: I’m reading a novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, in which the narrator’s teenage son goes to school one day and shoots and kills a dozen people. And the story reminds you if the shootings from Paducah to Columbine. Now, I have no argument that links anything to this adolescent violence, but it is telling that white kids are attracted to this gangster style. I don’t know what it is but it’s in a context.
AK: I don’t know either, but a lot of it has to do with …in a lot of ways although I don’t participate in it, to speak of the cyber culture is a really fascinating phenomenon. Where you can be whoever you want to be. But at the same time living in a culture these days where people actually leave husbands and wives to run off with people that they have only just met in cyberspace. That says a lot about what happens to those kids in a certain way. That there is a fundamental human disconnection going on. That makes it possible for kids to mistake an abstraction for what’s real. I do think there is something about that makes it possible for these kids to pull triggers on flesh-and-blood people and somehow not think of it as being real. And then when they are sitting in jail say, "I really didn’t think of it." That extraordinary distancing mechanism makes it possible for a lot of the young white consumers of gangster rap music to think of it as being real. And of course it isn’t. Part of what I hope comes through in my treatment of the hip-hop business is that they are mostly actors. There is a wonderful scene of Suge Knight doing Robert DeNiro, in Good Fellas taking out a victim’s driver’s license to ensure his silence. It’s all from movies and there is a lot of that going on too.
RB: I want to talk a little more about Tupac’s mother. She was a revolutionary, then she was a busted-out, crack head street whore.
AK: I don’t know about the street whore part, she had a crack cocaine problem, you know. And she is now the executor of a very lucrative estate.
RB: Does it strike you that she has concerns about the purity of Tupac’s legacy?
AK: I think it is more like a franchise. I suspect and I don’t know that she is concerned with promoting the mythology of his life. That is after all commercially useful. I didn’t get a sense that they were close. I suspect she might suggest that there was a purity to his life, but I don’t know what that could have been.
RB: So here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and black people have been the model for hipness and coolness since at least WW II. Why still?
AK: One can make the case that black Americans have been a despised tribe and as such have an iconical outlaw status and that will always be. That will always be cool. It is now a huge global business. That outlaw status—one of the things that I did learn because—we are not really taught much about the post Civil War Reconstruction era was about the generation of black men in the immediate post Civil War who looked at things and said, "I’m just not going to play this game," and migrated to cities and hung out and hustled and outraged and scared white people, some of whom called them "masterless men" and scandalized respectable black society. This is exactly what’s going on now. It’s almost as if the current cultural dominance of a descendant class of urban black youth is the "masterless men’s" revenge on America. As Minister Farakhan put it when he was addressing that convocation of rap moguls, "You have their children now." But how little has changed in that respect is an interesting irony.
RB: We have come full circle, when we started talking I observed that this book would be an excellent text to use for US history. If you go back and look at our history texts, none of this information was there. The black migrations, the zoot suit wars, the race riots, the depravations of the post Civil War, 40 acres and a mule were there. Are they now?
AK: No, not really. In a lot of ways the purest lens on American history is black history as in some ways a pure lens on Czarist history would be to look at the history or experience of Jews in Russia. Since black Americans have been here as long as the Cabots and the Lodges and Randolphs and the Masons, you have that whole epic sweep of American history that you can look at. And, of course, the music business affords the opportunity to look at the creation and rise of the youth market. One of the ways of looking at this book is that since their manual labor became obsolete—black America’s popular culture has been its most fungible natural resource. The last hundred years have really been about this battle over who is going to control the exploitation rights. And now we live in a time where of much what America exports is its popular culture. And the popular culture of black youth is a disproportionate amount of that. The global spread of rap music is phenomenal. I saw a book, an academic tome, that looks at Italian rap, Polish rap, Algerian rap, which is now driving the bourgeois French crazy because all their kids are running around talking like Algerian project kids. It’s extraordinary for me to contemplate that the hip-hop era has now lasted longer—than almost any other period that you can identify in black popular music. The so-called golden age of gospel—a really undiscovered treasure in American popular music—lasted about twenty years. The music that is the centerpiece of this book lasted about fifteen years. Hip-hop is now over twenty years old and has driven almost every other form of music off to the side and shows no signs of slowing down. What is also clear there isn’t any music made by white kids for white kids that white kids want to buy.
RB: What about these boy groups?
AK: The market has been driven down to eight-year-olds, the pre-teen market. Whenever such a vacuum has occurred as it did right before the British invasion, black music has always filled that void and apparently there’s been a void for twenty years, because my impression is what’s happened to white youth music is that it’s now splintered into twenty different small factions.
RB: The trade magazine lists seem to reflect that fracturing. I look at what people are buying and listening to and I don’t know much of it.
AK: The names you do recognize are mostly being marketed to twelve-year-olds. Brittany Spears…
RB: The way I hear new music is on movie sound tracks. Most of the music I listen to is music I have been listening to for years.
AK: I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s somewhat sad, in a way. I stopped doing radio because I couldn’t find any new music I wanted to play and doing oldies at certain point gets old. What’s interesting to me is that it seems like every other black woman America is writing a novel and the others are reading them. One of the things in Boogaloo is that white people who run cultural commerce continually rediscover that there is this huge market among black Americans for cultural commerce that is about them whether in movies books or records.
RB: What’s next for you? Is there a volume two?
AK: It may be that I have to come to terms with the fact that what I am really interested in, is music. Well, that’s not true. We are living in a society that is leaving most of us gasping for air. I was living in Brooklyn for eight years, and Brooklyn is this extraordinary place. One out of every six Americans, at one point, has lived in Brooklyn. It will satisfy all desire for foreign travel because it is all right there. I got close to a couple of Yemeni families. Most of the bodegas in Brooklyn are now run by Arabs. The new style of immigration is called "sojourner immigration" because folks don’t come here with the idea of becoming Americans. They come to make money, send as much as they can back home and eventually go back. But that’s not true for their kids who can’t help but feel American, however grudging official America’s feelings are about them. So there is this new, fascinating to me, assimilation story going on. It also seems an interesting time to look at what is happening to a couple of these Yemeni families, at this particular point in American history.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing