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Mark Anthony Neal

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Liberating Black Radio: The Robert Glasper Experiment

Posted: 03/ 9/2012 2:10 pm

As a medium, black radio was historically critical to the black freedom struggle. The infusion of black thought and musical expression onto the radio airwaves, particularly after Memphis's WDIA, broke the color barrier and began programming Black music 24-7. In this sense, black radio literally helped shape decades of American culture and politics, whether it was Robert Williams, in exile, programming his Radio Free Dixie show from Havana, Cuba in the early 1960s, young white kids consuming Ruth Brown, Big Mama Thornton, or Little Willie John as if it was contraband, or black-owned radio stations opening up its studios to the Civil Rights movement. In its most classic forms, black radio, was charged with expanding the minds and listening taste of its core audiences, recalling WBLS' well known adage (circa 1972) that it was "The Total Black Experience in Sound."

One would be hard-pressed to think of contemporary black radio in such a context, even with an entity like Radio One and personalities like Michael Baisden and Tom Joyner achieving unprecedented national visibility. Nearly two decades ago, The Family Stand more aptly described black radio as "plantation radio" or "Knee-grow" radio as Soul-Patrol co-founder Bob Davis often describes mainstream black media. Indeed Public Enemy even gave instructions on "How to Kill a Radio Consultant." Thus it is hard not to think of pianist Robert Glasper's compelling new recording, Black Radio (with the Robert Glasper Experiment), as anything other than a major intervention.

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate to be exposed to legendary radio jocks such as Hal Jackson, Vaughn Harper, Vy Higginson, Jerry Bledsoe, Chuck Leonard, Lamar Renee and Frankie Crocker. I didn't just tune in to listen to music, but the radio -- black radio -- served as a learning lab; Their playlists served as the very foundation for, not only my love of music, but my vocation as a scholar and critic of black music. I imagine that Robert Glasper might have similar memories of black radio.

The genius of Glasper's new recording is its willingness to expand the range of what we consider black music and what black radio might consider as appropriate for black or so-called "urban" audiences. Thus Glasper's decision to cover tracks as wide-ranging as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (with auto-tune in tow), Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (with lyrics from Oscar Brown, Jr.), Sade's "Cherish the Day" and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," is not as far-fetched as it seems; These are the sounds of a cosmopolitan blackness, that black radio, and black artists, particularly given their travels, have historically been on the cutting edge of. Equally cosmopolitan is Glasper's collection of collaborators.

Though most well known as a jazz pianist, Glasper has long frayed the edges of the pristine space that "serious" jazz currently inhabits in the American imagination. Like his invocation of black radio, the project is a reminder that jazz was once a popular form within black communities -- listened to alongside Motown, Doo-Wop, and southern Soul in ways that rarely raised an eyebrow. Glasper is part of a nearly two generation effort -- think about the work Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, the late Keith "Guru" Elam and Branford Marsalis (Buckshot LeFonque) -- to re-introduce jazz as a vital popular sound, and not as a museum art that is neither accessible or affordable to the very communities responsible for its creation (not naming no names... Wynton).

Like his older Texas peer trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Glasper likely had little choice but to hear the burgeoning rhythms of Hip-hop, and has sought to cultivate creative spaces that acknowledge such influence. Glasper have done so on all of his major label releases, including 2009's Double-Booked, which was premised on the idea that Glasper's trio was booked to perform at a club with Terence Blanchard, at the same time that Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson wanted the Robert Glasper Experiment to jam with The Roots. Black Radio is the first Glasper recording that grounds his music in an expansive context of contemporary R&B and Hip-hop, as opposed to bringing those genres into a more traditional jazz context.

Erykah Badu, sounds perfectly at home singing "Afro-Blue," much the way Dianne Reeves was when she recorded it twenty years ago, and Abbey Lincoln was more than fifty years ago when she recorded those original Oscar Brown, Jr. lyrics. The still underrated and vastly overlooked Stokely Williams, long-time lead of Mint Condition, shines on the trippy "Why Do We Try." The inclusion of Williams also highlight's Glasper's desire to work with artists, generally in high regard for their artistry -- like Lalah Hathaway and Meshell Ndegeocello -- but who are often not afforded the same level of visibility as some of their more traditional R&B peers. To this point, both Hathaway and Ndegeocello released exceptional recordings last year, Where It All Begins and Weather respectively, that were largely ignored by so-called Black Radio.

Glasper's longtime collaborator Bilal Oliver, shows up on two tracks "Letter to Hermione" and the affecting "Always Shine," which also features Lupe Fiasco. As Glasper recently told the New York Times, he takes great pride in the fact that he was in the studio when the late James Yancey -- J-Dilla -- created the track "Reminisce" from Oliver's stellar debut First Born Second.

The title track, featuring Yasiin Bey (the rebranded Mos Def) speaks volumes about Glasper's intents to pursue what some might call, "post-genre" Black music; a term that would strike older listeners as an oxymoron. Indeed scholar and musician Guthrie Ramsey, whose own release The Colored Waiting Room shares Glasper's "post-genre" sensibilities, perhaps sums up the project best, writing that black radio "plays with sonic, social, and iconic symbols in a way that recalibrates calcified, boring ideas about genre and turns them on their head, all with a good sense of funky adventure."

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Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.

 

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