This Black History Month moment is sponsored by...John Mayer.
In a recent interview with Playboy magazine, both the predictable and unpredictable happened. Predictably, John Mayer is now in a state of PR crisis management. Unpredictably, what preceded was Mayer dropping an N-bomb. His "mistake," for which he is extremely "sorry" came in discussion of his burgeoning Black fandom; whether he had managed to crossover in reverse from White to Black audiences.
"My two biggest hits are 'Your Body Is a Wonderland' and 'Daughters.' If you think those songs are pandering, then you'll think I'm a douche bag. It's like I come on very strong. I am a very...I'm just very. V-E-R-Y. And if you can't handle very, then I'm a douche bag. But I think the world needs a little very. That's why black people love me
Someone asked me the other day, 'What does it feel like now to have a hood pass?' And by the way, it's sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a n***** pass."
Oh really John?
This would be the same John Mayer, raised in Bridgeport, CT...educated at Berklee College in Boston...THAT John Mayer? At what point exactly did he complete his PhD on the social intricacies of urban life in African-American communities?
Maybe it was his subsequent time living in Atlanta he began to develop his theories of "hood life" and who could pass freely back and forth. Maybe that was it. As they say, "some of his best friends are..."
Let's get the obvious arguments out of the way right now so we can move forward and have an honest discussion. Yes, let's be intellectually honest as to why Mayer's remarks are so utterly offensive. We need not try to hide behind specious excuses which obfuscate the important underlying issues here.
First, whether it traipsed from Mayer's lips with an 'er' or an 'a' as the second syllable is neither here nor there. Save it. The etymology of the word is the same. Its historical connection to the Jim Crow world of yore has not changed.
Secondly, his talent as an artist (though tremendous) does not in any way mitigate the offensive nature of the remark. In the way that recently released El DeBarge's superior talent doesn't make his issues with domestic violence any more palatable, neither should John Mayer's exceptional talent make this transgression more tolerable.
It's about the remark, not the talent of the person from whom it was uttered. My offense is equal and does not discriminate. Be it John Mayer or the Black mayor of Washington D.C., it's all the same.
The word causes a cringe irrespective of it emanating from rapper or racist. Rick Ross or Dog the Bounty Hunter...the etymology does not change.
Remember this is Black History Month. Let's not diminish the importance of the history and how we all arrived at this point. A Black man in the White House does not mean we are a post-racial nation and that "N*****" is now somehow ineffectual and irrelevant.
Thirdly, any apology is worthless. If John Mayer was "so comfortable" to drop the N-bomb during an interview in which he likely had no personal relationship with the reporter and knew the tape recorder was running...we can only imagine his private oratory with friends and family. The intimation that either he was EVER accepted in the "hood" or that the words "hood" and "N*****" are "interchangeable" speaks to an unimaginable ignorance.
Let Mo'Kelly assure everyone reading; the "hood" knows nothing about John Mayer and no "N****'s" (his word) live there.
Musically, Mo'Kelly is...or check that...was a John Mayer fan. From his vocal stylings of Daughters to his guitar virtuosity at the funeral of Michael Jackson, John Mayer is clearly a consummate musician and performer. And rightly so, he earned the respect and recognition of his African-American fans along those lines.
But to the heart of the matter.
If Elvis Presley should have taught non-African Americans anything, it's that musical acceptance within the African-American community lies less with talent and more with genuine respect for the community. Dr. John's acceptance is a good example as are jazz saxophonists David Sanborn and Tom Scott. Harry Connick Jr. is an excellent example. It's not about talent, it's about respect and sincerity.
Any given week, one can turn on American Idol and see the full color spectrum singing in the African-American gospel tradition, likely unbeknownst to them. They riff, rip and run up and down the musical scale, often times with little or no inkling of the history behind the singing style. They most often imitate Mariah not realizing Mariah took her cues from Aretha who took her cues from Mahalia.
For every non-Black singer succeeding from week-to-week on American Idol, there are dozens in every Black church in every city of America who can sing the best of American Idol under the table.
Yes, under the table.
Kelly Clarkson and company would get embarrassed in a talent sense at virtually any Black church here in Los Angeles alone. That's just the truth of the matter.
Meaning, African-Americans aren't in any way wowed, impressed or taken with musical imitation, despite how supposedly sincere such flattery might be. The "sincerity" which matters most is the level of respect in one's approach. It's the perceived lack of respect in which Elvis took from a tradition while failing to properly acknowledge and pay homage in the process is why Elvis is so often frowned upon within our community.
To bring this full circle, it really doesn't matter how "well" or how "Black" John Mayer can play if in between riffs he's apologizing for referring to us as "N*****s."
He can keep his guitar, his music, his apology and his "broad appeal" for that matter. Mo'Kelly doesn't need Mayer to like or appreciate the music of Black people or even to play like us. Mo'Kelly needs Mayer to respect us first and foremost. Genuine respect would have prevented such remarks from Mayer. Genuine respect would have replaced the need for any apology after the fact.
So yes, it is rare when White performers who first gain acclaim in the pop world find acceptance (i.e. reverse crossover) into the African-American community. And it's even rarer when those who have been welcomed in, ever make it back after being kicked out.
If John Mayer ever did have a "hood pass," it surely has been revoked.
Morris W. O'Kelly (Mo'Kelly) is author of the syndicated entertainment and socio-political column The Mo'Kelly Report. For more Mo'Kelly, http://mokellyreport.wordpress.com. Mo'Kelly can be reached at email@example.com and he welcomes all commentary.