The pain was alive in her voice—careening and simmering, sometimes flat and off -pitch but affecting nonetheless.
Its ugliness was its beauty, evoking images of the urban life she'd known, of cracked concrete and battleship-gray skies. There was a hunger, too, invigorating the yearning lyrics delivered in an alto full of flaws, all buttressed by hard-knocking beats.
Her attitude reflected the armor Reagan and other black girls in the neighborhood and at school wore with pride. She didn't smile and her female fans didn't, either. Mary J. Blige seemed to carry a boulder on her shoulder and her voice conveyed all the heartbreak and frustration of a generation of girls who grew up with a mother's indifference and without a father's loving praises.
Reagan had gotten a cassette of Mary's debut, What's the 411?, and played it incessantly around the house, which drove Mama and me crazy. And songs such as "You Remind Me" and "Love No Limit" were inescapable on the radio. Here was a chick, heralded as the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," singing of pain and desire as old as human blood. But the age-old cry for love and acceptance was embodied by a woman-child who could have been any of the girls on the block, lips curled in defiance under eyes daring you to love them.
From her videos in constant rotation on BET, Reagan started affecting Mary's flavor. The scowl, which she'd always worn, was beautified by dark-red lipstick that she put on while we waited in the morning for the bus and wiped off before Mama came home. Reagan and the other wannabe fly girls at Sylvan Hill Junior High wore Mary's chameleonic hairdos—asymmetrical cuts, puffy blond ponytails, and bangs that swooped over one eye.
They glowered and stood against lockers and brick walls with books held against high breasts, looking as though they were ready to fight. And indeed they fought—each other, boys, or monsters if they had to. Like Mary, these girls didn't seem to be afraid of anything.
But a closer look, or listen, revealed that they were absolutely afraid, just as Mary was—afraid of not being loved, of not being understood, of being cut down by someone's razor eyes, or someone's actual razor. So they put on their armor and listened to Mary's keloid-scarred tales of betrayal and unrequited love and found an altar at which to pray, just as Mama had done with Aretha. Just as I had done with Daddy's soul records, from which I continued to draw strength and through which I always found a portal for escape, especially as boys started invading my private thoughts.
And the boys were beautiful—not their attitudes but their bodies, the way they sauntered and strutted through the halls; the tall, athletic ones, with broad shoulders and stalk-like legs, distracted me. I had no idea what to do with those feelings, and I had no one with whom I could share them. At thirteen I sensed that it might be true, but at fourteen I had concluded without a doubt what perhaps everyone had known all along: I was a faggot.
And I was deeply disappointed by that.
I had never had much of a connection with other boys and always felt that I was an alien among them. So why was I daydreaming about what it would be like to kiss one or to have one kiss me? I was repulsed by how brutish boys could be. Yet that very thing sent a jolt through me, from the pit of my stomach up through my chest and to my head, quickening my heart rate. What was lying there beneath the brutishness, the rudeness, the aggression? Was there a tender spot? What did it taste like, smell like? What would it feel like to have all that hardness pressed against me, to wrestle it and pin it down into submission, or the other way around?
Such thoughts swirled in my head and threatened to consume me, especially in the summertime when the boys on the block went shirtless, with chests as flat as their backs. The boldness of their skin in the sun—sleek and shining—unsettled me.
I had no interest in sports and that debacle on the basketball court in the fourth grade had sealed it for me: I would not have any male friends. In fact, I didn't have any friends. That first year or two at Sylvan Hills was socially what I had always known, that I existed somewhere in my own universe and that others seemed to have no problem connecting with one another. I wasn't rough around the edges; I was sensitive. I read a lot. I hid inside myself and lived there. Excursions outside of my shell often proved disastrous or too traumatic.
Yet I yearned to be like them. Then I didn't. I wanted to be the center of attention. Then I'd hate myself for even entertaining the thought. I was too awkward, too chunky and bookish. I didn't swagger through life as the other boys did. Even in their awkwardness, they seemed more confident than I ever was, especially those who played sports and had fathers who were active in their lives, which were few, I knew. But they seemed protected in some way.
I was not protected in that way, not by a man. All of my life, the women—Mama, Big Mama, Dusa to a certain extent, Mrs. Wyrick, and the project divas over on Omega Street—were the soldiers and protectors, their love fierce, abiding, mean sometimes but steadfast always. The men were holograms. Many of the other boys around my way weren't protected by men, either.
But unlike me, they found, or at least seemed to find, validation in each other—and in their music.
In the early nineties, they found on MTV and BET what they assumed a man was supposed to be: insensitive, menacing, and brooding in oversized clothes. Like the Mary J. Blige disciples, they were afraid, too—of being misunderstood and unloved. And given the gang violence erupting throughout Little Rock, especially in the eastern part of the city where poor blacks had long been concentrated, they were also afraid of the very real possibility of being gunned down.
So as the laconic rhymes of Snoop Dogg flowed over the funk-fortified beats of Dr. Dre, the boys found an altar at which to pray—a music bristling with stories of justified gun violence, glorified tales of divide-and-conquer in the streets, exaggerated and juvenile sexual exploits of the warrior girls around the way who, like them, were in desperate need of a hug.
NWA, Too $hort, Tupac, Biggie Smalls—they all embodied a manhood that didn't necessarily empower or rebuild. If anything, it did the opposite and encouraged in the boys around the way a sense of entitlement that mirrored what I saw in the arrogant preppy white boys who stared at me in TAG classes and the poor disaffected white boys who hung in packs.
Entitled to what, though?
Like the so-called white heroes of American history, the gangsta rappers extolled taking from those whom they deemed weak: I got mine. Fuck you. What you got ain't shit. You ain't shit. For me to stand tall, you, sucka MC, got to live on your knees. I figured that was what Daddy called "blackfaced white supremacy," something I once heard him say during a beer-fueled conversation with one of his running buddies.
Man, black folks don't know shit 'bout themselves
Aw, Raymond, don't go talkin' all that black is where it's at
Black is always where it's at. Niggas done forgot that shit, don't
Man . . .
Look at how these youngbloods go 'round with no pride in themselves,
busy tryin' to be like the white man. White man's water
is wetter; white man's fi re is hotter. Let a white man say, "Jump,
nigga!" Nigga be like, "How high deah, boss?"
Raymond, man, you a trip.
Blackfaced white supremacy.
Black what, muthafucka?
Blackfaced white supremacy—when a nigga do the white man's
work and destroy his own people by any means necessary.
We got Malcolm X over here.
You know I'm tellin' the truth, man.
Shut the fuck up and pass me another beer out that cooler.
There were messages in hip-hop that pushed for uplift, extensions of the "we shall overcome" outlook in the O'Jays, Curtis Mayfield, and Staple Singers records Daddy had. Keep ya head, Tupac said. Public Enemy rapped about the fear of a black planet, but mostly it was rebellious white boys who bought those cassettes.
Hiding behind their invisible armor, the black boys and girls up and down the block subscribed to the pain and malice in the hardcore urban sounds of Mary J. and gangsta rap, music that illuminated the darkness they knew so well.
As for me, I still preferred a more ingratiating place, shepherded by a voice steeped in wisdom and experience, nurtured by a sound born out of the visceral emotionality of sanctified church singing.
And there were the warm spaces in the music I loved the most, openings through which I could enter and lay my burdens down. There, behind the groove and riding on the melody, I was complete and free.
I could be vulnerable because the men were.
Shamelessly, Marvin Gaye pleaded for his distant lover to come back home, all while remaining regal. Al Green could moan and squeal about the glory of love with his manhood and pride intact. Like jagged blades cutting through the speakers, the primal wails of James Brown and Bobby Womack lacerated the soul and splayed it open. But as the song faded to a close, something inside had been affirmed and, at last, had started to heal.
To fully engage hip-hop, I felt I needed to be a member of an exclusive club, and I'd never belong. I understood the nuances of the music, its angst and its drive, but inside of it I felt neither welcomed nor authenticated.
Excerpted from Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.