According to ancient Hindu mythology, whenever the world lost its way, Vishnu, the God of Preservation, would incarnate as an avatar to save the planet. There seems to be a similar archetype occurring in American popular music too.
In an interview for Esquire in September 2014, Gene Simmons, bass player for the Rock band KISS stated that “Rock is finally dead“. His point is muddled though, in the ramblings of an out-of-touch curmudgeon. He blames those entitled Obama-era takers who want their music for free on the Interwebs, rather than his own legacy of conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence. But in the end he may be right: the same thing that is killing Hip-Hop today has left a trail of corpses behind. Take faith, stalwarts of popular music—there will always be an avatar born to save popular music from the corruption of adharma. Moreover, don’t bother looking to the dominant culture for our savior (despite what many may say about Eminem.) Instead, look to African-American culture to save us… again.
The first avatar was Louis Armstrong, providing perhaps the single-most profound influence in forming modern American Pop music. It’s kind of hard for us today to see some of the power and influence Louis Armstrong had back in the early days of Jazz. Perhaps that’s because we only remember the caricatures of him (his googly eyes and gravely voice all over that treacly “Wonderful World”), but in the Nineteen-Twenties, Armstrong was the man to beat. Everyone with a trumpet would challenge his supremacy, and every time they were beaten down by this master. Jazz may have become a classical form under the weight of other greats like Duke Ellington, but it became the heartbeat of the American popular form, recognized the world over. As Tony Bennet said, “Louis is really the tradition, we haven’t caught up to it yet. He created our colloquialism. Every musician that I know of worth in popular music or jazz music is stung by Louis Armstrong.”
If it hadn’t been for his mastery of his instrument, there’d be no Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. If it hadn’t been for his charisma, there’d be no Little Richard of Michael Jackson. And if it hadn’t been for his fierce pride in his skin color, there’d certainly be no tolerance for James Brown or even Gil Scott Heron. American music still has a way to go in order to recapture the purity and power of Louis Armstrong.
Perhaps our generation can understand Armstrong’s phenomenal influence by looking to our own avatar: Jimi Hendrix. Rock ‘n Roll was at the height of its power, fueled mainly by the influx of British musicians. Even so Eric Clapton, one of the heavyweights of Rock’s golden age, had to admit “it was all watered-down Soul music.” Jimi Hendrix changed that overnight, ironically by going to England to make a name for himself. While there, he managed to scare the living shit out of London’s Rock elite. At a January 1967 show, Rolling Stones frontman Brian Jones reported, “It’s all wet down in the front… from all the guitar players crying.”
It’s too bad that Rock ‘n Roll couldn’t save Hendrix, though. In the end, he fell victim to the demons that haunt Pop music. Recently, there’s even been talk that he had been murdered. Still his mythology lives on. He brought Blues Rock back to its American roots, and he freed up Black music from the highly choreographed, overly structured showmanship that led to Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic.
Now the Hip-Hop world sure is in a sad state—just when it’s needed the most. Somehow The Message has degenerated into this nasty-ass crap. Hip-Hop artists are billionaires, feeding us bullshit and calling it caviar… And we shovel it in by the spoonful. Couldn’t we all use a simpler fare?
Sure looks like the Eve of Destruction. Stateless fanatic are running rampant over the Middle East. Africa is inflamed in epidemic. Global warming has passed its tipping point. So where can we turn for true, honest, authentic succor?
In my opinion, the music of Dom Flemons is the simple answer. He practices “Sankofa”: going back to the past, fetching it, and bringing it back to the future. Flemons illustrated Sankofa with an incredibly considered analysis of the song in the video above, “Can You Blame the Colored Man…” He concludes that “ Not all of this country’s civil rights problems have been fixed“. So can the thug culture be blamed for the way young black men are being treated today? I am beginning to believe that Hip-Hop is no longer capable of answering that question.
Like the country mouse in Aesop’s fable, perhaps now is a time to return to our roots, not as a retreat but as a retrenchment to our strongest values (Sankofa). Might sound a little like what Arrested Development espoused in the Nineties, but actually Flemons’s early collaborators, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, have taken to heart.
Sometimes you don’t have to go that far back:
But enough profundity, here is some wicked skill—Dom Flemons as masterful on the banjo as Satchno was on the trumpet and Hendrix was on that Strat:
…and the harmonica…
We’ll skip the guitar, bones and quills for you to discover. Suffice it to conclude that like the avatars before him, Flemons music reaffirms the value of African-American tradition in American—and by extension, the world’s—culture. It doesn’t need electric power, two turntables and a microphone, or a giant stadium with laser lights and security gates to reach your soul—it just needs a little more room to dance. His music is timeless and honest, smart and fun, universal and yet far from simple. He is just what American music needs more than anything right now.