Black hands, white sounds: Bruce Hornsby's cultural exchange
I’ve loved Bruce Hornsby ever since I first heard “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” in the background of a Lowes commercial when I was 10. The main piano riff plays while children run amok in the paint aisle of a Lowes store, scribbling on walls, stroking a display of paintbrushes and huffing open vats of paint. The commercial itself was pretty unremarkable; however, the song was absolutely haunting. Though at the time I didn’t even know the name of the song, the melody stuck in my mind like an earworm.
One day I asked my father, “Dad, do you know the name of the song that goes ‘do do do, do do do, do do?’” Miraculously, he knew exactly what I was talking about. From out of his black leather-bound CD storage binder (which in my eyes was the Ark of the Covenant) he pulled a bright red cassette disk with the words “Halcyon Days” emblazoned across the front in big, pink bubble-letters and told me that the song I was looking for was the opening track. Delighted, I took the disc and disappeared into my room with my Walkman.
That’s the first time that I ever sat down and actively listened to an album from start to finish. The entire thing was completely arresting. Hornsby sang with the lyrical honesty and imagery of Townes Van Zandt and played the piano like his hands were on fire. His songs moved with a rhythm that was familiar yet felt fresh and original. Beyond all of that, however, there was still something that I found indescribable about the sound. I was drawn to it for reasons that I did not understand.
Eventually I came to realize what was special about Hornsby’s music. It seemed to lay somewhere in between the music I was exposed to by my father–The Gap Band, Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass–and my mother’s Van Morrison, Celtic Thunder, and Fleetwood Mac. Hornsby’s music displays a lot of characteristics of black music; the syncopated rhythms, cross-beats and jazzy chords that fill “Halcyon Days” seem like they’d be more at home on a Duke Ellington record than peppered throughout this collection of Randy Newman-esque Americana tunes. That is not to say that “Halcyon Days” is “black music,”—in fact, I once played it for one of my roommates and he responded with “cut that gluten-free, vanilla Wonder bread-flavored mayonnaise shit out.” So even though Hornsby’s music is not “black music” per se, it does benefit from its interpolation of black musical aesthetics. I’m not the first person to notice this: Hornsby’s sound has been dubbed “the Virginia Sound” and has been lauded for its fusion of jazz with the stereotypically white musical traditions of country and bluegrass.
One might argue that this constitutes an act of appropriation. In my time at Bowdoin, I’ve seen how the notion of cultural appropriation has entered into and become a dominant theme in racial discourses on campus. I had never heard the term “cultural appropriation” until the infamous “Cracksgiving” debacle of 2014, but after the “tequila” party happened last year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student on campus who didn’t have a strong opinion on the subject. Sadly, those strong opinions caused the conflation in many students’ minds of the ideas of cultural appropriation and exchange. As I have come to understand it, appropriation comes from a place of exploitation, whereas exchange come from a place of appreciation. Moreover, appropriation happens from the top down—one culture clearly dominates the other—whereas an instance of exchange leaves room for ideas to travel back and forth.
I’d argue that the incorporation of black music aesthetics into Hornsby’s sound is an example of cultural exchange. Though Hornsby uses the conventions of black music, he does not exploit black culture in doing so. In fact, he made it a point to address systemic racism in what is undoubtedly his most famous song, “The Way it Is.” Shortly after that song was released, 2pac sampled it to make “Changes,” E-40 used it to make “Things’ll Never Change,” and Mase used it on “Same Niggas.” This kind of back-and-forth is exemplary of cultural exchange.
As a young biracial child, I’m sure that this exchange comforted me on an unconscious level. Growing up, sometimes I felt like I was mixed with water and oil. Hearing music that borrowed from the sonic traditions of both of my heritages proved to me that a harmonious marriage of blackness and whiteness was possible.
Black keys, black music: notes on cultural heritage and sound
One of my first memories of making music involved me sitting on my grandmother’s lap in front of her drawbar organ when I was about five years old. Whenever I’d visit her, I would stand in her living room, basking in the glow of the light reflected off the varnished and oiled wood panels of the majestic Hammond M3. When I was feeling bold, I would sit at the bench and play with the pearlescent switches, keys and knobs, unsure as to what I was controlling but engrossed in the fantasy that I was making music.
Eventually, the day came that my grandmommy sat down with me at the bench. The first thing she showed me was how to make a C-major scale out of the white keys. That was simple enough, and once I could do that, she went on to show me how to “make it good and bluesy.” She pointed out which black keys I could “tickle” in order to change the aesthetic character of the music to something more soulful.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this exchange represented the passing down of a diasporic cultural tradition from one generation to another. When Africans were first brought to the Americas as slaves, they brought with them a rich and nuanced musical tradition. This tradition included musical concepts and approaches to music making that hitherto had not been explored in Western music. Among these are the idea of call-and-response, the use of syncopated rhythms, an emphasis on lyrical and musical improvisation and the extensive employment of blue notes. In showing me which black keys to tickle whilst playing in C major, my grandmother was in fact teaching me how to incorporate blue notes into my music making, thereby passing down an important tradition that goes all the way back to Africa.
Throughout the history of American culture, black music has acted as the vessel in which certain facets of African culture and artistic expression have been retained. Rather than letting their cultural identity be erased by the institution of chattel slavery, the Africans who were forced to come to America preserved their cultural identity through song and dance. Eventually, these Africanisms found their way into the mainstream musical consciousness and became jazz, gospel, blues, rock and hip-hop. These Africanisms were central to the development of nearly every kind of American music genre.
For example, rock ‘n’ roll music (and all its derivative genres) is based heavily off of blues music. Blues music, in turn, is characterized by its emphasis on the use of blue notes. The blues scale (a minor pentatonic scale with the addition of a blue note in the form of a diminished fifth) is foundational to rock music, and without the blue note, it does not exist.
Similarly, Africanisms can been found at the core of contemporary innovations in music. The presence of a hype man in the background of a hip-hop track (à la Waka Flocka Flame shouting “Brick Squad” or making gun noises in the background of all of his songs) is a fairly recent development. This is a great example of call-and-response, where the claim of the artist acts a call, and the affirmation and echoing of the sentiment by the hype man acts as the response. Moreover, the now-famous and much-lauded “Migos flow” is another contemporary innovation rooted in Africanisms. The group’s style is unique in that it is based around cross-rhythm (another Africanism)—lyrics are delivered in bursts of eighth-note triplets over beats that are generally in duple meter.
My grandmother has been dead for about 10 years now, and that beautiful Hammond M3 that I had hoped to inherit was eventually repossessed by the bank. However, the impact my grandmother made on me at that keyboard was profound and has stayed with me ever since. She introduced me to a musical tradition that stretches back hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
To the Crossroads: The Beatles vs. Migos and the triumph of trap
Though I’ve never really paid much mind to the hype and buzz surrounding the award show season, this year something happened at the Golden Globes that drew my attention. While accepting an award for his show “Atlanta,” Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, gave a shout out to the trap group Migos. In a later interview, Glover continued to praise Migos, touting the band as “the Beatles of this generation.”
Reactions to this comparison have been varied, ranging from my mother’s “who are the amigos?” to my falling out of my chair crying in a giddy fit of assenting laughter. The comparison confused a lot of people, and rightly so—the Beatles are rock and roll legends, remembered as the progenitors and patron saints of pop music by pretty much every suburban parent in the world. Migos, on the other hand, has only been relevant for about four years. Regardless, this isn’t the first time the comparison has been made. Back in 2014, Complex Magazine ran an article on its website documenting the memeification of the claim that Migos is better than the Beatles. It seems like ever since Migos erupted onto the scene with “Versace,” people have been (with varying degrees of sincerity) comparing the hip-hop trio to the Beatles.
However, up until this point, nobody with the musical clout of Grammy-nominated musician and famed George Clinton impersonator Donald Glover had ever publicly made the comparison in earnest. Gambino’s endorsement gave credence to what had previously been a tongue-in-cheek Twitter meme. Therefore, I think it deserves some serious discussion.
Comparing the groups based on their musical prowess is tricky, since members of Migos are not, strictly speaking, musicians. Whereas the Beatles performed and recorded with live instruments, Migos’ tracks are primarily composed of electronically produced eight-bar loops. Instead of judging the music on its technical merits, I would suggest a comparison rooted in the phenomenological experience of each artist. What is important is not the theoretical proficiency or instrumental virtuosity of the artist, but the subjective, emotional response of the listener. I don’t know about you, but personally, I get more goosebumps during “Bad and Boujee” than I do during the entire “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. So, Migos: 1, Beatles: 0
Moreover, although neither group is exceptionally innovative musically—the Beatles’ rock was derivative (an opinion shared by the musicologists at Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London) and Migos has yet to revolutionize the trap scene—each group has had a profound impact on popular culture. The Beatles’ influence is fairly evident in the fact that people still foam at the mouth over their music. They have five feature-length films, dozens of albums and members that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame multiple times. Their clout is almost unquestionable; but that being said, it came over the course of decades. For a group as new as it is, Migos wields a considerable amount of influence. The group has spawned a multitude of internet memes, created the infamous “dab” and has been at least partially responsible for the proliferation of trap music in American culture. What’s more impressive is that Migos did it, for the most part, without the support of a record label. Migos: 2, Beatles: 0
This is the aspect of Migos’ fame that I find the most admirable. The majority of the group’s music has been released independently. The trio has had one major label release, with another upcoming, but a lot of its most popular music, i.e. “Versace,” “Fight Night,” “Handsome and Wealthy,” “Look At My Dab,” etc., has been released on mixtapes. It is common for artists in the Atlanta-based trap scene to operate in this fashion, so what I’m about to say about Migos also applies to many of its peers. When I look at Migos, I don’t see just another hip-hop outfit rapping about guns, drugs and the mistreatment of women. What I see is the re-appropriation and commodification of black body politics. Hip-hop record executives—the overwhelming majority of them rich, white men—have profited for decades off the commodification of black stereotypes, selling stories of life in the ghetto to kids in the suburb. Migos sidestepped the middlemen, making its paper selling hood dreams directly to those same suburban kids while still staying relevant in the streets. The Beatles don’t have shit on that. Migos: 3, Beatles: 0