Stagolee vs. the Proper Negro: Eddie Murphy, Wynton Marsalis & Prince
September 11, 1984
Okay, so like a few years back the brother here is sitting in on one of those conferences on the state of the race muh peebles likes to convene — the topic at hand is Black Images in the Media. Now you got one platoon of splibs advocating that we lobby, picket, and boycott Hollywood until the cows come home for positive black images. On the other side, the more revolutionary brothers and sisters are proclaiming the need for an independent black film industry. In the midst of this charged dialogue one of my more apocalyptic walkpartners jumps up and pronounces that any people who don’t exist in the mass media in the 20th century will soon cease to exist and that given our current media coverage we’re close to the edge of extinction.
Certainly it seemed a few years ago that the millennium was at hand. When this brouhaha took place such sterling ethnic role models as Jimmie Walker’s “J.J.,” Antonio Vargas’s “Huggy Bear,” and Garrett Morris’s closet full of drag queens were weekly uplifting the people’s spirits and making D.W. Griffith chortle in his grave. Lately, though, it’s come to seem that salvation, rather than the judgment day, is at hand. Because right now black America’s got more crossover acts happening than it’s had since the ’60s, and the funny thing is they’re all taking Babylon by storm in an era noticeably absent of agitation from the streets. I’m talking about the Jacksons (Michael and Jesse), Ray Parker Jr., Vanessa Williams, Grace Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Toni Morrison, Tina Turner, Edwin Moses, Alice Walker, Jennifer Beals, Carl Lewis, Eddie Murphy, Wynton Marsalis, Prince.
Now this phenomenon begs the question whether good old redneck racist America has gone so color-blind that we people who are darker than blue (well, the spectrum begins at off-white) are now judged solely by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. I mean, glory be, has Massa granted us equality without us eben knowing it? That, lo and behold, we’re now fully assimilated citizens of the republic — given so many starlit woogies showboating all over the Grammies, the Democratic National Convention, MTV, Penthouse, Nightline, and the Hollyweird screen? Well, let’s not get too full of ourselves here — much as we love our symbolic victories y’all. Because what puts the lie to such emancipation proclamations is that all the aforementioned are yer super-blacks, Biggers so baad thay can’t help but outshine (no pun intended much) the honkie competition. Which is to say, we really ain’t come much further than those days when a black man had to have a PhD to get a job in the Post Office. (Leading me to say that equality will arrive the day brothers and sisters can get over by being as mediocre as their white counterparts.)
Nevertheless, what is fascinating to contemplate about three of these Negro leaders — Eddie Murphy, Wynton Marsalis, and Prince — is their Stagolee (read: “Bad Nigguh”) dimension, the degree to which they seem to be in manly control of their respective images. (Yes, Virginia, Grace Jones probably does deserve an invite to this black macho weenie-roast, but let’s stand firm here for the much abused African-American male.) First fascinating thang to note about this triumvirate is their immediate antecedents — respectively Richard Pryor, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix. Second is how they’ve managed, unlike their forefathers, to make it in the mainstream without compromising their edge.
What this means is that we probably won’t ever have to suffer through Eddie playing second fiddle to Gene Wilder’s Al Jolson or kowtowing before that ultimate white man, Christopher Reeve; nor hear Wynton fake the funk with a band that’s just hunky-dory; nor find Prince facing a life-and-death decision to appeal to either mixed or exclusively white audiences. This isn’t to suggest the three are the artistic equals of their progenitors but to point up how little the heirs to the throne have had to play politics, unless we’re talking the politics of Negro subversion. Because in a way the success of the treacherous three derives from how they’ve managed to merge their Stagolee sides with their Proper Negro profiles.
Shee, in Eddie’s case, there’s even Stepin Fetchit aspects. If I recall correctly, he did his first bit on SNL as a bedpan orderly and front there diversified with a gamut of African-American archetypes ranging from Buckwheat to his black Muslim film critic who enjoyed splatter films because they depicted the wholesale slaughter of white people. Sometimes the boy ran numbers so slick couldn’t nobody, black or white, figure whose side he was on — there was his Marley takeoff, “Kill the White People (But Buy My Records First),” and his even deadlier lampoon of Jesse performing a doowop version of “Good Old Hymietown.”
Equally befuddling have been some of Wynton’s interviews, where in one breath he’ll assail black people being denied their culture and in the next breath crack that black musicians who wear African garb don’t know nothing about Africa ($800 Eye-tal-yun suits being a more ethnically correct cut of cloth, I guess). Then there was the time the boy called Miles Davis, fer chrissakes, an Uncle Tom for saying in Ebony that he liked Journey and Styx more than contemporary jazz — like can’t this hothead show any more respect than that for those getting on in their years? And while you have to applaud the balls behind his acceptance speech at this year’s Grammies and his band’s performance on that freakshow, you know it’s his ability to play that classical shit which gives him so-called legitimacy.
And then there’s Prince, who includes on the same album one song made-to-order for Apartheid-Oriented-Radio (“Little Red Corvette”) and another that snidely instructs all the white people how to clap on the beat (“D.M.S.R.”) — schooling by the way which puts the lie to the opinion that Prince doesn’t know on what side of the color line he’s down by law. Stagolee as the Proper Negro, see?
How slick a hustle these brothers have pulled in mainstreaming their models for middle-American consumption can be seen in Eddie’s having made Richard’s crazy nigguh telegenic, Wynton’s having gotten over reprising the Miles of Nefertiti (and not the Miles of Star People), and Prince’s having marketed himself into a position of artistic control comparable to the Hendrix of Electric Ladyland (and not the Hendrix forced to disband Band of Gypsies and hook the Experience up to an artificial respirator).
All of which is cool until you realize what’s won America’s heart isn’t the designer original but the reasonable facsimile — not crazed black genius but black subterfuge. Let’s face it, Eddie’s James Brown may make your sides split, but Richard’s Wino and the Junkie throw your ass into some convulsions that ain’t even about jest fer fun. And while Prince leaves you blinking trying to figure out how he got so much style, music, and sexuality together in Minnefunkin’sota, Jimi’s visceral and visionary embrace made you wonder what quasar he was picking his signals up from. As for Wynton and Miles — well, not to backhand the brother, but that comparison ain’t even a conversation, let alone a quip.
On the other hand, you can say depths of soul and innovation be damned, man. Eddie, Wynton, and Prince is what’s happening now. And you’ll get no argument from me on that score: Eddie is the funniest muthafunka on the scene; Wynton the best news in jazz trumpet since Eddie Henderson; Prince the killer act in rock and roll right now (matter of fact, those of y’all going gaga behind Purple Rain and never seen the boy live ain’t seen shit).
To the younguns’ credit, you can also say that none of them seem likely to fall prey to their models’ flair for substance abuse or self-destruction. And maybe this is because they’re all careerists rather than demigods. The degree to which you can say Jimi’s, Richard’s, and Miles’s arts were fueled by exorcising personal demons is the degree to which you can say their work was always being renewed by unavoidable self-confrontation. Like the blues men of old, Jimi, Richard, and Miles have all spoken of their muses as demanding dominatrixes. But what our young turks lead you to wonder is not whether mere talent can stand up to driven genius, but whether their talent lies in making sociocultural breakthroughs equal to the aesthetic ones of their mentors.
Murphy, whose gifts for cutting mimicry are matched by his impish charm, has already proven himself capable of parodying white psyches in a less threatening way than Pryor. And, as a result, he’s more race-leveling. Simply because he’s a member of the suburban television generation he’s come to assimilate so much more Americana than any other black comic. Witness his Honeymooner or Gumby bits or his takeoff on Mr. Rogers. All of which make you realize that unlike black film actors of the past, Eddie has the opportunity to mold roles that don’t deny his African-American complexity in favor of the bleached black everyman gliberal directors would have you believe accords blacks equality. (Man, talk about yer condescending attitudes.)
Likewise Marsalis. For all the cracks his tres-piece dress code will draw from a bohemian slob like me, he’s still the hippest PR man jazz has had since Miles (who took up the Louis and Dizzy tradition of trumpeters being the music’s ambassadors). Through his erudite presence, he’s already begun to make jazz and jazzfolk intellectually stirring and glamorous to young black people again, especially the sisters. You also have to applaud Marsalis for basing his musical conception around Miles Davis’s and Wayne Shorter’s composing, arranging, and bandleading of the ’60s. And though I don’t share the blood’s disdain for either fusion or the black avant-garde, I respond positively to his daring in picking up from where Shorter and Davis left off.
On the flipside, what you worry about with Murphy is whether he’ll continue to choose or accept vehicles that only scrape the Stagolee surface of his comedic abilities, à la 48 Hours and Trading Places. With Marsalis, you fret that after trading off a spate of classical and quartet dates, Columbia will make the same mistake with him that Prestige made with McCoy Tyner and try to maintain sales with a dozen or so quixotic superstar sessions, or concept albums. (There’s already talk of a ballad date and a Gil Evans collaboration, and you can bet a trumpet summit is going to be convened.) But what in the long run would probably prove a more challenging and progressive tack would be for Marsalis to pick up on David Murray’s lead and explore the small orchestra format. Here, he could merge his Waynish sensibilities with the orchestral techniques of Morton, Ellington, Monk, Fuller, Dameron, Mingus, Russell, Dolphy, and Hancock. This kind of setting could give him a forum for bringing other young mainstream players to the fore and also widen the range of colors his trumpet could play off.
As far as Prince goes, any concern you had about his survival in the marketplace has become moot now. With Purple Rain (the movie and the album), he’s established himself as the most cunning black producer since Berry Gordy in plotting a course of conquest over American pop apartheid. Let me eat some crow here: heretofore I’d always considered him nothing but a bodysnatcher, fashioning himself a monster from the brain of the dead (Jimi) and the bones of the defunkt (Sly, J.B., and Dr. Funkenstein). But Purple Rain won me over by making good on my prophecy after “Beat It” that black rock was coming back with a vengeance. Although Michael may have kicked the door in, Prince done stormed the white castle and come back handing the brothers and sisters the keys to the rock-and-roll kingdom (or, to paraphrase Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, he came, he saw, he kicked ass).
And don’t be fooled by the scandal sheets out to turn Michael and Prince into the Romulus and Remus of American pop. Because naw, buddy, what’s happening with these two is akin to, say, Jesse and Farrakhan. You got one playing the Proper Negro to the other’s Stagolee, one making off with the kids like Peter Pan, with elfin charm and fairy dust, and the other sucking ’em up into his trip, like the Pied Piper when he blew into his magic flute. The question is whether the industry will provide equal opportunity to all the other black rockers rising en masse to the battle cries of Thriller and of Purple Rain — thereby ensuring that MTV will soon look like New York Hot Tracks. Or whether it’ll merely update Daddy Jim Rice and Colonel Tom Parker and attempt once again to clone the funk. (I for one wish them luck, because if they can brew up a caucasoid replicant who can write, sing, dance, style, profile, and rock the microphone as viscerally as Sensitive Mike and His Royal Badness, won’t nobody be able to say white man just got a God complex.)
Although you can already hear the influence of 1999 on this year’s records, from Cheryl Lynn, Shalamar, and the Pointer Sisters to Billy Idol and Van Halen, that spectrum will widen behind the success of Purple Rain. No album since Funkadelic’s Let’s Take It to the Stage has so amorously bedded down black and white pop. As much as that record is a coup d’etat, it’s also Prince’s homage to his roots in black and white rock of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It’s the record Prince has been wanting to make all along, since the music sounds like the kind of mulatto variation he probably was piecing together and performing in Minnesota before he got his deal. The record’s diversity proves that Prince is a consummate pop chameleon capable of composing a song in any pop idiom you’d care to name. Visually of course he’s already proven himself a quick change artist on par with Malcolm McLaren and David Bowie. (Up at the Warners publicity offices there’s a series of stills taken from 1979 to the present, and the kid sports a new bouffant in each one.) But until this album, I didn’t know how wide his sources were: ranging from Hendrix to Run-DMC (“When Doves Cry”), Marvin Gaye to Joni Mitchell (“The Beautiful Ones”), Bee Gees to Weather Report (”Take Me with U”), Funkadelic to Mahavishnu (“Computer Blue”), Henry Miller to Led Zeppelin (“Darling Nikki”), James Cleveland to Sly Stone (”Baby I’m a Star”), Willie Nelson to Pink Floyd to Keith Jarrett (“Purple Rain”), Reverend Ike to the Yardbirds (“Lets Go Crazy”). Granted it’s hit or miss all the way, but the hip thang is that the LP’s airplay on urban contemporary and AOR playlists will give black popsters more legroom to stretch out in. At least in my naive expectations, we’re at the dawning of the age of Radio Utopia.
Like the album, Purple Rain the movie rises above, rather than drowns in, its own pretensions. Take the scene in which Prince finds his father at the piano, which evokes something tragic about the frightful gaps in communication that can go on for years between black father and son. Or take the scene in which Prince whimpers when Apollonia mocks his body; there you get the Napoleonic vulnerability behind his kinky stud moves. Also to the film’s credit are Morris Day and Jerome Benton’s black vaudeville routines on and off stage, which make you wonder how so much cold-blooded coon bidness could be going on out in the snowy white heartland. For all this, though, Purple Rain ain’t hardly the millennium when it comes to black images on the Hollywood screen; it is certainly truer to the humanity and milieu of its black principals, looney-tunish as they may seem, than I’ve come to expect outside of independent black cinema. And for giving us that much and for securing the black rock revival — hell, for possibly clearing the way for black crossover acts in the future — I for one am willing to forgive Reverend Roger Nelson for wanting to have his apocalypse now and eat it too. Noblesse oblige that puts me in mind of some 17-year-old Hendrix lines: “I know I’ve got to die when it’s time for me to die/So let me live my life the way I want to/Sing on, brother/Play on, drummer.”