In Search of Soul

The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s BY Emily J. Lordi. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 232 pages. $25.
Emily J. Lordi

Emily J. Lordi’s new book, The Meaning of Soul, is her third, and it continues her larger project of examining how the work of Black vocalists embodies Black music in both historical and practical forms. She’s written extensively on Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin, who appear here alongside Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Minnie Ripperton, and a half dozen other artists. Over the summer, I talked about the book several times with Lordi, who works as a freelance writer and an English professor at Vanderbilt University. Those conversations have been combined, condensed, and edited for clarity.

How did the book come about?

It grew most directly out of a paper I gave in 2012, which was called “What Is the Soul in Post-Soul?” I was kind of hating most contemporary scholarly discussions of post-soul, which is obvious if you read the book. But there’s a tendency within the field of African American studies—maybe Black literary studies in particular—to celebrate this moment of post-civil-rights Black cultural production, to suggest that suddenly now Black artists can address intraracial differences like sexuality and class and gender—all these potentially divisive elements that people often assume were muted during the earlier Black nationalist period, with its calls for unity. So now Colson Whitehead can write about upper-class Black people and Danzy Senna can write about mixed-race African Americans and so on. But the idea that you would call that phenomenon “post-soul” suggests that soul itself was about uniformity and conformity. And I don’t think that was true. That is a narrative that results from conflating soul with the worst impulses of the Black Power movement—with the most limiting, heterosexist versions of Black nationalism available. Those limitations were real, and Black feminists, in particular, were critiquing them at the time, and have critiqued them since. But my point is that, before we map those impulses onto something called soul, we need to revisit the question of what soul actually is. It’s easy to hold it up as a straw man when nobody’s asking, “What were people getting at when they invoked this concept? What is its actual substance?”

It’s interesting to think about the stylistic variant uptown soul, which is kind of like a finishing school version of a more dramatic, gospel-driven style of soul. You could draw a distinction like that. But you would also have to contend with somebody like Ellis Haizlip, who had this TV show called Soul! in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He was an openly gay man and very elegant, and he was representing soul—he was not an outsider to it. He’s not “soul but different,” right? He’s bringing all kinds of people together on his show, and he defines soul itself as being this leveling force. He says, “Everybody can have soul”—that is, all Black people can have it. It doesn’t matter if you’re poor or bougie or straight or gay or whatever. You can all claim to have soul based on the historical and ongoing experience of white supremacy, which has resulted in an extraordinary capacity for group resilience. So the belief in soul was a belief in people’s capacity to overcome, and that overcoming was often framed in terms of racial antagonism—but it was also, I wanted to say, about the intimate, interpersonal issues that people encountered in their everyday lives. Things that weren’t necessarily defined by oppression or the white gaze. That is the point of my chapter on soul cover versions, to show all the different things that it could mean to overcome.

Maybe when people say “post-soul,” it’s a fancy way of saying “Now is now and then was then.” Maybe the nature of chronology also leads people to expect progress to be constant, and to also project a teleology of progress onto any timeline. I think about progress, or the illusion of it, when I listen to album like Curtis/Live!, which is an immaculate recording of precise and dynamic playing. It seems that the commitment to technical excellence was no less intense in 1971, possibly more so.

Yes, in some cases we can use post-soul as a neutral historical marker, like thinking about it in terms of the moment when Billboard renames what had been its “Soul” chart the “Black Singles and Albums” chart, in 1982. It’s the teleological narrative attached to that transition that I take issue with. I think that instantiates generational divisions that are not necessarily there, or that don’t need to be there. For instance, I think that the commitment to technical excellence is one throughline from soul to post-soul. It occurred to me when I was writing about Nina Simone—who was very vocal about her own quest for expressive excellence, and her practicing regimen, for instance—that her virtuosity isn’t something that separated her from the community. This was Nina Simone on her hustle, like everyone else. Her particular form of striving was through music. But I think that lots of people saw themselves in her. It wasn’t like, “Whoa, she’s such a genius, we can’t even relate.” I think it was, on the contrary, something like, “We’re all working that hard to make something beautiful of this moment and of our lives and this is what it looks like for her.” That’s a particular cultural lens that I would apply to that moment.

Why do you think that is?

I’m not sure, but I think the current cultural moment encourages more suspicion of the very idea of collectivity—I mean, this is the reason why soul gets rescripted as this repressive formation in the first place. And it has everything to do with the failure of the state to take care of people, which produces an atomization that affects everybody. We are in the midst of a post-civil-rights, post-revolutionary, post-welfare state moment. I think that’s beginning to change, due to Black Lives Matter and other activists efforts. But that’s where the US has been since the 1970s. For that reason, I think it has become harder to see somebody else’s striving or somebody else’s achievement as relevant to one’s own—for somebody to see a star like Beyoncé as offering an actual path out of an impossible economic situation. I mean, clearly people identify with her in some ways, and with her music. But that level of superstardom is fundamentally inaccessible. I always think about Kendrick Lamar. There’s the moment in “Black Boy Fly” where he says he wasn’t “jealous” of the older kids who made it out of the neighborhood—he was “terrified they’d be the last Black boys to fly out of Compton.” There is a logic of scarcity that says, “There is no way that, if you manage to get out of this situation, I can do so, too.” It can feel like a game of numbers. And the numbers game was a little bit different in the soul era. At least, to read the Black press of that moment is to get the sense that the success of an Aretha did mean something, did signify a sense of broader Black possibility, whether in material or existential or spiritual terms. Her success meant something to the people as a people. Which was its own kind of weight for her to bear. But in some way, this speaks to the relative equanimity between the stars who had made it and the everyday people who hadn’t. I mean, I think of Gladys Knight & the Pips, who were still touring constantly at the peak of their commercial success. Why were they on the road all the time? Maybe because they loved it, OK, but also because they had to be—and that made them more like everyday people than the unbelievably wealthy moguls of this moment.

This notion of who a performer is to their audience makes me think of Nina Simone’s cover of “Feelings” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978. It is an amazing example of the performer being twenty times smarter than her audience. She’s murdering this song, she’s insulting the song, she’s kicking it, she’s absolutely shitting on this song. And then she’s doing her Rachmaninoff styles, reminding you, “Hey, I can play and write and sing this guy into the ground and yet this audience was initially happy that I was playing this goddamned song.” She was delivering a masterclass that nobody in the audience could get their heads around. It’s such a moment to me of laying bare the real stratification between performer and audience. Who knows what they wanted her to sing? Who knows what they thought Nina Simone was at that point? When it was over, if they were listening, what they thought must have been different. This takes me back to 1994, too, when I wrote my first piece, which was a critique of lo-fi culture. My point was that middle-class metal bands and Black musicians did not have the luxury of sounding like they were like shut-ins who couldn’t record properly. The aesthetics of ineptitude are about class—only the rich dress like bums.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’re talking about Black musical excellence not as some natural inheritance but as an actual historical necessity. That having been said, and in part for that reason, I do think there’s something interesting about a certain anti-virtuosic strain in Black performance. This runs alongside more traditional forms of virtuosity. Frank Ocean, for example, comes to mind as someone who I think is a much better songwriter than a singer. Sometimes I think, “You should concentrate on the things you’re really good at! You don’t have to do everything, you know?” But hey, somebody else could say that the lack of polish is the point—that it’s a relief, or that it’s enabling, to hear someone who sounds kind of like everyone else. It’s the same way the model of the garage band was enabling for fledgling musicians. But this is also a structural issue, because, at an earlier moment in the music industry, a Frank Ocean could have just been an excellent songwriter or producer; he wouldn’t have had to be the front man.

You’re on your own there.

I mean, I know people love Frank Ocean but does anyone think his vocals are his strong suit? Is this controversial?! In any case, the point is that some artists are refusing traditional expectations of Black excellence. Like, “We don’t have to always be excellent. We’re tired of having to be ‘twice as good.’ We’re just gonna be average, mediocre depressed people, like everybody else.” It’s a sonic aesthetics that refuses conventional notions of Black virtuosity, and that is a choice with its own political salience. I mean, that is the best definition of post-soul I could come up with in the book: if it means anything to my study, as I say, it signals not this valedictory formation but rather a kind of fatigue with the very idea of Black striving as an ongoing ideal. It signals a critique of the unrelenting necessity to keep being so resilient—and that critique is especially resonant in a neoliberal moment when resilience has been coopted and individuated so that it basically just signals each person’s ability or failure to rebound from things one should not be expected to bounce back from, certainly not on their own.

The idea of aesthetics as socially organized response is making me think of this line from your book: “Robin D. G. Kelley, in his 1997 study of Black urbanity, framed soul in a way that informs my own sense of it—not as Black essence but as a ‘discourse’ through which Black Americans reimagined the contours of their community in the late 1960s.”

I mean, any community is fundamentally a fiction, right? At least at a certain massive scale. It’s about how you imagine yourself in relation to other people. And soul was a language that gave people a way of doing that. So it’s the discourse of soul, the way people talked about it, that interests me, as a critic. The question is not so much, Is what people say about soul true? It is, What is consistent about this discussion? What does it seem to be allowing people to do? What is its social utility? And what you find when you ask those questions is that soul discourse wasn’t just telling people who they were. It was showing them how to survive. So for me as a critic—and I should say, as a white critic entering this conversation from a particular vantage point, which is to say, as a scholar of African American culture who has tried to be mindful of my difference from the people I’m writing about, without overstating that difference or, more important, ironing out their differences from each other—I see soul as way of marking Black space, and of saying, “This is a thing that Black people have that other people don’t get to have.” But that doesn’t mean—and this is Kelly’s point and it’s why his argument about soul was crucial to my book—the idea of Black space equates to Black conformity. This is something that binary thinking can make it hard to see. “Well, how can you at once exclude white people and keep Blackness open and undefined?” That is exactly what the language of soul tried to do.

Almost a spiritual question, depending on how you define the spirit and the subject. Although that doesn’t scan in terms of immanence—anybody can practice a language but, then, as you’re saying, not exactly everyone. So there is a spiritual modality in there.

There is a spiritual modality that is about history and discourse—about the way the Black church or a certain historical orientation toward struggle and suffering gets recoded in the discourse of soul. Again, this is not about an actual spiritual essence binding all Black people together—I don’t think of soul in ontological or ahistorical terms. Some other scholars would. But for me, I tried to show how the language of soul and the music called “soul” worked together to foster people’s belief in their own belonging to this extraordinary tradition, to something called a people that would continue to flourish together despite the odds. It is a belief system that becomes especially crucial in the late ’60s for reasons having to do with social revolution, with the freedom movement and its advances and all the challenges, all the backlash, that came with that.

But to your point about spirituality, yes: if I have any regrets about the book, one is that I probably overstate the secular quality of soul. I probably draw too clear a distinction between gospel as the religious form of music that soul comes out of, and soul as its secular counterpart. In the beginning of the book, I say that soul is a product of a moment when religious ideas are—and this is Amiri Baraka who says this, actually—but they are moving out of the sphere of organized religion, out of the churches and into public life, so that you can talk about “religious” ideas like soul but you don’t have to be a Christian in order to do that. In the same way that soul music takes gospel techniques and uses them to talk about sex and romance and things that are not Jesus, so too does soul as a broader cultural discourse for imagining community take certain spiritual ideas about collectivity and transport them into a nonreligious Black public sphere.

But there’s a lot of work still happening within Black churches throughout the ’60s and ’70s that I don’t account for. And the Wattstax film is a good example of that, because we’re moving between the choir at the church and the concert on the stage at the Los Angeles Coliseum and those two spheres are not as separate as I think the book makes them out to be.

The concert was treated both as a threat and a failure in some newspapers at the time, even though there was barely any violence, the security force carried no guns, and the stadium was almost full. The Black church, as a place of organization and solidarity, is an amazing thing.

I’m reminded of something that the legal scholar and cultural critic, Patricia J. Williams, writes. This is a paraphrase, but she says something like, “Two Black people can seem like a threat but three seems like a riot.” It’s in an article from 2008 in which she’s talking about Barack Obama and she is describing the sight of him and Michelle appearing together on Oprah—the threat that posed to some. And she was kind of joking, but she was also deadly serious. I mean, if one Black person jogging through a white neighborhood, not to mention a kid playing in a park or walking home from the store, is treated as a potentially violent threat to white livelihood, then obviously thousands of Black people gathering together in one place—it doesn’t surprise me that people were quick to look for the riotous aspects of that. What surprises me is actually the opposite—that spaces like the Black church have survived as such robust institutions all this time. That they have been able to maintain a kind of sanctity as a refuge and, as you’re saying, as a bastion of political organizing. Despite overwhelming odds, including white fear of the unknown.

You’ve mentioned Amiri Baraka a few times, and his particular historical position makes me think of how other figures are positioned. Only fifty years ago, you’d see James Baldwin on Dick Cavett talking on TV, and the bracketing is helpful. Radical Black thought and liberations struggles are scattered throughout academia and journalism and popular culture. Or is that wrong?

Well, I think of Greg Tate here, as somebody who doesn’t necessarily have a full-time academic gig, someone who is a man of the people, in line with Amiri Baraka—and who can have a band and do a bunch of different things while being embedded in Harlem and the cultural life of the city. He is his own institution. But the need for an institution is strong, the desire for an intellectual home that makes sense. There are other brilliant folks like Scott Poulson-Bryant and Joan Morgan, who have moved from journalism into academia—getting their doctorates and working at universities. I can’t speak to their particular motivations, but those transitions suggest the ways that intellectual energy moves between journalistic and scholarly realms—perhaps all the more so now that both spaces are defined by precarity.

If the institutionalization of Black studies has meant, among other things, that Radical Black thought, as you say, has found a home in the university, there is still the question of whether predominantly white institutions actually behave like homes for Black faculty. (I once saw the poet and scholar Evie Shockley give a talk in which she noted, apropos of university discourse about “diversity and inclusion,” “You don’t have to be welcomed into your own home.”) But so many of the scholars I admire do excellent work within the university, while also refusing to accept the university as the be-all and end-all of their work. They pivot between realms. I am thinking of people like Imani Perry, who is at Princeton; Farah Jasmine Griffin, at Columbia; Salamishah Tillet, at Rutgers; Mark Anthony Neal, at Duke. Then there is a brilliant Black feminist writer like Alexis P. Gumbs, who models the possibility of skirting the university altogether.

If you were going to build out a slightly larger starter pack, what would you put in there? It can be any text, it doesn’t have to be a book, but, yeah, anything that would help build an understanding of soul as a discourse, as an historical route.

Phyl Garland’s The Sound of Soul is an unsung classic, for reasons I outline in the book. But Garland is one of the most rigorous theorists of soul—someone who was in touch with the idea of soul as a historical-cultural formation, while also being invested in the actual people who made soul music, many of whom she profiled in her book. That balance between the conceptual and the material, between the general and the very particular or personal, was a crucial model. Another text that was with me a lot was Amiri Baraka’s book Black Music, specifically the essay called “The Changing Same,” the subtitle of which is “R&B and New Black Music,” originally published in 1966. His idea that change is a constant is the most helpful way I know of understanding Black music as a tradition. There’s also Nikki Giovanni’s review of the Phyl Garland book, which was collected in her incredible memoir, Gemini, which is subtitled An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet. She has a review of The Sound of Soul. But she calls it a “Book Review with a Poetic Insert.” She talks about Garland and takes issue with Garland’s approach, which she sees as reductive and geared toward explaining the music to white people.

She calls whites “insignificant.”

Yes, “insignificant others,” which is, I imagine, a play on “significant other,” but it takes the love, and the importance, right out of it! But what’s interesting about this particular essay or chapter is that Giovanni includes what will later become her “Poem for Aretha” in it—that’s the “poetic insert”—so you get Giovanni working in multiple modes, as both a poet and a critic. She later springs “Poem for Aretha” out of this essay and publishes it as its own thing and then records it as well on her spoken-word album Truth Is on Its Way.

It’s wild—it’s just run into a paragraph as part of the essay. It’s not denoted as the poetic insert despite the title suggesting that something will be. When you’re reading the essay, you have to guess what the poetic insert is.

That’s true! The work is also important because it shows Black women in dialogue with each other around the meaning of soul. It’s not just white critics saying, “Can we have soul, too?” Or women debating with men, which also happened. But this is Black women having deep, serious conversations about what this thing is, and who it includes and excludes. I mean, of course there was going to be debate about this key concept amongst Black women critics—as there is among anybody who is seriously engaged in the making and assessing of culture. But that’s not the way soul has been framed—as a discourse that develops in part out of Black women’s rigorous engagements with each other, out of Lorraine Hansberry’s friendship with Nina Simone, or Giovanni’s love of Aretha, and so on. But also, you know, Giovanni’s writing about Aretha, in that poem, as a regular person who was “a mother with four children, having to hit the road”—all that stuff is really important to my understanding of soul as a performance of actual physical labor, as something that real people labored to create.

There is also Nathaniel Mackey’s Discrepant Engagement, which I first read as a graduate student in the 2000s, and which I always return to as a touchstone because of Mackey’s method of reading and because he is an incredible writer. He taught me to not take any moments of Black performance for granted—that you could build whole interpretive arguments around performative moments or styles. Things that seem incidental—those telling details. The other text I would add is Mark Anthony Neal’s book What the Music Said, the subtitle of which is Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. In that book and others, Mark lays a lot of the groundwork for what I was trying to do in my soul book. There is also Daphne A. Brooks’s scholarly article on Nina Simone, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play,” which reads Simone’s multi-genre aesthetic as a practice of freedom that redefined what a Black female performer could do and be. Here is another model of listening to Black music beyond and beneath the lyrics—for formal innovation as well as expressive candor or truth.

I would finally have to include a musician in their own words—maybe Etta James, whose memoir was cowritten with David Ritz. Nina Simone’s memoir is great also. Black women musicians’ memoirs are crucial in part because they give us the aspect of their creative lives that so few people ask about—that interviewers so rarely express any curiosity about whatsoever—which is their actual training, their craft. That is one of the most important things for me as a critic—it’s probably the throughline of all my work. I don’t know as much as you do about what being a working musician entails, but I know the labor is there, the intention is there. I know it’s hard to be a performer. And just underlining that at every step has been an important aspect of my work.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.