RAYMOND MYLES / “Heaven Is The Place I Want To Be”
Raymond Myles is dead. He was murdered during a car jacking. It was a terrible blow to the contemporary New Orleans gospel scene, a scene that was, if you can get to this, even stronger than the New Orleans rap scene, albeit not as well known nationally and internationally. I say stronger because there were many more people singing gospel in New Orleans than doing rap (even counting those who did both).
Raymond was one of the most flamboyant as well as one of the most talented of New Orleans musician. Physically rotund, he was fashion conscious with a vengeance. He sported a mane of curly hair which looked to be a cross between well-kept jheri curls and a Goldilocks perm. Plus, he flashed gold. Personality-wise he had some Little Richard in him. My man could be wild, as the second medley cut demonstrates when he invites the church congregation to get their groove on with Jesus instead of going out to the clubs. “Get up, get up” he cajoles, urging them to slide and dip and do whatever else they want to do, and, of course, the band is appropriately funky. This is archetypical New Orleans gospel.
Those who think this a bit unseemly for gospel music should remember that a similar criticism was leveled at Mahalia Jackson when she started out with Thomas Dorsey before she became celebrated as the world’s greatest gospel singer. Indeed in the thirties, they kicked Mahalia out of some churches, saying she was mixing the devil’s music with Jesus’ songs. Her reply was “that’s the way we sing it” in New Orleans. And guess what? As Raymond so ably demonstrates, they continued singing it that way, long after Mahalia was gone.
As a vocalist Raymond reminds me of a cross between Rance Allen and D.J. Rogers. As a musical director he was superb, and though I am not a die-hard fan of gospel music, I loved to hear his group The RAMS (i.e. The Raymond Anthony Myles Singers). When they got amped up, they could out blow the Basie band while singing with the finesse of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra at its finest. Though there are a double handful of New Orleans gospel performers whom I respect to the fullest, to me and to many others on the scene, Raymond Myles was the pinnacle of New Orleans gospel.
Unfortunately, New Orleans is not just iconic in music. Raymond’s death is also archetypical New Orleans. As celebrated as the music is, New Orleans was also noted for crime, especially black-on-black murder. Didn’t no Black body who lived in New Orleans not know about how violent our beloved city was. (As is typical of the New Orleans dialect, we are known for double and triple negatives, e.g. “you know he ain’t never liked to do nothing like that,” etc. etc.)
Although Big Easy was as sweet as sweet comes, on the crime tip, Big Easy wasn’t nothing nice. And as is the case in 26 other major metropolitan areas with significant densities of Black folk, poor Blacks overwhelmingly are both the murderers and the murderees.
Plus, the main forces that are supposed to be fighting crime in New Orleans, the NOPD, well, far from being the solution, the po-po were a major part of the problem. Drug running, extortion, murder, prostitution, the NOPD was not just accused of it all, a number of them have been convicted in court of said activities. And though the majority of the NOPD were stalwarts attempting to deal as best they could with what is essentially a structural social problem, the depth and deadliness of the crime in New Orleans led to social tensions and open antagonism between the people most in need of protection and those whose job description was to protect and serve.
It was no surprise to me that as the Katrina disaster unfolded, some of the police deserted and others of the police were literally under siege. Those scenes of the police taking incoming fire at night, that was really New Orleans. America fools itself if we think this extraordinary spectacle of pitched battles between policeman and a socalled “handful of armed thugs” could not take place in other major cities.
Since tourism was the main local economy—petroleum and shipping were the other two major areas of New Orleans commerce, but neither of those two had either a local base or employed a large percentage of the local New Orleans population, thus for poor people petro-dollars and shipping-dollars were non-existant. All of this unceasing, systematic exploitation led to a fatalism among the poor that manifested itself either as an embrace of crime preying mainly on each other or an exaggerated reliance on other world solutions, hence the proliferation of churches from small storefronts to mega-congregations of virtual religious fiefdoms, all of which employed the musical talents of its parishioners. Gospel offered release and relief, encouraged shouting to express deep hurts and frustrations, and promised eternal salvation on the other side.
Listen to the lyrics of Raymond’s title song, “Heaven Is The Place I Want To Be.” He could not be more clear (or more ironically prophetic) as he sings about wanting to get away from the “car jackings” and the “murders,” not by going to other cities but by going to heaven. Raymond knew he was at risk of becoming a statistic and found solace in his religious beliefs.
To the best of my knowledge, the police never found out who murdered Raymond Myles although all kinds of rumors and innuendoes swirled through the community ranging from a simple car jacking gone bad to a lover’s quarrel gone bad—whatever the truth, it was bad. No one expected the police to find the killer. In general, they seldom find out who murders someone Black, and in a couple of those too-few cases where they have apprehended the killers, the criminal justice system has proven to be inept at protecting witnesses. People who were scheduled to testify routinely were threatened and scared into silence, sometimes they were murdered, and even, in one well known case, a witness was killed by a policeman protecting a cabal of crooked cops.
Moreover, it had become a truism among investigating police, that street justice would find the killers and there would be a retaliation within weeks if not days of the first murder, so why bother investigating. I believe this same attitude permeated all aspects of New Orleans’ social organization, thus, there could be a “serious” discussion about evacuation and no discussion about providing transportation when it was well known that at least 100,000 of the residents had no access to anything other than public transportation.
Whereas the non-poor could ignore the extreme social dysfunction by retreating to the relative safety of homes in sequestered areas of the city or, more often, to homes in the suburbs surrounding the city, all of which were well-protected by private security forces and elaborate alarm systems, the black and poor living in densely packed urban pockets of poverty had no such options. The Black and poor could not afford to live in safety, they also knew that the price of ignoring street realities was extremely steep.
Listen to the first "Medley" and how Raymond’s cautions the women to stay near to their purses, intimating that a fellow church member, under the guise of helping you, just might be trying to sneak you, to thief you. Raymond does it in a humorous way, but the implications are positively chilling—you virtually can not trust anyone. There is no freedom in the ghetto. Everything costs, every one is at risk.
I maintain if you want to know why New Orleans music was so moving, you have to consider this crucible of vicious economic exploitation and vicious inner-city crime, this rock and hard place. This was the social laboratory that produced a deeply moving music precisely because under girding the music were life and death issues.
As we listen to Raymond Myles, perhaps we should ask ourselves, at what social cost comes the terrible beauty of music from New Orleans?
Enjoy the Raymond Myles cuts, remember him as among the best of New Orleans, but please don’t let the beauty make you oblivious to the ugliness. New Orleans was a very, very complex city. Living poor and Black in New Orleans-—regardless of how talented you were—could literally cost you your life. That was the reality, long before Katrina blew by, long, long before the levee broke and the water flowed.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Click here to purchase Heaven Is The Place
This entry was posted on Sunday, September 11th, 2005 at 12:02 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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