CHERRYWINE / “Dazzlement”
Some of Digable Planets’ music was political…but at the same time it was rhetorical, and I wasn’t really politically active on a day-to-day basis, so I didn’t want to give lip service to serious issues.
With these lyrics…I wanted to be more concise and efficient and…be more true to my emotions and what’s going on in my life, so it’s more about reality and truth than political agendas.
—Ishmael Butler of hip-hop/funk/rock band Cherrywine.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is my all-time favorite R&B album. Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb is my all-time favorite hip-hop album. The funny thing about both albums is that neither seems to represent the day-to-day reality of the artists who created the music.
Read Divided Soul, David Ritz’ excellent Marvin bio, and what you’ll get is a portrait of a tortured, brilliant man, one who spent so much time getting into and out of trouble (legal, personal, professional, pharmaceutical—take your pick) that there wasn’t much time left for anything else. Marvin’s complicated life didn’t leave much room for political activism. Not that Marvin was a particularly political cat in the first place. What he really cared about, from what I gather, is making pretty love songs.
Read the above quote by ex-Digable Planet frontman, Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler, and you’re left with a similar idea. Despite all of the polemics and rhetoric of his group’s first two albums, Reachin… and Blowout Comb, what Butterfly really cares about is being musically true to his emotions and his life. And, as he puts it, he isn’t a particularly active person politically anyway.
I don’t bring this issue up as a knock on either man. First, I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘wrong’ to be apolitical. Second, and perhaps more to the point, I’m in no position to judge. Although I’ve written my share of heated indictments of the socio-political reality here in the U.S., I fill my days, frankly, with truck driving, girl watching, poker playing and listening to music. Hardly the hardcore political agenda.
If we are to take Butterfly at his word, he fills his days staying buzzed on mixed drinks and controlled substances while pining for the glory days of old. Truthfully though, the voice on the record is a character. He’s a over-the-hill baller, but just barely—on a good night he can still fake it. He’s a former big-time star holding on to the last bit of juice he still has. For the sake of convenience, we’ll call him Cherrywine. Here he is detailing the virtues of the ‘black and famous’ lifestyle, from a tune named “16th Minute” (meaning, the first precarious minute after your obligatory fifteen minutes is over):
No shame / Got to plush out your name
Fifteen minutes of fame to complain
You too can could wear expensive clothes and drop names
Spread rumors about enemies and old flames
On star-studded nights your arrival’s that hype
No doubt, the glitz and the drugs excite
It’s easy to take Cherrywine literally, to hear his tributes to the beautiful people and the glamorous life as mere soundtracks. One reason its so easy is because Butterfly puts significant effort into making Cherry’s vignettes sound as shiny and happy as possible. But the Cherrywine album is a parody—it’s a subtle one, but it’s a parody nonetheless. Nearly all of the songs are about the appearance of a thing being significantly different from the underlying reality. (Think: a forced smile, a luxury car that’s rented, a maxed out Platinum Visa card.)
One interviewer, bless his soul, seemed to miss the contradiction completely, writing: “[R]ather than indict bling-bling and the cash-money flaunting of popular hip-hop, the first [Cherrywine] single, ‘Dazzlement,’ examines floss on a more positive note.” Whether in character or out, Butterfly is happy to play along with those who miss the point. (After all, isn’t that his point exactly? That people miss the point?) “That’s my ode to the champagne life,” Butterfly told the interviewer. (And I’m betting he was flashing his most winning smile when he told that half-truth.) “It’s my observation and ode to it all—the dazzling effect of hip-hop culture, it’s just a brilliant shiny light.” Over sparse keyboard effects and reversed drum licks (which sound eerily like those on Andre 3000’s “Vibrate,” a record which came out a couple of years later), Cherrywine drawls:
Shit, I roll like a rock kid / Piles of blow did
A million-dollar nest and you hang at Heff’s crib
Looking so customized / Shades over high eyes
Striking up a deal / Ain’t shit a surprise, man
Kiss and tell Rolling Stone / MTV at my home
All about my music though my styles are my own
Back at the hotel / They givin’ it? / Oh well
Let’s see how this blow smell and wait for the dry spell
Positive? Hardly. If anything, Cherrywine sounds cynical and resigned. Resigned to more sex with girls he doesn’t know (“They givin’ it? Oh well”); resigned to the ineffectiveness of chemical highs and to his inevitable return to obscurity (“let’s see how this blow smell and wait for the dry spell”); and, most of all, resigned to a chronic lack of interest in his own life (“ain’t shit a surprise, man”). Positive? Only if you’re not discerning enough to see past the smooth, shiny surface, to see the turbulence beneath.
Back in his sixteenth minute, we find Cherrywine enjoying (or is it enduring?) a momentary lapse into what we can only describe as self-awareness.
We only pursue that which destroys
Collapse in the pleasures of life, like me
So much pleasure and so little joy
In my sixteenth minute
A couple of songs later, on a song Butterfly calls “Gracefully,” Cherrywine is up to his old tricks again. Talking shit. Being happy and shiny because he’s supposed to. The opening monologue is priceless. As Cherry pontificates about the fabulousness of (what else?) himself, Butterfly gives Cherry his own falsetto-voiced hype-man whose only job is to sing out ‘Top!’
“I met baby at this little spot on the outskirts of downtown Seattle. She was consuming the whole space and drinking up all the light. Mr. Nigger, yeah. The chrome rims and the sunroof top. (Top!) Sky-blue bandana. And the shades. Cornrows. A little something Cherrywine style to get you unbored. Yeah. (Top!)”
If, like the MTV interviewer, we aren’t paying close enough attention, we’re left with an extended ode to the high life, a tribute, all of it set to the hip and sophisticated sounds of bass-heavy 21st century funk/rap. For many, that’s all there is to get. It’s like a baby looking at a mirror and seeing only a baby. Eventually, the baby grows into a toddler, gains a little self-awareness, looks at same mirror and sees him or herself. But that’s easy. Nearly all of us make it that far. The difficulty is in the last stage of growth and, truth be told, many of us never make it there at all; like Cherrywine, we remain emotional toddlers our entire adult lives. In the last stage of growth, we look at the mirror and we see neither a baby nor ourselves; instead, we see a shiny piece of glass, a mirror. (Which presents an entire set of previously unasked questions: What’s behind the mirror? Who put the mirror there and why? How long have I been looking at the mirror? Do I really want or need the mirror?) For those of us who do see the mirror, the ‘bright blackness’ of the Cherrywine album is actually a reflective indictment of the American star system—the ultimate mirror—by an artist who knows it from the inside.
The clothes. The women. The cars. The houses. The money. The alcohol. The drugs. All of it so enticing. All of it seeming as if it would be so fulfilling, so exciting. Until it’s yours. Until you’re actually living the life you’ve always dreamed of. Until one fine afternoon you wake up still buzzed from the night before, in an expensive hotel room beside a girl or two you don’t know, surrounded by empty bottles of over-priced champagne and hastily discarded designer clothing and realize you feel just as dissatisfied, unfulfilled and miserable as you’ve ever felt in your life. Or as Cherrywine himself describes ‘the life’: “There’s so much pleasure [but] so little joy.” If that’s not a political statement, I don’t know what is.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Quotes from “Cherrywine” by Rodrigo Perez. Available at http://www.mtv.com/news/yhif/cherrywine/
Note: “16th Minute” is a non-album Cherrywine track dating back to 2001. “Dazzlement” and “Gracefully” are from the Bright Black album.
A moment of realization
No, that’s not a political statement, simply a moment of realization. I think a central fault line common to contemporary American (lack of) thought is the assumption that consciousness of reality is the same as a politicized view of reality.
Politics is about the acquisition and use of social power, the power to determine and defend people’s lives. Yes, consciousness of reality is necessary, but consciousness alone is not sufficient. Politics is neither abstract nor neutral. To be political is to be practical precisely because politics is about dealing with day to day life. To be political is to choose sides and not simply to observe sides being chosen, or observe how it is on a particular side.
Moreover, politics is not solely about what we called parliamentary politics, which manifests itself within modern America as casting a vote in system-established elections. Kawaida, an ideology developed by Maulana Karenga, teaches there are four areas of politics: community organization, elected and appointed officials, alliances and coalitions, and warfare. To reduce “political” to elected and appointed officials, and ignore the other three areas is a very political choice, a choice that is both shortsighted and ultimately ineffective.
That is why even with more black elected officials than at anytime since Reconstruction, our collective political effectiveness ain’t squat. Does anybody believe that black folk had true political power in New Orleans? True political power would never have been so impotent.
Which brings us back to Cherrywine via your observation about Marvin Gaye. Like most people, what got to Marvin Gaye was not his consciousness but rather the conditions of those close to him, in this case, his brother returning from Vietnam. Gaye, as you accurately point out, was a talented songwriter obsessed with and conflicted about his obsession with pleasure—a classic case of hedonism.
Gaye’s work works best when he is telling the truth about his social condition rather than simply reveling (some would say wallowing) in pleasure and writing odes to the pursuit and/or consumption of pleasure. Why else is his divorce documentary, Here My Dear, such a compelling recording? Bunches of artists have gone through nasty divorces, but most do not have what it takes to artistically comment on what they’ve gone through.
What was rare about Marvin Gaye is that as much as he loved pleasure, he was at his best describing pain. And that’s what I like about your analysis of Cherrywine—in fact, I like the analysis more than I like the music. Moreover, were it not for your analysis, I might never have paid any attention to the music. By contextualizing Cherrywine’s comments and giving us the full 411, you have successfully politicized a music whose surface seems so apolitical.
And by the way, “putting on”—i.e. the hipster knowingly lying to the unhip, fully aware that the unhip thinks the lie is the truth, doing so especially to those truly unhip individuals who tragically think they are hip—is part and parcel of the African-American tradition of survival; the slave response to the master’s questions. “Putting on” was perfected by jazz musicians who would tell a square anything, or as Lester ‘Prez’ Young famously told one interviewer: “I could be lying to you and you wouldn’t know it!”
Mtume, let me ask you a question: how many truck drivers also write weekly blogs analyzing musical culture?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Think about it
To answer your last question first, I really don’t know. But I do know the point you’re making. I get questioned about it all the time. Sometimes it feels like I get questioned about it everyday. Basically, I’ve made a conscious decision to section off my life. Part of my life I live in order to make money. Part of my life I live in order to be stimulated mentally and emotionally. Part of my life I live just to have fun. That type of decision-making about one’s own lifestyle might be a little unusual, but it’s not political. Particularly not by your definition.
Which brings us to the statement I made at the end of the Cherrywine piece. I agree with your/Karenga’s multi-faceted definition of ‘political.’ But I also stand by the conclusion I made about Cherrywine. The statement is deceptively simple. Think about it: how would the music business be changed if every fan knew what Butterfly knows about the business? If they knew that the shiny, happy people they so envy are, for the most part, living on borrowed time and unhappy to boot? If they knew that the glamorous life actually isn’t. If they knew that the vast majority of ‘stars’ eventually wind up working 9-to-5 like everyone else (and that’s only if they’re lucky enough to survive the star system at all)? If they supported the artists they found the most meaningful to their own lives and loves rather the ones who are the prettiest or the sexiest or the most omnipresent? That would be nothing short of revolution.
I remember spending a weekend with Raheim of the Furious Five. He’s a very intelligent, well-spoken, clean-cut guy. He’s approaching forty, but still looks like he’s in his late twenties. He could easily leave ‘the life’ and get a real job. Instead, he’s scraping out a living selling beats and producing unknowns, hoping for that big break to hit once again. I asked him why. In answering, he described the feeling of being onstage in front of thousands and thousands of screaming fans as “the ultimate mind-fuck.” “There’s nothing like it,” he told me, “And I’ll be chasing it the rest of my life.” This from a man who successfully quit a serious cocaine addiction. Cold-turkey.
So when I said it was a political statement, what I meant was, it’s a conscious statement that is directly at odds with the accepted norms of the power structure of this country. Cherrywine’s statement is, as both you and I said, simply a moment of clarity. But Butterfly’s statement (via Cherrywine) is much more than a moment of clarity. It’s a choice. It’s an indictment. It’s an analysis. To reduce it to “a moment of realization” is to judge the artist by the actions of the character. I’m only assuming, but I’d say Butterfly created Cherrywine to make points that would seem too self-serving, too pretentious, too bitter if they came from Butterfly himself. (Who wants to hear a used-to-be-famous rapper complain about how hard it is to be a used-to-be-famous rapper?) I don’t see Butterfly’s statement as a moment of realization. I see it as a conscious decision to move his art in a particular direction.
Do I think the Cherrywine album is going to change the world? Of course not. I’m not even sure it’s going to change the course of alternative hip-hop in Seattle. But I do dig it. I dig it because it’s got two things that very few examples of youth music ever have: 1) truth and 2) consciousness. In my book, that’s still political.
—Mtume ya Salaam
It ain’t what you think
I have a Marvin Gaye T-shirt with his picture on it and the words “let’s get it on.” (In fact, I even bought you one of those T-shirts—it’s in a pile in a corner in a room in Tennessee, and whenever I get back to that particular spot, I’m going to mail it to you—you have to be an evacuee to understand that knowing where something is and getting there are sometimes the farthest distance between two points.)
Mtume, you insist that “awareness” (or consciousness) = politics. In euro-centric terms this is the classic Hegelian-Marxian split. Hegel sought to understand the world. The Marxian retort is that we have come not just to understand the world, but to change it.
In my book, politics is about making social change and not simply thinking about, i.e. “understanding,” the necessity of making change or understanding what changes need to be made. But, that said, I am not hung up on my way or the highway discussions. And, yes, as a writer, I do understand the importance of analyzing, of thinking about things, yet just as action without thought is meaningless, I also believe that thought without action is empty.
My question is: are you a truck driver because you are aware/conscious of what it takes to drive trucks, or are you a truck driver because you actually drive trucks?
Whatever, you choose to call it, I am interested in the act of making change even as I agree that more often than not, we must be able to think of change in order to make change (or, at least, be "inspired" and/or "forced" by conditions to make change). Nevertheless, finally it’s about what we do and not simply what we think about doing.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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