TEENA MARIE / “If I Were A Bell”
Interviewer: There are no white artists who have had the kind of appeal among African-Americans like you have. Why do you think you've always been so embraced by the black community? Teena Marie: My thoughts are so sincere that they come through musically. I have a white mother that gave birth to me and I have black mother that nurtured me as well, who was always there by my side and explained a lot things to me that I didn’t understand as a young girl. I’m just very true to who I am and the music that I love — I think people can feel that sincerity. I think they know that it's not contrived; this is the way that I live. I think God wanted me to bring people together through music and you shouldn’t have to be a certain color to sing a certain type of music. —Teena Marie from “Teena Marie: Ultimate Soul Diva” I walked around during the course of the evening [at a Teena Marie performance] and asked at least ten different people the question: “How come Black people love Teena Marie so much even though she's white?” Every person that I asked responded with the exact same answer: “Teena Marie ain’t white. She’s one of us.” — Bob Davis of Soul-Patrol.comMary Christine Brockert was born in March of 1956 in Santa Monica, California. Her much better known stage name is an inversion and permutation of her first and middle names ‘Mary Christine.’ If you haven’t already figured it out, we’re talking about Teena Marie. In the world of black music, Teena Marie is an anomaly. Actually, when it comes to white artists performing black music, she’s the anomaly. I can’t think of any other white singer or instrumentalist who is accepted—100% and without question—as not just “sounding black,” but BEING black. If you didn’t grow up during the seventies or eighties and/or you didn’t grow up in a black community, Bob Davis’ quoting of black concert goers (‘Teena Marie ain’t white’) might sound strange. But if you, like me, grew up in a black ghetto at a time when Teena was at her artistic and commercial peak, Davis’ quote will make you smile in nostalgic recognition because (to sort of quote Teena herself) you’ve heard those words many times before. There are other white artists who’ve scored significant success with black music lovers. I remember Hall & Oates having a string of hits in the black community. George Michael was very popular for a time. Back in the day, Elvis Presley had several #1 hits on the R&B chart — one year, he was second only to Fats Domino for the title of most popular R&B artist. And what self-respecting ghetto dweller hasn’t cut a rug to an Average White Band record or too? But none of these artists ever rose to the level of not just seeming or sounding or even acting black, but BEING black. No, black people aren’t blind. We see Teena’s blond hair and hazel eyes. (Although we didn’t see either on the cover of Teena’s debut album on Motown. Berry Gordy intentionally left all photos of Teena off of the jacket.) And no, we aren’t delusional. If pressed, we will admit that Teena, biologically speaking, is white. (Well, “probably” white. Or maybe “mostly” white. Somewhere back there in the gene pool, we imagine, there had to have been at least one brother or sister with some extraordinarily powerful DNA that somehow made it’s way all the way down to little Mary Christine.) The point is, black folk are aware—on a literal level—that Teena Marie is of Caucasian ancestry. Still, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard black people say (especially if Teena’s music is actually playing, and most definitely at any Teena Marie performance), “Teena ain’t white. She’s black.” Note that black folk reserve this weird sort of collective denial of reality solely for people or events of the most crucial importance. Ask someone in the ‘hood if Tupac is dead. Nope — he’s alive. Theories abound, all ridiculous. Ask somebody in the ghetto if O.J. did it. Nope — he’s innocent. Again, more goofball theories, usually accompanied by a little sideways grin. Ask somebody from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward if Katrina was responsible for flooding their neighborhood or if Al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center buildings. Nope, they’ll tell you. The government blew up both. The thing is, all of these ‘beliefs’ serve a purpose. To give just one example, Tupac was the one hip-hop figure who resonated with not just the young people in the ‘hood, but with their parents as well. The parents may not have loved or even liked his music, but they recognized something good, something powerful in the young man. Through his mother, Tupac was a living connection back to the Black Power movement. For ghetto people, he was a hope for the future. I’ve been in black neighborhoods all over America and seen murals of Tupac, often alongside images of Malcolm or Martin or Marley. Is Tupac dead? Nope. For black folk, especially black women, Teena Marie’s music provides a similar kind of inspiration and hope. Teena’s lyrics—almost all of which she wrote herself—are frequently articulate, passionate, perceptive and multi-faceted. Despite standing barely more than five feet tall, she has a commanding, powerful presence. Over the years, even when she was identified as a Rick James protégée, she’s defined herself, written for herself and produced herself. She even famously litigated for herself, suing Motown for breach of contract and eventually winning not just her contractual freedom but also an entertainment industry legal statute named after her. And that voice. Teena sings most of her lyrics in a soothing and flawless croon, one that she came by naturally. According to Teena, she never had much in the way of formal vocal lessons or instruction. But when her songs reach their climax, when she really starts feeling that spirit, Teena’s voice breaks into a piercing near-shriek that is as loved in the black community as any sound ever produced by the likes of Aretha, Gladys, Chaka, Anita or Mary. The connection between Teena Marie and the black community works both ways. Teena has been a big influence on and inspiration for black women, but in a way, she’s just repaying the favor. In interviews, Teena talks about her godmother, a black women who “explained a lot of things [Teena] didn’t understand.” And, over the years, I’ve noticed that Teena’s been looking more and more black herself. Black women in the ghetto have this way of dressing and making up their faces and hair that says, “I’m fabulous not because you think I am, but because I think I am.” It’s a defiant act of self-definition that remains consistent in black communities from L.A. to New York and all points between. When black women get dressed up to go out, looking fabulous, magnificent and queenly is much more important than looking ‘proper.’ These women may not be ‘fit’ or ‘slim’; they may not look like any of the sex symbols on TV; they may be just a couple of hours removed from sweating in somebody’s kitchen or chasing behind somebody’s kids; they may be hanging every which way out of their too-tight clothes, but right here and right now, they know they look good. Go to a Teena Marie concert these days, and more likely than not, Teena will take the stage looking as ghetto fabulous as most of her audience—hair teased, cleavage showing, pants too tight. The whole nine yards. The reason is simple. Teena’s not trying to imitate her audience. Teena, quite simply, has become her audience. Just like the people say, Teena ain’t white. She’s black.
2nd Tier, i.e. up in the back of the balcony Mtume, you have not yet dipped into the Teena Marie stuff I dig. We're still in that part of the show where half the audience is trooping in looking for their seats—actually looking to see what good seats are available so they can cop a squat since the person with ticket number T45 didn't show and you have to ask somebody in U44 if they would mind switching so you can sit next to your squeeze and they are cool with it cause they're not in their designated seat either and right before Teena gets deep into the stuff you came to hear the rightful owners show up with the usher and well, you know, you have to troop all the way up to the back of the second balcony where them cheap ass seats you bought are, but it's cool cause they got a good sound system and you can smoke your joint in peace up there. Mtume, your intro makes it clear, you're in love with Teena and can't help yourself: going to devote two weeks to a soul singer who ain't got a major chart record. Yeah, yeah, I hear you (and agree with you) she's important. Sort of like Otis Redding who never had much success with the Billboard charts either. (I believe the posthumous "Dock Of The Bay" was his first and only Billboard number one! I'ma check on that, and if it's not the case I will correct it here, but I believe that's the case or not far from right even if I'm wrong). Teena deserves two weeks attention. No ifs, ands or buts! Looking forward to next week. ;->) —Kalamu ya Salaam
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