Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Coloring Book: Notes on Being Black and Dating White

The following is my latest essay on dating and race, for Medium.

I can't say for sure when it hit me  -- the harsh reality of race and racism, that is. It probably didn't knock me down like a punch in the stomach but perhaps arrived in a series of taps on my back that gradually intensified, becoming harder, faster, louder, eventually moving to the front and slapping me across the face. Maybe it crept up on me like a bad moon rising or a slowly marching band of gloom playing a requiem for dreams indefinitely deferred.

Although I was well aware of prejudice against black people growing up in Kissimmee, Florida's Deep South, I actually had few encounters with overt racism. White folks sometimes gave me the side eye, and I'm sure some of them talked behind my back, but it's not as if they went around saying terrible things to my face. Not one white person there ever made me fear for my physical well-being.

If the white kids hated me, they were, for the most part, discreet. Sure they called me an Oreo --  "black on the outside, white on the inside" --  as if not adhering to their stereotypical image of how a black kid should act was a badge of honor, and the only girls who ever went out with me or showed any interest in me (all two or three of them) were black, but for the most part, my white peers befriended me or left me alone. Although I knew about white-on-black racism, and I was aware of how some white people saw me (as different and probably inferior), I never felt particularly ostracized by them because of my skin color.

Aside from some housing issues when I was in college at the University of Florida in Gainesville (unfortunately for me, a black roommate/tenant wasn't always the most-desirable roommate/tenant), I wouldn't really have a problem with The White Man until I started dating him. Of the four white people whom I can vividly recall directing the N Word at me personally in my lifetime, two were the rednecks who used to chant "I smell nigger" every time they passed me on the playground. The other two were gay white guys, both Argentine, who tried and failed to get me into bed during my four and a half years living in Buenos Aires.

That's when I began to draw that thin line between fetishism and outright racism. I hadn't quite made the connection on New York City's gay scene, being more accustomed to the traditional "I'm just not into black guys" form of racism (which, comments of the two playground rednecks aside, is more insulting than anything anyone ever said to me in Kissimmee). In Manhattan's massive melting pot, I often felt invisible to gay men because most of them, especially the white ones, were not searching for someone like me. Black may be beautiful, but blue eyes were everything.

I learned to live with it and tried to look the other way, which is what I also did when I met white guys with a blacks-only dating policy. I avoided them mostly because I wanted to feel special. I wanted them to like me for my unique qualities, not because I fell into the limited color-based boundaries of their attraction. It wasn't until those two Argentines concluded their ardent pursuit of me with the N word that I realized that chasing after black men and sleeping with them doesn't necessarily preclude racism.

"Just because he fucks you, doesn't mean he respects you." - Juliana Qian, "The politics of racial attraction"

There are many stories of slave masters bedding and beating their human property (one of them told, to devastating effect, in the 2013 Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave) to back that up. I once jokingly called a white boyfriend "racist" after he made an on-color comment, which I've since forgotten. "Yeah, I just had a black dick in my mouth, and I'm racist," he said with a chuckle in his defense. I laughed, too, but not just with him. I didn't seriously think he was racist, but that wasn't because we'd just had sex. To his credit, though, race seldom crept up in any of our conversations. We talked about many things during our time together, and race was rarely one of them.

I'm not sure whether that was due to his lack of awareness in the ignorant sense or his lack of awareness in the It-didn't-matter sense. (He was Australian, and therefore white-on-black racism was not part of his national heritage, though Australia has plenty of other forms or racism to go around.) I knew I was an aberration from his romantic norm. Dating a black guy was neither a personal habit nor part of a socio-political-sexual movement for him, and perhaps that's why, for better or for worse, he never treated uncovering the mysteries of my black male psyche like his manifest destiny.

In my experiences with gay white men, it often seems like the more black men they've dated in the past and the more exclusive their pursuit of black romantic partners has been, the more hyper-aware of skin color they become in general. Although understandable, that can become problematic if/when they begin to instinctively attribute particulars of my personality to race or base assumptions about me and my life on it. I'm so much more than black. (For the record, while my serious boyfriends all have been white or Latino, I've dated pretty much every race and ethnicity under the sun, for despite any personal preferences I may have, my attraction is limitless.)

In a city with racial politics as complicated as Cape Town's (I relocated to South Africa's gay mecca after my extended stints in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok), my dates with white men almost always seem to end up on the subject of color. Shortly after my arrival here, I met a white expat from the U.S. Midwest who had been living here for ten years. When he described Tamboerskloof, my first Cape Town neighborhood, as being "very white," his tone was laced with disapproval. I wondered what he would have thought of someone describing a neighborhood as being "very black." Did he not realize that the racist undercurrent of his observation was just as powerful? And why was he telling me? Should I have been living somewhere with more black people? Would he have said the same thing to a white person?

During our conversations, race kept interrupting. When I mentioned my dream of one day adopting a baby from Tanzania, he seemed surprised and perplexed. Tanzanians, he pointed out, were the least attractive of all Africans. As he started going down his mental list, beginning with the most attractive Africans (those from the Democratic Republic of Congo), I wondered if he'd written it down somewhere or if he'd recited it so many times with other black dates that he'd committed it to memory.

I wondered where I fit into his hierarchy of black. Did I rate as high as the guys in Senegal? As low as the Tanzanians? Despite the strangeness of his commentary, it was obvious that he did indeed think that black was beautiful (if it originated in certain countries only), and I quietly gave him credit for recognizing that there's inherent variety in "African." But I was disarmed, too. He was categorizing black Africans as one might categorize dogs. Were the black natives of each country merely interchangeable specimens? Should I have reconsidered adopting a baby from Tanzania because he might grow up to be unattractive to certain white men?

On another occasion, I was having lunch with another white American expat in De Waterkant, a predominantly white, upscale-ish and touristy area in central Cape Town, when a large group of patrons arrived and joined the group that was already seated at the table directly behind us. I prepared myself for the worst, for I'd spent enough time in restaurants to know that nothing good comes from the arrival of a large party that has nothing to do with you.

Apparently, they were so excited to see each other that they forgot they weren't the only people on the terrace. They started hugging and kissing each other, rubbing their butts into the back of my chair and practically sending my face flying forward into my burger. I turned around and shot them a WTH glare, which they didn't notice because they were too busy fawning over each other. My lunch date, however, couldn't miss it.

"You know, that's a race thing," he announced, his tone halfway between sympathetic and accusatory. "They're doing that, treating you like you aren't even there, because you're black."

"Oh. Really?" I knew what it felt like to be invisible in an all-white crowd, having been to enough gay bars in the United States, but race couldn't have been further from my mind. "So how do you explain that black people in Cape Town do that sort of thing to me all the time, too, probably even more than white people?"

He couldn't. The large party whose behinds were poking the back of my head probably didn't even realize that there was a behind in my seat, much less a black one. To put a racial slant on their obliviousness was sort of like assuming that the white driver whom I once saw run a red light at the corner of De Waterkant and Buitengracht and hit a black man on a bicycle was driven by some racist impulse. He probably was just being a typically reckless and impatient Cape Town driver.

On yet another Cape Town date (the third one with a white expat from Scotland), he made yet another observation about everyday white-on-black social crimes. He said he used to witness them firsthand every time he went out to dinner with his ex, who, of course, was black. From his point of view, white waiters and waitresses always seemed to hand the bill to my dinner date, not to his ex, because they presumed that the black man, no matter how finely attired he might have been, wasn't paying. I'd had enough bills placed on the table right in front of me to know this simply wasn't an actual culinary trend.

My biggest problem with these knee-jerk assumptions, aside from the fact that everything that happens to a black person doesn't happen because he or she is black, is the way black men keep getting cast as the victim, damaged at the hands of The White Man. So many things besides being black (like being male, being American, being gay and, most of all, being human) have contributed to who I am and to my experiences. I've never thought of myself as a victim.

As I explained to the second expat above, in my self-image, I'm a man first, gay second, American third, and black fourth. (Interestingly, his hierarchy was as follows: 1. White, 2. Upper middle class, 3. Male, 4. American, 5. Gay - which explained a lot.) My first two self-identifiers spawned innate qualities, while the qualities spawned from the other two are derived more from my experiences as those two things than from the self-identifiers themselves.

My maleness, my gayness and even my American-ness are things I identify as in my head when nobody else is around. When I'm alone, though, I don't think of myself in terms of my skin color, and I rarely do when I'm with my friends, most of whom never bring it up. Even when I look in the mirror, it's not the first thing I see. But there's always something - or rather, someone - there to remind me when I go out with certain white men.

Although in my experience, it has never been malicious or nearly as condescending as the way super-liberal feminist Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) treated her maid Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) in the early seasons of the '70s Norman Lear sitcom Maude, hyper-awareness of race in white people who exclusively date black can still sometimes have uncomfortable and unfortunate consequences. I'm firmly against choosing romantic partners based on race or rejecting them for the same reason, but I understand that's exactly what some people do. I just wish more of them were honest about why they do it and what it might say about them. Being white and dating a person of color doesn't make you color blind. In fact, when it becomes a pattern, it can lead to seeing color more than individuality.

That's something I think about every time I sit across from a white date, and the conversation takes a turn into familiar and expected territory. Once again, I'm almost certain that the main thing he sees when he looks at me is black.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Gay Shame Revisited: How Traveling to East Africa Sent Me Back Into the Closet

Here is my first piece for Subject: the biggest surprise on my recent trip to Tanzania.

I was anticipating the unexpected. I was fully prepared for some twists in the roads and bumps in the nights ahead (preferably unrelated to nocturnal lions!). You have to be psyched for anything when you're spending 10 days truck-trekking from Dar es Salaam on Tanzania's Indian Ocean coast up north through Lushoto and Arusha to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro region, then further onward and upward to Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. It's a long, rocky road, though not one less traveled, and in case you momentarily lose your open mind or misplace it wherever you stuffed your malaria pills, any good tour company will keep reminding you until you're expecting the unexpected in your sleep. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

In Defense of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" Video

I'm officially over the whole "cultural appropriation" thing, especially now that it's giving a superstar like Taylor Swift free publicity that she doesn't really need. In just two days of circulation, her new "Shake It Off" video, with its tongue-in-cheek references to twerking and hip hop, inspired enough controversy to catapult 1989, Swift's upcoming fifth album and her first full-on foray into mainstream pop, into the public's consciousness more than two months before its October 27 release.

The charges of racism in the video's fleeting depictions of black culture somehow have overshadowed the song itself as well as Swift's new musical direction. Few critics seem to be troubling themselves with the more pressing shortcomings of "Shake It Off": It's banal pop hackdom from the Max Martin assembly line that probably would have been deemed too blah for Britney Spears' last flop album. Meanwhile, its originality is sorely lacking. "Critics be damned" has been done to death, and Mariah Carey already used that title on her No. 2 2005 single.

The video's theme: All she (Swift) wants to do is dance. And in showing the world that she can't, Swift's bad moves aren't all that's getting slammed. It's one thing for her to turn private drama with her exes into hit singles. That could be considered payback and good marketing. But, according to her latest detractors, how dare she send up, among other non-color-specific things, hip-hop (and by extension, black) culture -- and to make matters worse, include black people while making the joke?!

When I look at Swift's "Shake It Off" video, I don't think, Racist! I think, Taylor, Shania Twain you are not! So she includes black people in the twerking sequences. Would it have been better if she had made the video 100 percent white? Would that have been less racist? Or should she just have left twerking out of it completely because that's a black thing. How could she possibly understand? (Full disclosure: I'm a black man, and I'm still not completely sure what twerking even is.)

It's not as if Swift has never embraced hip-hop culture before. In interviews she has spoken at length about her love for rap music, and a few years ago when Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" was scaling Billboard's Hot 100, Swift was one of its biggest champions. I even recall watching a video in which Swift rapped along to Minaj's hit. She shouldn't give up her day job, that's for sure, but it was good to see her branching out.

Of course, artistic evolution/revolution is always bound to ruffle some feathers. Coloring outside of your own established lines, especially when it comes to color, is as good as wearing a target on your forehead. A rapper I've never heard of named Earl Sweatshirt quickly took aim at Swift on Twitter to complain about the "Shake It Off" video in a series of tweets.

haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful

perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture

for instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga

While Earl makes an interesting point about "white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture" (I think that argument also would apply to white boys like Justin Bieber), I'm not sure this is the place to make it. There's no evidence that Taylor Swift is afraid of black people, or even harbors any racially charged negative feelings. She may have seemed a little startled when Kanye West interrupted her Best Female Video acceptance speech for "You Belong with Me" at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to declare that Beyoncé should have received the prize for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," but who wouldn't have been? She held her own. She hardly appeared to be afraid of him.

By admitting that he hasn't even bothered to watch the video, Earl undermined his argument before he began it. Does a white artist have to show the entire spectrum of black existence every time he or she depicts one element of supposed black culture? Does Swift really have to cram all of that into a four-minute video? Is it not enough that she includes black people doing things other than twerking, or that not all of the black people in the video are good dancers? The clip is appropriately multi-cultural in its casting scope, ballerina sequences aside. (And it's not like the masses were complaining about the lack of black people surrounding Natalie Portman in the Oscar-winning 2010 film Black Swan.) Of course, Earl would know that if he watched the video.

I won't get into the whole cultural appropriation argument because I've stated my case before (here). But this hyper-sensitivity, this "Hands off my culture!" routine, is becoming increasingly boring and troubling. I will never be OK with white people using the N word in any of its forms. But we've got to draw the line somewhere and ease up on white people. (Frankly, I'm more concerned when I read articles written by white people who automatically describe singers like Chris Brown and Trey Songz as "rappers," as if that's all any black male recording artist who has a rap sheet or one they've never heard of could possibly do.)

White people are not all out to get us. In the '90s, they were banned from saying "black people," thus giving birth (unfortunately) to "African-American." Now we're saying they can't twerk in public? What's next? Will they be prohibited from covering songs like "Strange Fruit" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" or singing soulfully because that should be the sole province of black people?

Swift's new album is named after the year of her birth, and she says the music on it was inspired by the music of that era. I wonder if that includes late-'80s/early '90s R&B. Although Swift probably will never have to worry about being accused of appropriating soulfulness, perhaps she should have used this opportunity to make a Britney-esque statement (circa 2004) and covered the second No. 1 single of 1989: Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative," new jack beats and all. Going there should be her prerogative, too. Of course, being white might now mean that's no longer true.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Athlete Vs. The Artist: A Musical Creation Theory

I'll never forget the first time someone called me an artist. It was my brother Alexi, and considering that he was the first artist I ever knew -- to this day, I'm in awe of the representations of reality (and sometimes fantasy) that he used to create when we were kids, using only paper and a pencil -- I took it as the ultimate compliment. But I thought he was kind of out of his mind. I can barely draw a straight line!

Eventually, I learned to expand my definition of "artist." By the time my friend Hernan in Buenos Aires called me an artist simply on the evidence of my reaction to watching Lisa Stansfield's "So Natural" video -- His implication: It takes an artist to respond to artistry so passionately and singularly -- I was willing to reluctantly accept the tag, though I don't believe he ever read a word I wrote that wasn't in the form of a text message. (Emails, texts, IMs and Spanish homework aside, I took about 15 months off from writing after I moved to BA.)

I'm still not sure that I am willing to include myself among the hallowed group of people I respect possibly more than anyone who's ever roamed God's green earth (true artists like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Van Gogh, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin), but by the definition that I assign to "artist" -- someone who creates something tangible from the intangible -- I suppose that I might qualify. When I presented this idea to my friend Gavin, a singer, songwriter and musician who lives in Toronto, he agreed before taking us on one of our usual conversation detours. It led to our revisiting an old debate about interpretive singers, this time focusing on whether producing something "new" out of something pre-existing is true artistry.

My initial inclination is always to side with interpretive singers, especially since I've always considered the gift of interpretive singing to be an undervalued one, especially in this day and age when powerful A-list singers angle for credibility -- and increased royalties -- by insisting on songwriting credits for other people's work. Many jazz greats and performers of the Great American Songbook never wrote a word they sang, but they are as vital to the history of recorded music as the George and Ira Gershwins, the Irving Berlins and the Cole Porters; the Tin Pan Alley, Motown and Philly Soul song maestros; and the poets and great confessional singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s onward.

There certainly can be artistry in interpretation, in taking someone else's song and transforming it into something completely new and different. What Aretha Franklin did with some of her greatest hits, songs like "Respect," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Spanish Harlem," songs that were written by fellow songwriters, is nothing short of miraculous artistry. But then, all interpretive singers are not created equal. Where, for instance, does Celine Dion, singer of 1996's Album of the Year Grammy-winning Falling Into You, fall?

Gavin had a perfect response, one that I'm jealous I didn't come up with first.

"Though I respect Celine Dion for her drive and work ethic, I don't think of her so much as an artist as an athlete. To me, her abilities are primarily physical. She sings the hell out of other people's songs. I realize there's a certain artistry to interpreting and personifying songs. I just think of it as a different thing, and the word 'artist' doesn't come to mind. 'Actor' or 'athlete' does."

Words, or one of Dion's ballads, couldn't express how hard I fell for Gavin's athlete analogy. It was impossible for me to argue with it, so I decided to add to it. In accordance with my obsession with listing and organizing, I decided to categorize female singers who are thought of as being primarily interpreters of song. Who are the "artists" and who are the "athletes"? In the "athlete" column, I dropped the following names: Dion, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston and early Mariah Carey, singers whose primary emphasis is/was on technique and presentation.

In the video above, Shirley Bassey looks and sounds great, but pay attention to her expressions and to her gestures. They're all so stagey, just like her trademark gusto and enunciation. Does she appear to be feeling what she's singing? It's all an act, her act. No wonder the word "actor" comes to Gavin's mind when he listens to/watches this expensive brand of singer. It's all very measured and rehearsed.

In her heyday, Linda Ronstadt was considerably less hammy than the Basseys and the Streisands. She was and still is one of the most incredible singers ever to grace Billboard's Hot 100. Though she was, by most accounts that I've heard (and from the evidence I gathered in my one interview with her), opinionated and strong-willed, her primary contribution was her voice. Most of her hit singles had previously been singles for other singers, and Ronstadt was never known for taking the classics to unexpected places. What she did was sing them well -- extremely well -- but did anyone actually ever think of her as that forlorn lovesick girl on blue bayou? We were just blown away by her voice. Yes, that voice again.

Consider "You're No Good," her only No. 1 single. Its instrumental coda is possibly the best moment in any of her recorded work, yet it had absolutely nothing to do with her. In fact, I recently listened to an interview with the late Andrew Gold, a singer-songwriter and musician who worked extensively with Ronstadt in the '70s, in which he revealed that she initially hated the instrumentation of "You're No Good." (In Gold's words: "She heard it and said, 'What the hell is all this Beatles stuff all over this track?'... She was like, 'Wow, this is too much,' and she didn't like it at first.") But what an Olympian vocal performance. What a musical athlete!

The interpretive-singer branch of the "artist" category ended up being far more eclectic, filled with stranger talents: Franklin, Tammy Wynette, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Roberta Flack, Anita Baker, Emmylou Harris... I immediately noticed some similarities among them. With the exception of Dionne and Dusty, all of the female "artists" are/were gifted songwriters as well as singers. Flack even enjoyed success as a producer of her own albums in the '70s. Perhaps they bring/brought some elements of their approach to songwriting to their singing and therefore offer/offered a unique perspective with their un-originals that typically cast them in a revelatory light.

Maybe it's the emphasis not on reinventing outside compositions but on belting and showcasing one's voice that conjures an image of a singing athlete. That's why Streisand, who did co-write several of her key hits and even won a Best Original Song Oscar for "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)," is more "athlete" than "artist," while Dionne and Dusty, never big belters or technicians, but more masters of unique phrasing, exude(d) the aura of artistry despite not being songwriters.

I felt as if I needed to add a third category here, a category that includes performers who may write (or more accurately, "co-write," and often more in the aforementioned behind-the-scenes political sense -- yeah, that would be you, Beyoncé) but aren't quite "artists," nor are they exactly "athletes" (though if the pop charts were the Olympics, Beyoncé would be swimming in gold medals). These would be the "performers," a category that includes the traditional pop stars with the singing prowess of mere mortals, people like Diana Ross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry and later Mariah Carey. (I almost added Lady Gaga, but I think she'd qualify as being part "athlete," part "artist," part "performer," part alien.)

For the most part, with the "performers," their producers deserve equal billing and in some cases, top billing. They're the queens of the video age. In concert, they rely on spectacle and costume changes because, well, that's entertainment, and for them, music appears to be less about expressing and moving (artistry) or impressing and excelling (athleticism) than entertaining. I could spend all day assigning singers to categories, but I'll stop myself here. Now that I've spent quality time listing and organizing, it's time to just enjoy the music.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

You've Got to Read This Book!: My First-Ever Press Release


Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World

New Memoir, Travelogue and Exploration of Race and Culture, Set for Release November 4, 2014

NEW YORK (August 15, 2014) - Veteran magazine editor and writer Jeremy Helligar will release his first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, a labor of love that he spent three years writing and eight years living, on November 4 via Amazon and other eBook retailers.

Is It True What They Say About Black Men? is a travelogue and memoir told from the point of view of a gay, black and well-traveled American, in self-imposed exile from New York City. His physical and emotional journey takes him from one continent to four (South America, Australia, Asia and Africa), all of which he calls home over the course of eight years.

Despite his demographic status as a gay black man (and the book's title, inspired by the one question he hears in every country and every language), Jeremy Helligar's life abroad and his search for adventure, love and a place to belong are defined by so much more than skin color, sexuality, or even gender. Most of all, his experiences - what happens to him and how he reacts to it - are shaped by a more universal trait: being human. In turn, his book is a universal documentation of love, lust and heartbreak, self-discovery and discovery of the world in which we live, adventure and awkward encounters as a stranger in strange lands. Think James Baldwin (whose Notes on a Native Son inspired Jeremy as much as music and The Golden Girls) and David Sedaris mixed with Eat Gay Love.

The prelude to Jeremy's story unfolded in New York City, where he spent the first 15 years of his journalism career on the editorial teams at People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, covering music, television, movies and celebrities, while interviewing many of the biggest stars on the planet, including Dolly Parton, Sting, Mary J. Blige and David Bowie, and standing up at least one former Beatle. (Ringo, of course!) In 2008, he launched his blog, Theme for Great Cities, a blend of travelogue, anecdotes, essays, pop culture and Sex and the City that has amassed a sizable international readership. He's written about travel for numerous print and online publications, including The Bangkok Post and Matador, and since February 2014, he's maintained a blog for The Huffington Post's Gay Voices.

Jeremy is currently based in Cape Town, where he spends most of his waking hours blogging, writing, running, thinking about his next book and wondering if he'll ever make it to Antarctica.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Songs from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40," May 6, 1972

Why do I do it? Why do I insist on organizing everything to death? Not just my living space, but my thoughts and, as it turns out, charts and lists, particularly the ones the late Casey Kasem used to count down weekly on "American Top 40." When I began downloading and listening to them several months ago, Casey's hit lists were pretty manageable mentally. Even if the ones between 1973 and 1984 hadn't already been organized in ascending order by sales and airplay, I probably could have listened to the charting songs from any given week and easily arranged them by pinpointing the timely musical movements around which most of them revolved.

And then I arrived at "American Top 40" for the week ending May 6, 1972. At first, my hopes weren't so high: I wasn't expecting to be fully entertained by a chart for a week that ended the day before I turned 3. Unlike the Billboard Top 40s I'd previously listened to, there would be fewer songs to bring back vivid memories from my youth since I don't recall a thing that I heard before 1973.

In the end, even if I didn't know all of the hits, I was familiar enough with most of the artists who recorded them that from Nos. 40 to 11, once or twice every 10 songs or so, there'd be a moment of true discovery about an act I thought I'd known: Oh, so Buffy Sainte-Marie actually had a hit single then? But whoa! What's this? Sonny & Cher going country at the big top? Color me entertained in full!

Sonny & Cher's "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" wasn't the only head-scratcher, though. Of all the retro AT 40 countdowns I've now listened to, I haven't sat through one with as much perplexing diversity as this. (In the early '80s, which is when I started listening to Casey's countdowns live during their initial run, it wasn't unusual to have up to a half dozen acts with two simultaneously charting songs.) Listening up while Casey counted down, I could hear the ascendance of post-Motown soul and the emergence of classic rock, but for all the rhymes, there was very little reason.

Take the Top 10 from a week in a year in which the music industry was still adjusting to Civil Rights. It was one of the most colorful ones in the history of Top 10s! Seven of the 10 biggest songs of the week were sung by black acts -- and that's without a disco or a rap hit in the bunch! Meanwhile, the lack of demographic diversity didn't stop it from being just as varied musically as any other week.

Would a 70 percent black Top 10 be the same today? (Lil Wayne probably would be the guest rapper on 50 percent of the hits, and the other half would be produced and co-written by Dr. Luke.) How far we haven't come since 1972. Those were the days.

39. "Ev'ry Day of My Life" Bobby Vinton An anachronistic No. 24 hit in the age of Philly and Southern soul and at the dawn of classic and progressive rock (see Yes, at No. 32, up 2 with "Roundabout"). It's like 1955's Best Picture Oscar nominee Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing sneaking into the 1972 Best Picture competition against The Godfather, Deliverance and Cabaret. I guess Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man" (up four to No. 24, heading to No. 1) would be the slightly anachronistic 1972 Best Picture nominee Sounder.

37. "Sylvia's Mother" Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show Before becoming Dr. Hook, a purveyor of late-'70s middle-of-the-road pop singles that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (like 1978's "Sharing the Night Together," No. 6, 1979's "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman," No. 6, and 1980's "Sexy Eyes," No. 5), Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show was a purveyor of early to mid-'70s quirky folk-rock that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (1972's "The Cover of Rolling Stone," No. 6, 1976's "Only Sixteen," No. 6 and credited to "Dr. Hook," and this future No. 6 that was the third of the week's five debuts).

36. Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love" Love Unlimited If only all '70s female vocal groups had been as unique as Barry White's protégé trio (featuring his future wife, Glodean James), male vocal groups probably would have dominated the charts even more than they did in the early '70s. This week, Love Unlimited was the only female vocal group in the Top 40, well below their male counterparts, who outnumbered them 4 to 1: The Jackson 5 with "Little Bitty Pretty One" at No. 26, The Dramatics with "In the Rain" at No. 15, The Chi-Lites with "Oh Girl" at No. 11 and The Stylistics with "Betcha By Golly, Wow" at No. 3. "Walkin' in the Rain" may have been Love Unlimited's biggest hit, but 1974's "Under the Influence of Love" was the one that was so ahead of its time, it could have been a hit decades later for Kylie Minogue, who had the good taste to cover it on her 2000 album, Light Years. Fun fact: Between Love Unlimited's and The Dramatics' then-latest hits, two songs in the Top 40 featured stormy sound effects.

31. "I Saw the Light" Todd Rundgren Though I can vividly recall Rundgren's two biggest hits -- this future No. 16, debuting, and the No. 5-to-be "Hello, It's Me" -- being radio staples in the '70s, I can't remember his ever really getting his due, especially considering that behind the scenes, he was one of the decade's MVPs. He produced Badfinger's 1971 Straight Up album (featuring "Baby Blue," which reached its No. 14 peak this week), two No. 1 hits for Grand Funk Railroad (1973's "We're an American Band" and 1974's "The Loco-motion"), and Meat Loaf's landmark 1977 Bat Out of Hell album.

30. "Jump Into the Fire" Nilsson How do you go from "Without You" (his signature song and a 1971 No. 1, written and originally recorded by the aforementioned Badfinger) to "Coconut" (a soon-to-be No. 8) to this (dropping 3 from its peak) on one album (1971's Nilsson Schmilsson)? It sounds like the dog-eared blueprint for the bridge that artists like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe would build between punk and new wave at the end of the decade. Fun fact: Though he was a well-respected songwriter, Nilsson's two biggest hits, "Without You" and 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" (No. 6), both were written by someone else.

29. "Taxi" Harry Chapin Is this single so haunting because its singer-songwriter would die nine years later in an automobile accident? Casey sounds so reverent talking about it, even quoting some of its closing lyrics, it's obvious he's a huge fan. (I'd be surprised if The Stylistics weren't his favorite group at the time.)

28. "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" The 5th Dimension I never realized that future Solid Gold host Marilyn McCoo's old group had a chart presence in the '70s, but this would make it all the way to No. 8, becoming the vocal group's penultimate Top 10 trip. Also, surprisingly, not totally flopping in the early '70s: Sonny & Cher, at No. 16, down 8 from their zenith, with the carnival-esque, not rodeo-esque, "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done." That reminds me: Why don't we have more unisex Top 40 acts now? In the '70s, they were everywhere: ABBA, Blondie, Boney M, Captain & Tennille, The Carpenters, Chic, Dawn, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship, Peaches & Herb, Rose Royce, Rufus, Starland Vocal Band, The Sylvers, Talking Heads... On this chart, in addition to the aforementioned two, we also had Gladys Knight and the Pips ("Help Me Make It Through the Night," No. 33) and The Staple Singers ("I'll Take You There," No. 7).

27. "Run Run Run" Jo Jo Gunne I guess you can say Jay Ferguson was to the '60s and '70s what John Waite was to the '70s and '80s, a guy who scored with two different bands and on his own. And like John Waite with The Babys, solo and with Bad English, I love Jay Ferguson whether he was going to No. 25 with Spirit (via 1968's "I Got a Line on You"), to No. 27 with Jo Jo Gunne, or to No. 9 seven years later, solo, with "Thunder Island," one of my favorite songs from 1978.

23. "Tumbling Dice" The Rolling Stones The highest debut of the week (en route to No. 7), as the band would again be the week ending May 8, 1976, when "Fool to Cry" entered at No. 20, en route to No. 10. I rarely think of this song when I think of the Stones, but it sounds a lot better than I remembered.

22. "Heart of Gold" Neil Young Ditto Young's only No. 1 (the oldest song in the Top 40, at 13 weeks), which I finally learned to appreciate 20 years later when the Harvest sequel, Harvest Moon, quietly became one of my favorite albums of 1992.

21. "Puppy Love" Donny Osmond Here's another difference between Osmond and his fellow early '70s teen idol Michael Jackson: When Jackson tackled a golden oldie ("Little Bitty Itty One," with The Jackson 5, at No. 25, or "Rockin' Robin," solo, at No. 4, down 2 from its runner-up peak), the result sounded completely of its time, like the song could have been written right before it was recorded. Today, though, Osmond's No. 3 take on Paul Anka's "Puppy Love" sounds haunted and hollow, like a relic from another place and time before Osmond was even born (in 1957).

20. "Slippin' Into Darkness" War Paving the way for The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang and Rufus later in the decade. War had just as many hits, but why doesn't anybody really talk about War today? A theory: Those early groups had a focal point (EWF, two), while War was a true ensemble with no breakout star after The Animal's Eric Burdon left the band. I guess that would make them the early to mid '70s psychedelic funk version of Foreigner.

12. "The Family of Man" Three Dog Night Chicago aside, my favorite group from the early '70s. I was going to say that if its members had written the band's hits, Three Dog Night would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then, Chicago, whose hits were self-penned, has yet to make it in either.

10. "Back Off Bugaloo" Ringo Starr The least respected ex-Beatle may have been the second most successful one in the half decade following the group's split (this, his second Top 10, was inching to No. 9), but 1973 No. 1s "Photograph" and "You're Sixteen" (which was a cover of Johnny Burnette's '60s hit) aside, has anyone racked up more huge forgotten hits?

9. "Look What You Done For Me" Al Green Sprinting toward No. 4 in its fifth week (though up only one), this song has the distinction of being the Green hit that came between his biggest (1971 No. 1 "Let's Stay Together") and his best ("I'm Still in Love with You," a 1972 No. 3).

8. "Doctor My Eyes" Jackson Browne One of the many interesting things I recently learned from watching a documentary on The Eagles: Glenn Frey learned how to write songs in the early '70s by listening to his then-roommate Browne compose his debut hit. Fun fact: The Jackson 5 (no relation) went to No. 9 in the UK in 1972 with a cover of "Doctor My Eyes" from Lookin' Through the Windows, the album that contained the aforementioned (twice) "Little Bitty Pretty One."

7. "I'll Take You There" The Staple Singers I've never noticed it before, but the first of the father-daughters quartet's two No. 1s (Up 11 in its third chart week) sounds less like a song than an improvised vocal jam, like the last few minutes of the Sunday morning song service at a black church.

6. "A Horse with No Name" America Speaking of Michael Jackson and covers, his remake of America's three-weeks-at-No.-1 debut was reworked as "A Place with No Name," a track on his 2014 posthumous album Xscape.

5. "Day Dreaming" Aretha Franklin The Queen of Soul is generally thought of as a stellar voice, but here's more proof (along with "Call Me," "Spirit in the Dark" and "Rock Steady," among her early '70s hits) that she could be as formidable a songwriter as many of her peers who were better known for doing more than just singing.

4. "Rockin' Robin" Michael Jackson And this, Donny Osmond, is how you tackle a golden oldie.

3. "Betcha By Golly, Wow" The Stylistics So romantic, so unsexy, so so good.

2. "I Gotcha" Joe Tex Despite his long string of chart hits and his reputation as being second only to James Brown among funk/soul masters in the early '70s, Tex might be the least remembered of all of this week's Top 10 artists. And were it not for Quentin Tarantino resurrecting it for the 1992 Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, "I Gotcha" might be a more forgotten song today than "Back Off Boogaloo," which is criminal because it may have been the most amazing thing in the entire Top 40 that week.

1. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Roberta Flack A Top 10 as strong as this one deserves to be capped by one of the most haunting and enduring love songs ever.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Racism in “Preference”: Afterthoughts on Using “Preference” to Justify Racism (And Yes, It’s Still Racism!)

Hindsight is 20/20 vision, which is too bad for bloggers who have grand epiphanies after pressing "Publish."

Once I read some of the responses to my latest HuffPost Gay Voices essay ("'I Don't Do Asians': The Dangers of Racial Discrimination in Dating"), I had a few new realizations too late to include them in the article, which was actually an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World.

Despite my having devoted much of the article --  and "You Can Get With This, Or You Can Get With That," the Black Sheep-inspired book chapter it excerpts --  to laying out an argument challenging those who blindly use "preference" as an excuse to exclude entire races and ethnicities from their dating pool, some dissenters to my HuffPost excerpt still used that same excuse without adding anything new or insightful to what is beginning to sound like a lazy automated response made by people who are just looking to avoid the "racist" tag while not having to think of the social consequences of what they say and do (or in this case, don't/won't do). Can we put the preferring-a-certain-race-is-like-preferring-brunettes-over-blondes argument to rest now? Please?

It's like when defenders of racist and homophobic speech and devil's advocates cite the First Amendment, which apparently gives everyone carte blanch to say and think whatever they want to, minorities, persecuted racial and ethnic groups, and gay people (who really should know better than to cherry pick using race and ethnicity while demanding full acceptance for themselves) be damned.

Yes, with some exceptions, we're all pretty much free to think something then say it out loud, even if it's at the expense of black people, Asians, or gays and lesbians. (Three of those exceptions: 1) If you're going to threaten the life of the U.S. President, or, really, anyone, you'd better do it at home rather than in public, with witnesses present. 2) Slander and libel, though difficult to prove in a court of law, also indicate that you really aren't free to say and write everything. 3) In Argentina, it's a crime to use a racial slur in public, though from personal experience, that rule isn't always enforced.) But does being legal make something right? Cheating on your spouse is not a crime. Is it not wrong, then? Is it exempt from being criticized or challenged?

As for preferences, yes, we are all entitled to them. (And as I stated in my essay and, by extension, in my book, preferring one thing over another is not the same as dismissing the latter outright.) But does that mean our preferences, especially when they involve race and ethnicity, can't be explored? Can we not dig deeper and try to determine why we prefer the way we do, or why a preference, when it involves race and ethnicity, might range from flirting with racism to taking it to bed?

Consider my recent Theme for Great Cities blog post , "The Most Egregious Example of Racism I've Yet to Encounter in South Africa." Can we be outraged by what "Wild fun" had the nerve to say to his black suitor without thinking about the thinking that led him to say it? For all we know, he could have plenty of black friends in real life. He could be like Justin Bieber, totally influenced by black culture, but still be perfectly capable of slurring black people in the right company (in Bieber's case, when surrounded by white people only, in the case of "Wild fun," when virtually surrounded by horny gay guys on Grindr).

I'm almost positive that "Wild fun" would excuse saying, "Fuck off Darkie," by saying, "I'm just not into black guys." Do we attack the symptom ("Fuck off Darkie") or the source ("I'm just not into black guys")? It's the source that leads to the symptom, whether or not we decide to scratch in public, as "Wild fun" did. One creates a mental environment that makes the other possible.

If a person were to say, "I'm not friends with white people because I prefer to be friends with black people," would that qualify as racist speech (despite being perfectly legal, thanks to the First Amendment)? And what about "I'm not friends with gay people because I prefer to be friends with straight people"? I think most people would agree that they would qualify as racist and homophobic statements, respectively. So why wouldn't this logic apply to the same kind of statement regarding sexual attraction?

It's one thing to say, "I prefer Latinos to whites because I find them more sexually attractive" and leave it at that. It's the voicing of what I consider to be a true preference. It might not be the most politically correct  --  or generous --  thing to say, but it's doesn't necessarily lead to excluding anyone the way statements that begin "I'm not attracted to…" and "I'm not into…" do. When you say, "I'm not attracted to white people," which is less a statement of preference than one of exclusion, you've made a blanket statement regarding race without possessing all of the facts about that race (unless you've met every white person on the planet), which is the cornerstone of prejudice. And racial prejudice, folks, is so closely related to racism that the terms are often used interchangeably.

"Preference is not a blockade."  --  Sarah Farma, It's a Curls World

Why is it so difficult for some people to grasp this? Why don't people realize that this sort of exclusionary thinking doesn't just affect sexual relationships. It also contributes to the dearth of opportunities for minorities in Hollywood, in advertising, in any field where a high premium is placed on physical beauty. The powers that be are merely catering to "preferences," giving the people what they think the people want. It's appalling how some of us can run around clamoring for more media representation of "real" people (fuller figured, flatter, hairier, less than even almost perfect) while declaring a personal lack of attraction to entire ethnic groups.

Advertising and Hollywood are about desire, fantasy, aspiration, so, of course, the images presented would cater to that. Does anyone dream of being less attractive, less rich, more average? Why would TPTB include as a representation of fantasy something that they don't think people fantasize about, which would include black people, Asians and myriad other under-represented groups?

Rather than rushing to their own defense against charges of racism and dropping the P word (yes, preference!), I wish more people in privileged majorities (and South Africa's privileged minority) would think harder - about underprivileged minorities (and in South Africa, the majority), about the underdogs, about the disenfranchised, about what they've been through, about how they feel when they hear "I'm not attracted to you" directed at their entire ethnic community. Yes, when it comes to preference, you're free to say, "It is what it is" (First Amendment rights strike again!), though it's actually more than that. Sometimes "It is what it is" is just avoidance masquerading as wisdom.

It's our prerogative to be attracted to whatever and whomever we are attracted to, but that doesn't make it beyond our control. Just because we don't have to dig deeper and face the ugly truth about our so-called "preferences" doesn't make them right. As a wise woman  --  actually women, actually SWV  --  once sang, "Use your heart and not your eyes." Think and feel, don't just see. When it comes to race, seeing without thinking and feeling (and without considering how other races think and feel) isn't just a gateway to racism. It's blindness.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Throwback Thursday: U.S.A. (and Other Countries) for Africa in Songs

I guess I had to be here.

That's what it took for me to fully appreciate pop music's rich history of songs dedicated to my current continental home. And sadly, when I was there (the Serengeti in Tanzania, that is), I didn't have "Africa," Toto 1982 single and the band's only No. 1 hit, on my soundtrack. Not only does the magical, mysterious musical mood perfectly capture the feeling of being out in the African wild (especially when the night comes, to quote then title of the 1989 No. 11 single by Joe Cocker, who, to my knowledge, never released a song about the "Dark Continent"), but so does its best lyric: "As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus from the Serengeti."

Sadly, I didn't get a clear view of Mount Kilimanjaro when we drove past it on the way from Arusha to Nairobi, but revisiting the golden Toto oldie was the next best thing to seeing Africa's highest peak un-obscured by haze. Ah, the power of great writing - and music.

"Zimbabwe" Bob Marley

"A Night in Tunisia" Chaka Khan

"Africa" Toto

"Under African Skies" Paul Simon

"Liberian Girl" Michael Jackson

"Gimme Hope Jo'anna" Eddy Grant

"Zimbabwae" Toni Childs

"Storms of Africa" Enya

"Durban Deep" Elton John

"Diamonds from Sierra Leone" Kanye West

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Is It True What They Say About Black Men?": Release Date Set!

It's taken me eight long years to live it and to finally finish writing it. Now my book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, has an official release date: November 4. The Election Day timing is probably more of a coincidence than it was when R.E.M. released its major-label debut, Green, on Election Day in 1988, the first U.S. Presidential election in which I voted. Hopefully, my book will fare more like Green than like Michael Dukakis!

Now that the easy part is over, the hard part -- getting the word out -- begins. Watch this space for updates.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The "Real" Thing: Love on Top of Love on Top of Love

What is it about real love? Somebody's always looking for it, losing it, or singing about it -- literally. In the '80s and '90s, "Real Love" made for one of the most overused titles in pop, country and R&B and some pretty decent songs. Then in 2010, a band called Beach House finally nailed the essence of real love with a "Real Love": "It finds you somewhere with your back to it." It only took 30 years!

Now, here's a musical history of "Real Love" in 14 songs.

"Real Love" The Doobie Brothers (1980) It must have been the afterglow from 1979's Grammy-winning chart-topping Minute By Minute album that lit up The Doobie Brothers' "Real Love" sent it burning up Billboard's Hot 100 in 1980 to No. 5 because as songs from the band's Michael McDonald era go, it's no match for lesser chart hits like "Takin' It to the Streets" (No. 13, 1976) and "Minute By Minute" (No. 14, 1979).

"Real Love" Lakeside (1983) A mostly forgotten band from the Midnight Star school of early '80s electro-funk-R&B, Lakeside is best remembered for 1980's "Fantastic Voyage" (No. 1 R&B, No. 55 pop), which, in turn, is best remembered as the sample source for Coolio's own "Fantastic Voyage," a 1994 No. 3 Hot 100 hit. Better to be remembered for someone else's song than no song at all.

"Real Love" Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (1985) To quote the title of a previous Dolly Parton No. 1, old flames, like the one that fired up the country superstars' second joint No. 1 country hit, can't hold a candle to "Islands in the Stream."

"Real Love" El DeBarge (1989) My favorite "Real Love" of the 20th century, and yet of all the ones that were released as singles (Lakeside's aside), the smallest hit. Although it went Top 10 on the R&B chart (No. 8), it never touched the Hot 100.

"Real Love" Jody Watley (1989) Like "Looking for a New Love," Watley's "Real Love" also stalled in the Hot 100's runner-up position, which, commercially speaking, nonetheless qualifies it as the greatest "Real Love" of all.

"Real Love" Stephanie Mills (1989) I bought Mills' final gold album on cassette shortly after it came out, and four out of every five times I listened to it, I probably fast forwarded through Track 2 ("Real Love") to get from the opening song ("Something in the Way [You Make Me Feel]," a No. 1 R&B single) to the title track (also a No. 1 hit) faster.

"Real Love" Skyy (1990) Now here's a neat coincidence. Nine months after Jody Watley's "Real Love" preceded Skyy's comeback hit "Start of a Romance" at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Black Singles (as it was named from June of 1982 through October of 1990), Skyy came back again, topping the R&B hit list with its own "Real Love." It was the third Top 10 R&B hit with that title in less than one year.

"Real Love" Lisa Stansfield (1991) My favorite new artist of the early '90s regarded her "Real Love" highly enough to make it the title song of her sophomore album, which probably deserved to be called All Woman, after its second single and the third of her three No. 1 R&B hits.

"The Real Love" Bob Seger (1991) If it weren't for Seger's No. 24 single, he would have gone down in history as one of rock era's few established Top 40 artists who scored their biggest hit (in Seger's case, "Shakedown," his only No. 1, from 1987) and then never again hit the Top 40. That dubious distinction, by the way, goes to Billy Squier, Deniece Williams, Sweet Sensation, James Ingram and Cher, the latter four of whom went to No. 1 with their Top 40 swan songs. In the case of collaboration king Ingram, his 1990 No. 1 "I Don't Have a Heart" wasn't his biggest No. 1 (an honor that goes to 1983's "Baby, Come to Me," a duet with Patti Austin), but it was his first and final solo single to chart on the Hot 100.

"Gimme Real Love" Helen Bruner (1991) The house classic that made Bruner a Friday night (at Limelight) and Saturday night (at the Roxy) fixture in my life during my first months in New York City.

"Real Love" Mary J. Blige (1992) What did Blige's sophomore single ("Real Love") have that her debut ("You Remind Me") didn't? Although both topped the R&B chart, "Real Love" was also a Top 10 crossover (No. 7), while "You Remind Me" topped out at a relatively lowly No. 29.

"Real Love" Slaughter (1992) This third-tier early '90s hair-metal band had more of a Hot 100 presence (four chart hits) than I remembered. It began with the group's 1990 debut ("Up All Night," No. 27), peaked commercially and creatively with 1991's "Fly to the Angels (No. 19), and ended with its take on the subject of the day (No. 69).

"Real Love" The Beatles (1998) One of those "new" Beatles songs from the '90s that the world probably could have done without. The John Lennon solo outtake that the surviving Beatles plundered for the band's Anthology 2, went to No. 11, becoming the band's final Top 40 hit to date.

"Real Love" Beach House (2010) I spent so much time listening to "Zebra" on repeat when I first discovered Beach House that it took me forever to get past the opening song on the underground buzz band's 2010 album, Teen Dream. That might explain why I went so long thinking frontwoman Victoria Legrand was actually a guy who sings like a girl, for on "Real Love" (track 9), she is, to quote the aforementioned Lisa Stansfield, all woman -- tough, vulnerable and achingly lovely.