‘It’s Been A Minute’ examines black artists on American culture: NPR

The NPR podcast explores the reaction to black performers in America. For example: At the start of Whitney Houston’s career, white America was in love with her, while black America was skeptical.



STEVE INSKEEP, HTE:

Here is a reality of entertainment in a large, diverse country – a new star takes the stage or the screen, everyone sees the exact same performance, but different audiences receive it differently. We bring ourselves to a performance. Part of the show is our state of mind as we see it. A writer explored an iconic case and spoke about it with Sam Sanders from the NPR podcast It’s Been A Minute.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hanif Abdurraqib has come out with a new essay book. It is titled “A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance”. So, in this book, Hanif examines the legacy of everyone, from Aretha Franklin to Don Cornelius, the guy who made “Soul Train”. And what I love about all of these essays is how they make you rethink those performers and performances that you might think you already know pretty well, like Whitney Houston. Hanif has an essay in there all on it. Hanif says there was a point early in Whitney’s career when white America seemed totally in love with Whitney Houston while black America was much more skeptical. This is Hanif Abdurraqib.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: So at the 1988 Grammys, Whitney Houston opened the show by performing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. It was the first performance. It was kind of like, welcome to the Grammys. Here is one thing. Boom.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

WHITNEY HOUSTON: Woo.

ABDURRAQIB: It’s very choreographed, of course, because it’s a song about movement. But she looks really confused. She’s, like, in those really high heels. She holds the microphone very close to her, movement very stiff, not awkward.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

HOUSTON: (Vocalizing).

ABDURRAQIB: The performance is split into two parts because they needed to leave room for the announcer to be like, tonight at the Grammys, we’ll have this long list of people.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ADVERTISER # 1: Robbie Robertson, Diana Ross, Run DMC.

ABDURRAQIB: And then Whitney Houston comes back for the final chorus.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

HOUSTON: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) With someone who loves me.

ABDURRAQIB: But what happens when she comes out is that she’s in a dress that is a little more conducive to movement. She just looks looser and freer. And she sort of walks up to the top of the stage where she finds a big black dancer, and they have a moment that, in the end, doesn’t feel like choreographed. Like, they’re holding hands. He spins her around. For a very brief moment, she seems immensely free.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

HOUSTON: (singing) Don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance. Don’t you wanna dance?

ABDURRAQIB: Looks like she’s thinking, I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m having a good time, it’s a time that I was able to come to in my life, a time that so many people that I know ‘ve got in their life.

(EXCERPT FROM THE 1988 GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

HOUSTON: (singing) Oh, I wanna dance.

ABDURRAQIB: Yes, this performance continues because of this moment.

SANDERS: Yeah. She performs a song from a decidedly mainstream and crossover pop album, which annoyed some black listeners. And on the biggest stage in music, she can’t even dance to it. Like, what do you think black people watching the Grammys back then were thinking about it all the way they saw it?

ABDURRAQIB: My God, you know, in some ways there seems to have been some confirmation that Whitney wasn’t black enough. And I think there have been some really generous and thoughtful corrections on this, especially after Whitney’s passing. But even when she was alive, I think there was some consideration of how she was treated early in her career. But I mean, for now, yeah, I think that just added to the uncertainty some black people have expressed about Whitney’s kind of good faith and her credentials.

SANDERS: And the Grammys overall throughout his career, they like him, don’t they?

ABDURRAQIB: Yes.

SANDERS: But at the same time, Whitney Houston, that record-breaking black artist, she’s having a big problem with the all-black or mostly black Black Soul Train Awards. Some people there don’t like her and boo her. Like, explain – set this up.

ABDURRAQIB: Two years in a row. And I feel like what gets the most attention is the boos of 1989 because it’s like, you know, the clearest. But in 1988, if you listen closely, they booed each other when the sound system played “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and the video was late on screen.

(EXTRACT FROM THE 1988 SOUL TRAIN AWARDS BROADCASTING)

UNIDENTIFIED ADVERTISER # 2: Whitney Houston – “I wanna dance with someone.”

ABDURRAQIB: But in 1989 she got booed when they announced her single.

(EXTRACT FROM THE 1988 SOUL TRAIN AWARDS BROADCASTING)

UNIDENTIFIED ADVERTISER # 3: “Where Broken Hearts Go” – Whitney Houston.

(BOOING)

ABDURRAQIB: I have the impression that the blacks that I know and that I have known are not afraid to express their dissatisfaction. I mean, in the book – another point in the book, I’m talking about the Apollo, which is …

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: … Just – it works on those expressions of annoyance.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: It’s kind of telling the truth, isn’t it?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: Now, I was never booed off the stage, but I was told to tighten up, you know, in a way that isn’t soft by the black people in my life. And I appreciate that. Sure, would I appreciate being booed at the Soul Train Awards? No, but I think this language translates.

SANDERS: What does that say about how we accept or don’t accept the black performance period? Like, does a black performance ever make everyone happy?

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, of course not. And fortunately not. I’m happy that there isn’t a black performance that makes everyone happy. It is vital. How we understand ourselves is vital to the ecosystem. When I say I don’t like something, it’s rarely a dead end. Sometimes I feel like having a conversation with someone who maybe enjoyed it. I find these black conversations to have been so enriching for me throughout my life as a writer, thinker, curious about popular culture.

SANDERS: I love hearing you say that because Whitney Houston’s relationship with the Soul Train Awards, it wasn’t a dead end either. You write that after being booed, she ends up making an album that sounds a little darker. There is a new swing jack in progress. She has Babyface and others helping her produce it. And she won a Soul Train Award. And then she goes up there to make a speech, and that stops everyone in their tracks.

ABDURRAQIB: Yes. Well, she gives a speech that opens first by talking about Sammy Davis Jr. and how he performed in nightclubs for white people, but …

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

HOUSTON: African American patrons couldn’t walk through the front door of the same club to see the show.

ABDURRAQIB: And there’s this point in the speech that I love where she talks about how Sammy Davis Jr. not only had to endure the humiliation of discrimination from whites, but also the insults of her own people.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

HOUSTON: Who blamed him for trying to rise above ignorance and hatred, not through rhetoric but through his work.

ABDURRAQIB: And when she speaks the words of her own people, she raises her eyebrows and kind of does a quick sweep of the audience just to let the – almost like …

SANDERS: She says I’m talking about all of you.

ABDURRAQIB: Yes. Just to let them know she hasn’t forgotten. It’s, like, such a subtle thing in speech. But it’s my favorite thing because she does it without bitterness. Like, the speech is always steeped in gratitude.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

HOUSTON: Thank you people.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: And they still love him for it.

ABDURRAQIB: Yes, because they know.

SANDERS: In total, during her career, Whitney Houston has won seven Soul Train Music Awards, eight Grammys, and millions of hearts. It was part of my conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib. His new essay book is called “A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance”. You can hear our entire discussion on my podcast, It’s Been A Minute. I am Sam Sanders.

(EXTRACT FROM THE SONG, “I’M YOUR BABY TONIGHT”)

HOUSTON: (singing) Whatever you want from me, I’ll give you everything.

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