A Little Song I Wrote
Of all the offbeat locales my book has carried me, the strangest has been into the talent management office of the vocalist Bobby McFerrin, a few floors above The Strand Bookstore in the vicinity of New York City’s Union Square, where I was brought, unknowingly, to defend my faith. On one hand, I felt at ease in the office. Except for its Grammy statues it looked a little like my living room. The walls, shelves, and floor were covered with treasures from around the world—an elaborately carved wooden door from India, model ships with complicated rigging, brass studded bird sculptures and dolls from West Africa—signs that McFerrin’s producer, Linda, who had read my book on a recent trip to Haiti, was a collector as well as an avid traveller and accomplished businesswoman.
On the other hand, it was odd that I should be there at all. I do have fond feelings for Bobby McFerrin, not just for his joyful Grammy-winning smash hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which was America’s soundtrack for a spell in 1989 when I was in the seventh grade, but also for an equally joyful live performance I caught of him conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra at the Kimmel Center on Martin Luther King Day in 2003. I remember him wearing a tux with tails at that concert, his dreadlocks loose as jump ropes, and his feet bare on the gleaming blond wood stage. I had a vertiginous nosebleed seat in the third balcony, so far off to the side and so steeply positioned that my view was as much of the tops of the heads of audience, with its wide display of male pattern baldness, as it was of the musicians. The standout number of that evening’s repertoire was Gabriel Faure’s Pavane in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 50, during which Bobby McFerrin traded the melodic line on and off with the orchestra. At one point near the coda he sounded so nearly like the oboe that the two were indistinguishable, and I found myself in tears over the miracle of the human voice.
When I was a girl, Martin Luther King Day was usually celebrated with a school assembly sing-along of “We Shall Overcome,” clips of Eyes on the Prize, or a recording of one of King’s speeches—either the “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington or the final sermon he delivered in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated. Like Moses, he had been to the mountaintop and looked over, and he wanted us to know that though he may not get there with us, he had seen the Promised Land, and we, as a people, would get there. That Bobby McFerrin was the Kimmel Center’s choice for commemoration of Martin Luther King Day was about as peculiar a choice as myself for commentary on Bobby McFerrin’s new album, spirityouall. Yet, as far as I understood, my commentary was desired. I’d been sent an advance, un-mastered digital copy of the record with the admonition not to share it. The interview had been arranged through my publisher, with little detail besides the address.
Spirityouall consisted, predominantly, of spiritual songs. A few of them were Negro Spirituals, and I knew a little bit about the history and significance of those songs, such as “Wade in the Water,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with their coded references to the Underground Railroad and raw yearning for the promised land. The marketing copy attending the album mentioned that McFerrin’s father, the baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., had been the first African-American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera and that his only recorded album, Deep River, which contained some of the same selections as on spirityouall, had been an inspiration to his son. Maybe, I thought, the producer wanted me to speak about these songs.
I liked Linda at once. She wore funky glasses with red plastic frames and spoke her mind with a kind of post-menopausal brashness she may just as easily have cultivated, while young, from Mae West movies, the wisecracks of Dorothy Parker, or the punk style of Patti Smith—a kind of of brassiness I sometimes fear I’ll never attain, no matter how old I get. Linda had been in the music business since the late seventies. “Do you look like a Valentine on purpose?” she asked me when I showed up. It was Valentine’s Day and beneath my pink maternity coat I was eight and a half months pregnant, round as a heart. When I shared that my husband and I planned to name our daughter Delilah LaValle she hooted, “That sounds like the name of a New Orleans hooker!” This was just it. I wanted my daughter to have such a mouth.
I believed, at this point, that I might actually be interviewing Bobby McFerrin himself. I hoped I would be, but so far the only sign of the man was a bobble-head doll in his likeness perched on Linda’s file cabinet. I liked the idea of him targeting the Ave Maria or some wordless and magical song right at my belly. I imagined the intrauterine gymnastics my daughter would perform at the nimble flame of his sound. Linda introduced me to her assistant, a cameraman, and a sound technician, all wearing black, as you might expect of people in the music industry. They invited me into a tight recording studio with a red velvet couch and a platter of fresh fruit. I was handed a bottle of water and invited to sit on the couch before the camera. The little camera light blinked on. It was now evident that I would not be interviewing Bobby McFerrin but was there to be interviewed myself.
“A lot of his fans don’t know this about him, but Bobby is a practicing Christian,” the assistant began.
“What would you say about this album to listeners who don’t reach for Jesus music?” asked the cameraman.
“To fans who might be turned off by a song called, ‘Fix Me Jesus’?” added the technician.
I was unprepared for this line of prosecution. It made me feel I was on the witness stand. I muddled through something academic about the history of religious music in the black church, the bedrock of so many other American musical forms, the blues, and rock and roll and so forth, the forward-looking jazziness of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” the recurring reference to crossing the river Jordan and entering Zion in other slave songs, and the kinship slaves in America felt with the Hebrew slaves of the Bible—an association that not only allowed them to imagine entering a promised land of their own but was in point of fact their entry point into the Christian faith.
“Okay, but let’s say you don’t personally come from a history of oppression?” pushed the cameraman.
“What if you think Jesus is for right-wing Evangelicals?” asked the assistant.
I was growing hot. I uncapped the water bottle and took a swig. I’d wandered into vaguely hostile territory. Delilah kicked me in the ribs. I imagined her saying, “Speak up.”
“What is ‘faith’ anyway?” Linda asked. I could hear the quotation marks around the word as she said it. She was that kind of broad. “Isn’t it what you grab for in the dark when your back’s against the wall? Isn’t faith just a sucker’s bet?”
“Don’t let them call you a sucker, Mama,” said my daughter.
“You’re worried that this album won’t sell if people think Bobby McFerrin’s a Jesus freak,” I guessed.
“Bingo,” said Linda.
The day before this was Ash Wednesday, when I’d visited another place that was foreign to me—the law offices of my cousin Lorraine, in the CBS building between 52nd and 53rd Street on 6th Ave. Lorraine had invited me to speak about my book as the first of her firm’s yearly diversity events. When she greeted me at the bank of elevators on the 23rd floor, the first thing I observed about my cousin was the cross of ashes on her forehead, a ritual I hadn’t received in years but somehow missed and remembered with sensual fondness—the thumb pad of the priest drawing the mark of suffering firmly against my third eye, as well as the experience of being looked at and seen by others with a degree of strangeness throughout the day.
Lorraine asked how I was feeling before ushering me into a conference room. I caught myself in the middle of a complaint about the intense pressure of the baby’s head in my pelvis. My cousin, in addition to being a tiny woman, is the mother of triplets. Compared to her, I don’t know the meaning of suffering maternity. Among other family snapshots, I keep on my refrigerator beneath a plastic magnet in the shape of a red chili pepper a 2″x3″ picture of Lorraine at a fundraising function with her girls and their father, who owns a BMW dealership in New Jersey, posed with President Obama, the group of them smiling and flanked by two American flags.
Before an audience of seventy-some-odd lawyers, Lorraine preceded my talk by reading a carefully prepared personal introduction on the topic of diversity. It touched first on the pitifully small number of African Americans practicing law, even now, and second on the “flag day” held at the Catholic girls’ school her daughters attend. This too was a stab at diversity, she explained, wherein the students are invited to march under the flag of the nation their ancestors immigrated from. Though Lorraine was glad the school had made this attempt, it saddened her that her girls, being Black and descended from slaves forced to this country in bondage, had no identifiable ancestral flag to march beneath. Her girls’ remedy to this problem, my cousin explained, was to create their own flag for Planet Earth.
The lawyers laughed at that, as they were meant to, but there was an element of risk and bravery in my cousin’s disclosure. Notwithstanding the Black president in the White House, notwithstanding her personal achievements, she was marking her citizenry as different and attached to suffering, and doubly so because of the cross of ashes on her head. Questions of homeland and belonging, she concluded, were still pressing for her daughters, just as they had been for her, and for me. I then showed her colleagues a slideshow of my travels across Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the Southern United States, where I had spent ten years researching a place that is hard to locate and harder to inhabit—Zion. I wasn’t thinking of Zion as it’s typically conceived, as a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora, but as it’s conceived in the African Diaspora, as a longstanding metaphor for freedom. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I’d been trying to find home.
What had Linda read in my book that convinced her I could speak convincingly about faith to nonbelievers? I had never been asked to defend my faith, such as it was, and certainly never on Bobby McFerrin’s behalf. I will say nothing about the quality of his new album here, since I was not paid to do so. I recognized that I’d been called upon to testify, and I tried, for my daughter’s sake, to forget that my testimony was to be used for commercial reasons. I knew she might upturn this video segment someday on the Internet. How McFerrin’s marketers would choose to use it was not in my hands, but I wanted, if I could, to say something personal and true.
The Pavane that I’d heard Bobby McFerrin conduct in Philadelphia ten years before borrows its rhythm from the slow processional Spanish court dance of the same name. It waxes and wanes from a series of melodic and harmonic climaxes, conjuring a haunting, nearly sexual, peak. You hear the same dance in the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. The voice is at turns weary, beseeching, angry, cascading here, crescendo-ing there. Yet his modulation of the word ‘home,’ with its poetically elongated soft ‘h’ and its aspirational phrasing, is much like the note I heard Bobby McFerrin reach for and trade with the woodwind, turning himself, like a trickster, from a man into an instrument of some large and mysterious rhapsody.
In the end I said something about the power of metaphor. How Martin Luther King wasn’t talking about a country when he spoke about the Promised Land. He wasn’t talking just to Black folks, just to Christians, or just to Americans. He was talking, more simply, or more complexly, and quite radically, about how to love each other. As was Christ. When I gave birth to Delilah’s older brother, it was Christ’s name I called out during the hardest part of labor, as he pushed through the proverbial “ring of fire,”—Jesus, Jesus Christ. It will likely be what I cry out, as prayer and curse, when Delilah makes the same passage. It’s possible I cried out Christ’s name when both of my children were conceived. Do I believe the man literally walked on water? No. But I might reach for such a metaphor when it comes time to perform the more ordinary miracle of giving birth.
The camera, by now, had left my face and was directed at my belly. My hands rested there, the tips of my thumbs and pointer fingers unconsciously touching such that they made a Valentine heart. “She’s Got The Whole World In Her Hands,” said the producer. This was one of the covers on Bobby McFerrin’s new album, and would make a fitting soundtrack to my remarks. “It’s a wrap,” she told her team. The cameraman turned off the camera. The interview was done. I realized uneasily that I had made a very good advertisement after all. Then, in response to a tuning fork the rest of us were deaf to, the baby revolved her head in the direction home.
Emily Raboteau is the author, most recently, of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora.