The Last Black Stage

Harmony Holiday
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I’m submerged in the heap of abandoned ruins we call our archives again, digging for jettisoned aspects Black life. So much of Black people’s activity on earth has been singed and reimagined that it’s difficult to differentiate Black beauty from the aestheticized rotting of our neglected traditions. This time I’m searching backstage, digging for the moments before and between performances when everyone is most alive and the unedited personality slips the persona’s grip. I’m looking here because the white gaze does not know how to look here, except as reportage, so there are neglected codes and secret experiences that appear on the outskirts of intentional performance—listless or intense asides that become their own language of retreat and advance, their own music. 

I knew early on that backstage was important territory: I was born there. My dad was always between performances, and in many ways life at home unraveled like a rehearsal tape, as preparation for a performance. Home was always teetering on the border of private and public, full of undisclosed events, readying for something grand or visible. It was always dangerous in the way it’s dangerous to go behind the curtain or hear the speaking voice of your favorite singer for the first time, or watch him kiss or slap his wife. I knew nothing Black performers did onstage was complete, because I existed backstage, where the masquerade could not pass, where the heart broke and settled into its private fantasy, where grunts and drugs and ugly-slurring stumbles toward the imaginary audience to tell it about itself made up the real substance of our music. You can’t record those slurs and forced errors; engineers think of them as mistakes, glitches, even scandals. We must reimagine them as landmarks on the long journey to belonging somewhere without being property or prop, part of the way we reinvent ourselves when we become too popular to trust ourselves.

I see rehearsal space, rehearsal tapes, dressing rooms, cooking sessions, woodsheds, after-hours performances, and backstage as Black sacred spaces, places where we are most like ourselves, where we fray and ignite, where the real show begins and in some cases also ends or diminishes—formal performances being minstrel versions of the intentions that survive only on their outskirts. There’s an oral and gestural history of the interactions in all these clandestine spheres surrounding the stage, which are one sphere of deconstructed performance practice where life and art collaborate to outwit the market and make beautiful interludes that cannot be readily packaged and sold and consumed. In these moments of rejecting showmanship, we undo the self-cannibalizing aspects of Black performance in the West with a tattered, unedited coming together, with bonds built of interruptions, clumsiness, pandemonium, elegance, secret exchanges that force us to confront what we deny about ourselves because they reveal how we behave when we think the gaze is attenuated. Improvisation fails when it is insincere, so our best music comes from these intimate places, off-limits to most critics, fans, and spectators. 

Such are the moments when Black entertainers—through belligerence, exhaustion, or a return to total unadorned authenticity—reject the gaze, refuse their role, and allow we who are willing to face the breakdown of our fantasies to witness something real and impossible to forget or replicate. These moments are aberrations we must snatch out of time and use to reassemble our understanding of those whom we bombard with desire and expectation, those Black artists whom we have trapped in our ideas of them. 

Our Bidding 

Black performance as we know it today begins at auction; the repudiation of the gaze begins there too. The auction block was the first Black stage in the West, and its transactional acoustics are one of the first muses we brought backstage. The holds of slave ships—as opposed to the ship decks where we were made to dance—were an earlier version of “backstage,” but the margins of auctions replaced that purgatory. For this reason, we know innately that fame and attention aren’t as generative as privacy, or as being left alone or even abandoned. Black music is always working toward a cipher or safe space or choosing to deliver charades onstage so our true sound can exist elsewhere, unscathed by buyers, thieves, and vigilantes. We pursue an orphaned sound over a surveilled and readily traceable sound. 

Me and the Devil Blues 

On the plantation, I imagine the field was backstage for house slaves, the place where they could cease performing poised domestic service, and maybe the ritual of the work song offered a similar reprieve to field slaves. You could sing anything that seemed to boost morale and productivity; you could sing in code about killing or escaping your captor, and they might overhear and mistake it for a plea or a pastime or religion. The house slave might join in and pretend to be worshiping with her kin. And then there’s the blues, the music of being on your way to freedom but stuck in some hedonistic pattern or lack or yearning, still captive, lamenting, praising. 

What we call the blues, as both feeling and sound, is a tonal quality built of private gestures so candid they make their confessional quality seem mythic and apocryphal. They hide behind their own openness, seemingly too literal to perceive as anything other than what they appear to be. When Robert Johnson sings, “Me and the devil / was walkin’ side by side… / and I’m going to beat my woman / until I get satisfied,” he is recounting a true story of intimacy, of being possessed and possessing others in the endless domino effect of power dynamics. He invited us into that hell with him. We were too spooked to attend. In the same song, he lets us know he is not the flesh; he is not begging to be saved or sanctified or even trusted. To hear him, we have to give up some of our own puritanism. The Delta blues, as embodied by Robert Johnson’s making of a stage out of no stage, invited everybody who encountered it into that exclusive and uncanny world, while protecting that world by forcing listeners to meet it in its own rhythm and in its chosen vernacular, which meant losing many to their projections. This is why Jimmy Baldwin equates listening to the blues abroad (in Switzerland) with going home, almost as if for the first time, to his native mood and its native cadence. This is a music that shape-shifts, that is different onstage than in the land that birthed it, that can occupy any land it visits, that does not translate. The blues is always offstage and will haunt you if you try to bend it to your understanding of artifice. The blues rejects the stage because it rejects the auction, the house, the field, the forced labor. It runs, goes somewhere, goes away walking, walks away from you, and you have to follow it in its direction to hear it. In this way, it is inextricably linked to spirituals, to faith, and to wandering. 

So What

Miles Davis, derided by critics for turning his back to the audience during performances, was upholding the blues tradition, taking you on a journey with him but not making himself a genie whose bottle you could rub until he played your favorite sound. He turned away so he could improvise, and also to make a point about leading a band versus being an entertainer or clown. White conductors turned their backs out of custom and got to play onstage as if they were in rehearsal. Miles had a keen understanding of classist and racist power dynamics, and knew he deserved that same dignity. He didn’t care who agreed. This sense of sovereignty allowed him to retire for years, only to return with a new sound, to retreat often and come back with reworked bands and styles, to constantly and relentlessly reinvent himself and burn off his karma, to be aloof and warm and evil and tender all at the same time. Backstage before a show in France, swarmed by white reporters, he makes his way through them to kiss his Black girlfriend and whisper something to her that we never get to hear—his real blue sound. Whenever he’s in France, he makes his way to Saint Paul de Vence to visit his friend James Baldwin and whisper something to him that we never got to hear, his real on-the-road Black sound. We piece Miles together through incidents, feeling entitled to be as cool as he is without paying the dues he paid, including suffering his own evil streak. A whole generation of Black boys with the blues longs to become Miles Davis, without a ghost of a chance. 

Pastoral Scene 

Billie Holiday’s husband beats her bloody before a performance and she adjusts her dress to hide the lumps and bruises while her boxer licks the cocaine off the dressing room floor. Four eyes stare into the mirror, which is crowned by light bulbs like in the movies. Their eyes are dilated into stones by the high, about to drip off into a canyon of song and snap, “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” Billie croons out there. No one who doesn’t already know this or live this will see this preface to her performance. This, too, is a manner of code switching, turning off trauma and using the stage to numb what cannot be mended. So many Black women we know as divas did this habitually, out of necessity: Billie, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and many others who never confessed to it, who were beaten backstage or before shows, immaculate in performance, proving the danger they were in by disguising it. 

As a Robot 

Nina Simone violates the illusion of invulnerability that comes with performance by having direct conversations with her audience, even snapping at them when necessary to get their undivided attention. “As a robot gets itself together and we do it, and we get to the middle, where we have forgotten our feelings of love, you will help me, huh?” she quips during her performance of “Feelings.” We are backstage then; we go behind the curtain to get ourselves together before we get to the part where we have forgotten our feelings of love. The point of going backstage is to never get to that part, to skip that part, to remember our feelings of love, to never succumb to the mechanics of any performance for long enough that it becomes automatic and loveless. Backstage is a Black sacred space because in experiencing and recalling its painful and glorious intimacies, its sickly ostentations, we can abandon them to memories so vivid they are love itself. Backstage is anywhere we help one another renegotiate memory. 

I have nothing in common with them

Michael Jackson’s private leaked phone calls, or “tapes,” are where he resists the alienation of superstardom and asserts an identity that cannot be performed and mimicked into oblivion. When asked why he doesn’t hang out with Hollywood celebrities, he responds, “I have nothing in common with them,” and goes on to explain how they love clubs and the limelight and he does not. He describes how, when Michael was a kid, his father, Joe, would beat him when he messed up in performances when he and his brothers were the Jackson 5; how sometimes he would fight back or threaten to not perform the next gig if his dad kept hitting him. Backstage is where Black performers find many of our violent inheritances looking for expression, becoming lavish and unhinged. Michael tells a friend on the phone that he got all that surgery so he doesn’t have to resemble his father. Backstage, Michael’s tenderness is assertive; he admits he is lonely; he understands his own complexes; he says he never wants to grow old; and when asked a devastating question, his voice grimaces as he says, “Are you sure you want my answer?”

Coltrane’s Leap

John Coltrane’s sorrow is charismatic. His demeanor is serious and distant, and he carries his face like it aches and is hiding a neon mind he cannot decide whether to translate or silence. In photographs he frequently looks displaced and uncomfortable. The images we have of John Coltrane are subdued and even somber, ballads on the eyes. It’s hard to find footage of him walking, swaggering, running, or even jolting his horn. He was too modest for contrived theatrics onstage and too cosmic, too much of a channel, too genuflect to the creator to advance any kind of planned or improvised spectacle. But there’s a living daydream that pierced his public stoicism: home-video footage of him and his family on a road trip. He spins and bows beside a sepia-toned country road, grins, is silly and loose as a jester. The pain that normally hangs over his aura seems to have dissipated, making way for play. Although his smile seems a little hesitant, it overrides his hesitation and fills his entire face with light. He seems at ease in a way he can never be when searching for the sounds that will pierce the veil of oppression and restore universal love and understanding. Away from the stage and the studio, Coltrane’s inner child takes the place of Coltrane the bandleader, and it feels like justice to see him being casual for even a slice of a moment. 

Sweet Land 

Charles Mingus brought himself to the asylum late one night, not realizing he could be locked in there for a while; he just needed time all the way offstage. His autobiography is a chronicle of backstage escapades as dictated to his psychoanalyst. Allegedly he traded the book for release from the asylum. He performs his rehabilitation while rejecting performance. It was common for jazz musicians to lose their minds and check in to Bellevue, where they would be given electroshock therapy. It was common for public life to become so daunting to Black performers that some kind of rehab was the only reprieve. Some kind of longing for the walking-off blues. 

No Music

The parts of the self that cannot be performed, even when exposed, cannot be turned off and on. The parts of our being that sneak up on us or arise from serendipity and context, that cannot become song or poem or film or play or dance—when Black performers access those regions of ourselves, it is like rebirth, and for both performer and witness, a revival occurs. I hunt for those aspects in hopes of making them vivid and unforgettable and making an ensemble of them, repopulating my memory with the illicit feeling of listening to the blues for the first time. What I’m discovering is that the only way to fully hear and experience Black music is to know and experience the thrills and terrors of Black life, to understand the storm always menacing Black sound and how we clear it through this submission to it. What surrounds Black music—the gossip and rumor and pleasure and pain, the endless stretch of road—is part of the sound itself, and the only part that cannot be stolen. Our decisions to stay home and make love or war or run away or do nothing or rehearse all night and skip the show, are how we take our creative freedom back in a landscape that refuses to look away, how we refuse to be seen on its terms, or to be seen at all. MF Doom wears his metal mask, a descendant of Robert Johnson, a blues rapper refusing the gaze, and turns his privacy into spectacle in order to reclaim it. Sun Ra uses a spectacle similarly unbreachable and mythic, impossible to know and impossible to forget. Michael Jackson wears his black surgical mask and tells his friend, “To disappear is very important.” Even into terror and strife, even into ecstasy and praise. Black music becomes ours again when we ritualize these departures from our known identities into our walking blues. 

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