Obama, Blackness, and Al Green

Wow! Did you hear President Barack Obama at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre sing Reverend Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”?  It was a little taste of his crooning ability, which I thought was surprisingly remarkable.

White House photo by Pete Souza

My thought was seconded when my wife called from work after hearing TMZ play the now viral video of Obama singing.  Excitedly, she explained Obama sounded like Marvin Gaye singing an Al Green song.  She then ended our conversation with a scream reserved for front row seats at a Maxwell concert as TMZ played the Obama video again.  Other bloggers and journalist around the web described his voice as cool, controlled, golden, smooth, a buttery falsetto, and one writer explained American Idol’s Randy Jackson would have said “wow it was NOT pitchy dogg!”

Kudos to Obama and his voice!

However, there is more to this impromptu performance than how great Barack Obama sounded.  To a certain extent, his imitation of Al Green was, for a brief moment, revealing.  He exposed his African-American experience.  His Blackness. With high-level vocal inflection and convincing Al Green mimickery, he was able to show us where he comes from and who he really is, which is a black man in America.  I know he is biracial with a caucasian mother who hails from Kansas and a Kenyan father from a town near Lake Victoria, Kenya.  I know he was reared in the tropics of Hawai’i and Jakarta. Certainly, these people and places in his early life combined don’t exactly scream the African-American experience or imbue him with Blackness.  His African-American experience and Blackness developed when he left home to attend college.  Admittedly, it was at Occidental College where he truly confronted the issue of an African-American identity (see his book Dreams From My Father).  Regardless of the image he had in his mind about himself or his undeniable DNA mix, he was seen as a black man in late 70s Los Angeles society.  It was in college where he began to socialize with mostly African-American students, joined African-American clubs, and took on the plight of the African-American struggle.  At this point he was absorbing Blackness through friendships, songs, food, and love.  His childhood and adolescent years, which were not without problems due to the color of his skin, were discarded and as a young adult as he took on the exclusive identity of a black man.

From this point on he began to experience life as an African-American and in turn expressed a black phenotype or Blackness.  His smooth walk, his talk, which is pronounced and curiously Southern when he speaks at Black Churches, and his swag are all undoubtedly a glimpse into his acquired Blackness.

Let's Stay Together album released Feb. 1972

Obama sang and delivered, albeit short in duration, “Let’s Stay Together” with a confidence deeply rooted in Black culture.  He performed the song from what an Atlanta professor of mine called the “temple of his familiar”–essentially meaning: coming from an individuals unique life experience.  This past Thursday Obama, through song, reminded us of his African-American experience.

Having sang on stage of the legendary Apollo Theater Obama’s brief performance crushed the possibility of a booing crowd and thwarted the slick dance moves of the dreaded Sand Man thus truly authenticating, validating, and vindicating his African American experience and Blackness.  I only wish he had sang more!


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