Black Is, Black Ain't

Dressed like a huntress from some faraway heaven, a white feather quiver slung across her back and leather falconry gloves strapped to her forearms, the bald and beautiful Erykah Badu warns roughly 7000 black professionals gathered at the Miami Arena earlier this month: "The papers don't know us. The commercials don't know us. Don't nobody know you like you. Some of our own people don't know us."

Just in case any of the affluent, highly educated audience members at the first Soul Beach Music Festival need a reminder of who they are, Ms. Badu calls on the congregation to lift their arms to the sky revival-style. "Scream your own damn name," she commands.

Keeping Badu's caveat in mind, it seems foolish even to point out that, apart from skin tone and an out-of-town address, this sophisticated, somewhat sedate assembly of soul fans bears little resemblance to the much bigger and younger hip-hop crowd that overran South Beach during the Memorial Day holiday just one week before. Even though both events drew largely African-American crowds from the Northern states for events revolving around popular African-American music, the fans had little more in common than the Marilyn Manson horde does with ticket holders for a Barbra Streisand show.

"It was just a different crowd," says Lamar Lee of AR Entertainment Marketing, the consulting firm that attracted an average of 8500 people for each of the three Soul Beach concerts. "This is more a social-networking and business-type event. A lot of people who were down [for Soul Beach] are real key figures in their cities. They're prepared for going out of town. Those people here [for Memorial Day] weekend are searching, down there trying to get a record deal or meet somebody. Anybody -- white, black, Spanish -- 18 to 25, no bills, no kids -- what else is there to do [but] party this, party that?" The exuberance of youth aside, Lee believes careful preparation could have kept rowdiness to a minimum. "You gotta wear those people out," he suggests. "Throw a concert in there for them to go to. It was just poor planning."

Putting together Soul Beach, AR Entertainment made sure to involve the City of Miami. "If you're not partnering with the city, you have no control," Lee points out. "You're coming in and leaving. You're not coming in and supporting." The city, city services, and the hotels were all prepared ahead of time to welcome the tourists who came to Soul Beach mainly from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. "Those people weren't welcome the week before," says Lee. "They just came in."

Neo-soulsters and hip-hop thugs could not have more radically distinct world views. Check Ms. Badu and her sista Jill Scott's ankle-length garb at Soul Beach against the thongs parading around South Beach. But since the days of the slave trade, "black" has always been a word used to chain everybody from Africa -- Mandinke, Yoruba, Wolof, Zulu, Kikuyu -- in the same boat. And for just as long, "black" has been beautiful, the name for people who, no matter who tries to hold them back, never stop loving themselves.

Soul Beach host Bill Bellamy reminds the audience how different they are from the urban underclass when he jokes that while partying in central Coconut Grove, he noticed "the ghetto [of the black Grove] is right up on you."

Jill Scott is just as quick to remind the audience what African Americans, rich and poor, have in common. "Two years ago I was cleaning toilets," she says between songs. "I'm still just Jill from North Philly." Taking to task black men with white lovers who are ashamed to say "what's up, sista" to the black women they pass in the street, Scott asks the women in the audience to turn to their brothers and sing, "Do you remember me?"


There could be no more stunning testament to shared memories of blackness than the performance this past Sunday night by the a cappella Grupo Vocal Desandann of Nat King Cole's classic "Unforgettable." Although the Haitian-Cuban ensemble's entire repertoire of Haitian standards, vodou liturgy, and Cuban son was spectacular, no moment better captured the mutual fascination between the Haitians, Cubans, and African Americans in the audience and the Haitian Cubans onstage at the Barry University auditorium than the visitors' heavily accented, exquisitely harmonic delivery of the sentiment: "An' tha's why dahleen'/ees incredibul/tha' somewhun so unfohgeddabul/sinks that I am/unfohgeddabul, too."

Equally stunning was the official welcome extended to the group by the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County. Among a plethora of proclamations from the county commissioners, Mayor Joe Carollo,and the Haitian Consul, perhaps most historic was the key to the county offered by the office of Mayor Alex Penelas -- the first key ever given to Cuban nationals. Handing over the token on behalf of the mayor, Haitian-born Emeline Alexis explained in three languages: "The key means that here you are in your own house, and you may return as many times as you like."

 
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