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September 30, 2011

Book Notes - Touré ("Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Touré has long been one of my favorite cultural commentators. His essays are always a rare combination of intelligence, wisdom, and common sense, and I am a great admirer of his writing.

His new book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?, explores what being Black in America means today, and is drawn from interviews with 105 influential thinkers.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Touré inventively draws on a range of evidence — auto­biography, music, art, interviews, comedy and popular social analysis — for a performance carried through with unsparing honesty, in a distinctive voice that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is Touré's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now:

In a way you could say every song you've ever heard has an impact on you. Everything goes in and shapes you a little making us the accumulation of every experience we've ever had, including every song we ever hear. That makes it hard to narrow it down! So I'm a bit all over the map here talking here about some songs/albums/artists who directly influenced my book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? as well as songs/albums/artists who influenced me generally. My book in many ways is about the battle to be yourself and not let your identity be shaped by anyone else. Music is a place where that conversation goes on all the time.

1. De La Soul Is Dead

The whole album is about the group's attempt to reclaim and reshape their image. On their debut 3 Feet High and Rising they were tagged by many as "hiphop's hippies." Right or wrong, they disliked it and on Dead they battle their own image in an effort to change it and they win. The title and the cover art (a flowerpot knocked over) begin the war and it continues through the songs and skits. De La's important in my life because I remember the birth of recorded hiphop and feeling that I could love hiphop but could not be a creator because it's creators were streetwise and I was middle class. But De La was unabashedly middle class and cool as hell and their emergence immediately opened a door for me and made me feel a little more at home in hiphop. Here was someone more like me. With Dead they stood up and said hey just because we're middle-class and peace-loving doesn't mean we're wimps and lack edge and can't kick your ass if we decide to. They were demanding the right to define themselves for themselves and I love them for that.

2. "Monster," Kanye, Jay, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross.

For a while I listened to this song as I walked to my writing sessions for this book and it got my heart pumping. It helped put me into the energized state I needed to write. I particularly loved Kanye's line "I shoot the lights out...!" which for some reason made me think of some great ballplayer at the Rucker scoring like crazy and making the crowd go wild and the buzz of those moments of high-level amateur sporting events when the crowd is right on top of the court or field and their excitement drives the event to another level. I imagined that energizing feel of insane buzz, which I used to feel while watching big street basketball games or playing big tennis tournaments in Brooklyn or Queens or Harlem, and I took that into my writing sessions as if the world was an audience for these sentences and I had to shoot the lights out to keep em amped.

3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye

It came out while I was writing the book and I was immediately obsessed with it. It's another album about identity in which the auteur is demanding the right to define himself and rejecting the world's definition of him. It's also an extraordinary album, a widely varying photograph of Kanye's mind and soul at that moment, his defiant response to a world that was offended by his Taylor Swift moment. My book is also about a particular moment, it's about me and us, by which I mean Black people and America, right now. If Kanye tried to make MBDTF a year earlier or a year later or two years later it'd be a different album. You can't say that about all albums. My book took some influence from that and was shaped to be a photograph of who I am and who we are now. If I returned to this ground in 3 years I'd have to do a different book. The thesis wouldn't be different but the structure around it would.

4. Congratulations by MGMT

This also came out while I was writing the book and I was obsessed with it. I love MGMT. They're smart and weird and funky in their own way and they remind me of some of the kids I grew up with. I love the shapes of their songs and the intelligence they bring to their music. I remember loving the album the first time through then the next day listening again and liking it more and tweeting "Did someone sneak into my iPod and sprinkle sonic crack on my Congratulations MP3s?"

5. "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly Stone

Sly is one of my favorite musicians of all time: his sound is so beautiful. It's the sound of freedom. His band is one of the few interracial and intergender bands in music history and their diversity is part of their message.

6. "Exhibit C" by Jay Electronica

Maybe the greatest hiphop memoir song of all time. I listened as I wrote to remind myself what it was to write honest, detailed memoir. I wrote a detailed line by line deconstruction of the song because I see so much in it. You can find it at

7. "Back To Black" by Amy Winehouse and "Cudderisback" by Kid Cudi featuring Vampire Weekend

In my book I talk about how in modern culture there's a tremendous amount of cultural ambidexterity because more than ever we see other cultures as part of our own cultural legacy and that shapes the post-Black era. So Amy borrows the sound (and look) of 60s soul, while Cudi pulls from a great indie rock group and we see all sorts of interesting crosspolinizations. This isn't new (Elvis did Black music and Coltrane breathed new life into My Favorite Things) but it's more widespread than ever. So many of us now are bi-cultural and that shapes modern culture. Black culture used to like a juke joint in the woods that whites had to trek to in order to experience and/or understand. Now Black culture is like Starbucks: it's everywhere and available and open to everyone. That changes how the creators and audience respond.

8. "Trouble Man" by Marvin Gaye

One of the greatest songs ever about Black male resilience. "I come up hard but now I'm cool. I didn't make it playin by the rules." He knows trouble is inevitable but he's tough. "Trouble, man, don't get in my way." This could be the Black male national anthem. (And his midsong rhyme is incredible.) His expression of resilience is reflected in my book where I talk about the need to build a teflon shield to protect your self-esteem from the 1,000 daily cuts of racism and America's multimedia assault on the Black self-image. Many of us build a rocksolid ego that insulates us from that assault. "What people say/ that's ok/ they don't both me, no/ I'm ready to make it / Don't care what the weather / Don't care bout no trouble / Got myself together / I feel that kinda protection is all around me." Amen. Trouble, challenges, difficulties, hurdles are coming but I got this. "I had to win/ then start all over/ and win again." No whining, just steadfast self-confidence and resilience and the certainty that there will be problems and I will find my way through them.

9. "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" by LCD Soundsystem.

This is a beautiful, sensitive, smart love song about a city, but it's a love song about a city that no longer exists or at least two cities in one. During my two decades in New York the city has changed from the rugged, dangerous, edgy city that scared people into something safer and less edgy and more corporatized, though still a place we love. Still, we long for what it was: gritty, neighborhoody, unpredictable. "Our records all show you were filthy but fine." Now that's gone. "Take me off your mailing list/ For kids that think it still exists." James Murphy loves New York madly ("you're still the one pool where I'd happily drown") but he's critical of the change it's undergone because the New York he once loved no longer exists. There's no contradiction in criticizing something you love. You can love someone or something and simultaneously be critical of it. That's partly what I'm doing in my book: I love Blackness and Black people and the Black community but I'm critical of one aspect of it (the narrow sense of identity that some try to impose). The critique arises from my love and concern for Blackness.

10. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by the Beatles

When I was a kid I was afraid to like the Beatles. I thought Black people weren't supposed to like the Beatles. Then I found out my Aunt, who'd been a Black Panther in the 60s, loved the Beatles. That was an important moment for me, opening the door to love one of the greatest groups of all time and to love whatever music I wanted. Why let Blackness hold me back from experiencing anything I was curious about? Why was it weird for a Black person to love the Beatles and Sly Stone? It's not: the entire buffet of global experiences is available to me and everyone else.

11. Santogold by Santigold

I love this album and not just because Santi is an old, old friend so I'm superproud of her brilliance and success. I'd love this album if I didn't know her because it sounds amazing and because Santi takes full advantage of the freedom of the post-Black era, pulling in influences from reggae, hiphop and dub as well as new wave, punk and electronica. She feels the entire buffet of the world's music is available to her and I love her for that.

12. OK Computer and Kid A by Radiohead

I love Radiohead. They're mind-blowingly brilliant. They make depression songs addictive, they make computerish sounds seem soulful, they make most rock groups look and sound silly. They're one of the best rock groups ever and their combination of art and intelligence is inspiring. I feel my mind expanding when I listen to them.

13. The whole career of The White Stripes

I love their bluesy, rockin soulful asses. And I find it fascinating that Jack White was able to do his best work in a duo with Meg, a serviceable drummer, versus what he's done with Dead Weather and the Raconteurs. That's great stuff but there's nothing like the White Stripes. I'll miss them. When they retired I mourned for a week. I'm lying. I'm still in mourning.

14. Everything by Prince from Controversy to the Symbol Album

This is the heart of one of the greatest careers in music history, a stunning string of music that helped define an era. My next book will be an examination of why Prince became an icon and how he represents so much of what Gen X is all about. People become icons (as opposed to just stars) because they speak to or embody the longings, fears, desires and anxieties of the generation. Prince helped shape Gen X.

15. Street's Disciple by Nas and Olu Dara

I love that Nas has allowed his jazz trumpeter father to be part of work as a player and a voice. In hiphop we're more often noting that Dad wasn't around and the emotional impact that had rather than being able to celebrate the relationship. It's beautiful to hear Nas and his father working together on songs, combining dad and son, jazz and hiphop, motherwit and street sense. I'm currently working with Nas on his autobiography and I know his father will be a significant part of the story.

Touré and Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Huffington Post review
Insight News review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Wall Street Journal review

All Things Considered interview with the author
CNN interview with the author
Eurweb interview with the author
GalleyCat interview with the author
LA Review of Books interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Salon article by the author
TheGrio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists