Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dapping, Kings, Sharon Jones and race relations

I remember a sign in the US Army messhall in Germany back in the mid-70s that warned “No Dapping in the Chow Line”. At this time, in the Army, racial tensions were very high. Daps, symbolic hand gestures, often complicated, were the way that African-American soldiers shared a greeting and communicated unity. But in the food line, I witnessed a few volatile incidents where white soldiers took offense. There were fistfights, serious ones.

There are photos of the Obamas dapping, tapping fists. Tonight I listened to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and wondered if people knew the meaning of the dap. For me the word, combined with Sharon’s classic soul music took me back to that chow line on Graves Kaserne in Aschaffenburg Germany in 1976 and the dismal state of race relations.

Tonight’s audience in the Midland Theater was thin. A packed house it was not. There were few African-Americans in the audience. I danced. The music was amazing; Soul Train rhythms, reminiscent of a few Motown revues I saw as a kid in Philly.

Is music political? I’m not sure. Yet music has been co-opted by politicians. It unites us and divides us with incredible power. Is music a commercial product? Sure.

These classic soul sounds seem to be the only notes that make people dance in this town. Catch the Good Foot at the Levee on 43d sometime soon. Soul Music purveyed to a white dancing audience that bypasses the area of this city where this music first took root.

Kansas City is incredibly divided, racially. We haven’t come very far. Like jazz in this town, the music scene reflects the hesitation to connect with what is, and instead tries to latch onto a time that never was, musically. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings put on a great show, but to me it was a Disney-like production. Like the Levee on a Friday night, it’s a theme park of sound; James Brown’s art in a foreign museum while on Main, nearby, a car rolls by broadcasting the authentic sounds that make many wince.

On the other hand, no ethnic group, despite having created art, owns the art. One only has to go to the Nelson to see a Pollock or a Warhol to realize that what was once renegade is now lionized and adored by the masses. Given time, James Brown makes it cross town. After a few years, a group like the Roots get a gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band on a major network. A few decades roll by and we canonize Charlie Parker and pay tribute with a classical symphony.

Outside my window, daily, the new performing arts center rises and I wonder. I wonder if the performances could include "the here and now music" being played in the many parts of this city, from across the color and ethnic lines. But alas, the art of the here and now, the authentic sounds and dances will probably not make it to those two stages. Despite state of the art acoustics, the street will have to be the theater of today’s performance art.

Too many people winced when the Obamas dapped. Too much time has passed since they banned dapping at my Army messhall. The sign’s long gone but the signs of tension remain. Tonight was fun but it wasn’t real.

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