Stew & the Negro Problem Pay Tribute to the Genius of James Baldwin
James Baldwin is having a moment. For serious scholars of American literature and politics, the prescient writer/scholar/public intellectual never faded from view, but the last few years – filled with police assassinations of Black citizens of all ages and genders, splashed across social media; violent displacement wrought by gentrification of Black neighborhoods; the rise of white nationalism and the uselessness of American liberals to combat it, while mainstream media provides cover and softball coverage – have meant that the wise man’s bitingly prophetic analyses of race, racism, white supremacy and the white American psyche, and the soul aches and hard won joys of being Black in America, have found new audiences to appreciate his work’s timeless urgency.
Raoul Peck’s Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, largely centered on previously unpublished writing by Baldwin, has received nothing but praise since debuting on the festival circuit earlier this year, and hits theaters in February. Musician par excellence Meshell Ndegeocello used her genius to honor Baldwin’s genius in her gospel-service style stage show “Can I Get a Witness?” in Harlem last month. Ta-Nehesi Coates’ award-winning book “Between the World and Me” was partially inspired by the work of Baldwin. And there have been countless symposiums, one-man shows, and essays of appreciation. The man is, in two words, forever relevant.
Last Saturday night was the closing performance of a four-day run of “Notes of a Native Son,” the rock & roll concert/performance piece/meditation on the life and work of James Baldwin, co-written by The Negro Problem/Stew & Heidi. It’s the same creative team responsible for the Tony award-winning musical “Passing Strange,” based on Stew’s life as an outlier Black kid growing up in LA in the 1970s and 80s. “Notes,” which sold out its run at the Redcat Theater in downtown Los Angeles, is spectacular, and Stew was given a hometown hero reception from the moment he and his band (Heidi Rodewald, bass/guitars/Moog/co-composer; Marty Beller, percussion; Art Terry, piano; Dana Lyn, violin; Probyn Gregory, trumpet) stepped onstage until they took their final bows. In between was a work that illuminated Baldwin in an idiosyncratic, enthralling fashion. Using the spirit of Baldwin’s work as the show’s spine, and both his life and Stew’s as the flesh, the show underscored the shared complexities of our times and Baldwin’s, making a point of underscoring the love – of Black people and culture – at the core of Baldwin’s creativity.
Images of Baldwin were intermittently projected onto a video screen behind the band, used sparingly like a potent seasoning. As the evening kicked off, a photo of him flashed onscreen alongside the words, “Don’t blame me for this. These are his words, not mine.” It was only the first dash of self-deprecation wittily built into the show. The star of the night was the body of original songs performed. Smart, timely, catchy, and effortlessly flipping genre inside out, they included “Western,” which turned the transcript of the 911 call between George Zimmerman and the operator who tried to talk him down before he murdered Trayvon Martin into lyrics (“Are you following him? Okay, we don’t need you to do that…”) and contained the devastating hook, “Brown and Black met that night / Black stayed black but brown turned white….” “Jimmy, Take Me Higher,” is both mesmerizing and raucous in outlining the homophobia Baldwin faced from both Black nationalists and Black liberals; “Istanbul,” a hypnotic jazz-rock fusion snaked its way into being the most lovely controlled cacophony; “Florida, You Kill Me” was introduced by Stew proclaiming that, “Some places suck like a robot whore,” and contained lyrics about, “…hangin’ chads and lynchin’ boys…” Baldwin’s deep relevance was often underscored by songs that had no direct reference to his own work.
One of the highlights came very early in the show when Stew – who didn’t so much break as annihilate the fourth wall throughout the night, and to brilliant effect – explained the fractured relationship of Baldwin and his onetime mentor Richard Wright as being analogous to Kanye West taking a struggling young rapper under wing, only to have his mentee turn on him in a scathing mix-tape. Stew stepped outside his own scripted narrative of Baldwin taking Wright to task for failing to show the love and care Black people have for one another, for a fire & brimstone lament on the fact that “Ideas used to matter.” The audience hung on every word, laughing, applauding and nodding heads as he talked about the verbal and sometimes physical fisticuffs that used to occur at literary parties, noting that concern over brand building and not offending someone you might be able to make use of later has killed those kinds of exchanges, which he posits were healthy and necessary for the culture. That spun off into him blasting people afraid to confront family members who voted for Trump. “You step to your family!” he barked.
Throughout the night, his asides and ad libs were as pungent as what was scripted, though it was often hard to tell which was which. Autobiographical details from his own life were deployed with precision, discussing everything from the stature and power of Black teachers infusing their young Black students with hope while refusing to suffer fools (“Those Black lady teachers didn’t play no games!”) to how playing hooky in high school fed his own artistry. It was never self-indulgent, and always served the larger narrative. He was especially charming discussing homoeroticism and the ways straight guys swim in it and justify it, going into a very funny bit about his crush on Christopher Lee and how men determine their favorite cinematic vampire by deciding which one they’d let bite them.(“Sorry, Nosferatu, but those two little teeth in front ain’t sexy….”)
To say the audience wanted more when the show ended would be an understatement. To be in the presence of someone blisteringly intelligent who was also at the top of his artistic game, who surrounded himself with musicians who were not only in peak form but also game for the jokes and skits interwoven in the script, felt like a much needed tonic. This is what art in the era of Trump has to be and do. Can’t wait for the soundtrack.
Top image courtesy the artist.