It was my birthday last week and as one of his gifts my son gave me a mix tape of recent R+B songs, The Weeknd, Erykah Badu, mostly great but it’s this song that I keep coming back to. I must have played it at least ten times this week during my car rides home.
I vaguely recognized it from the opening of the movie “Get Out,” where I thought it was a lost Prince track: the funk, the aching falsetto vocal. And so maybe I’ve been thinking about Prince too, as I’ve played this, here on the year anniversary of his death. Big fan, mixed feelings. Hard not to feels some resentment when people you admire take what seems from the outside like the easy way out. It may well not have been, and addiction is a disease, you tell yourself. And then something along the lines of, asshole.
Nothing’s simple, except maybe the note progression this song is built on. We hear it at the beginning and then over and over, like a classical music theme. What’s it all about? I had to consult my good friend the Internet to find the lyrics and with them came, unexpectedly, interpretation (sarcasm on).
Consensus it’s a guy talking about a girl who’s not paying him enough attention, his warning to her that she’s going to lose him entirely if she keeps it up. “Redbone” seems to be a slang term for a light-skinned black woman and not, as I originally thought, a cool reference to a 70’s one-hit-wonder band.
Maybe it’s about that. Or maybe it’s about a black man trying to make it in a white America where he feels unwelcome and rebuffed but not so much so that he’s going to stop trying. “If you want it/you can have it,” that sounds like he’s talking about himself, if you’ll accept me I’ll do what it takes to continue that acceptance and I’ll enjoy the rewards of them because I want those rewards and maybe I shouldn’t want them but why but why shouldn’t I want them?
“Stay woke” is the key phrase. “Stay awake” means be vigilant, stay alert, watch out for what’s coming. “Stay woke” implies what you’ve been watching out for has already happened and you’ve already learned the hard truths from that. Now the important thing is not to forget what you’ve seen and experienced, not to deny those feelings even if on a given day things seem to have improved. “Stay woke” is a state of perpetual vigilance, perpetual questioning, of enjoying the surface while waiting for the inevitable moment what’s underneath is revealed. And although that applies to a black man in white society (see “Get Out”), it doesn’t only apply there.
Me to my son: “I love that song Redbone on the CD you made. But what is he talking about, ‘neighbors creeping’?”
My son: “You might want to listen to that line again.”