Sex & Soul Music

It was simply a brief introduction to the career of Rod Temperton, the British-born songwriter, who first came to prominence with the group Heatwave.  Specifically, I was reminiscing about Heatwave’s “Always and Forever,” a classic Soul ode to longstanding love and romance.

Unfortunately, my class of 60-plus millennials were not quite as excited by the nostalgia that had begun to overtake me.  For my generation, “Always and Forever” was part of a ritual of romance, likely the first song we ever slow-danced to—or “dragged” to, as my parents might have said. 

When I segued into Michael Jackson’s “Lady in My Life”—another Temperton classic—it became clear to me that my students weren’t just unfamiliar with the music, but had no idea what to do with the music, a point that was made when I asked several of them to dance to the song.  “What do y’all slow-dance to?” I asked. “We don’t!” was the emphatic answer. When a few students offered that they “twerked”—me: “What the hell is that?”—I had to resist the urge to get all sociological about the fact that we are raising a generation of young folk for whom sex has became a stand-in for intimacy.  And don’t get me wrong, I fully endorse sex—fully, and between consenting adults. But intimacy (and the pursuit of it) is one of those things that have sustained Black folk for centuries here in the West.

The fact that many young Blacks don’t slow-dance is as much about their relationship to the music as it is about their relationship to their bodies.  For many Black Americans, music was the site in which intimacy could be realized, and as Angela Davis points out in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, there were political ramifications.  Writing about Black life immediately after emancipation, Davis notes, “For the first time in the history of the African presence in North America, masses of black women and men were in a position to make autonomous decisions regarding the sexual partnerships they entered.  Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed.” (4)

With the advent of the phonograph and more access to the private consumption of music, the connection between music and Black intimacy became more concrete.  As Davis attested about the Blues tradition that emerged in the 1920s, “The most obvious ways in which blues lyrics deviated from that era’s established popular musical culture was their provocative and pervasive—including homosexual—imagery.” (3).  This was the music of a generation of Black folk—two generations removed from slavery and still suffering Jim Crow—for which the sensual and sexual use of their bodies were acts of survival, sustenance, pleasure and even resistance.  Though raucous forms of Blues may have had a hearing in public spaces (where everyone was an adult and up for a good time), in many cases this music was intended for consumption in the private spaces of Black life. This was the case with Jelly Roll Morton’s 17-minute “Make Me a Pallet,” which contains the classic line “Come here, you sweet bitch, give me that pussy, let me get in your drawers/I’m gonna make you think you fuckin’ with Santa Claus.”

Yet there was a public intimacy that was also sought by Blacks, particularly in the dancehall. As playwright Brent Jennings notes in his essay, “Initiation of a Desire,” there was a component of public intimacy that was directly correlated to notions of racial uplift. Recalling his first “sexual” encounter in a segregated third- grade classroom, Jennings remembers a teacher whose “main desire for her third- grade students was that we become perfect gentleman and respectable ladies.

She felt that in order to accomplish this, we had to become ‘comfortable with each other,’ so she made the boys and girls sit side by side, adjacent to one another.  We were seatmates.”  (The Black Body, ed. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, 110). 

In another classroom theater, journalist Kenji Jasper recalls a time in eighth grade when he trusted a “big butt and a smile,” sitting behind a classmate that he calls “Tosha Jones” and being drawn to what he describes as “Two fudge-colored cheeks with a sheet of khaki stretched across, their mass squeezing through the chrome reverse ‘U’ in her chair back.” (The Black Body, 161) Jasper goes on to describe what more than a few of us remember as “the feel up,” both entranced by her ass and perplexed by her lack of recognition of his groping, until—three minutes later—she handed him a note that stated, “You have to stop now. People are looking.”  Taking her note into account, “Tosha’s” silence could at once be read as her investment in comporting herself in a way that “good girls” should—“people are looking”—as much as it might have been an articulation of the pleasure she might have derived from Jasper’s touch.

Dismissing for a moment the compulsory heterosexual socialization that was also taking place in these stories and the easy ways that “feeling up” can cross the line into predatory sexual behavior (as Jennings admits in his own classroom story), the close proximity of pubescent bodies and sexual desires created the context for that time-tested ritual, the school dance. For young Blacks, school dances and cotillions were a means of introduction to acceptable public forms of affection and sexual desire, that also hung on notions of glamour, sophistication, and of course, respectability.

Yet in another public/private iteration, there was also the house party, in which the private intimacy—the kind that might be outlawed if you were a teen living in your parents’ house—literally morphed into the public intimacy of a living room or basement, amongst a relative mass of folk, themselves pursuing all manner of desire and intimacy.  One might recall Luther Vandross singing about “Bad Boy” trying to sneak out the house, to the house party, in a song—“Bad Boy/Having a Party”—that was an extended riff on Sam Cooke’s own celebration of the house party. 

While Vandross sings, “Roll back the rugs everybody, move all the tables and chairs, we gonna have us a good time tonight,” there was always that other moment, a later moment, and often the last moment,  when the lights got dimmed—the proverbial “blue light in the basement”—and  intimacy was crafted in tight spaces, where partners got to feel the contours of each other’s waists, hips, shoulders…and to literally take in the smell of sexual desire and intimacy.  

And of course there’s the music, preferably a side that pushed towards a 5-plus minute mark, which was a challenge in the pre-digital era, when someone actually had to be in charge of changing the record.  The genius of Isaac Hayes was his understanding of such dynamics, hence side two of his classic Hot Buttered Soul (1969) which only features “One Woman” (5:10), and his seminal remake of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which logged in at 18-plus minutes—or more than enough time for a little public foreplay. 

And then there’s Marvin Gaye, whose recordings Let’s Get it On (1973) and I Want You (1976) were both recorded as extended suites, in which one could experience the full gamut of sexual intimacy. Though Let’s Get It On is the more remembered of the two recordings, in no small part to Gaye’s deliberate blurring of the sacred and the sexual—“something like sanctified” as he sang—I Want You is a masterpiece of unbridled sexual desire.  The album begins with the invocation of desire—“I want you, and I want you to want me too”—touring through tracks such as “Feel All My Love Inside,” “Come Live with Me Angel,” and fittingly closing with the vocal rendition of “After the Dance,” as the dance (with the Ernie Barnes’ original “Sugar Shack” providing visuals) was the original site of desire.

There’s no doubt that the young folk will find their own grooves of intimacy—it just won’t look, sound and feel like the intimacy of my youth. For now, I got a playlist loaded with Marvin, Isaac, a little Al Green, Gloria Scott and Teena Marie’s “Portuguese Lover”…

—Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan (in Exile)






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