Harry Belafonte, Belafonte Sings The Blues

Music takes you places.

I recently found myself in the back of a small blues bar. The kind that has those red velvet
seats and old wooden tables. Each setting possessed a marble ashtray and I was using it. I ordered a glass of scotch and it was on it’s way. I was by myself, not necessarily in a down mood, but in the mood for a journey, something different. I was just ready to be somewhere else.

Then the record needle picked up and I realized it was just a vinyl fantasy.

This is where Harry Belafonte took me with his 1958 release “Belafonte Sings The Blues.” I had listened to some of Belafonte’s earlier materiel, including his calypso recordings, but this has to be one of my favorites in his catalog.

One must understand that the essence of the blues is communicating your emotions not only through words, but tone and assertion.  Each song on this album takes on a different mood, whether it be vulnerability, anger, contentment, or happiness. I could write all day on the nature of blues and jazz music, but one thing is for certain, Belafonte has it down pat.

Belafonte_sings_the_bluesHe opens the album with Ray Charles’ “A Fool for You.” This song serves as a prelude for what is to come, especially when Belafonte declares “that you can cry so loud you give the blues to your neighbor next door.” His listeners are his neighbors and I’m not looking for a place to move.

Belafonte then goes into “Losing Hand” explaining how he gambled on love, but was done wrong by the lady. At this point I had taken my cigarette to the roulette table. The next song, “Hallelujah I love Her So,” tells of the happiness he feels in a relationship. Although It moved me a little more to the bright side, let’s just say one can acquire new chips, but they don’t always last long.

I had a brief intermission (record flip) and I was then thinking about my past. “Cotton Fields” were a reality for far too many families during this recording and the years before it. He explained the struggle while also dealing with segregation. I find it interesting how Belafonte later led many civil rights causes and was a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. This song expresses the strife he was fighting against.

The true gem of this record is the Billie Holliday penned, “God Bless The Child.” By Harry-Belafonte-with-guitarthis time he was just Harry and we were sitting at the table just partying in a slightly drunken pity. We just can’t rely on anybody. We realized the best way to be is to “have his own.” He sings this as if he is having a conversation with you. Through his interpretation, the words opened a new meaning through a perceived back and forth dialogue. This has to be one of the best rendition of this song ever, rivaling Miss Lady Day.

By the time I got home that night, I reeked of smoke. Yet through all the haze, clarity seemed to seep through, giving me a relaxed feeling for the time being. It’s going to be tough. I will be singing the blues again, but I now have a sense of satisfaction that life is going to be ok.

That’s what the blues does for you. Through its depression it brings hope. Belafonte’s record is one that can truly take you through that journey.

Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope: You Are Now Allowed to Enter

Not every album is personal to the artist. Many albums are so commercially driven that they are just made to produce hits. Every singer is an artist, but some take it to the next level.

There is a level where an artist’s own life is not just their own anymore, but their listeners’. This is exactly what Janet Jackson did with her album The Velvet Rope.

For starters, an important idea to understand with this album is “sankofa.” This is a word from Akan, a language in Ghana. The word means to “go back and take.” In terms of this album, it means to dig back into your past, take what was taken from you and claim it for yourself.  These attributes are now yours to sculpt your character into who you want to be.

Velvet-rope-janet-jackson-32601611-792-993Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” explains her struggle with the “VIP” concept and many of her inner demons. For one, we can’t forget that Janet is a member of the heralded Jackson dynasty. This comes with both negative and positive attributes. Secondly, Janet didn’t ever feel she quite fit into this luxurious lifestyle. Sure she was a popular performer and singer, but she still hadn’t felt she had found her place. Her constant issues with her body image could have largely spurred this insecurity. That’s hard to believe for a woman considered to be one of the most beautiful in entertainment.

That’s where the metaphor of the velvet rope comes from. For each red carpet, there is a velvet rope you must cross to get into the VIP section. We all have a velvet rope that keeps others from discovering who we are. Every one of us has a “VIP” section in our lives.

The opening song “Velvet Rope” invites listeners into Janet’s personal masterpiece.  She then goes into the song “You.” This is one of my personal favorites. This song chastises one who pretends to be someone else at the expense of others. A message that Janet not necessarily was sending to listeners but maybe one she needed to send to herself.

Janet_Jackson_-_The_Velvet_Rope

The official cover of the album.

What Janet then does is pure musical genius. She took an old hook from a classic folk song by the legendary Joni Mitchell and mixes it with a modern R&B rhythm, while also mixing in rap. “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” is a classic.

One of the most profound moments of the album comes with her hit “Together Again.” It’s a great song taken out of the album context, but it means much more when listened to in the album as a whole. The interlude before the song states “You don’t have to hold onto the pain to hold on to the memory.” This song was written for her friends that she lost to aids. It’s a beautiful homage to those she was missing as well as showing a light of positivity in the face of death.

Janet then goes into “Empty,” explaining a one-sided relationship that she feels she may be “wasting her time” on. This parlays into the following song with an interlude that states “How empty of me to be so full of you.” The next song “What About,” then depicts a relationship in harsher terms asking, “What about the times you lied to me? What about the times you said no one would want me?” amongst many other questions.  Although, in the end of the song she turns it around on herself, stating she was then asked the same questions.

tumblr_mt4gecy01i1sdebxbo3_r1_1280Lastly, one cannot talk about this album without its hit “I Get So Lonely.” This is a true description of what R&B should sound like.  Just listen to it.

In the end, every time I listen to this album I gain more respect for Janet.  She placed herself in the most vulnerable position she could as a performer. She showed herself at fault as well as the victim. She portrayed her raw self to her audience. This took courage. She was truly able to reach into her past and pull back what was hers and create a masterpiece reflecting her own life.

This album is more than a collection of songs, it’s a journey. It’s hard to listen to these songs alone because you don’t get the full meaning or theme of the album. She lastly states at the end of the album, in the song “Special,” that we all just long to feel special. This is such a simple concept, yet one so hard to achieve.

In my own life, I struggle to let people step over my “velvet rope.” One must learn trust to fully experience life’s journeys to the fullest. Janet has shown that to me. She taught me that I can not hide behind a mask at the expense of others and that it’s time to just allow people to “enter” into who I am. Everything that was stolen from me through my shortcomings and failures, as well as people, are mine, sculpting me into who I am.

This is truly a profound concept we can all use in our lives.

**Disclaimer: The reason I call her Janet instead of Ms. Jackson throughout this post is because I’m not nasty.**