The Artist Out on a Limb

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by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Like much of Martin Luther, I've spent the last couple weeks going back through Teena Marie's extensive catalog. Somehow as a younger man--blinded by the quest for macho--I skipped over "Out On A Limb." What can I say, I skipped over a lot of great things, and like a lot of hip-hop heads, I had a tendency to dismiss "'80s soul" as a haven for Jheri-curled, green contact wearing, high yella, sell-out, wannabees. Not that I was angry or anything... 


Anyway, as I said with Prince, I missed a lot music that wasn't black, and aggressively hetero, and aggressively male. The gender dynamics here are awful. But my life is one of correction, and my dedication to the great get-back is total. I was, of course, aware of Teena Marie and liked a lot of her music. You simply couldn't live in a black community any other way in the '80s; hating on "Fire and Desire" wasn't an option. But going back now, propelled by individual forces, as opposed to community forces, is kind of amazing. 

"Out On A Limb" is interesting for me because, aside from Teena Marie just killing this joint, it's the kind of song, that I started to dislike somewhere in the Whitney era, and then began to hate in the latter Mariah Carey era. And I'm sorry for that, because Marie's performance here is wonderful. Surely part of it is technical, but there's something more than blowing here, something about beyond a profanely perfect adherence to notes. 

This song is all about that magical place where a kind of verisimilitude, a technical expertise,  is transcended. It's that Meryl Streep/Jeffrey Wright/Biggie zone where you stop watching the artist work, and start believing them. (This is, incidentally my sole beef with Pac. I was always aware that I was watching him rhyme.) I am sure there are many singers who could technically execute this song, and maybe technically execute it better, but very few who could imbue it with something of themselves. A learned and sporting melisma is not enough. I'm more interested in the end of math--or a math so deep, that neither we, nor likely the artist herself, can see it. I'm more interested in great novels, that are more then clever sentences and twisting, unknowable plot.

Or maybe this just where I am right now. There is a running theme from Prince to Kanye to Teena Marie, a theme of submission. I write this out in the woods, trying to bang out a piece of art that calls me, but that I--like the awful love of Teena Marie--greatly fear will fail. I am out on a limb here. How can you take someone beyond the horrible, sky-blotting math of slavery? How do you get beyond whips, rape, more whips, more rape, more whips, and then an awful freedom? And how do you then not respond with narrative of respectable Negroes and their faux-noble suffering? How do you not write yet another piece of black torture porn, while at the same holding to the truth that the lot of it was, very much, horrible?

Don't you dare try to answer that. Questions are valuable, in and of themselves. And sometimes it is good when the bough snaps. It is good to be injured.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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