In Remembrance: Geri Allen
The passing of Geri Allen (6/27/17) leaves a deep need to paint, sing, dance and poem as this shakes us, deeply. This rings long. She was our big sister who held up the torch for us to follow. There was no more of a focused, champion of craft, beauty, grace, dedication, and supreme directed artistry for my generation to follow. Geri Allen was our queen of artistry.
We as Detroiters attended Cass Tech, and Ron Carter, Ralphe Armstrong, Ray Parker jr., Ralph Jones, Greg Phillinganes, Geri Allen, Kamua Kenyatta, Kevin Toney, Dwight Andrews, Regina Carter, Gerald Cleaver, opera star Janet Williams, Carla Cook, myself, my wife, Krystal Prime Banfield and many more left Detroit, Cass Tech to make our mark in music following after Geri Allen. And too Mark Ledford, Rodney Whitiker, James Carter, Kenny Garret, all Detroiters who landed out here. We all studied under our master, Marcus Belgrave the great renown Detroit griot jazz educator. The world mourns, music mourns, Detroit-Motown mourns, and our crew has lost its biggest, loveliest arts sister. Our music sounding will be different, as some of our major keys are gone now. (... Armstead Christian, Victor Bailey, Mark Ledford..) Someone's passing is never a moment to elevate anything but emptiness, and when that loss shakes you from beyond the heavens, those left standing and still bleeding, shaking, must sing, dance, paint and poem.
Richard Wright in 1937 wrote, “The Negro writer/ artist who seeks to function within his/ her race as a purposeful agent has a serious responsibility. . . . called upon to do no less than create values by which the race is to struggle, live and die . . . create the myths and symbols that inspire a faith in life. . . . It means that in the lives of the Negro writers/artists must be found those materials and experiences which will create a meaningful picture of the world today. . . . Surely this is the moment to ask questions, to theorize, to speculate, to wonder out of what materials can a human world be built. “
When Geri passed it made me think a lot more deeply about how these losses connect and the meaning(s)of them. Losing her, Vic Bailey, Armstead Christian, just to name particularly a few, rings so deeply at the core of our memories of their human relevance, and too the cultural losses. I always ask, what happens to a generation when its poets die?
Our great artists, thinkers, entertainers, provide a real reading and temperature gauge on how we define ourselves socially. Their presence and work is as important as how a president or religious leader can demand of us to consider who, and what and why we are. Their presence is a real measure of how we interpret life really because as we live, we measure our values against how they match and make up our topical, relational and dream scenarios. They tell us of their pain, we see ours.
In a barren lonely room when there is no one else to talk to, we can walk with them and feel the concrete, and climb the mountain and laugh at the fools who never believed in us. They tell us of what they see and we hear our visions of ourselves. They make us laugh very loud human, and cry, wonder and cuss at what we love to hate and recant at what we hated to love so deeply. If we had no pitch, because they sing, we become opera singers and rock stars. Every time I hear Michael Jackson now I hear " his scream" in a different way. "Leave Me Alone", " Badd", take a look at the "Man in the Mirror, "We Are the World" and and "Human Nature", aren't just songs, they read and sound out like a great novel on existentialism in the modern world. We can now
hear, understand and "we remember" every verse and line. There is too with their disappearances, a coming home to a loss of a "generational mapping of minds/ souls in sound", a zeitgeist, a measure of what mattered forus as well. Maya Angelou, we will never again hear her deep breath taking lines that made us reckon with our being a caged bird and flying free from the worst of conditions that crippled our very existence. This is not simply a poet's voice, it's consciousness cleaned, it's mind from being lost, found and cleared. There is that line that reminds us of how the people perish who have no wisdom, or how those who forget their past are very much doomed by them.
What songs will we hear when our realities meet our darkest truths?
What lines will we remember then?
That's why we celebrate and laugh and shout out our love for them( the artists), and roar their names in stadiums under stars, because the whole planet should too resonate with our memories of just how special these people are. These artists ring deeply at the core of our memories of their daily relevance and our human frailty, their power to speak and seek the expressions of our experiences and the celebrations of our humanness. Their presence is a measure of what we have to make our living days count for all kinds of things we hold treasurable. And what we cherish and treasure is the joy we feel when we simply get to laugh, sing and be ( more deeply) real in our lives because of their representations of who we know we are. That's the best meaning of what and and why and how and who we need them to be. Truly in the lives of our artists are our " life materials and experiences" which create our meaningful pictures of our world.
So losing Geri Allen, our Detroit queen of great music(s) is making rings throughout my thoughts forward, and makes me commit now even more deeply to understanding, appreciating the profound meaning of these great creative voices among us.
July, 4, 2017
Dr. Bill Banfield currently serves as Professor of Africana Studies/ Music and Society, director of the Center for Africana Studies, and teaches in the dept's of Liberal Arts, Composition and the graduate school, Berklee College of Music.