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Jerell: Let your soul lead the way

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“Our world is but a land of a master jam, get up and dance.” - Afrika Bombaataa

During a chat with a dear friend last year, we learned that we shared a mutual appreciation for old-school R&b and “original” rap, as he called it.

My formative years in the 1980s corresponded with much of the early innovations in this new genre, and when I mentioned this to Jerell, he told me how lucky I was to have grown up during such a transformative time for music.

What I actually admitted was that I vividly remember being energized by the song often recognized as the first rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang (apologies to those who give that honor to Bill Curtis).

Although it came out a bit before my time, they still played it a few years later at the roller-skating rink where my friends and I spent many tween and teen nights. Jerell was kind enough to chuckle with appreciation at the vision of a little me shuffle-skating to one of the most groundbreaking songs of the 20th century.

Anyone who reads this column regularly is aware of my belief that music connects us and creates indelible markers to key points in our lives. This conversation with Jerell about music became one of those moments.

I admitted to Jerell that it took a few years for me to understand the importance of this budding musical style, and I shared a story about the first concert I attended – that of my favorite band, Duran Duran.

The opening act for that Duran Duran concert was Afrika Bombaataa, the punk-funk-mystic R&B/hip-hop band that inspired everyone from NWA to the Beastie Boys to Kanye and beyond.

To a 13-year-old Duranie, I found the music confusing and intriguing – and also very loud. My mother had taken three seventh graders to the concert, and she was not happy about the raucous behavior in Philadelphia’s Spectrum Arena that chilly spring night.

My mom insisted we leave early, scandalized and concerned we would be forever damaged by the uncouth behavior.

Jerell was stunned, not because I had to leave the most important performing arts experience of my life to that point, but because I experienced a legend. We proceeded to talk for a half hour about the origin of musical genius and how being one of the first must take so much courage.

We talked about how a song can make you feel whole or special or healed, or in on a secret that only a few know. He said, “I wish I grew up then and heard it all as it happened.” Then he said how he wished his kids could know how phenomenal that music was and to feel the way he did when he heard it. We covered much music and many personal observations that day.

I have always believed I was lucky to grow up in the 1980s, in a time when the battles for equity and justice were starting to bear fruit (gains soon to be curtailed), when artists could collaborate with freedom, and we saw innovation blossom.

It was then, though, that I saw my youth through a new lens. In Jerell’s eyes, those of a 40-year-old Black man, he felt that music as inspiration, as a glimpse of what could be, as the potential for music (and life) when everyone is free to create in their own way.

I knew this intellectually and have likely preached it, but feeling it through music made it visceral. It became so clear how communities can intersect around the arts, even when certain groups are marginalized or seen as less, when there is hope that our American promise would continue to open up to every American.

The hardest part about this story is how it ends. Yes, I mean how the policies of the 1980s turned back the clock on progress (gender, race, and income level), but I also mean how it ended for Jerell, that kindest and most insightful of humans, who cared more for the potential of the future than anyone I know.

Jerell lost a short, brutal battle with what should have been a treatable cancer after being misdiagnosed for months and being told he needed to be more disciplined in physical therapy and that he could manage the pain.

I cannot say that proven racial disparities in health care played a part in why he did not benefit from living in the “best city in the world to be diagnosed with cancer,” as many tout our local health-care system.

I can grieve the loss of a man who went too soon. I can grieve the loss of a father of three small children who wanted nothing more than for them to be inspired by greatness. I can grieve the loss of a husband who spent every day finding ways to honor his beloved wife.

And I can grieve the loss of a friend who taught me what those lyrics in Afrika’s “Planet Rock” mean:

Cause it’s the century,
There is such a place that creates such a melody,
Our world is but a land of a master jam, get up and dance,
It’s time to chase your dreams …
Socialize, get down, let your soul lead the way,
It’s a living dream,
Love, life, live.

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