Last week, the world got a little smaller. Music legend Isaac Hayes and comedian Bernie Mac died within one day of each other. Mac lost his battle with pneumonia due to diminished lung capacity from sarcoidosis and Hayes died of a stroke while working out.
Both men were young (Mac was 50, Hayes was 65), brilliant and black. Yes, I said black because blackness is often something that is discussed as being intangible. What does it mean to be black? How is something or someone blacker than something else? What qualifies someone to dictate or determine if something or someone is black? These types of questions circulate throughout academic spaces, the world community, barbershops, hair salons and the like. Men like Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac expose the ridiculousness of these questions through their looks, their art and their delivery.
I was compelled to write this piece when I overheard someone saying that Chef from South Park had died. Chef from South Park -- that's it for a man who single-handedly redefined Memphis soul for the iconic Stax Records label? A man that composed a soundtrack for the black action film classic Shaft, winning the Oscar for Best Song and Best Score in 1971, a first for a black man. A man who covered Dionne Warwick's classic "Walk on By," making what she calls "the definitive version," of the song. A man who sported a bald head, bare chest and gold chains as a public embrace of the Black is Beautiful and Black Power movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A man whose physical look was antithetical to dominant ideas of beauty, making it cool, sexy and hot to be a black man that looked like his African ancestors. A man who had once dropped out of school because of extreme poverty, only to be led back by his community, was crowned a king and member of the royal family in Ghana, using that money and status to build a massive educational facility instead of a palace, as is customary. A man who had picked cotton, worked as a short order cook, learned to play instruments by ear, ushered in an era of music, a distinctive sound and an aesthetic of beauty and pride that has influenced every musical artist of the last 40 years. The ability to make something from nothing, constantly reinvent oneself, and influence those all around you, even when they are too arrogant or simple to realize that they are being influenced, is what I call blackness. It is a state of mind and a state of being and Isaac Hayes personified that.
Isaac Hayes was much more than a cartoon character on South Park, although he took on that role and made it distinctly his, which is why black popular cultural production is so fascinating. In the midst of this nonsense that passes as music, Hayes' work is constantly sampled in rap, soul and rock music, making very average people excellent. Conversely, it is Hayes' magic that makes great artists even better, as evidenced by the late comedian Bernie Mac.
How so? Just like Hayes, Bernie Mac burst onto the national comedy scene proclaiming his blackness. Black Moses (Hayes) took the stage during his classic WattsStax performance at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Aug. 20, 1972, removing his shirt and revealing an outfit made of chains, while the theme from Shaft played in the background, while being introduced by a rising pastor/politician, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Mac was introduced by a rising comedian/actor Martin Lawrence as he confronted the audience proclaiming, "I ain't scared of you motherfuckers." He was confident, forthright and talked about his beauty and being "blessed." Like Hayes, Mac walked onto the stage, taking over the live audience and mesmerizing his viewers. He embraced his blackness, taking the stage and stating that if he pulled out his member, the whole room would go dark. He took a prevailing stereotype about black men and made it hilarious.
Like Hayes, who changed the face of soul music, Bernie Mac changed the face of black comedy, picking up where the late comedian Robin Harris had left off. His grit, ability to tell it like it is and to show us his "true" self in his performances is what made people love Bernie Mac, even in not-so-stellar films. Mac was able to do what Robin Harris was not -- take his comedic energy and distinctive style of delivery and channel it into different vehicles, successfully. Like Hayes, he re-imagined what black comedy looked like and how it was delivered, with performances that separated him from his competitors, yet connected him to his audiences. This is what I call black magic.
When I think of the cultural production of blackness, I think of Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac, black men who changed the landscape of their art, stayed connected to their community, embraced their inner and outer beauty while exposing the ugliness of the rest of the world and making history one performance at a time.