I love my divas... and I thought Women’s Month would be the perfect time to walk down memory lane with some of my favorite soul singers.
A Diva is a queen who painstakingly fine tunes her gifts into one fabulous dream we share all around the world. Her talent is understanding human nature. She expresses what we dare not, and in the expressing, shows us who we really are. She is a star who gives of herself... her emotions, her voice, her body, her life... to the spotlight a thirsty public shines and directs. We love her for this and she loves us for loving her.
Our favorite divas may not share the same names or faces, but these great women allow us all to form bonds with people we’ve never met and confront the dark side together. Music plays such a universal role. Thank you divas for all these precious little moments. Your music is indeed the soundtrack of life.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
My first diva discovered me, one dreary Sunday evening, in Guyana. I was at the home of a family friend, with my parents and siblings, enjoying dinner and a movie. The movie turned out to be Diana Ross Live at Caesar’s Palace. Need I say more?
“I’m So Excited”
During school lunch breaks, some of us kids would head over to the Chinese restaurant. I didn’t have money to eat there, but I would find money for that jukebox. I can still hear the electric arms clicking and whirling, moving this record from The Pointer Sisters into place.
“How Will I Know”
I remember standing in front of my piano teacher’s gate, when this song came floating through the neighborhood. It felt so familiar, like I’d heard it before, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t. That was the power of her voice... melismas... tone... power... range... truth. I worshiped daily at the alter of Whitney Houston.
In Trinidad, April was the one in our group always up on the latest music. It was she who first piped up, expressing love for Tracy Chapman’s folky hits, her eyes lighting up as she recited these honest melodies.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
We used to tape songs off the radio and share them. Somehow this classic gem from Patti Austin found its way into my collection. I remember one evening playing it over and over again, drawing my enquiring mom to my door. What did her 16 year old son know about these things?
I didn’t know... but I understood sadness. This tune caressed my longing to feel like I truly belonged... all of me, not just the acceptable version I had learned to display.
“How Can I Ease the Pain”
I lived in Brooklyn now with an aunt and went to community college in the Bronx. Each morning a 10 minute walk lay between apartment and subway. Lisa Fischer and her gravity defying voice kept me company during those times when I was new to this city. The following year, I saw her perform and absolutely lost my mind and my cool.
“Feels Like Another One“
I would stay in the library after classes, studying. 98.7 Kiss FM was my constant friend, filling my headphones with radio favorites and energy. It was on one of these afternoons that the Godmother of Soul - Miss Patti LaBelle premiered her new single. I’m pretty sure the version I heard started with her acapella voice burning down the scale... my mouth fell open.
I couldn’t get the plastic wrapping off this cassette fast enough. It disappeared into my Walkman releasing rich contralto goodness into my soul. Anita Baker is everything... pure and simple.
“Simply The Best”
Tiny Turner must be the 12th wonder of the world. I watched her descend those stairs at Radio City, a woman in her 50s, looking great and belting out hit after hit all while dancing, giving 300% and making me feel like she was having the time of her life.
I rang in the new year with Janet Jackson, and 15,000 other fans at Madison Square Garden. This was a departure from socially conscious Rhythm Nation, but sensuous play felt authentic too. Afterwards I raced cross town to get to work. I was late, but it was so worth it.
My roommate Sean and I would make our Thursday night pilgrimage to the Sound Factory Bar. This Sade remix was a 90s mainstay. At first listen, it seems a bit contradictory... such a sensitive song, about a woman in Somalia, in a club. But these dens of iniquity serve many purposes, and for me, a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, it was a place of community, a space to come together to dance, one of oldest rituals of prayer known to human beings. I would wait all night for the DJ to mix those first chords with that state-of-the-art lighting... refrain echoing over our lifted hands “Hallelujah...”
Now that I had my LGBT card, I was required, or least so I thought, to workout and maintain my membership. New York City Parks & Recreation offered affordable frills-free gyms. So 5 days a week, I would trek from our East Village flat to do battle with dumbbells and barbells, old school joints streaming through the sound system speakers to massage soar muscles. This Natalie Cole track, that Mary J. Blige paid tribute to, was one of my favorites.
By the time this TLC record came out, I was living in a Staten Island studio that showcased a long, narrow hallway that led to kitchen and bathroom. At night, headphones from my new Discman intact, I would wear the carpet along that corridor out.
I was visiting my best friend April in Maryland when the “Ladies First” tour swung into town. I wasn’t keen on seeing it, but I’m glad we got tickets. It was good to see black female artists co-headlining. I also enjoyed the spectacular, from the cheap seats, of Beyonce being ferried to the stage, on canopied Egyptian litter, tossing flower petals to cheering fans as she passed through them on the shoulders of able-bodied men.
On a different note, it was a pleasant surprise to catch Miss Jill Scott nonchalantly strolling out onto the “Sugar Water Festival” stage, ahead of band members and minus any grand fanfare. She was a breath of fresh air releasing a set spanning opera, jazz, neo soul and rhythm and blues, and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.
“Everything Is Everything”
I’d seen many artists at Wingate Park’s Concert Series and so when Sean and I heard who would be appearing, we were one of the first ones in line for this free show. I loved “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”... but Miss Hill didn’t appear to share our enthusiasm and showed up 2 hours late, and then commenced to perform unrecognizable versions of her urban hymns. Masses streamed out before she was through, puzzling over her newest reincarnation. I scratched my head for a bit too, before recognizing I’d witnessed the Nina Simone of our generation.
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
I recorded my first album back in 2001 and now started performing with a guitar named Blessed. This acoustic instrument felt like a long lost friend, and we were in love. This sweet ballad, from Roberta Flack, is one of the first covers Blessed taught me.
Finally I have always been a believer in self improvement, so in 2013, I went on a weekend retreat in the hopes of... improving myself. But at it’s completion, I felt more broken and disillusioned than I’d felt since pondering suicide on the 13th floor, almost 20 years earlier. I had been trying to be something... someone I wasn’t. Now I felt I was back in that dull room.
Thankfully every storm has a silver lining and this album, which I’d discovered at the retreat, reconnected me with India.Arie. Together we reaffirmed the importance of honoring our own boundaries. Living a life founded on who we truly are, and holding the exclusive rights and privileges of determining and discovering who that person, looking back at us from the mirror is.
In the end I realized self improvement is a myth... the self cannot be improved, it is perfect as it is. Our work is to recognize this truth and grow into who we are.
from Nhojj Poetry Vol. 2,
track released March 17, 2018
Written & performed by Nhojj
Contains sample of "Music" by Nhojj