(If you missed part 2 of this special series by Aberjhani please click here. Part 3 starts below.)
“Humanity, Love the Way It Should Be” is the perfect lead-in for the final quartet of songs on John Legend and The Roots’ Wake Up!––“Wholy Holy,” the previously discussed “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” and “Shine.”
More listeners are likely familiar with the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album than they are with “Wholy Holy,” which The Roots and Legendhave successfully made their own. “Wholy Holy” is one of the songs that prompted some reviewers of What’s Going On to describe it as an album of “sacred music” with its jazz and calypso-flavored pleas for people to show greater respect for the environment, practice more brotherhood and less war, exercise deeper considerations for children, and some personal sense of divine love.
Aretha Franklin is one of the few artists who have sung “Wholy Holy” (as she did on her classic 1972 Amazing Grace album) with the same evocation of mystical awe and inspired grace as Marvin Gaye did. To his credit, Legend also dives deep enough into the soul of the song to deliver a hauntingly hypnotic performance framed perfectly by the Roots’ atmospheric creation of moving sorrow and astonished wonder. At a time when displays of irreverence are generally promoted over the opposite for their marketplace appeal, “Wholy Holy” is a risky choice for two of hip hop’s most hip acts.
Silk and Soul
But risk or no risk, Legend and the Roots stick to the theme and go straight to church on the rocking gospel jam, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.” Borrowed from the 1967 Silk and Soul album by Nina Simonethe tune was written by veteran composer Billy Taylor and lyricist Dick Dallas. At the time she recorded it, Simonewas already famous for a repertoire of socially and politically informed music not very different from that showcased on Wake Up! In fact, anyone wondering why so many celebrate the album as such a triumphant work of committed artistry need only look at Simone’s career, and that of artists like herwhose political pronouncements often came at the cost of their livelihood.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” is more prayer set to Southern gospelthan it is street-corner polemics set to musical outrage. Legend’s background as a former choir director serves extremely well on the piece. The fervent tempo with choir-like back-up makes it easy to imagine you are sitting, or standing and clapping hands, in church with a Sunday morning service in full swing.
The final track on Wake Up! is the set’s only original composition. A hymn to the need to protect children from the cruelties of the world, “Shine” was written by Legend, but those familiar with music by the a cappella group Take Six and the famed Winans might recognize echoes of their tight harmonies and ecstatic phrasings in his recital. Note for note, and passionate plea for passionate plea, The Roots match Legend’s vocals at every turn to deliver a soul-felt performance. One easily identifies with their combined pained urgency when hearing the words:
“Can’t eat if we don’t feed them.
Can’t read if we don’t teach them.
There’s no line if we just hide them.
Don’t just let them die.
Let them shine.
Let them shine on.”
Old School and New Voices
A major part of the sonic alchemy that listeners experience between these two forces of music is the fact that they went completely old school for the CD by working the songs out together in the studio and recording them the same way. That may sound simple and common-sense enough but modern recording often does not involve anything more than a single individual laying down his or her individual track contribution and leaving it on electronic file—or emailing it for that matter–– for the next contributor to pick up or download and add their bit to it later.
Old school musicians have long recognized that although such techniques can increase efficiency when recording and even unite the talents of individuals unable to physically meet for a session, they can also dilute the quality of shared creative energy and vision experienced when working simultaneously in the same studio. Each of the songs on Wake Up! previously would have been recorded in just such a manner, with a dynamically-felt exchange of notes and chords resulting for listeners in a kind of synchronized magic.
As important as Wake Up! is for its resurrection of material so sorely needed in our current time, it is also significant for another very important reason. Many African-Americans of the Civil Rights generation have voiced concern over what they perceive as an extreme difference between their values and cultural practices and those of succeeding generations. To them, the differences have proved so striking that they feared African Americans as a people had become too splintered to maintain the sense of cultural identity and historical legacies that made possible the race’s advancement following the end of American slavery. There seemed to be not just a generational gap but a psychospiritual disconnection that threatened to erase both the victories of the past and the promises of the future. John Legend and The Roots’ Wake Up! call provides an indication that neither the legacy nor the promise has been impaired. It has simply been dressed up in a few new beats and placed wisely in the care of brilliant new voices.
by Aberjhani, National African American Art Examiner
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
More on The Roots, Legend, and Music
John Legend and The Roots Issue Wake Up Call Series Part 1
John Legend and The Roots Issue Wake Up Call Series Part 2
Listen to Tracks from Wake Up
The Roots Story on Soundunwound
John Legend Bio and Music on Soundunwound
John Legend’s Show Me Campaign for Children
John Legend Tour Dates
Mike James Kirkland on YouTube
Nujazz New Millennium Soul of Maxwell
The Life Times and Legacies of Lena Horne
Remembering Abbey Lincoln