Written by Guest Blogger Keguro Macharia
I grew up listening to Whitney Houston. Not simply in the sense that she was famous as I entered adolescence, but that the affect-world she created saturated and colored my sense of what it meant to live in the world. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was fun, Prince was nice to like, New Edition appealing, but Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All” felt transformative. Along with my best friend then—I claimed him as a best friend while he tolerated me—I memorized and sang the song, performing it, if memory serves, for a school assembly. I might be misremembering this. I do remember how affirming it was to believe, as a child, that children were “the future,” and how, as I entered my non-rebellious adolescence as a very religious person, I embraced the possibilities of living “as I believed,” determined not to “walk in anyone’s shadow.”
I want to register the importance of these sentiments. Today, I might sneer at everything that young Keguro did not know. But, as I note in recent writing, “I am learning to treasure the ecstasies of my youth.” Not nostalgia, but a deep respect for the intuition of youth—a moment when, to use Whitney, I was “living on feelings”.
Amid what feels like a flood of sneers about Whitney’s “banal” songs—great voice, but terrible lyrics and style, I’ve read—I keep thinking about what it means to lose the soundtrack to one’s life. About the worlds of loss and desire Whitney enabled: she was my gateway to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith and Abbey Lincoln, all very different vocalists. The foundation she laid let me spend a heartbroken two weeks in Seattle playing Bessie over and over and over.
But I’m trying to get to something else.
As I watch and re-watch her videos, even those I have not seen for a long time, I’m reminded that I *know* Whitney’s voice—the runs, the catches, the slight shifts, the trembles, the hand gestures, the shoulder movements, the eye rolls. I *know* Whitney. She stamped my life in ways I will probably never be able to recognize.
What does it mean to lose the soundtrack to one’s life?
I’ve tried collecting music before, but I am terrible at it. I yearn for the familiar. I am mostly indifferent to the new. And despite efforts from good friends to diversify my tastes, I incline toward particular sounds, particular singers, particular styles. Whitney is my one constant. In my years of collecting and purging music collections, I have always collected her. I don’t have a Whitney habit—I don’t listen to her all the time—but I like knowing she’s around. I like to glide on her voice.
It is, after all, the voice that ushered me into adulthood. In the late 90s, I spent more time dancing to Whitney dance mixes than to anything else. She was my “welcome to America” figure: I didn’t know much about rock, had to discover about Janis Joplin, but Whitney was familiar. I lack the language to describe the effect of her voice, the “vibrations” of her presence—the wide, wide smile; the playful grin; the candy colors of her first videos. She was fun. And, what some call “over-processed” and “commercial”—can I pause to say how much I dislike music critics who sneer at “popular” taste—I found enabling.
I keep coming back to the word “enabling,” perhaps because I have been thinking about love in Fanon, thinking, that is, about racial life that is not a Greek tragedy. Perhaps this is why I so resent the idea that many British shows champion: Othello is the best role for black men. See Idris Elba in Luther. At times, many times, I have craved the quotidian.
Over the past ten years, the “quotidian” has been one of my critical foundations—I don’t have a theory of it and I don’t know that I need one. I think about what might be termed the “black ordinary” when I’m in the States and about the “Kenyan ordinary,” when I’m in Nairobi. I want to register not simplicity, that’s not what it is, but the thickness of daily living, of encounter and solitude, stasis and movement, flavor and sensation. Whitney has been part of my quotidian—my experience with feeling and being—for as long as I had taste that was not borrowed or simply available. (Some might question “taste,” especially those who remember my daisy dukes or, earlier, my maroon moccasins, as we termed them.)
I chose Whitney.
As I watch and re-watch her, I remember the little queer boy who sang soprano for far too long and found refuge in Whitney’s vibrations. My vocal chords remember patterns, move silently, aching to chase notes I lost a long time ago.
Her not being in the world makes those notes more elusive.
* Keguro Macharia blogs at Gukira. He generously allowed us this cross-post.