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black utopias: roy ayers and searchin’ for god in public

April 17, 2019
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There are things we all ask of our lives and of our God in the dark that we might find it hard to process in public space, underneath the sun where nothing is hidden. Music has been a way for people, namely Black people, to transgress this human cycle of existential reflection and spiritual longing being private. From the negro spirituals that we shared underneath the scorching sun, demanding questions of God and declaring spiritual prophecies (“God is gonna trouble the water”) to the public performance art that is the Black church. Like everything else Black people interact with — there has been a space for performance in it — from the auction block to stadiums — Black people have been forced to perform and often we weaponize our proclivity to perform to make a thought, politics or belief more spectacular.

I’m searchin’, I’m searchin’, I’m searchin’… The vocals and harmonies of Roy Ayers’ “Searchin’” are hypnotizing. The interpretation varies depending on the emotional status of the listener: the song may be about romantic partnership (“I just wanna live my life. The way I feel that I should be. ‘Cause I wanna be happy, happy. What about you and me”), or something a bit more existential and political like life’s meaning and world unity (“We are living in a world of ‘who has what?’ and ‘who is who?’ But I’m telling you my friend, the answer’s right in front of you. We are searching for a piece. Peace of mind is what we need.”) Through music and production, Ayers doesn’t necessarily force you to choose one, but offers the idea that they are not that different. To want to experience love and oneness of any kind — spiritually, politically, romantically — is wanting to experience God, or the force generous enough to create life and witnesses of life that love you and actively search for the connection.

Roy Ayers’ music filled my mother’s home on a Sunday. We did not go to church, but we did clean the house and open the windows, and let fresh air and Roy Ayers’ sensational blend of jazz, funk, and psychedelic rock embrace us the entire Holy Day. The horn solo on “Searchin’” would eventually be used in 00’s R&B singer, Amerie’s “Rollin’ Down My Face.” In it she sings from a place of melancholy and deep spiritual tumultuousness, it is the Roy Ayers sample that was essential in creating the soundscape to sing lyrics like “And the tears keep rolling down my face.” Amerie, of course, is not the only musician to utilize Roy Ayers as an excuse for their own self-reflection.

It was Mary J. Blige that used a sample of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” — a psychedelic groove that begs to be experienced, not just heard — as the foundation to perform Blige’s now-iconic, soulful anthem “My Life.” Blige’s song is generation-defining now, and the rib was the music that conjured about the sunshine.

On “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” the lyrics feel at opposition to the production. As if a longing for sunshine is happening rather than it being experienced in real time, and the tension of that long — sitting with it — is where Roy Ayers’ genius lives. And the genius is generous because, as noted, a plethora of Black artists have found their own way into storytelling that feels spiritually and emotionally courageous and vulnerable.

This is the grand gift of Roy Ayers. He held the tradition of Black bravery in the face of topics less explored in popular music, and with the space he created, he gave permission to other Black artists to be fed by the freedom of reflection that Ayers’ sultry, psychedelic music grants. In even more spectacular moments, he gives room for Black artists of younger generations to do their own searchin’ with Roy Ayers as the emotional compass.