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'It's Been A Minute' Examines Black Performers On American Culture


Here's a reality of entertainment in a big, diverse country - a new star steps onstage or on screen, everyone sees the exact same performance, but different audiences receive it differently. We bring ourselves to a performance. Part of the show is our frame of mind as we see it. A writer explored an iconic case and talked about it with Sam Sanders of the NPR podcast It's Been A Minute.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hanif Abdurraqib is out with a new book of essays. It's called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." So in this book, Hanif examines the legacy of everyone from Aretha Franklin to Don Cornelius, the guy who made "Soul Train." And what I love about all these essays is how they make you rethink these performers and these performances that you might think you already know pretty well, like Whitney Houston. Hanif has an essay in there all about her. Hanif says there was a moment early in Whitney's career when white America seemed totally enamored with Whitney Houston while Black America was a lot more skeptical. Here's Hanif Abdurraqib.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: So 1988 Grammys, they had Whitney Houston open the show by performing "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It was the first performance. It was kind of like, welcome to the Grammys. Here's a thing. Boom.



ABDURRAQIB: It's highly choreographed, of course, because it's a song about movement. But she looks really unsettled. She's, like, in these very high heels. She's, like, holding the mic really tensely close to her, really stiff movement, awkward steps.


HOUSTON: (Vocalizing).

ABDURRAQIB: The performance is split into two parts because they needed to give space to the announcer to be like, tonight at the Grammys, we'll have this long list of people.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Robbie Robertson, Diana Ross, Run DMC.

ABDURRAQIB: And then Whitney Houston comes back out for the final chorus.


HOUSTON: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) With somebody who loves me.

ABDURRAQIB: But what happens when she comes back out is she's in a dress that's a bit more conducive to movement. She just looks looser and looks freer. And she kind of, like, makes her way down to the top of the stage where she finds one tall Black dancer, and they have a moment that, by the end, it doesn't seem choreographed. Like, they grab hands. He twirls her. She kind of for a really brief moment seems immensely free.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Don't you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance. Don't you wanna dance?

ABDURRAQIB: It seems as if she's thinking, I know I'm not the best dancer, but I'm having a great time, which is a moment that I have gotten to in my life, a moment that so many folks I know I've gotten to in their lives.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, I wanna dance.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, that performance endures because of that one moment.

SANDERS: Yeah. She is performing a song from an album that was decidedly mainstream and crossover pop, which annoyed some Black listeners. And on music's biggest stage, she can't even dance to it. Like, what do you imagine Black people watching the Grammys back then were thinking about all of this as they saw it?

ABDURRAQIB: Gosh, you know, in some ways, it seems like there was a confirmation that Whitney was not Black enough. And I do think there have been really generous and thoughtful corrections made on this, particularly after Whitney's passing. But even when she was alive, I think there was some reckoning with the way she was treated in the kind of early moments of her career. But I mean, in the moment, yeah, I think it just added to the uncertainty that some Black folks expressed towards Whitney's kind of bona fides and her credentials.

SANDERS: And the Grammys overall over the course of her career, they like her, right?


SANDERS: But at the same time, Whitney Houston, this record-breaking Black performer, she is having a big problem with the all-Black or mostly Black Soul Train Awards. Some folks there don't like her and they boo her. Like, explain - set that up.

ABDURRAQIB: Two years in a row. And I feel like what gets the most attention is the 1989 booing because it's like, you know, the clearest one. But in 1988, if you listen closely, they booed when the sound system played "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and the video was late on the screen.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Whitney Houston - "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

ABDURRAQIB: But in 1989, she got booed when they announced her single.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" - Whitney Houston.


ABDURRAQIB: I feel like Black folks that I know and have known are so unafraid to express their displeasure. I mean, in the book - another point of the book, I talk about the Apollo, which is...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...Just - it functions on these expressions of displeasure.


ABDURRAQIB: It's a type of truthtelling, right?


ABDURRAQIB: Now, I've never been booed off stage, but I have been told to tighten up, you know, in ways that are not gentle by Black folks in my life. And I appreciate that. Granted, would I appreciate getting booed at the Soul Train Awards? No, but I think that language translates.

SANDERS: What does it say about just the way that we accept or don't accept Black performance period? Like, does any Black performance ever make everybody happy?

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, of course not. And thankfully not. I'm happy that there is no Black performance that makes everyone happy. That's vital. It's vital to the ecosystem of how we understand each other. When I say I don't like something, it rarely is a dead end. It is sometimes me aching for a conversation with someone who maybe did enjoy it. I find that those conversations among Black folks have been so fulfilling for me in my lifetime as a writer, as a thinker, as someone curious about popular culture.

SANDERS: I love hearing you say that because Whitney Houston's relationship to the Soul Train Awards, it also was not a dead end. You write that after she was booed, she ends up making an album that sounds a little Blacker. It's got some new jack swing going on. She's got Babyface and others helping her produce it. And she wins a Soul Train Award. And then she gets up there to give a speech, and it stops everyone in their tracks.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. Well, she gives a speech that first opens up by talking about Sammy Davis Jr. and about how he performed in nightclubs for white folks, but...


HOUSTON: African American customers could not go through the front door of the same club to see the performance.

ABDURRAQIB: And there's this point in the speech that I love where she talks about how Sammy Davis Jr. not only had to endure the humiliation of discrimination from white folks but also insults of his own people.


HOUSTON: Who blamed him for trying to rise above the ignorance and hatred, not with rhetoric but through his work.

ABDURRAQIB: And when she says the words his own people, she raises her eyebrows and kind of does a quick scan of the audience just to let the - almost like...

SANDERS: She's saying I'm talking about y'all.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. Just to let them know that she didn't forget. It's, like, such a subtle thing in the speech. But it's my favorite thing because she does it without bitterness. Like, the speech is still steeped in gratitude.


HOUSTON: I thank you the people.


SANDERS: And they still love her for it.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, because they know.

SANDERS: All together, over the course of her career, Whitney Houston won seven Soul Train Music Awards, eight Grammys and millions of hearts. That was part of my conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib. His new book of essays is called "A Little Devil In America: Notes In Praise Of Black Performance." You can hear our entire chat over at my podcast, It's Been A Minute. I'm Sam Sanders.


HOUSTON: (Singing) Whatever you want from me, I'm giving you everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.