More Than a Friend

January 15, 2018

How fitting that we should celebrate the birthday of one great man (Martin Luther King Jr.), and the transition into the otherworldly birth of another – one of my heroes, my mentor, and my friend Edwin Hawkins. Every time I sit at the piano, regardless of the venue or context, I’m paying some form of tribute to him. His musical influence on my work is as significant as that of Horace Silver, Donny Hathaway, Ramsey Lewis, Stevie Wonder, or Dave Brubeck, because as a child, I was exposed to all of that music around the same time.

Many admonish: “let go of the past” or “don’t be stuck in the past”; not so easy – the past is where my innocence is suspended, where my cognizance of difference was determined only by what I experienced without the perversion of anyone else’s definitions or opinions. My exposure to music was unfiltered: without description, explanation, marketing, cultural jingoism, or political platform. It was neither labeled, colored, nor geographically situated; to me, it was quite simply – music.

One strikingly bizarre childhood experience found me at my next-door neighbor’s house in Philadelphia. I saw one of Ed’s records in a stack on the floor and put it on the turntable. After only a few seconds of hearing what was then The Northern California Community singing I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, my neighbor’s daughter made a mad dash towards the turntable, declaring, “Uh-uh! Today ain’t Sunday…”, and quickly snatched the record off and walked away with dismissiveness. At that moment and for the first time, I distinctly remember what it felt like to want to kill someone. All at once, I was overwhelmed by surprise, anger, frustration, confusion, rage, and powerlessness. It was one of my earliest encounters with social ignorance, the concept of people’s inability to comprehend and/or manifest spirituality in a positive way, and the realization that perhaps the average person might not be all that bright. It was also one my earliest experiences at having someone make a decision for me about what I was supposed to enjoy and how. This would prove to be a significant and frequent occurrence for me throughout my life.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that Edwin‘s music always touted personal freedom and rejection of dogma. It never occurred to me that I would one day get to meet the man, let alone become friends with him. Within seconds of our first introduction, I found him to be approachable and modest; no entourage, no buffers. I couldn’t imagine that such a down-to-earth dude could be aware of the impact he had on gospel music, because he never acted like he was so special.

Recently, I was able to sit at length and converse intimately with Ed and his sister Lynette about their early days as musical performers and what it was like growing up in church in the 1950s-60s. Although 11 years apart, Ed and Lynette are of the baby boomer generation, therefore, their coming of age coincided with the USA’s “loss of innocence”, which compelled Ed’s reconfiguration of O, Happy Day in 1967. Lynette quite candidly explained to me how they had been ostracized for daring to use their “God-given gifts” anywhere except in the church (much in the way Thomas Dorsey had been “thrown out of some of the best churches in America” for daring to veer off from the sound of what was acceptable as “godly” music in the first half of the 20th century). In 1971, Walter (another brother and brilliant musician), organized Love Center from bible studies in his parents’ living room, where they discussed the issues they were facing as young people living not only under racism in their country, but oppression from the church; Lynette explained, “…the ministry…saved my life.”

Much like John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and other significant artists of the 1960s-70s, Edwin tapped many resources to musically undergird powerful messages with global inclusion. The outing of the US government as racist, warmongering, and hypocritical yielded some of the most powerful music ever created. Having heard this music as a child, as an innocent, as a soul not yet sickened by the world, I count myself fortunate that I came along at such a time as then. I was free, and Edwin Hawkins’ music helped me to experience that feeling because he refused to limit his embrace of only one vibration, instead opting to react to all of them.

Admittedly, I’m still chasing my childhood with futility, hoping that at some point, I will be able to recapture a state of innocence (even if only metaphysically), and shed the shackles of judgment, fear, anger, and resentment that impede a life of freedom, joy, and peace.