June is African-American Music Appreciation Month and Soul Food Month. That’s funny. I didn’t know there’s a month to appreciate two things I enjoy year round.
Nevertheless, then-president Jimmy Carter decreed June to be Black Music Month in 1979.
Charla Draper, a Chicago-based marketing and editorial communications professional and soul food expert, founded National Soul Food Month in 2001 to celebrate the history of the cuisine.
Musicians Kenny Gamble, Ed Wright and Dyana Williams were inspired to celebrate an enduring art form and pursued creating Black Music Month. They were joined by other musicians in this effort, and on June 7, 1979, President Carter made it official.
I got an appreciation for black music early on. I can chart my life by different phases of black music. My earliest memories come from visiting two sets of aunts and uncles who lived on Messanie Street where gospel music from the church, R&B and blues from the bars and pool halls mingled together and provided the soundtrack for Friday and Saturday nights.
I got an early appreciation for jazz from my Uncle Phil King, a jazz pianist from West Virginia who fronted his own band. It was here I heard the music of Art Tatum, Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis mixed in at times with a little James Brown.
As I got into my teens, it was the political soul of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, War and Gil Scott-Heron. Those artists spoke about the times, poverty and disenfranchisement.
I never really took to rap, but my kids did. Rap to me is the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, but I do like the rap of today’s artists like Common, whose music has intelligent, socially conscious lyrics.
Today I almost exclusively listen to jazz. Jazz is far from dead as there are some tough young cats, both black and white musicians, keeping jazz alive, like Robert Glasper and Brian Landrus.
I could say I grew up on soul food as well, only we never called it that. It was just dinner with origins in the south where slaves created meals from less-desirable cuts of meat and produce cooked or fried in pork fat.
My dad noticed how many family members were having strokes and heart attacks, so he banned things cooked in fat from our holiday dinners. He also banned soul food staples like chitterlings and fatback.
Today there are healthier soul-food choices not laden with fat. Many old recipes are new again with spices and herbs for seasoning.
But all things in moderation. I still cook greens with fatback or black-eyed peas with ham hocks for flavoring. We just don’t eat it every day.
Same with barbecue. I smoke chicken as well as ribs and use rubs instead of sweet sauces most of the time. Dry rubs are a Tennessee style of barbecue and just as flavorful as sauced Kansas City-style ribs.
Soul food is more than just food. It’s about family, fellowship and storytelling by the elders. That’s the stuff that feeds the soul.