My drunken Uncle Toine is riding shotgun with a mini brewery stowed in his sandy cargo pants pockets. It’s only four o’clock in the afternoon, so he’ll need it if he wants more than a slight buzz for the six-to-seven-hour adventure ahead of us. My mother, who hates driving long distances, was predisposed to join my brother in the backseat, leaving me in the third row and my Aunt Dean behind the wheel of my mother’s 2019 Honda Pilot.
“Y’all ready?” My uncle shouts and proceeds to pass my mother and I each a Truly.
In and out of sleep, my blinking eyes were no longer summoned to the suburban towns of Connecticut, but to New York City. Traffic has us at a dead standstill for a few minutes despite the GPS telling us we had arrived. There were white and golden headlights in every direction and nothing to do but let them blind us and inch up every few moments, but it gave us time to figure out where to leave the car.
We parked in the garage where the exit led us to the center of West Thirty-Fourth Street, which reeked of boiled eggs and sweat as we passed by three homeless people on our short four-minute walk to Madison Square Garden. I don’t know why I had this idea in my head that the arena was this tall, secluded building that was fancy, upscale, and that would take my breath away. We were in the middle of the goddamn city with a shoe repair store and a Chase Bank to be considered sightseeing. I honestly didn’t know we were in front of it until some short man in a yellow jacket yelled “DE LINEZ DIS WAY”, and lazily nodded his head to the left.
After escaping security, we walked up these dusty, chipped, cement steps to a long hallway of robust orange and royal blue New York Knicks collectables that led to a lineup of mediocre food places: a vegan spot that advertised “specialty sausage” with browning lettuce peeking through at the salad bar, a wing joint where none of the employees were wearing gloves, a pizza place, and a few popcorn/hotdog stands. Underwhelmed, but starving, I ended up getting a slice of pizza that most definitely was not worth nine dollars and change.
After we ate, my mom sent me over to an usher to ask for help with our seats, he then pointed at another usher who he said would take us downstairs to our chairs in the third row. “Here you all are, enjoy.” The show was advertised as “The Culture Tour,” the main act was New Edition, with opening performances by none other than Jodeci and Charlie Wilson. For a culture tour, the lineup made sense; they’ve all had an everlasting influence in Black music and culture, an influence that is hard to explain if you didn’t grow up with it, an influence that even if explained well still would not mean much if the culture doesn’t belong to you.
Jodeci came out and my mouth dropped, they looked incredibly old. Joedci’s debut was way before my time. Before tonight, I’ve only ever seen them in music videos. I don’t know why I expected them to look like they did in their 1993 hit “Cry for You”; white button-down shirts fblowing, cute, rock-hard abs, charming, radiant. Instead, they all had faint wrinkles, dry eyes, grays, and two of them appeared to be shorter and stumpier than on YouTube and MTV. By the end of their set, my ears were ringing, but I enjoyed it despite my initial disappointment.
Charlie Wilson is bad, the kind of bad MJ sung about. He has this swag to him, and you can tell he lived a rockstar life even before he mentioned his seventeen-year sobriety. He had a head full of jerry curls and was kind of sexy for a sixty-nine-year-old man. He came out in this gold sequined suit and tie with a tiny C.W in the same gold imprinted on his microphone. I didn’t know any of his songs, other than “Early in the Morning” and “Sweeter than Candy”, but his performance still impressed me. He was able to keep up with the costume changes and get low with the young, foxy backup dancers that had to be a third of his age. Despite being impressed, toward the end of his never-ending set, I zoned out and started to critique the stage- the wires, the dust on the speakers, Charlie’s shoes, and all the pixels in the sign of his name. He told everyone to turn on their flashlights for his last song and paused for a long moment before he said wow.
I couldn’t see the lights of the two rows in front of me, so I turned around, “Holy fuck! Mom, sorry.” I assured her I didn’t mean to blurt that before she had the chance to say anything about my language in front of my fifteen-year-old brother. When we walked in, I never even bothered to look back until this moment. I guess I didn’t realize how close we were until I turned around and saw how many people were behind us and all the flashlights looked so far away. Charlie sang his song and wished us a good night.
My mother leaned into me and bumped my shoulder with the whole side of her body, “You ready?” I gave her a half-ass grin before a curvy woman walked on stage, stealing our attention. She had to be about thirty, built like me but a little taller, her skin’s color somewhere between cinnamon and sorrel, and she rocked a coily, coppery afro.
“It is with true honor that BPC (Black Promoters Collective) brought to you this iconic lineup, all this Black excellence in New York City, during Black History Month, now you, Madison Square Garden, are you ready for New Edition?”
A few weeks ago, my cousin Sid had asked if I was ready for Black History Month. I gave her a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulder. I don’t know why people hyped up this concert and why at the beginning of every February the world acts like it gives a damn about Black lives and the history of them.
The Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, New York, capacity 20,789, home to the Knicks and the Rangers, coincidentally opened during Black History Month, February 11, 1968. It was designed by Charles Luckman (white guy), and it is named after former President James Madison (another white guy). Celebrating what was supposed to be this great moment of Blackness, specifically culture, at this place built on white foundation is less than ironic. On the other hand, it is sort of an F-you to its namesake. An arena, the most famous arena- full of Black guests, Black celebrities, Black music, and Black celebration, outnumbering the white workers in a place named to honor a white slave owner.
The crowd cheered, screamed, shook their hips, and called out “mmhmmms” and “that’s right’s” to her acknowledgement of BHM and New Edition. Everyone in the room was lit up, besides the (ironically) all white staff with their backs to the stage, arms behind them or folded on their chests and their unamused glares facing back at us.
The crowd got even louder once she exited the stage, and the lights went out. The first beat to the opening song came, and everyone already knew what it was. “MR. TELEPHONNE MAN”. My mom grabbed my hand, held it, and sang to me as we stood blanketed in complete darkness. “THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY LINE!” I sing back. A screen drops down and starts playing the “Mr. Telephone Man” music video, another screen lifts from behind and there they stood. “MR. TELEPHONE MAN, THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY LINE, WHEN I DIAL MY BABY’S NUMBER, I GET A CLICK EVERYTIME,” Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Ralph, and Johnny harmonize.
They broke their uniformed stance, and each took a section of the rectangular stage, Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant headed our way. By the end of the song, all six of them were sweaty and out of breath. They sang all the hits including some from their solo careers and had the same six backup dancers strutting to each song. At the beginning of the second to last song, Mike says, “You know, we’ve been in this business since we were twelve, shit, a couple of us were eleven when we recorded “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man”, and I got to tell you, it truly never gets old.” It is crazy how two people in their mid forties, one in their thirties, a twenty-one-year-old, and a fifteen-year-old have the same passion as an artist. For New Edition to be in the business for nearly thirty-five years and still have new fans says something about music, influence, and generations.
“Can You Stand the Rain”, a timeless classic, and my all-time favorite hit of theirs, concluded their set. They put their backs to the stage and the screen dropped down to where it first was, leaving them out of sight again, igniting a standing ovation. After two and a half mirthful hours, the concert, a celebration of Blackness and its culture, ended just as abruptly as the month does every year. When the lights flashed, so did reality.
“Y’all ready?” Toine remarked. The crowd of content faces stood in solidarity for one last moment. Then there was a shift in the atmosphere. The feeling of kinship quickly vanished; rush and reluctance orbited us. I imagined everyone wanted to get home, but I also knew that once we took that first step outside this arena, it would again be the world against us.
Header photo courtesy of Scott Lipscomb for Whur.com
Daria Washington is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine
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