I used to hate Luther: A Black History Month Confession

I spent my entire young life hating the music of Luther Vandross. It bothered me that he smiled when he sang. Even when I heard his songs on the radio, I could clearly hear that he was happy. I always liked pain. Real pain pouring out of the mouth of another black man always comforted me. The sorrow of losing your lady (Otis Redding). The sting of living a second class citizenship (Sam Cooke). The trauma that comes from having to suppress your natural impulses, being addicted to drugs, and growing up in the slums (Marvin Gaye). Those were the men who I listened to at night while I tried to talk sexy to my girlfriend, hoping my mother wouldn’t get on the line and tell me to get off the phone. But never Luther.

Luther sang about heartache in a way that sounded downright bearable. I was too ignorant to appreciate the inherent happiness in his rendering of Soul music. His voice was always there but I never gravitated toward it, until I found myself in a state of confusion and depression. I had been intensely at odds with the mother of my child which therefore put me at odds with my child. I was in an empty kitchen with pictures of my kid on the refrigerator. I was in total despair as my Spotify playlist played in the background; “Don’t you remember, you told me you loved me baby.”  Luther sang a song full of sorrow but he was not downtrodden. He recalled the pain without living in it and somehow, the song which I thought was immensely corny in my younger wilder days, was getting me through my difficult time. And then I started back listening to his catalog. 

“Aunties” used to obsess over Luther. Big women that carried very big purses and had no less than three children were guaranteed to have at least one Luther Vandross tape and they never pronounced the “er” at the end of his name. He was always LUTHA! They adored him. Conversely, I abhorred him but now my first sign of being a mature man in his 30s was my willingness to admit to myself that I had been wrong. 

I had heard “If only for one Night” since I was a child but I hadn’t felt it until I was old enough to have a child of my own. It’s a song about a man trying to seduce a woman that he feels like he can’t actually be in a relationship with, for whatever reason. Maybe she’s married. Maybe he’s married. Maybe she’s devoutly Christian. We do not know. What we do know is that she’s afraid of something, and he’s afraid too. He renders himself completely vulnerable in the song. 

I never hear from you

And my knees are shaking too

But I’m willing, willing to go through

I must be crazy

Standing in this place

But I’m feeling no disgrace   

-Luther Vandross

He’s not begging as much as he’s illustrating the beauty of their potential lovemaking. And he means it. He sounds authentic, as if he isn’t running game at all.  In fact when I listen to other legendary black male singers, sometimes it sounds like they are seeking the approval of men for how they are communicating with women. For example; when Teddy Pendergrast shouts “TURN EM OFF!” in the song “Turn off the lights”, women like it but men can also respect it as well. It’s very dominant and masculine. It represents a certain aggression that men like to bring into romantic relationships. An aggression, I’ve been told several times,  that women don’t always like. But while Teddy is screaming Luther is releasing a single tear as he smiles nose to nose with your lady in a secret location plotting on doing forbidden things that you will never be made aware of. That’s the appeal of his music. Sistas consider him to be safe. There is no barrier between how the Aunties feel and what he says. There is nothing rough about “Lutha’s” voice. There is no depression. There is no angst. He is not overzealous or angry. He is calming. He is happy. He is soulful, and he is love. And I am honored to be at a place in my life when I can finally recognize that.

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