Friday, August 7, 2009

What Is Soul?

Recently I was asked a question that really made me think. I know, a rare occurrence, but it happened: so I ran with it. A close friend basically gave me the chance to pontificate to no end by saying the following to me: “You’re always talking about soul music. What is that? How do you measure it? What makes something soulful?” Full disclosure: The actual question was much simpler and much less literary. But my dear friend, please allow me to answer you as truly and as publicly as I can. Sam Cooke was once asked what soul music was and he proceeded to hum eight bars of the most beautiful and melancholy melody I had ever heard. I don’t mean to insinuate that soul music exists only in the realm of what record storeowners deem to be the “soul music” section. Soul exists in every form of music and every type of art. I’ve seen graffiti that contains more soul than an entire Teddy Pendergrass album. There are children’s stories that have enough soul to compete with early Motown records. In my humble opinion what makes something soulful is not what comes out, but what you put into it.

Soul happens when every fiber of your being becomes a part of what you create. Soul is when you reveal a part of yourself that could never be spoken of in contrite explanations. You could tell me that you miss your ex girlfriend, but when you say it like: “I’ve got my pride /but deep down inside/ I’m yours/ and yours alone” that is when you’ve entered the realm of soul. I was taught once that you should never use the word you’re trying to define in the definition, but soul defies this logic. Because to create something that truly has soul you have to expose yours to the world. To create something, which is soulful, you have to let your audience peer inside and see the hurt and anguish and joy and exhilaration that permeate your work. In other words, to expose your own soul. This is the difference between “just” an artist and a purveyor of soul. Those that trade in soul are not selling a commodity, they are allowing you to see what they are whether they like it or not.

Another question that arises is: Is Hip Hop soul music? This is something with which I have struggled for a long time. I tried to create the perfect beat which contained more soul than a sample. I suppose that the answer to that lies in my original thesis of soul containing soul. Let’s be honest, just like every other form of music hip hop has some overproduced, over-marketed over-played crap in it’s midst. What separates hip hop is that it’s roots are in rebellion, and anyone who truly rebels has to have soul. I believe in the promise and beauty of hip hop and instead of shouting out individuals on the scene who have soul I’ll leave it up to you to decide who really has soul. I could start naming people off but I would inevitably leave off a deserving name. Instead I’ll say this. When something is soulful it goes beyond our simple, trite ways of describing it. It cuts us deeply and without warning and reveals a truth about ourselves through the lens of another. The next time you look at a painting or hear a song and it makes you think of your first love, or your abusive step-father, or the first “J” you ever rolled, then you’ll know, no matter what it is, that you have been touched by some soul. So please excuse me if I’ve run on, but to create work that is soulful is my mission and my guide, and if I have your permission I’ll quote from the words of Isaac Hayes when I say “If you see me walking down the street/ and I start to cry/ It’s time we meet”. Peace.

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