PRINT November 1989


Rhythm and Rage

THE FIRST TIME I SAW Sister Carol perform, it was at a place on 125th Street in New York called the Celebrity Club. The show was part of a series billed as “Reggae Comes to Harlem”—a concept that seemed to hold a great deal of promise, suggesting the essential and underlying unity of two great musical traditions, split unnaturally by the barbarism of slavery. Although the producers’ intentions were noble, the outcome looked dire: the enormous ballroom, which once blazed with Lindy hoppers and jitterbug queens, now held tables and chairs that looked as though they’d been salvaged from the street, and about 25 people. An air of diminished grandeur hung heavily.

Reggae shows are known for late starts, and this one was no exception. Finally, around 1:30 in the morning, after a lukewarm opening act and an appropriately frenzied build-up from the emcee, the band kicked into a rock-solid groove. Like many a great performer, Sister Carol made an agonizingly slow entrance. Decked out in pink and white, as though dressed for Easter dinner, she eased her way over to center stage, doing a kind of heel-toe, to-and-fro rock that moved her forward only a few inches at a time. When she reached the microphone, she waved the band to a sudden stop and delivered her message straight, snapping, “Listen! This song is strictly against apartheid.” The crowd was transfixed.

From that point on, Sister Carol’s authority was unassailable. Whether laying down a stern political message, a wicked, playful toast, a praise song to Jah, or a revamped, suddenly meaning-rich pop ballad (was she really doing “Let It Be Me,” and why had it never sounded this good before?), she was in complete control. The once-shy crowd was rolling like a wave, and Sister Carol was letting go with a storm of rhythm. By the time she did the same heel-toe rock off the stage an hour or so later, she had brought unity where there was dispersion, faith where there was doubt, and sweet perspiration where there was nothing but dry skin.

The next time I saw Sister Carol perform, it was at an outdoor festival in Brooklyn, on a double bill with the performance poet Hattie Gossett. The pairing proved to be inspired. It brought home, through different means, a common message of independence within an oppressive system. Gossett, performing with a stripped-down, jazz-oriented band led by David Pleasant, helped revive the once-fruitful union between poetry and jazz, stressing the free play of emotion and rhythm between the two. In a very funny piece called “dreadlock office temp/labor relations #5,” she recounted the story of a woman who “has long dreadlocks & wears loud colors & big earrings & either red or orange goldflecked nail polish on her finger&toe nails . . . she sits in an unventilated little backroom of a wall street corporate tower & types 100words per minute on the word processor.” Sticking to the physical facts, Gossett showed how this wild flower in a tame setting is bound to create conflict, which comes in the form of “the grey flannel people with their blow drys & perms & jerry curls” who stare at her and “ask her how she got her hair like that . . . just stop combing your hair she tells them.”

In this piece and others, Gossett faced the clash of cultures with a hard-won laugh, bringing to mind Albert Camus’ observation that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Of course, individual fates need to be surmounted, because things in nature don’t generally tend toward resolution. In a piece called “dokar/samba,” Gossett recorded conflicting impressions of a trip to Africa, recalling “lemonade/reefer cookie/stewed fish rice cabbage onions hot peppers/little bags of peanuts/ . . . evening walks/harmony/lilting kora chords/cool nights,” then pitting those pleasant memories against others of “running sores and twisted limbs/clitoridectomy/widespread and severe pain/imported bottled water/people living and sleeping in the streets/cardboard and tin shanties squatting next to abstract french architecture.” With each irreconcilable memory, the band would swell to meet her rising fire. Gossett’s intensely personal stories began eliciting shouts from the crowd, and when she described feeling trapped “at the intersection of reduced resources & reverberating rage,” members of the audience raised their fists in joyful release.

What both Gossett and Sister Carol have tapped into is the vitality of the blues, which uses rage as a galvanizing, even liberating force. Blues is both a response and condition of block culture. An Andy Razaf/Fats Waller song of 1929, performed memorably by Louis Armstrong, poses the unanswerable question facing African-Americans: “What did I do to be so black and blue?” Black artists have assumed a number of positions in response. Black women, being doubly discriminated against, have often taken up the tragic role of the exquisite sufferer. Billie Holiday embodied this type: she could take a standard, even maudlin love lament such as “Glad to Be Unhappy” and turn it into a searing record of personal dissolution. Having suffered mightily from the miasmal effects of racism, she turned her rage into a kind of transcendent despair.

Sister Carol and Hattie Gossett follow a counter-model, one roughly equivalent to that employed by blues shouter Ida Cox, who sang, “You never git nothing by bein an angel child./You better change yo ways and git real wild./I’m gonna tell you something, wouldn’t tell you no lie./Wild women are the only kind that ever git by./Wild women don’t worry, they don’t have no blues.” Wild women convert rage into self-empowerment, talking back to the voices that would co-opt and contain them. Viewed in these terms, it is ironic that Sister Carol became well-known outside of reggae circles for her performance at the end of the Jonathan Demme movie Something Wild. And what was she singing? A radically reworked version of the Troggs’ classic garage-band stomp, “Wild Thing.” She’s the perfect choice to conclude a movie about yuppie dreams of flight. Only her self-assured grace allowed her to avoid being used as a mere representation of the “wild,” and to step confidently into the light of defiance.

Scott Gutterman is assistant editor of Artforum and writes frequently on music.


Last winter i was working this temp job on the exclusive
upper east side of newyorkcity that lasted several
everyday on my way to & from work i walked past a black
woman who in spite of sub zero ice & snow was
living on the street
a brownskinned 30ish or 40ish woman with a strong handsome
face & a thick head of hair she lived on top of
a big square of cardboard & was always wrapped
up in quilts that were cleaner than the blankets
on most peoples beds & she was very clean & she
never asked for money
sometimes she would accept donations & sometimes she
at my temp job people called her crazy especially on really
cold days & said something should be done to get
her off the street
I couldnt bring myself to walk by her & not offer something
cuz her silent staring presence was powerful &
i could see myself in her
i could see myself making a wrong turn & falling downdowndown
off the margin
being without income too long
losing my apartment
getting worn out by redtape changes
savings exhausted
goodwill dried up
get up & go on the road
i could see myself ending up between a rock & a hard place
at the intersection of reduced resources &
reverberating rage
living on the street
in the jungles of america
living on the street
in the jungles of america
living on the street
in the jungles of america

—hattie gossett

Excerpt from “between a rock & a hard place at the intersection of reduced resources & reverberating rage.” The line “in the jungles of america” is borrowed from Laurie Carlos. © hattie gossett, 1989.