By Kierna Mayo
Upon her untimely death at 54 years old, one simply cannot measure the gargantuan talent of Teena Marie — nee Mary Christine Brockert — by even the greatest of R&B standards. She was utterly unmatched; not even by the vocal dexterity of Mariah Carey, who perhaps had greater technical range, but who has to this day never quite unearthed what Marie did—a soprano-to-alto-and-back-again black soul. Marie, from her Oakland childhood days, was enamored by black spirit (she credited her dear Godmother, a black woman). For a sweet moment in time during the late 70’s through the mid 80’s, she willfully rode the effervescent rollercoaster of the post-black power collective heart without ever hopping off.
She was loyal to black soulfulness. She didn’t merely dabble in black music and conveniently weave her way in and out of worlds, playing both sides of the racial fence. She didn’t talk blackness, either. instead, she showed it—we were then and are now forever lifted for songs like, “Behind the Groove,” and “Cassanova Brown,” and — Lord knows — “Portugese Love.” Through otherworldly arrangements and Divine-love lyrics she authored herself always (“Tender was the kiss when you held me captive in your sweet embrace…” she sang in “Out on a Limb”), Marie somehow expressed the inexpressible.
That pulsating pleading to go deeper and love harder, which has somehow always been our emotional essence, was demonstrably Marie’s, too. She didn’t fight Motown, not at first, when in 1979 she became their first non-black artist and was apparently asked to release her debut album without her image on it for fear of black rejection. (In 1982 she split with them after a historic lawsuit and signed to Epic Records.) She trusted that the truth lay in the melody. And it wasn’t that the masterful, messed-up Rick James (her once svengali/mentor/lover/get-high partner) gave her something she didn’t already have. But James did evoke something in her. They went on to create together an ethereal love and divine musical affair that tilted the world off its axis and redefined the very definition of the duet. There is indeed a generation that might well credit the couple for their lives: Do we not know for sure that black babies were made to the give-you-chills “Fire & Desire”?
Marie proved her worthiness and earned her for colored girls badge — not through rocking cornrows or some such; not even necessarily through her maverick embrace of the early spark and energy of hip-hop (“I’m less than five foot one/ a hundred pounds of fun/I like sophisticated funk/I live on Dom Perigon/Caviar/Filet mingon/And you can best believe that’s bunk,” she rapped in “Square Biz”); but by her truly uncontrived passion sitting atop a barely-concealed pain. Speaking of, Marie was unmatched as well by the urban edge and liquid emotion of the-most-passionate-one-ever, Mary J. Blige (whom this writer once saw singing with Marie, sitting on stools at a hotel bar — perhaps to each other? — on the island of St. Maarten). Dare it be said, the woman we dubbed the “Ivory Queen of Soul” — who in a relatively short time simply changed the R & B landscape, who truly gifted us with her “black heart” — was unmatched for us in the hip-hop generation in certain quantifiable and qualifiable ways by even Mother Aretha.
Writer Sylvia Boorstein once offered profound words about the art of meditation that today seem to also speak to the masterful musical eloquence and transcendent racial identity that was our beloved Lady T—a woman who departed this life on Christmas day wrapped in her own blankets.
“Some people practice throughout their entire lives just by paying attention to breathing. Everything that is true about anything is true about breath: it’s impermanent; it arises and it passes away…But if you hold on to the breath, it’s no longer comfortable, so you have to breathe out again. All the time, shifting, shifting.”
Kierna Mayo is a veteran cultural critic, writer and editor who covers black arts and affairs. She was part of the original Source Mind Squad, and is the founding editor in chief of Honey magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.