I have an uncle named James.
For most of my life I had no idea his name was James. To me, he was “Uncle Junior.” My uncle Junior was alternately a salesman of marijuana, a Black Panther, a Vietnam veteran, and a trusted deacon in his church. He knew how to use a bandsaw. He had a beard.
He was infinitely more, but to me at age ten, that was the essence of My Uncle Junior. I could write a Psalm about him that could rival anything David ever produced with his harp. I am a better writer, and in my then-grade-school-age universe, Uncle Junior was God.
I am sure he listened to a wide variety of music, but I only have one indelible memory of him. I was visiting his house (which sat on a pond with actual peacocks running around in the yard) one sweltering summer day, and my cousin and I were playing outside. We asked him for some water, and he made us stand on the porch and drink it. When he collected the drinking glasses, I remember looking through the screen door watching him put a record on the record player. I can never forget the music that came out.
He said their names were Earth Wind and Fire.
The Wikipedia page for the band says their name comes from the combination of elements that make up seasons for the seasonal hemispheres where Sagittarius resides, but forget that zodiac gobbledygook. If there is a God, then he gave them that name before they were even a band. Before there was music. Before there was earth. Or wind. Or fire.
Have you ever heard “That’s The Way Of The World?” If you are Black, the answer is yes. If you have ever been to a cookout, the answer is yes. If you have an aunt who owns a leather miniskirt or a leopard-print blouse, the answer is yes. If you have ever smelled an incense burning in a room with a ceiling fan, the answer is yes. It sounds like how sweet potato pie tastes. It sounds like the smell of hair grease and the singed remnants of afro in the teeth of straightening combs. It sounds like standing on your uncle’s porch staring through the screen door in Elgin, South Carolina.
I want to say that Earth Wind and Fire is the greatest band in the history of Blackness, but the comment section would light up with accusations of me slighting Parliament, or Funkadelic or “you-forgot-about-Maze”s, so I won’t do it. This is not the time for that. This is the time for understanding what Earth Wind and Fire is. I’m willing to bet you aren’t aware of how many Earth Wind and Fire songs you know, because they are as ubiquitous as church hymns.
They are actually named Earth, Wind and Fire and they had the three elements of all Great Black Music:
- They wore jumpsuits – All great music acts must wear jumpsuits. It is a mandate passed down from the Godfather of Soul’s backing band, The J.B’s. Since then, if you want to be great, there must be a point in your career where you must dress like a Nascar crew fell in a vat of sequins and rhinestone. Many people wonder why Andre 3000 dressed so weird, but I saw Outkast in concert last summer and Dre dressed exclusively in jumpsuits, and I realized: Y’all won’t let him be great.
- Falsetto – Prince. Eddie Kendricks. Michael Jackson. Phillip Bailey. You have to have that extra octave. That’s where the panty-removing notes are.
- A horn section – I don’t care what kind of music you are playing, everything sounds better with a horn section. Everything. Everyone since the beginning of time knows it. Ask Joshua how he brought down the walls of Jericho. Ask a soldier what instrument he wants played at his funeral. Ask Jesus what instrument will sound when he comes back.
Earth Wind and Fire are the elements of Black music.
Everyone believes in heaven, even if they are not religious. If not the Catholic concoction of pearly gates and gold-plated streets, then there is an alternate heaven for you. Your grandmama’s backyard. Your daddy’s knee. The end zone. Inside a new piece of pussy. Wherever heaven is for you, Earth Wind and Fire is probably playing in the background. Maurice White — the man who founded Earth Wind and Fire is there now. I bet Junior is so happy.
I had an uncle named James.
I remember an infinite number of things about him, but those 4 minutes on the porch is a memory. I still recall what crossed my mind at that moment. I never wrote it down, or mentioned it to a soul until I sat down to write this, but that thought was the first piece of poetry I ever produced. The first time my ears heard Earth Wind and Fire, I said to nine-year-old self:
“This is what God plays at his house.”
Uncle Junior and Maurice White are both gone now.
That’s the way of the world.