Quest for Love: John Densmore of the Doors wrote to us with his case for Questlove to win an Oscar.

The excellent percussionist and leader of the Roots, Questlove, gave the correct answer to me when I asked him if I could wear his “Afro comb” onstage while sitting in with the band on Jimmy Fallon a few years ago. “No,” was his quick response. It wasn’t angry, but it was clear. In retrospect, it was an audacious request, but I meant it as a sign of respect, not as a white guy tying to co-opt a culture. I later realized that my being white trumps us both being drummers. 

Questlove subsequently invited me to be a guest on his podcast, so the incident clearly wasn’t that big a deal to him. Maybe he would have said no to any drummer, no matter his or her color; after all, he has masterfully developed that comb into a brand for himself. Yet, Questlove and I come from the same club – a tribe called drummers – therefore my request to wear his comb was a way of saying that I wanted to be a “Black” drummer. But upon reflection, I felt that my request was inappropriate and somewhat insensitive, no matter how Q may or may not have taken it.

My flashback of this incident came after reading the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar cover story last July 4th, “The Summer of Questlove.” In the piece, Amir (his given name) said that as a kid, when other kids really wanted to insult him, they called him “African.” It was a putdown. He elaborated that if Black pride in African roots hadn’t been squelched by the culture, he wouldn’t have to be resurrecting it in his beautiful film, Summer of Soul.

The movie is a mixture of great ‘60s soul music, reflecting the politics of the time. The Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, Edwin Hawkins Singers, Nina Simone, and the Staple Singers all rock out. Every act is smokin’. I’m very proud that when my band, The Doors, got big enough to dictate who our opening acts would be, we chose The Chambers Brothers, and later the Staple Singers. 

It’s important to honor the film with an Academy award, not only because it’s so good, but the Hollywood “back story” was that the tapes had a 50 years sentence sitting inside a basement, because it was a “Black Woodstock”.  Bob Marley said it best: “Old pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships, minutes after they took I, from the bottomless pit.”

Being old enough to have lived through the ‘60s, the last several years I’ve been saddened that Afros and African garb (dashikis, turbans, beads, etc.) were put aside so Black culture could “integrate.” These styles have been diminished (for lack of a better word) or “otherized” in favor of Western suits and styles of dress that fit the demands of assimilation in order to project success. In fact, a lot of workplaces today don’t allow natural Black hairstyles, or dreadlocks or braids, because they are deemed “unprofessional,” even though that designation is obviously and objectively racist.

I get the “bling” aspect of wearing Armani suits (showing the dominant culture that you’ve “made it”), but there was something extremely powerful in seeing a Black man decked out in robes made from African fabric. It looked like royalty. The stuff of kings.

That’s why I loved Questlove’s ’do on the Tonight Show. For years he had a rather large Afro, with a comb stuck in it; a beautiful retro-tribute to the days of, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” A few years ago, Jay-Z let his ‘fro grow, and recently, Trevor Noah joined the club. Q has since changed his hairdo, but this is a man who is always ahead of the curve.

Just seeing Stevie Wonder rock out on a drum set at the beginning of Summer of Soul is worth the price of admission. Let’s face it – a lot of the best musicians in jazz are of African descent, and I’ve been fed enormously by Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, and Ed Thigpen. Ginger Baker, the powerful drummer in Cream, was shedding tears in his documentary over wanting the respect of Black musicians.

I was at a ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the Obama era, and said to Sheila E. (an incredible percussionist who is interviewed in the film) and several backup singers from the Doo-wop era, “Can’t Obama let his hair grow out a little, like he had in high school? He’s won a second term!” They chuckled, knowing the pride an afro represented. “I guess when you’re Prez, you can only have an ‘inner’ ‘fro!” I concluded. I suppose that if he had, the alt-right probably would have sprung into action with, “Oh, now we know he’s from Kenya, for sure!”

One time, backstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Miles Davis came offstage to accolades from a critic. The critic would not let up, and sensing that he was over the top, Miles barked, “I don’t care how I played… how did I look?”

To me, dressed in his wild African garb, he looked like…royalty.  Questlove is royalty… give him the statue.

John Densmore

Los Angeles

 

 

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