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Questlove on the Odd Way a Song by the Police Helped Him Find His African Roots

Fascinating new book Music Is History weaves drummer’s personal background with American history year by year

Daniel Dorsa*

When the Roots drummer Questlove came up with his band’s name, he was intentionally calling back to writer Alex Haley, whose historical book and television series ‘Roots’ made a significant impact on Black history and storytelling in the late 1970s. The almost 10-hour special, which examined Haley’s family lineage, was a cultural phenomenon and one of the most viewed television series in 1977. ‘Roots’ was more than just a groundbreaking story of Haley’s ancestors; it was a catalyst for Black Americans discovering their own ancestral stories, which opened the doors to genealogy testing and research advancement. 

Questlove is nothing short of what West Africans call a griot; a lyricist, musician, keeper and an orator of history. In his latest book, Music Is History, his love for music and culture intersect, sending him back on a 50-year journey to 1971, when he was born. Quest traces the synchronicities between cultural events, impactful artists, and political musicianship (See Prince’s apocalyptic hit ‘1999,’ whose danceworthy tunes doubled as a warning of potential nuclear war.) The book serves as a musical and cultural historic text alongside playlists curated by Quest himself. 

In this excerpt fromMusic is History,’ Questlove breaks down how he discovered his ancestry from Alabama. This trace is a metaphor that explains the overall point of the book: the interconnectedness of humanity. History and humanity is what creates culture, which is why storytellers like Quest are imperative for the future. ‘Music is History’ is a metaphor for this in itself.

The band’s success would lead Questlove to Henry Louis Gates’ PBS show, Finding Your Roots,’ which traced the drummer’s roots to Charlie Lewis, one of the last enslaved Africans to land in America on a ship called the Clotilda and live in Africatown, Alabama (now Mobile). In 2018, the unreleased book of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ would publish, which chronicled the life of the last living person from the Clotilda, Cudjo Lewis. Charlie Lewis is listed in the book and credited along with Cudjo for being a founder of Africatown. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Cudjo and Charlie are brothers. According to Quest, this stream of events is an illustration of how history informs the present. “How you come to history has everything to do with how history comes to you,” he says.

In fourth or fifth grade, a kid who sat near me brought a Police cassette to school. I heard him playing the album and instantly loved it. It had so much energy, and a cool way of using (reusing?) reggae. It was Zenyatta Mondatta, the one with “Voices Inside My Head.”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard the band, though it might have been the first time I knew that I was hearing them. Who remembers VHF and UHF? Old people — people whose single digits ended in the early ’80s, say — remember. Those were the two main frequency bands of American TV tuning, pre-cable. VHF stands for Very High Frequency (anything from 30 to 300 megahertz), while UHF is Ultra High Frequency (300 megahertz to 3 gigahertz).

You don’t need to know that, but you might need to know this: VHF channels, the lower-numbered ones, were stronger and less vulnerable to atmospheric fluctuations, which means that they carried the three (at the time) major networks, the one local flagship station, and public TV. UHF was everything else: the higher-numbered channels with more limited range where you could find cheaper and stranger programming: the wrestling, the soccer, the old movies, the local music shows. Every city had one.

When I was growing up in Philly, one of our UHF channels was WKBS, Channel 48, which actually originated in Burlington, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River. At night the station would run musical interstitials between programming, and mostly they would use the Police and Kraftwerk. When I heard that kid’s cassette, I recognized it immediately: “That’s the twelve seconds from WKBS just before Soul Train!” That’s how the Police first entered my psyche. Again, for a few years it was all vague, something I liked but couldn’t quite define. And then I could, thanks to Reggatta de Blanc, the group’s second album. It came out in 1979 but I’m putting it in 1981. You’ll see why.

In the summer of 1981, I shot a movie. Maybe that’s a little grandiose. I went to a performing arts school, and the director visited our class and selected a few students to star in a movie he was making called West Side Store about a group of kids trying to open up a neighborhood bodega. Getting picked felt like a big deal, though I knew in the back of my mind that it wasn’t a movie-movie, not like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Stripes, which were dominating theaters that summer.

Still, I had to be on set, and that meant that the production guy would pick me up each morning and drive me to the neighborhood north of Old City where we were filming. (Now, through the magic of gentrification, that neighborhood has been rechristened “Northern Liberties,” but back then it was just regular Northeast Philly.) The driver had two cassettes in his car, Squeeze’s Argybargy and the Police’s Reggatta de Blanc. I heard them over and over again, the whole albums (the stereo had autoreverse — if you’re under the age of me, that means that it would run to the end of the cassette and then play the other side). I was okay with the hits, but I was more drawn to the way the record balanced them with non-hits. This is a broad historical idea, so remember it: often, the most interesting things are not the things that everyone knows (that might be obvious), but you have to understand them in their original context, tucked between those things that everyone knows, serving as counterweights and commentary.

“No song had ever expressed the insecurities I had about myself more accurately. It’s a song about social anxiety.”

Side two of Reggatta is all about alternation. It starts with a Sting-written hit (“Walking on the Moon”) and then moves to “On Any Other Day,” a snotty Stewart Copeland–written tale of despair complete with self-critical studio chatter that could be on the Time’s “Grace” (“The other ones are complete bullshit. You want something corny? You got it.” [The song also contains some attitudes toward the sexual orientation of the narrator’s son that wouldn’t fly today. My once-perfect perception of that album now has a that-didn’t-age-well asterisk.]). Then there’s another Sting composition, “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” and then another Copeland, “Contact.”

Then, before Sting ends the record with the punky “No Time This Time,” we get Copeland’s “Does Everyone Stare.” The first few million times I heard it, in the car on the way to the set, I liked the song for the strange harmonies and structure, the way it starts off as a demo and then blossoms into a fully fleshed-out song. Later, when I (re)joined Columbia House — or maybe I should just say some record or tape club where I may or may not have fulfilled the membership requirements — and bought all the Police records, I really dug into the lyrics, and found . . . myself?

No song had ever expressed the insecurities I had about myself more accurately. It’s a song about social anxiety. The man in the song starts out shaky (“I change my clothes ten times before I take you on a date”) and only gets worse. The guy in the song is in a cold sweat, but not like James Brown. He’s got the heebie-jeebies, but not like Louis Armstrong. Copeland also gets off one of the great pre-Hamilton shot lyrics (“My shots will always miss, I know / My shots will always miss”). Drummers know what he’s talking about. As a ten-year-old, I responded more to the social anxiety in the lyrics than the romantic anxiety. The movie didn’t make it better. I was excited to be asked, but it also separated me from the pack, and back then being separated from the pack only made people stare more.

music is history

There’s one more musical footnote to “Does Everyone Stare” that has ensured that it’s followed me around my whole life. Sting has made a glorious career out of harmonizing the wrong notes with himself. It’s done so brashly, with such a Pee-Wee Herman–style I-meant-to-do-that defiance that it’s actually how I craft my notes now for the rest of the Roots whenever we cover a Police song on The Tonight Show. I hand out the parts like Sting did, and immediately I’m reminded that there must be a secret thread for the band that doesn’t have me on it. I can tell that there’s mad shit being talked and typed behind my back, but all I’m getting is a prolonged look from various members of the band. Does everyone stare the way they do?

That song attached itself to me at ten, and then stuck around. But it’s about something that’s bigger than me. It’s about how it attached itself and then stuck around. It’s about the process of assembling a personal history. How do you deal with the fact that you’re at the center of some things, and not at the center of other things, and that both can feel like uncomfortable options if you’re not comfortable in your own skin? That question means one thing when you’re young, and your own skin feels like a new thing. But what about as you get old, and you’ve worn it awhile, and you start to think more about where it came from, and what happened to the skins that preceded it?

In the fall of 2017, I appeared on Finding Your Roots, a PBS show hosted by the historian, writer, filmmaker, and academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. Each episode consisted of Gates sitting down with a celebrity and leading him or her through a book of genealogical history. The episodes that were most interesting to me were the ones featuring Black Americans, whose pasts were often more difficult to chart as a result of slavery, poverty, and other historical injuries. There’s a great early episode with Samuel L. Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, and Ruth Simmons. That episode, and every one like it, made me think of an old interview with Nina Simone that I saw in the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, where she talked about how Black people in America were, in one important respect, deprived of something that Africans had, and that was a sense of their own past. In the movie, the interview about the unrecognized beauty of Black identity phased into a performance of “Ain’t Got No,” from Hair, which I hadn’t thought of in that way before, and afterward couldn’t think of in any other way. Taking a piece of the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical and turning it into the deepest well in the meadow. That’s art strong enough to bend the arc of history away from injustice, at least.

In the fourth season of the Gates show, I was invited on as a guest. I had some sense of what I might find — tracing my father’s family back through parents and stepparents, following the path out of Philadelphia back into the Deep South. But I couldn’t have anticipated the big reveal. On the show, I discovered that my ancestors, particularly a young man named Charlie Lewis, had arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860 on the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have come to the United States. Charlie Lewis and another hundred-plus human beings had been loaded like cargo onto the ship in Ouidah, in present-day Benin, and brought over to the Land of the Free. This was the first time anyone was able to locate a single specific ancestor aboard the Clotilda (which was itself discovered about a year after the show, amazingly).

“Understanding history begins with learning history, and learning history begins with being able to see both inside yourself and outside yourself.”

I can relate the history dispassionately. That’s something to practice. It’s important. If you let all your emotions in all the time when you’re giving historical accounts, you may find yourself too often overcome by sorrow, rage, and wonder. But during the show, and after it, it hit me hard. In 1860, the international slave trade had been banned for more than a half-century, which didn’t stop slavers from making the trip.

But the Clotilda passengers both suffered from and benefitted from timing. They came right on the cusp of the Civil War, and five years later, after slavery was abolished not only by virtue of the Emancipation Proclamation but because of the Union’s victory in the war, the Clotilda’s (middle) passengers decided that going back to West Africa was untenable and instead established a settlement, Africatown, in northern Mobile. Given how difficult African-American genealogy can be — for starters, many records of slave ownership list people only by their first names — I was amazed to get such a clean line to my past. My past? I was born in 1971, as I’ve said, many years after the Clotilda docked. And yet, without that docking, without Charlie Lewis, eventually no me. It’s a mind-bender, and many people feel a version of it, not only every Black person, but every immigrant, every adopted person, every curious person, everyone?

The Clotilda episode, and the story behind it, is so complex that someone should write a book about it. Oh, look, someone has. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, by Sylviane A. Diouf. The book was published back in 2009, before I discovered my connection with the story. I plead guilty: I become more interested in a subject when I know that I am somehow connected. That’s not a huge source of guilt, but it does get me thinking about the way that personal investment distorts history. Events, even the largest and most consequential ones, can feel like closed boxes until we find our way in. And certainly this is true of smaller closed boxes, like the cassette case around Reggatta de Blanc. And that’s why I decided to put “Does Everyone Stare” not in 1979, the year it came out, but in 1981, the year it came out to me.

At the same time that it’s worth being honest about the importance of personalizing history, it’s vital not to limit ourselves to personal points of entry. As I’ve said, I was interested in the African-American episodes of Finding Your Roots even before my episode came around, because those stories seemed relevantly similar, but I was also interested in stories that were completely different: Larry David and Bernie Sanders discovering they were related.

Understanding history begins with learning history, and learning history begins with being able to see both inside yourself and outside yourself. Back in 1981, I saw mostly inside myself, which I think I can forgive, since I was just moving out of single digits. Things mattered to me only when they mattered to me, and that wasn’t a tautology so much as a survival strategy.

The ten-year-old me wasn’t the only one who practiced that strategy. Recently, I watched the Radha Blank movie The Forty-Year-Old Version. Blank is a former up-and-coming playwright who, after years of feeling like she had stopped up-and-coming, made an amazing movie about being a woman passing out of youth, an artist passing out of the deadly Zone of Early Promise, a playwright who had fallen into skepticism about the form and was tentatively exploring a move into another form (hip-hop, in fact). In the movie, she writes a play about Harlem and gentrification, and it centers on a corner store.

The play-within-the-movie is held up as an example of what can happen when people compromise their art and themselves too much, when they take things personally in the wrong ways and don’t personally engage in the right ways. The movie reminded me of many things (early, down-to-earth hip-hop, early Spike Lee), but one thing that I didn’t expect it to remind me of was West Side Store. I don’t know if the movie was ever finished (I think it was), or if it was preserved, or whether it exists anywhere in the present. If it does, it’s valuable, because it relates a history of a time and a place, of a business and the community around it. That movie mattered to me at the time because I was in it, but if that’s the guiding principle, history should matter to all of us at all times, because we’re all in it.

Excerpt from the new book Music Is History by Questlove with Ben Greenman published by Abrams Image, Available Oct. 19, Copyright © 2021 Ahmir Khalib Thompson

From Rolling Stone US