Book review: Obama Music, by Bonnie Greer


AS a commentator on culture and the arts, Bonnie Greer has always seemed perceptive and eloquent, and this intriguing, scattershot memoir is no different. Greer is something of a polymath – a playwright, essayist and writer of fiction, and currently deputy chairman of the British Museum's Board of Trustees – and those magpie tendencies extend to this book, which covers personal observations, music history, political comment and plenty more besides.

Subtitled "Some Notes From a South Sider Abroad", Obama Music is essentially a long love letter to Greer's hometown of Chicago, specifically the thriving, bustling South Side. Greer was born and raised in the neighbourhood, the same area that president Barack Obama came to call home after meeting his South Sider wife Michelle and settling there.

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Greer's neat idea is to examine the way music has fed into life in the vibrant suburbs of Chicago, a city which has always been a cultural crossroads in the United States. The book is split into four sections, ostensibly covering blues, gospel, soul and jazz. Greer's prose style is reminiscent of the last of these four, a kind of freeform, improv stream of consciousness, which tries to tie in her own experiences growing up with the influences that shaped Obama's political sensibilities, as well as look more generally at 21st-century American culture and how far it has come from her childhood in a semi-segregated 1960s.

If I have one minor gripe, it's that the Obama connection is a little thin. Her observations are valid enough, but much of the link between Obama and Chicago is gleaned from the president's own memoirs, and Greer does seem to tag the president on at the end of what is, effectively, a personal memoir. One gets the feeling that perhaps the publishers thought Obama Music would sell better than "Greer Music", and as a result, readers might find themselves a little short-changed on insight about the 44th president of the United States.

But it's still a fascinating book. Chicago's location – physically, culturally, politically and racially – makes it an extraordinary city of confluence and contrast, a hard, edgy place that was at the forefront of the rise of black political consciousness throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and has continued to shape the nation's agenda ever since.

Greer has spent the last 20 years in Britain, and that distance from her subject matter cuts both ways here. On the one hand, her time away has given her a better view of the wider cultural and musical currents that shaped life in her hometown, but one suspects she is also over-romanticising the place she grew up. Although upfront about the racial problems she encountered as a child, there is still a hint of rose-tinted spectacles, a sense that, no matter the stubborn, difficult nature of Chicagoans, they can essentially do no wrong as long as they remain "regular" South Siders.

Greer is at her most informative and passionate when it comes to the music that shaped her community. Obama Music will have most readers reaching for an internet search engine to track down all sorts of fantastic music, from the primal blues of Slim Harpo to the extraordinary gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson, from the seminal soul of Curtis Mayfield to jazz pioneer Charles Mingus. Greer makes a good case for all of these diverse sounds feeding into the African-American experience of South Side Chicago, four tributaries flowing into the river of that life.

Of course, blues, gospel, soul and jazz are all also inextricably linked with politics in America, with the struggle for racial equality, from the simple rebellion of early blues to the inspirational politically aware soul sounds of the 1960s and 1970s. Through her idiosyncratic style, Greer shows how each genre has fed into her own life experience and, by extension, other South Siders of her generation. But again, the extension to Obama – his political career and his personal motivations – seems speculative.

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Also, while that music undoubtedly laid the bedrock for the African-American experience in Chicago, Obama Music does feel a tad like a historical tract. There is very little mention of hip-hop, rap and modern R&B, the defining musical genres of black America over the last 25 years. For all that, this is an engaging and very personal look at the musical, cultural and political melting pot that is Chicago.

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