Gettin' Grown in the Dirty South
Little boy you're not allowed to stay
You have to evolve inevitably
And I've sure come a long way
The road up ahead is so unclear
Back slidin' down the bottom of beer
Nobody knew if I would make it here
Sweet music set me free
From the statistic that I started to be
I wish my mama was alive to see
The memories of pain have scarred
And when I fall it's usually hard
But I get up and keep followin' God
—CeeLo Green, "Gettin' Grown"
My very first childhood memory is a haunting one—which may mean somethingsignificant right there. Go ahead and consult the psychiatrist or spiritualadviser of your choice for a second opinion about that. In this memory, I'masleep as a little boy and possibly even sleeping like a baby when, for somestrange reason, I wake up right in the middle of the night. I'm in mygrandmother's house, where we were living at the time. I'd gone to bedearly—which is definitely not my style anymore—and suddenly I'mawake, and it's so late that it seems like everyone else in the world wasasleep. Everything all around me is quiet and still and enchanted in somestrange and elusive way. Not for the last time in my life, I decide that thetime has come to check things out for myself and explore the nightlife a littlebit.
So I climb out of bed without permission—which is definitely still mystyle—and walk through my grandmother's living room. There are these twolamps with little crystal-looking chandeliers that make a tinkling sound if youwalk past them hard enough. And now I am very aware of all these shimmeringlights and that tinkling noise. It stops me in my tracks. The vibe in mygrandmother's living room very quickly becomes tremendously surreal andthoroughly spooky.
But then, just when I would have become totally terrified by my after-hourssurroundings and run back to my room for a taste of safety, I start hearing thisfantastic noise, this deeply magical sound that seems to be speaking to me as ifit was being broadcast from a whole other distant and previously unseenuniverse. This noise is very mysterious to me, but even more, it is alluring. Asit turns out, somebody in the house had fallen asleep with "Strawberry Letter23" by the Brothers Johnson still playing on the stereo—and allow me ashout out to Shuggie Otis, who did the original song. Even all these yearslater, I can still hear those sexy, wild lyrics ringing out in my head. (If youdon't know what I'm talking about, Google the song and take a listen.)
Now imagine being a little boy, waking up and exploring a shimmering nighttimeworld for the very first time, and then hearing that psychedelic solo with allthat fantastic phased-up reverb and futuristic funk. That song's groove wasfreaking me out and drawing me in all at the same time. I was frightened, I wasturned on, and I was probably only two years old at the time. What I had heardthat night in the shimmering light was no more and no less than thefuture—namely, my future.
See, boys and girls, that's the amazing thing about the world that we all livein—our Creator is so stylish. You couldn't write the things that happen inour world. But apparently He can write them, and He or She does it all the time.Thinking back on my first memory now, it's almost like my feet hit the ground tothat beat, just in time to experience this visitation by the Good God of theHoly Groove. And in a very real way, I've been trying my level best to followthat groove ever since.
At least in my mind, music spoke to me before anything or anyone else did."Strawberry Letter 23" is an eerie and haunting song to me still, and I'mthankful that it transported me into this other universe where I would make myown way—and eventually my own home. In a funny but very real way, I'mstill that child in the darkness chasing something he doesn't fully understandand trying his hardest to touch that "red magic satin" Shuggie Otis wrote about.
What else can any of us do but just keep on reaching to touch the red magicsatin we can never quite touch?
Everybody knows that a fable worth telling takes place somewhere magical,mystical, scary yet wondrous too. We all love a good alternate universe, and thetale that I'm about to tell you is truly a journey into the supernatural. Likethe greatest stories ever told, mine starts off in one of those strange yetsomehow familiar places where horrible and amazing things can and do happen, allthe time. I'm talking about somewhere that exists in our hearts and minds and onevery map that's cool enough to make mention of a land known far and wide toheroes and villains alike by one name with three words: the Dirty South.
The Dirty South is as much a state of mind as a place, located in the hearts andminds and streets of Atlanta, Georgia, my hometown. In the Dirty South you gethumanity served up in every shade and variety, with every sort ofbehavior—and I mean the good the bad and the ugly—all comingtogether in a rich and colorful mix.
Southwest Atlanta, where I grew up, was a place where church was big on Sundays,and so were talent shows. The neighborhoods were sectioned off into zonesdivided by creeks, train tracks, and rock quarries, by lakes and ponds, but theyoften blurred together. Tough projects would be standing right next door toregular middle-class apartments and tree-lined suburban neighborhoods. Therewere haves and have-nots going to the same schools. You knew kids who wenthungry, who had no one at home, some of them growing up mean. There was crime inthe streets, particularly after the crack money starting flooding theneighborhoods in the mid-eighties. And there was no shortage of jails andprisons to hold you if you got caught. But in one sense, we all came up in aprivileged way because no matter what your family had, growing up in the DirtySouth you got to see greatness all around you all the time. Whatever challengesyou were facing in your life, it was still fun to watch all the characters intown and to be there and be alive.
Atlanta has always been the cradle of Black Consciousness. It was home not onlyto Martin Luther King Jr. but to seminal cats like W.E.B. Du Bois, who taught atAtlanta University back at the turn of the twentieth century and wrote TheSouls of Black Folk. I believe that, to this day, Atlanta is where the blacksoul feels most at home. The red clay of Atlanta raised Andrew Young, Maynard H.Jackson, Hosea Williams, William Andrews, Gladys Knight, and the BronnerBrothers. Musical geniuses like Curtis Mayfield lived there. So did Hank Aaron,the Hall of Fame baseball legend. Hank lived in a house in my grandmother'sneighborhood, and he's still there right now. Growing up, you saw all thesefigures from the Civil Rights era driving in your neighborhood and you went toschool with their kids. You saw people like Andrew Young come to your highschool and tell you that change can happen because they were part of a changethat changed the world. So kids from Atlanta always had a feeling that whateverthey wanted to do, they could do.
That's the way my mother came up. She was one of five children of Ruby Farrell,a nurse from Albany, Georgia, who spent twenty-five years married to ThomasCallaway, a disabled Air Force veteran. They moved to the Cascade part ofAtlanta back in the early sixties, when it was still a predominantly white area.Even a blockade put up by the mayor couldn't keep the black folks of Atlantafrom moving in and moving up, because the time had come. Before long, Cascade'sleafy neighborhoods became the hub of Atlanta's black middle class, which wascoming on fast, and a magnet for all those rich and famous people I was tellingyou about. All five Callaway kids got good educations and good jobs. I have anuncle who does architectural work for the railroad, another who's a chef; oneaunt in marketing for Coca-Cola and another who's just shy of getting a Ph.D. inhealth care administration. All of them are movers and shakers, but my mom wasdefinitely the moving-est (and sometimes the shakiest too). She just never couldsettle down anywhere, changing jobs and houses and apartments as fast as youcould change a TV channel, until an accident later put an end to her restlessways.
My mother was born Sheila J. Callaway in 1956 and grew up an athletic, fair-skinned girl who always acted more mature than she really was. And she couldnever be told what to do—which sounds very familiar to me. When she wasfourteen she married a man named Michael Burton. He was several years older, andthat was her pattern—she always liked older men. Come to think of it, I'vealways liked older women, so maybe that's where that comes from. My sister,Shedonna, arrived in 1973, about the time Mom and her first husband split up.
Now, I don't remember any of this, of course. I wasn't even born yet, so I'mrelying on what I heard as a child and what's been told to me since then. But mymom's interest in older men extended to a sharp-dressing Baptist minister whowas crazy about her but unfortunately already married. That was my father. I wasborn on May 30, 1975, and christened Thomas DeCarlo Burton. I was named after mygrandfather, who had recently passed, and was given the surname that my mothercarried at the time. Nobody knows where the DeCarlo comes from, my mom justliked the sound of it. She called me Carlo.
Shedonna remembers my real father better than I do, because he died of a heartattack when I was two years old. Even though he didn't marry my mother, I knowhe acknowledged me as his son, and I've been told he would always be visiting uswherever we lived. Our mom was already moving around quite a lot by then, atleast three different places before I was three. Shedonna says my father worehis hair in long Jheri curls swept back on his head, and he sported the moststylish suits she'd ever seen a man wear. I don't remember that, but I rememberother things, like his car. He drove a 1978 Seville that was black with redleather interior—which is not exactly red magic satin but just as nice. Iclose my eyes now and I can still see that Cadillac, even though I'm sorry tosay I have a whole lot of trouble picturing the car's driver.
For some reason, I remember for sure that my father's cup holder was always fullof peppermint candies. Putting those peppermints in the car is something thatI've imitated many times in my life in many cars—maybe because it's one ofthe only family tradition≈s that I actually share with a man who left this worldso quickly on his way to the next stop. That and a love of fine clothes. I'm notkidding when I say that I was wearing suits to school in grade school, andcarrying around the ivory pipe he left behind with my mother. It may not be thebiggest inheritance any son ever received, but at least it's mine.
My dad also must have loved to put on cologne that smelled something likeleather. There was a sort of manly, musky smell that I will forever associatewith him. Yeah, I know this may sound a little odd to say, but that's what stayswith me about my father even after all these decades. I really only knew the manwho was my father by smell. That's how I can remember him being there and thennot being there.
There were always a few pictures of my father around somewhere wherever welived. I wish I knew where those photos were now, but I really don't. Today, ifI want to see what my father looked like, I just take a good look in the mirror.I'm told that I favor him strongly. But in an odd way, I've sometimes felt as ifhe almost never existed. For me, my father—and the whole idea of afather—became first and foremost a very big hole that I had to figure outhow to fill somehow. I didn't always fill that hole with good things either.
Please understand that my earthly dad had the best excuse any absent fathercould ever have, but he left behind a void that could never truly be filled.Growing up all over the place with my mom, with my grandmother, my aunt, and mysister—and lots of times on my own—I was understandably prettyclueless about what it meant to be a man. Maybe because my father's voice wassilenced forever, just as I was getting used to hearing it, I gravitated toanother set of male voices, ones that I heard drifting into my earliestmemories.
Big Gipp: Lo and I grew up in similar parts of town, but my life and his weretotally different because my father was always there and sadly CeeLo's fatherwas never there. My father worked for UPS and my parents were still married, andyou could say I had a little better lifestyle than most of my friends. So myexperience growing up was different and easier than CeeLo's. But CeeLo was farfrom the only kid living with that kind of void in his life.
We always had enough in our house, but where we grew up in Atlanta, you alwayshad a friend nearby who didn't have what you had. We all walked the samestreets. And we didn't feel inferior in any way. We learned the lessons of Dr.King, and we could go downtown and see where he spread the word. All of theCivil Rights leaders, all their families lived throughout our neighborhoods, soit was always about being someone who stood up for justice.
The black revolution started in Atlanta, and by the time we were aware, I thinkthere were more black and white friendships and understanding than anywhere elsein the South. My grandmother was a black country woman who never left thecountry, but she owned land so she could call her white congressman downtown andget him on the phone. There's still racism and there's still bigotry to a point,but Atlanta was a place where if your people knew some people, they'd work withyou. Yes, there were more white people in Atlanta who were rich, but there wereplenty of rich black people in Atlanta too—there were examples everywherethat we could make it too. So there was no sense of hopelessness. We came up inthat era when black folks started getting good jobs. Lots of families weremoving on up. It was our version of the American dream—or something likeit.
And that's the attitude CeeLo always had and the one that he got from hismother, rest her soul. His mom was an entrepreneur, a hustler who always hadsomething going on, something starting up. She had a store in the mall, and soeven if his family didn't have money, you would never perceive it that waybecause CeeLo has always had style—and his own style at that. CeeLo alwayshad the freshest clothes. He always had the presentation of a street cat who wasup on his game. Rich or poor or anywhere in between, he looked good.
I am pretty sure that I'm not the first man to hear voices in my head.
Some people hear voices telling them to do terrible things. Thankfully, Ihaven't heard too many of those voices lately. Instead, the most powerful voicesin my head have always been those of older men who spoke to me and eventuallyhelped me find my own voice. It wasn't just the Brothers Johnson on thatenchanted psychedelic evening at my grandmother's house. I'm talking aboutmusical giants like James Brown and Jackie Wilson—and all-time masterslike Al Green, Bill Withers, and Ray Charles to name just a few. I'd hear themon the radio, or over at my aunt Audrey's, where I watched Soul Trainevery Saturday morning, and then sang along to the records she played while shecleaned the house.
Like my own father, some of these men were already dead and gone by the time Iheard them singing, but somehow their timeless voices could still reach out andshare their secrets with a little kid who needed all the clues he could find.Through those voices and their shining examples of what it means to be a man inthis world, I learned everything I ever really needed to know about men, andwomen too.
Excerpted from Everybody's Brother by CeeLo Green, Big Gipp, David Wild. Copyright © 2013 CeeLo Green Big Gipp David Wild. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Audio.
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