Last week, an 84-year-old Negro from a world many of us wouldn’t even recognize decided to “spill the tea” in a way that rivals podcasts like “The Read” or “Real Housewives After Show” with Andy Cohen.
Quincy Jones, the music mogul, in an interview with David Marchese and published by New York Magazine, divulged the inner-workings of a mind and spirit that hadn’t just seen the entire world, but actually had a hand at shaping it. The interview was presented in transcript form, sans opinion-based essay prose. The off-the-cuff name-dropping makes the interview read as if you’re watching a live interview. Jones liberally drops the noun “motherfucker” with the ease of a sentence filler like “um” or “uh.” It almost makes you wonder does he know what he’s saying, or is he just telling it as he sees it.
American culture, however, lends itself to letting our elders speak unfettered. Jones is in good company with this phenomenon. It’s like that moment at the dinner table when aging family members who are remembered as sweet and docile by the now grownup kids, turn into slightly irascible old people who say whatever is on their mind punctuating irritating sentences with “Shit!” or “Hell!” It’s almost comical. Often times the party to the tirade bursts into laughter. Part nervous and part mirth. I can’t help but see the revelations of Jones as this.
Given that the long arc of Jones’ exposé includes a conspiracy theory that the mob killed John F. Kennedy, you can’t help but wonder is he spouting Negro folklore or is he simply telling the truth. While stories such as Michael Jackson stealing songs is plausible given how pop music has mutated into one continuous sound, his story about Ringo Starr and jazz musician Ronnie Verrell make him sound like some magical Negro on par with Bagger Vance.
Unsurprisingly, the juiciest morsel that he disclosed was that Richard Pryor and Marvin Gaye slept with Marlon Brando.
The internet was all a flutter with this news.
As the interview struck a match and tossed it on a pile of dry kindling, when Pryor’s ex-wife confirmed the claim in her own flowery language, it was as if someone took one of the burning pieces of wood and tossed it on a pile ready for a large bonfire.
For some, like myself, this was news. Apparently in some circles, this was common knowledge that Pryor engaged in same-sex sexual encounters all throughout the 1970s. His ex-wife made sure to add that the use of Quaaludes and drugs in general was commonplace in Hollywood as if to intensify just how lawless social and sexual norms were at this time.
While social norms shift constantly these days, one such shift includes the “outing” of someone else. Even if they’re dead. Singer Patti LaBelle received social media flak when she blabbed about a dalliance of Luther Vandross, even though, allegedly, what she revealed wasn’t a secret. Evidence that times have changed is that her “outing” flew under the radar for the most part. There would have a been point within the last 20 years where such a story would have been front page of the tabloids, now it only makes the B-list gossip sites.
I remember not learning about the sexual orientation of vaulted Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen (especially the story of W.E.B. DuBois forcing him to marry his daughter) until I got to college. I felt almost deceived that I didn’t know this story until later. This was a material part of the story of blacks in America and somehow this tidbit was left out. And not just left out of my formal education at school, but in the cultural education that I received at home and at church. Perhaps, it really wasn’t common knowledge, thus, can I blame them for not telling me what they themselves didn’t know? But, as I age, I realize the harm we do in not telling the whole story for the sake of respectability politics.
At the end of the day, I wonder do the stories of Marvin Gaye and Richard Pryor get entered into the canon of American culture. Will we—both black and white Americans—choose to tell a more complete story; choosing to tell a story that at least places their queer identities in the narrative. I say this because it calls into question how not telling such liberative narratives may have crushed the dreams and hopes of black youth in the 1980s and 1990s. For all of the talk about representation, do not the likes of Gaye and Prior deserve full representation as well?
Do we need more gossips who tell other people’s personal business simply to be messy? No. I don’t see Jones as some careless tattler telling everyone’s dirt but his own, but rather a foul-mouthed sage who’s attempting to humanize the cultural idols we so often worship. In a world made plastic because of the performance of the fake and phony by so many, perhaps we need more truth-tellers like Jones. And if some black youth or young adult hears the story of Pryor or Gaye sees a path forward, then we owe a debt of gratitude to “Q” for telling it like it is.