Don’t Talk to Me About Racism if You Don’t Know Earth, Wind & Fire’s Catalog

It’s time for a musical litmus test for enlightenment

Photo: Gems/Getty Images

After the most recent Verzuz event this past Sunday, I’ve come to a social determination: There can be no further race conversations with people who are not familiar with Earth, Wind & Fire’s catalog.

The Verzuz format is so simple that it’s collectively embarrassing that no one thought to put it into motion prior to the pandemic: Put two legendary musical acts in the same room and make them have cookout debates over whose catalog is better. Almost none of the acts bring competitive energy to the challenge, with most artists appropriately deferring to each other’s greatness throughout. The shows are understood to be celebrations of artistry and the resilience of Black skin care.

I’d been pining for a battle between standard-bearers Earth, Wind & Fire and the indefatigable Isley Brothers since the early days of Verzuz. While neither group was hurting for royalties, it isn’t hyperbole to say that they’re two of the greatest musical acts of the 20th century. Any legitimate conversation about influential musical artists from the last century has to include at least one of these bands — and if you have to choose one, you’d go with Earth, Wind & Fire.

If White people can’t bother to invest in Black culture at the level of a few EWF songs, how can you expect to make any real headway with them about social justice? If they don’t know the opening guitar strains of “Shining Star,” do you really want to make time to dig up your trauma for their understanding?

I’m a die hard Isley Brothers man; they’ve appeared on every slow jam tape I’ve ever made. But Earth, Wind & Fire don’t just write great songs — they write Black anthems. When an EWF song comes on, we stand, in part, because of the groove and, in part, because that’s what you do to anthems. An Earth, Wind & Fire song is an ecstatic experience, and I mean that in the religious sense. It’s praise, revelation, and meditation all at once. It’s nondenominational, or better, it’s omni-religious, encompassing all love and spiritual intentions. They are one of the few bands that my brother, who found Jesus late in life, was able to keep singing if they came on the radio. Many of us heard our first hip orchestral arrangement on “Fantasy” and “Reasons,” or were able to end a microaggressive music argument before it took root by just mentioning the EWF horns.

The temptation here is to suggest that EWF is to Black folks what The Beatles are to White folks, but really, White folks should know EWF on their own merits, especially considering that EWF would destroy The Beatles in a battle of the bands.

The problem with most music dissection from the beginning is that much of it is built on racist premises: Black sexuality in music is raunchier than its White counterparts (Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix); Black musicianship is less technically proficient (every blues musician ever); prodigious Black talent didn’t get that way until some intersection with White music (Prince). In short, Black music may be a lot of wonderful things, but it’s never as intellectually considered as legitimate, canonized White music, which we’re all supposed to pretend is a meritocracy sans ethnic consideration. There are musical groups that, if you don’t know them, White people don’t consider your opinions on music valid — these bands are never Black. If you engage a White cratedigger and you can’t rattle off a few Eagles or Who records, they let you know that they’re no longer taking your opinions seriously. The guy behind the record store counter gets busy real quick if you don’t know any Zeppelin or Stones, bands so legendary that I don’t need to type out their full names.

Earth, Wind & Fire is on the level of those bands. American treasure level. In the pantheon of Western music level.

But I’m not here to change music journalism. That dead horse has already been dragged out of the barn. I’m here to make race conversations more productive using music, and my proposal is simple: Do not engage in debates about racism with people who do not know Earth, Wind & Fire songs.

If White people can’t bother to invest in Black culture at the level of a few EWF songs, how can you expect to make any real headway with them about social justice? If they don’t know the opening guitar strains of “Shining Star,” do you really want to make time to dig up your trauma for their understanding? And what level of education can you hope to achieve with someone who can’t even see their way clear to know a few Earth, Wind & Fire odes? Half of their songs are about unifying humanity on higher planes of awareness and love. This is the Black music the want-to-be-down crowd should be running toward. You’re certainly not going to have to have an uncomfortable conversation with your Black friend about any landmine words in their lyrics.

Perhaps my determination is political as well as social. Black people should consider whether they should be voting for political candidates who don’t know Earth, Wind & Fire songs. If Hillary Clinton risked it all by embarrassing herself pledging affinity with Beyoncé and pocketbook hot sauce, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any candidate claiming allegiance with Black voters knows a handful of EWF album titles. They have more than 20 albums to choose from, and one of them is called Earth, Wind & Fire. They have as many greatest hits compilations as they do albums. If you want my Black vote, I’m going to need to hear some titles.

I need to be clear that the expectation is that any songs mentioned in the vetting process should be ones that the person actually knows, not ones they’re reminded of after the singing of a few bars. We’re not looking for “Oh, yeah, I DO remember that song!” type of allies. Be a stalwart ally or none at all.

Despite being a pretty low bar for political discourse, I don’t expect this education to happen overnight. Sunday’s Verzuz has kicked off what could be a strong yet manageable educational campaign, leading up to what I call “EWF Graduation Day”: the 21st of September, where any potential allies seeking Black admission may exhibit their newfound knowledge in the Blackest science fair ever. And if that date comes and you still don’t know the reference, know that you’ve not only failed a music test, but also justice.

Writer and poet holding down Columbus, Ohio

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