This is the third Mother’s Day story in the Black Music Sunday series. The first
Kym Sellers wrote about the song’s history for Cleveland’s WZAK in 2011:
While in Los Angeles during the early ‘80s, Reeves wrote “Better Days,” often referred to by fans as “The Grandma Song.” A 1988 rerecording of Reeves’s signature tune spent 12 weeks on Billboard Magazine’s R&B charts. The moving lyrics vividly recount experiences shared with her grandmother and how their relationship became a source of inner strength for Reeves. Over the years, she has expanded “Better Days” into an enchanting montage of childhood memories that never fails to enthrall audiences whenever it’s performed live.
“‘Better Days’ came out of work I had been doing with another songwriter, Tony Lorrich, who coauthored it with me,” she explained. “My grandmother had passed away and so had his mother, so the song is about both of them. And people have even said to me that [‘Better Days’] reminded them of another special relative, maybe an uncle or an aunt.”
For those of you who don’t know Reeves’ background, Susan Windisch Brown wrote her biography for Musician Guide.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1956, Reeves grew up in Colorado, and at an early age her talent brought her to the attention of professional musicians. While performing at a National Association of Jazz Educators convention as a featured singer in her high school’s big band, Reeves was heard by trumpeter Clark Terry. He took an interest in the young performer and invited her to sing with his big band. Reeves performed with Terry’s group for several years, continuing even while still attending the University of Colorado.
Although Reeves had already tempered her jazz origins with pop and fusion influences from the likes of Stanley Turrentine, George Duke, and Mendes, she further expanded her musical repertoire through the influence of Harry Belafonte. After moving to New York in 1983, Reeves began performing with Belafonte and has credited these mid-Eighties performances for her introduction to the rhythms of West Africa and the West Indies. She continued this exploration by experimenting with music from Brazil and Cuba, as well as venturing into the rhythms of early African-American folk music such as field hollers and slave songs.
Reeves’ next album, For Every Heart, reveled in the new knowledge she had gained with Belafonte. Mixing reggae and world rhythms into jazz, Reeves took what she had learned under Belafonte’s tutelage and made it her own. Reeves acknowledged Belafonte’s influence when she noted in her artist biography for the Blue Note label that “Harry’s always been an artist who mentors others. He has respect for that folk tradition.” The album also featured many of the world musicians Reeves met while working with Belafonte.
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: Celebrating Harry Belafonte on International Jazz Day
She is also a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.
In 1987, she was signed to Blue Note Records, whereupon she had her cousin, keyboard pioneer and jazz great George Duke, produce the first of many of her albums.
Stretching across genres, she performed with Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Barenboim as well as with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. She has also recorded and performed as featured soloist with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In 2002, she became the first creative chair for jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position designed to build the organization’s jazz presence in the community—in which it has greatly succeeded. Reeves was also featured in George Clooney’s acclaimed 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, whose soundtrack provided Reeves with the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. Reeves has won five Grammys to date, including the award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for three consecutive recordings. She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music and the Juilliard School.
Here is Dianne Reeves’ iconic “Better Days.”
Silver gray hair neatly combed in place.
There were four generations of love on her face.
She was so wise, no surprise passed her eyes,
She’d seen it all.
I was a child, oh, about three or four.
All day I’d ask questions.
At night I’d ask more.
But whenever; she never, would ever, turn me away.
I’d say how can I be sure what is right or wrong ?
And why does what I want always take so long ?
Please tell me where does God live
And why won’t He talk to me ?
I’d say, Grandma what is love ?
Will I ever find out ?
Why are we so poor, what is life about ?
I want to know the answers before I fall off to sleep.
She sort of smiled as she tucked me in.
Then she pulled up that old rockin’ chair once again.
But tonight she was slightly, remarkably
Slowly she rocked, lookin’ half asleep.
Grandma yawned as she stretched.
Then she started to speak.
What she told me, would mold me, and hold me
She said all the things you ask
You will know someday.
But you have got to live in a patient way.
God put us here by fate
And by fate that means better days.
She said, child we are all moons in the dark of night.
Ain’t no morning gonna come ’til the time is right.
Can’t get to better days lest you make it through the night.
You gotta make it through the night, yes you do.
You can’t get to no better days
Unless you make it through the night.
Oh, you will see those better days
But you gotta be patient.
(Be patient) oh baby, be patient.
Later that year, at the turn of spring,
Heaven sent angels down and gave Grandma her wings.
Now, she’s flying, and sliding, and gliding
In better days
And although I’m all grown up
I still get confused.
I stumble through the dark
Getting bumped and bruised.
When night gets in my way
I could still hear my Grandma say
I can hear her say,
I can hear her say.
(Be patient) You can’t get to no better days
Unless you make it through the night baby.
(Be patient) Oh, you will see those better days
But you gotta be patient.
Child, do you hear me, yeah.
(Be patient) You can’t get to no better days
Unless you make it, you got to make it
You got to make it
You got to make it through the night
(Be patient) Oh Grandma, oh Grandma
Do you see me now, lady
Oh oh oh oh oh
(Be patient) She used to sit me on her knee
She used to comb my hair
She used to tell me stories
My Grandma took me everywhere
And here she is performing “Better Days” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2000.
When we talk about women who have followed the path of political action, we often forget that they are moms, and often take on many mother-like functions in their community. My Black Panther Party comrade Sister Afeni Shakur passed away about seven years ago, in May 2016.
Too many people don’t know her story as one of the founding sisters in the New York Black Panther Party, and member of the New York Panther 21. They only know her as the mother of rap artist Tupac Shakur.
As Nick Allen wrote last month for Roger Ebert’s website, ahead of Allen Hughes’ Hulu docuseries about mother and son:
Afeni was a central part of New York City’s Black Panther 21 group, who was once accused of plotting against the government, and was the target of infiltration by undercover, manipulative police efforts like COINTELPRO. She suffered from addiction, which impacted how her son grew up; the two moved around a lot, coloring Tupac with a bit of New York, Baltimore, and Hollywood, and traumatic experiences with poverty, place brutality, and loss. But they remained close, and he expressed this in songs like “Dear Mama” (for which Hughes also co-directed the video). As Tupac ascended to rap royalty, sharing his trauma and societal angst, while blurring the line between what was just an image and what was truly Tupac, Afeni was by his side.
In 1995, 2Pac—who would die the next year at age 25—recorded this to honor Afeni; the video includes footage of her. (Click here for lyrics.)
As a sidenote, my editor has been trying to get me to work this song (among other “new” music) into this series for years. This marks her second win. (Editor’s Note: Thank you, auntie writer, and Happy Mother’s Day!)
Thinking about Afeni reminded me of all the sisters in the Party who “mothered” the community, and who rarely get their due. However, this is changing, and I hope readers here will check out this collaboration between photographer Stephan Shames and Black Panther Sister Erika Huggins.
Most of us know about the Black Panther Party through movies. Some of us (I am too young to fall in this category) were alive when they were a far more visible entity. Most of the media I have consumed about them centers on portrayals of the men like Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale. Just last year the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah” hit theaters, for example.
Interestingly enough, as the book’s publisher says, some six out of 10 people in the Black Panthers were women. This is what Shames’s new book is all about. It peels back the curtain on their lives and contributions to the movement.
You see women providing free food, health care education and more. As the publisher’s description of the book continues:
“Some know the Party’s history as a movement for the social, political, economic and spiritual upliftment of Black and indigenous people of colour — but to this day, few know the story of the backbone of the Party: the women.”
When we speak of women who become symbolic “mothers of a movement,” I automatically think of Miriam Makeba, who was dubbed “Mama Afrika” by people around the world engaged in the struggle for the end of apartheid in South Africa.
RELATED STORY: Celebrating the legendary voices of the Black Queens of song
Africa and the World offers this about her naming.
We call her “Mama Africa”. Why? Because, she was a mother and a friend. She united the entire continent of Africa through music, and introduced African music to the rest of the world. She had the voice of an angel and sang the beautiful melodies of Africa with pride and dignity. She was never carried away by money and she was never carried away by fame.
She was born to do what she loved doing, and although she was born into poverty, managed to accomplish all her dreams through hard work and dedication. She wasn’t born with silver spoon in her mouth yet died leaving treasure boxes of gold and silver in the hearts and souls of several people around the world.
She was banned from the land of her birth but that did not stop her. Why? Because, the entire world became her homeland.
“I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts”.
This 10-minute video documentary tells her story.
I am hard-pressed to pick a favorite tune of Makeba’s, since I love so many of them. But here’s the song that brought her international recognition: “Pata, Pata.”
Léo Pajon wrote this piece about her “anti-apartheid anthem” for The Africa Report:
Pata Pata was originally recorded in South Africa by Makeba’s girl group, The Skylarks, in 1959, though some sources say it was in 1956. With complex vocal harmonies, a spontaneous vibe and a mix of pop, jazz and gospel influences (Makeba learned to sing in a Protestant church choir), the group enjoyed success in the country, but the song didn’t gain international attention.
In 1967, some 10 years after its creation, Pata Pata was re-recorded in the US and released on the singer’s studio album of the same name, on Reprise Records. The successful American composer Jordan ‘Jerry’ Ragovoy, known for several soul hits, produced the new version of the track, which featured a spoken-word part delivered by the artist in English, as well as a more groove-infused, high-energy vibe.
In the song, Makeba ‘clicks’, growls and gets carried away by joy that seems unstoppable. The tune’s worldwide success led to droves of covers by performers from Spain, Italy, Finland and France, including a version sung by Sylvie Vartan that hasn’t aged nearly as well as the original. Thanks to this exposure, Makeba became an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, but her long history of involvement in fighting racial oppression also raised the song’s profile.
Makeba performed the song live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1967.
The song “Mama Africa” also references Africa as a homeland. It is the first track on Peter Tosh’s album by the same name, released in 1983.
How are you doing Mama
Long time me no see you Mama
They took me away from you Mama
Long before I was born
They took me away from you Mama
Long before I came on in
There’s so many things about you
Wondering where you are
They try their best to hide you Mama
But I search and I find you
In you there’s so much beauty
In you there’s so much life
In you there’s so many kingdoms
To me it’s out of sight
You’re the maker of gold Mama
You’re the maker of diamond
You’re the maker of pearls
And the maker of all precious goals
I’ve been waiting, yearning, looking
Searching to find you
I’ve been crying, praying hoping
That I may find you Mama
You’re my mother Africa
You’re my father Africa
I’m proud of you Mama
I love you Mama
I’m proud of you Mama
I love you heavenly
This is a great version, from Playing for Change.
This song was originally written and performed by the late, great Peter Tosh and speaks about the beauty and strength of Africa. We united Peter’s son, Andrew Tosh, with Donald Kinsey and Fully Fullwood who performed with Peter many years ago and added musicians all over the world from Africa to Jamaica to the USA. Turn it up and feel how the heartbeat of Africa resonates through this uplifting song.
Happy Mother’s/Mom’s/Mama’s/Auntie’s/Grandma’s/Godmother’s/Whoever’s Day to you all.
RELATED STORY: A Sunday soul serenade for Mama’s Day
Please join me in the comments for more, and be sure to post the tunes that are special to you on this day.