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IN MY HEAD ABOUT MY HAIR by T

I have decided to end my 29-year affair with the “creamy crack,” also known as permanent hair products.  Like most Black mothers with young daughters whose hair was as long as a finger snap, my mother religiously brushed my hair, massaged my scalp, and applied hair-growing products, such as Dax (and whatever else was advertised in the classified section of Ebony Magazine) to my hair.  Growing up in an all white suburban neighborhood and attending an elementary school of the same racial make-up, can do a number on a little black girl with cornrows and short braids.  Although my parents made a point to instill in me that Black is Beautiful, not a day would go by that I did not secretly wish that my hair would swing like Jenny’s, fall carelessly in my eye like Kimmy’s, or toss over my shoulders with a simple roll of my neck like Becky’s.   I wanted long, straight “good” hair.  And for 2 minutes after school, I would have that long, straight “good” hair.  Every time I put my yellow sweater over my head and flung the sleeves, I pretended it was my hair as I pranced around my house past my parents’ prodigious collection of African art and sculptures, and Black literature.

Soft Sheen’s introduction of the Care Free Curl® in 1979 was my lifesaver in the early 1980s.  Finally, my hair touched my shoulder blades and I could swing my hair sans my yellow sweater.  Until it was time for a touch-up, I successfully masked my curl to look like my hair was naturally curly and wavy.  I never messed up my pillowcases at night, for I always laid a towel over the pillow.  I used the right amount of activator: not too much where Robin Harris could “follow the drip” and not too little where my hair looked like it could use a drink.  I never messed up the sofa at my house or another’s, for I always sat upright like a lady, never leaning my head back for fear of leaving my personal water mark.  I was in heaven.  I had hair and I was cute.  Unfortunately, this feeling of euphoria abruptly ended upon the release of Eddie Murphy’s revered film, Coming to America.  My secret was out.  My white classmates knew the deal, and one in particular unabashedly serenaded me with “Just Let Your Soul Glo.”   Twenty-four years later, I still blame Eddie Murphy and Eric La Salle for that embarrassing moment in high school.

I have always been “militant.”  With doughtiness, I rocked Love and Protect the Black Woman t-shirts in my all white high school.  To this day, I still pontificate the injustice against Black Americans and push forward Black causes to anyone who will listen or receive them.  Among my close friends, I have been dubbed “Sistah X.”  However, I found myself wondering when have I ever seen Angela Davis with a perm, let alone a Care Free Curl®, and questioning  how truly comfortable I am in my own hair.   For how can I genuinely espouse the love of all things Black when I subject myself to the “creamy crack” every month?   This self-reflection is the result of my viewing Hemamset Angaza’s documentary film, In Our Heads About Our Hair. The film expertly explores Black women’s feelings about their hair – natural, relaxed, weaved – and actually follows my bestie’s transition from relaxed hair to natural hair.

Sitting in that theatre among Black women of all different hues, ages, and shapes, rocking their beautiful natural hair in ‘fros, updos, braids, twists, and dreads, I felt like an imposter. I might as well have been in Black Face.  Never before have I ever questioned my decision to never go natural.  I did just that for 75 minutes while watching the film.  I found myself wondering what I was afraid of.  But I already knew the answer.   I had been bamboozled into thinking I looked better with chemically treated hair rather than my own natural born kinky hair.   I would dare say that too many Black women have been conditioned to think that there was something wrong with and less desirable about the natural state of their hair.  After a fresh relaxer or press from the hot comb, we are forewarned not to “sweat it out” or get it wet for fear that our hair would “draw up.”  Without question, this fear is understandable.  Black women with kinky hair are damned near non-existent on the covers of fashion magazines and as leading ladies in music videos, films, and television shows.  (Wait.  We were featured as the leading lady in Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” music video, albeit clawing our way through the jungle.)  Quite frankly, the brothas are not necessarily as quick to throw second looks at the sistahs with natural hair as they are to the sistahs with relaxed hair, even though they (but for the pimps) have not conked their hair since the 1960s.  The double standard and the pressure Black women unconsciously feel to meet a forced standard of beauty is troubling.  However, there appears to be a stealthy return to the Black is Beautiful movement as I see more and more Black women abandoning relaxers and embracing their natural hair.  Like Lady of Rage, I just hope that I can rock “rough and stuff with my Afro Puffs.”

STILL MEANT TO BE MINT 20 YEARS LATER by T

An old school romantic and R&B music lover at heart, it soon was no surprise to my dormmates during my freshmen year of college that I would run a crooning love stirring ballad on blast and on repeat from my black Panatronic stereo system in my dorm room. (Yes, it was some knock-off of a major Japanese brand.  Six years later, I would upgrade to an Aiwa stereo system).    Suite 1013 of Carman Hall, a long standing residence hall for incoming freshmen on Columbia University’s campus, was my personal studio despite the reoccurring complaints from my suitemates.  Tennis match exchanges of me turning up the volume and my suitemates turning down the volume on my Panatronic took place daily.  Of course, I won the majority of “sets” for it’s pretty useless to try and mess with a sista and her music.

So in the fall of 1991, when I first heard newcomer R&B band Mint Condition’s “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes),” I fell in love all over again.  Suite 1013 became the resting spot for Mint Condition’s music and I officially became a Mint Head.  Blonde hair and blue eyes are the epitome of beauty if one believes mainstream media.  However, Mint Condition, in 1991, gave brown girls everywhere a song that talked about the palpable beauty of their brown eyes.

7 albums later, Mint Condition is not only still providing brown girls with self-esteem and ego boosting lyrics.  Its fans of all shades and eye colors can consistently rely on this band with roots in Minneapolis to help them get the mood right.  Mint Condition’s seductive melodies and romantic phrasing serve as the perfect backdrop when it’s time to get down to grown folks business. It is no wonder that Mint Condition has successfully survived the ebbs and flows of the music industry and remained one of the most sought after bands, 20 years later.  Just off of their concert at the Detroit Opera House, Stokley, band member and lead vocalist of Mint Condition, took some time out to speak with me about that 20 year journey.  “This industry always surprises you.  You just pray and hope that you prepare to be the best.  That’s what our name means.  We try to be in top form as musicians, as a group, and as men.  That’s what we’ve been doing – weathering the storm.  Sometimes you don’t know what to think.  You just pray that you’ll be here.  We knew we wanted to have a career.  We didn’t know how we would have it or what adversity would be before us.  And we’re still blessed to still be here.  Each person in the group probably has a different take on it.  But I always wanted to have a career and not be one of those groups that has a big hit or a couple of big hits and then never to be heard from again.  The success is in the longevity.  In this industry and in life, it’s a marathon.”

Although each member of Mint Condition may have their own views as to why they lasted so long, there’s no question that despite those separate views each wants the same thing – success.  Stokley attributes other factors as why they are still together making chart topping hits. “I think part of it too is the fact that we live in the Midwest and don’t have these other distractions.  We know we lose some possible gains.  But what we gain overall far exceeds all those other things.  We had time to grow as men, knowing when to push and when to pull.  We’re family and we do have disagreements.  But you learn how to have a disagreement and keep it moving.  When you’re young, you have all this testosterone, all this machismo.  We had to go through all this stuff too.  We all have our thing.  Just like a family of brothers, we fight and we have our healthy debates.”

Having grown up with a brother and cousins who were more like siblings, I know firsthand about fights and, as we matured, err umm “healthy” debates which usually ended up with a lot of cussing and someone’s feelings getting hurt.  However, when it comes to deciding which single will be the first release off of a Mint Condition album, the band is on one accord sans the potty words and hurt feelings.  “We know what our favorites are but we tend to take ourselves out of it,” says Stokley.  “A long time ago we learned that.  We used to have listening groups come through and hear our music.  It’s hard to be objective sometimes.  You’re too close to the project.  We pretty much know what should be [the first release] but we get it out of our hands.  Friends of friends, people whom we don’t know, always help us.  This lead single here, “Caught My Eye,” went back to the first CD Meant to be Mint.  We would play that album out live before it was even recorded.  So we did the same with “Caught My Eye.”  We played it live.  Nobody knew it.  It had no frequency, nothing, except they liked the groove.  So we would sneak it in there in the middle of all these hits that we did and people loved it.  It’s the same thing we did with “Pretty Brown Eyes.”  We weren’t playing covers; we were playing our own stuff.  That was an indication that this was a pretty strong contender.  That’s how that came about to be the first single.  We just go back to grassroots.”

What screams grassroots about Mint Condition is their musicianship and live instrumentation. In other words, members Stokley, Lawrence El, O’Dell, Jef, and Ricky actually play an instrument.  Stokley, one of the most distinct and exceptionally talented vocalists of his time, with a vocal range that rivals most singers, was actually a drummer first.  “I wasn’t thinking I was going to be singer.  I was thinking I was going to be a football or basketball player,” says Stokley.  “I pretty much played every position in football because I was fast.  I had a little sprint on me so I always surprised people.  In basketball, I thought I was going to be a point guard – the next little man because I was always the shortest guy on the team.  At one time, I thought I was going to be a B-boy when the whole hip hop thing came into play.  I was breakdancing.  I had my little crew and there were rival crews around town.  But I loved music.  My sister played a little flute and she sang in the choir.  I played in the choir and didn’t really sing in the choir.  I played drums and percussion.  I got started at a very young age.   When I was 4 years old, I did my first little gig in Minneapolis.  My dad saw talent and my parents kept nurturing it.  I had a bunch of teachers.  I had formal and informal training.  I got with these guys [Mint Condition] in high school.  We had the magnet arts program which is kind of like LaGuardia [High School of Performing Arts] in New York where there was an orchestra and acting classes.  We were all involved in that.  With Mint, we were playing behind different singers.  The chemistry was so cool.  Every time we got together we were like this is so hot.  We tried to keep doing it.”

Without question, that chemistry is still conspicuous with Mint Condition’s latest album, 7.  However, 7 is quite different from Mint Condition’s six previously recorded albums.  “We are always going to have songs of the love nature – the rise and fall of it.  But on this album, there are songs that address social issues,” says Stokley.  “We have a song, “Unsung,” which is about the passing of Lawrence’s mother.  “Twenty Years Later” is about a friend of one of the members in the group.  And it’s a true story.  I think it’s been resonating with a lot of people.  It’s been kind of hard for them.  And we get a lot of comments like, ‘Yeah, that’s my brother’ or ‘That’s two of my brothers right there.’  I hate to admit it but that is some of the realities of life.  These are some of the kinds of social things we are talking about that we like.  We’ve been kind of branching out talking about different things.  It doesn’t always have to be about romantic love.  It could be about the love for your brother, your daughter.  With “Twenty Years Later,” you think it’s about the group but when you listen to it, it’s about people looking in a rearview mirror reflecting on their life and their like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’  I think that’s why it’s resonating so heavy, so loudly.  We are trying to broaden our horizons lyrically and musically.  We always stay pretty grounded in the musicality of our music.  With our intros, endings, and bridges, we try to take you through a journey.  A lot of times people will be pretty much one dimensional musically.  Really, the music never changes.  We like everything.  There are more uptempos on here.  Everything we’ve done on this CD was totally different.  We’ve had some stuff in our archives, like “Unsung,” where we didn’t feel it was time yet.  A lot of these [songs] we just brought out and we finished them in record time because we felt it was time to do it.  Rolling out with our label Cagebird and coming together with Shanachie – they’re really incredible; they’re really aggressive; and they really want this thing as much as we do.  That’s a different thing.  We have all this synergy happening.  We’re doing a lot of shows.  We’ve been planting a lot of seeds.  We try to work smarter.  Instead of taking 10 steps, we try to take 2 or 3 to try and get the same effect.”

It is no surprise that Mint Condition’s reward for planting those seeds and working smarter came in the form of serving as the house band for TV One’s miniseries “Way Black When” and Prince handpicking Mint Condition to join him on his 2010-2011 Welcome 2 America tour.  “He helped mold some of the sound that we have which is a great honor bestowed upon us,” says Stokley of Prince.  “We grew up watching him.  He was always brilliant.  I played with a lot of people in his groups and past groups he had – Revolution and New Power Generation.  I knew of him through those people.  We would speak through that channel.  He would always come out and see me play in town which I did a lot when I’m not doing the Mint thing.   I saw him at a club a couple of years ago and he was like, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’   We went out with him the first time last summer.  We played Belgium and France.  It’s been one continuous ride.  He’s a real cool brother and has shown us a lot of love.  So we are going to keep on rolling with it. It’s amazing to see him work after all this time.  He’s a modern day painter – visually and orally.”

Mint Condition’s penchant for honesty and organic expression of human emotion is a work of art in its own right but it comes with a price they have no problem with paying.  When asked how this has affected their personal relationships, Stokley does not deny that that kind of honesty can get you in trouble sometimes.  “You write something about your girlfriend at that time about how you felt.   And they’re like, ‘Why did you say that?’  And you’re like, ‘Well that’s how I felt at the time.’ ‘But do you have to do it in public?’  ‘Well nobody knows it’s you.’  It’s real emotion and you want to be allowed to express it.  I happen to be a musician.  Why can’t I express it?”  With Mint Condition’s song “Not My Daddy” which features Kelly Price, the no-holds barred struggles that exist in relationships is expertly relayed.  “Kelly Price and Warryn Campbell wrote the song and brought it to us,” says Stokley.  “She’s brilliant.  She’s incredible with the pen.  She’s dangerous.  We just produced it and put the Mint stamp on it.  She’s been such a fan of ours from her perspective.  The way she handled her phrasing is exactly the way I would have approached it.   Right on point.  Even her range is just wow.  It was so natural.  Just a natural fit.  Kudos to them [Price and Campbell] for even hearing that.”  When asked if fans of Mint Condition can expect to hear anymore future duets with him and another female artist, Stokley says, “I think that she [Price] and I would be an incredible continuing team and I already kind of told her that we already started something here.  It’s a done deal.”

What is also clearly a done deal is Stokley’s love for and commitment to his wife.  When asked what it was about his wife that caught his eye, Stokley says without hesitation, “She’s just bad as hell.  She’s an incredible woman.  I knew it when I saw it and felt it.  You try on different hats throughout the years trying to figure out who’s who and what it’s going to be like.  It’s what you make it.  Some people look at it as work.  I look at it as maintenance.  To me work has a negative connotation.  Maintenance is just like you having to tune this up and tune that up.  As long as you have that energy and hots for each other, it’s all good.  She’s just got so many qualities that I love.  You have to be good friends and know how to have a healthy debate and keep it moving and know what the goal is.  All those folks that have been together for 30 to 40 years, you don’t think they haven’t been through some stuff?  Everything that we’re talking about modern day, they have been through.  But they knew how to get through it. It was definitely a test for them.  Everybody is more impatient these days.  There are too many options. But not really, you just end up alone.  You just got to figure out what you’re going to stand for as long as it’s nothing too crazy.  It can get really deep.  We got a lot to say about that.  I guess that’s why we write about it.”

And I guess that is why we can expect to still hear the Mint sound for another 20 years –  because of Mint Condition’s love for and commitment to their art form and staying together as a band.