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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thinking about Ike Turner

Ike Turner, one of the inventors of rock 'n' roll, passed away Wednesday, Dec. 12 at the age of 76. I wanted to post something here because I was disgusted by the arms-length coverage the media accorded him, and the way they focused almost exclusively on his monstrous reputation as an abusive husband to Tina Turner.

Considering how bad he came off in Tina's book, I, Tina, and the nasty rendering of that book in the 1993 movie What's Love Got to Do With It, it's not surprising that people would rather just acknowledge his passing and forget about him. Still, I expected more of august publications such as the New York Times, which turned Turner's death into a referendum, asking, "Should we forgive him"? (To be fair, the Times also published a thoughtful memoriam by Jon Pareles.) The real question, though, is do we need to forgive Turner to appreciate his music?

I planned for this post to be a protest, a way to shed light on Turner's real achievements. Unfortunately, I don't know much about Turner's history. Like everyone else, my knowledge of him solely consists of a classic single, 1951's "Rocket '88," perhaps the first rock 'n' roll song ever recorded; and his broad caricature in What's Love Got to Do With It. I'm unequipped to combat any of the stereotypes held against him.

Vibe magazine linked to a long story by Ann Marlowe, "Unforgiven: The American Tragedy of Ike Turner," that was published in its June/July 1998 issue. It's a good piece. It exhumed many of Turner's ghosts, from his unacknowledged musical brilliance to his destructive drug addictions and abusive relationship with Tina. But some of his quotes made my skin crawl.

"The only two kinds of people that can do what they want in this country is a white man and a black woman," Ike often says. "When I heard about Rosa Parks, I didn't pay it no mind. Now, if a black man had refused to sit in the back of the bus and lived to tell, that would be something."

Twelve years ago, Ike said in an interview, "It's very hard to deal with black women mentally. It's like you have to put some fear in them to communicate." During my visit, he insisted that, unlike Tina, Jeanette understood everything he said the first time he told her. "I've never hit her - but if I needed to, I would."

It's the same kind of disgusting attitude that Polow da Don, the megasuccessful Atlanta producer behind Fergie from the Black-Eyed Peas and Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's," expressed earlier this year. I can't understand why so many men and women of all races, and black men in particular, view black women as crazy, angry and combative animals that need to be tamed through mental and physical violence. It's an ugly stereotype that needs to end.

I wonder, too, if Ike Turner would have been better off coming of age in the '90s, when the hip-hop generation turned misogyny into a cottage industry. Vibe published another controversial story in March 2005, "Love Hurts: Rap's Black Eye," that was written by Elizabeth Mendez-Berry. It documented how Big Pun, the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac and Dr. Dre earned a reputation for abusing women. "If your bitch talks shit, I'll have to put the smackdown," goes the famous line from Dre and Snoop Dogg's "Nuthin' But a G Thang."

Today, women in the urban music industry have been turned into coquettes, and are forced to strip half-naked for King photo shoots if they want to excel in their careers. Their sexuality is always on display. Just look at the ridiculous rumors surrounding rapper Remy Ma: After some anonymous woman posted a jokey YouTube video where she bragged she was Remy's girlfriend, much of the hip-hop media took it seriously, all too eager to "out" another female rapper. There's nothing wrong with being a lesbian, but is someone's private sexual life -- unless she chooses to make it public -- really anybody else's business?

I can't blame the state of the world today on Turner. For all of his infractions, it's a shame that so many news organizations chose to treat a man who helped invent rock 'n' roll like an orderly in the old South, worthy of nothing but simply existing. Turner may have been a monster, but we're still dancing to his tune, both literally and metaphorically. R.I.P.

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