Last night I enjoyed the treat of a lifetime in the PBS American Masters, Roberta Flack. Its 90-minute documentary with stories/vignettes, its breathtaking collage of beloved images, and the music of my lifetime exuded from hers. As Rev. Jackson put it, “she was unafraid.” Moving through the stages of life seamlessly, she never faltered or lost sight of her gift. Drugs were absent. She didn’t complain, not even as a black feminist musician emerging from the movement’s intersections. Then at the mercy of an industry she admitted knowing nothing about, she learned and just did her work with the right people at her side, to lift, support, and expose her to an audience of increasing breadth. Even Les McAnn sought no credit for “discovering” her because he witnessed the Spirit orchestrate and pack out the D.C. venue where she sang on Sundays.
Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty for Me” was the catapult placing her before the whole world where she sang without peer. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” She sang unabashed truth start to finish, everywhere, working for God. An exquisite art. A blinding light. Angela Davis. Valerie Simpson. Eugene McDaniels. Donnie Hathaway. Peabo Bryson. Quiet, centered, black and magnificent. Every frame, every note, especially when she reared her head back with full, easy knowing, offering all to us all. All her love. Not one drop of visible ego in her story, she asked just for the freedom to keep growing, doing so with the help of Rubina Flake.
Precocious child visible in any group if only by her rounded face. Shining her elegance, profound, brilliant. Covered, never distracted with herself, she simply moved in the power of her music, ever channeling the flow. She mothered that moment, the wave that carried her astonishing gift. Nobody mentioned Black Mountain. Nobody mentioned children.
Her life was her own and she lived it, bringing a sound of flawless we hadn’t heard before or since. Her artist parents – draftsman and keyboardist – did not hold her back, not for one second, doing or failing to do. She left home for the first time at age 15 bound for Howard University on a full music scholarship. Somebody there convinced her to also learn how to teach. If she veered off track or indulged detour, doubt or hesitation, we never knew. Looking closely, I only saw her. Rising again and again gladly, clearly, poetic. Holding the door open for whoever would enter before the clock struck 12. Offering us a myriad of ways to sing those three little life-giving words.
An old soul Lauren Hill reached back with much respect for “Killing me Softly,” and paid homage with 17 million copies. What a tribute to a true teacher using every possible tool and medium in an ever-expanding classroom! Every student desiring to learn did indeed: Making a decision. Solving a problem. Seeing it through. Finding a mentor. Carrying oneself well. Delivering a performance. Reaching highest heights. Being an inspiration. Marking our lives with songs of our true emotion, as if we, our time and our stories not only mattered but had helped mark and shape the world. A real, authentic, whole and full woman singing us home. Blessing us permanently with water. Holy water.
Her career took off when she was busy “doing everything.” She said she was tired, that she needed time to “get it together,” before the climb to her star. Did she ever really rest? When she sang “Oh Freedom” on Goree Island in the caverns there, her voice echoed strong off the stone and across generations. She may have gotten as much rest as any black woman ever has, any black woman trying to get somewhere in this world. To think of her now as ill is halting. But as we all will one day, she leaves. She leaves behind the thing she did best – her timeless music. She leaves in wonder, taking the time she needs to depart as perfectly as she lived. She leaves. Every Note, all the Emotion, each Story fully embodied, she leaves her Triune behind. I cried quietly in the viewing as if the film maker turned on my faucet and washed me down in this perfection of Roberta. I need that film.