Recently at the breakfast table I found my boys, ages 4 and 2, and their mama singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." They know the English-language version most widely popularized by the Tokens during the folk revival of the 1960s (and brought to a new generation through the film and stage versions of The Lion King).
The song is fine enough in itself, but I knew there was more to the story. So through the wonders of Youtube I found the version from "Spike Lee & Company Do It Acapella," a 1990 PBS special that was very important in my early musical education. (This is probably an understatement. After seeing it on television I bought the soundtrack on cassette and played it over and over again for years until the tape broke1)
This version features the Mint Juleps, a little-known all-female group from Britain, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an all-male group from South Africa that had become internationally famous when they performed on Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, combining the Americanized version of the song and the South African original. The latter, entitled "Mbube" ("the lion"), was composed in Zulu in the 1920s by an illiterate migrant to Johannesburg named Solomon Linda and first recorded in 1939. The song became a hit throughout the country, eventually lending its name to a whole genre of popular acapella music of which Ladysmith would decades later become the epitome. (In a harrowing story of the vagaries of global cultural capitalism, Linda himself died penniless, never receiving his due for what became one of the world's most popular songs. But his heirs finally received compensation from the copyright holder in 2006.)
The combined version is particularly beautiful, and since I first heard it at age 14, there has simply been no other acceptable rendition. The effect of the pulsing rhythm, the blending of lyrics in two languages, and the consummate harmony of male and female voices is entrancing. And to a young American who had already developed a strong attraction to Africa, there was something revolutionary about even the English-language lyrics. "Hush my darling, don't fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight," evoked for me a parent reminding a child that the real lion--the black South African people--was waiting for its moment to rise. In the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it appeared that the moment had arrived.
My boys' attention span is still pretty short. I don't think either one of them made it through the whole video. But I was satisfied that at least another seed was planted, that as much as possible the soundtrack to their formative years will include Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other greats of modern African music.
Later, as I listened again to the track by myself, it occurred to me that Ladysmith had had another powerful, almost imperceptible effect on me as a very young person. From the time my father first brought Graceland home for us to listen to, I knew at some level that beyond the striking quality of their music itself, what distinguished this group of men was the abounding love they had for each other (and, for that matter, for the white American artist with whom they seemed to share such a warm collaboration). When I saw them perform--first on television thanks to Spike Lee, and on a live stage six years later during a North American tour--their profound connection, artistic and spiritual, came across even more clearly.
Then I found another track from that PBS special, "Looking for an Echo," by the Persuasions, and was so flooded with emotion that I almost came to tears. It's a group of four veteran doo-wop singers reminiscing about their early days and glorifying in their friendship, which has survived decades and miles of distance. I realized that without remembering the rest of the lyrics, I've been singing the song's sweet refrain, "I love you, I love you, I love you...for sentimental reasons," to my boys their whole lives. A couple of times I've broken it out on some of my closest male friends, too.
What a striking contrast this song offers to most contemporary images of black men! In the American collective imagination, they can be alternately threatening and violent, shiftless and lazy, or hapless and hilarious, but all too seldom do we see black men who are beautiful, spiritual, joyful, disciplined, united. A group of straight, older black men singing at the top of their lungs about how much they love each other? A rarity indeed.
Unfortunately, this is far from simply a matter of cultural aesthetics. As I (and a host of abler pens) have written elsewhere, the denial of black people's full, complex, and multifaceted humanity is an intellectual reality with devastating social consequences. But by God's grace (with Paul Simon and Spike Lee as fixers), as a very young person I was touched by positive, loving, and deeply human images of black people in ways that I believe helped open my heart to the personal, real-world relationships that have changed my life and indelibly shaped my identity as a person. From early on I learned, to borrow a phrase from my friend and mentor Tod Ewing, to "see heaven in the face of black men." I certainly see it now in the faces of my sons.
"I love you, I love you, I love you...for sentimental reasons. For your love, I would do anything." I aim to keep singing this refrain to my boys for the rest of my life. Maybe they'll get sick of it some day, but I'm fine with that. Because I'm determined that they will never for a minute be able to doubt that their papa thinks they are the most beautiful, noble children of God, with infinite capacities for good in this world. What's more, they'll grow up hearing me sing it to their uncles--the black, brown, and white men I have chosen to be my friends and brothers--and have all around them examples of how adult men can truly love, nurture, and support each other in a mature life of abundance and joy. And the more boys that learn those lessons early and carry them through to their adult lives, the closer we will be to achieving what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the "beloved community," an America transformed into a society of justice, compassion, and the "total interrelatedness" of all people.