When I first got the blues, they brought me over on a ship,
Men was standin’ over me, and a lot more with a whip.
And ev’rybody wanna know why I sing the blues.
— B. B. King
The grown folks always warned me not to sell my soul to the devil. They told me the story of Ol’ Bob Johnson from the Mississippi Delta. Legend has it that Bob Johnson was the runt of the litter, last born of ten kids to a family of sharecroppers. Johnson was so poor as a kid, he thought shoes were a luxury food. Growing up under the limitations of the Jim Crow, Johnson decided to marry at 19 and start his own family on the farm. But then Johnson’s wife and unborn child died during delivery. Ol’ Bob Johnson leaves the plantation and starts hustling, hitching himself to passing trains and performing tricks for pennies. During one of his stops in the city, Johnson came across Son House- the most popular Blues artist in the Delta. Soon Johnson became Son House’s apprentice, playing mediocre harmonica in the background at Son’s late-night shows. But Johnson wanted more. He started plucking the guitar occasionally after shows and kept at it for months with no success. One night his strums were so grating, that Son House yelled out, “Put that guitar down, boy, you drivin’ people nuts.”
Walking down a dirt road at midnight under a full moon, Johnson sees a man sitting off to the side. Johnson didn’t want no trouble, so he starts crossing to the other side of the road when the man stands up and calls his name, “Robert Johnson, you’re late.” Bob looks to his side and sees a figure so dark, all he can make out are his eyes. The area around the man’s pupils were glowing fluorescent green. His deep baritone voice, was as seductive as a siren’s call. Bob replies, “Maybe I’m not…” As he finishes his last word, a jarring snarl comes from a ditch to his left. Bob looks over and sees a pack of rabid hell hounds. The dogs look simultaneously malnourished and over-sized. Their furs are mangy and missing patches, tails wagging furiously, emitting the saddest howls Johnson has ever heard. The man with the glowing eyes propositions Johnson, “You want to be the baddest Blues man to ever live?” Johnson looks up apprehensively. “And what will it cost me, sir? Because I ain’t got nun on this here earth” At that moment, Johnson sees a small child crawling out the ditch towards him. It’s his unborn son. “Junior, boy, is that you?!” Johnson runs to the child, only to watch him disintegrate into dust as he leans in to embrace him. Bob falls to his knees in tears. The man asks Johnson again, “You want to be the baddest Blues man to ever live? You want more women and whiskey that you can ever handle?” Bob looks up and nods his head despondently. The man replies, “I don’t need nothing more than your word and your guitar.” Johnson says “Yessuh, I want to be the best Blues man there ever was.” The man snatches Bob’s guitar and throws it into the ditch. Bob runs in after it…
Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn, professionally known as Future, was born two generations later in an area of East Atlanta called Lil’ Mexico. By the ninth grade he had already been shot at multiple times so he was looking for a way out. Whatever you call it, he was born the cousin of Rico Wade, producer for Outkast and the Dungeon Family. Meathead, Future’s childhood nickname, spent his adolescence listening to Southern Hip Hop titans like André 3000 write, record, and discuss the industry. Future was a good student, he describes himself as a “fly on the wall” and “good listener” in his Apple Music documentary, THE WIZRD. Like Bob Johnson, Future lived in close proximity to a musical legend at a young age. They both were that kid in the corner fiddling with instruments when everyone else was on break. However, more than that Future and Bob Johnson share songs of pain, women, and addiction from a similar creative-emotional reservoir of suffering. When Future says,
“Got the game from them old niggas
You gotta know where I’m from to get to know a nigga”
he’s paying homage to more than just his uncles and grandfather, he’s honoring a legacy of metastasizing black suffering. Future and Bob Johnson both found a way to package the Blues for popular consumption. That is why the notes Johnson on “Kind Hearted Woman” hits singing,
“Ain’t but one thing makes Mr. Johnson drink
Its worried ‘bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same”
sound so similar to archetypal Future lines like
“Tears in my eyes, I can’t forget where I came from
I lost a lover, it’s alright
It can’t be worse, than when I lost my main homie to the streets
You should’ve never give up on me without hearin’ my side of the story”
But if Future sings the Blues like Ol’ Bob Johnson, then where did he get his sound? While watching the male Beyoncé’s attempt at a documentary-concert film, I was stunned by the amount of time Future spent in the studio. DJ Khaled remarked, “This man [Future] work every day. This man don’t sleep. He records everywhere he goes. He could be doing a show, he in the studio… He could be on a private jet, three shows a day, he still in that studio.” However, what is noticeably absent is Future spending down time with his children, or his relationships with either of the co-parents that have sued him in the past few years. Like Bob Johnson, Future has a pattern of unhealthy relationships with women. Both figures self-medicate with substances. My mom and them used to say that a man like Future or Bob Johnson had a generational curse on their family. My contemporaries call it depression.
In a 2008 NPR Behind Closed Doors weekly segment, Chris Strauss of Men’s Fitness magazine and John Head, author of, “Black Men and Depression” described the modern crisis of depression in men. The writers suggest that as a society we are misdiagnosing depression in men, black men in particular, by looking for the symptoms commonly associated with depression in women: withdrawal from social life, crying, staying in bed, etc. Depression in American men is likely to manifest in ways society rewards: overexertion- can be channeled via work or exercise, aggression, drug/alcohol dependency, high-risk behaviors like numerous sexual partners and unsafe sex. While women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, 79% of suicides in 2010 were men. This misdiagnosis crisis is even more pronounced in the Black community where racism amplifies the stressor, while reducing resources like access to a therapist or leisure time. The dearth of resources to address it combined with the raw weight of social stigma, has led to depression molding the contemporary archetype of Black masculinity. Images of the hyper-aggressive Black man punching a wall in frustration proliferate in the media, normalizing a state of consistent emotional duress.
What if Bob Johnson was depressed? It certainly would have made sense for a man to hit rock bottom after losing the love of his life and child all at once. Perhaps it is this unprocessed grief that Bob sings of on “Me and the Devil Blues” when he describes responding to his woman’s infidelity with violence because of an old evil spirit. All the while the woman asking him, “You don’t see why?” Instead of calling his anger episodes depression, they said he sold his soul to the devil for some whiskey. It was easier to blame it on the booze, then to ask why he was drinking so much.
What if Future is depressed? Future dedicates an entire album to Lean (Dirty Sprite 2) months after a life-changing break-up with then fiancéé, and mother of his first born, Ciara. On “Slave Master” we encounter a man who despite his ostensible power and material possessions- i.e. “new whip,” requires Lean to feel better. Future layers his drawn-out Southern cadence over the sound of his Lean swirling in ice. The skeptic in me would argue that perhaps these words are strictly for entertainment. From this perspective, Future is just another mainstream artist peddling historically profitable images of blackness. Ronald Reagan made a killing off crack, why can’t Nayvadius Wilburn? But then Future throws in lines such as
“Ain’t no fabrication, I’m on medication
Cough syrup, I’m infatuated…
I disguise pain when I make it rain
When I hit the club and I make it rain
When I pulled up, you know how I came”
His last line is a reference to his opening “Jumped out a new whip, nigga;” Confirming that this song is indeed the tale of Future and his friends arriving at a strip club in a brand-new luxury vehicle. But more than that, the song is a confessional. The listener enjoys two minutes and fifty-two seconds of electronically synthesized drums and symbols before Future bellows
“Long live A$AP Yams, long live A$AP Yams, Long live A$AP Yams, I’m on that codeine right now.”
According to the New York Times, Steven “A$AP Yams” Rodriguez died from mixing drugs- including benzodiazepine and opiates, like codeine. Future knows codeine can kill him. And so do we. What role does the audience play in the preservation of the entertainer?
They say that the devil collected on Ol’ Bob Johnson via whiskey. After becoming the baddest Blues player in the Delta for years, Bob Johnson went down to San Antonio where he recorded the 29 tracks that survived him. He lived the life of traveling musician for years playing in bars across the deep South. Then one night Bob was back at his hometown bar in Mississippi when he ran into one of his former ladies behind the counter. She was surprised that Big City Bob was back in town and offered to cover his tab for the night, on the house. Bob couldn’t say No, so he kept on drinking. In his final show, Bob summoned notes so deep that he woke up all the dogs in the neighborhood. He strapped his guitar to his back, took one last sip of his drink, kicked back his wooden stool and keeled over. 27-year-old, Robert Johnson, dead from apparent overdose.