We Want the Funk

[By Erin Ranft]

Today in my Afrofuturism course, I channeled Tony Bolden and Howard Rambsy II. After having the opportunity to learn from Bolden and Rambsy over the summer at the NEH Summer Institute, “Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry” at the University of Kansas, I was anxious to put music and poetry listening sessions to work in the classroom. And what a session it was!

In preparation for our discussion of Funk, and specifically Afrofuturist elements of Funk music primarily by Parliament, the students read some background information on the musical genre and the different productions by Parliament. After a group presented their findings on the readings, the class listened to tracks from Mothership Connection. Feet were tapping, shoulders shrugging in time, and heads were bobbing. We were ‘on the one.’

Rickey Vincent, in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, defines ‘the one’ as a point when “a harmony among all people is achieved.” We were there, on the one during our listening session and in the discussion that followed. To add to this, the students also read Etheridge Knight’s “It Was a Funky Deal” to add dimensions to our understandings of ‘funk’ as a term, idea, and a genre that developed prior to and alongside the Black Arts Movement.

Line by line, the students went through the lyrics from Mothership Connection and lines of Knight’s poem, adding their understandings and interpretations of these texts to the overall course theme of Afrofuturism. Utilizing the practices, methods, and ideas related to poetry and music employed by Bolden and Rambsy were, well, instrumental.

What a day, and a day when I felt the presence of all the fellows, faculty, and staff from the Don’t Deny Summer Institute.

We gotta have that funk.