Teena Marie: Architect of the Ghetto-Pass (1956 – 2010)
On Sunday, December 26, 2010, singer/songwriter/musician Teena Marie passed away at the young age of 54. When I first heard of her death, I was immediately shocked, having just seen her in concert only a year ago in Brooklyn, looking as fiesty and active on stage as ever. Right away, I thought to myself, “Man, there’s another black artist passing away in their 50s. ” This is an utterly startling thought, considering that Teean Marie a white woman. But let’s be frank: It’s safe to say that Teena Marie’s passing hasn’t exactly shaken the white record buying community as hard as it has with the Black community. In printed and web-based obituaries, it’s stated Teena was best known for her hit single “Lovergirl.” “Lovergirl” went to number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1984 and was her biggest crossover hit. Despite its success, if you ask any of her fans what song they first thought of when they heard she passed away, very few will say “Lovergirl.” Because of her soulful, heartwrenching voice – a voice she used to interpret masterfully funky, passionate and emotional music – she’s considered an R&B artist above all else. Teena Marie may have been the first white artist to get a “Ghetto-Pass:” a general level of acceptance from the Black community.
Back in 1979, her debut album, Wild & Peaceful, was released without her face on the cover. As an artist with Motown Records and a protoge of Punk Funk pioneer Rick James, Teena was targeted to a Black audience, and they accepted her because of the voice alone. Once she appeared on Soul Train with Rick and it was discovered she was white, nothing changed. She was embraced by African American the nation over, and she embraced them back. “I’m a black artist with white skin,” Teena once said. Not once was her sincerity or authenticy ever questioned, which is something quite important when it comes to an artist. Far too long and often have white artists exploited black artistry for fame and profit, all the while attempting to claim their respect for the black artists who’s backs they stepped on. Teena stepped on no one’s back to get where she did and we recognized it in her voice, her demeanor and her ability. After Rick James wrote her first album all himself, she began writing on her own, including classic funk and quiet storm tracks as “Behind The Groove,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” Porteguese Love,” “Ooo La La La,” and “Square Biz.” Once you heard that throbbing bass, her funky guitar swirls and sweeping blasts of brass, you didn’t have to ask whether or not it was all Teena. She showed her fellow “light skinned” artists how to get that “ghetto-pass” notarized: with truth, and heart. Game recognizes game, and that’s why it’s easy to see why the Ivory Queen of Soul stood the test of time while her other caucazoid counterparts faded into obscurity and novelty. For every Teena Marie, there’s five Marky Marks and the Funky Bunch. For every “I’m a Sucker For Your Love,” there’s 10 “Ice Ice Baby’s.” For every “Behind the Groove,” there’s countless “Informers.” She wasn’t just good, she was rare.
Teena Marie, in the end, was a woman with an instantly recognizable voice that touch the lives of millions of people for over 30 years. The world at large called you Teena Marie, but to those who loved you most, you were Lady T. Don’t worry, folks. Thanks to timeless music like “Fire and Desire,” and “Deja Vu,” you will now live forever.