Above The Law: How The O’Jays Made The Most Haunting Protest Song Of The Black Lives Matter Era

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHSK71l7lbk

In 2009, Sean Levert, son of O’Jays lead baritone Eddie Levert, was arrested and taken to the Cuyahoga County corrections facility for failing to pay child support. Like many who have brief brushes with fame, Sean did not seem to handle it well, struggling with various issues after a string of gold records. Like many state institutions who have brief interactions with black people, Cuyahoga county deemed his misdemeanor offenses punishable by death. In a six-day span, they refused to give him medication and basic medical care, torturing his body until he passed from complications of Sarcoidosis. The settlement the facility made with the Levert estate remains the largest in state prison history.

It feels painfully intrusive to mention this in the context of Above The Law, the new single that shocks even the most devoted O’jays fans in how angry, political, and electric it is. Given the transformation of Eddie Levert in the song-from a cuddly grandpa rehashing his hits for black cable channel shows to the most Shakespearean figure in the Black Lives Matter era of music-it is impossible not to mention. On so many levels, the song is surprising, the trio, long settled as deans of cookout music, switching to be the three horseman of intersectionality, riding a fresh, electrically charged jazz beat with congas to speak truth to power about race, class, gender, and gun violence to a diseased nation. Like their great political singles of the 70’s, it is led by Levert’s breathtakingly sermonic voice, but it has a fire and pathos that goes off the charts even for him. Released in promotion with their final album in February of next year, a political themed album, Above The Law has made the O’Jays more critically relevant than almost any time in my natural life.

It almost goes without saying that they didn’t need to be relevant again to have a full career. In their 70’s prime, the O’Jays sang enough brilliant of protest songs, observations about the ritual of black life, and earnest as all get out love ballads to put them in the conversations in the greatest trios of popular music. Like every canonical soul music act, there were many layers in which they could be appreciated. With the most underrated Tenor of his era ( Walter Williams)a consensus pick for one of the three greatest baritones in the history of soul ( Eddie Levert), and some of the most lush and finely crafted Philly soul songs, the O’jays were gorgeous to listen to. Even in their lean years, they never left public consciousness based on such iconographic Multi-Platinum singles as Love Train and For The Love Of Money

Like many black people, my O’Jays fandom was in how they centralized the commonplace of what we know. Family Reunion, You are my Sunshine, Now That We Found Love What Are We Gonna Do With It, , Living For The Weekend, Stairway To Heaven, Put your Hands Together (and Let us Pray). It was the glue that made their core message, a call for black people to LIVE. The O’jays could be as political as anyone on the pop charts, but they did it in a way that made being so seem healthy, self aware and decent. Their best songs called for black people to be proactive, process, be honest, and be real, but to love ourselves as much as we hated injustice, to give to ourselves and each other, and to loves ourselves enough to create art our of our everyday lives.

So I didn’t need the O’jays to re enter the front of the line of black protest music, because they helped build the room the line is in. They had their fallow druggy years, then sobered up to make dad R&B with occasional moments of Brilliance, then acted like lovably cantankerous grandads in the Tom Joyner influenced orbit or black media. And I honestly fucking loved it: they made black cookout music, I am a black man who likes to cook. Because their songs touched on small aspects of black life that hadn’t been sung before, the O’jays had an imprimatur of family, prone to ticks that we heckle but find endearing . Look at Eddie over sing the chorus in Forever Mine. Look at Eddie not being able to shut up about gender in the spoken word vamps in Family Reunion. Almost ruins the damm song. Here’s some Catfish.

All the which makes Above The Law so chilling. And it isn’t just Levert, who once had crude Christian gender politics, reemerging as an atheist taking a swing at Kavanaugh. No, it’s that he sounds like a mad preacher in a gospel song about death, a song that, despite it’s scathing undertows, keeps a spiritual meaning by reminding the listener that so many deaths in the last two years are intertwined. At It’s core, Above The Law is a call and response song, but the response is a unfathomable mixture of rage and pain. Evoking that feeling is Levert putting out a performance he hasn’t done in years. Where the post prime/druggy/post drug dad soul man would lean on an oversouling cuddliness, this Levert sings eerily controlled, putting his fury within the beat, rising in feeling with every chant of “Above the law” to the point where- at the time of the lyric changing to “Long as it’s working in your favor/you love the law”- his phrasings become the uncontrollably controlled eruptions, filled with a gravity and power closer to Mahalia Jackson than Lou Rawls.

In another sense, it isn’t as surprising that the O’Jays would go out with one of the most scathing and impressive protest songs in recent( or not so recent) memory. In their best music, they could make the reader see as honest a picture of black life as they could. Yet in the 70’s they had the wind of the civil right movement at their back, and you could hear the reflecting optimism of the age in the subtext of their work. Outside of a promising midterm result, there is none of that same optimism now; not under a racist predator president who puts immigrant children in prisons and a MAGA/ Incel culture that make a minor entertainment industrial complex of gazing on, then gazing over mass shootings, extrajudicial murders, sex crimes, the reemergence of Nazism as a potent political force and the brutalization of anyone who isn’t a white cis man. One of the greatest moments from one of the greatest soul groups of all time, Above The Law makes you see how this frightening American culture of death is intertwined. One can’t help but the feel for the unfathomable agony Eddie Levert had to go through in order to make the listener see it.

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Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley

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Writer. Author. Former Jack Straw and Artist Trust Fellow. The baddest ghetto nerd on the planet.