DJ Lynnée Denise

Toni Morrison, Ohio Funk, and Literature on the One

A 2023 Prism Commission, Aferro Publication No. 43

Pictured: The Toni Morrison Room at the Lorain Public Library in Lorain, OH

The small city of Lorain was among a list of places I needed to land so that I could honor whom Alice Walker refers to as “ancestors in your line of work.” For me, that’s James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Prince, and Toni Morrison. In this honoring, I’ve been called to France, the Netherlands, Minneapolis, and Ohio because the ancestors in my line of work rejected false lines between borders, genres, and sometimes gender.

My first encounter with the sacred nature of making a pilgrimage came from witnessing the spiritual life of Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik Shabazz). Every documentary or book about Malcolm pivots to that traceable spiritual and political transformation place. At the core of DJ Scholarship —a term I coined in 2013 to define listening as a methodology and Black music as a critical site of investigation—is a commitment to collect inspiration from sites of meaning relevant to writers and performers who animate the methodology and, yes, transformation.

In 2014, I visited Café de Flore in Paris, where James Baldwin completed his first book, Go Tell It on the Mountain. A year later, I went to the South of France to celebrate the accomplishment of reading all of Baldwin’s novels, visiting his Saint Paul De Vence home, where he finished his last novel, Just Above My Head, and took his last breath.

In 2015, I followed the footsteps of Nina Simone to Carry-le-Rouet. Her move to the South of France was an indication of how the American music industry stretched Ms. Simone beyond capacity. It’s where she, too, took her last breath. Her decision to settle in France inspired a line of questions I set out to answer through my exploration of her travel patterns. Like Baldwin, Nina zig-zagged across Europe between Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. My desire to live inside her discography and learn its inner workings took me to Amsterdam and Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where she also lived for a stint.

The South of France holds other stories too. In 2015 I visited Nice, France, where in 1986, Prince filmed Under a Cherry Moon. I wanted to understand the supreme musicianship behind Parade, which I argue is one of the most important soundtracks in American cinema. Shortly following Prince’s death in 2016, I traveled to Minneapolis to visit his childhood home, the local record store Electric Fetus where he shopped until two days before his passing, and Paisley Park Studios, where he took his last breath.

The immersive pilgrimages I’ve undertaken make it easy to understand how Black literature and music are aesthetically rooted in the region. Place matters for people whose mobility has been fraught with hyper-policing, limited resources, and epic talent. Yet, state and ocean lines can’t contain the local and global reach of these works. Toni Morrison is a thought leader in Black geographies, having crafted a world of history between Kentucky and Ohio. Underneath the historical fictionalizing of Beloved, we learned about Margaret Garner, the real-life woman Toni used as an inspiration to create Sethe, Beloved’s protagonist who embodied memories that haunted the witnesses of slavery. Sethe crossed the Ohio River from a Kentucky plantation, seeking refuge in Ohio as a free state. Sethe’s memory of Beloved was laid to rest in Ohio’s soil. Few consider how these memories of Beloved helped create the fertile ground for Ohio funk.

One summer day in 2021, I made a left onto Elyria Avenue in Lorain, looking for house number 2245. I drove slowly enough to survey vacated business and residential homes scattered between liquor and dollar stores. There was no indication that a child born on this unassuming midwestern street would change the course of American literature and challenge its canon as a writer and an editor. I spotted the house, parked in an empty lot two houses down, and hopped out with clarity about the holy literary land I was walking on. When I arrived at the property, a Black man greeted me with a knowing smile and followed me with his eyes from the path from the sidewalk to his front door. He was swinging lightly on a wooden bench hanging from two strong metal chains connected to the porch’s ceiling. He knew why I was there and introduced himself as Joseph Payne.

“You here to see Toni Morrison’s house, huh?” he said.

“Yes, sir, I am. Is this it?”

“Well, yes and no,” he said. “This is where she was born, but my great-grandfather bought the house shortly after her family left, and we’ve been here ever since. I own the house now.”

Fascinated by the absence of any kind of sign in front of the house that a woman of note and letters was born there, we discussed the question of city landmarks—given that people come from around the world to see the home. He was surprised that the home wasn’t an official landmark but equally unbothered. His living there seemed important enough. I asked him about the Lorain Public Library, where Toni’s work is featured in a well-curated reading room, and he told me about the Toni Morrison Primary School around the corner. The two of us sat there, marveling at how this massive figure left behind yet another story to work through and how we were now part of it.

Joseph told me he was a session drummer and was pleased he had managed to turn the room where Toni was born into a studio. “The room,” he boasted, “was large enough for three full drum kits.” I had a picture in my head that placed Joseph in a Baptist church somewhere near Elyria Street. But when I asked him where he played, he dropped an “F” bomb. A Funk bomb, to be exact. “I’m a drummer for The Dazz Band.” My world came crashing. DJ Scholarship meets at the intersection of literature and Black music, and now there was a new layer of Morrison to hear, a new brand of funk to read. Toni Morrison’s birthplace had been transformed into an incubator for Ohio funk.

The Dazz Band is a Cleveland-based funk group formed in 1977, most popular for songs like “Joystick” and “Let It Whip.” It’s also one of the few funk bands founded by a drummer, Isaac Wiley, who died in April of this year. Several original band members, Bobby Harris and Sennie “Skip” Martin are still performing, but a range of new members maintain its legacy. Today the group performs as a re-imagined version of itself and goes by the name of Kinsman Dazz Band. Joseph Payne is one of its latest members.

Overlooked for the music associated with its regional cousins Detroit and Chicago, the massive funk music scene developed in Ohio over the last 50 years deserves its own pilgrimage. If one wants to learn how The Ohio Players, Zapp and Roger, Steve Arrington, Lakeside, Heatwave, Faze-O, The Isley Brothers, The O’Jays, Slave, and Shirley Murdock contributed to the soundscape of Ohio and Black American music in general, there’s an institution of memory dedicated to the life of Ohio funk—The Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center (aka TheFunkCenter) in Dayton, where one can visit. Even Cali’s gangsta rap and car cruising culture is heavily associated with Ohio funk. Some might argue that the earliest crip walk happened to Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” in the late ‘70s. According to Dr. Scot Brown, who professes that “funk, a fusion of jazz, rhythm & blues, and rock, was a popular trend in African American music during the late 1970s,” the “scholarly acknowledgment of Dayton as a funk epicenter is only beginning to emerge.”

The intersection between Toni Morrison and a funk drummer operates at the same frequency of importance to American literature and music. The regional rhythms—the Ohio and Kentucky themes in Beloved and The Bluest Eye can be understood in what famed Ohio bassist Bootsy Collins, under the training of James Brown and Parliament, described as the one. Music writer Mark Reynolds defines the one as “the first beat in a measure, but ‘the one’ is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else—the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself—into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude.”

Anyone who reads Toni Morrison understands how each book, each character for readers, is a journey into complexity and impeccable pacing and timing. Her non-linear writing style functions like the first beat in the measure of the funk’s return to the one. She takes you back over and over again to the untraceable beginning, leaving you waiting for the clues you need to reach each story’s ending. In The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison shares secrets about her process and how her imagination begins at Lake Erie, less than 10 minutes from the home where she was born—and 10 minutes from the home with three drum kits in the room where she took not her last, but her first breath. From Toni we learn that storytelling is music and from funk we learn that Black texts can be read from the stage to the page. Listen closely.