Monday, March 12, 2012

The "I'm Black As Hell" Line In The Song "Random Black Girl"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post includes an excerpt from a longer post that I edited on the song "Random Black Girl".

Click for that entire post.

"Random Black Girl" is a song that was composed by Kooman & Dimond for their 2008 play Homemade Fusion. In that song, a Black female laments that in theatrical productions, the Black female hired is always typecasted. And one of the aspects of typecasting is that she must always "sing the soul".

Here's that song's lyrics:

(music by Michael Kooman; lyrics by Christopher Dimond)


I’m not like the other girls in this show.
I’m something of a sore thumb.
I’m starting to think that I’m different.
And I suspect I know how come.

My complexion stands out.
And my voice does as well.
Cause in case you haven’t noticed,
I’m black as hell.

It’s an obligatory part of every new musical
It’s the random black girl singin’ the soul.

Every show must have an ensemble,
Without it things wouldn’t be right
And every crowd needs at least one person
Who doesn’t happen to be white.

Well, that girl is usually me,
Feels like I’m just filling a quota.
Anytime I ever have lines,
They’re “yes’m”, and “yessir” and “nosa’”.

When it comes to the plot I play no significant role
I’m just a random black girl singin’ the soul.

So, I conduct with my hands
And I’ll squinch up my eyes
And then I’ll open my mouth
Unbelievably wide.

And at the end of the song
When it’s time to let go
I’ll give ‘em a dose
Of my crazy vibrato.

Why couldn’t I be cast for a part in The Color Purple,
‘Stead of a random black girl singin’ the soul?

My agent gave me advice.
Those words I’ll never forget.
He said “Don’t think you’ll ever be cast
As Eponine or Cossette.”

But I guess things always could be worse,
When it comes to my Broadway station
At least I’m not cursed
Enough to have been born Asian.

Then I’d be stuck in Miss Saigon dancing on a pole,
Stead of the random black girl singin’ the soul.

The designers can’t light me.
Director don’t know my name.
And the make up artist thinks
That we all wear the same…shade.

And Mr. Stage Manager
Thinks I got too much sass.
The costumer don’t know what to do,
With my big old black—-hair.

Maybe I should audition for American Idol.
They love the random black girl singin’ the soul.

So what does this song change?
Well, not a relevant thing.
But you gotta be thinkin’ to yourself
“Goddamn, this sister can sing”.

Don’t you hate it when songs are so self-referential?
I’m a random black girl singin’ the…

Don’t stop me now, cause baby I’m on a roll.
I’m the random black girl singin’ the…

I can make an entire phrase out of one syllable.
Cause I’m a random black girl singin’ the soul.

Song lyrics may have unexpected nuances based on the experiences of their readers and listeners. I think this may be the case with the line "I'm black as hell" in the song "Random Black Girl".

This is the only line in that song which rubs me the wrong way - although I confess that I initially also had problems with the "I'm glad I wasn't born Asian" line. However, in retrospect, I understand that the lyricist meant that in the theatre business, Asian actresses have it even worst than Black actresses.

So why does that "I'm black as hell" line bother me? First let me say that I know that the line "I'm black as hell" rhymes with the preceding line "and my voice does as well". And I know that the line is a witty conclusion to the preceding lines that "set the stage" for why the vocalist is different from her other cast members. That line's wit - and the way it is sung or spoken -are reasons why that line in the song seems to always evoke laughter. But my problem with the "I'm black as hell" line is that I'm Black and I'm old. And as an old Black woman, I'm aware of nuances for the phrase "black as hell" that younger Black people and any age non-Black people may not get.

When Black people say "She's (or he's) black as hell", I think they usually meant (mean) that the person was "really black". And really black meant (means) "real dark skinned". A comparable saying was/is "She's black as the ace of spades". I hasten to say that I don't ever recall me saying this to anyone because 1. I'm too nice and 2. I wouldn't want to get my behind whooped.

I believe that Chris Dimond, the White lyricist for the song "Random Black Girl", may have interpreted "really black" to mean "really a member of the Black race" and therefore a person who is darker than & different from the play's other cast members. However, I remember a time - and I think that time is still now - when a Black person would NEVER describe someone as being "black as hell" - at least not to their face. That was a SERIOUS insult. Why is black as hell an insult? Blame it on the REALLY messed up racial realities of the United States and elsewhere.

That said, I repeat that I believe that the lyricist for this song may not have been aware of the nuanced interpretation that some (many?) African Americans have for the phrase "I'm black as hell". Or maybe he was aware of that nuance and wanted to de-emphasize that meaning for the song's listeners & readers -including Black folks.

It should be noted that, while the vocalist Patina Miller who sung that "Random Black Girl" in the Human Fusion play would probably be considered dark skinned, most of the YouTube videos of "Random Black Girl" feature a Black vocalist that Black people wouldn't consider to be dark skinned. In some of the YouTube videos of that song the vocalist is a Black woman who would be considered light skinned, although none of the videos that I've seen to date feature a very light skinned Black female vocalist singing "Random Black Girl". It's therefore possible that the meaning of "black as hell" has changed - or maybe most Black people have put aside that old meaning of that phrase, at least in the context of that song. It occurs to me what is the opposite of "black as hell"? - "white as heaven?" Hmmm.
Also, I wonder what is the opposite of black as hel l- white as heaven? Hmmm.

I suppose that I could just sit back and enjoy the song. And I do enjoy it, but not without thinking about the deeper meaning of the words. (I blame my Virgo astrological placements and my natal Mercury in Sagittarius in my 3rd house for motivating me to think about the whys & wherefores of a lot of things). However, I mean no disrespect to this song, and my conclusion is that this song - and its lyricist - mean no disrespect to me, random or otherwise.


Video #1: Random Black Girl
There are a number of YouTube videos of the song "Random Black Girl".

Patina Miller is the vocalist who starred in Kooman and Dimond's first production of the play Human Fusion in which this song is included. Notice that BPatina Miller sings the "I'm black as hell" line:

Patina Miller - Random Black Girl

Uploaded by koomandimond on Mar 20, 2008

Patina Miller in Kooman and Dimond's HOMEMADE FUSION at the Zipper Theatre.

Here are two other examples of that line being spoken and not sung:

Video #2: Random Black Girl---Allyson Daniel

Penn State Musical Theatre Dept., Jun 29, 2008

Allyson Daniel '08 singing Random Black Girl at 21 Cabaret (21 songs from 21 new composers of the 21st century) directed by Robert Schneider.

Video #3: Random Black Girl

Uploaded by HarttMTs on May 30, 2009

Olithea Anglin Sings Random Black Girl with music and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman

The Hartt School's Senior class in Music Theatre performed their Showcase in NYC in May...

It's interesting that each of the singers in these videos deliver the "I'm black as hell" line differently.

I very much prefer the sung version of this line. However, I'm aware that others may disagree, and that's alright too. At least that line isn't spoken or sung in a self-effacing way or with an antagonistic manner like "Yeah so what if I'm black as hell", like the speaker was admitting something bad about herself and daring someone to say something about it. I REALLY wouldn't like that.

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