Teena Marie Remembrance…

By Tim Dillinger

“I remember your songs…and they were timeless…the perfect melody…you were a sweet and soulful bird.” (from “Opus III–The Second Movement”)

I’ve never been the kind of listener who enjoys music as something that simply plays in the background. In my experience, music has always been a central, always-present element essential to my own evolution. As a child growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida,  I was raised in the church with little exposure to what they called “secular music.” I spent the first fifteen years of my life learning about my spirit through gospel music, but I had not learned about how my spirit and body connected. We were taught that our “flesh” was wicked and that our sensual desires were representative of the sin embedded in the flesh. Church rhetoric told us to “kill our flesh,” a stark and deeply disturbing way of articulating the struggle between the body and the spirit.

And then I heard Teena Marie.

“Something about you makes me think of Teena Marie,” someone in the choir at New Covenant Holiness Church said to me one day after a rehearsal. I’d never heard of her, so I went to Camelot Music and picked up Irons In the Fire and Wild & Peaceful, the two CDs they had in stock. One afternoon, I put on Irons and my life was never the same again. ‘Here I am, I’m just a fragment of my God. Heavenly Father, hear me…sometimes life gets so hard,‘ Teena sang, in between songs lamenting the loss of love (“Young Love”) and the ecstasy of a love that had completely turned her inside out (“You Make Love Like Springtime”). But when I heard “Tune in Tomorrow,” the album’s closer written with her best friend Mickey Boyce, I was undone. Within two weeks, I had the bulk of her discography and was absorbing the poems included in the liner notes, reading her acknowledgements and learning her language.

There is a lot of discourse about Teena’s incredible voice—but, as unbelievable as her voice is, it was her lyrics, which, to me, are the center of her musical presentation, that drew me in. She was a poet, a philosopher and a spiritual seeker. I would dare to call her a healer. There was something about Teena’s quest for and celebration of romance that unlocked all of the things I’d felt somewhere deep inside but kept under lock and key. She was bringing me to the fore of a crash course in self-confrontational wholeness. Over the course of the next few years I accepted myself as a gay man. I left the church. I found my voice as a human—and as a singer and writer—in large part, because of her unwillingness to be anything but herself in the world and her courage to put that story into her songs and poems.

I wanted to experience all of the drama and romance she wrote about. I scored on the drama, not so much on the romance, but Teena’s music was my soundtrack through those relationships and it kept me believing in the possibility of love (which I did, indeed, find!).

But Teena was also an educator. Her album’s inserts were nothing short of bibliographies, pointing her listeners to the people and things that inspired her. It was because of her reference to the poet Ntozake Shange that I went to Barnes & Noble and asked them what books were available to order. Ntozake’s Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo had a huge impact on my life and creativity and remains a novel I still read once a year. “Makaveli Never Lied” from La Doña proves that Teena existed without a generation gap in her consciousness, citing Tupac Shakur, Aaliyah, Chaka Khan, Jesus Christ and Joni Mitchell all in the same breath.

All of this from Teena Marie? Absolutely. Listen to “Batucada Suite” and hear how deeply she understood the connections between all of the faiths. Find “Blackberry Playa” from the unreleased Black Rain or “The Mackin’ Game” from La Doña or the video for “Work It,” and recognize how she understood and acknowledged the fluidity of attraction, sexuality and gender performance when those kinds of conversations were still taboo in popular music. Revisit “The Perfect Feeling” from her posthumous release Beautiful and bask in the glory of spiritual and sensual transcendence happening simultaneously, with Teena serving as the shaman.

When I saw Teena in concert for the first time in 2004, I understood why I’d seen her as a shaman. To witness her in concert was to experience a high priestess presiding over her congregation. I’ll never forget when she was performing “Out On A Limb” watching a woman in front of us get overcome with the spirit–so much so, that, as we did in the Holiness church, three women held hands and formed a circle around her to make sure she didn’t go over the railing. To feel the palpable love in the auditorium as she walked through the Fox Theater singing “Déjà Vu” is something I will never, ever forget.

But I’m most grateful for Teena’s example. Her willingness to defy the tyranny of white supremacy and live life unconstrained by the dictates of whiteness served as a model for me as my own life path had fractured my relationship with my birth family and the community in which I had been raised. On the back cover of It Must Be Magic, Teena recalled being chased home from school, taunted by racist slurs that echoed the very slurs my grandparents had hurled at me. I cannot express how important her truth, the sharing of her experience, sustained and validated me as a teenager determined to live  a life outside of the framework I’d been raised to know. Her writings of her experiences of race and culture were so critical (and affirming) to my own expanding consciousness at the time.

In my own career as singer/songwriter, I attempted to fuse all of these elements together both on tape and in live performance. The songs that people continue to stream the most (“That’s The Kind of Love,” “Ooh Baby I,” “The Day You Held Me,” “That’s What I Feel”) all were directly inspired by my admiration of Teena’s music and that makes me proud. I like to think that in some way that is what people hear that makes them love those particular songs so much.

Since her passing in 2010, I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of her collaborators, talk with some of her friends, and learn more about this incredible woman who changed my life without ever having met me. Imagine my surprise when last year, I happened upon one of her unfinished paintings that was being sold in an estate sale in Los Angeles. This portrait of her daughter Alia Rose and goddaughter Malaya Rain Sarai (whose name you’ve heard in the ad libs on “High Yellow Girl”) now sits in our living room. It’s a daily reminder of the magical ways that art can make its way into our lives and affect our trajectory as human beings if we simply listen and let it do its work.

I wonder, all the time, what she would be writing about or saying about the state of the world today. In many ways, though, she answered that question in “Recycle Hate to Love”:

Now’s the moment from an inner conscience

Rebuilt the thinking of the human race

Before mass extinction of all sacred beings

And true devotion can take place

Teena, I miss your presence in this dimension, but you are still here in so many ways, singing us through and pointing us to the light.

Tim Dillinger is a music historian/writer with a focus on the worlds of gospel, soul, contemporary Christian and women’s music. He is currently completing a book on the joint history of Bishop William Morris O’Neil and the New York Community Choir. He writes weekly features at God’s Music Is My Life on Substack and contributed a stellar essay to the 3CD  SoulMusic Records’ box set,  “The Sweet Inspirations: Let It Be Me: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.” 

SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan interviewed Teena Marie on a number of occasions over the span of her career and referenced her in his recently-published eBook of soulful poetry (“Like…The First Time You Heard Chaka Khan!”) with the poem entitled, “Pink Skin Mask…Or Teena Marie In A Man’s Body…And Thank You Ms. Franklin… R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”

Photo credit for Teena Marie, 1988: Randee St. Nicholas
Photo of Teena Marie painting, courtesy Tim Dillinger Personal Collectio

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