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Baker's Dozen

Beauty From Trauma: Paul Mendez' Favourite Music
Paul Flynn , October 7th, 2020 08:40

Pop is all over Rainbow Milk, the Gordon Burn Prize-nominated debut novel by Paul Mendez. Here he tells Paul Flynn how a love of Marvin Gaye, Beyonce, Solange, Joy Division and Missy Elliott gave him a clearer understanding of his sexuality and racial identity


Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
In the Soul/R&B genre, What’s Going On is the best album of all time. Every song is so beautifully done, its gestation is so interesting, and it could not be more apt for now. Having just watched I May Destroy You and seeing how Michaela Coel has taken personal trauma and written, produced, directed and starred in the best TV series I’ve ever seen, it shows what people can achieve when they are allowed to take things on for themselves. Marvin was one of the originators. A Black, African American artist in 1971 saying, ‘thank you, Motown, for everything you’ve done for me, but I’m not going to record another note for me unless you let me record this my way.’ He did it all in 30 days.

First hearing What’s Going On and first getting it are two very different things. In the novel, I give it to Jesse’s mother. He grew up listening to it, but we didn’t have that record in the house. I knew ‘What’s Going On’ the song, obviously, but I would’ve first found the album by reading one of the Best Albums of all-time lists.

It didn’t hit me until I was in Egypt on holiday, 2007. We were on a train from Luxor to Aswan along the Nile, and on the other side of the track there were villages with children running after the trains, waving, barefoot, skinny, smiling. I was listening to ‘Save The Children’ at that moment. Which is the reason this album resonates with me now. That’s when it took on new levels of importance for me. Now when I listen to it, I have a full impression of it. What’s Happening Brother is just divine.

I’ve always been a sucker for a minor key. I much prefer it to ‘What’s Going On’ as a track. ‘God Is Love’, I play on repeat. It’s quite contradictory as far as I’m concerned, because I left god behind a long time ago. But I appreciate the need to worship that higher power and what it brings out of people, that expression of joyfulness. Growing up as a Witness, I look at the way they sing in African American churches in the US, how expressionistic they are about their love of god and what it means to them.

The Witnesses is a majority white conversation about modesty. Nobody could sing. Nobody wanted to be heard above anybody else. Someone pressed play and you sang along to a tape. It was the antithesis of What’s Going On, Aretha Franklin or Nina Simone. As far as descendants of slaves are concerned, there’s them, there’s white men, then god. If god isn’t there, then there are just white men above them, which is too difficult to accept. That’s why, despite how religion has shaped my life for good and bad, I will never hold Christianity against anybody, especially from the Black community. I understand the existential need for it. Go forth. Go worship.