I’ve witnessed this phenomenon far too many times across America at predominantly Black, family-friendly functions. The first few telltale bars of Before I Let Go by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly begins to play and everyone loses their damn minds. Yeah! Alright now! This is my jam! All of these exclamations rise throughout the crowd followed by clapping hands, snapping fingers, body-rocking and precision coordination of otherwise complete strangers into the electric slide. Everyone sings the first line:
“You make me happy!”
Rarely do I see or hear anyone singing the rest of the lyrics until the song reaches the end of the bridge and then everyone joins in:
“…I would never, never, never, never, never, never, never…”
Yes, I am dancing and singing along with everybody else as this happens but I am perplexed. Why are folks so bubbly about this song? Am I seriously one of the few living Black people who actually knows that this song is about a couple breaking up? Don’t believe me? You can read the lyrics for yourself here.
For the past year, I’ve been arguing with my bestie, Rappin’ Atlanta podcast host and New Orleans stand-up comic Nita Cherise as to the cause of our infatuation with a song that is about a pretty sad topic.
“Don’t nobody listen to the lyrics,” Nita always says. “That song is about potato salad and chicken wings and getting together with folks you enjoy who may or may not be your blood.”
Of course, I took issue with Nita’s claim that no one listens to the lyrics. I find it hard to believe that, since the song’s release in 1981, all Black folks have been ignoring its lyrical content for nearly 40 years. So, I’ve been conducting my own survey—whenever out and about when this song comes on—and the conversation typically goes like this:
ME (dancing over to another person): Hey, why do you like this song so much?
OTHER PERSON (who is also dancing): It’s a happy song!
ME: But the song is about breaking up.
OTHER PERSON: For real? I guess I never paid attention to the lyrics.
(We both stare at each other as we continue to dance.)
To date, I have conducted this survey at a comedy show, a concert for a completely different artist, a happy hour, a couple of wedding receptions, a Caribbean all-white party, a Jones family picnic, Trader Joe’s, a Black business expo, a natural hair expo, a fashion show, and a fried chicken joint.
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly has been making music together since 1970 and they are still touring. Their hits include Joy and Pain, Happy Feelin’s, and Golden Time of Day among many, many others. According to Soulbounce.com, though Before I Let Go is the actual Black national anthem, the band has never enjoyed mainstream appeal and has never received a single VMA, Grammy, or American Music Award. The band which is originally from Philadelphia, however, did win a Lifetime Achievement Award from BET in 2012.
My big sister who has been to several Maze featuring Frankie Beverly concerts confessed that she did not like Before I Let Go the first time she heard it.
“It was a just a song Mom liked to listen to,” she explained. But as she got older and had more life experience, she grew to love the song.
“That song is about nostalgia. It just reminds me of all the parties and BBQs and get-togethers I’ve been to where that song came on and we just had a good time with good company,” she continued.
So…we love the song because it reminds us of all the other good times in which we heard the song? Okay. But what made us love the song upon hearing it for the first time?
After careful consideration and more arguing with Nita Cherise, I came to the conclusion that Before I Let Go, despite (and perhaps maybe even because of) its sensitive subject matter is just the perfect Black song. It is pure R&B and funk with an intoxicating bass line and a 1000% upbeat groove. It is the epitome of soul music—the kind of song that can fuel any function with its danceable, energizing progression. The vocals are fun to howl along with and it doesn’t have raunchy lyrics. The Divine Nine can do all their favorite line routines to it. Individuals, couples and groups can jam to it with no problem. Finally, its ongoing popularity proves that it transcends age and is easily transferable from generation to generation.
To learn more about the popularity of this song and the history of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, I recommend checking out this interview between Frankie Beverly and TV One’s Roland Martin.