Because You're Mine: Searching For The Children Of Screamin' Jay Hawkins
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In our new series on the art of sampling, hip-hop producers demonstrate how they find inspiration in classics, hidden gems, found sounds and other raw musical materials to create new hits. For each of the five videos in the series, NPR Music has asked a writer we love to do something similar. Their only instruction was to watch one of the videos, pick an element that inspired them, and spin it off in a new direction — to sample it.
Today, Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the book Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest, digs beyond the work of this week's featured producer, DJ Premier, into the art and life of a man whose signature song formed the backbone of one of Premier's iconic beats, for the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Kick In The Door."
Someone must've put a spell on that little corner of Northern Ohio that gave us Tracy Chapman and Cudi and two whole Leverts and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Screamin' Jay, that tapestry of myths, who forged a birth certificate and maybe fought on the front lines of World War II before someone noticed he was just a child. Screamin' Jay, middleweight boxing champion of Alaska back in '49, got out the game before the fists did too much damage to his face, which was an instrument unto itself. I ain't lyin' – peep any video of Jay rising slow up outta some casket on stage, scanning a room slow and wide-eyed, his face saying I'm surprised to be here too without him even speaking a word. It was his eyes that put a spell on you before anything else did. Exaggerated and eager in every photo. Two planets centering the larger performance of Screamin' Jay's body. His eyes were glorious and mesmerizing distractions, pulling you in so deep that you might be hypnotized into forgetting about the rest of him. The rest of him which was sometimes draped in snakes or spiders, and often adorned in bright patterns. Yes, the tunes are fine but you must see the performance. The man, rising from the dead, shouting like he'd lost something he knew he could never get back.
I was in high school when Screamin' Jay died a lonely death in Paris back in 2000. A final show with no resurrection. I didn't know anyone who mourned, even in Ohio. I didn't hear any of his songs played on the radio stations, or memorials being built. What I remember, more than anything, is the website that sprung up after it was revealed that Jay's dying wish was that all of his children meet. At least 57 total, he said once – though not a single one attended the man's funeral. Those close to him say it was probably more like 75 kids. There was no way to know with all Jay's running around. The answer was Jayskids.com, a website made by Maral Nigolian, an investment banker who was also working as a biographer of sorts for Hawkins. On the site, anyone who thought they might be a child of Jay Hawkins could submit their information. Anyone could submit their information if they wanted to. Having lived through the era, I remember being less skeptical of the Internet than I am now, and I imagine I was not alone in that sentiment. Approximately 2,500 people submitted their information to the site.
In late 2000, I was of an age where I was old enough to be bored at home on weekend nights, but not old enough to be able to do much about it. The Internet, in that moment for my generation, had some of the same electricity and excitement as the rock music landscape that allowed for someone like Screamin' Jay Hawkins to thrive. As an audience to the Internet, me and almost everyone I knew craved the uncertainty and the thrill and the potential dangers that felt endless, beyond the supervision of our parents — some of whom not as tech savvy as we were. Not as aware of how a browsing history could vanish into thin air. That said, most of my early Internet rabbit holes were of the largely harmless variety. One night, I found an article about the website to find the children of Jay Hawkins on the Village Voice. In the photo at the top of the article, one of Jay's children, Irene Hawkins, holds a version of her father made entirely of pillows and old clothing. It doesn't look much like him at all. He appears white, for starters. There is nothing immediately flamboyant about the supposed doppelganger's dress or face. If not for the caption insisting that Irene was holding a pillow puppet replica of her father, I don't think many people would ever know.
The site itself was sparse, and didn't ask for much information. Once me and my pals found it, we would sometimes submit fake information on it – our version of early teenage mischief. The website verified lineage through official documents, like birth certificates. When that didn't work, Nigolian simply corroborated stories that Hawkins passed along when he was still living. But, of course, even that was faulty. Hawkins was a master mythmaker, and someone who wasn't in touch with all of his children. Some, he sent gifts to or sporadically spoke on the phone with. Others he never spoke to at all. What they knew is what their mothers told them, or they found the name on their birth certificate.
I was obsessed with the overall project of Jayskids.com, and the drama that swirled around the endeavor. Some of this was out of boredom, as a music-loving teenager with nowhere to go and few ways to get out of the house. A reunion was promised, and then put off as more children were confirmed. His fifth wife, Mary Lou Ahuna, was placed in charge of his estate at the time, which led to a legal battle with his sixth wife, Monique Hawkins. The kids themselves didn't seem to want any piece of their famous father's legacy, even as the number of confirmed kids grew to 15 and then 25 and then 33, before finally stalling out. It got harder to confirm what was and wasn't true. The media also began to move on, cover other things. And so the website got laid to rest, and reports of a planned reunion fell out of the news cycle.
There is a lot one might be eager to pass judgement on with regards to Hawkins. His womanizing, his lack of responsibility or investment in the lives of however many children he actually had. I'm in no position to do that, and I've got no real interest in it. What compelled me then is what compels me now: not the desire that Hawkins had on his deathbed, asking for his children to come together. But the desire so many of the children had to go through with it. To reach out into the vast uncertainty of the Internet in the hopes that what might be pulled back is the face of someone who has your eyes, or the same gestures as you do. Jay Hawkins was a performer, first and foremost. Someone who gave a version of himself to the world and didn't save much of himself for those he loved – those he played a part in bringing to the world. In that way, it is undoubtedly difficult to determine where love begins and ends, or the way death echoes. Or how the spectre of Jay Hawkins haunted and cast spells, even before he was dead and gone. Yes, on stage for an adoring and eager audience, but also over a vast group of children who understood him mostly by his absence. In performance, and beyond it, Screamin' Jay Hawkins seemed like more of a series of ideas than anything else. But I loved and still love the idea of once-strangers coming together to form some bond through the different tones of their mourning. Death casts a spell as much as giving life does. It can make guilt, rage, sadness and affection all intersect. At the end of his life, Jay Hawkins insisted that he loved all of his children, or at least was proud to have had them. They were his. He loved them, he loved them, he loved them anyhow, even if they didn't want him.
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