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Black Music Month ends with artists forging their own paths The Redneck Negress

Well June, Black Music Month, is nigh done. Just in time for Juneteenth, this section must squeeze in some commentary on the state of the culture. Viewing the Marvin Gaye Real Thing in Performance DVD last week was a keen reminder of black artists' consistent struggles for self-determination and aesthetic freedom in the music business. Who signs the checks is irrelevant, as the disarray of Lil Jon's BME attests (see our ATL colleague Mosi Reeves' story on same at On Real Thing, Gaye describes the genesis of What's Goin' On, born partly out of Civil Rights struggle and deep frustrations he had with Motown head/brother-in-law Berry Gordy.

Sadly, the '90s black rock cult artist par excellence, Nashville native Joi Gilliam, daughter of late Pittsburgh Steelers QB Joe Gilliam, has not yet enjoyed a Gaye-style critical and commercial triumph. Critics -- from mainstream urban scribes to metal enthusiasts -- have consistently extolled the virtues of Joi's past output, especially her great lost album Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome (1997, reissued 2006). But record label woes and marketing anxieties have continued to derail her, even as she collaborated with OutKast, former husband Big Gipp of Goodie Mob and such hot touch producers as Raphael Saadiq and ATL king Dallas Austin. (Fan Madonna even landed Joi the gig as the first black model in a major Calvin Klein print ad campaign). The result is that Joi's long-shelved CD, Tennessee Slim is the Bomb (Joilicious; ***1/2), has recently been reissued "45 months, 3 days and 744 seconds" later.

While not as hard core as past efforts, Tennessee Slim is the Bomb is still prime Joi, featuring her cheeky and carnal interplay with Funk Godfather George Clinton. Pharcyde and legendary sideman Phil Upchurch also appear. "You're a Whore" unapologetically sketches the demise of her marriage to Big Gipp. Other highlights are the wry "I'm So Famous" and Prince-ly gem "Dance With Yesterday."

Leeds' Corinne Bailey Rae -- "This year's best new voice ... A star is born," crows Q mag prematurely -- is putting a lil black in the Union Jack. And her ephemeral tunes -- "Like a Star," "Butterfly" -- have her doing it in a jazzy version of Joanna Newsom's cackle-voice.

Rae's eponymous disc (Goodgroove/Capitol; **1/2) shows her artfully posing in an Urban Outfitter-type dress with acoustic guitar and is fettered with little girl diary artwork indicating her destination: urban hipster haberdashers and any coffeehouse Norah Jones has already made safe for overhyped mediocrity. A pity the thin-voiced Rae will likely wildly succeed where the grown-ass and difficult musical Medusa Joi hasn't. Still, aren't we happy to have wispy folksy chanteuses too (instead of only hard-belting mamas)?

The return of Ray Parker Jr., well past his "I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts!" apogee, is emblematic of what befell the previous, post-Hendrix generation of black rockers and their fellow travelers. Even in Raydio days, Parker's ace boon was always his ax. However, as we know, prominent lead guitar is mostly unwelcome on black radio. That reality doesn't stop Parker from including the David Gates cover "The Guitar Man" as the most telling song on his latest release, I'm Free (Raydio Music Corp.; **1/2). The track is reminiscent of such subjective rocker standards as Leon Russell & Bonnie Bramlett's "Superstar" -- the priapic song-and-dance man provides feedback-laden restorative for all categories of groupies.

This theme carries over into the personal and physical on Latin-tinged "Middle Age Crisis." This ode to a young, kept Latina woman is spiced with Ole Ray's Pavlovian croon, "Dame un beso, mi amor ... 'cause [he] ain't never had it done like this." Parker's brother replies: "There's no fool, like an old fool, from the old skool." What's amusing about how far we done come is that Parker's disc is essentially a sepia version of Kenny Chesney et al's Jimmy Buffett homages. Parker's island arrangements (with Arista Santana embellishments), lyrical themes, titles ("Rum Punch," "Sunset Ray") and seashore album art suggest that Negroes are now post-liberated enough to find paradise, sonic bliss and booty in impoverished Caribbean nations where our fellow Africans continue to be exploited.

The title track is classic blues rock that sounds rather like what an aging Hendrix might be doing had he survived the '80s. "I'm free/Nobody got chains on me ... " -- the long prayed for dream of millions of Afrolantic points of light.

Of course, this column wouldn't be complete without an equal opportunity section: Elan, debut artist on the Kingsbury Studios imprint of No Doubt's Tony Kanal, is a Moroccan-born, LA-based reggae acolyte. This aspiring skanker in an Op tee previously fronted the legendary Wailers for three-and-a-half years. Alas, Elan's solo compositions on Together As One (Kingsbury/Interscope; **1/2) lack Marleyesque clarity. That won't stop Gwen Stefani duet "All Nighter," with its rap-reggae fusion, from becoming a summer jam. Alongside Matisyahu and Sean Paul, Elan's certainly the right hue to be today's reggae superstar. Perhaps he'll evolve to be worthy of the CD's Lion of Judah stamp.

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