Okay, here it is—the idea again that death comes in threes, a belief common in both the Black community and others. The belief is very common in connection with the death of prominent people among us. Three years ago, it was Etta James, Whitney Houston and Donna Summer. This year, it’s Prince, and more recently, Billy Paul, and the great African musician and singer, Papa Wemba. This argues strongly for the confirmation bias principle in that we can fold the facts we find into the belief we already hold.
Clearly, Prince ( Prince Rogers Nelson) was a helluva musician, and his remembrances and celebrations in death have rivaled those for Michael Jackson, who, along with Prince, was among the first of Black musical stars inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (M.J. in 2001, Prince in 2004). Prince was “The Man” for almost four decades in Rock, Funk, Pop, etc. He was a master musician and showman and was a role model for learning both the music business and the music craft. His videos and those of Michael Jackson virtually built the MTV brand. Prince died at 57 years old, still making art on his musical journey. Besides his own virtuoso musicianship, Prince also wrote many hit songs for other artists, like Chaka Khan’s “ I Feel For You.”
Billy Paul (born Paul Williams), the legendary soul singer of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” his signature 1972 hit, which won him a Grammy, died in New Jersey at 81. Paul never had another hit as big as the “Jones” song, but he remained a very active singer through his seventies. He was also known for the song and album, “War of the Gods,” and was the cause of a fervent public boycott led by Rev. Jesse Jackson for his song, “Let’s Make a Baby,” which some thought too explicitly sexual at the time. The song would be seen as very tame now. Billy Paul was also a favorite of the Black Power Movement, making songs about political prisoners and fights for freedom. He will be missed, but he did more than his part while he was here.
Jules Shungu Pene Kikumba, popularly known as Papa Wemba since 1975, was affectionately known as “The Voice of Africa.” He was, arguably, the most well-known of all modern African musicians and singers except Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, who died in 1997. Both used their music to tell stories of Africa, freedom, struggle and human commonality, and both were repeatedly arrested by their governments for political activities and musical disruption. Papa Wemba was known as the King of the African Rhumba, and was born in what is now called the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is right next door). He was a top singer and musician for more than 45 years, and died a few days ago at 66 years old onstage in the Ivory Coast. He became a world musician and is now being mourned in Brussels, Paris, London and all over Africa. He was part of the movement to use African art and musicianship to forge Pan African linkages all over the world. The elegant African songstress, Angelique Kidjo, said Papa Wemba, for a very large man, had a beautiful, angelic voice that could give one chills in its emotional power. Papa Wemba’s most famous album was “Emotion” that he did working with Peter Gabriel’s record company in London. Basically, when you hear African commercial music in most parts of the globe, most likely it will be something Papa Wemba is singing and dancing to, if it’s not Fela Kuti. May Papa Wemba rhumba now in peace and rhythm. He has helped African freedom to come.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute,