Dotun Adebayo: From Shaft to Chef, remembering Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes never really did the black power thing his persona implied. But his music and a sense of humour were greater gifts

When we heard the news on Sunday that Isaac Hayes had died, the company I was with shared a moment of shock and disbelief and an instant of contemplation. Then one of us exclaimed: "The Black Moses!"

That's how we remember him. A soul singer/musician/composer with the balls to be too black, too strong and too beautiful at a time when the happy-clappy negro of Motown was the unthreatening template for the soundtrack of "young America". Isaac Hayes didn't do cute.

At least, not in 1971.

Back then, with his shaven head, full beard and dark glasses, he looked like the "baaad mother ... shut your mouth" of his alter ego Shaft – the "private dick" who's "a sex machine to all the chicks" and who kickstarted a new genre of movies they called "blaxploitation". Hayes's album Theme From Shaft made it to Britain before the movie. But it wasn't what we expected.

Hayes didn't come from Tin Pan Alley. Neither was he shouting loud "I'm black and I'm proud." His score for the movie was more subtle than that – a symphony with soul that forced you to sit and listen. There would be many boogie nights to come (Theme From Shaft marked the birth of a new kind of music: disco), but Isaac Hayes's masterpiece was too cool for cats – from the black ghettoes of America's northern cities to the African-Caribbean "ghetto" of Tottenham, north London – to ignore.

So, they gave him a Best Original Song Oscar for it. A first for an African-American. And he didn't have to "step and fetchit". On the contrary, the Academy Award seemed to make him more militant. The chain of slave rings around his chest was a reminder that his people, like the Israelites, were enslaved, and his "Jesus in shades" image on the cover of the Black Moses album emphasises the point that Hayes was more than just a composer/musician/singer at a time when black America needed more from their superstars.

For a few years, it looked as though Isaac Hayes might be that black leader Americans were looking for – to take the place of the slain Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. But off the record, Hayes had become an icon in the entertainment world. We wanted him to lead us all right, all the way to his next gig or his next album and, besides, he wasn't really as militant as his image would suggest. He was too cuddly and too much Mr Nice Guy to call out "let my people go" to old pharoah. He also had a sense of humour that saw nothing wrong in the voice of southern soul becoming the voice of the Chef in the cartoon series South Park.

That's how young black and white kids will remember Isaac Hayes. To them, he had balls, all right – "chocolate salty balls". An irony that was not lost on us as we took in his passing.

Contributor

Dotun Adebayo

The GuardianTramp

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