Detroit greatness personified: D. Blair (1967-2011)

 Detroit greatness personified: D. Blair (1967-2011)

By Scott Kurashige

Detroit lost one of its greatest citizens when David Blair passed away suddenly on July 23. Because he was only 43 and a constantly lively and vigorous presence, Blair’s passing shocked and saddened numerous family members, friends and fans.

Known to most who knew him just as Blair, he was an exceptionally gifted poet and singer/songwriter. Hosting open mics and playing all over the city, Blair was the heart and soul of Detroit’s poetry, music and socially conscious arts community. His loss leaves an empty void that will take many others to fill.

Notwithstanding his lack of advanced degrees, Blair was a sharp and serious intellectual who devoured fiction and non-fiction. Drawing on both history and his daily travels, his work delved in themes of race, sexuality, war and peace while always exploring the complexity of emotions that make us human. Beyond the bars and clubs, he attracted regular invitations from arts institutions, universities, literary societies, community organizations and activist groups.

Blair’s works appeared in a range of journals and anthologies, as well as his own collection of poems, “Moonwalking,” which viewed the brilliance and tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life as a window into the contradictions at the core of American culture. He also made a number of well-received recordings both solo and with his bands Urban Folk Collective and The Boyfriends. From his earliest self-produced CDs, literally burned onto blank discs, to his later releases “Jet Black/White Noise” and “The Line,” Blair’s music ranged from sparse acoustic arrangements to multi-layered rock songs.

But regardless of genre, his art was always soulful. Many fans were introduced to Blair through his poetic anthem, “Into Darkness,” which linked his own empowerment as an African American man confronting white supremacy to the long and rich legacy of Black culture and political struggle.

To fully appreciate Blair’s work, you had to see him live. Buoyed by his deep, mesmerizing and unforgettable voice, he could seize hold of audiences whether playing a coffeehouse like the Bittersweet or a concert hall at the DSO or DIA. His captivating presence made him a key member of Detroit’s national slam champion poetry team in 2002.

Blair also took his act on the road regularly, sharing his gifts with fans all around the country and also internationally in places like South Africa, Germany and Siberia. Indeed, he served as a cultural ambassador for Detroit and some of his fans followed him back here permanently. Like other legends — Stevie Wonder, Ernie Harwell and Jimmy Boggs come to mind — Blair, who grew up in New Jersey, did not have to be born in the Motor City to be totally of Detroit.

In recent years, his poem, “Detroit (while i was away),” became his new signature piece, capturing the social fabric of the city in a manner few others have accomplished. Its images of glory and hardship instantly resonated in the hearts of Detroiters, while exposing countless others unfamiliar with Detroit to the real city beyond the media spotlight. The poem won him so many fans that it can be found all over the Internet.

To the end, Blair was a fiercely independent artist who never let commercial interests compromise his commitment to social justice. He spoke and wrote about the demons he conquered in his own life, recounting in “Chrysler” (a.k.a. “Cry-slur”) how the fast life and seemingly easy money of working in the plant nearly destroyed him.

Perhaps that played a role in the way he always valued Detroiters of all stripes. Blair encouraged reluctant artists to go on stage for the first time. He helped elders at the Hannan House to recognize the importance of telling their histories. He worked with youth through InsideOut, Detroit Summer, the Rosa Parks Youth Program and the Ruth Ellis Center to unleash the power of their dreams and imaginations. He was an out and proud gay man who personified the dignity and respect that all human beings deserve. And he sang tirelessly for workers, students, the homeless, recovering addicts and returning citizens.

By my unofficial count, Blair almost certainly played as many or more benefit shows over the past decade than any other performer in Detroit. He was asked to do so many things for others, and made every effort to do them all. Following in the footsteps of Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis, he believed his God-given talents should be shared with all noble causes that came calling. Through his legendary Crowded House benefit shows, he organized dozens of performers, most recently in support of the Allied Media Conference.

And yet, as talented and popular as he was, Blair also represented the unfortunately clichéd life of a struggling artist. He routinely lived from paycheck to paycheck. He seemed to have a new address on an annual basis and usually lacked a car. Because his humility, affability and sense of humor rivaled his artistic talent, Blair had friends all over the place. But he was often reluctant to accept offers of shelter, food and other things, never fully realizing that we all owed him far more than we could ever express.

Blair’s life, words and music will continue to inspire us for decades to come. Friends and fellow artists are already working on tributes both to his art and to the social causes he believed in. One idea is to continue his Crowded House events, where people will gather to perform Blair’s songs and poems or works dedicated to him. While it’s hard to envision a Crowded House without Blair in person, we know his spirit lives inside of us and throughout Detroit.

Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American culture and history, and director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program at the University of Michigan.