Since first discovering Donny Hathaway, he’s been my favorite singer ever. His version of “A Song For You” is one of the few musical compositions to ever bring tears to my eyes and I’ve made it a point to own every ownable composition of his in multiple formats. I’m also a Roberta Flack fan, though a very choice encounter some years ago forever threw our nonexistent relationship into disarray. One day, when it’s all said and done and I have nothing to lose, I’ll create a new blog where I tell stories of all of my ridiculous encounters with celebrities, like the time I actually had to be held back from a physical fight with *CENSORED* or the time I absolutely called *CENSORED* a *CENSORED* because he was acting like one after realizing maybe he wasn’t as famous as he thought. Good times.
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, “Be Real Black For Me” (1972)
But this month we’re here for the celebrations, and this song, in particular, is one worthy of celebrating. I discovered this song backwards. In 2002, Scarface released his single “My Block,” from his now classic album The Fix, and I wanted to know what sample was used. It turns out it was a sped up sample of the introduction to “Be Real Black For Me.” Since this was during my deep, deep dive into all things Donny, I managed to get a copy of the album—with an album cover that I love by the way, as simple as it is—and hit play. The album, as most people who have heard it would likely agree, is a wonder. It has songs like “For All We Know,” a song I’ve written about for its incorrect attribution in the movie Roll Bounce, and the vastly more popular, “Where Is the Love?”
But the true gem is “Be Real Black For Me.”It’s a love song above all, one about letting your significant other know how free and secure they are in your presence. In this love, there’s no need for pretense or concern, as our twoness is better than our individual oneness. Be real black, be real you, be real free in this love. It’s a timeless song, especially relevant in today’s climate. The refrain alone is loaded and political. But where I get lost in love is their singing. Both Donny and Roberta have transcendent, instantly recognizable voices, but their harmonizing? Lawdt.
At around the 40 second mark, they sing the chorus, in unison, for the first time, and as hyperbolic as this is going to sound, I truly believe it: I’ve never heard two voices so perfectly synced and attuned to one another. They’re singing their individual parts, but together—that’s what love sounds like. And they do the same on the song’s outro and closing. The vocal performance on “Be Real Black For Me” is what gets me every time and it has made the song one I will never not love and will never forget when thinking of beautiful black music.