I’m happy—and a bit frustrated—to see El DeBarge back on the scene.
When he showed up, sans an introduction, on the stage of this year’s BET Awards, to sing a medley of hits from his days as a member of the ’80s sibling singing quintet DeBarge, it took everybody by surprise. Mainly because no one ever thought that Black Entertainment Television would stop its award ceremonies cold to give an artist who hasn’t had a hit since the 1989 Quincy Jones production “The Secret Garden” stage time.
But sure enough, it did. And there El was, in all his light-skinded glory. (We’ll get to the light-skinded stuff later.) DeBarge is reportedly 49 years old, but dude still looks as youthful as he did back in his “Rhythm of the Night” prime (except without the big-ass, curled-out hair and designer gear). It turns out this performance was just round one in DeBarge’s comeback, one that’s been damn near decades in the making.
He came back later in the show to perform a track from his upcoming album, Second Chance, his first album since Heart, Mind and Soul way back in 1994. Out of all the members of the musical DeBarge family, Good ol’ Eldra has been both the most sought-after and the hardest to pin down. The boy has been something of a textbook musical genius/recluse, popping up sporadically to cameo on songs. “Most of the time I can’t even get a hold of him,” longtime friend and associate Gregory Williams (who launched the ‘70s R&B group Switch with El’s big brother Bobby) told Vibe in 2007.
That same Vibe article broke down the various trials and tribulations that have plagued nearly all the DeBarge offspring since being taken in by Berry Gordy and his flock at Motown in the ’70s. Poised to become the next Jacksons, the DeBarges enjoyed a nice stream of pop success in the ’80s before spiraling out of control, mostly thanks to drugs. Needless to say, this led to sad news for the family ever since.
Bobby DeBarge died of AIDS in 1995, a result of years of heroin use. James DeBarge, who notoriously eloped with Janet Jackson in the mid-’80s, used cocaine to the point where it broke up his marriage. Bass-playing brother Thomas DeBarge served jail time twice for cocaine charges. And, in 1988, baby brother Chico DeBarge served five years and eight months for drug trafficking.
Long rumored to be a cocaine addict, El DeBarge would be the last to head to jail on drug charges, spending 13 months in a California prison before getting released in January 2009. “I was in a drug coma,” he recently told Ebony about his drug use. “I went to sleep for about 22 years. I was never in denial about the fact that I had a problem. I just didn’t know if I was ever going to get off of it, but I didn’t give up.”
Fortunately, DeBarge has managed to painfully get off that stuff (“You hurt from the inside out. Your hair hurts,” he told Ebony about the rehab) and get his ass back in the studio to release Chance . Due at the end of November, the album features production work from such heavyweights as Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Of course, DeBarge couldn’t have come back at a better time, especially considering that light-skinded (I know it’s light-skinned, but where I’m from, we call it LIGHT-SKINDED!) brothas are making a comeback all over the place. You’ve got that Canadian rapper Drake as the cocoa-colored "it" Boy of the rap world, dropping verse after verse on every damn song you hear on the radio. Red-boned Terence Howard is the star attraction on the new Law & Order spinoff Law & Order: L.A ., And let’s not forget Boris Kodjoe, all bald-headed and buff and shit, starring in that spy show Undercovers . Even DeBarge’s brother Chico made a pre-emptive strike on behalf of the creamy brothas when he dropped his own comeback album, Addiction , last year.
I’m starting to think this is all Maxwell’s fault, coming back with a vengeance last year when he finally released BLACKsummersnight last summer. Now, light-skinded brothas are coming out in droves, getting all cocky with their good, shiny-ass complexions and wavy hair that makes them look like they have Indian in their family. Please excuse me if this sounds like some good, old-fashioned jealousy and hatred I’m spewing. But dammit, I had a hard-enough time trying to hook up with girls when I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, a.k.a. that golden age of the light-skinded black man.
It was a time where if you didn’t look like Michael Jackson or Jermaine Jackson or Stoney Jackson or any gotdamn Jackson, sistas wouldn’t even talk to you. They’d call you Shaka Zulu or an African booty-scratcher. And I’M NOT GOING BACK TO THAT!! Man, I thought us dark-skinded brothas won the war back in the early ’90s, when Wesley Snipes came on the scene. He stabbed that pretty-ass Christopher Williams in the hand in New Jack City (the definitive death knell for the light-skinded brothas) and let everybody know that just because you look like you came off the Amistad boat, it doesn’t mean you can’t be smooth and sexy as shit!
So, while I’m glad that El DeBarge is now clean, rested and ready to spread his falsetto goodness all over the airwaves, I hate the fact that I’m gonna have to step my game up now. Because the light-skinded brotha is back, and those pretty muthafuckas are here to make all us charcoal-colored cats work harder!
El DeBarge performs Sat., Oct. 9, 8pm.
With Abraham McDonald.
1837 N. Broad St.