Larry Blackmon of Cameo
Larry Blackmon of Cameo.
Culture

How 'Candy' by Cameo Became a Joyous Black Call To Arms

From hall parties to protests, the endurance of the 80s funk classic shows how music and cultural practice gets passed down from generation to generation.
24 June 2020, 2:14pm

Music has long had the power to unite, but there are a few songs that have that power more than most. If you go to a football match, it'll most likely be "Seven Nation Army" or "Sweet Caroline", and if you go to a university town on a Wednesday night the odds are you’ll be crooning along to "Mr Brightside" on a stomach lined with Super Noodles, Tesco Value double concentrate squash and at least 500ml of a generically Eastern European-named vodka. Yet for Black people, there’s one particular song that has the infinite power to unite. A song that has the esteemed privilege of quelling all diaspora wars. That song is "Candy" by Cameo.

The Electric Slide was recently hailed by the Guardian as the "Black Lives Matter protest dance", but recontextualising "Candy" as a protest anthem of the ages is a bit of a reach, especially considering the fact it's most likely a song about cocaine. Still, "Candy" is undeniably powerful. An 80s funk classic with a distinct and choppy staccato chord progression, it sits firmly in a category of tracks that can be viewed as "Prince-adjacent". It’s packed full of funky bass, a catchy hook and not just a guitar solo – but also a sax solo. The "Cha-Cha Slide" could never. As soon as the first few notes hit, every Black person knows what to do, though there is always a bit of confusion over which way you should face to start the dance. It's rare to hear a song that’ll stop you in your tracks no matter how many times you’ve heard it, but "Candy" does just that. It's effectively the Black call to arms.

To assess the power of the track, it’s worth going back in time to figure out why and how the song became such a stronghold within the Black community. First released back in 1986 by Cameo, led by codpiece connoisseur Larry Blackmon, “Candy” followed the group's smash hit “Word Up” and went on to be sampled by a myriad of artists including Mariah Carey and 2Pac. While the Electric Slide was most commonly paired with “Electric Boogie” by Marcia Griffiths, it could be said that the first widely known instance of the dance being done to Cameo’s track was in the final scene of Spike Lee's 1999 romcom The Best Man. From that moment, a cultural mainstay was born.

Dwelling on the popularity of the track and the Electric Slide also reminded me of a much more specific cultural phenomenon – the hall party, at which “Candy” was always prerequisite and thus a key part of growing up within a large African family. Allow me to set the scene: you’re about eight years old and you’re in a distinctly unsightly community centre or school hall. Think of it as the venue equivalent of a Nissan Micra – unremarkable and a bit awkward-looking, but it gets the job done.

Your mum has been boxed in by several cars in the car park, so you won’t be leaving anytime soon. The DJ is your uncle – no blood relation, of course – and he’ll be wearing one of the following hats: a fedora, flat cap or snapback. You’ve just come off the dancefloor after a competition between all children under ten, reminiscent of a scene out of You Got Served that has inevitably ended in tears with the victor winning a whole entire pound coin.

Your little eight-year-old ego has been bruised despite your best efforts at the moonwalk, but this event isn’t about you. Those first funk guitar chords hit like clockwork and all of the adults swarm the dancefloor, getting in formation and performing all steps with great precision. It’s “Candy” time. Some older white party guests who are longtime colleagues of the celebrant will ask when we found the time to practice the dance. The answer is, we didn’t.

This was the average weekend for me growing up, and the same could be said for many across the African community in the UK. With COVID-19 continuing to impact daily life and mass gatherings, this has also meant an halt on one of the things we do best: the good old fashioned hall party. Social isolation, coupled with our lives being at risk – not only by the virus itself, but also by systemic racism – has found me longing for simpler times, even if those times weren’t so simple at all. The hall party could be seen to represent basic human pleasures. A large gathering of people in a huge room that is distinctly devoid of glamour may not sound like a great time, but it’s the unremarkable nature of those venues that sticks with me.

We were all just so happy to be there, amongst relatives of all generations; to be reunited with family friends and distant cousins that you don’t see regularly – all congregating in a hall, brought together by whatever the celebration may be. There was an abundance of food, music and fun, and it never symbolised a wider political movement. It was pure Black joy, which is truly what we’ve been missing lately. Hearing “Candy” at every single one of these events was a reminder of just how strong the community is, and it’s a part of my upbringing that I wouldn’t change for the world.

“Candy” has taken on a life of its own beyond the context of the hall party. It was used at the end of every episode of Javone Prince’s sketch show a few years back, as well as Ian Wright’s final track on his NS10v10 appearance. It has stood the test of time, showing how not only music, but cultural practice, gets passed down from generation to generation. I’ll never forget the afternoon my mother took me through the steps and feeling that I was being initiated into a not-so secret society.

Learning the dance was effectively a rite of passage and, ultimately, a coming of age, as I was no longer confined to the under-ten’s dance off. It was another nugget of wisdom that gave me greater insight and appreciation of my community as a young child. It’s something that I know I’ll pass down to my children. The success of “Candy” and the everlasting presence that it has within the Black community is truly something to behold. Even in what could be deemed to be one of our toughest few months in recent times, hearing that track brings on a wave of fond memories and warmth that is so distinctive. Who knew that nostalgia could taste so sweet?

@jumiaa