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Commentary: Where's the love for the supreme Diana Ross?

The singer blazed a trail through music and pop culture that influenced artists of many genres and non-artists alike. Her Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this weekend is small thanks.

February 08, 2012|By Ernest Hardy, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Questlove, drummer and co-founder of the Roots, suggests that the failure to recognize Ross' achievements is also due to the way art and artists are treated in this country.

"America is such a disposable arts culture," he says, "that it's easy to dismiss things, to take them for granted. And I'm one of those guilty people. I have every [Ross] album. I've seen every special. But you take it for granted so much that you don't even mention it."

Yet artists such as Questlove have been deeply inspired by Ross, to the point where her influence seems almost innate. "There was a turntable next to my bed when I was a kid," says Questlove, "and at my bedtime, my parents would put two or three records on that would kinda take me to sleep. Side 2 of 'An Evening With Diana Ross,' where she does the Broadway stuff, Harry Nilsson's 'Me and My Arrow,' and tells stories — that was my favorite moment. It was a major, major, major staple — that and the Marlo Thomas 'Free to Be You and Me' stuff she did."

"You know," he adds thoughtfully, "some people are just so larger-than-life that you don't even count them as a major figure. They're so ubiquitous that you take them for granted, like air."

Visual artist Mark Bradford, a MacArthur Fellow whose career survey arrives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Feb. 18, was inspired by Ross' indomitable spirit. "She was a trailblazer who wrote chapter after chapter, who put herself at the center of the conversation and demanded a seat at the table," he observes. "She didn't want black power. She wanted power."

"There's this thing with women — especially women of color — that when they have ambition, it's [perceived as] a character flaw" says Bradford. "But Diana Ross would throw it in your face. She didn't apologize for it. We applaud ambition but on very narrow terms — for a woman, for an African American, and especially for an African American woman — and she ignored all those limited and limiting terms in order to set her own."

Those terms, however, eventually redrew the blueprint for pop culture — and not just for women or African Americans.

"Without Ms. Ross," says Brooks, "the '80s era of Whitney, Mariah and Madonna — not to mention Michael Jackson and Prince — and the '90s and '00s eras of hip-hop soul, neo soul and retro-soul women, would surely look quite different."

Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow and author of the books Blood Beats Vols. 1 and 2. His cultural criticism has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Millennium Film Journal, Rolling Stone, and the L.A. Times. He's currently working on Blood Beats Vol. 3 and a collection of poetry and short stories.

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