Some Joy for Your Ears: New Orleans Brass Band Plays Life-Affirming Cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”

As the title sug­gests and the lyrics con­firm, Mar­vin Gaye’s 1982 R&B hit “Sex­u­al Heal­ing” had but one thing on its mind.

The Hot 8 Brass Band, above, brings an added dimen­sion to this—forgive me—seminal song, trans­form­ing it into some­thing joy­ous and life affirm­ing.

They deserve it. In their 20-year career, the band has weath­ered a stag­ger­ing array of hard­ships. Sev­er­al mem­bers have died unex­pect­ed­ly and way too soon, includ­ing 17-year-old trum­pet play­er, Jacob John­son, exe­cut­ed dur­ing a home inva­sion, and a 22-year-old trom­bon­ist, Joseph Williams, who was shot by the New Orleans police offi­cers who stopped him en route to play a church funer­al. Anoth­er band mem­ber lost both of his legs in a hor­rif­ic acci­dent. The group was dis­placed by Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, which dam­aged their homes, killed one member’s grand­moth­er and brought a halt to pay­ing gigs.

Brass has heal­ing pow­ers too, to a degree that became appar­ent when the band returned to New Orleans, play­ing free, spur-of-the-moment shows for Kat­ri­na evac­uees still stew­ing in shel­ters around the city. The media took note, set­ting off a chain reac­tion that led to an appear­ance in Spike Lee’s doc­u­men­tary, When The Lev­ees Broke. Their UK record label, Tru Thoughts, signed them on the strength of their “Sex­u­al Heal­ing” cov­er.

As Ben­nie Pete, Hot 8’s band leader and tuba play­er, told Esquire:

When real­i­ty strikes like that you can’t real­ly do noth­in’ but be stronger. We got stronger from it. We leaned on each oth­er. The music has been there to help us. You have to rise to the occa­sion. And then you keep answer­ing ques­tions, being inter­viewed about it. You got­ta keep reliv­ing it. But on the oth­er side, you under­stand that peo­ple who aren’t from New Orleans wan­na know what we’re going through, they’re con­cerned. So it’s our duty, part of our job to be able to suck it up and deal with it, and spread it to the world. It hurts you on the inside to keep on reliv­ing these sit­u­a­tions but you owe it to your mates, to get their life sto­ries out there as far as you can.

I expe­ri­enced some queasi­ness mid­way through the video, when the band leaves their sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed out­door rehearsal area for a more pub­lic thor­ough­fare. I saw plen­ty of enthu­si­asm among the gath­ered crowd, but no black faces out­side of the band’s.


A lit­tle research reveals that the video was shot not in New Orleans (where I have nev­er been), but while the band’s 20th Anniver­sary tour paused in Brighton (Eng­land) where Tru Thoughts is based.

Not want­i­ng to be guilty I checked the cen­sus records. In 2011, Brighton was 94.3% white, with the Black and Black British com­mu­ni­ty con­sti­tut­ing just 0.8% of the non-white pop­u­la­tion. And while geo­graph­i­cal­ly, it’s not exact­ly the oppo­site end of the earth from New Orleans, it is far enough that Pete can claim the video as a metaphor for how far the band has come:

It is a great moment cap­tured, and it also shows as a band we are deter­mined to live out our dreams and for­tu­nate enough to be able to share them with the world; a lot of brass bands, and oth­er musi­cians for that mat­ter, for some rea­son or anoth­er do not get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so.… And the ulti­mate to top it off is to be trav­el­ling inter­na­tion­al­ly while doing it, you know, being a few black kids from a lit­tle town down south in New Orleans, to go from prac­tis­ing our music in a local park to trav­el­ling abroad play­ing sold out shows is a beau­ti­ful thing to say the least.

To round off the anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion, Tru Thoughts recent­ly released an album of “Sex­u­al Heal­ing” Hot 8 remix­es. It’s a love­ly idea, this trib­ute, but for me, Hot 8’s posi­tion is secure. So for that mat­ter Gaye’s (whose orig­i­nal video is below).

Spo­ti­fy users can lis­ten to the “Sex­u­al Heal­ing Remix­es” for free here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­vin Gaye’s Clas­sic Vocals on ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’: The A Cap­pel­la Ver­sion

Guns N’ Ros­es “Sweet Child O’ Mine” Retooled as 1920s New Orleans Jazz

Miles Davis Cov­ers Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (1983)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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