Set Adrift

“Only one brother at a time is allowed to step outside of musical boxes.”

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Last week Attrell Cordes, better known as Prince Be of the rap group P.M. Dawn, passed away after a long battle with kidney disease. When I heard of his death I remembered the first music I heard from them, a track titled “A Watcher’s Point of View”. It had the steady, thumping hip hop beat popular in East Coast Hip-Hop at the time but gliding over the beat was jangly guitar and a psychedelic organ riff. Not long after hearing that I remembered grooving to “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and digging the way they blended the “Paid in Full” beat with hooks from Spandau Ballet’s “True”.

I also remembered an incident that marked their decline. Prince Be gave an interview to Details magazine dissing KRS-ONE and at a club a few months later, KRS and his crew bumrushed the stage during P.M. Dawn’s show, threw them off and broke into “I’m Still #1”. I remember being surprised by the incident, because up until then I has always associated BDP post Criminal Minded album and death of Scott La Rock with the Stop The Violence Movement and “Self Destruction”. The incident pretty much destroyed any credibility P.M. Dawn may have had with purist hip-hop fans.

“KEEPING IT REAL”

In a way, P.M. Dawn getting thrown off stage was a metaphor for the changes happening in hip hop. At the time, mainstream hip-hop was pretty diverse. You had sex rap, party rap, gangsta rap, and political rap sharing space on the charts and on tours. Around the time P.M. Dawn blew up, the market was becoming streamlined and the music was forced into narrow boxes. Anything not thugged out was considered soft, by artists and fans.

P.M. Dawn’s response to the incident was a song called “Plastic”, where Prince Be mused that if hip hop is all about keeping it real, then why couldn’t he be real to his own muse. P.M. Dawn went on to have major pop hits with “I’d Die Without You” and “Downtown Venus” but their run on the rap chart was done.

MIND EXPANSION

Listening to P.M. Dawn’s later music you can hear live instrumentation and Prince influenced funk grooves that rap fans weren’t trying to hear at the time, although that sound is a precusor to the neo soul boom that happened in the wake of the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, and the visual and sonic tapestry that Cee-Lo and Andre 3000 would ride to stardom.

Whether self inflicted or through social pressure, many of us have decided that there can only be one brother allowed to step out of a musical box at a time. As I watched the condolences from older hip hop heads come in, it felt like a lot of them were doing the equivalent of fake crying at a funeral, or that Prince Be’s death allowed them to finally admit in public that they liked his music. Still, I guess belated acknowledgement is better than none, it’s just too bad that hip hop didn’t show P.M. Dawn more respect and love while they were here.

Blacklist

“For many young Black feminists, especially on Tumblr and Twitter, the word “hotep” has the same effect that a crucifix does on a vampire.”

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There was a disturbance in the Black Twitter force yesterday.

Blavity, an online magazine focused on news and culture for Black millennials, ran a piece on Hidden Colors 4, the latest in a series of documentaries that explore the possibility that many internationally recognized religious and cultural touchstones assumed to be European in origin actually have African roots and that those roots have been deliberately hidden by historians and scientists to perpetuate white supremacy. The films have a large following among young urban males. Among young urban feminists, not so much.

The trouble began with questions about whether Blavity was being objective in giving Hidden Colors so much space for what some felt was a glorified ad. The conversation then focused on whether Blavity should be featuring Hidden Colors at all, considering that it’s creator, Tariq Nasheed, has the reputation among certain Black feminists as a misogynist, along with the sociologist Dr. Umar Johnson, who is prominently featured in the film series. Before long, prominent Black feminists on Twitter with large followings voiced their displeasure and their followers retweeted in agreement, and the original article was removed by yesterday afternoon.

Hotep vs. Black Feminism Order of Battle

A little background: For many young Black feminists, especially on Tumblr and Twitter, the word “hotep” has the same effect that a crucifix does on a vampire. They see the people who participate in hotep as using Ancient Egyptian symbolism and Afrocentrism as a mask to hide patriarchy, homophobia and hatred of Black women.

The reverse is true for the Black men who label themselves “hotep”. Many of them see Black feminists as agents of white supremacy, using feminism to mask their hatred of Black men and to further the destruction of the Black family. Any online meeting of the two usually results in an insult filled exchange that leaves both sides hating each other more than they did when they first engaged, and Tariq Nasheed and Dr. Umar Johnson are considered the top two Hotep Public Enemies.

Revolutions Devour Their Own

As many a business has found out, you risk the wrath of Black Twitter at your peril. I admit that I’ve enjoyed watching as a racist who makes a hateful comment online gets a one way ticket to the unemployment office courtesy of Black Twitter. It’s a powerful weapon for influence and a platform that launched mass social justice movements, opened conversations about media representation, and created safe spaces for marginalized people. Social media has sparked a revolution in the way that individuals can come together and build group power.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of revolutions, usually the hunt begins for internal enemies, real or imagined. Asking questions becomes treason. Opposing voices are labeled “counterrevolutionary”. Simple disagreements and settling of personal beefs get elevated to purges. I’ve seen this behavior taking place online, in situations where people can’t seem to tell the difference between someone with a genuine question and someone trolling. With people who are in constant attack mode, firing at any perceived threat, even when the target is someone they could have a dialogue with.

For whatever reason, Blavity made the choice to remove the article. I’m neutral on the subject of the Hidden Colors, but I’m not a fan of shutting down discussion of an idea because the idea is one that we don’t like. If you don’t like something, fine. But taking away someone else’s ability to make that choice for themselves is censorship. Ideas need to be expressed freely so they can be tested, debated, and those that don’t hold up can be rejected.
We gotta let go of the idea that unless someone’s worldview matches up exactly with our own, that the other person is trash. They may very well prove themselves to be, but they need to be given the chance to prove it.

The Blackest History Month

“People are comfortable with certain images of Black history…safe, static images that have no bearing on our lives or the present. Not this year. February 2016 will go down in history as the Blackest Black History Month on record.”

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It’s been quite a Black History month.

For most Americans, February is when everyone watches the “Free At Last” clip of MLK at the March on Washington or grainy B&W documentaries of cops attacking Black students with dogs and firehoses. There may be PSAs on tolerance with cursory mentions of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass on local news segments. People are comfortable with those images of Black history, because it’s history. Safe. Static images of things that happened before any of us were born and have no bearing on our lives or the present.

Not this year.

As far as popular culture goes, February 2016 will go down in history as the Blackest Black history month on record.

Conventional music industry wisdom says that Black artists who aspire to mainstream (white) superstardom have to make their ethnicity as ambiguous as possible. Beyonce destroyed that convention with “Formation”, a track with lyrics that explicitly declared her Blackness and Southern bonafides and a video with images right out of the protests that have erupted nationwide over the past two years. People who where confused and shocked by the song went into hysterics after her halftime show at the Super Bowl. Flanked by all Black female dancers dressed in a homage to the Black Panthers she used a world platform to call attention to Black womanhood and Black activism. The image of a Black woman celebrating her Blackness in the middle of America’s (White America’s) game, a game where one of the teams had a Black quarterback who has been attacked for being his authentic Black self, was a bombshell with reprecussions that are still being calculated.

A few days later, Kendrick Lamar gave a visceral, searing performance at the Grammys that condensed the oppression, hope, joy and anger of Black American life into six minutes. His set put images of Mass Incarceration, African dance, and social uprising on a global stage and reminded America that the Black music it loves to consume comes from a place of real struggle and creativity in the harshest economic and psychological conditions.

The week after that saw the premiere of the PBS documentary Vanguard of the Revolution, a history of the Black Panther Party that got great ratings and critical accolades. It’s sparked discussion about the how some of the conditions that created the party are still with us today, as well as the extrajudicial tactics the government pursued to destroy the party leadership, including fomenting internal division, false imprisonment and state sanctioned murder. Conservatives attacked the film, saying it praises a group that incited terrorism and violence against police, ironically the same lies used to discredit modern protestors.

Not even the Academy Awards provided white people any respite from the onslaught of angry Blackness. While the show itself was indeed the whitest awards telecast in years the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought attention to the lack of Black nominees and diversity in the Academy, despite it having a Black president and Chris Rock as a host.

One of the memes that circulated in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy set was of white audience members sitting with their lips tight, staring nervously at the uncompromising Black spectacle taking place in front of them. It’s a great metaphor for the different perceptions of Black culture in America and levels of comfort with the history that formed that culture. For many African-Americans, February’s celebrations of Blackness were seen as acknowledgement of strength in the face of adversity and hatred. For many whites, they were seen as angry, hostile actions by race baiting troublemakers.
Regardless of the responses, February 2016 reminded everyone that Black American History is a living, vital, ever evolving tapestry, one that still has the potential to make power structures nervous. What the people who are uncomfortable with that don’t understand is that none of this was about them. It was about Black people acknowledging our own heritage and greatness,  taking it out of textbooks and continuing to create it with present day actions.

The Obligatory Year in Review.

It’s been quite a year.

There’s been a lot of changes, and lot of acheivements I didn’t expect to happen.

I feel like this was the year I took the first real steps on a road that began back when I was writing raps, cutting mixtapes and making beats with a $50 drum machine and a Casio sampler in my room when I was 19. Back then, I wanted to rap. I was always writing, but life and situations sometimes got in the way. I re-dedicated myself to writing a few years ago and this year I began to put myself out there. I completed a short fiction collection. In September of 2014 I got my first article published. I started blogging in January, and soon after I began blogging regularly for Huffington Post Black Voices. At the present I have some even bigger things in the works that hopefully go through.

Around the same time, I became aware of the Black Lives Matter movement and I began to get involved in whatever way I could. I met amazing people like Bridget Anderson, who has shown phenomenal strength and determination to see justice done after the police shooting of her boyfriend Anthony Hill, and yet still be able to live her life. I saw the incredible photographs of the uprising in Baltimore taken by Devin Allen, photos that landed him the cover of Time Magazine and brought him well deserved fame and opportunities to keep helping and mentoring kids in Baltimore who may find in photography a new way to express themselves. And Nekima Levy-Pounds, standing strong in Minneapolis in the face of a system trying to silence her.

I’ve been fortunate enough to get my feelings and opinions out in front of other people. The gift of social media is that it gives people and news that would never be noticed otherwise a way to be seen travel around the world. The risk is that you have no control over how whatever you put out there is recieved. But for me, that doesn’t matter.

I guess I’m saying all this to make the point that regardless of circumstances, or whatever situation a person is in, we all want to know that someone hears us, we all want to feel like our lives are acknowledged by someone or something larger than ourselves. I’m proof of that.

My gift is storytelling. I want to continue to do that and I hope the people who have heard me so far continue to hear me. I also want to hear you. A new year is coming. Good luck to all of us.

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A Streetcar Named Atlanta

Over the weekend some graffiti artists slipped in to the marshaling yard where the new Atlanta streetcars are being housed and tagged them. If you haven’t heard of it, the Atlanta Streetcar project is part of an initiative to spark tourism in the city and get people out of their cars to explore neighborhoods. According to a press release on the City of Atlanta website , “The purpose of the Atlanta Streetcar project is to provide an integrated multi-modal, high-quality transit network that links communities, improves mobility by enhancing transit access and options, supports projected growth, promotes economic development and encourages strategies to develop livable communities.” You could make the argument that Atlanta already has a transit system in place that could provide those services if the state legislature and suburban white fear of transit riding Black Boogeymen kept it from expanding, but that’s another story for another time. In the distant future it may well achieve it’s officially stated goals but at present, it’s a shiny, mostly riderless blue leviathan than travels in an endless loop past the campus of Georgia State, over to the MLK center and back again.

It seems ironic that so many people at City Hall felt a streetcar would be the cure for Atlantans’ lack of engagement with their own city. To reach back to an archaic form of transport for a city that prides itself of being cutting edge feels like a manifestation of the split personality Atlanta often seems to have. The graffiti tagging and the response to it feel the same. Some people label it vandalism by the ubiquitous “thugs” that so many people living outside the perimeter are convinced terrorize the city, while others will admire the artwork. When I heard about it, I felt like it was a flashback to an important time in Atlanta history, a fragment of a lost, once thriving era when you could cruise down Peachtree Street on a Saturday night and see and almost unbroken stream of nightlife from Pharr Road in Buckhead to Marietta Street Downtown. I went downtown, hoping to see any of the tagged cars rolling by, but the ones I saw in service were clean. The hiding and eventually scrubbing of the graffiti could be a metaphor for the erasure of that same history. I’ve lived in Atlanta for almost 20 years and a lot of the flavor and vibrancy I discovered when I first arrived has disappeared. It’s become less like a city and more like a suburb, where street vendors get fined, last call is midnight, and new residents of Ponce de Leon call the cops on MJQ for noise violations.

The Atlanta that attracted so many talented, creative people and turned the city into a music, entertainment and nightlife powerhouse is all but dead. What’s left is a sanitized Southern version of Times Square under Giuliani; a great place to walk your dog and sip latte, but colorless and increasingly soulless. There seems to be a deliberate effort to kill off any local creative energy and replace it with a suburbanites idea of what a city is. The people shaping this new Atlanta seem to want every aspect of it to be processed and commodified, but cities don’t work like that. A city is a chaotic, living organism, and you have to leave room for a little chaos or you end up with a city of drones moving in prearranged patterns, going from work, to home, and back again, like a streetcar.

Without maintenance, a machine will eventually break down. The same is true for a city, and for a human soul. Art matters, creativity matters. Every now and then a little of the Atlanta flavor will make itself known; a sun-faded piece of old party flyer stuck to a lightpole, the echo of bass booming from cars, the crews of bikers who roar down Peachtree on the weekends. The streetcar tagging could be part of that, a reminder of the energy that made Atlanta a destination for creatives all those years ago. Who knows, maybe the word of a well tagged trolley cruising through downtown will inspire someone to help make Atlanta become “the ATL” once again.

Did You Miss Me?

Hello everyone, good to see you!

First of all, I owe my Sum City readers an apology.
I have not posted here in quite a while, but that’s because of a series of events that I became swept up in, all positive, but also demanding. It’s good to be back at my literary home base after a crazy four months. I guess the best way to start is to just jump in, so here I go.

Some of you may remember that back in March I became a featured blogger for Huffington Post Black Voices. It came at me totally unexpected. Almost overnight I became a writer for a website with a huge following and added my voice to others I respect there. I joined Huffington Post at a turbulent time in American History, starting with Ferguson, going on to New York and Baltimore, currently with Charleston. Most of my articles for HuffPo have focused on what’s happening and have generated support and controversy. Before I knew it, I had a following of my own, people who seek out my writing. At the moment it isn’t a huge audience, but it’s an influential one. One that is opening doors and opportunities that again, I never could have prepared for.

I can’t say much at the moment but there are media things in the works. I recently completed a series of photo shoots with a very talented photographer and took part in a Vice News series.
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Things are still developing. If you followed my earlier blogs here, a lot of my subject matter focuses on social justice. I will always be interested in that, but i want to expand. No one is one dimensional and I don’t want to be. I joke, I dance, I talk about trivia same as anyone and I will do that here.

I know that a great deal that’s happening can be linked back to me starting this blog. I put myself out here, people here responded. Then other people responded. I plan to share myself with Sum City again and I hope you will respond again.

Thank You.

Torraine Walker