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.

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.

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.

And Now For An Important Announcement:

I have always been fascinated by words. From looking through dictionaries and encyclopedias as a child, to rapping as a teenager, and writing fiction as an adult, I’ve always been intrigued by the emotion and shades of expression the written and spoken word can convey. I wanted to be heard and understood and blogging has been a great way to realize that ideal. I now have an opportunity to take that further; as of yesterday, I am officially a contributing blogger for the Huffington Post.

I have been a fan of what they do for a while and it’s a beautiful thing to contribute to. My debut article is about the apology Levi Pettit gave for the racist chant he and his SAE fratbrothers led.

Without WordPress & SUM City to voice my opinions, I would feel stifled. Without the back and forth dialog my opinions spark, I would feel disappointed. I will continue blogging weekly here of course, and I hope everyone who has read my stuff so far will keep reading! See you next week!

MLK: A Dream Discovered

Today is Martin Luther King Day.
In Atlanta there will be a march down Auburn Avenue to Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached. The media will be there, while social, civil and entertainment leaders will appear and give speeches. No mainstream politician can hope to gain support in the Black community without showing up at a Black church and invoking Dr. King’s name.

As a child, my image of Dr. King was the one most Americans have; the round determined face in black and white photos and films shown every February; the rich, resonant, unmistakable voice giving the “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington; the tragedy of his assassination. Since his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King has become an American saint, revered, paid homage to, universally recognized as an icon of the struggle of Americans forcing America to honor it’s promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

As a teen I became less of a fan of Dr. King’s nonviolent approach. I was deep into Malcolm X by way of Spike Lee’s film of his autobiography. I was listening to Public Enemy, NWA and the Geto Boys and the idea of allowing a mob of savage racist whites and redneck cops to beat you while you don’t fight back or defend yourself seemed like the definition of weakness to me. I was much more receptive to Malcolm’s Self Defense Self Determination philosophy. But at the time I wasn’t aware of the deeper meaning and objectives of the approach that Dr. King advocated.

On Christmas day I saw Selma. It was fascinating to see that film as a resident of Atlanta, a city where the power of MLK’s legacy is more physically tangible than anywhere else. Aside from being a mastetfully done film, it inspired me to reexamine my assumptions about MLK and his movement; what I found caused me to revise a lot of what I thought I knew.

The genius of the SCLC was in framing their concept of nonviolent resistance as a moral crusade against the ugliness of segregation and Dr. King’s genius was to gamble, rightly as it turned out, that Americans would be so shocked and disgusted by the sight of Jim Crow’s hateful true face that they would sympathize with and come to assist those fighting to destroy it.

I had forgotten, and history often overlooks, just how radical MLK was. He has been deified but the depth of his message has been obscured by that deification. People quote “Free at Last” and his “Mountaintop” speech without exploring the full range of issues he touched on like Vietnam, economic opportunity, and black power. He also made speeches about Black manhood and America’s systematic economic disenfranchisement of the Black working class that lined up with the teachings of Malcolm X and emerging nationalist groups like the Black Panthers.

Something the film touched on was King’s ability to get different groups to unite against a common enemy. It would be great if organizations dedicated to social justice could find common ground without surrendering their respective visions. I would love to see more cooperation between Black, Latin, LGBT and Women’s Rights groups amongst each other, and with any group that wants to see all people respected equally.

The struggle is still necessary. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice have made that very clear. In Ferguson, in Paris, in Nigeria, young people are still having to take to the streets to call out and expose evil.

For me, rediscovering MLK reminded me that a fight against an evil system doesn’t always have to be a physical one. I will always believe in self defense, but I realize that there are many ways to defend yourself. The pen and the voice are powerful too.

Invisible Women


One of the biggest stories to captivate entertainment headlines this year has been the emergence of Lupita Nyong’o. Her Oscar winning performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave catapulted her to the forefront of the public eye. Once there, she has developed almost a second career as the Queen of the Red Carpet, appearing at film festivals looking flawless in stunning gowns that designers are falling over themselves to dress her in. This summer she landed the cover of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful issue. Her Oscar acceptance speech about what defines beauty sparked a wave of affirmation from women around the world who fight daily to be seen as attractive and desirable within themselves when bombarded constantly with a narrow standard of beauty. Lupita is the most recent black female star to explode into pop culture but obviously she isn’t the only one. From Michele Obama to Olivia Pope, from top grossing movies like The Best Man franchise to About Last Night, Black women are everywhere, looking beautiful. Why then, with all the highly visible women of color in mainstream media, are so many people who work in the media so blind and tone-deaf when it comes to their beauty?

The past few months have been rife with cringe-inducing gaffes from writers who should know better. Patricia Garcia wrote an article for Vogue that attributed the acceptance of the big rear end to Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea. According to the article, a big butt was something to be ashamed of until these ladies made having one acceptable. The writer lives in Miami so I don’t know how she missed seeing all the confident, curvy Latin American and Caribbean women walking around. It was a fairly clueless premise but it did give the world the sadly hilarious twitter hash tag #voguearticles

On the heels of that faux pas, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times managed to stumble not once, but twice in an article about the huge success of Shonda Rhimes by suggesting that the title of any future autobiography Miss Rhimes chooses to write should be “How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman”, and referred to the star of Shonda’s new show How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis, as “less classically beautiful.” Never mind that the article itself is full of praise for what Shonda Rhimes has accomplished, those phrases derail the article like a turntable needle scraping across a record.

Whether by design or carelessness, There is a definite lack of awareness of the origin of many cultural trends that become commodified by other cultures. Until very recently, when it comes to African Americans and the cultural and artistic statements they create America has always followed a definite pattern: Love the creation, ignore the creator. It’s a pattern Black people know all too well. Back in the 1950’s, as R&B evolved into Rock and Roll, Pat Boone became famous by releasing milquetoast covers of the raucous, powerhouse songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ivory Joe Hunter. When Bo Derek made her bikini-clad run down the beach with her hair in microbraids in Blake Edwards’ “10”, Middle America magically became aware of and copied a hairstyle that Black women had been wearing in great numbers for decades. Whenever shows like Friends, Sex and the City and most recently Girls are heralded as true depictions of young people navigating city life they are always set in a New York City where people of color don’t exist except as a sassy sidekick of the type that Wanda Sykes has cornered the market on. People of color have been the ghost in the machine of American social and cultural life; a rich reservoir of creativity that could be sampled by mainstream media, as long as the source was kept out of sight.

What defines beauty? What’s interesting about this is that while the last two decades have seen women of color featured more prominently than ever in mainstream media,it’s no secret that the gatekeepers of American fashion and media are overwhelmingly white. When you are not used to seeing people from different cultural places and getting different ideas about what is beautiful, you end up recycling the same images of beauty to a market that is no longer satisfied with them. Part of what makes Shonda Rhimes’ characters so compelling is that she writes black women with all the flaws, depth of character, inner turmoil and sexuality as their white counterparts. The instances of black characters being written so well are rare and maybe that’s why there has been so much cultural cluenessness in mainstream media’s handling of their presence. It’s as if the idea that black women are physically beautiful, multifaceted real women never occurred to them.

Viola Davis responded to being called “less classically beautiful” by refrencing the comment during her People’s Choice Award win. The concept of what is beautiful is expanding. It would be in the best interests of the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of beauty to catch up.

Raising the Bar, Raising the Roof

From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali, from T.O. to Richard Sherman, America has always had a love/hate relationship with the Black sports figure. Larger than life with an attitude and ego to match, in many ways they could be considered the ancestors and counterparts of today’s rap stars. They are both seen alternately as “trouble men” and America’s heroes, worshipped for their skills on their respective fields but often vilified for their personas away from it. Their intelligence is often ignored but they are also allowed to express their blackness, however limited that expression may be for whatever times they live in.

In Corporate America, it ain’t like that. Conservative by nature, submerging your personality into the larger corporate culture is the only way to succeed, especially for black men. Especially in broadcast journalism.

All of this is why Stuart Scott was so important to journalism and why his death from cancer at age 49 is so tragic. He understood the swagger of the pro athlete and the dedication of the sports fan, and translated both for the larger world using the language of hip-hop. In doing so, he changed the sportscasting game in a way that hadn’t been done since the days of Ring Lardner or Howard Cosell.

Listening to Stuart recap a game was like watching a rapper freestyle, spitting lyrics off the dome and hitting you with metaphors that sounded dissimilar for a second before conveying perfectly what just happened once your brain caught up. Stuart’s passion and immediacy matched the speed of the touchdowns, blocked shots, slam dunks and half court three-pointers he reported on. Whether namechecking Luke, Wu-Tang or Cypress Hill or using the latest hip hop rap tracks and catchphrases during airtime, his mainstream audience enjoyed his enthusiasm, but the hip-hop heads/sports fans like myself watching saw it another way: a broadcast version of “the nod”, a not so subtle acknowledgement of our presence. Like with so many cultural media trailblazers, the corporate bosses were hesitant. But the public ate it up.

Iconic journalist Ed Bradley wore an earring in his left ear during the later years of his career. It didn’t effect the excellence of his reporting, but there was concern by CBS executives that it would be a distraction. It became his trademark, along with his continued excellence. The same can be said for Stuart Scott.

There has always been a battle that many brothers in corporate jobs have to fight: how to be professional and still be comfortable in your own skin, relatable to other people using your own background and cultural references. Stuart Scott made that battle a little less difficult for countless businesspeople of color by just being himself. The language of Corporate America and Sportscasting got a little bit cooler because of him.

Raise the Roof up there Big Stu.