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.

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.

When The Cameras Leave

wpid-20150311_183636.jpgThis past Tuesday I attended a protest rally in Decatur, GA for Anthony Hill, a young man shot and killed by DeKalb County Police while outside, naked, in the middle of a bipolar episode. He was an artist, a veteran. His Facebook and Twitter posts reveal him to be a sensitive, socially aware, idealistic man. He was buried yesterday. His is the latest hashtagged name in the long, sad litany of black males killed in confrontations with police. There were a few hundred people there, gathered to celebrate Anthony Hill’s life and the tragic way it was taken. There were impassioned speeches, followed by a march and some tension when protesters took over a busy intersection.

There were also cameras. Lots of cameras. Bloggers like myself, mobile news trucks, writers and reporters were filming, recording, and livestreaming every step of the march. It could be said that the proliferation of cameras and smartphones and social networks is why the movement against police brutality is ongoing, but I couldn’t help thinking, how many of us will stay, not just in Decatur, but everywhere across America where people are fighting this new civil rights battle, when the cameras are gone?

Last Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the town swelled with politicians, celebrities, and elders of the civil rights movement gathered to commemorate the fateful day at Edmund Pettus bridge that arguably sparked nationwide support of the civil rights movement. That support happened because the brutality of Jim Crow law enforcement was televised to a shocked outside world. But the work that ended Jim Crow was done by unsung, dedicated fighters who battled in courtrooms and city halls as well as in the streets when cameras weren’t always watching.

The mainstream media is a machine that feeds on novelty. It is never satisfied, and it never stops consuming. The attention it can garner for causes is invaluable, but it’s only loyalty is to it’s own appetite. That same attention will also attract huge numbers of people which can also be good for a cause. But it would be a mistake to believe everybody who shows up will stay to help do the heavy lifting and thankless work necessary to repair a community. Some will, of course. Tragedy and injustice are powerful motivators that always move people to fight them. The desire to be seen is just as powerful, if not more so, and there’s always a possibility that a social movement can be co-opted by those just wanting to be seen.

Eventually the names of Ferguson, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Anthony Hill will fade from the news cycle. The media will pack up their equipment and move on to the next story. A lot of people who claim to be down for the cause will move on too. All that will be left is the void caused by their deaths in the souls of those who knew and loved them. Their larger legacy will be in the laws enacted to prevent atrocities like the ones that ended their lives and by punishing those who took them. As far as who will keep the pressure on and work to see that happen away from the spotlights, only time will tell.

American Booty

A funny thing happened in the Atlanta suburbs last week.

Well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word. A woman in the affluent Johns Creek area was arrested for running a prostitution ring. It gets worse. One of the girls she pimped out was her stepdaughter. Within an hour of the story breaking, local message boards were filling up with comments saying that the women involved weren’t hurting anybody and that the police were persecuting people for “victimless” crimes. I won’t get into the argument about whether prostitution should be legalized or not, but I was intrigued by how many people rushed to this woman’s defense. I also wondered how sympathetic some of these same people would be if this bust has taken place in Bankhead instead of Johns Creek.

For those of you outside the Atlanta area, Johns Creek is one of the wealthiest suburbs in Atlanta, with an average household income of over $135K. Bankhead is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta, which you already know if you’re a fan of ATL hip-hop. In the collective psyche of the Suburban Atlantan mind and local TV news, Bankhead conjures up images of dreadlocked, gold-front wearing corner dealers holding AK’s and shooting at each other like rival militias in Beirut.

It is fascinating to me how forgiving of crime suburbanites can be when the criminals look like them. A prostitution raid eerily similar to this one happened a few years ago and prompted some of the same calls for leniency. In fact, one of the residents said that this sort of behavioiur “doesn’t happen here,” implying that it’s expected to occur in other parts of the city.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on there. It overlaps with the double standard and perceptions of white and black crime that the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite and the recent release of the Ferguson Report make clear. There is a definite double standard to how laws are enforced. White people, especially wealthy white people, are given the benefit of the doubt by police and the general public.

Back in 1996, PBS filmed a documentary about an underworld of unprotected group sex, drug use, and binge drinking among teen and preteen kids in Rockdale County, another affluent Atlanta suburb. When the documentary aired, there was the same disbelief and cries of “not my little angel” that most parents everywhere say when their kids get caught up in mischief. The problem occurs when local media and residents in the neighborhoods agree with that mentality and turn a blind eye to the delinquents on their block to condemn delinquents across town that they never see.

Whenever something happens in poor communities, the entire communty falls under a cloud, not just the parties involved. The usual cultural and racial indictments begin, the kids affected don’t receive the same level of empathy, and definitely not the same calls for therapy and treatmen. The only “remedy” they receive is jail time.
People are going to do dumb shit. That is almost the human default. But some people get to have their mistakes, and their deliberate actions excused while other people’s mistakes follow them for life.

You can find decent people in the poorest communities. You can find low-lifes in the wealthiest ones. Being born well off isn’t a guarantee you will be well raised but it will afford you infinite chances to get away with not being so.

Check, please

Recently I went on a couple of dinner dates with ladies I was interested in. One I had met casually, the other was our first meeting. I got dressed, we met, and we ate and talked, or at least tried to. Getting to know someone can be nerve-wracking and even more so if you’re constantly wondering if you have something in your teeth, and trying to avoid talking with your mouth full. It’s hard to just relax. Both dates ended well, but both times I wished we had done something else.

At the risk of upsetting some chefs and servers I know, I have to say I have never been a fan of dinner dates for first meetings. I have food at home. Why go to some place to buy food you half eat, to barely hear yourself talk, surrounded by people you don’t know? I prefer meeting over coffee or a drink, having a conversation, and seeing if we click and want to move on to the next step, whatever that step is. The whole dinner ritual seems so cliché to me. My guess is that it started in old courtship rituals that said a man looking to marry had to display his ability to provide sustenance for a bride and a family.

I should mention that I think cooking at home is a very intimate thing to share with a lover. Some of my favorite memories are of sharing a kitchen with a woman I am into and then us feeding each other in our own space. But those moments happened after we had known each other, and we didn’t get to know each other in crowded restaurants.

I’m part of the generation that embraced technology but wasn’t born immersed in it. And while I’ve been critical of it’s effect on face-to-face communication it has made it easier for connecting to happen. The last couple of relationships I was involved in started online. We met somewhere neutral, and things progressed. Getting dressed up to have a nice night out in a nice restaurant is a great way to spend an evening with your signifigant other, but I wouldn’t start a potential relationship with it. I just feel that there are more effective ways to get to know somebody. When it’s warm, Atlanta is an ideal city to have a drink somewhere chill, check out art galleries, or just walk in the park having a relaxed conversation.

While there are no set rules as to how people meet, I do think that a lot of dating rituals are outdated. If you want to hang out, just say so. If you want to get a drink, that’s ok. And If you want to hook up, you should be able to say so too. If you’re very fortunate, you can have all three and eat too.

Fifty Shades of Facepalm

My first encounter with 50 Shades of Grey was about a year ago; I was in Target, passing by the book section and I saw a copy sitting in a rack. I picked it up and skimmed through it. As I read, various sensations came over me: the first was amusement at the writing, but I kept reading, hoping it would get better. Next came disbelief because I couldn’t believe that someone had actually written this, said to themselves that it was good, and found a publisher to put it out. Finally, anger, as I began to lose faith in the American book buying public as I thought of all the talented writers toiling in obscurity while this thing was flying out of stores like free meth in a trailer park. At no time during my ordeal was arousal one of the sensations I felt.

Obviously, I’m not a fan. I pride myself on being able to get through difficult books to find something enlightening but I have to be honest and say that this was literally the worst book I have ever read in my life. I couldn’t get through more than 3 consecutive pages without cringing. However, the 50 Shades series has sold about 100 million copies and the film of the book is currently the #1 movie in America. What that says about the American moviegoing public I will not speculate on, but obviously it’s working for E. L. James so I can’t knock her hustle.

Erotica has of course always been around, but in America it’s always been a shadowy associate of so-called legitimate literature, flimsy paperbacks with cheap covers stocked in bookstore romance sections purchased rapidly and discarded just as fast. But 50 Shades has changed that. People are reading it in the open, discussing it in book clubs. The covers are so well known that there is no mistaking what you are reading. I just hope it doesn’t stop there.

There are excellent writers of erotic lit who have found success like French art critic Catherine Millet, who wrote a memoir that described her sexual adventures as a young woman in Paris in graphic, but elegant detail. There’s Zane, who has been writing erotica for almost 15 years now with much more believable scenarios and better skill, and the majority of her characters are men and women of color. E.L. James’ popularity may help readers to seek out different authors working in the same genre.

I guess that’s the redeeming quality 50 Shades has for me. Not in the book itself, but for what it represents. It opens the door for writers inspired by the sexual to have a chance for their voices to be heard. I look forward to reading them. All the way through, without cringing.

The Big Black Wolf

By now, most of the country has seen the video of a young woman being catcalled and followed by men on the streets of NYC produced by an organization called Hollaback! to draw attention to the sexual objectification women are subjected to when out alone in city streets. It’s a worthy cause; I have heard far too many stories from different women over the years about dealing with creepy or disrespectful men to doubt the necessity of calling attention to the issue of street harassment. My only problem with the video, and its creators, is their use of Black and Brown Boogeymen to literally scare up attention.

Whether by accident or by design, the makers of the video, Rob Bliss Creative, edited out all the white male catcallers. The end result is footage of a girl menaced by men who are all Black and Hispanic. The images play on the stereotypes of men of color being hyperagressive sexual beasts that Birth of A Nation made overtly and King Kong alluded to with slightly more subtlety. It’s a stereotype that, historically, countless numbers of black men paid for with their freedom and their lives.

According to the director there was 10 hours of footage shot and edited down to make the video that went out. During the editing process, no one, not the producers, or the organization for which it was made, had a problem with the white guys, of which there were many, being deleted from the final reel. When called out on the disparity, Rob Bliss gave an explanation that might have been plausible, if editing software that you can download to your smartphone for free wasn’t available to a professional filmmaker in far better quality. Needless to say, misogynists and racists have flocked to leave hateful comments on sites hosting the clip.

There’s a case to be made for the honesty of the video creators when they say the removal of white catcallers was unintentional. In America there has always been a tendency to overlook, excuse, or explain away the social transgressions of white males. It’s a tendency so ingrained in American society that people do it subconsciously. Even people dedicated to raising awareness of male privilege can be blind to how they inadvertently reinforce white male privilege.

Ensuring the freedom of women to go about their business in public spaces without being made to feel in danger of their safety is absolutely an issue that needs to be addressed. No sane person would deny that. But so is the demonizing of men of color. It’s a shame is that a very necessary national conversation about the objectification and reduction to body parts that millions of women deal with has been sidetracked because of it. And it’s sad that Hollaback! and Rob Bliss chose to combat sexism by reinforcing racism.

Ill Communication

I once dated a woman who’s sole form of communicating with me was by text message. Except for the day we met, everything we couldn’t do in the same room was done by text. Exchanging personal information…scheduling dates…planning encounters…everything. We had 1 telephone conversation over the 2 months we saw each other and when it ended, that was one of my main reasons for doing so. I know some men reading this probably think I’m crazy for finding a woman who doesn’t want to talk on the phone all the time and not feeling that. While it’s true that I’m not a fan of talking on the phone for hours at a time, I do crave human interaction that doesn’t require a computer or a smartphone.

We live in the most socially connected age in human history but people are connecting less on a personal level. Consider this: out of all your friends on social media, how many do you actually know? Out of those you know personally, when was the last time you actually saw them and when you saw them, did you really talk, or did you sit around looking at your phones? I’ve been to far too many social events where people either talk nonstop about themselves or are almost monosyllabic in verbal exchanges.

Remember the movie Clueless? There’s a scene where Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash’s characters are talking to each other on cellphones even though they’re right next to each other. It seemed absurd at the time but now that’s normal. I think it’s important to look at a person when you talk to them. The inflection in their voice, their facial expressions, and tone of voice inform a conversation more than what you say to each other and can avoid the misunderstandings that often occur with electronic communication.

When you limit the means of expressing thought, you limit thought, which might be why  so many people can only speak in half-sentences and type lyk dis. Factor in short attention spans, and the belief that every moment of life must be documented and you have a recipe for self-absorption that ignores everything except the ego.

The danger of social networking is it gives the illusion of having a personal relationship without actually having one or making any effort to sustain one. For any truly intimate relationship to work you have to be present, physically and mentally. You have to go out in public and meet people. And not stare at your phone when you do.

People are busy. Being a busy person myself, I totally get that. But it’s also true that people make time for the things and the people they want to make time for. The internet is a wonderful tool for connecting people but it can’t be the only one. Social media is here to stay; I just wish it was more social. If anybody has any ideas how to make that happen, give me a call; I’d love to discuss it over coffee somewhere.

Or you can text me.

On second thought… shoot me an email, and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.

Or by the end of the week.

Next Monday at the latest, I promise.

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