Friday, September 18, 2009

Michael Jackson: The Original Post-Racial Soul Brother

(Here's the text of my talk at the UC Berkeley Michael Jackson Symposium, Oct 1, 2009)

Good afternoon, I’m happy to be here on this panel with my colleagues here.
We are here to discuss Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. I am here to frame Mr. Jackson as the Original Post-Racial Soul Brother.

What do I mean by that? This past year a lot of discussion has taken place regarding the election of Barack Obama and the heralding of a Post-Racial society. Some Obama critics such as Shelby Steele have claimed Obama was a “bargainer” that manipulated whites desires to transcend race, while relying upon his own racial identity to garner support from his racialized base.

I would submit that Michael Jackson became the greatest entertainer on the face of the earth in a similar fashion. Jackson initiated social breakthroughs as a de-racialized entity, entertaining and appealing to all, yet Jackson remained relevant because of his effective use of the Soul Music aesthetic, and the moral imperatives of Soul, as I will explain.

As a public entity, Mr. Jackson was a transitional figure, one who emerged on the national scene as a child in the 1960s during an era of overt expressions of racial consciousness, yet as a young adult in the 1970s was forced to navigate in an arena where race based social movements declined, and the presumption of racial equality dominated the discourse of the entertainment industry.

Mr. Jackson, like others of his era such as Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, O.J. Simpson, and Prince, sought public acceptance by distancing themselves from the overt racial identification in their works, seeking to be judged – by the content of their artistic character – if you will.

Michael Jackson was by far the most successful, and succeeded in utilizing the performance aesthetics of the Soul Music environment he was raised in, and applied them to the international arena to emerge as a global superstar.

Michael Jackson, the 7th of 9 children born in the working class neighborhood of Gary, Indiana in 1958, came of age when the demographics of the great black migration north afforded opportunities for those most ambitious. The family patriarch, Joe Jackson, ruled the home with an iron fist, driven to make something of his boys, that he could not do with his own fledging musical career. Joe Jackson came from the old school, where force and violence circumscribed daily life in Jim Crow Arkansas. Growing up in Gary Indiana in a touring band, rehearsing with their father sitting by, whip (a big belt) in hand, the young Jackson boys learned how the legacy of Jim Crow violence would shape the Sound of Young America.

Michael Jackson internalized the lofty standards of Soul, a conception that emerged in the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, in which the desires of generations of African Americans would explode in a dazzling array of actions, artistic expressions, and social upheavals.

Soul Music incorporated the emotive elements of the blues, with the moral imperatives drawn from the back church and the gospel music, to produce a new standard of black music – one that was forged by, but no longer bound to the historical memory of slavery. The new sound, the Sound of Young America promoted by Motown Records represented a popular interpretation of changing ideals on the streets of young America.

Michael Jackson interpreted these ideals as a youth, dancing the “James Brown” during his audition for Motown Records in 1968, and wearing the trademark “Afro” hairstyle in the early seventies as a teenager along with this brothers in the Jackson 5.

Mr. Jackson was to become the world’s greatest interpreter of black styles, from soul to disco to pop and even hip hop.

Michael Jackson emerged in the 1970s, when black popular culture was straddling the contradictory impulses toward the celebration of black identity and the desires of many for popular acceptance at any cost.

As Mark Anthony Neal writes in Soul Babies: “Despite the drive toward self-determination that the soul aesthetic encapsulated, it remained a project that essentialized black identity and culture for one consumer public demanding inclusion into the mainstream on its own terms…and another looking for non-threatening markers of difference…) (Soul Babies p.7)

In the 1980s,popular music would become re-segregated, as rampant stereotypes of jerry-curled Super-Freaks like Rick James played on timeless tropes of the threatening, uncontrolled black buck encroaching on polite white society, which was being reconstructed under the traditionalist mandate of Ronald Reagan and Reaganism.

Michael Jackson, with the aid of his mentor and producer Quincy Jones (himself a legendary integrationist jazz arranger), was positioned as the great unifier. Building on his expressive talents and soulful pedigree, Jackson utilized the talents of popular stars from outside of the black music world such as Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and Vincent Price on Jackson’s landmark “Thriller” album. The resulting soul based, all star pop collaboration became what is still the greatest selling record of all time.

Michael Jackson, spawned from Soul, created a new brand of ‘post racial’ pop music, and became as the first post-racial black superstar.

Jackson’s commitment to humanitarian causes is another significant part of his legacy and of his roots. Jackson’s support for causes that support terminally ill and abused children was constantly backed up by public presentations of his donations. In much the same way that his mentor James Brown would stop a concert midway to give a donation to the local NAACP chapter, or showcase a civic leader, Michael Jackson would make public appearances on his tours to give to numerous charities that included the United Negro College Fund and Transafrica. (although records are hard to find, he was also a great friend to the Nation of Islam, which was revealed in the memorial issue of the Final Call published after Jackson’s death)

As the “King of Pop” in the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Jackson stood at the mountaintop, as a Soul Music giant, philanthropist, and humanitarian, with cross-racial appeal enjoyed by no other American since the days of Paul Robeson in the 1930s.

In his own way, Michael Jackson ushered in an era of post-racialism in popular music and by extension, popular American culture. As a result of his constantly whitening skin condition and numerous facial reconstructions, Jackson became a living symbol of a de-racialized celebrity. But Michael Jackson never lost his soul…

Of the many social breakthroughs Michael Jackson could be given credit for, from “integrating” MTV, to breaking sales records worldwide, to his global humanitarianism, it is not a stretch to claim that his prominence as a Post-Racial Soul Brother primed a generation of Americans to accept a new President that applied the same strategies for success…

Upon his death, and elegant memorial, the global public was reminded of the totality of the man’s gifts to the world. We recognize that like few others American icons, like Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Dr. King, Michael Jackson was larger than life while he was alive, and was perhaps never destined to grow old. His youthful spirit will transcend all of the doubters. The King of Pop is dead. Long Live The King.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ted Vincent 1936-2009

On Sunday, June 14, 2009 I lost my dad.

He had been recovering from a heart attack on May 22nd, and there are some controversies about the change in his care when he was moved to Kaiser Oakland two days before his passing, but it is not important right now because he cannot be brought back.

Ted was always his own man and was courageously original in his ideas and how he went about pursuing the issues that mattered most to him. A central part of his values had to do with social justice and racial justice in particular. As an historian by trade, he wrote five books and dozens of articles in papers and magazines all over the world. Most of his writing had to do with uncovering the many untold elements of the struggle for racial equality for blacks in America.

As a white man dedicated to black equality, his life and career took some bittersweet turns, but his legacy will stand on its own for generations. My cousin calls him “the last of the white black nationalists.” One of his first teaching gigs was at Merritt College in Oakland in 1964, and the class featured a young, talkative student named Huey P. Newton, eventual founder of the Black Panther Party.

Ted was an avid runner, political activist, musician and teacher. He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1936, and earned a Master’s Degree in History from UC Berkeley in 1970. He had entered the doctoral program in History at UCLA but left to write the books he wanted to on his own terms. He always was self -driven, self-taught, and self defined, and I believe that’s where I got my open-minded approach to The Funk as a way of life.

His three children are testament to this belief and faith in humanity. He had three loving wives at different times in his life. Toni, my mom, shared Ted’s radical politics and forward thinking social values, and my brother Teo Barry Vincent and myself are proof of those values. Ted’s second wife Selma and their daughter Mimi shared much of the counter-culture Berkeley lifestyle values we always enjoyed while growing up, and his third wife Bernice kept up with him as he was running his marathons for much of the 1990’s.

Then there is his massive track record of writings, in essays and books, ranging from comparisons of slave overseers to modern cops, to pioneering research on the runaway slave Yanga, an African prince that founded a city if his own in southern Mexico in the 1600s which survives to this day. Ted uncovered the writings of Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, which she contributed to the Marcus Garvey paper The Negro World. Historians now agree that both of Malcolm’s parents were Garveyites, not only Malcolm’s father, which was implied in Malcolm’s autobiography. These are the quiet contributions great historians make to our world.

He was a frequent contributor to the Berkeley Daily Planet, and had recently been translating contributions to the mixed race heritage publication Somos Primos. He was also a consultant to the Oakland Museum's current exhibit "The African Presence in Mexico" and was a scheduled speaker the following day when he took ill on May 22nd.

Ted’s most enduring legacy will be his books, which are paradigm shifting, often epic and groundbreaking re-evaluations of the established historical record. Here is a list of them, they are all fascinating, accessible reads:

1970 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) Black Power and the Garvey Movement Ramparts Press, San Francisco (reprinted by Nzinga press, 1987, and reprinted by Black Classic Press, 2007);

1972 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) Editor: Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance Ramparts Press, San Francisco. (reprinted by Afrika World Press 1991)

1981 - (Ted Vincent) Mudville's Revenge: The Rise and Fall of American Sport University of Nebraska Press (1981; reprinted in 1994)

1995 - (Ted Vincent) Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Age of Jazz London, Pluto Press

2003 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) The Legacy of Vicente Guererro, Mexico's first Black Indian President. University of Florida Press

Ted was a Berkeley fixture and will be deeply missed. I am still processing the scope of the loss on a personal level. Knowing we won’t be going to any more baseball games, or watching him playing any more piano, or discussing black history or modern politics, or watching him teach my kids those little bites of wisdom, will be a brand new struggle for me. But I know he lived a full and rich life, saw his children grow up, enjoyed the unconditional love of his grandkids, and lived to see a Black President. I think he will be at peace with all of it now.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Barack Obama, President of The World

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Barack Obama’s magnificent speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo on Thursday, 6/4. (Watch it here: He said all of the right things. He showed a surprisingly strong recognition and respect for Islam, Muslim people, their traditions and their values. He gave Israel the historical recognition that so often grounds its rhetoric of defiance, but he gave Palestinians an actual acknowledgement of their misery, saying their plight is “intolerable.” This was some very bold truth, especially coming from the mouth of the leader of the most powerful Western nation on earth.

At times I was ready to quip with my own issues with some of the topics he brought up, but to mention them at all was a spectacular breakthrough in the global discourse of justice that Barack Obama now is operating in so enthusiastically. For example, he acknowledged the US role in overthrowing the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister in the 1950s – before denouncing the extremist government that followed. And if you listen carefully, he also acknowledged that some people felt the US “deserved” the 911 attacks, before denouncing those people too.

I thought that admission was incredible. Amiri Baraka lost his title as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (whatever that means) because he put forth similar sentiments. Under Bush 2.0’s Patriot Act, it has essentially been a federal crime for some to speak words that amounted to blaming the US for fostering the sentiments behind 911.

The US right wing and the “Muslim extremists” have served each other’s hateful interests for most of this decade. Obama is navigating an environment where the haters on both sides had been setting the terms of engagement, but now he’s the one blowing up things. It was astonishing, stupefying, and uplifting to hear such magnanimity and humility from the leader of the “free world.”

There was also an implication in this: that if you say ‘Muslims are people too, there are just some wackos you have to watch out for,” then what does that say about us here in the majority Christian US? That’s right, we have wackos too that are killing doctors, shooting unarmed black people on subways, and voting into law marriage discrimination too. Okay he didn’t go there, but I did.

I also found it ironic that it was Obama’s Muslim elements that almost derailed his Presidential campaign are now some of his greatest assets. From the right wing pundits emphasizing his middle name of Hussein, to falsely accusing him of taking his Congressional oath on a Qur’an. In his speech, Obama made prideful mention of his Muslim heritage, his childhood in Indonesia, and the fact that the first American in the House of Representatives (Keith Ellison, D-MN) took his oath on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

Yes it is all superficial rhetoric from Obama. But from the point of view of this new agenda of respectful global engagement, it is more “change” than I could have imagined when I voted for the brother last November. And think about the number of folks considering Islam for themselves that just got pushed over the fence by Obama’s not so subtle endorsement? That is tangible, and beautiful.

His outline for economic redevelopment started to lose me however, because it started to sound like a campaign speech, with a lot of promises. But as it turns out, to me the speech really was a campaign speech: a speech in which Barack Obama was campaigning for President of the World. But not through crude brute force in the way Bush 2.0 tried to do it, but through smooth sentences, heartfelt sympathies and much cultural affinity.

George Bush 2.0 saw American “Exceptionalism” in terms of its ability to use brute force, tired colonial objectives, and blatant white supremacist values to rule the world.

Barack Obama is a paradigm shifter. He is changing the center of the world’s discourse away from America’s exceptionalism in terms of economic & military domination, towards the fancier gloss of morality, a global community, and the myth of “opportunity.”

Obama did this during the campaign, by fusing his own biracial and immigrant narrative into the larger American mythos of immigration and opportunity, something many of us felt were primarily the pervue of European migrants. Barack Obama has integrated the American Dream in many ways, and now he’s spreading that hype – that hope – to the rest of the world.

It feels great. So did the election. But we also now have some of the worst urban violence in decades, and an economy on the brink, so the brother still has some work to do. But if he wants to be President of the World, I’ll vote for him.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Malcolm X and the Birth of Hip Hop

While it is great to recognize the indomitable character and racially empowering vision of Malcolm X on his birthday, I don’t think it is a stretch to recognize Malcolm’s singular impact on the creation of what we now call hip hop music.

Malcolm X changed the way black people saw themselves, and gave black folks an insoluble pride to express themselves on their own terms. Before Malcolm, the sound of Black America was based in The Blues, and the swaying emotions of sorrow and survival were a part of a collective past that spoke to every Negro alive at that time. Those emotions were expressed through Gospel music, through jazz and blues, and through the emerging soul music of the day. Malcolm changed everything. Malcolm’s voice and direct delivery created a new music – funk – that spoke the truth, locked in a syncopated rhythm.

Just think James Brown in 1968 – raw rhythm, raw soul, Black and Proud, freestyling rhymes about “we’d rather be dying on our feet than be living on our knees.”

If you believe that the Last Poets were some of the first “rappers” those guys will tell you that they formed as a group on Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19th, 1968 at Mount Morris park, only weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot, and the times were exploding all around them. They had been writing love poems and other fluff, but the event that day demanded more, and Abiodun Oyewole David Nelson and Gylan Kain did a “freestyle” cipher on the black revolution.

Malcolm changed the way black folks use language. Of the many distinctions between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X during their rise to prominence in the early 1960s was the differing oratorical styles. Dr. King came from the Southern Baptist tradition of preaching/singing sermons that roused his followers with grand rhetoric and imagery of hope and transcendence. Much of the problems facing his audience were referred to in biblical terms such as “down in the valley,” and the possibilities were also referred to in metaphors such as “been to the mountaintop”.

Malcolm on the other hand was practical and precise about what he saw as the problems and the possibilities facing black people. Malcolm did not use religious metaphors in his speeches, and his words did not sway, sing or moan as he delivered them. His phrase “things wont start getting better until you make them better” was a slap at the Negro leaders who kept saying in vague platitudes that “things are getting better.” Malcom told the truth directly, with forceful diction and a catchy rhythmic cadence that Barack Obama clearly emulates.

So when you listen to BDP’s “By All Means Necessary” or Dead Prez’ “Lets Get Free” just think we might all still be singing “we shall overcome” if it weren’t for Malcolm X.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek is back!

If you never really got into the Star Trek phenomenon, you now have a cool way to get exposed to it. If you were into Star Trek in the past, you will be satisfied with the new film treatment. You can finally see a new production that honors the original Trek vision, celebrates the original characters, and still flips the script and keeps things fresh.

The film has enough thought provoking character examinations for old school Trek heads, and enough explosions and glitter for the video game generation to be able to hang with it. Through it all, the timeless characters of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and McCoy all are reinvested with a freshness that was long lost from all the retread films of the past.

Trek is far more than a sci-fi series, because its characters and its messages have seeped deep into the American consciousness. The show has been proclaiming a deeply held hope for a positive, humane, post-racial future since the 1970's when it became a national phenomenon.

Of course the program began in the fall of 1966 and ran through the spring of 1969, during the wildest years of counter-culture protest in America, but Star Trek truly took off in the 1970's as a syndicated television show that steadily grew its audience of teenage idealists and outcasts that are now today's social and political leaders.

President Obama is a well established Trek fan, and reportedly asked for his own White House screening of the film.

It is likely that the character of Mr. Spock, with his half-alien, half-human mixed race issues played out on a galactic scale, played some sort of an inspirational role for a young mixed-race Barry Obama trying to navigate a 70's America as a teenager.

I thought I knew Trek trivia as a kid, until my first trip to a Berkeley co-op dorm in 1978 and some Trek heads were watching the show speaking every word ahead of the actors for the entire length of the program. I wasn't sure if that was cool, or the ultimate in dorkness. This was a few years before William Shatner's classic plea on a Saturday Night Live skit for the Trekkies to "get a life!"

I used to watch Star Trek on a small black & white TV as a kid and marveled at Mr. Spock's use of language, the diversity of the characters (for that time), and the mind blowing story lines.

Now, for a minute at least, the soul stirring power of those original episodes can be revisited for the awe inspiring, horizon-traversing, transcendent adventures that many of them are. (the original series only-don't get it twisted)

I identified with the strong & quiet Spock, but understood the cranky emotionalism of Dr. McCoy, and enjoyed Captain Kirk's ability to reconcile the two extremes of his closest confidants and make his own world-changing decisions on the fly.

But that was just the beginning. The program worked on a great number of levels, On an intimate, personal level - great actors exploring fantastic stories - to some major ruminations on Empire and the soul of humanity.

As most of us know, Star Trek is set about 200 years in the future, where space flight is commonplace, and earth is among a dozen 'civilized' planets in a "federation" of allies that explores the Milky Way in starships, with a lot of symbolic references to the age of exploration in the colonial past. As a child, these references to the wild west, and to "colonizing" planets did not offend me. Nowadays I see how strongly Star Trek both critiqued and yet reaffirmed American "exceptionalism" (i.e. racism, colonial mentality, manifest destiny, white supremacy, patriarchy et al.)

But I also saw the vast expanse of both social and technological imagination applied in the show, and the self-criticisms of western ways in Star Trek to be an opening for a deeper set of transformative, revolutionary possibilities. Then I grew up.

In many ways, Obama is the embodiment of both the sweet and sour of Star Trek's lasting imaginary. Certainly, Obama represents a degree of racial reconciliation in American life in 2009 and I'm not ashamed to celebrate that fact. However, Obama can also very easily be seen as a 'shaded' face on white supremacy and merely a colorful figurehead for Western colonial rule running unabated.

But that is still change, and I'll take my critiques and deal with them, but I'll also be at the party when it is time to celebrate a moment of humanity shining through. The Star Trek movie is nothing more than an action film, but it opens the door to ideas that were once a delight to imagine, and I say its okay for them to be imagined again.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What if James Brown was President?

On The Godfather of Soul's birthday, many of us funkateers, soul brothas and soul sistas like to entertain the phrase "James Brown for President" and play his 1974 hit "Funky President."

Now we actually have a Funky President, and I think Obama is doing a better Job than President Brown might have done. I stopped to think what realisitcally would be James Brown's policy positions?

First of all, Brown endorsed Richard Nixon and supported Nixon's "Black Capitalism" campaign, which was frought with contradictions. He would likely support the major corporations ideas of de-regulation and small government. He would probably not support Affirmative Action,as he was adamant about self help and community self determination without intervention.

Brown took his band to Vietnam in 1968 at the height of the anti war protest movement, defending it through his proclamations of patriotism for America. All this did however was put him on the government's watch list. But President Brown would probably be as pro Iraq war as Bush, or at least as most of the Republicans have been. dang.

Remember Watergate? Brown wrote the song "You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I'll be Straight" which, while it empathized with the bro on the street, it also supported the notion that government snenanigans should not be investigated. I think Brown would be an obstructionist and secretive administrator.

Imagine all the white girl interns running around the white house.

Having said all of that, James Brown would definitely be Soul Brother Number One in the White House, and be King of the World, let's be real about that one. He would stand up to any petty dictator on the planet and roll with legit world leaders Obama has done.

Not sure about Brown's stance on women's rights. He believes "It's A Man's World" after all. Not many women appoointed to the Supreme Court from President Brown. But he would definitely be a strong leader, making "Soul Power" a party platform.

Regardless of all of his contradictions, James Brown allowed us to imagine our own greatness as Black and Proud people for the first time, and he has a singular legacy across the entirety of the black community in that respect.

What is the purpose of a blog?

As if we don't get enough of the trivial info from each other across long distances, here is yet another means of getting to know someone superficially and yet still peruse inside the mind of someone else.

I was inspired and urged on by Davey D, who was blogging long before email was around, back in the 1980s when folks such as Davey, Bruddah K, Beni B, G-Spot, Tamu & Sediki, Natty Prep, Billy Jam, Jeff Chang and myself were at the forefront of an exploding east bay hip hop radio scene at KALX.

A lot of what we were doing then is just as relevant today, and maybe more so, as we are now hip hop elders, storytellers, hip hop griots with info for the historically minded fans of hip hop based culture.  I've grown and developed a lot of new ideas since those KALX days.  We'll see where this goes.