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 like...like 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.