Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tell me you're going to be...

Hopefully you're in the midst of people you love. My wife and I bought a house a few months ago and lately I've been thinking a lot about the nature of houses and homes. A lot about being thankful.

It's amazing to see Luther so self-assured, so powerful. Dude could sing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Way Mulattas Make Me Feel

After reading all of these good reviews about the new Michael Jackson movie, I think I'm going to jump over the cliff like the rest of the lemmings and go see it. I wrote a post about MJ's iconic Black or White video a couple months back and that lead one of my old IR compadres Hannah Notess to ask me to write something for the journal she's at, The Other Journal.

I always tripped off the video for Michael's "The Way You Make Me Feel" because it's such a sweet song, but such a strange video (which is often the case with Mike). Basically, it's off the BAD album and it's Michael's version of an NWA video. (As a matter of fact, I think the video's female lead went on to even greater success in Dr. Dre's "Ain't Nothing But A G-Thang" where she got 40ozs of St. Ides dumped on her head.) Anyway, the piece is called The Way Mulattas Make Me Feel. You can check it out here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Max = Not Marriage Material

When I was in kindergarten my dad taught me how to feed insects to ants. In the backyard of our house we squatted down, looking for bugs and swarming ant's nests. If you found the right size bug and the right location in an ant's nest, you'd have a show that beat anything on Wild Kingdom. Years later, my parents divorced and I spent a lot of time turning over stones in the dry brush of our backyard, "playing" with bugs by myself.

Thinking back on it, I'm a little shocked at the cruelty of the pastime. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person. Torturing bugs is the recreation of sociopaths, after all. But my regret is tempered by an appreciation for how I was battling my own loneliness and trying to assert some control over a world that seemed so far beyond me.

And it's also true that you end up doing a lot of (strange!) mean stuff when you're a kid.

So, watching Where the Wild Things Are, I felt partially transported back to that backyard, with it's rough stones and soft dirt, and solitary malice. Spike Jonze's beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak story is picture-perfect in creating a world that is somber, hopeful, cruel, weird, melancholy, menacing, and joyful. The experience is similar to one of those strange dreams where you're know you're sleeping, but the dream world seems real anyway.

But I was not Max. Although I missed my mom and dad because they worked so much, in the movie Max's father is absent. It's never explained, but the sadness that hangs over the family suggests that the absence is permanent. My dad was still there to show me how to hit a baseball or play chess or drive a stick shift.

Plus, I never tweaked on my mom like Max does in the movie. He jumps on a kitchen counter, in full wolf costume, yelling at his mom to "make my dinner, woman," (even though she's got company and it's obvious she's trying to get her groove back.) He later takes a bite out of her shoulder and runs off like a wild animal. My mother is a kind woman, but I was smart enough to know that the consequences for that kind of behavior would be unspeakable.

And quick word of advice for all the single ladies out there trying to get someone to put a ring on it: if you find a wolf costume, with a pointy crown, in the closet of the man you are dating, keep stepping. As much as I like Where the Wild Things Are, it might as well be called Portrait of a Woman Batterer as a Young Man.

One of my quibbles with the movie is that I wasn't clear how the movie wanted me to feel about Max's cruelty to his mother. Early on we get that she cares a lot for him and is sacrificing for her son. (The scene with him dictating a story to her to make her feel better was a very "writerly" moment by the way. Word to Dave Eggers.) But then we see there's some new guy in the house who looks kind of wormy and mom is giggling with him and they're popping bottles. When Max comes through looking for some loving attention, all he gets is frozen corn. Although we empathize with the mother (even mama should get to swerve), the scene sets the stage for a justification of Max's crazy behavior.

Later, one of the movie's most touching moments is also one of its most troubling. When Max returns home, his mom doesn't say anything. I thought she might at least shake the teeth out his head, and then give him a hug, but no. From her reaction, I thought she was going to apologize for hurting his teeth with her skin. And despite his incredible and harrowing journey with the Wild Things that taught him about empathy and family and love, he doesn't have much to say to his mom when he gets home. No Sorry about that. No My bad. No My fault. No See what had happened was...

As a matter of fact, the main lesson he learns is that if he wants a home-cooked meal all he has to do is go missing for a couple hours. He gets all of mom's attention (no swerve for her!) and a fat piece of chocolate cake. The grin on his face as his mother falls asleep from exhaustion is not chastened with regret, but emboldened by self-satisfaction. That doesn't seem like a good sign.

Despite these quibbles, the movie is amazing. Visually it's stunning, but the characterization of the Wild Things is even more so. In fact, I haven't had this much fun since the great stink beetle/ant hill battle of 1988.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Swagger

So what if he hasn't earned it yet. Your president has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Pop some bottles and stop all that vacillating, b*****s!

But seriously, the Nobel thing does seem a bit ill-timed. Obama's got a major decision to make about troop deployments in Afghanistan. Everyone knows the war is a losing proposition that is going to cost America more blood and treasure. But if they withdraw, the Taliban is going to be back to their old tricks, stoning women and planning terrorist attacks. Either way, NeO is going to get the blame.

And that's what makes the Nobel thing a little confusing. Ideologically, NeO seems to be a world apart from Bush, but on policy, whether it's Guantanamo, state secrets, privacy concerns, Iraq, corporate bailouts, etc, they are closer than I would have ever have imagined. I think part of this has to do with the ingrained corporate power structure that controls the presidency, but part of it has to do with Obama.

Accolades aside, NeO will be judged on his ability to step back from the Rubicon that has already been crossed by Bush (and Clinton). He has to pull back the power of the executive branch if that Nobel prize is going to mean anything because an unchecked Executive branch means war, war, and more war.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You may have guessed...

School started, y'all. Your homie is staying funky, but I gotsta get ready for these chilruns. In honor of the season:

Get it? They're bears.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rick James & The Mynah Birds

Did you know that Rick James and Neil Young were in a band together back in 1965, long before the days of Super Freak? Strange, but true. The Mynah Birds featured James as frontman and Neil Young and Bruce Palmer on guitar. Apparently Rick was in love with Mick Jagger's sound, which is ironic because Mick was in love with Muddy Waters' sound. If you're keeping score at home, that's a Black man imitating a White man, imitating another Black man. Funk's got some serious layers (word to Margo Crawford.)

The Mynah Birds recorded a bunch of songs and were signed to Motown (don't forget that Rick's uncle was the Tempts' Melvin Franklin). But the album was never released because Rick had actually gone AWOL from the Navy and was on the run in Toronto when he started the band. Rick did a year in the brig, Motown shelved the album, and the Mynah Birds got their wings clipped. But listening to the songs, "It's My Time," and "I've Got You in My Soul," you can't help but wonder what might have been.

You can read about the whole sordid affair in this article on Spinner.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Rock Sex rocks!

It's Friday, so you should do yourself a favor and check out Rock Sex, a blog I stumbled on that charts the connections between blues, funk, rock, soul, and whatnot. Basically, it tracks how songs get adapted by different artists across different genres and features a lot of cool music so you can hear the similarities yourself. Instead of grumbling about how an artist has "stolen" a song from someone else (although the Beach Boys robbed Chuck Berry!), the site takes an enlightened approach. According to author Tym Stevens:
"Rock'n'Soul music is a baton relayed by everyone. ROCK SEX is about all of the creative connections that link our shared culture together."
A good place to start is Al Green's Take Me to the Water, which is a personal favorite of mine. Stevens shows how Bryan Ferry and the Talking Heads both made derivations of that excellent soul cut.

But you also got to check out how he tracks the development of "Tainted Love." I'm used to the Soft Cell Version, but I did not know that Gloria Jones recorded the Soul version first. Cool stuff.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Where everybody knows your name...

I'm working on a Cheers metaphor for Obama Beer Summit 2009 (of course Cheers didn't have any major Black characters, so that makes this difficult).
Sorry, Nick Tortelli doesn't count.

Well, they did make it a little easier by adding Joe Biden to the meeting, who makes a perfect Ernie "Coach" Pantusso.
Hey, let me tell you about those dumbass russians...

And Henry Louis Gates would be the natural choice as Frasier. A somewhat snooty academic who when agitated exhibits loud and tulmultous behavior.
Sgt. James Crowley, dedicated public servant, would be a great Cliff Claven.
Hey Woody, Did I ever tell you about the time I kicked down Cornell West's door...?

And I guess Obama, the lady-killer ex-jock serving up the brews at the White House would be a natural Sam Malone.
Well, inapproriate Cheers allusions aside, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our country survived this crisis and that Sgt. Crowley didn't have to take the two rogue Negroes into custody.
Don't forget to save a little Blue Moon for the dead homies...
All jokes aside, you have to commend NeObama for his sense of political theatre. He stepped in it last week, but he wiped his shoe off and kept striding.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Obama in Ghana


Talking Points Memo posted new pictures from Obama's Ghana trip. Do yourself a favor and have a look.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Uhhh, Awkward!

I'm not going to spend a lot of time telling you how I felt about the way Henry Louis Gates was treated by the police. (Let's just say that I immediately adjusted my Facebook status to reflect my outrage.) However, I do have to make a confession: I think that may have been an inopportune moment for our first Negro president to invite himself into (White) America's homes and call the police stupid.

I know that we need to stand in solidarity behind our leader, especially in his moment of need, particularly when he is defending another brother. I know. I know. I know.

But allow me to make a confession: right now I could really care less about racial profiling. Or what it "means" to be Black in America, as reported by CNN. Or whether X person was hired/fired because he was Black. Or what Reverend Wright said. Or what Reverend Jackson said. Or what Reverend Sharpton said. Or what any other Reverend said.

Sorry, Reverend, I don't have time to discuss Thelma's biological clock

Or what Chris Brown did. Or what Michael did. Or what Michael didn't do. Or the inordinate sentencing of Black males. Or the merits of reparations for centuries of slavery.

Some of these "Black issues" are worth giving attention to, but the only "Black issue" that's important right now is health care.

If you give me the assurance that all Americans will have access to basic health insurance (and maybe even throw in equal access to education), then you can keep reparations. Even if the government gave us money for slavery, Black people would be spending most of their reparation checks on going to the doctor for diabetes, heart disease, HIV, etc.

If we're going to have a "national conversation" right now, it shouldn't be about whether Black professors should be arrested for loud tawkin' a White man. Of course they shouldn't but I'm sure even Mr. Gates would agree that his case is only really important within the context of a broader conversation about the way Black males are treated in society. The most troubling thought for me is how many brothers have been caught in similar situations and ended up jailed, beaten, and even worse.

Mr. Gates, please step away from the tricycle

But we can't have that conversation right now. This isn't the moment. There's too many things going on for us to start having Obama become Black before White people's eyes. That was one of his main appeals, kind of like Will Smith, he has the power to make White people comfortable, even while he is displaying his strength. But he's got to be careful. I wasn't trying to hate when I said that he is destined to be deeply unpopular at some point during his presidency. It's bound to happen, but what really matters is how he acts when the heat really gets turned up. That will be his crucible.

But I still believe in him like it's nobody's business. I admire his brilliance and his ability to keep an open heart, even if it makes him vulnerable at times. The difference between him and his predecessor is that Dubya was never made to feel ashamed for being a White man. He wore his cowboy boots and his smirk and his flight suit and ran his mouth whenever he saw fit. When he declared his Whiteness to the world, it was called patriotism.

Laura Bush thought bubble: Put that down and act like you got some sense.

Obama's showing us how to do this thing, this thing that has never ever ever ever ever been done, but this was a misstep.

I know we were in dangerous water when he joked about getting shot by White House security. Basically the humor of the joke is based in the idea that the security apparatus that is designed to protect White power is so entrenched that it would sacrifice the life of it's own Black president to preserve its symbols of White power. What kind of thing is that to lay on people? That's too heavy. Although there were a lot of criticism you could make about Dubya, that's one thing he did: keep it short (and stupid.)

Caption unnecessary

I'm not suggesting that Obama dumb down his message, but on Wednesday I got the sense that he was feeling pretty frustrated. Like he was tired of hearing about wise latina judges and overweight Black women Surgeon Generals and White men talking about they were going to "break" him. And he did what a whole lot of brothers would have done a long time ago: let 'em know.

I definitely understand the sentiment, but we can't allow anyone to take their off the ball now. Our people need health care. Now.

*****But, if we're going to have a "national conversation," let's hear what Mr. James has to say:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Indiana Review 31.1

One of the unfortunate side effects of teaching this past year was that although I was teaching literature, I hardly got a chance to read literature (let alone write literature, but that's another story.)

Where the magic happens

That was a big change for me, coming from being editor at Indiana Review where I was constantly reading good (and not so good) fiction and poetry. We published two issues a year, but read constantly to find the best material. There was a lot of reading, a lot of meeting, and a lot editing, but the product was always so rewarding.

The Last (Fiction Meeting) Supper, 2007

Anyway, I recently got some time to sit down and read through the latest issue of IR, and although it made me a little misty-eyed to see my name not featured in the masthead, the material inside reminded me how excellent an institution IR remains.

Shelly Oria's story, "New York 1, Tel Aviv 0" is a gut punch of love story about a unrequited love in a three-way romance. It evokes the landscapes of both New York and Tel Aviv, while giving us a narrator whose voice is surprising and consistently engaging.
"When you smell another man on one of the women you love, you suggest we all hop in the shower; you say you feel sticky. When the same woman says, But I don't feel sticky, you say, Do it for me then, in a way that tells her a shower is easier than a conversation."
It's enough to make me miss the 1st reader box.

Melanie Rae Thon's story, "Seven Times Seven" is another piece that kept me turning pages. A fractured narrative about an uncle returning from war, still struggling with the voices of ghosts and monkeys and birds. Written in second person, Thon does an amazing job of juggling both her poetic and narrative instincts that allows us to both enjoy her language play and the story she's telling. Beautiful piece.

On the poetry side, Traci Brimhall's "Aubade in Which the Bats Tried to Warn Me," stands out. What a strange subject: a lover who beats bats with rackets for fun. But the piece has such a sense of lyricism and danger that you can't look away, even if you wanted to.
"How your father paid you to kill bats, a dollar a body/Last summer you let me watch./As you waited with a racket, timber wolves announced/ the moon, bats crept out of the attic. /The soft pulp of their bodies struck the house."
My thought: Dannnnnnnnnnng!

The non-fiction in the issue also nicely pushes the "typical" aesthetic for the genre, two of three pieces (Daniel Nester's "Cousin Mike: A Memoir" and Ander Monson's "The Essay Vanishes") offer engaging experiments with both structure and the interplay of the visual and literary.

I haven't finished with the issue, but I wanted to write something before I didn't get a chance (school starts soon. Ahhhhh!). If you're looking for some awesome late summer reading, go to the IR website and cop the new issue.

***Actually, it looks like you can score a free copy of the issue if you can answer a little Richard Pryor-related trivia.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everything is Everything: Mitchell Douglas' Cooling Board (Part II)

Mitchell Douglas has a new poetry collection out, Cooling Board. It's dope. Go buy it. This is the second part of our interview...

What's your favorite Hathaway cut?

That’s a toss up. It’s a tie between “Thank You Master (For My Soul)” and “For All We Know.” The former is on his first album Everything is Everything, the latter is on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. “Thank You Master” gave me the title for the book. There’s a moment in the song that feels totally ad-libbed when he starts testifying with the familiar phrase “My bed was not my cooling board, my sheet was not my winding sheet.” When the music gets quiet and it’s just Donny on the piano delivering those words, you feel like you’ve witnessed the most private moment in the world. It’s not the kind of thing you can plan.

I'm real fond of "Be Real Black For Me" on that Roberta and Donny album. I think the title is a little corny, but there's a lyric, "Our time, short and precious/Your lips, warm and luscious/You don't have to wear false charms" that kills me every time. The "Thank You..." joint reflects how amazingly Donny could switch from gospel to secular.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a manuscript of autobiographical family poems called stitch that is on its eighth or ninth life. I started working on that book before Cooling Board and I’ve continued to write new poems and revise it. Every time I think it’s done, I make another major change. We’ll see where it ends. I’ve also got two other projects I can’t say much about right now. Those works, in part, will be a return to persona poetry. One looks at an infamous death in the world of rock’n’roll, the other honors the life of an artist from my hometown, Louisville, KY. Of all these projects, stitch is nearest completion, the others are in early writing and research stages.

Last, but not leastly, where do you poets get all that money from? And how can I be down?

Ha! You know there ain't no money in this!!! When folks start making movies after books of poetry, the world will be a better place (lol).

Mitchell is a low-key brother, and I knew he was going to try and play it cool, but Misstra Knowitall was at Jericho Brown's book release party during AWP and has actual visual evidence of all the dollars these poets are clocking!

From left: Jericho Brown, Mitchell Douglas, and Frank X. Walker
Dang, I got to write me some poems.


This picture needs an appropriate caption. Ideas?

Monday, July 20, 2009

40 years ago today...

Sorry, I couldn't resist. My boy Stephen put me up to it. Gil Scott Heron on vocals. I don't know who put this crazy video together.

Everything is Everything: Mitchell Douglas' Cooling Board (Part I)

Photo by David Flores (
You couldn't tell Misstra Knowitall I wasn't going to change the whole game up when I first stepped up on that campus in Bloomington, IN. I going for an MFA, but I was going to show them Hoosiers something! I had my scholarship check (nobody told me it had to last all semester) and was about to let them square suckers know what was up! I thought I was too cool! That was, until I met Mitchell Douglas--who taught me what a for-real, smooth-writing-brother looks like.

Douglas' debut collection, Cooling Board, was published recently by Red Hen press. When I read that it was a "long running poem," I have to admit that I (briefly) thought: "Kneegropleeze. No way I'ma sit here and read a whole book of poetry in one sitting."

Next thing I knew: I was sitting there reading a whole book of poetry in one sitting.

Needless to say, it's dope and you need to get it (as in, buy it, not text message Mitchell to see if he's got a copy you can "check out"). It's all about the life of singer Donny Hathaway, a personal fave of mine. It's funky and soulful and beautiful. Just like Mr. Hathaway hisself.

I asked Mitchell some questions. He had some answers.

Taking the leap like you did with this book, investing so much time and creative energy into a collection that surrounds a single figure, must have made you nervous. What makes Donny Hathaway such a compelling figure for you?

My initial idea for the book was to have an entire collection devoted to my musical heroes. The catch was that they were all dead and the poems were a kind of commentary on their lives. The more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea. I stopped thinking about writing Hendrix and Cobain poems and narrowed the focus to Hathaway. The choice was easy because he was the artist I knew the least about. Also, there were plenty of books about the other artists I wanted to write about and none, at that time, about Hathaway. I wanted to give him his due. I did worry about doing Donny justice and writing poems that would capture his spirit , but the more I got into my research and talking to people that knew him, I stopped being afraid.

In your acknowledgments you big up Kevin Young, particularly his long form poetry class at Indiana University. How did the experience in that class inform your approach to Cooling Board?

That class was the start of the book. We had a great reading list: The Spoon River Anthology, Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and a book that opened my eyes for Cooling Board, Langston Hughes’ Montage of Dream Deferred. Kevin explained that Hughes intended the book to be a long poem and we discussed as a class if he succeeded. With each poem as a treatise on a different resident of Harlem, we decided that Hughes’ single focus in many poems/layers constituted a longer poem or narrative. What was also fascinating to me is how he used persona. There was, for example, the Southern dialect in the epistle “Letter” and a voice that could be considered a heightened sense of Hughes’ own in poems like “Harlem” and “Theme for English B.” Hughes taught me how to raise the hollers of many tongues to speak for one cause. We had the option of doing a research paper or turning in our own long poem as a final project. I chose the latter, and turned in 30 or so pages of Cooling Board. This was about four years before the book was published.

One of the things I admire most about this book is the breadth of voices that speak in these pages. I'm really interested in the way you begin by telling Hathaway's story through the voices of all these people who loved him (Miss Martha, Eulaulah, Roberta Flack, Curtis Mayfield), but then it seems like you start to mark his depression by introducing other "uninvited guests" that represent the voices of Hathaway's schizophrenia. What were you trying to achieve with this dynamic?

Donny was who he was because of love. I’m a father, so when I see kids and a parent is telling them to shut up, I wonder what their lives would be like with someone who took the time to say “Hush, baby. It’s time to be quiet.” He was nurtured as a musician early on by his grandmother, Martha Crumwell. Miss Martha had Donny on a stage at revivals playing the ukulele at three (she was known as a strong gospel performer herself). His mother, Drusella Huntley, wanted the best for Donny, so she moved from Chicago to St. Louis to be with her mother (Crumwell). If she hadn’t done that, the world may have never known Donny. So starting the book with the voices of those who loved him, as you note—his grandmother, his mother, his college sweetheart Eulaulah, his college friend Roberta Flack—was a way to show where he came from.

By introducing the “uninvited guests,” and the more frequent appearance of alternate takes, I hoped to disorient the reader and show him/her what living with schizophrenia was like. I think Donny was fiercely independent and, from what I’ve been told by family and friends, he didn’t like to take his medication. There is a published account by a friend that says in his last days, Donny would talk in one voice in the studio and answer himself in another voice. Sometimes, I think I could have added even more of the “uninvited,” but what is there now, I hope, gives everyone a sense of Donny’s struggle.


Everything is Everything (Part II): How do poets get all that money!?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

See what had happened was...

Allow me to re-introduce myself...

We should be worrying about whether we're going to get universal health care, but instead we're worried about a photo that (seems to) show President Obama and French Prime Minister Sarkozy, checking out a 17 year old delegate like they were standing outside a corner liquor store. Were they looking? The short answer: yes. The picture captures a moment in time where two men were (sexually?) gratified by the presence of a (young!) woman. However it's worth noting a few things:

1. The picture makes things look worse than they appear. In it, Obama seems to be trailing the sway of the women's booty, stepping up with one leg, bout to holler out "Damn, girl!", but the video tells another story.

In the video you see Obama is already looking in that direction when the young lady walks by and she passes through his line of sight. To be fair, this is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book, when it comes to scoping booty and shows the markings of a true player. (Guys, if you need to deny you know this, please feel free). If you see the booty approaching, you have to plot its trajectory and figure out where it's going to be. Wherever that is, you find something meaningful in that location. Ahh, look at that, I have a piece of fuzz on my shirt... The only thing that gives Obama away is the little pause he gives as she passes. You can see him enjoying the breath he's drawing in a little too much.

I think it's worth mentioning that the picture portrays Sarkozy in a more restrained pose, almost like he finds Obama's enoyment amusing, but the video makes him look much worse. He almost trips over himself trying to look at the young lady. Clearly been hanging out with Weezy and Drake too much. Word to Carla Bruni!

Got to stop hanging with this dude. He bout to get me kilt.

2. But, it's still not a good look for the President. One of his greatest strengths is his wife and this puts her on front street. He can try and plead his case and play the innocent role, but she's still going to go upside his head.

3. Let me just take a moment to thank God that she was not White. Can you imagine what that would have looked like in the news? And ain't it kind of messed up that it would be different?

4. Is this the kind of equality that Sarkozy was suggesting French muslim women are being denied by wearing a burka? And further, what kind of moral argument can Western governments make to the rest of the world when you have so many of our male leaders in emotionally abusive relationships with their wives (I love how South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford told everybody that he had found his soulmate in Argentina, but now he was going to try to "fall back in love" with his wife.) Word to Berlusconi!

5. Barack really has to watch this because there are already so many negative narratives about Black men, especially surrounding sexuality, and I would hate to see him portrayed like that.

What you trying to say?

6. Which leads me to my next point: You got to handle this NeObama. You have helped Black men considerably in the public opinion polls (we haven't seen these kinds of numbers since the Gary Coleman era), but we've noticed an unsettling dip lately. Our agreement was that we wouldn't do anything too stupid in your first three months of office that would make White folks try and impeach you (we even delayed the release of that new Souljahboy album), but you got to keep lifting us up by our bootstraps. White people don't smile as much as they used to when I wear my "Barack the Vote" t-shirt. That's not a good sign.

C'mon, now. Will Smith can't do this alone.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The King of Transcendence

“I always wanted to be something. I never wanted to be White...I always wanted to be something different, you know, than a nigga, because niggas had it so rough. I tried to be a Black cat with neat hair. I thought that was the problem: the hair. I said "if my hair was straight than whitey will dig me." So I got a process. Wrong.” -Richard Pryor, Live and Smoking
Michael Jackson didn't want to be White, he just didn't want to be Black. That's not to say he was ashamed of his Blackness, necessarily, but he found himself in the place Richard Pryor describes, where a Black man is unable to transcend being "just another nigga." Michael's transformations, of his hair, his skin color, face, weren't attempts to become White, but rather to be "something different," as Pryor said, something that could allow him to transcend the markers that he felt kept people from seeing the real Michael.
Ironically, the real Michael was very funky. Funk, with it's power to subvert dominant paradigms, can't help but be political, and despite the common narrative, so was MJ.

I used to think the music video, “Black or White,” was just about the lamest thing I had ever seen. It seemed like a shallow and naive attempt to address the turmoil of the Rodney King era, especially compared to sonic revolutionaries like Ice Cube, X-Clan, and Public Enemy, it seemed over-produced and yet another attempt by the artist to appeal to White listeners. But watching it again, I see how subversive a statement it makes about race and interraciality. So bear with me as I expose my inner analysis nerd.
The video opens with a young Macauly Culkin, at home jumping on his bed to MJ's music, fantasizing about being a pop star. The stereo is so loud that the little White boy doesn't hear his father (George Wendt) shouting at him downstairs.
(Cultural) Norm!
Pops stomps upstairs and screams at Mac to stop “wasting [his] time with this garbage!” He slams the door, sending a framed glass picture of Jackson shattering to the floor. Mac then faces the camera and gives his million dollar eyebrow wiggle.
You gotta fight for your right to party.
In the next scene, Mac pulls out a guitar, a single black glove, and a pair of dark shades. He pushes two outrageously large speakers into the living room, where his father is watching baseball, and his mother is absorbed in a tabloid newspaper. Mac tells Norm to “eat this,” before strumming an ear-splitting chord that propels his father through the roof of the house, and into deep space. This is all about playing on White patriarchal fears about the influence Black artists might have on the behavior of White children (traditionally on White girls).

It gets even more interesting when Norm lands, in his easy chair, on what looks to be an African savannah, complete with tall brown grasses, a pride of lions, and a tribe of painted Africans. So, not only has Jackson’s music turned White son against White father, it’s also removed the White father from his context of domination and introduced him into a completely foreign (and perhaps dangerous) context (wild Negroes and wild animals).

Damn, Tito, slow down!
Then the video cuts to MJ, leaping from one scene of cultural performance to the next. He dances with Africans, Cambodians, Native Americans, Indians, and Russians. Each time he seamlessly integrates their “traditional” dances in with his own signature steps. The camera then pulls away from MJ, showing that the settings we’ve witnessed are all contained within a small snow globe. The camera pulls back further and we see two diapered babies, one Black, one White, sitting on top of a large model of planet Earth. The White baby grabs the snow globe and the camera swirls around while the White baby seems to keep the toy away from his Black companion. (Message!)

That's my bike globe, punk!
The video then cuts to Jackson dancing through a wall of flame that transforms into a large flaming cross. In just a few scenes and images, Jackson has linked White supremacist ideology to the containment of cultures and peoples. He’s also violently resisted the attempt to control his free movement through interracial spaces by exploding forth from the snow globe and exposing the underlying specter of racial terrorism.

Jackson’s interraciality allows him to adapt the cultural performances of a range of peoples, irrespective of geography and it also allows him to transcend these spaces to make a larger, more significant statement against White supremacy.

Word to Joe Pesci>
Okay, the scene is more than a little ridiculous, but as in the earlier scene, Mac is inhabited by a Black presence and speaks out against traditional racial attitudes. His rhyme suggest that identity should not be based on race, but instead an understanding of a type of geographical heritage (deep). This line is vital to recognizing the significance of MJ’s projection of interraciality. He is no longer rooted to his (majority Black) hometown of Gary, Indiana, but is now able to use his interraciality to move from one location, and corresponding identity, to another, without missing a beat. Like Pryor said, he aspires to be "something different."

The tragedy of Michael was that he never seemed to recover from the knowledge that this kind of transcendence was illusory and no matter how many videos he made or records he sold, Black or White still matters.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Natural Way to Dro (Part III)

Funk art pioneer Pedro Bell got his first taste of the Black power movement during an extended visit with family in Florida.

"When I was in sixth grade I stayed with some family in St. Petersburg," he said. "They had separate schools down there, but that allowed them to do some things that you could never get away with in Chicago. They had an Afrocentric curriculum, which I had never seen before."

By the time he enrolled at Bradley University in the late '60s, the Black power movement was in full flower, even in Peoria. "I was just glad the revolution had finally arrived," he said.

On campus, Bell met people like Mark Clark, a Black Panther leader who started a free breakfast program for public school students in Peoria. "Youngblood was real cool with me," Bell said. (Clark was later tragically murdered, along with Illinois chapter president Fred Hampton, by the Chicago police in 1969).

Like many artists of the time, Bell's work began to reflect this Black Power aesthetic. His piece, "Motherhood in Red Black and Green" features a mother and son wearing thick brown Afros and defiant glares, their outlines suggestive of the African continent's shape. The piece was part of Indiana Review's Funk feature and is one of the few Bell still has from that period.

"I lent some artwork to the Black Panthers for an art show they were doing," Bell said, with a laugh. "Later I asked them when I was going to get my shit back and they told me that it "belonged to the people."

That incident, along with Bell's brief participation in a Panther protest that caused his expulsion from Bradley ("I was there holding a sign for five minutes and they got me for perpetrating some shit!"), soured Bell on the running with the Panthers, but he never soured on the Movement itself, particularly the music.

When James Brown dropped Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud) in 1968, Bell said the whole game changed. To illustrate how much, peep The Godfather's performance on Playboy After Dark.

With it's proto-funk bass line and soul-centric message (We're people/We're just like the birds and the bees/We'd rather die on our feet/Than be livin' on our knees) dropped like an atomic bomb on the consciousness of Black America.
"Some revolutions have happened to the sound of music," he said. "But with that record, James Brown helped make it cool to be Black. That was important."

Before he started working with George Clinton, Bell said his musical education was rounded out by two other legends, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.

"I saw Hendrix in May and B.B. in June," he said. "The first time I saw Hendrix, tears started coming down my eyes. Then I went to see B.B. and all these white kids were yelling in the crowd and I had to tell them to shut the fuck up so I could hear him play. And when you think about it, Funkadelic is just Sun Ra + Hendrix + B.B. That's it."

Judge for yourself:

Peep Hendrix on the Dick Cavett show, talking about his Electric Church (9:29 mark), which sounds like something right out of the book of P-Funk.

Here's a clip from Sun Ra's 1974 movie Space is the Place. Sun Ra is credited with his jazz innovation, but he is one of the first Funk philosophers.

And then there's B.B. Of course. This footage is taken from the 1974 concert in Zaire, during the Ali/Foreman fight. Thanks to my compatriot Vanessa, who hipped me to the fact that there's a movie coming out about the concert.

I wasn't sure how to work this in, but when I asked Pedro what contemporary stuff he was listening to, the surprise answer: The Stanky Legg. This was surprising because the only way I learned about the Stanky Legg was through my students, who never tired in their conversations about who did the best Stanky Legg, what personal variations they put on it, which teachers could do it (no, I will not do the Stanky Legg, even after you finish your writing prompt!), etc.
"Nice hooks, beats are okay," Pedro said, with a smile. "Lyrics could be better, but I don't expect much."
Without further ado, the soundtrack to my first year of teaching:

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Natural Way To Dro (Part II)

Verily, those soulfulifically jaded swashbucklers of agitpropitic burnbabydom --FUNKADELIC-- have descended from the Original Galaxy Ghetto to cleanse thy wayward souls THROUH MUSIC worthy of the immortals themselves. --Pedro Bell, Cosmic Slop liner notes.

Pedro "Dro" Bell isn't down with the Kindle. "It ain't there yet," he said. "It's like those first Macs that came out. I call it a Pimpscreen Mac because it talks a lot of shit, but it's not ready. It's going to be necessary because we can't keep killing all of these trees, but it won't replace the book in this generation."

Bell has a personal appreciation for computer-assisted reading because in recent years this visionary has lost most of his sight and can only read by using an electronic magnification device or audiobook.

Despite his disability, the self-confessed "techno-head" is wary of the move to "convert" an analog world into digital.

"For stuff like newspapers, that's not such a big deal because they are not as important to keep," he said. However, Bell said people underestimate the importance of preserving artificats of their culture, in multiple formats. "You better beware of that cryptogenic bomb. Everything you have will be wiped out."

The other day I posted about Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, which posits that technology and biology will become indistinguishable in the near future. "The Singularity" is the moment where the machines basically "take over". Looking at Dro's liner notes from Funkadelic's Cosmic Slop album, I'm struck at its prophetic tone. The first lines are both a warning and a call to arms for all of the world's Funkateers:
For virtual decades of alembic time parsecs, I have gazed upon the so-called highest life form on this planet with unbridled disgust! For the very source of life energies of Earth have become the castrated target of anile bamboozlery from homosapiens' rabid attempts to manipulate the omnipotent Forces of Nature!
Their directionless efforts to achieve the metaphysical state of godliness, eons premature to evolutionary destiny have, indeed, become an invitation to species extinction.
Don't say he didn't warn you. These are not merely liner notes, but testimony. The appeal is delivered with an urgency and precision that make them more than just compelling addendum to the excellent album inside, but an integral element in the art of this record.

The brilliance of the writing in the liner notes is matched by the beautiful and trippy art that accompanies it. Illustrations accompany each of the song titles listed on the inside. There are all manner of alien and familiar creatures represented, from flag waving eyeball handmonsters to Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Nixon, King Kong, and Bert from Sesame street. The funny part about it is that it all makes sense. It captures a world in the midst of great transformation (mutation?) where the techno and the bio are a funky mishmash.

Although the warnings are dire, there is a playfulness and irony to both the language and the imagery that hint at optimism. It seems to say that even if our future is uncertain, funk, in all of its forms, cannot be destroyed.

Here's a sample of the title cut, which tells a tripped out story about a wayward mother, a funkdified "Dear Mama" if you will.

By the way, I would recommend buying the Cosmic Slop album, even if you don't have a record player, for the amazing art and testimony that encases it.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Natural Way To Dro (Part I)

There only remained one piece of important business from my work at Indiana Review: Get funk art pioneer Pedro "Dro" Bell a copy of the Funk issue. We tried several times to send him his contributor's copies, but they kept coming back, so I figured the best way to get them to him would be to deliver them in hand.
After a season of cold spring Chicago days, a couple Saturdays ago the sun was finally peaking out from the clouds and it was getting warm. I decided to escape from the mountain of papers I had to grade and called Dro to see if he had time to meet up. I live on the Northwest side and Dro was over South in Hyde Park, so I had a train/bus ride ahead of me. He tried to give me directions, but I thought I was bad with my little Blackberry GPS and ended up getting lost. Anyway, I got over South finally and the cold wind off of the Lake had me shivering. I called Dro and told him to meet me in the Borders nearby because of the cold. He agreed and I went in. I'm familiar with that Borders because there are some Brothers who have chess games upstairs in the cafe. The guys talk all kinds of sheet, but they are good and quick, and although I hardly ever win, I learn stuff.

Dro said he was going to be wearing a long coat and a hat and that he shouldn't be that hard to find. He chuckled when I told him I had on a George Jackson t-shirt. "I know you cold," he said. I jogged upstairs to catch a quick game and ended up waiting for a long time. Finally, I extracated myself from a chess beatdown and called Dro to see what was up. He said that he had already been there, hadn't seen me, and went back home. He said he hadn't thought to go upstairs, but that he was almost legally blind and couldn't hardly see anyways.

He came back again and I met him at the entrance. He had a wooden artist's case, brown overcoat, and camoflage fishing hat that covered grey hair. Artists can be a strange lot, so it's hard to know how someone is going to be, especially when it's someone as influential (and cool) as Dro, but he put me at ease with a smile and a handshake. His coolness was further confirmed when we were getting ready to step back out into the cold streets and out of his bag, Dro pulled a cream-colored sports coat that fit me perfectly. "You going to need this, man."

Misstra Knowitall in coat (B-Boy stance)

Needless to say, I appreciated the gesture. We walked down to a nearby pizza joint and chopped it up for about three hours about all topics funk-related.

Pedro Bell, The Funkiest Drawer of Them All

One of the things I enjoy the most about Dro's work is the way he's able to dynamically combine words and pictures. Every illustration has some kind of textual component, either ironically commenting on the action or pushing you to look closer at the images. According to Dro, that's because he has always seen himself as a writer primarily. "I'm a writer who just happens to be an artist," he said, chomping on a burger with everything on it. "Writing was always easy for me. Drawing was work."

As a boy growing up all over Chicago, Dro learned to draw from his older brothers and learned the power of words straight from his daddy's Bible, specifically Genesis and Revelations, arguably the funkiest books in the Good Book.

"He used to read Genesis, and that turned me on to dinosaurs and Godzilla," he said. "I also got turned on to Latin, and that's where I came up with the idea of having a Rumpasaurus. Revelations was all about the future, which lead me to reading a lot of science fiction."

All of these influences are clear in Dro's work, which is at once silly, ironic, visionary, scary, and thoughtful.

When it came time to finish a Funkadelic album, George Clinton would come to Dro and pitch him a concept.

"It usually had to have a quick turnaround because the album would be so delayed and the studio wanted it," he said. Clinton would describe the album, play a few cuts, and then Dro would get to work. "Most of the time I would come from those meetings with a big picture of what I wanted to do."

Dro ended up doing work on all of the Funkadelic covers, which included graphics and liner notes. He notes that many of his creations ended up in song lyrics, like the title song for the Clones of Dr. Funkenstein album.

In Rickey Vincent's Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One, he describes Dro's contribution thusly:

"Bandleader George Clinton and writer-artist Pedro Bell were the primary sources of an endless flow of offbeat black philosophy that mocked the self-importance of religious and political doctrines wile subtly creating their own...Bell was also guilty of perpetrating a bizzare, Afro-centric mythology on long Funkadelic album cover essays, which complemented his felt-tip marker-drawn mutant-scapes of urban black life. Bell's visual imagery had the seamless layering of twisted symbols from the uncocnsious that Salvador Dali was known for, whil Bell's dark ghetto eroticism and hyperbolic grammar forged a new realm of black language."
If you haven't copped that book, you need to, by the way. Dro says his best cover is Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Because I had the time to work on it!"), even though it was censored by the record company after they deemed it too controversial.

This was the original:

And this was the censored version:

Despite the censorship, Dro understands the importance of the visual component to Funkadelic's success.

"If you have have group that has a concept that's visual, people will by the product," he said. Groups like Mandrill and The Undisputed Truth were impressive, but didn't have the longevity of Funkadelic because they lacked a coherent (literal) vision of themselves, and the world they were creating. "If you want to survive, you better have some visual concept, and if you really want to survive you better have more than that."

He thinks contemporary groups have learned the lesson and gives props to the Wu-Tang Clan for having "blended multimedia concepts" that will help their longevity. He also notes that this kind of production has to be collaborative. "All of that can't be done with just one dude, man."