Sunday, February 22, 2009

The countdown to impeachment

People need to be comfortable with idea that there will come a time, perhaps soon, that the mighty mighty O will be very unpopular. Every other day in the news I see some new poll telling us that Obama is "slipping" or "sliding," despite the fact that he's still hugely popular. Whenever the economy is going badly, the President is always blamed, no matter how long he's been in office. And it looks like he's going to have to, in the words of Nas, "destroy and rebuild," the financial sector, which is just one of many big changes we need. It's always more popular to talk about change than to actually make change. And on top of everything else, he's a brother. America has a long-standing HR policy concerning Negroes: last hired, first fired.

The media has had to restrain themselves while Obama's poll numbers have been high, but once he drops below a certain level, the gloves are coming off. The disgrace left by the former president set an awful precedent about the (low) esteem with which we should hold for the presidency. Few presidents have done more to expand the scope of presidential power, while at the same time diminishing the stature of the office itself. Think about this: the elected(?) president of the United States had shoes thrown at him, and his own country laughed, loud. There was a time when that would have been unthinkable.

Expect Obama to come under more scrutiny than any president in history. With the continual focus on polls numbers, you can already see the media trying to enter the second part of its messiah narrative for our fearless leader. But I'm actually okay with that. Contrary to popular belief, the inauguration wasn't just a celebration of something achieved. It was also a preparation for the challenges we have yet to face. Soul food, if you will.

When times get tough at my school, I think back to how hopeful my students and I were on inauguration day. That memory is something special that can't be taken back, no matter how many cartoon chimpanzees they kill. We just got to be ready for the long haul. The only way real change ever occurs is through strife and struggle. It's about to get real. And that could be a really good thing*.

*As long as I can still pay my rent.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Democratic Chess

I'm all for spreading democracy and all that, but sometimes a good old monarchy is the way to go. Recently I saw a post about a new type of chess set that will use computerized pieces fitted with tiny cameras and tiny chess brains that will allow them to communicate with each other, and their human players. The idea is that this collaborative effort will be able to determine the "best" move. It's called "democratic chess" and although it's still in the drawing board (so to speak) phase, I can't help but wonder why we feel the need to have our chess pieces talk back to us?

On one level, it's kind of interesting to think of how the different pieces have different personalities and perspectives. The preservation of their king and capturing of the oppossing king would ideally be foremost in the average piece's minds, but that's probably not true. Something about soliciting "advice" from the pieces doesn't seem wise.

Take the knight for instance. You got to think that with all of it's crazy L-shaped moves across the board, all it wants to do is jump and jump and jump, with no regard to strategy or common sense.
El Kabong
The French composer and chess player, François-André Danican Philidor, once said that the pawn was the "soul of chess." That's all nice and good, but pawns are pawns. They rarely get the opportunity to checkmate the opposing king (the goal of the game) and their short lives are spent obsessing over the possibility they might one day be promoted to a queen if they reach the other side of the board. Can you say Cinderella complex?

Bishops are the older siblings to pawns and thus have little respect for their value. They act cool, but secretly harbor an inferiority complex about standing next to the queen. Any advice you get from them would probably involve mass pawn and queen sacrifices.
This is someone's father

Rooks, with all due respect, are too dumb to be listened to. My uncle has a saying: If your only tool is a hammer, than every problem will look like a nail. Rooks are on some "Hulk smash!" type-stuff all day, every day. They are also no big fan of pawns because they're too dumb to go around the little guys.
Who you calling castle?

The Queen is bloodthirsty. In chess' original inception 1,500 years ago, there was no queen. The thought of a feminine piece wouldn't have been taken seriously, particularly the idea of the piece being the most powerful. Even though she's long established her dominance, the Queen still has something to prove. She's also not a fan of those distrustful pawns who are always scheming to replace her. "Off with their heads!" she says.
Check yourself.

The King has the most sage advice because he can see the whole board. He knows the value of his subjects, but knows that in the end they must be sacrificed. It's heavy stuff, so in his quieter moments, the the King entertains himself with the thought that he could potentially live on a board with nine queens. Even though he can barely walk, it's good to be King.

One of the reasons chess has endured all these centuries is because it's all about brutal hierarchies and not democracy. It teaches lessons that have long served those who have, or aspire to, power: on the board everyone has a place; every piece has a prescribed set of moves; the lowest of the low have the possibility of transformation if they remain loyal, forward-moving soldiers; and, most importantly, the death of the King is the death of the game. Long live the king.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Buy your own damn fries

My uncle recently sent me the Mighty O's autobiography, Dreams From My Father, which I've been meaning to read for a second. I've been a little hesitant because I didn't want to be an even bigger Obama-stan than I already am, but hearing clips from the audio book version has made it official: Obama is gangsta.

Any place, he will play

I became Misstra Knowitall in the den of my uncle's Cosby dream house. At the time I was an adolescent who had lived in many homes. My mother and I left Minneapolis when I was two-and-a-half to pursue my mother's pursuit of her destiny in Chicago. After she finished up at the University of Chicago, we moved to Los Angeles, where my father lived. Then we moved to Berkeley. And then Richmond. And then Berkeley. And Oakland. So, a large portion of my childhood was lived on the road.

But it was a different story when I visited my uncle back in Minneapolis. They had the nice house, the beautiful kids, the close family, the large den with the butter-soft leather couch. And my uncle had all this music. He had a library of music I had never heard, except in small doses from my father. This music was heady and funky and genius. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Funkadelic, the Temptations. I plugged in my uncle's headphones and made mixtap after mixtape for myself and my father. It was here that I discovered Stevie Wonder's Innervisions.

Innervisions is about the closest to a short story cycle you ever going to hear on record. The songs are a fractured narrative of a people searching for a hope that they can feel, but never touch. There are ruminations on the distance between political fantasy and reality. The measures that individuals take to escape their own perceptions (and doubts.) Moral tales about dreams deferred. Calls to prayer, and song. All of these stories build on each other to create a landscape, at once painful and beautiful.

And than there's "Misstra Know-it-all". The song, which details the misdeeds of a lying, cheating, huckster, is an attack on President Tricky Dick Nixon. Nixon, who was just a year into his second term when the album was released, was the prototypical Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, a la Parliament Funkadelic. Nixon was spying and stealing and lying and killing and just generally trying to destroy the producers of Funk, all in a vain attempt to escape the reality that if you have an ass it is gunna want to shake. No matter how tight it is.

On the song, Wonder reimagines Tricky Dick as Misstra Know-it-all. The character passes counterfeit money, is always cool, lies with a smile, and “is the kind of dude that won’t pay his debt.” In a few strokes, Wonder brings Nixon down to the level of a small-time crook. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to associate Misstra Know-It-All with the snake-like voice that tricks the protagonist from “Living for the City” to get arrested by the police. By representing what he considered the immoral ethos of a character like Nixon, Wonder makes a powerful political statement not only about the President, but all the Misstra Know-It-Alls of the world.

And that song, and album, was a large part of my funkucation. I was forever changed within the plush folds of my uncle's carpet. A part of me opened up and I took on the Misstra Knowitall moniker so as to never forgett: with great funk comes great responsibility. From then on, I swore allegiance to the funk. The whole funk, and nothing but the funk. Or so help me, funk.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Across 110th Street

I'm embarassed to admit that I recently "discovered" Bobby Womack. I had heard people talk about him before, but something about him seemed corny or too old school for me. Yeah, I was pretty dumb. That was until I came to Chicago for my first interview for Teach for America. I drove up one frosty morning from Bloomington, Indiana. I was early for my 8am interview and I was feeling nervous, hungry, and wired. Driving around the South Side of Chicago, I saw the Golden Nugget cafe, the large yellow sign shined like a heavenly beacon. And on the radio, Bobby Womack's was singing about his friend, Harry Hippy. Womack can sing it rough, he can sing it sweet, but no matter what, he's always soulful and funky.

Ever since that morning in Chicago, I've been loving me some Bobby Womack. I never realized that he sung Across 110th street, which might be the greatest song about pimping, evar.

And I love "If you think your lonely now"...

but if you haven't heard him sing "Sweet Caroline," than you are missing out.

It makes sense that I would like Bobby because I love Sam Cooke and Sam Cooke was the one who gave Bobby his first big break. Cooke produced Womack and his brothers when they were the Valentinos. It has long gone unrecognized that Sam Cooke was one of the smartest music business minds of his generation. He knew the importance of owning what he recorded. He was a peer to James Brown's revolution of the mind. (As a matter of fact he sent Womack and his brothers on tour with James Brown. Funk boot camp if you will.)

But than Cooke got shot. The circumstances of that killing are murky. There's a lot of talk, but nothing conclusive. Cooke had a history of infidelity. He had publicly supported Malcolm X. His financial independence reportedly irked record labels, some with mob ties.
The official story was that he checked into a motel near Watts and allegedly attempted to rape the woman he was with, who ran (with Cooke's clothes) to the motel manager, who apparently armed with a .22, put two shots in the unclothed Cooke and beat him with a broom stick. Sounds fishy, right? It's nothing new that a brother gets killed in suspicious circumstances, a victim of his own "impulses."

This tale involves Womack because he ended up marrying Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell, three months after Cooke's death. The public furor over the star-crossed nuptials (which only lasted four years) caused a backlash which derailed Womack's career.

But along with being an incredible singer, Bobby is a phenomenal writer and guitarist. He wrote Wilson Pickett's, "I'm In Love",

Wrote the Rolling Stone's first (and second) hit song, "It's all over now,"

Co-wrote (along with poet Michael McClure) Janis Joplin's song, "Trust Me."

He even played guitar for Aretha Franklin on "Chain of Fools."

On April 4th, Womack will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's about time. There are few artists whose impact on American music has gone more unrecognized by the mainstream. Do yourself a favor and get some Womack in your life!