Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hip-Hop ain’t dead..yet or “Havana is just like Compton”

When Nas released his single, “Hip-Hop is Dead” it caused a stir of controversy in amongst every facet of the rap world. Created more as a critique, many took his words literally thought some might say that Hip-Hop is indeed dead and died several years ago. Well, the music LIVES! In the spirit of protest, social critique and political accountability felt in Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic tune, “The Message”, Cuban MC Aldo Rodriguez is laying tracks of revolution in Havana.

The 23-year old is not afraid to use the music to speak to his experience in the communist nation still under the rule of Fidel Castro. Rodriguez is engaging themes and issues that the government likely does not agree with. Speaking for the people, Rodriguez’s group, Los Aldeanos (“The Villagers”) is one of the most popular in Cuban underground hip-hop scene. They have tackled issues denouncing racism, police harassment, prostitution, and overall inequality, all continuing themes in contemporary American hip-hop.

“I’ve pointed out things that seems to be wrong to me,” Rodriguez mentions in a CNN interview. Explaining Los Aldeanos’ popularity, Rodriguez says, “They [the people] like to hear it because they identify with what they hear in the songs…it’s the truth…” In an effort to curb the voice of the music, the Cuban government created the Cuban Rap Agency in 2002. The government promotes and produces its own artists and you can rest assured lyrics found in Los Aldeanos’ track “Ya Nos Cansamos” (loosely translated We’re Fed Up”/”We’re Tired”) are not part of the governments rap agenda. Lyrics like:

“They’re always saying were all equal
But you tell me if the doorways are crumbling in the generals’ houses.
Of course all the hospitals in Cuba are free
But who do they treat better, the officers, or me?”

are part of the verse you will hear from Los Aldeanos and it sounds very similar to Melle Mel’s voice revealing American inequalities twenty-five years ago, “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.” Rodriguez and those like him in Havana are keeping the music alive, real, and relevant.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Real State of the Union

On January 23, 2007, President George W. Bush gave what many thought was the State of the Union Address. The real state of the Union was given my Don Imus and was heard across the world on television, radio, and streaming live through the internet. If you thought that Hurricane Katrina was an example of how the normative population of this nation holistically feels about her citizens of African descent, you have just been reminded again. Do not think for a minute that Imus is in the minority among white citizens of this country. There are many that share his racist beliefs. He proclaims that he said something very stupid, but he’s not racist…he just made a racist remark. I beg to differ. His comments came from the heart and were indeed sincere. He admitted that he was not intoxicated or on any medications that would have placed him in some irrational state of mind or impaired his judgment in any way. When he spoke so hatefully, he did so in a very comfortable and naturally way. I say that he was drunk however; intoxicated by the privileges of his race, class, and gender. Imus’ barrage of insensitivity is not just racist but the sexist context of his utterances cannot be overlooked. He called every black woman a “nappy-headed hoe” and his use of Spike Lee’s characterization of the “jigaboos vs. the wannabe’s” (from the film School Daze) is not drawing enough attention either. Outrage at his comments should come from throughout the African Diaspora.
Of course at this point we must ask, “What can we learn from this?” Is this something solely for African Americans to engage or is it a topic for the nation to grapple with? Where do you direct the rage and anger? I’ll tell you. African Americans must make this a teachable moment for ourselves, and the nation. We must continue to discuss and question our existence in America. That can only be accomplished through an active program of education of self and then and only then can we be able to chart a true path of self-determination. Where or how do we start? First we must educate ourselves on our own history. Many of the problems we currently face are self-inflicted and that come from ignorance of the struggle for equality that has afforded so many of us the luxuries we now take for granted. Education is never too late or too soon. We must supplement the current institutional education provided us with histories that help to empower and embolden us to continue to stand against those not only espouse racist remarks from their mouth but also act on white supremacist rhetoric.
Furthermore, let us re-examine our so-called black leadership. Does Sharpton or Jackson really speak for us? If we are not a monolithic people how can one or two individuals speak for the entire race? Additionally, where is the next generation of activist leadership? Are they being mentored by the likes of the Civil Rights generation, or more importantly, how to we create and uplift the localized leadership that was the catalyst for the movement for racial equality during the black freedom movement?
Imus has given us a chance to glance back at ourselves and do what we can to arm ourselves mentally, spiritually, and physically against the enemy of hate and ignorance both with our race and outside of it as well. As the normative population reaffirms their true thoughts about persons of African descent, more than ever we must know ourselves for ourselves. Individuals such as Imus will rear their repugnant faces time and time again, but do not use such actions as an excuse to get fired up. This is not a cause celebre’ simply because a washed up radio personality made some hateful remarks. We must be continually committed to bettering our minds, spirits, and bodies to live and act like free people that Minister Louis Farrakhan implored, “don’t want to live on the plantation no more.” Right now, the minds of Africans and African Americans must be awakened to the reality of what this nation truly is. America has never been republic for the people, by the people, of the people. It was forged in the fires foundations of hypocrisy and molded in inequality. The “people” referred to in the constitution were white, rich, and male protestants. We must not fail to cash the check that Dr. King and so many others attempted to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “The problem,” framed over one hundred years ago by Frederick Douglass was whether the American people “have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution…”

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Silence of the Lambs...

On this day in Memphis, Tennessee while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was silenced by an assassin's bullet. We celebrate his birth but often neglect his death and why he was killed. We all love the day off and think of Stevie Wonder singing "Happy Birthday To 'Ya!" We sleep in. We plan parties, we even try to figure out which club or bar will have the best drink specials. We take trips to Atlanta and enjoy the three day weekend. But we are just celebrating Dr. King, right? Does that help to lessen who and what King was to us and what he meant to the nation? Unfortunately, I think so. We have allowed King's memory to be denigrated to the point that he is a sound bite, used once a year to remind of a dream that we don't even understand, and likely don't care to. When will African Americans reclaim their heroes for themselves and stop letting the so called white liberal (or conservative) media tell them who their heroes/leaders are? How many "heroes" do young African Americans have that are not on BET's 106 & Park, or MTV's TRL? Simply put, why have we allowed our spokesmen (and women) to be those who entertain the normative population (i.e. whitefolk)?

In one of his most powerful verses, Bob Marley asks us, "How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?" Those lyrics come from
"Redemption Song." In that tune, Marley is the pure essence of the prophetic voice of African American culture that cries out to injustice...seeking liberation. Unfortunately now, even in death we still "kill our prophets" by not taking time to understand their untimely deaths and really internalize and study their sacrifice. Moreover, when we allow popular media to continue to place our heroes in nice palatable boxes of safe, convenient, historical memory we slowly kill their legacy.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not want to exalt King to anything more than what he was. He was just a man. He was filled with the flaws and greatness that any of us are capable of. He was an ordinary man of extraordinary circumstance. To his own estimation he was merely a symbol of a much larger movement. In a more contemporary context rapper Mos Def confesses to listeners in his The New Danger album, "if you see or hear goodness from me than that goodness if from the should be thankful to the Creator for all of that, because I am not the architect of that...I'm only the recipient. If you see weakness or shortcoming in me, it is from my own weakness and shortcoming, and ask the people and the Creator to forgive me for that." This show of humility is an example of an artist aware of the prophetic. Well known public intellectual, Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a recent lecture at Cornell University said that the prophetic voice of the black church has been silenced. He soberly commented "that some of the things I hear people doing in the name of God scares me." I would agree. I would also add that some of the things that people don't say is just as damning. What am I getting at? I'll tell you.

Actually one year to the day of his death, April 4, 1967 in a speech entitled, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" Dr. King gave his most poignant critique of the United States and his own thinking about social change. King's words were the prophetic voice of the oppressed crying out. It was his critique of the Vietnam War that would ultimately place the bullet in the chamber of the firearm that would end his life. James Earl Ray did not act alone...there was behind King's death than a lone racist gunman. King however, was beyond worrying about an assassin's bullet. As he emphatically professed the day before his death, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned with that now," ("I've Been to the Mountaintop"). The statement of the executive committee in 1967 of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam was "A Time Comes When Silence is Betrayal."

Understanding this, King had no reservations about calling out the biggest purveyor of violence the world has ever seen...The United States. Speaking as he did, and continued to do for the next year did not make him many friends. In fact he encountered staunch criticism from the White House to fellow ministers and other black civil rights leaders. Vietnam according to the critics had nothing to do with civil rights. Kings rebut was that his commitment was to the soul of the nation and not just civil rights. More importantly the war exposed some of the dire hypocrisies of this nation. Ironically enough our present day quagmire in Iraq is the modern day reincarnation of the Vietnam conflict, but I would dare say that the stakes are much higher and the final results will likely be more catastrophic for the citizens of this America.

Silence is passive acceptance, or "betryal" as the slogan says. As we think about the courage, selflessness and sacrifice that not only King exuded, but also in Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others...let us look to our institutions of black culture. For the moment and for the sake of argument, I believe it is fitting to cast our critical gaze on the social silence of black ministry. I have heard many folk refer to ministers such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, or Bishop Eddie Long as so-called "prophets". If that be the case why are they silent on issues such as Iraq, and myriad issues that are pertinent to African Americans? I would open that critique up more, but my point is that I don't hear the prophetic voice of the church and seldom is it in our music lately either (another discussion).

Our prophets don't have to be shot now, there are not prophets now. Those who might be able to share a prophetic word stand aside and look just like observers at the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Day Parade. They sit in awe of a government and a regime that has purchased it's spiritual death on the installment plan. Do not let white folk define and confine Dr. King to the steps of the Washington Memorial on August 28, 1963. So on this day think and reflect on the sacrifice not just of King but of so many nameless, faceless others that gave their blood that we might continue to live, and do so more abundantly.

April 3, 1968, Dr. King's last public words speak not only to the prophetic voice of the church, as Dyson would likely agree with, but also speak to the essence of self-determination combined with an undying faith in our God, our people, and our future.

"I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want to you to know tonight, that we, as a poeple will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have sen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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