Category Archives: Book Recommendations

Reviews directing people to books with useful information

Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me”, a Riquepeaks Review.

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W.E.B DuBois century defining statement that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” was explored and fleshed out in many of that times most compelling books, such as “Beloved”, “Soul on Ice”, “Black Boy”, “The Invisible Man”, “Blues People”, “Die, Nigger, Die”, “The Fire Next Time”, “The Color Purple”, “Roots”, “To Be Young Gifted and black”, and many more. The Atlantic Magazine editor Ta-Nehisi Coates summertime book, “Between the World and Me”, is one of the best such books to appear in a long time, and it’s appearance is a timely one, occurring during a time of consistently documented police killings, a real erosion of black wealth, and The United States first Black President. Coates tone is one of fear and often hopelessness, as he talks to what is every parent’s and ultimately humanity’s hope for the future, his child. He borrows the structure from a chapter in James Baldwin’s book of essays, “The Fire Next Time, entitled “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” a letter to his nephew. Coates book has already inflamed Boomer activists such as Dr. Cornel West with its lack of rousing rhetoric, prophetic fire or spiritual hope. Coates makes it clear he was raised by an ex-Black Panther, in a household totally absent of religious faith, so when the firehoses, batons and attack dogs of white supremacy hit, he has no God to call on. All he has is fear over the destruction of his physical body, his one and only life. The Nation of Islam is a precursor to this type of thinking in the Black community, preaching, “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.”

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But Coates refuses to trade Christian religious faith in the afterlife for a supposed Muslim belief in righteous justice, or any other strategy yet employed Black people to grasp at the ever elusive freedom of self determination. While the book recounts the great joy he found in the diversity and protection he found on the campus of Howard University, and he locates glimpses of Black culture and power in music, and exchanges as subtle yet seemingly mundane as a brief conversation between himself and a Black man working at the airport, he does not provide us with a larger strategy of liberation. Part of this is because his analysis of history both national and personal leads him to tell his son Samori, “I do not believe that we can stop them because ultimately they must stop themselves.”

What he definitely does not do, is ask for any higher struggle or righteousness from his son, other than to continue his own growth and development as an intelligent, bright, diverse human being, telling his son, “You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”

This affirming of black essence and rejection of respectability politics which underscores Coates stark, cold and often scary racial bottom line, along with his lack of faith in mass movements, are very familiar to me because they’re the attitude of my generation. Coates is a member of Generation X, born in the ’70s, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. William Strauss’s book “Generations: A History of America’s Future”, characterized Generation X as being reared in a tumultuous time, the ’60s and ’70s, a time of a weakening America and a rising Third World, raised by parents intimately involved in the social and political revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, kids raised in a time of rising divorce, a more explicit media culture, and uncertainty about societal roles.

For Coates, like Tupac and Kanye West, this meant having a Black Panther parent, and his father had gone on to being a publisher of Black books. Black Gen X in inner cities like Coates native Baltimore, grew up during a time of white flight, busing to white school districts, “benign neglect”, the crack epidemic, redlining, and Reagenomics. It was also the time period of hip hop, which reveled in blackness, but who’s circumstances at the time of its creation promoted Blacks self determination, or at it’s most chaotic end, individualism, materialism, and personal survival, in a nation that, after Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Watergate, was way beyond moral pretensions, with people engaging in a mad dash to “get theirs.” Hip Hop could quote Christianity but it was largely post Christian, applying it’s same sampling Post Modernist verve to investigations of belief, faith and knowledge systems. Coates reflects then, Tupac, Nas, Jay Z, Biggie, Scarface, Ice T, NWA, Ice Cube, The Wu Tang Clan, and many others in his ultra realistic, Black and proud, yet religiously pragmatic world view. Because of it’s skepticism in human nature both Black and White, and it’s realistic appraisal of the entrenchment of white superiority, Black elders such as Cornel West, Calvin Butts and C. Delores Tucker have seen the music and views, the attitudes of this generation as apathetic, avaricious, anarchic, hopeless, self defeating, counter revolutionary, and nihilistic. To which mid-90s rappers replied, they were simply “Keepin It Real”, their time period did not afford them the same strategies of liberation or American faith their predecessors had employed.

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In this time, when Coates grew up In a decaying Baltimore, surrounded by what he’d term, “black bodies”, the actual threat of white people is a far away, systemic one. In a hard scrabble situation where about his peers were predominantly Black, We find Coates a shy bookish kid, forced to learn the attitudes, stances and mores that would keep his body, his black ass, alive. And it’s Coates constant reference to “Black bodies”, borrowed from Black Feminism, that makes me to understand black folks constant use, often in vehement tones of warning, about yours, mine, or their own “black ass”, sometimes said with the slave drivers anger, other times with revulsion, at other times with pity, desire, and pride. It all comes down to the body, and the survivability and viability of it. Coates didn’t deal as much (at least in this version of his story) with the direct conflict with white kids we might read in older black books because by the ’80s most of the white people had left the city for the burbs.

Coates depicts this suburban life as “The Dream”, which equals out to white kids enjoying the innocent teenage life depicted in ’80s John Hughes films without fearing for their lives by doing something as innocuous as walking and wearing a hoodie while carry Skittles. Of course white kids still had to deal with personal problems of abuse, divorce, bad parenting, bullying, and etc faced through all kids throughout time, but not the specific problems created by American racism on top of those. Coates is in the hood meanwhile, terrorized by other Black kids who are victimized by the same system, fighting to prove their own bodies will not be destroyed.

Coats breaks all the terror in Black history down to a destruction of the black body, and all the survival strategies of Blacks as attempts to protect those bodies. For in America, “it is traditional to destroy the black body, it is heritage.” Which seems like the perfect rejoinder to those who insist the Confederate Flag is heritage, which it is, but one built on pillage and plunder.

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In this focus on the body he illuminates some of the basic thinking behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a basic questioning of the perceived value of black life in country and a hemisphere in which, “Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a resource of incomparable value.” In Coates reading the pillage of black bodies is what makes the A,Erica. dream itself possible.

Coates world is as grim as that of Scarface, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, or Tupac’s. He finds glimpses of the power of Black culture at Howard University, which he calls “The Mecca”, because it draws Blakcs from all over the country and the world, of every style, orientation, gift and sensibility. A small glimpse of what a thriving, functioning Black world would look like. He talks about Paris, France, and how it represents for him something similar as it did for James Baldwin, an escape from the American racial dynamic,although it has it’s own troubling racial history. All this is offered to his son as he hopes his son can maintain his more open spirit, free of the ghetto from which Coates had to unlearn so many self defense mechanisms.

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Ultimately, escaping the ghetto and living closer to “The Dream” instills the fear in Coates that his son’s body will be sacrificed, as was Trayvon Martin’s, in order to preserve and protect somebody else’s Dream. Coates son no longer has to worry about Tyrone and Ray Ray, but his father is afraid he will have his progressive lifestyle and mindset taken away from him, like his handsome, charismatic friend Prince Jones, murdered by the police. He visits Prince’s mother, Dr. Jones, seemingly both to pay his respects and learn something as a parent. He finds in Dr. Jones honesty about the racial situation, and a comparison of the situation they face to Solomon Northrop’s “12 Years a Slave”, recently made into a successful picture. That no matter how far a Black person escapes economic indignity they can never be far away from the possible race related loss of their body. But he also finds in her the impassive, righteous strength of the Civil Rights generation, a strength he finds curious and attempts to understand. At the end he’s looking at the ghetto out of the window and once again feeling fearful.

Coates book is easily one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time, and valuable for me because it captures a specific racial attitude of Some black people who have grown up after the gains of the Civil Rights movement and the aggressiveness of Black Power had started to recede Into history. Although my own view is not as hopeless as his, I do believe a book like this is both along hard look into the mirror and a long unsentimental look at the terrain that is needed before the dynamics of action can be properly formulated. Coates didn’t set out to save souls but to save lives or at least help us understand why they are lost, mourn them when they are lost, and make sense of how their loss enables someone else to live.

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Filed under Black Issues, Book Recommendations, Social Timing

Hugh Masekela and Swinging Seventies Monrovia : Liberian Stories 2

The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.

Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.

Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”

Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.

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Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.

One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.

Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”

The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”

While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.

Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.

The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.

Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.

“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.

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Filed under All That Jazz, Book Recommendations, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")

Questlove’s “Soul Train: The Music, Dance, and Style of a Generation”

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Questlove’s new book, “Soul Train, The Music, Dance and Style of a Generation” serves as both a celebration of the cultural phenomenon Don Cornelius’ landmark television show has been as well as picks up where his previous book, this summers autobiographical “Mo Meta Blues”, left off. Questo uses here an engaging form that details the history, high points, features and recurring segments, artists, fashions, and dancers of the long running music program, interwoven with his opinions of the artists place within the changes black music was undergoing at the time they made appearances on the show.

Quest personalizes his experiences with viewing Soul Train. Soul Train and Seasame Street were the only two programs his parents allowed him and his sister to watch unsupervised. Just as he does with music in his autobiography, he uses performances and moments on the show to reminisce on the impact they had on him, both as a budding musician, as well as a young man. His respect for Don Cornelius is deep, as is his belief that Soul Train was the best televised chronicle of post-Civil Rights black style, issues, and music. He organizes his book into sections on the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s, the three full decades of the shows existence to this point. There is a top ten list of moments on the show that lists moments that were either musically or culturally signifigant, and it also gives profiles of the people who really made the show work, Soul Train’s fabulous dancers.

“Mo Meta Blues”, his autobiography, was notable for using a song or album to discuss every year of his life up until the time of the writing of the book. These songs, what he was listening to at any particular time, either help to trace his physical, social, emotional and musical development, or provide a soundtrack to his life. It’s an interesting literary practice that stems from the belief that music is the art form most directly related to memory. He expands on this in this book, using episodes of Soul Train either to trace artists career progressions, whether soul, funk, disco or hip hop was the happening black style of the time, or how the sets and choices of dancers reflected either an earthy, grass roots community vibe, the high class aspirations of disco, or the upwardly mobile LA vibe of the 1980s.

The book therefore serves as a users guide to the show, chronicling performances and putting them into a context of late 20th century musical progress, as well as making note of the moment in time Quest’s generations music began to be ascendant in popular taste over his parents. Therefore it’s not only a cataloguing of Quest’s tastes and opinions, but it reflects what a good deal of the Soul Train audience might have felt as well. The book is not only a great starting point to discuss the show, but a great starting point to discuss the history, music, and culture of those three decades as well, making good on the belief that Soul Train is the ultimate TV time capsule of Urban/Black culture. But you don’t have to take my word for it….get the book, and check out some Soul Train episodes on Aspire TV, as well as check out the DVD’s that have been released, and see if you don’t break out dance moves just a tad more often.

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Filed under Book Recommendations, FUNK, Rappin' about Rappin'

Liberian Stories : Nina Simone’s Liberian Life

Think about this: If you’re a black American musical star, critically acclaimed but still relegated to performing for audiences of “hip” folks, “in the know”, thirtysomething, with a young child and a record of political activism through both song and deed that has begun to make life in your home country uncomfortable, where do you go to find some semblance of peace and home? Many in the States might think somewhere in the Carribean, or Europe. Nina Simone lived in Barbados, and ended up spending many years in Europe. But in between that, she lived in the oldest republic on the continent of Africa, the Republic of Liberia.

Liberia has both gotten much bad press and suffered much in real terms over the last three decades. The story that is rarely told however, is of a Republic that stood for 147 years from 1847 to 1980, without major disturbance or Civil War. Liberia is a country who’s population is made up of 16 ethnic groups including the Grebo, Kru, Kpelle, Mandingo and Bassa, descendants of freed blacks from the United States of America, descendants of captured blacks freed from slave ships headed to the new world, and blacks from various nations and territories in the Carribean. When Nina Simone stepped off a Pan Am Jet at Robertsfield International Airport in the mid 70s, she was stepping foot in a country that had a post war economic growth rate second only to Japan’s, spurred on by President Tubman’s “Open Door Policy.” It was also a country on the door step of it’s first successful coup d’etat.

Nina Simone was already a highly regarded artist around the world by the 1970s. She had a classical and gospel trained background and was highly regarded by jazz audiences as well. She was also known for being highly outspoken and active in the struggle of black people for human rights. Her song, “Mississippi Goddamn” was a classic of Civil Rights protest music that got her banned in the state sung about, and another song, written with the great Weldon Irvine, “Young, Gifted, and Black”, became a similar anthem during the days of Black conscisousness and Black Power, taken to even higher noteriety by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. By the time she went to Liberia she’d been friends with various figures in Civil Rights and Black Power movements, married and divorced, and lived in Barbados. She also had income tax problems.

It was Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer who was very vocal both on apartied in her native country, as well as segregation in America, who suggested she go to Liberia. Makeba was herself by the early ’70s based in the West African nation of Guniea. She was also married to the man who laid the phrase “Black Power” on America, Stokely Carmichael, now calling himself Kwame Toure, a name in tribute to African leaders Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Sekou Toure of Guniea.

Makeba, a good friend of Simone, was going through similar repression in the United States for her outspoken political stances and her marriage to the government watched Carmichael. It was she who specifically suggested Liberia as the best country in Africa for Simone to reside.

Simone explains Makeba’s reasoning:

“Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history.”

At that point, Ms. Simone’s story became personal for me because it was my family’s. My own father, Herman Hopkins, was told the same thing in 1959, which led to his own move to Liberia. He would remain there until 1980, moving back to the Bay Area of California one week before the coup that toppled the old regime. He was granted Liberian citizenship in 1962 and married my mother, Dorothy, a Liberian, in 1964. So Ms. Simone’s story has great personal resonance for me, put yourself in current America, looking at Liberia, a post conflict country struggling to heal itself, part of many people (Anthony Bourdain)’s stupid Africa jokes, and it takes me back into a time when a Black American could actually consider it BETTER to live in Liberia than in the U.S of A, which an Elijah Muhammed or Pat Robertson would both describe as Babylon the Great.

Dad said it was a Nigerian acquaintence in college who suggested Liberia as the perfect country to satisfy curiousity about Africa. Nina Simone elucidates the reason an African American would hear that suggestion in this way:

“She (Miriam Makeba) was smart enough to realize that modern Africa might overpower an innocent African American like me, and so for my first step she chose Liberia, a place where I could relish the differences and yet feel secure with the similarities.”

Simone goes on to paint a moving portrait of Liberia in the 1970s, argurably it’s last period of prosperity, and also details how Africa in the form of Liberia was very personally gratifiying to people like my dad, his American friends such as Oliver Campbell, Hardy Mathews, John Reeves, Walter Smith, and Cyrus Peters, even though they were not stars. Dad always reminded me after those years of the Indian father character in Denzel Washington’s “Mississippi Massala.” His whole time back in what was supposed to be his “home” of the U.S, he was thinking about how he could get back to where he could function the best, Liberia.

Simone entered Liberia in the early ’70s in the early days of the transition from President William V.S Tubman, to President William R Tolbert. She said she was given a grand welcome in Liberia, and most people she encountered had at least a few of her records. Nobody asked her to perform, nobody asked her to do any benefits for poor children, she was welcomed into Liberia to enjoy Liberian hospitality, as she understood it:

“Liberians are naturally affectionate, open people, proud of their country, and the fact that a famous black American had decided to come home-which was what they called it, to stay, meant something special to them.”

Simone was not the first black American to fall under Liberia’s spell. Bill Russell, from my hometown of Oakland, California, 11 time NBA champion, also had a strong connection to the country in the 1960s. Russell would go to Liberia every summer to check on his rubber farm, in the care of a Mr. Clareance Holder. It was his plan to emigrate to Liberia at the end of his playing career. Ms. Simone describes the feeling thusly:

“I wouldn’t have believed it before I arrived, but Liberia did feel like home and I loved everything about it.”

“Liberia was a release; after all those years of being a wife, mother, activist and star all at the same time, I was just a mother with her child happy in school and nobody looking over my shoulder telling me what to do.”

Suddenly Ms. Simone went from struggling within the society of her birth to having a place amongst the top of Liberian society. Miriam Makeba selected six wealthy Liberian men for her to choose from to find a new husband and romantic partner.

Simone’s song “Liberian Calypso” immortalizes a famous experience she had in Liberia. She was at a club called “The Maze” in Monrovia, a small club frequented by what we call in Liberia, “the big shots.” She was sitting up drinking champagne and she said the music and the champagne got good to her. The music was mostly from the U.S, being the mid 70s one could imagine it was the hottest of soul and funk that had made it overseas. Simone got up on a table and stripped until her brown skin was bared completely naked, and the big shots of Liberia got a hell of a kick from seeing the Princess getting down “in the raw.” She was afraid she would get kicked out of the country, but she found out President Tolbert himself went to the club the next day hoping to catch a repreat performance. To which Simone thought, “This is my kind of country.”

Her time in Liberia also had permanent effects on her life in various ways. One was a reconnection with her estranged father, who had passed some years ago. She says she was taken to a very well dressed witch doctor, in a suit and tie, normal looking, who showed her a method of communicating with her father. From then on, she called upon her dad in times of need.

She had a great romance with Liberian newspaper man C.C Dennis, and just missed dying as his wife in the 1980 coup. She eventually moved on to Europe and continued her carrer there, but she always wanted to return to Liberia, and it held a special place in her heart.

Ironically, Simone was in the same position many who lived in Liberia prior to the disturbances were in. Her Liberia was gone, even as she lived on. This is a reality Liberians born and native to the country had to face as well. A little peek of the problems Liberia would have was spied in one scene where 17 cops came to her door attempting to have sex with her because they were jealous she was with a foreign national. However, also indicitave of the old Liberia was that she was able to drive them off, and they were sternly reprimanded by a big shot woman the next day. But such lawlessness of the poor police and military class would become common during the next thirty years of social upheavel, and continue to be a problem now.

Simone kept a copy of the video tape where Cecil Dennis, the son of her Liberian boyfriend, and the other officals of the Tolbert government were executed by firing squad on the beach in April of 1980. From time to time after that, when she wanted to remember those days, she’d pull it out and watch it. Though it may seem morbid, for her it was a means of remembering the people and times she had in Liberia. Something I saw my father and many relatives do as well. And so, life in Liberia became another flavor in Nina Simone’s brew that she served with sass and class, to audiences for the rest of her natural life and beyond.

All quotes taken from Nina Simone's memoir, "I put a spell on you."

All quotes taken from Nina Simone’s memoir, “I put a spell on you.”

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Filed under Book Recommendations, Liberia/Africa

Blues for Albert Murray 1916-2013

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“I’m leaving it up to you to decide. Maybe I really broke the bed down and then again maybe I ain’t done nothing but hit it a lick and promise. Maybe I ain’t no certified cocksman yet, but that goddamn chick is pregnant doc, you examine her. Maybe it’ll be a nine pounder and maybe we’ll have to put it in an oxygen tent, and maybe it’ll be a fucking miscarriage, you examine it”- Albert Murray in a letter to Ralph Ellison, taken from “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray.”

Albert Murray was one of the more interesting literary men I got into and one that broadened me out from some of my preconcieved notions. Like many young black readers of my age and generation, the writings I was exposed to the earliest were by men like Malcom X, Richard Wright, and Eldgridge Cleaver, not to mention your Iceberg Slim’s and Donald Goines’ of the world. Murray represented another viewpoint of the south, the blues, black music and culture and black people’s place in America. That view articulated very accurately the experiences of an older generation, namely the Black portion of the “G.I generation”, the so called “greatest generation” that won World War II and led America to her position as a superpower. Murray was not affected by the move toward Afrocentrism and Black Power in the ’60s because he felt Black Americans had already contributed something that was inextractible from the strands of American life. He appreciated the efforts to do something of many in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, but he felt some were misguided in their enthusiasms as well. His main view of life was a literary view, that “evil” as such was not a factor that human beings could eliminate from the world, but that true human heroism was displayed in our efforts to keep evil at bay, and the only way to do it was with slick, swinging, smooth style. The Blues was the sound of this struggle, of heroism, and therefore he’d clown you in a New York minute if you expressed the tired cliche that blues music was sad music for sad people.

Albert Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama in 1913. His southern upbringing and his viewpoints about the south form one of the core components of his philosophy and ideas about African Americans, America, and American history and culture. He was highly opposed to the terrifiying view of the south presented by Richard Wright. He understood why Wright presented the south as he did, and felt it was for the best of causes, the freedom and equality of black people in America, however, he did not feel it was a full picture. Murray felt his experiences in black neighborhoods, black schools, and black institutions were very positive and resisted the idea that a predominantly black environment was limiting as racist itself, and while he was against segregation, he felt supporters of equality needed to be careful about what their assertions about raciscm were saying about blacks and other minorities. His experiences growing up are fictionalized in his novels, “Train Whistle Guitar”, “The Spyglass Tree”, and the “Seven League Boots”, as well as in his travel book, “South to a Very old Place.”

Murray’s south, was a place of wise black elders of all types, who were interested in all types of things that the average racist, or even snobbish northern black person would not imagine southern blacks to be capable of interest in. His book, “The Omni Americans, a fresh, refreshing book of essays’ dealing with the perceptions of race in the 1960s, call for a broader view of American culture. His assertion is that American culture could never be called “white” culture, that American culture, as American bloodlines, are a mixture of Black, White, and Native American. His arguement was that the movement back to African culture that blacks made in the ’60s was redundant because Africans in America had already contributed so much of what made America, America. The primary conduit for that was the dance beat emphasis from Africa that is the lifeblood of blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

Murray was harshly critical of books that sought to paint the inner city and all black neighborhoods in the worst light, in order to display the insurmountable odds their protagonists overcame. He felt these books in their protest were really inspired by communist propagandists who didn’t understand black life. His problem was not with communism or any philosophy per se, but with any philosophy that reduced black life in America to one of problems and pathology. For instance, the communists once banned jazz becuase they felt it was an expression of capitalist decadance. Whereas Murray would say jazz was an expression of African plasticity and rhythm orientation using European instruments and song structures that represents a heroic, thinking on your feet method of surviving and thriving in modern complexity. Murray would tell both Afrocentrists that we’re no longer in the village bush or the age of great African trading Kingdoms, and Eurocentrists that we were no longer in a world of fuedalism, the divine right of Kings, a dominant church, and colonialism. Meaning we’d have to take the best from those old times and make them work today.

Murray’s answer to presenting the black struggle in literature and art was that of heroism. One of my favorite books of his was his lecture in book form, “The Hero and the Blues.” In it, he makes a compelling arguement that blues music, with it’s jumping, good time beats and its ironic, humorous lyrics of how life always has a twist for us, is a Black American heroic reaction to the troubles of modern life, including racism and the vissictitudes of late capitalism. He puts forth a life philosophy that one can either rail against the injustices of life, or see oneself as a hero who has the power to conquer them. To Murray, the whole black struggle is a story of heroism and dragon slayers, from the first slaves in the New World, to Toussaint L’Overture, to Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass, to Nat Turner and John Brown and Phyliss Wheatley, to those unamed ancestors who had to live so we could be here to pontificate.

Murray was a friend of the great teacher and resarcher of myth, Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell also influenced George Lucas and Star Wars. It’s interesting to me that Murray and Lucas both fall under the astrological sign of Taurus the Bull, and they both share a faith in heroism and heroic action. Lucas has been criticized at times for being too simplistic and happy in his view of good and evil, and he has gone on public record as saying his films were a response to all the darkness in ’70s film, such as Taxi Driver, Superfly, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and many other crime and violence laden, morally ambigious ’70s epics. Interestingly enough he went back to the World War II era of the 1940s for his Star Wars inspiration, and Murray himself was in the Air Force in that time period.

Murray’s literary goal, was very similar to George Lucas. He wanted to create a black heroic story that would inspire Americans of all shades and that would give blacks particular pride and insight on how to use their cultural heritage to create more freedom in their nation which is supposed to be about freedom, the United States of America. He acknowledged the dragons of racism, self doubt, self hatred, and economic privation, but felt that dragons existed to be slayed, existed to prove the metal of the romantic hero.

His book “The Hero and the Blues” used examples from some of the greatest literary men from Murray’s time, Hemingway and Faulkner, and Malreaux, and in particular Thomas Mann. Murray was particularly enamored of “Joseph and His Brothers”, by Thomas Mann. There is a great book by Bruce Feller entitled “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America”, that puts forth an interesting hypothesis that Moses and the story of Moses may be even more central to the national character of America than the story of Jesus Christ. Certainly the story and metaphor of Moses was very important to African Americans as one that represented freedom from bondage, total freedom from bondage as well as resettlement in a new land of our own. Murray however, embraced the story of Joseph, as expounded upon from the biblical version by Thomas Mann in “Joseph and His Brothers.” Murray felt that Joseph, known as the “Dreamer”, slick and handsome, able to tell a story, survive years in jail to become the highest man next to the Pharoah, and to prepare a way for his people in a time of famine, was a more accurate hero for Blacks for whom America is home. To focus on Moses is to focus on total liberation, but to focus on Joseph is to focus on the slickness and manuverings of getting over when total liberation is impractical. Murray also viewed Joseph’s improvisational ability as marking him as a blues and jazz idiom hero.

Murray strongly believed in the idea of “antagonistic cooperation.” That without a great enemy, one could never become a great hero. He held up blues and jazz as the antidote to those who would say blacks in America had no culture. Those musics retain the dance beat, transformational emphasis of African culture and put them in a modern context of technology and complex social dynamics. Murray felt this black cultural grouding could both direct a way for black individuals to live and thrive, as well as provide a template for black literary heroes, triumphing not in spite of black culture, but because of the insights gained from it.

Murray had an appreciation for the finer things in life. He felt this was a “southern thing”, his south not only encompassing those states below the Mason Dixon, but extending to all southern parts of the globe, the Carribean, South America, Southern Europe, and Africa. He believed in a kind of a “southern enjoyment of life”, that included fine clothes, dancing, drinking, romance, celebration, and enlightenment , ideas and education. He didn’t share the Black Power generations interest in Africa, although he acknowledged Africa as the origin point of black people and black culture, he also like many blacks of his generation, was fiercely proud of being an American and how blacks have helped shape America. He also reminds one of most immigrants to America in the early part of the 20th Century, who didn’t teach their kids Spanish, or Polish, or Yiddish, but insisted they learn English and believed in assimilation. Murray is of that generation that saw American greatness and therefore believed in America fiercely. Still, he also believed in incorporating the best from around the world, and he was never intidimidated, nor did he feel left out or embarresed by European culture. He was able to find the commonalities in all cultures and identified the slaying of dragons and the search for fine living as central to all.

Murray lived a long, fruitful life. He was friends with Duke Ellington and Romare Bearden two men who were examples of his sophisticated, cosmopolitan blackness. He influenced Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis and many who wanted to restore jazz to a high place in American culture and he was largely successful in that goal. His best known friendship was with Ralph Ellison, and their book, “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray”, is one of my favorite books of his and a real treasure. It’s a pleasure to hear what these two black literary men REALLY thought, way back there in the mid 20h century. They curse, laugh, joke, talk about great books and writers, the Civil Rights movement, clothes, photograpy, music, and write each other from far flung locales such as Casablanca, Morroco.

By most accounts Albert Murray was not as successful in his fiction as he was in his theorizing. Although his novels are praised for the language and the way his words flow lyrically, in a jazzy blues style, they are also criticized for their wordiness, and the heavy preaching of his ideas, filling his books with protest against protest! He was criticized for this by one of his own students, Stanley Crouch. But I do feel that in his ideas, a very interesting concept is contained, and it will be interesting to see how people develop those ideas in this new multi cultural, Omni American world that he not only foresaw, but told us was the essence of the nation from it’s very beginning.

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Anticipating Robert Greene’s “Mastery”

Something that interests me very much is the existence and dissemination of reading materials that would be both interesting and mentally stimulating to young urban males who are either younger than college age, have not attended college, do not plan to attend college, or who’s circumstances would not allow them to. These types of books have always had a great potential to increase general knowledge, literacy, and help young men make better choices. I’ve always gotten a charge out of seeing a young man find a book that he feels finally explains things that he has percieved but did not understand the structure of, in a way that is both intellectually rigourous, but spoken in a language that is based on the on the ground, int the street realities of living in America (and around the globe, but America in particular). It’s amazing to see these books take root and spark a desire to learn more, although sometimes it can be sad as well when you see these people wish they’d been turned on to knowledge sooner.

Young men might find out about these books in the places they frequent, and from friends who they trust. Many times they have a friend who is a well respected memeber of their peer group, and is seen as having done the same things they have and been through the same struggle, but is also well known for being intellectual and a reader and student. Somehow, someway, a morsel of info catches the persons ear and makes them say, “I want to read that!” Sometimes, if it’s the right book, it captures what Miles Davis called, the feeling of, “turning on the lights in the room for the first time.”

I personally learned about this type of book from books that were on my fathers volumnous bookshelf that I learned were ridely read in black communities across the U.S and extending overseas, among young men in the 1960s, ’70s, and even stretching into the ’80s, and early ’90s. The Black Panthers probably epitomized this and made many books popular through their Political Education (P.E) classes, the organization itself was nourished by this tradition of extra curricular reading. Malcom X was inspired to read everything he could during his prison conversion to Islam, even going so far as to read the entire dictionary! When asked once as a Muslim minister what University he attended, he replied, “Books.” In turn,  Malcom X’s autobiography written in collaboration with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcom X became a prime example of the type of book I’m talking about in this post.

During the consciousness revolution of the 1960s, there were many young titles that a young black man in particular might discover through word of mouth. The Autobiography of Malcom X, Eldgrige Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life, Donald Goines’ Whoreson, The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, Die Nigger Die! by H.Rap Brown, Das Kapital, by Karl Marx, Message to the Blackman and How to Eat to Live, by the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude McKay, and books by Richard Wright are all books read by many on various paths to self education.

This tradition reached the very young (at the time) practitioners of hip hop. The great, articulate M.C’s who influenced my thinking, such as KRS One and Chuck D, read all these books and then some, which provided the content for their music. KRS was a homeless audodidact who studied everything he could get his hands on, wheereas Chuck D graduated from college, but you still get the feeling his thirst for knowledge was developed in his community way before he set foot at the campus of Adelphi University.

In turn, I think books by hip hop authors such as KRS One’s, The Gospel of Hip Hop, and Ice T’s, The Ice Opinion, carry on that tradition and should be on an updated list. Tupac Shakur was also influenced by this traditon of reading for ones self and ones circumstances, just as the Chuck D’s and KRS-One’s, and his began very early, as his mother was a Black Panther and he was exposed to self education from an early age (also failing to finish high school as KRS-One).

Tupac contributed much to the continuation of this tradition and the reason I got interested in Robert Greene, when his readings inspired him to adopt a rap name sepereate from his perfect for an entertainer (just like Prince Rodgers Nelson) first name, Makaveli, taken from the Philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who penned the classic tome of how to gain, keep and expand power, The Prince. I can recall how ‘Pac got my peer group talking about this book, one of the foundations of westren philosophy, because he overstood what Machiavelli was talking about would have a wide resonance in the inner city communities where people feel they lack power and are struggling to expand their resources.

Around 2000, watching a documentary called, Pimpology: Uncut produced by the always entertaining, “Pimpin” Ken Ivey, I was exposed to Robert Greene’s, The 48 Laws of Power. As a person who’s always been interested, in a very early age at how political and social power is gained and lost, the book quickly made me a fan. The other thing that appealed to me, as a young man who grew up in a heavily religous environment, extracting salvation info from the age old stories in the Bible, as well as a lover of history, was Robert Greene’s use of his degree in classical literature. When I was a kid and told my older brother I liked history, he told me, “what you gonna do with that.” At the time the question hurt, but it was very true. Robert Greene took his degree in classical literature and made use of it, by studying how people have increased or lost their power over the years and providing historical interpetations to back it up. I became a witness for this book, telling many associates about it, and enjoying conversations based on its principles when they purchased it. Whether we became rich and powerful is unimportant. What is important is it gave us some objective examples with which to analyze life and view events, and that strong type of frame work ususally provides for some measure of what we call success in life.

When I tried to convert my sister to this new religion of Robert Greeneism, she wold have none of it, telling me, “I’m only interested in having power over myself.” Robert Greene would most likely tell me those who claim not to want power are usually the most desperate power seekers of all, but I’ll give my sis a pass (hope you’re reading this P, love u). Interestingly enough, that is the path this new Robert Greene book, Mastery, seems to be going down. Greene’s last book, The 50th Law, dealt with developing a success oriented mentality and leapfrogging over the social complacency that would prevent an individual from becoming succesful. This book was inspired by and co written with 50 Cent. This is another example of how Robert Greene is ahead of many other content producers in our day and age, unlike Cristal and Tommy Hilfigger, who made it clear their urban audiences were questionable ghetto gravy on top of their continental European, All American mashed potatoes, Greene embraced his urban audience when he found out his books were highly read in the urban world. And who better to do a book based on the hip hop model of success with than 50 Cent? I can’t think of an MC who’s rise personally offended me more than 50 Cent, and it was based on his relentless thirst for combat with M.C’s, a tearing down of the old order to make a place for himself that Greene advises in several of his books.

This new book however, Mastery, purports to tell us how to master ourselves so that we can master things in the physical world to make our way to success easier. In all actuality, all of Greene’s books had elements of self control and mastery in them, even in the hustles they ran on other people. But this book seems to expand on some concepts found in The 50th Law, where Greene mentioned that the talent of sitting down with something and mastering it, is very much endangered in our modern smart phone, twittering, get your ass beat and it’s on YouTube a minute later society. But in order to be successful, we still must sit down and master ourselves and master our hobbies, careers, and work.

I remember my father, born in the depression in 1931, and many of his peer group that I grew up around in Oakland, used to tell us when we were enjoying the talents of somebody else, we were enjoying their hard work, but we needed to do ours. I thought it some old cruel black talk back then, but it’s become music to my ears more and more. My bumbling efforts at bass playing and writing are two testaments to the victories time wasters have won over me!!! So I welcome Greene’s new book as a chance to rediscover how to sit down, be quiet, work, and conquer myself and the world in the process.

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