Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Killing The Vibe, Forgetting The Meaning

Kendrick Lamar and Misconceptions of Black Men

"I be off the slave ship...building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs"
Kendrick Lamar - HiiPower

The other day, I told my fiance that Biggie's most underrated line ever was:

"Considered a fool because I dropped out of high school/Stereotypes of a Black man misunderstood, and it's still all good..." 

It's probably one of the most perceptive lyrics ever from B.I.G.  But Juicy is so melodic, you can just fly right past it.

It also makes me reflect upon our society's general lack of belief in Black men's ability to be introspective.  Or that they can practice healthy forms of ethos. There are really strong efforts currently underway to change those generalized views of Black male inability. But there is also a history and tradition that can be referenced and pointed to, which provides examples of how it can be done: from Wright, to Baldwin, to Biggie and Pac, to Saul Williams, to even Obama.  An intellectual, experiential, expressive one.

I think about Kendrick Lamar's young body of work, and on the politics of carrying on the tradition within the new realities and narratives. Kendrick has moments when he puts this new paradigm for introspection, ethos, and social commentary, together in the mold of  the great Black social commentators - in the tradition of story-telling. And those moments are so dope.

A few months ago, Ta-Neshi Coates wrote in the NY Times about how important K-Dot's album "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city" is for understanding what Black males and residents in urban cities face; that elites don't get it; and thus Black males seek to treat this misunderstanding and alienation through other means.  Coates decides to emphasize the means of music and criminality: 1) rappers are masters of violence, 2) they are authors commenting on the new social structures, and 3) music is where they make fantasy parallel to reality, as a way of explaining the rules and strategies for mastering the new structures. In this logic, mastery equals survival.
"Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are taken as given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in exalting to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable."

He attempts to contextualize and nuance Black male rappers - the presumption embedded in the piece - "mastery of violence" through music and strategy, in order to not demonize it. But that approach seems..."stereotypical."  Just a very stereotypical way for analyzing the lived reality of misunderstood Black men. 

Instead, I really wished that he would of emphasized how Kendrick represents the Black male as social commentator.  The Black male that uses the local, as his text.  The Black male that uses words, to convey ethos.  The Black male, who is capable of not just commentary, but also analysis and introspection.  Rather than continue to be implicit that he, Coates, is unique because he is all those things, why not be explicit about how Kendrick is all those things too? Kendrick's social thought is just as important as his words. This point needs to be exalted more, and it goes beyond Coates' piece.

There is something troubling I've observed as K-Dot's music begins to find a broader audience and pop culture acceptance: his music is being reduced to choruses that put together finely chosen words and turn them into catchy phrases. The skits, track order, and coherent narrative which was thoughtfully and intelligently put together, is now signified through liquor in swimming pools and bitches that kill one's vibe.

Kendrick, isn't just the next great West Coast rapper, and not just a hip-hop artist who's music has a penchant for fitting the Top 40 format.  He also is in the lauded tradition of Wright, Baldwin, and Obama, and less recognized aspects of Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and many others.

And that he's been doing this way before "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city."

“Hiiipower: the three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the streets, and just in the world, period. Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness..."

Kendrick gives us an example of why we must listen closer.  Not just for words, but for intellectual thought.  Black men are capable of such.  But they themselves, and us as a listening community, must begin the process of thinking and speaking like we believe it.  And also behaving and acting in ways that develop what we have to say.

Study.  Learn.  Think.  Respect.  Remain Thoughtful.  And Share.  Let's call that HiiiPower

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Letter to a Community In Need Of Healing

"During the search for Christopher Dorner, and subsequent confrontation and murder, I thought often about Larry Davis.  I concentrated on the fact that in mist of the media and journalistic efforts to characterize him as a scourge, and contextualize him as practically an enemy of the state, one key point had been dropped from the mainstream's narrative: the allegation of corruption and police misconduct in the LAPD.  
This erasure coupled with the odd mixed messaging around the cabin fire believed to have taken Dorner's life.  The sum of this situation, has pushed me to reflect on my views and understandings of  criminality; justice; power; violence; and healing.  It has led me into critical intellectual engagement with the ideas, practices, and compositions of family, community, and law enforcement--the things that are supposed to mediate.  It also has become a point in time that is strained  onto my consciousness, where racial history and experience confronts the impact of systems and present day socio-economic conditions.
I sent the trailer of a soon to be released documentary on Davis' life to a friend.  I then wrote a follow up email to to reflect on all this; to try to make sense of it.  I share it here, with a few edits, as a letter to our community in name of historical memory, healing, and strengthening." 

I grew up hearing that story. Crazy.  When people do not understand my trepidation with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, I have to explain that it is not because I am an apologist for those who commit crimes.  

My angst is around this history of practicing corruption and the usage militaristic strategies and tactics to unjustly destroy communities and ruin lives. In combination with the lives destroyed by the drugs themselves (both street dealers and the White operatives that facilitated and profited from distribution), we cumulatively have:

1. fractured families 
2. missing parents
3. psychological trauma
4. stigmatized communities

This has become multi-generational. Me and you see it now, almost two generations later, when we are trying to figure out why so many young people are directionless, why so many adults make such poor decisions and set such a poor example, and why the character and will does not exist within our people en mass.  And that those who have not become overwhelmed by the above are the outliers, and not the median. 

Broken homes; traumatized people; disrupted relationships between parents, children, families, adults, and communities.  
How to understand this?  How to think about beginning to strengthen the positives that exists, scaling them up, while also filling gaps and addressing persistent problems?
It makes me think about the Panthers, because their analysis was systemic, and they engaged in "wrap-around" services before social policy popularized it. From free breakfast, to community education, to health care.
It makes me think about Malcolm because he had a comprehensive analysis, and multifaceted rebuilding and strengthening program.
It makes me think about Tupac, because he too had a comprehensive analysis; and around the time of his passing, was expressing what a multifaceted empowerment program would look like with him at the lead.

It makes me remember anti-colonialist thinkers and activists. 

It is not because they were radical or oppositional, that their work and thought endures.  It is not just romanticism and being arrested by the past.  Rather, it is that they cohesively explained and understood how all the parts matter--it was not just economic, or just cultural.  The entire social prism; the entire life experience; they strove to learn about each component, and then developed strategies and actionable steps to address it.   The approach is a model for us.  It is the right frame.  We just are looking at different picture; one altered by the events of the last three decades of the post-Black Freedom Movement.

So we look for models of people in this current moment, who are working on framing and changing the current picture. People like ____ are trying to rebuild and heal. Me and you are spending what must be the equivalent of weeks on g-chat talking through our ideas about what might be the causes and problems and solutions.  And we read and think about what to do about this mess; like where to start.  And then we volunteer, and listen, and reflect, as we try to grapple with what to do with our thoughts and our lessons-learned.

But we have a macro system that isn't invested in improvement, healing, and empowerment. We have a structure not designed to do those things either.  It is premised on social inequality, and its strongest feature is its ability to reproduce itself.  Which makes this observation saddening: our folks haven't had the clarity and balance to stop making it worst; to stop adding self-inflicted wounds to these problems. It makes what you and I want to achieve challenging. But thinking about this as a whole, it does not overwhelm me.  Instead, it just reminds me how deep it is, and that it will take time.  The project is big.  We just gotta keep getting tools, keep working, and remembering that it takes time.

Let's keep shining.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Historical King, the Present West, and the Future Obama

It is generally acknowledged that our society suffers from a certain historical amnesia in general, but especially on national holidays.  In the instance of Martin Luther King Day, many implore the public to look beyond his calls for “racial harmony” and non-violence, and to not characterize the Black Freedom struggle that he participated in as a single person endeavor instead of a group-centered imperative.  It is after this call that we then find very well written pieces which either incorporate the everyday people and local agents that heroically and bravely helped the nation confront its undemocratic legacy of exclusion and racial violence, or remind us of King’s important pivot towards economic justice and inclusiveness.  Altogether, the project of contextualizing Dr. King as not just anti-racism and pro-colorblindness, but also as someone “who advocated for poor people, spoke up for workers' rights, defended unions, and condemned war has been given much voice and has entered public discourse.

With the same spirit that pushes us to test what we have been collectively taught and what we individually understand, there is also the need to challenge our popular voices and public figures.  It is well documented how Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been appropriating this call to challenge, by critiquing and criticizing President Barack Obama. But it is a specific recent incident involving Dr. West, where the professor rebukes the President for using Dr. King’s bible to take the oath for his second term, that is concerning and requires evaluation and analysis.

What I find most interesting about Mr. West’s tirade is the relative amnesia it perpetrates regarding Dr. King's legacy as a leader.  King was brilliant; a tireless worker; and a man of great dignity and fortitude.  But during the entire period of the Civil Rights Movement, and the more expansive Black Freedom Movement, Dr. King was routinely criticized by those inside the movement for being:
Noted figures like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, James Foreman, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, along with lesser-known members of SNCC, CORE, and other progressive organizations and grassroots efforts were routinely disappointed and upset at King for either some or all of the reasons listed above.  To the present moment, what are Dr. West’s problems with President Obama’s political actions and economic philosophy?
When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority.”
“I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running a muck. I was completely wrong.”
“He’s a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
West in a 2011 interview

Sounds pretty familiar right?

The point is not to equalize Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama, nor to be an apologist for both.  Too often we make our analyses as if they are part of a zero-sum game; or we explain complexities as mutually exclusive phenomenon which cannot intersect or interact. 

Going back to the earlier point about contextualization, an important reason for holistically understanding Dr. King’s activism and intellectual thought, and particularly his move towards eradicating poverty and promoting economic democracy, is that he was pushed to these actions by his dissenters and by critiques from the Left.  The young people in Watts who rejected his prescriptions after the 1965 rebellion; the more radical elements of student organizers that wanted him to challenge the exclusion and inequality produced by the U.S. racial system in direct and confrontational language, not conciliatorily and passively; and the labor leaders and intellectuals that pressed upon him the urgency and profoundness of employment discrimination and economic exploitation—these are the central factors that led King to widen his scope and broaden his goals.  In large part, that is how he ends up in Chicago protesting housing discrimination in 1966, at Riverside Church speaking out against the war in 1967, and organizing workers in Memphis in 1968.  The public nudges and private pushes King received from supporters and others, caused him to make a political move to his left.

Perhaps that is Dr. West’s intention with the cajoling and agitation he has presented President Obama.  That in fact he wants Obama to be much more like the King of 1965-1968.  It certainly seems that this is his intention, given the comments he made regarding Dr. King’s bible.
But to hear West tell it, Martin Luther King Jr. was always the King of 65-68, and thus always articulated those political objectives. Careful historical examination, and a strong call to our historical memory, reminds us that in fact this is not true. King was just as flawed and problematic then, as West believes Obama is now.  And to that point, dissenting and challenging the President is necessary—especially on the economic issues and militarism.  But the lesson regarding King that Brother West needed to emphasize was how our leaders in the establishment can be compelled to become more populist and more progressive.  Especially with President Obama arguably holding the more pronounced public profile that any Black figure has held since Dr. King, and during a period of social unrest and political economic transformation that threatens to markedly impact this country’s trajectory during the rest of the twenty-first century, we desperately need to understand how organizing, advocacy, and activism can influence the establishment and direct political will. 

I do not think thirty minutes tirades at inaugural balls and incomplete narratives of the civil rights movement will achieve this understanding.
But still, outside of our “leaders,” each of us are able to think and talk about what we want of this society; and all of us are able to make actionable what must be done to create a more equitable, just, and inclusive society.  In his own MLK Day piece that attempts to properly frame Dr. King’s work, Public Allies CEO Paul Schimtz provides a quote from civil rights historian Charles McKinney that can guide and inspire us to make that equitable, just, and inclusive society real:
"When we elevate leaders of particular movements to the mythic status of great man or woman, we do a disservice to everyone. By placing people on a historical pedestal, we forget that they grew, learned, made mistakes, and struggled throughout the tenure of their leadership, and we forget that these leaders were mentored, collaborated with other leaders, and had to get their followers to believe in their own capacity to step up and lead. Hero-worship relegates the work, thought, and effort of 'ordinary people' to something akin to pleasant background music. Local agents for change and progress lose their voice, and are mercilessly converted into mindless, thoughtless followers of the great man or woman who 'leads' them.”
“In order for us to understand and build on this history, we must honor the true leadership paradigm where leaders at all levels - those few who get recognized and the countless others who contribute silently - are necessary for change."

It will take the many hands that will struggle in the future, and the ones that have already worked in the past, to create the broad based leadership and mass movement we need in order to actualize “the change we can believe in.”  Not solely the hands that have touched one leader’s bible.