Blackberry Fool

In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:

a fascinating picture book in which four families, in four different cities, over four centuries, make the same delicious dessert: blackberry fool. This richly detailed book ingeniously shows how food, technology, and even families have changed throughout American history. 

In 1710, a girl and her mother in Lyme, England, prepare a blackberry fool, picking wild blackberries and beating cream from their cow with a bundle of twigs. The same dessert is prepared by an enslaved girl and her mother in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina; by a mother and daughter in 1910 in Boston; and finally by a boy and his father in present-day San Diego. 

As a confirmed children’s book junkie, I bought A Fine Dessert for my own kids when it came out. It even has a recipe for blackberry fool in the back. We made it, and it was delicious.

Soon, however, a controversy erupted over the book in the high-stakes world of children’s book publishing. The controversy was over depictions of the enslaved mother and daughter smiling.

One reader wrote:

I am so troubled by this book. . . What information is portrayed about slavery through the depiction in the book A Fine Dessert? . . .
1) That slave families were intact and allowed to stay together.
2) Based on the smiling faces of the young girl…that being enslaved is fun and or pleasurable.
3) That to disobey as a slave was fun (or to use the reviewers word “relaxed”) moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment.

The illustrator, Sophie Blackall, countered:

1) . . . Evidence shows that many mothers were able to keep their children nearby, usually because it suited the plantation owners to increase their workforce. Historian Michael Tadman estimated that one third of enslaved children in the Southern States experienced family separation, which suggests that two thirds did not. Jennifer Hallam writes, in Slavery and the Making of America, “The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale.” This does not imply that those relationships were not constantly under threat. But it seemed reasonable that we might show a mother and daughter working together. I believe the author, Emily Jenkins came to the same conclusion. There is no father to be seen.
By showing an enslaved mother and daughter together, it is certainly a more positive portrayal of slavery than showing them wrenched apart. But it is not inaccurate. And the book is about different families making blackberry fool over four centuries.


2) I thought long and hard about these smiles. 
In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is a tender moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile. She is, in this moment, not unhappy. I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments.

While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,

I’m . . . discomforted by Emily Jenkins’ apology for A Fine Dessert, at the same time that I respect and admire it. . . . To me [her apology] ties into the White Lady tears phenomenon somehow, though I can’t quite put my finger on exactly how this is all working.

One thing that both the naysayers and the apologists are overlooking is that happiness can be resistance. Listen to this song by Our Native Daughters:

Here is a collection of essays, articles, and statements on the book.

Check out the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile.

More on cancel culture in children’s and YA literature:

It’s not just writers who ought to be worried. The logical [conclusion] of a prohibition on cultural intercourse is a future in which each person is allowed to document only his or her precise subjective experience. A future, in other words, where fiction is history. And that sounds like a very dreary prospect for us all.

What do you think?
Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published?
Do you think the illustrations should have been modified?
Do you think the enslaved family should have been included?
Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense?
Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology?
If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?

I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.

Stagolee Shot Billy

Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.

Stack Lee (drawing by Timothy Lane).

Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,

derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .

When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”

“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.

I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.

Seale (left) and Newton.

Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?

Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:

On Christmas Day, 1895, a local pimp named “Stack” Lee Shelton walked into a St. Louis bar wearing pointed shoes, a box-back coat, and his soon-to-be infamous milk-white John B. Stetson hat. Stack joined his friend Billy Lyons for a drink. Their conversation settled on politics, and soon it grew hostile: Lyons was a levee hand and, like his brother-in-law—one of the richest black men in St. Louis at the time—a supporter of the Republican party. Stack had aligned himself with the local black Democrats. The details of their argument aren’t known, but at some point Lyons snatched the Stetson off Stack’s head. Stack demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, shot him dead.

Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.

The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.

The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:

Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:

In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:

Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:

Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:

The Grateful Dead:

Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:

British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:

What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?

What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?

Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?

Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?

Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?

What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?

Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.

This is a beautifully-drawn graphic-novel treatment of the story. The pages are out of order because they’re meant to be printed and bound, but check it out.

The DNA of American Folk Music

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Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

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However, according to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), this does not make Elizabeth Warren an Indian:

Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and [their] legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?

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In 1892, famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America at the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, New York — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train young American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New York Herald newspaper:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

In response to his pronouncement,

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman [a black-owned newspaper] recalled Dvořák’s statements as “a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements,” referring to him as “Pan [father] Antonín Dvořák, our greatest friend from far across the sea.” According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvořák “lives on in black music circles.” 

In another unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes at the conservatory. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.

“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.

Mother, shed no mournful tears,

But gird me on my sword;

And give no utterance to thy fears,

But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!

A cause is to be won!

Mother, look not so white and wan;

Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue

Where’er my footsteps fare;

And when they lead beyond thy view,

Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,

Nor danger to dispel;

Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm

I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep

My heart and purpose strong,

My sword unsullied and ready to leap

Unsheathed against the wrong.

While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World” (written in New York City in 1893) was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual, migrating from the concert hall to public (and private) spaces less formally rigid.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take note of, and advantage of, “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).

The question one might ask about these composers and their work is one that will come up for us again and again in this class: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship with African-Americans? or in a spirit of opportunism, even of exploitation?

One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”

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John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. In 1931, he founded a short-lived but influential Appalachian music festival in Virginia called the White Top Festival. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (standing, fourth from right) visited the festival in 1933.

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John Powell was also an avowed white supremacist, and helped to draft Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, also known as the “one-drop rule.” This law legally classified anyone who had any amount of African ancestry (even “one drop”) as black, and hence subject to segregation under Jim Crow.

The “one-drop rule,” however, exempted anyone who claimed to be descended from the real Pocahontas, as many of Virginia’s “finest families” claimed to be.

In spite of the fact that Powell had drawn upon African-American folk music themes in his “Rhapsodie Nègre,” he sought to promote the idea that American folk music derived exclusively from “Anglo-Saxon” sources, an idea that was disputed even in his own time. The White Top Festival was a public attempt to showcase this controversial idea: in other words, he harnessed folk music in the service of his social-political agenda.

Can you think of other historical examples of the co-opting of culture in the service of politics?

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Powell was by no means an outlier in his attempts to whitewash the African roots of traditional American music. Around the same time that he was giving lectures on the “Anglo-Saxon” derivation of Appalachian music, Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford), a virulent racist and anti-Semite, was spearheading a square dance revival, in the hopes of counteracting the pernicious influence of jazz. What Ford neglected, probably out of ignorance, was the fact that square dancing, like Appalachian music, has deep roots in African-American culture.

howard_squaredance_1050x700

(Howard University students square dancing in 1949.)

When we think of American folk music, especially fiddle-and-banjo music from the region of Appalachia, we tend to think of it as white people’s music, as in this famous scene from the 1972 film Deliverance.

As John Jeremiah Sullivan describes Rhiannon Giddens, one of the contemporary black artists attempting to reveal the black roots of American folk music:

She is an artist of color who plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music” for mainly white audiences . . . a concert for the prisoners at Sing Sing . . . was the first time she’d played for a majority-black crowd . . . Giddens [says], “. .. I would like to see more people from my . . . community at the shows and in the know” . . . The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens . . . But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest . . . to remind people that the music she plays is black music.

Black music like this:

And like this:

And this:

And all of this:

Rhiannon Giddens is not the only young black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.

Here is the multi-instrumentalist native of Los Angeles, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who plays both country blues and Appalachian music, and even sometimes performs in the dress of a black Southern field hand.

Valerie June draws on Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues traditions in her music:

The New York City-based old-time string band The Ebony Hillbillies:

Toronto-born Kaia Kater:

As we think about and explore ideas of authenticity in American music, we would do well to remember that the DNA of American music in all of its genres has a great deal more than one drop of African ancestry.

Appendix: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.

Something Good

On December 12 of this year, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry added a 30-second film from 1898 to its collection. The film, known as “Something Good — Negro Kiss” is the first screen kiss between African-Americans in film history, and it is remarkably free from the racist stereotypes with which African-Americans had been portrayed in the theater to this point. Read more here.

The performers have been identified as Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, two vaudeville dancers who were well-known to Chicago audiences. 

The first screen kiss in film had been documented two years earlier, between white vaudeville performers May Irwin and John Rice. Irwin, as you may recall, was a Broadway “coon shouter,” a white woman who sang songs (in a stentorian voice) from the perspective a black male. Her biggest hit was “The Bully Song” (shown here with footage of that famous kiss — Content/trigger warning: racist language and imagery).

May Irwin was a famous voice of “blackvoice” minstrelsy. How can we see “Something Good” in relation to the genre that she represented?

Fight the Power

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Still from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

Chuck D of Public Enemy was inspired to write “Fight the Power,” the theme song for Do the Right Thing, by an Isley Brothers song of the same name.

Carlton Ridenhour was 15 years old, and a lifelong Isley Brothers fan, when that song changed his life.

Ridenhour would later take the stage name Chuck D, as the leader of the pioneering rap group Public Enemy. In 1989, he wrote his own “Fight the Power” for the film Do the Right Thing. The movie is set on the hottest day of the summer in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where the temperature leads long-simmering racial tensions to boil over in the street.

The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power Parts 1 & 2” obliquely references the policing of “boom cars”:

I can’t play my music
They say my music’s too loud
I kept talkin about it
I got the big run around
When I rolled with the punches
I got knocked on the ground
With all this bullshit going down 

The regulation of boom cars has also become a civilian effort, with groups such as Lower the Boom! addressing the following to the drivers of such vehicles:

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent.  . . (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society).  . . We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid. . . we don’t expect this page to mean a great deal until you’ve become men; not just in the physical sense, but in your minds and souls as well. 

Public Enemy would later rap about the phenomenon of aurally profiling black drivers in “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

I was wheelin’ 
Wit’ the boom in the back 
The treble was level 
I like it like that 
I was rolly roll a roll rollin’ 
5 o looked and said hold it 

Read an interview between Chuck D and Ernie Isley: “‘Fight The Power’: A Tale Of 2 Anthems (With The Same Name)” here.

Read “Afrofuturism, Public Enemy, and Fear of a Black Planet at 25.”

Another way of fighting the power during the government shutdown.

“Doing 55” Playlist

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Hoodie (David Hammons, 1993).

Trigger/Content Warning: Disturbing subject matter, police brutality, racism, profanity, racist language including the n-word.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever notes in her article “‘Doing Fifty-Five in a Fifty-Four’: Hip Hop, Cop Voice and the Cadence of White Supremacy in the United States”:

As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.

We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?

As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?

Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?

KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):

Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):

Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):

Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):

Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):

N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):

J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):

Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):

Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):

G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):

The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):

Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):

Appendices:

  1. Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.

2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:

 

 

3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):

 

4.. Read the African American Policy Forum’s report #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, by Andrea Richie and Kimberlé Crenshaw, here.

5.. Listen to Rudy Francisco perform his poem “Adrenaline Rush” (h/t Anokye Bomani):

6. Read the “Lower the Boom” organization’s (racialized) open letter to those who, as Public Enemy  puts it, wheel with the boom in the back.

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent. . .  (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society). You lash out with vitriol, vituperance, and vile invalidations because you feel you are being personally attacked or have been caught being wrong. To the clear-headed and intelligent, you look quite insecure when you do that.

We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid.

7. Read “It Took a Jury 9 Minutes to Decide A Man Could Legally Blast ‘F*ck Tha Police’ Near an Officer.”

8. Read “To Unprotect and Subserve: King Britt Samples the Sonic Archive of Police Violence.

Romantic Frenemies

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The conflict between Brahms and his allies and the proponents of the New German School resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:

The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.

A few days later, an answer appeared in the Neue Zeitschrift:

Dread Mr. Editor,

All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,

Crossing-Sweeper.

Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]

Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven and carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. However, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.

The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):

The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.

More on the Tristan chord:

Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.

Funk and Futurism

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Earth, Wind and Fire as part of the cycle of creation.

What is Afrofuturism?

Briefly, the term denotes an African American ideological current associated with aesthetic references to outer space, non-Western cosmologies, religious and historical revisionism, and a stringent critique of the socio-economic plights of African Americans (and diasporic and continental Africans more broadly).

Earth, Wind and Fire’s video for “Let’s Groove ” (1981)

includes multiple aesthetic references to Afrofuturism: a backdrop of flying white stars in the vastness of outer space, glittery and metallic-colored spacesuit costumes, and a group line dance preceding through a receding, neon pyramid. The line dance—a salient feature of the Chicago-originated television series Soul Train, proceeds through a potent symbol of Egyptology: the pyramid. Egyptology, an influential religious current during the 1960’s and 1970’s, placed black people at the center of Western and world history, and the pyramid adorns several EWF album covers, including 1977’s All ‘N All.

Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”

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Read the whole story here.

If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?

Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

The “sweet chariot” in the original song is the vehicle in which the Old Testament prophet Elijah was carried up to heaven. How do George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic revise this symbolism?

One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.

The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.

Ra live with his Arkestra in 1979:

Some femme Afrofuturism: 

Grace Jones.

Janelle Monae.

Legendary sci-fi author Octavia Butler.

Wild Style

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Wild Style (1983) of course remains the ultimate Hip Hop movie, and what it lacks in plot and structure it makes up for in accuracy, authenticity and sincerity. It was made by the right people, at the right time, for all the right reasons.

Read about the making of the film here.

Watch the film here.

The Cold Crush Brothers, one of the contending crews in the basketball throwdown scene:

Cold Crush earlier this year, in a concert to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the film:

The Rock Steady Crew, also featured in the film, with a hit they had the same year:

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Lady Pink (Rosie) is still making work. Check her out here.

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So is Lee Quiñones (Zoro), pictured above with his wife.

And watch the trailer for a new documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988), who was part of the street art scene:

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(Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, 1973.)

Note that the white journalist who goes uptown to get her story listens to (and looks like the lead singer of) Blondie. Blondie had a hit in 1981 called “Rapture,” in which Debbie Harry syncretized various current forms of black popular music, including disco and rap. The video contains various references to West African/Carribean religion, including Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead in Haitian voudou (and Basquiat has a cameo). What else is going on in this video? Is “Rapture” an homage to black culture, or a ripoff?

As a gallery owner says in the 1983 documentary “Style Wars,” which treats the same topics as “Wild Style,” Blondie was a popular meme in graffiti art. 

Watch it here.

On the other hand, in 1979, the conservative cultural critic Nathan Glazer declared about graffiti artists:

I have not interviewed the subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable. 

This is considered to be the first commercially-released rap single, the 1979 “King Tim III” by the Fatback Band — a live funk band playing instruments, not samples — with rapper Tim Washington.

The first commercially-released rap single to achieve mainstream success was “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, also released in 1979.

“Rapper’s Delight” uses samples from the song “Good Times” by Nile Rodgers’s disco-funk band Chic. Note how different the sound is from a live band.

If rap was born in the cradle of struggle, what and who were those struggles against?

As rap began to reach a mainstream audience, how did the depiction of those struggles change?

How have the struggles embodied in hip hop changed over the past four decades?

Soul and Funk: Some Historical Background

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Kitchenette buildings on Chicago’s South Side, 1950.

The turbulence of the 1960s was as much a response to the domestic situation in the urban United States as it was to Vietnam. One of the effects of the Great Migration was to turn northern cities into unofficially segregated spaces — segregated in fact, if not by law — with black citizens, unable to purchase homes in good neighborhoods, consigned to renting substandard housing in the ghetto.

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The great African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), above, writes about what it was like to hone her poetic voice in a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. “Kitchenettes” were apartments chopped up out of older houses. They usually had a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom in the hall shared by multiple families.

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We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

A family’s striving to leave a kitchenette apartment is also the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. You can read the play here, and watch it here.

With overcrowding came an increase in the poor conditions.  And because Federal Housing Authority policies actually encouraged discriminatory lending policies, very few African American families were able to secure the loans necessary to move out of the neighborhood, even if they were prepared for the uphill battle against racism they might receive in another area . . .

This is what the Younger family in [Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play] A Raisin in the Sun is fighting so hard to get out of – overcrowded spaces both inside and outside of their apartment walls, which are crumbling around them. What happens when a family – or a whole city full of families – is pushed to the brink like this, where even getting up in the morning involves a fight with those around you?

This article, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in 2014, is long but absolutely indispensable for an understanding of the racist policies that helped create black urban ghettos and restrict black homeownership, which has led to the present great disparity between white and black generational wealth.

A powerful poem that speaks to Miss Brooks’s legacy, by Parneshia Jones:

What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do

Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.

I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge
.

I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there)
.

For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.

How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?

                     Hold On.

When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.

She won a Pulitzer in the dark.

She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on. 
She held on to all of us.

                    Hold On, she whispers. 

Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—

a rebel rouser and rude.

They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.

                     Hold On.

We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.

Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.

                    Hold On, she says, two million light years away.

She’s right.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.

And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings 
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.

We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
 

Hold On.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
and keep
Holding.

For a wonderful article about the photographer who captured the glory days of funk, go here.