Creating The New Music

Concerning Ragtime, composer William Bolcom has said that “the classic music style of any given culture is the one that defines its basic language in a form that that culture can naturally accept as its own.” This is not only true for ragtime, but also the blues, the shouts and the spirituals and, of course, Native American music. Everything else is essentially from outside the country; however this does not mean that “everything else” is to be disregarded and rejected.

Of course, expressing a full range of emotions in music–having access to a complete palate of music colors and tonal shadings–is what makes a music great. It’s what makes it human. The music can be mystical and ethereal, or light and airy and in pastel shadings. Or in deep, dark, heavy oil colors, or somewhere in between.

The term “Funk” is just like “jazz,” like “ragtime” itself, or like “swing,” a cheap name slapped on a form of expression in order to sell it. Before the early sixties “Funky” meant filthy, low-down, smelly, degenerate. The word was rehabilitated by “funky soul” jazz musicians ca. 1960 (mostly from middle-class backgrounds) and by James Brown, whose music, coincidentally, drew heavily not only on gospel and postwar urban blues but also on swing and early jazz. James Brown’s music was multilayered and multifaceted, though certainly not on the same level as Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.

Many who were touched by his music only heard the funk element and nothing else. In fact most popular black music after 1970 (and certainly after 1980) had become increasingly narrow in its range of emotional expression. It became increasingly slick, sterile, superficial and repetitious, frequently even mindless. Today “funk” (besides homicidal rage) has become the only element in “black music” that one generally picks up on when one listens to it, and it is not even good “funk”–it’s worse than the corny pseudo-funk of vintage porn clips of Seka and Long Dong Silver.

Why the obsession with just this one (watered-down) ingredient? Because it’s easy, number one. It’s easy to fake. Of course, you can’t fake the funk, but untold millions of listeners these days can’t tell the difference between Hersal Thomas, George Clinton and rapper DMX. Millions of listeners these days would prefer DMX because in their minds (regardless of their racial, ethnic, or national background) he represents “authentic black music.” DMX could not even play his own skin-flute but such is the power of multinational corporate persuasion, most listeners don’t give two shits; their minds have already been made up concerning “authentic black music.”

To pop-culture squares, both DMX, Tupac and their ilk are “acceptably” black. To the Afro-Futurists and Afro-Surrealists Sun Ra is acceptably black because the Dionysian element in his music appeals to their rococo sensibilities, forgetting that Sun Ra himself scoffed at the very idea of people needing more freedom. “People need more discipline,” he said.

In reality, Sun Ra was a bit of a reactionary. He was lukewarm (to say the least) about Black Power and even about the Civil Rights struggle that preceded it. There is evidence that he was in fact a Republican or that his political sympathies lay in that region. (He was from Birmingham, after all.) As an anti-authoritarian leftist I realize that discipline is important but truthfully, people need to learn how to walk that tightrope between freedom and discipline, and not just in art.

Count Basie, Anthony Braxton, Duke Ellington is “stuff white people like.” And if white people like it, it isn’t “black” anymore. “The brothers ain’t into it,” people (mostly black themselves) will say. And the dutifully cowed black listener will listen to Florence Price or James Scott or Julius Eastman in private, lest his black peers label him a “coon” or a “honky.”

“Authentic black music,” “real” black music (in the minds of most listeners) must always be limited in its range of expression, always stuck in the night club, no matter where it finds itself. Even in Carnegie Hall or the Berlin Philharmonie, “real black music” must always carry the stink of the fucking night club, the cathouse, the strip joint, across the railroad tracks in Funky Butt Hall or the Bucket of Blood. “Funk,” even the good stuff (to be perfectly honest) impresses in the minds of those people (who wish to sell, listen to, jack off to, screw to or appropriate black music) that our music is just cheap, tawdry shit to jack off to, made by a bunch of black-faced, comic opera buffoons who are naturally happy or naturally enraged or naturally sad–all just one emotion, incapable of expressing a entire range of human emotions.

In Tha Funk, all we are left with is shit-brown, or as some ignorant coolie fuck somewhere in China called it, NIGGER-brown. People love Tha Funk because not only does it make us want to fuck, or eat, or shit, or gouge out some asshole’s nipples with a gimlet but also because it subconsciously reinforces in our minds that the niggers who made this Funk are just that–niggers.

Today’s American musician would have you think that The Funk is everything. It isn’t. The Funk always was and always will be what it is–an ingredient. When you make a fucking stew, you don’t just add hot sauce and nothing else. Who wants to eat a bowlful of hot sauce?∗

Better yet, let’s just ask the basic question: what is “funk,” anyway?

Duke Ellington described it when he placed his fingers down on a few keys and produced a dissonant chord. “That’s us,” he said. A funky chord is produced on piano by playing an F-major over a B-major note, for instance. But the trick is not to overuse it, or be so obvious with it. The Funk is something that should emerge organically.

Here in Berlin, I receive several invitations to jazz concerts and ignore the bulk of them. Usually it’s because these days, I simply don’t have the time. And when I do have the time I’m selective with whom and where I’m going to spend it. Hint: it may be at Speichers, but it won’t be at Edelweiss or the Yorckschlossen, because all I’m going to hear is the same old tired “funk.”

Very, very few musicians here are doing anything ground-breaking. It’s “nice” to see that young kids in their twenties and thirties are back into “jazz”¹ but virtually none of them have brought any new energy to the table. Whether they are mindlessly trudging their way through post-bop cliches or chug-chugging away on their banjos at various night-spots in Berlin (or Paris, New York, Amsterdam, for that matter) it all sounds the same, and it is extremely painful in the end to hear yet another tired-ass rendition of “Indiana” or “As Time Goes By.” Do we really need to hear “Indiana” again? Or, at the very least, do we need to hear it just the way Eddie Condon played it back in 1940?

The various Shout bands of the United House of Prayer have already given these so-called “jazz” musicians ample clues as to where they can take the music next–and typically, the “jazz” world has all but ignored them. When they do listen to the UHOP bands it is merely to ape their instrumental lineup (and honestly, I strongly doubt if the jazzers ever did that: the various street jazz bands one sees in urban America are just bland imitations of the worst of the New Orleans brass bands, most of which sound nasty). Very well, then: it is the jazz world’s loss.

Out of all the musicians playing today bands such as The Lively Stones have developed (over a period of four or more decades) a uniquely successful synthesis of early big-band territory jazz (think Luis Russell, Alphonso Trent, Zach Whyte, Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys, etc.) and modern gospel, neo-soul and funk harmonies. The result is some of the most emotionally powerful music currently being played in the United States. Occasionally these bands do get raggedy and repetitious, but they are rarely bad unless they go into the studio and cut commercial CDs (the shout bands have cut extremely few and nearly all of them are quite bad, compared to the almost overwhelming power they are capable of when playing on street corners.) They can roar like a herd of lions or they can be soft, sweet and gentle as lambs. At their best, their music has an almost defiant, earthy dignity, coupled with an impeccable swing that has been absent from “jazz” for untold decades. They are using a far broader palette of emotive expressions than these “jazz” circle-jerkers, who are content to run their fingers up and down their instruments as if they were masturbating rather than making music.

So-called “jazz” musicians are not obliged to keep their heads in their asses and ape Coltrane or Miles Davis for the next two thousand years. Nor are they condemned to some European-infected avant-garde oblivion by reducing the music to a series of deafening shrieks which not even dead people can tolerate. The whole postmodernist shtick of pushing the music forward to incomprehension is an obsession of French intellectuals with no ideas and even less feeling. But of course, feeling isn’t everything.

Some idiots would have us believe that so-called “black music” is all about feeling and rhythm and soul. We have been over this ground a billion times and Anthony Braxton has said it better than I can. To sum it up, the obsession with “black feeling” is implicitly reactionary, even in a revolutionary posture a la Amiri Baraka. Baraka is a writer who I greatly admire (and count as a major influence on my own writing). Yet in his many writings on this subject posited that black music was all about the soul and feeling. Yeah, fine, but what about the intellect? Sun Ra himself would have thought otherwise. Is head music only for Apollonian Europeans (who never existed, when you think about it) and the “soul music” only for Dionysiac (read: emotional and primitive) Africans? Really?

Alain Locke, writing in the 1920s, saw the matter somewhat differently:

The characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, disciplined, abstract, heavily conventionalized; those of the Aframerican—free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental and human. Only by the misinterpretation of the African spirit, can one claim any emotional kinship between them—for the spirit of African expression, by and large, is disciplined, sophisticated, laconic and fatalistic. The emotional temper of the American Negro is exactly opposite. What we have thought primitive in the American Negro—his naiveté, his sentimentalism, his exuberance and his improvising spontaneity are then neither characteristically African nor to be explained as an ancestral heritage. They are the result of his peculiar experience in America and the emotional upheaval of its trials and ordeals. True, these are now very characteristic traits, and they have their artistic, and perhaps even their moral compensations; but they represent essentially the working of environmental forces rather than the outcropping of a race psychology; they are really the acquired and not the original artistic temperament.

The whole “black soul” trope sounds suspiciously like the same crap regurgitated endlessly throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s by slumming whites who thought that Cab Calloway, Fats Waller or the Mills Blue Rhythm Band (in performance mode, that is) were perfect expressions of everything inside the Negro Soul. And we all know that the Black Man’s Soul was and is a White man’s artifact. One can’t create a revolution in the culture while adhering to self-concepts that were fashioned by people who still think that we’re monkeys.

But perhaps at a very basic level the essence of African diaspora music globally is “the same,” and the difference is in the details. Taking Locke at his word (and it seems fair that we should do so) African musical concepts are generally far more rigid than our own. So-called “African music”–to cite one example out of thousands, the music of the Wolof, or that of the Ashanti–has fixed rules. In Ashanti musical ensembles you play your part and if you must deviate you must do it within the context allotted you–otherwise, the musical spell is interrupted. You can’t just play any old goddamned thing that pops into your head and then try and blend it in with the rest.

Of course, such a thing might be entirely possible in New Afrikan music providing one has an intuitive understanding of what is being played. Freedom–but within discipline. Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison said as much concerning real Swing music, which, ironically (because many critics, including Baraka, condemned it as whitified, commercialized and bourgeois–and much of it was, truthfully), comes far closer to the African musical aesthetic than free jazz. So does the music of King Oliver, as well as James Brown. Both were known to be iron-fisted disciplinarians in rehearsals.

The African music is a classical one, like the European, the Asian, the Middle Eastern, or South American. The African American music has a classical side, too, but it is persistently overlooked, largely because it doesn’t really sell. Nobody is really going to buy Leon Bates, Orbert Davis, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres or the Fisk University Jubilee Singers to the degree in which they’ll gleefully gobble up Jay Z’s simple-minded “Story of O.J.” Because the sad truth is that your average African American’s tastes in music are generally just as vulgar, just as tawdry and frivolous as your average white Yank. And that’s because your average African American is just that–a Yank.

Naturally, all of this has to change. Our new music can no longer confine itself mentally to dingy nightclubs and to The Street. We can’t keep on putting out frivolity and trashy, tasteless, corny shit because “everyone is into it,” or because it pays well. Today’s pop music is even worse than the cheesiest disco, worse than 80s synth-driven, obnoxious coked-up New Wave trash. To create the New Music, one has to find the aesthetic strains that bind together the low (so-called “pop”) and the high. Whatever has value in pop music, one can use it and throw the rest in the trash can. Whatever has value in neo-soul, one can use it; whatever sounds that can blend in harmoniously with the new musical stew, it can go in. Otherwise, keep it out.

No audience for the New Music? Find the fucking audience. Forty years ago very very few people wanted to hear Hip Hop. One hundred and thirty years ago ragtime was unknown outside of cheap saloons and bordellos. Today ragtime is our basic musical language and one can’t find a patch of earth on the planet in which hip-hop, the retarded great-great-grandbaby of ragtime, isn’t being blasted from an iPhone.

Yes, that’s right. Hip-hop is essentially ragtime syncopation with words and not notes. John Legend’s “Where Did My Baby Go,” which was enormously popular, is essentially a ragtime song with the rhythm shifted to a “Latin” beat. In fact, it sounds almost as if it had been written partly by Louis Chauvin, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. You can’t hear this unless you play it stride style on a piano.

The New Music has to be somewhat nationalistic. I hate to say “nationalistic,” but at this point in time we need nationalism in our culture to beat back the fog of a fake neoliberal “multiculturalism,” as well as the fog of pseudo-nationalist “identitarian” racism. We need African American nationalism in the New Music in the same way that Chopin put Polish nationalism (by way of mazurkas and polonaises) in his “New Music.” The aim of Chopin and other European musical nationalists was to break the stifling mold of an increasingly bland, characterless pan-European Classicism in music, in which the folk melodies of oppressed nations such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc., etc. were almost completely absent. The “Classical” music of Europe reflected the bloated faces and rococo sensibilities of the Hapsburgs, not those of the various peoples under the Hapsburg heel. One anonymous listener made an interesting comment concerning Chopin’s Grand Polonaise: he said that the piece was a conscious expression of the Polish people’s struggle for freedom. I agree.

Our New Music must reflect our own folk sounds and anything else we can incorporate into the Music that gels with the basic folk sounds. The Music must reflect the struggle to liberate ourselves under the dead weight of a fake corporate “international” sound designed to put people to sleep under a fucking ecstasy haze. This pseudo-music we should seek to destroy is the soundtrack of hipsters and the bullshit neoliberal/neofascist/alt-right pseudo-democracy they thrive in like weeds.

And when we make our music, we do it right. Not in a stupid, heavy-handed Commie way, or in a brutalist fascist manner, but in our new classical manner. Classical doesn’t mean wearing a tuxedo and picking up a fucking violin. That is not our classical form. If you don’t like the old “classical” forms then create new ones. You can even utilize Rap, too, but be prepared to shatter every single definition and rule as to what Rap is supposed to sound like. Rap is a painfully limited art form; it doesn’t express much more than junior high school machismo. It’s like a squirt of jism–once it’s out there, that’s that. Even their politics are suspect because of their lousy self-presentation: when Snoop Dogg shits on Donald Dumb-ass, he does it in the same old tired way–as a clownish, comic-opera negro. When Eminem shits on the Orange Honky he is no different: a hip, violent Al Jolson sans blackface.

Snoop Dogg wants to Make America Crip Again. I say: a curse on both your houses–the White House and the Hip Hop House. The Hip Hop House is obsessed with cocaine, money and fat white women. The White House is obsessed with power. Both are dead set upon keeping Black American Music in the lowest and most obscene state imaginable. In their empty heads the minstrel stage is the end-goal for our music; after that, the gas chambers and firing squads will be activated. Even when their “rap” is allegedly radical it still makes the Afro-American look like an ignorant savage. We don’t need this. Get Afro-classical; get back to the roots.

*

 

∗It is not enough to simply sit around talking about how much Rap stinks, or that The Funk is just simple-minded, repetitive droning on one fucking chord, with no real feeling (one can’t fake real funk, you either get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, don’t play it: play Chopin instead.

(On second thought, don’t play him, either. Or Beethoven. Because in both of these players there is a discernible “proto-funk” or better yet, borderline-funk sensibility: listen to Grosse Fuge by Beethoven or Nocturne in F-Sharp by Chopin. And definitely leave Scriabin’s Vers La Flamme alone.)

¹It was fascinating for awhile to see millennials getting back into jazz, even traditional jazz. Anthony Braxton might see it otherwise, as concomitant with political reaction. The truth is a bit trickier than that. Yes, the return of swing music in the 1990s heralded the disasters of the Bush Regime and worse things to come, and to be honest, not a single one of these goofy bands was playing anything close to what real swing music was; none of them possessed the true musical sensibilities that made the best so-called “big band” music, such as that charted by Don Redman, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Eddie Sauter, Jimmy Mundy, Melvin “Sy” Oliver, Patrick “Spike” Hughes, Eddie Durham and many others. None of them possessed the musical skills necessary to tackle a difficult piece like “Chant of the Weed” or Coleman Hawkins’ atonal “Queer Notions.” “Stop Kidding,” a notoriously intricate John Nesbit arrangement written in 1928, would be completely beyond the powers of the overwhelming majority of today’s so-called “big bands.”

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The “J” Word: Why “Jazz”?

PART ONE

When I think of the word “Jazz” I am reminded of the music I love the most, which is why I generally have a positive reaction to the word. Not that I have really cared too much about the word in and of itself. It is a very silly word. Actually, it’s stupid and insulting. Imagine someone referring to Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major or Beethoven’s Violin Concerto as “fancy-schmancy” or “longhair” music, and you get the idea. Admittedly some of this Music, because it really is cheap, superficial, flashy and overblown for its own sake really does deserve the childish moniker of “Jazz.” Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, on the other hand, or Miles Davis’s Tempus Fugit, or Sidney Bechet’s Summertime, or Gillespie and Parker’s Groovin’ High (1945) however, simply do not deserve to be categorized by such a word. Many of the greatest practitioners of this music have always detested it. “It’s a nigger word,” railed Miles Davis, in a rare 1980 radio interview. “It means nigger music…when white people hear the word they think of niggers fucking and shit like that.” Clarinetist and soprano saxist Sidney Bechet considered the word to be superfluous; he preferred to call the music “ragtime” throughout his life. To him Jazz was just “a name the white people have given to the music. There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…But Jazz, ­ Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass…”.

Duke Ellington (with whom Bechet played briefly in 1925) himself said as much concerning “Jazz.” The word seems to have rubbed him the wrong way and he used it reluctantly, out of lack of choice for a better word. “By and large, (this music) has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with,” he once wrote. “The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem.”°

Indeed. “Jazz” has the stink of Storyville all over it. Since its closing in 1917 a huge amount of legends and fantasies have grown up around Storyville, fed in large part by the embellishments of musicians who once played in its establishments. For the record let it be known that, aside from solo pianists such as Tony Jackson, Kid Ross or Ferdinand Mouton (or LaMothe or LeMott) no jazz band (nor any other band) ever played in a Storyville brothel: most whorehouses were ill-equipped to house a six or seven-piece band on their premises. Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Manuel Manetta, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., Peter Bocage, Henry Zeno, George “Pops” Foster, Alphonse Picou, Armand Piron, Sidney Bechet and their ilk plied their trade in grungy cafes and dance halls such as Pete Lala’s, The Big 25 or Tom Anderson’s cafe for distressingly long hours and for insultingly low pay. These establishments were often hot, sweaty and stinking of armpits, bad breath, wet farts and God knows what else–which explains why New Orleans’ Union Sons Hall, a popular dance hall among black New Orleanians, was cheekily referred to as the “Funky Butt Hall.”

In any event, the music that the above musicians were shaping between roughly 1890 and 1915 was very rarely, if at all, referred to as “jazz,” let alone “jass.” To Sidney Bechet and Louis Nelson DeLisle, it was always “ragtime music.” To others it was simply “The Music.” The shady origins of the word jazz–indeed, the very cheapness of the word itself–appeared to impress even in the minds of its creators that what they were doing was cheap, dirty, and disreputable–“jungle music,” as Rudy Vallee once insinuated on his radio program. If early jazz musicians plied their trade in ratty joints, it was certainly not out of choice.

“Who draped those basement dens

With silk, but knaves and robbers

And their ilk?

Who came to prostitute your art

And gave you pennies

for your part?”

–Duke Ellington, excerpt from text of Black, Brown and Beige

There are dozens upon dozens of other explanations for the origins of the J-word and all of them are rather ridiculous. Jazz, in 1912, was simply an adjective used to describe something spunky (as was jasm, a word dating to at least 1860) screwy and off-the-wall–the way Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson described his latest (and unsuccessful) method of pitching. As for “jass,” speculations abound as to whether or not it is a derivation of “jaser” (the French verb to jabber on and talk shit) or a reference to the scent of jasmine (which the whores of Storyville allegedly wore) or whether it was simply cooked up by white New Orleans musicians (such as Tom Brown¹) once they made their way out of the South and towards Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

The truth is that “Jazz” was slapped on The Music as a way of selling it to the broader white American mainstream. The earliest known reference to “Jazz” in a musical sense dates from July 11, 1915.  This very revealing article, written by Gordon Seagrove for the Chicago Tribune, features a caricatured “darkie”² alto saxophonist woo-wooing away on his horn. So it is perfectly clear that as early as the summer of 1915 The Music–a potent mixture of blues, ragtime and secularized spiritual harmonies–was already being referred to as “Jazz.” The word was insulting, but it sold the music and helped to get some of these musicians out of Funky Butt Hall. (Note the two Z’s and not two S’s. It is not entirely clear as to how or why Tom Brown, Johnny Stein or Dominic La Rocca came up with “jass.” In my opinion, Jass sounds a lot like Ass–indeed, most of the records put out by the Original Dixieland Jass Band and its many imitators (between 1917 and 1920) sound like “ass,” and certainly not in a good way.)

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Duke Ellington, about 1930. “I am not playing Jazz…I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people”

I have already noted that New Orleanians generally disliked the term. Northerners were not much different. To James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake it was still Ragtime. Ellington’s own preference was for the term Negro Music. “I am not playing jazz,” he stated in 1930, in reference to his musical ambitions, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.” Ellington had once counseled bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson on the matter. “Why don’t we drop the word ‘Jazz’ and call what we are doing ‘Negro Music’? Then there won’t be any confusion.” Reportedly, Henderson was not too keen on dropping the “J” word, assuming he himself had ever used it.

Of course, negative reaction to the J-word was not always limited to black musicians.³ Much of this resentment was echoed even by white musicians themselves, such as Red Norvo, who once said in 1944 “I certainly hope it isn’t jazz we’re playing, because jazz to me represents something obnoxious, like that Dixieland school of thought…the musicians it stands for are corny by today’s standards.”

Dave Tough, one of the core members of the white Austin High Gang, eventually gravitated to more modern sounds and remarked of Dixieland that it was “nowhere,” requested by slumming “snobs” on a nostalgic kick in 1940s Manhattan. “Those Dixieland characters come here to live their youth all over again,” Tough railed. “They like to think it’s still Prohibition and they’re wild young cats up from Princeton for a hot time. All they need is a volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald sticking out of their pockets.” Tough dismissed “Hot Jazz” as harmonically infantile, “a bad copy of the music that white Chicago musicians played who were in turn doing bad imitations of the music that they heard from the musicians who came from New Orleans.”

Charles Mingus, in 1969, said: “Don’t call me a jazz musician. The word ‘jazz’ means nigger, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit.” John Coltrane, a few years before his death, told an interviewer that “Jazz is a word they use to sell our music, but to me that word does not exist.” Anthony Braxton (like the late Ornette Coleman) will tell you the exact same things, and not mince words about it. In fact Braxton is deeply skeptical of many of the current trends in “Jazz,” particularly those inaugurated by the Marsalis Brothers under the tutelage of Stanley Crouch and the late Albert Murray; he sees in the current “Jazz” revival a “freezing” of what was once an innovative and living musical language in stoneª so that it remains locked forever in an American (and in this instance, Southern) past which we ought to have placed far behind us. Braxton assumed that Marsalis’s music was simply a comfortably nostalgic accompaniment to the increasingly toxic racism and reactionary politics of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush “administrations,” and on a very real level he is right: as pleasant as Marsalis’s music can be at times, it speaks very little–if anything–of our contemporary world; the harshness and dissonance that one can find in his music is the harshness and dissonance of another, simpler time. Sadly, even in that “other time” (say, the 20s and 30s) much of the music did not reflect the temper of that time but simply glossed over it with the phony 23-Skidoo slush of The Clambake Seven or, God forbid, the horror that was the Andrews Sisters.

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Red Norvo: “Jazz…represents something obnoxious”

Today, the most vociferous opponent of the word “Jazz” is trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has made it his mission to assassinate not merely the J-word but everything else associated with it.† To this end he has promoted the term #BAM, short for Black American Music. “There is no such thing as jazz,” he wrote in April of 2014, completely negating the idea of any sort of “Jazz tradition.” “(A)ny idea of what that might be is false. It’s impossible to build a tradition upon something that was never a designed to be a true expression of a community. The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie, just like racism.”

The lie being, of course, not merely that “Negroes” are a simple, funky, sexual, violent and primitive people without a history, without traditions, without art, without minds and so on and so fourth–no point in repeating oft-repeated lies–but also the very lie that any such creature called a “Negro” exists. When Duke Ellington spoke to Fletcher Henderson of the need to create a “Negro Music” he was simply utilizing the current and frankly most socially progressive language of that time. Duke Ellington’s “Negro” was not the Negro of Tom Brown, Stephen Foster, Joel Chandler Harris, or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nor even, for that matter, Mezz Mezzrow. Ellington rejected that image of the Negro publicly and was even more vehement in his rejection privately: “And was the picture true/Of you? The camera eye in focus…./Or was it all a sorry bit/Of ofay hocus-pocus?”

Ofay hocus-pocus, properly translated, is essentially what mainstream jazz or jass was and quite frankly, still is. Today that hocus-pocus (better known as bullshit) is simply dressed up in the robes or respectability and topped with a tasseled hat. But even the squarest of the super-squares, the rank-and-file men on the street, know that the vast bulk of contemporary jazz is remote, effete, elitist and un-listenable and that the back-asswards racism of many a “jazz classic” make even some of the best of jazz unendurable. Louis Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” for instance–a lovely melody marred by idiotically trite lyrics–was straight Stephen Foster, a fact he himself knew quite well and seems to have performed the tune largely in a satirical manner: On one early rendition of “Sleepy” (from December 1932) he twists the lyrics and sings, “when it’s slavery time down South.”

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Nicholas Payton: “The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie”

“To speak of ‘jazz tradition’ is like to speak of ‘racial justice,'” Payton continues. “It’s not possible to have justice within the confines of race because race was specifically designed to subjugate certain people to an underclass so that the “majority” thrives. Injustice is inherently built within the racial construct. There has never been any tradition within jazz other than to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.”

As a staunch anti-fascist, I  share both Braxton’s and Payton’s concerns about this thing called “Jazz.” I hate to look at The Music–my music–through the ugly prism of politics. Yet at some point such skepticism becomes inevitable.  As much as I enjoy vintage jazz–I have to confess that it is the virtual soundtrack to my life–I see ugly political trends running in tandem with the current enthusiasm for ragtime, “hot jazz” and “swing.” It is a disturbing thought that the music of Blind Boy Paxton, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Craig Ventresco, Reginald Robinson, John Reed-Torres and innumerable other trad jazz and ragtime bands both in the U.S. and elsewhere could serve as a musical soundtrack to something else: the rise in far-right nationalism across the globe. Fortunately, it ain’t necessarily so: there is a German swing society located in Berlin which is vociferously anti-fascist and even Socialist in outlook. But I’m afraid that their progressive politics are, generally speaking, not shared by those who enjoy their music.

_________________________

NOTES

°‘I was recently held up again at a Dublin street corner by a small crowd who were listening to a young man with a strong North of Ireland accent who was aloft on a little Irish scaffold. / “Glun na Buaidhe,” he roared, “has its own ideas about the banks, has its own ideas about dancing. There is one sort of dancing that Glun na Buaidhe will not permit and that is jazz dancing. Because jazz dancing is the product of the dirty nigger culture of America, the dirty low nigger culture of America.”’ Myles na gCopaleen, from an extract of his Irish Times “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns (1944)

¹Tom Brown (1888-1958) was a tailgate trombonist who brought his band to Chicago in 1915, billing it as “Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland.” Brown was the brother of pioneering slap-bassist Steve Brown and a pathological racist and anti-Semite who once confided to journalist Al Rose that Europeans and Asians (“them foreigners”) refused to listen to jazz unless “niggers” were playing it, that “niggers” weren’t smart enough to discern any sort of harmony because, well, they were “just niggers.” As a side comment Tommy also noted  that these same “niggers” were riding on previously all-white tramlines, that “dagos” were getting all the good hotel jobs in New Orleans and that “Jews” were taking over Uptown–three notable developments in late 50s New Orleans which disturbed him somewhat.

²Gordon Seagrove, writing in the Chicago Tribune (1915), begins his article by asking a young lady “what is the blues?” The young lady answers, loudly and enthusiastically, “Jazz!”

“A blue note is a sour note,” explains an unidentified Chicago pianist in Seagrove’s article. “(Blue notes) aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the South a half-century ago and are the interpretations of darkies (sic) originally. The trade name for them is Jazz.”

³Much of the resentment on the part of Black American musicians to the word “Jazz” is due to racist assumptions concerning the true nature of The Music. Even to supposedly liberal and sympathetic minds (such as John Hammond or Patrick “Spike” Hughes, himself a superb jazz arranger) jazz was essentially a happy, primitive, supersexual party music where bored upper-class whites violated their sense of propriety by getting drunk, getting high, or giving or receiving a blow job under a cafe table. Leftist jazz critics (such as Rudi Blesh) read into The Music an expression of Negro misery, anger and resentment of the Jim Crow status quo. While this is true to an extent it does not give the whole picture of what The Music is about, and in fact is simply the white left’s paternalistic vision of Black “jazz” as a proletarian, anti-elitist folk music–a vision which is just as limiting as the right-wing “happy darky” caricature of “jazz” music.

ªBraxton: “The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact….

“It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.”

Braxton’s concerns about “reductionism” in so-called Jazz music echo Frantz Fanon’s own observations concerning the Moldy-Fygge Jazz junkie’s revulsion towards bebop: “The fact is that in their eyes jazz should only be the despairing, broken-down nostalgia of an old Negro who is trapped between five glasses of whisky, the curse of his race, and the racial hatred of the white men. As soon as the Negro comes to an understanding of himself, and understands the rest of the world differently, when he gives birth to hope and forces back the racist universe, it is clear that his trumpet sounds more clearly and his voice less hoarsely. The new fashions in jazz are not simply born of economic competition. We must without any doubt see in them one of the consequences of the defeat, slow but sure, of the Southern world of the United States. And it is not utopian to suppose that in fifty years’ time the type of jazz howl hiccupped by a poor misfortunate Negro will be upheld only by the whites who believe in it as an expression of nigger-hood, and who are faithful to this arrested image of a type of relationship.” Frantz Fanon, “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” Wretched of the Earth. Bold-face mine.

†As a side note Vijay Iyer, a noted contemporary “jazz” pianist, also dislikes the term “Jazz” and dismisses it as an invention of the American record industry.

Breaking News: Rap Coons Supporting Donald Trump (and Hillary)

So it looks like The Snoopster and Good Ole Fiddy Spent are sniffing around Hillary’s moldy old tail.

And Kid Rock(head) and P. Diddle (of all people) are stumping for Trump.

Imagine my surprise about this.

I knew all along that the bulk of these thugged-out, coonified rappers had deep reactionary tendencies. I wrote an essay about it of course (and which is presumably well-known, since it pops up on Google searches quite a bit), and even wrote one twenty years ago for VIBE, which turned it down. An upper-echelon editor for that magazine (whose name I won’t mention) turned it down on grounds that I was essentially saying “fuck rap.” He was right, though I was not consciously aware of it at the time.

A lot of rap fans think that the rot in Rap began in the 2000’s. I have asserted that the rot began around 1987-8, with the emergence of lumpen-thug rap of NWA, Schooly-D, Ice-T and other misguided artists. But with the recent revelations of Afrika Bambaataa’s pedophilia and KRS-One’s unwavering (and utterly indefensible) support of Bambaataa, it has become clear that the moral rot is at the very heart of Hip Hop itself. Afrika Bambaataa is one of the fucking founders of Hip Hop, period. KRS-One, in his own words–and many will agree with him–virtually IS Hip Hop.

And 50 Cent–who isn’t worth much more than his name–has childishly revealed his own gross insensitivity to those who aren’t disgustingly rich, smug and self-satisfied like he thinks he is. Curtis, a $100,000 donation to the handicapped is not going to make this one blow over so quickly. Sorry, dude. I have no reason to believe that you are not simply going into damage control by throwing a fat wad of cash towards a group of people you essentially don’t give a shit about.

Snoop Dogg comes off as a flaky, flippant and clownish man who has never had a deep, profound thought about anything his entire life. He probably digs Hillary’s fat piano legs. Azealia Banks’ rationale behind supporting Trump is that she feels Trump will bring the country down. That sounds like a good idea on the surface. The only problem is that if (or when) Trump brings America down the roof will fall on the heads of people who won’t deserve it. Meanwhile the rich bastards who run the country will be safely ensconced on some Caribbean island, sipping a rum cola and getting head from a 13-year old native girl or boy–while the rest of us will wallow in the shit these bastards have left behind.

Don’t think for one moment that these rap coons and their friends won’t be on the island with them. Azealia probably hopes she’ll be the fluff girl. Jenna Jameson (America’s favorite blow-up doll) wasn’t wrong when she said to the Guardian that “when you’re rich, you want a Republican in office.” But she wasn’t right, either.

Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Jenny Lopez, Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg, John Bon Jovi, Tony Bennett, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Kanye West and Burt Bacharach combined are worth billions of dollars. Allegedly they all want Hillary to take the Oval Office. All Hillary can promise at this point is simply more of the same tired military-industrial bullshit we are going through, right now. Which would suit the above-mentioned folk just fine. The last thing that a well-off celebrity would want is for the social-political boat to be rocked; he’s afraid he might lose his toys.

However, there are always exceptions. I don’t know if YG and Nipsey Hussle are pro-Sanders or pro-Hillary, but neither of them like Trump very much. YG has even claimed that the Secret Service are following him because of his stand on Trump. Both of them are hard-core rap coons. Maybe all this spells the end of Rap Coonery, once and for all. I hope so. There have been too many false deaths these past twenty years.

If The Elevator Tries to Bring You Down: On Prince and the Horror of the 80s

I wasn’t so sure if I needed to write anything concerning Prince’s life and death, since I felt everything I wanted to say concerning the man had already been said by so many others, and probably better than anything I could reasonably attempt. When I found out about it, I was deeply disturbed by it.

To start with, I was never a fan of his music. At all. He did not operate in my idiom, and still does not. I am a jazz, ragtime, blues and (sometimes) gospel head. I would rather listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto than Raspberry Beret, which frankly, I can’t stand. I remember Prince all too well. When he was at his height in the mid-eighties he was also at his most commercial and accessible with hits like 1999, Purple Rain and Kiss. I thought he was very campy and over-the-top.Me and my friends used to make fun of him while most of us dug his music…yet slyly, I found something strangely moving in his music, especially Purple Rain.

All of this is coming from someone who hated 80s music and 80s culture with a passion when he was growing up. And still does, when I think back on it. For it was in the Eighties that I decided to become a writer, a radical and a bohemian. I have not changed.

Many people who never lived through that MTV nightmare called the eighties thinks it was a wonderful time. It was not. Of course seen in retrospect the eighties was a hell of a lot more creative and off-beat than today’s decade. But that isn’t saying much. We have simply fallen so far down the toilet historically and culturally speaking that the Eighties, in retrospect, seems like a cultural height.

May I repeat: it was not.

Personally, I would prefer not to relive the eighties. The music was brittle. The clothes were ugly. The art was nasty. Sex was AIDS and drugs were crack. Politics was even grosser than usual. –Stephen Marche, GQ Magazine, June 10, 2010

You had to have been there, I guess, to see what an ugly, shallow, racist, marginalizing scene it really was. I guess you needed to have a bit of melanin in your skin, too. Celebrities said things on national television that they would not dare say now. Islamophobia? It was normal. Nobody thought anything about it.

The Eighties: described once by Stephen Marche as “the shittiest of decades,” in which the “music was brittle” and the “art was nasty.” All true. Totally true. And the reverse–“the art was brittle and the music was nasty”–summed up the 80s culture even more so. Romeo Void? Please. The late David Bowie? China Girl, Dancing with the Big Boys, etc. etc. Sorry sir, you’re time was up c. 1977 or so. Wham!? Fuck you. Duran Duran? Cyndi Lauper? Boy George and the Culture Club (and all that other slop from England)? Miles Davis’ inauspicious comeback doing some seriously light-weight things in contrast to even his seventies experiments? Art of Noise? UTFO? Ice T? NWA, the negro nightmare that spawned an entire generation of jungle-bunny chest-beating bojangling sambo thugs? Or Ghostbusters, The Other Woman (Ray Parker Jr.–no offense, but I could not stand this motherfucker’s music, not one track: from Jack and Jill to The Other Woman to Ghostbusters, it was so corny that (to quote Mezz Mezzrow) the husks were still on that shit). To think that many people think this shit is hip literally makes me cringe, though it shouldn’t: many people get off on being whipped and shitted on, so what can I say?

The Eighties wasn’t simply the Reagan Era, or the MTV Era, or what the hell have you: it was the age of AIDS. Born in 1967, I remember rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of joining the still-ongoing sexual revolution of 1980-3…and being bitterly disheartened to watch the country to an about-face when it came to carnality in the proceeding years. The freewheeling sexual revolution (which probably never even existed outside of TV and movies and songs) dried up like old prunes, and horny young men like me were left with less than the crumbs from what we imagined was a sexual feast. Mini-skirts were back in but thanks to this hysterically inflated AIDS scare, they didn’t mean shit. According to its creator, Mary Quant, the mini-skirt represented precisely sexual liberation. In the 80s and beyond the mini-skirt represented nothing but a huge middle-finger to those of us who’d hoped we could have some sixties sunshine.

PrinceCab
Prince Rogers Nelson and Cab Calloway: in the tradition of HIP

Michael Jackson. Yes, his death was disturbing, a shock, but one could see it coming; it was just a question of when: would he make it his life’s goal to make himself back into a black man again, I often thought. Michael was universally worshiped and reviled by the same jackasses that made him into a god. But Michael Jackson was corny. Michael seemed, at least, a safely packaged little black eunuch for the masses of people everywhere to drool over–a perpetual Toys R Us kid, the man from Neverland, who never wanted to grow up and subsequently became idolized just for that specific reason, in my opinion: here was a black superstar who seemed not to have any balls, basically safe and tame, until he was suspected of sniffing up young white boy’s butts.

Prince, on the other hand, was a spade of another color. Only an inspired lunatic like Prince Rogers Nelson would dare to walk out on stage with his goddamn hair fried (wearing conks was not exactly popular among black men in the seventies), and with a perm and eyeliner that made him look like a Cuban transsexual. And on top of that, huge hooped earrings, a g-string, fishnet stockings, and spin-off bands like Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 prancing about on stage singing Sex Shooter and Nasty Girl: the music was not great, but I dug the message. I, who went to an uptight Catholic parochial school, where girls were non-existent, where teachers tried to instruct us on the evils of masturbation, “fornication” and the terror of looking into Playboy and getting sexually aroused and where half the fucking school, it seemed, was on the down-low. When my fellow students tried grabbing my crotch or touching my thighs, I naively thought that this was something that also went on in sexually integrated high schools. It didn’t.

Prince was the only pop idol I recall from that time who, even remotely, had a healthy slant on sex.* With Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, UTFO and the lot, sex seemed shrouded with the usual American hangups. With Prince it was different. Sex was not evil; it was good, it was healthy. It was a reason for being-in-the-world. Prince sang about erotic cities and I began to dream of Berlin and Bangkok. The square popsters tipped their hats to the AIDS hysteria and sang “That’s What Friends are For”; Prince responded with “Erotic City,” “Kiss” and “Jack U Off.” Subconsciously Prince shaped many of my attitudes toward sexuality, along with Burroughs and Henry Miller. Subconsciously I developed a begrudging admiration for Prince. Prince was one of the few pop idols who I found to be a hepcat in disguise. Maybe he was not too hip in my cynical adolescent eyes–Miles, Duke, Louis, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker, Hawkins, etc. were and still are my musical idols–but even within the brittle nastiness of eighties synth-driven junk music I could still sense Prince as head and shoulders above the majority of them. One could feel his music. Prince put 101 percent into virtually everything he put out.

Even I could not be sure if I really hated Let’s go Crazy or not. I did not “like” it, in the same way that I so obviously liked Potato Head Blues or Shanghai Shuffle. But I knew I didn’t hate it. in fact it was a relief to my ears after the  synth-driven cacophony of Art of Noise or Wham or Men at Work or Romeo Void or some other asshole New Wave shit band–after hour upon hour of hysterically overwrought lyrics and shitty melodies, and almost always backed up by some hideously squawking saxophone: some were so bad they sounded like busted kazoos. Not Prince. Even “When Doves Cry” was like a mild balm to my ears. And I could listen to Purple Rain without sneering because I heard something in his music that I didn’t hear in Wham!: humanity.

You don’t have to like any form of music to hear the humanity in it. Hopefully, the humanity in music and art forms that are not to our taste can lead us to listen a little harder, not dismiss it outright because it uses chord changes that we are not familiar with, because it is in a style we are prone to sneer at, because it is pop music and may well be shot through with silliness and artifice. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to look and listen past what appears on the surface. With Prince’s music, this is possible. One can NOT say the same for most of Michael Jackson’s work. Unlike Michael Jackson, Prince, even at his most tasteless, mediocre and meretricious, was never corny. Even those songs of his I despise the most are never corny. My ear for music is fairly sharp; I can compose music myself.

Ironically Prince hit his musical peak long after the party died down: say, mid-1990s, when he got fed up with picking Warner Brother’s cotton and scrawled slave on his face–just to let everybody know that the big media party of the previous decade (Graffiti Bridge, Cherry Moon and Purple Rain) was not nearly as fancy-free as MTV made it out to be. For a time he even got rid of his name.

No popular music figure I knew of in that culturally benighted decade–not even the old warhorse Miles Davis, reduced to rehashing Cyndi Lauper and a few of MJ’s less cheesy pieces–could hold a candle to Prince. Prince stood for something else besides the music. As I said, the man did not give a damn what other people thought about him. No man today, let alone a black man, could get away with such shameless gender-bending (and apparently just for the sheer hell of it, since Mr. Nelson was apparently straight). Oh, no. Minstrel rap performers today take great pains to let you know they are “no homo,” to the point where the idiotic phrase has entered the vocabulary. The phrase is as much an insult to heteros as it is to “homos”: if you really weren’t a fucking “homo” you would not need to obsessively remind everyone that you are not. The sexual insecurities of today’s rap-tards is getting old already. They should be lucky enough to live in an age where nobody shits their pants in fear at the sight of a bare buttock. For when I was turning eighteen, today’s crude, ugly parade of mafia strip-club sexuality was unthinkable; a Nicki Minaj or a Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Miley Cyrus was equally out of the question.

And like Jimi Hendrix, an obvious influence, Prince was very much in the tradition of African-American music. He could play the blues. He was no B.B. King but by my ear he’s authentic and If I Had a Harem is in the sexual boasting tradition (“I got 49 women and only need one more”). In fact his signature tune “Purple Rain” is a mere re-working and updating of two old tunes: “Blueberry Hill” and the traditional “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. It takes careful listening, of course, to hear that the chord progressions between these three tunes are nearly identical. Prince in fact operated in the shadows of Jimi, Sly Stone, Little Richard, Esquerita, Cab Calloway, all the way back to old-timers such as Frankie “Half-Pint” Jackson, and possibly even Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson and Louis Chauvin, the three masters of whorehouse piano. So maybe this is why, unlike when I heard of the death of Michael Jackson, I felt deeply troubled that this scrawny little high-yellow kid from Minneapolis, who set the whole musical world on its ear for four decades, ended his life on the floor of an elevator, sick and all by himself. When it is all over, and people stop painting their asses purple in heart-felt tributes to Prince (he has already been cremated!), we will go back to wringing our hands over talentless assholes like Kanye West or Miss Sticky-Fingers Minaj and her escort-service antics. (As I write this, the media is pissing all over themselves about Justin Bieber’s dick–Justin Bieber, the talentless little bimbo-boy who can’t write or sing a decent line about anything–not even himself:

“This past Tuesday night before my show I was picking out an outfit…I was so tired from the past week of endless traveling and gigging that I grabbed my Prince shirt and said fuck it I’m gonna channel the purple one tonight…I didn’t shower after the gig out of pure exhaustion…I went to sleep in that shirt and then I wore it again all day yesterday…today waking up to this news I am truly beside myself…devastated…the last of the greatest living performers…my guitar idol…his connection to ALL his instruments yielded a sexual transcending aura and the world is just less fucking cool without him walking on it… ‘Electric word life — It means forever and that’s a mighty long time — But I’m here to tell you — There’s something else… The after world’ #RIPPRINCE,” Andrew wrote on Instagram April 21.

Sadly, I have to report that Justin Bieber is alive and well and still churning out corny hit tunes like his pals Kanye, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and all the rest of them. Vanity, who never had much talent, yet oozed a sensuality and eroticism that Miss Kay’s cakes can’t even touch, is dead, too. Mercifully, however, so is the brain-dead and thoughtless Eighties, where no one dared say what they really thought about America’s endless problems. I am starting to feel old. But not that old.

*Sorry, George Michael, but I Want Your Sex didn’t quite cut it.

Notes for Today (2)

Something has been bothering me for the past three or four years while stuck here in the bowels of Berlin. I have already accepted the fact that Berlin is incapable of making itself into a true cultural mecca because it doesn’t really know what the fuck “culture” really is. Actually it has a set idea of “culture”–spelled with a “K” and minus the “e” on the end–an idea set in stone and worshiped at special shrines throughout Berlin. You know–the Deutsche Oper or the Volksbuehne or some aging gallery where one can see what the greats of decades and centuries past once achieved. In other words, people here subconsciously (or even consciously) think that true cultural achievement, cultural greatness, is yesterday’s news. Today, we’re lead to believe that everything “cultural”–and not just in Berlin–is just fucking finger-painting, mental masturbation, funny clothes and house/techno/rap crap, or gypsy swing minus the soul, to say nothing of the swing, much less the funk.

But the thing that has me irritated is not so much this phony-assed Berlin art scene. One can easily write that off. In fact mocking Berlin’s shortcomings is easier than shooting fish in a fucking barrel. One can get so wrapped up in making fun of this place that one can forget a more pertinent question, which is: how in the hell are we–we being SERIOUS artists, and not hipster/poser assclowns–going to go about creating a new, living, distinctive and vibrant culture of the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

And another question–exactly which culture? A national culture? Or an international culture–a TRUE international culture, as opposed to fake mass-manufactured “global” kitsch-culture designed by Sony and Seagram’s and imposed upon us?

I can’t answer that question right now, and won’t try to.

Instead I’ll just throw some ideas around. Most of them are scribbled from my notebooks.

First off: what the hell is “culture,” anyway? It’s funny that in the whole time I have been preoccupied in trying to redefine (in my own way) Afro-American culture and identity through my own art, I really haven’t taken time to define just what “culture” means. So I simply looked it up on Google and came up with this:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

Well hell, if what we have now is a “culture” then we’re fucking finished as a species!! Everything has to be changed fundamentally. Practically nothing of what we are doing now in America (especially) should be passed down to the next generation. As an artist I am responsible for either changing or redefining the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols of my own group of people–Americans, and not just Afro-Americans. (After all, the American majority is always dick-riding off the African minority.) These changes and re-definitions are done on paper, canvas and keyboard. As for the current cultural ugliness, one has to examine it closely from afar, in order to turn it upside down and inside out, and make it irrelevant.

  1. American architecture is UGLY. The street layout is UGLY. Everything about an American city–well, just about everything–screams cheap, makeshift, brutalist, inelegant, stupid and just fucking ugly. Like in some ex-commie country, everything is strictly functional in design with virtually no thought at all to beauty. Somebody should consider rebuilding ruined cities in America in a truly elegant and dignified way, like a medieval African, European or Asian city. But I guess that’s a tall order for an American city (outside of San Francisco).
  2. Speaking of behaviors: the current snarky, falsely ironic “hipster” pose has nothing whatsoever to do with the true “hipster,” who is a hep-cat and usually black. The old “hep-cat” had a hard-won cool and detachment if he didn’t get it through shooting smack (heroin). The detachment was necessary to not lose your cool in a society that was (and still is) always trying to grind you down into nothing.
  3. The same rule would apply today. Don’t get involved in mainstream shit if you are serious about making a 21st century culture. Culture is not about money. Cultural arbiters’ main goal is not to sell units–it is to help shape people’s minds and attitudes in such a way that is spiritually beneficial to them, individually and collectively…unlike these coons running around snapping at each other about the number of “units” 50 Cent sold in contrast to fat, greasy-ass Rick “Warden” Ross. Who fucking cares? I can’t listen to royalty statements!!
  4. The “mainstream” Kanye West/Pharrell Williams/Will.I.am stuff is not hip. When the mainstream co-opts something (duhh) it isn’t hip anymore–it’s square. You want something hip? Make it your goddamned self, and do it right. Be creative and put feeling into it. And as usual, you need to keep your eyes and ears open; you need to see things as they are and not the way you wish to see them. You have to do the hard work of looking past the gaudy curtain (re: Milan Kundera) and observe what is really going in America and the rest of the world. You need to know people and what makes them tick; don’t just assume you know them based on stupid stereotypes or hearsay.
  5. Of course if you don’t have any feeling or drive to do these things, you should get into a different line of work.
  6. American “art” music has already crossed a certain threshold, pushing it some ways beyond the limitations of European classicism and Romanticism. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in spots merely hint at the possibilities of what Afro-Americans achieved in jazz and its predecessor ragtime. The trouble with American musicians is that, 9 times out of 10, they have no idea what they are doing with their own music; they don’t really know how to play it. And if they do, they simply cannot approach this music with the dignity and respect that this music (American classical music) demands. Even if they try to do so, they still fail, since true dignity, true respect and above all true feeling, is simply not in most American classical musicians. In other words, the American is psychically cut off from his own folk heritage.
  7. American singers, and the non-American bitches who cunt-ride off them, all sound more or less alike. Why is that?
  8. African American culture–I prefer Afro-American–has become outdated, parochial, stereotyped, and just plain corny. In its current attempts to be highbrow it becomes  ponderous and pretentious in the extreme; when it tries to “get back to the roots” or “to the people” (whom these black artists usually barely know; they barely know themselves) it becomes nasty, vulgar, insupportably stupid–a virtual parody of the worst sort of KKK fantasies about black people.
  9. The fucking “cultural nationalist” wants to go back to an Africa that exists only in his head. Let’s make one thing clear: Africa never was a wild jungle full of gorillas and spear-chucking negroes. It had empires stretching back thousands of years. We know that, or should know it. What we refuse to know is that these empires were just like all other empires the world over–that is, riddled with empire problems such as maintaining control over subject peoples, feudalism and other banal details. Most people could not read, let alone vote. We were not all “kings” and “queens”–most of us are descended from the subjects and slaves of those very same kings and queens. We don’t need to return to a feudal African empire where guys like myself would be condemned to being blacksmiths or shoemakers for life simply because I happened to be born of a blacksmith, or a shoemaker, or worse yet, a slave. (Note: in Ancient Egypt and Meroe, Medieval Mali and Renaissance Songhai or Kanem-Bornu (just to name a few empires), occupations were hereditary.)
  10. The block boy (or block boy middle-class wannabe*) wants to “keep it real” while not knowing a goddamned difference between what is truly Afro-American and what white liberal paternalists concocted and passed off as “black.” Naturally, Mr. Keep-it-Real prefers the white liberal fantasy of the Noble Savage which, no matter how noble it sounds, is simply not who or what he is. In fact white liberal fantasies about blackness are merely the flip side of what the KKK thinks about blackness, but Mr. Keep-it-Real is so embroiled in concealing just who he is and what he thinks about life that he might as well stay backstage and not torture us anymore with his confusion. Mr. Keep-it-Real wants to be ignorant, primitive, corrupt, base, BAD, because that’s what he thinks “blackness” is. He sees himself as the white man’s shadow and can’t function without him or knowledge of him.

To be continued…

 

De/Formation: The Beyoncé “Controversy” That Wasn’t

Beyoncé as a Black Power diva?

Are you on drugs?

It’s a fantasy, a hallucination brought on by four decades of reactionary, right-wing white paranoia. Notwithstanding the Afro-wigs, black leather jackets, clinched fists and cleverly coded lyrics, Beyonce was still Beyonce, blonde conk, jezebel act and all. Nobody was hurt, no race riots raged in the streets, and after a happy time watching the festivities and the game people gathered up their things and went home, unmolested. It was just another day in the history of the planet.

Halftime
BELIEVE IN LOVE: Just a lot of money wasted that should have gone into fixing Flint’s water problem!!

 

Meanwhile, in Ankara, in Damascus, Ukraine and other places, people are still being blown to bits. And ORDINARY Black lives still don’t matter to anyone else in the world, not even to ordinary Blacks.

Overall, I thought the entire spectacle to be rather sad. It was sad to see all those people squealing in delight over Coldplay and their sappy, kitschy sub-70s shit. (The Asian violinists, and the ass-clowns jumping around the lit-up stage did not help much, either.) Actually, it was all a supreme embarrassment. While the alt-right was shitting bricks over clenched fists and “black lives matter” (as if they don’t), the real controversy–concerning the obscene amounts of money that went into this colorful, overblown orgy of musical mediocrity–went unreported. Bruno Mars tried in vain to do what Michael Jackson did 25 years ago, forgetting that Michael was already an overproduced hack by 1991. Beyonce’s music was more robotic and soulless than most techno. Sadly, no boos were audible among the audience’s wild, enthusiastic screams.

However, Bruno and Coldplay’s mediocrities took a back-seat to Beyonce’s carefully choreographed spectacle. The self-righteous Right was outraged. A Southern sheriff, Robert Arnold of Tennessee, babbled somewhat incoherently about “senseless killing(s)” of “seven deputies” (of course, not a word about the outrageous number of cop killings and beatings of unarmed suspects these days, largely but not entirely black). Johnathan Thompson, another imbecile tied up in American Law Enforcement (specifically the National Sheriffs’ Association, yet another NSA, of which Mr. Thompson is the Executive Director), likened Beyonce’s performance to “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” “Art is one thing, but yelling fire in a crowded theater is an entirely different one,” he continued.

Mr. Thompson pretends to believe that the Super Bowl performance was “inciting bad behavior”–rhetoric which echoes the old anti-communist hysteria of the fifties and the anti-nigger hysteria of the post-Reconstruction period. According to the Washington Post:

He and others take issue with the imagery in the “Formation” video and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of the song.

The video opens with the singer standing atop a half-submerged New Orleans police cruiser, a recurring image throughout. Other related symbols periodically flash on screen: Sirens; a jacket that says “POLICE” on it; graffiti that reads “stop shooting us.”

At one point, a hooded boy dances in front of a line of riot gear-clad officers who later join him in raising their hands — an apparent allusion to Michael Brown, who some initially believed had his hands up to surrender when he was shot dead by a police officer. (That version of events was later challenged by federal authorities.)

At the end of the video, the police cruiser fully submerges in the water, taking Beyoncé with it.

In her Super Bowl show, Beyoncé and her back-up dancers wore costumes reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, whose members projected black empowerment and sometimes committed violent acts during the Civil Rights era. The dancers at one point formed an “X” with their bodies, a possible allusion to Malcolm X.

Yeah. And?

So what?

Many in the alt-right Establishment went ballistic–another sad, stupid case of much doodoo over nothing. Tomi Lahren, a blonde, right-wing bimbo incapable of thinking her way through a water closet, nevertheless gave her “final thoughts” on Beyonce’s half-time show. “What is the political message here?” she screeched in a rapid-fire nasal Valley-Girl whine. “What is it that they are trying to convey here? A salute to what? A group that used violence and intimidation to advance not racial equality but an overthrow of white domination?”

“First it was hands up, don’t shoot.Then it was burning down buildings and looting drug stores, all the way to #OscarSoWhite. And now, even the Super Bowl halftime show has become a way to politicize and advance the notion that black lives matter more.”

Oh, really, Tomi? Why not just scrap all the breathlessly hyperbolic rhetoric and just call them niggers? It would save you a lot of energy, darling.

*

Of course, all this foolishness merely underscores an earlier point I have made, concerning thug rappers, and black entertainers in general: they are not a threat to the sensibilities of White Middle America. Even in the case of Beyonce the “threat” is entirely make-believe. Beyonce is the Music Establishment lodged in two big buttcheeks. There’s not much to her “song” melodically speaking; it’s just another pop-rap single that sounds remarkably like any other pop-rap single that has been churned out by the entertainment elite for the past 10 years. Lyrically speaking it isn’t much to talk about, either:

Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess
Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh
I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)
I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces
My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama
I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros
I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils
Earned all this money but they never take the country out me
I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag

[Chorus: Beyoncé]
I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it
I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it
I twirl on them haters, albino alligators
El Camino with the seat low, sippin’ Cuervo with no chaser
Sometimes I go off (I go off), I go hard (I go hard)
Get what’s mine (take what’s mine), I’m a star (I’m a star)
Cause I slay (slay), I slay (hey), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)
All day (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)
We gon’ slay (slay), gon’ slay (okay), we slay (okay), I slay (okay)
I slay (okay), okay (okay), I slay (okay), okay, okay, okay, okay
Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay
Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay
Prove to me you got some coordination, cause I slay
Slay trick, or you get eliminated

[Verse: Beyoncé]
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

To my ears it’s about as “incendiary” as the fucking Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Compared with James Brown’s “Say it Loud,” or The Impressions’ “We’re a Winner,” or most of Gil-Scott Heron’s albums, or Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” or Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” or Frank Zappa’s “Trouble Every Day” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or the Isley Brother’s “Fight the Power” or Waller and Razaf’s “Black and Blue” or Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” or even, God forbid, “Darktown is Out Tonight” by Will Marion Cook, “Formation” is mild stuff indeed. If there is anything offensive about “Formation,” it’s the vulgar narcissism, and the shamelessly crass materialism underscoring its supposedly “militant” message. Even the repetitive use of the word “slay” is certainly not in reference to killing white cops.

And no, the Black Panthers were not trying to shoot innocent white girls down in the streets for kicks. Just ask Beverly Axelrod, if she’s still alive.*

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Tomi Lahrer: “Don’t you ram your BLACK {dick} ideology down my throat!!”

But yes, darling, you are on drugs. Or totally insane.

Yet the song raised eyebrows among establishment folk for a reason. Here was one of their people, their negroes, admitting that–their obsessive materialism notwithstanding–they actually are proud of being black; that they actually do think (every now and then) about African American history, and dwell on the implications of that history; that they
have memories; that they did not, horror of horrors, forget about what happened in Katrina 11 years ago and, above all, they really are angry about unarmed blacks being gunned down in the streets by crazed cops. This last fact is among the most troubling to the weak stomachs of The American Establishment. This “black anger”–which, after all, is merely human anger–was not supposed to exist among the likes of somebody like Beyonce. The Beyonces of the world were supposed to be eternally “Happy” like Pharrell Williams supposedly is–happy, with hundreds of millions of dollars, Mc Mansions, Bentleys, helicopters and Gucci bags up the wing-wang.

Maybe I’m completely full of shit, but I suspect those hundreds of millions in the hands of the Carters (and others like them) was hush money to keep these elite “shines” from

3a059643c129a8516cd3d66110bbcbe6
The Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for Children program in Oakland, 1969

thinking too much–thinking, that is, about their identity, about their history, about what it is to be human. I know that sounds strange in conjunction with American pop singers, since none of them appear to be even remotely human in the eyes of thinking people. However, they are human beings, unbelievable as it sounds. They really are not just marionettes on strings that dance to our auto-tune. They may be be “happy” darkies in the eyes of the world but they are not that happy.”Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne,” wrote John Heywood in 1546.

And as the world turns, many of these black, brown and red worms–most far poorer than the Carters or the Cosbys or the Obamas, most buried deep in the ground since 1546 and before–have begun to turn their rubbery necks upward and see just who it is that keeps them submerged. And they do not like it, they are not “happy” about it. They aren’t supposed to be “happy” having a cop’s boot on their necks.

*Beverly Axelrod died in 2002.

On Reactionary Thug Rap

(and the black lumpenproletariat)
by Phil Lewis
(originally published by Blue Lake Review, June 2012)

Back in 1987, Just-Ice (an early thug rapper) made an unexpected appearance on the cover of the first edition of Washington Post magazine. Just-Ice’s feature had him boasting of his street exploits, the time he spent in jail, and various sexual escapades that seemed calculated to offend Washington’s sizable black community. That such an obnoxious character (and not anyone else in black Washington) had been chosen for the cover sparked howls of outrage. Noisy protests were staged and, if I remember correctly, copies of the magazine were publicly burned.

Today magazine write-ups about thug rappers are legion; indeed an entire industry, in the form of websites, TV shows, movies, clothing lines, beverages, etc., etc., has appeared for their own sake. “Thug rap,” which Just-Ice helped to pioneer, is now among the world’s most popular forms of music, with a longevity and influence that has surpassed virtually all other forms of African American music. (Disco music’s popularity, by contrast, lasted less than 10 years, and peaked for about three.) And with the exception of Stanley Crouch, black Middle America has become conspicuously silent.

Just-Ice himself seems to have done an about-face, if Wikipedia is to be trusted; he has since embraced the Nation of Gods and Earths, better known as the Five Percenters, a radical Black Nationalist organization that teaches that the African is not merely the Original Man, but God. Yet he will be remembered otherwise for the more negative fantasy rather than the positive one: that of a “black buck,” a muscle-bound, tattooed, gold-toothed, aggressive, oversexed ape. This clichéd fantasy has served as a template for two entire generations of rappers.

Yet in a very real sense Just-Ice was simply a reincarnated, updated Bigger Thomas—a Black lumpen with a microphone. That he stood on the cusp of the late 80s resurrection of Black militancy—and later embraced it so thoroughly—should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely examined the thought and actions of some 1960s Black militants. The Black Panthers, for instance, made Richard Wright’s books required reading for its members; to be sure, they were embracing what they imagined to be Bigger Thomas’s “clenched militancy” rather than Richard Wright’s more sensitive Black Boy. Bigger Thomas was a lumpenproletariat Negro of Depression-era Chicago, a “raging, uncool black boy” banging his head against the walls of white society, as Cecil Brown rather crudely put it. This characterization of Wright’s character was not entirely wrong. According to James Baldwin, Bigger Thomas, in reacting “like a nigger” against the assumptions of a racist white America, merely reinforces white America’s assumptions. He has “accepted a theology that denies him life”; he is two-dimensional. In Wright’s fiction there is “a large space where sex ought to be” writes Baldwin, “and what usually fills this space is violence.”

Of course, it seems a bit far-fetched to assume that the thug-rappers and their literary equivalent, hawking their trashy books along Lenox Avenue, are the heirs of Richard Wright. However, there are parallels, at least where Native Son is concerned. The Hip Hop aesthetic, in and of itself, dictates a rejection of the status quo. The manner in which the hip-hopper rejects the status quo is another question; it appears to be much in keeping with that of Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information of the Black Panthers. In Cleaver’s mind Bigger Thomas was the quintessential revolutionary Black man and Baldwin’s Rufus Thomas a confused negro “who let a white bisexual fuck him in the ass.” Baldwin of course was just a “faggot” who “hated” his blackness, who committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that black life was more nuanced and multi-layered than the cartoony vision of it held by black militants and white supremacists alike. A street thug and convicted rapist, Cleaver perverted the legacy of Richard Wright by articulating a black consciousness drawn on a false reading of Native Son and—perhaps unconsciously—white racist fantasies of black men. (Later in life he made a very telling move towards the political Right.)

When black militancy regained popularity in the late 1980s, Hip Hop was the vehicle that facilitated it. Unfortunately, Hip Hop also facilitated the re-resurrection of Bigger Thomas, in dimensions that even the tawdriest Blaxploitation never achieved. Many puzzled observers overlook that the “clenched militancy” of Public Enemy, KRS-1 and X-Clan and the brutishness of Niggers With Attitude, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac were really the flip sides of the same coin:  a puerile masculinity wedded to a reactionary super-blackness. Paris and KRS-1 were Bigger Thomas with a brain, Tupac just plain Bigger Thomas. Hip Hop’s popularity moved the sociopathic and parasitic mindset of the lumpen classes from the fringes of African American culture to the forefront.

Hip-hop’s original intent, naturally, was radically different from what it has since become. According to esem i, “Hip Hop started with four main elements; DJing, Emceeing, Graffiti, and Break Dancing. Graffiti is almost the estranged little brother, finding its own niche. DJs started the parties. Emcees learned how to hype the crowd and the DJ, creating much louder buzz about the quality of parties, gaining instant fame for the DJs and Emcees. Breaking started at home and on the street, mostly for underage kids, but was also celebrated at these Hip Hop parties. Graffiti was born, lived, and breathed in the streets. Some say it wasn’t even an evolution of hip hop because it started in the streets, not connected to any other culture. Hip Hop claims it because so many hip hoppers took it on as a visual language to represent their culture. Hip Hop is a culture rising from ashes of neglect and invisibility screaming look at me, I am important, these are my colors, and this is our culture.”

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Whistle, a 1980s rap group from New York

Hip-hop was an attempt to put faces and personalities on those people that New York (and by logical extension, every other major American city) wanted to kill, or lock up, or pretend never existed. They were reclaiming their humanity from the jaws of a racist oblivion. Hip Hop made them visible. Denied access to major distribution channels by a music industry that saw their creations as trash, they sold their music on cheap cassettes out of the trunks of their cars.

“Rap” itself predates Hip Hop and largely developed along the fringes of African-American culture—in the jails, back-alleys and shooting galleries of inner-city America; among whores, pickpockets, pimps, numbers-runners, junkies, and gangsters of various levels. Rap’s aesthetic genesis—outside the griots of West Africa—can be found in the infamous “toasts” (i.e., the Signifying Monkey, Shine and the Titanic, the Ball of the Freaks, etc.). Hilarious as so many of these “toasts” are, they also stink of an intolerable degree of cynicism, social reactionism, political apathy, and self-abnegation: the very stink of the most despised and—ironically—the most imitated social class in contemporary American history.

And like nearly all lumpens, the Black American lumpen is generally a big supporter of the American social system. This is not to say that he likes the system. Usually he loathes it, but he knows damn well he can’t do without it. He leeches off the society any way he can. Actually is in the nature of a lumpenproletariat to be parasitic and to side with, in times of political crisis, the host/society which it feels will best benefit it economically. (They generally embrace the dominant society’s values, contrary to popular opinion.) Western lumpen classes historically have been the staunchest defenders of the status quo, of politically reactionary movements and dictatorships. The Italian lumpen-class, for instance, were some of the biggest supporters of the Italian monarchy in the 19th century and of Mussolini in the 20th; today’s “Ossis” in East Germany are the main driving force behind the neo-Nazi NPD, as they are behind the violent skinhead attacks throughout Europe. (They still know better than to call for the overthrow of Angela Merkel’s government, however.) The white American lumpen class (of course) fills the ranks of the KKK and other white supremacist and survivalist groups. The black American lumpen class, which misguided black 60s militants (esp. the Black Panthers) hoped would be the most revolutionary class, naturally turned out to be just the opposite: it was they who were always most effective in destroying Black Nationalist movements, whether by assassinating Malcolm X or by doing the FBI’s (or, in previous centuries, ole Massa’s) dirty work in infiltrating, ratting out and subsequently undermining Black radical groups.

Unluckily the lumpenproletariat/jailhouse mentality is one of the many flaws inherent in Hip Hop, aside from its grotesque materialism; it was picked up almost directly from many of its founders, who had done time or had been in gangs. The overwhelming cultural influence that Hip-hop wielded among black and Latino youth became troubling when the lumpen “thug” mentality, exemplified by Just-Ice, Ice-T and N.W.A, muscled aside the original subversive “underground” spirit. It wasn’t long before rap was reduced to a twisted combination of street pimping and corporate parasitism—Holloway House meets Seagram’s, incorporated. Hip Hop now personified everything that it originally opposed. Instead of affirming the humanity of inner city youth, instead of making them visible in the eyes of the world, it wound up doing exactly the opposite. Contemporary hip-hop achieved what neither the most depraved minstrel performers (nor the Ku Klux Klan) ever really managed to achieve: the absolute dehumanization of the African American image.

Black American intellectuals, of course, understand little of the implications of what has occurred this past quarter century. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.* misjudged gangsta rap and saw it merely as a bunch of cheeky young black entertainers appropriating the old racist stereotypes and turning them upside down. Dr. Gates was writing in the 1990s; clearly, from the vantage point of 2012, it was more than just a game. This has all coincided very comfortably with the increasing neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years. Hollywood, which had always been uncomfortable with black humanity, naturally chimed in. The rappers could be as angry and vicious as they pleased—indeed, the more angry and vicious, the better: Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted did more to reinforce the black ape fantasy it did to challenge it, along with a bit of inter-ethnic divide-and-rule with “Black Korea” thrown in for good measure.

Grandmaster Melle Mel, one of the founders of Hip Hop, was dismissed as hyperbolic when he compared Tupac Shakur to Adolf Hitler. According to him, the false images of black manhood he presented to the world precipitated the downfall of African American culture. The remark might strike one as humorous unless we remember that the original German Nazis were, in fact, largely comprised of street people, the lumpenproletariat of Berlin, Munich and other German cities. Melle Mel’s comparison would have been more apt had he compared Tupac with Horst Wessel, a German pimp and gangster who was also an ardent Nazi. Wessel died in a street battle between Communists and Nazis three years before the Nazis finally seized power in Germany, and was subsequently canonized by the Nazi movement with the Horst Wessel Song. Tupac Shakur was not a Nazi, of course. He did not invent the image of the oversexed, violent, thoughtless black buck. Yet his immense popularity did much to reinforce this obnoxious fantasy in the minds of hundreds of millions of people across the globe; still worse, to many young blacks, Tupac had become a cultural icon on a par with Dr. King and Malcolm X. Millions of black men embraced the image that Tupac heralded, to the point where a white Nazi cartoon of black masculinity was actually—if somewhat mistakenly—realized.

There have been speculations among some of U.S. Government involvement in keeping thug rap alive. Was Tupac Shakur a CIA agent? Or Biggie Smalls? Indeed, it begs the question: was the whole Hip-Hop movement itself nothing more than a continuation of the American government’s Counter-Intelligence Program, a hugely elaborate ruse designed to keep black minds addled? The writer thinks not. Such an explanation would have one believe that rap music was forced upon Black America virtually at gunpoint. It was not. Though thug rap is routinely disparaged on message boards and blogs, the thug-rappers continue to win Image Awards from the NAACP; they continue to have their gruesome mugs splashed across the covers of EBONY and other “respectable” African American magazines.

The rappers, in response to increasingly severe criticism, consistently claim they “only talk about what they know.” Well, one can argue convincingly that they don’t know very much, and any cursory glance at much of their music bears this out. However, the basic problem with rappers—even the most honest ones—is not the reality they speak of; after all, this reality does exist, and mind you, confronting this sordid reality is not the same as accepting it. No: their basic problem is that they are incapable of articulating that reality—let alone the reality of the African American people, or any other people, for that matter—with any degree of maturity or nuance, and certainly not in such a way that reveals the essential humanity of the African American.

They are incapable, because the fatal flaw lay with Rap music. Rap lost whatever innovative flair it may have once had and rests largely on its undeserved laurels, masking its essential banality with flash and glitter and gaudiness. It substitutes cheap populism for political erudition. It eschews the complex and exploratory for easy answers; it arrogantly presumes that everything can be summed up in a sound-byte. Nowhere in Rap does one come close to grasping the true complexity of life, African American or otherwise. And in virtually no piece of “music” done by anyone in Rap do we have anything that approaches the achievements of earlier performers, such as James Brown, or Nina Simone—let alone Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Mary Lou Williams, or Charles Mingus.

This partly explains why it was so easy for hip-hop and the mass media to strike such an unholy alliance. Their ways of assessing and processing worldly reality are virtually identical. And hip-hop has long proven itself willing to march to the beat of the mass media’s drum-machine. Recently hip-hop has entered even uglier territory by blindly seeking black “reality” in the rhetoric and symbols of the most virulent anti-black racism. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent—to cite just one horrific example—seems to embody Charles Carroll’s (or David Duke’s) idea of what a black man really is. (Charles Carroll was the deranged proto-Nazi who wrote “The Negro a Beast” in 1900.) Most hip-hop fiction, abysmally written and shoddily executed, reads like sexed-up versions of Thomas Nelson Page; according to Terry McMillan, many blacks are actually not reading them—instead, many white males are drawn to the sexy cheesecake covers. (This probably explains why the paper for these books is usually just cheap newsprint.) Presumably, they are also drawn to the writing as well—for their crappy content merely corroborates every bad thing they have ever thought about their fellow black citizens. Urban lit—like urban “music”—does not seek (like Darius James and Kara Walker) to appropriate racist symbols and images to subvert their meaning. On the contrary, urban “culture” arbiters actively wish to become these images—if only because, on the one hand, they are filled with self-loathing and really believe that they are what white racists say they are—or, on the other, completely clueless as to how much offense and psychic damage these racist images have caused. (The latter probably explains the existence of idiots like “T-Pain” or “Yung Coon” or “Soulja Boy,” who likes to parade around with his boxer shorts exposed.)

Whether this is because they are illiterate, which so often seems the case, or because their agents or record executives at Seagram’s or Sony won’t stand for it, is unimportant: any group of people anywhere in the world bears the responsibility of articulating its reality; it is one of the main things that makes a people a people. Unfortunately, contemporary Black America avoids examining itself in a mirror. It prefers the rapper’s “reality” of guns, drugs and whores to articulating the very real reality it finds too painful to face. The efforts on the part of “respectable” upper-class and upper-middle-class blacks (as exemplified by C. Delores Tucker) to get rap music banned, along with the so-called “N-word” (Nigger), was motivated less out of a hatred for the spuriousness of hip-hop imagery and more out of an unreconstructed prudery and distaste for these rappers reminding them of the same very real reality they were helping to perpetuate. (Some time before her death, the late Ms. Tucker was revealed to have been a slumlord.)

White middle-class Western society also prefers this black “reality” because it confirms their racial prejudices. “Draft Me,” by Canibus, who repeatedly screams “jump in a Humvee and murder those monkeys” and calls himself an “ape nigga”; T-Pain’s blatantly obvious revamping of the Zip-Coon iconography of the 1830s, or just recently buffoons like Mistah Fab, T.I., Young Jeezy, L’il Wayne, L’il Kim, Plies, DMX and their barely articulate babbling about guns, fancy cars, champagne, hookers, cocaine, etc., etc.—all of this chimes in perfectly with the old “black buck” fantasies, with one sole exception: they are no threat to white middle America. According to Johnny Juice of Public Enemy, “The one thing that makes anything Hip Hop is the need to lash out at the status quo. To rebel against popular art. To drive against mindless group think. Unfortunately, Hip Hop is currently the popular, mindless group-think, status quo. So what does that make the followers of the original Hip Hop aesthetic? The aesthetic would dictate a rebellion against the current crop of cookie cutter drivel. Instead we get excuses and cop outs. ‘Hip Hop is different for everybody.’ ‘It’s evolving.’ ‘It’s a new era.’”

Indeed. There is nothing conceivably “underground” or “street” about the bulk of today’s rappers—providing, of course, that “street” connotes the everyday black or Latino lives of inner-city America. Hip Hop is the “Establishment.” It is no accident that T-Pain, 50 Cent and even Easy-E many years before, were and are in fact card-carrying Republicans.

In fact the “thug rapper” knows that the horribly demeaning image he projects to the American mass media (and subsequently to the world) is now taken as representative of his people. Not only does he not mind it, he positively revels in it. He exists solely on the terms defined by white racists and is happy about it. One can only imagine if the shoe were on someone else’s foot. One can only the imagine the reaction of, say, the Jewish community, if they had seen large numbers of Jewish entertainers (for that’s all these “rappers” are: entertainers, not leaders or intellectuals of any sort) playing out the most grotesquely anti-Semitic caricatures of the Third Reich and calling themselves “kikes” or “yids” while posturing in striped uniforms and yellow stars. (Perhaps it is not entirely unthinkable, considering people like Mel Brooks.) But since we are merely dealing with a group of “niggers”—people we continue to see as inferior—no such outrage is forthcoming, not even from African Americans.

*in the original I mistakenly cited Houston Baker, Jr. as writing this comment.

Bullshit That Gets on My Nerves: Historical Half-Truths, Distortions and Outright Lies (part one)

Bessie-master675
Queen Latifah playing what she thinks is Bessie Smith. From HBO disaster-bio “Bessie.” Note the string-bassist to the left. String-bassists were extremely rare in 1920s jazz and took a back-seat to the more powerful tuba.

“None of us were supposed to know how to read music. They wanted folk stuff. If we could read, we had to pretend we couldn’t. The day before a show opened  we’d get the music. They’d come to the spots after the show and hear us playing the tunes and say: ‘Aren’t they marvelous?'”

–Eubie Blake, They All Played Ragtime

The narrator to this cute little film clip–taken from Robert Altman’s film flop Kansas City–is bullshitting. Virtually ALL this stuff was fucking written DOWN–whether in their heads* or on paper. That’s another stupid stereotype about black musicians–that they were just a bunch of naturally-inspired, naturally-rhythmic darkies who operated by instinct. People like Mezz Mezzrow (as much as I admire his book Really the Blues) were big proponents of this lie. In fact for decades nobody knew that Louis Armstrong’s solo on Cornet Chop Suey was written down NOTE FOR NOTE in 1924 and copyrighted at the Library of Congress that year, a full two years before he recorded it for Okeh!

People need to stop lying about the history of jazz music–black Americans included. The recent HBO disaster “Bessie” is another case in point. In fact the dance hall scenes from “Bessie” are almost indistinguishable from “Idlewild,” another disaster, and Altman’s “Kansas City”. A bunch of loud, rowdy negroes in big hats which, somehow, with the exception of “Idlewild,” they never take off–and which is belied by actual film footage from black nightclubs from that era (naturally, the conk-haired hipsters of the twenties, thirties and forties never wasted a moment showing off their conks in public spaces!). They are always dancing APART and rarely together, and doing the wrong dances altogether:

“Bessie”

Furthermore, the music, with very few exceptions, is bland and toothless, with none of the fire of the old heads such as Charlie Shavers, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and naturally Louis Armstrong, to name a bare handful. The next time they decide to make a jazz film in America they ought to hire some French trad musicians such as what’s left of Charquet and Co. At least they sound more or less like the real deal–unlike these wanna-be boppers in the US who can’t tell the difference stylistically between Sonny Stitt, Marshall Allen and early Benny Carter.

*unwritten arrangements were known as “head arrangements.”