SIR Rebekkah Holylove : A Funk Lesson in Solitude

At sixteen Luther Vandross founded and served as the official president of a famous diva’s fan club. I can see him now, watching her seasoned shoulder bounce and measuring the funk in the black church two-step she makes across soul music platforms. He’s standing stage left, holding onto the curtain for balance. He’s lip syncing every song, calculating the mastery of her diction and phrasing. He’s studying her like a text; setting the stage for his own practice—one that would place him at microphones behind David Bowie, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Donna Summer. He was Twenty Feet from Stardom and rising. Luther Vandross, the teenage boy, understood how Patricia Holt-Edwards from Philadelphia, became the legendary kick-your-shoes-off and snatch-your-own-wig when the tension builds between audience, music and voice; Luther Vandross presided over the fan club of Queen Motha Patti Labelle.

Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another; we become fanatical about the fantastical beings who place us deeper into the abyss of craft. The management of details of who these artists are and how they come to being becomes a rite of passage. We obsess over the decisions they make to bring an album to fruition and take pride in knowing all things, from the major to the mundane; collaborations, music video direction, hair color, shoe size, inspiration behind the lyrics.  We fancy ourselves experts of our muses. And when it comes to black music, the stakes are higher—people stay questioning our responses to the brilliance of black artists; reading them as tribal reactions, as opposed to a focused study of mastery. But no. I’m from the school of Luther—committed to scholarship, research questions and methodology when pursuing the legends.

 photo by: D Todd

photo by: D Todd

There’s a strong chance that I became the unofficial president of Joi’s fan club twenty-five years ago. For twenty-five years, I’ve paid attention to her musical movement. Today, I feel confident that if asked to build a theoretical framework around the genius of her crunk-funk sound, I’d have my fucking PhD. Dr. DJ Lynnée Denise.

She’s a beast.

Joi occupies space in the lineage of artists who thrive across genre lines. How is that possible? Ask Prince, Ask Aretha, Ask Nina. Ask Stevie. Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what DuBois called “Double Consciousness,” musical cross pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk

The three of us—Joi, DuBois and myself—have something in common: Nashville.

I saw Joi for the first time while I was sitting in the living room with a group of artists I met during my freshmen year at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was in a straightjacket hanging on a meat hook in a blue lit walk-in meat refrigerator squirming with hopes of being released. The video was for the song “Sunshine in the Rain,” her first single. I’ve not turned away since.

 Joe Gilliam

Joe Gilliam

DuBois graduated from Fisk in 1888, 109 years before me. Joi is the daughter of legendary NFL football player Joe Gilliam. She was a legacy student at the historically black public university Tennessee State on Nashville’s Jefferson Street. The intersections of our lives and the black excellence it carries spans centuries.

The artists in the room knew who she was and dismissed my awe with, “oh that’s Joi.” I was in her hometown. She was their hero. “Joi from down here” they said with regional pride from blunt stained lips, “she been on that different shit for years.” I took that to mean Joi was ahead of her time and an inspiration to the folks who watched her take shape.

I copped her debut album The Pendulum Vibe (1993) and listened to it nonstop for a good year. It filled the void created by LaFace’s TLC and the Sean Puffy girl group hip-hop soul phase. Don’t get me wrong, I fucked with Mary J Blige from day one and still do, but had real questions about the war on originality that was creeping into the black musical lexicon in a Bad Boy kinda way.

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The Pendulum Vibe, ironically produced by the mind behind TLC—Dallas Austin, was a game changer, a call to arms for folks looking for sophisticated melodies and enough lyrical depth to drown in. Songs like Fatal Lovesick Journey had me pondering co-dependent relationships while puffing Black & Milds and drinking Alizé. There was well-placed wailing, playful and unapologetic sexual confidence and a genre defying southern rooted sound. Anti-formulaic, the music from this album spoke to my heart and gave me hope that Black America had something to compare to the brilliant UK Soul coming out of London and coming from my speakers. Though raunchier in her approach, Joi was in the Mica Paris and Caron Wheeler category for me. My ears recognized her as a kindred spirit. After the fiftieth listen of the Pendulum Vibe I sat myself down and said with all honesty, "this a bad bitch and the masses ain’t gon’ understand," hence her long-term relationship with the abstract term, the underground.

I'm torn.

Ever since I can remember I’ve been one of those people who rolls my eyes when I hear my favorite song from a new album I'm spending time with being played on the radio. I'm suspicious of what becomes widely accepted; afraid to see the artists I love hand over their authenticity to the police of mediocrity guarding the door of pop music in America. And yeah, everybody gotta eat, but why eating gotta equate to contractual agreements that alter your purpose? Prince’s decision to pen the word slave on his face in the 90s gave us an idea of what can happen when sitting down at the negotiating table with corporations who measure your worth by your marketability to an underdeveloped and musically ahistorical masses. I wanted to keep Joi underground where she was protected from the fuckery—following her own north star to musical freedom.

Her performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Hendrix. Betty Davis. Vanity. One minute she gives you seasoned performer on a FunkJazzKafe stage alongside Too Short; then range and multi-dimensionality on stage with FishBone and De La Soul the next. Embedded in her vocal chords is a deep knowledge of Funkentelechy and Parliamentarian Cosmology, a heavy load of legacy to carry, but she’s bout it and lives inside the mashup.

Between 1996 and 2006, Joi recorded three more studio albums Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome (1997), a highly desired cult classic shelved before release due to the collapse of EMI; it was then picked up by Freeworld (Dallas Austin's newly formed label in response EMI's collapse). Freeworld folded shortly after. Fortunately, it can now be purchased through her website, a gift for fans who were diggin’ through the crates in search of a copy. Her next two albums were 2002's Star Kitty’s Revenge (Crazyworld) and 2006's Tennessee Slim is the Bomb on Raphael Sadiq's Pookie Records. The music industry's instability led to Joi re-issuing the albums independently. 

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Joi had a major hand in shaping the Atlanta Dungeon Family/Organized Noize sound; she sang background on Goodie Mob’s classic first album Soul Food; she worked closely with many artists, among them George Clinton, Sleepy Brown, Big Krit, 2 Chainz, Queen Latifah, and Tricky from London; she collaborated with Raphael Sadiq’s on his Lucy Pearl project. In addition to studio collaboration, she joined Outkast on their final tour in 2014 and became a backing vocal for D’Angelo during his Black Messiah Tour in 2015. And still, with curriculum vitaé in hand, Joi found time to help, as she would say, “wipe down,” a few aspiring singers through her artist development business.

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Upon moving to Los Angeles, after a twenty-year stint in Atlanta, she sat her ass down in a studio and pulled diamonds from a year of solitude to create a new gem of an album. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove.

But don’t call it a comeback.

There’s a white-supremacist-mean-spirited-anti-intellectual-creamsicle-looking-fuckboy in the white house. I applaud anyone who can navigate this political shit show and turn away from social media long enough to concentrate on their respective practices. I live for the kind of high art that can offer the world a break from this reality fiction, and for these reasons and more Joi came through.  The journey of the album begins with three words that pushes us to the other side.

“Bitch I’m Free”

S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is what happens when anticipation meets expectations. Noteworthy is that this album, too, was produced independently in the spirit of Prince. He was one of the first artists to sell an album exclusively through a website because Record company people are shady.”

Living liner notes are positioned between each track giving us poetic reflections that contextualize the song that follows or precedes it. Everything we need to move through the world of this album is provided, including a video for “Stare at Me” produced by Adam Tillman Younge of Passerine Productions and directed by Bruce Coles, and a cinematic vignette directed by Rahsaan Patterson. 

 photo by Rahsaan Patterson

photo by Rahsaan Patterson

Joi’s is the only voice on the album. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are three fellow bad bitches in the studio making it happen. It’s just her. She writes all the album’s lyrics, arranges all its vocals, and produces some of the tracks. She uses very little of the vocal compressor, an effect that most contemporary singers rely on, creating distance between authenticity and the voices you think you love.

I had a chance to spend some time with Joi in her studio, a live/work space she calls “The Funky Jewelry Box.” Inspirational posters and album covers drape the walls from Dolly Parton to Led Zepplin and Natalie Cole to Minnie Ripperton. It’s an incubator for critical artistic thought up in there.

As I settled and began to think about questions that would unlock the door to the mysteries of this project, she was unwrapping detox products from Dr. Sebi that Erykah Badu sent her. “It’s a perfect time to fast,” she says, while removing the bubble wrap from a dark brown bottle of bodily goodness. She’s sitting at her recording station in an electric blue velvet cushioned vintage chair, “a rare find from a spot in LA,” she brags “undiscovered by hipsters and still affordable in its dealings.” The chair is perfect for the matriarchal themed nature of this album. Above her is a classic studio microphone that looks committed to its job and familiar with the racy nature of her spirit. There’s an intimacy between the two. We agree to listen to the album. She presses play and guides me through the sonic journey—joint in hand, ears on guard.

Enjoy a few selections from our session:

 “Ruler,” the album’s opening track sets an important tone. It’s a theme song straight out of The Wiz; a Glinda the Good witch anthem for women who understand the magic they walk with; Not Black Girl Magic, but Black Magic Women and their dominion over the proverbial Oz. Mind the distinction. Produced by Brook D’ Leux, Joi describes the song as a “declaration and celebration of the historical facts, a firm reminder of the greatness of women.” It’s a timely tune given the national dialogue concerning the crumbling of patriarchal-powered privilege. At the same time “Ruler” avoids being reactionary and trendy, there are no hashtags connected to this reckoning. The chorus is a command: It's a never-ending, pitch black, goddess situation/Pussy power, life giving, matriarchy, salvation.” Period.

Joi takes the lead production credit in the song “Berlin,” and invites us inside the mind of a wanderluster fantasizing about a life alongside the people of Germany. While many artists fixate on cities like Paris and London, Joi paints a different kind of dance with a country rarely explored as a destination for aspiring Black American expatriates. “I’m on my way to Berlin, I hear it’s my kind of town.” She places herself under the light of a Berlin moon drinking a vintage glass of wine, but like a true gypsy spirit never commits to the place. “I want to call it home sometimes.” The song was written while Joi was getting her bearings in California. She uses the lyrics to negotiate a plan of action giving herself two years to make it happen, and when it does, the people of Berlin will know she’s arrived as an ATLien “Givin the Deutschland something they’ve never seen…High Priestess Funk Supreme.” Bopping her head from the blue chair she says “Berlin is one of my landing pads on the planet, it’s still on my mind and manifesting itself. The song is a call out to a future site.”

Joi’s racy songs have a long-standing history. On previous albums “Narcissica Cutie Pie” (Pendulum Vibe), explores sexual fluidity and bright dark fantasies about the spectrum of desire, while songs like “Lick” (Star Kitty’s Revenge) and “Dirty Mind” (Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome) help us hold the power of sex as a powerful tool that embodies Uses of the Erotic.  Sir Rebekah HolyLove builds on Joi’s collection of sex positive cantatas with “The Edgeproduced and arranged by Joi with additional editing by Brook D’ Leux. A bass heavy funk monster that promises listeners a key to cities where “We can fuck until the dawn, making love til cherries gone”. I mean, yeah you’re married boo, but this is a acomplicated situation, the song implies. Cheating could become an option if good dick [or fill in the blank] is involved, and not many of us are willing to share that kind of ethical vulnerability on wax. And I don’t mean no disrespect to your official union, she asserts, but “you fuck me right and you’re mine tonight.” We never once forget that Joi is a human being dealing with the most undesirable and the most pleasurably outrageous scenarios that life asks us to consider; infidelity, heartbreak, orgasmic accomplishments. But the appeal is that she’s aware of the costs; “I’m standing on the edge with you/so if I jump will I fall or fly?”

In the song “Kush,” written and arranged by Joi and produced by Organized Noize, we get another low bass 808 banger. This time about a woman and her healing herbs, and what it means to pass one with a person you know good-and-well you’ll be taking home that night. Smoking as a form of foreplay is under-discussed. High sex deserves a love song and she delivers.

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Far from insane to the membrane Cypress Hill or Snoop Dog indo smoke antics, we get reminded of the overlooked relationship that women have with a strain of weed that finds home in our exhale. Both Joi and Rihanna manage to pull off their relationships to weed well. It’s tastefully performative, radically unladylike and part of the pleasure in her solitude.

“Kingless” is a soundtrack for heart work and not surprisingly, the last song. Reflective and heavy with confession, admission and surrender. Produced by Joi, it gives us space to imagine what it might feel like to return home alone with all your matriarchal musings, global adventures and funk fantasies without a mate to share it with.  What does partnership look like for a rooted funk star? How does confidence read to potential companions who may or may not have received the necessary training one might need to be the queen’s match? Nevertheless, the desire (without desperation), to walk through the world with a lover is palpable. “Kingless” is the album’s only song that can be categorized as a ballad, should you feel compelled to pin it down to a style. But I heard it as a place of departure, a new turn on an old road. A shift in the spirit of the project, a bookend to a shelf of emotionally intelligent literature in song. And she asks very simply, who can match my royalty? Who can be my peer in love? My friend? Her answer; “Not a prince half grown”.

The song “Stare at Me” produced by Joi and Brook D’ Leau enjoyed an early release as a music video, but it strikes an important chord. I hear the song as a public health announcement about the egoist and narcissist nature of social media. She describes the song’s intent as representing “The multi-layeredness of wanting to be seen and of wanting to be left the fuck alone, also wanting to control the way you’re seen.” Social Media has created a kind of “hand-held seduction, hijacking my point of view.” Everybody’s watching she says “and I wish I didn’t care, I want to care less, but I want to be on your mind.” The video and the lyrics do the sentiment justice, there’s a visual narrative reinforcing selfie culture and the unwillingness to think through the nuances of big issues that’s shaping how we all relate. Instead, we get our opinions “hijacked” and find ourselves following the wave of the crowd. She also takes on cancellation culture, insisting that politics of disposability are dangerous because "evolution is eternal." Musically, “Stare at Me” is so well constructed; pauses and spaces, kick drums and lyrics dance through the bars. 

S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is a tribute to an album culture long forgotten. With the push for iTunes singles and music streaming culture, the intimate relating of album between artist and audience has been compromised. The album holds its own against a culture that produces music at a rate almost impossible to enjoy, I’ll be listening to S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove for years to come and “The Pendulum Vibe” brought me here years ago.  Joi says she drew from various experiences to produce this album and she’s continued to work on other major projects (both in television and music), without compromising the integrity of her solo work. In her words “I have one of the most peaceful lives than anyone I know, but I recognize that solitude and peace is something I earned and it was necessary for this particular juncture.” 

Writing this piece felt like that time when Patti Labelle, and a fully established Grammy awarded Luther Vandross, shared a stage one glorious night in 1985. It’s that moment when student, fan, and gatekeeper of the musical masters graduate into a league of their own, with a platform to articulate the many ways they’ve been shaped; a tribe of fellow artists marked by the legends.  And because Joi’s work has been canonized by a global community, my work to unpack her work is really a citational practice. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove, is on a Black Atlantic continuum—a fantastic voyage will be had.  Catch up on your future. 

 

 

 

 

 

New Music from Black Magic Woman Santigold

Santigold’s latest work has me diggin’ through the proverbial crates. February 26, 2016 she released her third solo album, 99¢, which quickly sent me to Joan Armatrading and from there Grace Jones. Such is the ‘mind life’ of a DJ - we look back to better understand the now.

In the retrospective glance, I found a thread—a shared dance on the lines that connect UK new wave to roots reggae, and Caribbean punk—musical elements of the Black Atlantic coupled with rhythmic traces of migration. I understand Santigold and her place in music to be somewhat of an anomaly, but only when juxtaposed against pop artists who shine bright under the light of America’s marketable musical mediocrity. This is why I can’t bring myself to categorize her sound as alternative. In my world, pop culture doesn’t set the standard for what's normal, regardless of mass appeal and the conditioning of the public it requires. 

I was introduced to Santi White through her involvement with the artist Res. The album How I Do made it big on the low with only one breakthrough song: “They-Say Vision.” The song reached #37 on Billboard’s Dance Chart. There were no platinum sales or regular radio play for any other track.

It was an album that lived on the edge of the underground, but managed to make its way through the speakers of music heads across America and beyond. Res held her own as a vocalist and felt at home in the delivery and phrasing of the lyrics. How I Do, in all of its  soul cult classic glory was an important not-to-be-slept-on collaboration. Santi White was the executive producer and co-writer for the project and my learning of that information was colored by incredulity, like word? Well who is Santi White? And what’s this I hear about her romantic connection to Mos Def? There were rumors, ones I never felt compelled to confirm or deny, but upon falling in love with the album, I, like a number of listeners, squinted my eyes, the way that people do to increase their hearing, to understand the meaning behind the track Golden Boy. Was this a sonic calling out of Mos Def the celebrity versus Yasiin Bey the personal jerk? If nothing else, I felt humanized by his ‘complexity’ and impressed by Santi White’s emotional honesty. If the rumors were true, I appreciated Res’ performative role as a representative for the perils and pleasure of black love.

And would they love you if they knew all the things we know
We've got these images
We need them to be true
Not ready to believe we're no more insecure than you

--Golden Boys

 

I kept my ear to the streets of Santi’s musical movement, waiting for the release of her first solo album. When she finally dropped Santogold in 2008, I knew she had staying power and exciting force behind her creative process. The album made its mark, introducing us to the experimental nu-dub sounds of producer Diplo and pulling off that hard to achieve mature blend of electronic music and the one drop—accentuated by an unexpected black woman’s new wave voice floating between and on top.

Santi was born and raised in Philly and I’m quite sure that her ear caught wind of the regional rhythm that city is known for. Not only was she within listening range of the Philadelphia Soul sound and the masterful ministers of dance floor activism (Gamble and Huff), she grew up alongside the burgeoning Soulquarian movement, a ?uestlove led crew heralded as the founders of the annoyingly misnamed neo-soul music.

To be clear, Santi is a formally trained musician. She took her Philly soul education to one of the nation’s most prestigious music schools, Wesleyan University, and double majored in African-American Studies and music. I can feel how sonic cultural knowledge and intellectual curiosity show up in the vocal arrangement, drum patterns, and lyrics in her music. I’m equally moved by the fact that she dropped out of college to become an A&R rep for Epic Records—a proper nod to her anti-establishment punk roots. 

Between 2003-05 she worked with Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jennifer, placing herself in direct conversation with Black punk (pre Afropunk) royalty. Santi was the founding member and lead singer for the Philly based punk band Stiffed and she and Jennifer co-produced the band’s two albums.

This is a big deal! Black girls have existed on the margins of punk music/culture for years and we can trace Santi’s footprints to NYC’s and Philly’s underground early 2000s punk and post punk scene through her work with this band. Both Stiffed albums,  Sex Sells (2003) and Burned Again (2005), are now part of a Black punk archives, excavate at will.

It was on the east coast punk scene where she was courted by London based independent label Lizard King Records. This wouldn’t be the first time that the UK, while poking their heads into American underground culture, would find some of our brightest; see N’dea Davenport, Jhelisa, Carleen Anderson and early Detroit Techno pioneers for proof. The UK soul scene (Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, D’influence, etc.), drew influences from diasporic Caribbean riddims, continental African polyrhythms, and Black American funk. Santi fits well within this tradition—this transnational artist community. By 2006, she was offered a solo contract by Lizard King and was pushed even further along her path.

When we talk about Black Magic Women, a phrase first introduced to me through the music of Santana, I geek out thinking about the many worlds from whence this specific brand of sparkle can be found. 99¢ is exciting not only because it’s a well produced arrangement of captivating songs that speak to a range of emotions and human experiences, but also, as reactionary as it may seem, important because it challenges the limited engagement of Black women as brilliant musical creatures. That phenomenon of erasure leaves the American collective imagination about black women’s relationship to the creation of music, dull at best.

Fortunately, social media, the people’s platform, has given us so much access to unpopular Black magic women with hidden, but righteous art, ideas and intentionally developed talent. For decades we’ve been using independent media platforms as a vehicle to resist erasure, and as a tool to dismantle static ideas about beauty, gender and politics that echo out our voices as cultural producers.

Consistent with indie culture, a tradition where Santi is steeped, her latest album 99¢ is complete with interactive videos. The album cover boasts a pink background and has the artist shrink wrapped amidst a few of her favorite things, including: multiple keyboards, a pair of golden clogs, a disco ball, and a license plate with her name spelled out from Brazil. With a little homework I discovered that the license plate is a souvenir from her performance at the 2012 Back2Black Festival in Brazil, which implies that her album cover is, again, akin to a living archive. She also performed during the week of the album’s release at Jack’s 99 Cents store in NYC, a decision that seems directly related to the DIY approach found in the early hip-hop economic model. 

Santi White is functioning at capacity in an underworld, a world that must be sought out and unearthed. An underworld without super video budgets, automatic radio play,  a world where concerts' ticket prices will not exceed that of a car note.

Let's explore this further. I’d like to challenge you to think of Santi as a variation of Beyoncé, or better yet, think of them as variations of each other. While the two are read as polar opposites, it’s only because we’re not given much of an opportunity to interface with the large number of multifaceted Black women who make music. I would argue that both women stand in their craft with high levels of artistic integrity and did so for at least a decade before being ‘discovered’. Both women have a clear commitment to the mastery of technical skills. And while the distinction between the two are worth investigation, I’m moved by their collective drive and clear that the evolutionary aspect of their respective practices, the fine tuning of every part of the project, is largely ignored because they are Black women. People get real stingy when assigning the title genius to these particular bodies, and too generous in framing their work as naturally good versus ruthlessly perfected.

Collectively, Bey and Santigold’s work share impact - different scales of impact, but recognizable impact. That said, Beyoncé doesn’t have to be the standard against which all Black women are measured. I am very aware of her hyper-exposure, but the comparison between the two felt like an outlandish and therefore exciting way to think about how even the most visible Black women are unseen.

In 2012, a few years had passed since I’d heard from Santigold. This was after her first solo release, and I felt good that she didn’t rush into her next album. I’m not moved by the push to ride the buzz of first album success. I’d rather artists be given the space to carefully craft an album. I’m a student of the school of Sade, who averaged a new album every two-four years. In true Capricorn fashion Sade made us wait 8 years between between Love Deluxe and Lover’s Rock, then nearly another decade between Lover’s Rock and Soldier of Love. And I say yes! Let it marinate, experience life, take your time, do it right. By the time Santi’s “Master of my Make Believe” dropped March 1 of 2012, I felt good and ready, with just a slight bit of anxiety about her return. The wait between albums creates intimacy between you and the artist, it’s so precious. And the second album was indeed a demonstration of artistic investment.

So is the third - I like all but 1.5 songs on the 99¢ album. The half comes from a song on which I love her verse and the music on a track (“Who Be Lovin Me”), but that features a less talented emcee, iLoveMakonnen. To be fair to her, I have a low tolerance for guest rappers in general, most times it feels like a music industry ploy to expand the market. The other song I struggled with is the first single from the album, “Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” a necessary anthem for young people and people in general who are listening, but it left me wanting more or, to be honest, had me worried that she was abandoning her soulful punk core for some chart friendly shit. I wasn’t having it. After falling in love with the rest of the album I was able to engage the opening track from a distance and I plan to introduce it to my pre-teen niece, but I will probably forever start the album from the second track and dive head first into the dopeness of every other song on the project.

Santigold is an artist who comes from a lineage of fierce, independent, business savvy, cutting edge, socially conscious women who find a way to produce and not be (publicly) swallowed up by the by-products of success. Her presence in the music industry is no small thing, and when you check her ghostwriting credentials you’ll see she’s written for so many of your favorite people (Lili Allen, Ashlee Simpson and Blaqstarr to name a few). I’m a witness to her maturation, her growing global presence, and her interdisciplinary approach to the arts. Santigold embodies voices of the unsung.

She’s on tour now and I had the opportunity to see her Black excellence live at the Hollywood Paladium last week. But I have to admit, I was thrown off by the sea of white millenials that made up the majority of concert goers. They were there in force, mouthing her lyrics verbatim, dancing a step behind the beat, and representing the fact that she lacks the support of Black radio and the embrace of Black youth. It became more clear that Santi is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not Black music, but from my gatekeeping position as an authority (DJ), my work here is to place her where she belongs, squarely between the tradition and the future of Black music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

America Eats Its Young: The L.A. Riots and the Funk of Rage

"I have a lot of talent and I know that whenever I set my mind on something I am going to accomplish it." --Latasha Harlins

Twenty three years ago, Los Angeles, California, the city that shaped my first breath, went up in flames. We danced. The National Guard stood at the entrance of my high school with guns offering 'safety' and a low-key reminder that bullets had a special place for our rage. The Rodney King beating and the ensuing judicial fuckery that followed was the first of many terrorist attacks by the police to be captured on video by community witnesses. In a sense, this 23rd anniversary of the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ celebrates the use of personal video as a righteous process for the people’s justice system. Whether these folks get convicted or not matters less, we know you, we see you, and you can’t convince us our eyes are lying.

All of us watched the circus of institutional and racialized violence that was the Rodney King case. We saw him punched, kicked and non-resistant. He was bloody, stumbling, drunk with the rage from cops, and other numbing substances. From March 1, 1991 forward we engaged the video as the evidence we knew it would be, not minding how often it was replayed on television for nearly a year. It was almost like a commercial for the hard to identify instances of structural racism that rarely stand up against the dismissive argument of paranoia. Two weeks following the Rodney King beatings, Latasha Harlins was killed March 16, 1991, by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. The surveillance video that recorded her murder was more proof that a gunshot to the back of the head of a Black girl was not only excessive and driven by fear, but could be done with impunity. Together, for that year, both videos functioned like an operatic story about California’s overstated liberalism and its conservative cowboy history. Ronald Reagan and Daryl Gates we will never forget.

California has contributed to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people unlike any other place in the world. California outpaced all other states in prison population growth in the 1980s, with the number of inmates jumping 263%,” according to Justice Department statistics. The sharp increase reflected a nationwide trend. “But the growth rate of California's inmate population more than doubled the national average of a 113% increase from 1980 to 1989.”

How did the boom in mass incarceration during the 1980s impact the life of Latasha Harlins and what role did Rodney King’s addiction play in the “War on Drugs?”

May 10, 1991, the grand jury refused to indict the 17 officers who stood by at the King beating and did nothing. We knew they were accomplices in a crime and this was a blow to our shared hope, but still, the clear violation of human rights in the video couldn’t be denied and justice would be served. Again, we see y’all, but we’re good. Half a year later we heard news of Latasha’s trial. Her killer was sentenced to ten years in state prison November 15, 1991, but that’s not how it ends. The serving judge Joyce Karlin, a former prosecutor during the “War on Drugs” golden era suspended the sentence and placed Soon Ja Du on five years of probation, on condition that she pay $500 to the restitution fund, reimburse the girl’s family for medical and funeral expenses, and perform 400 hours of community service.

 Say what?

Musically, many Los Angeles youth were listening to NWA’s “Fuck the Police” and Ice Cube’s revolutionary Death Certificate album (produced by Public Enemy’s “Bomb Squad” team). In an earlier piece I wrote about the history of Compton misogynistic ‘conscious’ gangsta rap, I discuss the contentious relationship between Blacks and Koreans and how it was expressed and embodied through Ice Cube’s lyrics. 

“So pay respect to the black fist/or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/and then we’ll see ya/Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea.

Nirvana’s ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’ and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album were on heavy rotation for me. I was also making up dances after school to X-Clan, Gang Starr and Poor Righteous Teachers, and learning a ‘gang of stuff’ about African centeredness, Jackson pop feminism and Five-Percent Nation mathematics. Cinematically, Spike Lee had just released Malcolm X and Michael Jordan helped the Chicago Bulls win their first ‘three-peat’. During this time, not only were Black people feeling themselves culturally, I was becoming politicized by the growing rage in my city.  

 Denzel Washington as Malcolm X 

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X 

What was Latasha Harlins listening to? 

Latasha and I were in the tenth grade at the time. She was at Westchester High School and I was at Dorsey High School. I was 16 years old when her life was stolen. In this period I was guilty of ‘nuff’ shoplifting in local corner stores. My life happened to have been spared; not necessarily an indication of its social value. Police found two dollars in Latasha’s hand at the crime scene, the two dollars she intended to pay for the juice with, and the official L.A.P.D.  report concluded that there had been “no attempt at shoplifting” — “no crime at all.” 

 Store where Latasha Harlins was killed.

Store where Latasha Harlins was killed.

The video (which I refuse to link to this piece and consume again) showed her placing the OJ she was suspected of stealing back on the counter and then showed her walking away with that dignity Black people feel when we know we’ve been wronged and decide (and have the luxury), to take our money elsewhere. The last second of Latasha’s life was an important story of resistance. She died fighting for the respect she deserved. I felt a sense of royalty from her, a young queen (or maybe that was my way of keeping her alive in my mind?).  The slap on the wrist Soon Ja Du received for taking Latasha’s life reflects a system that criminalizes Black bodies no matter the age or gender, and grants leniency to those who act like vigilantes helping to ensure public safety.  

Latasha’s aunt, Denise Harlins, protested the judge’s decision immediately following the trial and for years to come. She interrupted award ceremonies where Karlin appeared and eventually called for the judge’s removal from the bench. The Latasha Harlins Justice Committee was founded to support this effort. Sadly, because the anger behind Latasha’s case began to wane, the committee was unable to garner enough support/signatures to defeat Karlin. She won a six-year judicial term in 1992 instead. The committee went from a membership of hundreds in 1991, to a membership of a little over 10 by the end of 1992.  Karlins eventually ‘retired’ after years of a one-woman protest and hopefully after the ghost of her decision and the spirit of Latasha did some convincing. Let us never dismiss Black magic and the healing power of speculative fiction in social justice.

Each anniversary of Latasha’s death, Denise Harlins protested in front of the home of Soon Ja Du. This, Denise Harlins said “was the only method of protest I had left.” Her goal was to not allow for the memories of what Ja Du had done to the Harlins family fade from Ja Du’s or the public's mind. For years, even if alone, Auntie Denise came through, calling her niece's name.

When I started this piece, I had no intention of delving into Latasha’s personal life. I only wanted to describe the atmosphere leading up to the rebellion and weave in bits of information about Latasha and Rodney, as they were central figures that inspired the riot movement. Surprisingly, after years of knowing the surface details of Latasha’s story, my curiosity was piqued by how Latasha’s aunt became the face of the family. Was Latasha, like me in the L.A. 1980s, living with family members for reasons related to our parent’s involvement in the crack economy, either as dealers or users? Was her family, like many of ours in L.A. full of dysfunction and joy?  

  The Los Angeles Police Department battering ram was use for police raids. Daryl Gates was the first to take steps towards militarizing city police equipment.  Photo: Jack Gaunt/LA Times

The Los Angeles Police Department battering ram was use for police raids. Daryl Gates was the first to take steps towards militarizing city police equipment. Photo: Jack Gaunt/LA Times

In digging through the archives of The Los Angeles Times, I learned that the Harlins family was haunted by violent death. Latasha’s birth mother, Crystal Harlins was shot and killed at a dance club in 1985. Latasha was nine years old. Her father, Vester Acoff Sr., left California shortly following the mother’s death and was out of touch with Latasha for years. Acoff Sr. never even made it to his daughter’s funeral. Curiously, he showed up years later when Latasha’s grandmother, Ruth Harlins, won a settlement for damages from the murder that was awarded to Latasha’s younger brother and sister. The presiding judge over the settlement case ruled against granting Acoff Sr. money from Latasha’s estate. The judge concluded that Acoff had “no right to the settlement money because he could not prove he had financially supported Latasha, or made any attempt to form a close relationship with her.” 

Once my line of questions led me to the personal lives of Latasha and Rodney, I discovered paralyzing parallels. Because so much of the protest against police brutality is directed towards the experiences of Black men, often times to the exclusion of Black women, I found far more information on the life of Rodney King. King has three daughters, which immediately inspired reflection on Black fathers and their children. Did he and his daughters, like Latasha and her father have limited contact? Another symbolic twist is learning that Rodney King was arrested and plead guilty to robbing a Korean store in California in 1989. Soon Ja Du falsely told police that Latasha was shot in the process of trying to rob the store. This uncomfortable connection to Latasha’s death, speaks to the complexity of Black life and the ease with which the criminal justice system leans towards the probability of Black criminality.   

But the criminal history of Rodney King does not justify his near death brush with the cops that L.A. spring night.  

April 29, 1992, the four white LAPD officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King were acquitted. Some of the first businesses targeted in the uprising were Korean owned liquor stores. The verdict represented a blatant disregard for Latasha and Rodney’s life and the rage from injustice fueled the spark of the riots. Liquor stores represented an unwanted parasitical relationship between Korean storeowners and Black consumers. The Los Angeles Times reported that 200 liquor stores were wiped out, in a 51-square-mile swath of the city weighted down with more than 600. Targeting liquor stores was intentional and strategic and these actions contradict the reckless and oversimplified belief that ‘rioters’ are simply destroying their own communities.   

 Photo: Gary Leonard 

Photo: Gary Leonard 

Shortly following the verdict, Governor Pete Wilson called for a state of emergency soon after a helicopter captured a vicious beating of  ‘innocent’ white bystander Reginald Denny. 

I’m guilty of cheering on the four Black men who drug Reginald Denny out of his truck on Florence and Normandie and stomped him until the blood covered our collective hands. That’s what powerlessness does, it gives you a false sense of satisfaction when you exercise your learned (de)humanity. Years later I realized that race in America had me cheering on revenge like a fan of a sports team. I was a spectator in a match between the hood rebels and the you-gone-pay-for-what-white-people-represent team. We were finally winning in a game that was rigged from the start.

As we sit in the spirit of Baltimore’s resistance, I think of the fact that Latasha Harlins will turn 40 years old January 1,  2016. My gut tells me she would have been proud to see Black people fighting for their dignity, refusing to accept the conditions that justify the murdering of our lives—of her life. But we have real work to do on ourselves as individuals and within our families and communities. Painfully we learned in 2010, that Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool with high levels of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, PCP and the lingering violence of white supremacy in his system. 

 

We Gon' Be Alright: Kendrick Lamar and the Story of a Conscious Gangsta Ballad

I love a perfectly placed use of the word nigga in a song, there’s an art to it and Kendrick Lamar is one of the better artists in the-use-of-nigga field. I like to fancy him a musician of field nigga soul.  I also think To Pimp a Butterfly should be institutionalized a Negro classic by an approved panel of thought-leaders from our own communities. At the same time, Lamar could benefit from an unlearning patriarchy course taught by those same leaders. My feeling is that an improved reading of women’s lives could further develop his ability to shape black humanity. But before I start, let me be clear, this is not a review on Kendrick’s Lamar’s new album. The truth is, upon hearing it in its entirety I found myself stubbornly lost in the song “Alright,” unable to move past repeat.

Kendrick Lamar is the son of a Los Angeles OG (original gangster). On the block we would say, ‘his daddy used to bang.’ In certain neighborhoods in Cali this gives him status, a gangsta is something many L.A. kids aspired to be. I for one grew up in the Baldwin Hills/Jungle/Crenshaw district wanting to be a crip, mainly because I preferred the color blue over red and crips had their own dance. But there was something else, something radically dangerous about being a gangsta, something that made me feel safe and excited whenever I saw neighborhood OGs working on cars and listening to oldies. Quite a few of them sported a perfectly parted head full of rollers that a girlfriend or sister did. Then the War on Drugs came. Then crack came. Then the batteram came. Then the mass incarceration and violent death of hundreds of OGs came. Then that shit wasn’t cute anymore.  Crip walk blues. 

 N.W.A.

N.W.A.

Musically, the LA late 80s ignited the spark that became the flame of the ‘92’ Riots. Perhaps the music even set the tone for the half-hearted gang truce that followed. By shifting the focus from “black on black’ crime to police brutality for example, NWA’s “Fuck the Police” spawned an underground cultural movement voicing the rage of post Watts Riots victims of Californian state violence.  

“And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga”

 When Ice Cube released his second solo album Death Certificate in 1992, my crew and I received it as his official break from being a Nigga Wit Attitude to reformed student of Khalid Muhammad and the Nation Of Islam posse. Soon he would become a box office darling staring in kid friendly action films? Burn Hollywood Burn. But for real, Death Certificate was dope. A conceptual album, one of the issues it called attention to was the mounting tension between Korean shopkeepers and Black consumers. The forty-seven second song "Black Korea," was criticized for inciting the riots, but I think it was more of a prediction, a knowing that he expressed over righteous Sir Jinx beats. Cube ends the song with a telling verse: 

“So pay respect to the black fist/or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/and then we’ll see ya/Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea."  

By no means am I endorsing the highly offensive lyrics on this track, but at the time it felt like a win and a theme song for Latasha Harlin’s symbolic death at the hands of a Korean shop owner, and because of that I knew every word of it. Florence and Normandie stand up.

 Latasha Harlins

Latasha Harlins

L.A. gangsta rap has a special place in my heart, it carries a rarely recalled history of resistance. Is that same heart tender from the genre’s troubled relationship with black women? Yes. Equating “baby mama drama” with killer cops does not a healthy relationship make. Gangsta rap from Compton is even more triggering as most people who hear the city’s name, can’t help but imagine police caution tape as hood decor and cultural drive-bys. But Compton is unique for its relationship to hip-hop, giving the people The World Class Wrecking Crew, MC Eight and Compton’s Most Wanted, DJ Quick, Michel’le, 2nd II None, King Tee, Coolio? And Dr. Dre ‘might could be’ considered Compton’s gangsta musical mayor.  

By the way, has anyone peeped how Compton-ites have been part of multiple national conversations recently? Serena Williams ended a 14-year boycott of the prestigious Indian Wells tournament after being heckled with racist comments in 2001. Her return was less a concession and more a special kind of forgiving grace.  Filmmaker and cultural worker Ava Duhvernay speaks openly about her complex and seemingly contradictory love for AMG’s “Bitch Betta have my Money” and the UCLA BA in African American Studies/English she strolls with down the red carpet.  

In Ava’s recent film about the Voting Rights Movement, Selma, activist Anna Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, channels The Color Purple’s Ms. Sophia. One of most compelling scenes from Selma is when Anna Cooper, in the spirit of Ms. Sophia, fights back when during a peaceful demonstration a cop assaults her.

Brilliance.

In this moment, Ms. Sophia became a metaphoric character representing fearless physical resistance against state sanctioned violence and Black patriarchal violence for that matter (you told Harpo to beat me?). Dignity.  And it was the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” starts with the words of Ms. Sophia, "Allz my life I had to fight" immediately followed by, yes, a well placed nigga, that drew me in, ear to the speaker deep, to this song.

 Oprah Winfrey as Anna Lee Cooper in the movie Selma. 

Oprah Winfrey as Anna Lee Cooper in the movie Selma. 

I want to unpack this. It would be great if the use of Ms. Sophia’s words were an expression of Lamar’s commitment to promoting the principles of intersectionality and bringing Black women’s violent experiences into the conversation about police brutality. Almost, but not quite. Kiese Laymon, one of my favorite minds in the world right now shares his struggles with Lamar’s challenges around women and gender. “The Kendrick album made me cry because of how dope it was as an album, but it also made me cry because, even though he's working, he's so far from thinking about the ways black "liberated" men terrorize black "liberated" women everyday. We ain't even talking about that because the bar is so low. Still, I love that Kendrick is working.” It means a lot to me that I can use the words of black men that support my concerns and there are many of them out there openly unlearning patriarchy, alongside trans men, gender queer and masculine identified women, not to mention cisgendered women and feminine identified men who internalize patriarchy as well.

This song and Lamar’s public struggle with women inspired important personal reflection on the ways all of us are indoctrinated by patriarchy as a system. In the song you can hear his commitment to introspection, reinforcing the fact that he is indeed working.

“Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression”

The album-cover offers a striking visual component to the music and reads like Black boy zombies of mass incarceration on the front lawn of the White House. I can feel the presence of Barack in the back watching from the West Wing. There’s also a dead judge with scratched out eyes beneath the underdogs. But where the women at? Black women too are over-represented in the prison industrial complex, over-sentenced by judges who think our kind best in cages. So boy bye, stop it with the single gender narratives of police brutality! Still, the album cover is undeniably compelling and a refreshing break from the standard celebrity driven photograph of the individual artist.

 So now that I think about it, this may not qualify as a proper song review. I think it was more of a desire to create structure around the stream of conscious the music and lyrics invoked in me. So let me at least share what came up for me when I listened to it as a DJ. First off, Pharell Williams, Lamar and Mark Spears (Sounwave) wrote and produced the fuck out of this track. Musically it gives me the deep funk anger of southern crunk or trap music. It uses the 808 drum for punctuation with enough bottom to support what feels like a conscious gangsta ballad, a love letter to Black people. His flow is acrobatic. I’m a student of the movement of his lips when he rhymes and I can feel the music orbiting around his ideas. 

I wrote most of this piece in an Amsterdam café, having taken the Metro 54 to get to the city’s center from its only community referred to as a ghetto, the historically Black and predominantly Surinamese Bijlmer. The Curries, salt fish, fresh mint, olives, dates and kenkey found in the Bijlmer’s local markets lets you know that Ghanaians, Aruban, Moroccan and Turkish folks can be found here as well.

I’ve spent the last four months in Amsterdam researching this community for a project called “The Global 80s,” where I use aspects of DJ culture to explore the social conditions and political temperature of nine cities to understand the way music expressed the collective mood of people impacted by institutional racism and displacement in the 1980s. This may be another reason why the song resonates. Music from Compton makes me think about the crack economy of the 1980s. Cultural critic and scholar Robin Kelley brilliantly describes this period, “When the crack economy made its presence felt in poor black communities in Los Angeles for instance, street violence intensified as gangs and groups of peddlers battled for control over markets. Because of its unusually high crime rate, Los Angeles gained the dubious distinction of having the largest urban prison population in the country.” 

On the day I heard “Alright” for the first time, I just so happened to bike past a police blockade being conducted at two o’clock in the afternoon in Amsterdam's Bijlmer. There were vans, several cars, intimidation and a remote computer station set up to run the tags of people who could be penalized on the spot for outstanding parking tickets and unpaid taxes. Papa J. Baldwin’s words came through me in that moment, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." My anger swelled in being a witness to the policing of black bodies ‘East coast, West Coast, Worldwide’ and with Lamar in my ears I felt held through it.  There is nothing more that I need right now than to hear Black people chant in unison 'nigga we gon’ be alright.’ Thank you Compton, for reminding me that like white supremacy, Black resilience is global. I live because this song is so full of us….well placed niggas.

 Police blockade in Amsterdam's Bijlmer Community   

Police blockade in Amsterdam's Bijlmer Community

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 


 


 


 



 

 

 

 

 

Entertainment with a Thesis