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