Inscribing Meaning and Memory: Red Tails & Dr. King

Spending the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday at the King Center in Atlanta was a sobering reflection for me. I thought about how history and the legacy of a man and what he stood for was being reinscribed right before our very eyes and what, if anything, I could do about it. So imagine my disappointment when I felt like I was taking part in that very reinscription.

While substitute teaching an elementary class, my lesson plan included showing a film on singer Marian Anderson and reading books on Ruby Bridges and President Barack Obama in "preparation" for a program they were doing on Dr. King.

Surprised, I wasn't. Slightly devastated, I was.

What in the world do any of these things have to with Dr. King himself? It should be noted that I was teaching a music class, not a history class. But the amalgamation of these events and people, in the classroom and the newsroom, has proven to be the standard, not the exception.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is not a Black History moment. And even if it were such, the study of Black history isn't (or shouldn't be) simply a salutation of extraordinary Negroes.

That's not Black history. That's Black tokenism.

And now a movie about extraordinary Negroes, played by Hollywood's token Black actors stands to carry the flag for all of Black film, if some folks have it their way. Isn't that something?

I won't criticize Red Tails. For one, I haven't seen it. Most initial reviews seem to portray a generally good Hollywood motion picture, despite whatever additional meaning some wish to attach to it.

That "meaning," however, is what delivers me here. After producer George Lucas stated his difficulty finding funding for the film because of its all Black cast, an outpouring of Black support for the movie ensued.

I don't doubt for one second the validity of his remarks. But it was as if Lucas hadn't said the same thing that Black directors and producers have been saying for years; and as if his timely remarks just two weeks before the opening of the film weren't a little "too timely." The response was overwhelmingly positive, with Blacks everywhere not only announcing their intentions to see the film, but emphasizing that we all must "support" it as well.

It was a response I hadn't quite seen from Black America since 2008, after snowy white Iowa cast it's ballot for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. You may remember that day and why it may be relevant; or not.

These days, historical memories last about as long as the cycle of your latest smartphone. It's the same memory that allows for Dr. King's image to be so poorly distorted, even in the presence of those who knew and loved him. It also leads me to assume that most have forgotten that it wasn't that long ago that we were told to go "support" an up and coming Black playwright turned movie director. I'll let you be the judge of what became of Tyler Perry.

If the purpose of supporting Red Tails so that Hollywood produces more movies like it, then frankly, I'd rather not. That perpetuates the notion that no matter how unwilling, the mainstream is obligated to or even capable of telling our story. Neither of which is the case, nor is my existence dependent upon it being so. Nor do I wish to believe that Black films can only play two tunes; if not that old "Jump Jim Crow", then the song of struggle - the blues horn - that sometimes blows triumphantly and drowns old Jim out.

If it is important for me to go support Red Tails to honor the actual story it tells, well then I have to pass again. It's not that the Tuskegee Airmen don't deserve our honor, but rather how that story, and many others, are used to continue the narrative I began this essay with. It's the narrative that says that Black existence is defined by it's struggle with white oppression. Our importance is measured by our "contributions" to somebody else. And our worth is procured by that society's willingness to embrace us. This is our history. This is who we are.

The exceptional Negro. Think Anderson. Think Bridges. Think Obama.

Just ask my students on that day. They know their Black history. They know who Marian Anderson is and could tell me "she was a singer who white people didn't like at first because she was Black."

Who can fault them for having already mastered such a paltry narrative? It really never goes much further than that. And unfortunately, it's the same narrative that will lead many to the box office this weekend for little reason other that than to kneel at the throne of Hollywood with money in hand and say, "Thank you. I'm here now. Accept me."

What it all boils down to, is simple. If I see Red Tails, it will be because I want to and I think that I'll enjoy it. You know… the same reasons I normally go see a movie. The meaning making that others have sought to ascribe to it is not only misguided, but incredibly dangerous.

Am I out of turn for suggesting that we all go support a book? That wasn't meant to sound like a joke, either. But if it did, I'm only reaffirmed in my musings.


12 Jay-Z collaborations that are better than the Jay-Z & Kanye collaboration

By now you've heard every bit of praise and criticism that has come in response to a particular collaborative album that will cease to be mentioned as to not amplify hype that is already hurting my eardrums. That sentence alone should give you my opinion. But just in case it didn't, let me make clear. Well... nevermind. I don't want to hear anymore opinions, not even my own.

So just in case last week made you forget about any number of outstanding collaborations Jay-Z has done in the past, here are 12 Jay-Z collaborations that are better than the Jay-Z and Kanye collaboration.

"Brooklyn's Finest" with The Notorious B.I.G. (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)
Duh. This is obvious. And just like dead rappers get better promotion, rappers that made records with dead rappers while they were alive get better promotion for as long as they're alive and can say that they made record with said dead rapper before he died. Humorous, yes. But to understand Jay's legacy you must know this and how he attempted (for the most part, successfully) to link his own lineage to Biggie. Biggie isn't Biggie without his own untimely death. And Jay-Z isn't Jay-Z without "Brooklyn's Finest." It's like an infinite co-sign.
"Renegade" with Eminem (The Blueprint, 2001)
Even more than I dislike an Eminem rap, I cannot stand an Eminem beat. This is both. I put this song on here out of formality for those who swear it is a classic. Somehow, I tolerate this song, which says a lot to me. Lyrically, I guess I'll concede, Em does his thing. Next.
"Big Pimpin" with UGK (Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, 1999)
One of the things I've always respected most about Jay-Z was his ability to foreshadow the direction of hip-hop. Name a prominent producer from 1998 to 2008, and they most likely had an early/milestone collaboration with Jay-Z. Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, The Neptunes, Just Blaze and of course Kanye. Whether Jay-Z served as a weathervane for the game or other artists simply jocked his style is up for debate, but it's relevant either way.

The same can be said of rappers. UGK, though already well-established in the Gulf Coast, was relatively unknown to the East Coast dominated hip-hop scene. A year earlier, Jay featured on the remix for the debut hit single of an up and coming New Orleans rapper, Juvenile. This was all at a time when most were still questioning the viability of Southern rap outside of the South. A New York rapper collaborating with a Southern act was rare and radio spins for Southern rap in non-Southern markets was minimal. This one topped charts. Less than a decade later the South would dominate the rap scene. You could argue that the trend started here.

Jay-Z of course, was only good at putting on up and coming artists when he wasn't trying to. Which brings us too...
"Coming of Age" with Memphis Bleek (Reasonable Doubt, 1996)
Juxtaposing the success of Memphis Bleek versus Kanye West, you would swear Kanye is the one who's been getting the Jay-Z co-sign from the very beginning of his career. But it's actually quite the opposite. While Kanye was still trying to get Jay and Dame Dash to take him serious as a producer and a rapper, Jay was busy doing an album originally intended to be a collaboration album with Bleek and Beanie Sigel (see The Dynasty: Roc La Familia). In fact, Jay-Z has easily collaborated with Memphis Bleek more than any other artist. Listen to this song. Great back and forth verses and a storyline that never came true for Bleek, but eerily sounds a lot more like Kanye's.
"Show & Prove" with Big Daddy Kane, Scoob Lover, Sauce Money, Shyheim & Ol' Dirty Bastard (Daddy's Home, 1994)
Some will consider this song a classic, others may regard it as rather forgettable. I personally believe it to sit somewhere in the middle. For Jay (credited on the album as "J.Z.") this is kind of where it all began, his first prominent exposure. But there is nothing that stands out about the song, it came at the waning of Big Daddy Kane's career and it will probably mostly be remembered for a video that features a bald-headed Jay-Z.
"Guns & Roses" with Lenny Kravitz (Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse, 2002)
Yeah… it's magic. Jay-Z and Lenny Kravitz. And it's a Heavy D production, you bastards! What more can I say?
"Best of Me, Pt. 2" with Mya (Backstage: A Hard Knock Life, 2000)
Back when remixes were actually re-mixes. I don't even think most people remember the original version that was a hit single in it's own right and featured Jadakiss. Jay's smooth flow over a classic beat produced some memorable lines, no matter how meaningless they were. This includes my favorite line to hate of all time, "that's high school making me chase you round for months; have an affair, act like an adult for once."
"Empire State of Mind" with Alicia Keys (The Blueprint 3, 2009)
Truth be told, I may never want to hear this song again. But I'm a sucker for the good use of a sample (The Moments "Love On A Two-Way Street"). Though Keys isn't playing the piano in the studio-recorded version of this song, the live versions where she is have always delivered. These two had people all-around the country who had never even stepped foot in the five boroughs belting out the chorus to this song. It was an anthem for more than just New Yorkers, but all of those who feel a deep love and passion for the environments from whence they came.
"Heart of the City (Live)" with The Roots and Jaguar Wright (Unplugged, 2001)
Jay-Z and The Roots? C'mon man. Too easy. But even better than the live production of this soulful classic is the vocals by songstress Jaguar Wright. She completely takes over the song towards the end, to the point that Jay even stops to fan her down, all while she's completed seated in her chair.
"Guess Who's Back" with Scarface and Beanie Sigel (The Fix, 2002)
So I cheated here. This track was done over a Kanye beat, as was the original studio version of the last song. A great Kanye beat, by the way. A Kanye beat that was soulful, complex and made excellent and artful use of the sample. Basically, everything that "Otis" is not.

I still remember the first time I heard this song. I had just copped the $5 bootie of the The Fix from the barbershop on Highland Ave. in Washington, PA. I got back to the crib and popped it in my 51-disc CD changer (remember those?). Track #4 started with that immediate symphonic downbeat and Jay hollering "Talk to me, man!" I immediately recognized it as a Kanye beat without ever seeing the credits (it was a bootleg). I immediately turned it all the way up. The immediate "stank-face" commenced. This track is right up there with the original Jay/Face/Beans/'Ye collaboration, "This Can't Be Life", hence the "Guess Who's Back" title. This is classic Kanye... and of course, classic Jay.
"Hard Knock Life" with Annie (Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, 1998) / "Anything" with Oliver (The Truth, 2000)
If they can list Otis Redding as a "featured" artist just for the use of a sample on "Otis", we should do the same for the poor little orphan children... No?
Bonus Tracks: The Almost Collaborative Collaboratives
"Moment of Clarity" with DJ Danger Mouse and The Beetles (The Grey Album, 2004)
"Never Changing" with nVME and Coldplay (Viva La Hova, 2008)
"Jigga What/Faint" with Linkin Park (Collision Course, 2004)

So, what did I miss? What are some of your favorite Jay-Z collaborations? Talk to me folks.


Obama's birth certificate and why you're to blame

I'm angry. And I'm ashamed.

I have spent a great deal of time on this blog criticizing the presidency of Barack Obama. But I've also spent an equal amount of time in thought, debating how I could alter my criticism constructively in such a way that it would be received. All to often, these criticisms fall on deaf ears.

I realized some time ago that much of my anger wasn't even with the president, but rather with the millions of Americans, specifically Black Americans, who refuse to hold him accountable. I'm talking about the folks who seem to always have an excuse as to why Obama isn't living up to even their own expectations, no matter how low; the folks who seem to focus more on what Obama can't do "because he is Black" and "because he is the president" as opposed to what he can do because he has obtained an unprecedented level of leadership.

That realization became no more real than yesterday. What happened yesterday was your fault.

The first Black president of the United States also became the first president to have to prove his American citizenship. How did it feel?

Let's cut the bull for at least the duration of this post. It is a proven fact that people who say that so-called "birtherism" and other attacks on Obama aren't about race, also secretly attend Klan meetings at night, have a "best friend who is Black", and/or still think that the Easter Bunny is real.

This, my fellow citizens, is surely about race. Don't even entertain notions that suggest otherwise. And one thing that Obama has also proven time and time again is that when faced with the subject, he will cower.

But even worse than that, we've all proven that we will let him cower.

Racial attacks against Obama are bigger than him and the presidency. They are offensives launched at all of us from a group of people whose love for America is deeply rooted in the white privilege that it has afforded them, the very privilege that things like Obama's presidency and immigration threaten to obstruct.

Anytime Barack has exclaimed that veiled attacks against him aren't about race, he slaps the face of millions of Americans who frequently encounter racism and know in their hearts that it is in fact about race. Anytime he submits to those attacks, he reinforces the grain of white supremacy that his very presidency supposedly went against.

And you let him do it. You make excuses as to why he can't speak up. You rationalize the political capital to be gained by tip-toeing around the subject. You count the losses as being purely political and a part of the job, but it is so much more than that.

Yesterday's fiasco was the culmination of repeated failures to take a stand on race, amongst other subjects, for that matter. Add "birtherism" to that list of anything that you'll fall for if you don't stand for something.

Maybe we didn't take the birther issue serious enough to give it any attention. But thats exactly the point. We've backed down so much that something so obscure actually has relevance. It doesn't matter what you think. Barack himself found it relevant enough to personally fly two of his aides to Hawaii and retrieve his birth records.

Now what? Are we going to put it on display at the National Archives so any and every American can see it for themselves and authenticate it? I've got a better idea. Put it on display at Tavis Smiley's "America I Am" exhibit, right next to a set of manumission papers and a picture of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima.

Barack proved that he's American as boil-in-the-bag rice and microwaved waffles, but I don't know if it was his birth certificate or his submission to white supremacy that did it best.

Once again, Obama was wrestled to the ground and forced to say "uncle", while all of us stood around and watched because "he had to do it". Even worse, it was done at the hands of a toupee wearing property mogul who has us all fooled into thinking he's much wealthier and more important than he actually is. Apparently, the "leave him alone!" that some of you shout isn't loud enough.

Enough is enough.

I'm ashamed for Obama. I'm ashamed of every man and woman who fears criticizing him for whatever reasons, or simply fears taking a stand. Just because Obama won't (or "can't") take a stand doesn't mean that we can't. There is a thin line between constructive and destructive criticism. Demanding that President Obama stand for something you care about, the very issue(s) that led many of you to vote for him, doesn't mean you're standing against him; it means you're standing with him. Accountability, after all, is the best form of support. The consequences if we don't, are clear.

Remember yesterday. How did it feel to watch your shining prince, your president, bow down once again? What's your excuse now?

I know how it made me feel. It made me sick. And I'll do everything I can to never watch it happen again.


The Nucleus of Pan-Africanism: What We Can Learn From Ghana

For the past week I have been in Ghana, doing everything from delivering school supplies to a local school here in Accra, to of course touring and taking it all in. Ghana has long been hailed as a center of Pan-African thought for a number of reasons.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a founding father and first president of Ghana, was the first prominent head of state to promote Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah also has the distinction of being educated at one of the first HBCU in the U.S., Lincoln University (PA). It was during this education and interaction with the dynamic of the "color-line" in the states that he began to value the importance of a united African peoples. W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the intellectuals who Nkrumah would study and come to honor through his own work, would eventually move to Ghana and gain citizenship here right before he died in Accra during Nkrumah's presidency.

It is my belief that the "Black Star" will remain as the center and existential training ground of Pan-African thought. Ghana has much to teach the world and equally as much to teach Blacks in the United States should we wish to move towards a more autonomous community and a united African diaspora. African-Americans however, are in the best position of economic and academic influence to move that thought forward. It will require Africans across the diaspora to assess our strengths and weaknesses to bring us all up to par together.

Here are a few points.

Ghana is a multi-religion state

Ghana recognizes no official religion. Roughly 70% of Ghanaians are Christian, 15% Muslim, and 8% traditional African religions. And even though the majority of Ghanaians are Christian, they have consciously adopted and merged the values of traditional African religions in the way that they live and practice Christianity.

There is a religious harmony in Ghana like no other that I'm immediately aware of or have personally experienced in any other state. Much of this can be attributed to the friendly and accepting nature of Ghanaians, but what I've noticed during my visits to the continent of Africa (even in Egypt, which is an Islamic state), is that people don't care what your faith is so long that you have faith in something.

Faith is central to Africans across the world and was the vehicle that lead the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Nonetheless, Blacks in America overall still live the mythological divide that was created in the movement with the emergence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. The Nation in particular and the people that are affiliated, is sadly a taboo topic for some Christian African-Americans and the two groups have yet to collectively put their influence together in a tangible manner.

In a world of religious conflict, you may wonder how a people with such strong faith can accomplish such harmony. Ghanaians have, understand and respect the value of strong faith. They understand that accepting another's faith doesn't make your own faith any less. They also understand that though their faiths vary, at the end of the day they are all Ghanaians, with common culture, interests and goals.

Multi-linguistic and ethnic
There are approximately 47 different languages spoken in Ghana, by an even larger number of tribes and sub-ethnic groups. Ghana is not necessarily exceptional on the continent of Africa in this regard however. English is the official language of business, government and education, but everybody grows up speaking their native language in their homes and communities first.

Language is a major identifier of nationality. Many African-Americans see an immediate barrier with connecting with Africans of the continent on the front of language and dialect. However, Ghanaians haven't found this to be a problem amongst themselves and any one Ghanaian may know a handful of different languages and be able to speak them accordingly when communicating with one another. This once again speaks to the accepting nature of Ghanaians and ability to unite for one Ghana.

The power of the woman
Seeing women in positions of power, leadership and authority in Ghana is far from being rare or even second-looked. Both the Chief Justice and Speaker of Parliament in Ghana are women. In addition, small businesses are just as commonly run by women as by men. Black women in America are currently receiving degrees at a higher rate than Black men and there is no excuse that their present and historic role in the Black community not be reflected in their positions of economic and political power. For too long, Black women have been cast down as "help-meets" to Black men when we must help meet for one another. Like so many other things, African-Americans find themselves caught in between the Western view of gender roles and the traditional African view, leaving us stalemated.

The connection between the state of Ghana and Blacks in America is a strong and historic one. Let us take full advantage of this opportunity to learn from one another and apply that which we learn accordingly for a united and liberated African peoples.


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