Saturday, May 06, 2006
WHEN THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED
It was the fall of 1986, I was young and impressionable, the Black Nationalism that my parents preached and tried to indoctrinate me in seemed, at that time in my life, to had been a million years ago.
Hip Hop was to my childhood what Motown had been to my parents generation; it was the soundtrack of my youth. It was the depository that encapsulated the sounds of a generation in transition. Ok, no, there were no real great love songs made during my youth that captured the innocence of young love. No, there were no soulful breakup records that could've mended my broken 17-year-old heart at that time. Why? Because a strange thing happened in my youth, Black music was no longer soulful. There was plenty of rhythm but no blues. We didn't lead protest marches against the man; we bought into the system and wanted to reap the same benefits that white folks had for centuries.
I once heard Isaac Hayes talk about what the civil rights movement meant to he and his generation; he said that, "Somewhere, somebody dropped the ball [when it came to civil rights]."
And he was right, we did, but I think we picked up a different ball.
To say my generation was lost in 1986 was an understatement. The Jheri Curl, which had replaced the Afro, was on it's way out of style, but was hanging on like Vanilla Ice being dangled over a balcony by Suge Knight. Three to four finger rings, trunk jewels, sweat suits, and beepers were status symbols as well as cultural statements back then. How did all of that make a cultural statement? You know what it said? It said: I'm Rich Bitch!
Black male singers, in the 80's, were androgynous-Jheri Curled wonders to which the term "soul" could hardly fit. Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding had real masculine images; they were men of self-determination and pride. The guys that were supposed to inherit their mantles 30 years later were sissified excuses for men. For real they were. They wore lingerie and worked day and night to make their race as ambiguous as their sexuality. They were not good images for young black males.
If the R&B singers of the 80’s were poor examples of black masculinity then the music emanating from the streets of America was going to totally flip the script. Street fashions and lingo were slowly working its way into the American lexicon, slowly seeping out of the Black paradigm and into the cesspool of mainstream America that was once inhabited by Wally and Beaver Cleaver.
Just when white folks caught on to bad meaning good: bad became def, then dope, then stupid dope, and dumb became cool too. Who could imagine, that all those years that Black folks fought for equality that “dumb” and “stupid” would be cool. Who would’ve guessed it? Not only was “dumb” and “stupid” down, but also the culture of the drug dealer was now the order of the day. Before cell phones were a necessity, beepers were the thing to have – but you were automatically singled out as a drug dealer if you wore one because they (drug dealers) were the one’s that popularized them.
That was until a few guys from Roosevelt, Long Island came along and totally disemboweled that mind-set. At a time when no one wanted to be black – most popular Black musicians back then wanted to be mixed – and gay - this group that called itself Public Enemy came along and declared the unthinkable – We’re Black! And not only were they Black but they were Black and proudly militant.
Militant? What’s the big deal about being militant? Well, back then all of the militants were gone. There was a time – in the 60’s and 70’s – when you’d see these guys on the news and in the streets carrying papers, wearing sunglasses, preaching on stepladders, yelling into bullhorns, and carrying signs that said: “Fuck Whitey”. But by 1986 those guys were on the endangered species list, you saw militant brothers back then like you see American Indians today: rarely, seldom and never.
The leader of the group, this guy named Chuck D spoke of strange things, things I hadn’t heard in years, like he talked about a “mind- revolution” and raising up 5,000 black leaders, and boycotting trunk jewels because the Africans that dug the gold up didn’t own them; he talked about “A Message to the Black Man” and that this guy named Farrakhan was the “Prophet that I think you ought to listen to”. This was heavy stuff. He had a song called “Sophisticated Bitch” that I couldn’t understand at all (back then), my 18 year old ears couldn’t comprehend the line: “Now she wants a man with an attaché”. It didn’t make sense to me until I tried to talk to a sister with a corporate job, then, BOOM it clicked: She thinks she’s better than me!
When they dropped the classic “Rebel Without a Pause” I fell off of my bed and sat on the floor in a state of shock for 4 minutes. The saxophone squeals that they lifted from the JB’s and layered over the break “Funky Drummer”, cemented the groups legacy amongst the giants of hip-hop. There were rumors that the sax squeals were metaphors for bombs being dropped on the racist white masses. That summer, Chuck D sounded like a prophet disseminating his message from up high.
Finally here was a group that spoke to issues much larger than my immediate existence as a teenager. Chuck D was the first rapper, that I knew of that could really do a stimulating interview. He talked about how the duty of young Black men was to grow up and be responsible to our communities and our families. These guys opened up a door that my parents had led me to 18 years before, but it wasn’t my parents holding the door showing me the way in, it was these guys who showed me that I could be a man, I could be a b – boy, I could be proud of being black and still be a man. I didn’t have to totally compromise myself and the values that I was raised with. That’s why I write what I write today.