"The Barclay Center. Pure fuckery." My sister breaks from her rants about the lack of female representation in hip-hop to address Brooklyn's new stadium. She is watching a music video of the “Freedom” rap version from the Panther soundtrack - so a video portraying a song inspired by a movie based on a movement.
As each femcee blesses the track, she echoes their brilliance by riffing along with them. “Damn! We had an era.” Today, my sister and I are in different worlds but still so connected. I am cleaning up. She is preparing for her radio show. She was right, Salt-N-Pepper, Queen Latifah, Left Eye, Yo Yo, MC Lyte all on the same track. Try putting a team of mainstream female emcees like that today, I dare you.
Barclay is our grandmother's maiden name: Shirley Barclay. The name Redmon came from my grandfather, no doubt a family name that originated at the point of contact with the Whiteman. When I learned that the new Brooklyn Nets arena was going to be called The Barclay Center, my first thought was, “Can my family share in some of the profit?” Instead Jay-Z is.
The Barclay Bank profited from its participation in the enslavement of African people, largely in the West Indies. Now, they’ve stamped their name on the building that marks a ferocious period of displacement of Black people, culture and commerce, in the area with the largest population of people who migrated from the West Indies. And what do they offer the local people? Jobs.
That’s what the man said at the bodega all the way in Queens. My sister tells this story on her radio show. “Oh, you looking for a job. You should go down to that Barclay’s Center.” Your ancestors may have worked their bodies until their calloused hands and feet bleed and their spines curled over while providing generations of free labor to build the Barclay empire and now you can sling hot dogs and popcorn at an hourly wage that is insufficient for purchasing tickets to the game. Thanks Barclay. “Pay us like you owe us.” Wait, who said that? Right, Jay-Z.
By the way, fuck Jay-Z. I always considered his role in the rap industry as that of a slave trader. Is slave trader too hard? When Europeans invaded the African continent they brokered deals with African chiefs to get access to those Black bodies that would be transported across the Atlantic ocean. Mr. Carter cannot deny that he was a chief salesman of a glorified ghetto reality that is the direct opposite of the value systems our communities need. In the fifteen years since his debut album dropped has he contributed to the values of hyper-consumerism, materialism, and the lowest forms of Hollywood gangsterism which corrode Black youth culture from the inside out?
Has Jay really become hip-hop’s Jehovah, too sacred to critique? Are leaders who claim to continue hip-hop’s promise to be a voice for the people blinded by the fame, the legacy and Jay’s future in philanthropy and politics? Has Jay-Z become untouchable?
When I tune into my sister’s radio show, she rants about the Barclay Center, dropping jewels about the bank’s historical trading of human beings and contemporary displacing of Brooklyn Black folk. Before she got around to it her co-host warned her not to go after Jay-Z. He’s Brooklyn’s son. He has the people. If you question his right to make as much money as possible, people will call you a hater and stop listening. The hip-hop generation's value systems are reaching hegemonic levels: an individual’s pursuit for individual gain is the ends which justify any means, don't hold anyone accountable or be labeled a hater, don't hate the player, hate the game, don't ruin it for us, just watch the game.
Have we given up on transforming systems of power
Critical thinking has dimmed beneath a whisper. For years, we have absent-mindedly nodded our heads to the beats. What have we agreed to?
The Brooklyn Nets will play their first game at the Barclay Center tonight. I will probably watch it. I have been a fan of the Nets since I started watching basketball.
During the days following the hurricane I received my news where many of us do these days, Facebook. Well, actually for me, first my wife tells me the news and then I look for it when I log on. Four days after the storm, a good friend of ours was conflicted about whether or not to run in the NYC Marathon. A Staten Island friend wanted to follow through with her commitment to herself to complete the race but felt the weight of the devastation faced by her home borough.
In the days following the storm there was a growing outrage over Mayor Bloomberg’s decision not to cancel the race. Politicos of all types argued that the resources that would be going to support the runners was a contradiction while so many of New York City’s citizens were still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Opponents argued a practical point: why provide generators, food and water for the runners while many of the city’s citizen’s were still without electricity, heat and basic needs. The mayor, joined by the director of the marathon, Mary Wittenberg, were poised to move forward. They argued that the race would generate revenue and provide a much-needed morale boost to the city.
To run or not to run. That is the question. But is it? As I searched my own beliefs I realized the falseness of the debate. Canceling the race does not get to the heart of the matter. It actually lets us all off the hook. The owners of the NYC Marathon would not be required to divert the tremendous human resources required for coordinating the 50,000 runners to traverse through New York City’s five boroughs. By canceling, all we are asking of our leaders and ourselves is more of the same political correctness. We get wrapped up in our anger at our political leaders’ callousness and valuing of the financial interests over human dignity. We demand the race be canceled because it is the wrong thing to do without ever asking what is the right thing to do.
Our response to this hurricane can be towards transformation. We have the opportunity to push the discourse beyond the either-or thinking that keeps us from transformational change. We can see this moment as an opening to ask difficult questions and demand more. When has there been a NYC Marathon during a time when those resources could not be used to help suffering citizens in New York City and in the world? Why must it take a disaster for us to live with shared purpose and mission?
What about the third way? What about a solution that is not as easy? What if instead of asking the race be canceled we made personal petitions to our political leaders, to the event directors and to the runners themselves: come to New York and use the energy, focus and pure will power that you were going to use towards completing the marathon and use it to volunteer throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Yes, many participants would not answer the call. Some would though. The NYC Marathon could create a new model for disaster relief.
On Friday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the marathon was indeed canceled. On Saturday, I listened to Wu-Tang Clan all day while following my friends photos of clean-up work she was doing in Staten Island. By Saturday night, a group of volunteers and runners had already organized “NYC Marathon Of Relief Effort 2012,” (http://www.nycmore2012.org/) turning a day that was devoted to a race into an all-day volunteer effort. (Runners and non-runners who wish to volunteer on Marathon Sunday should email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
First was the Summer Olympics, followed by the Republican National Convention, followed by the Democratic National Convention, followed by this dreary, long presidential election season, finally ending with Election Day on November 6th. It feels like I'm stuck in a bad dream. I am - the American Dream.
I have been calling this brief era American Dream Season - that perfect storm that brews every four years when the Summer Olympics bleeds into the US presidential election: chants of "USA," "USA," seamlessly blending into a pantheon of speeches, all ending with a hallow rendition of "God Bless America." This shift from summer to fall to winter jam-packed with all-American moments: September 11th, which has been re-named Patriots Day, Columbus discovered America Day, fucking October 16th National Boss Day. Really? Who wants to celebrate their boss?
During these six months I have been inundated with these narrow, ego-maniacal, nauseating narratives about what it is, and will be, to be an American. At the center of this conversation are two presidential candidates. They agree on the US of A's singular greatness. They agree on their precious America's right to have a monopoly on legitimate violence. Surrounding them are pundits vying for our attention. They argue the finer points of a unified national agenda which has shown no signs of including any true progressive, let alone radical voices.
Even America's second favorite black guy, the Jiggerman, rapper Jay-Z couldn't resist throwing his hat into the "what it means to be an American" ring. Mr. Carter criticized the Occupy Movement by calling the targeting and vilifying of the one percent un-American. (Yet another reason why I look at semi-woke people listening to Jay-Z like my progressive friends look at redneck Republicans voting for Mitt Romney. Don't you understand? You're voting outside your interests son.) To him, the America Dream is synonymous with free enterprise.
The sad thing - it took this focused, protracted era of stale discourse for me to realize just how narrow and psychotic the populous has become. How far outside of the human experience does a group of people have to be to have open discussions about “saving our sons' lives” by using unmanned drones to do our dirty work via remote control? Why do we continue to invest immeasurable time and energy focusing on political campaigns without making any political demands? When did we so fully and completely abandon real discussions about political power to mindlessly squawk about whether or not our guy "brought it" in the debate? Some of us know better. It is about time that we acted like it.
This summer I had the opportunity to perform Langston Hughes poem, "Let America Be America Again." It was during a student orientation at NYU as part of the "Voices of A People's History," project which brings historical texts to life. As historian Howard Zinn emphasizes in his historical approach, Brother Langston was speaking about a different American Dream. He spoke of the dream of the worker, the migrant, the servant, the builder; the brave and courageous dream of global citizens gathering in this construct know as America, simply fighting for common human dignity.
It is difficult to remember that we can be engaged in a different conversation. It is easy to get caught up in the stream of Facebook comments and status updates. We don’t have to settle for choosing between the lesser of two evils every four years. We can change the channel and turn off media that does not represent our interests. We can, and we must, change the discourse.
I am taking my talents back to my hometown, Queens. That is a reference to Lebron James self-designed trade to the Miami Heat. At his press conference he announced, "I am taking my talents to South Beach."
Lebron was criticized for the move but I was inspired by this bold move. Many in the NBA wanted him to follow in the legacy of many great players by staying in Cleveland trying to be the lone star taking his team to a championship. If he really belonged in the conversation with the likes of Michael Jordan then he would stay with the Cavaliers. Lebron choose however to play alongside to other All-Star players in an Ensemble.
As the 2012 playoffs gear up in this shortened NBA season, I am watching the Big Three to see if they can go all the way. I continue coming up against the idea of The Ensemble in all of my work. In my work as an artist/educator, I have tried to be like Mike. I have tried to do it alone, but now I am bringing my talents back to my hometown Queens.
This Spring, I will working closely with my sister's organization, Farmer's Blvd Community Development Corporation to help revitalize the Queens neighborhood. I am also working with my cousin Aaron "Freedom" Lyles on the production of my second album. In the process I look to combine my talents with many of my fellow creatives towards a championship.
All I think about everyday is writing. My voice is swirling around in my head. I am wondering which story should I tell.
Here we are again, violently brought back into our collective selves. This time a young boy was shot holding a bag of Skittles, or was it a young girl stoned for her sexual desires or wait was it you and i, seemingly, every minute of every day. Trayvon Martin was shot down.
One of my brilliant classmates said we should name our website, "I Am Tray," 'cause we all know Trayvon, c'mon. My first thoughts, what would people think. I have gotten so far from being myself, that when I hear myself, i question myself. I Am Tray.
My in my hoodie sitting in the back of the class, on the back of the bus, wondering if the metal detectors would go off when I walked through them, hoping not to be mistaken for a member of the wrong crew, praying that i would not be mistaken for the criminal or the conscious or the carer for that matter of fact.
I have been clenching my teeth for years. There is so much anger. Knowing what we know about our world hurts. I've cried two times this week for the first time in years. This pain for the world I have taken onto my physical body, scar tissue holding the legacy of my ancestors.
I need to continue my practice, healing, loving, living. My story, our story, the stories are all around me. Continue breathing them in.
When I get a free moment, I'm thinking about the movement. I'm thinking about my people's everywhere. I'm thinking about improvement.
So today, once I completed my preparation for my workshop tomorrow at New York Collective of Radical Educators' 3rd Annual Conference, I sat still for one moment and begin reflecting on next steps: Fill Out a Grant, Go to the Spa, Go Campaign. As I consider, I remember, I must stop considering the projects, the programs, the proposals, and begin considering the people.
Today I launched a fundraiser to raise $12,000 in 90 days. And at the same time I let it go. Truth is. I feel confident. In the people. In the lessons. In the exercise. I invite you to participate. Pledge just $10 and you will receive regular updates to see how the drama of a Black man in New York City starting a non-profit teaching young people character skills through basketball. Beautiful. BS. Brilliant.
Today is the first day of Spring 2012. Springtime is a time of rebirth, renewal and growth. Brooklyn, what may spring from your fertile womb this season?
Many took this mild winter as evidence of the effects of global warming. What if instead this was an invitation; an invitation for urban dwellers to hibernate a little bit less, to be able to shake the cold from our bones a little quicker, to emerge from our pods and move together towards collective growth. What if these warmer days was nature’s cue for us to restore some balance?
It is time for the Brooklyn Spring. December 2010 sparked an era known as the Arab Spring. Rebellions sprung up throughout the Arab world. Protests broke out in Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq. Rulers were forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. People hit the streets and there was widespread civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies. Young people used Twitter and other social media to organize, inspire and galvanize themselves into a collective voice speaking out against decades of repression.
What would Brooklyn’s version of the Arab Spring look like? I’m not sure but what I do know is that a battle has broken out. One battleground, the 12th Congressional District. Within these lines are some of the most culturally vibrant and politically progressive neighborhoods in NYC, possibly in the country, covering parts of: Bushwick, Williamsburg and Park Slope in Brooklyn, Greenpoint in Queens, and the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
In the 12th Congressional District a movement begins today, the first day of Spring. The goal is to get 5,000 people to sign a petition to put a truly progressive candidate on the ballot. Only 5,000 people in a district with 319,462. And this movement is not relying on raising five hundred thousand dollars, setting up four offices in the district, and paying random people to walk around with petitions for someone they could care less about. This is a DIY movement organized around the belief that when people gather around a collective cause, there is a power that no corporate or government institution can counter.
Springtime is a time of transcending what we thought was possible. If just the citizens of mythical Brooklyn gathered during these next ten days and successfully put a candidate on the ballot with close to no money, it would change the political conversation across the country. How would this change what is possible in electoral politics across the country? What would it mean to shout out “Brooklyn” then?
Ask this question from any stage in the world and the response will be the same - rounds of rambunctious hoots and hollers accompanied by simulated gun shots. Brooklyn is indeed a planet.
This phenomenon shows the power of another phenomenon - Hip-Hop. Before hip-hop, it would have been unbelievable that a six foot three, three hundred and sixty pound Black Man could make everyone from small, hole-in-the-wall bars in Accra, Ghana to elite boarding schools in Plymouth, New Hampshire throw their hands in the air. Where Brooklyn At? We right here. We everywhere.
Now that Hip-Hop is officially old enough to be president other important questions emerge: What were we nodding our heads to and raising our hands for? What promises were made? Can we fulfill on them? What of legacy?
What stories remain to be told? Who needs to be kicked off the stage? If emcee really means Move the Crowd then where are my real emcees and where are they moving us to?
As is, Hip-Hop’s resume is gangster. What other phenomenon on earth has created a global template for expression, community-building, resistance, sales, marketing, personal empowerment, cross-cultural connection, journalism, job creation, and movement-making? Hip-hop has kept the ancient call and response wisdom alive from person to person, street corner to street corner, cypher to cypher, block to global block. And today the cultural, political, social, economic potency of Hip-Hop is more relevant and imperative than ever.
Make no mistake. No magical being in the woods, Hip-Hop is. We are Hip-Hop, with every moment we look into the face of isolation, depression, cynicism, tyranny and hypocrisy, and relentlessly choose life. This is the work that we have been doing all of these years. These are the moments we were preparing for. The world is watching. How will we answer the call?
As the 2012 election cycle gains momentum, Bum Rush the Vote applies the brazen, in-your-face, stage-stealing cultural and political power of Hip-Hop to engage, no wait, takeover electoral politics.
Health is Wealth
"Health is Wealth." For real. As always, it is only in the face of facing consequences that i learn to appreciate elder wisdom. I'm not claiming that my grandpa used to drop this jewel between fart jokes on our summer fishing trips. But at thirty plus years of age, I've heard this saying enough times to have made better lifestyle choices than the ones I've been making lately.
Last week, I had to cancel two separate, paying contracts, totaling six thousand dollars. Yes, they were both typical overworked/underpaid, New York City teaching artist gigs, but in this economy paid work is still king. As painful as letting go of this pot of cash was, it hurt just as much to be unable to participate in The Field's 25th anniversary celebration. Oh, the self-inflicted drama and trauma of deciding if email or phone is the best method of communication, then recognizing that obviously a personal phone call is best practice, then giving in to your shrunken capacity to only being able to smatter out a couple of words in a text message. Being a habitual People Pleaser is exhausting.
I finally gave in and took myself to the doctor. Apparently, all I had was a little heartburn, but with a past surgery involving my heart in not-so-distant memory, I decided to take the necessary precautions. The doctor's preliminary tests turned up all good. Sticking to my health plan has got me up and at 'em again.
In the midst of it all, hip-hop legend Heavy D, who is practically my distant older cousin, dies from a heart attack. Heavy, who's real name,Dwight Errington Myers, I only learned in his passing, was only 44 years young. Then on Saturday, I received word that another equally notable hip-hop great, Eric Sermon of EPMD suffered a mild heart attack as well. Fortunately, he is in recovery now. I started looking up the statistics for heart health and found out all the typical statistics about the increased risk of cardiovascular disease based on lifestyle choices, class, and race, and thought to myself, how many lost contracts does this all add up to?
After this incident, I'm decided to re-commit to my family's Health First policy. This choice is in alignment with my recent choice to think of my Life Practice as the core of my Art Practice or as Jewels Genius reminds me "the sooner I commit to my role as a community health practitioner aka shaman, the better for everyone.
In 2012, I set a simple goal to increase my family's yearly income by twenty percent (bringing me close to a living wage after I pay for my student loans) and this begins with health. Consider these next upcoming writings on health currency for a prosperous year. With my renewed commitment to listen to my heart, I feel confident that I can reach that goal. As long as I take it one heartbeat at a time.#LifeIsLiving, #OccupyHearts
Fast Food Independence
Soundtrack: Zap Mamma As Much As Possible
Eight years ago, on September 19, 2003, I gave up eating Fast Food. And I was a Fast Food junkie. I realized this one day when my brother said he was going out for food, and I responded, "Well, if you go to McDonald's, let me get a number seven with a raspberry iced tea, Burger King, a number one with bacon and cheese, and if you go to Wendy's, a number six with a fruit punch." This was a clear sign that my eating habits needed a revolution.
It happened while I was driving through what I refer to as "The Fast Food District" on Hillside Avenue, Queens, New York. This short four block strip includes a McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, White Castles, and Subways. This was one of those rare moments that so many thoughts come together that it appears as one seamless thought: "No More Fast Food!! Today I declare my independence." I hated the idea that I did not have the basic skill of bringing something recognizable from the earth through a process that would eventually contribute some semblance of sustenance to my body. I hated the feeling of being at the mercy of a multi-national, operation whose sole purpose was to ensure I stuffed their food products into my gullet to boast their corporate coffers. Both of my sisters were undergoing transformative (it's a word now spell check!!) nutritional changes, so I was already becoming aware of the food I was putting into my body everyday. Plus, I always had one of Dr. J's favorite lines, "Garbage In. Garbage Out," in my mind. Plus I had other bills, and I was convinced there had to be a cheaper way to feed myself than the value meal menu.
It was this day, all at once, that I decided to give up fast food. And I did. I cheated about half a dozen time in the first four or five years, but that was it, no more fast food: no more Big Macs, No more McNuggets, No more Whoppers, No more Chicken Tender Sandwiches, No more crispy delicious fries, no more apple pies.
It has been amazing what I have discovered since this time. I really enjoy several foods that I thought I disliked for no reason, like yummy avocado mashed up and spread on toast, or baba ganoush even though it was made of eggplant, or even eggs for that matter which I ate happily for the first time this summer when my good friend Miyo made an egg scramble with kale, feta cheese (also on the pre-independence food no-fly list), and cherry tomatoes. I also discovered a small Spanish restaurant that served a lunch special that was a delicious home-cooked, quality meal.
This moment taught me many things. One, you do not have to give your power away. You can make another choice. Two, make your own holidays if you don't like the ones that have been handed to you. Three, sometimes the road towards discovery is to give something else up. Four, Kale is the best food on earth.
Here's to a sovereignty that Wikipedia can't define - the one we each take for ourselves. Happy Independence Day. And Healthy Eating.
What are you claiming your independence from?
Shout Out to Jetsetter Jewels for expanding my life's palette, to Betsy B for homecooked meals, to Miyo for the delicious eggs, and to my sister, Almitra the Community Mogul for organizing the second annual Farmer's Blvd. Health Fair in our Queens neighborhood.