Black History Month Leap Year Review: the Good, the Sad & the Bizarre

Posted by Billyjam, March 2, 2012 11:40am | Post a Comment

Among the "good" of this year's Black History Month was Robert Glasper's excellent
Black Radio album on Blue Note released Feb 28th, 2012

Maybe it's because this is a leap year that Black History Month 2012, which ended two days ago, seemed a little out of whack. Or maybe it was because it was a Black History Month that started on a really bad note when, on the morning of Feb 1st, the tragic news that Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame had taken his own life was the first thing we were to read about. That was bad enough but this tragic news came hot on the heels of the world losing a string of other black music/cultural icons, including in just the preceding two weeks both Etta James and JImmy Castor.  And then, of course, ten days later, on the eve of the Grammys, the whole world was taken aback with the shocking news that Whitney Houston had died at age 48. Not exactly a great time to joyously celebrate black history!

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The Influence Of African-American Culture On A Non African-American: Four Examples

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, February 19, 2012 11:31pm | Post a Comment
I grew up on black culture. For most Mexican-Americans like myself growing up in the seventies and eighties, we didn’t feel a part of dominant society nor of our Mexican heritage. Schools were devoid of Latin American studies and English as a second language courses were frowned upon. As a kid I was lost; I didn’t know anything about my own culture but felt distant from American or European culture. For many of us, African-American culture was our alternative. I believed our struggles were the same. We were occupied people. We were once a part of progressive society and then we were conquered and made slaves. Although we received some basic human rights over the years we were always looked as second-class citizens here in the U.S. We were looked as something to fear and exclude. As years went on, some blacks and Latinos started to feel that they were part of mainstream society. Perhaps wanting to forget the past, some blacks and Latinos forgot the oppression they once shared. We separated, made our own history and often competed against each other to get out of the racial cellar.  

Even after becoming aware of my own cultural heritage, I never forgot the influence that African-American culture had on me. I find it strange to meet Mexican-Americans that have many European influences but no black cultural influences. I find it even stranger that many of them have the same fears of blacks as other members of dominant society. 

I cannot shake the influence of the many African-American musicians, activists, athletes and artists had on me, even after discovering the many great Chicano/Latin American icons that influence me today. For that reason, I would like to pay tribute to some African American icons that have influenced my life in some way or another.

Malcolm X

Reading The Autobiography Of Malcolm X was like having a light turned on in a dark room. I could identify with almost ever aspect of the book. In the beginning, Malcolm's father is murdered and leads his family in poverty. After being displaced from his family, he is robbed of his culture and self-worth, which led to his self-destructive lifestyle. Take any child’s family, security and culture away and most likely the child will live a self-destructive lifestyle much like young Malcolm.

His days in prison showed that many of us end up there because we are in prison in our minds. We start to believe every horrible thing people say about us and feel that there is no other path than death or jail. Malcolm convergence was due to his Muslim faith but it was his need to educate himself that helped in his self-determination. His time with The Nation Of Islam led to examining every facet of dominant society and challenging it, even if it meant going against the very people who supported him. Once he left the Nation Of Islam and goes out on his own, he sees the struggle of the African-American as a world struggle. That people across the world share the same oppression and that need for basic human rights is a global struggle rather than a national struggle. This message ultimately leads to his murder, but not before he got his message to many like myself, who view his example as a way to fight for human rights for all people, everywhere.

Magic Johnson

 The NBA was dead before Magic Johnson. When The Lakers won the championship in 1980, the game was delayed and played after the eleven o’clock news so that CBS would not have to preempt their mighty Friday TV line-up of The Incredible Hulk, Dukes of Hazard, and Dallas. Along with the emergence of Magic Johnson came his rivalry with Larry Bird of the Celtics, which led to a faster and more physical style of basketball. It was L.A. "flash" versus working-class Celtics and everyone was into it. Basketball ratings went up and every kid playing at the local park was throwing behind the back passes just like Magic. By the time Michael Jordan came into the NBA, the league was a different level, ready for someone like MJ to take it to new heights.

However, in 1991, Magic announced his retirement from the NBA after he found out he had the HIV virus. At the time, it seemed like a death sentence. The only thing people like myself knew about AIDS were pure misconception. The thought was that AIDS was strictly a disease that only gays and drug addicts contracted. By Magic coming out and telling the world he had HIV, it forced a homophobic society to look at the severity of AIDS and that everyone, gay straight, man, women, black or white, could get it. One could have understood if Magic kept his disease in the dark but he used the opportunity to become an activist for HIV prevention, both in the U.S. and abroad. Most recently, he has started a campaign to stop the spread of homophobia, saying, “you realize that homophobia is still an issue everywhere, but especially in the black community. When people are scared to talk about it, that's how the disease spreads.” You can easily use that same quote for all persons of color.

Magic Johnson’s Foundation has given many college scholarships to inner city youths as well as funding for various AIDS organizations. On top of that, Magic’s net worth is listed close to a billion dollars. His investments include businesses that cater to the betterment of inner cities. By putting a movie theater or a Starbucks in lower income neighborhoods, it kept money and jobs within the community. For someone like myself who grew up far from any entertainment, I would travel far outside my community to get it. I see Magic Johnson as an example for people that have grown up in lower-income communities who feel the need to leave once have made money. Most people who leave never put any of their fortune back into the communities. Magic did and made money doing it.

Wanda Coleman

You will not see Wanda Coleman name on many top lists of African-American writers, nor would you find her on lists of top female African American writers. Truth is told; I’ve read better writers since. However, there was nothing like the feeling of reading Wanda Coleman’s A War Of Eyes And Other Stories in high school. To me, Wanda’s strength wasn’t just that she was a female African-American writer, but that she was from South Los Angeles. Every story was from a neighborhood that I knew. The voices she gave to her characters were voices I heard all my life. The streets that she walked were the same that I’ve walked. The fast food joints she worked at reminded me of all the greasy spoons I ate at. Her feelings of isolation and rejection were far more real to me than anything my literary high school friends were reading. I couldn’t get down with Holden Caulfield, but I certainly could get down with Wanda Coleman.

Recently, I listened to a track off a poetry record she did with Exene Cervenka of X. It’s called “Silly Bitches Institute," which was a story about being locked up in the Sybil Brand Institute For Women. That particular piece holds its own against some of the best African-American spoken word artists.

Miles Davis

 There are three albums that I listened to as a teenager that I felt I had to hide from my parents. The first being Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album, because my family was Catholic and I didn’t want my parents to think I was worshiping the devil. The second was Black Flag’s Damaged, because Black Flag was in the news for starting riots. I didn’t want my parents to think I was a self-destructing punk. The third was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; because I didn’t want my parents to think I was devil worshiping, self-destructing punk who took drugs.

That album hurt to listen to at first. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy who did Round About Midnight, a record I jacked from my father’s record collection. It was intense to say the least, but after repeated listings, it all made sense. Once I got into it, I loved it and I began to examine everything Miles did before and after Bitches Brew. He was always on point it seemed. The more I listened to Jazz, the more I noticed that when he changed styles, everyone would follow.

In his autobiography, entitled, Miles, The Autobiography, Miles broke it down like a wise uncle. His story is as he saw it, with no apologizes or excuses. If he thought you were a terrible musician, he let you know. Likewise, if he thought you were great, he gave much praise. His choice of musicians did not fall under color lines. He played with many non-black musicians if he thought they were a better fit for him. When black musicians questioned him about choosing a white musician over a black, he felt that they were weak and only making excuses for their own inabilities. He never relented. He loved being black. He didn’t like Free Jazz. He thought he should be paid top dollar and flaunted his wealth. He didn’t like musicians that did a lot of grinning. He hated cops. He liked the French. He liked all kinds of women. He was a terrible husband and a deadbeat dad. He had drug problems and many faults, but he was an excellent composer and musician.

His example is not one of integrity. His example is that in art, there is only art. If you stay loyal to friends, family and loved ones, your art will be compromised. The best artists are just that. They are not good friends, husbands, wives, father and mothers. Somewhere along the line, we started associating great art with good people. In some cases, perhaps, but most cases, never. To be a legend, one has to practice, create and not be afraid to get rid of dead weight, even if they show talent or dedication. What I got from Miles, as an artist is that it’s better to be honest with oneself and be a bad guy then to be liked and have mediocre art. Miles career lasted almost fifty years, with many milestones and his influence is still felt to this day.

The Last Holiday: A Memoir

Posted by Gomez Comes Alive!, February 5, 2012 02:18pm | Post a Comment
If you are looking for a tell-all autobiography about the tumultuous life of Gil Scott-Heron, chances are you are going to be disappointed by The Last Holiday: A Memoir. What Gil Scott-Heron gave us were selected memories, the ones that resonated in his mind before his death. He is a man full of inspiration and controversy, but chose to reflect on his accomplishments and share the memories of people who most inspired him most.

The autobiography jumps around in the beginning, from his tour stories from his 1980 tour with Stevie Wonder to his upbringing with his grandmother in Tennessee. Gil writes eloquently about being raised in the south and being one of the first black students to integrate into an all-white school public school. After his grandmother’s passing, he moves with his mother to New York, in which his mixture of book smarts and street smarts ends up going to a private high school mostly reserved for students of privlege. From there it covers his college days, in which he takes a leave of absence to finish his first novel, The Vulture. From there, he returns to school and starts on a path as the musician the most people know him as.

Gil never dwells too much on his accomplishments. For instance, Gil spends more time writing about his appreciation how other artists covered his songs off his excellent album, Pieces Of A Man than he does about writing the songs himself. Much praise in the book was given to the people that he felt helped him along the way, such as his family, instructors, musicians as well as guys such as Bob Thiele and Clive Davis, who both released his albums and helped make him the icon that he became.

The most praise and perhaps could have been a book on its own, was Gil’s stories about tour with Stevie Wonder in 1980. The significance of that tour was that Stevie Wonder used the tour to help spearhead the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr. day a national holiday, with a show at the Washington Monument, the very spot were King gave his infamous, “I Have A Dream” speech. Gil admiration for Stevie, who though blind, was keen in every other sense. He was a person who could say exactly what was needed to be said and do what was needed to accomplish his goal of a Martin Luther King Day, an accomplishment that was achieved during one of the most conservative governments in U.S. history. It is also noteworthy to add that Gil was supposed to do a few selected dates on the tour, as Bob Marley was the opening act. But as it was, Bob was diagnosed with cancer and had to cancel the tour.

Once again there are many holes if you are looking for the true memoir of Gil Scott-Heron. There is nothing on his criticism of rap music, his drug addictions, legal issues, the fact that he was HIV positive or his time in prison. There is also the fact that his main musical collaborator for several albums, Brian Jackson, gets less coverage than Gil’s favorite road manager, a man known as "Keg Leg". I’m sure as time goes on there will be more Gil Scott-Heron biographies that will tell the whole story. The Last Holiday: A Memoir is just that, memories of events and opportunities that turned his life around. A tribute to those he had fond memories of.

The Last Holiday: A Memoir  is available at Amoeba Hollywood's new expanded book section or at IMIX Books, located inside Mi Vida Boutique in Highland Park.

Numerous J Dilla Tributes & Benefits Happening This Month on Six Year Anniversary of Revered Artist's Death

Posted by Billyjam, February 5, 2012 02:13pm | Post a Comment
Super Bowl isn't the only event happening today. On a more bittersweet note around the same time as the Giants/Patriots game over in the UK is a big J Dilla fundraising tribute party - just one of numerous events scheduled this month, on both sides of the Atlantic, that will honor the greatly revered late hip-hop producer and emcee who died six years ago around this time (Feb 10th, 2006) following a battle with lupus. Fittingly money raised at the British Dilla event today, which is titled J Dilla Changed My Life and will be held at Scala in London, will be donated to both Lupus UK and the J Dilla Foundation with all the DJs performing for free to benefit both causes. Also in the house today will be Ma Dukes - the mother of the late great artist born  James Dewitt Yancey and was also known as Jay Dee (not to be confused with an early 90's European house music act of same name). For more exact details on today's London event, that will be hosted by Phat Kat, visit the official Facebook event page.

Other J Dilla tribute events this month include ones in Detroit, LA, Baltimore, San Francisco, and New York where on Feb 19th at the Brooklyn Bowl the sixth annual Donuts Are Forever celebration will start at 8pm and will feature such talents as DJ Neil Armstrong, Prince Paul, and the hip-hop group Tanya Morgan. Of this NYC accidentally annual event Derreck "Dee Phunk" Johnson,  a partner in Rare Form - the event's organizer, said, "We never went into this planning for it to be an annual series. The original Donuts Are Forever in 2007 was a commemoration of the first anniversary of his passing.  But when we witnessed the turnout, we were dumbfounded.  We were fans and we knew there were a ton of other fans out there...but just seeing the physical manifestation of that love blew us away.  And five years we are on number six." Details.

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Don't Dream It, Be It: Jero's Enchanting Enka Legacy

Posted by Kells, February 1, 2012 11:33pm | Post a Comment
In Japan, you'd have to living under a rock to not know Jero (or ジェロ) and prior to 2003 an event listing like the concert poster pictured below might have drawn attention for all the wrong reasons (see: Other).

There is certainly nothing inherently other about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native Jero, Jerome Charles White, Jr., but he stands apart from the pack in that he has, before the age of thirty, achieved living his dream of becoming the first successful African-American Enka singer in Japanese music history.

Jero grew up among a str
ong influence of Japanese culture and began singing Enka at an early age due to his Japanese grandmother Takiko's enthusiasm for the genre. She had met Jero's grandfather, an African-American serviceman, at a dance in Yokohama during World War II. They married, had a daughter - Jero's mother Harumi - and eventually moved to Pittsburgh, his grandfather's hometown. Though his parents divorced when he was still very young Jero was reared under the cultural influence and familial guidance of his Japanese grandmother and his Japan-born mother in a mixed-heritage household.

Jero attended the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in information technology, and later moved to Japan to further his lifelong Japanese language studies and work as a computer engineer. He hadn't initially imagined making a career for himself as an Enka singer, but nevertheless he worked towards his goal of fulfilling a promise that he had made to his grandmother of one day performing in the annual
Kōhaku Uta Gassen song show broadcast every New Year's Eve in Japan. Amazingly, he achieved real success as a result of appearing on the show and subsequently competing in other singing contests. Unfortunately, in 2005 Jero's grandmother passed away before she could see her little protogé achieve fame as an international Enka superstar in 2008, reinvigorating the genre by melding it with modern hip-hop and R&B.

Enka, for those who have never heard of the vibrato-framed strains of Japan's most beloved (and somewhat unfashionable) sentimental ballad stylings, think of some modern, er, post Pacific war pop vocalists singing tearful songs of unrequited love and missed connections. Now imagine that these songs somehow speak to you about your life, moving your spirit into a slow emotional tailspin that is somehow also characterized by a deep sense of nationalistic pride way down in the darkest depths of your heart (I fully realize that this exercise will seem a wee bit of a stretch for some of the Americans reading this). Now, an Enka song is not gonna be about a truck or ni**as in Paris, but if it makes you feel proud to to be an American and deathly depressed that you never gambled with a kiss on the one that (in theory, because if you're exercising your imaginary Enka vibe correctly you've been pondering heartache waay too much) got away then you've nailed the sentiment. If you've seen Kill Bill then you've pretty much heard Enka, or at least something like it.

As to the Enka singing style, well, perhaps Jero could fill in the rest. Here he is singing an old standard「宗右衛門町ブルース」("Soemonchou Blues") on a televised, all-star by request Enka revue:

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