Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Five Qualities of a "Good Black Man": A Simple Survey, Sort of

For a few days now I've been engaged in a friendly if tense debate about Black men, feminism and Black male feminists with a brother named Eric in response to the MySpace blog postings of my sister warrior Scottie Lowe, creator of AfroerotiK. It has made me wonder a few things. Just what is a "good Black man?" Do men and women have different views of who he is? How does having -- or even rejecting -- a feminist ideology shape that view?

What do you think?

First, tell me your race and gender. Then list the five main qualities that a "good Black man" possesses? Lastly, tell me if you are or not a feminist. You needn't explain your answers. For now I just want the first eight words that come to your mind when you answer the following questions:

1. What is your race?
2. What is your gender?
3. A good Black man is:
4. Are you a feminist? Yes or No.

This is it. . . for now. :)

Monday, September 18, 2006

The KKK's Last Meeting

A friend forwarded this to me this morning, and although I disagree with the majority of its oversimplified views, I still feel compelled to share it for the sake of discussion.

The KKK Disbands: Leaves Their Job To Black Folks
The KKK leader stepped to the podium, his hood lowered around his shoulders and a look of disgust on his face. He said, "Sorry guys but this will be our last meeting; we're going out of business."
A member stood up in back. "But why sir?"
The leader sighed, "Well, reverend, the niggers are doing a better job getting rid of themselves than we ever did, so we are no longer needed."
There were rumblings and protest. The leader raised his hand to silence the Klan members, and said, "Their rap music says more vile things about black women than we ever thought of."
The members grudgingly nodded in approval. The Imperial Dragon continued: " And their women write books and make songs that demean black men better than my two speech writers ever could, looking down at two men seated in front who lowered their heads. "They shoot each other constantly ", he continued;" And as a group, they spend a huge amounts of money on cars, liquor, that stuff they call bling bling, and the proliferation of rap music -- as they talk about all that shit in their magazines -- and nobody needs us to talk about how a lot of their sorry asses keep playing the race and victim cards while complaining that other groups are surpassing them in economic development and supposedly getting more attention in schools. Hell, they even support a so-called "Black Hair" DVD that a white man is making money on , in four sequels at $20.00 a pop, talking about how Koreans have taken over the "black hair" industry without acknowledging that Black entrepreneurs had 100 years to get a monopoly or entrenchment in the industry that Madam C.J Waker founded 100 years ago, but got out-hustled and out-strategized while spending investment capital elsewhere. Let's face it, they're being hoisted by their own petards."
Some members went looking for dictionaries, while most members nodded as it hit them that their job was finished; that blacks had become their own worst enemy.
The leader shook his head. "It's time to go back to our regular lives as policemen, judges and congressmen, and leave the business of getting rid of niggers to niggers. They are just better at it than us."

He then threw his hood on the ground and walked off the stage. Thus ended the last KKK meeting.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

10 Things You May Not Know About Me

Last night I stumbled on a senatorial debate on television. Interestingly, the debate ended in a "lightning round" in which the candidates could only answer the questions with a simple yes or no. Even more interesting, some of the political questions purposely were too difficult to answer with just a simple yes or no. Most interesting of all, some of the questions were lighthearted attempts to glimpse into the candidates' personalities. For example, they were asked things like, "Is rock music better than rap music?" and "Do you watch soap operas?" I think I learned a lot more about the candidates than I did from this simple exercise than their long, prepared statements on the campaign issues.

Then this morning I rediscovered an interesting email. I had joined an online book club, and the moderator asked me to share ten things about myself that were little known. Now that I've reread them and because I believe in synchronicity, I thought I'd share them with you. :)

1. In the recent past, I’ve done stand-up comedy. I was actually good at it. In fact, I had an opportunity to go pro.

2. I couldn't carry a tune if my life depended on it which is precisely why I feel thoroughly qualified and entitled to say, "She can't sing."

3. When friends and acquaintances visit the Bronx for the first time, I love to take them to Jennifer Lopez's block in Castle Hill so they can see just how NICE the so-called "ghetto" she grew up in really is. By the way, Castle Hill is nowhere near the South Bronx. And the South Bronx is being gentrified as I write.

4. I was almost a teenager when I realized that my mother was not Puerto Rican like my father. She's actually Dominican. At the time of this discovery, I said to myself, "Damn, and here I am making fun of Dominicans when I'm one of 'em." Yes, I was that ignorant as a kid. Thankfully, I have learned and evolved. I am allowed to do that, right?

5. I'm a bona fide leftist. No, I'm not a communist. But on most days of the year, I'm a socialist which contrary to popular belief is not the same thing as being a communist. Don't worry, I don't recruit. And some of my best friends are capitalists.

6. I did once date a Black Republican. To this day, I couldn't tell you if he genuinely held conservative principles or if he was just playing the big-fish-in-a-little-bowl game to realize his political aspirations. In the end the problems in our relationship had nothing to do with contrasting politics.

7. My last major crush was on an Asian man who was much younger than I was. The attraction was mutual, but the timing was horrible. I've moved on.

8. With the exception of tuna, I don't eat seafood. Well, I eat shrimp and calamari, but they must be fried. In other words, they can pass for chicken nuggets. I know... so unLatina of me.

9. I wish I was a b-girl (i.e. I wish I knew how to breakdance.)

10. I'm hypercritical. I have an opinion on everything, and they are usually very strong. However, I don't excuse myself from this. On the contrary, I'm my own worst critic, and nothing anyone can say about me (or that I can say about anyone else for that matter) can ever be harsher than what I tell myself. The difference is that I won't put my self-criticism on display. Now if you ask me what I think about myself or my work, I will be unusually forthcoming and transparent. But you have to ask. So while I'm ready, willing and able to critique someone else's work, I much prefer to kick myself in the privacy of my own home.
Just thought you should know. :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Divas Contest: Are You a Jackie, Hazel, Lourdes or Irena?

I wanted to take a break from work to launch another contest. This one is a thank you for all of you have read or are now reading Divas Don't Yield. Because this is the first Divas contest, I wanted to make it simple and fun.

The deadline is midnight E.S.T. on Friday, August 25th. The prize is a $25.00 AmEx gift card. That's right. Twenty-five bucks for you to spend as you wish with no hints from me. :) All you have to do is write an answer to one question:

Which of the four main characters -- Jackie, Hazel, Lourdes or Irena -- are you the most like in and how are you like her?

Submit your response in 100 words or less to me at contest@blackartemis.com by the deadline to enter. Be sure to write DIVAS in the subject line. I'll choose the best response and announce the winner on Monday, August 28th. What is the best way to get my attention? Tell me a story that illustrates just how much you are like the character you identify with most. I encourage you to post your responses here as well so that others can read and relate. :)

And just so you know, you do not have to be a woman and/or Latina to win this contest. When judging the entries, I won't be looking only at the obvious -- race, class, sexuality, etc. I'm much more interested in reading how you relate to the character's personality, experiences, interests, hopes, fears and beliefs. That means this contest is open to anyone and everyone who has read the book.

Let the fun begin!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Much Ado About Street LIt - Part III*

Many Black people have expressed concern over the saturation of street lit on the market (and, to a lesser extent, erotica.) One notable rant by novelist Nick Chiles was published by the New York Times on January 4, 2006 under the scathing title Their Eyes Were Reading Smut. Chiles speaks for many, and for every person who agrees with him, there is another who adamantly defends street lit. Defenders say it only matters that our people read, we should support our authors regardless of what they write, and the popularity of certain genres is a reflection of what we truly want to read.

These folk are right, and they are not. The truth usually lies between the extremes. We should hold our artists and entertainers accountable for the images they perpetuate because, despite popular belief, they do matter (more on this in Part IV.) However, such accountability should not occur as a wholesale attack on the genre and its authors as if no diversity exists among their talents, intentions and impact.

Censorship can never be the answer, least of all for a people with a history of being silenced. There was a time in this country when Black people were killed for learning how to read and write. Literacy equaled death. The last thing we should ever do in this day and age is emulate the oppressors of our ancestors and deny anyone the powerful gift of the written word.

And allow me to be the first to own up to my own self-interest as an author of commercial fiction. I read literary fiction. I understand literary fiction. I dig literary fiction, and have tremendous admiration and respect for those who write it. I just have no desire to become one of them.

Nor should I have literary aspirations to have a place in the publishing industry. As a human being, I have the right to tell my stories. As a person who belongs to multiples communities misrepresented if not silenced by "isms," I have to tell my stories and find my audience.

Something those who unilaterally dismiss street lit must remember and should honor is that many authors in this genre are literally telling their stories. This particular genre is dominated by Black people who are fictionalizing events that they have actually lived. For some of these authors who have both suffered and perpetuated neglect, abuse and violence, writing their novels has been a path toward healing and redemption as they find their voices. This is particularly true of the women. Whether we like them or not, their stories are our stories, too, if for no other reason than that these authors are our people. Terri Woods is no less one of us than is Terry McMillan so fuck what you heard from Bill Cosby. If we want to enjoy a literary novel about a college-educated wife and mother struggling in the 'burbs because that story speaks to some of us, we have to allow for the popular novel about the single mother who dropped out of high school struggling in the 'hood because that story resonates with others among us. Indeed, the more diverse the stories, the more opportunities we have to discover our commonalities as well as understand our differences.

Nor should we jump to the conclusion that the only reason why street lit novels are so popular is because they tend to be full of explicit sex and gratuitous violence (and in some of the most disturbing titles, both occur in the same scene.) Instead we should ask why gratuitous sex and violence is so appealing, perd. It sure as hell isn't because sex and violence are somehow essential components of the Black aesthetic. On the contrary, exploitative sex and gratuitous violence are key components of the American aesthetic, and we need not look far past the entertainment produced and consumed by Black people for evidence of that. I've said this about hip hop, and I'll say it about street lit; it is neither right nor effective to solely hold one thing accountable for what are undeniably universal problems that predate the existence of that thing.
Does this mean that Black readers should support anything and everything that a Black person produces? Absolutely not. For some reasons that are understandable, and for others that are ludicrous, people of color place each other under tremendous pressure to adopt a herd mentality. We should be allowed our individual tastes and to express our preferences with the expectation that are opinions are informed.

For example, while I am not a fan of the street lit genre, I do make occasional attempts to read it. I already have read at least one work by the most notable writers in the genre, and I do this because rather than dismiss the genre as a whole, I want to identify those who among them actually have writing chops and/or something meaningful to say. But I do the same with romance and horror which are also not my preferred genres.

Granted, I push myself to read outside my preferences because it would be impossible to evolve as an author unless I did. Good writers are broad readers. But even if I were just a person who reads only for entertainment, I would never unilaterally belittle an entire genre that I refused to engage the way author Sharazad Ali seems to have done the entire category of urban fiction. With the act of engagement comes the right to critique. We have the right to not engage any genre we choose, but by doing so we also forgo credibility in our criticisms. I often wonder how many of the relentless critics of street lit have actually ever read a single novel in the genre (or worse, read only just one and concluded that they were all the same.)

If we're going to tug the coattails of Black storytellers, it should be on the grounds of quality, context and diversity. Regardless of the medium or genre, we have both the right and responsibility to demand these three things. With respect to fiction, quality entails a decent command of the elements of character, setting, plot, dialogue, etc. More often than not in fiction, it is context that distinguishes between a character and a stereotype. And just like not everyone who lives in the suburbs is a well-adjusted, law-abiding citizen, not every resident of the "ghetto" is a violent, anti-social nihilist.

Interestingly, this is precisely why my personal affection for crime stories and noir tales has not transferred to street lit. I don't mind at all reading about characters who are in "the game." It so happens that one of favorite novels is Clockers by Richard Price (I adamantly urge you to forget the lousy movie and read this excellent book.) One of the main characters in Clockers is a drug dealer named Strike. Price takes care to humanize Strike, a young African American man who peddles rock in his Jersey housing project. Even though I do not agree with his choices, I understand why Strike makes them. Price's attention to craft is the ultimate difference between perpetuating a racist stereotype and creating a compelling character with whom I can sympathize.

Unfortunately, I feel that the typical street lit novel fails at this because the command of craft is weak, and there is no context to the characters' behaviors. If that proverbial alien visiting Earth were to be gathering intelligence about life on urban streets by reading this genre, he would conclude that all young African American males sell drugs and pimp women simply because that is inherently their nature and that they have no desire or ability to do anything else. Not only is that a very dangerous image to perpetuate, it's a racist lie. Without context that shapes these characters' choices or other young African American male characters who make different choices, what starts as description easily transverses into stereotyping and maybe even results in glorification.

Now some would rush to claim that such depictions are just "keepin' it real." To that I say, the circumstances that lead a person into such a lifestyle and the consequences he endures when he pursues it are no less real, so why not include them in the story as well? The street lit author who treats the ugly aspects of "the game" with as much social and emotional honesty as s/he revels in the visceral details of its material and sensual delights is the exception to the rule. Rather too many of the novels in this genre reflect some of the deepest internalized racism I have seen outside of gangsta rap.

This is the primary reason that street lit is not for me as an author or reader. But for the reasons I outlined above, I could never advocate for its censorship. I do call, however, for the readers of the genre to only support the best authors that it has to offer and for the authors to step up their game to be among the deserving of this support. If a given author proves to be lazy with his or her craft, readers, plunk down your cash for the novelist that will pull out the stops to give you the well-written book to which you are entitled. Buy what you like, but don't settle for mediocrity, and trust me, several authors will rise to the challenge. To borrow an idea from poet and professor Tony Medina, I would advise street lit authors who want to improve their storytelling acumen to forsake Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim for Louise Meriweather or Piri Thomas as their literary role models.

The truth is we should demand quality, context and diversity whether the genre is street lit, romance or thrillers or the medium is books, films or songs. But we as a community are woefully derelict in our collective responsibility to hold anyone in entertainment accountable to these criteria regardless of medium, genre or even race. Because of this, racism within the entertainment media including the publishing industry goes unchecked, and this is why the more we spend, the less we are offered.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that is the third of a five part series to be completed over the next two weeks. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The E! Hollywood Story Behind "Divas Don't Yield"

Not! If anything, the story behind my chick lit novel Divas Don't Yield reflects the lip service that Hollywood plays to diversity. To read it, visit Backstory at http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/

Monday, July 31, 2006

Hindi v. Hindu: Owning Up to My Cultural Ignorance

This morning I was searching for a particular comment on my novel Divas Don't Yield. Sometime ago I had inadvertently came across a blog by a lesbian author who was concerned about the character Hazel's subplot. To paraprhase her comment, she said that she while she was enjoyiing the novel so far but remained wary of another storyline where the gay gal is secretly in love with a straight friend. This is something that always worried me about the novel even when it was a screenplay called Interstates. Since I decided to devote this Monday to cyber housekeeping, I wanted to locate that blogger and write her to say, "Hey, don't hesitate to call me out if I messed up."

Yeah, I do things like that, and boy, did I have to own up to more cultural ignorance than I bargained for this morning.

In my search, I came across a completely different blog called Four Lucky Feet. The author is a South Asian woman named Mathu Subramanian. She was reading -- and loving -- Divas Don't Yield until the end when I introduced the femme lesbian South Asian character Trishna. While flirting with Trishna, Hazel asks her if her name is Hindu.

What Hazel should have asked, writes Mathu, is whether Trishna's name was Hindi. Hindu is a religion. Hindi is a language. I thought the word Hindu was used to refer to both the religion and the language, and I was dead wrong. And in making this stupid mistake, I spoiled my own book for an appreciative reader and possibly alienated a community with which I only wanted to build alliances.

Should I contact the author and tell her about her mistake? Mathu writes in her blog. Will she be receptive, or will I come off as uptight or crazy? Should I just get over it and realize that no one is ever going to really get what its like to be me, and that every character that resembles me either drives a range rover through the suburbs or cooks lamb curry through her tears over her abusive husband? Should I write my own feminist hip hop novel with a South Asian protagonist, even the closest Ive ever gotten to gangstah is listening to my students debate the relative hotness of Beyonce and Aliyah? Or am I whining over something completely unimportant, and should I just get over it and move on with my life?

To read my comment on Mathus blog, click here and scroll down. In a nutshell, I apologize for the mistake, commend her for speaking her truth and appreciate that she called out my error without attacking my humanity. Oh, and I correct her equation of hip hop with "gangstah."

Despite my best intentions, I took a risk when I attempted to be inclusive in my storytelling and include characters from communities that I do not know that well. I dont regret that risk although I do regret the mistake. Not because just because it was stupid and embarrassing but also because other readers who do not catch the mistake may duplicate it. I think artists should take such risks but only if we are as willing to be held accountable for our misrepresentations as we are accepting of kudos for our accuracy. If were unwilling to do that if we believe our good intentions should absolve us from legitimate criticism when our ignorance can result in more confusion or misunderstanding then we should step aside and let other communities tell their own stories.

I also share this story in the hopes that others will follow Mathus example. Speak your truth, allow others their complexities as human beings. Theres a fundamental difference between assuming the responsibility of educating people who clearly dont bother to educate themselves and giving a sisterly tug on the coattails of someone who has demonstrated her desire to be an ally. You bet that as I continue writing my multiple-part commentary on street lit, I will keep this lesson in mind.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Latina Interview Uncut

On page 64 of the August issue of Latina (with Eva Mendes on the cover), there' s a brief Q&A with me about my latest novel Burn. Due to space constraints, the email interview I conducted had to be drastically edited. However, I saved the email so you can read all the interesting questions and my full answers. Just read on.
1. How does Burn feel like a departure from Black Artemis' last two books? Has the message changed? Has the female protagonist?

All Black Artemis novels have three elements: a complex female protagonist, an aspect of hip hop culture and “film noir” sensibility. What makes Jasmine – the main character in Burn – unique is that she’s very much an anti-heroine. ‘Chacha, she’s self-destructive! At the beginning of the novel, she’s committing suicide. It takes an interesting revelation for Jasmine to find the will to live and take control of her life, and that’s always one underlying message in all my books, too. So in that sense, no, it’s not different from Explicit Content or Picture Me Rollin’, but Burn does have the most ambitious – and darkest – plot and conflicted “shero” to date.
2.What kinds of broads and dudes encompass the world of this book? How would you describe the world they live in?

Graffiti writers, street walkers, bail jumpers. . . Burn is the literary equivalent of an Abel Ferrara flick for women of the hip hop generation. God, that sounds arrogant. OK, that’s what I hope it reads like. You have Jasmine Reyes – a prostitute turned bail bond agent. There’s Dr. Adriano Suárez whose God-complex reaches an all-new high… or low depending on where you stand on what he’s up to. He’s got to be my most seductive villain yet. Honestly? I’m not sure I could resist him myself. And let me not forget Felicidad Rivera, the transgender woman who hands down is the most self-actualized character in the book.

3. Burn has got a lot of elements of an old fashioned gritty New York detective story; fast talking characters, suspenseful plot. How did you come up with the setting and feel for Burn?

Wow, that’s a tremendous compliment because that’s what I was going for when I wrote it, and yet when I was finished I wondered if I hadn’t taken on more than my chops could deliver. Unlike Explicit Content and Picture Me Rollin’, Burn is the one Black Artemis novel that is actually based on my life experiences. Whoa, let me elaborate. By that I don’t mean I was ever a prostitute or a man. I’ve never done graffiti although I kind of regret that. See, how the bochinche starts. J Anyway, the idea for Burn came to me over a dozen years ago when I was working for the Vera Institute of Justice as the deputy director for two alternative-to-incarceration programs, one of which was a nonprofit bail bond agency in the South Bronx. Folks involved in the criminal justice – no matter what side of the law they’re on – have got to hustle to get what they want whether that’s to make an arrest, win a conviction or get an acquittal or at least a get-out-of-jail free card. And hustlers don’t move slowly. Hustlers always have an ace up their sleeve. New York is a city of hustlers, and as a New Yorker, I say that with an immense amount of pride.

4. There’s a lot of inside knowledge about the criminal justice system in Burn. And you once considered law before becoming a writer. Did you do any special kind of research while writing the novel?

I always do quite a bit of research in many areas when I write my novels, but for Burn most of it was focused on two areas. Even though I worked for that ATI program and understood how the bail process worked in New York City, I had to learn how a for-profit bail agency operated. I also conducted a great amount of research into graffiti subculture since that’s an important element in the novel. Having worked for quite a few social justice organizations before becoming a full-time novelist, I came to Burn with some understanding of several issues: gender identity, HIV/AIDS, immigration reform. . . you know, sometimes how much I raise in one book surprises even me.
5. If Burn were to be made into a movie...what type of film would it be..(a cross between what kinds of films), and who would play Jasmine?

Great question! Burn is my fourth book, and the most cinematic of all, I think. I see it as a cross between a John Grisham/Michael Crichton thriller and, like I said before, an Abel Ferrera or maybe even an old school Martin Scorcese flick. Updated with a strong hip hop sensibility though. A feminist King of New York. And ideally, I’d like Tia Texada in the role of Jasmine. The entire time I was writing Burn, I saw Tia as Jasmine because she shared so many personality traits as Sgt. Cruz (the character Tia played on the show Third Watch.)
6. Are there any elements of Jasmine's character in Black Artemis?

God, I hope not! She’s so self-destructive. Wait, let me backtrack and give that more thought. OK, we’re both quite feisty, unapologetically smart, pretty resourceful. Hmmm. . . the more I think of it, the more I realize we do have in common. But just in good ways, or at least I think they’re positive traits. I have no doubts some folks would disagree with me, but like Jasmine, I don’t give a rat’s ass. I insist on being happy on my own terms which is something Jasmine has to learn the hard way. And I accomplish that by working on my “stuff” so my “stuff” doesn’t work on me, LOL!

7. What's next for Black Artemis/Sofia Quintero? And what's the craziest thing that has happened to you in the last year ( re:your personal life/professional/both)?

I’m writing, writing, writing. I co-founded a multimedia production company called Sister Outsider Entertainment, you know, just taking the initiative into turning some of these novels into films. In the meantime, my creative partner Elisha Miranda and I are developing an ensemble series for the N. Sort of a Latina Sex in the City for twenty-somethings. I just published my first novel in the chica lit genre under my real name called Divas Don’t Yield, and I’m working on the second one. I have two novellas-in-progress, one for an anthology about sisters and their secrets and another for a collection of erotica by Latina authors. I eventually hope to write young adult fiction and, as Black Artemis, I’d like to break into graphic novels. And this is the year I fall in love, I can feel it.

Being a writer who lives in New York, it seems to me that something unusual happens just about everyday, LOL! I’m just always looking for striking morsels to feed my creative spirit. If I have to choose one “crazy” event that occurred over the past year, it has to be that I sat on a panel at a literary event sponsored by the New York Times that included Frank McCourt and Pete Hamill. I mean, how often does anyone writing commercial, urban fiction – let alone a Latina hip hop head from the Bronx – is invited to share the stage with such literary heavyweights? I’m ambitious and optimistic and all that, but if you would’ve told me that was going to happen to me, I would’ve said, “Yeah, and in my next life, I’ll come back as Nefertiti!”

Thursday, July 27, 2006

I Want to Be Like Mike

Michael Eric Dyson, that is. In this concise yet comprehensive conversation with Tavis Smiley on his NPR radio show, he critiques Bill Cosby's ongoing attacks against the Black poor. His comparison between Bill Cosby and Kanye West is just brilliant. Please take a few moments to listen to it, share it with other and continue the dialogue.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Much Ado About Street Lit - Part II*

True, hip hop came from the streets. Theres also no denying the overlap that exists between some aspects of hip hop subculture and the underground economy, and this is most notable in the musical genre called gangsta rap. But anyone who truly knows both the history and politics of hip hop knows that hip hop and gansterism are NOT synonymous.

Nor does one need to know that history to see how false this equation is. Just think for a moment. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and James Whitey Bulger were all gangsters. Are they hip hop? We cant deny that Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Common and Queen Latifah are hip hop. Would you call any of them gangster?

When people like C. Delores Tucker and Stanley Crouch unilaterally dismiss hip hop, its because they do not know its socio-political history. They do not know, for example, that when Afrika Bambaataa Aasim founded the Universal Zulu Nation in the Bronx River Projects and helped develop this phenomenon we call hip hop, his intention was to combat gangsterism. A former division leader of the street gang the Black Spades, Bambaataa turned away from gang life after a life-changing trip to Africa. Wanting to put an end to the useless blood shed, Bambaataa encouraged youth to channel their energy through creative expression and artistic competition. The block parties he organized were about keeping the peace and building community. Therefore, at its birth, hip hop subculture was an alternative to violence and a rejection of gang activity.

There are many hip hop artists and activists who uphold this socially conscious vision for hip hop that you will never hear on commercial radio or see on mainstream television. And just as hip hop has gone global, these people are all over the world. We could discover them if were less addicted to the U.S. mainstream media and more active in our quest for alternative sources of information.

I confess that I tend to be a purist when it comes to how I define hip hop (or haven't you noticed?) When I say hip hop, I refer to the four creative elements that comprise hip hop subculture DJing, MCing, b-boy/b-girling and graffiti. When conversing with people about what constitutes a hip hop aesthetic or sensibility in something like literature or cinema, my narrow definition has received some compelling challenges. So compelling that I am considering broadening my view. However, I have yet to hear a single credible argument why Scarface should be considered a hip hop film or that any street lit novel should be referred to as hip hop lit.

Ask the majority of street lit authors who are their literary influences, and they almost always name Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Indeed, they are very proud to do so. They are quite knowledgeable of these authors's work and strive to follow in their footsteps.

As a hip hop novelist, I identify with a different literary tradition. When asked whose literary legacy I hope to follow, I name authors such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin who were known for their very gritty yet politically charged tales. I also claim the poets of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s because they are the artistic forbears of hip hop especially rap. Emcees, lyricists and other hip hop practitioners of the spoken word who also pride themselves on being socially conscious individuals and cultural activists cite such poets as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Gil Scott-Heron as their literary godparents.

What of The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah? I have tremendous respect for Sister Souljah, and I ate up her debut novel as did millions of other readers. Her activist credentials and her grounding in hip hop are unassailable. But despite my admiration of Souljah, I cannot be consistent in my definitions and consider her work to be hip hop lit.

If anything, The Coldest Winter Ever is street lit of the highest caliber. I just wish that more authors who claim Sister Souljah as a literary influence were as enamored with her command of craft and her ability to interweave relevant social issues into a page-turning story as they are with her realistic language and dramatic plot twists. Of course, Im no different than they are in the desire to see my novels one day enjoy such a wide readership. But for too many authors, the desire to emulate Sister Souljah stops merely at matching the number of copies she has sold. (In fairness to authors of street lit, this can be said of most novelists in every genre in the publishing industry, and I have expressed similar dismay with the prevailing mediocrity in all factes of entertainment.) It saddens me that in the wake of her commercial success, people have overlooked some of the profoundly and unapologetically political elements of The Coldest Winter Ever. True to the activist that she is, Sister Souljah has several important messages in that novel, and they are rarely acknowledged let alone discussed.

So I often say at my readings and signings, If it isnt about hip hop, dont call it hip hop lit. And I make it clear that it need not be about the entertainment industry for it to be a hip hop novel. Millions of people around the global are practicing hip hop, none of whom well ever hear or see. And believe it or not, some of them couldnt care less if they ever sign a record contract or appear on television.

Does this mean that a book cannot be both street lit and hip hop fiction? Absolutely not. Some fundamental connections between hip hop and the streets exist, and these positive and negative alike are obvious to us all. But hip hop and street life are not one and the same, and I have read very few novels that straddle the two genres.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because contrary to popular belief, entertainment is not apolitical. If we look closely and speak honestly about the recent trends in the publishing industry with regards to Black fiction, we discover just how political entertinament truly is.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that there may be three to five segments in total over the next week or so. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

48L4F Law #37: Create Compelling Spectacles

Striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures create the aura of power -- everyone responds to them. Stage spectacles for those around you, then, full of arresting visuals and radiant symbols that heighten your presence. Dazzled by appearances, no one will notice what you are really doing. -- The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, page 309.
I start with this one because the examples in both the past and present are endless. In my initial blog, I mention the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis as two groups who practiced this "law." Expound further on these examples if you wish or, better yet, offer new ones please.

Join the 48 Laws for Freedom Community Project

Are you a socially conscious person who loves hip hop yet are concerned with its negative representation in the mainstream media?

Do you know the history of your community and like to break it down for others or are knowledgeable on current affairs and enjoy demystifying the politics of particular situation.

Consider yourself a social or political activist who believes that all struggles are connected?


If you've read my blog either here or at BlackArtemis.com, I called out the hip hop industry's embrace of the book "The 48 Laws of Power" because it is essentially a how-to guide for domination and exploitation. It's time that those of who care about peace, justice and equality combine our intelligence to counteract this kind of thinking.

THE 48 LAWS FOR FREEDOM is a community project where together we will accomplish two things. The first is to deconstruct each of the 48 laws of power to bring its underlying oppressive philosophy to light by citing examples in history (or even in the present day) when it was used to oppress a group of people.

And because we often spend so much time criticizing what we're against and not enough time envisioning what we are for, the second objective is to devise The 48 Laws for Freedom. That is, we will come up with a principle for living for peace, justice and equality that counterracts the oppressive philosophy of each of the 48 Laws of Power.

When I conceived of this project, I was going to take it on myself, but I decided to ask you to join me. I thought making this a community initiative would make it richer and more empowering. There's a diversity of knowledge and experience among you, and I invite people of all races, ages, gender identities, sexual orientations, class, national origin, etc. to participate. After all, I don't want the deconstruction of the 48 Laws of Power to just reflect my specific history, experience and knowledge as a heterosexual, Afro-Latina female of an urban, working-class upbringing, etc. I want examples from all liberation struggles and principles of living from all cultures.

So how is this going to work?

At least once per week on my blog here (as well as on MySpace for those of you who are members), I will post one of the supposed 48 Laws of Power along with the "judgment' (that's what author Robert Greene calls the brief explanation of the law in his book.)

Then you can post two kind of comments. First, post an example of how the law in question has been used to oppress a given community. Now I have some very brief examples in my initial blog, but I challenge you to strive to be as thorough as Robert Greene in his book. Rep your peeps! Break it down! Tell that untold (or mistold) story. I read your bulletins -- I know what you're capable of.

Or you can post a counter law for freedom. Instead of following the law of "power," what principle can we uphold in its stead? Again, it would be wonderful if you provided examples from liberation struggles to show the application of the law of freedom to show that, yes, people can triumph over oppression without always resorting to the same ideology that is used to dominate and exploit us.

When do we get started?

Now. As soon a I publish this p;ost, I will go back and post the first 48 Law of Power. And remember, this is not only a chance to share with others what you know about your people or cause. It's also an opportunity to learn about that of other and to see the parallels. So please don't just post and bounce. Read other people's comments. Give each other feedback. And most importantly, draw the connection and spread the word.

Like many of our freedom fighter ancestors had done, we have to start devoting as much time and energy in developing and documenting liberatory principles as we do deconstructing the ideas and actions of oppressors

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Much Ado About Street Lit - Part I

Just what does hip hop novelist Black Artemis think of street lit?

As often as I have shared my views on the topic of street lit in online discussions, media literacy workshops, speaking engagements and interviews, I just realized that I never fully expressed them in writing in one cohesive piece. Perhaps this was for the best. While I still hold fast to the same political convictions I had when I first dropped Explicit Content in August 2004, my thinking on the subject has grown more complicated and compassionate over time, and that needed to happen. This is, I hope, a reflection of my maturation as both a political animal and a spiritual being.

Although my concerns for the state of Black literature remain the same, I believe I am better able to strike the balance between being my authentic self and allowing others to be who they are. When Explicit Content first hit bookstores, I waged what felt like a one-woman campaign to educate journalists covering the explosion of novels like Imagine This, True to the Game and B-More Careful as to why they should not refer to genre as hip hop lit. I still feel that novels about street life should not be called hip hop lit.

However, after some time I eventually checked myself and stopped unilaterally referring to novels about street life as gangsta lit. I just recognized the inherent value judgment loaded in the word gangsta. At best, it was elitist and unfair. At worst, it was downright racist. After all, some of this fiction is based on the lives of its authors, and not all of them write to boast about their criminal exploits. For some of them especially the sisters telling their stories was a way to find redemption, take responsibility and start healing.

Some of what follows I have written in other places. For example, some of these words were first posted as messages on the Readincolor listserv or written in the context of an email interview. Culling my thoughts from these difference sources allowed me to do something other than save time as valuable as that is. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on how my views on street lit have changed (or not) and to identify the reasons for that. Most importantly, it showed me what I also I needed to say at this point because one cannot have a meaningful discussion about Black literature without addressing other issues. At least, I cant. Or wont. A discussion about street lit, for example, that doesnt involve an analysis of race in the publishing industry is incomplete and useless.

Let me start where I always do -- with definitions. Granted, these are my definitions. Some people agree with me, and others do not. I believe definitions are important for both understanding one another as well as demystifying power dynamics. I'm not going to front. Yes, I hope people will read how I use certain terms and choose to co-sign on my definitions because I believe them to be considered and informed. And I don't mind if someone challenges my definitions by raising something important that I failed to consider when forming them. That's good shit. That's the point of dialogue. That's how we build unity among diversity and grow as a people together. But at the minimum, I offer my definitions just so you can understand my position. You may use the terms differently and even disagree with my ultimate conclusions, but at least we will both know that our contrasting opinions are not based on misunderstanding.

When I use the term urban fiction, I refer to something much broader than the way the folks at Barnes & Noble, too. For major booksellers as well as other players in the publishing industry (and for that matter other fields of arts, culture and entertainment), the word urban is code for Black (and increasingly Latino, too.) It only takes a second to realize how incorrect that terminology is. Not every Black or Latino person lives in an urban environment. Nor are all people who live and/or work in major cities are Black or Latino. Most of the bestselling titles in the chick lit genre are set in major cities -- Sex in the City, The Nanny Diaries, and The Devil Wears Prada to name only a few were -- yet were about White female characters and written by White female authors. But if I wrote a commercial novel about a Latina growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas who aspired to become a pop singer, you can bet that the folks at Barnes & Noble would toss that onto a table with fifty other titles under a yellow sign that reads Urban Fiction.

A brief aside. Some of you may be asking yourself whats the point of adopting definitions that run counter to popular use? My answer is simple. If the popular use is wrong, we should exercise the power to correct it. We give away a tremendous source of power when we allow other people to define us. We should always choose to self-determine starting with the simple yet powerful act of choosing how we identify ourselves or define the things that impact our lives. If we never did this, people would still be referring to us a coloreds and negros (and with no caps.)

So there's this broad genre called urban fiction that can include anything from a chick lit novel like The Devil Wears Prada to any of my Black Artemis novels to most of the novels sold by the street vendors on 125th Street in Harlem. Many of these novels can encompass multiple genres. Let's use the work of Zane as an example. Many of her titles classify as urban fiction, but clearly they can also be categorized as erotica, too.

The subject of this commentary is the genre street lit. The overwhelming majority of street lit can be classified as urban fiction because virtually all of it is set in a major city. Can someone pen a street lit novel set in rural Kansas? Well, if I can conceive it, someone can achieve it (and I know there's more than one of you out there reading this right now thinking hmmmmm. . . . . Knock yourself out 'cause I'm not gonna do it. Just give me a shout out in the acknowledgments.)

What do I mean when I refer to street lit? I refer to a novel that is set in the underground economy. At least, that's what I call it as many intellectuals and/or activists do. Different people call it different things, and even the same person may call it different things at different times. You may refer to it as the game. Street life. Crime.

And this is why I always have and continue to insist that we not refer to this genre as hip hop lit.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that there may be three to five segments in total over the next week or so. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The 48 Laws of Oppression

A friend recently forwarded me an article in the Los Angeles Times about the hip hop community’s embrace of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. I had heard of the book but never had any interest in it. When it comes to books about how to handle my business, I’m more interested in titles like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and even Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. I strive to be a holistic person, and books such as these possess sound advice about how to live one’s life to achieve wealth beyond that which is material.

Journalist Chris Lee wrote, “. . . [A]nd now, largely as a result of rap artists' growing sense of themselves as an entrepreneurial warrior class, [The 48 Laws of Power] is finding new life as the bible for behavior in the hip-hop world.”

Wanting to stay in the know about the things that capture hip hop’s imagination, I seek out The 48 Laws of Power on my latest trip to the bookstore. After I fail in my attempt to locate the book on my own, I enlist the help of a sale associate. As he leads me to a table at the front of the store, he asks over his shoulder, “Now are you just interested in The 48 Laws of Power because Greene also wrote The Art of Seduction and The 33 Strategies of War.”

I think I already don’t like this fuckin’ book. But I don’t take out my rising disgust on the friendly sales associate. “Nah,” I say. “No more war. Too much damned war as it is.”

He laughs sympathetically, and we arrive at the table. I pick up The 48 Laws of Power and start to browse. Running almost five hundred pages and using a small font, the book is thick and dense. Greene does not merely state the supposed law, explain it in simple language and provide a contemporary scenario that exemplifies its application as one might expect in a typical business tome. Rather he goes to great lengths to anchor the law in historical context both by quoting other strategic minds (such as Sun-Tzu who penned The Art of War, another favorite among hip hop heads) and offering multiple examples from how Ivan the Terrible “disappeared” for a month to make Russians appreciate his dictatorial reign when he returned to how Count Victor Lustig used “selective honesty” to dupe five grand out of none other than Al Capone.

My interest in this book is fading fast. No wonder heads are all over this, I think. It’s more of that gangsta shit. But I have to check myself. After all, it’s just not gangsta rappers who have adopted this book as their business bible. According to Lee, The 48 Laws of Power first circulated among music industry executives such as Lyor Cohen, Kevin Liles and Chris Lighty. It then trickled down into the hands of hip hop artists. For example, artist LG claims that his manager gave him the book to give him a tactical edge in contract negotiations. Even Kanye West – who spoke truth to power in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and took a stand against homophobia – devoted lyrics to the manifesto.

So I begin to randomly scan the actual laws, and my stomach starts to churn. Even though I always suspected that The 48 Laws of Power would be less like Stephen Covey and more like Niccolo Macchiavelli, my discomfort surprises me. Then I realize it’s because I’m reading the laws, applying them to my own experiences and having thoughts like:

Yeah, we’re doing that now. Keeping shit close to the vest. That’s probably why he hasn’t been able to fuck us over.

Damn, why didn’t I do that? ‘Cause I was trying to be real with her, that’s why. Oh, well. So far, no drama. Hopefully, things’ll turn out all right anyway.

Seem dumber than your mark? That might work for a man, but. . . OK, actually that can work for a woman, too. Maybe even better because they expect inferiority from a woman.

And then I recall a situation in which I violated Law # 3: conceal your intentions.
According to Greene, it should’ve been a wrap for me. But the truth was that the results were nothing but positive. By being transparent, I bonded more deeply with someone who proved time and again since to be a true ally, disempowered and even exorcised a cancerous individual from my life, and most important of all, kept my reputation in tact which, after all, is Law # 5: guard your reputation with your life. And not only has that served to draw other people of integrity to me, it has also inoculated me from some poseurs who recognize that my honesty and candor keeps the lights on, so to speak, making it difficult to hide their maneuvers in the shadows.

Upon this reflection, my stomach takes a violent flip, and it hit me why The 48 Laws of Power made me sick to my stomach.

This is a manual for oppression.

The underlying assumption of every law is that man’s strongest and most natural impulse is to destroy and dominate. Life is constant warfare in pursuit of material ends. In a world that operates along The 48 Laws of Power, there is no such thing as healing, peace, community, justice or even love. Some laws need no explanation to demonstrate this.

Law # 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Law #27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following.

Law #14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.

In fact, the assumptions and values that drive many of these “laws” have been used throughout the history of humankind to justify and execute all kinds of domination and exploitation including imperialism, slavery, and even genocide.

Law #37: Create compelling spectacles i.e. use “striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures” to create “an aura of power.” The Ku Klux Klan and Nazis had that on lock.

Law #17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability. This is how terrorists of all stripes operate be they a racist police force to Al-Qaeda –

Law # 4: Always say less than necessary. The name of George W. Bush immediately should come to the mind of any independent-thinking American. The examples from his administration are endless, but I’ll offer just one: the humongous lie upon which we invaded and continue to occupy Iraq.

Granted, the back cover boasts, “The bestselling book for those who want POWER, watch POWER, or want to arm themselves against POWER.” Theoretically, the emerging “entrepreneurial warrior class” comprised of mainstream hip hop artists could be turning to The 48 Laws of Power in an effort to learn how oppression functions in order to protect themselves against it. But let’s be real. We all know that’s not their agenda. They don’t study this book with the intention of disarming the ruling class never mind defeating it.

They embrace this book because they want to join it. And in order to become a member of the ruling class, one must become an oppressor. Should this hip hop warrior class succeed and rise to power, who are they supposed to oppress?

It sure as hell ain’t going be Lyor Cohen.

It sickens me that of all the classic and contemporary literature that men of color in hip hop can embrace as guides for prosperity, happiness and, yes, even revolution, they repeatedly submit to the same oppressive ideologies that have been used against them and their communities time and again. And more often than not, these ideologies and their applications are developed, perpetuated and executed by patriarchal, white supremacist males. When will the brothers learn that, as Audre Lorde wrote, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house?

Then again, probably few if any hip hop heads know who that sister was even though she did more for the liberation of Black people than any business guru of the month.

Friday, June 09, 2006

4 Easy Step to Defend Our Access to Affordable Internet Services and Information

A friend at Playahata.com just sent me an open letter written by Davey D. In this critical letter to the hip hop community, he laments the passage of Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act by Congress and calls for hip hop heads to stop paying attention to nonsense and write their senators. It was a great letter. A long letter. Followed by an article -- almost as long as yet much less accessible than Davey's letter -- about the attacks on net neutrality and the increasing dangers of corporate control of the media.
I copied the letter and sent out a bulletin to my network on MySpace. My network of 350+ "friends" consists mostly of fans -- current and potential -- of my novels. Many are hip hop heads and are rather young. Too many, I realized, will take one look at that long letter and not read it all if they even open it. As well-written as it is, it's too long. This angers than saddens me. And then I decide how to be part of the solution.
So I followed up with another bulletin. The title: 4 Easy Steps to Defend Your Right to Affordable Internet. Until now, emails have been circulating the 'net about proposed legislation to impose charges on email. To date they have been untrue. But for all intents and purposes, COPE is a real threat as it will give massive control of the internet to telephone and cable companies. With all the urban legends and internet hoaxes that get past folks, my hope that this title does the trick and gets people to open the bulletin. Then I write:
I promise this will be brief so please read this.
I recently sent out a bulletin with an open letter from Davey D about the danger of the Internet falling into the control of telephone and cable companies. I realize it's a long letter followed by an even longer article that many of you may not read. Allow me to break it down simply and give you four easy steps to follow.
The breakdown: If the legislation known as COPE passes the Senate, kiss affordable internet services good-bye. The internet will essentially belong to only those who can afford it. You think there's bias and misinformation in the media now? Imagine what happens if people like you and me cannot afford to send bulletins, write blogs, conduct research, etc. because we're not cable and telephone company moguls.
So what do you do? Four easy steps. So easy there's no excuse to just do it NOW!
1. Copy this simple paragraph:
Please do not give into the lobbyists of the multibillion dollar corporations and vote AGAINST the disingenously named Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement. It is an assault on the First Amendment as well as the principles of a free-market economy to enable telephone and cable companies to shut out competitors. Furthermore, it is against the interests of working-class people to support any legislation that hinders net neutrality and makes the internet a domain for only those who can afford to pay the tolls and rig the field. I will be watching your vote on this critical issue, and I hope you will do the right thing and defeat COPE. If you know more about this issue, and want to go off in your own words, do. It's actually better to personalize your letter. But if you can't for whatever reason, this will do. Better to cut and paste than do NOTHING AT ALL.
2. Go to this site:
And find your senator. If you've got more than one choice, don't worry. Trust me, you'll know who it is from whatever name sounds familiar from your local news.
3. Complete the form, paste the paragraph you wrote in the box, and hit SEND.
4. TELL YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO DO THE SAME. REPOST, FORWARD, EMAIL. If you want to be able to send polls, surveys, jokes, etc. on MySpace tomorrow, you'd better take two minutes and complete this action TODAY!
Thanks for reading this through and doing the right thing.
I hope it'll work.

Forget About Snitchin'... Just Stop Sellin' Shit

A friend just emailed an article in which the managing director of Cristal champagne took issue with the popularity the alcoholic beverage has among hip hop heads.

According to AmericanBrandStand.com, Cristal is the 8th most mentioned brand on Billboard's Top 100 in 2005. Artists such as Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Trina dropped the name of the champagne 35 times. What does the managing director Frederic Rouzaud call all this free promotion by celebrities who ordinarily earn millions to endorse products?

"Unwelcomed attention."

Unwelcomed indeed. On the one hand, companies that are embarrassed that the hip hop community embraces their products are both racist and hypocritical. I wonder if classism is not at play, too. After all, if country musicians dropped their name brands in songs (without compensation for the endorsement) and thousands of White working-class people joined their consumer base, would they, too, consider that "unwelcomed attention?" I truly don't know.
But on the flip side, hip hop artists sell things to its primarily Black and Brown working-class listeners they do not need. Hell, they sell buying, period. Aren't our communities already targeted for a slew of toxic products as it is? Junk food, cigarettes, malt liquor... And while there are many exceptions, too many hip hop artists are also selling such things as misogyny, homophobia, unsafe sex, violence and a host of other deadly ideas and practices.
So I can only stay angry for a second when I hear that the maker of some alcoholic beverage, luxury vehicle, footwear and the like fail to appreciate the consumer love they get from hip hop heads. I hardly want to call for boycotts and demand that racist (and maybe classist) companies who feel that their products are sullied when consumed by people who create and listen to hip hop music. If they don't respect our consumer dollars, why should we be fighting to stuff them into their ungrateful pockets?

And then I think about all the things that we should be fighting for -- quality and affordable education, housing, health care and other topics that many hip hop artists won't touch. I know, I know... some do, and it's precisely because of that, they never make Billboard. Where is the website that tracks how often rappers calls for justice, peace and equality? The most priceless things have no trademark.

But the conclusion remains the same. It really doesn't matter how we feel when the managing director of Louis Roderer Cristal complains to The Economist, "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." Clearly, hip hop artists shouldn't shill for bigoted companies who think our communities are beneath their products, but the answer is not to shout out Dom Perignon or Krug instead. Many hip hop artists pride themselves much more on promoting the truth than any brand, right? Well, the truth is that we do not need any of these brands regardless of whether the manufacturer in question desires our business or not.

Sell that.

Monday, June 05, 2006

4th Annual Hip Hop Power Shop

If like Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, you still have faith in the hip hop generation's abilty to promote social justice positive, and you can make it to Hotlanta this Saturday, don't miss this important (and free) event.
WHO: Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney
WHAT: Hosts the fourth annual Hip Hop Power Shop
WHEN: Saturday, June 10th, 2006 10:00 am ­ 4:00 pm
WHERE: Tupac Amaru Shakur Center, 5616 Memorial Drive, Stone Mountain, GA
Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and the Hip Hop community are coming together to promote the awareness and empowerment of young people. We are "ARMING OUR YOUTH WITH WEAPONS OF MASS INSTRUCTION," teaching the young how to engage in the social-political system. Congresswoman McKinney believes that young people will be able to take their destiny into their own hands, and soar to heretofore-unseen levels of achievement. To that end, this year's H.H.P.S. will be the most informative and inspiring ever.
Confirmed as participants joining Rep. McKinney in the fourth Annual Hip Hop Power Shop: Bobby Brown, Professor Griff, Gotti, Public Enemy, Chuck D, M-1 (Dead Prez), Rosa Clemente, Davey D, Nappy Roots ­ Scales, DJ Jelly, Monica Benderman, wife of prisoner of conscience Sgt. Kevin Benderman, Ingemar Smith, Veterans for Peace, Denise Thomas Military Families Speak Out, Rev. Markel Hutchins, community activist, Steven Waddy Georgia Coalition for a People's Agenda, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Baba Curtis and Minister Server and many more. Nationally known DJ Greg Street from Atlanta's #1 radio station, V-103 will be the Master of ceremony.This year's Hip Hop Power Shop will also feature participation from Mr. Tony Gray a nationally recognized radio consultant, programmer and station owner.
Events include a Katrina Tribunal, Mock Congress on the Tupak Shakur Records Release Act, poetry readings, and panels on Countering Culture: Attacks on Political Musicians and Youth, and Hip Hop History and Speak Out, and on Countering Recruitment: Realities of War and Military Service. The Hip Hop Power Shop will wrap up with a performance by Moodswing Productions recording artist: "JR".
What's coming at them:
Attack on cultural icons and leadership (Tupac and MLK)
Police repression
War on Black Youth
Dead end jobs
Cutting social support
Military recruitment and poverty draft
Go to war and kill veterans
Real solutions:
Voter registration forms and get out the vote
Community based alternatives (have support groups table?)
Self-improvement (education, job training, talents and skills)
Building community
Empowerment and resistance
10:00-10:10 AM Welcome - Rep. McKinney and Tupac Center staff
10:10 ­ 11:00 AMKatrina Tribunal and Mock Congress on Tupac Shakur Records Act
11:00 ­ 11:10 Poetry, local artists
11:10PM ­ 12:00PM Panel 1: Countering Culture: Attacks on Political Musicians and Youth
12:00-12:30 LUNCH and Poetry, local artists
12:30 ­ 1:20 PM Panel 2: Countering Recruitment: Realities of War and Military Service
1:20 ­ 1:30 PM Poetry, local poets/artists
1:30 ­ 2:20 PM Panel 3: Countering Culture: Hip Hop History and Speak Out
2:20 ­ 3:50"American Blackout" (film showing)
3:50 pm ­ Closing remarks and Wrap-up

25 Years, 40 Million Lives and Counting

Today is a sad anniversary. On June 5, 1981, the first case of AIDS was diagnosed. In just a quarter of a century, 40 million people throughout the world have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Thirty million -- that is 3 out of four -- have already died from it. In the United States, one million people are living with this disease with no cure.

This is unacceptable.

We have come a long way -- not far enough, mind you -- in stemming our ignorance about HIV/AIDS and those who live with it. As more of us become directly affectedby this disease as it spreads in our communities and even touches our own families, we recognize that a HIV/AIDS diagnoses need no longer be a death sentence.

I often fear, however, that our comfort is leading to complacency. This is a disease that is still spreading at an epidemic pace. It is still a disease that severely compromises the quality of life those who contract it. It is still a disease that kills.

So sometime over the next week, do something, anything, one thing, to stop AIDS. Make a contribution to an AIDS organization be it time or money. Educate yourself and then share that information with someone you know who is holding fast to the myths. Practice safe sex. Speak out against bigotry towards people living with HIV/AIDS. Send a letter to your congressional representative to demand that more goverment funding be allocated to the search for a cure.

Let's not suffer this epidemic for another 25 years.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

California Love

E-Fierce, PattyDukes and I arrive in Los Angeles on Thursday. We're here on our usual mission -- to bring back hip hop to its roots as a culture that gives voice to the voiceless (as opposed to an industry that silence so many for not being male, wealthy and vicious.) This is my third trip to southern Cali, and I'm convinced. This reputed hip hop rivalry between East and West coasts -- if there's any truth to it at all is -- is a mere byproduct of industry BS that is more about corporate gangsterism than it is about cultural production.

Our friend and camarada (and Compton's native daughter) Lourdes picks us up from the Omni Hotel in the Civic Center and takes us to Hollywood. She has convinced her employer Hoy to sponsor our tour which will bring us to two Los Angeles high schools and end at la Feria del Libro. But tonight we have dinner at Velvet Margarita to meet with the first Mexican rapero to be featured as one of The Source's unsigned hype Malverde and his manager Brian of Machete Music.

According to its own hype, Velvet Margarita is a cross between a Tijuana cantina and a goth lounge. Don't ask me how, but it works. I order the chicken asaba and a Blue Velvet and listen to Malverde break down the bandido legend behind his stage name. The true Malverde was the Mexican improvement on Robin Hood although his legacy has been co-opted by those enarmored by narcocorridos with no thought let alone desire to rob from the rich and give to the poor. He gives us copies of his CD and tells us how his track Marcha, a song inspired by his mother who worked for decades as a farmworker. Malverde wrote this song long before immigrants and their allies took to streets across the U.S. this spring to protest xenophobic reforms, proving that his pulse is one with the people. After a living dinner conversation that spans the trends (and tricks) of the recording industry to the purposeful failing of public education, E, Patty, and I grow excited about sharing the stage with Malverde. We're fierce women who do not suffer sexism lightly, but it is evident that Brian and he are 'bout it.

The next morning we visit Belmont High School, and we immediately notice that many teachers and students are milling about silently, resorting to sponteaneous sign language and scribbling across paper to communicate with one another. They wear t-shirts that say Shut Up and Heal the Silence and badges around their necks suspended by rainbow cords. The badges explain that they are participating in a Day of Silence, a campaign of solidarity with LGBT students and faculty. Through their silence they protest the notion that anyone should be condemned to hide who they are or who they love. As the students file into the auditorium for our presentation, we introduce oruselves and commend them for standing up agaisnst homophobia. The funny thing is all they can do is nod and smile.

Because he is a native son, we ask Malverde to set it off which he does lovely with Marcha. The kids are feelin' it, but they can't sing along so E, Patty and I do it for them. Let it be known that we ain't hype girls for no one, but like I said, Malverde's a brother for the sisters so we have no problem having his back.

The E-Fierce reads an excerpt from The Sista Hood. The girls in the front row titter because in the scene the shero Mariposa hides her sketchbook behind her textbooik and writes a love poem to her crush EZ instead of listening to her boring history teacher. The teacher -- described as "Wonder bread white" -- catches Mariposa and reads her poem aloud, of course, sin sabor. Methinks the girls chuckle because they can relate to Mariposa's plight. Then Patty takes the mic and performs the poem as it should be, and although they cannot speak, the group smiles and sways with her rhythm.

I got next and read the scene from Picture Me Rollin' where Chago teaches Esperanza a thing or two she didn't know about Tupac Shakur. I do my best to channel my mother's Dominican accent as I play Chago. Only later when I do it read the excerpt for the second time do I realize that I ain't channeling shit. That accent's all mine, courtesy of Ma Dukes, but still it's me. It may not be my default pattern of speech, but it lives deep within me, ready to burst through at any time.

Finally, PattyDukes closes us out with the theme song for The Sista Hood. Even though the bell rings in the middle of her performance, very few stand and leave. Even the non-Latino teachers give us dap with one even saying to E, "Please don't think I'm one of those Wonder bread teachers." If she would bring her class to come hear hip hop authors and artist talk about rebellion against consquistadores both in the past and present, clearly she is not. Another teacher with tears in her eyes -- a Latina abiding by the Day of Silence -- hands Elisha a magenta-colored sheet. She writes that even though she cannot speak she wants us to know how much we moved her. We are sure to request our own Day of Silence t-shirts before we leave.

Lourdes takes us to Thai Town for lunch, and we unwind over a great meal on the sidewalk. Next stop is Woodrow Wilson High School. This is a more intimate crowd, and we meet them in the library. The Sista Hood journals that E had designed by Urban Envy are a major hit, even with a few of the boys (hell, I'm a grown woman, and I want to collect all five.) With no vows to remain silent for the day, these students are free to respond more loudly to our readings and performances. They ask questions about writing, linger after the bell to take pictures and say, "You better add me," when we tell them they can find us on MySpace.

Now it is Saturday afternoon, and E-Fierce, PattyDukes, and I break for lunch in our hotel room. We've been working individually yet simulteaneously after a kick-off breakfast for la Feria at City Hall. While there we saw a poster of the small group of Latino authors invited to participate. We are proud to be in the company of such people as political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz (who I sometimes refer to as our Aaron McGruder although he has been in the game much longer than the brilliant creator of The Boondocks) and literary novelist Victor Villaseñor.

I whisper to E and Patty that there are some Latino authors who would refuse an invitation to be here because they wouldn't want to be "ghettoized." We unaimously disagree. We're excited to be here. It feels like home. Of course, we want to participate in "mainstream" events like the LA Times Book Festival. I have done and enjoyed the South Carolina Book Festival and the Miami Book Fair International. But no matter how much I may like to travel and engage different kinds of people, it always feels good to come home. This feels particuarly good to me as a Native New Yorker who profoundly also feels the culture differences -- the domninance of chicanismo, the dependence on cars, the much slower pace...

Then I realize that it feels so good because I'm not supposed to feel at home here. The hip hop industry has tried to tell me that I should not feel safe let alone embraced in LA. That when I come here, I need to watch my back. But it's the thriving hip hop culture that keeps telling me, "Come back soon."

Monday, May 29, 2006

If Freedom Isn't Free: Reflections on Memorial Day 2006

It's a gorgeous Memorial Day in the Bronx. As I take my exercise stroll throughout my neighborhood, I walk past flag after flag either propped on porches or dangling out windows. It's been decades since this area was inhabited by working-class Italians and Jews who waved their flags on days like today. Now the patriots are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Blacks of all nationalities and a smattering of Guyanese and Mexican immigrants. But not only do these residents brandish their flags, the cars in their driveways also boast stickers of yellow ribbons and the Twin Towers with slogans such as Never Forget, United We Stand, and Freedom Isn't Free.

Freedom isn't free. I admit to myself that I never understood that slogan. Every time I read or hear it, something inside me immediately resists. Try as I may to put myself in the shoes of the zealot patriots (some who I call family) and wrap my brain around that slogan, I just don't get it. If freedom isn't free, then is it truly freedom?

As I turn the corner, I find my mind drifting to my pricey college education at Columbia University. Columbia is reputed to be the most liberal of the Ivy League universities. It's the least WASPY of the seven colleges by far, located smack in the middle of multicultural metropolis where over two hundred languages are spoken. It's the Ivy League college known for its radical tradition as students protested the Vietnam war in the 60s and forced the administration to divest from the apartheid government of South Africa in the 80s among other acts of dissent.

At Columbia, I still had to immerse myself in the thinking of European men considered to be the fathers of Western civilization and all that is wonderful about it most notably democracy. Why does my mind float to my first year as a student at Columbia University on Memorial Day? Perhaps it is there, that I first grappled with the notion that freedom isn't free.

I eventually remember having to read and compare the theories of political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. John Locke believed that man was not only by nature a social animal but an honorable one as well. Human beings naturally know the difference between right and wrong and, for the most part, behave according to that knowledge. We create governments out of an innate desire to maintain a natural state of peace because we recognize that occasionally we will disagree as to what is right and what is wrong. So we concede our right to exact retribution for perceived injustices against us as individuals to maintain peace. Despite my Catholic upbringing with its insistence on the sinful nature of man (or maybe because of it) and the Eurocentricism of Columbia's core curriculum, I kind of dug Locke.

Thomas Hobbes, I wasn't feelin' at all. Unlike most social contract theorists, Hobbes held an ugly view of human nature. Man was not a social animal by nature, according to Hobbes, nor did he have an innate sense of good or evil. He was a slave to his most basic needs. Hobbes believed that human beings have to be subjugated by an absolute power to keep them from being in a perpetual state of warfare against one another. We agree to be governed -- conceding most of our rights to the state -- in exchange for our very lives. Therefore, whatever the government does for the sake of keeping peace including wielding absolute force is inherently just.

In other words, freedom isn't free.

At least, now I understand why the slogan unsettles me. Reflecting on conversations I have had with my relatives who ascribe to this credo, I recognize that, yes, they indeed hold a Hobbesian view of human nature. And yet I also have no doubts that these people I love abhor fascism. Although they fail to recognize how such a pessimistic view of human beings can easily flow into a case for dictatorship, I know on this day they, too, are flying their flags commemorating those who gave their lives to fight that very kind of authoritarianism.

I pick up the pace, probably in a futile effort to make my feet keep up with my brain. I tell myself that my relatives and neighbors only want to remember those who died to preserve the specific liberties that we enjoy. What's wrong with that really? This is our conditioning as Americans.

But our conditioning is flawed. It is superficial and incomplete. We are conditioned on this day to memorialize men with pale faces in camouflage gear dying on foreign soil. But I cannot think only of them. I also think of dark men in street gear dying on this soil. I see the Chicago Police Department rain steel on Fred Hampton as he lay asleep in his bed. I imagine El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz assassinated as he stands at the podium at the Audubon Ballroom. I visualize Martin Luther King, Jr. executed on the balcony of a Mephis motel. I hear Filiberto Ojeda Rios say as he bleeds to death from an FBI sniper bullet in the doorway of his home, "P'alante siempre." Were not these, too, American men who gave their lives to secure and preserve the rights that all of us despite color or creed are supposed to enjoy? And what of the women like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa andJune Jordan who die just as young and much more slowly in this ongoing civil war to make the American way of life a reality for all on the homefront?

I find myself making a right on Wheeler Avenue and immediately see the mural painted in memory of Amadou Diallo (note: you can see the mural, too, if you play the video on my profile at MySpace.) Like millions before him, the twenty-three year old had left his native Guinea to pursue the proverbial American dream. The dream ended in a barrage of forty-one bullets because the four police officers who shot Amadou did not see an industrious man on the path to citizenship. They saw a serial rapist.

Sensing that I have in some odd way come full circle, I turn back towards home, and I slow my pace. True to my conditioning as an American, I walk past the American flags and patriotic stickers, and I remember. I remember not only those who have died so that I may enjoy the liberties that I have, I also remember those who died trying to enjoy the same. I resist my conditioning by memoralizing those I have been taught were enemies of a state. And then I realize that despite my reflections this morning, I still do not buy that freedom isn't free.

It's repression that's so damned costly.