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."