Monday, April 23, 2007

Lady Beat Makers Black Mambo Masala

The Author verses the Auditory

As an artist I find that I vibe with photographers best, but somehow I am always surrounded by musicians. I get along with photographers because I am a real aesthetic kind of guy when it comes to what I write. I feel as if I am constantly trying to play with ‘style’ the same way photographers play with lighting or Photoshop. I want there to be some sort of ultra-violet landscape in my prose that is bumpy and grainy, making one’s mind’s eye trace a barren backdrop or lush foreground only to focus in on some delicate flower, or brown skinned woman with one unexpectedly cold gray pupil, or a certain fowl's shade of blue that has ringlets of white. When I look at a book of photography or talk to my friend Lenny (the photographer), I feel equal.

As far as musicians go, I am unequal. I am a perpetual groupie, a hanger on. Part of it is due to how music makes me feel, and part of it is my jealousy of how they create – writers must face the page alone, while musicians all live like Robin Hood and his Merry Gentlemen. Or, maybe they are more like Shaolin Monks, practicing their craft in an isolated and tormented bliss, and then assembling themselves into a fortified fighting group – symbiotic duos, funky trios, uber-melodic stringed sextets – that practice their craft in a mystical one mindedness. My best friends overseas are all ex-patriot singers who are adorned, loved and fetishsized in a way that makes you think of Jimmy Baldwin and Bid Whisk on the Riviera. As friends and artist they are demanding because their bodies are their instruments and they do not shy away from the spotlight in their art or in their every day interactions. Pops Wilson once told me after I joined the choir: "Once you say that you are a singer, you must be prepared to perform at any time." Funny, even my male church going ultra straight friends, who are vocalist, are divas, grabbing the mike and rushing the band along at frantic speeds to get to that one special note that allows the audience to float back down to earth. ” To be professional”, as my friend Michael has told me many times, “is to deliver the exemplary notes exactly the same way every time.” It is the demands of zero mistakes, which accounts for the madness. It is also the illusion, the performance, the band, the key, the leadership, the divvying of the pot, the wardrobe, the connection to the audience and required nakedness of any performance artist that reminds me of what a turtle I really am. I do not envy being “present” in order for others to experience my art. I relish the written word. My body is not there to be picked over by malicious critics. The page is my physical emissary; I would rather they chomp over my sentence splices than to chop me up physically and emotionally. The advantage of being a writer in the face of the critic is the rebuttal, there is no such advantage for the performer. But, whom am I fooling; I am the critic in many instances -- the lofty loner intellectual who writes about My Chemical Romance, Dreamgirls and Whitney Houston, picking over their full red wine bodied whole notes and personal lives without acknowledging what my musician friends have taught me about deliverance.

Trepidation and The Women’s Hip-Hop Invitation/Innovation

Two Saturdays ago I went to the Gender Amplified: Women and Technological Innovation in Hip-Hop conference sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard (sorry for the late entry but I was flooded out of my basement abode in New Jersey right after the festivities at Barnard). The title alone reminded me of how different hip-hop and my Gospel/Broadway/Funk/Soul/Boss nova experiences have been. I have not been in such a hip-hop inspired discussion for a long time and the parts of the conference that I did attend were a reminder of my truncated digital life. I have been one of many performers on stage when it comes to voice, but when it comes to hip-hop, I have only been the critic and many times it has not been the music I dissected, but the culture.

On that Saturday evening, I debated whether I was going to go to the conference or hang out at a bar and have a beer. I guess my hesitation about going to a conference that was focused on women was because of what it means to me. In terms of participating high academic theory, the knot in my gut is the equivalent of sitting in on my older cousin’s tea party. I was allowed in but there were internal and external voices asking me why I was not playing with the boys. I always get that feeling in these groups, because participants start talking about women and men from a vantage point that reduces being male to some essential and oppressive element or set of prototypes. I agree that our socialization, standing in society, markers for professional competency and ways of communication are different but what about when we lay down our swords? Can we have a conversation with one another that is not politicized? If we are in love, or choose to love, must it be a battlefield also? Maybe I do not get the female perspective, then again I sometimes marvel at all of the supposed networks and infrastructure I am suppose to access effortlessly because I am male. These assumptions do not call for questions concerning race or sexual orientation? And if we were to tackle those assumptions, then we would also see the horns of the black male Mandingo and faggot rear there ugly heads. But enough, we could start unloading from there, but I am not in the mood, and I swore off theoretical double-speak and Newport Lights around the same time.

In the end I decided to go. After I got off from my job, I walked from 59th and Lexington to the 1 train station stop not far from Carnegie Hall. My sojourn to Barnard included a discussion with a tall brown skinned middle aged man from Milwaukee who has been in NYC since 1970. "I have witnessed a great transformation", he said concerning the city. As we left, he gave me his card then walked up towards Harlem. With all the young college kids running around me, on a clear cool spring day (hours before the Nor’easter’s merciless deluge), I felt optimistic and reminiscent. A friend housed me in his dorm for months at Columbia University during the winter of 1995.

So, I missed Tricia Rose (who people said was dynamite) and Spinderella. Rose spoke sometime around lunch time, I am not so sure about Spinderella. I got uptown around 5:30 pm, in time for the “Gender in Real Time: Tracing Women and Technology” panel’s question and answer period. By the time I got there it had turned into a discussion of the Imus Affair. It was interesting listening to the female students talk about the “nappy headed” problem. Very interesting comments were made by one student about how women are boiled down to a sort of currency, devoid of personal power, but regulated to a sign of men’s power. At times, I had that childhood feeling again. I did not really know how to hug, introduce myself, talk or gauge relationships. Who I thought were sisters were mother and daughter. Who I thought female lovers could have been business partners. Who I thought male and female lovers could have been artist and producer. To top off this lack of sexual radar, all codes of hip-hop are confusing to me, because the facade of being hard is always with in reach with the turn of a baseball cap or the donning of a coat. Who is what, is never clear, but that did not hinder me from meeting new friends and people that were asking the same questions about hip-hop as I am. I also meet people that had stayed in the game longer than me, and it was refreshing to see grassroots organizing happening in the genre. I have been divorced from it because of location and in hip-hop location is everything (Brooklyn, Bronx, Uptown, the dirty South, ATL, Cashville, etc. . .).

When I was 21, studying at NYU I remember how much all of this gender based agitation upset me. The assumption that I was somehow going home to some bastion of power was an opinion held by several instructors and not just by fellow students. Part of it was the condescending voice of a new New York liberalism that assumed I needed to be educated about the plight of women despite being raised in a household consisting of three generations of women in one house. The other part was simply how I perceived gender specific arguments in my 21-year-old mind. Where most of my male friends from Hampton University were off to work for television stations, computer companies or entering law school, to be nurtured by male mentors; I was a singular male in many groups and discussions, and mentorship was coming in a haphazard way. Despite all the time I spent in Africana, it was the Latin American department that took me under there wing. In the end it made dating impossible and professional relationships with my age group tempestuous. First because the age difference between a 21 year old male and a 28 year old woman is probably more like 15 years than seven. And second, because the language that was being used in class was coming home to roost.

Me (21-year-old): "God he . . ."

The Girl/ (Wo) man (28-years-old and fucking me): "(eyes slightly crossed). . . God is a female, at least in my mind. But God should be referred to as 'It', because 'It' is a higher form of he or she because 'It' does not denote gender."

Me (the kid): "It" is an inanimate object. A higher form of he or she is "we" or "us".

The Girl (the grown-up): I am tired of playing games.

And that was what my whole undergraduate relationship to black women was to a certain extent. "Why is he so resistant" one woman would ask of another, and the answer became "because he is so young." I just felt like they were playing word games, I wanted to get to know someone, not fight. But then again, I made bigger mistakes, in my skewed notions of what honesty and fairness was, but I shy away from mentioning them, partly because they embarrass me and partly because in the end, my mistakes in relationships do not denote a position taken in the gender argument. Many times love was lost from this oil slick of love and identity politics -- for me gender distinctions and roles were always soiled, in the muddy waters of being a 20-something (at least until graduation).

How the Ladies Schooled the Pimps On Laying Down Green, Hot-Fire, Hip-Hop Tracks

My hesitancy about going to the conference was this feeling that I was slipping away from the all male road trips and beer binges to an afternoon chat with five women working on their PhDs and being completely lost in confessions of chauvinistic abuse by hyper-masculine signifiers; or being literally trapped in the middle of a debate on George Lamming and his portrayal of women in his novel Castle of My Skin. I wanted to desperately receive new information, but I was not sure about how I should behave as a male in one of those spaces again.

Lady Beat Makers vol. 1 directed by Tashelle "Shamash" Wilkes was an amazing movie experience. It chronicles the experiences of 5 women music producers: Josie Carr, Laticia "T.C. Lewis", Shakti, Jewel Brown, and Stephanie "Diverse" Whittaker. All five of these musicians/producers were totally different and fluid in their art form. In terms of shattering the gender myth, I reached an epiphany through the movie about God given affinities and life's passions as being totally different from gender. I was rocked out of my socks and had the feeling I had heard something that I had never heard before. And like a faux country and western television jingle, "I was very happy that I came."

The movie did not talk so much about their lives in a male dominated art form, but showcased their work and distinct backgrounds. The movie is actually several exposes stitched together in succession. It gives the feeling that you are actually taking a stroll through one single neighborhood, peeking into the windows of 5 extraordinary homes since many of the featured producers include footage of their family and parents. And it is the individual input of each artist that makes the film, since the director shots footage on their blocks, in their studios, and in their family rooms. You get a concrete sense of their lives in one moment in time, instead of a biography that tackles their lives from birth to final edit. This makes the film very fresh and new, and gives the viewer more time to actually "listen" to their music instead of ruminating on how hard it is to be a female hip-hop producer. That point has been made, though that film has yet to be made. The irreplaceable circumstance of viewing Lady Beat Makers is a chance to partake in the audio cacophany of Josie the Rock Star, T.C. the Soul Gifted, Shakti the Sweet Star Feminine, Jewel Brown the Self Invented Uptown Electro Beat Box Girl or Diverse the Street Blessed Warrior who seems ready to compete with any of the guys at the drop of a dime. In fact, all of them do. Behind their smiles, at the panel following the screening, it was a sight to behold -- all of these producers staring out into the crowd with a serene sort of battle raging in their eyes. They all seemed ready to fight and defend, their eyes all glared outward as if they were trailblazers in a dense forrest with no time to waste, they were all of few words. Their work speaks for itself.

Goddess From the Machine

The after party included 3 sets by DJ Ayana Soyini, DJ Sparkles (scratching behind her back) and DJ Rehka. There was more conversing and more personal flashbacks as I watched all these young people congregate on the edges of a dance floor in the middle of Barnard. It made me aware of the constant need to create and re-create places of culture. But it also made me aware that some people jump into the stream, some wade by the pool, and some refuse to take off their clothes. But as always, this did not mean people were not having a good time.

So, it turned out to be a good thing. Especially with all this stuff swirling around hip-hop today. Funny, just as French hip-hop is the center of social rallying calls and the anti-libretto to the French elections, the long view towards 2008 is bringing hip-hop into our political focus. But for us, it is not as vanglorious as the French hip-hop scene that reminds me of all my days listening to The Poor Righteous Teachers and Public Enemy. Our political discussions surround language and its devolution. Our political discussions challenge our communities' visions and views of itself. Does hip-hop really represent the people that Russell Simmons says it represents, or only a part? And, if it does not, then what about the people that are shut out of the game, may they be musicians, producers, rappers, writers, journalist or photographers? Is there a litmus test that countervalences the past Imus public relations test concerning content, language and artistic privilege? The gansta is dying in our mist, and when the bullet plugs are pulled out of the holes, hopefully we will begin again.

Gender Amplified (more pictures)did much in showing me that another community exists outside of the multi-media world I consume (but not always volunterialy) . Maybe these 5 producers and 1 film makers are the superwomen ordained to rescue us from the mediocraty of hip-hop and its money making complex. It is amazing what hip-hop has gone through in the last 15 years as it rose from a grassroots social and party anthem generator stretching beyond the 5 boroughs, to a megaplex of instant stars racking in the cash. Sometimes I am lethargic about it, like the bitter end of a relationship with someone I must see everyday. And at other times I look at it like a giant mammal stuck in a desert. It just needs a little resissitation. Lady Beat Makers vol. 1 made me believe that help is on the way.

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