Monday, September 28, 2015

The Art of Mattering | Shawn William's Spoken Word Piece "A Father's Warning"

Under attack. That's the general feeling of the black community amidst the onslaught of police murders of black people young and old, man and woman (and child), for the past few years in America. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Aiyana Jones. Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Walter Scott. These are the names who have made headlines (among others), but we know that many more have lost their lives at the hands of either police or vigilantes. We wonder if there is a difference between the two anymore. We shudder at the thought of sending our children to the store... of driving... we shudder at the thought of being on the wrong side of a police officer's mood and gun. Our mortality is dangled, just beyond our grasp. We affirm that we matter... even if no one else believes it.

Nationally acclaimed poet, 3-Time Grand Slam Champion, Founder of the Golden State Slam and Open Mic, and member of the über popular spoken word group Fiveology, Shawn William, is also a father, twice over. His latest piece, "A Father's Warning," came in the form of not just performance, but a video produced by DJ Supe. On what compelled him to take the piece further than the stage, William says, "The video came to me seeing Mike Brown’s stepfather after the Ferguson District Attorney decided on not prosecuting his step son’s killer Officer Wilson. The media had a field day painting that man as a villain when in my eyes who are we to judge a parent’s pain? The worse feeling in the world is to lose someone you care for, the 2nd worse (IMO) is to watch and be useless to someone in need. CNN, FOX and other news affiliates shouldn’t have videotaped that moment but for ratings they’ll do whatever. I wanted to visually capture that moment from a father’s perspective." Watch it below:

The overall feel of the video, including the music and the footage in the background of real events, photos of Shawn and his son, Trey, and community outrage reminded me of something Spike Lee would produce if he ever ventured into the arena of spoken word. The first line of the piece that captures my attention is, "Something needs to change about these police officers that have hatred in their holsters..." illustrating that racism is pervasive among those who are in powerful, paid positions to protect those who they hunt and slaughter. 

Shawn proficiently composes and performs a piece that not only illuminates the black rage behind activism, but also (and perhaps unintentionally) dispels the notion of the absent black father as the only archetype of the black man with progeny. His love and protectiveness of his son is at the forefront the entire time, from when he explains how he's done everything in his power to keep his son from being in a situation where he might be on the other side of a police officer's gun to when he admits that he isn't strong enough to sit through a courtroom trial should his son face death at the hands of an officer. He calls himself "weak" and "reckless," to demonstrate the alien strength and composure it must take the parents of these murdered children not to just wild out and rage against the machine that killed their babies.

"Even the truth can be remixed for an agenda. The truth is that 70+% of homes in the African American community are broken, missing at least one parent. More times than not it’s the father, however that doesn’t mean the father or “Father Figure” is not around and THAT is where the “remix” happens. People take one stat and run with it for whatever reason diminishing the truth... to me you are seeing more fathers being involved in their children’s lives through social and television media. From the President, to TV shows like “Black’ish” to your everyday black father like myself, we are getting married, involved and publically showing our love and dedication to our family."

As I listened and re-listened to "A Father's Warning," I found myself thinking about the intersection between poetry and protest. There are many ways to fight back against an unjust system, and we all do our best to find the ways that feel the most solution-oriented to us. There is an art to putting one's fist up and marching up to a brigade of police clad in riot gear. There is protest in writing prose that says, "No... not my son. Not me, either." Black Americans constantly find themselves seamlessly navigating an art form that isn't considered one: existence. It is a dance where no tickets are sold, where the lights are blue, and where we hope our sons rise again, but where we often see mourning cascade upon our faces instead. It is a song, which we never chose to write; a chorus of agony that we know by heart, taught by the clef of hatred on our government's staff. We, the African Diaspora, navigate this art whose only applause is another moment of breath, and perhaps temporary reprieve from seemingly unrelenting anguish. We tell the outside world as much as ourselves that we matter. We weave this mantra into the tapestry of our lives, hoping to mesmerize the masses into believing it as much as we do. 

"Nothing’s perfect but I refuse to judge a movement from the sidelines. As of late they [Black Lives Matter Movement] are getting a horrible rep as supporters of “Cop Killers” and “Thugs”, kinda like the Black Panthers back in the day, which means to me they are going down the right path. “Black Lives Matters” doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter, it only means we are dying and instead of going through your day not caring or thinking all black men and women that die by gun violence had to have it coming to them, we want you to look at it as if it was your White, Asian, etc. child."

I also appreciate the fact that within this poem, Shawn addresses the "Why don't y'all care as much about black-on-black violence?" argument. He says, "...something just seems so disgusting, knowing that my hard earned tax dollars are being used to hire an assassin to put a hit out on my son..."What does it mean that we continue to put money into our own demise? We seem to fight back artistically, politically, even physically, but never economically. What if all Black Americans stopped paying taxes this year? What if we all only bought from black owned businesses, and kept our money in black owned banks? What if it's our pocketsbooks all along that have been the key to our liberation, not just poems and not just protests? We may have needed "A Father's Warning" to get us closer to that perfect and elusive work of art called freedom.

There's more to look forward to from Shawn William, who says his next video will be released sometime next week. He credits Michael Austin, who commented FML (meaning Fatherhood's My Life") on one of his Facebook photos, for inspiring a desire to create a platform/movement/forum for the voices of active husbands and fathers. The passion for his children is apparent in his poetry and in his commentary: "...being a father IMO is to provide, protect and to figure s*** out. When those options are taken away from you by gun violence feelings like the ones that come from my video comes to life. I’ve had numerous people attacking and accusing me of promoting violence against the police and those people are idiots. If all you get from my video is “I want to kill the police” then we have nothing to talk about because you are not here for change."


Monday, March 30, 2015

Music Monday Abridged | New Music from Nate` Soulsanger

Nominated for five Bay Area Black Music Awards, and winner of three, Nate` Soulsanger just released a new single "No Excuse" produced by Poetiq Beetz.

Maybe you know Nate` from her monthly First Fridays show at Q's Lounge or from her weekly open mic for singers, Soul Sessions, at Liege in Oakland. Maybe you met Nate` for the first time at her sold out show at Yoshi's this past January with RyanNicole or as one of DopeOnly's pillar artists.

This is a big MAYBE... but it's possible that after all I've just listed, you've never heard of Nate`. Well, those of us who do know that she has a big voice, lots of passion, sings some of our favorite covers, and puts on an awesome show!

I was excited to listen to No Excuses because I haven't heard a ton of original materiel from Nate`, so I was interested to hear what kind of sound would take form. Knowing Poetiq Beetz mostly as a hip-hop producer, I was pleasantly surprised by the production. It is soulful (with hip-hop influence clear in the drums). What I like most about this track is that Nate` accomplishes a feat that few artists do, and which I complain about a lot: creating the bridge between the live experience and the recorded experience. While this is clearly a studio track, it holds similar energy and passion as seeing her in person, so it's a smart performance because if you've never seen you in person, you'll want to now. There are plenty of opportunities around town for that, so make sure you check her out! The songwriting and harmonies are strong, and reminiscent of an early 00s Faith Evans track (or other R&B vocalist who can actually sing), but without being dated. Overall, I'm glad to have heard some original material, but now I just want to know... WHEN'S THE ALBUM DROPPING?!

No Excuses is available for purchase/download on iTunes and Google Play.

Monday, March 16, 2015

When Arrogance Mangles the Message | On Kanye West and Dame Dash

This famed Kanye West interview on Sway in the Morning is only ONE of the many Kanye interviews, which have been widely critiqued for Kanye's arrogance and ignorance.

Earlier this week, entrepreneur Damon Dash appeared on The Breakfast Club and gave the following interview:

What do these two have in common? Genius, pain, and unbridled arrogance.

Kanye has always been overly confident. It's something that emcees are taught is a necessary component in hip-hop. While his first two or three albums were a balanced mixture of bravado and substance, something was lost along the way. I think we all noticed it, but tried to give him a pass for as long as possible. 

I've often tried to break down the shift in his psychosis, pin-pointing it to the loss of his mother. Everyone grieves differently, but not everyone has to do it with a million eyes on them. When I've listened to Kanye, there's a pain there. There's a fear of not being great. A desire to be accepted. Many have commented that Kanye is unrealistic and will ultimately become disillusioned in his desire to be accepted among the 1% or the privileged (especially in fashion and fine art). The black community largely feels that he has abandoned the demographic that made him who he is. The balance that we once found seems to have transformed into polarization. While I'm sure we all can respect creating jobs for youth, many of us wonder what would possess him to refer to racism as a dated concept. Isn't it this (institutional) racism that is preventing him from becoming a fashion design icon? I thought that the powers that be were keeping him out? Hmmm...

As for Damon Dash, his interview on The Breakfast Club included some of the same statements I'd heard at a professional summit where he was the keynote speaker, last year in New York City. That includes, "I'm a man, I have testosterone, I have balls, I'm supposed to want to dominate." Never mind the blatant misogyny (for now). Dame also sounds like he's coming from a place of hurt/loss or having something to prove. The reaction to DJ Envy bringing up his history with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella  (which everyone may not be privy to, especially the younger generation), showed that there's still some bitterness there.

The rant that Dame went on about how a man who isn't his own boss is essentially a chump, to me, had good intentions, but was muddled with arrogance and an inability to concisely articulate a point. Entrepreneurship is important, and something I'm passionate about, but it takes start up money, which requires working for someone else for AT LEAST a short period of time (or investment -- which is difficult to come by for those of African descent). That Dame chose to belittle everyone in his hearing who works for someone else was both ignorant, shortsighted, and hypocritical. After all, the question was asked of Dame how he acquired his start up cash, a question which he evaded for the entirety of the interview. Many took from this that Dame didn't get the start-up money in a legal way. Either way, by avoiding that question, he essentially invalidated his argument for failure to validate it, given the opportunity. 

Both of these men are attempting to enter a realm of entrepreneurship and wealth that very few black folks have entered. They are attempting to make institution out of what is now rarity. They are both addressing (however inarticulate) the institutional barriers that keep our people economically, educationally, and socially disadvantaged and trying to lead in acquiring and passing down generational wealth. Unfortunately, one has to see past all of their ridiculousness to get here, and patience is a (rare) virtue. 

The other problem here? Kanye and Dame are trying to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house (and build their own). While they are both visionaries, neither of them seem to be employing cooperative economics. Dame talks about feeling hurt that he reached out to Spike Lee for help on an idea... who else has he reached out to (perhaps, less notable than Spike)? Has Kanye researched any high fashion designers of African descent to possibly collaborate with? Ujamaa, my brothers, for crying out loud!

Normally, when I write, I have a strong opinion. Today, I guess I'm Sway, because I don't have the answers. While I think that both of these icons have pieces of great messages buried in their loquacious rants, and am disenchanted with the way they choose to convey them, I also understand that they are still black men in a racist, white country. To me, Kanye and Dame have a lot to learn about what it means to leverage power in service of community success, and how, in turn -- their dreams and ambitions may actually be realized.

Monday, March 9, 2015

International Women's History Month | Five Songs That Uplift Women

20 Feet Tall, Erykah Badu
We have all experienced heartbreak. Badu has a particular way of illuminating the power of getting back up, after the fall. This song has brought me through some troubling post-boo-thang times. 

Shot Caller, RyanNicole
In the mainstream, who lifts us up in hip-hop? Don't worry... I'll wait. This joint takes an industry beat, and flips it in femmefavor. Check out more of what Ryan's doing here.

Brown Skin Lady, Black Star
Well... there is Black Star, if no one else in mainstream hip-hop to call us beautiful without dismissing our intellect or focusing solely on physical beauty. I first heard this song at the tender age of 19, and for a while (at least that year) it became the blueprint for how a man should approach me... respectfully.

This is My Life, Shirley Bassey
One of the best to ever do it, vocally, Shirley Bassey just has this way of making you feel like a super hero when listening to her sing. Here, she pretty much says, "I'm taking ownership of my destiny and if you're tryna ride, cool... if not, SWERVE!" That's right, Shirley.

Ladies First, Queen Latifah ft. Monie Love
This song is often in the shadow of the famed U.N.I.T.Y., but I like this song because it's two women who rap, collaborating on a song about positivity. I probably shouldn't have had to look back this far for something of this kind in mainstream, but hey... we know where the industry is. If you had to choose two emcees of today to remake this, who would they be?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chronixx Takes Me Somewhere: A New King of Reggae

I was introduced to Chronixx by a guy I liked who loved reggae. I have never really been into reggae, and my only references before meeting this guy were Shabba Ranks, Bob Marley, and Buju Banton. This guy I liked would send me love songs, but they were ALL reggae. I would laugh, but after really listening, I started to like Chronixx more than the guy. Usually, when it doesn't work out with a guy, the music he may have introduced me to is the FIRST THING I discard. It sounds crazy because I'm a musician... why would I ever discard music? Yeah... Chronixx was the first time I couldn't escape my love of the music, so I had to figure out a different way to deal with it not working out with the guy. Funny enough, I got over it by listening to Chronixx MORE! I played "They Don't Know" relentlessly and sung it until my throat was raw. Last night, I ventured out alone to a Chronixx concert at The New Parish in Oakland, crossing the final hump in getting over said guy (he was supposed to take me for my birthday last year, and flaked). Some busta wasn't gonna stop me from seeing my new reggae boo. So I took my divine self, with my fresh braids and maroon lipstick, into a smoke filled room, filled with rastas and of course Oakland's newest gentrifiers and awaited Chronixx.

Unlike many artists, who I feel choose mediocre to weak openers in hopes that they feel better, his openers were very good and helped get the energy up in the room for his performance. Kelissa was first up, and the first thing I noticed about her was that her outfit was nothing special. She had on an outfit that most of us would wear to the grocery store or to have coffee with a friend. When she was singing, I understood. Who cares about the accoutrements, when we're all there for the same thing? Music. That was a trend that followed with the other opener and with Chronixx. I liked her songs, and the only feedback I would give is that she either needs to project more or make sure that her mic is hotter when performing. Same thing with the background singers.

Next up was Keznamdi, who lives in Berkeley! He sung with so much passion and furor that he instantly made me a fan. The feeling that these artists were all about their music really shined through during the performances, and Keznamdi's energy was a perfect prelude to the headliner.

Finally, it was time for the king. He emerged doing songs not so familiar to me, but that still jammed. I was waiting to hear songs like, "Rain Music," and my all time Chronixx favorite, "Somewhere." When he got to those... I was definitely yelling (but now louder than the annoying guy next to me lol). What I liked is that he didn't just do the songs exactly the way that they sound on the records. He slowed Somewhere down to almost a ballad. I was upstairs swooning, y'all! Now, normally, when I go to shows with famous folks, I toss one of my cds on stage (hey, no shame in my game). Last night, I was so entranced, I forgot, and jetted right after to get out of the smoke cloud I had been in for the past two or three hours. I would definitely see Chronixx again, and am glad some busta introduced me to him.

Chronixx has a new album out, "Dread & Terrible," available on iTunes, Google Play, and in stores.

I wouldn't say I'm becoming a reggae head, but the same guy also introduced me to Tarrus Riley! Have you guys heard his song, "Superman?" THE JAM! Give me a few more months, I'll be all caught up on this reggae thing...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Black Love & Music | Once Upon a Love with Jahi, Antique's Freedom Song, and my Top 5 Love Songs

I met Jahi years ago, when he was working with One Fam Radio and they recorded me opening for Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), doing a poem at a political event. That was almost eight years ago. Since then, Jahi has consistently added meaningful art to the genre of hip-hop and this past weekend, he released a collection of love songs that he's recorded over the years.

It's a brief project, but perfect to ride in your car to. Some of my favorites are "Coast," which samples Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat." It could be that I was sleeping, but this isn't a side I've seen from the emcee, so it's nice to see that stretch. I also really dig "For Lovers Only," as the production is reminiscent of that great, soulful hip-hop that transitions well into a live performance.

Emceeing as a craft since 1982, and professionally since 1999, you may recognize Jahi as a part of PE 2.0 (the second iteration of Public Enemy). Citing a 15 year mentor relationship with the legendary hip-hop leader Chuck D, Jahi says he released a love project because it's something Public Enemy hasn't done.
"I'm a cultural warrior and a lover. [I released] a love album because Black Love Matters."
Check out "Once Upon a Love" on Bandcamp.

Antique recently returned from a tour in Ghana, where she recorded a lot of music, including this newest single, "Freedom Song (This Song)." I like this song because I hear her stretch out vocally a lot on this. The production quality is also high, and of course, the lyrics are socially relevant and give historical context to our present state as a people. Listen here & keep up with Antique this month during the Life Is Loving Festival, curated by her and her husband, Hodari Davis. The Davises are also a part of the Black Love Heck Yeah campaign, so stay tuned for their episode!

And in the ongoing spirit of love, check out my Top 5 Favorite Love Songs!

5. I, Who Have Nothing, Shirley Bassey

3. All I Do, Stevie Wonder

2. I Know You, I Live You, Chaka Khan

1. Star of the Story, Heatwave

Monday, February 9, 2015

GRAMMYs Recap: The Legacy of Ledisi and Basic Beyoncé

It's always amazing to see a deserving artist finally get their due, as her sisters look on knowingly in pride and awe. Last night, Ledisi was recognized by the world for her tremendous gift, on stage opening for Common and John Legend, as the transformative voice who sung "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," while playing the legendary Mahalia Jackson in Ava Duvernay's acclaimed movie, "Selma." Ledisi received what seemed like a ten minute standing ovation for her soulful and pitch-perfect rendition of the tune. OH, WAIT. THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN. SOMEONE DECIDED TO WHORIDE ON LEDISI'S MOMENT. Who was it? None other than the Queen of Pop-shade, Mrs. Shawn Carter.

I'll admit it. I'm not a huge Bey-stan, like a lot of people I know. She has a great voice, a disappointing catalog (to me), but is a phenomenal entertainer. That said, the fact that she would actually CALL Johnnyboo and Common and ASK to open what CLEARLY is Ledisi's song at this juncture was classless and showed a blatant lack of sisterhood and a serious lack of leadership. After all, leaders know when to step up and when to step back. We did not need Bey to save the hymnal day. We did not want her. We wanted the soul stirring, shoulder shaking, pull-out-my-funeral-home-church-fan and make me stank face til my face is stuck like that Ledisi! Ledisi remained classy throughout the entire situation, but I also take pause and subtract cool points for the way Johnnyboo and Common did not stand up for her. Johnnyboo's weak response of,  "You don't really say no to Beyoncé..." can miss me. Boy, BYE. I will conclude this by saying that I feel, at the very least, Ledisi received small vindication in the complete basicness of Bey's performance. Bey... GIRL... that growl got you nowhere tonight, but we do have an unlimited amount of seats for your use, backstage. Have any one of them.

A sweet surprise tonight was Usher's dedication to my all time favorite, Stevie Wonder, singing his rendition of If It's Magic. I'm ALWAYS worried when Usher decides to sing live, as he has a penchant for either trying to move too much and losing the right key or his ballads without movement being a snooze fest. He managed to avoid both tonight, and gave a memorable performance of the song, being joined by Stevie playing a harmonica solo at the end. Kudos, Ush. We love ya. Now hurry up with that album!


I've been pretty underwhelmed by Sam Smith, since being introduced to him. Four Grammys, really? Meh...

Pharrell, we still don't forgive you for biting Marvin Gaye, and your vapid 3-second hands up moment just poured salt in the wound. Also, stop with the shorts with suits, my dude. You're a grown man.


 Kanye, you PLAY TOO MUCH! That Record of the Year joke was funny and cute. Stay classy, Ye.

  NO SOUP FOR YOU, NESTHEAD! (Grammys, either).