Musical ‘Mates and Matters

December 24, 2011

The "A" Note, February 5, 2008. (Pearson Scott Foresman, via Wikipedia). In public domain.

If someone asked me what was the one thing that me and my classmates had in common during my middle school and high school years in Mount Vernon, New York, it would be a love of and for music. I wouldn’t have been able to draw this rather obvious conclusion five years ago. But, in the course of interviewing folks and writing and rewriting my Boy @ The Window manuscript since ’06, music seems to be the one common denominator that connected us all.

Take the fact that so many of my Class of ’87 classmates found their way into the underground or mainstream music scene over the past twenty-four years. At least one was a producer, a bunch rapped, played, sang, and danced their way into the industry, even if they’re not household names. Others did studio work, and at least two are doing music/sound work for the small and big screen.

These folks are Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino, so, no, race doesn’t seem to be a factor. Was it something that was in the water or in Mount Vernon’s lead water pipes? Not likely. It really couldn’t have been instilled in us by Humanities, or going to Davis, Nichols or Mount Vernon High School, right? The official doctrine of the powers that were would’ve made our favorite music somewhere between Sinatra and Tchaikovsky.

It could be as simple and as complicated as the times we grew up in, the fellow travelers to which we were

Culture Club "Club Sandwich Tour" poster, September 27, 2011. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject of blog post.

exposed, the constant noise that was Mount Vernon public schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Living in a city in the early stages of decline, within shouting distance of Manhattan and a short walk to the Bronx. Having the level of Black and Brown diversity that we had, with a decent sized White minority in the school system, may be all that was needed to create the conditions for music to be our one common language.

It wasn’t just in my class, as the classes of ’85 and ’86 turned out the late Heavy D and Al B. Sure. Nor was it just in Mount Vernon’s public schools. There was something about Mount Vernon itself, a painful place for some, a cool and pleasureful one for others, that made music both a code for coolness and an escape from reality.

For my specific groups of Humanities nerds, renaissance folks and generally sharp classmates, though, the tastes ranged and even mingled. For the guidos and guidettes whom I labeled “The Italian Club,” the music was decidedly “White.” From “A” serenading 7S with The Police’s “Roxanne” ala Eddie Murphy, to the frequent blaring of Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen and Foreigner from turbo-charged Camaros and Mustangs.

The Time promotional poster, circa 1990, July 6, 2006. (Mista Tee, via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject matter for blog post.

Then the was the obviously cool Black and Afro-Caribbean, with a clique for every occasion, whose music was also obviously “Black.” Teena Marie, pre-”Material Girl” Madonna, Phyllis Hyman, Prince, Luther Vandross, Doug E. Fresh, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Run-DMC, if it was Black and cool, they listened to it, and knew the exact date the new album would hit the stores. They drove around in their Nissan Maximas, Audis and old Cadillacs with this mesh of R&B, early rap and hip-hop, and crossover pop pumping out of their tinted windows.

Of course, that left the rest of us, the few who seemed to like a bit of everything. Crush #1 and Depeche Mode. Brandie Weston and her clique’s love of Boy George and Culture Club. V’s commitment to Billy Joel, at least a decade and a half too young to understand the full meaning of what we’d now call adult contemporary. Not to mention The Police, Sting, The Who, Rolling Stones, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears for Fears, a-ha, and so many others. But it didn’t stop there. For we, too, liked Luther, and Billy Idol, and John Coltrane, and Lisa Lisa, and Run.

I don’t know if my musical tastes were the most eclectic of all, or if mine remain so. But I can say this. I ran 4.75 miles yesterday, listening to Genesis’ “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” (album version), Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” U2′s “Beautiful Day,” Grover Washington Jr’s “Summer Chill,” Stevie Wonder’s “As,” Sting’s “A Thousand Years,” and Enigma’s “Silence Must Be Heard” along the way. It seems that I’ve always had a song in my head and theme music in my heart for every situation and every period of my life. For better and for worse, I have to give Mount Vernon credit for that, if for nothing else.


Faces At The Top Of The Well

October 8, 2011

Signed Copy of Faces at the Bottom of the Well, October 8, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

In a twenty-four hour span on Wednesday, three American giants died. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the ultimate Civil Rights activist, had been reported dead first by mid-afternoon on the fifth. Then, in quick succession the media reported two other deaths. Apple co-founder, two-time CEO and 300+ patents Steve Jobs passed around 7 pm. While Civil Rights activist, law professor, critical race theorist and best-selling author Derrick Bell also passed that evening, very quietly.

The media — social, cable and otherwise — dutifully dedicated itself to rolling out every author and person connected to Jobs the Visionary, Jobs the Thomas Edison of the Information Age, Jobs the Innovative Entrepreneur. By 9:30 pm, even my ambivalence about Jobs the Capitalist (as tweeted @decollins1969)  would’ve been seen as heretical by the folks whom Jobs had fired over the years, or had their jobs outsourced to China in the past ten years.

No doubt that Steve Jobs, my he rest in peace, was a sort-of Wizard of Menlo Park, California (really, Silicon Valley, but taking poetic license here). But, as much as I love my MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iMovie and iPhoto, and other Apple products I’ve used since I wrote an AP English paper on an Apple IIe my senior year at Mount Vernon High School in ’87. I didn’t get this outpouring of love and sorrow two days ago.

Then it occurred to me that I was watching two stories. One story was of a generation that saw Jobs as the man who fused technological innovation with cultural relevancy, the folks who grew up while Jobs was in the midst of his second coming at Apple. As he remade the niche company into the largest corporation (more or less) in the world. The other story is the media story, the Baby Boomer story of a cultural rebel who made good as an Information Age capitalist while maintaining his Zen-ness, an ultimate cultural outsider-corporate insider.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at Ohio Civil Rights Commission Hall of Fall Dinner, October 2009. In public domain.

As much as I think people should admire the late Steve Jobs — and there’s quite a bit to admire about his life — there’s so much more to admire about Shuttlesworth and Bell. Shuttlesworth survived multiple attempts on his life, was threatened too many times to count, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 (along with MLK and others) and helped lead the campaign to integrate Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, among many accomplishments. Rev. Shuttlesworth literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for civil rights and equality, but I didn’t see anyone put a candle on an iPad for him Wednesday night.

Bell, well, I’m a bit more biased about Professor Bell. I met him two years before he published Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Bell gave a talk at the University of Pittsburgh Law School (his JD alma mater) in October ’90 on his essay “The Racial Preference Licensing Act,” one that would end up in the book. The idea that racist businesses could opt out of an integrated America by buying a license and paying a race tax in order to deliberately bar Blacks and others of color from their services and jobs, I thought that was truly radical. The slightly older Pitt Law students, Black and White, were up in arms. One went so far as to suggest that Bell was somehow now working for the other side, those who’d like to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow.

Through it all, Professor Bell just smiled and joked, and most of all, explained. His story about this Act was a way of getting ahead of the tide of politicians and judges that had been eroding Black gains since the mid-1970s, of moving beyond the crucible of the Civil Rights era — integration at any cost. Bell wasn’t suggesting self-segregation. He was hoping to provoke a larger discussion of the kind of equality Blacks and progressives should hope to achieve in a post-Civil Rights era. One in which all deny racism and racial inequality, but put it in practice in their words and actions every day.

Derrick Bell by David Shankbone, August 2007. Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.

Bell’s ambivalence about the achievements of his generation, about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, about desegregation, made him the target of traditional Civil Rights royalty — the “How dare you!” crowd. But it made me and many others from the generation that actually remembers the Steve Jobs as the guy that co-built the world’s first personal computer in his garage big fans of Professor Bell.

To turn your back on three decades’ worth of struggle and success because you foresaw the coming storm around race. To bridge the divide between Baby Boomers/ the Civil Rights generation and us post-Civil Rights folks by turning complex legal theories into allegorical stories. To take a stand that costs you your job at Harvard Law to ensure that the next Asian American female candidate would be given a real chance at a job. Bell’s my hero, and I don’t have a lot of people I’d call a hero.

The media might have put Bell and Shuttlesworth at the bottom of their news cycle well — no doubt, race and the media’s consistent attempt to ignore race was a factor here — but it’s up to all of us that they are winched out of that well to the top. And I think that Jobs would agree with that. May they all RIP.

Apple logo, Think Different, 1997. (Source/TBWA\Chiat\Day). In public domain


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