Separating The Musical Wheat From The -ism/-phobic Chaff

November 25, 2013

Separating chaff (left hand) from wheat (right hand), November 25, 2013. (

Separating chaff (left hand) from wheat (right hand), November 25, 2013. (

Back in April, I managed to get myself into a Twitter argument with @BlkLibraryGirl over Rick Ross and Lil Wayne’s releases and the misogynistic, gang-rape-advocating lyrics that came with them. The problem was, she was in the midst of a long rant (which I didn’t realize at the time), and you should never interject into someone else’s Twitter rant unless you’re nodding your head in agreement. At least without going through their entire Twitter timeline first.

In response to another luminary on Twitter, @BlkLibraryGirl tweeted

But it’s not just Rick Ross’s rape lyrics. The entire Hip Hop genre is rape culture. Is somebody going to talk about that?:)

I specifically said that this strain of rape as/is okay is one that has deep roots in American culture, and in African American notions of masculinity specifically, which led to a barrage of tweets from @BlkLibraryGirl about how Rick Ross’ lyrics + ten-year-old Black boys = Black boys thinking that raping Black women is perfectly okay. And that I was okay with these lyrics, too.

Rick Ross, absolutely disgusting, September 30, 2013. (

Rick Ross, absolutely disgusting, September 30, 2013. (

She obviously not only missed my point. She didn’t care what my point was in the first place. But that’s an issue of the limits of being able to communicate complex ideas and emotions on Twitter, not to mention the larger issue of etiquette. @BlkLibraryGirl is but one example of the steady and growing criticism of rap/hip-hip as the source of all our cultural ills, -isms and -phobias. It’s the idea that a kid will watch a video and listen to lyrics, and with zombie-like reactions, act out the lyrics and the video as if they don’t have a mind and guidance systems in their lives to stop them from being Rick Ross’ and Lil Wayne’s puppets.

For those of you who know me or this blog, the one thing that should be obvious is that while my music tastes are eclectic, my rap music list in particular is a small one. I didn’t like much of the little bit of rap I heard growing up, got into it a bit in the ’87-’97 years, and have liked almost none of it over the past decade. I’ve never liked Jay Z, found 50 Cent to be about a notch and a half above Biz Markie, and still think Eminem is the best lyricist in the game today, despite the fact he is as homophobic and (at times) misogynistic as they come.

So while these fools will never win the Social Justice Music Awards, they do have the right to put out their schlock, to write lyrics filled with hate and angst, to play with tired stereotypes and archetypes in their music and videos. And we have the right to critique, to not buy, to provide ourselves and our kids with the wisdom necessary to see through the smokescreen of big business making big bucks off of rap/hip-hop “artists” who present themselves as little more than stereotypical Bucks themselves.

But let’s also not get carried away here, either. Last I checked, didn’t the rap I listened to in college contain some similar themes? Geto Boys “Gotta Let A Ho Be A Ho” and PE’s “the parts don’t fit” line from one of their raps on their Fear of a Black Planet album (both from ’90) come to mind. What about “running the train” lyrics from the late Notorious BIG or Tupac’s (perhaps the greatest poet/rap lyricist ever) works? How come critics of today’s rap and hip-hop game don’t go after the moguls and producers that make Rick Ross and Lil Wayne possible, folks like Sean “Whatever his nickname is now” Combs, Jay-Z, Sony Music Group or BMI?

Or, given my eclectic tastes, why limit this strain of cultural ugliness to rap and hip-hop? Why not be historical for a moment and go after Prince’s and Rick James’ sexist lyrics of the early-’80s, or the Ohio Players and The Jammers of the ’70s? Or, for that matter, R. Kelly in the ’90s and early ’00s? Why should we even limit this to R&B or hip-hop, as music is a universal — and not a neatly separated — language? What about Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” or the White male angst and violence embedded in honky-tonk, hard-core heavy metal and grunge?

Fans protest Michael Jackson's innocence in the child molestation scandal, Paris, France, December 17, 2003. (Rafael Rozendaal via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

Fans protest Michael Jackson’s innocence in the child molestation scandal, Paris, France, December 17, 2003. (Rafael Rozendaal via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

Oh, I get it. Hip-hop’s a globally-dominant cultural and musical phenomenon, which means it could bring tens of millions more folks outside the US into our -isms and -gynys. But, has there ever been an individual in the musical world more culturally transcendent than Michael Jackson? You know, the guy who faced two trials in the ’90s and ’00s over child molestation charges? The man who struggled with identity issues — racial ones  included — for the bulk of his adult life before dying in June ’09? What do we do about the couple of billion people Jackson influenced beyond his lyrics, especially since child molestation must be as common as the common cold?

We should critique and advocate as much as we can over the sexism and misogyny, homophobia and racism, colorism and ignorance contained in the lyrics and videos of artists from Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Nelly and DMX and so many others. But let’s not act as if this is a new thing, a strictly hip-hop and rap thing. This is an American thing. So why act surprised when it shows up in rap music videos and in lyrics?

As for me, I chose to enjoy Michael Jackson’s music and PE’s other lyrics even in the face of the contradictions between their lyrics and behaviors. I think that most hip-hop lovers — even those impressionable ten-year-old Black boys — will do the same. If I’m wrong, then the Apocalypse has truly arrived.

Shawn of the Dead (2004) pic, as used in Philadelphia Daily News, June 4, 2012. (John Baer).

Shawn of the Dead (2004) pic, as used in Philadelphia Daily News, June 4, 2012. (John Baer).

The Road to Boy @ The Window, Part 4: Fear of a “Black” America

September 26, 2013


Given that Fear of a “Black” America was my first book, but one based on my doctoral dissertation, and that Boy @ The Window is a memoir, the road from one to the other may not be that obvious with an initial glance. But despite the intellectual, semi-scholarly nature of my book on Blacks and multiculturalism, there are parallel themes that run between Fear of a “Black” America and Boy @ The Window. Perhaps none are more important, though, than the challenge of authenticity, of fitting in, of being able to mesh the complicated onion that I’ve found myself to be over the years.

I think that was why I decided in November ’98 to turn my dissertation “A Substance of Things Hoped For” into a more readable book. Yes, after all that work to write a 505-page thesis, it would’ve been a shame to just let it sit on my then girlfriend’s coffee table, to be used either as a door stop or a base for her doing her nails. Yes, I still had something to prove to academia. That my scholarship as a historian and educator on the issue of multiculturalism was sound. That the conventional academic wisdom around Blacks, people of color and multiculturalism was paternalistic fear-mongering.

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

And in thinking that last part through, I came up with my Public Enemy-inspired title and thread for the first book. It was about fear in many forms. Elite White fears of a majority-people-of-color US within their own lifetimes. Conservative fears of a K-16 education system that included the cultural and historical perspectives of peoples of color, of the poor, of women, of the LGBT, of so many others they’d rather discard. General American skepticism that any Blacks had ever given any thought at all to cultural pluralism, intercultural education, or multiculturalism/multicultural education, at least before White theorists had thought through these ideas first.

Afrocentrists and nationalists who thought of multiculturalism as soft and utterly unrepresentative of the Black experience — or, at least, what they considered an authentic version thereof? That was as difficult a challenge as any I faced in writing both my dissertation and Fear of a “Black” America. So much so that I made a few interesting decisions along the way. I sought out an agent — yes, a literary agent — for the first book, and found one, too (things were so much easier in ’99). I wanted the book to have an impact beyond academia.

In the writing process, I decided to weave the theme of fear, skepticism, willful and inadvertent misunderstandings throughout the 200-page book. All while covering Black intellectual thought about what we now call Afrocentricity and multiculturalism, Black activism and activities around education and Negro History Week, and the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. All to show that multiculturalism was/is a part of America’s evolution, even if some folks are gnashing their teeth and wearing sackcloth and ashes along the way.

One thing was missing, though, from my six chapters. Me, in a word. Yes, my argument was crystal clear, my evidence was sound, my notes and analysis lined up well enough by the summer of ’00. Yet, as my one-time agent noted, “there’s not enough of you in this manuscript.”  Bottom line: folks weren’t going to buy the book unless I made it more compelling, which meant putting something of me or about me in it.

So I did. I wrote mostly about my experiences in academia and how they paralleled with some of the critical issues in Fear of a “Black” America. I talked about my Duquesne University students in the College of Education in ’98 and ’99, most of whom were cultural conservatives. I brought up conversations I had with professors skeptical about my scholarship, like Richard Altenbaugh in March ’98 or my former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter in April ’96. I also wrote about my conversation with Estelle Abel over my lack of authenticity as a young Black man in June ’87, having thought about it for the first time in thirteen years. I wasn’t sure if that made Fear of a “Black” America any better, but it made me feel better about my first book.

By the time I’d given my agent the final draft of Fear of a “Black” America in October ’00, I was ready — maybe for the first time in years — to take a look at my life before Pitt, grad school, Spencer Fellowship and becoming Dr. Collins. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open up the emotional side of that Pandora’s box just yet. But in some ways, I really needed to, precisely because of my experiences with people in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. And precisely because of my occasional moments of rage and overreaction, if only because Fear of a Black “America” helped me tap into emotions I didn’t know I had.

Time, Love & Goofy-ness

July 21, 2011

Time, Love & Tenderness Album Cover, July 18, 2009. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Sometimes I have no choice but to confirm how weird I am. Especially when it comes to what moves me, including in my choices of music. It wasn’t hard for me to become a Michael Bolton fan when his first solo album dropped in ’87. “That’s What Love Is All About,” a minor hit, was something I enjoyed then, but appreciate much more now as a married man than I possibly could’ve as a freshman at Pitt. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” well, that’s another story. It’s a fine cover version (something that Bolton grew all too fond of doing in the late-’90s), but nothing will ever replace the Otis Redding original.

The summer of  ’91 was the clincher for me regarding Bolton and other artists from that period. I was in the midst of getting over myself getting over E (see “The Power of Another E” posting from April 2009) when I first heard Bolton’s “Time, Love and Tenderness.” 02 Time, Love and Tenderness.wma I was on my way home from work at Western Psych that hot and sweaty July evening, walking at Warp 3 like I always did back then when the local pop station began playing the song. I also knew the moment I heard it how schmaltzy it was. But it was exactly what I needed to hear and at the time I needed to hear it. I fell in love with the song immediately, and would eventually by the album. “Time, Love and Tenderness” remained one of my pre-iTunes playlist songs for the next three years.
Thus began a year-long odyssey of inviting new music into my life, music that would represent the more adult, contemporary, cool, eclectic and schmaltzy graduate school me. Bolton’s Time, Love and Tenderness album was just the first step. The months of July and August ’91 included music from Seal

My iPod, July 21, 2011 (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Every song named here is on it, but rarely do I play them consecutively.

(“Crazy” — I’ll talk about more in another post), Lenny Kravitz (“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”), Vanessa Williams (“Comfort Zone”), and Mariah Carey (“Make It Happen”). Not to mention PE (“Can’t Truss It”), Naughty By Nature (O.P.P.), and Boyz II Men. It was the beginning of a new period of music experimentation for me, all caused by me tiring of being the odd wheel in a sea of dating friends.

It was the early ’90s, and I could already see how much music was changing. Fewer synthesizers, a faster more rhythmic pace, a much greater fusion of genres and styles. Heavy metal was morphing into grunge and White booty-call songs were turning into passion tales of White male (and female) angst. Whitney Houston’s music was becoming hip, and Michael Jackson was steadily making himself less popular. With me weeks away from beginning grad school, I felt like I’d found theme music that would fit nicely with my times.
Within a year and a master’s degree of “Time, Love and Tenderness,” I would add Grover Washington, Jr. and Jon Secada to my growing and eclectic music collection. Jon Secada? For many fans of the Miami Sound Machine (Gloria Estefan, et al.) not to mention various subgenres of Latino music and Latino fusion, Secada might as well have been Neil Diamond or Michael Bolton. But for me, it gave me a window into other forms of music that I didn’t have or understand before. The dogged and soaring passion with which Secada sang his “Just Another Day” I’d only heard in gospel or with divas like Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and — in the first two years of the ’90s — Mariah Carey. Men didn’t sing like that, certainly not in pop music!
I became enthralled with Secada and Bolton, Grover and Mariah, so much so that I continued to branch out. Coltrane, Celine Dion, The Cranberries, Sarah McLachlan, Pearl Jam, Tupac, grunge, world music, New Age — Deep Forest, Enya, Enigma — along with neo-soul — Maxwell and Erykah Badu — were all in my collection by the time I finished grad school.
Still, I needed my schmaltz, and I still do. Michael Bolton, for all of his vanity and overestimation of his voice (he’s done duets with Patti LaBelle and Celine Dion, for goodness sake’s), has been a part of my musical memory for twenty-two years. “Time, Love and Tenderness,” for all of its ’80s-esque quirks, is by far my favorite song by Bolton. It made the second half of the summer of ’91 not only bearable, but fun. It reminded me of how innocent I still was, of how it was a must that I keep my heart open to the possibility of love, even though I would undoubtedly get hurt from time to time.
Life is like that sometimes, and in my case, most of the time. I find myself learning more from loss, more determined because of betrayal and more committed when others tell me I can’t do something, like earning an advanced degree or doing a job successfully. For those times, schmaltzy music is often where I revert to for strength and encouragement, for the ability to move forward.

GOP/TPers’ Theme Music for Election 2012

May 30, 2011

Huckabee with Ted Nugent on guitar, Huckabee Show, FOX News Channel, May 14, 2011. Source:

Ever since Mike Huckabee announced that he wasn’t running for POTUS in the Election ’12 cycle (after playing chords with Ted Nugent), I’ve been thinking about an appropriately snarky and sarcastic way to understand the GOP/Tea Party candidacy process. It’s been a bit confusing. Between Trump and Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, Pawlenty and Romney, Palin and Bachmann, I’d have a hard time finding a candidate I’d vote for even if I were a true American conservative.

But I do know what would help. Theme music to get our juices flowin’, to rile us up about how excited we should be that among these candidates is a challenger worthy of President Barack Obama. Heck, it’s worked before. Ed Meese and Don Regan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” as theme music in ’84. This despite the fact that these were protests songs of an America anti-common man and pro-war.

GOP/TPers can do the same in ’12. Here’s a list of songs to usurp — oops, I mean use — between now and November 6 of next year.

1. Genesis, “Illegal Alien” (1983), as in, “It’s no fun/being an illegal alien” — especially if the GOP/TPers take over in ’12.

2. James Blunt, “No Bravery” (2005), a truthful description of what it takes to run on the GOP/TP ticket, i.e., no independent thought.

3. ABC, “How To Be A Millionaire” (1985), which should be retitled, “How To Be A Billionaire,” since that’s the ultimate goal of the leaders of the GOP – “a million is not enough” could be the party’s new slogan.

4. U2, “Crumbs From Your Table,” (2004), which, if these folks are elected next year, will be all we’ll have to eat by the ’16 election cycle.

Crumbs on my table, courtesy of Noah's old elephant and a Lipton tea bag wrapped around trunk, May 30, 2011. Donald Earl Collins.

5. Chicago, “Hard Habit To Break,” (1984), especially in the refrain, “I’m addicted to you,” meaning easy money from top 1%, debt and low taxes, and oil, oh, sweet crude oil!

6. The Cranberries, “Zombie,” (1994), the sincerest hope of the GOP/TPers when it comes to what’s left of our voting populace.

Herman Cain, They Think You're Stupid Book Cover (more like We Think You're Stupid), 2009. Source: National Black Republican Association,

7. Al Green, “One Of These Good Old Days,” (1972), a tribute to the way the Party of Corporations wants things to be for rich – it’s their climax song!

8. Prince, “1999,” (1983), except they would definitely change it to “1899,” the height of affluent largesse, corporate greed and monopoly-building (until the ’00s), and acceptable racism.

9. Creed, “My Own Prison,” (1997), one of the ultimate dreams of the GOP/TPers, that we’d build our own prisons and then put ourselves in them so they don’t have to worry about job creation.

10. Grover Washington, Jr., “Summer Chill,” (1992), what the party hopes their paid-off scientists can “prove” in a new study funded by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Scaife Foundations, making “Drill, baby, drill” a reality in ANWR.

11. Public Enemy, “Welcome To The Terrordome,” (1989), most likely would be used by the GOP/TPers to promote gladiator-like games as a way to bring the unemployment rate down for those they can’t get to build their own prisons.

12. Sade, “The Sweetest Taboo,” (1985), a tribute to all of their in the closet and anti-gay party members willing to sacrifice the civil and human rights of LGBT Americans everywhere for a seat in Washington.

13. Maxwell, “…Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” (1996), the general plan for all elected GOP/TPers until they’re caught in illegal activities.

In addition, there’s Alexander O’Neal’s “When The Party’s Over” (1987), another example of what would happen to us, our country and our world if the GOP/TPers reclaimed and remained in charge. They’d suck the bottom ninety-nine percent of us dry until the good times are over, and then blame us for not letting them steal the plumbing, too. Please add to this list. I could’ve created an iPod list of a hundred appropriate songs, but fourteen’s just a start. Eat your heart out, Ted Nugent!

This Thing Called Rap

October 30, 2010

Snap - I've Got The Power Screenshot, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

At nearly forty-one, I ultimately don’t care what anyone thinks about my musical tastes. I haven’t cared for years. Heck, I make fun of some of the stuff I still listen to. Some of it’s deserved, but much of it’s a function of the music segregation that’s part of the cultural segregation that still exists in this country we call America.

Like most growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was introduced to rap in late-’79 by the Sugar Hill Gang “Rapper’s Delight,” rap lyrics with Chic’s “Good Times” — a disco hit the year before — as the background music. I got to see a rap venue once growing up, the following summer at Van Courtland Park in the Bronx. Back then, me and my Holmes Elementary School friends weren’t sure if rap was much more than a curiosity or fad, or would be here to last.

Who knows if the Hebrew-Israelite years or Humanities or just having parents who’d barely made it out of the ’60s music-wise had anything to do with it, but the years between ’81 and ’84 were lost ones as far as rap was concerned. I heard more classical than probably any other genre in middle school, thanks mostly to our wacko music teacher Mrs. Mallory. We didn’t have cable, and me listening to the radio at 616 wasn’t permitted unless it was religious programming. I caught pieces of music from videos on ABC on Saturdays sometimes, from my nearly daily runs to C-Town, and from my classmates and their conversations.

That was until I rebelled in the summer of ’84.  Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis Blow. The whole Roxanne thing. That’s what I got to hear when I began to turn the radio dial to WBLS-FM and a couple of other stations in ’84 and ’85. Of course, Run-D.M.C. Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, and early LL Cool J would all hit the scene in the two years that followed.

But unlike my other Black male classmates, I didn’t take a liking to most rap. And that made me wack. I was preoccupied with escaping 616, trying to find my true self, with succeeding and surviving Humanities and high school. Chasing skirts, trying to one-up and put down those around me, going to Mount Vernon Knight basketball games and hanging out on weekends? That wasn’t me, and the rap of those times didn’t have much of me in them. To think that a quarter-century ago, rap lyrics that referred to neighborhoods in the Bronx, Harlem or Brooklyn hardly ever commented on bling or blight — especially the blight — shows how far the genre had to grow in ’85.

PE, October 30, 2010. Source:

It took college and Public Enemy for me to fully appreciate rap and its power and popularity. It took PE and KRS-One and Arrested Development for rap to do something that all of the other music I listened to had done. They made me think. They touched my mind and my heart. The anger and rage of their rap other ’90s rap finally matched the early music of U2 and the romance of love balled R&B. I finally felt like the game had gotten serious, enough for me to pay attention.

Then the whole fake East Coast-West Coast crap of Tupac and B.I.G. came along to ruin rap for me again. What were they doing and thinking? Really, would Pearl Jam and Creed threaten to kill each other in order to promote their music? It was “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. It took me a few years after Tupac’s death to come back to him, his contradictions and his poetry as rap.

Hate to say it, but only Eminem has picked up where Tupac left off since ’97 — and he’s just as contradictory. I’ve never really liked Jay-Z. Not because I don’t see the talent or can’t bump to the music.

Kanye West Album Art, October 30, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

But because until recently, his words never made me think, never gave me anything to feel at all. His music reminded me of why I didn’t like rap in the mid-’80s. It was cotton candy rap, the kind my superficially cool Black male classmates liked. Nas may be the most talented one of them all, but seems almost tormented between being a slut (this is a gender-neutral term for me) and being a soothsayer.

I find the music that is hip-hop and rap today wanting, with the same tired themes, with about as much originality as a ’60s radical patting themselves on their backs for striking a blow against “the man.” After three decades, the genre’s come full circle. I want to listen and learn. But I don’t think that the folks who step to the mike now are worth listening to or learning from.

By The Time I Get To Arizona

August 28, 2010

Immigrant Rights Rally, Los Angeles, May 2010. Photo credit Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

An old high school friend of my wife’s pulled me into a debate about the Arizona immigration law (currently under appeal in federal court) the other day. Although neither of us disagreed that the US needs better policies and enforcement around undocumented people, his approach was somewhere between the old Fugitive Slave Laws of the nineteenth century and apartheid in South Africa. He all but let corporate greed, malfeasance, and economic exploitation, the root cause of this issue, off the hook.

So, in honor of Public Enemy, I’ve named this post “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” hoping that our country hasn’t gotten all the way there yet, between Arizona’s immigration law, the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, and Glenn Beck. But in case it has, I’m posting a combination of my responses to my wife friend about how unconstitutional, racist and fear-confirming this response is.

“In the case of the Arizona law, the only way it would work is if one were to profile a particular group in order to enforce it. The idea that anyone without papers could be arrested and potentially deported means that if the law was practiced at random, someone White, Black or otherwise a likely American citizen could be caught up in a grave law enforcement error, leading to controversies and lawsuits. But if the focus is on Mexicans, Salvadorans and Latin Americans most likely to emigrate to the US, then it would work the way in which it’s intended.

The law was made with the Mexican border in mind. It wasn’t made to stop Russians or Canadians from coming into the US – we’d have more immigration enforcement at airports, ports, and the US-Canada border if that were the case. Bottom line is, laws like this don’t get made to stop groups that aren’t of color from using services or exercise what have been presumed to be their rights once on American soil.

But beyond this point is this simple reality. Whether it’s the 14th Amendment, requiring papers for undocumented people, or denying kids financial aid for college because their parents are undocumented, the fact is that a particular group of people are having all kinds of rights denied. The law granting citizenship rights to anyone born on American soil was originally used to make 4 million freed persons and 200,000 free persons — Black folks — American citizenship. It also gave the sons and daughters of European immigrants — who weren’t illegal even though millions of them came without papers (i.e., “Wop” [without papers] Italians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, etc.) citizenship rights and a simple process for naturalization.

These laws would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to denying Latin American immigrants (legal and otherwise) and Latinos born in the US what all of us expect to take for granted, especially freedom of movement. This isn’t all that different from when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, denying the Chinese immigration rights and the Chinese that were already here citizenship and ownership rights for more than sixty years, or from Fugitive Slave laws passed between 1793 and 1850, which required free Blacks to carry their freedom papers wherever they went. If this isn’t at all about racism attached to the serious issue of immigration control but minus the issue of economic exploitation, then why the need to concentrate on supply (the undocumented) rather than demand?

Until we deal with the heart of the problem — companies exploiting desperate immigrants (legal and

undocumented) for profit — we’ll continue to make bad and downright racist law around this. Since we think that corporations have no responsibilities in all this, they get off the hook for creating this situation, while poor people get labeled as if they’re roaches.”

One other thing. Glenn Beck’s in DC today dishonoring MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention progressives across the board. To quote Chuck D and his crew, Beck “to be a goner,” though not necessarily with the blood-wrenching screams in the middle of “By The Time I Get To Arizona.” Otherwise, Arizona will be the most liberal state in an increasingly fearful, repressive and policed nation.

On Public Enemy and Eclectic Music

January 31, 2009

PE, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) Album Cover

Tomorrow’s an important milestone in my life. Nineteen years ago, I went to a Public Enemy concert with one of my Pitt friends. It was a Thursday evening engagement at the old Syria Mosque, a weird name for a place that was a entertainment hall, not a place of worship. I believe it was a Masonic temple, one located less than two blocks from Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning on Bigelow Blvd near or on Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t the beginning of my interest in hip-hop, my friendly date for that evening, or maintaining an eclectic sense of thought and style. But it confirmed in many ways how unbounded my mind was, regarding music and so much else.

I’m still amazed at times what I’ve come to like over the past three decades of almost continuous music consumption, as reflected when I allow my iPod to randomly select from some 1,300 songs. My home life at 616 wasn’t much of a guide. My mother liked Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations and The Four Tops. My idiot stepfather loved The Ohio Players and The Commodores. My alcoholic father was into anything that he could snap his fingers to off- rhythm, including Motown, and especially James Brown. I guess that makes sense, since Jimme and the Godfather of Soul spoke in the same incomprehensible cadence. For me, it all started with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy.” I just happened to catch it on the radio one day, it must have been on WBLS 107.5 FM, sometime in second grade, ’76-’77 for me. I loved the song, I don’t know why, but it was literally the first time I consciously came into contact with music.

Two years later, I had a much easier way of gaining exposure to music without waiting for my mother or stepfather to turn on my mother’s beat-up stereo system from her days with my father. One of the first things Jimme bought me and my brother Darren after we started our occasional weekend times with him was a small transistor radio. It had both FM and AM, which in the days of the late ’70s was a relatively new technology. Both me and my older brother would play around with the radio, but I used it more often. I eventually settled on two stations — WABC 77 AM and WBLS.

Because I had no immediate guide as to what to listen for, my criteria for music was to like whatever sounded good as it bounced around my ears and brain. Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, E ,W & F, Christopher Cross, Michael Jackson (the Off the Wall album), Stephanie Mills, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, The Commodores (post-funk — my stepfather made me sick of “Brickhouse“) and so on. I loved how WBLS signed off at the end of the night, with “Moody’s Mood for Love,” a song from the mid-’50, with the “there I go, there I go, there I go” refrain at the beginning of the song. Call me weird, but this is where my eclecticness started.

The summer of ’80, just before my mother and stepfather separated for the first time, we went to a concert in the park, somewhere in the Bronx, most likely Van Cortlandt Park between 242nd and 262nd. It was a rap concert, my first one, and it featured Sugar Hill Gang among others. I kind of liked it, especially since I couldn’t believe how quickly the rappers put words together in combination and in rhythm. It was as silly as it was profound, at least for me at ten. I liked it, but it wasn’t exactly playing on every radio station in New York. Even WBLS almost completely ignored rap in those days. My stepfather bought their album soon after that concert.

For the next year, my musical tastes continued to take shape, including Pink Floyd, Queen, Luther Vandross, REO Speedwagon, Kenny Rogers, Kenny Loggins, Genesis and Phil Collins, along with what I already liked. Then my stepfather came back into our lives with his Hebrew-Israelite religion, disrupting the songs in my head for a few years. My saving grace, in the weirdest of ways, was being in Humanities, the gifted track program in which I was enrolled for six years.

I’ve counted off numerous negatives about this program in this blog over the past nineteen months. One positive, though, at least for me, was the rich mix of pop culture in the classroom. I could vicariously keep up with music through the singing of classmates, the music that some of them would play on their radios, boom boxes, and their first Walkmans. I learned to despise The Who, like The Police, tune out the heavy metal, continue to feel ambivalent about rap, and wish I didn’t have to wait for my classmates or for a trip to a grocery store to keep up with music’s constant evolution. Much of the rest around my explorations of pop music and rock, of silliness and search for spiritual meaning, I’ve described in my previous postings.

Like many folks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I became caught up in this sense of affirming or reaffirming my sense of Blackness, of understanding my world through the lens of race, of attempting to make sense of Afrocentricity and how I fit or didn’t fit into it. One of my grad school friends tried to define this as a period of renewed Black pride, between roughly ’88 and ’92, with the rise of what he called “Afrocentric rap,” including Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Wu-Tang, and of course, PE. I think that’s a bit too cerebral, and that’s saying a lot. For me, it was a period of experimentation and discovery, between ’87 and ’95, when hip-hop evolved and devolved between socially-conscious messages, materialism, and socially-conscious messages through materialism. That’s what PE represented for me, even before I left for Pitt in ’87.

By the beginning of the new decade, the ’90s, I’d already been reconfiguring my inner and outer musical soundtrack for more than two years. I had already weeded out such wonderful artists and groups such as Thompson Twins, Starship, Glass Tiger (don’t ask), Whitney Houston (can’t listen to anything from her first two albums) and other things that one should only listen to while snorting coke. As soon as I found out that PE was coming to Pittsburgh to play songs from Fear of a Black Planet and from their other albums, I went over to Syria Mosque and snapped up two tickets, presuming I could get one of my friends to come with me to see them perform.

I knew who to ask and why. As much as any person over the years, this friend made me feel all right about my eclectic music tastes, partly because hers were almost as eclectic as my own. Other than my wife, who loves Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry along with Talib Kweli and Blind Willie Johnson (’20s era Blues), I can’t think of another person who’s influenced my musical likings more. I mean, how many Blacks did I know who both liked The Beatles and PE, unless they were artists like Doug E. Fresh or Grandmaster Flash?

It was a great concert, probably the best concert I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to all that many over the years). It made me realize that music was truly universal, that there was some merit to any music genre, no matter how silly, serious or scintillating. I felt connected again, in that music was about more than my enduring march of miracles and fantasies, of using it as an escape or as a way to motivate myself academically or otherwise. It was something to enjoy, to read into it as much or as little meaning as I wanted. It was a way to build connections to other people, to form friendships and relationships. And it was a way to map the events that unfolded in my life. That PE concert wasn’t the beginning of my modern eclecticism of music, and it was hardly the end. But it really did help.


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