Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Step into the realm

I was browsing around the Columbus Circle Borders last night when an announcement came over the PA that there was an event. Singer Chrisette Michele would be performing songs from (and signing) her new CD, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson would be speaking. I didn't know Michele, but I've leafed through some of Dyson's books and heard him on various talk shows, and he's a very strong orator with an eloquent analysis of current hip-hop culture.

Michele exceeded my very low expectations. Despite various mix issues between her vocals and the tracks she sang to, it was obvious she was actually singing, and singing well. A very charismatic performer, she engaged the audience and retains an air of humility despite her limelight associations with Jay-Z, Nas, Beyoncé, et al. She brought to mind early Erykah Badu, with that hint of gravel that most automatically associate with Lady Day. Her melismas never overwhelm the song, and I feel that her shortcomings - mic technique, most prominently, and lyrical prowess - will be eclipsed as she matures. (And she hinted at her lyrical ability with a verse she spit, a cappella, during the Q&A.)

Dyson's turn quickly became a symposium of the elite black intellectuals, as Tavis Smiley, Roland Martin, Cornel West, Marcia Dyson, and Susan J. Taylor each took the microphone and gave persuasive, provocative speeches on the state of the Black community in various forms. There was an additional speaker, a professor from some established university, whose name, position and institution escape me. It felt very much like being in the church ceremonies I've always dreamed of witnessing, with audience/congregation hollering in response to each turn at the pulpit. Unsurprisingly, Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister. I didn't always follow the threads of each speaker; West, though compelling, was the most obtuse to me, but then again I'm completely unfamiliar with his work. One of the overarching themes of the evening, and the gist of my question, was the relationship between artist and community. Speakers emphasized the duties of love, leadership and service (Smiley especially so), and I believe that artists must be entrenched in their communities (be they artistic, cultural, financial or otherwise) not only to make distinctive art but to affect change.

My question, which spurred Dyson on a great monologue but didn't conclude in the answer I'd sought, was: Given the cleavages within it, what is the state of the hip-hop community? And what is the artists' responsibility to it? It amazes me that gangly kids from Switzerland know more and respect more of the tradition and history of hip-hop than many kids in the actual community. And the communal nature of hip-hop seems to be dwindling - Chappelle's Block Party and the annual Under Pressure convention in Montreal are anomalous; and aside from shouting out one's crew on every single track (which Dyson seemed to think is an acceptable substitute for real community...), a large majority of hip-hop is focussed on strict individualism and self-gratification. But hip-hop at its best, in my mind, is indebted to a community, or at least a collective.

A couple of causes were brought up by the speakers and by audience members, which deserve broader attention:
- Essence magazine is a driving force behind a New Orleans Day of Presence on August 29, 2007. Excerpts from an e-mail from Ms. Taylor follow:
[A]s the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the situation in New Orleans remains dire. Some 250,000 people are yet displaced throughout the nation, unable to return because they have no homes, no jobs nor the financial means to rebuild. Two years later, 70 schools in Orleans Parish are still closed. There are no mental health services and no hospitals to serve the uninsured poor. The $1.175 billion in federally appropriated funds for the Katrina rebuild and relief effort are being held up by FEMA.

Enough is enough! It's time for our community to stand up and take action. There must be a national outcry, a day of outrage, a day of protest, prayer and possibility that the media cannot ignore; a day on which we demand that our national decision makers redirect our tax dollars away from war and war profiteering to create a regional Marshall Plan that restores New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

This is our call to action:

1. We demand our national leaders redirect tax dollars away from the war to create a regional Marshall Plan that restores New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
2. We demand funding for the rebuilding of the levees, for the safety of the people of New Orleans.
3. We want to return to New Orleans and need expeditious housing and job assistance to come back home.
4. We demand adequate health care. No displaced child or adult should go sick, untreated or without medication because his or her state-based medical insurance is not valid in the state where they've been temporarily relocated.
5. We need government funding for mental health counseling and support services for those dealing with the aftermath of their loss.

This is what we're asking you to do:

1. Stand with us on Wednesday, August 29th, in New Orleans as we take to the streets for a massive demonstration and march, 10 AM - 4 PM, on Convention Center Blvd, directly across from the Morial Convention Center's Hall D.
2. Call your congressional and state representatives and the White House to demand the immediate restoration and betterment of New Orleans, Gulf Port, Biloxi and the entire Gulf Coast region. The toll-free number for the congressional switchboard is: (888) 226-0627. You can also email your Congressmen and women and senators by logging onto and, respectively.
- Old news in the hip-hop community, new news to a dabbler like me: The birthplace of hip-hop, 1520 Sedgwick in the Bronx, is the latest victim of gentrification in the Big Apple. More at NYT. Someone announced there would be a demonstration to protect it as a cultural landmark. Hip-hop is more NYC's cultural export of the last 30 years than new music and avant-jazz (even if the latter is closer to my heart), and 1520 Sedgwick is as much worth protecting as Tonic. We must prioritize the rejuvenation and protection of culture.

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