Monday, June 28, 2010

The Letter to Essence 2005

The Essence Take Back The Music Campaign

First and foremost, I would like to applaud Essence for making the decision to use its influence to take a stand and say “enough is enough.” Dr. Martin Luther King once noted, when announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War at Harlem's Riverside Church in 1967, that,“[a] time comes when silence is betrayal.” This current dialogue should prove to be a landmark event, not only in progress of the music business but in the progress of Black America as a whole. Mos Def once remarked, “if you want to know where Hip Hop is going, ask yourself, where are black people going? If we're doing alright, Hip Hop is gonna be doing alright." And that about sums up the importance of this dialogue.

This may be the first time Black People really get a chance to talk about something that is rarely discussed (outside of the context of protest and traditional race relations) which is, what our purpose and direction should be. Our music is a reflection of our culture. Our culture influences our music and in turn the music influences our culture. Both are part of an organic whole. So without a clear cultural ideal or purpose to guide and direct the collective energy of Black America, these disturbing, destructive trends will continue to infiltrate and dominate the overall tenor of our community life.

Knowing the history of this country, it would be difficult to consider it a coincidence that in 1989 when it appeared that Hip Hop was becoming a tool used for expressing self-respect,intelligence and urban unity, the focus suddenly shifted toward vulgarity, ignorance and senseless violence. The fact that whites began to buy the music and watch the videos doesn't validate anything. If black people began lynching each other on videos they would sell too. There is a spectacle value at work.

The black producers, artists and promoters who point to the money that is being made in this industry, touch on and miss the point at the same time. If this music harms our people by consistently celebrating drug abuse, misogny, violence, crime and crudeness, but the only thing positive that can be said about it is that the reocrds are selling and people are making money from it - then that is the very definition of exploitation. Black People, especially our women and children, are being exploited, for money - plain and simple. We are hurting our sisters but because of the money we can't even hear them. What is it going to take?

Although music is such an integral and highly influential element of Black life, it would not be realistic or proper for us to try to dictate to artists the kinds of music or videos they should make. That is up to the artists themselves. But the term "artist" or even "entertainer" can no longer be used as a shield against all accountability. Music is a social activity. Whether individuals see themselves as artists or entertainers, the music they make is designed to have a social impact. An artist cannot honestly say it's possible to isolate music from the effect it has on listeners.

"The black man never will get anybody's respect until he first learns to respect his own women" - Malcom X.

Here is the big question. Where in our culture is the central current of thought explaining the importance and value of our women? What is the ideal, in terms of what men should expect from women? Hip Hop in New York City began during a period when the voices of the black pride movement still echoed in the air. By the mid 80's the Five Percent Nation still held sway in the streets, culturally, as a source of self knowledge and awareness. Their belief was that the earth is the Black woman's twin in nature. The Black woman symbolized the earth in many ways. The earth is the only planet in our solar system that is capable of reproducing life and therefore must be treasured and cared for. It was suggested that women wear long dresses so that three fourths of their body was covered, symbolic of the earth being three fourths covered with water.
"Rockin 3/4ths of cloth never showin' your stuff off, boo..." -Method Man.
 These beliefs positively influenced the climate of the area and the music, directly and indirectly. So on a broader scale, if there were specific ideals or bedrock principles concerning family and respect articulated and imbedded in the psyche of our culture, it would be difficult to drift away from them - for they would become an integral part of who we are as a people. If our culture embarked on a journey towards an expansion of its horizons and was focused on a constant search for a greater understanding of reality and who we are, our music would reflect and compliment that search. If our overall population isn't engaged in the search for higher understanding, corporations will continue to put out music that reaches us at the lowest common denominator which is our base wants and desires.

One problem with the "booty" music and videos is that they don't leave much room for anything else. The Golden Era of Hip Hop earned its name because of the diverse, eclectic explosion of creativity and ideas put out during that period. At its best, music expands the imagination and richness of life for those it reaches.

Individual artists can also make a difference. Where would we be without the classic sounds and the positive themes deliberately presented in the music of Gamble & Huff's Philadephia International Label (For the Love of Money, Wake Up Everybody, Family Reunion; Ain't No Stopping Us Now) or Maurice White's Earth Wind and Fire (Devotion, Keep Your Head to the Sky, That's the Way of the World, Open our Eyes). The Native Tongues collective - Afrika Bambatta, The Jungle Brothers, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, LONS,Queen Latifah, Common, Black Sheep and Black Star -all shared a common goal, and that was to spread a positive message without taking away the realism and street logic that was essential to hip hop. Their single decision has had a profound impact on the music and the culture. It may be a mistake to attack and boycott the music we consider harmful, exploitative and vulgar. That often gives the music more attention and social relevance than it deserves. Currently there are so many artists who have taken our situation as a people into consideration and are putting out such great music - Lauryn Hill, Common, Jill Scott, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, Fertile Ground, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Alicia Keyes, Dwele, India Arie, DJ Premier, The Roots, Guru - it may simply be better to make sure they are supported, promoted and given their due (plus a little extra).

Music is powerful. Scientists have still not been able to figure out why it has such an impact on human beings. We have to take it seriously and not forget the legacy of those who have done so over the years (among them - Charlie Parker, Phyliss Hyman, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Miles Davis, Ella Fitgerald, Rakim Allah, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn, James Brown, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown and more). For the sake all of those artists who loved and respected the music, let's use it as a pathway in the search for beauty and truth. Then, if we happen to slip along the way, even our mistakes will be appreciated and we will never lose sight of the goal -which is our fulfillment.

Alan S. Dixon

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."
James Baldwin– from No Name in the Street

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Nobleness of Youth

As all know, we lost most of our culture during slavery. After the sixties when the militant cries for black power and revolution urged us to rebel against accepted social customs and standards of behavior, we have never established what we would replace them with. How are we to behave now, especially among ourselves? How do we stop our youth from traveling down the road of anger, confrontation, ignorance, hostility and violence which leads away from peaceful, productive communities and inevitably toward poverty and prison?

Our own writings from Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Israelites and North African Islamic cultures etc., are replete with advice and explanations on the importance of patience, judgment and forbearance. From these traditions African Americans can make popular some of the knowledge that would provide our children with a culture where they would be respected if they walked away from a pointless confrontation with a peer. If we don’t attempt to establish this now, our youth will continue to shoot each other over sneakers or for being bumped in public because they have never been raised within a tradition where any measure of patience or restraint is seriously valued.
"And the servants of the All-merciful are those who walk in the earth modestly and who, when the ignorant address them, say, 'Peace'." H.Q. 25:63.

Futuwwa and Adab

An example of elements that can be used to enrich our culture are the concepts of Futuwwa and Adab.
In the West, we have vague notions of chivalry as having something to do with the 'knights of old', King Arthur or even Walter Raleigh and his 'cloak over the puddle' image. We also have the strange notion that the so called 'age of chivalry' occured around 13th century Europe during the time of the Crusades. True the word itself, we're told, comes from the French chevalier, meaning horseman or knight, but the sacred code of conduct exists far beyond European recent history.
Chivalry (futuwwa) and courtesy (adab) are traditions that relate back to the legendary hospitality of the prophet Abraham. In the pre-Islamic Middle East tradition of adab, there existed those who had committed themselves to consideration for others; self-sacrifice; devotion; the helping of the unfortunate and unprotected; kindness towards all created beings, keeping one's word, and self-effacement. They were committed to a particular code of etiquette and conventions.
These “chevaliers” were absorbed into Islam on it's arrival and it's spiritual focus on divine love.

Here is Abdul-Husayn ibn Sam'un- on the broad meaning of futuwwah: "[f]utuwwa, means opposing and arguing little, being fair; preventing errors in oneself and not criticizing the errors of others; trying to correct one's faults; accepting accusations; enduring troubles caused by others; lowering one's ego; being pleasant to both the old and the young, doing good deeds, giving good advice, and accepting advice; loving one's friends; and bearing peacefully with one's enemies."

Futuwwa’s root In Arabic, fata literally means a handsome, brave youth. Over time it came to be associated with an ideal, noble person whose hospitality and generosity would enable him to always put others above oneself.

"Adab" generally means politeness, courtesy, good manners, refined manners, good breeding, respect, reverence; correct behavior, proper conduct, modest behavior; being courteous, polite; discipline, correction, chastisement; the science of polite learning; culture of mind, literature, literary pursuits.
Ancient teachers taught that, people can be divided into three categories with respect to correct behavior: The people of this world who use it for show. The people of religion are concerned with training the soul to instruct man's outer faculties, observing the limits set by God, and abandoning passions. And finally the elect, who are concerned with cleansing the heart, being faithful to oaths, holding to the present moment and stopping attention to stray thoughts.
It is related in tradition that, 'He who subdues his soul with correct behavior worships God sincerely.'

These are examples of how a concept can be transformed into a practice that can spread and characterize a whole culture and society, and it is much needed here in America to raise a standard for our youth to follow from within their own traditions.

"Chivalry means being fair to others, while not expecting fairness in return" - Abu Has Haddad.

"And they feed, for the love of God, the poor, the orphan ... (saying),"we feed you for the sake of God alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks".- The Quran 76:8

Friday, June 11, 2010

For Crispus...

Many still make it a point to argue whether the American Civil War was about slavery or not. Forget that; it appears slavery was a factor in the American Revolutionary War. ** Here are the facts: The slave, James Somersett (left), was the property of Charles Steuart, a Customs officer from Boston, Massachusetts, then a British colony in North America. Steuart brought Somersett to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somersett escaped. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary (Capt. John Knowles) bound for the British colony of Jamaica. However, three people claiming to be Somersett's godparents, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, made an application before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, and Captain Knowles was ordered to produce Somersett before the Court of King's Bench, which would determine whether his imprisonment was legal. On behalf of Somersett it was argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal. Moreover, English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person's consent. The arguments thus focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Steuart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England. Lord Mansfield, having heard both sides of the argument, retired to make his decision, and reserved judgement for over a month. Finally, on 22 June 1772 he gave his judgement, which concluded:
"... The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged." Somersett was freed, and his supporters, who included both black and white Londoners, immediately celebrated a great victory. The Somersett case was reported in detail by the American press, and in Massachusetts there were several attempts by slaves to obtain their freedom in 1773-74, which were supported by the General Court, but vetoed by successive Governors. The case was followed avidly in the Thirteen Colonies. It was only too clear to the ruling class in the Thirteen Colonies that, under British rule, freedom for the slaves they owned was inevitable and that the basis of their wealth and power, slavery, would end if the Colonies remained under British rule. The only way to retain their wealth and power was to retain slavery and the only way to retain slavery was to break away from Britain. Contrary to popular belief, every one of the Thirteen Colonies including New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware practiced slavery.
Shortly after word of the Somerset decision reached Virginia, slaveowner Thomas Jefferson and four other Virginia politicians began to meet in private. They proposed the formation of a "committee of correspondence" of the colonies which was a first step to breaking away from Great Britain. They persuaded their cronies in the Virginia House of Burgesses to present a resolution for the formation of the committees of correspondence. The resolution included a list of committee members, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and several others. Every single one a slave-owner.
Later John Adams who was concerned with increased British taxes and Writs of Assistance stated, as he sought to unify the Eastern Colonies, that if the British could destroy Boston’s economy and strip Massachusetts of its political influence it could also destroy Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey too. The Southern leaders refused to join with the North in Revolution without guarantees that slavery would be protected. After meeting with Adams they felt they could trust him. He told Jefferson slavery was the black cloud over the nation and that he had a vision of “armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in the air shining in armor.” Later in his years he wrote: I have been so terrified with this phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object I must leave it to you. I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgments. Thus without mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, a new “free” nation was born. ** see Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution by Alfred W. Blumrosen (Author), Ruth G. Blumrosen (Author).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Negative Confession #34

Negative Confession # 34.

More than 3,500 years ago our ancestors in Kemet (Egypt) came up with a doctrine - Ma’at (Muh-aht) which was a concept of sustained truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice.
A component of Ma’at is the 42 Negative Confessions which are statements of principles for the everyday
Tony Hayward, BP CEO.
person to keep in mind and strive to achieve. These principles are known as "Negative Confessions" because they usually begin with a negative statement, and are simply affirmations of acts one has avoided in his life as he strives to live by Ma'at.
They were very similar and most likely, seminal to the laws of Moses that we are currently familiar with (Moses according to tradition, was raised in Egypt). Among them are the statements- "I have not stolen or robbed with violence"; "I have not done murder"; "I have not defiled the wife of any man", etc.

Today our focus is on confession number 34 - "I have not fouled the water".

Niger Delta

Lousiana, US
There’s not much else to say- except noting that after at least 9,000 years of human civilization, Europeans in the 17th Century encountered an earth that was essentially pure and undefiled, from the rivers and lakes to the forests and the plains. Their thanks to the people who consciously left them with this gift was to call them primitive, savage and incapable of development. ~ Thanks.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Freedom Pt. 2

Elaine Brown on Freedom
A Note on Freedom

That place, that land we will never reach, only visit, but dream of, always. Where we would be at our best. A land that would treatus as if we are its children and it is our mother. Motherland birthing us into a vale of tears then caring for us…You are possible my daughter, my son, the best inside you is something you can achieve because you are loved and all things are possible – the song we hear when we hear freedom. Our bodies, our minds, cradled by the memory, the promise if what we might become, yes, andsurely will become, if given half a chance.
Freedom so much larger than we are. Enlarging us. Glimpse of a new day. A great getting up morning when everything in creation finds its voice and we dance to the music, music alive in our hands and feet and minds, music teaching us to overcome enemies within and outside ourselves, not a morning when war’s overand won but the peace of freedom declaring itself, after all is said and done, the race wars, religious wars, wars over things and who owns what, the deepest goal, surest reward for the self and people equally is to sing and dance in community, each of us, his or her way, a step at a time for a sweet time, celebrating,resting, gathering new strength for the next struggle….
No one can give you freedom. Mr. Lincoln with an Emancipation Proclamation changed the legal status of some slaves in America in 1863, but he didn’t give freedom to one person…No one’s been given freedom by America’s bloody wars-from the Revolution and theCivil War to the present crusades in Afghanistan orIraq. If you grant someone the power to free you, you are also granting them the power to enslave….if someone could give the gift of freedom, wouldn’t such an enormous, overwhelming gift establish permanent inequality, a permanent sense of dependency, indebtedness, unfulfillable obligation? The freedom that matters the most is how we feel about ourselves.
Freedom is about choice. The self-grounded, self- motivated decision to imagine (create) a range of choices and the resolve to choose among them. This internal work orients us to our surroundings not magically but with a force literally transcendent since its nonmaterial, beyond any external measure of verification. Even in the most extreme circumstances, freedom exists – the African who jumped from a slave ship into the roiling Atlantic Ocean….Freedom is an attitude, a principle that operates most visibly in spite of resistance.
~ John Edgar Wideman Spring 2003, New York