Black Man in the Mirror

Any of the following jargon can essentially be boiled down to this: I love Michael Joseph Jackson.  Always have.  Always will.  I don’t dance, but I know how to moonwalk.  (Don’t ask.  I won’t do it for you.  You’ll just have to ask my mama or one of the homies if you don’t believe me.)  My favorite song of all time is “Human Nature.”  Off the Wall is better than Thriller. “Smooth Criminal”—the 9-minute version with the orgy in the middle, not the radio edit—is the greatest music video ever made.  I’ve watched Moonwalker more times than I’ve seen Back to the Future, Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Coming to America (80’s babies stand up!), which is to say a lot—I’m talking bailout money numbers.  I love the Gloved One so much that this post was supposed to be up Tuesday, but his death made me feel like I had, indeed, been struck by a smooth criminal.  Forget Annie.  Summer, are you ok?  These are my mourning pages.  I’ll try not to bloviate.

Original Poetry…"I Don't Understand"

I dont understand…I want to understand…Help me understand

I want to understand why desperation of dreams differed are differed into crack, cocaine and heroin. Drug dealers desperate to sale desperation to desperate people, people selling people like African tribes before slavery, but the oppressor now is a needle and this needle is the offspring of God and the devil, So I want to know how it feels to have my veins infiltrated with oppression and desperation, so I can appreciate freedom from addiction.

I want to understand while eating cupcakes with a fifth generation KLU-Klux-Klan member, inside a diner with my elbows on the confederate flag placemats…placed before me by a white woman named Dotty, who quite obviously spit in my coffee and called me nigger not even five minutes beforehand, I gonna sip that coffee, So I can truly taste prejudice, I need real racism, not the diluted version of merely being followed in a store, I need hatred to run through my veins, so I can appreciate love.

I want to understand what the gun and knife were feeling as you picked out your next victim, inflicting cold-icy death on dozens of people, because murder is just a game played by those who dont care if they die. Genocide, massacres, serial killings. Stabbed him 96 times, placed 29 bullets in her head, butchered my cat 9 times, so I want to trade places with nine of your dead victims, so I can cherish the gift of life.

I want to understand, I want to lay my head on the chest of a child molester let him stroke my hair as he replays his fantasies of five year old adolescent Hannah Montana fans In my ear, as he speaks of mangled bodies bathed in blood and glitter with no shame, feel him cough twice and swallow his virus, repulsion causing me to vomit, I want to feel true sickness, So I can praise god for my health.

I want to understand a women’s torture, why she goes to sleep in a jail-cell bedroom, husbands protruding veins representing tyranny, where domestic and violence are never together in the dictionary and she doesn’t want the world to see, so she covers her life with dark glasses and her vision becomes impaired, so for the next hour I want to see through her husbands eyes, so I know what it means to be blind.

I want to understand, Merging my flesh Into the body of an ex ballerina as her knees smack the cold bathroom floor I want my throat to burn, as she hurls her pain into a porcelain bowl, fell the utter agony of her bowels bleeding from the 7th laxative, as she sits in prayer position In front of a mirror staring at a fat pulpy demon, swearing it’s her reflection, as she chases perfection. I want undergo this self hatred, So I can value my self esteem.

I want to understand…but no one has the answers, some stories have no happy endings…

On Michael

My weekend was amazing and bittersweet. Everywhere I went, people were celebrating Michael Jackson. Friday night, my 21 year old cousin and I went to the Lupe Fiasco concert at the Chicago Theatre. Lupe is one of the most high energy rappers. He danced, jumped, and preened onstage – a couple of times jumping so high that his feet were at the same height as the cymbals the drummer behind him was using to keep time. In the middle of his set, while the dj was spinning his current hit – his verse on the Ain’t I song – and the crowd was really into it, Lupe stopped performing. He had been asking if the crowd knew who he was and as if he realized that he was nobody next to the King of Pop, he stopped the music and whispered something to the DJ. The crowd’s boos turned to cheers when it became clear that Lupe was going to lead us in a tribute to Michael – the greatest who ever did it. He welcomed a woman from the crowd onstage and they danced and flirted until Thriller came on and she started doing the moves from the video. Lupe and everyone else followed her lead.

After the concert, we went to Red. No. 5 on Halsted and it was hot as hell. There were probably 300 black people in there and no air conditioning! The DJ played rap songs that came out when I was in middle school, Beyonce songs, current radio and mix tape hits, and Michael Jackson songs from “I Want You Back” to “You Rock My World.” When Michael’s songs came on, the guys mostly stood against the wall while the women gathered in circles and revived old school dance moves we had learned from his videos.

Public Service Announcement: If you are with a friend who has been over-served in the club, take them home or at least put them in a cab. Don’t let your friends make fools of themselves trying to grope or grab women to the point where they have to be physically restrained to keep them from catching a sexual battery charge.

Back to my weekend. Saturday night, my cousin and I met another cousin at a bar in Wrigleyville. We couldn’t hear the music over the crowd, so after several drinks, we decided to make our own . The four of us started singing every Michael song we could remember (whether we knew all the words or not), often punctuating our off key renditions with moves from the music videos. By the end of the night, we had migrated to a larger bar down the street that had a dance floor. One our friends wore a fedora and we kept egging him on to moonwalk or do a few pelvic thrusts for the crowd.

As a grad student, I am always looking for ways to procrastinate. Itunes provides me with a myriad of ways to do just that…I have amassed a collection of music videos on my computer -half Michael, half Beyonce.. At home, sometimes we have cable, sometimes we don’t. I often try to bring things home to entertain myself and my nieces. Two years ago, I introduced my nieces (who were not quite 1 and 2 years old at the time) to Michael Jackson via Beat It. Kamryn the younger of the two is an energetic dancer. Maya, the older of the two, plays it cool but will definitely dance if everyone else is doing it. From the moment they saw the Beat It video, they were in love. Especially Kamryn. They live in NC. I live in Chicago. They call me and request Michael…Can I see Beat It? When I step in the front door after having traveled thousands of miles to see them, the first thing they ask is – Where’s Michael? or Can I see Beat It?

My brother David was watching the Michael tributes on CNN with my 2 year old niece while we were on the phone. In the background, she questions her father, “Why she dead?”

My brother’s annoyed. “I’m not going to tell you again – That’s a man! That’s Michael.” He says.

Michael often left his fans confused. What happened to the beautiful man who starred in the Bad video? Did he do what they said he did? Why are his children white? Whatever our questions, the music moved us. His dancing left us in awe. Who among us hasn’t moonwalked? We’ve played his music during some of our most important moments and when we were just hanging out at the house.

When Michael died, he was in preparations for his Ozone tour. Was he about to do something great again? If anybody could pull out a show-stopping, path-breaking performance at 51, it would have been Michael. On the one hand, the Michael we all applauded and fell in love with was long gone. On the other hand, no one had risen to take his place on the world stage and many held out hope that he would come back and thrill us once again. To honor Michael, in addition to pulling out my Cds, and listening to tributes on the radio, I plucked a book about him from my bookshelf on Friday and started reading. In her tome On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson tries to figure out how he went from the spectacle who meticulously controlled what we saw to the man who lost control of his image so completely that he was branded a criminal and no longer smooth. She uses P.T. Barnum and a Barnum and Bailey circus analogy to describe Michael’s showmanship as well as his lifestyle. For Jefferson, whose book was written in the wake of the second child molestation trial, it was clear that the star’s best days were behind him.

But, I was much more hopeful. I had planned to scrounge together enough money to get to one of the concerts in London next summer. We had seen Michael in so many incarnations – including a ghost of his former self dangling “Blanket” from a terrace…why not resurrected King of Pop?

At least now he gets a rest from being in the public eye. Hopefully, he’ll find peace.

The Musician and the Music – Should We Separate the Two?

Last week, as the news of Michael Jackson’s death spread, I noticed that people’s reactions were very different.  I got word that he was in the hospital on my Facebook news feed and immediately flipped back and forth between CNN and ABC News, waiting for the rumors of his death to be confirmed.  I kept track of my Facebook friends’ comments – some were very empathetic, while others were much less so.  One friend accused the King of Pop of “getting what was coming to him” and another said she couldn’t stop crying.

I had never seen so many Facebook status updates at once (well, other than the night of last year’s November election).  I felt I had to say something but realized that I didn’t know where my allegiances lay relative to this strange dichotomy between utter devotion and condemnation.  So my confused self changed my Facebook status to “music will certainly miss Michael Jackson.”  I know, I know.  It was weak.

But what is the correct way to react to the death of a very complex person?  Like so many others, I adore Michael Jackson’s music, admire his philanthropy, and respect the way he revolutionized the music game.  However, while I want to ignore what one news station called “the idiosyncrasies” of his personal life—like it seems so many people have done—I cannot.

So the overarching question becomes: to what extent should we be able to separate the artist from his art?

I was listening to an R&B radio station yesterday that was asking listeners to call in and join the discussion of MJs death.   One caller said something that stuck with me: that with the expansion of the media, it is much harder for entertainers (and I guess this also includes governors, as we’ve seen in recent news reports) to distance their careers from their personal lives.  Michael Jackson was an extreme example of that.  The media suffocated him and anything and everything was told to the rest of the world.  While I am convinced that Michael Jackson was, at the very least, a little eccentric, it is probably unfair to say that his lifestyle as a successful artist is an anomaly.  Many musicians from much earlier decades had all kinds of serious personal issues.  But unlike the King of Pop, these musicians’ legacies benefited from much looser media scrutiny and these personal issues were backstaged.

This morning, Michael Jackson made history yet again.  He is the first artist to sell over 1 million song downloads in a week.  There is no question that his death has spiked a renewed interest in his music.  In fact, maybe the mass attention to Jackson’s music over his personal life is a testament to how powerful his artistry was and still is to the world.

We know that music was Michael Jackson’s escape from his personal life.  For the world, it seems to also be a way to avoid who he was a person.  It will be a challenge figuring out how to reconcile this complicated man with his amazing art.  I am not sure what is right, but I do know that his music was too good to give up and his massive contribution to our culture is too powerful to ignore.

The Value of the Values Debate

The saga of Mark Sanford has been given so much coverage that it could be turned into a soap opera. South Carolinians have every right to be upset. Their executive was derelict in his duties. He was awol, at taxpayer’s expense. But I think the underlying theme of this brouhaha is the continued dismantling of the Republican Party as the moralist party-even if they don’t see it.

By no means is mainstream media giving Sanford any leeway for his actions. However, there seems to be a much softer tone in their barrage of criticisms. Is it because of his poetic emails? Is it because he traveled to another continent? There should be no public empathy for Sanford because he was a “sweet romantic”.  Romanticism doesn’t mitigate the fact that he profligately spent taxpayer dollars to swoon his sweetheart. My 9th grade math teacher once said if it looks like a fish and smell like a fish then it’s a fish. Mark Sanford is a philanderer who forsook his state to be with his mistress.

The Feasting of Michael Jackson’s Flesh

I am deeply troubled by the buffoonery of the 2009 Black Entertainment Television Award Show where “blackness” guaranteed BET’s ownership of honoring Michael J. Jackson’s life. Of course, there is an endless laundry list of technical, sexist, homophobic, and simply tone death performances that I could blog about. However, the most compelling issue for me is that we witnessed consumption at “it’s finest” where Jamie Foxx unabashedly highlighted his many upcoming projects and the beauty of his voice, where every five seconds large digital placards of sponsorship appeared before our eyes beseeching us to buy their wares, where Joe Jackson plugs the revival of his singing career, where the infamous golden arches tell our children that they should dream of working at McDonald’s when they “become big kids,” and where we the viewing public further the cannibalization process of Michael Jackson by not turning our televisions off in righteous indignation because consciously or unconsciously we enjoy the thrill of consuming flesh . . . the gossip, the speculations, the betrayals, the “sins,” and yes “if it bleeds then it leads” or in the case of the BET Award Show if it stereotypes black people then it sales.

This only shows that we do not know how to honor our dead. We only know how to consume them and extract the last bit of value from their dead flesh. With Michael Jackson’s death, future record deals will be made from sampling his catalogue, cottage t-shirts industries on each street corner beckoning people to remember Michael through purchasing a t-shirt, increased Itunes downloads of Michael Jackson’s work, juicy gossip to make the workday bearable, legal rangles on CNN about the authenticity of Michael Jackson’s will, biased scholarly debates on Michael’s masculinity, psychological fragility, and his love of children. Of course, I too am guilty of participating in feasting upon his flesh, after hearing the official announcement that he was dead, I raced to Itunes and bought one of his greatest hits albums so that I could remember and honor him.

But does buying an album and then privately consuming the purchase constitute honoring the dead?

Of course, all of this is not to say that consumption in of itself is bad because we need to consume various things to live, however, when consumption becomes the end in of itself and when it is not intimately connected to the idea of mutual replenishment than it becomes capitalism where I take more from you and there is no guarantee that I will give you anything in return unless it too benefits me.

Michael Jackson singing "Earth Song"

Did anyone else notice that not one of Michael Jackson’s songs that deal with accountability (i.e. the Man in the Mirror), building a peaceful global community (i.e. We Are the World and Heal the World), environmental justice (i.e. Earth Song), critique of globalization/policing (i.e. They Don’t Care About Us), ending global racism (i.e. Black or White) justice and safety of children (i.e. Little Susie/Pie Jesu and Childhood), and the need to be connected to each other (i.e. Will You Be There and Stranger in Moscow) showed up on last night’s BET Awards show? Why not? Because these songs are Jackson’s kryptonite critiques on consumption behaviors.  And BET decided that that’s not what interests his fans, especially his young fans like those of us who are 20something like myself.  But I disagree. Yeah, there was Ciara’s song Heal the World, but my ears don’t allow me to count her rendition. (But that’s another story.)

Hey, I am not saying that Jackson’s pop and romantic tunes should not be celebrated because they should. But something is wrong when not one ballad about healing, community, connectedness, and environmental responsibility was featured in any public or pronounced manner.  That omission says something about where we are as a society. Certainly reminds us that the Black Entertainment Television channel  cares more about black consumption than black legacy.

Someone special told me recently that the way you honor your parents or mentors is not by submitting to their authority or legacy, but by choosing to live your life seeking your purpose so that if your parents or mentors had to choose to live their life over they would choose to live your life because your purpose is enriching the world.

Here’s how musical legend Michael Jackson would have been remembered last night if I were producer of the BET Award Show.  I would have ended the show featuring global cultural workers who enrich the world followed by a musical medley of Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, Will You Be There, and Earth Song set against the video depictions of current political events—political protests in Iran, rape in the Congo, foreclosed houses in the US, fighting in Israel, and Hurricane Katrina—and environmental concerns—erosion of beaches, global warming, pandemics and epidemics of all kinds. All of which was to remind the audience that Michael Jackson cared deeply about people and the current state of the world. Thus, we honor him not only by remembering his soulful music—Billie Jean, Thriller, and so forth—but by choosing to live our lives dedicated to the service of humanity, a life that if Michael Jackson had to live his life over he would choose our interpretation of his best vision. That’s what I think should have been done last night. Or something like that. Anything but how BET and last night’s performers chose to remember Michael last night.

I guess it gets down to this: Can we expect people who live in a consumeristic culture to know how to honor the dead when they don’t even know how to honor the living –without consuming them alive?

Michael Jackson’s Earth Song

Bow Wow vs B-Scott: HipHop homophobia

 

Black Men being Hard together
Black Men being Hard together

In mid-April 2009, Little Bow Wow told a “funny story”, which was over a live web-chat, about not wanting to get his haircut by a barber that he assumed was gay.   His comments sparked some controversy among gay media when his remarks were leaked.  One such critique came from video-blogger BScott who is this self-proclaimed “gay as hell”  “pretty man.”  In his original post, BScott, took Bow Wow to task over his homophobia and alleged closet status (funny as hell in a problematic way).

Legally Confused

I’ve always been an outspoken critic of political homogeneity based on identity. Like many young males, the word marriage sends chills down my spine. But the thought of party or ideological marriages irks me even more. However, I cannot begin express my outrage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ decision to dissent in the case to nullify Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

And the Anti-Autotune Movement Begins…

Is it really that serious?  Well, I didn’t think so until two weeks ago when Jay-Z released his street single “Death of Autotune (D.O.A.)” as a precursor to his 11th studio album, Blueprint 3, which is scheduled for release in September.   There is no question that the track goes hard, I mean it’s been proven that that’s what happens when you put Jay and Kanye in the studio together.  (No I.D. is also a producer.)  But after listening to it a few times, I started to get a little confused about what the contender for “best rapper ever” was really trying to say.  In the song, he bashes autotune users.  It’s border-line hating, which makes me wonder why Kanye, an avid autotune user, would even agree to produce Jay on this track.  But I guess Hov suspected that listeners would raise these concerns and so he wisely called Hot 97 following the song’s debut to preemptively clarify any misunderstandings. (listen to interview here)  The emcee basically declared that autotune is wack, unless of course it is used by Kanye, T-Pain, or Lil Wayne.  Kanye West later told MTV that all songs with autotune that were previously set to appear on the Blueprint 3 would be taken off to underline his protest.

Can Fear Be Justified??? by Jonathan Lykes

This is in response to my good friend “Supernerdjlh” who chooses to remain nameless due to his “fear” that in the future his career could be jeopardized by the events written in this very blog. (I think I’m getting good at “opening up a can of worms”)

Can Fear Be Justified???

During College Orientation week in my first year at University of Chicago, the students had “forums” that were geared towards opening discussions about the various views on race, gender, and political background. In one of these sessions, this question was posed, “If you see a black man walking towards you at night, would you cross the street?” I of course was the only black student in the room and struggled not to be offended when I heard the shocking wave of answers. “Of course I would cross the street, I could get raped” One student answered. Another Student said, “I would be afraid of what might happen so I would cross the street to protect myself.” Being the person that I am, I spoke out and said it is ridiculous that someone would automatically stereotype a person by their skin color and justify their stereotypes because of some unjustified fear that the media and our culture has deceived them into believing. 

When walking across the mid-way on my campus throughout the school year at night, I would notice many individuals literally attempt to avoid me. I would see people walk towards me, look at me, stop and awkwardly walk in another direction. Is this right? Is this fear justified? 

The idea of “Unjustified Fear” extends beyond just the black race. In 9th grade I wrote a poem called perception. Here is a short excerpt from that poem. 

You see an Arab man sitting next to you on a plane. 
Your heart is pounding; your mind is going insane. 
You automatically you think he is there to bring pain, 
out to terrorize all for Allah’s gain. 
But what will put you to shame is that he never hurt a soul in
his life 
has three kids and a wife, 
and on forth of July with everyone else he sings “Im proud to
be American” 
Wrong perceptions. 
(If you would like to read the entire poem or see it performed
go to this link: http://www.facinghistory.org/node/175)

Many of what I like to call “Sheltered Groups”—or groups that have not interacted with different environments and people—will fear the set of individuals that are unfamiliar to them. Some students on my campus fear me walking close to them at night, an American on a plane might fear someone of Islamic association—or someone Mexican for those who are extra-ignorant—and “Supernerd” fears crack users on the Roosevelt bus. This fear is dangerous. This fear is the very same thing that waters the roots of Jim Crow, Japanese internment camps, and Not-So-Patriot Acts. This fear is what starts wars and ends peace. When one group starts to fear another without trying to understand that every individual is different, it becomes a dangerous bomb waiting to explode.  

I am not sure if I can judge other peoples fear, if I did I suppose I too would be guilty of the same offense that the fearers have committed against those who they fear. However I do offer this, always ask questions. Why do I fear this person? When did I start to fear this group? How would I feel in their situation? It is so amazing how things we learned in elementary school—like the golden rule—apply to our lives even more once we reach adulthood. Unfortunately, by that time, many of us have forgotten the lessons that would actually change the world beyond having an African-American president.