Thursday, November 13, 2008



The Editors
Copyright © 2003 Cheryll Y. Greene and Khary S. Jones

Carl Hancock Rux is a multifaceted performance artist living in New York City. On November 1, 2002, Souls editors Cheryll Y. Greene and Khary Saeed Jones hosted Hancock Rux for a discussion about his artistic references and, specifically, about how his work has been influenced by Black musical traditions. The conversation proved to be a richly insightful look into the mind of an artist sure to intervene significantly in the cultural life of the United States for many years to come.

Cheryll Y. Greene: Welcome to this conversation. Tell us a little about your background and your first exposure to Black music and the arts.

Carl Hancock Rux: My birth mother was paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized. I had two brothers I had never grown up with. My grandmother, who I lived with until I was four, was an alcoholic and died in the apartment while I was there. All these things were really major experiences for me. Growing up, there was this whole other part of me that needed wellness, that wanted some attention in that way, wanted some understanding. In my search for wellness, I needed to invent a history, or find something out, or at least interpret it. So I think that’s how all this came about for me. I still have a diary I started when I was eleven. On the first page, I wrote “When I grow up, I’m going to write a book, it’s going to be called 'A Novel by Carl S. Hancock.'(My name wasn’t Rux at the time. I hadn’t been adopted yet.) And I said, "I’m going to write a book of poetry and its going to be called 'A Book of Poetry by Carl S. Hancock['laughs] and a book of plays that will be called 'A Book of Plays By Carl S. Hancock.' Ultimately, that all came true. I think I knew then that I always had to work in whatever form I needed to work in, in order to investigate whatever I needed to investigate, and that I couldn’t be limited by form, by rules of form, or certain restrictions. My foster parents and I lived in the Bronx. Every Saturday night, there was a ritual. They were both Harlem nightlife creatures and jazz babies—even though they were older and didn’t go out partying much then—and every Saturday night, they would open up the bar, and they would play the records. I would listen to their discussions ad disagreements about music. John Coltrane. Miles Davis. Billie Holiday. Betty Carter. My foster father loved Betty Carter. My foster mother didn’t like Betty Carter because she experimented with the melody of standards. His argument, like Betty’s, was: It ain’t about the melody. It was about the evolution of expression and how a standard can mean two thousand different things with the turn of a phrase. This was my earliest exposure to Black music and black people sitting around having artistic discourse They were talking about music in detailed, intricate ways. It had social and political relevance. They would have a drink and talk to me and play Coltrane or Charlie Parker and tell me to listen to where the horn going, how it stops here, or keeps going fast there. Or even King Pleasure, which she really loved. She’d play a lot of King Pleasure. “Moody’s Mood for Love”. Listening to that kind of music and hearing them talk about vocal phrasing and instrumental music and the phrasing of instruments—I’m talking a lot about music, that was like an invitaion into something beyond the tangible for me. There was always music in that apartment. Music while I drew pictures, or he stared out the window or while she read books. My foster mother was an avid reader. She had lots of books. So when I was kid, she'd pull something from her shelf and hand it to me: Baldwin’s Another Country, Catcher in the Rye, Aimé Cesairé, Invisible Man. I was no older than eleven or twelve. I don't think she thought about age appropriateness. She would hand me a book because she thought I should read it. I should get to know it. I should read a book while I listened to Coltrane and drew pictures. It was wonderful because this was literature that wasn’t being assigned in Junior High School 166 in the South Bronx. It was a very different game. That neighborhood was changing rapidly and was becoming very dangerous. It’s pretty nice now, it’s kind of mellowed out. But at that time, it was like walking through a war zone to go to school. Really scary. We watched a lot of television together, not situation comedies, but PBS programs on art or documentaries on nature or Like It Is with Gil Noble. That was the only kind of televsion that was important to them. Occassionally a late night movie or something. I remember asking what was her favorite movie, and again, I’m about eleven or twelve, and she said her favorite movie was Nothing But a Man with Abbie Lincoln and Ivan Dixon. I didn’t know anything about it, and then one night iit came on in the middle of the night and she woke me up and said we had to watch it. I’ve watched that film about seven or eight times. It’s interesting when your parents tell you what movies and what songs and what kind of art they've experienced and how it's changed or impacted them because they are bearing witness to something you have yet to experience. They are letting you into their souls and showing you what shaped them, how they were formed them, what had some kind of life-changing impact on them. You find yourself not fully undesrtanding but it doesn't matter. It never leaves you. You grow up returning to that art whether it’s music, or film, or literature, or church songs or whatever. You go back to it over and over and over again. You return to it because you have to locate your parents again. You have to find their person in it. You have to find out what they were trying to say to you about you. For instance, with Nothing But a Man—I would return to it and wonder, what was she loved about this movie ? Though now I can see it is a phenomenal film, I can still never know exactly what she experienced the first time she saw it. She took me to the theater. She loved these special occasions, these things that mattered. Saturdays were special occasions. Sometimes we would go on walks through Harlem—they missed Harlem after they moved to the Bronx— and they would tell me stories. Some people ask where my artistic impulses come from and how they formed. I think they formed because nothing about those discussions and twalks or that experience with my parents was linear. Their artistic reach was not limited. It wasn’t that they could only love music, or literature or visual art. It was how they experienced life, as a creative expression. So I grew up loving it all and not feeling like there were any restrictions, just as long as was living and living well. So when I say I’m a poet and a spoken word artist—I never say that actually—or recording artist or a playwright, I'm responding to life. I'm breathig, that's all. I can never say enough how much it meant to me to have those two people in my life, for the good and the bad. To have the two of them there as I was growing up. To witness their discussions and their arguments about art.

CYG: One of the things about being steeped in that kind of thing, it becomes very organic the way you experience art, but it also establishes for you, without you even realizing it, a standard of excellence that becomes part of what you just intuitively and naturally aspire to.

CHR: Right.

CYG: And that is very interesting in terms of background development, that you would have had that. It obviously gave you a sense of adventure.

CHR: At the same time, what was happening for me as a child, being a product of the foster care system, I moved around a bit. There was some dysfunction in that family. I don’t want to make them sound too rosy, I never do. I haven’t misrepresented it as this completely rosy experience. But people often don’t ask children what their psychological needs are, or how they’re doing today, what’s wrong, and what’s right. Especially as a foster child, adults are only providing food, clothing, shelter, education, and as much as they can, recreation and a nice time.

Khary Saeed Jones: You talked about watching Nothing But a Man and wondering how your adoptive mother[AQ1] saw it. How do experiences like that work in which you’re teaching yourself how to see, or how to read, or how to listen? How do those choices translate into your artistic choices?

CHR: That film is a great example. When you see art, you don’t teach yourself how to see it, you just see it. You just experience it, you just listen to it. And you walk away feeling whatever it is that you feel. I return to the film, as I say, for several reasons.
That film did influence me artistically. From an acting perspective, it was like cinéma verité, it was like a documentary in a way. I appreciated how the characters were being really natural. At the same time, there’s something Greek and mythic about it all. Seeing these great actors—Ivan Dixon, Yaphet Kotto, Abbey Lincoln, I think in her first acting role. My adoptive mother used to get really excited about the vocal phrasing. And she’d really want to talk about it: “Now, did you hear how. . . ?” She would do the same thing if we would see a play or a film—look at a moment that an actor took. It was wonderful. The moment in that film when Ivan Dixon knocks Abbey Lincoln down to the floor, it’s so real. She’s on the floor, and the camera just stays on her. She’s crying. This is so rare in film. Especially today, because it’s not a scene in which they said, “OK, cut. Let’s get the glycerin drops, and cut to and show.” There’s nothing false about it. It’s so organic, so real, that I remember my mother gasping at the beauty of the reality of the moment and how it resonated discomfort.
CYG: Right.
CHR: It made me incredibly uncomfortable when I first saw it, because I also grew up with that film couple. There was spousal abuse in our house. There was alcoholism. So there was magic, but there was detriment. And, in watching that, it was almost like I was uncomfortable because it was beautiful and real and wonderfully performed, and then completely located me to where I was, and who was sitting in the room with me.
I can’t make art that doesn’t completely locate the rooms I’ve been in, what was magical and uncomfortable about those same rooms. What was beautiful and really ugly. As I got older and watched Nothing But a Man, it was the music that influenced me. And when I say the music, I mean the preacher who plays Abbey Lincoln’s father—he was a real preacher in the South, from what I understand. And it was one of those old backwoods Pentecostal churches that didn’t even have an organ. So when he’s preaching, all you have is his voice and feet and hands.
When I got a little older and I became a teenager, I started to go to church. I was in the high school gospel chorus. It was great. When I started to go, I saw the film again and I would listen to the preacher preach in that movie. His phrasing is so phenomenal. The call and response between him and the church was something that I hadn’t been exposed to because it was really old. It led me to want to hear more of that tradition. We don’t sing now the way we did one hundred years ago or eighty years or sixty years ago.
It’s interesting to hear that preacher’s voice, which I call a pre-recorded voice, because I know that that man in the film developed that style and it had nothing to do with the records he was listening to. It wasn’t produced from the radio or popular culture. It was really insular. And that notion became another one that influenced how I needed to read or sing or chant poetry.
The first time I was asked to read my poetry, I didn’t want to just read the words because there was always music when I wrote. There still is music in my head when I write. It became necessary for me to have to chant it or relay it, the same way it’s necessary for the preacher to put a melody to the message he’s trying to get across to you. It’s not pedestrian.
There really are two great examples of the influence of the preacher’s cadence on me artistically. As I said, one is the preacher in Nothing But a Man, because of how old he was and because of how beautiful the cadence was and because of his interaction with the audience. The other was an early example: Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine. The whole book is about this young man who’s a player and becomes a preacher. When she writes those sermons, they are just some of the most beautiful things in the world. If you go to church and then you read them, you can hear the cadence. You can see the congregation. You know that it’s true. There’s nothing fake. You know that she came from the church, that she was there.
CYG: Using that as a way to look at what’s going on today in Black music, what do you think is happening? Where is it not happening, where might it be happening today?
CHR: If you’re talking about Black music, let’s talk about Black music that makes popular music culture. Over the last six or seven years—and this is really interesting to me—I would daresay that, for the first time since rock-and-roll began, we’ve seen this very quick, almost overnight irrelevance of Black musical icons and we’ve seen their music assumed by white figures. Boys II Men had an overnight career because of their great vocal, tight harmonies, influenced, let’s say, by Take 6. So you have Take 6, you have Boys II Men, you have all the other little groups coming around, and there are a lot of them. Then very quickly, we see them washed away. Go. All of them washed away. Every single one of you go to make room for three or four white male harmonic R & B groups who are doing exactly what those boys were doing. Sort of putting the recipe together with Michael Jackson–type line dancing. It was the Boys II Men formula.
Black music—where is it? It’s interesting how it constantly survives. It’s also interesting how it gets pushed aside to make room for something else so that it’s no longer Black music.
Can we identify Christina Aguilera’s music as Black music? Shouldn’t we? Or shouldn’t we identify Britney Spear’s music as Black music? Because it is. Or shouldn’t we identify ’N Sync’s? I mean if we have the discussion about Black music, shouldn’t we recognize that that’s what those people are doing? Because if I stood up and made a record of Irish Gaelic chants, nobody’s not going to call it Irish Gaelic chants because I’m Black. They’re going to say, “He’s doing Irish Gaelic music. Isn’t that interesting. Look at that.” But because Black music has so completely informed American music, that association between race and culture and Black music gets separated now. It’s almost thought of as trite and ridiculous to say something is Black music. They say, “Isn’t it silly of you to think of it that way? This is not Black music, it’s music.” We’ve heard all these people, Britney Spears or whoever, do this. I don’t think this has happened in such a massive way since the fifties, since rock-and-roll came about and Little Richard and all that genre were pushed aside. And then rock-and-roll no longer belonged to Black people. It hasn’t happened in hip hop.
In terms of hip hop, the later twentieth and early twenty-first century represents a very important time for the history of Black music in America because it’s the first time that the artist or the people who invented it got to share in the profit of it. For the first time in the existence of Black music in America, you have more Black people who have started their own studios and have their own production companies. Thus, we have a Puffy now. We had Berry Gordy before. You know all these different people, whatever you think of them: Suge Knight, Puffy/P. Diddy—there are all these people now who are really profit sharing. More so than ever before. Millionaires making all this money.
CYG: That’s usually not mentioned when critics are trying to evaluate what’s happened to the music and hip hop.
CHR: To be honest, it’s kind of sweet and sour. On one level, I celebrate the fact that we are profit sharing in a way that’s unprecedented. At the same time, one wonders, what are we profiting from? You know, it can be a little embarrassing. I remember somebody asking Dr. Dre in an interview, “What do you say to your critics about the kind of music that you’re producing with Eminem—the lyrics and the misogyny?” And he was like, “Look, I’m in this to make some money.” That was the bottom line. “Please don’t ask me all these questions about misogyny and who’s white and who’s Black. The boy’s selling records and I am making money.” It’s unprecedented. So we can feel what we feel about the content, but there’s something to be proud of and maybe something to be ashamed of.
It’s an interesting time in hip hop. We have Eminem who is a king, in a way, right now. Jay Z certainly is a king in that he’s made a lot of money and also owns industry and all of this. But Eminem is a bigger star, especially with his movie [8 Mile]. So again, in the pop culture, how popular is Black music? What is Black music? If you give Black music to a white artist, it reaches stratospheres that are unheard of, unspeakable for Black artists.
KSJ: There’s this film footage of Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues [a 1929 short film] where she’s in a Black saloon—she comes in, sings the title song. Beforehand, there’s this whole drama between her and her man. What’s actually Black in this music? What kind of role does the statement or the expression have in some sort of transcendence of the situation?
CHR: It’s great you bring up Bessie Smith and that footage. She is one of the first recording artists who was singing blues with this gospel influence. It’s also really early to hear that kind of blues. You don’t hear most of the other ones, such as Mamie Smith, doing that kind of full-out gospel thing. It’s really wonderful to locate that. This is early, and this continued on throughout the twentieth century—it plays into the notion that Black music, when it got to a popular cultural level, was accompanied by a performance of Blackness that could sell to white audiences. So, we don’t know this, but Bessie Smith might have sung “St. Louis Blues” for Black people under a tent somewhere, and when she sang “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea,” she might have had an entirely different reason for saying that, a different way of saying it, a different strength, maybe, in saying it than she sang it for white audiences. But, in the film, she’s instructed to be drunk a little, kind of falling off the bar. You got to knock her down. Wasn’t that Snakehips Tucker or somebody who danced? There he is knocking her down to the floor, and you know she’s got to have the Ballenger’s Beer, because it played into that notion of her being down and out.
And that’s the blues. That’s a collaborative performance. It has everything to do with the record company that pressed the record, the guy who was holding the camera, the person who financed the film, whoever directed the scene. That is a collaborative performance. She doesn’t create that. That’s not just from her. There’s an agreement about how she is to be represented, and how the song is supposed to sell to a larger audience. And the same thing is true with hip hop today.
When we talk about where hip hop is today, it’s really obvious: Hip hop began as great recreational rhythmic vamping over beats in parks and playgrounds in the Bronx and wherever else—the boroughs, the inner cities of New York. The earlier lyrics, which are wonderful, were us at our poetic best, because we were being abstract. There was no huge consciousness in hip hop—it was hippedy to the hip hop hippedy don’t stop, rockin‘ to the bang bang boogie. It was surrealist. It was great. Because it was all about the rhythm, it was all about the jive. It was all about the jazz of it.
Then it starts to become a money maker, and in becoming a money maker, we continue to be celebratory. You get a Will Smith: not too dangerous; we’re just all having a good time. Until you get to Public Enemy and Run–D. M. C., and these people who were changing the face of hip hop. It was this monumental moment in rap music history. I remember the day I went to see [Spike Lee’s 1989] Do the Right Thing. Rosie Perez was on that screen at the start of the film dancing like that to them boys [Public Enemy] singing “Fight the Power.” And I remember the heart racing, sweating. Feeling like I had not heard music like this before. I remember the line, the only line that resonated through easily: “John Wayne was never a hero to me.” Thinking, “Damn, that was cultural criticism.” In this really intelligent way, in this really intellectual way. It was a marker. It was a moment.
So then we get off, and hip hop takes this great turn for a moment, right where we become politically conscious. But what it does spawn, then, is this sort of “Let me tell you about how down my ghetto is, how bad it is.” I think that that begins honestly enough. I think those artists, like Biggie or like Tupac or whoever, were talking about the ’hood: This is going on and that’s going on. Biggie, when he makes that first record, he talks about selling weed and stuff, which he did in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill [in Brooklyn]. He was being honest, I think. At the same time, as his mother says in this documentary that’s just come out (Biggie and Tupac [2002])[AQ2], you have to also understand a lot of this was tongue-in-cheek, that a lot of this was a performance. One has to make a hyper-representation of the drug deal, of how hard things were, the cops chasing. In real life, you can sell weed and a cop never really bothers you, but that’s not going to sell records.
Let’s go back to the whole Blaxploitation thing. It’s informed, it’s created, it evolves into something. Again, another kind of performance of the Black mythic: the outcast, inhumane figure. And that’s historical. It’s always been a moneymaker, even in jazz. Because if Charlie Parker hadn’t died in that white woman’s house, I don’t know that his legacy would have meant so much to white people.
With Bessie Smith, I’m not saying that she didn’t have any man problems—she also had women problems, but they didn’t perform that on the screen. I hear stories about her beating women down in the alleyway at Lafayette Theater, and nobody put that up in a movie. If there’s something that gets sold here, it has to happen in a very confined way. And that’s what’s happening in hip hop. It’s all a performance.
CYG: Going back to your seminal encounter with PE, I’m reminded of how I was affected in the same way by the sixties/seventies jazz of Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, and earlier when I was a teenager by Thelonious Monk’s music. It hits you somewhere in your gut. And you’re changed after that, you know, completely changed.
CHR: That’s why sitting in that movie theater, hearing Public Enemy say what they said to that beat, with Rosie Perez just dancing like she was, I think that was—I certainly had had great musical experiences before that, but that was the first time I felt something that affected me the way my parents had something that affected them. My mother, who was an avid Apollo Theater–goer, talks about the first time Sarah Vaughn got onstage. They could tell you when they saw Gladys Knight, when she was a little girl, and her whole getup. They were there. And they would always tell those stories about moments. That key moment when they went to see Parker, or Dizzy, or Lester Young and Billie and how it just changed their lives. That was Public Enemy for me at the moment in that movie theater. Being real young, it impacted me in a way that was more than why I like this music. It was something that was being said that scared me, and that also told me, “It can go down like this. You can do this this way if you want to. You can say what you want, go ahead.” It’s phenomenal. But, again, we move on in terms of hip hop. It becomes a moneymaker. More money, more problems, as Biggie said.
That’s when we get into this notion of the performance of imperialism. The great capitalist performance of Black culture, where everything is about diamonds. Everything is about fur. You know, Lil‘ Kim. But we love it. I loved it. I loved watching Kim in that video, in those furs, walk down the escalator as it’s going up, saying, “Puffy, hold me back, baby.” It’s bad. Because this woman’s coming at you [laughter] with glam, and fur, and she’s also being sexually aggressive in a way that we have not allowed women in this culture, Black or white, to be. She’s being raw and she gets a lot of criticism for it. But there was a lot of power in what she was saying. She’s in control of her sexuality. You’ve got to buy her Cristal and furs and diamonds if you’re even going to get five minutes with her alone in a room. The same thing with Foxy Brown, who I didn’t dig as much. But then it morphs, because then you get all the copycats. Just like they had Marilyn Monroe and then Mamie Van Doren. Well, they have to create all these other Lil’ Kims and whomevers.
Biggie was writing Kim’s lyrics. There was a brilliance about that because Biggie was a talented writer. He created in Kim a performance he knew Black people would buy, that they’d be interested in—just like the Blaxploitation era was a performance that Black people also bought because we wanted that representation. We were tired of being civil rights activists on screen, and we were tired of being downtrodden, and of course we were tired of being subservient. So why not now go ahead and say, “You know what I want? I want me some money. And I want to kill somebody to get it.” It was great, but it ultimately became tired. Kim can’t sell a record now. But that ghetto glam thing lives on. It’s funny to watch Christina Aguilera now make a record called Dirrty and walk around wearing thongs. But Kim was being ghetto. It’s funny to watch Madonna try to perform Kim and be ghetto fabulous.
KSJ: Just to ground us a little more in history, going back to the mid- seventies and hip hop, could you talk about the impulse that comes out of the materialism of a particular moment? Even comparatively, then versus now. And maybe in the context of this magical realism of post–9/11 New York City, in a world where Blackness is everywhere, in different forms everywhere. What do you think of the vernacular impulse to create on the ground level, coming out of the times that we’re living in today.
CYG: What’s bubbling up now? What’s the organic cultural expression that’s coming from the Black creative heart? What’s different today?
CHR: When you ask what I think is going to bubble up from Black culture in response to this post–9/11 period, what I see happening in music especially is more and more good-time stuff happening. Music is almost like, keep them happy, everybody just stay happy. It had its impact on the teen pop, white, bubble gum thing. It smoothed that out a little bit. There was a return to rock, but not political rock necessarily. No one’s allowed to do that except for Bruce Springsteen [laughter], and even he did it in a feel-good way. “We’re all right because we’re all here for America,” and that’s it. So it’s not real politics. Nobody is going to allow Black people to start making records about Iraq and Iran, about stopping the Israelis from setting up their tents, and stopping them from breaking agreements. I mean we’re not going to be allowed to speak freely, as you see. We are not going to allow for the expression of unpopular culture, a political belief that is left of what the mainstream politic is. Not in popular culture. It happened in the sixties because it was removed enough. Too personal now. I think that Black music is going to try to hang in there and still have a feel-good sensibility.
CYG: India.Arie said, about her second CD that’s just come out, that she just wants to make people feel good. I found that really shocking. But that’s exactly what you’re talking about.
CHR: That’s exactly what she wants to do, and exactly what the record companies want her to do, and it’s exactly what America wants her to do. And at the point that somebody like India.Arie and artists of her status mix a record—it could even be a country album—that is not about feeling good, but is about feeling something else, I don’t really believe that they’ll get very far. I think those records are being made though. Let me just say this for the record. Those records are being made. That art is being made. But it all exists within a subculture.
CYG: Can you talk about that?
CHR: Yeah. So-called underground hip hop is way more interesting anyway. Those artists like Beans and his Anti-Pop Consortium, though they’re no longer together. I thought they were phenomenal. Not only the artistry, but also what they were saying and how they were moving things along. They weren’t overtly political necessarily, but they didn’t shy away from it. It was part of the dialogue, it was part of the vernacular. I think that they are an incredibly inventive and incredibly interesting rap group, though I think they’ve broken up and Beans has gone solo now. And I still think he’s a phenomenal artist.
In New York City, it disturbed me like it did a lot of people, to read the cover story in the New York Times Sunday arts section about this “new” day, this “new” moment that’s being defined for America because young Black people are actually getting involved in rock-and-roll, with an exclamation point at the end of the sentence [laughter]. I was insulted. But that article, again, becomes like a tour guide for people who don’t live here. The examples of Black people supposedly finding rock-and-roll included Cody ChestnuTT. By the way, I think these artists are great, and I think they are also part of what’s important right now, but this has been going on for a while. It didn’t start with Cody Chestnut, because Mark Anthony Thompson and Chocolate Genius were doing what he was doing for a while, being as crazy as he’s been, and making music that is just personal and insane and amazing for a long time. All these artists, singers that people don’t even know. Like Imani Uzuri, who’s an amazing vocalist and should have India.Arie’s status, and has, I think, more to say. I like India.Arie, by the way. I also have my own crush on Jill Scott because she sends me. And how phenomenal would that be if she could make a protest record? And Toshi Regan has been doing this for a long time and is an incredible rock musician. So, subculturally, there is a whole movement.
I think that in African American culture, especially from our perspective in New York City, there is a real thrust on about three fronts: One, we’ll call rock or alternative music, which is not about the cookie-cut formula of R & B. There might be some electric guitar or some whatever. Then there’s the electronic influence, which is about real DJ culture. It’s about sounds and distortions. Right now, replacing vinyl, everybody’s getting up there with their titanium laptops and sort of creating wonderful environments of sound. I’m thinking here about what Paul Miller—DJ Spooky—and a lot of other people are doing. Vernon Reid’s record with DJ Logic. Vernon Reid, at this point, I think of as being an old-timer in a way [laughter], because he’s been around for a long time, but has always been part of the forefront, always interested in what’s changing. I don’t feel like he was ever stuck. He loves rock-and-roll, but it’s not like it begins and ends there. I think he has always recognized music in its totality, which is why he could actually collaborate with somebody like DJ Logic.
That’s why it was disturbing to read the New York Times article in which Cody ChestnuTT said that his entre into rock-and-roll was listening to Kurt Cobain sing “Teen Spirit.” When he heard that record, he said—yeah, this is in the New York Times— “Wow, that’s rock-and-roll. Wow.” That was his inspiration to become a rock musician. It was one of the most disturbing things I’d ever read because I felt wow, if that is your introduction to rock-and-roll, then you please just come by my house and let me sit you down and play you some records. Because there is some music he should really go back to. There’s so many places for him to reach. So many artists for him to find. So much music for him to hear that could inform his music.
With that said, I should say that I think what Cody ChestnuTT is doing is interesting. I do think he’s talented, and I do like his music, and I like that he made his record; it breaks the rules. It’s a two-CD set, his first record, and it’s very antistudio, very antipolished, and that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes him him.
John Forte: one of the most interesting figures in Black music right now. When his record’s out, he’s incarcerated for cocaine possession and will be for the next fourteen years. That’s painful. For the same reason it’s always been exciting to popular culture, it’s intriguing. They write these articles about Carly Simon sitting John Forte down and teaching him how to play the piano, guitar, and teaching him some songs because he’s hanging out with her son. Then he was with The Roots, and he was down with them. It didn’t stop with The Roots though because he transcended that and got to be a good friend of Carly Simon’s son. So how does he wind up in jail? That is done, and then this record comes out. Beautiful. He samples Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes.” You know, he didn’t have to do nothin‘ else for me—that was it. He took it back to something really significant. It’s very political. So that’s one bubbling up.
KSJ: I want to talk about Black music and politics. I think we can do it by way of going back to the moment when you saw Do the Right Thing, or listening to P E. I think there’s political Black music, in which the music has been lyrically political, but then there’s something very political about rhythm itself. Just in terms of what it means to bring rhythm to an American landscape.
CHR: There’s definitely a difference between political music and music that is political. You can express a political consciousness or a political idea in your music—so OK, you’re political. But to me, that’s not the stuff of political music. Political music actually resonates for a people, for a culture or society politically. It changes a concept, and makes a statement about what we’re all doing right now, how we’re all doing it. So that could be, as it was at the time, James Brown. He didn’t have to mention Vietnam during that period or anything like that, he just had to go ahead and have that beat and scream, because that’s political. To hear a Black man scream on a record is a dangerous thing. Aretha Franklin’s voice, that was political music. Because to hear a Black woman sing like that, to be loud like that, to riff like that, to not necessarily call on Jesus, because we’d had that with—who was the famous gospel singer in the fifties and sixties? Mahalia Jackson. She had a big voice, and so did Bessie Smith, but Aretha was doing this this way in the sixties with a charging beat. She’s saying, give me my respect when I come home. And it’s a Black woman, the lowest on the totem pole. That’s brilliant. It was very political.
And then there’s political music that we didn’t get away with. Meaning that it didn’t resonate for everybody in a way that it could have or maybe should have. I think one great example in the early seventies is Betty Davis, Miles Davis’s ex-wife who nobody remembers, who Quincy [Troupe] and Miles barely mention in Miles’s autobiography. And they don’t talk really about her musically, and they call her Betty Mabry. Now, there’s this great return to Betty Davis’s music. Are you familiar with her?
[Performance poet/publisher] Jessica Care Moore told me that she’s trying to do a one-woman show about Betty Davis. A lot of people are trying to get back to her music. Here’s this woman, she was a model. Black woman. Fine, beautiful, tall, gorgeous, big afro. The legend is she is the reason for Miles’s Bitch’s Brew [1970]; she’s the bitch in the brew. Because he had met her when she was hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and them. She had been Jimi’s girlfriend for a bit. She was in the whole rock scene. She wasn’t messing with this jazz stuff. But she met Miles, and they hooked up. They married very quickly, divorced very quickly. But I think the story goes that he asked her, “So, we got married, but you never told me what you think about my music.” She was like, “I think it’s tight.” He was like, “What do you mean you think it’s tight?” She says, “You need to come, forget all that blues shit, and come somewhere and hear some music that’s going on now.” She was trying to turn him on to the funk music that was happening in the sixties, the whole rock-and-roll thing, what Sun Ra was doing. She was like, this is where it’s at baby, you need to see this kind of stuff. So, allegedly, he makes Bitch’s Brew for her. Like, here, bitch, you want some, I’ll do it. He does it. And that marriage ends very quickly.
She was a rock musician, had a rock, funk music band. Made about four albums. Her first album was so phenomenal and, again, political—and I’m talking about the politics we don’t necessarily get away with too early. So her first album came in 1973. She is doing the whole Bootsy Collins thing, Funkadelic thing, even LaBelle thing before they did. So she’s on the cover of this album in her space suit. She’s got her silver armband things on. She’s wearing this satin, one-piece hot pants jumpsuit thing, thigh-high silver platform boots. And her big afro. And that turned-up collar and she’s standing there one leg cocked up, just being bad. The picture alone is political. What happened to her is very telling about the Black community and their response to music, and what we sort of accept and reject traditionally. She was a great singer, but she wasn’t a singer in the tradition of great Black female voices. It was very raspy, not cute like Macy Gray, but I would say definitely a precursor on the way to Macy Gray. Almost a little like Tom Waits. She has a song called “People Call Me Crazy.”
It’s about the nontraditional voices. What we accept, what we don’t accept. What we’re ready for and maybe whether we like it or not. But Macy’s not a political thing for me. Betty Davis was an example of what I mean. Later, we get Patty La Belle and the Blue Bells becoming LaBelle, there’s already a public awareness of them as a group, and they reinvent themselves. Their dynamic and their singing, that’s political.
When I think about political, there’s music that is not necessarily about overt political lyrics, but it’s political in its own way because it resonates that way. I feel that way not so much about the music as the public performance. I definitely feel that way about Mary J. Blige. I think there is something socially political about her as an icon. About her coming out as a product of a machine. She’s controlled, she’s styled, she’s dressed. She comes from the ghetto, she comes from the street, she’s hard. You look at all those early videos. It’s sort of like New Jack Swing. There’s the baseball hats and a lot of makeup and the weave ain’t quite right. And she’s singing hard, she’s got the gospel voice, but the voice ain’t quite right because she done smoked a little too much weed or something, and something’s off. But it’s hard, it’s almost like the dudes. We were, at this point in the eighties, nineties, accepting a sort of hardness in the culture. It allowed an appreciation of us raw. I’m not talking about us downtrodden, the Bessie Smith drunk at the bar, or Charlie taking heroin, or Billie being hot, I’m talking about us raw. We didn’t even have to be singers. You didn’t have to be a gifted vocalist to be a singer. You didn’t have to be a gifted vocalist to be a rapper in the traditional sense, or even play an instrument. I mean, who would these people have been before rap music came about? Would they have been novelists? Would they have been poets?
So Mary comes along and she’s hard. And that’s political. And then to watch her evolve and curse people out—just be all wrong and mistaken in front of everybody, can’t talk right, just high and rough. But, again, in the tradition of the blues women, in the tradition of the blues singers. It was rough. They talk about Bessie walking around with a handgun strapped to her thigh, because sometimes she had to make sure people paid her. That was what you did. And you couldn’t be a blues singer unless you were used to that hard life.
Another example of that connection—and this was political for me in terms of the sexual representation of Black women in music, from Bessie Smith’s representation, skipping to let’s say, not only Betty Davis, but also to Millie Jackson. I just bought this two-CD set of her about a year ago and it’s so phenomenal to listen to what she’s saying. To talk about being the other woman, the freedom of being the other woman. And the way she’s singing. And also it’s the language. It’s very political again.
There’s that seventies soul period that still was political, not necessarily in the Marvin Gaye kind of way. But just like there was underground hip hop, in the seventies there was underground soul. There are records I’ve never heard. I go over to Europe and they know everything. They ask, “Have you ever heard this one?” I’ve never heard of them before because they weren’t chart-toppers here. But, in Europe these people were big. James Brown’s backup singers are stars individually in London. These women made albums, and we don’t even know that.
Voices of East Harlem [an R & B group from the early 1970s] is incredibly political. They’re political to me in the way that I was about to talk about Millie Jackson as political. They were coming from two different places. But it is the language, the colloquialism. What they both captured about Black home culture that’s not polished. It’s not prepared for video or radio. It’s so beautiful that way. It comes unprepared.
So that Millie, as I was listening to her talk on her record[AQ3], and she was saying, you know these husbands, they’ve got to stay with their families on the holidays, but that man, he rolled up in my house J-1 [January 1]. And she keeps saying J-1, and it’s bad because you know J-1, that’s some deep home slang stuff. I don’t know if you know that whole Black cultural thing where a woman, especially if she’s living alone, the first thing she wants on New Year’s Day is for a man to cross her threshold. That’s the first person you would have walk up in the house, a man. So that means you’ll have a man for that new year. There will be some kind of masculine strength around, available to you. And a man bringing you some money was better. And it’s on that record. This is rooted in our culture, our folklore. You know these men with their wives, Millie says, when they have another woman, it’s because somebody ain’t taking care of business at home. Because the wife’s not telling them the things they want to hear. And a favorite line, she says, “But, you know, when you lonely, you can think of a whole lot of things to tell a nigger.” It’s very interesting because, before hip hop culture, and before the whole controversy about that word, I thought that saying nigger on records began in hip hop culture. And I thought nobody did it before, and that’s why everybody’s so mad that we’re doing this. But, you go back and you listen to those Last Poets [a three-man poetry performance group of the late ’60s–early ’70s] records, and it’s all over the place. And it’s in Millie Jackson’s music. It’s very political because they’re talking to back-home, down-home people. They are talking to us. This wasn’t made for wide consumption in the popular culture.
Well, hip hop culture definitely is a great example of the preservation of and invention of slang language. But it doesn’t serve the same purpose to me as it did. And one of the reasons is because as soon as it’s said, the information network right now is so fast, that nothing gets to just grow right here.
KSJ: It’s like telepathy.
CYG: Exactly, nothing gets to grow within our communities the way it used to.
CHR: I remember when I was kid, I used to go down South. My grandmother lived in a little town: Windsor, Virginia. In those days, when I would go down there, what was playing on their radio, Black radio, the records that were hits, we didn’t even have in New York yet. Eventually, it would get up there, but it was playing in the South first. But that’s really rare now because now it’s all evened out. You’ve got MTV.
CYG: Even the Internet.
KSJ: The same company owns the radio station in New York as they do in South Carolina.
CHR: So there’s been a great leveling. And it’s embarrassing and sad because it’s the erosion of American culture by and large. And not just American, but also international culture. Because you go to another country now and of course there’s a McDonald’s on the corner and a Burger King and all that. And the artists and the stars are the same and the music is the same. And whatever language now—and not just language, but identity. The fabric, the clothes you wear, the styles you wear. The hair.
CYG: Just how do all of your ideas get incorporated into your work? Your experiences, the way that you see culture and music, your politics? Could you be specific about your theater pieces, No Black Male Show and Talk?
CHR: Most of what we’ve talked about is the last one hundred years of American popular culture, literature, and music. I was thinking about Black identity within it. And I was intrigued by, obviously, books that I’d read including [AQ4] and the [Anatole] Broyard book, TK. I’m intrigued by Ralph Ellison and his one book. What is that about? His politics and then his apology for that whole thing during the McCarthy era[AQ5]. It’s interesting to watch what was happening to Black identity in artistic production in America over the last one hundred years. So, Talk [produced at the Public Theatre, New York City, 2002] was, for me, a way of looking at that.
CYG: Would you say what it’s about?
CHR: Talk was written as a panel discussion convened by a young academic in his twenties who invites five panelists to talk about the work of a writer, a fictional Black male writer named Archer Aymes, who wrote a novel called Mother and Son that was published in 1959, and he never publishes again and dies in a weird way in 1970 at a protest, a very strange protest that he organizes at the [fictional] Museum of Antiquities where there was an exhibit of ancient Greek pottery. He smashes all the vases and this melee happens, and he goes to jail and then he commits suicide, allegedly. And so this young moderator has just discovered this book in the basement archives of some library and read it, and it moved him. Because it really is just a small, tender, expressionistic book about a mother, it tracks a relationship between a mother and her son. He invites these panelists, who argue and fight about Archer Aymes.
The simplest thing to say about what that play was about for me is to answer something Michael Feingold said in his review in the Village Voice. He said I had a vacuum cleaner of a mind. He questioned why I would know all of this information. Because the play was pretty detailed about some of the artistic movements and events of the time.
CYG: Very detailed. [laughs]
CHR: Right, and that was my aim. It was incredibly detailed. The lies and the truths about Archer Aymes, whatever they might have been. So in the forties, he was allegedly at the New School, somebody who was there contends. Stella Adler was teaching at the New School at that time, and [Marlon] Brando had just graduated from there and left to go take some acting classes. And [Andre] Breton was visiting New York at that time, and he had only been at the New School to see an exhibit of Enrico Donati’s and then had left. All that is not crucial to the story at all, but I was just tracking every moment of what was allegedly important, not necessarily in popular culture, but just significant moments that prove to you that whoever is talking on this panel has authority. So it’s not just the obvious stuff they’re talking about, like in the sixties, the Vietnam War, but exactly what was going on in some way that might not be talked about. Credo, the jazz musician character, would name musicians who played with this one and that one who didn’t play. At one point, there’s a line where I think Meno, the once-famous talk show host character, says, yeah, the way Aymes wrote this book reminded him of—now I forget the name. He names a musician, and somebody says, “Who?” and Credo says, “Oh, he played glissando trombone in Lester Young’s orchestra.” Again, almost like insignificant details.
And so Feingold questioned how I knew all of this. He talks about how this was like having a treasure chest of memories for him because he came through all of that, he lived through all these periods. I must have a vacuum cleaner of a mind because how would I know all of these very specific details about all these things. That was sort of the question that resonated for me the most because the answer for me was, because I have to. Because it’s your culture, it’s not mine, and because in order to be a writer in America who wants to be part of some literary cannon, I’d better know who the most unimportant white literary writer of fiction or poetry was. I’d better know exactly how this history unfolds, and what happened, so I can take my place. Because if I don’t, I’m really not going to be considered valuable in any way. Do you understand? And that was, for me, what drowns Archer Aymes. The entire world that’s being talked about and the arguments that come up on that stage is why and how the man drowns, how he dies. “Talk was also loosely based on the Bacchae. Pentheus, who is judgmental, doesn’t like this new religion, the people who are doing things there in the hills, having these orgies, of which his mother’s a part. And he’s going to destroy this, destroy the god Dionysius, who ultimately tricks him. Pentheus is young and he’s ambitious, but he’s kind of ignorant. He also speaks with a lot of entitlement. He just decides he’s going to stop all this madness. Dionysius asks him, ”Wouldn’t you like to see them in their little orgies? Wouldn’t you like to be in the highest part of a fir tree and hide and look and see what they’re doing?” Of course, Pentheus is intrigued. He wants to get on the inside of it. He goes and he does that. And they destroy him. Among the women is his mother. They pull him down from the tree. They tear his body apart limb from limb.
CYG: And this is what happens to Archer Aymes.
CHR: That’s what happens to Archer Aymes. Because he starts out judging the culture in New York. But he gets torn apart. And the mother is the one in the Bacchae that rips her son’s head off and only knows later that she has her son’s head in her hands. At the end of my play, it’s symbolically the mother, returning to Pentheus his head. But only so Aymes understands that that’s all they’ve got for you, to tear you up, once you see what they’re about, once you get in there.
CYG: What drove you right there, to deal with that period and to deal with the idea of the artist in that position?
CHR: Well there are two things. One is I’m really interested in doing three different plays that deal with artistic production and African American identity within it at three separate points in the twentieth century. So this one dealt with ’59–’69. I also had written another play before that, which hasn’t been produced yet, called Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, which is this [AQ6]Richard Bruce Nugent poem published in Fire!!! [an important one-issue Black literary magazine put out by the younger artists] in 1926. People know more about Nugent now then they did when I started writing that play, but Nugent was the least famous of the group that emerged in the Harlem Renaissance, though he was really smart and pretty talented, incredibly. There’s a book out now from Duke University Press about Nugent [Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance (2002)]. But it’s interesting that his career was stopped for many reasons and there’s a lot of argument about it. One is, he could have been just lazy, too arrogant, too whatever, just not that committed to his career to survive, to really become important. And then the other argument is that, it seems that he’s unprecedented in America as an African American writer who was completely open and willing to talk about his homosexuality in his work. It’s unprecedented. There’s a Du Bois letter in response to Fire!!! that says it’s clear that Nugent is one of the most talented writers of the Renaissance, but we can’t afford for the Negro to write about homosexuality and drug use, because there’s a lot of heroin metaphor and the like.
So I wrote Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, which is my take on the Harlem Renaissance. It’s about a few things. It’s about the things that we don’t discuss about the artistic production during that time and our identity within that culture. One of the things that moved me was Deborah Bright’s book, The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, which is collected essays and photographs, because this is the first time that anybody started to talk about Carl Van Vechten’s fetish photographs. And writing that play was just coming to terms with Van Vechten’s work during the twenties, thirties, forties. He did all those great portraits of people, and at the same time, during this time, he was procuring young Black men in Harlem, from the twenties through the forties, teenage boys as well as grown men, getting them up into the studio space he rented in Harlem to photograph them nude. These are the photos that he instructed in his will were not to be seen until thirty years after his death. So their emergence, to me, begins to inform us of something else about him.
What’s also not talked about is that—and this can be assumed—is that Van Vechten’s foray up into Harlem wasn’t just artistic-cultural slumming. There was also a fetish thing, and it’s also sexual. He was a bisexual man, and, as Nugent and others documented, there were lots of really interesting gay speakeasies and clubs in Harlem, and Van Vechten went to these places. And hanging out with people like [poet/novelist] Wallace Thurman, who, when he first arrived in New York City, was arrested for indecent and lewd acts performed in a subway bathroom with a man. Van Vechten’s relationship to people like Thurman, to Nugent, maybe even Langston, McKay, not necessarily Claude McKay, but the poet laureate of Harlem, Countee Cullen, who marries Du Bois’s daughter, and then goes off to Paris for his honeymoon with Richmond Barthe—not with his wife, because she had to stay home—all this is interesting to me.
One of the things I also put into this play, one thing that inspired me to write, is that I was also doing a lot of research reading letters. This one letter that I came across floored me, and in the play it floors the characters. I don’t recite it verbatim. But it’s this letter [dated 11 June 1945] that Zora Neale Hurston wrote to Du Bois toward the end of her life. And it’s phenomenal. At this point, she’d been in Florida for a long time, she was in Daytona Beach, and she writes, Dear Dr. Du Bois, I read the paper the other day, and it’s so good to see that you’re still active up there in Harlem, and you’re still interacting with all the Negroes and the movers and shakers—she’s always tongue-in-cheek. And she says, but I feel like there is an incredibly important undertaking that you never acted upon, and I’ve been meaning to say this to you for years, and I’d like to propose it to you now. She says, I think that you should erect a burial ground for the “illustrious Negro dead.” And she says, now, I’m down here in Florida, and there’s lots of land. As far as you can see there are oleanders and the insect-repellent camphor tree. You can get about ten acres down here for about a dollar. You should throw some fancy luncheons with them fancy Negroes up there in Harlem, raise some money, and y’all come down here and buy some plot of land. I’ll help you. She says, what we need to do is bury all the illustrious Negro dead and Negro artists here in this burial ground on this plot of land. But, she said, there should be no statues of Jesus or Mary because that’s what got us into this trouble to begin with. I think that you should take statues from Black folklore, there are several of my stories you might read to draw inspiration. Make sure that High John the Conqueror stands at the gate. She says, and then also, let’s bury all the celebrities here, whether in good financial condition or not at time of death, whether they’ve been marred by some scandal or not. Bring them here. Bury them here. And then go procure the bones of Nat Turner and Fred Douglass, and let them rest here too, because that will surely draw an audience. She says, charge no admission at the gate, except to white folk. All Black people should go free. And then she says, make sure that on this burial site, you also erect an artist’s colony, so that Black artists, for years and years to come, can come sit, look out the window over this graveyard, and summon their muse.
I was in tears. This is in a book of letters to Du Bois—at this point, she was in obscurity. And I wept, and I felt compelled, more so than ever in my entire life, to say something, write something, investigate Black identity in artistic culture in America. How much of it kills you, how much of it doesn’t, how much of it are you a part of, how much of it are you not. And the last thing she says, is, make sure that this land is somewhere near water, so the dead can listen to each other speak. And she says, I’ll help you if you should choose to do this. Until then, Zora.
It’s very interesting to read that Du Bois did respond to the letter months later. It’s very brief. He just says, Zora, good to hear from you, didn’t know where you were, hadn’t heard from you in so many years. The project you’re talking about seems quite elaborate and beyond me at this point. But if you should choose to do it, the best, Dr. Du Bois. You can tell that he read her letter and said, It’s sad, Zora’s lost her mind. But when you look at the history of this thing, and you see that that woman died in obscurity and broke, was buried in an unmarked grave and all of that, you see that she basically was prophesying what was about to happen. And not only to her.
Here’s the greater point: Whatever art you do, as long as you are Black in America, it’s phenomenal and it’s irrelevant. As soon as it’s relevant, it’s [AQ7]irrelevant. Recognize that. Recognize how temporary your contribution to this American thing can be, and how you play a part in it. That’s why I wrote Smoke, Lilies, and Jade. That’s why I wrote Talk, and it’s why I’m working on one now called Not the Flesh of Others, about the sixties to the eighties.
CYG: Would you talk about your No Black Male Show?
CHR: No Black Male Show is really about what I was talking about earlier. Again, what I think is the relevance of my own identity as well as the vanishing, and the irrelevance of my identity. It’s stories and poems from the book I wrote, Pagan Operetta [1999].
Partly it’s about growing up, traveling, going off to West Africa, where I lived for a bit, and talking about my American objectification of and idealism of Africa. Also in the play, I used found academic material. There’s a book about the Black family written by this man, [AQ8] Prescott, in 1900. They’re really these wonderful cultural studies, social studies. He says, the Black male is rarely home with the wife and the children. And if he is home, he is often loafing about while the female is working and sweeping because the Black male is seldom the breadwinner of his family. All these silly superstitions. It’s very interesting to read this because these were actual social studies of Black families. And so we read these things periodically throughout this show. I leave it open: Have any of these things changed? Are they true or are they not true? What of the perception itself? It’s a very strange sort of lecture/demonstration/poetic movement with me, two sisters, and a multipercussionist.
KSJ: In “Elmina Blues Opus,” on your album [Rux Revue, Sony/550 Music], you begin by saying, They took away the drum, so I use my voice [see poem, page TK]. There’s a turn to the voice, but you’re not leaving the drum behind. This is the second part of the question that I asked you earlier, that became a discussion about voice: Of course, the voice can appropriate rhythms that are inside the drum. But what is it about rhythm that is so significant and was so foreign to Europe, and then to America and the world, that in your work you continue to draw on and continues to be so significant?
CHR: I can’t answer what was foreign about it to Europe, because I don’t know the European relationship to percussion. I really don’t know that history. I think it’s a really interesting question. I think it’s worthy of being investigated. But what I can answer is I don’t leave the drum behind, but that’s not even my point. I don’t use my voice instead of the drum. I use my voice in cooperation or collaboration with the drum. It goes back to what we were all talking about earlier, which was about a very homespun vernacular, a coded language, a way of talking to each other that’s not global. A way of talking to each other that’s not international, that’s not for everybody, but it’s very specific, and how that is vanishing. So when I say “they took away the drum,” it’s referring to that whole process when Europeans as well as Americans took the drum as an instrument away from the slaves so that they could not communicate. Because the drum was being used to communicate with each other, as we all know.
When I wrote that poem, I was in Ghana. I remember walking through the streets with a friend, and there was this drumming, and people out there, and I didn’t quite understand what was going on, and my friend Kwabena told me it was a funeral. And he was breaking down the whole Ghanaian drum thing as well as the Nigerian drum thing. There was the ogene and there was the abia[AQ9]. One was a drum used for the celebration of life, one was used to alert a community, to say we need a meeting, we have to come talk because there’s been a death or whatever. And I began to sort of chant, which is what I do on that cut, “Ogene, ogene.” It was the first time I’d actually even used my voice that way without the vibrato dropping down in the breath too much. Not that I heard anybody chant like that either in Ghana or Nigeria. But it was just that my voice responded to the drumming and the percussion that was around me and to those words. It was my way of remembering and learning those words, ogene and abia.
I really want to explain what it meant for me to say that when they took away the drums, I use my voice. Something very specific happened to me at the end of my experience in Ghana. I had decided at one point, I’m just going to stay. This is great. I want to live here. This is fun. I don’t want to go back to America. But before I’d left for West Africa, I had a buddy—Frederick—[AQ10]who I’d gone to high school with—he was dying in a hospital of AIDS. He was twenty-one. I visited him before I went to Africa. He always had this great sense of humor, laughing and being silly. When I left, I said, “I’m going to see you when I come back, and I’m going to bring you something.” I would constantly call my friend Marcelle, who sings with me, to check in on Frederick[?]. I would call a lot, and she would tell me he was doing fine.
At one point, I went to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and different places where it wasn’t so easy for me to call America. When I finally got back to Ghana from Abidjan and I called home—it was at night, I was with my friend Kwabena,—I called Marcelle, and was telling her about all the things, what the Ivory Coast was like, and she was telling me that Frederick[?] was dead. I wouldn’t hear it! I kept saying all the things that I’d gotten for her and her baby. And she kept saying, “Carl, Frederick’s[?] dead. I still wouldn’t hear it until finally, the next thing I knew, sometime later, I just about collapsed on a dirt road. In tears, broken-hearted, like I’d never been broken-hearted before in my life. Cried like I hadn’t even when my brother died. I mean, I was in pain. Kwabena and another person were with me and got me back to my cabin. They didn’t even know what was up. And I guess I barely told them. I went in my room, and I locked the door. I was sitting there completely destroyed.
By the way, that whole collapse and crying thing happened in Nkrumah Circle, so it was public. People saw me. And I’m not a publicly demonstrative person that way. But I was crushed. Half-an-hour later, I hear this knocking at the door, and I can hear Kwabena and all these people outside. He’s saying, “Carl, come out.” I had the lights off, and I didn’t even respond for a while. They kept banging on the door, and he said, “Carl come outside.” And I was yelling through the door, “No, just go away. It’s all right, I’d really rather be alone right now.” When I looked out the window, there was probably about forty people, Ghanaians, most of whom I didn’t even know. And it’s the middle of the night. It’s about two in the morning. Forty people out there. All standing outside. He’s standing there, and he’s saying to me, “No, we won’t allow you to stay in your room alone because your friend has died. You have to understand that we deal with death very differently here than how you deal with it in America. You’re not allowed to be alone. You’re not allowed to sit in your room and grieve. You’re not allowed to be in an insular space in the dark. You have to come out here with us because you lost someone, so we’ve lost someone. We’re all here together, right?” I had to come outside and they insisted that we be together all night, that we walk around, that we go back to the square and eat some fish, and we have a beer, and they sing. And they just stayed around me. I was in a daze. I didn’t even know half these people, but somehow it had spread that I’d lost somebody, so this became an event. This was time for a ritual. This was time for some pageantry and for some company. I learned then that I had company, which is a very hard lesson to learn growing up in foster care, having such dissonant experiences with relatives. I learned that I had company, that I could always have company.
Being American, not having that kind of experience available to me is, for me, the significance of a drum being subtracted from my culture. We have our own rituals, and we have our own pageantry, but we are removed from such very deep and almost basic, casual, incidental things that concern us [AQ11]and sustain us.
I have to say, that kind of company, I had never experienced in my life. That kind of caretaking, I’d never experienced. And so that’s the drum. So, when I say in that song, they took away the drums so I use my voice, it’s like my voice now, ever since that experience and others in my life, becomes my own drumming. And it doesn’t matter if somebody’s playing the drum.
When you ask me what is the drumming in music and what does it mean—the drum is one of the most political instruments we have. I think that our experience—when I say our I mean people of color, especially in America: marginalized people, ghettoized people, invalidated people, and anybody who’s called a minority, anybody insulted with that term, the experience you have has to be percussive. It’s not melodic. It can’t be. If you’re ghettoized, disenfranchised, marginalized minority, where is the melody? You can find a melody, but the driving force to me is the beat, because it’s a pulse. And every moment you are living at a certain pulse. I think melody is beautiful, I think melody sort of hangs in the air. You don’t have to be ghettoized to relate to the drum, but I think that there’s a sensibility to it. Uniquely rural. And urban is rural to me too. An urban experience is very rural experience—it’s not a cosmopolitan experience—and I think there’s something unique, it’s like the pulse of nature and the pulse of our bodies and how we set our hearts. That whole beat. We respond to it, and it’s deep where we go.
My fascination with the drum is to see how it influences our bodies in a way that has never influenced any other bodies. If you go to a Black church, and see how the drum influences the body to collapse or to shout rhythmically, or to flail, or to be inconsolable and uncontrollable, or if the drum has inspired us to break dance, almost similar in church, but it’s so highly formed.
KSJ: This is something that I’m very interested in, and even down to the biology of it. I think a lot of it has to do with multiple cognition and the process of thought, and the experience of the mind under oppression and the possibilities of experience within the context of rhythm. I’m talking about the body, body cognition.
CHR: Professor Vèvè Clark at UC, Berkeley, wrote this really great paper about the milieu de memoire, the environment of memory, which is what I think you’re talking about when you talk about embodied cognition and its relationship to our biological, physiological relationship to instrumentation, to drumming, to beats, to rhythm. How it gets us to do what people have been doing for centuries without anyone showing us how to do it. It’s phenomenal.
You don’t have to teach somebody how to fall down in the church. I remember the first time that happened to me in the church. Like I said, I didn’t grow up in it, but it was one of those moments when that choir was singing that song, and the girl was just hittin‘ them notes and she kept going higher and higher and higher, and the hands and the feet, and the swirl, and the sweat and the movement around me and the pulse of the beating, and it was just one of the strangest experiences I’d ever had in my life. Beautiful. I was fourteen. Then it was me. The environment of memory.
KSJ: If we’ve come to a certain place with regard to what the music can mean for people of color, and if hip hop is one of the evolutions of this—the voice within the context of hip hop—what can we expect rhythmically from people under oppression, who have the gift, have the use of rhythm to express and articulate themselves?
CHR: So you’re asking, what is the future?
KSJ: Yes, what’s the next thing?
CHR: It’s interesting. I’m definitely not a prophet or a foreseer. One of the things that I found incredibly interesting, that I don’t find people talking about enough, that I identified as far back as the early nineties, and now I hear it even more, and it’s still not being identified as such is, in the Black female R & B voice, you started to hear a return to jazz phrasing. For me, it kind of really begins with Mary J. Blige. And I said this to her and she didn’t believe what I was talking about. Even her last hit, “Come on everybody, let’s get on board” [Hancock Rux scats lyrics from the song]. It’s not the R & B girl thing. It’s a return to almost jazz scat phrasing, and she does this constantly. Constantly summons for me Dinah Washington and these people who were singing a certain way. And there’s something really important about the phrasing. This jazz thing, I hear it. It’s kind of funny to see it crop up. For me, it’s almost like a spirit. I imagine in my head that there is some old female jazz singer, the mother of all jazz singers, who has decided to come and touch the shoulders of these women who aren’t even thinking about them, as far as I know. I think there’s always going to to be...a return to something. People are creating walls and environments of sound. Last night, I performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom with DJ Spooky who just made this album Optometry that I’m on with the jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. We had Steven Carter on bass and these other cats playing drums and stuff, and it was great to hear the crazy worlds that Spooky creates on vinyl and these really out-there sounds. But then to have Matthew Shipp playing this rapid, avant-garde sort of jazz, but he’s not being Cecil Taylor, he’s being now. And I think there’s something that’s happening in there. I think that there is something about these people who are interested in juxtapositions and interested in the odd groupings of things, returning to the old, but putting it in an odd context.
I think there is something very tribal, at the same time very technological, very sort of computer-generated, which is not a bad thing. Creating environments of sound. I think music somehow is going to find the old and bring it into the context of something very next, you know what I mean? I think we’re going to return to as far back as we can go. That’s what I think. I think we’re about to start just reaching back. I think people are going to find something very ancient, very old. That environment of memory that is just waiting to be occupied.

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