Sunday, September 25, 2016

Politics is

Politics is 
raw meat in the Colosseum of thought. 
Poets have no business there.  
Political rhetoric is tangled
in crisscrossed veins of ideology, 
matted in dogma’s grey hair.  
Political prizes are big game, 
majestic symbols of freedom,
slaughtered and mounted 
for sport and fame.  
Politics are bloody tough 
when well-done, 
bloody when tender, 
blood-sweet and salty. 
Politics is the amplified grunts 
of cavemen in suits 
holding guns 
with scopes.
Politics is
not for me.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

RIP Afeni Shakur

RIP Afeni Shakur. Met her once and she was every bit as fierce as Tupac. She told a room full of activists that if they didn't find God and use God's love in their work, that they would destroy themselves. She said she saw the Panthers destroy themselves and each other because they didn't work for a love greater than ideology. The room was unreceptive, except for the youth. The teen organizers in the room literally ran up to her like she was a superstar as soon as she got off the stage to lukewarm applause from the adult activists. Van Jones, who was the convener of the event, came on after her and stood up for her truth, reinforcing her by pausing the event until she got a proper show of appreciation from the audience. I walked up to her in the hallway as she was hugging a circle of five or six teens like they were her own children. I said "thank you for Tupac and thank you for telling these fools what they need to hear." She just smiled and gave me a hug. A powerful, wise, warm woman. Tupac's mama. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Lyrical Prince

After Prince died, a young person asked me what was Prince’s best song.  I scoffed out a laugh.  Song?  No way to pick a song.  You can barely pick an album.  There is just too much, too diverse a catalogue of songs in Prince’s creative treasure to pick one of anything.   This is a man who started his first album, 1978s For You, with an acapella arrangement of vocals that no pop star has ever attempted.  Not Michael.  Not Whitney.  Not Stevie.  

I’m not saying Prince is more talented, or better than any of these artists, or that he’s the only one who could do this.  I am saying he’s the only one who would do this.  Because Prince always seemed to give his all from this very beginning, fully trusting his talent and musical instincts.  How can you pick a song or album from an artist who poured his entire being into every song?  You can’t.

But in the spirit of doing the impossible, as Prince seemed to do daily, let’s take a shot at it.  I’m going to propose that the best Album for pure musicality has to be Parade, the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon.  The why of that choice will be reserved for some future writing.  But if I’m picking my favorite, all around Prince Album, it is Around the World in a Day.  Both of these albums are masterpieces in my opinion.  But Around the World in A Day reveals so much about Prince and about America while traversing a weird, fantastic, meticulously layered landscape of pop, jazz, funk, R&B, rock, and even gospel.  The album hands America a mirror and says look at yourself you beautiful mess.

Rather than spend a bunch of time trying to speak for Prince.  I’ll use his words to speak for themselves and trust myself as a listener enough to venture interpretations.  Why?  Because Prince is a poet and a storyteller.  And while many will acknowledge him as perhaps among the greatest musicians to ever live, I don’t know enough about music to give him his due there.  But as a poet and storyteller who dreams in colorful words, I wish to give Prince the poet his due.

Track 1:  Around The World in a Day
The song starts with a middle eastern sounding flute, drum, and a guttural scream that sounds like the prototypical woman in childbirth.   Mirroring his “sermon” at the beginning of “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince says:

Lonliness already knows you. 
There ain’t no reason to stay. 
Come here, take my hand, I’ll show you. 
I think I know a better way. 

A Poet’s Translation (with my best imitation Prince swaggitude):  Y’all stay lonely like y’all here to keep lonliness company.  Forget that.  Let’s come together and go around the world to find a better way. 

These lines may well be Prince’s paradox: a manifesto and cry for help.  Prince, the notoriously private life of the party, is pleading with the world to leave lonliness and come with him to find the way to Paisley Park, AKA Freedom.  Which brings us to track number two.

Track 2:  Paisley Park
The song has a very simple bass drum double-beat thumping under circus-like, high pitched pipes that play strange and almost dissonant sounds.  It brings the heart to mind.  The steady beat pushing lifeblood through artery pipes in rhythmic swishes.  This sound sets up as a fantastical background for the lyrics, which explain how Paisley Park, the name of Prince’s real life musical production, performance and party campus in his hometown Minneapolis, Paisley Park is in your heart.  Prince then tells a few stories of the people in Paisley Park.  One of whom is a woman who is unhappy because she hasn’t forgiven someone.

There is a woman who sits all alone by the pier. 
Her husband was naughty and caused his wife so many tears. 
He died without knowing forgiveness and now she is sad. 
Maybe she’ll come to the park and forgive him
and life won’t be so bad in Paisley Park.

The meaning in these very simple lines is profound in its expansiveness.  Not only is the unforgiven man sad for eternity, so is his wife left to suffer the weight of having not forgiven him.  The only balm is forgiveness and without it neither is free to enjoy Paisley Park.  And Paisley Park, as described throughout the song, is Freedom.

Track 3: Condition of the Heart
This song is simply a weird, beautiful, musical movie.  Prince’s singing is strange and ethereal.  But the lyrics are basic storytelling that seem to reveal lots of vulnerability and empathy, traits that the notoriously cocky Prince showed freely.  Check out this self-deprecating line:

There was a dame in London who insisted that he love her,
then left him for a real prince from Arabia.

Here Prince admits being left, and, even though his real name is Prince, feels he isn’t a “real” prince no matter how much money or fame he has.  And this dame, who could tell the difference, leaves him for the bigger fish.

Then there is this line, that both brings an unrequited love from another world in Paris down to his level and raises the woman who is present in his world, a friend maybe, up on the pedestal of his attention that she deserves.  

There is a woman from the ghetto who makes funny faces,
just like Clara Beau. 
How was I to know that she would wear the same cologne
and giggle the same giggle as you do
whenever I would act a fool,
the fool with a condition of the heart?

Prince captures all of the hope and dashed hopes, madness and clarity, boldness and self-loathing that happens in love.  And that’s only in the words.  Once again, the music is a story in itself.  As is the case with track four.

Track 4:  Rasberry Beret
This consummate pop song, which may as well have been written by Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel, is a short story about a dude working in a nowhere job for “Mr. McGhee” who doesn’t like him because he’s “a bit to leisurely.” An exceedingly fine woman walks in wearing a second hand hat.  He engages and gets her on his bike for a ride to “Old Man Johnson’s Farm” (hint hint).  It’s a silly, light pop song for sure, but there are some hidden gems of wordplay and poetry.  Like these:

Overcast days never turn me on
but something about the clouds and her mixed. 
She wasn’t to bright,
but I could tell when she kissed me,
she knew how to get her kicks

What a way to describe a free spirit.  May not be too bright, not overly concerned about the complexities of life and love, but certainly aware of how to get what she wants.
Then there is the barn, love-making scene.  Peak Prince poetics. 

The rain sounds so cool
when it hits the barn roof
And the horses wonder who you are
Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees
You feel like a movie star

Come on now.  That’s strong freedom imagery wrung through the simple pleasure, the simply magnificent performance of sex.  The motifs of simplicity (rain against a roof, the simple wonder of horses) against complexity (weather, the curious look of animals, dubious fame) are woven throughout the song:  the second hand store hat and not needing to wear much more than that, of being watched by haughty horses and not caring, lights flashing to reveal everything and the thunder covering everything like a blanket of sound… all that says freedom beats fame, fun beats propriety and the girl in the raspberry beret, ‘built like she was’ and wet under the rainstorm, is better than the world’s (and Prince’s) supermodels.  

The last interesting twist in the song is in the chorus.  “I think I love her.”  When Prince loves a woman he doesn’t “think” he loves her.  He adores her.  His love is insatiable.  Whereas he “thinks” he loves this little bit of fun.  Hint:  He doesn’t and pays a spiritual price for it later in the album (Temptation).

Track 5:  Tambourine
Listen to the song.  Think about it.  No comment on the meaning.  You who know the song know why.  Listen to the song.  It is funky and fun.  No comment on the meaning, but it’s placement after Rasberry Beret and before America is important.  He doesn’t need the lady in the beret, because he has his magazine and his “tambourine/trampoline.”  But what does he need?  America has something to say about that. 

Track 6:  America
Here Prince goes in on America the Beautiful, which he savages with vicious guitar riffs.  But he saves his most ferocious expression for the lyrics where he exposes the America of “the woman in the one room jungle, monkey cage” and of “the boy who won’t stand for the pledge” and now “lives on a mushroom cloud.”  This song is a prescription for an America enamored with a false vision of its perfection sold by populist politicians.  They sell the American dream and the boogey men in its shadows waiting to turn it into a nightmare.  With this song Prince reminds us that for some of us, America has long been a nightmare and he seeks to wake us up to a dream beyond, a freedom beyond, which is what this whole album speaks to.  And Prince speaks to it clearly in his chorus:

America, America
God shed his grace on thee
America, America
Keep his children Free

Track 7:  Pop Life
One of my favorite Prince songs, because it is as straight-forward as can be with regard to social commentary.  It is so spot on about today, you could forget that it was written 30 years ago.  Listen to this song now and often.   Listen to the lyrics, to the burst of riot or sport that interrupts the choruses towards the end of the song.  This song is, and I hate using this cliché pop term, but it’s so apropos here, this song is everything.  I’ll just point out a few lines:

What’s the matter with your life? 
Is the poverty bringing you down? 
Is the mailman jerking you round? 
Did he put your million dollar check in someone else’s box?”  

We all think we are going to get rich, don’t we?  Isn’t that the American dream?  But are we all just waiting on the proverbial ‘mailman’ to drop luck on us, like he seems to drop it on all our neighbors?  Are we all chasing each other wondering if the other has some hidden advantaged delivered by the ‘mailman’ of fate or circumstance?
Then there’s the chorus:  

Pop life.  Everybody needs a thrill. 
Pop Life.  We all got a space to fill. 
Pop life.  Everybody can’t be on top. 
Life it ain’t real funky,
unless it’s got that pop.

That’s the chorus.  Go put this song in your life now.

Track 8:  The Ladder
The Ladder is a gospel song.  Its vocals and the arrangement sound like Gospel.  Prince’s echoing voice makes him sound like he’s singing and speaking at a stadium revival.  The song is inevitably compared to Purple Rain because of its massive sound, but it has nothing to do with Purple Rain.  The song is gospel, pure and simple.  That’s evident in the chorus.

Everybody’s looking for the answer. 
Everybody wants salvation of the soul. 
What’s the use of having half a story, half a dream. 
You have to climb the steps in between.

Here Prince keys us into what he thinks the “answer” is.  The answer is the walk, the climb from where you are to where you are going.  The destination and starting point are only half the story, half the dream.  And what’s the use of that?  Walk in the question.  And with the last two songs, the question gets complicated.  What do you do when you literally can’t stand Prince’s lyrics? 

The last two songs on this album aren’t just hard to listen to lyrically.  I have not been able to listen to either song all the way through if I’m even paying the slightest attention to the meaning of the lyrics.  To put it mildly, I don’t enjoy the words of either of the last two songs Temptation and On the Couch.  They represent to me all the things people make fun of about Prince.  His turn towards an overbearing morality, his self-indulgence, and his resistance to feedback (because I’m absolutely certain somebody told him that these two songs do not belong on this masterpiece).

But here’s the amazing thing about Prince.  Even where he falls lyrically, the music rises to the occasion.  Both of these songs end up being sonically amazing.  Which makes sense, because both are about sex.  Prince himself admits in a recent Rolling Stone interview that when singing about sex, “It's almost hard to sing now, you can't even sing a word like that and make it sound like anything ... that you want it to. But I can take you out there and hit this guitar for you, and then what you'll hear is sex.” 

Both of the last two songs on this album are sonic sex, and like sex, words are unnecessary.  Prince would have done better trusting his instruments to speak for him on these.  And that brings us back to the core of this whole endeavor:  trust. 

I believe that if Prince’s musical journey, and maybe his life, had a core tension, that tension was about the dynamic energy swirling between points of trust and distrust, freedom and resistance.  Prince didn’t trust gender to contain all of him, but he trusted his own sexuality so much that this straight man felt comfortable dressing and at times acting/singing like a woman.   Prince didn’t seem to trust his musical comrades and so he played every instrument and worked his band to oblivion before shows.  Yet he so trusted his instincts and his players potential that he was able to orchestrate them into complete alignment and near perfection.  Prince didn’t trust us with his inner-most life, but he did pour himself on records with abandon.  Prince didn’t trust the industry, but trusted his fans enough to roll with him through a phase of namelessness and invisibility on the web.  Essentially, for Prince, trust seemed to be the ultimate gift that he reserved for a precious few that had to earn it and keep earning it… and trust was also something that he rained down on the world from a place of high knowing, a cloud of complete freedom to be.  It’s a strange thing, how trust seemed to work in the world of Prince.  However, his lyrics make it plain.  Prince seemed to trust one thing above all:  Freedom.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Weak by SWV, Jazz Remake... I'm all for this form of cultural appropriation

Sometimes jazz can be too complex for me to grasp.  And this remake is certainly complex on the verge of hard to get musically.  But it really brought out a beauty I never saw in the lyrics of the original.  SWV version was not complex, very pretty and well-sung.  But I never really appreciated the words till this...

Props to Brian Alexander Morgan for such a sweet composition and to SWV for bringing it to life.

Here's the original for you young souls...

I very much appreciate the original more now.  This is how Cultural Appropriation can pay respect.  Nothing wrong with cultural appropriation if it's not exploitative and actually shows the beauty of the original.  That should be the standard when a person takes on elements not of their culture...

Though I think the way he was treated is ridiculous and indicative of deep mental health issues in the activist/social justice community, this guy doesn't meet the standard for innocuous cultural appropriation.  See his explanation for why there is nothing wrong with him wearing dreadlocks below.

Certainly a teachable moment for Cory Goldstein and hopefully for the girl who berated him. I suggest they start by listening to both versions of "Weak" and discussing the merits/demerits of each over some Chai tea.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

    I steam therefore I am.
    Some say the "cream rises to the top."  But what do some mean? says this popular phrase refers to the belief that "a good person or idea cannot go unnoticed for long, just as cream poured in coffee or tea eventually rises to the top."  This malarkey is all about meritocracy, which is, according to Wikipedia, "a political philosophy holding that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent."  

    Okay even if that were true in our current political system, maybe it shouldn't be.  

    To those who say "The cream rises to the top," I say:  Sweat becomes the steam that pushes things to the top.  While comfort becomes the cream that curdles in the pot.

    Why?  Because cream, according to Wikipedia (and me),  is "a dairy product composed of the higher-butterfat layer (a layer, not something of deep substance) skimmed (not attained through any deep thinking) from the top of milk before homogenization (cream is the result of the first part of the process of stripping away the unified glory of milk). In un-homogenized milk (that raw, uncut, open milk that's like hip hop before Ad-men got involved), fat (the flabby, jiggly, mess we all want less of), which is less dense (aka less substantive), will eventually (how long do we wait for over-hyped, crap movies and albums that are almost never worth it?) rise to the top." Now we know why most of the stuff at the top of the music charts is such garbage.  Because C.R.E.A.M.

    Cream is only good when from free range and grass-fed cows, and only served in small amounts  in large mugs of fair trade coffee or large bars of fair trade chocolate (picked and processed by worker-owned cooperatives) sipped and bit to provide a boost to those of us who work to make things happen so that our sweat becomes the steam that pushes us to the top to defy C.R.E.A.M. so that one day we can all say 'I sweat therefore I am and because I am, the world is better than it was.'

Friday, February 5, 2016

Performance at Imagining America Conference: Mass Transit Muse/Be Encouraged

Audio recording of my featured performance at American Studies Association national conference in Baltimore: Imaging America.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bowie in 1999

David Bowie, in a 1999 interview, said of the Internet, “I think we are on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying,” before disagreeing with his interviewer who described the emerging system of information gathering and distribution as ‘just a tool.’ 
“No.  It’s an alien life form,” said Bowie with a wheezy laugh.
When David Bowie died, two days after releasing his final album, Lazarus, a reference to the legend of the man Jesus raised from the dead, he scripted the last line in a life of poetry that he crafted from a metamodern ethos still in its cocoon.  Bowie lived and died before his time, and in both his life and death, he gave us a glimpse of the good that can come of our emergent techno-society.  That is if we are as deliberate as he was in crafting poetics, in the classical sense, out of our on-line lives. 


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Been a While

Been a while... been working on some things.  Here's a hint:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Process is the Prize: What I know by 40... the measure of a life.

I grew up thinking that how much money we make, or who we marry, or if we have kids and what they do, or our careers will be the ultimate measure of a life.  I feel differently now.  

I measure my life in work, distance and time.  As much as I demand good outcomes from my effort, I've learned that the process is the prize.  It's in the process that you build the will and muscle needed to accomplish anything.  It's in the process that you learn how to handle failure, and how to handle success.

There's always going to be a new goal to reach for.  The process is the ultimate prize.  The best analogy for this is working out.

I've spent the last 39 days working out more consistently than I have since high school football.  It was hard.  The only way I could keep it up was to play math games to push myself.  And the measures were calories, distance, and time.  Why?

Calories are two units of energy, the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere.  Long story short, a calorie is a measure of work.

Distance is an amount of space between two things.  

Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.

So what?

By constantly focusing on how much work I was doing, the distance I was traveling, or the amount of time I was spending working, I felt like I am constantly achieving my goal.  It feels like the achievement of the goal at the end of my session was only a continuation of all of the goals I attained in the process of working out.  Ultimately the end of the session felt like just another goal towards another goal.  It kept me going.

Here's how:

First, I set the intention to measure everything in multiples of 15 because I want to spend the next 15 years till I turn 55 grinding to spend the 15 years after that reaping rewards.  To keep my mind on that big life goal, I created a measure of it (multiples of 15) and built it in to every part of my work out.  It not only felt good to pound that intention into my every step while running and every push while lifting, but it literally kept me going.  

Part of why I picked 15 is because the last 15 years have been tough.  I lost both my parents, lost my childhood home to Katrina, and took some serious financial hits.  I also got married, had two children, bought my first home and self-published several books.  It's been a period of contraction in which I've turned internal and focused on family, home, and creative vision.

Now I'm like a rubber band that's been pulled as far as it can pull.  I'm ready to spring out like potential released.  And the next 15 years will be all about expansion.  That's why I'm getting mind, body, and soul ready.

Here's how it has worked more specifically:

While running or doing elliptical or rowing or biking, I'd alternate goal setting between calories burned, distance and time.  Let's say I wanted to run 3.30 miles.  As I approached that distance, I'd look at my calories and go past 3.30 miles if it got me to an even number of calories burned (say 450 - a multiple of 15) or a whole number of minutes run (say 30 minutes - a multiple of 15).  Then I'd say well now that I'm at 3.38 miles I have to get to 3.45 miles.   But now I'm at 480 calories and I have to get to 490 (a multiple of 15) and on and on.  And even thought I knew I was playing a game with myself, it also felt like a serious commitment to this big goal of 15 years of expansion.

Long story short, now, 1 day before 40, I don't feel like tomorrow is the finish line, but just another step in the process.  Perfect way to start the next chapter of life.  And more importantly, a great lesson in how the process is the prize!