Negus in Paris

Negus in Paris

I’ve taken a writing hiatus of sorts due to much traveling – back to the States from Europe, DC for the 100th Year Celebration of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, Paris for the Black Portraiture[s] Symposium. I super promise to get back on penmanship right after this commercial break…because I have things to discuss – e.g. Django, Deltas, Negus in Paris, babies being slaughtered and more. Until then…

Pictured: Standing in front of one of Fahamu Pecou’s pieces in his latest body of work “Negus in Paris” which is on view now at BackSlash Gallery in Paris, France.
Photo Cred: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

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Just a Sucka For Santa

Judging from his teeth (or the lack thereof), the kid brother was about 3 years old in this picture.

Judging from his teeth (or the lack thereof), the kid brother was about 3 years old in this picture.

Me and my brothers

Me and my brothers

I remember my fascination with Christmas lights as a girl child. In fact, I would situate my bed in such a way that if I left my door open at night, I could see the Christmas tree in the living room, two rooms away from my bedroom. Sometimes I’d even sleep on the sofa, just to daze at them. I always loved Christmas. My mom dressed me up and introduced me to the world of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. My parents would take my brothers and I to see Christmas in the Oaks, a New Orleans tradition. We got new outfits for church and after church. On top of all of that, it had its perks, most especially because I was the child of two households, which means that I received double trips from Santa via my three parents. I loved the sights, the scents, the sounds…everything about Christmastime had me enamored.

Then I grew up and changed religions. Well, that’s not fair. Let me clarify. I graduated from college, became African-centered, stopped being a Christian and THEN decided that Christmas was an overrated gimmick that celebrated the birth of someone who was probably not born on that particular day and was a reason that everyone went broke come the first of the year for the extreme consumerism that took placed, all for the sake of spreading joy and good cheer, I mean celebrating little baby Jesus. (Yes, I know…that was both a mouthful and a super run-on.)

So what happened? Instead of hustling through airports, baggage claim and malls with millions of other Americans, I stayed at home wherever I lived on the East Coast. Meanwhile, the rest of my family gathered over gumbo and good times in New Orleans. This went on for a few years. Year #1 – I was glowing in my self-righteous excitement and not participating in the system. Year #2 – I avoided hanging around my friends’ families who took pity on me, because it made me sad. Year #3 – I was just plain ole depressed. I ba hum bugged my way through the entire holiday and sang Christmas carols to myself until the madness was over.

At some point, I gave up. I realized that there was nothing wrong with Santa. Besides overseeing countless of elves, Santa, to my knowledge, never did anything to anyone. I put the extremist views aside, and embraced the fact that I absolutely LOVE the holidays. Other than the fact that I still don’t buy into the hype of (nor the actual act) of spending ridiculous amounts of money on presents, especially on children who will be over them 5 minutes after they’re unwrapped, (it’s ok, maybe I’m cheaper than I thought), I go for the gusto when it comes to the celebration of good ole St. Nick. Yeah, Yeah, I know that Jesus is the reason for the Season and truth be told, little baby Jesus never did anything to me either. It was just the enslavers who used his name to rape, murder, enslave and colonize my people that I have beef with. But I digress.

This year, a couple of weeks after my return to the States from the Netherlands, I boarded a plane and came to Chicago to chill with my parents who decided to spend the holiday here with my younger brother and 3-year old niece. Other than the temperature wars that go down anytime I’m with my family (some, like myself, like it hot…and others, like them, like it cold. Go figure.), I feel blessed, to spend this time with these people, my people. Of course all families have their issues and mine is no exception. However, having moments like last night, when we took the 3-year old to see the lights at the zoo, was pretty much priceless. No amount of soapboxing or consciousness can compete with her and I skipping through sidewalks lined with light bulb tyrannosaurus rex’s.

Since I’ve been here, Mama has cooked gumbo. I’ve been playing Christmas in Hollis on repeat, with snippets of Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special intermittently. The 3-year old baked cookies with her best friend at her other grandparents’ house. I’ve watched the Nutcracker at least once. And I even put a few gifts under the tree.

This probably isn’t my most intellectual moment of them all but I write all of this to say, Happy Kwanzaa’s Eve/Festuvus/Hanukkah and all that Jazz. And lastly, a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Me, the kid brother and his mini-me bka the 3-year old.

Me, the kid brother and his mini-me bka the 3-year old.

The Light

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Enjoy a few of my faves!

Black Magic Women of the Netherlands, I Salute You.

Black Magic Woman Festival

Last month, I was invited to deliver a speech as one of the international guests speakers at the 17th Annual Black Magic Woman Festival in Amsterdam. Myself, along with Indian American artist Sheetal Gandhi, were asked to deliver a “Mind Slap,” a term used by the organizers for speeches intended to stir things up a bit. I must admit, I was a bit hesitant about the expectation to deliver a controversial speech that spoke directly to Dutch media and society at-large. After having been confronted with resistance by some of my earlier remarks regarding race and racism (not many though), I wasn’t so sure whether or not I wanted to rattle things any further. 

I think my essay about racism in the Netherlands had done enough stirring for everybody involved. I also did not want to set myself up as some sort of easy target for individuals looking for a scapegoat to direct anger towards, as opposed to confronting pressing issues directly. No thank you. I was not interested. I instead, decided to focus my remarks on a sort of charge to the young women who the festival targeted.

Surprisingly, my speech was very well received, both young and old alike thanked me and acknowledged that not only did they find my remarks inspiring but “true” as one elder told me when she saw me towards the end of the evening. Later that weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Fall performance of Jetty Mathurin’s “The ConsulTAANTE” at DeLaMar Theater, one of the country’s most prestigious theaters. It was while sitting through her two-hour performance with her daughters and their significant others, or shall I say laughing through her two-hour performance that I marveled at a real live Black Magic Woman in action. (Despite the fact that I didn’t understand a lick of what she was saying as the entire performance was in Dutch).

Soon after, I interviewed Jetty Mathurin over a home-cooked meal by her eldest daughter, Glynis Terborg, and later, Ernestine Comvalius, the Director of Krater and Biljmerpark Theaters, the organizations that largely supports the Black Magic Woman Festival. I’ve learned so much about these two warrior women, phenomenal women, that left me encouraged and excited about recording and sharing their stories.

Both women are from Suriname and have different but similar tales of uprooting and coming to the Netherlands. They each found their own way, despite obstacles and challenges, as two Black women in a country where there weren’t many women, let along people, that reflected their own identities women immgrants, as Surinamese, as Black people. Despite various experiences, they both believed in themselves, broke down barriers and created a path where there was none. They are trailblazers, phenomenal women who have established themselves and a new example for what Black women can achieve through their own fruition and with the support of their communities.

I recognize these women for the Black Magic Woman that they are and am inspired to become an even better one myself. It also makes me reflect on the numerous young Black women here in the Netherlands whose paths I’ve crossed, who are asserting themselves and creating their own paradigms, via various platforms. Women such as Nicole and Glynis Terborg, Patricia Kaersenhout, Jennifer Baarn, Seada Nourhoussen, Saundra Williams, Judith Leysner, Bel Parnell-Berry, Dana Saxon, Heidi Lobato, Esperanzah Denswill, Iris Kensmill, Efua Heyliger, Joelle Raus, Ama Korateng Kumi, Silvia Martes, Bēylul Yosef-Ykeallo, Faranú, Hodan Warsame, Stephanie Afrifa and Jennifer Tosch and many others who I have yet to meet – are doing the damn thing. To all of the aforementioned and those unnamed, who are here in the Netherlands, making a difference, striving to tap into your unique potential, day in and day out, conjuring magic in the evenings and under full moons, as your sister in power, I salute you.

“Letter to the Black Magic Woman”
17th Black Magic Woman Festival
“MindMEP”
November 9, 2012

I would like to both thank Maureen Healy and Saundra Williams for inviting me to participate in the 17th edition of the Black Magic Woman Festival and congratulate them in advance for a job well done. I would also like to acknowledge Ernestine and Director of Biljmerpark Theater Ernestine Comvalius for being such a gracious hostess. I would also like to congratulate Patricia and Jeanette on a powerful collaboration.

As you all know, the theme for this year’s Black Magic Woman Festival is “Be You.”

Before I begin, I would like to ask by a show of hands, how many of you all know what Adinkra symbols are? For those of you who are unaware, Adinkra symbols are aesthetic symbols attached to proverbs that are a part of Akan culture, which is comes from Ghana, West Africa. There is a very popular Adinkra symbol, Sankofa which means to go back to your past and fetch it. Before we can move forward as a collective this evening, it’s critical that I go back to my roots to explain a little bit about the experiences and events that created the woman that you see standing before you today. In essence, I will share with you some of the personal experiences about myself that make me, me.

First and foremost, I am a Black American woman. In the States, there have been times in my life where I have said, I’m not American, I’m an African! And then I travel to other parts of the world and the first things that come out of people’s mouths are “America! America!” sometimes I’ve even heard, Obama! Obama! Depending where I am, I’ll say no, Jamaica or Nigeria. Anything but America because of course, for whatever reason, people automatically assume that America means money and then I have to explain that the Americans with the real money are the other Americans and they don’t look me.

Secondly, I am a daughter of New Orleans and let me be clear. Contrary to popular belief, all Black Americans are not the same. New Orleans, where we say, “hey baby!” and eat gumbo and second line is different from ATL where they say “hey shawty!” or Los Angeles or Chicago or Do or Die Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. New Orleans is a magical city, what some people call the most Caribbean, most African city in the United States of America. When people die, we dance in the streets. During carnival, we masquerade as warriors. And no matter what I do, or how long I’m away from home, I can’t get rid of my accent.

Next, I have to share that for a vast majority of my life, I’ve been surrounded in a sea of Blackness, where Black Power and Possibilities have been explored, celebrated and realized. It is from this framework and understanding of self that I move about the world. I’ve gone to Black schools, I have Black friends and lovers, I’ve lived in Black neighborhoods, I’ve studied Black Studies, I practice a “Black” or African religion, I work in Black Institutions, I read Black books, listen to Black music, I travel to Black places and basically, I’m into Black things.

So now that I’ve introduced myself, I would like to take the opportunity to ask, who exactly are you?

Are you Black?
• The first thing I ask people who are phenotypically Black, and when I say Black, I mean, despite how light or dark you are, or how curly or straight your hair is, there are certain cultural markers that are expressed in the Black community from here to Salvador de Bahia or Lagos, Nigeria.
• So that’s why I then ask, are you an allochtoon because dominant white culture, the nation-state has labeled you as one?
• Do you embrace your own cultural heritage or do you try your best to assimilate into mainstream society by speaking perfect Dutch, forgetting your language (or not learning it), hanging out with all Dutch people and playing make-believe that you aren’t different in any way? Are you one of the people who say that you are color blind to avoid talking about race and taking ownership of your identity?
• There are communities of immigrants in the States that have been there for a few generations and if you ask them who they are they will tell you: I’m Italian, I’m Jewish, or my favorite, I’m Puerto Rican. In some cases, these people have never been to their “homeland” but boldly proclaim their ties their cultural narrative.
• I understand how frustrating it must be to always have to explain your background especially if you were born here, just because someone doesn’t think that you belong or believes that you should go back to where you come from. But should you deny the things about your heritage that makes you different and stand out in a special way?

Are you Magical?
• How powerful are you? I ask this question because a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog in response to the movie Alleen Maar Nette Mensen. In the essay, I said that beyond being utterly disgusted by the degrading racist and sexist images of Black women throughout the film, I left the theater shocked, that the movie was screening in theaters in the first place. I was surprised that there were no major protests or boycotts, prior to the release of the film. That there wasn’t a public outcry to shut that movie down. Of course there were many discussions and debates organized when the book was published and even after the film has circulated around theaters and KLM airplanes for the past couple of months. However, I ask you, are you powerful? And for those of you who thought the film was funny, I urge you to read Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. An enslaved and colonized mind is the worst kind to have.
• How many of you read the book and were as equally disgusted? How many of you refused to the see the film because you know how problematic it was?
• In my essay, I quoted Zora Neale Hurston who said, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say that you enjoyed it.”
• Some of you may be aware of the Nina Simone movie that is in production in which Zoe Saldana was selected to play the Black goddess, Ms. Simone. As Black women and men, we have been outraged! Not a day passes by that we aren’t posting on facebook, writing blogs, and speaking out against the fact that instead of honoring the memory of the legendary Nina Simone, the director decided to hire a light skin actress, put her in black face, with a prosthetic nose and kinky wig. We are protesting this now and will continue to do so.
• I believe in magic. I’m surrounded by a group of men and women who manifest their realities. We believe in the law of attraction and visualization. During the new moon, we plant our intentions into the universe of things we would like to manifest in our lives. At the full moon, we release all of those things that do us not serve us, all of our fears, doubts, and the attitudes, behaviors and people that are holding us back from being our best selves.

Are you a Woman?
• In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered a speech, “Ain’t I Woman?” at a National Women’s Convention in Ohio. She asked this question because there are times in which society and even white feminists would make us believe that women of color don’t matter. That our opinions are insignificant. That our bodies are dispensable, whether we are the victims of sexual abuse and violence in our homes or our bodies and sacredness are exploited in music videos, magazines and films. We are told that our voices shouldn’t be heard.
• I ask, how much do you value your own womanhood?
Do you love your hair? Your real hair, the hair that God gave you? (Not just the hair that you bought from the mall?) Do you love your curves? Do you love the skin that you are in?
• Are your standards of beauty defined by Eurocentric aesthetic value? Do you wish you were blonder, thinner, whiter? In a society where Black men seem to value any woman other than a Black woman, and where many of us have problems with it, because despite the fact that we don’t talk about this publicly, I know what kinds of conversations go on behind closed doors, do you still feel valued? Do you feel loved? Do you love yourself?
• Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe that every day is a day full of new beginnings? Do you feel pretty? Sexy? Beautiful? Smart? Powerful? Or do you wake up, look in the mirror and feel uncomfortable with what you see? Now don’t get me wrong, we all have days when we wish we were thinner or in my case, I sometimes look in the mirror and say God, why didn’t you create me with a bigger butt? We all have things about ourselves that we would change, but the question is, do you love yourself despite your imperfections?

And lastly I ask, are you a Black Magic Woman? Whether you are of Dutch Caribbean, continental African, Asian, Turkish or Morroccan, there are many examples of women who have led the way for you to be here today. Do you know the names of your female ancestors and the brave women in history who have made it possible for you to be express yourself freely?

In the spirit of Sankofa, I can tell you the names of my own Black women freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Black women writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. Black dancers like Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham. Black women activists like Assata Shakur, Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis. Black women scholars like bell hooks and Audre Lorde. And even Black women icons like Oprah and First Lady Michelle Obama. And I can also call out the names of my ancestors – Gladys Calvin, Verna Bush, Ada Calvin, Rose Marie Wilson, Rose Lewis, Hilda Dave and Stella Agenor.

Can you call out the names of your own female ancestors and predecessors? The women who were the first doctors and lawyers, actresses, and priestesses, teachers, dancers and activists? If you don’t know their names, what’s stopping you from finding out and writing their biographies and producing documentaries about their lives, not just for yourselves, but for the young women and girls who are following you? Individuals like Maureen and Ernestine and Jetty Mathurine have done their job. Now it’s time to do yours, to pick up the baton and to achieve even more than they could have ever imagined accomplishing.

In closing, I would like to ask who were you when you stepped foot into this theater tonight and what kind of women do you want to become when you leave? Will you allow your life to be dictated by others whose framework won’t provide them with an understanding of your personal narrative? Or are you ready to create your own destiny, defined by your own terms and fueled by your personal passion whether they like it or not? I implore you to “Be You.” Not because everybody else is taken, but why would you want to be anyone else? And finally, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am a Black Magic Woman. And I know that you are a Black Magic Woman too. Thank you.

Jetty Mathurin

Jetty Mathurin

Ernestine Comvalius

Ernestine Comvalius

“Afropolitan Dreams”: A Beautyful One Has Been Born…and His Name is Blitz the Ambassador

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Blitz the Ambassador – Sound Check
10.15.12, Theater de la Ville
Paris, France

After spending some time recently with my homeboy Blitz the Ambassador, while he was in Paris for an incredible show at Theater de la Ville, which we can comfortably say was the equivalent of doing a show at Carnegie Hall, I thought about the level of growth I’ve had the honor of witnessing in this young man over the past couple of years. Blitz is a visionary. As evidenced by his music and professional trajectory, I’m happy to say that more than a year after my first interview with him, he is indeed diligently traveling on his path and committed to the task that our collective ancestors have bid him to complete. The title of his upcoming album Afropolitan Dreams speaks to this objective. He says that the album is a testament to “The aspirations of international globetrotting young people of African descent, making their mark on the world.” I couldn’t help but to smile when the white French man next to me asked me what was Blitz saying, and I told him “Akwaaba.” He was happily and proudly chanting “Akwaaba” for the rest of the number. In fact, our Ghanaian/Afropolitan dignitary brought a packed house of French people to their feet on a Monday night in Paris. Brother, you had my full support a year ago just as much as you do today and in the future. Looking forward to the science this young visionary is sure to bring next Spring when his anticipated Afropolitan Dreams drops. Until then, check out this profile I wrote about the brother that originally was published by the Bed-Stuy Patch.

One.

“A Beautyful One Has Been Born…and his name is Blitz the Ambassador”

Blitz has always come off as a quiet man—his demeanor is very quintessential Ghanaian. But much like the protagonist in Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 post-Independence classic, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, Blitz was sent with a message: liberation for African peoples from all things oppressive.

I know, from spending so much time around my “Fiyah Wata” Ghanaian besties and having had the opportunity to spend a short period of time in Accra with one of them, that underneath that cool surface is a whole lot of fire. That’s exactly what I felt when speaking to Blitz for this interview.

Clearly the way he dropped the hackneyed hip-hop moniker “B” in between rattling off information about how the Cuban Revolution influenced High Life (a traditional Ghanaian music form), gave me a reason to sit up and take notes, because it was clear: Class was in session.

I have to admit: I caught myself smiling broadly at every other sentence he spoke and wondered if he had access to some ancient West African method of mind reading. Surprisingly, I agreed with 100 percent of his African-centered sentiments—which is huge because this guy is blowing up not because he has a Ph.D. in Africana Studies, but because he’s a rapper.

What made his rhetoric Afrocentric wasn’t the fact that he was born on the continent—rather, it was his profound understanding of the Diaspora- its ideologies, complex history and cultural underpinnings.

With his impressive knowledge of so many things classically Diasporic, I couldn’t resist the urge to inquire about whether or not Richard Wright’s timeless classic had anything to do with Blitz’s new album, so appropriately titled, “Native Sun.” And of course the Pan-African maestro didn’t disappoint.

According to Blitz, who read the Harlem Renaissance novel in college, “Much like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, these texts were straight to the point about Black frustration in white society,” he said. Which makes sense. Our most profound artists in any genre generally receive inspiration from other disciplines of art.

And whenever you have so many talented people converging and collaborating, a renaissance is bound to pop off. Apparently, Blitz is not oblivious to what he termed the “New African Renaissance,” of which he is smack dab in the middle.

But this phenomenon isn’t something new. We discussed the manner in which history repeats itself and the similarities between the creative expression coming out of the Diaspora today, particularly in Brooklyn and what was happening in early 20th century Harlem.

If I come off sounding impressed by my interviewee…well, it’s because I was. While I pride myself on rolling with a pretty knowledgeable circle of “conscious folk” I was delighted to hear this brother recite less known facts, such as the fact that Kwame Nkrumah funded the Encyclopedia Africana (a project initiated and mostly completed by W.E.B. Du Bois and his contemporaries). The sheer fact that he cited Nkrumah’s accomplishments let’s me know that this brother knows the roots from whence he came.

But remember, we’re talking about a hip-hop artist here, not a U.N. official. Different genres provided the soundtrack for the various stages of his life that would later serve as reservoirs of sound literacy that would allow him to create his new brand of hip-hop. The traditional music of 3 piece ensembles native to Ghanaian outdooring (naming) ceremonies and funerals dominated his formative years.

His introduction to hip-hop came in the early 90s via his older brother who was bumping the sounds of Native Tongues Movement. Because our continental siblings were getting put on to this new phenomenon a few years behind us in the U.S., Blitz and his peers spent time digging through the crates in efforts to play catch up. He actually still finds himself uncovering classics formerly unbeknownst to him during his adolescent sessions in hip-hop 101.

And let’s not forget his band, the Embassy Ensemble, which provides the platform for his rhymes. Blitz stated that as an M.C., he needed to rock on stage not with a DJ but with a band. He started working with musicians, adding them individually until he finally assembled the 6-piece band consisting of a trumpet, trombone, sax, drum, bass and guitar. He considers his band as part of his family and says that he wouldn’t be doing any of this without them and their dedication to the music.

I’m familiar with many spiritual texts that refer to one’s Dharma but I’ve never heard anyone articulate their “purpose” as a “why.” To Blitz, understanding your why—the reasons you do what you do and pursue your passion—is critical to achieving your unique potential.

According to him, if your why is connected to something much larger than yourself and can be used for the greater good, it’s probably a passion worth pursuing. It’s his understanding of his own why that keeps him together on the day-to-day grind.

Despite the fact that many people change, the more successful they become, Blitz the Ambassador is committed to remaining committed to his people – Black people. “We don’t have the luxury of creating music merely for consumption” he says “because face it, no matter where you go around the world, you can find Black people, living in similar conditions.”

And I agreed with him when he said that racism is so covert now, which is actually much more dangerous than the overt oppression our ancestors faced.  He says, “We have to recognize that we are very psychologically scarred.”

This is why Blitz the Ambassador’s music, message and movement are so critical. He’s not alone. He named a few artists emerging from the continent such as Nneka, Tumi and the Volume, Baloji and K’Naan who are all creating music as tool of empowerment.

If you’ve seen any of Blitz’s marketing material, including the short film that he created with Terence Nance and that was shot by Shawn Peters, you’d know that he’s not doing any of this on the solo. Much in the same way that Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine was in full effect with a squad of individuals pushing his agenda, you’ll find another movement behind Blitz, aptly named MVMT. Consisting of a cadre of creative minds that span from here to the Bay, a few key figures in the form of James Bartlett, Michael Cordero, Rolando Brown and my aforementioned homie, Terence, have been working like a well-oiled machine to support this global message of empowerment.

Blitz shares that he is able to stay grounded because the people around him are just that: grounded folk who are in tune with their own purposes or “whys,” that just so happen to be aligned with his own.  So this team is actually more than business associates, they’re family. A REAL Family that supports progress and the pursuit of unique potential. (If you don’t believe me, check out the MVMT New Year’s Guide they put out this past January.)

He believes that any great society is one that is based on the principle of communalism, which is why he loves Bed-Stuy so much—particularly Lewis Ave., which is arguably one of the livest blocks of The Stuy. There is a certain goodwill neighborly feeling that makes him feel more at home than anywhere else outside of Accra.

Does he feel pressure living as an African man in America? Of course. More in the sense that it can be rather frustrating being placed in situations where he’s asked to be the sole voice for Africans everywhere.

Unfortunately, there are still many people who can’t grasp the sheer massive level of diversity that exists in Africa: a continent 3-times the size of the United States of America; a continent  with several thousand different ethnic groups where most inhabitants speak several languages, including Blitz who himself speaks four different languages in addition to his native tongue.

I believe Blitz is a visionary. He clearly is heavily influenced by the prolific super-being that was Nkrumah, whom he cites for having envisioned space exploration for Africans, among many other things. Blitz feels that a time has come where a new rank of what I’d like to call Afro-politans are defining themselves, by their own terms and most importantly, using their own voices to articulate what Africa is today and where she is headed in the future.

I never really had to ask what Blitz’s mission was because it was explicitly stated. This dude is really about the enlightenment and betterment of his people. Nuff respect.

With this level of consciousness and musicianship, maybe there is some hope for hip-hop after all. And Blitz the Ambassador is definitely not anybody’s Bigger Thomas but he is most certainly Ghana’s Native Sun.

Additional Links:

Me and my brother Blitz the Ambassador post-sound check /pre-showtime.

Shuffering and Shimiling: Race, Degradation and Apathy in the Netherlands

Only Decent People

Still from the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (Only Decent People).

On December 19, 2011, Jackie, a popular Dutch lifestyle magazine ran a piece entitled “NiggaBitch.” It was then translated anonymously and sent to Parlour magazine, who uploaded the English-translated article in its entirety. In reaction, mass international outrage ensued. The article suggested that Dutch parents could opt to dress their daughters in the ghetto fabulous style of the so-called “ultimate niggabitch,” Rihanna, who reigned supreme with her “ghetto ass.”   However, parents were warned that once dressed this in this manner, their little princesses turned niggabitches, would probably get into fights at daycare. [Yes, it’s ok. You have my permission to insert the appropriate WTF? here.]

Many people internationally, particularly in the U.S. wondered exactly how a magazine, especially one run by women, would have the audacity to publish such an offensive piece.

Was the Jackie office political correctness alarm broken that day? Most of us (decent people) were bewildered and straight flabbergasted. Verbal sentiment can’t accurately describe what many people experienced around the world upon reading the use of what writer Ayana Byrd referred to as “the vilest combination of words that you can call a black woman.” Then after Eva Hoeke, Jackie’s then Editor-In-Chief, was forced to resign, she went on to say that the whole situation was blown out of proportion, intended as a joke and also that it was a blessing in disguise.

This incident, which ended in Rhianna not so politely telling the editor how she felt about being called out her name, was appalling to many. It was also a wake up call of sorts or rather an introduction to the world of race and existence of racism in the Netherlands. Ironically, this incident occurred only a few weeks after the world was shocked by the footage of activist/artist Quinsy Gario, being dragged in the street and pepper-sprayed by police for wearing a shirt that said “Zwarte Piet is Racisme.”

Yes, good ole’ Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet “Black Pete” who is the ignorant, docile yet jolly servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch-ified version of St. Nick, who goes around town on a horse accompanied by his “black” slave, I mean helper. The cherry on the top of this wonderful Dutch Christmas tradition, is that annually, during the last couple of months of the year, white people get to play dress up, as Black people. They blacken their faces in good-ole minstrel show fashion, with face paint called “negro.” They accessorize their newfound color with afro-wigs atop their heads, ruby red lipstick and gold hoop earrings.  They then shuck and jive their way out of their homes to spread joy to all of the little good girls and boys who wait anxiously for their arrival and the treats that they bear. This is not some antiquated tradition that went out of style with minstrel shows and apartheid. This racist celebration still exists, today…as in 2012, as people gear up for this year’s Sinterklaas holiday celebrations.

For years, the Netherlands has been painted as a multi-cultural society where “tolerance” rules supreme.  Let the Dutch tell it, there is no racism. Race and racism, according to the Dutch, are pre-occupations and problems of the U.S. and Americans, not Holland. Until recently, I barely knew that there existed a sizeable Black population in the Netherlands, thanks to the recent mass migration of Dutch Caribbean people, let alone a problem with race and racism.

Prior to me attending a screening of Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, which translates as Only Decent People, I had already been introduced to both the blatant and subtle white supremacist arrogance of the Dutch. However, nothing I had experienced via cinema or popular culture in my adult life, not even the worst of ignorant Black movies or 2Chainz videos could have adequately prepared me for the hour and half of pain I had to endure during the press screening of Only Decent People, a film based off of Robert Vuijsje’s best-selling book that actually went into dozens of editions of print prior to being made into a commercial film.

There are so many problematic issues with the production of Only Decent People, that it’s hard to condense them into a few statements. However, for the sake of clarity and contextualization, I will do my best to accurately describe the movie. To start, every single negative characterization of the Black woman as a hyper-sexualized being, loathed by all, even herself, was perpetuated. Scene after scene, all of the Black female characters were, for lack of a better word, beasts. They were all dehumanized creatures with the same exaggerated obese body type (with the exception of one who looked anorexic and was about to have a train run on her). They also performed, behaved and had sex while on their knees, sniffing people, growling and making animalistic noises. In other words, the Black women characters in Only Decent People were a present-day example of Saartjie Baartman redux.

Most Racist Offensive Scene Example#1: After the white Jewish lead character has found Rowana, his ghetto girl with her ghetto ass, he goes to her house the next day, where he is introduced to her brothers, two children and mother and then goes to the next room. They then start having sex wildly and loudly, meanwhile the family continues business as usual despite the amount of yelling that’s happening. I should probably add that before they engage in intercourse, Rowana sniffs him and growls like an animal while she’s crawling around on her knees. Oh, I should also mention that in this scene her breasts are flying everywhere including to the moon and back (because she’s mostly nude on camera) and she is “riding” him so hard that the bed starts to create holes in the floor.

Most Racist Offensive Scene Example #2: Perhaps the most dehumanizing scene of them all, entails the white Jewish character following his Black girlfriend’s cousin to an apartment complex in the Biljmer (which in real life, is an apartment complex named Heesterveld that is the home of a community of young and emerging artists, many of whom are of African and Dutch Caribbean descent).  For the sake of brevity I’ll skip the circumstances that led them there. What happened once they reached the apartment left my mouth agape. The woman, who never speaks, not a single line during the three to four scenes in which she is on screen, leads the two men into the basement of her apartment complex, with her small child still in his stroller. Once inside the storage room, she bends over, the Black man strips down her pants and penetrates her from the back. He then asks the white Jewish character, what he’s waiting for and hands him a condom. In the following scene, the woman is bent over as the Black man enters her from behind and she performs oral sex on the white guy, all while in the presence of her 3-year old son. Did I mention that this film is rated 12+ which means that children age 12 and older are allowed to watch the movie in its entirety in theaters?

To avoid writing a mini-dissertation, I’ll refrain from describing more offenses in detail. I will add however, that many non-Dutch speaking people outside of the Netherlands have responded negatively to the trailer and to the article that was posted on Shadow and Act’s popular film blog. Let me say this, the trailer doesn’t even scratch the surface of how bizarre and absolutely absurd this film is. The trailer actually looks like Sesame Street in comparison to what takes place during Only Decent People.

A few other scenes entail: another Black woman spits on the Jewish guy’s penis before they have sex, (more animalistic behavior); the original Black girlfriend character beats up the Jewish guy once he cheats on her and then attempts to perform a Lorena Bobbit on him. Then there is also the scene where the ghetto booty loving Jewish main character is told by his friends “we don’t know why you are dating a Black girl. Everybody knows that Black girls are at the bottom of the totem pole. The only reason why guys date Black girls is because they can’t find a white girl to date.” So as if we didn’t already know that “de nigger woman is the mule of the earth” as described by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lodewik Crijns lets us know exactly how we as Black women are viewed by mainstream society.

Part of the larger dilemma of white supremacy in the Netherlands is that many of these offenses take place within a very insular environment, which means that the rest of the western and non-western world are clueless as to what’s happening within society here. Print, radio and video media are mostly transmitted in the Dutch language, which makes it inaccessible to many. So half of the time, we aren’t even aware of what’s transpiring while we get high in the coffeeshops that heavily populate the town of tulips, hookers and canals. That’s probably one of the reasons why Zwarte Piet has continued as a tradition, for over the past century, without an international outcry from outer communities and societies to shut that foolishness down.

Many have asked me why Black people aren’t protesting. Here again it’s necessary that I respond from objective of a view as my Black American, African-centered, feminism will allow me.

The short answer without going into the complicated Dutch Caribbean narrative in the Europe is that unlike the U.S., there have been no major resistance movements in the Netherlands. Simply put, it is not a society of rebellion. The one organization that was comparable to the N.A.A.C.P., has been dismantled due to lack of funding. What I keep asking everyone is, “why aren’t any organizations being established?” The response: “there won’t be any funding.” So  it appears as if people in the Netherlands suffer subsidy syndrome – something that we also don’t know about in the U.S. When you are dependent on the hand that oppresses you to also feed you, how do you then turn around and bite it?

It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around this concept because I worked pro-bono for an entire year (if not more) to get a museum up and running off the ground in Post-Katrina New Orleans. The last time I checked also, no true Civil Rights, Black Power, independence, grassroots movement, anywhere was created with funding from the power structure it was trying to dismantle. That’s not how movements start. Movements begin when collectives of individuals with shared interests, decide to act upon a plan of action towards a higher goal for the betterment of all. That’s how any movement in recent and past history was founded, those successful and unsuccessful.  So I ask, where are the resistance movements (plural) in the Netherlands? Where are the feminists of color? The anti-racism activists?  Where are the angry people? Where are the offended? The tired? Where are the fed up? The “sick and tired of being sick and tired?

The point of this critique is not to place blame. Let me take that back – yes it is. While I understand that we as Black Americans are more equipped to deal with racism and also to analyze race and racism with sophisticated tools, to a degree, so are the Dutch Caribbeans here in the Netherlands. While there may not have been any Black Panthers in Amsterdam, it’s not like people here are totally unfamiliar with rebellions in the form of the Surinamese maroon societies, which still exist today.

My refusal to feign a false sense of objectivity for the sake of not coming off as a stereotypical “American” is predicated upon the absolute disappointment I felt about the response (or the lack thereof) to what was a viscous and violent assault on Black women specifically and the Black Dutch community at-large throughout the  entire Allen Maar Nette Mensen project – from script to cinematic release.

I wasn’t only offended by the idea that some Dutch person, Jewish or otherwise, would think that it’s ok to depict Black women in such a despicable manner. Racist people will be racist. That’s a given. I was more shocked by the manner in which the Black Dutch community was seemingly complicit in their own degradation. The actors in the film have proudly upheld their involvement. I was dismayed that I walked out of that movie theater with nothing but the traumatic images of gorgeous, Black women in the most inhumane positions, implanted in my brain and spirit. I had to fight back tears and felt sick to my stomach. Apparently, with the exception of a few people with whom I’m acquainted, I was alone in that feeling. (One Surinamese friend who no longer lives here said that the actors looked like they were having [animal] sex. Needless to say, she was utterly appalled and ashamed by the film but more so by the support it has received from the Black community).

From my conversations, what I’ve gathered is that many Surinamese and Dutch Antilleans loved the film. The Dutch Caribbean community turned out in droves to support the movie, in some cases more than once. There are those who hate it, of course and whose who refused to see it, but there are also so many others who actually think that the film is entertaining. Additionally, they are excited about the fact that for the first time, many of them are able to watch a group of Black Dutch actors in mainstream cinema as opposed to not at all or Black actors from places like the States.

Something else that I recognized that may play a factor in what I deem as apathy towards Only Decent People, is that for many Black Dutch people, of a certain class, there is a level of distance that takes place between themselves and “those people in the Biljmer.” So many of the intellectuals and socio-economically mobile individuals of Dutch Caribbean heritage, feel very detached from those stereotypes because they know that they live a different type of reality and that some of those stereotypes, i.e. the trading sexual favors for money for phone credit or weaves, supposedly occurs on occasion in real life.

That’s the biggest problem with this movie, it was an extremist and one-dimensional exaggeration of age-old stereotypes. Perhaps I would not have felt so compelled to write this review had the author or the director/producers decided to balance their portrayal of Dutch Surinamese/Antilleans in the Netherlands instead of presenting them as a homogenous group of “ghetto” people. Maybe if in addition to the soft porn scenes that took place in dark basements in the hood, there was a juxtaposition of a Cosby-like Dutch Caribbean family (which exists in reality more often than not), than maybe I wouldn’t have been as offended.  Of even if the filmmakers tackled the issue of interracial dating in a manner  similar to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever or the more recent 2006  film Something New. But they didn’t. Alleen Maar Nette Mensen makes Tyler Perry films look like Do the Right Thing. If our beloved bell hooks had a fit after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that I actually adored, wait until she gets a load of this.

After watching this visual travesty, if I had not lived in the Biljmer for a brief period last year, if I had never met any of the brilliant, talented, compassionate, respectful, warm and loving Surinamese and Antillean people that I’ve grown to know, admire, respect and love, I would assume that these cultural groups were some of the lowest in society. The women, I would assume are all gold-digging, overweight, riddled with body-piercings and gold teeth. I would deduce that these women have no self-esteem, self-worth and would do anything to turn a trick or get money for their weaves and credit for their pre-paid phones – even if it meant dragging their 3-year old son in the basement of an apartment building and allowing a man to penetrate them from the back while performing oral sex on the other, as their boy child watched.

One of largest arguments in support of this film and book, is that it’s a comedy. It’s meant to be a light-hearted portrayal of life in a southeast Amsterdam. Oh and I forgot to mention that the director was qualified to make this film because his real life girlfriend looks like the lead character. Yes, the Dutch have jokes, but at whose expense?

Grant it, this is purely a critique based on what I viewed and what was explained to me afterwards by friends and colleagues who also saw the film. My review is purely a reading of the visual text, which left very little room for alternative interpretation. Alleen Maar Nette Mensen is not abstract. It is not art based on the fictional. It is an example of scathing biased and stereotypical social critique passing itself off as a fictional comical narrative. Some would like us to believe that this is an example of creative expression. Others could argue that it’s a harmless tongue-in-cheek film that actually critiques all cultural groups in Dutch society.

To those critics, I will point you to Exhibit A, B and C – Birth of A Nation. Released in 1915 (four short years before America’s notorious Red Summer) and widely accepted as the prototype of modern cinematography, Birth of A Nation  (originally called The Klansman), was a silent film whose hate-laden visuals invoked fear in the hearts of white men and women throughout America, and inspired a spree of violence, murder and terrorism against Black communities throughout the U.S. Within two years of the advent of Birth of A Nation, 86 Black people lynched (on record). In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma better known as the Black Wall Street, was burned to ashes and an estimated 300 people were killed. Two years later, Rosewood was burned down to ashes and suffered a similar fate, when multiple lynchings of its Black citizens occurred. To my point, popular culture and media are indeed powerful tools and when used irresponsibly, fatalistic.

I will not pretend like we don’t have a plethora of our own issues within the Black community in the States. For instance, I’ll acknowledge the problematic misogyny present in hip-hop culture today. However, one can not nearly compare a music video to 90 minutes of not subliminal, but overt and direct racist and sexist statements being made about Black women and the Black community, most specifically those hailing from the Biljmer, Amsterdam’s southeast neighborhood which has been home to the vast majority of its Dutch Caribbean and west African immigrants for the past few decades.

The week that immediately followed my experience with the film, I became slightly annoyed by what I perceived as apathy and a reactionary rather than a revolutionary response to racism in general in the Netherlands as well. What’s the difference between reactionary and revolutionary? In a revolutionary moment, the scholars, activists, feminists and concerned parties and allies would have organized their disdain for this film and attempted to use their collective voices and power to prevent it from being made in the first place.  Another viable option would have been to strongly discourage people from supporting the film financially, thus using collective economic power to exercise resistance and employing a method that hurts the “oppressor” most – in his pockets.

But alas, there were only a few murmurs. The most vociferous response came in the form of a very detailed and outraged review written by Quinsy Gario.  And before that, Professor Gloria Wekker publicly debated the author of the book (but most of the media covering this is in Dutch). Unless my google searches failed to detect other negative responses to the film, no one else really had anything to say, at least not publicly. Actually, I take that back. Plenty of people had something to say, most of them, however are not Dutch and do not live in the Netherlands.

The aforementioned issues are much bigger than a movie. They’re even bigger than Sinterklaas’ little “niglet” helper. It’s about the lack of value attributed to people of color and a system that is rooted in Eurocentrism,  patriarchy, privilege and white supremacy that is both externally perpetuated and internalized by all parties involved.

I am somewhat still at a loss of words to describe everything that’s wrong about Alleen Maar Nette Mensen. The title itself – Only Decent People – is troubling. I also can’t articulate at this moment, what kind of outcome I expected. What I do know, however is this: until Black people in the Netherlands begin to articulate their frustrations about race, in public spaces, films like Alleen Maar Nette Mensen will continue to be made, racial jokes will continue to be shared, magazines will continue to call Black women niggabitches and Zwarte Piet will continue to be celebrated every Christmas season.

In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Afro-Dutch sisters and brothers do me a favor please. Better yet, do yourselves a favor – WAKE UP.

Saartjie Baartman on display.

I applied for an absentee ballot.

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I registered to vote. Actually I’ve been registered to vote. I did, however requested an absentee ballot. It was only last week that I found out from  one of my besties since childhood, Jewel Bush, whose family is originally from St. Landry Parish Louisiana, that in September 1868 alone, hundreds of African Americans were murdered in Opelousas, Louisiana,  for attempting to vote. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of African Americas were savagely publicly murdered, many by lynchings, for not only exercising democracy but also for independently living on their own terms, and asserting self-determination. So yeah, regardless of how problematic the current political system is in the U.S., I’m going to vote.

1868 lynchings in Opelousas, Louisiana

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Postcard of the savage murders of Issac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Nate Green in Duluth, Minnesota on June 15, 1920.

A Love Poem Written for Sterling Brown

A Love Poem Written for Sterling Brown

(after reading a New York Times article re
a mummy kept preserved for about 300 years)

I’m gonna get me some mummy tape for your love
preserve it for 3000 years or more
I’m gonna let the world see you
tapping a blue shell dance of love
I’m gonna ride your love bareback
on totem poles
bear your image on mountains
turning in ocean sleep
string your sighs thru the rainbow
of old age.
In the midst of desert people and times
I’m gonna fly your red/eagle/laughter ‘cross the sky

~ Sonia Sanchez

‘Until The Quiet Comes’: More Than a Music Video

Flying Lotus tapped the ridiculously talented filmmaker Kahlil Joseph to direct the visual preview for his highly anticipated album – ‘Until the Quiet Comes.’ Mr. Joseph has a way with directing, oftentimes intersecting space, time and universes in film. If you don’t believe me, please check out his modern-day adaptation of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love in  The Model: Part 1 – Marcello in Limbo and The Model: Part 2 – Oshun and the Dream.  The black and white diptych achieved cinematic and musical grace via the talents of super genius cinematographer (and fellow Howard U. alum) Bradford Young and Brasil’s easy on the eyes and ears,  actor-singer Seu Jorge. But I digress.

‘Until the Quiet Comes’ –  a poetic, dramatic and magical short film –  tells three stories, that of a Black boy child, that of a Black man and that of the Black community from whence they both come. It is tragic as it is beautiful, and forces us all to reflect on the many moments that lead to a young soul’s demise. At once, the tale reminded me of Charlie LeDuff’s poignant essay “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” Through an examination of a large system of economic decay, violence, corruption, and internalized white supremacy, LeDuff illustrates an often-times invisible web of incidents that lead to the loss of individual lives, in which we are all ultimately as guilty as the misguided individual that pulled the trigger.

Equally appreciated in this piece is the inclusion of Brooklyn’s own Storyboard P who is like Jay Electronica says, “bringing ancient mathematics back to modern man” via his choreography and dance technique.

I watched it. I cried. I watched it again. I cried. It moved me for many reasons and has continued to do so. This in not just a music video. It is a magical realist love story about the hood, from the hood.

Enjoy.

P.S. The album officially drops on Oct. 1st but you can take a first listen here, compliments of NPR.
First Listen: Flying Lotus, ‘Until the Quiet Comes’

P.S.S. When you get a chance, check out the review penned by my play twin and Neo-Talented Tenth artist Terence Nance: On the Breathtakingly Beautiful Freedom in Kahlil Joseph’s ‘Until the Quiet Comes.’

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