In this episode Kwasi brings back Dutty Bookman to discuss the movement he has helped dub as the Reggae Revival after a panel at SXSW 2027. He also speaks to Koro Fyah of the Bevel Rock camp about his ABC’s at SXSW as well. Bomani interviews the founder of the Uganda’s Bavubuka Foundation, Babaluku, and their chief archivist Gilbert Daniels about Hip-Hop in Uganda and the Lugaflow movement. Bomani and Kwasi also discuss spirituality in independent music, and how the community discusses things like sin. A must listen!
Steel doors clang and rattle out dueling D.C.go-go and Baltimore club beats as this juvenile correctional facility, poetically named Noyes, braces for another classroom shift. This Montgomery county institutions juxtaposition between two distinctly different yet devastated cities isn’t the only odd combination. The 15 year old girls with 6 year old eyes and 30 year olds problems stare out of the narrow windows as the guys shuffle by in orange flip flops and fresh White T’s. The normal teenage sexual tension is magnified 10 times amongst juveniles locked up inches from each other but completely out of reach.
You’re there for less than 2 minutes before you realize which inmates are really out of place. Baby faced yet solemn, they should be twittering and scoping the malls. Instead they find themselves here, working really hard to keep a gangsta grill with no mustache. Scanning the room becomes even more depressing when you realize that even the loud and obnoxious detainees are just as out of place. Their boisterousness gives them a façade but it takes only a moment to break it down, when the right lyric, or poignant question catches them off guard.
This is one of many early crossroads, a criminal finishing school, or a “come to Jesus moment”. The variables are vast, the outcomes are few, and a cloud of adolescent stagnation hovers over the classroom after being pushed out of the lungs of these kids. As I step into the game room with computers and PS2’s I get blank stares, rolled eyes and one quiet warning that I better be good, “you’re cutting into game time”. Some sat attentive at a make shift desk that moonlights as an air hockey table. Others where strewn about couches and plastic chairs like a jacket tossed less than two steps in the door after a days work…
to be continued
This is the 3rd annual video we made celebrating MLK Day at the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral Scholars (a group made up of teenagers from every high school in the District) where given the task of writing a letter to the President, in the same way Dr. King use to write JFK and LBJ after big events in the civil rights movement. This video, produced by Park Triangle Productions, is the final product from this year!
This year’s MLK day at the Washington National Cathedral was attended by over 2,500 people from around the country. The excitement over the Inauguration the following day (and Time Magazine highlighting this event and your boy as the place and people to see) ballooned the normally large crowd. We were all treated to performances by Omekongo Dibinga, 2Deep, QuiQue Avilez, The African Heritage Drummers and Dancers, Daniel D., and the Urban Nation Youth Choir. Click on the photo to see the video!
President Barack Obama
The White House
Dear Mr. President. First let me tell you how incredibly proud and inspired I am by your ascension to the Presidency. As the father of two African American boys with “funny foreign names”, your tenure is already a success in my eyes. When I tell Olu Femi & Dela Eden that they can be anything they want, even President of the United States, everyone can nod in agreement now, instead of saying patronizingly “awwww that is so cute”. Your presidency has not even begun, but I am writing to volunteer for your 2012 campaign, under the condition that you commit to sending your daughters to DCPS for high school!
That’s right, one of the fine public schools in the District of Columbia, like Eastern, Wilson, or Ballou. I could request a public school bail-out, lord knows that would be a much wiser and more beneficial investment than many of the failing businesses that have held their hands out on Capital Hill. But as important as an infusion of money to attract talented teachers and update 60 year old buildings would be, you sending your child to Roosevelt or Spingarn would signal a symbolic and literal togetherness this city and public schools nation wide would take to heart.
I’ve approached my friends and colleagues with the idea of sending an Obama girl to Banneker, Dunbar or McKinley for the last two months, and I must admit most of them have been mortified. Their concerns have included whether or not DCPS could challenge her academically, whether it would be a secure environment for the first daughter, and whether the culture of student life at any DCPS would be welcoming for such a privileged and famous child.
First, either of your daughters would be a perfect DCPS student. As everyone knows, parental involvement is more important than any teacher or facility. Having two stay at home parents (Michelle and her grandmother) there will always be an adult to augment whatever education she is receiving at school. She will have wise women to listen to questions and concerns in the quickly evolving life of a teenager. It is too much to ask for you to turn your life into more of a reality show than it is, but just knowing that 2 generations of family are working as a cohesive unit to guide their child through public school would be an outstanding example to the other millions of families experiencing the same reality.
Will a DCPS school be safe for an Obama girl? First of all, the idea that DCPS schools are breeding grounds for drugs and violence is COMPLETELY UNTRUE. Yes, like most inner city schools, our high schools deal with their fair share of delinquencies, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, fights etc. But, as I’m sure you know, the average DC student is unfairly lumped into a caricature of inner city high schools. The vast majority of our students at schools like Phelps and Woodson want the same thing their private school peers want, a safe state of the art environment to discover themselves as individuals, and to develop as a positive contributors to their community. Secondly, I’ve seen the secret service in action, and the cliques and crews that exist in DCPS schools are no match.
Even if the stereotypes of DCPS were a true, you have exhibited the ability to mobilize people unlike anyone since Dr. Martin Luther King. Can you imagine the ripple affect you would cause when you announce that you are sending your daughter to a public school? The level of parent and community involvement at all of our schools would increase exponentially. The fast revamping of our school systems by Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee would have an even greater sense of urgency, along with the support of a whole nation cheering on their success.
Washington DC is the seat of national politics that so badly needs changing. Washington DC should be the example of American society, shining a light to the rest of the country and the world. Washington DC is the home of thousands of African American fathers whom you have personally challenged to step up to their responsibility. Who better to lead the nation into a new era of public responsibility than the world’s most famous community organizer? Imagine a city where every citizen considers the school in their neighborhood as MY SCHOOL. It does not matter if I have a child in the local school; I take pride in the upkeep of the school building. I stop 13 year olds who are walking the street at noon and demand that they go to school. I attend and cheer at honor roll assemblies the way I do Friday night football. You, Mr. Obama, could lead that kind of community adoption of the public schools. Never before have I seen so many people claim someone as “My President”. Imagine if that energy was focused on Duke Ellington, Roosevelt, or the School Without Walls.
Sending your daughter to a DC public high school, like Cardozo, Anacostia or Coolidge, will be an important symbolic and practical step to fulfilling Dr. King’s last mission before his assassination, the elimination of poverty through economic equality. I meet students every day who over achieve at sub-par schools. I’ve taught poetry classes in December in classrooms with no heat, and locks on the library door because the school couldn’t afford a librarian. I wonder how much higher their academic ceiling would be with properly equipped science labs, motivated and positive peers, and a dynamic and involved community.
As of this year, your eldest child is 4 years away from attending high school, giving you and I 4 years to get OUR school system, and OUR cities attitude towards the education of OUR children, on point. In reality, everyone’s trepidation about an Obama girl at DCPS really just exposes an ugly truth. The idea that public schools aren’t good enough for America’s new darlings only means that public schools are not good enough for any student. I don’t believe this. I do believe that we must change both perception and the reality of public education so that when we say “Our Children Are the Future”, it is not a tired cliché.
In the end, I don’t expect for you to accept less for your daughter to make a social and political statement. I’m asking you to demand more from DCPS as a social and political statement. I am personally up for the challenge and I guarantee that the city will follow your lead. Yes We Can!
Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has re-ignited the debate on what’s best for the family: moms who stay at home, or moms who work? This week’s Mocha Moms Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani and “Mommy Wars” author Leslie Morgan Steiner are joined by special guest Dad, Bomani Armah to discuss Palin and the public response to her candidacy.
To hear this discussion click here.
Imagine for a second, a 50 year old adult with their eyes squinted shut, their pointer fingers jammed in their ears, and their whole upper body swiveling like a water sprinkler yelling “La La La La La!” at the top of their longs. That is the personification of the abstinence only program many socially conscious organizations are hauling around as dead weight, after being lured by the carrot of federal funding. On any given week day you will see 12 years olds being taught a perfectly valid social value, without being give any of the necessary tools to practice it.
Abstinence only doesn’t work because of a basic credibility problem. Yes, we want our young people to wait to have sex until they are at least mature enough to understand the ramifications of their decision, if not until they are married. But abstinence only operates in a vacuum, where your children will never hear about condoms, contraceptives, abortions or same sex relationships. That reality doesn’t exist. Your child will listen and take to heart everything you tell them about sex and sexuality, applying it to their daily lives, until they are exposed to something else that you didn’t prepare them for. At that moment everything you taught them about sex comes into question.
“If mom didn’t tell me about condoms, what else did she not tell me about?”
This will serve to do the exact opposite of what you intended, pushing your child to experiment on its own, instead of trusting your judgment about sex. How can you blame them? Your advice has proven to be partial at best, and a lie at worst.
Now, at a crucial time in our countries history, the epidemic of teen pregnancy and the policy makers who decide how we combat it has come together to form a perfect storm. And we have been forbidden to talk about it. Not only are we closing our eyes and acting as if we not acknowledging our children’s sexuality will make the problem go away. We must also pretend that we don’t notice that a conservative republican, who believes in abstinence only education, has a daughter who is pregnant at 17. We are not allowed to ask her what her conversations about life and sexuality are like with her children. We cannot ask her to explain how poor, single parent households are suppose to turn the tide of teen pregnancy when the Palin’s, with an obviously strong and cohesive family unit, cannot seem to get it right.
Please don’t misunderstand my position. I too feel like attacks on the Palin family are distasteful and crass. I have no urge to rub this in their face, call them bad parents, or question their core beliefs and values. I am, however, determined to make this a national conversation about how to protect our future through proactive understanding and education about our countries sexuality. As I’m sure Governor Palin’s eldest son will be the new mascot for why we must get it right in Iraq, her infant son will be the poster child for special needs children, her daughter’s situation should be a spring board to a much needed conversation on comprehensive sexual education.
I’ve worked as a counselor and then as a consultant for a non-profit organization federally funded to teach abstinence only classes in the Washington DC public school systems. My main task eventually evolved into making the abstinence curriculum “hip-hop friendly”. I incorporated popular music videos and radio hits into the curriculum. Those extremely overt songs about promiscuous sex that your pastor rails against, we spend 3 to 4 one hour sessions dissecting in detail. It’s amazing how much 12 years understand, or at least retain, about sex from popular media, their peers and the adults around them. One of the first exercises I would do when I begin as a counselor was to ask the students to act like their were no adults in the room and give me all the slang terms for sex and genitalia they could think of. On top of the typical old sexual jargon of violence and construction terms (bang, screw, nail, smash, hit) their where some new ones (cut) some regionally specific ones (bop) and one that I only thought would creep into the minds of those brave enough to read “savage love” on a weekly basis. I am amazed how few adults know what it means, but without fail every classroom of 7th graders yelled out “tea bagging” within the top 5 responses when asked to give me slang words on sex.
Even the most protected child has to acknowledge his or her parent’s naivety about modern sexuality because of all the information blatantly omitted from their sex talks. And while this might not lead directly to loose girls and gigolo boys, it is a seed that can grow given the wrong set of circumstances and friends. This is one of few subjects, if broached early and delicately enough, that you will have your child’s undivided attention. Their natural curiosity about their body and the complete lack of concrete information about the amazing transformation they are going through makes them wide open to suggestions at the ripe old of 10 to 12 years old.
Sex is not a private matter, it is an urgent matter of public safety! For the sake of our society’s future we need to agree upon some basics facts about sex and sexuality. Your values are your own, and should be passed from parent to child in ways that you are culturally comfortable. But a shared reality is that this is a world of penises and vaginas that are constantly colliding, sharing microbes and making more penises and vaginas. This affects public health, the economy, psychological and emotional health. This reality is older and will last longer than any language that is taught in school, whether it’s Latin or html. When your 11 year old daughter hears the term “getting some head” for the first time, it would be a lot more empowering for her to be able to say “my father explained what that was, and why I shouldn’t do it, you’ve got it all wrong” instead of “what does that mean?”.
And when we are given a chance to discuss this reality publicly we cannot pass up on the chance. We can be tasteful, we can be respectful and scientific. We cannot do the age old “hear no evil, see no evil” policy that has gotten us to this point. Too many lives are at stake.
The end of last summer I felt that I was in the midst of a perfect storm, that place where conscious/socially relevant art was clashing with commercial media and the on going battle that BET likes’ to call “Hip-Hop vs. America”. This storm is causing a shift in the movement to uplift blacks, and the FEMA trailers of the old movement that are not able to stand in this environment will only be able to hold on in our memories.
With the emergence of non-traditional black sports stars like Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams, the business success of Oprah Winfrey and Bob Johnson, and the political clout wielded by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, the plight of the “poor Negro” is becoming irrelevant to the modern white America. Yes, there is still a legitimate case for government and and social institutions to aide “poor negroes”. There is still a battle to be fought, against this countries expectations and limitations, a battle against our educational and social enemies. All of these issues are an off shoot of the Imperialistic racism that caused us to be here, but expecting this country to solve this problem, especially after we’ve achieved so many token victories, is becoming more and more difficult.
The new battlefield is for the minds of our young people, specifically the battle over what it is to be authentically black. Unfortunately, the glorification of material things, the objectification of ourselves sexually, and the use of profanity has come to epitomize the essence of “realness” in commercial hip-hop. Most surprisingly, our young people are keenly aware of this fact, as evidence by the hundreds of emails and myspace messages I received from teenagers, they just feel powerless to change it. They’ve been programmed to think that popular culture happens to them, instead of something they can create the way the forefathers of hip-hop did.
Another major element of backlash that I received comes from the idea that nothing good can come from BET. The method by which the message was delivered probably had more to do with why it was effective and was it was rejected by some black intellegencia. This has led me to another valuable lesson. Yes, the major multi-media companies that hoard cable, radio, and record labels are life-sucking vultures that prey on the African American community. That knowledge does not negate the fact that real people, who want to find a way to change the message without affecting their companies’ bottom line, run these companies. You don’t understand how many record label A&R’s (my age and complexion) contacted me after seeing the video and then peeping my music on myspace saying that they would love to find a way to prove to their boss (a middle aged non-black man every time) that this is marketable in black society. Outsiders don’t think we want this, a message with our music, despite the reactions I get from middle school, high schools, night clubs and correctional facilities when I bring my music and message directly to them.
Honestly, I don’t always want a message with my music. To stretch around and pat myself on the back, Read a Book rocks no matter what your socio-political affiliations is, just because of how fun and live it is. This speaks to a larger issue, a level of compromise that needs to come from both directions. I’ll begin with a quick personal survey. How many positive, conscious (what ever you want to call them) message songs can you think of that you would put on when you want to start a party! What songs do you hear that actually motivate you, prod you to take action? Even some of my favorite conscious songs are for listening, dissecting and then agreeing with, but they don’t push me to anything. Music is a motivating force for me. It affects my attitude, my outlook for the moments while I’m listening and the moments immediately after until I’ve moved on to the next song.
Conscious artist have to start making pop songs! Most conscious cats think their music has to sound like Premo or Pete Rock did the track and that you have to rhyme like Nas or Thalib Kweli. No disrespect to any of those artist, I am definitely a fan, and they have paved their own lane and are still speeding down it from now until the foreseeable future. But many times when I talk to like minded artist, those who want to reach out to the youth, they send me to their websites where I hear a track that sounds like the “golden age of hip-hop”, which is completely irrelevant to the young people we are trying to affect.
Quick note to all edutainers, there is nothing inherently evil, anti-community or anti hip-hop about Mannie Fresh, Lil Jon and David Banner beats. The idea of equating real and potentially uplifting music with the digging in the crates style of production is what makes conscious rap irrelevant to under 25 year olds. Besides, the synthesized/live music feel of current commercial hip-hop has more in common with old school hip-hop than anything that happened in the Golden era. When I say old school I mean really old school, not 88 to 94, more like 78 to 85. The synths and simplified drum patters with claps for snares are a lot like the original stuff Bambataa was doing. The inability to embrace the style of production seems to come from adultism and regionalism. “There’s no way these young bucks know real hip-hop” or “That down south shit isn’t real, gimme an Alchemist beat!” Once again, every style has it’s place, but when was the last time a generation was able to successfully convince the next generation that their chosen style of music is some BS? NEVER!! So let’s embrace your 808 booms and thunderclaps, even that pitter-patter snare roll that you hear in everyone’s song now, for no other reason than to incorporate into our arsenal of tools to use when reaching our young brothers and sisters with music.
These are a few of the ongoing lessons I’m learning on this journey. I thank ya’ll for coming along for the ride!!
His Punch Line Smarts
Hip-Hop Parodist Bomani Armah Juggles Sense of Humor and Identity
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007; C01
Bomani Armah (“I’m not a rapper, I’m a poet with a hip-hop style”) hops into a bar chair at the ultracool Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier. It is a Wednesday night, we have the bar to ourselves, we are having a splendid conversation. You may be thinking: Dude, this is such an unextraordinary scene. Except that Armah is simultaneously hosting an open-mike talent show, toggling from bar to stage in five-minute intervals and proving how fluid the mind can be.
He’s fixated, at the bar, on what has happened to him over the past four months, how he somehow became a symbol of the coarsening culture. All because he wrote a crunk song, “Read a Book,” that traveled the Internet, that was discovered by Black Entertainment Television, that was made into a video, that ignited a controversy, that turned Bomani Armah into a person he didn’t recognize, someone accused of “setting my people back 100 years.” Between the irate blog posts and the snippy interviews by the likes of CNN’s Tony Harris, Armah discovered that he had suddenly become somebody.
“I got recognized at the post office,” he says. “I’m not used to that.” Anytime Jesse Jackson calls you out — he accused Armah of “recycling degradation” — you know you’ve arrived.
On this night, no one is calling him out, except to say that he should hurry back to the stage, back to the mike. There is only love for Armah in the cafe. Here, he is free — free from his “Read a Book” troubles. Here, he is focused on art, everybody’s art. Rudeness is not tolerated.
“Most important rule,” he instructs the audience, “cheering for everybody.” Which includes the yodeling senior citizen they call Miss Jane, the guitar-plucking urban cowboy, the University of Maryland doctoral student who raps provocatively about female anatomy.
Back and forth Armah goes, stage to bar, bar to stage. An impressive display of thought juggling. He is 29, with a smile that could soften a hard heart, wire-rimmed glasses and short locks. Whenever kind words come his way — and they keep coming his way here — he puts his hands together and dips his head in a slight bow. “Thank you so much.”
Armah grew up middle class in Mitchellville and now lives in Petworth. He has 17-month-old twins and a five-year marriage. He has been kicking around the D.C. music scene for six years, producing for other local musicians, hosting spoken-word events, trying to break through as an artist out to elevate hip-hop into something more relevant, more meaningful.
As a former English major — he dropped out of the University of Maryland to pursue his music career — Armah has conducted creative writing and audio/video workshops for kids. He has worked as a youth counselor. He has seen firsthand one of the most pernicious effects of the rap game, the warping of black reality into a one-dimensional caricature. Too many in his generation of artists, he says, aspire to be “as grimy and gangster” as they can be, a depiction of black life that filters down to the kids, who become the next inaccurate storytellers.
“As an educator and an artist, it was hurting me both ways,” says Armah, who is hardly the first “conscious” artist to come along advocating a hip-hop makeover. But most artists who feel as he does, Armah adds, “write essays or long esoteric songs” that are indigestible. Armah was determined to do something more jolting. Provocative, but funny.
” ‘Read a Book’ was a joke from the beginning,” he says. “It was more about parodying the state of hip-hop.” And now it has become the thing that defines him. He thought about that for a moment. “Damn, do this many people not get me?”
* * *
Read a book! Read a book! Read a [expletive] book!
Read a book! Read a book! Read a [expletive] book!
So goes the song Bomani Armah recorded more than two years ago, set to a hip-hop version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It has a hard-charging feel to it, repetitive lyrics, random cursing and one-word exhortations — what! who! yeah! okay! — all in an attempt to mock the crunk style of the rapper Lil Jon.
Not a sports page, not a magazine
But a book, nigga, a [expletive] book, nigga
Armah didn’t stop at reading. He went on to urge the raising of kids, the drinking of water, the brushing of teeth, the use of deodorant, and other acts of basic self-respect.
Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!
“I feel like I’m a sergeant out here in the field, showing how ridiculous the culture is,” Armah says. He began performing his song around the Washington area and it caught on. He made it available for free download on his MySpace page, and the buzz grew. At some point the “Read a Book” MP3 reached the inbox of Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for BET, who passed it on to the network’s animation division, which loved it and wanted to create an animated video off the track. Which is where Tyree Dillihay, a Los Angeles-based animation director, comes in.
He took Armah’s lyrics and amped up the parody even more. Rappers always brag about getting shot, right? So Dillihay showed a thug loading his Uzi with a book clip and firing books as bullets at unsuspecting victims.
In another scene, someone brings a diaper-clad child and deposits him with a father who is getting his groove on at a nightclub. The video’s most controversial image, perhaps, is of a gyrating woman wearing pink sweat pants with the word “book” written on her rear end. Dillihay says that image was intended to make fun of women who wear those designer warm-up suits with words such as “juicy” written on their behinds.
The video first aired on BET’s “Rap City” and “The 5ive” in June and made its way onto the network’s popular “106 & Park” show in July. It wasn’t long before a sizzling debate began. What exactly was “Read a Book”? An unusual public service announcement designed to reach young hip-hop fans who don’t read? Another ill-advised programming effort by BET (see “Hot Ghetto Mess”) that was bound to backfire?
“Read a Book” has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube, according to the site. (Armah says that number is actually more like 3 million because Viacom, which owns the rights to the video, had many of the original posts of it removed.) Dillihay and Armah, who both have been on TV and radio defending “Read a Book,” maintain the divide over their work is mostly generational. “When a 50-year-old woman says, ‘Oh, this is horrible,’ I frankly don’t care. It’s not for you,” says Dillihay, who is 30.
“Read a Book” does have some prominent supporters.
“It’s brilliant satire,” says Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor who has written widely about hip-hop. He sees the video as a kind of “carrier pigeon for an edifying message.” He offers a quick jab at the critics. “Here’s the ugly reality: Many of the black leaders and others who criticize this attempt to get black kids to read a book haven’t read many books themselves.”
Perhaps a broader question is: What constitutes acceptable behavior? Comedian Eddie Griffin was surprised to discover his microphone had been turned off in the midst of a routine that had become both vulgar and tasteless to the organizers of the 14th annual Black Enterprise/Pepsi Golf & Tennis Challenge, held in Miami in September. Seizing the mike, after a steamed Griffin departed the stage, the magazine’s founder, Earl Graves, explained to the audience that “the man’s going to get paid, but we can’t tolerate this,” according to Richard Prince’s media blog, Journal-isms. Graves was rewarded with a standing ovation.
What Graves did may reflect a growing desire within black communities to police cultural expression. Activists, for instance, have mounted weekend protests at the home of BET President and CEO Debra Lee over the quality of the network’s programming.
“Black identity right now is so precarious,” says Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, one of the nation’s foremost experts on black urban life. “You’d like to think that we as a people are so strong that we can withstand any kind of puff, so to speak. In a fair world, one would presume to be able to say what you want to say. But it isn’t a fair world, and that’s what I think about.”
If there is hypersensitivity among blacks about their images in the popular culture, its roots can be found in a history of racist portrayals that have helped shape how black life has been viewed by much of the world. The most denigrating depictions of blacks often had the sanction of the nation’s top leaders.
President Woodrow Wilson, for example, hosted a private White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation,” an explicitly racist film in which blacks were portrayed as buffoons with outsize sex drives. The Ku Klux Klan later used the film as a recruitment tool.
In combating such vile characterizations of themselves, blacks have often focused on “putting the best foot forward,” as Anderson describes it. “Historically, it’s always been there,” he says, “this concern with propriety, presenting yourself well, giving white society no reason to hold you back.”
It’s ironic that some of the “Read a Book” lyrics — “brush yo’ teeth,” “wear deodorant” — hark back to the late-19th-century prescriptions Booker T. Washington offered for the betterment of the race. Personal hygiene — “the gospel of the toothbrush,” he called it — was essential to black self-improvement, Washington thought. But this is 2007, and some find such lyrics and their accompanying video imagery — a tree wilts as a smelly black man walks by — absurd and humiliating.
Is lack of Speed Stick usage a cutting-edge issue in black communities? A concern even worthy of satire? Armah knows he is on shaky ground with some of the lyrics, but says he was trying to stick with the formula: make the song as ridiculous as possible to imitate the ridiculousness of many rap songs. He enlisted teenagers to plug in lyrics that they thought would work — and also be funny — to drive home the point of positive behavior, and they came up with “brush yo’ teeth” and “wear deodorant.”
“He’s been a good guy,” says George Garrow, executive director of Concerned Black Men, which has utilized Armah in programs focusing on abstinence, teen pregnancy prevention and self-expression. “He’s worked with the young people to get them to critically analyze the lyrics in the music, and to get them to understand that the same messages can be communicated with different lyrics.”
* * *
On the Artmosphere Cafe stage, Armah, known as “D’mite” to his fans, performs one of his noncontroversial songs, “Shake It Off.” The audience loves this one. They sing along.
You’ve had a day that was really wack
Shake it off
You’ve got too much pressure on your back
Take it off
You gettin’ love with strings attached
Break it off
It goes shake it off, take it off, break it off
Five minutes later, back at the bar . . .
“I’m obsessed with Googling ‘Bomani Armah Read a Book,’ ” he says.
What will they say about him next? Some have suggested he be excommunicated from the black race.
On the other hand, he has been fielding a lot of inquiries from record labels. He shot a documentary of the Jena 6 protests in Louisiana. He is working on an album, “Radio Friendly,” and preparing for the release early next year of a music video highlighting what it means to be a grown man. Shot in Southeast Washington, it features fathers playing with their sons in front of a 30-foot mural of Martin Luther King Jr. and a slow-motion collage of young black men pulling up their pants — a piece of counter-imagery that may be gaining momentum. Texas rapper Dooney Da’Priest, for instance, is getting notice for his song, “Pull Your Pants Up.”
“Being positive is the new hardcore,” Armah says.
“The whole gangsta bling-bling has not only played out socially,” he continues, “it’s played out artistically.” His message to rappers: “If you don’t have a family-friendly rap you can do in front of your grandmother, please go home and write one.”
Which was part of the point of “Read a Book,” he thought. Except some people didn’t get it, and that still baffles him. The video is no longer airing on BET, having “just timed out,” a spokesman says. Which suits Armah just fine. He’s ready to move on.
“I didn’t want to be the ‘Read a Book’ dude, anyway.”
Sliding out of his bar chair, he scurries back to the stage, back to the mike. Back to his art.
Where Hope Meets Hip-Hop
D.C. Artists Will Use Reality-Based Rhymes To Reinforce Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007; B01
Chris Bacon is at a table in one of the few sit-down restaurants east of the Anacostia River, the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, where he once worked and where every payday he would buy a bean pie.
He is telling a story about something that happened a few weeks back to a middle-school student in Southeast Washington.
The boy had been held up at gunpoint for the Christmas money his uncle had given him. The robber wore a mask, and as he took off, he spit on the boy. The kid spit back.
The kid spit back, Bacon repeats, a fact that seems only fair until Bacon points out: The robber wore a mask. The robber knows exactly who this kid is. The kid has no idea who the gunman is. The kid can’t watch his back.
“He just,” Bacon continues, turning his right hand into a gun, “could just get killed.”
Those kids, Bacon says, his Afro erupting from his black visor, “they are dealing with some grown issues.”
There are lots of grown issues where Bacon comes from.
He has turned many into hip-hop lyrics, and this afternoon he brings his music to Washington National Cathedral in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration of youth nonviolence.
It is a show of hip-hop as “a tool for positive change,” a message that squares neatly with King’s teachings of fighting for good with uplift and peace.
Bacon, 20, grew up in a violent neighborhood in Southeast. His family was evicted and spent time in shelters. But his mom got him a computer at a thrift shop and paid him $5 for every A he earned in school — and when he graduated from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2005, he made the honor roll and, his mom says proudly, got $30. Today the hip-hop artist writes lyrics taking on Section 8 low-income housing and people trudging “to North Capitol Street for their food stamp claim.”
He will share the cathedral stage today with his mentor, fellow District artist Bomani Armah, and the Urban Nation H.I.P.-H.O.P. Choir.
The choir was created by Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson “to counterbalance what we were doing with the TV station,” which became known for featuring sex and gang activity. Johnson, who no longer owns the station, says the music is “not positive” and “just not healthy.”
Which is what Armah hopes to counterbalance, too. He is 28, grew up in Mitchellville and has spent the years since graduating from the University of Maryland working on “positive rap” — a goopy-sounding term that nonetheless is fiercely based in reality.
When he does music programs with students, he mentions that, in the hip-hop world, seven of the top 10 artists will be gangbangers or drug dealers. He’ll ask the kids, “Are seven out of every 10 of the people you know gangbangers or drug dealers?”
No, he says they answer. But when those same kids start making music for him — though they may have just been talking about going to medical school — when they start rapping, it’s: “I’m gonna get a gun, and I’m gonna shoot you.”
As he leans over the mixing board in his recording studio off Georgia Avenue, Armah narrows his eyes. “Why does it have to be that way?”
Bacon has written about D.C. public schools:
We’re turning young minds into fools
In DCPS schools,
By not giving them the funding
They need to improve.
And he has marveled at the luxury of a Chinese restaurant in Silver Spring compared with the bare-bones hostility of a Southeast carry-out. In Silver Spring, “Y’all got carpet on the floor,” he raps. “Our carry-outs don’t have tables and chairs.” Most surprising, though, is when he notices that between him and the people taking his money and making his food, there is no bullet-proof window.
My order came up.
I told ’em, ‘Put it in the bag.’
And I realized I wasn’t talkin’
through the plexiglass.
Bacon grew up in the violent and long-neglected Condon Terrace neighborhood, where he made butterfly nets out of a pillowcase and wire and collected bottle caps, bamboo and snakes. He talks buoyantly of waking up to his neighborhood’s go-go music and springing from bed, hustling to claim an open bucket, trash can or paint can. Usually, though, he would find himself pounding on the fence, clanging it, he says, “like it’s a cowbell.”
He started studying graphic design at Montgomery College, but the financial aid fell through, he says. “I didn’t fill out the paperwork right, or some kind of craziness.” He owes $3,000, he says.
So he’s cobbling together money by teaching kids through the National Organization of Concerned Black Men and the American Poetry Museum. He keeps writing songs and sketching in a book he carries everywhere, and he calls himself a “musician, composer, emcee, spoken-word artist.” He hosts regular open mike shows in the District.
He is, in essence, coloring himself into the D.C. Underground, as this wide stripe of D.C. artistry calls itself — this swath of creativity and composition, this subculture that harks back to the glory days of D.C.’s Harlem and continues to thrive on U Street.
Armah has high hopes for his protege: “I’m an artist,” Armah says. “I’m excited about my stuff. But Chris is the future. He’s a very talented dude.”
Bacon’s mother remembers the first rap song her son ever did, at Hart Middle School, she says. The song mortifies him now, but she keeps the lyrics in the back room of her Southeast home with all of her son’s other awards and mementos.
The song is called “Anything.”
And the hook — the chorus — has something to say about a boy who grew up east of the river, a place that can be, he says, “a sea of despair.” It’s got something to say about a kid whose mother always told him, “Flip the negative into something positive, and make it work for you.”
The hook goes like this:
“I’m Chris Bacon. I can do anything.”