If fish are the worst to ask about the water, the medium they move, grow and experience life through, perhaps the same can be said for a culture . It ‘s difficult to take notice of something of which you are an intrinsic part. There need to be an elapse of time to take notice. In some cases there are events that stretches out, lengthen and perhaps deepen our perceptions. For me it has moved to Jersey City out of necessity and living here for almost three years now.
While I do work and spend all my free time in the City, it wasn’t until I heard about Talib Kweli’s series of shows at the world-famous Blue Note that I started to think again about growing up in the 1980’s Brooklyn and the hip hop culture that I was unknowingly immersed. I thought it be nice to revisit this history or part of my life through music on the blog. In doing so, I’d hope to offer you not just the poignant memories evoked by each song, but some reflections on the culture that both song and memories emerged from.
‘Syncretic’ is the only word I can use to describe the Brooklyn of my youth. But syncretic here is not of a philosophical context, rather it is cultural. In my neighborhood, there was a mixture of ‘Black people’ from Africa, the Caribbean, and America. Quite often using a color to refer to large demographic overlooks linguistic, cultural, religious and even ideological differences. Furthermore, there were a host of Hispanics as well as the occasional white family holding out until a future gentrification initiative and the return to increased property values. While that’s neither here nor there, what counts is that on a daily basis, I was exposed to different cultures, forms of expression, and most importantly to people of different ages.
My parents like many other kids at the time weere in their teens when Martin Luther King was assassinated. After the end of the Civil Rights Movement, race was still an issue. There was a very tumultuous period of time of maybe 20 years, where racial tension was still charged. A family relative who emigrated to NYC in the early 70’s, was beaten up by a bunch of white dudes for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What no one else tells you about this era of time was how much politics were discussed. I heard about Franz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, from my Haitian brethren, I was steeped in the lyrics and aura of Bob Marley and the many styles of reggae. I also learned a lot about Pan-Africanism , Marcus Garvey and what it was like to live in the South from my American-born black neighbors.
Like any culture there were problems of poverty, drugs, police brutality (which is oddly still an issue.) No society or community is free from ills. Yet for our community it seems, only our negatives are discussed and emphasized. Brooklyn and living in it continues to be a source of inspiration . I’d like to think that the fact that many rappers have come from Brooklyn and its culture is significant.
Bright as the Stars By Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli)
I remember around the 4th or 5th grade I was being made fun of for being so ‘dark’. I was nick named Coco Krispies after the cereal. After a few weeks of this I asked my parents why I was so black. My father decided after our brief talk to take me along from some errands that weekend downtown Brooklyn around the Fulton Mall Area, near Albee Sq Mall. There was at the time and there are guys that sell stuff on the side of the sidewalk they sell stuff specifically for black people: Black African soap, raw shea and coco butter, incense, and books. Many of these books were self-published by our own for our own people. At least that was the way it felt. Sometimes the facts weren’t 100% accurate but you shouldn’t underestimate what that means to have something uniquely yours. Being always depicted in the media as thugs,rapists or gangstas in the media made it seem that the only thing made for us aside from prison cells was unnecessary suffering. Then came hip hop,which the men selling stuff on the streets sold bootleg copies.I should also note that you could also buy old MLK and Malcolm X speeches and Africa Bimbada stuff from them. This made a lasting impression on me.
Talib Kweli and Mos Def are amazing artists each in their only rights. Their performances together as Black Star gave me and many other hip hop fans an amazing album. Aside from the sound of it, what I love about this particular song is that it brings me back emotionally to those few moment were as I explored my own culture and identity I found yet another thing to be excited about. What I also love about this track is that it illustrates hip hop isnt all about selling drugs and thug living. The commercial song are the only voices available.
I’m reminded of these words by Langston
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
This culture is still one that continues in part because I feel it is feed and nourished by the dept of our diverse experiences. It’s really a shame when it’s depicted in such a way to denigrate those experiences and the decades of struggle. The next song in this series is one that is very significant to me, I hope you stick around for it.