Archive for the ‘History’ Category

From Doo Wop to Hip Hop: The Bittersweet Odyssey of African-Americans in the South Bronx

Brilliant article by Mark Naison. Source.


Kool Herc

Kool Herc

Sometimes, music can be a powerful tool in interpreting historical events. Played side by side, two of the most popular songs ever to come out of the Bronx, the Chantals’ “Maybe” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five “The Message,” dramatize an extraordinary shift in the culture, dreams and lived experience of African-Americans in the South Bronx between the mid 1950s and the early 1980s. These songs, so different in tone, content and feeling, were produced by artists who lived less than six blocks away from one another in the Morrisania Section of the Bronx, an important center of musical creativity in both the rhythm and blues and hip hop eras.1

The Chantals, the most successful “doo wop” group ever to come out of the Bronx, and one of the first of the “girl groups” ever to have a hit single, grew up singing together in the choir at St. Anthony of Padua elementary school located on 165th Street and Prospect Avenue. Their song “Maybe” appeared in 1957, a time when many African-Americans in the Bronx were having a modest taste of post-war prosperity and were optimistic about their futures. Throughout the neighborhoods of the South Bronx they inhabited, new housing developments were going up at breakneck speed, allowing thousands of black and Latino families to move into clean airy apartments, with ample heat and hot water, which were a step up from the tenements many of them lived in when they first came to New York. They lived in a neighborhood where most families were intact, where children received strong adult guidance in their home, their block, and their school, and where adolescent violence was rarely life-threatening.

Grandmaster Flash, one of three pioneering Bronx DJ’s credited with founding hip hop, also grew up in Morrisania (at 947 Fox Street, right off 163rd Street), but it was a very different Morrisania than the one the Chantals grew up in. When Mel Melle, the MC for the group, sang “Broken glass, everywhere, people pissing on the street, you know they just don’t care” to a pounding, rhythmic backdrop, he was talking about a community buffeted by arson, building abandonment, drugs, gang violence, shattered families, the withdrawl of public services and the erosion of legal job opportunities. Surrounded by tenement districts that been ravaged by fires, housing projects that were once centers of pride and optimism had become dangerous and forbidding: “rats on the front porch, roaches in the back, Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.” This was the world in which hip hop was created, a world where government was distant and remote, families were under stress, adult authority was week, and young people had to find economic opportunity and creative outlets on their own in the most forbidding of circumstances.

How did this happen? How did the harmonic, optimistic environment evoked by the Chantals, the Chords (who came out of Morris High School), or Little Anthony and the Imperials, give way to the violent, danger-filled world described in clinical detail by the Furious Five and, several years later, by another brilliant South Bronx hip hop lyricist KRS-1? And how did people respond to these community-destroying forces? Did they give in? Leave? Try to resist? If they did resist, how effective was their resistance?

These are some of the issues that I will try to address in this article. Please keep in mind that what I am sharing with you is the product of preliminary research. A little more than a year ago, the Bronx Historical Society and the Department of African and African-American Studies at Fordham came together to launch the Bronx African-American History project, an effort to document the experience of the more than 500,000 people of African descent who live in the Bronx. I decided to focus on the generation of African-Americans who moved to the South Bronx from Harlem, the American South and the Caribbean during and after World War II, the generation of people Colin Powell has written about in the early chapters of his autobiography An American Journey.2

I began interviewing members of that pioneering generation and in the process came across a remarkable group of people who grew up in the Patterson Houses, a 17-building development bounded by Morris and Third Avenues and 139th and 144th Streets. These individuals, who come together every July for a Patterson Houses Reunion, are successful professionals in education, business, and the arts who remember the Patterson Houses as a safe nurturing place from the time it opened in 1950 until heroin struck in the early ‘60s. Their story, which challenges so much of what people think about public housing, the South Bronx, and Black and Latino neighborhoods, is one that I am going to recount not only because of its intrinsic value, but also because it helps us understand the events that follow.

Based on interviews and long discussions with Victoria Archibald Good, Nathan “Bubba” Dukes, Adrian Best, Arnold Melrose, Joel Turner, Michael Singletary, Marilyn Russell and Allen Jones, I am going to bring back a time when public housing was a symbol of hope, not failure, and when working-class Black and Latino families, supported by strong, well funded government services, helped each other raise their children with love, discipline, respect and a determination to achieve success in school, athletics and the arts. And though this story is about Patterson, the atmosphere it evokes also existed in the Melrose, St Mary’s and Forest Houses, the other large developments that opened in the South Bronx in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.


One of the first things that grabbed my attention when I began doing interviews was that African-American families who moved into the Patterson Houses saw their arrival there as a “step up” from the crowded tenement neighborhoods where they had been living. Vicki Archibald, whose parents moved to Patterson Houses from Harlem, recalled: “There wasn’t a lot of affordable housing. I am not sure how long my parents were on the waiting list for public housing, but I do remember my mother saying they were living in one room in my grandmother’s apartment before we moved…. By the time we moved from Harlem to the Bronx, I was born, my brother Tiny was born, and my mother was pregnant win a third child.”3 Nathan Dukes, whose family moved from a crowded building in the Morrisania section of the Bronx where his father was superintendent, recalled: “It was basically like a migration, where people moved from the Tinton Avenue/ Prospect Avenue area over into the Patterson Houses… The projects were relatively new and they were accommodating.” The new residents, Dukes claimed, took tremendous pride in their surroundings. “Outsiders could not come into the Patterson Projects if we didn’t know them,” he remembered. “A lot of the older guys would question anybody who didn’t look right who came into the projects late in the evenings.… They were basically patrolling.… They would walk around the neighborhood … making sure things was ok.”4

When the project first opened, children who lived in Patterson experienced a level of communal supervision that is difficult to imagine today. The families who lived in the development, 90% of whom were Black and Latino, took responsibility for raising one another’s children. Not only did they help one another with babysitting and childcare, they carefully monitored the behavior of young people in hallways, from apartment windows and project benches, making public spaces in the huge development anything but anonymous. “You couldn’t get away with anything,” Nathan Dukes recalled “The moms and the pops, … they’d be out on the benches…. If you went in the wrong direction, by the time you came back, everybody in the neighborhood would know. And that was it…. You’d get a whooping.” Vicki Archibald, who fondly recalled the “camaraderie and supportiveness and nurturing” she got from people who in her building “who weren’t blood relatives,” also remembered that people were quick to correct one another’s children. “They did not hesitate to speak to you about dropping garbage in the hallway or talking too loud or skating in the hallway. All a neighbor had to do say ‘Don’t let me tell you mother’ and that’s all it took for us to come back go reality.” Even childless people got in the act. Vicki remembered a “Miss Charlie Mae” who used to “stand in that hallway, sit by the window, or on the bench and everybody knew what was going on in 414.”

This communal investment in child rearing was reinforced by publicly funded programs that provided children in the Patterson Houses with an extraordinary array of cultural and recreational opportunities. As Josh Freeman points out in his landmark book Working Class New York, residents of communities like Patterson Houses were the beneficiaries of a remarkable campaign by the city’s postwar labor movement to have government invest in education, health care, recreation and youth services for working class families.5 Children growing up in Patterson in 1950s had round-the-clock supervised activities in a community center housed in the local elementary school, PS 18; had first rate music instruction from teachers at the local junior high school; went on summer field trips to zoos and museums; and got free medical exams, vaccinations, and dental care in schools and in clinics. The experience made children in the projects feel at home in all of the city’s major cultural sites. “We had a vacation day camp, every summer, for children in the projects,” Vicki Archibald recalled. “We went to every single museum you could think of, to Coney Island, to baseball games, to the planetarium… We went to Prospect Park, the Bronx Zoo, the Botanical Gardens.… I don’t think there was one spot in the city we didn’t cover.”

These programs were headed by teachers and youth workers who took a deep interest in the welfare of Patterson’s children and were in regular communication with parents, reinforcing the communal investment in the neighborhood’s young people. Nathan Dukes and Adrian Best both speak with reverence of the instruction and guidance they received from “Mr. Eddie Bonamere” the music teacher at Clark Junior High School, who headed the school’s band. At that time, Clark, like most New York public schools, allowed students to take instruments home over the weekend, and Bonamere, a talented jazz pianist, used this opportunity to train hundreds of youngsters from Patterson to play the trumpet, trombone, flute and violin. Bonamere’s extraordinary influence on his pupils—Nathan Dukes referred to him as the “love of my life”—was reinforced by his determination to expand the cultural horizons of everyone living in the neighborhood. At the end of every summer, Dukes recalled, Bonamere would sponsor a jazz concert in the schoolyard of PS 18 that included famous musicians like Willie Bobo, and “everyone, I mean the entire projects, would be there.”

Supervised sports programs in the Patterson Houses were, if anything, even more visible and influential. The Community Center at PS 18, which was directed by the former CCNY basketball star Floyd Lane and ex- Knickerbocker Center Ray Felix, was kept open on weekends, holidays, and weekday afternoons and evenings. Not only did children have a chance to play knock hockey and checkers, do double dutch and play in organized basketball leagues, they had an opportunity to watch some of the greatest African-American basketball players in the nation play in the Holiday basketball tournaments that Lane sponsored. Players like Wilt Chamberlain, Meadlowlark Lemon, Tom Thacker, and Happy Hairston showed up on the PS 18 court. Similar programs existed in other South Bronx neighborhoods. Nat Dukes joined a community basketball program headed by Hilton White at a public park near Prospect Avenue, and played on a softball team called the Patterson Knights that was coached by a Burns security guard who lived in the Patterson Houses. Because of this array of sports programs, many young people who grew up in Patterson had successful careers in high school, college and professional athletics, and one of them, Nate Tiny Archibald, became one of the greatest point guards ever to play in the NBA.

This portrait of a time when Black and Latino children in the Patterson houses experienced strong adult leadership in every dimension of their lives so challenges the standard portrait of life in public housing that you might find it hard to believe. Wasn’t the South Bronx in the ‘50s the home of numerous street gangs, you might ask? Weren’t its neighborhoods filled with illegal activities and a strong underground economy?

The answer to both of these questions is yes. Most of the people who lived in the Patterson Houses were poor, and gang fighting and the underground economy were part of their lives. But except in rare cases, neither gangs nor illegal activities led to deadly violence. Boys in the Patterson Houses were constantly fighting kids from other neighborhoods and other projects, but most of the fighting was done with fists, and adults in the projects would step in if knives or zip guns became involved. The underground economy was huge, but its primary manifestation was the numbers and the major numbers entrepeneur in Patterson, Mr. Clay, carried himself more like a community banker than a thug. A “major donor in the church” and a sponsor of the community softball team, Mr. Clay dressed formally, did his entire business in his head, and never worried about being robbed by his customers, even though he always carried hundreds of dollars in his pocket. Even those who acted outside the law seemed to operate within a powerful communal consensus.

This remarkable period in the life of the Patterson Houses, which lasted less than fifteen years, rested on a number of intersecting factors which would not exist in public housing after the mid-‘60s. First, families were intact. All the families with children that moved into Patterson in the ‘50s had two parents present. Second, the local economy provided plenty of jobs for men with high-school educations and less. Many of the men in the Patterson Houses worked in factories and small shops located in the South Bronx. Dukes’s father was a furniture assembler; other men worked in milk bottling plants or small metal shops. Third, schools and community centers near the Patterson houses offered an impressive array of day camps, after-school centers, and sports and music and arts programs that offered round-the-clock supervision and activity for young people in the projects. Fourth, and most importantly, most Patterson residents had a sense, reinforced by public policy and lived experience, that life was getting better, that people heading families were living better than their parents had, and that their children were going to do even better than they had.


In the 1960s the comfort and security of people living in the Patterson Houses was to be cruelly shattered by a number of forces, creating an environment ruled by fear and mistrust, in which children were too often forced to raise themselves. What changed? When people who grew up in Patterson try to explain why the environment that nurtured them fell apart, the two things they mention are heroin and the fragmentation of families.

For both Vicki Archibald and Nathan Dukes, it was heroin use, which reached epidemic proportions in the early and mid-1960s, that did the most to erode bonds of community and trust in the Patterson Houses. All of a sudden, young men who were bright, popular and ambitious were transformed into dangerous and disoriented individuals who wouldn’t hesitate to rob their neighbors or families to get their next fix. Vicki Archibald, whose best friend’s brother was the first person she knew to get hooked, saw heroin strike with the force of a “major epidemic.” “For the first time,” she recalled, “I was starting to feel fear, not only for myself, but for the whole community…. It was so completely different that it felt that I was living in a dream…. All of a sudden, everyone in the projects is talking about break-ins … saying these were inside jobs, that somebody was letting these folks in to burglarize people’s apartments. Then I started hearing about folks that I grew up with getting thrown off rooftops because they were dealing.” Nathan Dukes remembers heroin hitting with the force of a flood: “there was just an abundance, it came out of nowhere…. People that you thought would not become involved in narcotics became involved on a very heavy level.” Dukes recalled being “devastated,” during his first year in college, by the news that one of his best friends “had just gotten shot and killed while robbing a jewelry store.” By 1965 and 1966, Archibald recalled, she didn’t feel safe walking back from the subway by herself at night. The Patterson dream had become a nightmare. “Here I was in this huge housing complex and there was a story every day about somebody who OD’d or was thrown off a roof…. So yes, it was a troublesome time for most of us.”

The impact of heroin on the Patterson community was so traumatic that Nathan Dukes remains convinced it was part of a government conspiracy to weaken the civil rights movement; but there were other forces eroding the community in the mid-‘60s that would have a lasting impact on the projects and the neighborhood. The fragmentation of families also contributed to the atmosphere and disorder. During the early and middle ‘60s, Dukes recalled, more and more fathers began to desert their families, frustrated by their inability to support their wives and children at a time when the factory jobs they worked at were beginning to leave the Bronx. During those same years, housing projects began to relax their admissions standards and open their doors to families on welfare, many of them recent migrants from Puerto Rico or the South or refugees from urban renewal projects in the rest of the city. As a result of both these developments, the adult male presence in the projects, which had helped keep gang behavior and teenage violence under control, began to diminish sharply, leaving public space under the control of drug dealers, junkies and teenage gangs.

The resulting violence and chaos led to a gradual exodus of families that had managed to resist these corrosive forces, most to the West and North Bronx. As a result, sections of the Bronx which had once been primarily Jewish, Irish and Italian, such as Morris Heights, University Heights, South Fordham, and Williamsbridge, began to experience a rapid increase in their Black population, while the housing projects of the South Bronx increasingly became places for those too poor, or troubled, to escape to safer areas. The exodus increased further with the wave of arson and disinvestment that spread through Melrose, Mott Haven, and Morrisania in the early 1970s, and later spread into Highbridge, Morris Heights and Crotona, exacerbated by a city fiscal crisis that led to dramatic cuts in public services. By the late 1970s, when the Bronx had become an international symbol of social decay, it would have been impossible for most people to imagine that housing projects in the South Bronx were once safe and nurturing places where children were watched over in every portion of their lives and exposed to the best cultural opportunities the city had to offer.


In this moment of decay and despair, an improbable cultural movement would arise among young people in the South Bronx, West, and East Bronx whose creative impulses were integrally linked to the atmosphere of social breakdown that surrounded them. That movement was Hip Hop. Its unique styles of dancing, visual arts, and musical expression were created in the Bronx in the face of skepticism, indifference and occasionally hostility from adults inside and outside those communities. In fact, a good argument could be made that it was the breakdown of social order and adult authority that made this form of artistic innovation possible, especially in the formative years when hip hop had no commercial viability. The music writer Nelson George offered the following ironic observations of how the music fit the times:

The New York that spawned hip-hop spit me out, too. I came of age in the ‘70s…. But I’d be lying if I told you the ‘70s were a time of triumph…. It was, at times, a frightful experience to walk the streets, ride the subways, or contemplate the future…. But in chaos there is often opportunity, in pain a measure of pleasure, and joy is just a stroke or two away from pain. The aesthetic industry now known as hip hop is a product of these blighted times, a child that walked, talked and partied amidst negativity.6

Hip hop developed at a time when the adult presence in the lives of young people in the Bronx had radically diminished. Not only had informal supervision by family members and neighbors become far less significant, but music instruction had disappeared from the public schools, parks and recreation staffing had been cut in half, afternoon and evening programs in the schools had been eliminated, and sports programs had been cut to the bone. More and more, young people had to bring up themselves, and the result was that gangs in the Bronx had become far larger and more violent than their ‘50s counterparts, rates of violent crime had quadrupled, and the underground economy had come to replace the legal economy as a source of employment for youth. Along with gang activity came radical politics: in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, more intellectually inclined Bronx youngsters were gravitating to the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters; to community action groups seeking to wrest political control of the Bronx from its Irish, Jewish and Italian leadership; and to Black and Puerto Rican studies courses on the CUNY campuses. Along with the gangs, drugs, disinvestment and crime, race-conscious political activism, reinforced by open admissions in the City University (perhaps the greatest achievement of the ‘60s Left in New York City), was part of the unique chemistry that created Hip Hop as a cultural movement.

The birth of Hip Hop as a distinctive music form can be traced to the year 1973, when a Jamaican immigrant nicknamed “Cool DJ Herc” began holding parties at the community center in his building 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Morris Heights Section of the Bronx. At that time, you could not hold a party in the Bronx without being concerned about which of the gangs would show up and how they would respond¾particularly the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades. Competition among gangs for territory and prestige dominated public space in many parts of the Bronx, with neither a police force (decimated by fiscal crisis) nor local adults able to control their activity. In addition to fighting, the competition had begun to take the form of graffiti writing and dancing, with gang members at clubs trying to outdo each other in launching acrobatic moves on the dance floors of clubs and parties they attended.

The innovation that Herc inaugurated was to to take music that was no longer played on mass market radio (particularly heavily rhythmic music by James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and George Clinton), use incredibly powerful speakers to accentuate the bass line, and use two turntables so that the most danceable portions of the record¾the break beats¾could be played in consecutive order. The result was a sound that drove dancers wild and turned the competition on the floor between gang members into high theater.

What soon became known as “break dancing” described the increasingly acrobatic moves that took place at Herc’s parties at the Sedwick Community Center, which people all over the Bronx flocked to see. Soon, Herc was moving his events outdoors by hooking up his sound system to streetlights, and thousands of people were starting to attend them. He eventually found a commercial venue for his shows at “Club Hevalo” on Jerome Avenue between Tremont and Burnside. By 1974 and 1975, Herc’s style of dee jaying had started to spread through other neighborhoods of the Bronx and connect with traditions of toasting and boasting long established in black communities. To add variety to his shows and stir up the audience, Herc began to allow one of his partner dj’s, Coke La Rock, to “grab the mic and start to throw out his poetry.” This innovation was so successful that Herc added other “MCs” to his shows, and they soon began to compete in how well they could stir up the crowd. This, some people say, is where “rapping” (long a respected art in black communities) became a part of Hip Hop.

While Herc blew up in the West Bronx, even establishing a major venue right next to Fordham University at PAL Center on 183rd Street and Webster Avenue, a former gang leader from the Bronx River Houses in Soundview who called himself Afrika Bambatta began holding parties in the community center of his housing project that built on and in some respects expanded Herc’s innovations. Influenced by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, Bambatta created an organization called the Zulu Nation aimed at bringing cooperation among Bronx gangs, and used Hip Hop culture to attract them to his shows. Eclectic in his tastes, Bambatta added rock and latin and jazz to the funk-driven beats he was playing. This encouraged break dancers from all over the Bronx to come to his center, knowing they would be protected from violence by Bambatta’s bodyguards. He also encouraged poets and MCs to work alongside him, creating a more artistically varied product than Herc usually did. Bambatta was explicitly political in his objectives. As he told Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn:

I grew up in the southeast Bronx. It was an area where back in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, there was “broken glass everywhere,” like Melle Mel said in “The Message.” But it was also an area where there was a lot of unity and social awareness going on, at a time when people of color was coming into their own, knowin’ that they were Black people, hearing records like James Brown’s “Say It Loud¾I’m Black and Proud,” giving us awareness…. Seeing all the violence that was going on with the Vietnam War and all the people in Attica and Kent State, and being aware of what was going on in the late ‘60s, with Woodstock and the Flower Power … just being a young person and seeing all this happening around me put a lot of consciousness in my mind to get up and do something; it played a strong role in trying to say, “We’ve got to stop this violence with the street gangs.”7

The final hip hop innovator was Grandmaster Flash, an electronic wizard who figured out ways of having turntables mingle break beats automatically. Flash, a graduate of Samuel Gompers Vocational High School, began performing in schoolyards (his biggest events took place outside PS 163 at 169th Street and Boston Road), clubs and community centers in Morrisania (a neighborhood which had been devastated by fires, but was anchored by several large public housing projects). Flash became the dominant figure in the South Bronx neighborhoods of Melrose, Mott Haven and Hunts Point, attracting a brilliant group of poets and rappers led by Mel Melle, the voice heard on Flash’s signature song, “The Message.”

What makes this entire movement remarkable is that it was created entirely by people under the age of 30, with little support from parents, teachers, or the music industry. The music teachers who had played a vital role in exposing an earlier generation to instrumental music and in sponsoring talent shows for vocal groups in after-school centers, had been removed or reassigned during the fiscal crisis. Community center directors like Arthur Crier in the Tremont section, who sponsored parties and talent shows at which hip hop pioneers performed, were the only adults present at hip hop’s genesis, but they had little influence on its musical content.8

Because hip hop was about rhythm rather than harmony, and because turntables and records had replaced musical instruments and voice, many people brought up on gospel, blues, jazz and soul had difficulty regarding it as music, just as many people had difficulty regarding graffiti as art. But because so many young people had grown up in the fractured world that hip hop arose in, the audience for it grew to the point that hip hop became the major form of community entertainment among young people in the Bronx and soon spread far beyond its borders.

The story of hip hop’s rise is a testimony to the vitality of the human spirit, but it does not give my story a happy ending. Although hip hop has given young people in the South Bronx (and communities like it throughout the world) a vehicle and a moral compass that helps them describe the conditions in which they live, and has prevented the media and government from rendering them invisible, it has not been able to turn fractured neighborhoods into safe supportive communities like the one that Vicki Archibald and Nathan Dukes grew up in. To do that, we need more than an unvarnished portrait of project life as it’s lived now; we have to try to recreate the nurturing and inspiration and guidance Patterson children once received, not only from families but from a government committed to giving working-class children the opportunity to rise to the highest level of achievement in business, politics, and the arts. We cannot replace the nuclear family and bring back the industrial jobs that left the Bronx in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but we can restore music instruction to the public schools, rehire recreation supervisors in parks and playgrounds, and revive the after-school programs and night centers that were once a fixture of every elementary school in the city. Public housing was once a place where dreams of success and achievement were nurtured; there is no reason why, if we restore the round-the-clock youth programs that Patterson children once benefited from¾and make a generous investment in childcare, education and medical care for working-class children and families¾it cannot play that role again.


1. On rhythm and blues in Morrisania, see Philip Groia, They All Sang On the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups (Port Jefferson, NY: Phillie Dee Enterprises, 1983), pp. 130-132. PS 99, which sponsored evening talent shows as part of a night center directed by a legendary teacher named Vincent Tibbs, and Morris High School, were centers of musical creativity in the “Doo Wop” years. Groia writes, “After 3 o’clock, PS 99 and Morris High School beame rehearsal halls for the simplest of musical instruments, the human voice. Both schools were major forces in keeping young people off the streets…”

2. Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Ballantine, 1995). Chapter One discusses Powell’s experiences growing up in the South Bronx.

3. “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child; Growing Up in the Patterson Houses in the 1950s and 1960s: An Interview with Victoria Archibald Good” Bronx County Historical Journal (Spring 2003).

4. “Oral History Interview with Nathan Dukes by Mark Naison,” April 25, 2003. Available as a transcript and videotape at the Bronx County Historical Society and Fordham University’s Walsh Library.

5. Joshua B. Freeman, Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New York: New Press, 2000).

6. Jim Fricke & Charlie Ahearn, “Yes YesY’All”: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip Hop’s First Decade (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), p. vii. Nelson George wrote the introduction to this remarkable book, which provides the best portrait of the rise of Hip Hop in the Bronx in the 1970s. Other works documenting Hip Hop’s Bronx years are Raquel Rivera, New York Ricans in the Hip Hip Zone (New York: Palgrave, 2003), Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1994); Alan Light, ed., The Vibe History of Hip Hop (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999); James D. Eure & James Spady, Nation Conscious Rap (New York: PC International Press, 1991); James G. Spady, Charles G. Lee, & H. Samy Alin, Street Conscious Rap (Philadelphia: Black History Museum Umum/Loh Publishers, 1999).

7. Fricke & Ahearn, “Yes Yes Y’All”, p. 44.

8. In an interview with the Bronx African-American History Project on January 30, 2004, Crier, a singer, arranger, producer and songwriter who was one of the major figures in the Morrisania rhythm and blues scene in the 1950s and ‘60s, said that the talent shows at PS 99 in the 1950s were his inspiration when he began organizing talent shows at his community center in the middle and late 1970s. “Oral History Interview with Arthur Crier by Mark Naison,” January 30, 2004. Transcript available at Bronx County Historical Society and Fordham University’s Walsh Library.

This Is Black History [video and lyrics]

Despite the best efforts of London’s mayor to get rid of Black History Month (last year Boris cut funding for Black History Month from £132,000 to a miserly £10,000), it’s here again. The potential value of Black History Month is usually lost – most teachers don’t take the opportunity to address the deep racism and Eurocentrism at the heart of our education system, and black history is reduced to a few facts about Rosa Parks and a passing mention of how good Bob Marley was at singing. The only section of the 500-year-long legacy of resistance to slavery that we hear about is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which is painted as having brought us the post-racial harmony we supposedly have now!

This dumbed-down black history actively contributes to the conspiracy of silence about the history of Africa, its people and its diaspora. Contrary to popular opinion, this history starts *before* transatlantic slavery and includes the development of vast civilisations and major innovations in every branch of science and the arts! The fact that very few people have a clue about pre-slavery African civilisation is a clear manifestation of white supremacy, alive and well.

Luckily, a big group of London rappers are stepping up where the majority of teachers are letting us down. Big respect to Logic, Big Ben, Jaja Soze, Big Cakes, Genesis Elijah, MC D, Cerose, Big Frizzle, Wordplay, Haze, the USG crew, Rodney P and Akala for putting together a deep, memorable and inspiring track for Black History Month.

I’ve tried to transcribe the lyrics for you. Please tweet me about any mistakes!

[Jody McIntyre poem]
Australia is a black country
So’s America
So the superpower warn us of a black terror
It’s not theft if it’s yours and you take it back
Just a correction of an inaccurate fact
So I’m not afraid at the thought of immigrants
More ashamed of my quarter of Englishness
The Scots and the Irish don’t wanna take this
Being occupied by a state that is racist
Black history is a story of revolution and resistance
A salute to all our brothers
From now to Maurice Bishop

This is our history
The school system made it a mystery
But it made a foundation for you and me
So we put it in our music for you to see

I am not a ni**er, no mistake made
Cos that’s the word the slavemaster used to call the slave
Brothers trying to kill other brothers to make the papes
The way they move I bet Rosa Parks would turn in her grave
Think of what she stood for and how she would feel
Think of Steve Biko and think of Emmett Till
And eight bars ain’t enough time on the beat
But go google every name, black history

[Big Ben]
Imagine Adam was as black as a pint of Dragon
And his descendants built guided by stars’ patterns
Pyramids, with just the knowledge of the atom
They might not tell you in your class but that’s what really happened
Before the kidnap, chains, rotting in the cabins
Your family tree’s from a root greater than you fathom
There’s real power in that blood the guns are out splashin
It’s real power when the people start to take action

[Jaja Soze]
You can’t hide the truth from me, you’re only fooling you
My blood is of a slave, shout to Shaka Zulu
No ni**er-monkey round here bruv, monkey who?
I’m medicating yoots just like I’m supposed to do
You should be a king instead of trying to shot a Q
I’m speaking to my people just like Malcolm X would do
And don’t make who you are be a mystery
Just educate yourself and learn the black history

[Big Cakes]
This is black history, this is our history
The pyramids in Africa and stars are in symmetry
Big dog you ain’t a ni**er or a nig-nog
A black man made the first clock, tick-tock
You got a watch, big up Benjamin Banneker
My brudas got ripped and shipped up from Mother Africa
Hip-hop story, lines outta rhymes
Tell you how a black man made clocks out of time

This is our history
The school system made it a mystery
But it made a foundation for you and me
So we put it in our music for you to see

[Genesis Elijah]
Black magic, black clouds, black hearted
Black beauty black balled on black markets
The black comedy is tragic
That black card did nothing
They still parred him, called him a black bastard
Ain’t nothing new black, they used to call it black music
No black supremacy just equality the news is
Black’s the new black I rep that Black Panther movement
Teach black history, speak black future

[MC D]
Blacks get sold in auctions like Christie’s
But to suppress the knowledge is too risky
So instead of that the feds wanna frisk me
And handle me like they did the blacks in the 60s
But I’m a king like Tut and Shaka Zulu
I gain knowledge and I learn what we been through
Wisdom is more than the colour of your skin, true
And when you’re wise you realise you’re a king too

I am Kunta, not Toby
Free thinker, you’ll never control me
Go further, Nat Turner
The massa got shot by his own burner
By any means like Malcolm
They never hear me when I talk so I’m shoutin
Back to Africa like Garvey
One love like the brother Bob Marley

[Big Frizzle]
Yeah listen to the saga
Mamadu Diallo fathered little Aminata
Taught her in the ways of the Qu’ran no drama
Eleven years old she was taken from her mother
The hardest journey ever across that great river
Three moons in that giant canoe
Now they deliver
Back to back, blacks on blacks
Look how she shivers
You wanna know how she grows
Well learn more when you read the book of negroes

This is our history
The school system made it a mystery
But it made a foundation for you and me
So we put it in our music for you to see

I went and picked up a book, took an hour to read through
Learn about a party that’s empowering the people
About Huey P and Bobby Seale, the Panthers
Not the media spin, I’m reading Howard [Bingham]
How they try and discredit these guys’ names
FBI, Cointelpro, the CIA
But I never forget my man dem, bredders like Fred Hampton
Died for the rights of my people, I’d like to thank them

Fuckery and misery, black history
Legacies never told, youngun come and sit with me
Take the fag out the zoot, bun a spliff with me
Listen to my thoughts, find that epiphany
Yeah we are kings, genetically and spiritually
From the start to the end, I mean literally
Marcus Garvey, 2Pac and Malcolm X
Only up above lord knows who’s coming next

[USG crew]
The way they ? ? ain’t fair bro
That’s why we’re killing each other on these roads
They don’t wanna see our black seeds dem grow
They wanna see us living broke in a ghetto
That’s why I got the rifle by the window
By any means necessary, using Malcolm’s lingo
And they try and put my flag at half mast
Labelled me a mongrel, I’m black not half caste
Us fellas here with no fear like Mandela
So they’d rather see us rot in the damn cellar
But them pricks can’t harm me
Cos I’m black and I’m proud like Marcus Garvey
Can’t leave my people in the field, nah, I love dem
I lead the way like I’m Harriet Tubman
And they can’t say we’re fighting for something
Ancestors legendary, nothing above them

This is our history
The school system made it a mystery
But it made a foundation for you and me
So we put it in our music for you to see

[Rodney P]
I’m a bald black bredder like Khalid Muhammed
Sayin hail up the dread as we roam the planet
In step with Imhotep, I follow the lead
Intellect like Menelek, I follow the creed
And I wanna believe, although I don’t go church
I just carry god with me know say this is God’s work
I know my livity I’m trying to achieve
And the yoot dem have to know so that they warrior breed

Celebrating our history is not a favour
Correcting the myths that still persist to justify behaviour
Showing civilisation before colonisation
Some would rather say the pyramids were put by aliens
Than accept that a bunch of coons ever taught a thing
Ever in human history to people with lighter skin
Diop set em straight, intelligent debate
At the Cairo Symposium, still they wanna negate
We can’t change a thing, if we don’t wanna face
Our education conditioned us to the myth of race
So you probably never learned about the Moors in Spain
Benin, or Luanda in 1668
Lalibela or the Citadel, our truths they hid it well
If we knew ourselves would so many sit in a cell?
When Europe has the influence in African affairs
That Africa has in Europe, we can talk about a world that’s fair

Follow the protagonists on Twitter:

Rodney P
Big Ben
Jaja Soze
Genesis Elijah
Big Cakes
Big Frizzle
Jody McIntyre
Last Resort (producer)

Tribute to Steve Biko

steve biko34 years ago today, leading anti-apartheid militant and black consciousness pioneer Steve Biko was killed by apartheid police in South Africa. In the intervening decades, political apartheid has ended and various gains have been made, but the struggle against racism, imperialism and white supremacy continues in Biko’s name.

His writings remain essential reading. A few of his best-known quotes:

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”

“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”

“Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority”

“Whites must be made to realise they are only human, not superior. Blacks must be made to realise they are also human, not inferior”

“Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”

Steel Pulse released the following tribute to Steve Biko on their classic 1979 album ‘Tribute to the Martyrs’.


The night Steve Biko died
I cried and I cried
The night Steve Biko died
I cried and I cried
Biko, O, Steve Biko died still in chains
Biko, O, Steve Biko died still in chains
Biko died in chains, moaned for you
Biko died in chains, moaned for you, yeh

Blame South African security
A no suicide he wasn’t insane
It was not for him to live in Rome, No
Still they wouldn’t leave him alone
They provoke him, they arrest him
They took him life away
but can’t take him soul
Then they drug and ill-treat him
Til they kill him
And they claim suicide

I’ll never forgive, I’ll always remember,
Not, not only not only I, no
But papa brothers sisters too, Yeh, yeh
Him spirit they can’t control
Him spirit they can’t man-trol
Cannot be bought nor sold
Freedom increases one-hundred fold.

The system
Something’s got to be done
Straight away
The system of weak-heart emontion
They’ve got to pay
The system of backra corruption
They’ve got to pay
The system is destroying my nation
The system kill him

O, O Jah Jah, O Jah Jah
Take them where life sweeter
Send a Moses to set them free
Pharoah’s army won’t let them be
From the beginning he knew
He’d meet his end
Yes my friend
They’ll keep on ruling, all hours Jah
Jah send
I’ll tell you again
Dem take him life – Dem take him soul
Him spirit they can’t control
Cannot be bought nor sold
Freedom increases one hundred fold

The system, the system, the system
Something’s got to done,
The system where black man
Get no recoginition
The system of colour partition
The system should be dumped from creation
The system kill him

O, O Jah Jah, O Jah Jah,
Take him where life sweeter
Send a Moses, send a Moses.
Pharoah’s army won’t let them be
Biko died in chains
Moans for you
Biko died in chains all are moaning
Moans for you
Steve Biko died still in chains
Steve Biko died still in chains
Still, still in chains
Still, still in chains

Long live the memory of Stephen Bantu Biko.

A tribute to the revolutionary poet Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

11 May 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely death of Robert Nesta Marley – probably the most significant cultural figure of the 20th century. I can’t think of anybody else who has reached such levels of popularity and influence whilst consistently putting forward a message of resistance to oppression.

Undoubtedly, Bob’s image has been somewhat sanitised and pacified by corporate forces who like to portray him as a “chilled out guy with a great voice”.

Dave Thompson, in the book Reggae and Caribbean Music, writes:

“Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture … That the machine has utterly emasculated Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers, and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and whose sacrament was marijuana. Instead, the Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more.”

But you only have to only have to look outside Europe and North America to see the profound and enduring effect Bob Marley had on the downpressed masses of the world. Marley is still loved by the sufferahs all over the world, not simply because of photos of him burning the holy herb, but because of the hope, pain, love and inspiration of his music and his words. In Africa and South America, Bob is a hero and a teacher. Indigenous Australians keep a flame burning for him in Sydney. He is revered by many indigenous Americans.

As a revolutionary poet of the highest order, Bob Marley has been a teacher and guide to more than one generation of oppressed youth. You can go to school and you can learn some or other Shakespeare play about medieval kings, but it’s Bob that tells you what you need to know:

“Get up, stand up / Stand up for your rights / Get up, stand up / Don’t give up the fight.”

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!”

Bob Marley always put forward a deeply humanistic vision of the unity of all peoples (“I only have one thing I really like to see happen – I like to see mankind live together – black, white, Chinese, everyone – that’s all”). Yet he was also keenly aware of how much of the system of empire, colonialism and white supremacy had been built on the oppression, enslavement and murder of Africans. Bob loved all humanity, but he represented for the oppressed, and for Africa first and foremost.

The commercial radio stations might play ‘Stir it Up’, but they don’t play ‘War’! Check the lyrics (which are adapted from a speech made by Emporer Haile Selassie to the United Nations in 1963):

What life has taught me
I would like to share with
Those who want to learn…

Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war

That until the basic human rights are equally
Guaranteed to all, without regard to race
Dis a war

That until that day
The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued, but never attained
Now everywhere is war, war

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique,
South Africa sub-human bondage
Have been toppled, utterly destroyed
Well, everywhere is war, me say war

War in the east, war in the west
War up north, war down south
War, war, rumours of war

And until that day, the African continent
Will not know peace, we Africans will fight
We find it necessary and we know we shall win
As we are confident in the victory

Of good over evil, good over evil, good over evil
Good over evil, good over evil, good over evil

Another song that represents Bob’s position on the frontline of struggle against oppression at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s is ‘Zimbabwe’, which was written specially for that country’s independence celebrations.

Danny Sims, Bob’s first manager, puts it well:

“Like our great leaders, like Marcus Garvey, like Malcolm X, like Martin Luthur King, Bob Marley was one who, once he knew he had something to get across to the world, he couldn’t rest because of his vision … To a generation, Bob Marley was a Malcolm X for the 1970s, a true revolutionary and a man who never left the people he loved and struggled for. During his life Bob Marley never changed. He never changed his outlook … he never even changed his wardrobe.”

Rest in power, Bob Marley!

Tribute to Patrice Lumumba on the 50th anniversary of his assassination

Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba

Malcolm X, speaking at a rally of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity in 1964, described Patrice Emery Lumumba as “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody. He had those people [the colonialists] so scared they had to kill him. They couldn’t buy him, they couldn’t frighten him, they couldn’t reach him.”

This was three years after Lumumba was assassinated by Belgian mercenaries in the breakaway state of Katanga (southern Congo).

Why was Lumumba killed? Because he was a relentless, dedicated, intelligent, passionate anti-colonialist, Pan-Africanist and Congolese nationalist; because he had the unstinting support of the Congolese masses; because he stood in the way of Belgium’s plan to transform Congo from a colony into a neo-colony.

Until the mid-1950s, the nationalist movement had been dominated by the small Congolese middle class. It was not a radical movement; it was composed of clerical workers, mid-level army officers, supervisors and so on, who were getting a cut of the enormous profits Belgium was making out of Congo. They opposed direct colonialism in the sense that they disliked white rule and were sick of being second class citizens in their own country; however, the basic economic institutions of colonialism suited them quite well. They were scared by the Congolese masses – the peasants, the workers, who worked in slave-like conditions for a pittance, and who bore the brunt of the famines and the genocidal actions of the colonisers.

The masses wanted control. They wanted the Belgians out, not just moved from the front seat to the back seat. They didn’t want white oppressors to be replaced with black oppressors; they wanted freedom and justice; they wanted democracy; they wanted nationalisation; they wanted to be listened to; they wanted to rule.

Lumumba was the key figure in mobilising these masses. Joining the nationalist movement around 1955, he quickly grew disillusioned with the middle class elite and addressed himself to the most oppressed sections of society. The peasants and workers of Congo were constantly radicalising him. He developed a clear strategy for total decolonisation, to be brought about on the basis of broad political action by the masses.

In 1958, he and others formed the broad-based Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which immediately established itself as the key organisation in the struggle against colonial rule.

The Belgians and their friends in the ‘international community’ were shocked by the pace of development of the nationalist movement. In the mid-1950s, Belgium – which had exercised the most vicious, murderous, plunderous rule over Congo – was confident that it would retain its African colony for at least another century. However, by 1959, the MNC had gained such popularity and credibility that the Belgians knew their time was up.

But they had a backup plan: to replace traditional colonialism (white rule, backed by a military occupation) with neo-colonialism (black rule in white interests, backed with Belgian money, advisers and mercenaries). That way, Belgium’s theft of Congo’s sumptuous natural wealth (including massive reserves of coltan, diamonds, copper, zinc and cobalt) would continue uninterrupted.

Reading the writing on the wall, the Belgians decided to grant independence much sooner than anybody was expecting, in the hope that they would prevent the further growth of the nationalist movement; that it would be denied the chance to develop a coherent organisational structure and would therefore be heavily reliant on Belgium’s assistance. However, Lumumba had rallied the best elements of the nationalist movement around him and clearly had no intention of capitulating.

At the independence day celebrations on 30 June 1960, Belgian King Baudouin made it perfectly clear that he expected Belgium to have a leading role in determining Congo’s future. In his speech, he chose not to mention such unpleasant moments in history as the murder by Belgian troops of 10 million Congolese in 20 years for failing to meet rubber collection quotas. Instead he advised the Congolese to stay close to their Belgian ‘friends’: “Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better… Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side and give you advice.”

He and his cohort were therefore shocked when Lumumba, newly elected as Prime Minister, took the stage and told his countrymen that “no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it is by struggle that we have won [our independence], a struggle waged each and every day, a passionate idealistic struggle, a struggle in which no effort, privation, suffering, or drop of our blood was spared.”

Referring clearly to Belgium, Lumumba stated that “we will count not only on our enormous strength and immense riches but on the assistance of numerous foreign countries whose collaboration we will accept if it is offered freely and with no attempt to impose on us an alien culture of no matter what nature”.

Lumumba, caring nothing for being polite to the Belgian dignitaries in the audience, concluded: “Glory to the fighters for national liberation! Long live independence and African unity! Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!”

Ludo de Witte writes of this historic speech: “Lumumba [spoke] in a language the Congolese thought impossible in the presence of a European, and those few moments of truth feel like a reward for eighty years of domination. For the first time in the history of the country, a Congolese has addressed the nation and set the stage for the reconstruction of Congolese history. By this one act, Lumumba has reinforced the Congolese people’s sense of dignity and self confidence.” (The Assassination of Lumumba)

The Belgians, along with the other colonialist nations, were horrified at Lumumba’s stance. The western press was filled with words of venom aimed at this humble but brilliant man – a man who dared to tell Europe that Africa didn’t need it. The French newspaper ‘La Gauche’ noted that “the press probably did not treat Hitler with as much rage and virulence as they did Patrice Lumumba.”

In the first few months of independence, Belgium and its western allies busied themselves whipping up all kinds of political and regional strife; this led to pro-Belgium armies being set up in the regions of Katanga and Kasai and declaring those regions to be independent states. This was of course a massive blow to the new Congolese state. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Belgians (along with their friends in France and the US, and with the active support of the UN leadership) developed plans for a coup d’etat that would remove Lumumba from power. This was effected on 14 September, not even three months after independence.

But even under house arrest, Lumumba was a dangerous threat to colonial interests. He was still providing leadership to the masses of Congolese people, and he still had the support of the majority of the army. Therefore the Belgians connived with the CIA and with their Uncle Tom stooges in Congo to murder Lumumba. That Belgium is most responsible for Lumumba’s death is amply proven in Ludo De Witte’s book, The Assassination of Lumumba. Furthermore, the UN leadership was complicit, in the sense that it could very easily have put a stop to this murderous act.

Lumumba, along with three other leading nationalists, was assassinated by firing squad (led by white Belgian officials in the Katangan police force), after several days of beatings and torture.

When the news of Lumumba’s murder broke, there was outrage around the world, especially in Africa and Asia. Demonstrations were organised in dozens of capital cities. In Cairo, thousands of protesters stormed the Belgian embassy, tore down King Baudouin’s portrait and put Lumumba’s up in its place, and then proceeded to burn down the building.

Sadly, with Lumumba and other leading nationalists out of the way, the struggle for Congo’s freedom suffered a severe setback which was not to be reversed for over three decades.

There are a lot of important lessons to learn from this key moment in the history of anti-colonial struggle; lessons that many people have not yet fully taken on board. As Che Guevara said: “We must move forward, striking out tirelessly against imperialism. From all over the world we have to learn lessons which events afford. Lumumba’s murder should be a lesson for all of us.”

To this day, western governments and media organisations use every trick in the book to divide and rule oppressed people, to stir up strife, to create smaller states that can be more easily controlled. To this day, they use character assassination as a means of ‘justifying’ their interventions against third world governments – just look at how they painted Aristide in Haiti, or how they paint Chavez, Castro and many others. To this day, ‘UN intervention’ often means intervention on the side of the oppressors. To this day, the intelligence services use every illegal and dishonest means to destabilise and cause confusion. We all fall for these tricks far too often.

On the bright side, the past decade has been one of historic advances; advances that point the way towards a different and much brighter future. The political, economic, military and cultural dominance of imperialism is starting to wane. As Seumas Milne pointed out at the recent Equality Movement meeting, the war on terror has exposed the limits of western military power. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has started to discredit the entire neoliberal model. The rise of China, the wave of progressive change in Latin America, the emergence of other important third world players – these all indicate a very different future.

In Congo itself, progress is being made, although it often seems frustratingly slow (principally because the west is still sponsoring armies in support of its economic interests). But, as De Witte writes, “the crushing weight of the [Mobutu] dictatorship has been shaken off”. We can’t overstate the importance of this step.

As we all move forward together against imperialism, colonialism and racism, we should keep Lumumba’s legacy in our hearts and minds.

“Neither brutal assaults, nor cruel mistreatment, nor torture have ever led me to beg for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head held high, unshakable faith and the greatest confidence in the destiny of my country rather than live in slavery and contempt for sacred principles. History will one day have its say; it will not be the history taught in the United Nations, Washington, Paris, or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity … I know that my country, now suffering so much, will be able to defend its independence and its freedom. Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!” (Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, Pauline).

If you’re in London, be sure to attend this event on Saturday:

Commemorate the death of Lumumba

Commemorate the death of Lumumba

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Patrice Lumumba
Towards a world without colonialism, imperialism and racism

Saturday 22 January 2011, 6-11pm
Inn On The Green, Ladbroke Grove
3-5 Thorpe Close, W10 5XL

Speakers include:

  • Dr Lez Henry (author, social anthropologist and community activist)
  • Marika Sherwood (author and historian).
  • Dan Glazebrook (radical journalist)

Performers include:

  • MC Logic
  • Trozion
  • Big Cakes
  • Nekz MC
  • Asheber
  • Sky Montique
  • Mangaliso Asi
  • Alaa Kassim
  • Sanasino Al-Yemen

More information can be found at the Facebook event page.

Remembering George Jackson on his birthday

Soledad Brother

George Jackson, Soledad Brother

A massive happy birthday to George Jackson, martyr of the struggle for freedom, leading intellectual of the Black Power movement, and a major source of inspiration for many of the best hip-hop artists.

Aged only 18, George Jackson was imprisoned for the petty crime of stealing $70 from a petrol station. In spite of the lack of evidence, he was convicted, and the judge threw the book at him, giving him a sentence of one year to life. In prison, he became known as a radical, and for that reason he was never released. When he started teaching other prisoners about the conditions that had got them into prison, and when he started organising the other prisoners to defend themselves, he was put in solitary confinement, where he did seven and a half years.

While in prison, he joined the Black Panther Party, and became one of its leading intellectuals and public figures. His books, ‘Soledad Brother’ and ‘Blood in my Eye’ are essential reading, even today.

On 21 August 1971, George Jackson was shot to death by a tower guard, who claimed George was trying to escape. As the famous writer James Baldwin put it: “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”

Jackson represented an important ideological thread within the international movement against colonialism, imperialism and racism. He was sickened by the traditional ‘left’, and felt that their lack of courage, their refusal to keep up with new developments and their comfortable middle class backgrounds prevented them from organising real change in society. He took to the Black Panther Party quickly, because he saw that it was an organisation that spoke to the street, to the dispossessed, the downtrodden; an organisation that *organised*, not just talked. In ‘Blood in My Eye’, he puts it very simply:

“We are faced with two choices: to continue as we have done for forty years fanning our pamphlets against the hurricane, or to build a new revolutionary culture that we will be able to turn on the old culture”

The historian Walter Rodney summed up George Jackson’s contribution brilliantly:

“George Jackson, like Malcolm X before him, educated himself painfully behind prison bars to the point where his clear vision of historical and contemporary reality and his ability to communicate his perspective frightened the US power structure into physically liquidating him… The greatness of George Jackson is that he served as a dynamic spokesman for the most wretched among the oppressed, and he was in the vanguard of the most dangerous front of struggle.” (see this article)

George Jackson and his brother Jonathan – who was killed while leading an incredibly audacious courtroom breakout – have been mentioned in many a hip-hop track. Check out Nas’s ‘Testify’, which he dedicates to George and Jon:

George would have been 69 years old today. We can only guess what he might have achieved by now.

“To the slave, revolution is an imperative, a love-inspired, conscious act of desperation. It’s aggressive. It isn’t ‘cool’ or cautious. It’s bold, audacious, violent, an expression of icy, disdainful hatred! It can hardly be any other way without raising a fundamental contradiction. If revolution, and especially revolution in Amerika, is anything less than an effective defense/attack weapon and a charger for the people to mount now, it is meaningless to the great majority of the slaves. If revolution is tied to dependence on the inscrutabilities of ‘long-range politics,’ it cannot be made relevant to the person who expects to die tomorrow.” (Blood in my Eye)

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