Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chris Rock says, “I love rap, but it’s getting a lot harder to defend.” I often feel that way. I love old-school hip-hop and rap. I love rap that makes me think. And, honestly, even though I won’t dance to the Thong Song, a much better beat might make it a minute before I realize what’s being said. I don’t think it would hurt artists to work on their lyrical abilities, but anyway…that’s not where I’m going with this.

Following the wave of national debates on the language of hip hop, there’s a powerful film that addresses commerce linked to hip hop: BLING: A Planet Rock – an off the hook documentary by former Editor in Chief of One World magazine Raquel Cepeda (and fellow Dominican) that looks at Sierra Leone and asks us to analyze our connection to (un)fair and (in)humane conditions and legacies associated with the diamond trade. In her own words:

"I felt that Sierra Leone was more than an article, because I saw these fascinating parallels," Cepeda said. "It was formed by freed slaves, and just at the time hip-hop started to become commercially successful here in the United States — in 1991 — [the Los Angeles district] Watts was burning, and this bloody civil war was beginning in Sierra Leone. So as the conflict was ending, and the aftermath was everywhere, I felt like it would be an interesting social experiment to have some rappers go there as goodwill ambassadors. Because hip-hop has affected every crevice of the world, and I wanted rappers to know that."

From: [, July 18, 2006]

What I like about the film is not just that it places the conversation specifically within a hip-hop lens, it places three very distinct hip hop artists (Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan, Tego Calderon and Paul Wall) as the subjects of the film. I thought it was really smart that she chose three people from such different eras, locations and styles of hip hop. And, that Q-Tip and Kanye West also back the film, providing their own insights both on and off camera (Kanye West released his song: Diamonds From Sierra Leone last year, just before the film was initially released, and Q-Tip was apparently the one who set the whole question off). Cepeda also included the insights of former child soldier Ishmael Beah within the discussion of not just the war itself, but on the role of U.S. based hip hop artists within the war (for e.g. – some rebel factions using Tupac T-shirts as uniforms) and as a form of creative outlet and inspiration for Sierra Leone based hip hop artists within their own work. The film deftly maneuvers the complexities of the hip hop industry, the power of individual artists to affect entire communities and the ways in which consumer values in the U.S. end up impacting us here and people in the rest of the world.

Now, keep in mind, I have been impressed and disturbed FOR YEARS about the role of the U.S. media, and particularly the portrayal of people of color within U.S. media on shaping the imaginary throughout the rest of the world. For one, I think it’s hot that hip-hop has been embraced as a powerful transnational form of expression of blackness and resistance. But, because of its transcendent power, I’ve also been really upset by the ways in which sexism, homophobia and straight up violence have been portrayed and perpetrated. Cepeda deals with this dynamic as a true lover of hip hop, and we as viewers watch as Raekwon realizes how Wu-Tang affected an entire generation in Sierra Leone – in both very positive and painful ways. One Sierra Leone hip hop artist states, “We saw U.S. hip hop artists talking about using guns on one another, and so we felt justified in using ours against each other.” Simultaneously, hip hop provided an outlet for peace in 2001, when thousands of rebels entered Freetown to watch Sierra Leonian hip hop artist Jimmy B give a concert.

Yeah. It’s complex. We are powerful, us artists. And while we can never anticipate how our art will transform or affect others (throughout the world), we can be intentional about how we create work.

Oh yes, and one last thing. I forgot to mention the setting in which I viewed the film, something which struck me as kind of ironic. Kinda. I received an email from a friend telling me about the free viewing of the film – the email included the youtube video excerpt I’ve posted below.

So, Wu & I went to the Austin Alamo Draft House – a movie house that serves food and drinks. Scion was handing out goodie bags with XXL T-shirts, hats and tons of promotional material. I skipped the bags, but then went back and got one anyway when I found out there was a hat inside (I know – I’m easy). We got two pink tickets. When we sat down, the woman sitting next to me told us, “Those tickets are for free drinks. You can order any drinks on the menu.” Free film? Free drinks? Hell yeah. We ordered wine. A DJ was spinning house & hip hop music to old footage of the TV Dance show “Graffiti Rock” while we waited for the reel to start. Right before the movie showed, Scion reps came and took photos of the audience. I know they took photos of me and Wu because we were two of 5 black people in the audience. And the guy sitting next to Wura was South Asian. So you know – DIVERSITY. Everyone else in the audience was white.

The film itself was preceded by an awful 10 minute short documentary about homelessness in Los Angeles (quote of the year: You just put your gloves on and help.” Um. Yeah.). After muttering a 10-minute commentary under my breath, I finally hushed for the film itself. I watched, moved and awed as folks around us ate. I couldn’t help think: wow – what’s the logic behind the marketing of this film – a film about people suffering and giving out freebies? Sip. Hmm.

Following the Q&A session, we all filtered out of the theatre (it was about 12.45am at this point). Wu and I stood outside and watched the two cop cars drive off after they realized it was mostly a white audience. Yeah. So, you see, it’s complex. Watching a film about black people at war with each other – a war fueled by the diamond trade’s practices – and just outside, the cops are ready to take us.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Photo courtesy of Sharon Bridgforth.

On Friday the Rooted Workshop gave a reading/presentation at Resistencia bookstore. We were honored by the presence of raulsalinas, and by the hard work of the Resistencia staff and volunteers: Rene, Lisa and Gaby. Thank you.

The reading included works by Anel Flores, Cheryl Coward, Matt Richardson, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano, Maria Limon, Samiya Bashir, Sharon Bridgforth, Jen Marguiles, and myself as well as a performance on knitting by Senalka McDonald and a video presentation by Wura-Natasha Ogunji.

It was packed, and off the chain.

What an amazing group of people.
This is the latest ridiculousness. This announcement's already from last week, which I know, in the popular imaginary is ages ago. And, normally I don't even like to think about reproducing images/events such as this in my sphere. But, I was so shocked with the racist, colorist, sexist implications of all of this that I had to. It just resonates so deeply with how racism plays out in the Caribbean. I also had to include brilliant responses, like the "news article" (fictional) written by Francine Harris, posted below.

Francine Harris's response

DETROIT – Following a party promoters' call for "light-skinned Libras" to populate a night club for a dance night, protestors across the metropolitan area today dumped tens of thousands of paper bags at local dumping grounds and filled a barge that sailed the Detroit River this afternoon.

"The paper bag test is dead here" said local hip-hop legend and party promoter, NightRise, referring to the admittance policy among African-Americans. His venues have blown up lately for their decision to add other nights to Ladies Night, including: Gentlemen's Night for the ladies, Poet's Night where freestylers get in for free, GenderBender Night where people of both sexes come in drag, and Family Night which are alcohol free and kid friendly. "Overall, man, we're just brown-giddy. Brown folks coming to my clubs down here – automatic superstars!"

The youth in Detroit are also voicing their concerns. "I just hate that people think we don't love ourselves" said Novena Derrick, a 13-year old ninth grader, posing with a ripped up paper bag and a Macintosh apple in her mouth. Derrick is best known for her tri-color Blacker Berry flag, a spoof of the Michigan flag. The traditional elk and moose in the Michigan flag bear a banner of an armed man defending his land, under the word Tuebor (latin for "I will defend") and stand protected by the United States Eagle.

Derrick's version of this flag still features the elk, moose and eagle, but the animals frame a banner of a happy clan of African-Americans, of various shades, laughing in the sunshine. As Derrick likes to point out: "We took it back to its original black color …plus the diaspora replaces the mean man with the gun".

Color-struck promoters were unavailable for comment on the protests.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Jóvenes del Liceo Técnico Hermanas del Rosario Torres marchan
para repudiar las drogas y actos delictivos en el sector
Guachupita de la zona norte del Distrito Nacional.
Copyright 10/11/2007 10:45:44 AM LISTIN DIARIO | Todos los derechos reservados

Youth in the sector of Guachupita, one of the poorest urban communities in the Dominican Republic, made a call to end the drug related violence in their neighborhood. Between the ages of 11 -16 they staged a peace march; over 250 youth have been engaged in discussions and problem-solving organizing meetings for the last month. The problem of drug related violence has gotten so bad that many children report not being able to go to the colmados - corner stores - to buy food items. Sending children to the corner stores is a common thing to do (me, my brothers and all my cousins were always being sent to the corner store to buy everything from dinner bread to a cigarette for my aunt). However, children getting robbed on the way there or back is a new thing.

It says a lot when 11 year olds are heading a march for peace. I hope this process also opens the way for creative, community developed solutions. I have faith that it already has.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Slavery a reality, here and now

When you say slavery, most Americans think about what ended with the Civil
War. With relief, we think: That was then.

But slavery is, unfortunately, now.

We call it "human trafficking" these days, an almost innocuous- sounding
term, but it is slavery by any other name. And the numbers are stunning. Around
the world, as many as 1.1 million human beings, mostly women and children, are
"trafficked" across international borders and sold each year into slavery,
according to the U.S. State Department.

If one counts all the people forced into servitude -- from farms in India to
charcoal mines in Brazil -- the numbers reach into the millions. Even the
United States has become a major importer of sex slaves, with estimates running
between 14,500 and 17,500. Of those, 80 percent are women and half are minors.

Although the United States has been monitoring trafficking since 1994 -- and
Congress passed a trafficking victims protection act in 2000 -- slavery hasn't
seized the American imagination the same way apartheid once did, or as Darfur
has in recent years. That may begin to change with two new films -- one a
documentary and the other a mainstream film starring Kevin Kline -- aimed at
disturbing our slumber.

They are effective.

In "Sold," a documentary by former ABC producer Jody Hassett Sanchez, we meet
Pakistani boys as young as 3 sold into service as camel jockeys in the United
Arab Emirates
. We also meet little girls as young as 5 who had been sold as
sex slaves.

One of the challenges of modern-day slavery is that good people are often
unknowingly complicit. Many of the children featured in the documentary are sold
by their impoverished parents, who were promised their children would have
better lives. The reality is something different. Little girls end up as abused
prostitutes, while little boys sold as jockeys spend 12 or more hours a day
strapped onto the backs of camels, are shocked with metal prods and fed saltwater
to prevent their gaining weight.

At a screening Wednesday, Sanchez told an audience that included U.S. Reps.
Mary Bono, R-Calif., and Connie Mack, R-Fla., that she wanted to focus on
people who were working to end slavery. She followed three faith-driven people -- a
Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian from India, Pakistan and Togo, respectively
-- who have suffered threats and beatings to save women and children.

Sanchez says she hopes her documentary, which is cinematically beautiful
despite the hideous subject, will inspire Americans, especially young people, to
take action.

"Trade," which opens in theaters this weekend, is a less hopeful, if equally
harrowing, treatment of the same subject. Based on a 2004 New York Times
magazine story by Peter Landesman ("The Girls Next Door,"), the movie shines a
light on how traffickers operate from Mexico to a stash house in suburban New

The story follows Adriana, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped in Mexico City by an
organized crime gang, and a naive young Polish woman who left her country for
the false promise of a better life. Terror can't get any worse than what these
two endure as they are trundled through barren landscapes, handed off as
sexual favors to strangers, and ultimately put up for sale.

A parallel story unfolds as Adriana's 17-year-old brother, Jorge, teams with
Ray, a Texas cop played by Kline, to try to rescue her before she is sold at
an online auction.

This is not a fun movie to watch, nor is it likely to improve anyone's
opinion of mankind. But it's an important film that makes denial no longer possible.
While "Trade" will make you angry, "Sold" will make you want to applaud. Both
will make you want to do something.

Ending slavery won't be an overnight fix. You can't throw money at it and
make it go away, though a check to the right people will help. Ultimately,
slavery is a moral problem that forces confrontation with one's commitment to human

Put it this way: Once you know little boys barely out of diapers are sold as
camel jockeys, or that little girls are prostituted before they can tie their
shoes -- or that any child is peddled to the pedophile with the highest bid --
averting your eyes is not an option.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kparker@kparker. com.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of
The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Oh - and one more treasure for the day. Originally saw it on Samiya Bashir's Blog: Scryptkeeper. Rapper extraordinaire Roxanne Shante on royalties from the industry.

Treasures, treasures beautiful treasures of historical intersections.

I received word from Alan King about the new reading series, Intersections, held at Honfleur gallery in D.C. Not that I live anywhere near D.C., but I loved hearing about it and reading about all the literal and metaphorical intersections of histories and genres.

Another little treasure, this video from Afrika Bambaata - an explosion of African diasporic intersections: Carnival, Mardi Gras, Indigeneity, Candomble, Latino-ness, Egyptology, Hip Hop, the Bronx and Queerness. Love it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The venerable Samiya Bashir, Sharon Bridgforth and me.
Photo courtesy of Sharon Bridgforth.

Well, so much, so much.

Today, Sharon Bridgforth, Samiya Bashir and I read at BookWoman here in Austin. How incredible to be in the company of these women, and under the umbrella of Lisa C. Moore's vision. Wow. Sharon read from The Bulljean Stories, and moved us and had us laughing all at once. Samiya read some new poems and from Where the Apple Falls. And I read one excerpt from Erzulie's Skirt and other excerpts from my as of yet unpublished novel "Anacaona's Daughter". The vibe was incredible. And an awesome turnout.

It also followed on the heals of a beautiful get-together last night, hosted by us here in Austin to welcome the amazing folks who've come to town. Wura-Natasha Ogunji showed her new performance videos, including "Belongings". And Amanda Johnston shared the developments of a twisted experience of racial discrimination at Borders boosktore here in Austin on Friday September 28th, 2007. The ensuing actions and reactions are astounding. As I told her:

Your story last night shook everyone, long after you and Fabian and your cousin had parted from our home. In sharing the full extent of your experience, I am humbled and deeply angered. I am humbled by the full extent of your vision, and by your commitment to a strategy that addresses the different elements of how discrimination affects us as people of color. This week of on-going, open and transparent communication is really deep to me. The Borders leadership should be honored that you have engaged them in this dialogue.

I am deeply angered because bookstores such as Borders have really caused a shift in the landscape of bookstores and the relationship that we as authors have to bookstores: the small bookstores that have historically been so critical to the development of community around writings by people of color, women, etc and have enabled us to continue doing the work, have economically suffered because of chains such as Borders. Which only adds insult to injury, when we go in to buy books, and are reminded of the depth of our losses.

I will be posting a link to your blog on my blog. Out of respect for you and for my friends who staff Borders stores throughout the country, I will also be contacting them to discuss this experience, and to hold critical dialogue around how to not have it happen where they are.

Much love,


What's sad to me is that I continued to be surprised when these things happen. And that I don't. Ya know?

In any case, the reading today was a good, heartening reminder of things that are right in the world. Things that we can work towards and be committed to as artists.

Peace, Love.

Monday, October 01, 2007