Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

Here’s Johnny! An American Master

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, On Sports! with tags , , , on March 12, 2017 by playthell
playthell-and-johnny-chocranPlaythell and Johnny hangin out at Katie Couric’s Party, in Manhattan

Notes on O.J. Made in America

Suddenly O. J. Simpson is in the news again, and from all appearances the “Trial of the Twentieth Century” is creeping into the 21st century. The “Juice” is being introduced to another generation in this new century by virtue of two films, one a documentary the other a feature film:  O.J. Simpson: Made in America, and The People Vs. O. J. Simpson.   I have not seen The People vs O.J. Simpson, but I am watching O.J. Made in America as I write.  When the documentary, directed by award winning film maker Ezra Benjamin Edelman, won the coveted Academy Award, I was shocked!

I had already seen Raoul Peck’s marvelous documentary on James Baldwin: “I’m Not Your Negro,” and I knew any movie that beat Peck’s documentary had to be great.  For Peck had provided us a poignant portrait of the turbulent history of race relations in 20th century America, told in the words of James Baldwin – one of the most powerful essayist of the last century, whose pen greatly enriched the English language – graphically illustrated with photographs and video. It was a powerful presentation: riveting, enlightening, uplifting, a sublime experience.  But the Academy chose the O. J. Documentary instead.  I couldn’t wait to see it.

As it turns out O.J. Made in America is a production of ESPN, the sports channel, it’s a part of their excellent 30 for 30 series, and the multi-part series is still being broadcast.  I stumbled upon the film when I awoke about five o-clock in the morning, after having fallen asleep with the television on, and found the documentary just beginning.  After watching about four hours of this seven-hour epic on race, class, sports and the power of American celebrity culture – which made a demi-god of O.J. and put Donald Trump in the White House – I agree with the Academy.   This is a great documentary!   I was unable to leave it except to run to the bathroom.

When I first heard about the film my reaction was: “What else is there to know about O.J. Simpson?  After all, the cat really ain’t that deep.”  I was wrong.  A great part of the insightfulness of this documentary is due to the unique perspective Edelman brings to this project. As the son of Marian Wright Edelman, the long-time Director of the Children Defense Fund, the inequities faced by many children at birth has long been a topic of conversation in his household.

His sense of justice is enhanced by the fact that his father Peter B. Edelman is a law professor at Georgetown University.  And by virtue of the fact that his mother is Afro-American and his father is a Jew, Ezra has seen the world from both sides. His maternal grandfather is a Baptist minister and his paternal grandfather was a Polish Rabbi who was killed in the holocaust.  He attended a Quaker high school and earned a degree from Yale.  He was born in Boston and raised in Washington DC. What a unique perspective from which to view American society.

Ezra Benjamin Edelman

ezra-benjamin-edelman

Academy Award winning Director

I welcome the arrival of this film with such an even-handed report because I have always advocated looking at the O.J. Simpson affair objectively; give him his day in court and try to live with the verdict.  During his dramatic trial for killing his blond wife and her young Jewish lover, I was not one of those black people who was running around chanting “Cut the Juice Loose!”  At the time of the trial I was an Editorial Page columnist with the New York Daily News, and I wrote three columns on the incident.  I remember well how I came to write them.

At first, like everybody else, I was shocked at the accusation that old smiley O.J. brutally slaughtered two innocent people; not this hail fellow well met.   And while I believed he should be assumed innocent, I didn’t insist upon it as an act of blind faith.  As the details of their relationship began to emerge, I found his brutality toward his wife Nicole both shocking and appalling.  Yet I was troubled by the swelling cries for O.J. Simpson’s head.  They reminded me too much of the southern lynch mobs that terrified me in my youth.

Although I had never personally witnessed a lynching, I read about them and saw grim pictures of the victims, and I was living in a southern town where you knew that such an atrocity could happen given the right circumstances – that there was an element of white men in the town, including the sheriff, who were quite capable of forming a lynch mob. So, I was turned off by the howl of the white mob.  In fact, my second Daily News Column on the O.J. affair addressed just this issue.  Not being a lawyer, I had no original legal insights to offer, so I concentrated on the issues that surrounded the trial.

Hence the first Column was an attempt to place the story of O. J. and Nicole in a historical and cultural context.  I talked about how a story about a hyper-masculine black man who marries and murders a beautiful innocent white woman would resonate deep in the collective psyche of Americans.  For anyone who studied English literature, as we all had, and is familiar with the classics of the western literary canon, Othello immediately comes to mind.  Although, to fully grasp O.J.’s personality, it would require referencing two of Shakespeare’s plays – Othello and Titus Andronicus.

While O.J. can be seen as Othello, because he is accused of murdering his white wife in a fit of jealous rage fueled by his suspicion that she had taken another lover, Othello is constantly referred to even by his enemies as “noble Othello,” or “The noble Moor.” But, alas, O.J.’s character has more in common with the treacherous Aron the Moor in Titus Andronicus.  A few years before O.J. was accused of killing his wife I had published a lengthy treatise titled “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: Reflections on Blacks and the Bard,” that was anthologized in the text “Othello: New Essays by Black Writers,” edited by the distinguished Shakespearean scholar Dr. Maithili Kaul and published by Howard University Press.

On that occasion, I had argued that in the dramatis Personae of Shakespeare’s two Moors he invested the polarities of virtue and vice, hero and villain.  O.J. embodies aspects of both characters, and like them he is a warrior; not in the literal sense but symbolically.  Othello and Aron were both fighting men, soldiers; O.J. is a football player, a blood sport that is a metaphor for war.  And all of these images of violent black manhood, these cultural references, are embedded, along with recollections of Emitt Til and Willie Horton, in the racial memory of black and white Americans.

Alas, the most persistent theme in American history is racial conflict between African and European Americans.  This is why such intense interest in the Nicole Brown / O.J. Simpson murder case persists; it is powerful testimony to the truth of Nobel Laurate in Literature William Faulkner’s observation “The past isn’t even past.”

Hence when Johnny Cochran took on the defense of O.J. Simpson, he inherited all of the thorny issues surounding the history of race relations in American; including the instinct for mob Justice to exact retribution for what whites view as black offenses against their kith and kin.  This issue becomes as explosive as nitro-glycerin if the victim is a white woman, and it becomes even more explosive to the degree that she is blond, beautiful, and apparently innocent.  In the minds of many white men it is a blasphemy akin to befouling he precincts of heaven; hence many of them felt O.J. did not even deserve a trial at all.  They wanted to string him up from the nearest tree mucho pronto….if they had their druthers.

One of the most valuable achievements of this remarkable documentary film is the skillful ways in which the director weaves vignettes about the broader experience of Afro-Americans with racism  in the USA and how it affects the perceptions of Blacks and whites in the way they view the Simpson trial.  From the outset blacks viewed O.J.’s guilt with skepticism, and whites dismissed the assumption of innocence. Of course, it goes without saying that I am not talking about all whites or blacks; rather I am speaking in the aggregate based on opinion polls.  Hence Johnny Cochran was viewed with growing suspicion by whites, while blacks rooted for his success in defending O.J.

After the racist statements of Detective Mark Furman, who had found the bloody glove which the prosecution said was worn by O.J. while committing the crime, was exposed on an audio tape in the courtroom, the prosecution lost faith with most black Americans – including the Jury.  After listening to Detective Furman routinely calling Afro-Americans “niggers;” casually discussing how white cops brutalized and framed innocent black men; and declaring that he would like to see “all niggers killed,” the Black community became convinced that the fix was in and O.J. had been framed by the LAPD based on the lies of a racist white detective.

 A Dramatic Moment Tailor Made for A Professional Actor
o-j-simpson-iii
If it Don’t Fit…You Must Acquit!

johnny-cochran-iii

The Coup de Grace!

When this compelling evidence Furman’s racism was added to a major blunder by the prosecution, who ordered O.J. to try on the bloody glove and it didn’t fit, it gave Johnny Cochran the opening to charge the jury with the compelling rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit!” The film examines this moment in a way that allows us to observe O.J., the experienced screen actor, at work. He recognized the high drama of the moment and made the most of it; turning to the camera and triumphantly thrusting his hands into the air to emphasize the fact that the glove didn’t fit!

His transparent effort to brazenly play to the cheap seats and milk the scene for all it would yield, conjured up the warning of that consummate thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier, who warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession but the actor must never be caught doing it!”   In the film, other members of the prosecution team all say they were against the disastrous courtroom demonstration because it went against a cardinal rule of good lawyering: “Don’t ask questions before a jury when you are not sure of the correct answer.”

But, alas, they say Darden saw this demonstration as an opportunity to kill two quails with one stone: to put O.J. away for murder, and salvage his reputation from the accusation that he was an “Uncle Tom,” who was being used by the white power structure to frame an innocent black star. Hence upon the insistence of Chris Darden, the only black attorney on the prosecution team, the other prosecutors went against their better judgement and allowed O.J. to try on the glove…and it sank their case!

However the thing that enraged white Americans most, was when Johnny Cochran dramatically compared Detective Mark Furman’s beliefs about black people to Adolph Hitler’s beliefs about Jews.  This was one of the most telling moments in the film, because it demonstrates the willful ignorance and denial of the obvious similarities of Hitler’s Master Race theories and the racist white supremacist ideology of white America.  Alas, the film maker missed a perfect opportunity to clarify this widespread misunderstanding.

The fact of the matter is that Hitler actually imported his racist ideology from the USA.  Never has the Afro-American historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles’ axiom rang truer: “He who would understand the complex realities of the present needs the added dimension of historical perspective.”  For it is well documented that Hitler adopted his Master race theories from a book by a leader in the American Eugenicist Movement: The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, published in 1917.  We know this because historians have found a letter from Hitler in Grant’s personal papers where the Nazi leader thanks Grant for writing the tome and enthusiatically declares: “Your book is my Bible!” Hence despite the opprobrium heaped upon him Johnny Cochran was right on target.  Nazi racial ideology and American white supremacy are the same class of phenomenon and it, like O.J. was made in the good old USA!

Despite this oversight however, the documentary does a good job of connecting the dots when it comes to white racism, Afro-Americans and the O.J. Simpson case.  And their inclusion of the brilliant litigator F. Lee Bailey’s cross examination of Mark Thurman on the stand, exposing him as a flaming racist sicko, is one of the outstanding episodes in the film.

They also spared no effort in exploring Johnny Cochran’s brilliance as a trial lawyer; his elegance and eloquence were fully on display. (see video clips of both lawyers in the courtroom at the bottom of this essay) As was the feelings of the jurors, the jubilation of the black community nationwide over O.J.’s acquittal, and the rage of white America that O.J. got away with “a double murder.”   The importance and power of this trial can still be seen in the intense emotions it evokes after all these years.

The Master at Work

johnny-cochran

Mesmerizing the Jurors with Erudition and the Magic Power of Speech

The shock, rage and outrage of white America upon the acquital of O.J.Simpson by a black Jury in Los Angeles is poignantly portrayed in this film.  It was as if the heat of white anger was fed by two blazing fires: O.J. got away with murdering some white folks, and the “niggers were laughing!”  It seemed that everywhere you looked black people were laughing; to white eyes it must have looked like every black person in the world was laughing!

Based on their comments, it sure sounded like that’s what they thought and it just seemed to piss them off more. I remember network television news reports showing students at the Howard University School of Law, and they were cheering like Howard had just won the annual “Whiskey Bowl” against their hated rival Lincoln University. What happened at Howard was of special interests to white commentators because of it’s venerable reputation as “The Capstone of Negro Higher Education.”

Under the leadership of it’s founding Dean, the brilliant and elegant Harvard trained lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard law laid the legal ground work for a team of Houston’s students led by gifted constitutional lawyer Thurgood Marshall – who would go on to become the first Black Justice on the Supreme Court – changed American society into a better place with their unanimous victory in the historic Brown V. The Board of Ed Decision.  

The white folks got so upset after repeated viewings of the jubilatiion at Howard that I felt compelled to write my third Daily News column on the history of white anxiety over black laughter in America.  My intention was to tutor my readers – and those who would hear me read and discuss the column on my radio show “Talk Back,” broadcast over WBAI FM – on the fact that white people have always gotten uptight when the see  black people laughing.

This has been discussed by white commentators going back to the 18th century, who pointed out that the source of white unease lay in the fact that they couldn’t see what was funny, and suspected that we might be laughing at them.  There are numerous references to this in the writings of white Americans from literary figures and journalists to private diaries.  Afro-American cultural critic Mel Watkins discusses this question in some depth in his seminal text on Afro-american comedy “On the Real Side: The Underground Tradition of Black Humor.”

At one point white anxiety over black laughter became so intense that “Laughing Barrels” were installed on the down town streets so if blacks felt like laughing in the presence of whites they had to rush to the barrels, stick their heads into them, and then laugh! None of this was mentioned in the film, but then this was my unique contribution to news commentary…I had been a history professor before I became a journalist.  Everything becomes clearer when viewed from the hindsight of history.

Among the special virtues of this film, which suffers an embarrassment of riches regarding virtue, is that it goes on to give us a good summation of O.J.’s life after the trial.  He tries desperately to regain the love of a white public that once adored the ground he walked on, but millions of his former fans were through with him for good.  And all the money he was making as the top pitchman in America evaporated.  For whether he killed his wife or not, the 911 tapes from Nicole left no doubt that he certainly battered and abused her; he would have been jailed for treating a dog that way.

One of the most shameful and embarrassing episodes in this richly sourced documentary is the hero’s embrace that O.J. received from the black community.  He did not deserve it!  O.J. Simpson had been running from any involvement with the black community as hard as he ran from defenders on the fotball field ever since he was in college, which is made clear in the film.  However, I became aware of this right after O.J. won the much coveted Heisman Trophy, which is annually awarde to “the best player in college football.”

I attended his party celebrating the event at USC, as the guest of my good friend Bobby Barnes, a baseball great and the father of Barry Bonds – who should be in the Hall of Fame – and I  noticed that O.J’s friends were virtually all white.  They shamelessly genuflected before him like a bronze God!  The white girls flocked around him like bees to honey, and he possessed the sort of arrogance that made him think any woman in the room was his for the asking.

I noticed this when he attempted to flirt with the lady I was with, a stunning beauty with a Ph.d in mathemetics.  However it was comical because she got off on brains not brawn, and had become mesmerized by a lecture I gave at UCLA on the dynamics of mass transformative movements as a class of phemomena by conducting a comparative analysis of the Black Liberation movement in the US, the American Feminist movement and the Chinese Revolution…which had inspired a standing ovation from the audience.  And since the country was aflame with mass protests this was a very hot topic  of broad interests….plus I was quite a physical specimen myself – a former highschool football player  six feet tall, a solid 215 pounds – and a silver tongued ladies man.  O.J. was a barely articulate square with no game off the football field, who got by on his looks and celebrity status.  I was amused at his futile attempts to impressed Dr. Fine.

Dr. Fine Braiding my Hair

The Juice bombed with this Brainiac

Shortly after the party, a friend of mine with the United Negro College Fund approached him about doing a public service spot soliciting money for Black colleges.  O.J. refused the request and frankly told her that he did not wish to be identified with anything racial.   My impression of him from that day forward was that he is what the old folks in Florida, when I was a boy, called: “A White Folks Nigger!”   Hence while this superb and candid film offered many new insights, it did nothing to change my initial impression….in fact the revelations of this in-depth documentary confirmed it.

 

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The Moment O.J. Tries on the Glove
https://youtu.be/16KaoVmVTPE
 F. Lee Bailey’s Exposes Furman’s Racism on the Stand
https://youtu.be/UyuqBOBM12s
 The Great Johnny Cochran in his Closing Argument
https://youtu.be/sBobchfpiVM

Playthel Benjamin Interviewed by NBC on O.J

In the Studio of WBAI FM, New York  circa 1994
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 5, 2017

 

A Sports Reporter’s Homage to Obama

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! with tags , , , on March 3, 2017 by playthell
samori-interviews-raptorsSamori Benjamin interviewing Toronto Raptors shooting guard deMar DeRozan

Black NBA Stars Bid Obama Goodbye

Wise men may justifiably question if we have the right to feel pride in our ancestors; for what, after all, did we have to do with their achievements that would justify our gloating.  Hence one could argue that we are trying to “hitch a ride on their cool.”  But there is no question that we can justly take pride in our progeny; especially if one has been a present and active parent.  Whenever one is skillful enough to command the trust of your children, and well equipped to pass on wisdom, then none can deny that such a parent can claim some pride in their worth-while achievements.

My son Samori is a sports reporter, and like his cousin Jimmy Strawder, a distinguished architect, Samori has known what he wanted to do since he was a boy.  At first, like all boys who enthusiastically participate in organized sports, he aspired to become a professional athlete, a major-league baseball player. While he enjoys all sports I think his choice of baseball was determined by several specific things that I can see.

First, he grew up in Manhattan, which means that unlike the small Florida town that I grew up in there were not a lot of vacant fields where kids could play games like football – which was my sport of choice.  And in retrospect I can see that my choice of football was virtually inevitable growing up in Florida, where football is a civic religion, and a rite of passage into manhood – a demonstration of manly valor as well as a courtship ritual. But for Samori it was going to be baseball or basketball.

And since he could view the magnificent spectacle of Yankee Stadium, all lit up on summer nights, out of his living room windows, close enough to hear the cheers, he became curious as to what sort of wondrous magic was taking place in the giant arena that looked a lot like a space ship about to take off. Samori’s fate was sealed when he met the future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield on a trip to Yankee Stadium when he was five years old in an event sponsored by the Dave Winfield Foundation. 

Dave came out to greet the kids and gave them all baseball gloves, and thus began Samori’s love affair with baseball – which he played through Little League and High School- where he began to split his time with the art of Saber fencing.  After spending several years away at college he returned to the City and began to cover the Yankees as the Sports Reporter and Editor at WBAI FM radio in New York City.  He also wrote sports stories for The Black World Today.com and other outlets.  Now his writings and broadcast archives regularly appear on the website wbaisports.com.  Samori is also finishing a book on the disappearing Afro-American Major League baseball player based on extensive interviews of players and managers.

Hence as a sports reporter Samori’s work is sensitive to how developments in sport reflects what is happening in the wider society.  This feature, NBA Players Say Goodbye to President Obama, is a poignant example of the social consciousness that characterizes Samori’s work.  In this report he has systematically collected the heartfelt feelings of black professional basketball stars, and edited them into a seamless epic commentary that captures an important episode in American history, preserving the heartfelt testimony of rich, famous, young black men who are legends in their own time.

This is a moving tribute to President Obama and a historical document that, like the finest of wines….will continue to grow better and more valuable with time!

The Players Loved the fact that ‘Chilly B” is a Baller!

baracks-got-hops

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Kyle Lowry, Point Guard, Toronto Raptors

samori-and-nba-player

Toronto Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri.
samori-and-raptors-general-manager He Spoke as a Friend of Obama and Painted a Moving Portrait 
 Click on link to hear their Tribute

 

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Introduction By: Playthell G. Benjamin
Writer, Producer and Host of the NBA Tribute
Playthell “Samori” Benjamin
March 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

How Rap Records First Got Made and Played

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Vingnettes From a Remarkable Life with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by playthell
sylvia-robinson
Sylvia Robinson: Godmother of Hip Hop
 On Political Players, Black Revolutionaries, and the Business of Music

The beautiful, shrewd businesswoman and former recording artist Sylvia Robinson is often referred to as “The Godmother” of Hip Hop.  True enough, but that was made possible because her husband Joe Robinson had been a big-time gangster before settling down as a music mogul! Although soft spoken with a bright smile, and always stylishly dressed with excellent taste, Joe was the kind of fearless tough guy who gave the impression that he would spit in a cracker sheriff’s face in Mississippi and tell him: “Kiss my rich black ass you cracker mother!” While he was in handcuffs and surrounded by a possee.

Joe was good friends with a close friend of mine, Clarence “Mooke” Jackson, who owned the premier black gangster hangout spot in New York during the 1970’s, “MISS LACY’S,” which was right next door to Carnegie Hall! These were for real gangsters: not play play hip hop gangsters. For them being a gangster was not a life style but a business!

Joe and Mookie were gentlemen gangsters, elegant of style and manners who wished a different and better life for the kids –  like the kind described by Drs. St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton in their classic two volume sociological treatise on Chicago “Black Metropolis” – especially the chapter titled “The Upper Shadies,” in which they describe black gangsters who sent their kids to Europe for study.

In his historical masterpiece, When Harlem Was In Vogue,  David Leverling Lewis introduced us to an earlier example of the old school Black Gentleman Gangster, Casper Holstien.  Lewis, a Professor of History at Ruters University and a two times winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for History, paints a poignant portrait of Holstein – a west Indian immigrant who served as the model for the character Dr. Narssice, in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire. ”  

Casper Holstien Circa 1928

casper-holstein

Policy King, Philanthropist, Patron of Harlem Renissance Artists

Professor Lewis recounts the fact that Holstien put up the money for the prizes in the high brow Urban League’s annual Harlem literary  competitions; held under the direction of the highly educated urbane scholar Dr. Charles Johnson, who published the winners in  Opportunity – a nationally distributed magazine he edited – published by the Urban League.

Gus Greenlee of Pittsburg, was another of this fraternity.  An elegant dresser and shrewd businessman, Greenlee was one of the most powerful team owners  in the Negro Baseball League.  He led the ressurrection of the National Negro League in 1933, and his team, the Homestead Greys, was one of the strongest franchises in the league.

Greenlee was a “Policy King;” which means that he ran a successful lottery in the black community based on illegal betting called playing the numbers or “Policy”  – the same business that Joe and Casper Holstien had made their fortunes in.  Greenlee was a prominent and much admired figure in the black community, and commanded respect from everyone, he had spent a few years in college and was a well spoken Gentlemen.  The two black managers of Heavy-Weight Champion, who was at one point the biggest star in the world, were also Policy Kings from Detroit and Chicago.

The classic American memoir “Really The Blues” by the Chi Town Jewish gangster and Al Capone strong arm man Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who became a jazz musician while serving time with black musicians in Illinois’ Joliet prison and got good enough on the clarinet to play with the great Louis Armstrong,we again encounter these black gentlemen gangsters. In Really the Blues Mezz compares the black gangsters he knew, especially in Harlem, with the top white gangsters he associated with – and he knew them all.  Mezz describes the black gangsters as being far superior in intellect and style to the whites. He said that in a racially just society they would have been lawyers, doctors and Captains of industry!

Mezz could have been describing Mookie and Joe. Although I only met Sylvia in passing, always looking stunning, I knew Joe fairly well.  I met him just as he  was completing work on the building that would house the record company. Mookie told me how Joe took a numbers district from the Mafia! The word on the street was that’s how he got the money to start the record company.

Mookie was the founder of the Fair Play Committee, a group of mostly black gangsters who were inspired by the Black Power Movement and RAM.  In fact, it was movement activist like the chemist and SNCC organizer George Ware, who also be a key figure in organizing the Black Music Association in the 1970’s, that advised Mookie on how to organize the FPC.

That’s how I met Mookie, as a result of movement activity.  After some of the leaders of the Revolutionary Action Movement began reading the writings of Dr. Franz Fanon, the French West Indian Psychaitrist who became the central theoritician of the great Algerian Revolution, and then saw the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” where the revolutionaries in the Algerian FLN recruited the Casbar gangsters into the movement, black ghetto gangsters all began to look like potential Malcolm X’s to us.

Thus, we made an effort to convert and recruit gangsters into the movement. We used to call Mookie and his associates “Political Players” because they wanted to do things that would advance eonomic development in the Black Community.  Hence they could relate to our Black Power message and was influenced by it.  We thought of them as “Economic Nationalist.”   Mookie also knew Malcolm X well when he was in the streets, first in Detroit and later in Harlem; he used to say with a chuckle: “It’s a damn good thing he became a political leader cause Malcolm couldn’t hustle his way across the George Washington Bridge!”

When the revolutionary activist H. “Rap” Brown – who along with Stokely Carmichael aka “Kwame Touré, founded the original Black Panther Party in Loundes County Alabama, the Oakland Black Panthers were an offshoot that came along later – and coined the “Black Power” slogan – was running from the FBI as a fugitive on their Top Ten Most Wanted List, remaining at large for years:  It was Mookie and his associates that hid him from the G-Men! Although he had virtually no formal education, coming from racist apartheid Alabama and growing up dirt poor: Mookie was one of the smartest people I ever met! And I have lectured at Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris!

Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown

stokeley-carmichael-h-rap-brown-meet-press1

The True Founders of the Black Panther Party

Mookie and I became dear friends until he died a natural death at 85!  If you read my fictional story “Lush Life” in the seminal anthology “Brotherman,” which includes 66 black male writers – everybody who was anybody –  compiled and edited by Dr. Harris, Senior Editor of the Black Scholar, and the prolific writer and venerable Public intellectual Herb Boyd, who also knew Mookie from Detroit – the black gangsters sitting around the table planning how to break into the record business are based on Mookie and his associates. The character “Boogie Woogie” is based on Mookie and “Beautiful Cody Jones” is based on Joe Robinson.

 Joe and Sylvia Robinson

joe-and-sylvaia-robinson

They Put Rap on Records

Me and Mookie were thick as thieves.  I taught Mookie’s son Michael, and his main enforcer “Tabby” – a former member of the US Marine Corps and a world class boxer who was an inter-service Champion and the most feared “gorilla” in the Apple  – to ride horses!  I was there on the scene, that’s how I know Fair Play were the ones who got independent black music labels like All Platinum Records,  the original company founded by Joe and Sylvia in 1968, played on the air. They also were responsible for getting Bob Law, the great nationally broadcast talk show host, on the radio.

Back in the Day

playthell-horse-2

Tabby’s facination with horses aparked a friendship between us

Joe Robinson and his beautiful brilliant wife Sylvia – who had a big hit when I was in high school during the 1950’s titled “Love is Strange” with a male partner under the stage name “Mickey and Sylvia” – would record the first Rap record ever – “Rappers Delight.” The artists were a local group in Inglewood New Jersey called “The Sugar Hill Gang.”

Joe and Sylvia first heard rap music on a visit to Harlem World as Mookie’s guest, as he was a part owner of the club, which “Puffy” talks about as one of the incubators of Rap.  On the night of Joe and Sylvia’s visit DJ Hollywood and Curtis Blow were controlling the mikes.  They immediately recognized the commercial value of this new black vernacular art form and began taking steps to record it.

I had failed to recognize the commercial value of Rap Music on an earlier visit to the club after Logan Westbrooks, Director of Special Markets for the CBS Records Group, had hooked me up with CBS staff producer Hank Crosby, who had been recruited from the Mo-Town stable.  I was trying to interest him in a demo recorded by Jade, the touring Band for Philadelphia International recording artist Jean Carn – who was distributed by CBS Records and marketed by Logan Westrooks’s department.  I was the leader and manager of Jade, and it was at the height of the disco craze, so we were aiming for that market.  But Disco music was becoming stale; with everybody beginning to sound alike.

Logan Westbrooks: HITMAKER!

Logan Westbrooks, hit maker

Chillin in his CBS Office with a Wall Covered With Gold and Platnam
Me and the Great Songtress Jean Carn circa 1977

Jean Carn

On the terrace of my Manhattan Apartment before performing at Linclon Center

Crosby was looking for the next big thing, and he told me he thought the rhythm section was very funky, and that I was “A clever lyricist.”   But he wasn’t interested in that record, which was titled “Just Keep on Dancing!” Crosby told me “If you write a few more stanzas to the song, then get one of those DJ’s in the clubs to recite them over just the rhythm section, I would be interested in hearing that.”

This was the mid 1970’s and the rap scene was well underway in the South Bronx – the true birthplace of Hip hop poets where newly minted MC’s like Grand Master Caz and Cool Herc, were already spittin def rhymes to the Bongo Band’s break beats,’ which were later incorperated into the  first Rap record.- and Rap was also beginning to make some noise in Harlem, but I had never heard of it.   And despite the fact that future music mogul Russell Simmons was beginning to promote hip hop concerts around town, I didn’t know what tha fuck Hank Crosby was talking about!

But when I mentioned it to Mookie he said “Oh he talking bout them rappers…sheet, we got tha best DJ’s in town doing that rap stuff up at the club!  Although Mookie was a Jazz fan, who dug Charlie Parker so much he once took Bird’s alto-saxophone back from a heroin dealer at gun point so Bird could make a gig.  Bird, who was badly strung out, had pawned his horn for dope and owed the dealer money, so he was keeping the horn as collateral.

But Mookie wanted to hear Bird wail at Minton’s Playhouse, the birth place of that extremely complex modern jazz genre called Bebop, so he strong armed his ax from the dealer.  Yet, despite his bias for jazz, Mookie, posessed an impressive gift for gab and might have become a rapper had he grown up in a Hip hop cultural milieu, could hear that something was happening with this “Rap thing,” by just watching the way it grooved the crowds in Harlem World.   So he told me: “Come on by and check em out; if you like em I’ll git em to do yo record and it won’t cost ya nothin…I’ll take care of it.”

Billboard for Forthcoming Movie on “Mookie” Jackson

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Founder Of The Fair Play Committee

I went up to Harlem World, checked them out, and couldn’t believe that THIS was what Crosby was so excited about.  I told Mookie, “Man this shit ain’t goin nowhere.  We been reciting them kind of rhymes on street corners for years…why would anybody pay to hear that?”  Just like that I missed the chance to make history and a lot of money because I had a closed mind. The next big thing in popular music was staring me in the face and I slept on it, jussed played pass it.  I didn’t understand at the time that what the rappers were doing was a different art form from the kind of rhyming we had been doing.

We were reciting of verses from folk sagas like “The Signifying Monkey,”  “Shine on the Titanic” and The Dirty Dozens – verse that had been fashioned on the smithy of black folk culture.   These risque rhymes and been handed down for  generations and many black underground bards had contributed to their authorship. But what the Rappers were doing, I would later realize, is real artifice; the same kind of thing that poets do.

The major difference is that Rappers must flow over a preordained beat that is dance friendly; poets have absolute freedom over the rhythm of there verse, which is in the word itself and can become quite complex…it all depends upon the caliber of the poet!  Me and my writing partner Shelman Johnson, pianist and music director of the band, were trying to write clever elegant songs like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed – who wrote songs like “Betcha By Golly wow!”

Joe and Sylvia were not so precious in their taste.  While I was trying to be “an artist” first, believing the business side would take care of itself if we wrote good strong songs, Joe and Sylvia were business people who left the art to the artists but had good ears for a hit sound!  Plus, they had a complete record company, they not only had a studio but a record pressing plant. All they needed was distribution and especially air play. That was what killed independent record companies: They couldn’t get their records on the air, and they couldn’t collect all their money from Independent Distributors: The Fair Play Committee solved both problems!

There was a dramatic event that convinced black DJ’s, who decided what records they wanted to put on the air, to play the products from independent black labels.  Back in the day, before the rise of dictatorial Program Directors who alone decide the play list for the entire station, the “Personality Jocks,” who were larger than life characters, controlled playlist because their audiences were loyal to them.They had dramatic and grandiose radio monikers like: “Georgie Woods, The Guy with the Goods;” “Chatty Hattie;” “Daddyo Daley;” “Sir Lancelot;” “Jocko” “Johnny Shaw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law” et al.

In any instances this made them bigger than the station – especially if they were in a competitive market with more than one station.  These Jocks were represented by a professional organization known as NAFTRA – The National Association of Radio and Television Announcers – and it as at their annual convention held in Miami that their policy toward small independent black labels dramatically changed.

It was the smoldering Dog Days of August in1968, and the city of Miami had experienced a “race riot” just before the convention came to town.   Knowing this Mookie saw a unique opportunity.  Armed with what sociologists called He traveled down to Miami with 15 associates from the Fair Play Committee, all dressed like Wall street investment bankers,  and went straight to the sheriff’s office. Mookie was one of the most charming and persuasive men the God’s ever blew breath in, and he really turned it on with this southern cracker Sheriff.

A master bunko artist, Mookie understood the two basic elements of the con: Make your mark think he is smarter than you, and convince they are going to get something for nothing.  In fact, Mookie once told me: “You can’t con an honest person, because in order to get conned you have to have larceny I your heart.”

In this case the situation was perfect, and Mookie played that Peckerwood Sheriff like Bird played the alto-sax.   He told the sheriff that they were a private security team that came down to police the convention so that there wouldn’t be any more violent racial outbreaks, which was a real possibility with of of the wild show business Negroes coming to town.  And he convinced the Sheriff that if he deputized them they would assure him that there would be no incidents!

By the time Mookie was finished with his rap the Sheriff was convinced that he was getting the deal of the century and deputized these New York Gangsters.  Once they got their badges the Fair Play Committee went over to the convention and systematically terrorized the key players.  They hung some of them out of hotel windows by their feet – in fact, I believe that scene in the movie The five Heartbeats was taken from that incident.

Logan Westbrooks and his wife Jerry were there, although he was a salesman with Mercury Records at the time; he had had yet to become the head of black music markeing at CBS Records.  “I went down to the convention because it was an important event for anybody trying to sell black records,” says Logan.  However when he got there he found out that he was not properly registered,”I was trapped outside and could only attend events open to the public.  But I had a suite in the hotel where the conference was going on and knew all of the big players.  So although I wasn’t in the room when a lot of stuff went down, I heard about what was going on from my contacts”

Suddenly these Jocks began to play independent black labels.  As for the independent distributors, who rumor had it were all Jewish and Italian gangsters, they paid what they wanted when they wanted.   But that also changed after one of the biggest distributors  got thrown out of a four story window into a fireman’s net, held by some stragglers who they paid handsomely to  catch the flying body.  The dude had a heart attack, and everybody else got the message. Thus when Joe and Sylvia released ‘Rappers Delight,’ they got it played on the radio, no problem, and the got their money from the distributors.  And the rest made history.

This record literally came out of nowhere, since the Sugarhill Gang was from New Jersey, and the real artists, the creaters of this new and uniqe genre of Afro-American popular music, had never even heard of them until they dug the record on the radio.  And to make matters worse it was a smash!  Russell Simmons, who would emerge as the premiere Hip Hop producer and impersario, says he was distraigh when he heard the recoed because “I thought there was only going to be one Rap Record made.”

However Russel would go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars from producing Rap records on his Def Jam label.  And in time, all Hip Hop artists and entreprenuers that got rich from rap recognized that the release of “Rapper’s Delight” initiated the growth of the billion dollar Hip Hop industry.  And thus Sylvia Robinson, who produced Rapper’s Delight, well derserves the honorific “God Mother of Hip Hop.”

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Click on Link to hear the original Recording of Rappers Delight

The Record that Started it All!!
Watch the Sugarhill Gang Perform Rappers Delight

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Black History Month
February 27, 2017

An Evening of Triumph and Travesty

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on February 14, 2017 by playthell

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 Beyonce In Performance!

 Reflections on Queen B and the Grammys

Last Sunday night Beyoncé experienced both triumph and travesty at the Grammy Awards. Appearing on stage visibly pregnant the popular music Diva performed a moving tribute to motherhood that was so spectacular even the language of Shakespeare, Chaucer and the King James Bible seems bereft of superlatives sufficiently powerful to adequately describe it! But thanks to the magic of this cyber medium you can witness Beyoncé’s  performance.*

It will no doubt go down as one of the greatest performances of all times on this show that has hosted countless great performances, where marvelous musicians of all genres display their gifts before their peers. Although Beyoncé won a couple of awards she should have won at least one more: “Best Album of the Year,” a view shared by the winner Adele, the gifted British singer / songwriter who sang beautifully and walked away with the lion’s share of the prizes, a total of five.

In an unprecedented gesture of generosity and grace, Adele turned down the “BEST ALBUM” Award. Calling Beyoncé “The artist of my life…my idol,” Adele said that Beyoncé should rightly have won the award for “Her monumental album Lemonade.” Her declaration left everybody in the vast Staple Center in LA speechless! A reaction that was no doubt shared by the millions of viewers around the world who also witnessed it. Adele would later ask of Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win?” My question exactly!!!

Monumental is precisely the word to describe “Lemonade,” a major work that expands the boundaries of what we previously believed could be achieved in this popular art form. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the video version – which won the “Best Video Award” for one of its segments “Formation,” a highly political statement that sparked a furor when it was performed live at the Super Bowl last year – is a work of fine cinematic art!

Formation!

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 01: Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at the Georgia Dome on May 01, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Beyonce wears a custom lace corset and stockings by D Squared. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage )

(See Video at bottom of this essay)

However, the many faceted album was confined to the “Best Urban Contemporary” award. This is where the controversy arose and it raises many questions of sufficient depth regarding race, politics and art.  To begin with, like everything else in the USA, music marketing is segregated, with albums by black artists placed into certain categories that industry people recognize and this is how the product will be promoted.  Hence whether a record is promoted as “Pop.” “Rock” Rhythm & Blues,” “Urban Contemporary,” and so on.

Of course, white record company executives, promotion men and music journalists will deny that race plays any role in these designations; they will argue these categories are determined by musical styles alone. Yet if this were true you wouldn’t have black artists automatically assigned to the R&B category when their music sounds like Pop or Rock, and white musicians who are performing Rhythm & Blues classified as “Pop” or “Rock.”  Since virtually all popular music in the US and Britain spring from black roots – US or Caribbean – virtually all white popular music by artists from these countries contain black musical ingredients.  It’s just a matter of degree.

Even a cursory glance of US musical history will reveal the truth of that claim. From “Ragtime,” to “Dixieland Jazz,” to “Blues” to “Swing,” to “Modern Jazz i.e. “Bebop” to “Rhythm & Blues / Rock and Roll,” to “Hip Hop,” are all the creations of Afro-Americans.  Yet as soon as some white musicians learned to play it competently they were made “The “Original Dixie Land Jazz Band,” or “The King of Jazz,” or the “King of Swing,” or the “King of Rock and Roll,” or the “Queen of Hip Hop.” i.e.  Nick La Rocca, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Elvis Pressley and Iggy Azalea

White artists could get away with this cultural appropriation in the past because the white audience had no idea who the real original artists were.  Even after the advent of sound movies and television, black artist were so seldom presented in these media that this situation persisted to the extent that many white American Rock musicians with prodigious record sales said they had no idea that the Blues they were playing was invented by their black countrymen until white British Rockers like “Eric Clapton” told them so!

However, when it became no longer possible to deny the creative genius of Afro-American musicians the music industry came up with these different categories that allowed them to continue marketing their white artists to the lucrative white majority, while shunting black artists off into “Special Markets” departments.   All this tawdry history came to bear in determining how Beyoncé’s visionary musical masterpiece became confined to the “Urban Contemporary” category when it was clearly the “Best Album of the Year,” even in the eyes of the artist who was given the award!

Aside from “Lemonade’s” artistic excellence – the music, poetic lyrics, dazzling dance, splendid costumes, lush imaginative settings, stunning cinematography and excellent direction – the fact that it is officially Black History Month offers an additional rationale for presenting Beyoncé with the Grammy for Best Album.   The album is full of historical references and allusions to Afro-American culture and contemporary political issues.  However, let me hasten to say that this fact alone would not be reason enough to bestow this prestigious award on the record.

I agree with Mao Tse Tung in his “Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, where he addresses the role of art as propaganda designed to promote the goals of a mass movement for progressive change.  “All art is propaganda but all propaganda is not art,” Mao argues, “in order to be effective as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”

This explains why Beyoncé touched so many people with her album, which means it would be important as a cultural artifact in the Afro-America musical tradition even if had no higher ambition than making art for the sake of art.  And instead of condemnation she might well have been wildly applauded by those who do not wish to be emotionally disturbed by being forced to confront unpleasant realities that contradict the master narrative of American Exceptionalism.

After all, even the most racist white Americans have been seduced by the power and charm of Afro-American song and dance.   It is a strange paradox that compelled Dr. WEB DuBois to remark during the height of white terrorist attacks on innocent Black Americans in the early 20th century: “White Americans lynch the Negro while singing his songs.”

Hence so long as black artist just sing and dance but keep their mouths about the unpleasant realities of black life in the US all is well, but they are to be chastised if they dare to speak truth to white power.  I salute Beyoncé for not caving in to this well-known but unwritten rule: NOT EVEN A HUNDERD GRAMMYS WOULD HAVE BEEN WORTH IT!!!  The white cultural gate keepers may have denied her the Grammy but she has won the admiration and respect of her people…. and that is INFINITELY MORE VALUABLE!

 

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Click on links below to see:
Formation Performace at Super Bowl
https://youtu.be/c9cUytejf1k
* Beyonce’s Performance at the Grammy Awards
– http://www.independent.co.uk/…/grammy-awards-2017-beyonce-l…
The Album Lemonade
 https://youtu.be/gM89Q5Eng_M?list=PLxKHVMqMZqUSPF11Ghs0KqDfOGhB9Vw5E
 
Playthell G. Benjamin
 Black History Month
 February 14, 2017

Celebrating Kwanzaa at the Apollo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays, Theater with tags , , on January 2, 2017 by playthell
apollo-at-kwanzaa-iii Forces of Nature

             Greeting the New Year With Forces of Nature 

In over thirty years of writing about the performing arts in New York City, the cultural center and arts mecca of the world, I have never witnessed a show as spectacular as the Kwanza performance put on by the “Forces of Nature Dance Theater” at Harlem’s venerable Apollo, which correctly bills itself as “The Soul of Black Culture.” Founded and directed by Abdel Salaam, whose sharp intellect and fecund imagination appears to know no limits; the company enjoys an embarrassment of riches in regard to gifted choreographers and dancers.

The company’s dance vocabulary ranges from traditional African dance to Modern, Post Modern, to Afro-American vernacular dance – the creative well from which all original American dance flows – to its latest expression such as Hip hop. The elements of great dance theater include music, costumes, lights, gifted attractive dancers, and daring imaginative choreographers who believe in the gifts of their dancers and are not afraid to challenge them with works of great complexity.

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Real Black Magic!

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A Complexity of Vision

The work was both old and new, innovative yet preserving the best of pan-African dance traditions recast and polished for theatrical performance. One of the highlights of an evening with many incandescent moments was when Forces of Nature was joined onstage by a Native American dance troupe. It was a revelation, the thoughtful observer is compelled to beg the question as to how Europeans, escaping the squalor to which the working poor were confined in European cities, could ever have denounced such magnificent people as mere “savages.

Afro-Indio

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Homage to a forgotten Relationship

The performance was serious political commentary and fun; it employed pathos and bathos – tragedy and comedy – without restraint. The works gave free rein to the most voluptuous creative impulses of the choreographers, who produced works that made maximum use of the fabulously sculpted black, brown and beige bodies that were the vehicles for their ideas. The wide range of musical styles to which the dances are set reveal the unfettered scope of the choreographers imagination.  The Drum Choir that accompanies some of the dances has reached a level of virtuosity that I have rarely witnessed in percussion ensembles – despite the fact that I have ben a drummer and student of drumming for over half a century!  It was Black Magic! A splendid exercise in rhythm and movement as alchemy; that hoodoo that we do so well.

The Drums Speak!

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Their conversation was superb

I am convinced if I spent a thousand and one nights in the theater my chances of catching a better show than this are about equal to a snowflakes chances of survival in a pizza oven. Rare and marvelous events such as this is the reason why I live in the Big Apple. At the bottom of this essay is an interview with the founder and creative genius Abdel Salaam, who along with his gifted wife Dyane Harvey Salaam, are the artistic inspiration and guiding hands that steer the course of Forces of Nature. 

Inside the Beautiful Apollo Theater

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The most famous theater in New York

The ornately beautiful theater with it’s elegant gold leafing forming intricate patterns around the stage and balcolnies, was packed to the rafters and we could feel the good vibes as the highly regarded radio host Imhotep Gary Byrd, who was celebrating his 50th year on the air, controlled the mike like a Bronx B-Boy.

Imhotep Gary Byrd

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A Neo-African Griot Anointing the audience with glorious tales

Bedecked in flowing African robes Imhotep was more than a concert M.C. beguiling the audience from the stage where more world class stars were born than any other in this city of great theaters; he was a Neo-African Griot droppin soulful science about the meaning and history of Kwanzaa, the restoration of the Apollo by the late Percy Sutton, and our destiny as a people, as we grooved to the beats of Pan-African rhythms welcoming the new year.  And the magnificent show concluded early enough for people to make it to their Watch Night services in their churches…that sacred Afro-American ritual commenrating the abolition of the enslavement of Africans and their ancestors in the United States, which, curiously, was never mentioned during the Kwanzaa celebrations.

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Forces of Nature in Concert!

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These two videos capture the broad eclecticism of their Repotoire

An Interview with Abdel Salaam

An Revealing Discussion of the Sources of his Electic Art

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
January 2, 2016

 

African Beauties

Posted in Brown and Beige Beauties, Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , on September 18, 2016 by playthell
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Godesses from the Breast of the Earth!

As I select the images for these photo-essays on the beauty of black women – this is the second in a series of four covering the US, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean – I am constantly struck by two things: what an amazing treasure trove I have to choose from, and how Europeans manage to convince so many people of the superior beauty of white women.

Of course the answer to this riddle lies in the fact that by virtue of their dominence in the military, economic and technological spheres Europeans have been able to impose their cultural values on the rest of the world.   In fact, mastery of a major European language has until the last fifty years been essential in order to gain access to the tools a nation needed to achieve modernity.  Simply put, the learned texts that contained the scientific knowledge that is the gateway to the modern world were written in those languages – which also produced a prolific literature that was employed to indoctrinate the colonized populations in the ideas and values of their oppressors including notions of vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness.

The knowledge of modern science was not to be found in Sanscrit, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, or Yoruba. Even our concept of time and place had been defined by Europeans.  The ancient wisdom of the great empires of Africa, Asia and Latin America proved impotent weapons against the onslaught of modern Europe.  This was not because Europeans were inherently superior, as they would claim, rather it was a function of the fact that “The Enlightenment,” an intellectual movement which separated the functions of church and state, priviledging reason over religion, science over mysticism, physics over metaphysics, ushered in the scientific revolution and the Industrial revolution which followed in its wake.

These dynamic developments in European society provided them with the technology to devestate the armies of the Third World and resulted in European conquest of the globe.  In the early twentieth century the little Island of Britian – whose King, George III, had been rebuffed by the Emperor of China as a “Barbarian” in an official rejection of his bid to establish trade relations around the time of the American Revolution in the 18th century – could boast that “The Sun never sets on the British empire” and had the audacity to call itself “Great Britian.”

The parts of the globe that was not controlled by the “conquoring Anglo-Saxons” were controlled by the other major nations of Europe, which exported their surplus populations all over the Third World, changing the physical characteriscs of the indigenous “natives” and implanting their language, literature and religious beliefs among them.  As a result of these historical events European values dominated the psyche of the subject peoples and convinced many of them that Europeans were superior in all things and and thus it was “a white man’s world” and the white woman became the ideal of feminine beauty.

The anti-colonial revolutions that burst out all over the non-white world in the aftermath of the second world war, was spurred by the fact these subject peoples had fought in the armies of their colonial master’s in two global conflicts within a generation and discovered that Europeans were not invincible and could be killed just like them.  Hence it is no surprise that the leaders of the anti-colonial movements in Afica and Asia, as well as the black liberation struggle in the US, were largely led by ex-military men.  This was true whether we are talkig about Franz Fanon and Abdel Gamel Nasser in Africa or Medgar Evers and Robert Williams in the US.

A major part of the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples of color, as the revolutionary psychaitrist Franz Fanon described so poignantly in hyis writings was to reclaim their personalities, their sense of self.  Nowhere was this process more in evidence than among the black peoples of the world – especially in the USA with the rise of a militant black conciousness that inspired the “Black Arts Movement” which challanged European standards of beauty.  I came of age amidst that movement and was an avid participant in promoting it’s ideas.

I was on the scene when the African Jazz Art Society – founded by a collaboration between visual artists and Jazz – that boldly promoted an “Afrocentric” esthetic view that celebrated au naturel hair styles and African inspired dress which accentuated the beauty of African women.  The four cultural visionaries that created AJASS were musicians Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, along with the Braithwaite Brothers: Photographer Kwame and graphic artist/illustrator  Elombe.

The major vehicle through which they promoted the celebration black beauty was the Grandossa Models, who were presented in a series of cutural happenings in which Jazz, especially the Africa concious revolutionary music of the founders Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln – see video clip at the bottom of this essay – Visual Arts, and Poetry readings were also on display.

The Grandossa Models

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Setting an Afro-Centric Standard of Beauty

Max and Abbey

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln
Kwame Braithwaite: Photographer of the Movement

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Elombe!
All Creator’s of the “Black is Beautiful” Slogan

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A Pan African soldier welcoming Nelson and Winnie to Harlem!

A statement explaining the raison d’etre for the show  billed as “Naturally 62,” held in that year proclaimed it was “created to show Black women (and the world) that our Black skin, kinky hair and full lips were a thing of beauty, not something to be ashamed of.  This photo-essay was created as an extension of that spirit!

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Vanity!

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A Regal Beauty

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The Source: Where Big Bootys Come From!
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Elegante

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 Academy Award Winning Actress

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Miss Ghana!

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Click on link to view Max and Abbey perform “All Africa”

 Compiled by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
October 17, 2016

The Most Beautiful Girls in the World!!!

Posted in Brown and Beige Beauties, Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags on September 10, 2016 by playthell

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13: Tennis Player Serena Williams arrives at The 2011 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Serena Williams: Ebony Goddess

A Reality Check!

Harlem Sweeties
Have you dug the spill/ Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims/On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie, Caramel treat, Honey-gold baby
Sweet enough to eat./Peach-skinned girlie,
Coffee and cream, / Chocolate darling
Out of a dream. /Walnut tinted / Or cocoa brown,
Pomegranate-lipped / Pride of the town.
Rich cream-colored /To plum-tinted black,
Feminine sweetness /In Harlem’s no lack.
Glow of the quince /To blush of the rose.
Persimmon bronze /To cinnamon toes.
Blackberry cordial, Virginia Dare wine—
All those sweet colors /Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa, Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar, A chocolate treat.
Molasses taffy, Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove, cinnamon/ To a honey-brown dream.
Ginger, wine-gold, Persimmon, blackberry,
All through the spectrum/ Harlem girls vary—
So if you want to know beauty’s / Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll down luscious, 
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.
By: Langston Hughes, Poet Laureate of Harlem

I am absolutely certain that I speak for most Afro-Americans…and some other folks of different ethnicities when I say that I am sick of witnessing the tyranny of the Caucasian female Image ad nauseum!   Ever since I can remember I have been inundated with images of white girls. In my forthcoming novel “Tall Tales from the Life and Times of Sugarcane Hancock: The Phallocentric Memoirs of a Sweet Colored Man,” The central character remembers the experience this way:

“White Girls….they seemed to be everywhere.  They beckoned to me from billboards beside the highways, and smiled from he pages of Sears and Roebuck catalogues inviting me to sample their wares.  They attempted to seduce my mind with carnal desire with their scantily clad bodies in girlie magazines, and attempted to infect me with a high heel and garter belt fetish on the covers of calendars and pin up posters.  They sashayed aroud our sunny Florida town in high heels and short shorts exposing tanned alabaster flesh thay I was forbidden to look upon let alone touch. They winked at me and hungrily licked their lips from the giant silver screens in dark movie palaces on Saturday afternoons; they even descended from the walls and stained glass windows of grand cathedrals and churches on Sundays….even black churches; blond blue eyed angels pointing the way to heaven!”

However even back in the day, when beautiful black female images were banished from the mass media, only overweight Black Mammy’s  – like Hattie McDaniel in the lavishly produced but sappy white plantation fantasy, “Gone with the Wind’ – got the nod.   Yet all of us who had eyes could easily see that it wasn’t so.  But given that the mass media was owned and controlled by white folks the beauties we saw in our daily lives – which were as common as water in black communities EVERYWHERE in America – were never celebrated in the images beamed into the psyches of millions of Americans.

This is the only plausible explanation for why white women are so widely promoted as the universal standard of beauty.  But I never bought the hype….as was the case with most of the black men I knew.  When I was a teenager the White folks said that Elizabeth Taylor was “The Most beautiful woman in the world; I thought Liz was pretty, but she paled like a fading flower when compared to Dorothy Dandridge.  And I also thought that Dorothy Dandridge looked a lot like my girlfriend Harriet Phoenix and was in a dead heat with my mamma…THE REAL QUEEN ELIZABETH!

Liz Taylor

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 Dottie Dandrige
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What was especially grievous about the comparisons of Dorothy Dandridge to Liz Taylor is that Dottie was so much more talented.  In the golden age of Hollywood, when film production was dominated by a few mammoth studios run by corporate dictators popularly called Moguls, every performer longed to be a “Triple Threat,” talented at acting, singing and dancing.  Dorothy was a Triple Threat par excellence.   She was a good actor, a moving singer and a spectacular dancer, who was good enough to appear in Hollywood films dancing with the Nicholas Brothers, the most spectacular dance team to ever appear in movies…the best in the world!   The only reason that she did not become the biggest star in American show business, including Hollywood is because of white racism!

It is amusing – in the sense of laughing to keep from crying – to witness these same attitudes expressed on the part of white Americans today, albeit far less than in my youth, when they seek to compare our beautiful, elegant, First Lady to Jackie Kennedy. Demonstrating yet again the bogusness of white feminist intellectuals who claim that racism is a male malady, that wicked witch of the reactionary right, Anorexic Annie Coulter, drew an invidious comparison between Jackie and Michelle and suggested that any attempt to compare the two in style, elegance and beauty was absurd: Jackie had it all around….hands down.

As is often the case with the pronouncements of this silly skinny amoral skank, when I heard what she said “I got tha ass” as the old folks would say down home in Florida.  And since one of my favorite sports is unmasking charlatans and chastising pretentious white sophist…especially the pugnacious ones, I responded to Crazy Annie with a photo-essay that demolishes her vulgar and tasteless claim.  She should be the last one to speak on this anyway, since she is a skinny booga bear who looks like she was in a gang fight and everybody had a hatchet or a ball and chain but her!  See: “The Best Looking first Lady Ever!” at www.

Michelle….Oh Well!

Portraits of our Stunning First Lady

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Raphsody In Blue

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Need I say More?

A Study in Elegance

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Day or Night….She’s the One!
***See Video on the elements of hers her Style below)
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Jackie O

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 At the White House Ball
Jackie had Style 

First Lady Jackie Kennedy standing on the grounds of the Taj Mahal during visit to India. (Photo by Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But she literally pales beside Michelle

The essential point here is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to my eyes Michelle is a far more strunning figure than Jackie Kennedy.  I love her colorful style which has a special flare when contrasted with her beautiful chocolate complexion.  What ever color Michelle chooses to wear including Jackie’s favorite white, will look better than when it adorns Jackie’s pale skin.  Furthermore, whereas Jackie was a slave to fashion dictators Michelle is a trend setter who chooses clothes from a far wider range of designers…making reputations instead of seeking the safety of choices from the trendy houses of fashion.

Left to my own devices I wouldn’t be engaged in this exercise because I see beauty in all of the world’s women, but some white folks made this an important issue that must be addressed.  The beauty and taste of black women has been disparaged far too often, and like white Americans have always done, they just declare that it is true without presenting any evidence, or even defining a clear standard.

Having consorted with beautiful and refined women of various races and ethnicities, I believe that middle class and upper class black American women are the most stylish ladies in the world.  And I also believe black women, with their myriad complexions descibed so deliciously by Langston Hughes – a task only an able poet with a fertile imagination could hope to pull off  – exotic eye shapes, widely varied facial features, endlessly inventive hair styles, and spectacular bodies  are the most beautiful women in the world!

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Black, Brown and Beige Beauties!

The Girls of Sugar Hill Today

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Makeda Voletta
 Sports Scientist and Former Athlete
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Dancer
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 Photographer’s Model

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A Magical Moon Dance comjuring the spirit of Oshun
Queen Makeda!
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Actress/Producer Michele Turner
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A Sophisticated Lady
Satin Doll
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Sizziling in her Sixties!
Black don’t Crack!

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A Sexy Senior Citizen pushing 70!

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Light Bright to Ebony Black and All the Shades in Between!

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Lovely Leana Horn: Triple Threat!
Pick yo Flava

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Beautiful Bodacious Bootys
A Chocolate Delight 

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Oshun’s Daughter
A Pecan Tan Brivk House!

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 High Yellow

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Teasing Brown

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The Queen B!

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The Blacker the Berry

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The Goddess Oshun

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 A Movable Feast of Many Flavas!

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Dangerous Curves!

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Actress Meagan Goode

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A Stunning Bronze Afro-Amazon!

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Cafe Au lait

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 Mahogony Fine II

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Cinnamon

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Poet Jessica Care Moore
Black And Fantasies

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Our women are like a flower garden/You can Choose any color you like”
My Grand Daddy, George Benjamin Sr.
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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Fall 2016