Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

A South African Views US Redskin Controversy

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , , on June 16, 2013 by playthell
The Truth about the Apartheid Era

White Hunter

                       This was also a common scene in the American West during the “Indian Wars”


What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? Everything! I am familiar with the naming of the enslaved people being called all names, but those that edify them. You can imagine in South Africa, we have been called “Kaffirs” – same as nigger’ in the States – monkeys, baboons (Akin to jigaboos), boy/girl  for elderly people; “natives” (as in ‘tribes”)’Bantu'(which really means ‘people’, but was used against us to dehumanize and ‘de-Africanize Africans in South Africa)’ “Plurals” (I guess to remind Themselves that whites in South Africa), that we, Africans, are too many against them; “Darkie”(Dark one); African children called ‘black pica ninny’, and so forth.

As I begun by asking and replying, “What’s in a name?  Everything!”  For us to learn about the Washington Red Skin Debacle brings to mind the hideous and harmful nature of being named and forced to get used to that derogatory name, and you find the White chumps who are so arrogant they can’t see and think as far as their eyelids and foreheads, and because they have had no reason to respect any person enslaved/colonized, they see nothing in calling people with their White people’s ‘invented’ names, and these are not salubrious names/tags and that they assist in disappearing a people’s identity and being.

In South Africa, our mothers, when they were giving birth to us, were forced to choose what was called a ‘Christian’ name i.e. a white European name.  And if it we were given an African name in many cases it was not written on our birth-certificate; although in the Townships and villages we lived in the community called us by our African names.  Our elders explained the importance of our African names and what those names mean. The elders pointed out that giving a child a bad name is a bad omen – “Bitso lebe ke seromomo” – literally meaning “a bad name is a bad omen/karma to the child”.

We grew up within our communities here in Mzantsi known by our African names and were constantly told what they mean, along with our last names. The Apartheid regime did not recognize how we relate to each other as Africans and what was the significance of naming things and the importance of our names to us. They compartmentalized and divided us and dubbed us “tribes” who would never come together.

Meanwhile, they have never ever wanted to call us “Africans. Now, they, the Boers, called themselves Afrikaners – which today, they claim and allege, gives them the right to say they are Africans!’  So, we African people of South Africa, are accused by various ethnic groups in South Africa, who claim that they are Africans, and we blacks really are not.

 So that, in their disrespect of anything African, South African whites accuse indigenous black Africans of South Africa of wanting to hog the Name African.  And yet, these different ethnic groups are themselves African so that, they parrot, that our saying we are “Africans of Mzantsi South Africa” is meaningless, dumb, infantile babble. Thus, we find these people dissing us all the way to denying our existence.

 A Common Sign during the Apartheid Era in South Africa
The policy of European Invaders in South Africa and the USA

Yet, this awareness as to who we are is excellently captured by Dr. Amos Wilson- the Afro-American Psychiatrist – when he notes that: “Even these people recognize that a name is connected to social role. A name is not just something you call people, but the name a people are called signifies their role. Therefore, a change of name represents a people’s attempt to change their role and position in the world.” Some ‘negroes’ (Africans) think that to change our name is just some foolish game we’re playing. It is not about that. It’s not a game we’re playing here. Identity is very important, as is the idea that Black (African) people would dare name themselves. Whites recognize that as an incursion on their power of naming and an incursion on their power of domination.

I have alluded to how the apartheidizers forced us to have European First names, which in effect messed with our culture, because now we have amongst us so many African Peters, Denisi’s, Marks, John’s, and so forth.   And we are called by these names in our contact/interaction with Europeans- who insist upon calling us these Euro-names. Alas, even when we tell them our African names they claim they are hard to pronounce. We, in our African collective/communities, are then called and known as Sipho (Gift), Thabang (Be all Happy), Karabo (The Answer), Tshepiso (The promise), Ntombi (the girl) and so forth, our African names.

So Playthell Benjamin’s article about the big controversy over the “Washington Redskins” football team refusing to remove the word “Redskins” from their name, which is decried by Native Americans as an insult to their people, because it masks a history of genocide and the ‘disappearing’ of a whole people by the obnoxious and arrogant Europeans – who still feel that they are superior to everyone else.  Incredibly, they feel that the naming of people and things under their purview is fait accompli and a ‘given’. We know, here in South Africa, that is not the case, and there is still an ongoing cultural war about the naming of things with African names since the ANC came into fictive power.

Although along the way, in order to appease their handlers, they compromised a lot in renaming a lot of things here in South African with their given names. This is a real war, and there is a lot I can say about the battles that are presently fought over the naming of Africans, and the “Winning of the hearts and minds of Africans” here in Mzantsi” by the former Apartheidizers.  And now of late, they are being assisted by the American Think Tanks and NGOs, working to turn South Africa into a mini-USA.

It is therefore no surprise and wonder Africans in South Africa dislike Israel, for in it, we see ourselves in what they are doing to the Palestinians; we also detest the arrogance and mien with which they interact/communicate with those they consider not Jews; and this has caused a lot of animosity, which you capture so well with this Yoyo, Snyder, whose people are very quick to defend their lot, as you cogently point out above.

Right now, some of us here in Mzantsi are involved in the fight against our culture, and it is a very difficult battle. Not because our former enslavers made it so (of which they still do and control all the bullshit-covert actions in place now, but because some of our African brothers feel fulfilled if they are seen to be “very American”, “very British”, and even “very Chinese-and dress like the Chinese.

These clowns, the African pseudo-elites, are the ones that are hampering us and assisting our detractors in making gains and headway into our communities; which end up making these African societies dysfunctional. These retarded South African Uncle Toms are assiduously working their lives away trying to “Out-American Americans”, or British, French, or Italians, while making sure they distance themselves from or discard their self-perceived “backward African Culture” and everything about it.

That is our present problem, and these ‘scoundrels, quislings and turncoats are thriving.   They even believe that they have a handle on being the puppets of mega-capitalist corporate and International governments to whom they beg to be slaves and become our slave drivers themselves, whilst showing off their ill-acquired wealth and looking silly trying to be as white as any foreign white-in all aspects and by any means necessary.

These are the people who are interfering with African people naming themselves, and their environment. They are the very people who are in cahoots with some of these sleazy monied potentates who run the world of ideas and money and control the Army.  They are the great pretenders and trumpet untruths that they are our leaders and run the leading ruling party-ANC.  As I read Playthell’s Indians article on the struggle of Native Americans, the so-called “Indians,” I can see that we have quite similar problems here in Mzantsi and then some.

The indigenous of peoples of America are subject to the same treatment of disrespect and disregard/ignored by their colonizers; who see it as a White privilege. And in South Africa, where the white Apartheidizers descendants they still own 83% of the land given to them under the Apartheid era Group Areas Act, your article’s treatment of the massive theft  of  Native American lands really hit a very bothersome issue for us. It is interesting for one to begin to learn that this same treatment of using derogatory names to those who have been dispossessed, is one of the many ways to keep and display the dominance of the European over the indigenous peoples everywhere in the world!

The South African Bantustans Mirror “Indian’ Reservations
 Whites Arrived in Virginia 1619 and Cape Town 1652
The Way We Were


 White South Africa’s Idea Of child’s Play!

Even in this day of the fictitious democratic sham that is our country, there are still White folks who will never ever cease and desist from calling us “Kaffirs”(equivalent or same as “Nigger”) because they feel they can and know that they have many adherents and sympathizers amongst their Afrikaner “Volk”(Folk). What Playthell is saying is what we are fighting for here in Mzantsi. This is made concrete when he quotes the Congressman Eni who charged that “Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos.”

We feel the same way here in Mzantsi, and throughout the African Continent and the Diaspora.  But, seemingly, every time we raise this issue we come across arrogance and dismissive attitudes that defies logic or common sense. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mazantzi, South Africa

June 16, 2013

Dan Snyder is a Bullshit Artist !!!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! with tags , , , on June 13, 2013 by playthell


 The Quintessential Arrogant Putz

 Suppose the team’s Name was the Washington Kikes?

In his book length treatise On Bullshit,” the renowned Princeton philosopher Dr. Harry g. Frank argued that bullshit is more dangerous to the truth tan a lie.  And the Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has raised bullshitting to an art form.  His arrogant rejection of pleas from Native Americans and their allies, in and out of Congress, to change the name of his NFL team from Washington Redskins to the Washington anything else, because the name and Amerindian Mascot offends their ancestors, and insults the survivors, of a people Euro-Americans dispossessed with mass murder and wholesale theft, reveals him to be the “Rich man who gained the world but lost his soul” that the bible warns us not to become.

Snyder’s declaration in USA Today strongly suggests he is that soulless man.  “We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means.”  When questions persisted on the issue he defiantly told the public “”We’ll never change the name; it’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Since Snyder is a Jew he might not have read the bible.  Yet because he is a Jew – and enshrined in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame no less – one would think that he would readily understand the position of Native Americans.  After all, it was not that long ago or far away that Mr. Snyder’s own people were victims of genocide.  Maybe he does not recognize that it is the same class of event because the genocide and land theft Native Americans were subjected to is not referred to as a holocaust…..but it was.

There are several reasons why we do not refer to the Native American experience as a holocaust.  First there is a deeply rooted racist tradition in the US, which privileges humanity in white skin and devalues humanity of darker hues.  This racist ideology justified genocide against the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. The persistence of this racist attitude explains why an Associated Press poll revealed that 80% of Americans find no fault with a football team calling themselves the “Red Skins. “ Due to the racial demographics of the USA we can rest assured that the majority of those polled were Euro-Americans…the descendants of the invaders who now own deeds to land that once belonged to the Amerindians and for which they were never compensated.

Second, acknowledgement of genocide and slavery as the fundamental acts that made the American Republic possible, and even shaped the US Constitution, would seriously assault the master narrative of American civilization and fatally wound the national myth of America as the land of the free and home of the brave.  Hence, despite all of their bluster about how proud they are of their history, no one works harder to distort, deny and even eradicate that history than the so-called “American Exceptionalist” crowd – the most vociferous of whom are camped out in the Republican Party.

These Jokers clearly prefer self-serving myths to their real history; that’s why in their sanitized version of the American saga color caste oppression is obfuscated or omitted altogether.  This explains how you could have a member of Congress like Michelle Bachman saying “the founding Fathers wouldn’t Rest until they got rid of slavery!”  When in fact all of them except John Adams had owned slaves.  This kind of abominable ignorance, coupled with a self-righteous attitude, is the reason why a schmuck like Daniel Snyder feels free to take such a disrespectful position toward the legitimate concerns of Native Americans.

The third major reason that we do not think of the genocide, cultural destruction and land theft committed against Native Americans as a holocaust is because organized Jewry has trademarked the term.  Therefore it can only be used in connection with the Jewish genocide carried out by the German Nazi’s.  The refusal to recognize the destruction of the Amerindians as a holocaust accounts for the differences in the way we respond to the two experiences.

For instance, there has been much discussion of the Anti-Semitism of  the great German Romantic composer Richard Wagner, his music is banned in Israel for instance – which I find a perfectly normal given his attitude toward Jews. However Richard Boyden, whose father is Jewish, recalls his attempt to inform a Jewish organization  that was promoting a production of “The Wizard Of Oz” about the racist anti-Indian attitude of its author.

Last year I called the local Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and informed them of the fact the play they were showing there, the Wizard of Oz, was written by L. Frank Baum. I informed them that Baum was a hater of American Indians after the order of a “Hitler” and as a “prominent” newspaper editor in South Dakota, he called for the total extermination of American Indians.  The response from the Jewish Community Center was that of no concern…You can see Baum’s play shown in many Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States.”

I have searched in vain for a statement League on the Redskins controversy from the Anti-Defamation League – which vigorously attacks anyone who says or does anything they deem offensive to Jews, even going so far as to declare criticism of Israeli government policy as anti-Semitic – and I have been greeted with a deafening silence. The attempt to keep the term “holocaust” as the signature of the Jewish genocide has led to some strange behavior on the part of the Anti-Defamation League.

Indeed Abraham Foxman, the venerable leader of the ADL, has even been accused of being a holocaust denier by Armenian intellectuals whose ancestors were victims of Turkish Genocide at the turn of the 20th century.  The Armenians point to a deal where Turkey agreed to support Israel’s positions in the Middle East against their fellow Muslims among the Arab nations, and organized Jewry in the US in concert with the Israeli government would oppose any attempt by the UN to recognize the Armenian claims of Turkish genocide against them.  Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.

Of course, since Snyder is an arrogant money grubbing ignoramus there is every possibility that he knows nothing of any of this.  Alas, after counting beans all day the brain cells are pretty much shot.  Fortunately there is a simple way of making the issue clear even to a 21st century shyster shylock.  If Danny Boy claims not to understand the insult he is perpetrating against Native Americans, he should ponder what his attitude would be if the team’s name was “The Washington Kikes,” or the “DC Yids,” and the mascot was a Hassidic Jewish Rabbi in full clerical regalia, huge side locks and long flowing beard.  I bet his silly ass would get it then!

The Washington Kikes?

imagesCAIGHTPU Would Danny dig This?

Like he Digs This?

washington-redskins-logo-2Symbolically  Exploiting a Powerless People

I believe that Daniel will live to regret his decision to fight rather than switch, because like Daniel in the Bible he now finds himself in a lion’s den….and without the grace of God on his side.  No, this Daniel has placed his faith in Mammon; this is the rock on which he stands. Let’s see how that works out for him as the lions attack from several angles.  Already we have a group of Congressmen openly calling for him to change the name of the team.   And the city government of Washington DC is considering taking action.

No amount of self-serving sophistry – such as the statement issued by the NFL commissioner Roger Goddell, who wrote a letter replying to the Congressman offering up shameful and transparent apologia for the appalling behavior of Daniel Snyder – will calm this brewing storm.   The Commissioner’s June 5th letter was posted on The Indian Country Media Network said in part: “The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,” Goodell writes in the letter. “For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

                                                       The Commissioner Bullshittin the Press
He’s Amlost as good a bullshit artist as Daniel!

Some of the Congressmen quickly replied to Goodell’s silly self-serving sophistry.  “Goddell’s letter is another attempt to justify a racial slur on behalf of Dan Snyder and other NFL owners who appear to be only concerned with earning ever larger profits, even if it means exploiting a racist stereotype of Native Americans.”  And Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat representing American Somoa, charged that the NFL Commissioner “completely missed the point regarding the Washington franchise’s name.”   The original letter from the Congressmen had pointed out: “Native Americans throughout the country consider the ‘R-word’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos.”

Snyder, a billionaire businessman, is no ordinary owner.  Aside from the fact that he invested 100 million in stadium improvements and home games are sold out for 40 years in advance, he is also a member of several NFL committees. Among these are: the Broadcast Committee, the Business Ventures Committee, the Digital Media Committee, the Hall of Fame Committee, which monitors the activities of the  Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, and  a member of the Board of Directors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  So this guy is a real power in the National Football League.

Yet I predict that if Danny and the commish persist in their bullshit they will be buked and scorned, called everything but a child of God, and eventually the Washington franchise will be picket and boycotted.  Danny boy is about to learn a lesson about people power.  He’s gonna learn that his bucks are not long enough to cool the righteous anger of the people.  Somebody better hurry up and warn that fool…. cause like my grandfather used to say: “Dat boy better check his self before he wreck hisself!”


Playthell  G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 13, 2013

On Senor Schomburg, Black America and Me

Posted in Cultural Matters on June 9, 2013 by playthell
Arturo Schomburg II
A Visionary Pan-Africanist Bibliophile

It is well neigh impossible to assess the importance of the contribution the Afro-Puerto Rican Pan-Africanist bibliophile Arturo Schomburg made to the growth of culture and consciousness of Afro-Americans in general, having inspired seminal scholars and teachers like Dr. John Hendirk Clarke and Joel A. Rogers.  However I owe much of my career as an intellectual and political activist to the efforts of the great Senor Schomburg.

When I was a lonely airman stationed on a nuclear strike base in the 91st Strato-Bomber Wing of the US Strategic Air Command, whose mission was the nuclear destruction of Soviet Russia, I was given two books by my First Sergeant” One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro with Complete Proof” and “From Superman to Man,” both by the great Jamaican Historian Joel A. Rogers.

These books changed my life! J. A. Rogers continuously referred to the something called “The Schomburg Collection” in Harlem.  When I got out of the Air Force all I wanted to do was visit this place and see if the proof of Roger’s marvelous claims could indeed be found there.  I spent the next year practically camped out in the Schomburg, which was located on 135th street in Harlem, next door to its present location.

I would come up to New York from Philly and stay with my uncle Jimmy in Brooklyn every chance I got and spend my days rummaging through those archives that contained the records of the greatness of my race world-wide.  Among the many treasures I discovered there was the other works of J.A. Rogers – especially his multi-volume tomes: The World’s Great Men of Color from 3,000 BC to 1946 AD, Nature Knows no Color Line, Sex and Race, and Africa’s Gifts to America.

Laboring among the book stacks of the Schomburg Collection under the able tutelage of the learned and dedicated librarian Ernest Kaiser, who acted as if each text, rare manuscript, record and picture collection or newspaper file was a sacred gift to the black community, led to my becoming a featured radio lecturer on black history on “The Listening Post,” produced and hosted by the legendary Joe Rainey and broadcast over WDAS in Philly, a program on which Malcolm X regularly appeared.

From there I was heard by Queen Mother Moore, a comrade of the magnificent Puerto Rican revolutionary Loita Lebron – who took me under her wings and tutored me in the art and science of political struggle. I was also heard by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan – an activist Baptist preacher whom Minister Farrakhan calls “The Lion of Zion.”  Doctor Sullivan hired me to teach a black history course in the basement of his church.  It was in those sessions that I met Max Stanford aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, who convinced me to join him in founding the Revolutionary Action Movement – RAM – in Philly during 1962.  This was the first organization to openly advocate armed struggle in the US and would give birth to the Black Panthers of Oakland when a RAM cadre recruited Bobby Seales and Huey Newton into our ranks.

When Dr. Sullivan founded the Opportunities Industrialization Centers as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” created by the passage Economic Opportunity Act of 1965, he hired me to design a “Minority History” component to the curriculum of the adult education program.  Having grown up in West Virginia reading the texts of the pioneering historian of black America Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a fellow West Virginian and Harvard trained scholar who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Reverend Sullivan was convinced that oppressed peoples needed to know their history to fortify themselves for the freedom struggle.

The program I developed, which was mainly Afro-American and African history, but contained units on Afro-Latinos and Native Americans, was adopted by 100 OIC centers across America. This led to my being hired by school boards to lecture to school teachers about the rationale and methods for teaching black history.

This work led to my becoming a founding member of the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies – with a Pan-African perspective in the spirit of Arturo Schomburg  –  the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies Department in the World!   Hence, needless to say, I can never pay my debts to Senor Schomburg.

However my longtime friend and former neighbor, the late Max Bond, a brilliant architect who took his degree from Harvard at 19 years old, made an effort toward paying that debt on behalf of the Afro-American people when he designed the new building that now houses the Schomburg Center.  “I want to design a building that flows like a John Coltrane solo” he told me.  And as far as I can tell ….he did!  Check it out…it’s good for your mind, body and soul!

Max Bond’s Schomburg Center

Schomburg Center - outside

An exterior view

Inside the Schomburg Collection

Schomburg Center Inside

A quiet place to contemplate the past, present and future of the Black World


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 9, 2013

The Obama’s Address Black Graduates

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators with tags on June 1, 2013 by playthell


Three Wise Men: A Great Moment

 Stressing the Virtues of Education and Family

Both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama chose to give commencement addresses at historically black colleges.  The President spoke at Morehouse College and the First Lady addressed the graduates at Bowie State University.  Presidents and First Ladies are bombarded with requests to speak at commencements and the selection of historically black colleges and the messages conveyed dramatizes the symbolic significance of having a black family in the White House.

In Michele Obama’s commencement address to the Bowie graduates, she was critical of a certain aspect of black culture that is anti-intellectual.  The First Lady mentioned that the notion of a black child with a book was behaving white and was counter-productive.  She encouraged the graduates to struggle against that kind of negativity and stressed how vital it was for a higher percentage of members of the black community to be attending college.

President Obama in his Morehouse address highlighted the need to break the cycle of broken families.  He mentioned that even though his mother as a single parent was heroic and his maternal grandparents paid an important role in his upbringing, he regretted the absence of a father in his life.  The President of the United States revealingly stated that on his death bed, he would not be thinking about the legislation that was passed during his presidency but the quiet moments that he spent with his wife and his two daughters.

Barack and his Beloved Girls!
A Quintessential Family Man

There is an unquestionable thirst in the black community for higher education.  Prior to the democratization of higher education in America around the 1970s, the black historical colleges like Bowie, Morehouse, Spelman, Howard and Fisk played the predominant role in giving African-Americans access to higher education.  During those years, Caribbean students benefited from the existence of these black historical colleges.  Institutions like Howard University were instrumental in providing Caribbean scholars, like Eric Williams, the necessary education that made them into historical trail-blazing figures.

Our brilliant First Lady

imagesCA5C1MGT Telling the truth and inspiring the youths

The First Lady is correct that a greater number of African-Americans need to attend college but despite the rising cost of higher education those numbers have been growing.  For students graduating with associate degrees in 1999-2000, there were 60,221 and by 2009 to 2010, that figure increased to 113,905 which amounted to 10.9 percent of the associate degrees conferred in that year.

For the four year degree, from 1999 to 2000, 108,013 African-Americans completed the course and from 2009 to 2010, that figure was 164,844.  That latter figure amounted to 9.0 percent of the bachelors degree conferred during that period.  From the vantage point of gender from 1999 to 2000, 69.6 percent of the degrees conferred were females and from 2009 to2010 that percentage was 60.7 percent.

Traditionally, black enrollment on the graduate level tends to fall off precipitously but that has changed.  In the 1999-2000 period, 36,696 master’s degrees were conferred on African-Americans.   By 2009 to 2010, there was remarkable growth as 76,468 master’s degrees were conferred amounting to 12.5 percent of the distribution.  Again, one sees the potency of the black female that from a gender perspective in the latter years, 71.1 percent of master’s degrees were conferred on black women.

Julius Nyerere was fond of stating in respect to the Third World and the First World “While they walk, we must run”.  In the world of higher education, black men are not marking time but black women are outpacing them.

The President and the First Lady were stressing the importance of higher education as its acquisition has become nigh indispensable in competing in the increasingly competitive labor market.  The American economy has become more high-tech and low-tech jobs are either disappearing or do not pay a living wage to raise a family.

The Bureau of Labor statistics provides us with the data that correlates education to weekly income and to unemployment.  The higher the level of education, the less likely that an individual will be unemployed; the unemployment rate for a high school drop-out is 12.4 percent and average weekly wage is $471.00.  For a high school graduate, the rate of unemployment is above the average at 8.3 percent.  A college graduate had an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and aweekly earnings of $1,066.00.  With education the chances of a worker earning a living wage is greatly enhanced.

Neither the President nor the First Lady addressed the troubling issue of stagnation of wages and the severe problem of inequality.  The graduates have been exhorted to further humanize American society. If Bowie and Morehouse educated their graduates properly, they will know the “civil rights” struggle of their generation is to put the Genie of inequality back into the bottle so more Americans, educated or uneducated, can achieve the American dream.


Dr. Basil Wilson

Queens, New York

June 1, 2o13

At The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , on May 20, 2013 by playthell

              rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-2013-15-1024     Q!  Still On the Block Droppin Science

 Rockin into History

The Rock and roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was a remarkable evening by any accounting.  It was an evening of moving speeches, joyful reveries and reflections on the lives and works of the goddesses and Gods of American popular music; music that won hearts and influenced musicians around the world.  The argument about what represents art, and what’s mere commercial trash, is a long and tortuous one and I harbor no conceit that I can resolve it here; although I do believe that it is possible to distinguish between the two.  The problem is that few among us possess the combination of intelligence, taste, objectivity, technical knowledge and open mindedness to pull it off.  And even fewer are capable of recognizing when one succeeds or fails at it.

Hence engaging in such speculations are risky business; therefore I shall seek refuge in Duke Ellington’s axiom: “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.”  I always took Duke to mean that each genre of music should be evaluated by its own standards, and by that measure there is greatness in every type of music.  Since this was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction fete, the artists who performed were the crème de la crème of the Rock/Rhythm & Blues/Rap world.  And they really rocked the house!

There were several intoxicating highs and magic moments throughout the evening, as living legends were showered with extravagant panegyrics, then told their stories and thanked their fans for the love and support even as they were thanked for the memories.  All of the inductees had provided the background sounds to which their fans choreographed the drama of their lives.  Priceless memories of halcyon days and bright moments are enshrined in their melodies and verse; a song poetry that engages life’s triumphs and tribulations, the literature of the masses.

There were so many great songs sung on this occasion, and so many stellar performances, the choice of any act for special praise is almost as much a matter of personal taste as artistic merit. That said, my favorite performances were Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to the great disco diva Donna Summers; the tribute to Bluesman Albert King by the virtuoso blues guitarists John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr.; the reunion jam by hard rocker inductees Heart; Public Enemy, who were also enshrined in the Hall, brought the noise and reminded us when Hip Hop was attempting to address serious issues.

Usher’s evocation of Michael Jackson’s performance of Rock With Me was superb, and inductee Randy Newman’s performance of his marvelous song poetry while holding down the piano chair in the band, was beyond category.   Although songwriter Carol King can’t really sing – not when compared to real singers such as Jennifer Hudson – like her fellow tunesmith Bob Dillon, the power of their songs carry the performance.  And in any case she is Carol King, a living legend in the business of music, so her appearance of itself was a highlight of the evening.

Jennifer Hudson! 
28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Rockin the House


28th Annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

They broke the Gender barrier in Hard Rock
 John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. Stomping the Blues
28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show
Albert Kings Legacy Lives on

 Added to the great musical performances were some moving oratory; both in the nominating speeches and the responses of the Inductees.  Among the standouts from a torrent of eloquent tributes was the pioneering lady guitarist from Heart, whose induction speech recalled the limited employment possibilities for women when she began her career.  She summed it up by saying “women weren’t expected to rock,” and celebrated the vast distance women had traveled over the last half century.

A silver haired Randy Newman’s speech was riddled with self-deprecating humor while tossing a few barbs at the arbiters of popular music that decide who is worthy of induction in the Hall of Fame by suggesting that he had begun to believe that he would have to die to get in.   Cheech and Chong were outrageously funny in their induction speech for the legendary Producer Lou Adler, pointing out that he produced the greatest rock and roll stoner movie of all time, “Up In Smoke,” and promoted the path breaking June 1967 Monterey Music Festival that presented white acts like Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead, to black acts such as Rhythm and Blues star Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix, the father of electric rock guitar.

A stunningly beautiful Kelly Rowland, groomed and decorated to the height of fashion, offered impassioned praise songs in behalf of Donna Summers’ induction that was one of the evening’s brightest moments.  Spike Lee and the legendary artist/activist Harry Belafonte both gave moving speeches on behalf of “Public Enemy,” the first Rappers to be enshrined in the Hall.  Spikes’ remarks were thoughtful and told us how he selected Chuck D. to write the signature tune for his innovative movie “Do The Right Thing.”  Chuck D. responded with a thoughtful and moving speech, in which he addressed all those who disparage Hip Hop as art even as he expressed deep gratitude to those who chose them for induction.  Clearly he saw it as a vindication for Rap music as a genre.

Public Enemy Brings tha Noise

28th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

But Are They Real  Revolutionaries?

Despite the usual eloquence and intelligence of Harry Belafonte’s remarks, he quickly transgressed the boundaries of legit compliment and lapsed into hyperbole as he declared the group “revolutionaries.”  I don’t know how much Harry really knows about the group, but I was writing about the Rap scene at the Village Voice when they burst upon the scene in the 90’s and addressed that claim at the time.

Some people had begun to argue that Rappers were the new spokesmen for black people, the 90’s counterparts of 1960’s leaders such as student protests leaders Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. And they pointed to Chuck D. and his rapid exhortatory style as evidence or their claim.  Some even compared them to Dr. King and Minister Malcolm X.  I thought such talk was dangerous folly at the time and I am even more convinced today.

To begin with the sixties leaders were involved in actual struggle, organizing people to empower themselves against vicious foes who demonstrated on numerous occasions that murder was an acceptable method of suppressing their efforts to induce change through peaceful struggle.  And the SNNC organizers worked for subsistence wages in the most violent areas of the south.  And leaders like Malcolm and King spent many years studying – in theory and practice – preparing for their leadership roles in a movement that changed the most powerful nation in the world – and they were both murdered on the job.

To refer to Public Enemy as “revolutionaries” is to cheapen their sacrifice.  Harry should have known better, as a performing artist himself he should know that most writers of protest songs are working from inspiration and intuition, rather than an in-depth understanding of the problems they sing about.  And they are clueless as to how to go about solving them.

The apex of the evening for me was the induction of Quincy Jones.  In an elaborate introduction by Oprah Winfrey – in which she pointed out that not only had Quincy produced the two biggest selling records in history – Michael Jackson’s Thriller and We Are The World, which featured the biggest acts in the business – Oprah reminded us that Quincy has been nominated for the Grammy 71 times and won it 27 times, the most in the history of the prestigious award.  Then Quincy walked humbly to the stage.

Since he is used to making his statements with music, Quincy’s remarks were simply and to the point.  Yet despite the absence of oratorical flourishes, no statement uttered on this evening prolific with verbal extravagance was more moving or weighted with gravitas.  He began with a tongue in cheek signification about finally being discovered after nearly 70 years in the music business.  Then he became deadly serious as he told us how he grew up in a Chicago neighborhood where Al Capone’s gang operated and constantly finding the bodies of murder victims lying about.

He assured us that he was heading for a similar fate, the grave yard or prison, although he was only eleven!  Then one night while participating in a burglary he stumbled across a piano.  He sat down and pressed the keys and it changed his life.  At that moment he decided that he wanted to learn how to play music.  It was obviously the best decision he ever made because his mastery of music rewarded him with a fairy tale life that took him all over the world and it seemed like he spoke to everybody twice.  It was a gift that never stopped giving.

The highpoint of this extraordinary testament to the magic power of music came when pointed out that his greatest lessons came from masters like Duke, Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and his brilliant contemporary and life-long friend Ray Charles.  Quincy Jones went on to excoriate the music critics and cultural historians for not giving these great master musicians their props, despite the fact that their contribution to 20th century music is second to none.

He looked into the camera and declared to the world that he is certain a hundred years hence historians will correctly view them as America’s version of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, et al.  Then Quincy told the surprised audience, who had come to worship at the altar of “Rock and Roll,” that everything they do comes from gospel, blues, and Jazz which is the basis of the world’s most popular music – whatever name they choose to call it.  To which I uttered a hearty “AMEN!”

 Back In The Day


The Master at Work!

 Quincy and Michael

 quincy-jones-320  II

They Made History!



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

May 20, 2013

Our Oracle Shuts the Door

Posted in Book Reviews, Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators on May 16, 2013 by playthell

Achebe Elder

The peerless scribe and Master Teacher at work

 A Brief Tribute to Professor Chinua Achebe

I wouldn’t like to describe Professor Chinalumogo Achebe as an Iroko tree.  No, he was mightier than that.  In a thick forest of copious trees, one tree always stands out: the Uzi tree. It is taller than the Oroko.  The Uzi is always rare; sometimes, only one appears in an entire forest.  But there could be many Irokos in a forest.  They even stand on the streets, everywhere.  No, Achebe was not that common.  He was loftier than his fame.

The bark of an Uzi tree is medicinal. Many herbalists, experienced and upcoming, approach it with machetes to cut off a portion to cure diseases, yet the tree stands unscathed. It does not shed its leaves. It does not bleed. It only exudes its sap when the herbalists immerse the shredded bark in a keg of alcohol or water, in order to have the medicine seep out. During windy, fierce hamattan seasons, irokos could have their branches broken. This deficiency does not apply to Uzi. And whenever there is need for wood, people hack irokos down, but the Uzi is revered, with its lush, swanky green leaves attracting a large pilgrimage of avian animals. Achebe’s fiction is medicinal, undeniably sacrosanct.

It has cured the world of many diseases of the mind: racial discrimination, religious intolerance, mental slavery, subjugation of thought, entrapment of black intellects, disdain for Africa’s indigenous cultures and religions, among others. Chinua Achebe, through his extraordinary defensive literature, gave Africa a new positive interpretation. Africans became proud of Africa, although there are still islands of mental and religious slaves around the continent. His rare shrewdness detected every prejudice against Africa, no matter how nuanced, and he reacted appropriately.

As a young boy growing up in rural, southeastern Nigeria, I did not have the privilege of reading foreign books. Even as a toddler, I never read illustrated children’s books. They were not available in the village. I depended on indigenous African literature, which I didn’t buy, couldn’t buy, but I read as much as I could borrow from friends and neighbours. I realised that each time I went borrowing, I was offered a Chinua Achebe book. One of my primary school teachers once lied to me that the Bible was written in heaven and flung down to the world.

I started to wonder whether Achebe’s books were among those things that God had created in the sky and thrown down, because the books were ubiquitous in the village—and understandable. When I went to the stream to fetch water, students from secondary schools discussed Achebe’s fiction with joy. I could identify with the things written there: our village foods, our masquerades, our family system, our method of farming, our animals and many other native valuables embellished in his stories. It was as though the stories were set in my own village. It became normal, for me, that one must read Achebe so as to be considered educated.

In the village, the ability to speak a speck of correct English was applauded. We, the village children, gathered around city boys and kids who had returned home for Christmas, listening to their English, willing ourselves to speak asupili supili like them, a fact that made us almost detest our native Igbo Language. Our inability to speak English early enough caused a sort of inferiority complex in us. We spoke English with fear and conservative dignity because we thought it difficult, full of strict rules of grammar that one could not break. I later figured out, my ribs bashing with amusement, that the city people’s English was odiously ungrammatical, a local contrivance to achieve fluency: pidgin. Achebe, through his books, demystified the English Language for me. The books are simplified with supple details. Achebe made English approachable, configured it to taste like Igbo in my mouth.

I comprehended that one could speak English with a stocky Igbo mouth, found out that English is not better than Igbo; they are both equivalent in all ramifications. As an adult, I did not have the grace of meeting him, face-to-face; it was not necessary because I meet him daily through my stack of his books, my treasures. The human mouth is full of lies, but Achebe’s fiction is full of truths, undeniable facts. The immortality of his writings is unquestionable. Some men shouldn’t die!

Today our oracle has shut the door, but he still remains inside the holy shrine. In Africa, people don’t catapult themselves to unknown destinations when they die; they stay (in the spiritual world) around their families to plan and supervise the affairs of the mortals, sheltering the humans with divine protections of all sorts. Chukwu chebe muo gi!

Professor Chinua Achebe has joined the league of worthy ancestors, a dynasty of international literary forefathers and mothers whose works remain perpetual: Eudora Welty, William Shakespeare, Cyprian Ekwensi, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, Amos Tutuola, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, and many others. Achebe will stay in the land of prestigious African ancestors to inspire new pieces of fabulous fiction in the new generation of African writers. We are all waiting for his inspiration.

Writers don’t die. Has Chinua Achebe died? No! The Uzi tree does not die like that. The Igbo say uwa bu ahia—the world is a market: you come, trade and step aside, and not necessarily die. Achebe lives in every creative mind, solidly.

Father of a Tradition

Achebe III

 He set the standard for African Novelist


Jekwu Anyaegbuna


 Originally published in the Massachusetts Review.  Reprinted with permission of MR.

Jekwu Anyaegbuna is a Nigerian writer. He won the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. He has just completed his first novel. His story “The Waiting Stool” appears in the current
issue of MR.

Vilaida Snow: Forgotten Genius!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on May 14, 2013 by playthell
A virtuoso trumpeter / conductor who performed with the greatest male bands

This Lady Could Do It All!

In her memoir about the world of American show business doing the golden age of Hollywood, the famous actress Maureen O’Hara said the producers were always looking for performers who were “triple threats,” meaning they could sing, dance and act.  However she forgot to mention the fact that the performer also had to be white.  This is the only logical explanation as to why Valaida Snow was not the greatest star of the era, for she was a triple threat and more.  None of the white stars of the Hollywood musical extravaganzas could match her talent.

In his book “The World of Earl Hines,” one of a series of books by the indefatigable British Jazz historian Stanley Dance, in which Jazz musicians tell us in their own words about their life and work, there are some poignant descriptions of Valaida Snow told by the great pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines.  One of the greatest figures of twentieth century American music, a major innovator on the piano, and a seminal figure in the development of the modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music popularly known as “Jazz,” Hines performed in every type of venue imaginable.  Thus he is as reliable an eyewitness as we are likely to find; an unimpeachable source.

“Valaida was very versatile and very musical” Hines recalls.  “She could sing, dance and produce a show.  She could play trumpet, violin and piano…She had all the physical attractions one could want in a girl, and she made a heck of an impression.  All this came out after she had begun working at the Sunset, and I thought she was the greatest girl I had ever seen.”  Hines went on to describe her performance, “In her act she had seven different pairs of shoes set out front, and she’d do a dance in each of them – soft shoes, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, and I don’t know what else, but last of all Russian boots.”  Hines went on to tell us: “She’d do a chorus in each, and on on the tap number she tapped just like Bojangles.”

Now, that’s a hell of a claim, since Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was unquestionably the greatest tap dancer in the world at the time…and arguably is the most influential figure in the history of tap dancing.  All of the great masters in the complex Afro-American art of rhythm tap dancing – whose complex rhythms influenced some of the greatest drummers in the jazz tradition, as Professor Jacqui Malone ably documents in her seminal text “Steppin on the Blues” – pay homage to Bojangles as the patron saint of their art.  Including the peerless Sammy Davis Jr.  And since Earl Hines played for Bojangles’ many times – often as his sole accompaniment since “Bo” didn’t really like to use drummers because they often interfered with the complicated rhythms he was tapping out – Hines had an intimate knowledge of Robinson’s art.

Hence when he compared Valaida’s performance to Bojangles, this was no picayune matter: it was nothing less than a sensational compliment.  And he is not the only one who was astonished by her dancing skills.  “Louis Armstrong had a fit when he saw her,” Hines tells us. ‘”Boy I never saw anything that great’ he told me.  She broke up the house every time.” Hines said.  However Louie Armstrong grew up in the flourishing show business world of New Orleans and had worked in Chicago, and New York, not to mention the countless performances he had played in every section of the country; so he had seen plenty!

A Dancer’s Dancer
No ordinary Hoofer

Hines had witnessed all the major acts in American show business strut their stuff – white and black – but since most of the biggest white acts were employing Afro-American cultural forms as the basic ingredients of their act, once you saw the black acts you had seen the state of the art.  This had been true since the end of the 19th century, but even before that, ever since the rise of black faced minstrelsy performed by white Americans in burnt cork during the 1840’s and becoming the most popular form of theatrical performance throughout the balance of the 1800s, but minstrelsy was mostly parody of black culture.

By the turn of the century, with the rise of Ragtime music and the Cake Walk, Afro-American music and dance reigned supreme.  That’s why the presence of famous white performers at black performance venues was common fare and is mentioned in virtually every account of the period.  In a fascinating reflection on the 1890’s contained in his classic memoir of blacks in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson describes the rich creative milieu at the Marshall Hotel – a black owned hotel and nightclub located in the “Tenderloin District” on the West side of Manhattan in the 50’s.   This area was also known as “Black Bohemia” because so many Afro-American artists resided there. Performers of all kind stayed at the Marshall, especially musicians, and they performed in the club.  Hence Johnson tells us that white performers were always in the audience “looking for Negro stuff” to incorporate in their acts.

So thorough was the wholesale pillage of Afro-America’s cultural storehouse by white performers seeking material for their blackface “coon shows,” that the great Afro-American vaudevillian team, Bert Williams and George Walker, billed their act “Too Real Coons,” when they got together in San Francisco during 1893. Although they were on the other side of the continent they encountered the same situation as that described by Johnson in New York.

A great poet, lyricist, librettist, lawyer, and diplomat who would become the first black Executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson was no ordinary witness.  An early twentieth American Renaissance Man, Johnson, in collaboration with his composer brother J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole, a gifted tunesmith and choreographer, wrote a series of musical revues that contributed to the formation of the Broadway musical, and were also among the principal creators of the American popular song with hits like “Under the Bamboo Tree” and patriotic songs such as “Rally round the Flag Boys.”  As a savvy lawyer as well as a creative artist, it is not surprising that James Weldon was also a founder of ASCAP – American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers- the principal agency that protects the royalty rights of musicians today.

And the evidence of Johnson’s charge of white cultural pilfering is everywhere.  From Paul Whiteman being acclaimed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920’s, to Bennie Goodman being promoted as The King Of Swing, in the 1940’s, to Elvis Pressley being declared the “King of Rock and Roll” in the 1950’s and 60’s, to John Travolta and the Bee Gee’s becoming the “Kings of Disco,” to Slim Shady being dubbed the Master poet of Hip Hop.

What all of these acts have in common is that they built acts based on Afro-American cultural ingredients, yet they made more money than the black creators because of institutionalized racism – which throughout the 19th century and most of the twentieth century, barred black acts from performing in many of the most lucrative venues.  This allowed white performers to get away with performing mediocre versions of Afro-American -Acts to all white audience that had never seen the real thing…and get fabulously rich and famous doing it.

This fact does much to explain why the most talented female performer of the period is a forgotten figure in the history of American performing arts.  Although she was a big star in her time in the black community, she never received her just recognition in the world of American show business at large.  And she is still denied her proper place in the American cultural pantheon, due to a general ignorance of the role of race in shaping American popular culture abetted by cultural and gender chauvinism practiced by Euro-Americans males and men in general.  Hence Valaida suffered from a double whammy: racism and sexism.

When we consider the fact that Valaida Snow was as good a singer as a dancer, plus a virtuoso on several instruments that have nothing in common – string, brass and keyboard – she was arguably not only the greatest woman performer in American show business…but the greatest performer of her time male or female.  Her versatility was astounding.

Valaida as Headliner


 Master of Several Arts

Earl Hines tells us:

“After the Sunset closed she went on the road and was in several big shows. The last time I saw here before she came back to Chicago again, she was with Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake in a show called “Rhapsody in Black.”  They had about thirty musicians and she conducted the whole band in the first part of the show.  Then she had her own spot, and after that she did a number with the Berry Brothers.”

Musicians like Sissle and Blake, and dancers such as the Berry Brothers, were among the best in American show business.  The fact that Valaida was performing with them is further evidence of her multi-talented genius.

Sissle and Blake in 1926
They wrote and performed all kinds of Music including Broadway shows

Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake were great song writers who penned hit songs, at a time when the music business was in transition from an industry largely based on the sale of sheet music to one based on record sales.   And many of their most popular tunes originated in Broadway musicals they wrote.  For instance the tune “I’m Just Wild about Harry” was introduced in their hit Broadway musical “Shufflin Along” in 1922, and became so popular that it was adopted as Harry Truman’s campaign song in his run for the presidency almost thirty years later.  And the Berry Brothers was one of the premier tap dance acts.  Insofar as show business was concerned, Valaida was “moving in high cotton” as the old folks used to say when I was a boy in Florida.

 Sheet Music for….


The Smash hit
 The Berry Brothers


 A Fabulous Dance Team

Although Valaida Snow was excluded from exhibiting her talents in many venues because of her beautiful tan skin by people suffering from “Whiteitis” – a bizarre malady that makes white people believe that the earth and all its bounty belongs exclusively to them, – there was a large black audience and she worked all the time entertaining them on the TOBA circuit.  Again Earl Hines informs us “When the show finished Ed Fox got in touch with her and had her come to the Grand Terrace.”

This was a premiere nightclub in Chicago, a fabulous place that catered to an Afro-American audience, but Earl “Fatha” Hines’ orchestra was the house band and therefore people of all races and ethnicities who love great music was drawn to the spot….just as they had been draw to the music and posh ambience of the  “Cabaret Du Champion,” the fabulous Chicago Nightclub owned by Jack Johnson, the first black heavy-weight champion of the world, a generation earlier.

Earl “Fatha” Hines
Virtuoso Pianist and Bandleader

The great music also attracted Al Capone and his gang, who secretly took control of the club.  Big Al loved the band and “Fata” Hines paints an intriguing portrait of his relationship with the famous Italian Gangster. “Along with so many of the bad traits people said Al Capone had, he had some good traits, too.  He used to run a restaurant twenty fours a day where poor people could get free meals, and he took over real estate where these same poor people could move in and live.  He used to come by the club at night, and if I met him at the door he might put his hand up and straighten my handkerchief, and there would be a hundred dollar bill.  Or he might give me a handshake and put a twenty dollar bill in my hand.”  From Hine’s descriptions here damned if Big Al don’t sound like Robin Hood.

A Contemporary Billboard
The Greatest Jazz Pianist In America?

This is the world that Valaida Snow entered when she took the gig at the Grand Terrace.  And she was a smash!  Fatha Hines tells us “I can’t remember who was headlining, but she came next after a great dance couple from Cuba.  She was what we call an ingénue then, in front of the chorus.  She sang The Very Thought Of You, and that kind of thing.”   Hines was also impressed by her ability to deliver a song in character.  “I always remember, too, how she used to sing Brother, Can you Spare a Dime She would come out all raggedy and wearing an old cap on her head.  During the Depression she would break people up with that song.”

Anyone who has listened carefully to Yip Harbrough’s clever, biting and cynical lyrics cannot fail to recognize its sharp critique of the callous greed of the plutocrats.  And the insightful observer can readily discern a class consciousness in the perspectives of Capone and Hines – the gangster and the artist.  It seems clear that both were poor boys struggling to survive and thrive in a country with a rich ruthless chauvinistic WASP ruling class, who held lower class Italians in slightly less contemot than Afro-Americans, the best way they could.

And like jazz fans of all backgrounds, Capone dug Hine’s band.   As it turns out, Valaida was not just a great performer at the Grand Terrace, but she quickly rose to producer of the show, which required her to bend both the gangsters and macho male musicians to her will.  And she manipulated them as skillfully as she manipulated the keys of her trumpet.

After spending the summer months on tour with Valaiada Snow, Earl Hines was captivated by her talent and beauty and marveled at her polymorphic guise once they were back at the Grand Terrace. “When we came back,” Hinds recalls, “they were having trouble with producers and directors. ‘Valaida,’ Fox  said ‘do you know anything about producing’ ‘sure’ she said. ‘I can put the show on for you.’”  I guess Ed Fox,  the owner of record, had seen enough of her versatility to suspect that she might be capable of doing anything in show business.

So Fox took a chance.  “After all,” says Hines, “she could dance and she could sing and she knew what to do.  She put that show together herself.  She saved him an awful lot of money, too, because whenever a new show went on there had to be a lot of new arrangements for it.  She was so talented she picked out numbers from the bands book that could be used, memorized them, and hummed or scatted them to the chorus.  Then when we came in the rehearsals were very short, because the girls already knew the band’s routines.  Bubbling over was one of the numbers she produced.  Beer and wine had come back after prohibition, and that was the inspiration for the song.  She always knew what she wanted and nobody could fool her.”  In reading Hine’s reminiscences about Valaida, one should remember that these extravagant accolades are coming from a great artists working at the apex of show business.

Despite living in a country whose ruling ideology was white supremacy, enduring constant insults intended to enforce the myth of white superiority, and barred from displaying her genius in the major entertainment emporiums of her native land, Valaida was nevertheless a star in her world “behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described the segregated world of black America, and she lived like one.  “She had a Mercedes and a chauffeur,” says Hines, “and she used to send him to pick me up and take me home…She used to dress luxuriously and look very, very glamorous.  She was just a beautiful and exceptionally talented woman.”

Valaida As Featured Trumpet soloist
A Beautiful and Exceptionally Talented Woman

As an instrumentalist Valaida Snow was top shelf, a bonafide member of the Jazz virtuosi that shaped the art during the first half of the twentieth century.  Indeed her virtuosity was seemingly preordained.  Born into a family of musicians in Chattanooga Tennessee in 1903, she showed an early talent for music.  Hence aside from the three instruments she was playing when Earl Hines met her – piano, violin and trumpet – her mother taught her to play the cello, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet and saxophone.  She was a gifted musician indeed.

Her broad knowledge of music and not only propelled her to the top ranks of instrumental performers during a golden age of show business before television when people went out to see live performances, and before the disco replaced the dance hall bands with recorded music.  It was a period when there were more famous instrumentalists than singers.  Hence you had to be sharp on your axe or you would be cut from the band in the Darwinian world of the Jazz orchestra.

The great William “Count” Basie describes the cut throat competition among musicians for chairs in the great bands of the era in his autobiography “Good Morning Blues,” written in collaboration with Albert Murray, a brilliant writer and jazz critic who danced to those bands in his youth.  To illustrate the point Basie tells a story about being slightly late to the band stand and hearing another guy playing his butt off in his piano seat.  He didn’t have to listen long to recognize that his goose was cooked; he went right over to the club owner and asked for a job as a valet parking the cars of the guests.

Valaida Conducting the Boys


The Lady who Swings the Band

Thus in assessing Valaida Snow’s musicianship it is enough to know that during her career she played with the Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Earl Hines, and along with Blanche Calloway – whose pioneering career I shall examine in a future essay – was the first woman to conduct a male orchestra, to recognize her outsize talent as a musician.  She was so admired by her fellow musicians she was featured as a soloist with major white bands on occasion.

Had it not been for the racial taboos and gender discrimination of American society at the time, those bands might well have been fighting over her.  After all, aside from being beautiful and could sing and dance, she was so good as a trumpet soloist her nickname was “Little Louie” because she had a big sound like Louis Armstrong  – the father of jazz trumpet, who called her “the world’s second best trumpet player.”

Although for most of her career Valaida performed in black nightclubs and theaters like New York’s Apollo, Chicago’s Regal, the Howard in Washington and the  Earl theater in Philly; the so-called “chittlin circuit.”   She also appeared in Broadway shows, like “Chocolate Dandies,” written by Sissle and Blake, where she was also required to act.  And like many great Afro-American performing artists, her friend Josephine Baker topping the list as the toast of Paris – she was a sensation in Europe as an instrumentalist and in Musical theater.  She even hung out socially with European aristocrats.

A tragic event occurred in her life during one of her many European forays in the early forties that shattered Valaida’s career.  While concertizing with her all-female orchestra in Denmark, she was arrested by the Nazi’s on morals and drug charges and sent to Wester-Faengle, concentration camp for two years during 1940-42.  Incredibly, Valaida was the victim of the motion of history; she was caught up in the swirl of world events.

As a sexually liberated black female jazz musician who appeared to be batting from both sides of the plate, liked getting high and playing around with white girls; she was viewed as a menace by the NAZI Gestapo – those murderous thugs entrusted with enforcing the objectives of the Third Reich.  And for blond Aryan women the Nazi objective for them was to produce pure Aryan warriors to serve the Thousand Year Reich.  Thus they dispised any sign of lesbianism or race mixing.

It appears that Valaida was oblivious to the political situation she was in.  Although it is hard to imagine how that could be so naive, the great Afro-American novelist John A. Williams imagined it in marvelous detail in “Clifford’s Blues,” his gripping and insightful novel about a gay black American jazz instrumentalist and singer who gets arrested on morals charges – drugs and homosexuality – and sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp.  (  see my review under the “book Review” section )

Williams uses this story to explore the entire question of sex, race and culture in Nazi Germany.  It is such a finely told tale that I would recommend it to anybody who would like to experience vicariously what Valaida’s experience might have been like.  Clifford, whose story is the raison d’etre of this finely realized novel, was having such a great time in Weimar Berlin – where cocaine could be purchased from the newspaper vendors, gay nightclubs flourished, and his black complexion only enhanced the attractiveness of his talent.  Cliff was the toast of the gay scene in Berlin and everybody wanted a piece of his dark meat.

Hence when he saw those crazy guys in brown shirts running around the place harassing Jews he was just glad that for once it wasn’t black people getting the shaft and went about his business.  It wasn’t until he was nabbed by the Nazi’s that he really notice how much things had changed for a gay black musician playing inferior “jungle music” in Germany.  This tale bears such an uncanny resemblance to Valaida’s story that I am compelled to wonder if that’s where John A. Williams got the idea.

Like Clifford, I’d bet Valaida was equally clueless about the political situation in Denmark at the time – since this had been one of the most sexually and racially liberal countries in the world before the Nazi invasion.  It is the ultimate irony that in liberal Denmark Valaida should encounter, and be victimized by, a master race theory the Nazi’s imported from the US – a consequence of Adolph Hitler becoming obsessed with the racial theories proffered by American Eugenicist Madison Grant, in his racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” At some point she must have recognized the similarity between the Nazi attitudes toward Jews and the attitude of the white south toward her on people.  That’s why she, and millions of other Afro-Americans, fled the south.

Valaida’s experience in the Nazi concentration camp wrecked her physically and psychologically; she was never the same performer again.  Already in middle age, she was unable to fully retrieve her artistic prowess, although she continued to perform in various venues until the 1950’s, when she toured with a group called “The Honey Drippers,” who were pioneers in a new music that would soon sweep the world: Rhythm & Blues.  On May 30, 1956, while in New York City, Valaida finally danced and joined the musical Gods.

View A New and Wonderful Documentary on Vilaida
Double Click on link below
Watch Valaida in Perform in a French movie

Watch her perform on a soundie

View and interesting video on Valaida Snow
Valaida with Ellington’s Orchestra singing caravan and taking a trumpet solo
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York

May 14, 2013


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 161 other followers