Oakland Poet: D. Scot Miller


December 18, 2009

D. Scot Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist, teacher and curator. He sits on the board of directors of nocturnes review, and is a regular contributor to The East Bay Express, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Popmatters, and Mosaic Magazine. He is currently completing a book of poems (cool), his Afro-surreal novel, Knot Frum Hear, and has recently published his old fashioned manifesto simply titled: AfroSurreal.

I asked him about how Oakland has influenced his creative process and what he's working on.

"I'd been living in Oakland, talking care of my newborn son, when I finally found the peace and the community I needed to start writing poetry again. At the time, I was neighbors with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, right down the street from giovanni singleton, and would see Victor LaValle or Ishmael Reed walking around The Lake.

There was something about the schedule (Early bedtimes, consistent meals, plenty of fresh air) that seemed anathema to the "poetic process" of my younger days in San Francisco (which was just the opposite). There were actually more places to read my work in Oakland, and more people who "got me" when I did. I began to produce serious, internal works along with "out-loud" pieces.

Right now, I'm looking for more places to read my work and seeking collaborators (co-conspirators?) for public pieces in larger spaces: theaters, studios, galleries...oh, and an agent. man, I need an agent!"

mari mac all drest
in blak
twist dove body
til he neck snap
put bird beak
o’er my teeth
forced to say
just words of peace

All The Copper
Alone or clustered
in gutters
on corners
around payphones.
I pick up pennies
tails or heads up
shining or covered in muck.
Resting in my hand
from forty-five years ago
beginning, becoming
in supple brown
almost like chocolate.
Almost like wood,
but red
rusted
corpuscles passed along
daily in
America’s veins
The penny is the only copper coin here.
I line it up next to a nickel, a dime, a quarter
on my cluttered desk.
Next to the white metals
I recall its names:
brown-back
awaiting an imminent parcel lunged from a truck bed
body braced, buckle-kneed from the weight that is and will be
nigger-head
Spat out of our memory like the gnarled southern drawl
that spat it in
the aftertaste is a disgust and shame
that lingers
leaving forty-nine pennies on a garbage can
Old Abe
Unshaven and thin
Facing east while the others
clean shaven and plump
face west
I rub my chin
copper wire whiskers
beginning, becoming
I brush the coins
into my Bazooka Joe tin
take them to the grocery store
and cash them in.
I buy potato chips
a pack of smokes
a bottle of wine
I sit on the stoop
smoking and drinking
watching the cars go by
like an inventory
of my umber worth.

Afro-surreal Generation

Today,
The energy went to building Tupac and Biggie Smalls
Pez dispensers,
Sun Ra and Henry Dumas facing each other
on a palette of twilight,
Derby hats, burkas and
masks.
And remember its thronged
seduction.
The pressing of face and corpuscular beat. The rush
to connect to
those eyes,
that coat,
those sandals,
tattooed knuckles.
Wonder how much done for
love
How much done for
lack of.

Woodshed

Her father was
her husband. He’d
call before he’d visit.
‘cause I’m a black boy kissing
her pink face, flushed.
I’d
hide in the attic
in my boxers.
I had no idea what damage I was doing
to myself.
His furrowed voice
Sherlockin’,
the smell of our sex
wafting
up,
as walls filled with muffled new moans reverberated
inconclusive evidence.
I did not know who was getting screwed or why.
He’d leave and
she and
her mother and
me would laugh at
the cuckold
daddy.
Once a week,
for years,
I’d fall in love with revenge.
Skewered on the
picket fence.

AfterGraph

Awakened brother catatonic
deified expletive
flayed gargoyle
heathen icon
jack-of-all-trades jaded jalouse jargon
jejune jewelry jiggle joker jockey
jouissance journeyman juvenile joyride
jubilee juke jump juncture juxtapose
karmakennel lefthandedleitmotif
machismomania nabobnarcosis
obtuse patina
quirky razor satyr
tightlipped usher
village wand
Xenophobe Y Zerosumgame


MAGNA-VOX
Align with the single star
boxed in the mighty voice
jackpot spills in orbs and cubes
into black cashmere sacks with glowing
blue brims
we remove the mirrored funnel,
open the beaten and stamped package
wrapped in copper.
smear cobalt across our palms.
snippets of paper crinkles
feet shuffling sand, on wood,
on granite,
a guttural wail
of shuddering light rails with
teeth mashing.
What worlds exist through
the pinhole?
Did you ever place your pupil
flat the screen?
That dot of light,
on the television,
right after you
turn it
off.
It’s just your memory now.


Oakland Poets is our weekly feature highlighting The Town's talented wordsmiths. If you know someone we should feature or would like your work considered, emailKwan@oaklandlocal.com.

Dark Mirrors


The black dandy beams from past into future -- sharply attired, of course

By D. Scot Miller

Wednesday November 18, 2009

arts@sfbg.com

Recently I was at a meeting with an unnamed arts organization, planning for an AfroSurreal art exhibit. As we were hashing out the details of display, the concept of the black dandy become a bone of contention among my learned colleagues. What was, and is, a black dandy? How does the black dandy differ from the white dandy? What's the difference between a dandy and fop? Aren't those terms interchangeable? Why bother looking at or for a black dandy at all? I'm seldom at a loss for words — it just takes me a minute to arrange them properly sometimes. (Ask my editor.) But this time, I had nothing to say. I just directed all queries to Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 408 pages, $24.95).

Monica L. Miller's book is the first of its kind: a lengthy written study of the history of black dandyism and the role that style has played in the politics and aesthetics of African and African American identity. She draws from literature, film, photography, print ads, and music to reveal the black dandy's underground cultural history and generate possibilities for the future.

Slaves to Fashion looks at black dandies of the past, beginning with Mungo Macaroni, a freed slave and well-known force within the London social scene in the 18th century.
Miller also studies contemporary manifestations, in the vestments of Andre 3000 and Puff Daddy, showing how black dandies have historically used the signature tools of clothing, gesture, and wit to break down limiting definitions and introduce new, fluid concepts of social and political possibility. Though Slaves to Fashion is über-academic and at times weighed down by post-structrualist jargon, Miller more than makes up for it with uncanny feats of scholarship that illustrate ways in which the figure of the black dandy has been an elephant-in-the-room — albeit a particualrly well-dressed one.

A great example is Miller's citing of the character of Adolph in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin. Almost immediately after the publication of this "great abolitionist work," its characters became some of the first American archetypes: Simon Legree and Uncle Tom are two notable examples. In comparison, Adolph — a black dandy pivotal to the story — was excised from the public imagination. Miller sees this as a reaction to what she calls "crimes of fashion," which take place when Africans and African Americans don the clothing of the oppressed to both emulate and satirize the oppressor. Adolph served as a "dark mirror" to both American materialism and the deep fear of the impending gender and race-mixing that would take place after abolition.

This fear, according to Miller, is the difference between the black dandy and the white dandy or the fop. Unlike a Caucasian counterpart, exemplified by the likes of Oscar Wilde, the black dandy comes from a position of underprivilege and uses flair and style as a way to redefine masculinity to include him.
In other words, as opposed to a feminine front, it is the black dandy's fluid masculinity — his "queering" of the term — that threatens to undermine the social order. Adolph is the exact opposite of the static, predictable docility and animalism of "the Big Black Buck" Uncle Tom. When he's in town, you have to lock up your sons, daughters, wives, mother, father, and yourself because his power of seduction is so great. Think Prince during his Dirty Mind (Warner Bros., 1980) phase and you get the general idea.

Fear, according to Miller, continues to generate a serious backlash in reaction to the idea — let alone reality — of true equality for black people in the west. Images of black cork minstelry that lampoon the black dandy's aspirations have been around as long as the black dandy. From Zip Coon and Jim Dandy in the early 19th century to present-day manifestations in popular culture, ambivalence — a tool of the black dandy — has served as a double-edged sword. Exactly when and where does "stylin' out" become "coonin'"? If W.E.B. Du Bois, the quintessential black dandy, couldn't figure it out, I'm not sure that I can find a definitive answer.

Slaves to Fashion rediscovers its footing in exploring the nature of "otherness." Returning from investigations of the black dandy's lineage to note his role in contemporary art and culture, Miller shines a light on filmmaker Isaac Julien, editor and photographer Iké Udé, visual artist Yinka Shonibare, and beyond. In the process, she answers a variety of questions regarding what a black dandy is and does. Ultimately, the black dandy's problem is an AfroSurreal one: by perpetrating these "crimes of fashion," by avoiding and exploding pat definitions of blackness, masculinity, and sexuality, he occupies a realm outside convention, and all too often, recognition. It is from these murky waters of post-postmodernity, I believe, that the black dandy brings a message for us all.

Emory Douglas

Wednesday November 4, 2009

GOLDIES 2009 LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD:

Bringing the militant chic of the Panther image to the masses


As a teenager, Emory Douglas was sentenced to 15 months at the Youth Training School in Ontario. It may have been the best thing for him — and the worst thing "the Man" could have done. In the prison printing shop, he discovered a gift for print and collage he would later use as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. From 1967 until the party disbanded in the 1980s, his iconic graphic art marked most issues of the newspaper The Black Panther.

Douglas brought the militant chic of the Panther image to the masses, using the newspaper to incite the oppressed to action. In the name of expediency and limited resources, he developed collage tricks to maximize his passionate message. His back-page posters emphasized the Panthers' community programs, like free breakfast for children, clinics, schools, and arts events. His works presented the struggle with a mixture of empathy and outrage — sometimes direct, sometimes allegorical — that remains innovative and contemporary amid today's high-tech standards.

In a 1968 salvo called "Position Paper No. 1 on Revolutionary Art," Douglas states: "Revolutionary art is learned in the ghetto from the pig cops on the beat, demagogue politicians, and avaricious businessmen. Not in the schools of fine art. The Revolutionary artist...hears the sounds of footsteps of black people trampling the ghetto streets and translates them into pictures of slow revolts against the slave masters, stomping them in their brains with bullets, that we can have power and freedom to determine the destiny of our community and help to build our world." For 33 years Douglas has stood by these words, working toward a better world for the people.

When Rizzoli published a compendium of Douglas's posters, broadsheets, and fliers in 2007, a new generation became familiar with the causes of solidarity, liberation, and self-determination he holds dear. He has since had large-scale shows at sites such as L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, while his commitment to social change has led to exhibitions and speaking engagements at Oakland's New Black World and the sorely-missed Babylon Falling in San Francisco. His interpretation of Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye for last year's "Banned and Recovered" show at San Francisco Center of the Book was one of the standout pieces of 2008.

Douglas' work captures the tragedy and triumph of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and fed up; an eternal struggle against those blessed with power who choose to abuse it. Much like the works of Goya and the words of Hugo, his contribution to that struggle remains immeasurable — not just for what he has created, but for the people he will empower for generations to come. *

www.itsabouttimebpp.com




By D. Scot Miller

Amiri Baraka Keeps It Real


Amiri Baraka keeps it real about America in the Obama era

By D. Scot Miller

arts@sfbg.com

LIT/MUSIC With influences ranging from the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X to musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetic. The movement and his published work — such as 1963's signature study on African American music Blues People and the same year's play Dutchman — practically seeded "the cultural corollary to black nationalism" of that revolutionary American milieu.

Baraka lives in Newark, N.J., with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head the word-music ensemble Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako's Blues People, an art space housed in their theater basement for some 15 years. I spoke with him on the eve of an upcoming visit.

SFBG You coined the term "Afrosurreal Expressionism." Can you share your definition?

AB If you know the African tales or even African writers and African cultures, then you know they understand the concept of having relationships reversed, which exposes new concepts and dimensions. They understood the power of the conscious and unconscious mind to change the dimensions of the world. The various forces of nature that people developed, that people saw as gods, these elemental forces: the wind, the water, the sun, the moon. They understood how human beings interrelate to those forces. Henry Dumas' work dealt with these changing dimensions, and people who do strange things in realistic situations. It was Surrealism that changed the relationship to things. Dumas influenced Toni Morrison, who was his editor at Random House. He was a strong writer and he went out of here in a tragic way, being murdered by the police. His stories and poems are Afrosurreal, with African psychology imposing these dimensions on reality.

SFBG What brings you to the Bay Area this time around?

AMIRI BARAKA We're doing two sets at Yoshi's with Howard Wiley. Those are the kinds of musical things we have a nice time doing. I hope to bring the poetry and music to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And I'm giving a talk at the library.

SFBG What will you be discussing?

AB Obama and his first 10 months, based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called "We're Already in the Future." I support Obama and I think that the people who supported him initially should keep supporting him because they are forgetting the huge difficulty he faces. This society, they don't want any kind of change. They do not want him, first of all. Only 43 percent of the white people even voted for him, and a lot those people resent the fact that white America is now mulatto. That election proved that it's not white America, it's multinational America, so they've set up this roadblock to almost anything he does.

Anytime you can, you see how doofus Americans are, to oppose their own quality of life improvement, their own health care. They'd rather mope along with little health care or none simply because the corporations have convinced them it's bad for them — it shows you that we have a real education gap in America. Not to mention the racism, which is behind a lot of it, big time.

The people who support Obama need to stand together to fight the right wing. It's the right wing that is the enemy. Those huge corporations including those mouthpieces they have. The media is just absurd, with [Sean] Hannity, [Bill] O'Reilly, [Glenn] Beck, Rush Limbaugh. These guys are just too much. If they're not racist, there is no such thing as racism.

SFBG I know that you spent some time in SF. What are your impressions of our city?

AB I was a visiting professor at San Francisco State for about three or four months, that was the extent of my residency. I like San Francisco. I'm drawn to the vibe there. The last time I was in San Francisco, I was reading at Ferlinghetti's bookstore [City Lights]. Most of my stuff is in Oakland, but whenever I'm in Oakland, I stop by San Francisco.

Seems to me that San Francisco is very expensive, like New York. I live in Newark, N.J., which is 12 miles outside of New York City — it's got that Oakland-San Francisco relationship. When you're dealing with New York, you have that high-rent district all the way around. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but going there and being there are two different things.

SFBG Happy birthday. I know you just turned 75. Any wisdom to impart from three-quarters of a century?

AB I've been 75 for about five days. I can say that you really need to take care of yourself. That's the cliché: "If I knew I was going be this old, I would have taken better care of myself," but it's some better wisdom than what you hear generally.

SFBG What is the role of the artist in the current climate, and what are the tools we can use to bring about social change?

AB The way things work: cause and effect, action and reaction. The '60s and the '70s were a period of intense struggle. The Black Arts Movement and the antiimperialist movement laid the foundation to get Obama elected. But then you get a reaction, and it has been quite evident. Imperialist commerce has taken over the arts. Once we were struggling to get black movies made — now we see what kinds of movies are being made by black people, and they are very backward. Act, react. We have to struggle anew to do something about these backwards elements.

Black people have 27 cities: we need 27 theaters, 27 galleries, 27 periodicals. We need to have poets, rappers, painters, actors struggling to raise the consciousness of the people. That is the role of the artist. Black people still live in these ghettos and these 'hoods. There may be more of a black middle-class, but they often are the ones helping to keep us duped and bamboozled. This is a struggle that has to be. This is reality — like they say, "Keep it real." This is a struggle that has to be.

Foxy lady


Victor Pelevin serves up a sexual odyssey starring russian super werewolves

By D. Scot Miller

www.sfbg.com

Wednesday October 28, 2009

A Hu-Li appears to be your run-of-the-mill lascivious 15-year-old prostitute in modern Russia. She does all the things professionals who cater to the discerning international pedophile do. What are those things? Well, she posts ads on the Internet that read:

"A FAIRY TALE CUM TRUE: Small breasts for big money. A little ginger kitten is waiting for a call from a well-to-do stranger. Classic sex and royal head, anal, petting, bondage, whipping (including the Russian knout), foot fetish, strap-on, sakura branch, lesbo, oral, anal stimulation, cunnilingus (including compulsory), role-swapping, two-way, gold and silver rain, fisting, piercing, catheter, copro, enema, gentle and heavy domination, Mistress and Slave girl services. Face control ... Almost everything. Shag me and forget! If you can ...

In other words, A Hu-Li flagellates the middle-aged intelligentsia who answer her siren's call. She likes riding her bike, loves Nabokov, and is still a bit hung up about being a virgin. Pretty typical right?

How about this? A Hu Li is a 2,000-year-old, shape-shifting werefox from ancient China who uses her bushy tail to hypnotize men and absorb their life force. That grab ya? The title of Victor Pelevin's latest is The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, the increasingly intriguing A-Hu Li is our narrator, and the book has little to do with anything I've just written. A Hu-Li is a member of a race of werefoxes who appear to be 15-year-old girls, when they are in fact neither. They cannot die; do not bathe; and never need to eat food, as long as they can feed on the sexual energy of the "naked apes" they have been doomed to interact with for seemingly all eternity. Their tails enable them to sap the energy of their prey while convincing them that they are fulfilling their greatest sexual fantasies. As such, they gravitate toward sex work, and have since time immemorial. Naturally, thousands of years doing the same thing as civilizations rise and fall can leave an immortal netherworld creature cynical and with a lot of time on her hands. Our narrator fills it by seeking enlightenment. Might as well.

Until she meets Alexander, that is, a Wagner-addicted werewolf who ranks high in the Russian Secret Service. What follows is one of the most hilarious and horrific courtships to come out of the former bloc. But guess what? The Sacred Book of the Werewolf isn't about that, either.

Victor Pelevin may be a literary genius. He is definitely a tricky malcontent. He has written one of the most spiritually satisfying novels ever about wily werefoxes, interspecies sex, kleptocracy, and the joys of methamphetamines. In fewer than 400 pages, he manages touch on the finer points of sages from Nietzsche to Lao Tzu as A-Hu Li and Alexander seek the highest state of their kind ... super werewolf. Sound silly? That's because it is. It's also pretentious, perverse, puerile, and exasperating. Yet none of that stops it from saving your sullied soul. Sticky fur and a dash of satori — what more could you ask for on Halloween ... candy?


D. Scot Miller and giovanni singleton "ascension" & "cool"


giovanni singleton, a former debutant and native of Richmond, VA, is a fan of figs and Greek-style yogurt, and a collector of bookmarks. She is also founding editor of nocturnes (re)view, a journal dedicated to innovative and experimental work of the African Diaspora and other contested spaces.

D. Scot Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist, teacher, curator and a regular contributor to The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Mosaic Magazine and others. He sits on the board of directors of nocturnes (re)view

singleton will read from her recently completed manuscript, ascension, which is informed by the music and life of Alice Coltrane.

D. Scot will read from his manuscript, cool, and selections of his novel, Knot Frum Hear, both of which are very sexy.

Open mic following.

D. Scott Miller:
In what ways does truth - however you define it - enter into your work?

giovanni singleton: Not sure if truth of my own making/definition enters into my work. Such has proven to be a rather nasty stumbling block in previous writing endeavors. The work, I feel, brings a certain truth along with it. And it isn't always pleasant, reasonable, recognizable, or even coherent to me. Honesty and trust are perhaps more my domain.

DSM:Reading your work, particularly ascension, I'm struck by the dream-like nature of your imagery. How do dreams play within your work? How do you capture the ethereal quality of a dream or translate it into something accessible to the reader?

gs: Those are good questions. Tough. I often find playing in the back of my mind the lyrics of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, the last line of which is "Life is but a dream." What I am interested in are ways in which it might be possible to give "dream" and "reality" equal weight and measure. Neither is elevated above the other. I'd like to see/think of them as being both plausible and implausible. I am reminded of the Lankavatara Sutra's words "Things are not as they seem nor or they otherwise." This then dismantles the dualistic relationship between dream and reality. I like that open field. Dreams can be useful when not appended to Hope and Fear which again makes for a field that's open. I think an ethereal quality is somewhat necessary in order to deal with struggle and with its cessation. Impermanence as well as a connection/recognition of something greater than the "I" is also in the language of dream or the ethereal. No real in unreal. No real in real either.

DSM: Boundaries (between artist and subject, reader and writer, subject and object, object and other) sometimes seem to disappear in your larger pieces. Is this intentional or just a by-product of your process?

gs: In most instances in a life, good boundaries are important. Mind the fence. However, it is a big relief when the veil drops away and reveals the interconnectedness that holds the universe together. I wasn't aware that working on larger/longer pieces allowed for this to happen but I suppose it does. It's the removal of excess. Spaciousness is amazing canvas, I think. Erasable too.

Tan Khanh Cao Featured at AAWAA show at SOMArts


As a participating artist in the current AAWAA show at SOMArts, I was asked to write a dedication. The artists were asked to answer "who inspires you? and how"

DEDICATION

My earliest desire to be an artist was wanting to emulate my father. To be like him was to draw him back to me.

I have favorite famous artists- Wifredo Lam, Louise Bourgeois, Picasso, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor-
but the people who inspire me most are the people I know.

I want to live like Paulette Baker, focus like Danny Cao, care like Targol Mesbah, dream like Kaisik Wong, swim like Jade Brooks with the patience of Walter Kitundu, the fire of Ali Dadgar, the thoughtfulness of Peter Maravelis, the tirelessness of Douglas Ewart, the joy of Carei Thomas and the intuition of Paul Yamazaki. I want to paint the music of David Boyce and the poetry of D. Scot Miller.

I am nourished by the brilliance and loving support of my family of friends. Those above, James Earle, Gary Stenger, Julie Lindow, Shashari Kiburi, Elaine Kahn, Juan Fernandez, Tad Coughenour, and of course...my mother.






With Mother (Gayle Morbacher) and Tre' Miller


With Carol of AAWAA





Tre Miller

With Juan Fernandez


With Juan and Tad Coughenour

With Cynthia Tom




See Monsters

It's a Big Machine, it's a mean machine, it's a big, mean story by Victor LaValle

By D. Scot Miller

Wednesday September 2, 2009

REVIEW Naomi Ophelia Lamar was my cousin, but my big sister. Six years older than me, she ran away from home at 16. Though we stayed in touch, too many years of no contact had changed us both. We tried but could never close the distance. Last year, they found her body in a Dumpster in Birmingham, Ala. She'd been stabbed over 30 times. Her husband had done it. Afterward, he drove to the nearest bridge and threw himself off. She was the grandmother of three. I sat in the bathroom screaming, "We are not garbage!"

Bizarre and horrible things happen. They just do. They happen to us, around us, and because of us. Sometimes the horrible things only become horrible on reflection. We liked them at the time. Sometimes the bizarre things become so commonplace that they stop being bizarre. Both bizarre and horrible things become badges of distinction and honor when we survive. When we answer the call and stagger to daylight.

This is the general premise of Victor LaValle's Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau, 284 pages, $25), which opens with a look at Ricky Rice, a middle-aged porter in a bus depot in Utica, N.Y. It's 2005, and the world is about to go broke. Ricky's a downtrodden sanitation worker with a shady past. He's never seen better days, and none seem to be forthcoming. That is, until he receives a mysterious note reminding him of The Promise he made: a one-way bus ticket to Vermont's northeast kingdom. On the bus to the frigid north, we hear LaValle's refrain from an alcoholic goblin on a tear to his captive audience: "Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like ..."

The ellipsis just dangles, from the book's first section on. As the events of Big Machine unfolded, I realized that that very phrase, and that very ellipsis, had been hanging from my lips since last year. It is the jump-off point for Lavalle's book, and as we travel with Ricky Rice — alongside him, but also inside his mind as it seeks justification and reason — we begin to understand why.

Big Machine is a crafty book. Every page is a precise and illuminating reveal — a large veil playfully lifted from the reader's initial conceptions of black/white, good/evil, and ultimately, salvation. Each chapter is a possible spoiler. A tough job for the reviewer, to be sure. Especially one who has been anticipating such a novel (and working on such a novel) for years.

Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown worlds: Ricky is recruited, along with six other recovering addicts and petty criminals to become a paranormal investigator. All of them have heard The Voice at the deep bottom of their shoddy existences and answered it with The Promise. Like generations of wretched of the earth before them, they are inducted into a secret society of "negros" ("I won't say African Americans," says Rice, "it's too damn long") to find The Voice and figure out what it wants.

From cleaning out bathroom stalls in work boots and T-shirts, Ricky becomes a dandy, wearing the finest clothes that the 1940s and 1950s could provide. Fitted in the best vines, he makes his way to (where else?) the Bay Area to confront a murder-suicide cult, and his own monstrous past.

Far from a standard dry examination of doubt and faith, Lavalle's allegorical approach is sweeping and swashbuckling. Big Machine takes us from Ricky's idyllic childhood — sweet as saccharine, with a black tar of burn — to his romantic nadir, dying in a puddle of piss and shit in the basement of a house owned by a man named Murder.

LaValle has named Shirley Jackson and Ambrose Pierce as influences, along with those he calls "the Black Eccentrics": Ishmael Reed, Gayle Jones, Darth Vader. His approach to gothic horror adds black Black humor and a new element of ferocity to the AfroSurreal aesthetic.

There's a lot of tearing in this book. Flesh is peeled, pried, burned, punctured. Torture plays a prominent role. Children are exploited, souls are gnawed away, and spirits are broken. Bullets fly, bodies are wrenched, mauled, mutilated and discarded — so much so that Lavalle's main refrain takes on greater weight when it reappears, in extended form, from the mouth of one of Big Machine's main characters. "Human beings are no damn good!," the character says. "The despised become the despicable. God Damn! We worse than animals! We're like monsters."

Monsters. Big Machine has those too. Some wear suits, some wear shawls, some move between the shadows with vise-grip hands. The story is neither miserable nor grotesque, and it is proof of LaValle's genius that sympathy and forgiveness extends to the whole pitiful lot.

I've been following LaValle since I read his 1999 short story collection Slapboxing With Jesus (which takes its title from a Ghostface Killah quote), and followed it up by reading 2003's The Ecstatic (which in turn inspired Mos Def to title his latest album the same). Mos Def contributed a blurb to Big Machine, and the book's blurbs are telling: according to them, LaValle is Marquez mixed with Poe, or Marakami mixed with Ellison, or Bosch having a baby with Lenny Bruce. But I feel they all miss the mark — I'm here to tell you that Victor LaValle is a believer in the unseen world. He has been there, and what he has brought back has affirmed my belief too. Yes, there are monsters out there, and what's an AfroSurrealist supposed to do?

"I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight," says Ricky. "But we're not going to do that."

Sweetest Taboo


Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship"

By D. Scot Miller

PREVIEW The taboo has always had a special place in my heart. As a pre-adolescent, I was given a list of banned books from a rogue librarian and I hunted down and read every one of them. It may have seemed odd to find an 11-year-old black boy reading the likes of John Rechy's City of Night (Grove, 1963) and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (Olympia/Grove, 1959), but these verboten tomes, along with the librarian's free beer and porn, served as an illicit gateway out of my little coal-mining town into the larger, lustier world. If not for the innocence-stealing pederast posing as the coolest adult I knew, I might still be in that town, feeling like I was missing something but never knowing what. In short, banned books saved my life: I never would have read a single one had they not been banned.

That's why it's exciting, even titillating, that the San Francisco Center for the Book, in collaboration with the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, presents "Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship." The 63 installation, multimedia, and graphic artists showcased at the two sites don't so much address the issue of banned books as celebrate their favorites, which happened to have been banned somewhere at one time or another — and what great book hasn't? Among those praising the forbidden at the Center for the Book are Enrique Chagoya, who offers a 2000 diptych to Burroughs, and ex–Black Panther propagandist Emory Douglas, who brings Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) to light.

MIXING IT UP: TAKING ON THE MEDIA BULLIES

Ishmael Reed

Da Capo Press

320 pages

$15.95

Ishmael Reed is one of the most prolific writers, seers, and pundits of the 20th and 21st centuries. The author of nine novels, six books of poetry, six plays, and four books of political essays has been a constant presence and persistent thorn in the sides of various official experts. What I love about Reed is his refusal to be classified, stereotyped, or labeled. From his first book, 1967's wildly experimental Freelance Pallbearers, through a turbulent and often silly surge of academic quarrels, he has shared his vision with bravado and courage.

His latest book of political essays continues his crusade for mother-wit in the face of a consistently homogenized culture, whether through an insightful interview with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, or writing that tackles America's anti-black lending practices. Reed's take is plainspoken and no-nonsense, yet an element of whimsy seems to permeate even the most uncomfortable subjects.

In an essay about the Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant trials, for example, his observation about hip-hop "pimp-culture" is that "Blacks are just as incompetent in this area of crime as they are in all others. Nearly four hundred years on this continent and not a single Martha Stewart or Ken Lay."

The only drawback of this book is that I get the impression that Reed is spending too much time in front of the television. It's rumored that he has several sets stacked one on top of another so he can watch them simultaneously.


De La Soul is alive

Two takes on 3 Feet High and Rising, 20 years later

By D. Scot Miller and Mosi Reeves


CHECK ONE Last night, I played De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros., 1989) for the first time in years. I couldn't stop laughing.

It was a surprise, even though I always knew that much of De La Soul's early appeal rested on its humor. Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer spelled "soundsop" backwards; Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur loved yogurt. (He's pictured eating yogurt in the album's liner notes.) They complained about style biters who dug "Potholes in My Lawn"; and called their loopy, circuitous jams "Plug Tunin'." There were references to soap, water, and Luden's cough drops. In the first of several "game show" skits that bookended the album, Trugoy remarked that his favorite film was the 1976 sex-and-torture spectacle Bloodsucking Freaks. Twenty years later, De La Soul's private language — or, to be accurate, "DA Inner Sound Y'all (D.A.I.S.Y. Age)" — still sounds fresh and crazily absurd.

Mainstream rock critics, suspicious of all that hippity-hop stuff, welcomed 3 Feet with restrained praise at first: Rolling Stone, in one of its historic blunders, only gave the album three stars while acknowledging it as "one of the most original rap albums ever." The yellow-and-turquoise-daisies album art and MTV hype obscured De La Soul's sharply intelligent sendups of go-go ("Do As De La Does") and rap clichés ("Take It Off," which parodied the then-ubiquitous "Funky Drummer" loop). Today, irony is so entrenched in the Generation X-Y-and-Zero lexicon that we forget how pleasurable it is when it's done right.

Unfortunately, the good vibes quickly turned sour. Shortly after the album's release, De La Soul ended an Arsenio Hall appearance with "Ain't Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie," a refrain first voiced on "Me, Myself and I." The 1991 follow-up De La Soul is Dead offered a smashed flowerpot and tales of how the crew nearly got kicked off LL Cool J's tour for fighting, just to prove that, hey, they ain't no punks. Goofy odes to weed-smoking jostled uneasily with cautionary tales of child abuse and murder. The playful spirit of hip-hop's so-called golden age was gone, another casualty in the oncoming storm of street realism and gangster aesthetics. (Mosi Reeves)

CHECK TWO I'd dug "Plug Tunin'" when I chanced across it on a mixtape from somewhere. This flow — this new style of speak — was shrouded in slang, occulted, and backed by a sound collage that seemed conjured from a basement where a rusty Victrola played the memories of an old man nodding off in his Lay-Z-Boy.

My boys hated that song. I loved it, but I didn't "get it." Armed with more fashion-sense than any of us knew what to do with, Marlon looked over at me and said, "You really like these Oklahoma muthafuckas?" Yes I did. Brothers was dope. From Strong Island, and dope. Rakim dope.

One Sunday, I was cleaning up my place to 3 Feet High and Rising and ran across a roach in an ashtray. Sprawled out on the couch watching the sun stream through my dirty windows, I "got" De La Soul. Every word was deciphered. It felt as if I'd learned a new language, or remembered an old one.

Things changed after that.

The 20th anniversary of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising is a cause for celebration. Anyone else feeling vindicated?

Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer, David "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent "PA Mase" Mason have chronicled the last 20 years through nine studio albums and countless production credits (Camp Lo, Gorillaz and MF DOOM among them). Prince Paul produced them, and in turn their popularity produced Prince Paul. They introduced a sleeping world to the black gale known as Mos Def.

De La is coming back to San Francisco. Witness genius at work. (D. Scot Miller)

Props to p-r-o-p-s


Behold The Invisible!

Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest. It is our job to uncover it. We strive for rococo: the beautiful, the sensuous, and the whimsical by restoring the cult of the past, revisiting old ways with new eyes.

Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion.
Hybridization is a form of disobedience.
Music Afrosurreal expresses this overflow.

-D. Scot Miller

D. Scot Miller is a Bay Area writer, visual artist, teacher, curator. He sits on the board of directors of nocturnes review, and is a regular contributor to The East Bay Express, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Popmatters, and Mosaic Magazine. He is completing a book of poems, his Afro-surreal novel, Knot Frum Hear, and has recently published his old fashioned manifesto simply titled: AfroSurreal.

Cover Art “Knot Frum Hear” by Tan Khanh Cao
propsRadio • AFRO-SURREAL
The Art Ensemble of Chicago "Nfamoudou-Boudougou" Bap-Tizum (Atlantic)
Erykah Badu "Danger" Worldwide Underground (Motown)
Handsome Boy Modeling School feat. Miho Hatori & Mike D. "Metaphysical" So... How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy)
Sun Ra "Exotic Forest" Nothing Is... (Free Jazz)
The Broun Fellinis "Q Phlat" Aphrokubist Improvisations Vol. 9 (Moonshine)
Anti-Pop Consortium "Silver Heat" Arrhythmia (Warp)
Ghostface Killah "Apollo Kids" Supreme Clientele (Razor Sharp)
Fishbone "Freddie's Dead" Truth And Soul (Columbia)
Mike Ladd "Sleep Patterns Of Black Expatriots Circa 1960" Negrophilia (Thirsty Ear)

iTunes Podcast

Eight tracks every week from original vinyl sources for your listening pleasure
MAGNA-VOX

That dot of light,

on the television,
right after you
turn it
off.

Align with the single star
boxed in the mighty voice

jackpot orbs and cubes
fill black cashmere sacks with glowing
blue brims

we remove the mirrored funnel,
open the beaten and stamped package
wrapped in copper.
smear cobalt across our palms.

snippets of paper crinkles
feet shuffling sand, on wood,
on granite,
a guttural wail
of shuddering light rails with
teeth mashing.

What worlds exist through
the pinhole?

Did you ever place your pupil
flat the screen?

Just your memory now.

Black Water Rising


A DISTANT MEMORY

In Attica Locke's Black Water Rising, the surprises extend beyond suspense

By D. Scot Miller

For San San Francisco Bay Guardian

Wednesday June 3, 2009

REVIEW I was cautious when I got the galley for Attica Locke's first novel Black Water Rising (Harper, 448 pages, $25.99). I'd been intrigued before by beguiling plots of intrigue and suspense, only to find myself in the middle of a tepid affair with no way out except for closing the damn thing and chalking it up to yet another life lesson. All the warning signs were there.

The book's protagonist, Jay Porter, is an attorney operating out of a Houston strip mall in 1981. His only client is a shady prostitute, who may or may not pay him. His wife, Bernie, is pregnant and he's barely making ends meet to feed them, much less the baby who's on the way. Though not happy with his mediocre existence, he's content enough with his lot to be strong-willed and determined to make it.

Jay has a terrible secret, of course, that threatens to tear the world he has meticulously built asunder. And one fateful night, something happens that sets the unraveling in motion. He saves a mysterious woman's life and places himself in the middle of a plot rife with sex, backroom deals, and dirty cash that will determine his fate and that of Houston, Texas, and eventually, the world!

"Easy, big fella. Easy," I told myself. "You've been hurt before." I saw the signs, as much as any reader would. I saw a Grisham story. I saw a Leonard tale. I knew I was being seduced, but I couldn't put the book down. The first chapters hooked me like classic mid-list pulp — a phenomenon I miss like pay phones — and it took a minute to realize what Attica Locke was doing.

It wouldn't be a spoiler to tell Jay Porter's secret. He did time for running guns during the Black Power movement. This was during the days of J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program, when black dissidents' phones were tapped, dossiers were amassed, and organizations were infiltrated. Jay Porter the strip mall lawyer has a legitimate cause to be paranoid. This kind of justified paranoia plagues many of the resisters who managed to survive the bloodbaths of the 1960s and 1970s social movements. Lensed through Porter's claustrophobia, grandiosity, and self-deprecation, demons lurk in every dark corner. As the plot unfolds, the first thing that disappears from view is a tangible reality, one free from dark fantasy and delusion. Jay Porter may be nuts. Then again, maybe not.

Locke, a veteran screenwriter, has an almost supernatural understanding of pacing. This aids her well in storytelling, but even more so in figuring out where to work her magic. Her early 1980s Houston is a city on the verge of Texas-sized change. Porter is asked by his preacher father-in-law to work with the dockworkers union that meets in his church. The black dockworkers are being paid less than the white workers who do the same job. A split in the union along race lines is imminent. A battle between the warring workers breaks out after a young man is beaten. A greater impetus is revealed: the arrival of containers. These containers, it is threatened, will be used on barge, train, and truck, nearly rendering dockworkers obsolete. Jay Porter is asked to speak to the mayor — a "friend" from his revolutionary past — on behalf of the workers. Simultaneously he tries to uncover the identity of the mysterious woman he saved.

This is the one drawback in an otherwise stellar debut. Jay Porter has too much going on. So much that suspension of belief is pulled to the breaking point. So much that many characters who are vital to the plot get unbelievably overlooked. When the Porters' home is burglarized, for example, Jay leaves his pregnant wife in the house to pursue a lead on one of his cases. When a tough offers Porter money to not pursue another lead, he does it anyway — out of, what, morbid curiosity? The mayor of Houston and many of the other characters are so full, rich, and singular that it is baffling and frustrating when someone as essential as Bernie becomes a bit player in Jay's solipsistic pursuit. Is Jay Porter crazy, or just an asshole?

Black Water Rising reads like a hard-boiled thriller, but the real trick resides in Locke's ability to personalize an overlooked part of American history and show how far-reaching, how entrenched, it is in today's social, political, and cultural fabric. From running the voodoo down on the Weather Underground to using 1980s Houston as a backdrop, she wraps a People's History of America in a digestible, entertaining package. There are whiffs of Chinatown and White Butterfly, sure, but Locke's attention to the details between the action makes the novel, and turns every reader into an oracle.

As Jay solves this book's mysteries, we see pre-Dubya America getting dubbed. We see the sprawl that is yet to be. We see the unions breaking, the factories shutting down, the diners, bars, and cafes closing. We see the Black Water Rising. I may not want to see too much more of Jay Porter, but I better see more of Attica Locke.

Now you see him

A last look at "William Kentridge: Five Themes"

By D. Scot Miller

For San Francisco Bay Guardian

It takes a lot to get your head around William Kentridge. His nebulous existence in the world of modern art makes him a slippery figure, able to exist between things we can name. Though he is an internationally known South African artist who works in etches, collages, sculptures, and performance (SFMOMA recently presented his rendition of Monteverdi's opera The Return of Ulysses), he is best known for his "cartoons."

As on view in the current exhibition "William Kentridge: Five Themes," Kentridge's animated drawings are sublime, provocative, and mesmerizing. He films a charcoal drawing, and by making slight changes using erasures for light and depth and then repeating the process, he tells profound stories about oppression, deterioration, and social justice — in less than 10 minutes. He later shows the drawings with the films as finished pieces. His mastery of drawing is magical. It can cloud judgment. We see William Kentridge; we do to not see William Kentridge.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (Yale University Press, 264 pages, $50), the monograph accompanying the current SFMOMA exhibit, suggests the breadth of Kentridge's contributions — from opera set design to printmaking — and the depth of his explorations. Versed in opera, Kentridge centers much of his work on the form's classic themes but updates, twists, and transforms them to speak of his native South Africa and current social conditions. Editor Mark Rosenthal mixes Kentridge's commentary, plates, sketches, and photos with writers' explorations of his process and purpose. Not quite a microscope, the result is more like a pair of tweezers, bringing the reader-viewer closer to someone who loves the word erasure.



Well-Suited

AFRO-SURREAL: Ronald K. Brown steps into Nick Cave's creations

By Rita Felciano

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Wednesday May 20, 2009

a&eletters@sfbg.com

AFRO-SURREAL Why would you commission a choreographer for a work featuring performers stuck into costumes that hide their bodies? This anomaly didn't deter the 69 dancers who, in late April, auditioned at ODC Commons for a world premiere by Ronald K. Brown. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts wanted a site-specific piece to go with its current exhibition of Nick Cave's wearable sculptures, "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" — and Bay Area dancers jumped at the chance to work with one of today's most thoughtfully intriguing choreographers.

Brown, who initially had wanted to become a journalist, found his way into dance almost serendipitously. Though he'd been fascinated with researching and writing articles on the way people lived their lives, dance allowed him to do that more indirectly, and also more deeply. He called his company Evidence because of his belief that we are products of the things that have shaped us — our culture, our roots, our families. The dry legal term "evidence" poorly suggests the physically and emotionally rich dances that have earned such a wide following for this modern dance artist, whose choreography is influenced by West African cultures. (Brown brings his company to YBCA Feb. 18-21, 2010)

Amara Tabor-Smith, a former 10-year member of Urban Bush Women, will perform in the Cave project. She doesn't think of Brown as a fusion artist. "The way I see him is that he modernized West African dance," she explained a few days after the tryouts. But her depth of admiration comes from a recognition that Brown's work is "infused with spirit." She made it as one of 13 dancers although she auditioned primarily to "soak up his energy and give energy in return."

Brown, who knew and admired Cave's evocative sculptures from afar, became interested in this project partly because of an experience at the Seattle Art Museum, where he encountered a diorama of African costumes and masks displayed on life-size figures.

"I would talk to the person with me, then slightly turn my head, and there were [the figures]. After a while I almost couldn't tell who was who," he explained. Being aware of a mask's mysterious power to hide as well as to reveal, he nonetheless also told the dancers he wasn't going to turn them into witch doctors or shamans because "we live in America, in a contemporary society."

Brown also insists he did not want to "collaborate" with Cave but wanted to have "his own dream." Since the suits in the actual exhibit are too delicate for performance, he chose a set made from raffia, the natural fiber prevalent in West African dance. Though visually different, they also allow one to sense rather than see the body. Being quite heavy, they may restrict a dancer's movement. During the audition, the choreographer worked with shuffling steps and close-to-the-body arms. He also worked on phrases from Orisha dances and Sabar steps from Senegal ("a kind of social street dance," according to Tabor-Smith.) There may be little or no music, perhaps only the sound of the dancers' feet and the whoosh-whoosh of raffia.

Speaking from Ireland last week, where he was setting work, Brown wouldn't commit himself to the length of the piece but revealed that, though it was originally planned for the galleries only, it would encompass YBCA's lobby area as well. "There will be a guide to take the dancers and the audience on a journey, so that whatever feelings we have, you also have — or it hasn't happened."

RONALD K. BROWN/NICK CAVE

May 28, 7 p.m.; May 30–31, 3 p.m.,

free with gallery admission ($5–$7)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

Wednesday May 20, 2009

The cult of Fanaka

AFRO-SURREAL: A filmmaker reflects on his groundbreaking career

By Cheryl Eddy

Wednesday May 20, 2009

San Francisco Bay Guardian

cheryl@sfbg.com

AFRO-SURREAL Visitors to filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka's MySpace page are greeted with a clip of Snoop Dogg clutching a pile of Fanaka DVDs — 1975's Welcome Home Brother Charles, a.k.a. Soul Vengeance; 1976's Emma Mae, a.k.a. Black Sister's Revenge; 1979's Penitentiary; and 1982's Penitentiary II. He quotes some choice lines and enthusiastically sings the director's praises: "These movies right here — this is black history."

When I mention Snoop Dogg to Fanaka, he's delighted. "All the rappers love me," he says over the phone from Los Angeles. "Also actors, like Eddie Murphy. The first time I ran into him, he was with his brother, and they recited [a scene from Penitentiary] verbatim. That happens all the time."

The Fanaka library (which also includes 1987's Penitentiary III and 1992's Street Wars) has also earned a following among cult-movie fans. "I love that they're cult films, because of what a 'cult film' means: the film lives because the people want it to live," he explains. He's not a fan of the term "blaxploitation" — though it's commonly applied to his films — due to its connotations.

"There were companies that were very profitable, and all they made were 'exploitation' films, which meant that they made low-budget films on subjects that Hollywood didn't want to take on," he says. "It only became a negative term once they put that prefix 'blax' on it. No black filmmaker ever liked that term, though it was coined by a black publicist. 'Blaxploitation' has evolved into a genre, like a horror film, or an action film. But black filmmakers still resent the term because of its origins."

Born in Mississippi, raised in L.A., Fanaka says was distracted from committing a crime by a pair of UCLA recruiters who made him believe he could realize his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker. ("They asked me, did I want to go to UCLA? I said, 'Yeah. I'd like to go to the moon, too, but my chances of getting there are pretty minuscule.'") He was eventually accepted into the school's prestigious film program, where he also earned a master's degree; his peers included Charles Burnett, who directed 1977's Killer of Sheep.

"It was an exciting time to be a black filmmaker," Fanaka says. "People like Charles Burnett were part of my film crew, I was part of his film crew. We helped each other, advised each other. Those were the halcyon days of filmmaking at UCLA."

Even more notably, "I'm the only person in the history of filmmaking to write, produce, direct, and get theatrical distribution for three feature films I made as part of my curriculum at the UCLA film school," Fanaka says. He shot his first feature, Welcome Home Brother Charles, on the weekends when he didn't have class.

"I felt like, if I had access to all of this equipment, and the wherewithal to make a 10-minute film, why not make a whole feature?" he recalls. "I wanted to reach the widest audience possible, and no matter how good a short film is, the audience is going to be limited. Then I went on to graduate school and I made Emma Mae and Penitentiary."

This kind of determination also extended to Fanaka's fundraising efforts. His parents invested their life savings into his work (good call — Penitentiary, Fanaka says, was the most successful indie film of 1980), but he wondered why he was rejected for a grant by the American Film Institute. He did some research and learned that only one African American had ever been a part of the grant-awarding committee. "I wanted to give minorities a shot," he says, so he wrote a letter to then-Sen. Alan Cranston suggesting that the committee should be more diverse. The next grant cycle, he got the money to help make Emma Mae; the following cycle, he served on the committee. "That goes to show you how the squeaking wheel gets the oil," he remembers, proudly.

In less-tenacious hands, there'd certainly be no Welcome Home Brother Charles. "White slave owners used to tell white women horror stories about the size of the black males' sexual equipment," Fanaka explains. "But rather than frightening the white females, it intrigued them. I wanted to make a film that took that myth and exaggerated it to show how ridiculous it was, and I chose to do it in a very surreal, powerful scene."

(Note to readers who haven't seen the film: uh, think 1997's Anaconda. The entire Penitentiary series is also a gold mine of surreal moments, particularly part three, which features a prison-dwelling, crack-smoking, snarling killer dwarf. Fanaka sums up that film in one word: "feral.")

Now in his late 60s, Fanaka has been slowed in his efforts to make Penitentiary IV by complications from diabetes. He's also been working for the last decade on a music documentary, Hip Hop Hope. It's an apt title for a film by Fanaka, who calls himself "a very optimistic person." He's enjoyed the resurgence of interest in his work, with screenings at places like San Francisco's Dead Channels Film Festival and Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, and frequent airings of the Penitentiary films on cable.

"My most artistic film, in my estimation, was Welcome Home Brother Charles, because I had no axes to grind but to try and use the medium of cinema to attack that myth, and attack it in a way that was quote-unquote artistic. Of course, very few people took that from it because that one scene kind of colors the whole film," he chuckles. "But I think as time goes by, people are gonna realize the value of these films I've made and begin to understand them."


Black Man in the Cosmos

AFRO-SURREAL: All hail an interplanetary stream of Sun Ra reissues

By Garrett Caples

San Francisco Bay Guardian

Wednesday May 20, 2009

AFRO-SURREAL "The Black Man in the Cosmos" wasn't among the course offerings when I attended the University of California-Berkeley. The class was taught once, in 1971, by musician/composer Sun Ra (1914-93), whose lectures might include topics like the outer space origins of ancient Egypt, conceptualized as a black African culture. This cosmic tradition has a long history, particularly in Chicago, where Ra lived from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, and where Elijah Muhammad used it as the founding mythos of the Nation of Islam. Ra claimed to have influenced the NOI, though he rejected its conclusions, much as he would later criticize the Black Power movement he helped foster as too materialist.

Ra's "Black Man" lectures — one of which recently surfaced on The Creator of the Universe (Transparency, 2007) — epitomize why he wasn't taken seriously for so long. Critics who appreciated the severity of Ornette Coleman or the ferocity of Albert Ayler couldn't accommodate the mischievous mysticism of a man who claimed to come from Saturn. Instead of playing the role of brooding artiste, Ra favored extravagant showmanship, cloaking ultimately stern spiritual messages in language as absurd as the science-fictional garb worn by his Arkestra. His strategies included Joycean deformations of words based on false etymologies and sound play. "Arkestra" itself characteristically mixes the spiritual (Ark of the Covenant) with the quotidian. According to John Szwed's definitive 1998 biography, Space is the Place, this was how "orchestra" was pronounced in Ra's native Birmingham, Ala.

Yet the strangeness of Ra's music may have been the biggest stumbling block. His prodigious output is extremely diverse, continually violating unquestioned dichotomies. A product of the 1930s big band scene, when he led an orchestra under his terrestrial name Herman "Sonny" Blount, Ra was at the forefront of free jazz, yet he shocked fans and foes alike when, at its height, he began incorporating tight arrangements of swing classics by Fletcher Henderson, Ellington, and others into his sound.

Ra's lifelong interest in synthesizers — there's a photo of him with a primitive one in 1941(!) — developed into a command of pure sound. He adapted his style to the nuances of a particular keyboard. The 1970 recording Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic, 2007), for instance, is a quartet disc on which he plays baroque runs on the Rocksichord, a 1960s electric harpsichord. The 1978 recording Disco 3000 (Art Yard, 2008), a live quartet performance, features Ra's organ-like drones on the obscure, loop-enabled Crumar Mainman. Unlike some synth wizards, Ra was a virtuoso pianist, with a lightning-fast right hand and a left hand that seemingly bounced around of its own volition. While unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm, Ra's ambidextrous precision and unorthodox chord voicings — he was unafraid to mash the keys with his forearm — place him among the top players of his time. If he'd worn a suit and stuck to piano, he'd be ranked with the likes of Art Tatum, as is evident from his previously-unreleased recital Solo Piano: Teatro la Fenice Venizia (Golden Years, 2003), possibly the best such recording.

Big bands remained Ra's ideal, though they were giving way to smaller bop combos by the time he formed the Arkestra in the mid-'50s. Yet his insularity resulted in some of his most original works, discs that defy generic categories, like 1963's reverb-drenched, proto-psychedelic Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (Evidence, 1992), 1965's percussive, minimalist Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, v. 1 (Esp, 2006), or 1967's Strange Strings (Atavistic, 2007), on which the Arkestra, with no prior experience, plays various non-Western stringed instruments, accompanied by bells, tympani, sheet-metal lightning.

While the atonal Strings may be Ra's least typical album, it embodies two of his main concerns. On the one hand, he was a tone colorist in the Romantic tradition, seeking unusual instrumentation to produce unique shades. But as that album's untutored string section suggests, he was a highly conceptual composer — garnering attention from John Cage and others — known for arranging and conducting collective improvisation. Traditional/avant-garde, inside/outside: such oppositions didn't exist for Ra, who even explored a "low" genre like disco on 1980's tongue-in-cheek On Jupiter (Art Yard, 2008).

The bewildering amount of Sun Ra reissues stems from his habit of self-recording, which also dates from the 1940s. Had he not done so, albums like Strings and Cosmic Tones wouldn't have been recorded. Nor would they have been released without his forming El Saturn Records, among the earliest artist-run labels. Given that his technological futurism seemed to stem from his preoccupation with outer space, Ra's artistic achievements are perhaps inextricably bound to his cosmic consciousness. As with Prince, artistic activity was driven by extramusical concerns, which, if they result in an occasional lapse in "good taste," nonetheless are the ingredients that elevate Ra from artistic excellence to genius. This genius may not have given him more than a subsistence living, but it has made him immortal. Unless, of course, as an inhabitant of Saturn, he already was.