Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crossposting from Ile Oxumare: SNCC's Rap

This essay originally appeared on one of my music blogs.

This is a very special album I've been saving for a special occasion. It goes up with a shout-out to Reza's Flying Dutchman Discography blog, where some other great spoken-word pieces from the same period can be found.

This is an artifact of a lost time. It's not, sad to say, really a collaboration between black revolutionary H. Rap Brown and spiritual jazz vocalist Leon Thomas. It is a completely un-musical speech by Brown interspersed with brief excerpts of Thomas in concert, recorded five months apart. An excerpt from Julius Lester's original liner notes helps explain the concept:

"This record is augmented by the sound and words of Leon Thomas and what more can be said behind that? He adds another dimension to the concepts articulated by Rap, showing the roots from which we've come, and all the variations therein.... Brother Brown and Brother Thomas are saying the same thing, only with different weapons. There is no better example of a brother functioning in the struggle on the level he happens to be on than Leon Thomas. He has turned his voice into a revolutionary weapon. And, that's what it's all about."

I have waxed ecstatic elsewhere about Leon Thomas. The songs here are among the few overtly political ones he sang, Damn Nam being a direct call to resist the immorality which was US aggression on Vietnam.

I feel, on the cusp of turning a significant milestone of years in my life, privileged to have lived as witness to history: as participant in all that has happened over the years in the US in my lifetime. When I was a boy in Chicago, my fairly progressive parents exposed me to the struggles for social justice including the struggle against that horrible war. Racism was one of the evils my parents taught me, in their own ways, to fight against. Yet if my mother thought me listening to pretty, black and non-threatening women like Diana Ross and the Supremes was cute, she was somewhat horrified over me listening to raw and somehow threatening black men like James Brown and the Temptations. Such were the limits of progressive white consciousness in the sixties.

Which brings us to H. Rap Brown. My parents, like a generation of liberal white people, greatly admired the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, as well they should have. He was a true hero who gave his life for all of our freedom. But my parents drew some invisible line in their perceptions of social justice. Heroes like Malcolm X, and the younger generation that followed like Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, the Panthers, these were somehow threatening to my parents in their militancy, their embrace of a vision not just of brotherly love but of revolution. H. Rap Brown was, to them, the "scary" African-American revolutionary, scary because he was not talking to white Americans about trying to get along, but to fellow African-Americans about how to take things into their own hands and do for themselves what needed to be done. (In the speech recorded here Brown directly addresses white people who want to know what they can do to help: he suggests they douse themselves in gasoline, light it, and jump on President Nixon. It's a laugh line, but it makes his point.) Nina Simone was perhaps more gentle in a similar vein where on one of her records she says "this song is not against white people, it simply ignores you." The whites in her audience laughed nervously.

Brown's speech here is inflammatory and revolutionary, but it's extremely thoughtful and well-reasoned. Listening to his words now one is immediately struck by the volume of water that has flowed under this bridge. It inspires in me, at least, many mixed emotions. Is his world, the world of 1969, actually gone? How much has changed and how much of what he says is still relevant? Brown gets it right when he says "everything that happens in your life is political." And he goes on to say "you have to understand the difference between concepts and individuals," meaning you can't make your political choices based on whether you like certain people but you have to listen to what they say. Surely that resonates today. His analysis of capitalism and injustice is as striking as his call to confront it. But the revolutionary movement Brown helped lead, it failed, ending in tragedy or dissipation. So many years of Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes have changed the landscape so deeply, not all of the changes bad ones. And truly, as a white person listening to his words, I hold out hope that we in fact are better off throwing our lot together and building a society that is respectful of cultural differences but merciless in its opposition to racism, injustice and inequality.

The American presidential election is at this writing in just over a week. In it an African-American Democrat (younger than me, I might point out, making him a child when this record was made) is opposed by a white conservative Republican who was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam at the time this record was made. And so the special occasion causing me to present this record, this unique political moment in time, is actually the depth of irony. H. Rap Brown converted to Islam in the early 1970s, served time in Attica in the '70s, and is today imprisoned for allegedly shooting a policeman. Do the politics of today and the passage of time negate or prove Brown's words? Are there warnings here from a forgotten past or just a slice of oral history?

I'm hopeful that it is Barack Obama who wins our election in a few short days. He is most certainly not a revolutionary in the stride of H. Rap Brown. But at the same time I cannot but hope that the miracle of an African-American winning the highest political office in the U.S. and what I hope is the rejection of Bush's legacy brings us in some way closer to lasting fairness, justice, and peace. As Leon Thomas sings here, "No one can help you, it's all up to you."

Recommending further reading & listening:
* The Magic of Juju blog's post on this record,
* Die Nigger Die, H. Rap Brown's autobiography on the great History Is A Weapon website.
* Check out the Angela Davis, Stanley Crouch and Rosko/Pete Hammill My Lai Massacre recordings at the Flying Dutchman blog.

The original post with track details and a download link can be found here.

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