Thursday, May 7, 2015

Artistic Expression

            The entire world is busy. There is much to lament in the world at large and much to lament in the sub sectors of humanity, the different: races, regions, genders, and religions each have their woes. Each woe, without argument, is valid and I make no argument either, for how each sub-section of humanity chooses to address its problems or celebrate its victories. To some degree, humans must act as humans of one voice on the behalf of all other humans, but we have not arrived yet at human unity undeterred by our division of nationality and all that we have conceived to separate us. Humanity will be victorious when we can describe ourselves as human and all other labels have become antiquated.
            The longest ongoing struggle for freedom and equality in the United States has been in the Black community; in all aspects of life. Some parts of the community have become steadily more successful while other parts have lagged behind. The levels of poverty, incarceration, high school drop-out rates, violent crimes, unemployment and under employment are all highest in the distressed Black communities, here-after referred to as the inner-cities. Bridging the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the Black community is the responsibility of those who have the intellect, talent and resources to invest.
Let us be concerned here about the African-American youth in the inner-cities. For the sake of clarity and transparency, let me say that I am a product of the place I describe and for that reason have pledged my allegiance to the wellness and ultimate success of my tribe, particularly the youth who are currently suffering from a lack of consciousness. The youth are not aware of their greatness and are consequently not living up to their potential. Their lives have taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction where pain, sickness, poverty, violence and death await them. These are common themes in the inner-cities. Some of us have successfully navigated the tormenting highs and lows of inner-city living, but have failed to return to the tribe as mentors. We suffer from the erroneously celebrated idea of individualism which contributes nothing to the collective progress of the tribe. We have no unity. Dr. Maulana Karenga, our elder tribesman, has written, “The battle we are waging now is the battle for the minds of Black people, and if we lose this battle, we cannot win the violent one. It becomes very important then, that art plays the role it should play in Black survival.” The battle he refers to requires tribal unity. Without unity, we have no chance of claiming victory over the battle for the minds of black people.
            One might argue that other ‘more important’ tools are imperative in the battle for Black minds, namely revolutionary improvements in the areas of education, economics, government (both internal and external), public safety, and health. Such an argument, from this author, would be well received. Let us agree that the fore-mentioned list is flawless and concentrate our attention on the addition to that list, artistic expression without which there is no beauty.
            Dr. W.E.B Dubois in a 1926 address to an audience gathered by the NAACP to honor Carter Godwin Woodson, author of The Mis- Education of the Negro, said, “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization which has come up out of the blood and dust of battle, struggling for the right of black men to be ordinary human beings- how is it that an organization of this kind turn aside to talk about Art?... after all this talk about rights and fighting to sit and dream of something which leaves a nice taste in the mouth.”  He went on to say in support of artistic expression that Art represents, “a forward and an upward look- a pushing upward.” Since Art is a tool that pushes up, it needs to be employed in the service of inner-city youth. There is neither a need nor desire to withhold any tool that pushes upward.
Like any tool, it is possible to misuse artistic expression for its intended application of progressing inner- city youth upward. We are not, to be clear, discussing art for art’s sake. We are discussing what Larry Neal describes as, “art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America” in his 1968 essay The Black Arts Movement. Neal’s essay was concerned about the relationship between art and politics. As an example, Neal quoted Amiri Baraka discussing the Black Arts theatre.
“Our theatre will show victims so that their bothers in the audience will be better able to understand that they are the brothers of victims, and that they themselves are blood brothers. And what we show must cause the blood to rush, so that prerevolutionary temperaments will be bathed in this blood, and it will cause their deepest souls to move, and they will find themselves tensed and clenched, even ready to die, at what the soul has been taught. We will scream and cry, murder, run through the streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be. We are preaching virtue and feeling, and a natural sense of the self in the world. All men live in the world, and the world ought to be a place for them to live.”
By using Baraka’s quote, Neal demonstrated the ability of artists to awaken the spirit required in the battle for Black minds. We need a spirit that does not require a person to wait, stand in a line or gather for the purpose of just learning or putting into their pockets that which has been handed to them by governors to fix what is wrong with education, economics, government (both internal and external), public safety, and health. Artistic expression allows the people to converse, through various medium, using both passion and perspective. Passion is what Baraka describes when he wrote, “And what we show must cause the blood to rush.” Perspective, according to Richard Wright in his 1937 Blueprint For Negro Writing, “Perspective is that part of a poem, novel or play which the writer never puts directly on paper. It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and suffering of his people.”
A good example of an artistic expression that brings both passion and perspective together for the purpose of uplifting the consciousness of the people is the music and videos of the rap group Public Enemy.
Artistic expression, as a tool, must be as Dr. Maulana Karenga says in his 1968 essay Black Art: Mute Matter Given Form and Function, “It must be functional, that is, useful as we cannot accept the false doctrine of art for art’s sake. For, in fact, there is no such thing as art for art’s sake. All art reflects the value system from which it comes.” Karenga writes that “the real function of art is to make revolution.” Revolution is the forcible overthrow of social order in favor of a new system. The consumer of art and the participants in art should be compelled to some new way of thinking or acting. Another characteristic of art, using Karenga’s definition is that it must be collective, “In a word, it must be from the people and must return to the people in a form more beautiful and colorful than it was in real life.”
Dubois writes that “all art is propaganda and ever must be.” Propaganda is information used to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view. Artistic expression, as a tool, then, needs to make public a particular perspective and that perspective must be one that stimulates the good cause of raising the consciousness of those we intend to reach.
 Public Enemy’s music is, functional, makes revolution, is collective and is propaganda. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees are famous for the combination of their video editorials as well as their lyrical content. The combination of the video and music/lyrics make social commentary and give black history lessons. The song, Can’t Truss It, for example, has an accompanying video which begins with an audio clip of Malcom X discussing the history of slavery. The video depicts slaves being sold at auction, slave women being raped by white slave owners, factory worker conditions, lynching, police brutality, work place sexual harassment and slave revolt. The lyrics make reference to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the conditions under which the slaves were transported, that who were thrown overboard and gives dates for the listener to reference. Public Enemy made people dance using passion and perspective in their medium in a way that was functional for the uplifting of the people, made revolution and certainly was propaganda. The direct beneficiaries of Public Enemy’s music were their target audience- inner-city youth who bought the music, danced to the music, watched the videos, chanted the lyrics and imitated the artists. It is noteworthy to mention that the Black history lessons given in the music were not available in the inner-city classrooms. Other beneficiaries of Public Enemy’s music included musical artists and their audiences across genres around the world.
Another example of successful employment of artistic expression is Maya Angelou’s 1978 collection of poetry, And Still I Rise. The collection speaks for Black people and for Black women. It is successfully functional in its attempt to uplift its reader. One example of the poem’s influence is the 1999 double platinum album, Still I Rise by poet and rapper Tupac Shakur. Angelou’s poem is from the people and returned to the people in a more beautiful form. Still I Rise deals with the tension between Black and White America. You refers to the dominant culture and I refers to the collective African American community. The poem is written from the perspective of the African American with attention to Black history in the United States. It makes reference to the Jim Crow era and slave history, but somehow is absent of angst. The passion of the poem is found in the repetition of “still I’ll rise” The poem spirals upward and culminates with Angelou and the Black community victorious as the living “dream and the hope of the slave.”
The title poem reads, in part:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise…

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

I’d like to see artistic expression used as a tool to uplift the inner-city youth at great intervals. It is our responsibility to ensure that artistic expressions has a life and continues to live. Larry Neal wrote, “It is clear that the question of human survival is at the core of the contemporary experience. The Black artist must address himself to this reality in the strongest terms possible.” I concur with Neal. I believe that the inner-city youth should have his detention replaced with an art apprenticeship. His history should be delivered through the many artistic mediums in addition to improving his educational system. To address public safety, her weapon should be replaced by a pen or paintbrush or microphone. She should be governed and inspired by something beautiful that is reflective of her people and her history. His politics should be indoctrinated with the responsibility of the artist, “each one teach one.” He should learn the lesson tha Black writers have learned, according to Richard Wright, “that when they have arrived at something that smacks of truth, humanity, they should want to test it with others, feel it with a degree of passion and strength that will enable them to communicate it to millions who are groping like themselves.” She should learn from poets who turn sadness and misfortune into something with beautiful form absent of angst. He should dance with his black fist in the air singing, “Fight the Power” along with Chuck D of Public Enemy. The children ought to be actively engaged, through art, in the conversation about the falling down world of the inner-city around them. What would the children tell us about what they need and how they feel if we opened the dialogue in an environment absent of hierarchy? There ought to be a community conversation on the walls that validates the children. There ought to be a message that reads, “I love you, beautiful black child. You are worthy of Art.” Let them know what Amiri Baraka’s poem, Black Art, asks us to know:
                        Let Black people understand
                        that they are the lovers and the sons
of lovers and warriors and the sons
of warriors Are poems & poets &
all the loveliness here in the world
We want a black poem. And a
Black World.
Let the world be a Black Poem
And let All Black People Speak This Poem

Dubois wrote, “It is the bounden duty of Black America to begin this great work of the creation of Beauty, the preservation of Beauty, and the realization of Beauty, and we must use in this work all of the methods that men have used before. And what have been the tools of the artist in times gone by? First of all, he has used the truth- not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as one of the great vehicles of universal understanding. Again artists have used Goodness- goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right- not for the sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.”  We can use our everyday simple truths, as wells as our everyday complicated truths as sources of inspiration. Tupac Shakur in his song, Still I Rise, raps about the truths of his life. He shares the consequences of his birth, the story of his childhood “stranded on welfare,” and his desire to go to college rather than sell drugs.  Tupac’s musical message is inspiring because it warns the listener about the possible outcomes of “street life” and celebrates his success as a rapper, poet and actor with two simple lines, the open and the close, Somebody wake me up I’m dreaming/  the tribulations of a ghetto kid, still I rise.  

Inner-city living as a topic is exactly the kind of artistic expression that is necessary to uplift inner-city youth. The subject matter must be real and present in their lives. In order for the art to be functional, cause revolution and be propagandist in its message the youth must be able to relate to the subject matter. Tupac Shakur, in his discussion about everyday matters does well in his message to youth.   Visual artist Christopher Fabor Muhammad paints images that serve as social commentary about the insistent violence and incarceration rates in the inner-city. His subject, young, black males, are often depicted with fists clutching prison bars or with guns exaggerated in size to emphasis the absurdity of their use. His 2010 acrylic painting, Romance with Death, shows a young black man adorning a crucifix around his neck. He is embracing a gun larger than himself and standing next to a tombstone that reads “Trust In God.”  Included is a RIP sheet with candles and flowers in front of it. The sheet represents a frequent scene in the inner-cities. When a person dies, the community erects a memorial often consisting of a white sheet with hand written messages from those who wish to pay their respect. The background is a cityscape encased in a heart shape. Muhammad’s artistic expression is indicative of what actually goes on in the inner-city.

Muhammad is a visual artist, actor, social advocate, entrepreneur and public school educator who resides in the inner-city, dedicates a significant amount of time sharing his art with young artist and helping them to create their own works of art. His current endeavors include creating an art show with the “Stop the Violence” theme. Muhammad’s perspective and passion in Romance with Death, is apparent. In a post, dated in March of 2014, he wrote, “When a child designs, the future isn’t a far off place that happens to them. It is a place where they can work and create every day.” Muhammad is the kind of artist who is among the people and is he is exactly the prescription for what ails the inner-city. He believes as I do that without art, the youth will see the future as something that does happens TO them rather than seeing themselves as co-creators of their world. Muhammad and I met as youth and I am looking forward to our co-creations in the service of our tribe.
My artistic expression is poetic. Here is Water:
Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

walking on water,       water
our feet, these feet on clouds
dancing for rain,         causing rain
bringing rain
pour rain pour             pour     pour
clean these blue streets
black and blue streets
streets where friends meet
streets where foes meet where
RIP signs lay
no longer erected still
not corrected,             not corrected allowed
to flow like water
waves of water to drown in
to swim in
to wade in

Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

walking in,       walking
alongside our brother,            brothers,         brethren
Lift him
Let him float
float in waters Jordon

not fall, not lay pierced
with bullets,                not jailed not
We’ve got to lift him up
Sisters, come on and lift him up, ‘him up’
lest we all perish

Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

and no amount of rain
pouring,           drizzling           or otherwise
could cleanse us
from the sin of
watch the children’s bodies plank
TWO this week in Detroit
TWO this week in Harlem
TWO this week in Gary
two for the price of one
going              going               Gone!
one gone to Glory – one gone to Prison
FIVE in one night at a block party in Paterson
will we ever get tired of gun fire?

walk on water
reach and save our brother,               brothers,         brethren
from drowning

Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water

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