This year’s Black August in New York City, held last Sunday, August 13th, was the first we were able to attend as a group. Making the trip from western Mass to NYC offered a needed getaway from the dullness and repetitiveness of the five-college area. As we assembled in front of the B.B. Kings on 42nd Street, in the heart of Babylon, we wondered aloud: “Why the hell did they plan to have the Black August benefit concert here? Why not in the BK or somewhere else where the excesses of American glitz and greed wasnt being celebrated with revelry?” Perhaps the benefit concert organizers, the mightily resilient Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, wanted to make it sexy for attendees; I mean, B.B. Kings is a tight cool-out spot, after all. And with the state of our culture these days (rather years) it would not have surprised me at all to learn that such was the case. I have heard that we need to make the revolution more sexy, trick capitalism into thinking that its role was actually to provide for the majority of people and not for an exclusive monochromatic few by posing in front of every camera we can, glorifying well-told get rich or die tryin tales, fully equipped with bottles of this and that, rented or leased luxury whips, enough booty to keep Huey’s grandpops, Mr. Freeman, glued to the TV, and enough ice to make us welcomed citizens of Antarctica.
Yes, Babylon and all of its trappings and entanglements was the site for this years Black August benefit concert and, IT WAS A BANGER with a few exceptions.
As we entered a room growing close to capacity with beautiful people and anxious stares, we immediately heard: “DJ Evil Dee is in the mix!!!” The brotha behind some of the Boot Camp Clique’s most memorable joints, Evil Dee served as DJ and co-host, relaxing a somewhat pensive audience with the soundtracks of 70s sitcoms including the themes from Sanford and Son and Good Times, interspersed with quips about ghetto adolescents and late night TV. Teasing folks by pointing out that they didnt know the “hangin’ in a chow line” verse in the Good Times theme until they saw it acted out on The Chappelle Show, we broke into collective laughter at each other, submitting to the life-affirming atmosphere of the assembly.
After performing singles from their latest solo joints, Sadat X and Lord Jamar performed a couple of old Brand Nubian classics: Slow Down and One for All. Both of these brothas represented and their latest additions to their body of work are solid contributions. For gods that have built their whole careers on Hip Hop’s relationship to knowledge of self, these brothas have gotten older but have not lost their touch, and were true to form last Sunday.
Kweli rocked the mic with his usual certainty. After being introduced as one of the few artists that has been committed to the annual Black August benefit get-down since its inception in 1998, he appeared as an elder popular representative of this movement. Immortal Technique gave a 3-minute roof-raising acappella rhyme denouncing everything Bush and hurling rhythmic invective at the government in a plea for folks to rise up, organize and refuse ignorance. M1 demonstrated his sincerity toward this cause by saying he came to show his support for a movement of Black people using Hip Hop as a vehicle of social, political and economic change, not to perform, per se. He did, however, bless the gathering with the classic call and response cadence: “its bigger than Hip Hop” after a special guest appearance from Wise Intelligent, who is currently circulating a new EP.
Since I’m bloggin’ I won’t burden you with detailed analysis of each performance. All of them had strengths, although the Beatnuts and C.L., minus JuJu and the Soul Brother No.1, respectively, left a little to be desired. But let me take my remaining time to salute The Roots. Black Thought and his “breath control breath control breath control stylee” reaffirmed his status as one of our premier emcees this side of the Blastmaster and the R. My man Rec was buggin’ about how the Bad Lieutenant’s calm, cool, collected stage presence allowed control over every aspect of his performance. And, of course, ?uestlove’s snare snapped with magnetic perfection. But I have to say that Kirk Douglas a.k.a. Capt. Kirk on guitar, stole the show. The brotha made his guitar whine, growl, screech and roar, conjuring up images of the timeless attributes of some of our greatest stringmen in any genre.
The downside was that the Black August crowd didn’t know what to make of Kirk’s offering. Although they saw him roll around on stage and followed each crescendo, they largely stood with emotionless stares or tuned out. Some even prepared to leave during the solo. Perhaps they felt that Kirk was too rock for Hip Hop. Had they forgotten that Mos told us a few years back that we are the true creators of rock-n-roll (Elvis Pressly ain’t got no soul/Bo Didley is rock-n-roll)? Obviously many had. But beyond the rock-n-roll/Hip Hop dichotomy, Kirk demonstrated through immense sound the spiritual dimension of Hip Hop. Bearing witness, like that old deacon on the front pew of my family’s church, I stood, right fist clinched in the air, through his entire solo, in amazement and with gratitude.
As Brotha Tone and I had said repeatedly on the weekly show leading up to the event, Black August is one of the best recent attempts to connect, in a meaningful way, our cultural expression and our immediate political desires. While there was no voter registration campaign, no skills or resource assessment, no assignment or acceptance of tasks and responsibilities and no attempts to get folks to commit themselves to establishing much needed community-building initiatives or to join those already underway, its display of unity in honor of the victims of Katrina and against the continued suffering of political prisoners, was/is a necessary flicker that with the right wind will burst into a mighty flame, even in the heart of Babylon.