photo by Alex Lear







My body is scarred.


A thirty-eight bullet blotch on my left knee. A twenty-five-cent, quarter-sized, raised, keloid on the back of my left shoulder from falling out of a tree when I was a pre-teen and a piece of cut branch pierced deep into my flesh. An eight-inch-long appendectomy line diagonally crosses my lower abdomen. Plus, there are other scarifications I’ve picked up along the sixty-three-year life-way I’ve traveled.


And, of course, a series of stories accompanies each mark. I could narrate my autobiography just by relating the tales of how each wound came to be.


For example, there is a cut on my left hand. I was fighting with my brother when we were both young. If I remember correctly we were in junior high school. The two of us were tussling over one knife. He grabbed the handle, I ended up with the blade. You can guess what happened. You know the skin between your thumb and your pointing finger, that elastic part? That’s where I was sliced. I remember I could see the flesh inside my hand. Although it hurt, I was really fascinated by examining the inner workings.


That altercation happened over fifty-some years ago. Although the physical scar is still there, the slicing did not produce any psychological scars. I am not afraid of knives or fights. I don’t hate my brother, nor did I hold a grudge against him.


Although my body reveals the violence I have encountered, my deepest scars are not visible. Indeed, one of those invisible markings runs the length of my mental and will never disappear. I will never forget how seriously I stabbed myself, severing my budding self-esteem.


I was standing in the Manhattan street holding down a parking spot. A car came up. The horn blew. I ignored the sound. The driver blew again. I remained steadfast. The driver lowered his window and shouted for me to move. I didn’t respond nor did I move.


This was in the seventies, four or five of us were headed to The Beacon Theatre to experience a double-bill of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group and Pharaoh Sanders. As we drove around looking for parking spots, the brother who was driving spotted one on the other side of the street. He told me to get out and go stand in the spot until he could turn the corner and double back. I did as I was requested but I didn’t feel good about doing so.


I had tried to assuage my guilt by rationalizing: maybe that was the way they did things up in New York. I hoped no one would come along before my friend got back. The night was warm. New York City. Anything could happen. How would I handle it if the police came along? Suppose someone jumped out and wanted to fight—not that I was afraid—but as I stood guard the myriad of possible scenarios playing on the screen of my consciousness was interrupted when that young black man drove up.


After I ignored him, he pulled up next to where I was standing and talked to me through his window. It wasn’t a long speech, nor was he cursing at me or even shouting. He was calm and accurate with his words, “Alright, brother, but you know you wrong.”


Those words scalpeled deeply. He was right. I was wrong; so wrong that I could barely enjoy the music because I continually questioned myself: why had I done something I knew was wrong?


That happened close to forty years ago but it indelibly mottled my memory, resulting in a sort of psychic scar. Ever since, whenever I’m asked to do something I know is wrong I don’t just go along with the situation just because it’s a good friend making a seemingly innocuous request, nor do I swallow my moral sense and do a jig because the outcome would be of some immediate benefit to me.


With me, the outcome really doesn’t matter as much as does the process. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Especially, why am I committing an action I know is wrong?


Sure, we enjoy pleasure. We like getting things, consuming things. Let me be specific: we men like sex, crave power, being in charge, in control, but I constantly ask myself: at what price? Can I—my sense of being a man, an honorable human being—can I afford to be the boss if the cost of attaining power is knowingly doing wrong?


Physical pain rarely deters me but the psychic pain of doing wrong terrifies me. That is the pain I learn from; not just on a Manhattan street blocking a parking space but every day of my life, I do my best to avoid the pain of doing wrong.


So, although I have a high tolerance for pain, I have a low threshold when it comes to my personal behavior. Regardless of what anyone else may think of what I do or don’t do, what I think of myself is my compass. What’s ok for them, may be anathema for me.


The scars on my body, hey, that’s life. Life is a knife. Or a gun. An accident, a fall. Hot grease burning the skin in a cooking accident. The unanticipated pain of a hand slammed in a car door. The tooth chipped by a baseball unintentionally thrown in your face. The residue of  childhood chickenpox or an allergy to a food you didn’t know would cause severe rashes. Life, in all its complexities. Life, the myriad of petite disasters that challenge our personal morality and leave behind indelible indications of each encounter.


While we cannot avoid the inevitable markings of life, we don’t need to tattoo our souls with self-inflicted graffiti. My body may be scarred, but I try to keep my soul unblemished.


Regardless of the scars you may or may not see when you look at me, what you don’t and can’t see: my internal moral wall—that is where is posted the most important lessons of my life. Inside of me is all that I have learned. And I guess you can say that I’ve studied myself deeply and tried my best to take note of and respond to both the pleasures and pains of my life.


That New Yorker taught me a key lesson when he told me, brother, you know you wrong. Even after over 350,000 hours of living, that wound remains tender.


Knowingly doing wrong is one pain I just can’t stand.


 —kalamu ya salaam


ESSAY: BLESSED - WordUp - kalamu's words

photo by Alex Lear







This morning I woke up at a very happy moment.


I was a much younger me, and as usual, I was returning home from some trip.


I wasn’t thinking about where I had been or how the air travel had gone. Instead, I was walking thru the airport talking with a young woman I knew. I paused to look at something in a window, probably a magazine. She kept walking. I scurried to catch up. She arrived at the large, glass exit doors well before me and rushed through towards the people waiting for her just outside.


I was going to say goodbye or something, and as I looked past where she was bending to fold herself into the waiting vehicle, I spotted my welcome home committee, the five Salaam siblings. Two of them had signs. Tayari was standing patiently to the rear of them. The youngest, Tiaji, rushed forward into the traffic lane. Tayari called out. Tiaji stopped, her little arms uplifted. I was laughing. Proud of how happy they were to see me, proud of Tiaji rushing forward, proud that Tiaji listened and halted her forward motion even as she uplifted a wide smile in anticipation of me picking her up into my arms—that was the moment I woke up.


This week on March 24th I will mark sixty-four years. This past week at various times I have been thinking of Asante, Mtume, Kiini, Tutashinda, and Tiaji. They are all adults now. Except for Asante, they all are parents.


Children are a major measure of adults. Not wealth or fame, nor even accomplishments in arts or politics. Children. Have we been able to rear healthy children—emotionally healthy, socially healthy? Children with whom we would be both proud and happy to exchange identities.


I have taken a number of pictures of the five Salaams at different stages as they grew. But this one in my mind contains the fiercest beauty, the youngest rushing forward—I assume Kiini was one of the ones holding a sign. I’ve always called her the president of my fan club, even as it has been Asante and Mtume with whom I worked the closest on different projects. Asante turning me on to Mac computers. Mtume being a writing partner in BoL, our music website.


I’ve never been as close to Tutashinda as I probably should have been. I say probably because who knows what should be in human relations, how close, what is the optimal distance between parent/child. Tutashinda is an engineer by day and a sports referee as an avocation. I never attended any of his high school football games. His ball playing years came at a period of intense activity compounded by emotional upheaval. Divorce.


Many years afterwards, Tiaji asked me about why I didn’t come round so much. It’s hard to tell your youngest child—and especially hard for an old-ass father to tell his youngest daughter—because I was too pig-headed and too caught up in my own angst to realize what gifts I could have given to them had I been more aware at that time of how giving makes us human.


My father had tried to tell me but it took me decades to fully understand the depth of what Big Val meant by “you don’t get no credit for what you do for you, you get credit for what you do for others.”


Tuta has been an exemplary family man and a real friend to his friends (Tuta donated a kidney to save the life of his high school best buddy). Tuta is not without his own blemishes and shortcomings I’m sure, but as we used to say when we made a critical analysis: in summing up, Tuta’s life has been very, very positive.


The five of them wrote Tayari and me an email a few weeks back, praising and thanking their parents. They remain in awe of what we were able to accomplish back in the day, the seventies and early eighties when we were on our chosen path to take over our world, which we took to mean, take over the running of our own lives.


As I exited the airport, I pushed open the door and grinned when I saw them assembled some twenty or so yards ahead of me. One sign was held high, another sign was waving back and forth. I did not even see what the placards read. Could have been “baba likes beets.” Anything. What really mattered is that the messages were in their handwriting, expressing their feelings about me.


Although most people are not born in nor live through such heady times, real time self-determination as daily practice rather than as some social ideal is the optimal state of being.


Most humans just go along with whatever—we were fortunate. We lived in a time of activist motion, a time when working together in social and political formations was the norm, a time when we manifested our beauty by making things go, actually creating our own society: our own diet, our own dress, teaching our children, fighting our enemies, and loving each other every step of the way. But it was hard, very hard to sustain. We held on for over a decade and half, long enough to usher our children into adulthood. I realize now how special those years were.


As I sat up on the side of the bed I was overwhelmed, rushed by bliss, the joy of a great accomplishment.


I’ve never before written a love letter to my children that is as direct as this.


I’ve written a whole book of essays and poems dedicated to them, but What Is Life was really about me, written so they would know who I am and some of not just my ideas but also my motivations and experiences. And, I suppose on the deepest level, this too is about me, about me waking up and realizing how fortunate I have been to help rear five children who always smile when they see me.


I’m having a truly blessed birthday.


—kalamu ya salaam (march 2011)








All five of our children were sitting, their big eyes furtively looking around, each one both anxious and fearful to hear what I had to say. Tayari, her voice steely and cold, had told me I had to be the one to tell Asante, Mtume, Kiini, Tuta and Tiaji. And now the time had come.


The usually active siblings were silently, even sullenly, bunched at one end of the table, occasionally fidgeting, resentful like kids waiting for a whipping they all would receive because of something that only one of them had done. Tayari did not look up or at me. I sucked up some air, screwed up my courage, and proceeded to make the dreaded announcement.


The whole house on Tennessee Street had been holding its breath waiting on Kalamu’s proclamation, a statement that would signal permission to exhale. I don’t remember what I said, nor who spoke up when I half-heartedly asked if anyone had a question or something they wanted to say.


None of us knew what all was going to happen next nor what this rearrangement would bode for the immediate future.


After years and years of getting along, including all of us weathering and reconstituting ourselves following Tayari’s brain aneurism operation, no one at the table, surely not Tayari nor the oldest of the young quintet, Asante, now suffering through her sweet sixteen year, but also and paradoxically not even the man whose steadfast daddy had set the example for him of what it meant to be a husband and father, none of the attentive ears  really wanted to hear Kalamu say that he and mama were breaking up and that he was leaving home.


When I uttered whatever fate-filled words I spoke I was determined not to go back on my declaration. I really can’t recall the specific syllables I muttered, but regardless of the haziness of my memory, what still shakes me is the repulsive feeling of self mutilation, even though at that time I rationalized my actions as corrective surgery.


Cutting loose was something I knew how to do. At various moments in my life, I have not hesitated when I decided to sever ties. I have become acclimated to dealing with the freedom of uncertainty even as I am certain that I will continue to push forward notwithstanding that too often my moving forward means leaving others behind.


Although six other people were present and feeling their own pain, none of them was aware of what I was really doing. I had pulled out the ever rigid knife of my pig-iron-strong willfulness, unsentimentally pressed the edge to my nostrils and proceeded to chop away at my big-ass nose all because I had come to the conclusion that my marriage had run into the wailing wall and had posted a big, red stop sign displaying a one word curse.




I was pulling the plug. Tayari and I were separating.


It’s over a quarter century later and the emotional wound still aches a bit whenever I place my finger on that unraveling.


Once you cut it off, your nose never grows back the same way it was before you amputated it in a vain bid to save face. Was living my life the way I wanted really worth breaking up our family? Regardless of the answer—an answer that varied from time to time over the last thirty years or so—regardless, the deed was done and never rescinded.


I do not like to think about that day but sometimes like a hurricane that unexpectedly turns or doubles-back, the awfulness of that day engulfs me in a flood of harsh, unforgettable recollections, forcing me to recognize just how deeply I wounded myself.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear









What is more important: reality or the perception of reality?

In the long run, reality is always more important than perception. For example, if we are sprayed with a poisonous gas, whether we could perceive that gas would not determine whether that gas killed us. Or if we were Sioux and made a treaty with the U.S. government, whether we believed in that treaty or not would not prevent us from dying at Wounded Knee, Wounded Knee (1 or 2 for that matter).


The facts are that in the long run, reality always rules. However, what we must contend with is the unfortunate truth that perception dominates human discourse more than reality. In the minds of humans, myth is more important that truth. How we perceive reality will determine what we do, far more often than reality itself.


In this context, cultural workers occupy a critical position. Through the power of our art work, we artists can either reveal the truth or maintain myths; can wake up the consciousness of our audience to the realities of our world or hypnotize people into believing that beliefs are synonymous with truths. The invaluable role that entertainment plays in stabilizing the status quo is why artists as entertainers are paid disproportionate to other workers (such as teachers and farmers) in modern American society.


Perhaps here we need to clarify the distinction between artists and entertainers, that is assuming there is a distinction. First of all, all successful art entertains, i.e. engages the imagination and emotions of its audience. That is the essential power of any art. So then being an entertainer is part and parcel of being an artist. An artist must be able to move people.


The real question then is not whether the art is entertaining but whether the art reveals truths or reinforces myths -- and because we live in a period and a place where truth is multifaceted and often contradictory, it is both easier to communicate received myths to the general public and for the bulk of contemporary Americans to accept myths than it is to communicate and have the bulk of people accept revealed truths.


Received myths are easier for the mass elements to swallow because these myths conform to the perceived reality of Euro-centric domination. Moreover, it is easier to market such myths, especially because the means of communication, not to mention the amount of remuneration, is generally tied to adherence to and propagation of the existing mainstream. Thus, even an avant garde which protest bourgeois values but does not lead a revolt against bourgeois domination is acceptable to the status quo as a safety value outlet of frustration that might otherwise be channeled into rebellion, or, "god forbid," social revolution.


An essential difference between art and entertainment is that art reveals the realities of history and the status quo, and proposes a vision of a significantly altered future, whereas entertainment reinforces social myths and proposes the futility of revolution past, present or future. Judge for yourself, but sooner or later, those essential characteristics will manifest themselves in all artwork. You can deal with this or you can deal with that, one way or another, you either conform to or transform the status quo.


Given our current state, which is a contradictory mixed bag (i.e. we both  conform and transform, but tend to conform more than  we transform), the real question for us as artists is how to mount and sustain cultural warfare with the avowed goal of winning the hearts and minds of our people away from conforming to the status quo, win our people over to transforming the status quo reality.


So that is the revolutionary duty of the artist: to reveal the truth. This is intrinsically a revolutionary duty because in a period of cultural domination the revelation of truth in and of itself is oppositional to the status quo which works to maintain hegemony.


We have tossed around two big words: reality and myth. Let us consider briefly, what we mean by these terms. Reality is simply what is. But reality is also complex. Reality is the event and the interpretation of the event; the conditions that lead to the event, the context within which the event took place, and the resultant outcome of the event. A myth is an accepted, symbolic explanation of reality. A myth could be true or could be false. By this definition of myth, it is obvious that I believe that there is nothing inherently incorrect about myths. However, within our contemporary context, a context of Eurocentric world hegemony, the myths of the status quo are intrinsically in opposition to the truths of non-European peoples.


For example, a Euro-centric myth is the belief in man dominating nature. Modern urban architecture (which I call "modern cave architecture") attests to this belief. The prevalence of air conditioning--enclosed spaces designed to keep the outside out. The drive to dominate nature is not just a reflection of atmospheric and environmental conditions. For example, the Inuit people live in cold weather but they don't try to dominate nature. No, I think the effort to dominate nature is a social characteristic which is intrinsic to Euro-centric thought. Native Americans, Africans, people of the so-called Asia subcontinent, and the peoples of the Pacific, all manifest either a reverence for or at least a respect for nature and see ourselves as part of nature.


A corollary of all of this is the Euro-centric move not only to separate man from nature (and notice when I speak of Euro-centric thought I specify "man," and when I speak of other modes of thought I specify people), but indeed Euro-centric thought puts man at odds with nature and even goes so far as to say that man has the right to control, or dominate, nature. Thus, we have this Euro-adopted trinity of sky gods, i.e. 1. Yahweh; 2. God the father, son and holy ghost; and 3. Allah, all of whom exist without a female principle (Christianity even goes so far as to make Adam the mother of Eve). All of these religions bestow to men dominion over the earth. and reserve the dominion of heaven (and by extension, hell) to the control of God. This then becomes the mythological justification for Europeans (even though Europeans did not create any one of these three religions) to conquer and control the world and all its diverse peoples.


I suggest to you that an artist who has not come to grips with the patriarchal and dominating nature of a so-called "universal" sky god, is an artist unable to break the psychological grip of Euro-centric thought, and hence, regardless of the so-called political content of their work, that artist will invariably end up supporting the status quo, and thus in the long run end up being an entertainer. Of course, there is much more to discuss in this context, because this is a very complex topic, but I think you see the general outlines.


All of this is the context within which I think our battle for cultural equity and cultural diversity takes place. I believe what we are struggling to do is defend and develop ourselves based first on revealing the truth of our day to day lives and our history, and second on taking responsibility for the shaping of our future.


Our social truths are tough and complex in that they include all kinds of contradictory social realities, some of which are shameful, nearly all of which are painful to reveal. Our failure to stop the colonizer was often because of a failure to unite with others who had a common battle to wage even if they were historically our enemy; a failure to curtail collaboration with the enemy; and ultimately a failure to overcome our own weaknesses in thought and action.


The fact is we were enslaved by the millions and the magnitude of that slavery could not have taken place without strategic mistakes and critical sell-outs. Fortunately, as our ongoing struggle makes clear, we have been delayed but not denied. So the task of our artist and art institutions is to reveal both the perfidy of the enemy and the pitifulness of our own weaknesses. You see when we talk about what needs to be attacked, the internal contradictions must be very high on our list. Most of the major slave revolts in the United States were betrayed from within.


So art must look unblinkingly at the past and the present if it is to offer a clear-eyed vision of the future.


Furthermore, the future of our struggles for equity and diversity, for empowerment and tolerance, must be grounded in specific realities and aimed toward a general embracement of the oppressed and exploited including huge sectors of the so-called "white" world who are more confused than we are, and certainly more spiritually and emotionally bankrupt than we have ever been. We may not have much wind in our sails, but there are literally millions of white Americans running on empty who live in a world of dread and angst. While I feel no moral responsibility to save them as whites, I do feel a responsibility to address them as human beings.


I do not fool myself into thinking that the majority of people who think of themselves as white will heed my words, but, at the same time, I am wise enough to understand that I in no way diminish myself by helping others, even if those others have historically bought into their alleged superiority over me. For you see, deep down in their souls they know, just as deep down in my soul I know, that none of us are superior, we are all humans struggling to survive, procreate and find a measure of peace and happiness.


The effort to accurately communicate the complex and contradictory nature of truth is the battle I envision as a human being, the battle I wage as an artist.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear




when a man loves a woman


i don’t know why i was immobile, just standing, caught between moving forward and backing away from some horror that was not my nightmare. i mean, why wasn’t i doing something, why couldn’t i think of anything to do besides be a voyeur, an onlooker, saying inside my head: this is none of my business, yet, steady gawking at the timeless tableau?


i didn’t see him wind up, but i saw the fist smash. they were half a block away. she cringed, or crumpled, or slumped, or something, against the brick wall of the white-painted old warehouse. too far away, i could not hear anything. but from the way she staggered, the hit must have been hard. no love tap. no heated argument slap. but a fist. to the head, or maybe the heart, the middle of her chest, between her breasts. i don’t know. from where i was, i could not really tell.


a moment before, i had been at my desk. and someone, i forget who, someone had rushed in and said a man was beating a woman, outside. i remember there were at least three of us, standing at the corner, just beside the front door entrance to the black collegian and edwards printing company. it was butch and me, and i forget who the third person was, probably bill, but i’m not sure. and by the time we got there, what may have started as an argument on the street, and probably included some cursing and even perhaps a shove, or maybe he grabbed her and she tried to jerk away, or could be she swung her purse at him trying to back him back, or something. i don’t know.


i don’t remember exactly how old i was, but since i left the magazine in 1983, i had to be in my early to mid-thirties, old enough to know better. i had not yet been to nicaragua, but by then had been to cuba the first time, and haiti, and jamaica, and tanzania, and china, and japan, and korea. i had been a lot of places. seen a lot of things. stood with progressive forces, even ventured into a few situations where to be caught was possibly to be imprisoned, if not straight up killed. some would say i had been fearless. some might say bold. going gladly where most folk feared to tread.


so why was i not moving forward this time. why was i just standing and looking. i told myself i did nothing because it all happened so fast. like liston going down in the first behind an ali punch most people didn’t even see, the fight was over before i could re-act. but i saw her body take the blow. and i did nothing.


immediately afterwards he looked like he said something to her. and they walked away. together. away from us. down the street. and the three of us went back inside. well. the old street adage: don’t get in the middle of lovers fighting cause you could end up getting jumped by the both of them. or, the other old saw: he might have a gun, she might have a razor (which was reinforced by the fact that most of the men in our office were gun owners, and lorraine, our first secretary, carried a straight razor). and the projects where those kind of people congregated was one block down the street in the direction the couple was headed. but i knew better, and besides, i have faced down police and soldiers—a pistol or a knife was nothing, comparatively speaking. no, the truth was, i wasn’t afraid for my own safety, the truth is, or was: i had been socially shaped not to respond to violence against women, and i was simply doing what i was trained to do: nothing!


trained by movies and television that are not only forever showing a woman being slapped, or smacked, battered or bruised, but the media has made violence into an acceptable form of entertainment, something we watch and enjoy, watch and laugh, watch and take pleasure in someone else’s pain.


seasoned by the callous lassez-faire of street life that essentially said: i don’t tell you what to do with yours, you don’t tell me what to do with mine.


encouraged by the army, especially in terms of all the shady dealings that went down with the women we sexually and economically abused with impunity—a lot of people don’t know that the word hooker came from the name given to the prostitutes employed by general hooker during the civil war; oh, yes, i’m aware general hooker didn’t directly pay the prostitutes or even officially condone the sexual laisions, but that’s the american way. the leaders always have maximum deniability even as the status quo works its nefarious show.


conditioned by a culture that said a fight between lovers was nobody’s business but theirs.


assaulted by the literature—i never forgot native son bigger bashing bessie with a brick.


not to mention pornography, the all-time top grosser among americans, even in the state of utah which is supposed to be so righteous. the violent sexual exploitation of women and children, our number one form of entertainment.


violence against women was reinforced by damn near everything i could think of. and the reinforcement was incremental, no one thing guiding it all, but the preponderance, the cumulative effect, like one rain drop does not a storm make, but a multitude steady falling will flood us out, wash us away, cast us adrift, like i was, hesitant, unsure on that sidewalk. where was mr. bold black man that day?


even though violence was never practiced in the home where i grew up, and even though it was unthinkable that i would personally hit a woman, nevertheless, in ways, until that day, i was not totally clear about, i  now realize that yes, i passively condoned such violence, and if not condoned it at least tacitly accepted men beating woman as the way it was with some people, a sort of twisted status quo. and, perhaps my passivity was birthed by an even more sinister moral equivocation: it’s ok to be my brother’s keeper, but that doesn’t include stopping my brother from giving my sister a beating—oh, sure, in the family, somebody you know, your mother, sister, daughter, lover, auntee, oh sure then jump in and break that shit up, but some sister on the street we never seen before, i don’t know, you never know what the deal be and ain’t no sense in getting caught up in some edge of night drama.


protecting an unknown sister‑no matter what i said in the abstract, when my face was pushed up in it in the real world, her back against the wall, some huge dude all up in her grill‑i hesitated.


there had to be some reason, some reasonable explanation for why i simply stood there. it took me a while to realize the main reason was that i live in a patriarchal society, a society within which violence against women is not only deeply embedded, but also a society within which violence in general, and violence against women in particular, is so broadly accepted that it becomes invisible even though it is ubiquitous. how can something so obvious be so ignored?


the weight of acculturation does not easily budge and can keep us from moving forward even as we believe that it is backwards to stand still.


afterwards, not minutes, but in the days that followed, i said i would never be silent again. that moment of stillness turned me around. i would never be uninvolved again. and truth be told, i haven’t, but on the other hand, i have never been tested like that again. never been within shouting distance of a man beating on a woman.


yes, i have stopped young people who got into inevitable fights and tussles with each other. it really, really saddens me that so much play-fighting is accepted as a form of affection among many of our young people. their seemingly harmless mock violence is ameliorated by genuine affection or, more likely, rather than by affection, by pubescent desire; whatever, the result remains the same: in more cases than not, what began as a seemingly harmless activity actually ends up being a predictable  preparation for them accepting violence as part of the package deal of personal relationships, thus violence is fatally intertwined with what too often passes for true love.


i can not imagine any of my daughters or sons either accepting or perpetrating abusive violence.


i have marched. i have campaigned. i have written essays, plays, poems, made movies. but ever since that day, i have never been caught standing around simply looking when a man beat on a woman. nor will i ever again revert to letting aggressive violence go down without at the very least shouting out against such abuse, without doing something to stop the violence, and if not bring that violence to a “squelching halt” (to quote my father), at least intervening or in some other effective way opposing and lessening the negative effects of such violence.


cause when you get right down to it, a true love of one has to also be, to one degree or another, a love for all—and if we can not love others, especially those whom we see as the “other,” whether that be a gender other, an ethnic other, a racial other, a sexual-orientation other, whatever other, if we can not love an other and yet claim to love a particular individual then we are cutting off part of our own selves—the part of our selves that is also a part of the other. we are restricting our lives, constraining our souls, diminishing our spirit, and this is especially true when we are dealing with the questions of violence against women.


when a man loves a woman, truly loves a woman, he will not silently condone nor, through his own inaction, allow any man to do any woman wrong. because, while there are those fortunate enough never to be victimized by violence, in general there are no exemptions: each woman in a society shares some of the essence of every woman in that society. when a man truly loves a woman, he must love all women or not really love any woman at all.


—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear










Miles Davis

(featuring Kenneth D. Ferdinand - trumpet


Greta Garbo is credited with saying "I want to be alone." Except I'm sure by "alone" she meant: away from you lames. I want to be where I can be me and this place is not it. Then she would blow some smoke, or pick her fingernails, or do something else nonchalantly to indicate her total boredom with the scene. Miles on the other hand never had to say it. He made a career of being alone and sending back notes from the other world, notes as piercing as his eyeballs dismissing a fan who was trying to tell him how pretty he played.


Here this man was: Miles Dewey Davis, a self made motherfucker, a total terror whose only evident tenderness is the limp in his smashed-up hip walk, like he can't stand touching the ground, the cement, the wooden floor, plush carpet, whatever he is walking on. This man who, considering all the abuse he has dished out to others as well as all the self abuse he has creatively consumed, this man who should have died a long, long time ago but who outlived a bunch of other people who tried to clean up their act. This pact with the devil incarnate. This choir boy from hell. This disaster whose only value is music, a value which is invaluable. If he hadn't given us his music there would have been no earthly reason to put up with Miles, but he gave on the stage and at the studio, he gave. If there is any redemption he deserves it.


As for me, I admit I don't have the music, but so what? Perhaps in time you will understand that I really don't want to be here. I don't want to be loved or to love. I...


Perhaps you will understand that once you don't care, nothing else matters. I don't need a reason why to hit you. Why I'm letting you pack and split without a word from me, without any "I'm sorry," or anything else that might indicate remorse or even just second thoughts about what I've done. Instead, I'm cool.


Just like Miles could climb on a stage after beating some broad in the mouth, I cross from the bedroom where I knocked you to the floor and go into the living room and put "Round Midnight" on. The unignorable sound of Miles chills the room. I stand cool. Listening with a drink of scotch in my hand, and a deadness in the center of me. Anesthetized emotions.


As you leave you look at me. Your eyes are crying "why, why, why do you treat me so badly?" I do not drop my gaze. I just look at you. Miles is playing his hip tortured shit. You will probably hate Miles all the rest of your life.


You linger at the door and ask me do I have anything I want to say. I take a sip nonchalantly, and with the studied unhurried motion of a journeyman hipster, I half smile and drop my words out of the corner of my mouth, "Yeah, I want to be alone. Thanks for leaving."


And I turn my back on you, trying my best to be like Miles: a motherfucker.


—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear






Douglas Redd


It’s Hard


The back of his hand was peeling off. He grabbed a plastic bottle of lotion to slather on.


“What’s that?” I ask.


He looks at his wrinkled fingers, huge flaps of top skin hanging loosely, and then looks up into my eyes.


I don’t look away.


I’ve seen his artist hands at work for over three decades: working wood, canvas, and paper; wielding knives, brushes, and pencils. I remember us laughing about the nicks, cuts, stains and bruises; that was just part of the cost of being the type of artist he was.


Walking through the arches in Congo Square at Jazzfest, Africa-inspired images sticking up thirty feet in the air; that was Doug’s art. The Tamborine & Fan flyers from the seventies. The design of Ashe Cultural Center in the new millennium. All of that, Doug’s artwork. From drawings to drums, flyers to architectural designs, all graceful examples of his artistic efforts.


A squeamish part of me wanted to avoid confronting Doug’s deformed hands but I didn’t turn away because, well, because this was one moment when he needed me to look without embarrassment. He was sick. I was well. If he could look, I should be able to also. But it wasn’t easy. Observing a man weakened and suffering is difficult.


Doug was always slim, but now he is almost skeletal. And those black gloves with white stripes that looked like bones that Doug wears to cover the raw patches disfiguring his hands don’t help.


“What?” he asks.


I answer immediately, “I was asking what that lotion was.”


I could not help but think back a couple of weeks to when I was holding Doug, his hands shaking uncontrollably, his head toppling over and going down to the table top. As I had embraced him, I felt the retching wracking his body, but there had been nothing left to throw up. My left arm all the way around him, I used my right hand, thumb to ear and little finger next to my mouth, to motion for Carol to call the ambulance.


“Talk to me, Doug,” I implored but he was near unconscious. “Talk to me.”


When he mumbled a few words I breathed a bit easier. Eventually, with both my arms around him, he was able to stand and we had inched over to the sofa and he lay down.


I ran downstairs to make sure when the medics arrived they would be able to get into the locked bottom floor door, onto the elevator and up to #314. As I sat outside hearing a siren draw closer, I was thinking and thinking and thinking. And hurting. A month or so ago, Doug had had a seizure. The subsequent diagnosis was brain tumors. And lung cancer. Radiation treatment for tumors and now chemotherapy for cancer.


Doug had weathered the radiation, but the cost had been high. First they cut his locks. Soon the short hair disappeared, and then the scalp wrinkled leaving mini-hills and valleys rutting his skull, with only a small, horizontal tuff of hair remaining at the base where the back of the head hits the shoulders. Morbidly I wondered were those ridges solid or soft, but I had been neither brave nor invasive enough to reach out and finger the bumps.


After checking his vital signs (which were strong), the EMS techs assured us the reactions Carol and I were struggling to deal with were normal for chemo patients.


That’s life in New Orleans post-Katrina: everybody is valiantly trying to keep it together, everybody is dealing with some kind of trauma. Every extended family has someone ill who needs care, or someone who needs shelter, or someone who needs… there are so many needs. We just have to keep pushing.


I exhale, look over and smile at Doug standing there cupping a hand full of light-colored goo. “Yeah, that cocoa butter is good for your hands,” I said quietly.


Doug sat on the sofa and vigorously rubbed in the lotion. I sat up in the straight back chair. We were spending another of beaucoup hours with each other.


I pull the night shift and make sure that Doug takes his medication at 9pm. It’s hard. Hard for Doug to take the handful of pills, some of them the size of lozenges. His tongue has lost its normal taste, no food has an agreeable flavor. Something in the treatment has made his throat raw, even a tiny pill hurts to swallow. Radiation and chemo are killing good cells while trying to wipe out bad cells. To get well, Doug has to get sick.


It’s hard.


As hard as it is for him, it’s also emotionally taxing for me. I gather myself everyday and take the elevator to the third floor to spend hours with my friend. I’ve been following this regime for over a month now. The routine will go on for who knows how long—I psyche myself up to share energy with Doug. Day in, day out. Over and over.


It’s hard but it’s beautiful.


As tired as I be when I drag home at night and force myself to work for another hour or so, getting to bed usually between midnight and 1am, no matter, I’m always ready for the next day, renewed by the goodness of sharing life and love with a man I love.



The Last Redd Light!

(a eulogy of sorts for Douglas Redd, December 1947 – July 2007)



What would you do if you knew

You were going to die tomorrow, or maybe

Just had a vague feeling that the knocking

At the door was a death rattle, or maybe

You just ached real bad and instead of words,

Moans slobbered sideways out your mouth? What

Would you do if your hand wasn’t working and

You couldn’t control your bladder

And just had to lay in whatever…, you know

What I’m saying?…


Life sometimes asks us some tough unanswerable questions like

What would you do if you failed the ultimate survival test?



His flesh was still soft.

I looked down on the calm of his face,

The peaceful repose was the… I can’t make it pretty,

I mean I could describe it with pretty words but

It would still be fucked up.


A man with whom I have spent most midnights

Over the last three hundred and some days,

I was in his presence even when he was too sick

To appreciate that I was there, now, his corpse

Was laying there, unmoving, untwisted, unhacked

By coughs and phlegm. He looked better

Than I’ve seen him for weeks. You know

It’s bad when a cadaver looks better

Than a fitfully breathing body.



When you say someone you love is dead

What do you mean?


Outside the sun was shining, inside,

All inside of me the sky was crying. I was standing

At the last Redd light.








Art is the armor of the sensitive. A creative statement that gives to us (actually "gifts" to us) a vision of our environment not just as our neighborhoods and communities are (or were) but also the wonderfulness we might shape our world to become if we are brave enough to give birth to beauty.


Those iconic images Doug drew: we can be that. Walk the beauty walk. Live with our arms embracing each other. Uplifting the young. Beating back evil. Firm standing, deeply rooted people trees. Lovers of music and gesture, righteousness and each other.


Hundreds of thousands of us have gazed in astonishment upon the images Doug created. At Jazzfest we stepped through the spirit gates; thirty feet of elevated African presence, freestanding miraculously on an open field. We second-lined the city’s avenues waving a Doug designed rod, staff, basket or sash. Many of us have cards and letterheads that daily network our dreams and aspirations because Doug knew how to use a line or two or three to accurately convey the business that we hoped to be about doing.


God gave Noah the rainbow sign. God gave New Orleans Douglas Redd.


Beneath the bridge Doug hung banners to announce our revival. His signage proclaimed the profoundness of our dancing. We can not only say Ashe, we can see and assemble, fellowship and worship at Ashe because Doug understood the necessity of creating sacred, self-determined space. He was not only about adornment, he was also intimate with crafting essence circles.


Downtown in Treme where he learned to fly, there is Congo Square. Uptown in Central City where his tree fruited and flowered, there is Ashe Cultural Center. Everywhere there is beauty thanks to Douglas Redd.


Even when the butcher cuts down a mighty tree, as long as the fruit contains seeds that are planted into fertile earth, then the wood will continue to live.


Drawn onto paper, carved into driftwood, sculpted out of metal and bone, there is Doug. His hands. His eyes. His craft. His vision. But beyond all the things that man and woman, child and animal can see, beyond what is evident, there is an internal image indelibly hieroglyphed on our hearts. There. Inside us, beating red as our blood he is named after. There is where the true art of Douglas Redd resides. There, inside us all, there, will always be the art and love of Doug.





(To & From Brother Doug)


I speak to you from the other side, hear me

I speak through wind, through rain, sunshine is my smile

Sunset is my daily name, are you with me

I am with you, I am in you, I am you

When you gift a beggar with a dollar

When you build whatever needs building

You do not have to draw or paint to be me

Just do all of whatever you can do

I did me and when you do you

Then we be we, which means as long

As you stand strong we will never die


I come to you from the other side

The place where bullshit is not acceptable

Where backbiting is not tolerated

Where lies are never uttered

A place where love is not ashamed to love

Where love is never a weakness

A place where we are so beautiful

Precisely because we are always ourselves

And never someone else


Touch the other sides of our selves

The rainbow ride of our selves

The soft embrace protected by a proud fist of our selves

The my way is but one of many ways of our selves

The it is more important that your kiss be genuine

Than any concern about what consenting other you kiss

They never asked about sexual orientation

When they enslaved us and we had better not obsess

About sexual orientation if we are going to get truly free

The real question is are we honest about who we are

The real question is can each of us deal with honesty

Live honestly


I come to you from the other side

I advise you not to be afraid

I remind you that you can be both black and red

Be what you are and as beautiful as you want to be

Life is in your hands now

Love life, Use life, Live life, Be life

And pray that you will understand

That you will not fear struggle

That you will make your ancestors proud

That you will make your future beautiful

That you will stand up today, embrace the now

And be everything good you ever saw in me


I speak to you from the other side

Speak to me, I am listening



—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Peter Nakhid




What To Do With The Negroes?


There is a secret hidden in the heart of New Orleans, a secret hidden in plain sight but ignored by all but the secret citizens themselves. Before Bienville arrived in this area in 1718, Native American scouts informed the adventurous Frenchman that there were groups of Africans—they probably said “blacks”—living over there in their own communities and that these self-ruled women and men would not talk to whites.


Although how the Native Americans knew that the blacks would not talk to whites remains unexplained, the report seems accurate on the face of it. After all, close to three centuries later in post-Katrina New Orleans there remain a number of us who are reluctant to talk truthfully to outsiders—not out of fear of repercussions or because of an inability to speak English but rather we remain reticent on the general principle that there’s no future in such conversations.


Indeed, I am probably breaking ranks simply by writing this although what I have to say should be obvious. Whether considering our 18th century ancestors who inhabited the swamps of the North American southeast from Florida to Louisiana, or unsuccessfully trying to question a handful of staunch holdouts among the Mardi Gras Indians, there have always been blacks who were both proud of being black and determined to be self-determining—not just constitutionally free as any other 21st century U.S. citizen but independent of any higher authority whether that authority be legal, religious or cultural; whether that authority be other blacks, wealthy whites, politicians of any race or economic status, or whatever, none of that mattered. We recognized no higher earthly authority than ourselves.


Sometimes when it looks like we are doing nothing but waiting on the corners, sitting quietly on a well-worn kitchen chair sipping a beer in the early afternoon shade, sometimes those of us people pass by as we hold court on one of the many neutral grounds, i.e. medians, separating the lanes of major streets and avenues in Central City, sometimes those blank stares you see at a bus stop, sometimes what you are witnessing is not what you think it is.


We are not waiting for the arrival of a messiah or for a government handout. We expect nothing from our immediate future but more of the past.


Our talk will seem either fatalistic or farcical, and certainly will not make sense to you. The weary blues etched into our cheeks and coal-coloring the sagging flesh beneath our eyes; the mottled black, browns, greys and streaks of blond or red on our woolly heads and the aroma of anger clinging to our clothes has nothing to do with our failures or with failed expectations. We never anticipated that we would be understood or loved in this land ruled by men with guns, money and god complexes.


No, what you see when you look at us looking back at you is a resolve to keep on living until we die or until someone kills us.


* * *


The history of New Orleans is replete with the inexplicable in terms of how black people lived here. In the late 1700’s before the Americans arrived as a governing force in 1804, a nominally-enslaved black man could be seen walking to his home, which he owned, carrying a rifle, which he owned, with money of his own in his pockets—yes, I know it seems impossible but the impossible is one of the roots of New Orleans culture.


Under the Spanish there were different laws and customs. We had been offered freedom in exchange for joining the Spanish in fighting the English. Join the army and get emancipated—all you had to do was shoot white men… and avoid getting shot.


The Black Codes guaranteed Sundays were ours. All the food, handicrafts, services or whatever we could sell, we could keep all the proceeds. If you study the colonial administrative records you will notice that our economy was so rich that the city merchants petitioned the governor to be able to sell on Sundays (like the slaves did).


Prior to the Civil War the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that one man had to pay back money he borrowed from a slave. Not to mention, a shocked Mrs. Latrobe, the wife of the architect who designed and built New Orleans waterworks—imagine “…how shocked I was to see three Mulatto children and their mother call upon me and say they were the children of Henry.” Henry was the dearly departed son of Mrs. Latrobe. He died of yellow fever and was buried in New Orleans in 1817, three years before his father who also died of yellow fever and was buried next to his son in St. Louis Cemetery. Much like many, many people today, Mrs. Latrobe had no idea about what was really going on in New Orleans.


You can read the papers all day and sit in front the TV all night and never get the news about a significant and shocking subculture in New Orleans. A subculture that not only is unknown to you but a subculture that really does not care to be known by most of you.


Our independently produced subculture is responsible for the roux that flavors New Orleans music, New Orleans cuisine, New Orleans speech idioms, New Orleans architecture, the way we walk down here and especially how we celebrate life even in the face of death. From the African retentions of VooDoo spiritual observances to the musical extensions from Congo Square, this subculture has made New Orleans world renown.


I don’t remember the black sufferers ever receiving a thank you or a blessing. Instead of recognizing our contributions, the black poor and those who identify with them have been demonized. When the waters came, those who were largely affected and eventually washed away were overwhelmingly black. Our saviors gave us one way tickets out of town. Four years later there have been no provisions to bring blacks “back here”—I say back here instead of back home because “back here” is no longer “back home.” Post Katrina New Orleans is not even a ghost of what our beloved city was.


What is gone is not just houses or pictures on the wall, not just the little neighborhood store we used to frequent, or the tavern where we hung out on warm nights; not just the small church in the middle of the block or even the flower bed alongside the house; not just the old landmarks or some of the schools we used to attend, not just the jumble of overcrowded habitations or the storied stacks of bricks we called the ‘jects (aka projects), housing schemes we knew by name and reputation. No, it is not just brick and wood that is missing from the landscape. What is gone, what we miss most of all is us.


We the people are not here. What is left is an amputated city ignoring its stumps. Moreover, even if it were possible, our city does not desire to re-grow or replace what was “disappeared.” Good riddance is what many of the new majority says.


“Good riddance” is sometimes proclaimed using the coded language of “a smaller footprint” (reductively, smaller footprint means fewer black butts). At other times, “good riddance” is spewed forth as the uncut racist cant of “lock all those savages up.”


* * *


Although poor blacks controlled none of the city’s major resources, we were blamed for everything that was wrong—from a failing school system to rising crime; from ineffective and corrupt political leadership to an “immoral” street culture of drugs, sagging pants and loud music; from a rise in sexually transmitted diseases to deteriorating neighborhoods. When responsible citizens wrote to the Times Picayune daily newspaper suggesting what ought be done do address these concerns, high on the list of panaceas was our incarceration, as if so many—indeed, far, far too many of us—were not already in prison.


How convenient to ignore the glaring statistic: the largest concentration of black women in New Orleans is located at Xavier University and the largest concentration of their age-compatible, male counterparts exists across the expressway in the city jail—dorms for the women, cells for the men. The truth is disorienting to most: what has been tried thus far, whether education or jail, has not worked.


The people who complain the most about crime in the city, or should I say the voices that we most often hear in the media complaining about crime are from the people who are the least affected.


However, worse than the name-calling is the fact that New Orleans is now a city that forgot to care. In the aftermath of the greatest flood trauma ever suffered by a major American city, New Orleans is devoid of public health in general and mental health care in particular.


In the entire Gulf South area that was directly affected by Katrina, only in New Orleans were 7,000 educators fired. The Federal Government guaranteed the salaries of teachers in all other areas and guaranteed the same for New Orleans teachers but the state of Louisiana made a decision to decimate the largest block of college educated blacks, the largest block of regular voters, the largest block of black home owners.


The denouement was that the entire middle class black strata was disenfranchised. Black professionals, the majority of whom lived in flooded areas in New Orleans East, whether government employees or independent professionals (doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants and the like), black professionals no longer had a client base. Most professionals could not re-establish themselves in New Orleans. What was left of the black New Orleans social infrastructure was nothing nice.


* * *


How does anyone explain why in post-racial America economic inequality gaps are widening, not closing?


In a city that prior to Katrina had one of the highest rates of native residents, why are so many young adults leaving rather than staying?


Why is spending nearly twice as much per pupil to service half the pre-storm population called a success in education innovation, especially when the current status quo is economically unsustainable, not to mention that comparable pre-storm health care and retirement benefits are no longer offered to teachers?


I don’t even know how to identify what is happening to us without sounding like a cliché of class warfare, without sounding bitter about racial reconciliation or ungrateful for all the charitable assistance New Orleans has received.


I know that my voice is a minority voice. I know I don’t represent all blacks, nor most blacks, nor educated blacks, nor your black friend, nor Malia and Sasha, nor… I know it’s just plain “stupid” to talk like I’m talking…


I know. I know we blacks are not blameless. Indeed, we are often a co-conspirator in our own debasement. Too often we act out in ways for which there is no sensible justification. Yes, I know about corrupt politicians and a seeming endless line of street level drug dealers, about rampant gun violence and an always for pleasure, 24/7 party attitude.


But amidst all our acknowledged shortcomings, I ask one simple question: who else in this city has contributed so much for so long to this unique gumbo we call New Orleans culture?


Like the state of Texas finally admitting that “abstinence only” sex education has led to higher, not lower, rates of teen pregnancy, unless we materially address the realities of our social situation, we may find that the short-sighted solutions we have put in place will, in the long run, worsen rather than solve our problems.


* * *


Most days I am resolved to soldier on, to suck it up and keep on keeping on, but sometimes, sometimes I feel like Che Guevara facing a summary execution squad of counter-insurgency soldiers.


Sometimes after working all day in the public schools or after hearing Recovery School District administrators refusing to allow us to teach an Advanced Placement English Class because “we don’t have any students capable of that kind of work”; or sometimes after finding out that a teacher we worked with last year is no longer employed not because she was not a great teacher but rather because (as they told her without a note of shame or chagrin in their voices): you are being surplused (i.e. terminated) because we can get two, young, straight-out-of-college, Teach-For-America instructors for the same price we paid your old, experienced ass; sometimes when the city accidentally on purpose bulldozes a house that the same city issued a building permit to the couple that is struggling to rehabilitate that property and this happens while this insane city administration that, four years after the flood, has yet to come up with a coherent plan to address the 40,000 or so blighted properties that dominant the Ninth Ward (Upper Nine, Lower Nine and New Orleans East) landscape; sometimes, I just want to calmly recite Che’s command: go ahead, shoot!


Just kill us and get it over with.

* * *

But until then: a luta continua (the struggle continues)!



—kalamu ya salaam


photo by Alex Lear




Clapping On Two and Four


The African American approach to performance has many aspects, some of which, such as improvisation and emotional intensity, are frequently cited. This essay will address two seminal, albeit frequently overlooked, characteristics of public performance in the Black cultural context. The first aspect is the use of the music as a language and the second is the function of performance as a means of achieving social stability and cohesion.

A Black (or more precisely, African-heritage) approach to public performance necessarily includes music. Even with the visual arts, masks and costumes dance, i.e., they are made to move rhythmically. Indeed, Black music is often characterized as rhythm-driven.

I believe this rhythm emphasis is both contextual and inherent. Contextual in that Black music came of age contemporaneously with modern industrial developments in America. The recording industry; electricity (plus electronic amplification and alteration); radio; cars, trains and planes; all of these were born and developed during the same epoch. This industrializing and speeding up of daily life produced a major change in the psyche and emotional desires of Americans.

The last of the pre-industrial (and simultaneously, the first of the industrial) music forms was "ragtime"-a piano music that through the use of "piano rolls" (a way to mechanically reproduce the literal "sound" of the music without the musician having to be present) ushered in the industrial era of music making. In many, many obvious ways ragtime bridges music performance as it was traditionally done for centuries with the literally new noise of twentieth century sounds. Although ragtime sounds stilted and "mechanical" to those of us weaned on modern music, at the time of its inception and development ragtime was a wild, boisterous, and seemingly explosive music.

With its pronounced employment of syncopation, ragtime mirrored the new ways a-coming and suggested a completely new way to make music. Syncopation (and emphasis on the weak beats juxtaposed against a de-emphasis of the strong beats, particularly in the bass line) is ragtime's most easily identifiable characteristic.

Ragtime peaked in the decades of the 1880s and 1890s, and was quickly replaced by a music called jazz as the most popular expression of Black music specifically and American music in general. In fact, by the 1920s, jazz was so popular that that decade became known as the jazz age. Jazz as both a music form and an approach to playing pre-existing music forms, introduced not just rhythm innovations, but also harmonic innovations, chiefly through the use of what is often called "the blue-note." 

Jazz is famously an amalgamation of many ingredients; however, jazz is chiefly a mixture of blues and ragtime devices commingled with a multitude of melodic sources (folk songs from diverse ethnic sources including English, German, Scottish on the Euro-side and field hollers, chants, reels, arhoolies, line songs, ring shouts and other Negro strains-I specifically identify these as "Negro" because these forms are not simply African retentions, but more precisely are African American extensions).

Jazz, blues, and their sacred cousin, gospel music, all have a rhythm-device in common: the back-beat. Indeed, the back-beat, a heavy emphasis on two and four, is a hallmark of African American music and remains dominant as a rhythmic device into the 21st century. An interesting note about the back-beat with respect to gospel music is the flipping of rhythmic emphasis. In the then popular waltz form, the emphasis was usually ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. But in gospel, when three-four time is used, as it frequently is, the practictioners usually clap on two and three, thus getting a one-TWO-THREE, one-TWO-THREE rhythm. The back-beat. 

None of the other popular musics of the African diaspora (whether from the Caribbean, Central America or South America) employs a heavy back-beat unless the particular form in question, such as salsa, reggae or soca, is a form that was significantly influenced by Black music from America. This absence of the back-beat is distinctive especially given that most African diaspora music heavily uses drums, or quasi-drum instruments (steel pans for example). 

This is a curious development that is made even more curious by the fact that for the most part the drums of the diaspora remained hand-drums and it was in the United States that the mechanical drum, or the drum kit, commonly called the trap drum or traps, was developed. So the place where the drum had the least continuity in terms of usage and in terms of the direct retention of African poly-rhythms, is the place where the back-beat was emphasized and the drum kit was developed!

So then the cultural context of industrialization and the specificities of Black musical development within the United States are the general cultural context that sits atop the inherent African aesthetics of music. One particular aspect of the African aesthetic in music is the use of music to achieve trance, or a state of altered consciousness usually induced with the aid of dance. 

This quality, which goes by numerous names including "getting the spirit," "spacing out," and "being possessed," is a desired effect and not an accidental byproduct of Black musical production. In other words, the music is designed to alter the consciousness of the audience. Moreover, the audience is never seen as a voyeur, who silently looks on, but as a participant, whose physical interaction with the musicians is necessary in order for the music to achieve its purpose of elevating, or transforming, both audience and musician.

From this perspective it is easy to understand Black music as a social force. I propose we take this understanding a step further. First, let us look at the music as language and second as a social stabilizer. The majority of African Americans are descended from peoples of West and Central Africa, from peoples whose spoken language was often tonal and for whom singing accompanied nearly every aspect of daily life-particularly work and ritual activity. 

The American insistence that the Negro speak English and the American prohibition against the use of African languages would seem to mitigate the retention of tonality as a part of language, but again, similar to the emphasis of the back-beat in a culture where the drum was outlawed, tonality is asserted as a prominent feature of Black music. Specifically, instrumentalists developed techniques to make their horns sound like they were talking, singing, or laughing while simultaneously singers developed techniques to make their voices sound like instruments. In essence, that which was suppressed reappears as a dominant characteristic.

Moreover, in terms of representing the attitudes and psychological state of its makers, Black music carries an emotional breadth and depth rarely found in written literature, whether that literature be text or composed music.

Black music is a language of the lived experience, a way to communicate to the world and with each other, how it feels to be so Black (and blue). What is important to realize is that the very style and structure, the "how" the language sounds is an inseparable part of the content, or meaning, of the language. Or, to quote a folk saying: it ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it. This emphasis on process is not simply an emphasis on stylization, but is rather a clear prioritizing of the concrete lived experienced. In this context, the whole self is celebrated, not just ideas, but body and soul, ideas and emotions.

But beyond, this emotional wealth, there is the greater truth, Black forms of making music are not an end in themselves, but a means toward the end of achieving social cohesion. Under the influence of the music, all the participants are first brought to a state of unity via the rhythm-or as they say in church, if you can't sing, at least pat your foot and keep time. While some may minimize or ignore this attribute, every body literally moving (clapping, foot-patting, etc.) on the one is a sine qua non.

To listen to music without moving is not to be involved in the music. Even the most avant garde of free jazz generally invoked a physical response if no more than swaying to the underlying pulse of the music. I suggest that this attribute of collective movement, the individual getting in tune with the group, is a significant characteristic; and, of course, the use of poly-rhythms and poly-phonics allows the individual to make a unique contribution to the collective, thereby achieving both unity and individuality. Indeed, Black music is the most democratic American artform in that it successfully stresses both the collective and the individual at the same time.

From a psychological standpoint the music offers one the opportunity to identify oneself as a part of a larger social grouping and simultaneously to distinguish oneself as a particular individual within that group. Thus, Black music is the perfect embodiment of American social values most often thought of in political (democracy) or economic (free market) terms, but values which also have aesthetic corollaries.

The embodiment of democratic ideals along with technological progressiveness — Black music has always been at the forefront of using and creating technological innovation in terms of "how" to make music, whether one wants to talk about instrumental techniques and innovative approaches to playing an instrument, or talk about the use of machines (from the levers and pulleys of the trap drum kit, to the computers and midi-based equipment of rap and popular music production)—is precisely what has made Black performance in music the most popular and most influential performance style worldwide.

Why do so many people like Black music? Because it is hip! Why is Black music so hip? Because it simultaneously draws on the most ancient of traditions while utilizing the latest technological advances available, and all while emphasizing both social cohesion as well as individual development—which, not surprisingly, is basically a working definition of hipness.

—kalamu ya salaam



photo by Alex Lear





flushing before finishing


before i was finished urinating i flushed the toilet. it was like my father was standing beside me. i know where i got this habit from. big val used to do that. he used to flush the toilet before he was finished. and they used to call me lil val. i don’t remember whether it was because we had the same first name, vallery, shortened by most folk who knew us to val, or did i really look like him, act like him? was i really a new generation of him?


there is no easy answer.


a few years ago i was commissioned to write an essay about family. i choose to write about the spirit family of the secondline. my words did not even mention my father, yet, something strange happened. well, not really strange, now that i think about it. but at the time i just went along with the unusual request and thought nothing about it, until months later someone made a remark that has left me wondering. “you look just like your father.”


what was the request? the photographer said, can i shoot you without your glasses on? i’ve worn glasses since i was in third grade—even when i sat on the first row, i couldn’t read the blackboard, and i was a good reader. so, i took off my glasses and patiently waited for the photographer to finish. afterwards, i forgot about it.


my daddy didn’t wear a beard. i’ve worn a beard since the seventies. yet, the older i get, the more i look like my father. what gives? did my unique and younger genes loose the fight with the older genes passed directly from my father? do we really change how we look as we grow older? am i a unique case? what’s up with looking like my father?


as i finish urinating i am forced to admit i don’t know how much of me is me as opposed to my father living in me; which, of course, begs the question how much of me is in my sons and daughters.


i used to think it didn’t make sense to flush the toilet before one is finished urinating, especially as sometimes relieving one’s self took longer than one initially thought it would and one would have to flush the toilet a second time to clear out the lemony-colored water from the bowl. and even more infuriating, sometimes, if it was one of those old house toilets, you had to wait almost two full minutes for the toilet tank to contain enough water in order to flush a second time. and yet, as stupid as i used to think it was to continue the habit of flushing before finishing, today i do it, even after congratulating myself in my youth for not following my father’s example. i do it and i know exactly from whom i got this habit.


what i don’t know is what all else i got from him. i’ve never done a complete inventory and the reason i never did this inventory is because even though i have one of his habits that i often thought didn’t make sense, and even though i look like him, today i am forced to admit i never knew him well enough to know whether there are other aspects of him that i keep alive. most of us never really know our parents personally as individuals, we only know them as the older people who had us and who, if we are lucky, took good care of us. yet is it not true that there is no future that is not intimate with the past?


whether we know our parents and forbears, whether we look like them, whether we have their temperament or proclivities, their way of walking or talking, way of bearing pain or grudges, whether we love them and talk with them often, or could care less and have not seen them in decades, whether they live now or have transitioned to ancestorhood, whatever, whether whatever, the simple truth is: an essential part of all we are is shaped by whatever our parents have been (even if we don’t know who or what they were)—their influence on our fate is inescapable.


—kalamu ya salaam