Sunday, May 25, 2014

“Borne On The Wings Of Strain”: On A Song By Gil Scott-Heron And Brian Jackson (on the third anniversary of GSH's death)

“Shah Mot” is one of the most infectious recordings Gil Scott Heron did with Brian Jackson. It first captivates with its slow funk; a perfect mesh of the rhythm section with the keyboards and vocals that establishes a tone of “cool” the polar opposite of the “angry (anguished) young man” stylings that characterize his earlier recordings on his debut “new black poet” albums of a decade earlier  (Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and half of Free Will). “Shah Mot” is Miles Davis cool, pre-disco Lou Rawls cool, and especially Bill Withers cool (it sounds great next to “Use Me, and, like that song, “Shah Mot” should have been a hit). It’s not a “tear up the dancefloor” kind of song, but every instrument, including Gil Scott Heron’s low, resonant, voice, contributes to establishing this pocket; in fact, much of the groove (as in hip hop) comes from the vocals as from the non-vocal elements.

Often Brian Jackson and Gil Scott Heron would both play keyboards. Their twin keyboard attack rivals any of more celebrated guitar tandems (or guitar/keyboard tandems for that matter) in the “album oriented” era. While guitar tandems often adhere to a by now conventional division of labor between lead and rhythm guitars (with some notable exceptions: at one pole, the VU’s tilt toward rhythm guitars and, at the other pole, the Allman Brothers dual leads), when GSH and Brian Jackson work together, GSH plays R&B/gospel stylings and Brian Jackson plays jazz chords and leads. Together, the combination is greater than the sum of it parts and provides a layered, yet explosive sonic burst reminiscent of Sly Stone’s early collaborations with Billy Preston, but which, for whatever reasons, have not been tried much since---certainly not with the success GSH and Brian Jackson had. In “Shah Mot,” Brian’s keyboards dominate.

Even though this song, and the album on which it appears, 1980, highlight the electronic synthesizer wizardry of producer Malcolm Cecil, it still has enough of that acoustic driven-sound to be a breath of fresh air compared to the slick overproduced disco and increasingly antiseptic “soul,” that was dominating radio, even Black radio, during this time. Hearing his warm, intimate, melodic talking vocals speaking from within the pocket, you can understand why GSH was always happiest playing small clubs. I would probably love this song regardless of its words. Yet the words and their meanings are such an integral, organic part of this whole, the song absolutely needs to be heard to understand the greatness of GSH’s art as an embodiment of The Black Arts aesthetic.

The message of the song could be summarized easily. As Rap says: “Shah Mot” is a poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron that aims to portray the similarities in the struggles of the Iranians during the Iranian Revolution and of Black Americans against the White man.” This is a good place to start, yet this summary is no replacement for the innovative, abstract, strangeness of its tone of lyrical address. With no need of specialized vocabulary, GSH comes off like a professor at an all-black school (like Federal City College, where he taught at until 1975 before his contract with Arista took up too much of his time), addressing the new generation of college-educated black petty-bourgeois of the 1970s Though the message is as revolutionary as anything from Small Talk, “Shah Mot” is not merely a didactic, preachy topical song. Its lyrics challenge the English-speaking listeners (including himself as listener) to think about who we are, and what our relationship to the then recent overthrow of The Shah of Iran has to our life (and it speaks to today).

Rather than simply making that international connection (as he had done in earlier songs like “Third World Revolution” or “Johannesburg,” Gil takes a different lyrical approach from the beginning, one that has the power to hook with its verbal rhythms, internal rhymes and alliterations that make you wonder who, or what, is speaking, who is being spoken to, and what is being spoken about. It begins with a riddle:

My name is “What’s your name?”
I am the voice of same
Remembering things that I told me yesterday
My name is what’s your name
I am inside your frame
We saw the devils had to make them go away
My name is what’s your name
You may reject my claim
But I expect that you won’t vary from the norm
My name is what’s your name
Ours is a single aim
And we can double recognize the needed form[i]

If we are not already clued in to the things that he told himself (on his 11 previous albums), this may all seem very abstract. While the first five lines of this verse employ the “I” speaking to “you” convention, the “identity” of this speaker is “in question” as the post-structuralists would put it: this “identity” is created by words, and is not a singular biographical “person,” but a question of conscience. Nor is it some “I Am The Walrus” wordplay. Every word has weight: it’s no mere schizoid split of subjectivity in an interior monologue, but an absolute identification with our “single aim” and the collaborative, mutual double recognition that must occur to find a necessary form to embody this aim. This “identity” is grounded, and made whole, by the use of the collective plural pronouns: “we” and “ours” as if to transcend the divided language of the double-consciousness which DuBois wrote is the perennial affliction of Black folks in segregated America.

In the lyrics, there is really no “I” (as standard English understands it), but an aim in search of that needed mutually created form. The aim, of course, is liberation, right here in the land of the free... and the home of the slave. Yet the song itself could be seen as one needed form; starting (‘strictly musically’) with a symbiotic “double recognition” between Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron beyond the reductive distinction between “arrangement” (arranger) and “songwriting” (song-writer), much less ‘words by Gil; music by Brian.’ Hell, don’t forget Malcolm Cecil, or the band who may very well prefer to hide behind Gil and Brian’s name (unless it’s played on a jazz station back in those days when they when they were still contractually obligated to name every jazz, if not r&b, musician). This form reaches outside of itself drawing the listener into it, but letting her expand it in many possible ways (outside the island the corporations and schools call ‘art’).

The music of this verse is just as slinky/funky as the groove that does not merely “accompany” it. As the song transitions to the bridge, the rhythm of the vocal phrasing changes seamlessly, and the call to action steps to the foreground:

Put it in the streets, tell everybody you meet
Do whatever you do whenever you hear the war drums beat
Put it in the air, spread it everywhere
Do whatever you do whenever
You know you got to be there..[1]

This is as much a call for solidarity and revolution as the lyrics to any Gil Scott Heron piece, but it’s also fun, ‘mellowed with age,’ if not quite ‘weary.’ Hence, cool. Contrast this with the more in-your-face confrontational emotionalized way the same message is presented in 1970.  “You will not be able to stay at home, brother.” The same aim. Older—maybe wiser—or just using a different sonic idiom to remember things he told himself back then---reminding himself as well as anybody else who listens of the single aim for a needed form (which could be called revolution or it could be a strong “foundation for black capitalism,” as “Brother” called for a decade earlier—the two are not incompatible if the single aim is liberation of all oppressed people).

The phrase “hear the war drums beat” is acted out by the drums on the recording, but’s it not the urgent congas of the spoken-word rhythm & blues pieces. GSH and Brian’s age in 1980 averaged only 29/30, but they grew up fast (this was GSH’s 11th album in 10 years!).  The war drums repeat with “You know you got to be there.” The propulsion seamlessly seques into the chorus to help answer the question that might arise: where? Where do we have to be? 

Shah Mot: You only take it as a symbol
Shah Mot: Look closely who does it resemble

You "got to be" in Iran, even if you just stay home (where the hatred is). Just as the segregated cities of Detroit, Philly and Oakland are like Apartheid South Africa, so can they be like those throwing off the yoke of Colonialism and Imperialism like Iran. 

Yes, the Iranians were victorious in overthrowing, or checkmating, the Shah of Iran, that puppet who was installed by American and Anglo-Iranian Oil Companies (the original name of British Petroleum was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company), and at the time GSH wrote this song, the movement was made up of a coalition of religious fundamentalists no more than it was college-educated secular socialists (before the former turned against the latter). This “symbol” could provide a blueprint for a needed form.

This strange thought-provoking couplet, rhyming “symbol” and “resemble,” is also the song’s vocal climax, as his slow intimate enunciated talk-singing edges closer to the call and response of the black church (as the background voices chant the Farsi-flavored title, and he responds with his long-drawn out near-shout to highlight the “symbol/resemble” rhyme).  After the bridge and the chorus grounds the meaning of the song, the second verse becomes clearer:

My name is what your name
If you can recall the change
Then you can dig that we’ve been put into a trance
My name is what you do
I am inside of you
I’ve been here ever since the day you learned to stand.
My name is what’s your name
Born on the wings of strain
Ours is the justice that has long been overdue
My name is what to do
But you already knew
And now the clouds of when and how come into view

I take the “change” he’s asking his listener to “recall” as the post-Civil-Rights-era white supremacist reaction to civil rights the black community and America experienced during the decade in which GSH was making albums. The corporate propaganda machine had become more subtly adept at devising strategies to put people into a “trance,” if you can dig that![ii] You many notice, too, that he uses the word “stand” instead of “dance” (which would be the more obvious proper rhyme); not that the GSH makes an absolute distinction between the two activities, although ‘stand’ does have more practical revolutionary connotations (Marley and Tosh don’t sing, “Get Up, Dance Up”---at least in that song; Sly Sone commands us to "Dance" as well as to "Stand!"). “Born on the wings of strain,” is a beautiful singular line to express the perennial struggle of Africans in the land called America.

Many of the phrases here echo, support, or flesh out, lines in the first verse: “The single aim” is the demand for “the justice that’s long been overdue” and the identity of “self” and “other” is evident when he tells us “I ain’t telling you something you don’t already know” (as Malcolm X would put it). The clouds of when and how” is a striking image that takes repeated listening to digest. Clouds are a vague, transient, form, they become more clearly visible in the chorus’ demand to put it in the streets, like a boombox more than an ipod, or maybe a megaphone. At the very least call for a National holiday for Martin Luther King, like Stevie Wonder was doing at the time (see GSH’s The Last Holiday). Still, GSH knows that “clouds” can only do so much.

These “clouds” of ways and means can take many forms, and he’s asking the listener to help lead him to help flesh them out, to give direction to the movement: that’s why he leaves this “needed form” vague: “do whatever you do whenever you hear the war drums beat.” Singing may be what GSH does, but you may do whatever, as long as you’re not so deep in a trance that you can’t even hear these drums.

After another Bridge and Chorus, he repeats a shortened version of the first verse, as if to summarize:

My name is “What’s your name?”
I am the voice of sane
Remembering things that I told me yesterday
My name is what’s your name
I am inside your frame
We saw the devils had to make them go away

He conspicuously avoids the word “pain” in these rhymes, but it’s there beneath the surface. The subtle change from “Same” to “Sane” here reveals the song’s hard won balance between anger, funk and the cool rational rhetorical mode of persuasion ostensibly more acceptable in ‘integrated’ America. “Shah Mot” thus becomes an intimate anthem for what D.H. Lawrence might have called “A Sane Revolution.” Repeating “I am inside your frame” de-emphasizes the internal conundrums by emphasizing the unity of “inner harmony” with “collective unity.” And “devils” is more likely used the way Malcolm X used it than, say, Frank O’Hara did.

After this, the song moves to its conclusion by repeating the bridge and chorus and a funky keyboard-driven instrumental comp, before ending cleanly, and with effective brutal dramatic finality, on the words “Shah Mot!” (you can hear the exclamation point; checkmate---but now with a knowledge that chess is not the ultimately needed form!)

GSH’s art and culture work is much more than this single song, but I devote so much time to this one to make a case for the brilliance and continued relevance of GSH for any understanding of both African-American culture and American Culture (including Poetry) in the last third of the 20th century. Music and poetry can provide a needed form to help push against this trance and help uplift the community and fight white supremacy---can it? The self-doubt comes doesn’t come until later…

 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had been working relentlessly for over a decade, and after this album (whose final song ends with the phrase, “been out on the road one day too long”) was released, they decided too take a much needed 6 month vacation. Yet, during this time, the music business “suits” had finally succeeded in breaking up this partnership. Pushing him to go out on the road again, appealing to his need for money for his new wife and daughter, GSH found himself on tour with Stevie Wonder. While certainly GSH was happy to share the stage with one of his musical heroes, who was engaging in an important work of activism (and his performance on With Ossie and Ruby on PBS with a new band is an aesthetic triumph), yet there is a telling, and very sad moment, in his memoir The Last Holiday, in which he writes: “I still wanted to believe I was a better lyricist, but there was mounting evidence to the contrary on an album of surgical sensitivity called Hotter Than July.”(275) I think Stevie Would be the first to disagree with this self-assessment.

This may have challenged GSH to write some of his best work in the next few years—the great socio-cultural analysis of America that is “B-Movie,” for instance. But, by 1984, when he released “Re-Ron,” another track about “how we gonna open the door for 1984,” his label Arista had been bought by the conglomerate RCA—another sign of the times in this de-regulated merger-happy corporatocracy. To the executives, GSH had become a “re-run” who had never written that “crossover hit” they’d been at him for ever since Clive Davis took him to an Elton John class (never blaming themselves for not pushing his music more, or for the way they helped destroy the context from which he came).

More than many, GSH’s work has been the victim of the “biographical fallacy,” but if Artaud could argue that Vincent Van Gogh was “suicided by society,” certainly GSH, who created an amazingly multi-faceted body of work against much harsher social conditions that were occurring in America in these times, should be looked at as a man who survived while many people who dared to boldly speak the truths he spoke had been killed, shut-up, or bought-off. R.I.P GSH, your spirit lives and fights on.

[1] The one word I’m not sure about—does he say “spread” or “spit.” What do you think?

[i] The lyrical form tweaks what some musicologists call a “blues form” with its 3 line stanzas (AAB) in which the second line repeats the first (Shresta, 1). In “Shah-Mot,” the second rhyme repeats the first, but you can see the “resolution” or new statement on the last line of each triad. The rhyming structure of the lyrics could be diagramed to practical effect: First verse AAB AAB AAC AAC
Bridge & Chorus DDEED/FFEEF GG Second Verse AAH IIH AAI IIII. Rhyme is a mimetic device for a musician. The structure is tight, and for the most part mathematically precise. While many of the end-rhymes are based on words that rhyme with “name” (like strain and sane), the variations that occur in the second verse when he switches the question to “My name is what you do” and the rhymes “you,” “do” “knew” “view” become dominant. The mere sounds of these phonemes serve to open the lyrical address up to the “new” rather than the same old name. As in blues, the personal woes are subsumed in the harsh realities of the world under white supremacy.

[ii] And if you can’t dig it, here’s a passage from his unfinished memoir, published shortly after his death in 2012:
What was special about the 60s was that there was only one thing happening, one movement. And that was the civil rights movement. There were different organizations coming from different angles because of geography, but in essence everybody had the same objective. It came so suddenly, from so many different angles, things happening in so many different towns and cities at once, that the "powers that be" were caught off-guard.

Until the 60s, "the movement" had been the exclusive property of middle-aged and old people. Then it became a young people thing, and as the 60s opened up, the key word became "activism", with Stokely Carmichael and the SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], "freedom rides" [challenging segregation on interstate buses], and sit-ins. There was a new feeling of power in black communities. And once it got started, it was on the powers like paint.

But at some point a difference was created between "equality", "freedom" and "civil rights". Those differences were played up because something had to be done about the sudden unity among black folks all over the country. Folks got more media attention whenever they accentuated the differences. There were media-created splinters. Otherwise the civil rights movement would have been enough, and would have been more successful. Accomplishing the aims of the movement would have made "gay rights" and "women's rights" and "lefts and rights" extraneous.

But divide and conquer was the aim of programmes such as cointelpro COINTELPRO [the FBI's covert attempt to infiltrate and disrupt groups deemed "subversive"]. And even though it ended up working damn near backward, it worked. They separated the fingers on the hand and gave each group a different demand; we lost our way.  (290-291)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

KPOO 89.5 FM: A Force For Community Building And Intergenerational Cultural Pride

“The generation gap is another evil plan. The result of which divided the family structure, therefore creating a halt to the flow of wisdom from the wise to the young, and stifling the energy of the young which is the equalizer to wisdom and age.” Kenny Gamble, 1975 (O'Jays Family Reunion Liner Notes)

 Dr. Oba T’Shaka writes that there is a need within the African-American community for an increased “dialogue between the generations that will provide the basis for intergenerational programming that addresses spirit, cultural, economic, family, political, educational and international issues that face that Race” (The Integration Trap, 40). One model that currently exists to help facilitate this is the programming of San Francisco’s community-run radio station KPOO. As an existing community-based organization, KPOO has continued to survive even as the neighborhood in which it physically resides and from which it grew, the Fillmore District, has been under siege by hostile external forces, such as the developer’s greed that has recently forced the closure of the nation’s oldest black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books.  KPOO itself, like Marcus Books, is struggling to survive against these same forces, yet for over 40 years it has remained a beacon of hope even in this era in which the diaspora is taking the form of black expulsion  (black flight) from both San Francisco and Oakland, and other large metropolitan areas nation wide.

KPOO (both as a terrestrial radio station and an “on-line presence”) still maintains an infrastructure in place to help provide the “intergenerational organization and intergenerational programming that will make the community whole” (T’Shaka, 136), through “sharing the wisdom of our elders with the creativity of our youth.” Even under siege, the medium of community radio holds the power to supplement and complement, “door-to-door, block-by-block” organizing efforts already in motion on a grassroots level (just a great football team needs a good ground game as well as an aerial attack; or a great D-line as well as secondary since the best offense is a great defense, and not just in the NFL).

KPOO in many ways airs out a dialogue in both music and words in the black community today. Although most of its radio personalities (and they are all personalities) are over 50, and one can hear the same generation gap manifested in its programming, this is not due to any dogmatic policy. In fact, there is a need and desire expressed by many of this station’s elders to work more closely with youths (of the underserved communities) to widen the dialogue and strengthen connections without simply replacing the old with the new.

Such “replacement” would defeat the purpose of intergenerational community building and simply perpetuate the “evil plan,” of which Kenny Gamble wrote, the strategies and programs of the white-run corporate media to segregate disciplines into genres and generational “niches” to create historical amnesia and cultural fragmentation (as if Kanye West should be framed primarily in context of Jay Z or Taylor Swift rather than, say, Curtis Mayfield, Sonia Sanchez, Adam Clayton Powell, or Gil Scott-Heron--who Kanye, by the way, samples-- all of whom I hear regularly on KPOO).

Within the economic limits it’s legally mandated to adhere to, by necessity of having to be non-profit and volunteer run, KPOO is the most visible (that is, to say, audible) alternative to the white-run media as well as the white-run education system. This little radio station is a living embodiment of many of the best aspects that the Black Arts Movement and Black Studies Programs have called for. Pedagogically, KPOO glories in the interdisciplinary emphasis at the core of Ethnic Studies Programs, which were established to address the structural limits of the Euro-American education system and create an that is more relevant to the currently under-served student populations.

Listening to KPOO around the house could give your family a model for cultural empowerment as well as provide knowledge of self and the richness of African-American cultural traditions that is not offered in the white run public school system. Because it is a primarily oral, and aural, hieroglyphic medium, it allows a wider ranger of expression than the European over-emphasis on the linear written word, and thus provides a useful counterbalance to the American Education system which marginalizes the value of the living-word, so central to the African-American cultural traditions and those who excel at oral forms of expression.

KPOO offers an intelligent legitimate immersion into the richness of what became unjustly maligned as “Ebonics.” Ebonics was devised in part to afford black students the same status as other students (Latino, and Asian, for instance)—who have the benefit of (standard written) English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) courses that allow them to be culturally bi-lingual. Ebonics’ inclusion in a public-schools curriculum remains a strategy that should be encouraged in order to make education more honest and relevant to the needs of the young and the community at large, and help decrease the drop-out rate in the absence of alternative schools that encourage one to become culturally bi-lingual---which becomes a necessity for empowerment in this society. KPOO takes this culture as a home base, even while providing exposure to intellectuals who have written brilliant books in standard English.

Because KPOO’s educational programming is never far divorced from its entertainment programming, the vast majority of its programming can be understood as educational (even if no tests are given, and it lacks accredited “value”)—in part because the best of African-American cultural traditions cannot be understood in terms of the imposed specialized distinction between them. For instance, even shows that are entirely musical, like the 60s and 70sR&B shows of JJ-On-The-Radio, have inspired and educated younger folks of all races who listen to this music that is in danger of being erased, and decontextualized, in the absence of a curator such as JJ.

Entertainment As Education

The “primary function” of these old songs JJ and others play may be just to get people dancing—or as JJ puts it, his “scratched and distorted sounds” can “make you feel younger” (and not just if you’re old, though obviously that’s his primary demographic; in fact, more younger white neo-mods, and record collector geeks tend to listen to his show than the youth of the current so-called ‘hip hop generation’). But even these few words, which JJ repeats often during his shows, are a history lesson—reminding people what records were, specifically 45RPM records, often on black run small record labels, and what was, and still is, valuable, beautiful and practical about such records in this high-tech age (it’s not entirely a coincidence that the heyday of this recorded format parallels the heyday of the black middle-class and the mid-century black liberation movement).

The records JJ and other KPOO DJS play can tell you many things about the inside, can reach people from the inside-out, before face-to-face meetings and organizing can occur (especially given the destruction of locally-owned nightlife, safe, affordable, public places to dance, in particular for ‘underage’ people). It tells you about the soul of family relationships (both positive and negative), from a relatively safer distance rendered into art. And these family relationships expressed in the lyrics of even the most ostensibly benign ‘shake your hips’ songs are as much a part of The Struggle as the economic, electoral and religious dimensions are (as Amiri Baraka points out, the word for the dance James Brown did, the boogaloo, came from Bogalusa, LA, where the Deacons of Self Defense made a heroic stand against the KKK).

In fact, many of the older songs JJ and other DJS play, were an inspiration for the mid-century civil rights organizing and mobilization. JJ has also been an intergenerational inspiration and education to the younger DJS on the station, like DJ X-1, who plays mostly local “underground” (i.e. community-based, locally oriented) hip hop. KPOO provides a much more capacious forum to play music to put the younger generation and the newer generation into more explicit dialogue with each other, and air out many conflicts that exist within the black community. All are expressed and negotiated in the living art form of song as broadcast on a community radio station.

There are of course aesthetic disagreements: many elders today in the black community claim they don’t like most post-1992 hip hop aesthetically, but they get the message. Conversely, younger folks feel that way about the older music. Yet, when I’ve used JJ’s radio program as part of a class-assignment, as a text in a classroom, I’ve found that it can encourage students to do historical and cultural research in ways that speak to them more than “standard” texts. Even if younger people do not appreciate the ‘dated’ aesthetics of this musical language (“oh, that’s my great grandma’s music”), they can value it educationally when comparing and contrasting it with the more recent music that is in their primary comfort zone.

 One of my students brilliantly compared Kanye West’s “New Slaves” to the O’Jay’s “Backstabbers” and put both of these songs—separated by over 40 years—into dialogue with each other to render each a deeper experience that raised many questions for moving forward as a person, and as a people. This kind of intergenerational juxtaposition helps “preserve, protect, and perpetuate” the cultural pride and unity Oba T’Shaka calls for when he writes “as we promote dialogues between the blues, soul, and funk generation with the hip hop generation, we must draw upon our cultural strengths to carry on an intergenerational transmission of African American culture.” (330).

KPOO’S Public Affairs Programming

In contrast to the talk-heavy format of Pacifica’s KPFA and NPR, there is a balance between music and talk. Even the “strictly verbal” programming on KPOO is never strictly verbal (as whites generally understand that term; coming from a less verbally expressive culture). For instance, on KPOO I’ve heard “strictly verbal” historical recordings as a performance on Black History by young Newark students called “The Spirit House Movers” (organized by Amiri Baraka in 1968), included on the programs by DJs---I’ll say Professors—Donald Lacy and Terry Collins; speeches and interviews with Marvin X (of Black Arts West), novelist Judy Juanita (a former professor at Laney College), as well as news on contemporary struggles, including Mumia Jamal’s speeches from Death Row on Prison Radio.

I’ve also heard lectures by African healers who ground (or root) their rejection of Western Medicine in African spirit practices (not distinct from the powerful “root doctors” and conjurers during Slavery times in the US). One doctor, Dr. Sebi, recently caused controversy with the medical “establishment” because he had had success curing people from this disease. Sebi stated how the standard American diet based on “blood and starch” has caused an excess of mucus in the standard ‘healthy’ American diet. This (to say nothing of the increased injection of added toxins such as corn syrup, et al, into the fast food industry that clearly poisons people for profit) has severely hindered the health-potentials of African Americans in particular: “We didn’t eat this way in Africa.” His program of communal holistic health, and his musical language, taps into primordial somatic rhythms that I’ve found much more convincing, and useful, than even the white alternative  “non-western” wellness craze, which is still primarily individualistic in orientation: I need to hear him more, but the AMA, in conjunction with Big Pharma and Food lobbyists, has thoroughly “discredited” him and limited his presence in the national discussion. (

In the wide range of such programming, KPOO presents a syllabus that lets listeners form their own opinion. One DJ featured a lecture by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, who wrote The Isis Papers, yet with the disclaimer—even to her largely black audience—that you may not agree with this, but it’s important to hear this brilliant, if controversial, woman who influenced Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet. Where else are you going to hear this outside of a Black Studies Program? (or self-governing K-12 school that KPOO can help whet your appetite for).

On a seemingly lighter note, I’ve heard show called Sacred/Secular (in which that split in the black community is entertainingly addressed by two brothers) and call-in debates on whether The Seattle Seahawks would win the 2014 Superbowl (a discussion that became implicitly racially charged in the wake of the white media’s “thug” portrayal of Seahawks Cornerback Richard Sherman vs. the great white hope that Peyton Manning represented).

Even the non-verbal programming, such as African-American Classical Music (or you can call it Jazz) can include inspiring verbal aphorisms from St. John Coltrane; or historical education in Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” or even the conservative curmodgeon Stanley Crouch’s “Sermon” performed by Obama’s ex-preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright set to music by Wynton Marsalis. In the context of KPOO, Marsalis is not allowed to dominate or tyrannize with the narrow view of “jazz” that Ken Burns pushed in the white-media. KPOO also makes ample room for the Black Church its gospel music programs. One of its most important political community interventions is broadcasting the meetings of the Hunter’s Point Citizens Advisory Committee—another frontline in the struggle against “redevelopment” (read “land grab”).

Oba T’Shaka believes that we must start to ground any hope of liberation of the oppressed African American people with the family, by cultivating and resurrecting the “Twin-lineal extended family paradigm.” A radio station like KPOO can be a highly useful tool in the linking of any new block/neighborhood/city “intergenerational culturally grounded organization” (139) with “existing community organizations and churches.” Clearly, Donald Lacy emphasizes the core importance of family on his weekly show, “Wake Up, Everybody” (a phrase borrowed from the Harold Melvin song).

Lacy himself lost a daughter to violence, and uses his forum to rebuild from that on his radio show, as well as his community activism off-the-radio (the Love Life Foundation), like a teacher serving as a parent in an extended family, challenging his or her students (and teachers) to “be the best human beings possible” so that men and women can work together to be cosmic harmonizers--and heal more than his own personal grief and trauma. In this sense, KPOO is not only a community organization, but also a clearing house, a larger meta-organization that fosters a coalition between various grassroots organizations with its programming (including Latina, Native American, and international; such as a show called “Arab Talk”) that can “heal our nuclear families.”

San Francisco’s African American Population has decreased from 10% to 5% in the last 20 years, while Oakland’s African American population has decreased from 43% to 26% during the same time----to the detriment of the culture of both cities as a whole—and this process is accelerating in an era of Google busses, but the continual presence of KPOO for over four decades is one of the most enduring cultural organizations that came out of the victories fought for during the Civil Rights, and Black Power Movements of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Its presence helped fill a void that had previously been met in no small measure by black commercial radio, but was beginning to change when the corporate dominance of the music broadcasting industry put local black-owned stations (such as James Brown’s radio stations) out of business, and drove legendary R&B personality DJS like Jack Gibson out of the industry while the ones that survived, like WBLS in NYC, had to increasingly include more white musicians to lure white corporate advertising dollars just to survive. These days black commercial radio has all but vanished from the airwaves, yet KPOO with its wider scope, and communityemphasis, comes much closer to representing the “Total Black Experience In Sound” as WBLS claimed to around the time KPOO was founded.

A Call To Action

Like any radio station, KPOO is always available at the flick of a switch. And, in contrast to the post-1968 increased corporate dominance of the commercial (and even non-commercial) radio airwaves, there are real people one can contact through the phone (a request line; a talk line) allowing two-way non-hierarchical communication. The “jocks” are accessible, and all have purposes and causes—including the cause of keeping the station alive.

Embrace this tradition! I can almost guarantee you that you’ll find something of great worth. Donate, if you can; buy a t-shirt. And, if you cannot afford to donate money by virtue of being part of the “working homeless,” add your voice to it; KPOO encourages it. Use your airtime wisely. Help expand it—even by writing about it; turn people onto it (it’s amazing how few people know about it here in Oakland, but know about KPFA). Doing so may even help you find a job, especially if you love music and culture and have interest and skills as a “content provider.”

KPOO also can provide an alternative to the increased dehumanization and disembodiment encouraged by the 21st century computer-based technocracy in most fields of social endeavor, even while understanding that these have become necessities as Harrison Chastang does with his “Tech Hour.”

Even if you feel isolated and turned-in-on-yourself in a solitude that no one else understands and feel you lack “social (and high-tech) skills” that your elders, and/or potential employers, appreciate, you have something to say, something to “bring to the table,” and KPOO wants to hear it. In fact, bringing the creativity and energy of youth will help KPOO in its struggle to serve the community, to serve you better, and push back against the individualistic, materialistic bling bling corporate culture’s program of genocide, for instance.

Radio still has the power to help ground the spirit for the  “Face-to-face” encounters, especially in a culture of chronic distrust and suspicion---not merely the justifiably suspicion blacks have toward whites, but also the suspicion that blacks have toward other blacks---which was exactly what the white power structure planned from the beginning. This is why they would be so happy to see KPOO vanish from the airwaves---and, in fact, passed a law not long after KPOO was founded (circa 1979) to prevent any more stations like it to appear again (and yes, NPR lobbyists played a part in implementing this FCC regulation).

We need more stations like KPOO; Oakland needs one. Brooklyn and The Bronx needs one; Philly needs one. When I say KPOO, I do not mean these stations must have exactly the same model. Such new stations can do not have to start from the initiative of elders, but could start from the youth; either way the generations can meet in this ageless medium. For instance, a collective of youth could form to start a podcast, a web-only radio station, with the eventual goal of seizing—or occupying--the airwaves. If you (plural) feel it is a worthy goal, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. The elders at KPOO have some wisdom they are more than happy to share to help. What needs to be understood is that, even in the 21st Century, radio broadcasting, is an important cite of the struggle for cultural empowerment. Radio still has the power to cut deeper than TV or ‘social media’, and KPOO uses it to its fullest to encourage the racial pride so necessary to counter the white supremacist cultural policies that permeate every aspect of American society.

Indeed, KPOO is an important forum for the dialogue between the generations that will “provide the basis for intergenerational programming that addresses the spirit, cultural, economic, family, political, educational and international uses the face the race.” KPOO shows, as T’Shaka writes that, “it is spirit that makes the blues the spirituals. It is spirit that makes the gospel sacred blues. It is spirit that makes jazz blues and spirituals. It is funk that makes hip hop the blues and the spirituals”(114). Feel the spirit. Help KPOO Survive and Thrive in the 21st Century! It could help heal the generation gap, and pass own the richness of a culture in danger of being eradicated.