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.

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