Saturday, September 23, 2006

Is Hip Hop Going the Way of Jazz?

So back to Europe with this week's entry, and I'll try to be brief.

My friend Ajamu has posed the question, "Is hip hop going the way of jazz?"

Several years ago, maybe 10, I was in Paris. My hair was in locks. And as I wandered through the narrow streets near the Pompidou Center, a group of children began to follow me as if I was a celebrity. They thought I was an American hip hopper. Salt 'n Peppa? (or perhaps Salt or Peppa?) They flattered me.

Years later, I was in Moscow dancing in a club called Pravda or something not-so-clever like that. I recall that rather than having beer on tap, they had vodka on tap. And I could go on and on about my vodka experiences in Russia, but that's not the purpose of this entry. Anyhoo, I remember dancing to a bit of House of Pain. Before I knew it, me and my locked hair, once again found ourselves attracting a crowd. This time, it was a group of twenty-something Russian men who gathered around me in a circle, as if worshiping me, and screaming the lyrics to "Jump Around" at the tops of their lungs. JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! Later when I tried to speak to them in English, they knew nary a word.

Last month, while in Hamburg, I was walking through a street fair, by a live stage, when to my great surprise I heard hip hop in German. A few days later, I was walking through a similar street fair in Amsterdam, by a similar live stage when ironically I heard hip hop in Dutch.

It's one thing to visit the suburbs and find white, middle-class suburban kids in listening to hip hop in their Sean John and Fubu. That's one thing. It's another thing altogether to come across avid European fans, who perhaps have never set foot in the birth country of hip hop who do not speak a work of English.

So as I'm discussing this with my friend, he suggests that hip hop is going the way of jazz. Do you remember the 20's and 30's when African Americans became jazz superstars in Europe? Josephine Baker? Or later, my father's cousin, the saxophonist Clyde Barnhardt? (Okay, maybe he wasn't as big as Ms. Baker, but he made his mark). My Aunt Helen's brother-in-law, a beloved member of our extended family, the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, headlined in Paris in the 50's and 60's. At the time, he was known more widely in France than in the U.S. where he lived in Duke Ellington's shadow as his principle songwriter. Baker, Strayhorn, and Barnhardt received the celebration in Europe that alluded them in the U.S. during their lifetimes.

And speaking of hip hop.

On that stage in Amsterdam there was also a young brother who rapped in English. He seemed as though maybe he was from the suburbs rather than Bed-Stuy or South Central. He seemed more Tiger Woods to me than 50 Cent. But he was a star at that particular moment on a late summer afternoon in Holland.

To all those aspiring rappers who for one reason or another may not splash here where the competition is quite fierce, Amsterdam is a damn nice city.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

September 11th in New York

For the past 10 days or so, September 11th articles have been featured in the local papers and the New York Times. Perhaps you've seen them. Can't say this time of year is festive in New York, though the weather is good. No Macy's parade in the offing. No, excepting Fashion Week, this is the time of year when there is a heavy pall in the air. Tomorrow is September 11th.

I didn't live in New York on September 11, 2001. I lived in Boston. It was a Tuesday, and that meant I was teaching my environmental justice course at Tufts with my friend Julian. Julian and I fashioned ourselves as a bit of Regis and Kathy Lee (it was Kathy Lee back then). Or maybe we were Matt and Katie, because I would never associate either one of us -- neithher Julian nor I -- with the ditzy sidekick to Regis Philbin. Anyway, just before 9 a.m., a student of ours, Kevin, excused himself to use the loo. (I say loo here, as Julian is British.) Kevin was a gifted undergraduate student who enrolled in our graduate school class. We all know how difficult a graduate school class taught by Matt and Katie can be, but Kevin had the courage to take us on. Anyway, he was young, and he looked it. When he returned to the room that morning, the normally shy Kevin interrupted the class to tell us two planes had just flown into the World Trade Center. His boyish face was chalky white. His speech was choppy.

Silence fell over the room. For a moment we were all suspended in disbelief. My eyes rested for a moment on the cheap photograph of the New York City nighttime skyline hanging on the wall. It was purplish, with a reflection of the world trade center glistening in the water. Kevin just had to be mistaken.

I left Julian with the students while I went into the departmental office to check with the administrative staff. Sure enough, the ladies were morose and quite literally in a state of shock. "It's true," they confirmed.

Back in the classroom, a few students were hysterical. One student had a brother who worked at Goldman Sachs. The other had a cousin who was manager of Windows on the World. At the mention of Windows on the World, my mind flashed to the memory of having gin and tonics there with Kate after a successful day of shopping at Century 21.

I gave my mobile phone to one student so she could phone her brother. The lines were jammed. Because the two flights originated in Boston, we were in a communications gridlock. Julian rushed the two crying students to his office to use his landline. Class was cancelled.

In the end, it turned out that the brother who worked at Goldman Saches was on a business trip to London. The cousin who worked at Windows on the World hadn't arrived at work yet.

The rest of what I remember about that day was how all the offices closed down. Everything. I remember rushing home in my car with my radio turned to NPR. The information was minimal and confused. I remember that my sisters contacted me, frantic at the thought that perhaps I was on one of those flights because I traveled the Boston-L.A. route from time-to-time.

It was on that day that I adopted my sweet Louisa, because I had to find something to take me out of my apartment and away from the TV. (The little darling.) Anyway, just like the generation before me knows where they were and what they were doing when they heard JFK had been shot, I remember September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.

So last week, the New York Times ran an article on the 911 conspiracy theory.
That's the theory, simply put, that 9/11 was an inside job. When I watched the Internet film, "Loose Change," I got a knot in my thoat. I refused to talk about it. But these these theories are so prevalent that the National Institute on Standards and Technology saw fit to publish a seven-page report updating it's 10,000 page report on the World Trade Center crashes.

I didn't lose anyone on 9/11, although, since I lived in Boston, I was one degree separation from two people. John Ogonowski was the pilot. He lived in Dracut, Massachusetts. He bought farmland so that Vietnamese immigrants living in the Lowell area could practice their agrarian lifestyle. I worked with the Lowell Center for Work, Family, and Community at UMASS Lowell, a group that worked very closely with him on his farm project. Flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney was the wife of someone who worked in the same state government agency as me.

So what can I say about the conspiracy theories here in cyberspace without raising the ire of Big Brother? It pains me that our country has plummeted so low that we can believe something so sinister about our government. Whether it's true or not, we've lost pretty much all faith in our leaders. It is tragic. I'm horrified that the pain people suffered and continue to suffer year after year could have been engineered as a political strategy. I'm sickened.

After tomorrow, I'm back to writing about donuts and fashion for the next 52 weeks. I promise.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ich bin ein Berliner

A Berliner, much to the embarrassment of President John F. Kennedy, is what you might recognize from visiting your local Krispy Kreme as a jelly donut. (Yum!) Obviously, I'm not actually a delicious doughy pastry with sweet jelly inside and powdered sugar on the outside. But I've seen the promised land, and I must say, I can certainly see myself living there. So, I may not be any more ein Berliner than JFK, but I get his point. (Or as they say in German -- ich verstehe was er meint.)

I spent two full weeks drinking beer and homemade schnapps and eating wurst and schnitzel (and, oddly enough, a ton of Greek food). And though I do miss the charm and the history that most Americans will never know -- unless they or their loved ones suffered in the Holocaust or fought in World War II or lived in a Nazi-occupied country during the War -- I'm glad to be back in Brooklyn. But just what do I mean about that history comment? It's difficult to articulate.

When I first met my husband, born and raised in Germany by a German mother and Austrian father, I had all sorts of very clear ideas about what it meant to be someone with German and Austrian ancestry. First, let me dispell a few mistaken notions. Germans, if I may generalize here, do not hate black people. I may be alone here with this naked, wildly mistaken idea, but I was worried that this mostly white country with a history of race-based bigotry might not welcome a person such as myself with dark skin and African features. I was oh-so-wrong.

My in-laws love me, in fact, and the feeling is mutual. I remember my first trip to visit my mother-in-law in Hamburg. As I was flipping through the family photo album, I was surprised to find a yellowed newspaper clipping and photograph of Angela Davis awaiting trial among the photographs of my yellow-haired husband as a boy. On her bookshelves, I found perhaps a dozen German tranlsations of James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, and Alice Walker. While shopping in boutiques and markets, I never felt I had to make the affirmative efforts that I do in my local Gap or bookstore to reassure people that I'm not trying to steal something. No one followed me or watched me shop, no one did a double-take when I walked up to the checkout line in. I wasn't treated like I was unusual (as was the case in Russia, which some day I'll write about in detail). Except once. On Friday night, September 1, we ate dinner in a Greek restaurant in Hamburg. I can't remember the name, but it was delish. Anyway, I walked in with my husband and mother-in-law. The host seated us, and speaking in German he pegged my husband and I (or at least me -- could it be my height?) as being from America. My husband confirmed that we were, and the host gleefully informed us that Greece had just beaten the U.S. in the world basketball championship. "Ich liebe Amerika!" ("I love America!"), he exclaimed, and brought us a free round of ouzo. I'll take my lumps if they come with free ouzo, not a problem.

But it wasn't until I met my husband that I actually considered what life was like for Germans citizens during World War II. Millions of Jews and homosexuals and other innocent people died cruelly at the hand of an insane dictator. (That, in and of itself was horrifying, even if the masses went frightfully along with the program.) And while the Allied Forces fought to bring his evil regime to its knees, cities were bombed. I imagine it was something akin to the experience of the Iraqi people. Sadam Hussein's inhumane acts and his malignant leadership provoked action against his country and people died -- mothers, daughters, grandfathers died when the U.S. dropped bombs. The underlying acts of Hitler and Hussein are not of the same scale, but the nation of Iraq has suffered the incessant dropping of bombs on civilian people. In Germany, children were sent out of the cities and away from their families to live with farm families in the countryside where they were safe from the bombs. Infant children were taken from their mother's breasts. And they survived, not understanding fully why they had been sent away. To this day, families are in pain and even in my husband’s generation the pain is palpable. There is a sadness and a shame I perceive in Germany. Not a shame for the country as we know it today, but a shame for the unspeakable blemish put on it by Nazism. It's an unparalled shame for the tradegy and genocide of the Holocaust.

The cities are scarred, even to this day, with vivid reminders. Half bombed out buildings still stand, people distinguish the cities with descriptions of what was in a particular spot "before the war" and what is there now. Berlin, obviously, is one of those places. I had never heard of "checkpoint charlie" a spot that still stands, now just for history's sake, where the U.S. Army had an installation on one side and the Russian Army had one on the other where people moved between the East and the West. As my husband and I drove from Berlin back through the western region of the country, he pointed out to me where the border of East and West Germany used to be and what it was like passing through it as a child.

Do people who lived in Hawaii have similar memories of Pearl Harbor and Honolulu before and after? Hiroshima? Nagasaki? London? It's just not that way for most Americans. So when I travel to Germany, I learn. Sometimes I grieve. And always, I feel.

I had a friend who once asked me what it felt like to be a part of a race of people who were universally despised around the world. Her question caught me off guard, of course, not knowing whether she meant tall people or intelligent people or lawyers or . . . naw. She couldn't have had the audicity to think, formulate, and pose THAT question could she? She did. And she wasn't drunk. And she wasn't white either, you may be surprised to learn. Clearly, we're no longer friends, but her question harshly presumed that blacks are universally despised around the world. Hmmm.

I think my husband is sometimes concerned about how he will be received when he's abroad, whether here in New York or elsewhere in the world. Ironically, I know exactly how he feels.