Blackness: The Great Non-Profit
Perhaps, on a Sunday night in March, it will be brisk enough to go sockless, with burgundy rose red Vans tied neatly with white laces, and your feet will catch pavement chunks underneath you as you walk into the space that is Rockwood Music Hall. Rockwood is a sanctuary for the singer/songwriter, a kaleidoscope dreamland existing against the scruffy and torn New York City backdrop that is the Lower East Side. If you’re into this sort of scene, a pretty white girl with pigtails and dimples will let you sit downstairs at Stage III, which can seat comfortably, 60 folks. On this given note, you will hear folklore and tall tales, ex love flame interests dashed to embers, and a howling that would make Etta James weep. The roots of Blues, Rock & Roll, and R&B, etched together wonderfully for a melodic tapestry of vibes and low lighting.
In this space, if you are the type who pays attention to people and things and feelings, you may tilt and pivot your head to look at the audience that is inhabiting these quarters, and you will recognize faces — faces that share your energy, but they may not share your tone. Because, when you go to spaces such as these, and listen to music like the music described, music created by and started by Black men and women, you will see that the audience will be predominantly made of those who do not resemble the creators. You cannot write the story or the history of Black music in these Americas without mentioning Rock & Roll, without mentioning Folk. The dust belt and the Woody Guthrie’s of the world are exclaimed and heralded, but if one is to dig underneath the soil of Bob Dylan’s rasp or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s licks, one can see the seams of Leadbelly quietly stomping a foot, Muddy Waters dragging his chords alongside him.
My nephew has grown up in a time where he identifies Bruce Springsteen as Rock & Roll, more so than Little Richard. The history of Black music is one of America’s greatest plagiarisms. The music has been sold without retribution, stolen without credit, taken without merit, shared without question, borrowed without consent.
Does one get to keep their origin story? If one is the creator, is it their sovereign right to be entitled to being the bearer of its continued story? Yes, and no. While the carrying of the music into popular culture, with its face forever whitewashed, is a sign of and symbol of the strength of character of the medium created, the owner of the brownstone should (and presumably, will) have their name still on the deed. The name stays. Cody Chesnutt defiantly belting “I look good in leather”, or Gary Clarke Jr. being triumphantly Black on stage, are gestures of policing, if you will. Yes, we have allowed you passage into the sanctum of our tombs (granted, a stolen glory and passage, at that), we have still allowed you in. Blacks have been stolen from, and plain stolen, since the beginning of beginnings. Bible passage, Middle Passage, the lies run deep.
Blackness is for sale. Blackness has gone viral. Blackness now has market and retail value. If you were paying attention, James Franco took the Zola story, which he got from David Kushner of Rolling Stone, who got the story from Azia “Zora” Wells, stripper turned Twitter story-sharer, and has signed on to turn it into a film. The deets I don’t know, but what I do know is that the story broke the interwebs for a hot minute and some change i.e. it got mega RT’s and “favorites” (before Twitter changes “favorites” into cute heart thingies).My hope is Azia is going to see a big chunk of the money that will go into the producing of the film. The script was written by Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts, two White dudes. Because, Black stories are told for free for the melanated, and taken and shared and profited from by White purveyors because, history.
Black Twitter is a real thing. Black ideas are real things. The blues, soul music, R&B, Rock & Roll, are all Black ideas, created in a vast vacuum of Blackness. Elvis Presley, Robin Thicke, John Mayer, The Beatles — they have all benefitted from the idea of taking Black ideas and turning them into profit. This is not new. This unchained slavery for the masses is not apparition, but is as real as a Miley Cyrus twerk circus. When one watches the Oscars one will think of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag created by April Reign. One will also think about the Hollywood Reporter’s story on the hashtag, without a mention of April Reign. The Academy is too White, the studios are too White; the actors are too White. Televised popular culture and films do not reflect the full human experience. And it never has. Watching old reruns of “Seinfeld” and “Friends”, with New York City as the backdrop, makes one wonder what New York was the show in, with Latin and Black faces all but missing from sidewalks and story lines, sans when it becomes convenient to make race jokes. Erasure is not a figment of the Black imagination. It is as real as Stacy Dash’s hate for Black ideas, for Black Entertainment Television, for Black History Month, and for her Blackness.
The Black idea is as attractive as Black is to anything that yearns to be Black. “Straight Outta Compton” is the true story of NWA, four Black as moonshine brothers who formed a rap super group, turned into one of the highest grossing selling films in 2015. The film was written by men the opposite color of moonshine. Because Black ideas are lucrative for everyone else but the creators of said ideas. Black art becomes a commodity, neatly packaged for a public that wants Blackness filtered and administered in doses.
Black ideas, directed and produced and written by Black faces have an audience, and can reach margins just as well as their White male dominated counterparts. Nate Parker wowed Sundance audiences with his “Birth of a Nation” film, following the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker himself. Chris Rock’s “Top Five” film explored the story of a comedic film star who is going through a sort of close to mid-life crisis. The film was his most critically acclaimed film to date, a far cry from Adam Sandler’s former Saturday Night Live funny Black homie sidekick. Black ideas have legs. Black ideas have wings. Little Richard will tell you about his. Dave Chappelle will school you on that thought. Black thoughts, much like Black Thought, the emcee from the Almighty Roots crew, hold court in ways the original forefathers who built this country with their blood and sweat equity, could have never imagined.
The stream from which the Black idea flows, the roots buried in the soil of appropriation and wonderment, are far too real and existent in our world today. Ownership of the culture, of its values and spirit, rests solely now on the shoulders of the likes of the Jesse Williams’ of the world, of the you and I’s as well; we are all part of the fabric welded together that will be needed to make, take, and keep the profits, whether marginal or of epic Jay Z proportions, where they should be, where they belong:
Joel L. Daniels is a writer, actor, father, emcee and dreamer, and story-teller, born and raised in the Bronx. He was the recipient of the Bronx Council of the Arts BRIO Award for poetry, and his work has been featured in the Columbia Journal, The Boston Globe, Thought Catalog, The Smoking Section, Blavity, Huffington Post, BBC Radio, RCRD LBL, URB, BRM, AllHipHop, The Source, RESPECT, and HipHopDX. He's spoken/performed at the Apollo Theater, Joe's Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, Columbia University, The National Black Theater, NYU, Webster Hall, Pianos, and Brooklyn Bowl.