By Dominique Malaquais
The year is 1975 and the nation is grooving. Funk is the music and Parliament is in the House. On bass, the master, Bootsy Collins. Bernie Worrell revs keys to wake the dead. Vocals are by George Clinton, in one of his finest raps. The tune is “Chocolate City” (CC).
It has been ten years since the Voting Rights Act, eighteen since the first Civil Rights laws were passed, twenty-one since Plessy v Ferguson was overturned. In 1952, for the first time in seventy-one years, no lynchings were reported. Seventeen years later, legislation was implemented to end discrimination in housing. 199 years after the birth of the land of the free, all is for the best in the best of all worlds. If your eyes are closed, that is. Or your skin is white.
We didn’t get our forty acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC
Few will say it better: a promise made and broken in 1865 remains broken 111 years later. Newark, New York, Atlanta, L.A.: every city the song names is becoming a CC, separate and unequal as money flees and suburbia sprawls. Fuzzy on the facts? Allow me to refresh your memory.
If perchance you are old enough, you may remember the streets of New York in the year CC hit the decks: canyons of garbage, higher by the day, as city services shut down one after another. For some time, the Apple had been going downhill. The demise of its manufacturing sector, which in the 1950s had kept nearly a third of the city’s labor force busy, had brought on massive unemployment. Financial crises, national and international, had knocked the wind out of Wall Street. Investment was down. As revenues fell, debts rose. By 1975, the city was $ 14 billion in the red.
On Park Avenue, things were fine; not so north of 125th Street. Faced with the need to cut costs, City Hall trimmed the fat where there was the least fat to trim: in Harlem and the South Bronx, in Crown Heights and East New York, dozens of fire houses were closed. Spending on hospitals, schools, sanitation began falling in the first years of the decade; by the mid-’70s it had gone through the floor. On high, the logic was simple: if you can’t fix it, ditch it. “Benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage” were the names of the game. The idea, essentially, was to so under-fund the poorest neighborhoods that they would become uninhabitable; in time, the underclass would leave and its “unviable slums” could be put to better use. The South Bronx might be turned into a national park – so suggested Roger Starr, the city’s Housing Commissioner at the time (“planned shrinkage” was his phrase, “benign neglect” and “unviable slums” those of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would shortly become one of America’s most beloved Democratic senators). Felix Rohatyn, financial adviser to the mayor and head of the Municipal Assistance Corporation created to fish New York from the drink, proposed that the borough be paved over. No tree fan he.
And so the Bronx burned. 600,000 – let me repeat that: 600,000 – people lost their homes. As they moved north and west into other barrios, the white folks moved too: 1.3 million men, women and children booked for the suburbs. Chocolate City indeed.
Interlude (funkin’ on the one)
Anyone who rides the airwaves knows this: funk was a musical revolution. 2-4 had been the rhythm. Bling BLANG bling BLANG. Mozart’s rhythm, Sinatra’s rhythm. Then came the downbeat: on the “one” in a four beat bar. THUMP pulse pulse pulse THUMP pulse pulse pulse. Where the bling in the bling BLANG had been a gentle moment, the return of a bow on the strings of a violin, a breath taken before an oboe cries, the pulse in the THUMP pulse took on a life of its own, a whole world of beats and beats within beats, constellations of poly-rhythms, part Bop, part Yorubá sèkèrè. James Brown. Sly Stone. George C. Mama had a brand new bag.
Thirty years on, the bag’s looking fine and Mama too. Hip hop is what it is because funk was what it was. Still, we tend to forget that the revolution was political first, musical next. “It takes no one to stir up the dynamite,” Malcolm X wrote:
… unemployment, bad housing, inferior schools … This explosively criminal condition has existed for so long, it needs no fuse; it fuses itself; it spontaneously combusts …
Funk was the expression of that combustion. The soundtrack. The boom in the boom shaka shaka. Shock-G, he of Digital fame, says it best:
You can’t talk about funk without talking about the Black Revolution.
If ever music was politics and politics music, this was it.
Paint the White House black
“Don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot…” Post-NWA, CC may sound a little passé. The thing is though, there’s a question about the ballot. George B. sits in the White House because the votes of black folks were never counted, because hundreds tried to vote and were turned away, because there was nowhere to vote. And yes:
They still call it the White House
Briefly, there was hope. For a second, it looked like the other Clinton might have something funky up his sleeve. “Our first black president,” Maya Angelou cried. Welfare got the heave-ho instead. That very year – 1996-97, it was – in the projects of Nashville, Tennessee, the average income for a household led by a single mother peaked just south of $5,000 – less than a fourth of the country’s per capita income and a full 60% below the federal poverty level of $15, 600 for a family of four. Need I add that, in the projects surveyed, there were virtually no white folks? 1996 marked the death of the Pell Grant too, the one source of funds available to the incarcerated poor to gain an education. This too Willy C. did away with, as the U.S. prison population broke the two million mark. By the end of the Clinton era, over half of those incarcerated were black. Ten percent of the country’s African American men were behind bars. Willy has a place in Harlem now; Maya, I hear, is praising Dubya.
Uncle Jam had big plans for us:
Ali in the White House
Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure
Richard Pryor, Minister of Education
Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts
And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady
We got Condoleeza instead (so named in honor of a Bach concerto). Colin too. And a president who wants a $ 2 trillion tax cut, 43% of which to fill the tills of the wealthiest 1%. We’re decimating Afghanistan and setting our sights on Iraq (again). On Iran. On Somalia. Colombia. North Korea. Ali’s been hired to tell the Muslim world America loves Islam (watch for him in a film coming shortly, funded by a Hollywood joint calls itself the 9-11 Committee). Stevie shares tracks with Celine Dion and the Dixie Chicks on an album called “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” Been profiled lately?
Once upon a time, this was a place to know. Malcolm. Stokeley. Angela. Maya when she was making sense. Norman Mailer, even, in his angry days. Funk was the music, so fine and in all the right places. Three years, at random… 1965: Dr. King in the White House (briefly, but there); the Godfather, with that brand new bag; Watts aflame in the name of X; on the airwaves and in the streets, “Burn Baby Burn.” 1968: Soul on Ice; Tommy Smith and John Carlos; the Godfather again: Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud. 1969: “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.”
And in the ’70s? In the ’70s there was CC. The CC, White House ’n all:
Gainin’ on ya
Movin’ in on ya
Feel my breath
All up around your neck, CC
I live in DC now, one foot in the CC, house once a crack house, now a white house. Satchmo’s digs were here; Panthers’ too. Now I’m here. Gentrification. As(s)phyxiation.
New York. Flags everywhere. Wrapped in flags. Suffocating in flags. Stars and bangles, spangles: move over Jimi; let Rudy take over. February 4th last marked the third anniversary of Amadou Diallo’s slaughter by New York’s finest. Usually, we see a march, loud and pissed. Not so this time. Post 9/11, we here honor our heroes: what’s 41 bullets when only 19 hit the target?
Can you dig it, CC?
If I told you I wanna run, would you believe me?
I stay. Write to the sound of the ones – the few – still on the One, spin the dial listening for their rhymes. The Coup. Cannibal Ox. Talib Kweli. Mos Def.
I’ll exfoliate your face with the acid in my stomach
Vision purged, we live in thirty second blurbs
Smile as the words wash over me. Smile ’cause I can. ’Cause I’m white enough next time I look funny at the boys in blue they’ll look funny back. Instead of shooting me. 41 times.
This piece features in the Chimurenga Magazine 01: Music is the Weapon! (April 2002). To purchase as a PDF head to our online shop.