Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Why J's Theater + Rambles + Poem: Erik B. and Rakim

Last year, a colleague asked me why I blogged. My immediate response focused on the discipline of blogging--which was an explicit aspect of my first year of blogging, as I'd set the task of blogging every day if possible for one straight year, and nearly made it--and as another, immediate means of personal expression, and left it at that. But really, when I think about why I continue to blog, it's really because I want to initiate conversations, thoughts, responses, of the sort that I rarely enjoy these days outside my classes.

When I entered academe as a teacher, one of the things I was really hoping for was to engage in conversations not only with my students, undergraduate and graduate, which do occur and are very productive, but with colleagues, both in the areas I'm directly interested in and outside it. I do occasionally have opportunities to chat with some of my colleagues, but when we are not all zooming back and forth with work like drones (because the university likes to keep us very, very busy, for most of the year), so many of our conversations revolve around university business--bureaucratic issues, administration, and so on--and don't touch upon any of the countless other topics I'd love to talk about, especially creative or intellectual ones.

It was this desire for a different kind of intellectual experience that once led me to propose to Ronaldo Wilson that we found a school, and that was an exciting idea--and one of my friends of college, Miguel Herrera, tried a few years ago to get me to work with him on something a lot more informal, but I couldn't swing the fact that I'm in Chicago most of the year and he's in New York--so these kinds of things probably aren't going to happen anytime soon. I am still on one or two listserves--far fewer than years ago--with people who affiliated with particular organizations like Cave Canem or Fire & Ink, or animated by specific topics like sports and so on, but I envisioned this space--a theater, in the oldest sense--as forum for exchanges that crossed the usual boundaries, barriers and dividing lines. (Is that a mixed metaphor?) Or a crossroads, to put it another way, where I'm sort of sitting in the somewhere near the center, and people steadily come through, stop and stay for a little bit--and keep coming back.

I've greatly appreciated the responses I've gotten (and since February, a month in which I simply could not post because I was daily trying to dig myself out of an ever-towering cave of fiction manuscripts, it's been two years), and I do hope readers keep reading and keep posting. Which depends on my continuing to post--and post interesting things. I really do value the responses a lot, as I hope I make clear.

Now, back to the unscheduled programming:

Earlier this evening I saw the rapper Akon on BET (yes, I do watch it) talking about the differences between growing up in Africa and the United States. But only yesterday I learned, to my surprise, that while he is of Senegalese ancestry, he's also a native of St. Louis--Missouri, not Senegal. And grew up Jersey City! Go figure. I guess there was a reason I was able to get past the whininess in his voice. He appeared to be implying that he grew up, however, on the other side of the Atlantic, but then he was suitably vague, so I guess he was speaking in general terms about this particular contrast (which perhaps shouldn't be so easily generalized, given the vastness and diversity of Africa, a continent, vs. the huge and diverse US, a country) than about his own experience.

Speaking of BET, has anyone else been watching Season 4 of College Hill? Why, oh why can't these young Black people act like they have (any) good sense? Why do they have to keep segregating themselves into the Cali (California) and VI (Virgin Islands) camps? Why are thye so hot in the pants and never seem to have a book nearby (yes, I know this is to a great deal a result of the editing, but still--wouldn't they and BET do everyone a service by showing these young people actually in classes and studying)? Why did two of the young women, Vanessa and Krystal, have to have a throwdown (which included Krystal beating Vanessa with a pump)? Why did Krystal have to list Osama bin Laden and Hitler as people who didn't deserved to be attacked as part of her utterly jawdropping response? (Double Hunh??) Why are nearly all of them (except the athlete "Chicki") behaving half the time as if they're auditioning for a very bad minstrel show? And to top it off, why does BET have to run The Players Club, which I think is some programmer at that station's favorite movie, so often, and especially before College Hill? Yes, I know, I sound like someone's grandparent!

Speaking of rap and the recent Imus controversy, I thought Kelefa Sanneh's article, "Don't Blame Hip Hop," in today's New York Times offered a useful summary of the brouhaha, a discussion of Russell Simmons's proposal to snuff out the problematic awful words, and some real insight, particularly on the issue of widespread media focus and displacement of criticism on hiphop without any real discussion of some of the most popular current hip hop artists and the specific language and discourse of their raps (cf. Akon, but also Huey, Crime Mob, Mims--and I'd add Nas, DJ Khaled, Lupe Fiasco, Dem Franchise Boyz, T.I., etc.). Can I add once again that in addition to the first statement by Imus that everyone has fixed and fixated on, his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, also used the highly offensive term "j" word, which I cannot recall anyone in hip hop bandying about, but perhaps my knowledge of hip hop really is as limited as I imagine it is, so please do enlighten me. At any rate, I'm some what amazed by the collective media erasure of this second offensive term, as if by simply ignoring it--and writing it out of the record--it would disappear, and thus enable the shifting and shifty critiques of everyone and everything but Imus himself that have followed. Strange.

On a completely different note, I want to publicly thank Deborah Hoffman, who responded to my post last year (or was it two years ago), about Vladimir Sorokin's Goluboe Salo (Lavender Lard--she suggests that "lavender" is a more appropriate translation than "blue") by kindly sending the first few pages of an English translation of the novel that she worked on and a paper that she wrote with Nadezhda Korchagina, which appeared in Ohio Slavic Papers (8, 131-148, 2006), entitled "Notes Towards a Postmodern Translation: 'Translating' Sorokin's Goluboe Salo." I've only had an opportunity to skim the paper, but after reading the first few pages of the translation--and then looking at the Russian text again today at the university library--I really wonder whether the right-wing protesters whom this text so vexed actually read the book. Because seriously, it looks like a doozy, as in, a real challenge to make one's way through. By comparison, Houellebecq's perverse post-modern fantasy, The Possibility of an Island, is as transparent and limpid as New York tap water. In the opening three pages of Lavender Lard (which I saw in French translation as Le lard bleu while in Paris), Sorokin's "Russian" includes words and phrases in English, Chinese, French, Sanskrit, and an invented lexicon--and I had to reread it repeatedly to get even a hint of its gist. Hoffman and Korchagina point out in their paper that the opening pages are parts of letters that a gay scientist, Boris Glogger is writing to his lover, letting him know that he's working on a top secret project that entails the cloning of famous writers--Akhmatova ("Akhmatova-5" and "AAA"), Nabokov ("Nabokov-7"), etc.--with the clones producing the infamous lavender lard process as a result of their writing. The texts they produce are "useless byproduct[s]," permitting Sorokin to draft parodies of these noted Russians' styles. None of this seems to have set off the right-wing nationalists, though; it was the scene of sadomasochistic sex involving a clone of Stalin and a clone of Kruschchev that led them to file a criminal complaint that he was promoting homosexuality and pornography.

(Let me note that Hoffman and Korchagina go on to talk quite productively about the relationship between translation, cloning, and postmodernism, Sorokin's parodic play on and in forms, styles and discourse, and the cultural offense he risks, as well as the untranslatability of (so) much of it, among other things, while posing necessary questions about the challenges they faced as they worked their way through the text: here is one example from the text, the first translation by Hoffman, the second by Korchagina:

Your ribs that shone through your skin, your birthmark shaped like a monk, your pro-tattoo that leaves no taste in my mouth, your gray hair, your secret tsin tsi, your dirty whispering, "Kiss me on my STARS."

Your ribs under transparent skin, your monk's birthmark, your tasteless tattoo-pro, your gray hair, your secret tsintsi, your dirty whisper, kiss me on the STARS.)

Mmm hmm. But again, I wonder, did the Moving Together protesters really read all the way through to that moment in the text, or did they just fly off the handle, like right-wingers over here do after not reading a text or attending an art exhibit, after hearing someone else describe the scene?

For those in New York or Austin, you will be able to see Mr. Sorokin in the flesh, because he (and Alain Mabanckou, and quite a few others) will be participating in this year's PEN World Voices festival):

Wednesday, April 25
Columbia University
Altschul Auditorium in the School of International and Public Affairs

420 W. 118th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
4th floor, Room 417.
Event Start Time, 6PM

Thursday, April 26
From Page to Stage (PEN World Voices)
Time: 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Location: The Segal Theater, CUNY
Participants: Abla Farhoud, Dorota Masłowska, José Luís Peixoto, Vladimir Sorokin

Saturday, April 28
Austin, Texas
Event Start Time: 6PM

Sunday, April 29
Literary Thrillers (PEN World Voices)
Time: 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
Location: The Bowery Ballroom
Participants: Jean Echenoz, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett, Vladimir Sorokin; moderated by S.J. Rozan
Ticketing: $5 at the door/members free
Proper government-issued photo id required. 21+

Since I've mentioned hip hop, here's a piece that I've always thought was poetry, "My Melody," from Erik B. and Rakim's first album, Paid in Full (1987), one of my favorite rap albums of all time. Those around during that era may remember it well for the meteor (see, I'm keeping with Sorokin theme, but turning it on its head!) that it was. "The melody that I'm stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island...." Yes, indeed. Oh, and no mention of the "h" word, the "n" word(s), or the "j" word, by the way.


Verse One:

Turn up the bass, check out my melody, hand out a cigar
I'm lettin knowledge be born, and my name's the R
A-k-i-m not like the rest of them, I'm not on a list
That's what I'm sayin, I drop science like a scientist
My melody's in a code, the very next episode
Has the mic often distortin, ready to explode
I keep the mic in Fahrenheit, freeze MC's and make em colder
The listener's system is kickin like solar
As I memorize, advertise, like a poet
Keep you goin when I'm flowin, smooth enough, you know it
But rough that's why the middle of my story I tell E.B.
Nobody beats the "R", check out my melody...

Verse Two:

So what if I'm a microphone fiend addicted soon as I sing
One of these for MC's so they don't have to scream
I couldn't wait to take the mic, flow into it to test
Then let my melody play, and then the record suggest
That I'm droppin bombs, but I stay peace and calm
Any MC that disagree with me just wave your arm
And I'll break, when I'm through breakin I'll leave you broke
Drop the mic when I'm finished and watch it smoke
So stand back, you wanna rap? All of that can wait
I won't push, I won't beat around the bush
I wanna break upon those who are not supposed to
You might try but you can't get close to
Because I'm number one, competition is none
I'm measured with the heat that's made by sun
Whether playin ball or bobbin in the hall
I just writin my name in graffiti on the wall
You shouldn't have told me you said you control me
So now a contest is what you owe me
Pull out your money, pull out your cut
Pull up a chair, and I'ma tear shit up
My name is Rakim Allah, and R & A stands for "Ra"
Switch it around, but still comes out "R"
So easily will I e-m-c-e-e
My repetition of words is "check out my melody"
Some bass and treble is moist, scratchin and cuttin a voice
And when it's mine that's when the rhyme is always choice
I wouldn't have came to ?set? my name ?around the? same weak shit
Puttin blurs and slurs and words that don't fit
In a rhyme, why waste time on the microphone
I take this more serious than just a poem
Rockin party to party, backyard to yard
Now tear it up, y'all, and bless the mic for the gods

Verse Three:

The rhyme is rugged, at the same time sharp
I can swing off anything even a string of a harp
Just turn it on and start rockin, mind no introduction
Til I finish droppin science, no interruption
When I approach I exercise like a coach
Usin a melody and add numerous notes
With the mic and the R-a-k-i-m
It's a task, like a match I will strike again
Rhymes are poetically kept and alphabetically stepped
Put in order to pursue with the momentum except
I say one rhyme and I order a longer rhyme shorter
A pause, but don't stop the tape recorder

Verse Four:

I'm not a regular competitor, first rhyme editor
Melody arranger, poet, etcetera
Extra events, the grand finale like bonus
I am the man they call the microphonist
With wisdom which means wise words bein spoken
Too many at one time watch the mic start smokin
I came to express the rap I manifest
Stand in my way and I'll lead a --- words protest
MC's that wanna be dissed they're gonna
Be dissed if they don't get from in fronta
All they can go get is me a glass of Moet
A hard time, sip your juice and watch a smooth poet
I take 7 MC's put em in a line
And add 7 more brothas who think they can rhyme
Well, it'll take 7 more before I go for mine
And that's 21 MC's ate up at the same time
Easy does it, do it easy, that's what I'm doin
No fessin, no messin around, no chewin
No robbin, no buyin, bitin, why bother
This slob'll stop tryin fightin to follow
My unusual style will confuse you a while
If I was water, I flow in the Nile
So many rhymes you won't have time to go for your's
Just because of a cause I have to pause
Right after tonight is when I prepare
To catch another sucka duck MC out there
Cos my strategy has to be tragedy, catastrophe
And after this you'll call me your majesty
My melody...

Verse Five:

Marley Marl synthesized it, I memorize it
Eric B made a cut and advertised it
My melody's created for MC's in the place
Who try to listen cos I'm dissin ???
?Take off your necklace, you try to detect my pace?
?Now? you're ?buggin? over ??? off my rhyme like bass
The melody that I'm stylin, smooth as a violin
Rough enough to break New York from Long Island
My wisdom is swift, no matter if
My momentum is slow, MC's still stand stiff
I'm genuine like leather, don't try to be clever
MC's you'll beat the "R", I'll say "Oh never"
So Eric B cut it easily
And check out my melody....

Copyright © 1987, 2005, Erik B. and Rakim, from Paid in Full (Island Records).


  1. Glad to have you as part of the conversation, John!:) And Eric B & Rakim made me believe that Rap could be Poetry and Art.

  2. Reg, thank you, and your blog is also one I regularly check out!

  3. John,
    [Had to update to new blogger in order to post]Such richness. I'm grateful that you've continued to blog, I'm always finding so much to think about, and in multiple registers, in your discussions. Regretfully, I haven't been able to engage the blogging process in a number of months. I don't know if I'm just channeling my urges towards written ruminations in other arenas, or I've come to the end of that road. But I'm glad to be able to visit and engage here in your uniquely substantial theater of ideas and critical exchanges. And thanks for the full reprint of "My Melody," and more of your ongoing consideration of questions of translation.

  4. I feel rather crass--in not responding to your meditation on blogging.

    College Hill! For some insane reason, I do like this show. It reminds me of my undergrad years, big Island population interacting in all sorts of crazy and productive ways with the Africans and African Americans. (I miss that population here. Amherst allowed me to meet with a few Island people.)

    Despite the conflicts, I do like that finally BET is featuring at least one kind of diasporic interaction that extends beyond a guest appearance in a rap song.

  5. Audiologo, I definitely appreciate your dropping in. I hear you about reaching the end of a certain road; I sometimes feel that way, so the posting really is a provisional activity on a certain level. But I treasure your thoughts and responses--which is to say, your reading.

  6. Keguro, I guess I'm still waiting for BET (proper) to engage in any real diasporic approach or exchange. BET Starz long ago did so, showing films on Black-related themes from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Canada, but BET itself still seems very locked into a narrow perspective, even though it has been a global presence (in South Africa, in the Dominican Republic, etc.) for some time. Its new corporate owners--Viacom--are no more enlightened than its former ones, I think. The current version of College Hill is so disappointing on multiple levels.