Great new essay by guest writer Rapheal Randall on inspiration, change, music and the movement.
“I can tell they’re looking at us…”
December 15, 2014. I’m sitting here vibing out to D’Angelo’s “Lady,” thinking about what has transpired over the last 15 years, trying to cobble together an essay about my relationship to history. Tonight it has been announced that D’Angelo will be releasing his new album “Black Messiah,” and anticipation and nostalgia is filling my Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as a number of music blogs I frequently visit.
The last time he released an album, I was in the middle of my freshmen year of undergraduate studies at the Columbus College of Art and Design. I have already scrolled through the Apple’s ITune Store, searching in vain for the album so I can preorder it. All I know is it better be straight fire. Scorching hot. As I listen to “Lady,” I got that old feeling. 1995, being in high school, trying to “look fly” with the “gear” my Mom pulled out of the layaway from Schottenstein’s a few weeks before the school year commenced. At that time, I would have never thought “Lady”, and the terms “looking fly” and “gear” would be considered old school at some future point in time. But they are old school objects, anachronisms by today’s standards of music and slang, yet the milestone markers I use to develop my own historic narrative.
As I began careening down memory lane at breakneck speed, this family of questions rose to the surface of consciousness: When do we decide to bring our visions of different ways of being to the ground, getting them dirty in the process of working to make them real? What is the moment where we decide we have to stop with the painting of pictures, and beginning building anew? Can these processes happen simultaneously, or are we always doomed to pursuing pragmatism in an effort not to misuse the political moment?
I skip a few tracks in my library, still on my D’Angelo kick, and listen to one of his best features on Raphael Saadiq’s “Be Here”. Man, this song takes me back. Whenever I listen to this, I think about the pain I felt when I broke up with my longtime political muse and girlfriend back in 2012, right before my graduation from Penn’s City Planning graduate program. The separation was painful, as we both were deeply enmeshed in each other’s lives, witnessing the broad and vast personal/political transformation of one another over nearly a decade. It seemed like it would never end, and then it did.
At the time, it felt like we had grown apart, or simply were not a good fit. It was our first time living together as a couple, and as folks say, you don’t know someone until you live with them. Maybe I was just an emotionally unavailable man without the capacity to really meet the needs of my partner. However, with time and reflection, I realized the issue was my inability to let go of ‘the idea of’ something new on the horizon.
For most of our partnership, we had always been in transition. One of us was always on the go, whether that was moving to another city or enrolling in school. We were not working from the same vision or blueprint. We talked about a future together, but never sat down and actually planned it. Perhaps there was the fear that grounding our visions in each other would remind us of our limited time existing; mortality has a way of causing folks to be somewhat myopic, and maybe we didn’t want to see that happen to either of us. Whatever the case, it led us to lose each other, and the very thing that inspired us to reach for the sky in the first place.
With time, we were able to reconcile, and start the hard work of grounding ourselves in the present. This is incredibly difficult for people who believe they are constantly on the cusp of some groundbreaking experience. New locales, new career opportunities, new political awakenings and new interesting people populate the landscape and our social spaces, full of potential and pathways to transformative adventures. However, we are both entering the tail end of our youthful years; and frankly, we want to create something with a lasting impact together. That means being in “our time” completely and intentionally. I hate passing up opportunities, and really love the concept of “potential,” but I want to make something with this one particular woman who has shaped who I am more than anyone else outside of my nuclear family. I’m in love…and it’s gonna stay that way.
“Greatdayindamornin’/Booty” from the 2000 “Voodoo” album is a logical selection as I drift into thoughts about the recent passing of my grandmother. “Gotta get over / before the sun comes up….”; that was the life Grandma lived as a young Black woman who came of age during some of the most trying times for Black America. She was a child of the Great Depression, and for most of her life did whatever she had to do the ensure that her children were under her care and provided for.
I remember sitting with my father a few days after her passing, shedding tears and sharing laughs while looking over photos. The tears come from two places: We miss her, and long to hear her laugh one more time; and the reality that her looking forward to the future, looking forward to the moment God would come and relieve her of the suffering that beared down on her, stifled her ability to enjoy what was right in front of her. Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness myself, I watched as my fellow “brothers and sisters” would postpone living in the now, holding out for a day they would be young again and play with lions in green pastures. It sounds ridiculous and absurd, but when you come from a community as alienated and marginalized as mine, you look for a life preserver in the form of hope anywhere you can.
But even as I sit back and reflect on her presence exiting this plane, am I really rooted in my own life? Years and years of indoctrination still bear their ugly head, even though I am far removed from my time as a “believer.” No matter where I am, there is always something else on the horizon. You are programmed never to be in the moment your whole life. Each year is supposed to bring about another level or iteration of something: ascending to the next school grade, garnering another wage raise or salary increase, another car, etc. There is always something to strive after.
As I get older, that ideological frame feels very hollow. I have had some awe inspiring experiences that have shaped me, and most of them were free. Nevertheless, because I was always looking for something new, I didn’t really feel those experiences in the way that I should while they were happening; even as I moved relatively engaged through life, it was more as a spectator, and not an active historical participant. As I see the Rubicon of my life approaching, with 34 solar rotations creeping up on me, I wonder what the impact of leaving the youthful spring and entering the autumn of our lives does to our understanding of agency and resistance. Do we keep looking forward to a new world, or do we begin reflecting on what was lost, and can’t be recovered?
Black Messiah. That is the name of the new D’Angelo album. My mind is officially blown. This idea of a “Black Messiah” has always intrigued me. The first person that comes to mind as I think about this concept is Barack Obama. Words cannot describe how momentous the impact of his 2008 election was on the collective psyche of Black America. I remember quite well that feeling when I saw him in person in Wilmington, Delaware while he was still Senator Obama. As I shook his hand, I was awed by how easily he moved along the rope line, as though he didn’t carry the dreams of Black folks from around the world on his back. He was going to save us from the draconian politics of the Bush Era; he was the Messiah we had been waiting on. But as we know, when we place all our hope on a man who would go on to be the face of American Empire, we were bound to be deeply disappointed.
The Obama phenomenon showed me how a lofty, meticulously crafted vision can captivate and mobilize people for change, exciting them about new possibilities. Yet, if the creator of the vision can’t come out of the clouds and hit the runway of real life safely, you run the risk of abusing your power of persuasion by distracting and disrespecting the people and their particularly downtrodden realities. Though some of us were skeptical of Obama as our “Black Messiah”, many of us, myself included, invested deeply in his vision without requiring him to layout a real blueprint for collective liberation. As we screamed “Fired Up & Ready to Go,” what we should have been asking was “Where are we going?”
As I pour over D’Angelo’s new album, I am deeply moved by its pertinence. We needed this collection of songs right now. It almost feels providential in a way; the album took over a decade to be fleshed out, yet it feels as though it is a direct response to the reemergence of the Black Liberation Movement, or as we label it today, #BlackLivesMatter. All I know is that I can’t stop listening to it. Song after song triggers something deeply visceral inside, almost as though all the particularly mundane yet sublime experiences constantly shaping my existence are being reified by someone I deeply respect.
We all should have the time and capacity to analyze what we go through on the daily basis. However, most of us don’t, which is why it has always been a powerful thing within the Black working class to have someone validate things you are familiar with through music. The connection between music and resistance is inherent in Diasporic revolutionary impulses. The highly visible reification of the collective and individual struggles against dehumanization is something I think the #BlackLivesMatter movement has done for Black and Brown working class communities across the country; it reminds us that our small and sizeable contributions to the human project should not be overlooked or denied, that our lives have inherent value and always have. This is the main reason why the students I work with at Youth United for Change (YUC) have been very excited about this movement’s reemergence, and have been collectively involved in a number of local #BlackLivesMatterrelated actions.
Nonetheless, even as the young people we work with chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” while marching down Philadelphia’s pothole filled streets, they still contend with a world not ready for their vision of something different. They still live in households and neighborhoods steeped in toxic masculinity and internalized racism shaped by historic marginalization and enslavement. Violence is not uncommon, and the suppression of liberated self-expression is seen as a necessity if you want to survive the hardened streets of the Illadelph’s Black and Brown enclaves. So what does Black Liberation look like outside the purview of the State and its institutions informed by the white gaze? In all honesty, I am still figuring out the appropriate inside/outside game; balancing the need for external resistance against white supremacist political and economic structures, while developing spaces of love that affirm the lives of young Black and Brown people, while holding them accountable to adjusting their individual and collective personal/political practices.
At YUC, we constantly grapple with grounding the liberatory rhetoric and analysis of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the turbulent and raw lives of the young folks, which is a daunting task. It is not enough to simply think our resistance of the State and its institutional power will inevitably improved the lives of our people, without considering we are organizing with individuals who come from communities where big egos tethered to low self-esteem are commonplace. We have to get in the mud; we have to go outside of orthodox ways of learning, teaching, and organizing with one another in order to really make “the block” anew.
Most of the time, our work consists of taking our young people to the edges of their experiences, and then showing them how what they go through fits within the long lasting freedom project. There will always be more setbacks than overwhelming successes in our work. For one, the constraints set in place by Capitalism make it difficult to maintain liberation spaces over time. Also, we have a genuine respect for the beautiful vulgarity of working class culture and how it came to be; though the culture is bred in the current system immersed in sexism, homophobia, and other “isms” as we call them at YUC, we have to be with the young people where they are now, not where we want them to be. Black lives have to matter, regardless if they are ugly or pretty, polished or gritty. However, when folks see their lives as they relate to history, and they embrace their agency and ability to reshape the world around them, all the mud that collects on the vision we imagined initially makes it even more dynamic and attractive than it was in the pristine confines of our minds. What we make real together is far more exciting than anything we can imagine individually.
I end the night listening to “Another Life.” This song has me tearing up. Though D’Angelo is talking about a woman who he assumes he has interacted with in a past life, I run through the gamut of thoughts surrounding the night’s initial questions about vision and groundedness. I reflect on my personal life and become filled with gratefulness; it is amazing to know intentional love. I consider the pain that comes with not being able to ground oneself in one’s life as my grandmother revisits my thoughts. I think about the fact that we only have so much time, and with that comes the reality that everything we want to accomplish in this life will not happen. Perhaps that is how it should be. Maybe we should leave room for others to add to the mosaic of human freedom. Whatever the case may be, I am ready to feel the mud between my toes. I don’t know what will come next. I have spent most of my life looking toward the horizon, but now I find myself mesmerized by the soil particles collecting on my big toe. Perhaps this is why kids love playing in dirt so much.
*** Rapheal Randall is the Executive Director of Youth United for Change (YUC), a youth-led, democratic organization with a membership comprised primarily of young people from working class communities of color, who utilize organized “people” power to improve the conditions of Philadelphia public schools. His goal in life is to help others realize their leadership and ability to build strong and vibrant communities while keeping their democratic institutions responsive to their needs and dreams. You can find out more about YUC’s work at their website: youthunitedforchange.org