Saturday, January 22, 2011

Akua Naru “Gets Acrobatic” and Produces the Most Brilliant Hip Hop Album in the Last Ten Years

An Album Review by Dr Mark “ Notorious Phd” Naison
“There’s no girls in the cipher so I rock solo”
From “The Backflip”
“I can’t relate, nor can I hate, for ways we negotiate, the sexist spaces we navigate”
From “The World Is Listening.”
Imagine a hip hop artist with the flow and dexterity of Rakim, the poetic brilliance of Lauren Hill, and the ability to invoke, through their art, the full weight of Black women’s history the way Nina Simone or Toni Morrison does. That would describe Latanya Hinton, aka Akua Naru, whose album “The Journey Aflame” is the single most important collection of songs on a single hip hop album I have heard in the last ten years. Naru is currently a doctoral student in American Studies in Cologne Germany, but her formative years were spent in Black working class New Haven, a place she returns to with great regularity. When you add to that a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, and travels to China and Africa, you have an experience that might bring skepticism from those who feel you have to stay in the hood to cultivate hip hop as an authentic expression of urban art.
But the brilliance of Naru’s lyricism speaks for itself. I have spent two full weeks living with this album, listening to it in my car, in my office, and on my home computer, and am still dazzled by the variety of skills Naru brings to her art, and the power and brilliance of her songs.
There is one song on the album “The Journey” that is such a powerful invocation of the trials of African American women from the first slave ship to the present that it brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. I will use this song in every single African American history class I teach. It manages to condense the experience of Black women from the first slave ship through hip hop’s “video vixens” into four relentless minutes the include some of the most inventive juxtapositions of words and images I have heard in any work of art, musical or literary.
But Naru doesn’t just deal in tragedy. Like MC Lyte, she can “rock the party” and “rock the body” with sounds that will get your butt and shoulders a shaking whether you are in a car, a classroom, or on the dance floor. Naru begins her her album with two songs “The Ride” and “The Backflip” which establish her credentials as a battle rapper. She boats, and backs it up with some sick verses that she can match any male MC, in any place or any era, for speed, flow and inventiveness. As Naru puts it “I’m so competitive my flow ran for President.” These songs represent pure, joyous boasting from a B-Girl posture, a stance Naru earned growing up in a single parent family in Black working class New Haven. Naru grew up around hip hop, inspired by the sounds she heard in every schoolyard and on every street corner, but felt found herself excluded from neighborhood ciphers when men and boys showcased their skills. As a child
“she rocked solo” but now she is ready to show the world she can take on all comers. “ For all of you waiting for hip hop,” she raps, “ she’s here.”
Naru’s stance is that of the B-Girl, competitive, combative, and confrontational, rooted in neighborhood realities, but honed by an acute historical sense and a deep rage at the objectification of Black women’s bodies in mainstream hip hop and in film and advertising. She admits to falling in love, and even to having erotic thoughts, but never constructs herself as seductive in a way that connotes weakness or availability. Her lyrical power and inventiveness never wavers, and she never relinquishes her dignity. She is creating music designed to empower Black women and help them reclaim a place of honor in their community while speaking out in behalf of Black and oppressed people all over the globe. As she sings in “Tales of Men”
“This is for my people, stuck in poverty, all around the World
This is for my people, who be suffering, all around the World
This is for my people, who be fatherless, all around the World”
Despite Naru’s global reach and profound historical sense, she never strays far from working class New Haven. Indeed, her music is as deeply connected to New Haven as Biggie Smalls was to Brooklyn, or Nas’ to the Queensbridge Houses. One incredibly beautiful song, “Nag Champa” invokes visions of Black folks in New Haven coming together in peace and unity on Sundays, even after “another murder on a Saturday night,” “another rape on a Friday night.” “Never Run” is a tribute to her mother, and to other black women, whose husbands left, but who “never ran” in the face of unpaid bills, difficult work, and the trials and tribulations that come with having children. This a woman’s version of “Dear Mama” except that Shari Hinton, Akua’s mother, never wavered, and never broke. It is on her strength that the foundation of Naru’s music is constructed.
Two more sounds, “The Wound” and “The Block” display the different emphases of Naru’s art. The “Wound “ is historical, invoking the ways that black folks have internalized the injuries whites inflicted on them. “Centuries pass the flashbacks still cripple me,” Naru raps. But her greatest anger is reserved for how black folk are treated in popular culture.”Another industry ready to bitch, ho and nigger me.” The song ends with guest artists Bliss the Ambassador saying “We Need Some Healing”
“The Block” is a haunting journey through Black working class New Haven, the donut shops, the bars, the barber shops and beauty parlors, the corner drug deals, the beefs and drive bys, juxtaposed to an extraordinary story of a woman raped and abandoned, claimed by no one, and a description of please shootings of men of color. The images flow in rapid success, all to an almost romantically beautiful studio beat, ending with an incredible saxophone solo.
In all these songs, the background beats are perfectly complimentary, whether they be created electronically, or with live instruments. All of the production was done in Cologne, Germany by people who loved and appreciated the artist and her music. There is not a lose note, not a moment that your attention is diverted from the powerful messages, and the magical lyricism
“The Journey Aflame” is an album you will find yourself coming to over and over again, for inspiration, for comfort, for the rage and strength you need to keep fighting for justice, and for a reminder how history lives in inside of us and must be dealt with if we are to achieve the freedom and peace of mind we seek.
This album will be part of my life for years to come. I hope it will become part of yours
Peace in the Struggle
Mark Naison
Brooklyn, NY
January 21, 2011

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Book Coming Out This Spring that Should Be Required Reading for Anyone Who Cares About Schools and Teaching

As Bad as They Say?Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx
Janet Grossbach Mayer
ISBN: 9780823234172Book (Paperback)Fordham University Press, Empire State Editions5 1/2 x 8 1/2150 pagesApril 2011


"Janet Mayer's book is a page-turner about real life in urban classrooms today."—Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

"Janet Mayer's As Bad As They Say is a brilliant and badly need answer to business minded 'educational reformers' who think that nothing good happened in American education before they took over. The story of a teacher who spent forty years of her life in Bronx public schools, it shows that the love of teachers for their students is the true transformative force in American education, not mindless imposition of standardized tests. Mayer turns her Bronx students, who learn under the most daunting conditions, into heroes, but in the process reminds us that great teachers are motivated by compassion as well as a love of learning. Signficantly, the book ends with a powerful, carefully documented attack on 'No Child Left Behind' a piece of legislation that seeks to render great teachers like Mayer irrelevant and invisible."—Mark Naison, author of White Boy: A Memoir

Rundown, vermin-infested buildings. rigid, slow-to-react bureaucratic systems. Children from broken homes and declining communities. How can a teacher succeed? How does a student not only survive but also come to thrive? It can happen, and As Bad as They Say? tells the heroic stories of Janet Mayer’s students during her 33-year tenure as a Bronx high school teacher.

In 1995, Janet Mayer’s students began a pen-pal exchange with South African teenagers who, under apartheid, had been denied an education; almost uniformly, the South Africans asked, “Is the Bronx as bad as they say?” This dedicated teacher promised those students and all future ones that she would write a book to help change the stereotypical image of Bronx students and show that, in spite of overwhelming obstacles, they are outstanding young people, capable of the highest achievements.

She walks the reader through the decrepit school building, describing in graphic detail the deplorable physical conditions that students and faculty navigate daily. Then, in eight chapters we meet eight amazing young people, a small sample of the more than 14,000 students the writer has felt honored to teach.

She describes her own Bronx roots and the powerful influences that made her such a determined teacher. Finally, the veteran teacher sounds the alarm to stop the corruption and degradation of public education in the guise of what are euphemistically labeled “reforms” (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top). She also expresses optimism that public education and our democracy can still be saved, urgently calling on all to become involved and help save our schools.

Janet Grossbach Mayer has just completed her 50th year as an award-winning high school teacher of English and reading. For 45 years, she taught in NYC schools, 33 of them in the Bronx, and for the past 5 years she has been a home instructor for Port Jervis, N.Y., schools.She has no plans to retire.