D. Scot Miller

Panther cry



LIT Over a five-year period in Oakland, California, archivist Pat Thomas befriended key leaders of the Black Power movement, dug through Huey Newton’s archives at Stanford University, spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on eBay, and talked to rank and file Black Panther Party members. He uncovered dozens of obscure albums, singles, and stray tapes. Along the way, he began to piece together a time period (1967-1974) when revolutionaries were seen as pop culture icons.

The result of Thomas’ discoveries is Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1967-1974 (Fantagraphics, 224pp, $39.99), a 70,000-word hardcover book with 200 full-color images of obscure recordings and ephemera, and an accompanying CD that traces the vast cultural output of the black power movement.

Besides being a visually stunning collection of photographs and album covers, Thomas’ book shines as a concise, clear-sighted history of the Black Panther movement and the ascendance of black power in American life. “While I can’t claim to know what happened, much less what it felt like to participate,” he says in the introduction, “it’s my hope that readers will find the personalities and music inspiring as I did. Dig deep; blood is thicker than mud.”

Done with a reverence of the times and people, Thomas distinguishes the Panthers from black nationalist movements like Karenga’s US and Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts by focusing on the diversity of the contributors and supporters. Listen, Whitey! steps outside of the boundaries established by other books covering the culture of the movement by showing black power as an engine that generated a multi-cultural global resistance.

This Black-Powered cross-cultural revolution is Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Re-visited in the hands of black radical imagination. A transformative album for Jimi Hendrix, the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” was on Huey Newton’s heavy rotation list during the early drafts of the Panther doctrine. Dylan later reciprocated with an elegy to “George Jackson”, an homage to Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, and other songs in service to the movement. The most curious inclusion on the CD, in fact, is white folk singer Roy Harper’s “I Hate The White Man,” a track that — to this day — is as enigmatic as it is honest.

Known musicians like Gil-Scott Heron and John Lennon mix with under-appreciated or unknown talent like Gene McDaniels and the marvelous Marlena Shaw. From the humorous seriousness of the Watts Prophets’ “Dem Niggas Ain’t Playing” to the serious humor of Dick Gregory, and on to the sublime sounds of struggle from Elaine Brown, the music is full and beautiful. The omission of any of any New Thing jazz and Jimi Hendrix (though Thomas sees Hendrix as disengaged, if not apathetic to the riots, “Look At The Sky” from Electric Ladyland opens the dialogue even further beyond the typical), makes the CD function more as a primer to the genre than a definitive review. But when all is said and done, this honky wrote a great black book. *


April 10 7 p.m., free

The Booksmith

1644 Haight, SF

(415) 863-8688



April 11 7 p.m., free

Pegasus Books

2349 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 649-1320


‘AMERICA’ the beautiful



LIT/VISUAL ART Dear Mr. Ligon,

I’d like to begin this letter with an apology.

For years I’ve included your work in my personal pantheon. Since my first encounter with your text-based paintings in the pages of Artforum during your early days at the Whitney Museum, to your critiques of Mapplethorpe, to your contributions to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I have always found your work intriguing, inspiring, and — at times — exasperating. In short, you’ve never failed to impress me. Even more so when I consider your very vocal status as a gay black man in the high-end art world and as a gay black artist in the world at large. Still, I owe you this apology because, though I’ve held you in high esteem, I have underestimated you.

AMERICA, the catalog for your 20-year retrospective show held at the Whitney this year, has given me the opportunity to study the breadth and depth of your body of work. Being able sit with this sturdy black book, this 300-page piece of art in itself has — frankly — put me through some changes, brother.

Scott Rothkopf’s introductory essay talks about your early days as an Abstract Expressionist seeking your voice and how you found “that there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it.” This reminded me of the line, “I’m simply without the means to conduct my own prism” from Will Alexander’s poetry collection Compression and Purity — which is what inspired me to write you this letter instead of some critique or some such. If you haven’t yet, you should read Alexander’s book. You’d like it.

Pulling inspiration from sources like Basquiat, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Jasper Johns, and Martin Puryear, you began to make literary-based pieces where text is the primary — but not the only — means of communicating your newfound voice. And this, I confess, is where I got all messed up.

Take your dreambook series. As a viewer of painted text, I took it as a given that everyone knew what a dreambook was. That everyone knew what those three stenciled numbers in the middle of each piece meant. I thought everyone knew that you were preserving a magical artifact, and lucky magic at that. Only you knew better. You knew that everyone did not know dreambooks, or magic numbers — and where better to preserve this occult knowledge than in a museum of modern art? You understand curatorial expression, that how and where you say it is just as important as the saying itself. You have created literary-based multimedia narratives. I didn’t see this until AMERICA, and for this, I apologize.

I also apologize for what I can say, in hindsight, was a once-over of many of my favorite text pieces. In my defense, I didn’t get the opportunity to study your work in such great detail as the lush and plentiful plates in AMERICA have allowed me. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t be feeling so bad right now. I was so taken by the passages you chose from Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Pryor that I seemingly glossed over the statements the paintings themselves were making.

In one of my favorites, the words, “I’m Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You,” are painted in bold black stencil that starts at the very top of a large white canvas. And as the phrase repeats again and again, the letters begin to merge and darken, so by the bottom of the piece the letters are so thick, smeared, and obscured that all that remains is the intent of words, the feeling behind them. The effect is eerie and liberating at the same time. Okwui Enwezor’s essay “Text, Subtext, Intertext: Painting Language and Signifying in the Work of Glenn Ligon” shed much light on that.

I guess because of your dry wit and wry observations, I have not given you your “teeth.” Your take on runaway slave posters, placing yourself as described by friends and associates as the runaway, or your tribute to Henry “Box” Brown, the man who mailed himself to freedom, have intrigued me. But it was in the interview with Thelma Golden, where you mention that quoting Richard Pryor was scary, that I found my missing piece. There is something in the way that I laugh when I listen to Pryor that is relieving. His every punch line is like a daredevil outrunning the hell-hounds once again. You’re right, Pryor is scary.

For your part as the impetus to the “post-black” movement, for your haunting texts and textures, for deciding that AMERICA is the best theme for your retrospective — you scare me. I wrote this to say you scare me, Glenn Ligon. And I like it.

A better tomorrow



“‘I am the carnivore/ The hounded night walker/ Searching for my wings scattered under glass.'<0x2009>” So begins “Blood Penguin,” the first poem in Will Alexander’s latest collection, Compression & Purity (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). Alexander is an honest-and-for-true black surrealist. In 2011, he will have three books of poetry, one novel, one book of essays, and a book of philosophy coming out. Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you gotta admit that Will Alexander is a bad muthafuckah. “because of my leaning,” he writes in the same poem, “I know the stark Egyptian soma/ Much as would the blinded cemetery scribe.'”

Invoking equal parts Homer and Ray Charles, Alexander excavates as only a black surrealist can — by revisiting and resurrecting cults and symbols of the past with new eyes while taking a biographic, confessional tone. Many of the pieces coalesce into declarations/definitions for an ever-shifting identity meeting the limits of contemporary classification.

“I am simply without means to conduct my own prism,” Alexander writes in this opening poem. A lament of all artists and creative others who find themselves at this juncture where capability could possibly override access and capital, enabling us to manifest our truest visions.

In “The Deluge in Information,” we once again meet this fluid identity. “I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires,” Alexander writes, “a crucial underwater crow/ Neither Chinese or Shinto/ But of the black dimensionality as hidden underwater mass.”

Whereas Alexander’s Sunrise in Armageddon (2006) was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip, Compression & Purity hovers over a series of consistent, graspable subjects throughout. The treatment of identity/biography in “Blood Penguin” and “Deluge” is fully unmasked in “On Anti-Biography,” where Alexander makes the succinct, clear statement: “I am only concerned with simultaneity and height, with rays of monomial kindling, guiding the neocortex though ravens, into the ecstasy of x-rays and blackness.”

This and the poem that follows, “My Interior Vita,” ring like an Afrosurrealist’s manifesto. When Alexander writes, “Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writing of Damas. Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon,he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and queer folk. Even as he’s speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of “otherness.”

“Yet at a more ancient remove,” he continues, “there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelations of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise.” Word.

Though Afrosurreal, Alexander is “Afro futurist” as well. “Alien Personas,” the name of yet another strong poem in this collection, could easily be a rubric for the other driving force in this book. Beginning with the personification poem “Water On A New Mars” (“Being water/ I am the voltage of rocks/ Of algid suns in transition/ Flying across a scape/ Of bitter Martian dioxide”), Alexander reaches from the semi-utopian science fiction of Octavia Butler to dystopian Delanyian homage and the expansive cosmology of Sun Ra. What we find is an artist seeking a unified-all-inclusive art theory. A noble, if totally insane, gesture for a better and brighter tomorrow.

Compression and Purity works well as an introduction to Alexander’s black surrealist oeuvre while still engaging and challenging his longtime readers. Though emotionally cold and detached, the poems more than make up for it with a genuine love of language and its power to effect change. 



Wed./18, 7 p.m.; free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193



Looney AutoTunes: KMEL on a Saturday morning, and when urban radio was urban radio


When I made the promise to listen to 106 KMEL for this piece, I fantasized about a weekend afternoon listening to hip-hop from the golden era of the mid-’90s. I expected a few aggravating commercials, maybe an abrasive deejay or two. Nothing I couldn’t handle, right? Wrong. Dead fucking wrong.

On a Saturday morning, I faced the ad-nauseum assault of urban contemporary on its own battleground. At 10 a.m., I tuned into the AutoTune onslaught. A little ditty from Diddy-Dirty Money called “Loving You No More” gave way to the entrepeneur formerly known as Puff Daddy’s “All About The Benjamins,” which in turn was blended into Dru Down’s “Mack of the Year.” The chain continued with 50 Cent’s “Just A Lil Bit,” and then Twista featuring Chris Brown’s “Let’s Make a Movie,” before finally settling into Lloyd Banks featuring Jeremih’s “I Don’t Deserve You,” another “slapper.”

Somewhere between the third or fifth time I heard Nicki Minaj featuring Drake’s sports-drink-commercial- disguised-as-a-pop-song “Moment 4 Life” (but, unfortunately, not before a Waka Flocka Flame/Rick Ross mashup), I turned it off. Less than two hours had passed, but I checked the mirror for a long gray beard anyway. There were two reasons for this: first, listening to the radio seemed to extend time beyond my conceptions of seconds, hours, and years; secondly, well, I felt old. I found myself reminiscing like old-timers are wont to do. “I remember when urban radio was urban radio,” we might say.

J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science featuring Lunar Heights, “Inferno”:

I remember when urban radio was urban radio. When I met DJ Wisdom (then known as Winnie B) at a house party in the early ’90s and told him that I was teaching creative writing to “under-served” youth in Hunter’s Point, and then met J-Boogie at another party a few days later, they invited me onto their new KUSF radio show, BeatSauce, to promote my program. I came through a few more times over the years, and it was a pleasure just to watch the fellas sift through the stacks of LPs and EPs, trying to create the best soundtrack for the evening. Sometimes the songs would relate to a topic that came up during the totally-ill call-ins. At other times, the challenge seemed to be to have the one record that answered some obscure, esoteric request. You never knew what to expect, and that was the fun and danger of it. Being one of those Methuselahs who remembers the thrice-dubbed 90-minute cassettes of Mr. Magic‘s Rap Attack, I had an appreciation for how far the music of my generation had come.

San Antonio-based Clear Channel Radio, the owners of both 106 KMEL and its competitor for the urban market, WILD 94.9, programs these stations from afar based on global market appeal and point systems, a process that results in indescribable, nay, perverse musical setbacks. The pre-recorded radio personalities don’t answer phones or jockey discs, and the only solid beats I heard were on the public service announcements telling kids to get tested. Unlike listeners who find fault with the powerless deejays, local programmers, and the indies who pay them, I found myself feeling sorry for the whole lot. They gotta listen to this shit every day knowing they’re playing themselves…right out of a job.

Spirit and soul


Having uprooted from his native Atlanta to chase his musical dreams in L.A., Cody ChestnuTT and his band, the Crosswalk, landed a deal with Hollywood Records and got as far as recording and mixing a debut album, Venus Loves a Melody, before things went south. In 2002, ChestnuTT took his bass, drum machine, keyboard, guitar, organ, microphone, and headphones into his bedroom and single-handedly crafted his debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready Set Go). The 99-minute double CD contained 39 songs that ranged from Southern-fried rock to hip-hop, and was laced with enough dastardly and divine deeds to provoke any listener. All of it was written, produced, and performed by ChesnuTT on his four-track cassette recorder.

The success of the album is evident in how it permeated the American fabric. ChestnuTT’s fame soared when Grammy Award-winning band the Roots decided to cover his song “The Seed” for its 2002 album Phrenology, with ChestnuTT on guitar and vocals. The video for “The Seed (2.0)” was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award and an MTV 2 Award. The Headphone Masterpiece was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize in 2003. ChesnuTT’s music figured in Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and his performance in the Dave Chappelle movie Block Party (2005) was a throwback to the days of Wattstax. Thom Yorke of Radiohead considers ChesnuTT a musical genius, and the opening riff to Headphone Masterpiece‘s “Look Good In Leather” has become a ubiquitous commercial ditty.

Though ChesnuTT continued to tour and release singles, it wasn’t until his 2010 reemergence project, the six-track EP Black Skin No Value (Vibration Vineyard), that he truly returned, brandishing a lyrical approach that had evolved beyond the more “profane” content of Masterpiece. In his words, “the EP was a social commentary rooted in spiritual and soul traditions.” Due later this year, his next album, Landing On a Hundred, promises to be as passionate and powerful as the rest of his work. On the eve of a show at Yoshi’s, I caught up with him.

SFBG Why did you title your EP Black Skin No Value?

Cody ChesnuTT I wanted to form something that was ironic. To blend all I think could be a literal application to what I feel is going on. We’re facing a low perception of self-worth in the community — from media, the justice system, and so many different things — and at the same time the content of the body of work itself is in stark contrast. We have to recognize that there’s value in acknowledging or addressing the issue. Off the top, it was an ironic approach to deal with what I feel is a crisis in the community.

SFBG Although there’s community focus in the album, most of the songs seem intimate.

CC Yeah, it’s straightforward. I wanted to take a sound-bite songwriting approach. Straight to the point, to cut through all the noise we’re hearing in the media right now. Something that awakens the spirit in some way, or opens chakras that make sure you’re really paying attention to what we’re facing right now.

SFBG Somewhere between rock, funk, folk, soul, hip-hop, and experimental sounds, The Headphone Masterpiece and its success left you in an interesting position in the world of music. I know you didn’t cultivate this crossroad or gray area, so how do you work within it?

CC I don’t think about it. I just create. I do know that the last experience put me in a position where I had some advantages as an artist that gave me room to do what I wanted to do. That’s the beauty of my career — it set me up to go either way. Gave me the freedom to create whatever I wanted to create. What’s your take on it?

SFBG In The Headphone Masterpiece you’re able to show so many sides in an industry that demands two-dimensionality. You go from “Serve This Royalty” to “Smoke and Love,” then you write “Bitch, I’m Broke” and throw in a lullaby to your son. You’re showing yourself as a fully-formed human being. I feel that kind of complexity confuses the machine.

CC I think that is to my advantage. I was hoping, and still hope, that it will inspire other people to look at the humanity of it all. To not be so focused on sure-thing in-the-box marketing. I think exposing the range of human emotion makes the landscape much more interesting. Not to get too deep off into the philosophical aspects of creativity, but I’m reading a piece on Nietzsche’s self-criticism and The Birth of Tragedy, and [Nietzsche is] saying that after the first three Greek tragedies, there were no more to create — the rest are just copies. That’s why we need to expose the range and bring in new content, because, in my opinion, certain subject matter has been exhausted. There’s more to explore within the spirit. It’s what drives me to do what I do.

SFBG What can we expect from your show?

CC I’m playing all new material with a 10-piece band. I’m really interested into tapping into that root soul music. The kind of music that heals, the kind that touches. It’s what I want to feel and hear right now. And there seems to be a consensus that people really want something a little more substantive, closer to that feeling that they had when they were growing up. Right now is an interesting time to bring back that healing vibration, that element. I’m not the only one doing it. I just want to contribute to what I think is a renaissance, a resurgence, a restoration, so to speak, of soul. So much of the soul has been sapped out of our music.


Sat./26, 8 and 10 p.m.; $25

Yoshi’s San Francisco

1330 Fillmore, S.F.

(415) 655-5600


New thing



MUSIC In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) writes, “The New Thing, as recent jazz is called, is a reaction to the hard bop-funk-groove-soul camp, which itself came into being in protest against the squelching of most of the blues elements in cool and progressive jazz. Funk (groove, soul) has become as formal and clichéd as cool or swing, and opportunities for imaginative expression have dwindled almost to nothing.”

In today’s “almost to nothing” post-everything musical wasteland, there is a persistent dwindling yet again. So much musical freedom has given way to downloaded snippets and the time restrictions of YouTube videos. Even our old popular rebel friends, hip-hop and punk rock, have lost their teeth to corporate bling or easy-bake obscurity. Improvisation, experimentation, and innovation are still so hard to come by that I can’t help but wonder — don’t we need a new thing?

The “New Thing” that Baraka defends in his essay is now the mainstay of a modern, and still thriving, jazz movement that included the likes of Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Today you can find it in the sounds of musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Roscoe Mitchell.

In 1965, Mitchell helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His 1966 album Sound (Delmark) is heralded by many as a milestone that helped usher in “The New Thing.” Along with Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and others, Mitchell became a founding member of The Art Ensemble of Chicago in the late 1960s. He’s since continued to explore the fringes of avant-garde jazz, noise, classical, folk, and world music to create hybrid compositions that mesmerize and provoke.

This week, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Yoshi’s is inviting Mitchell to join Baraka, the author of more than 40 books, poet icon, revolutionary activist, and father of Afrosurreal Expressionism.

Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s, just as Mitchell is revered as the founder of the AACM in Chicago around the same time. Both men have a reputation for the type of work regimens and standards of excellence that produce results. Baraka is a master performer and reader. Mitchell is a master musician who, along with saxophone, plays clarinet, flute, piccolo, oboe, and many handmade “little instruments” that create ethereal, and eerily familiar, sounds. In short, having these two men on stage doing their thing is like having more than 100 years of the radical avant-garde blowing fire and ice in your face. You’ll like it. Trust me.

The idea that American music never fully explored “The New Thing” when it emerged nearly 50 years ago is slowly coming to light, thanks to Soul Jazz’s 2004 compilation New Thing! and a recent resurgence of interest in — and reissuing of — works by Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, and George Lewis. It leaves me to wonder: is the old “New Thing” just the new “New Thing” we’ve been waiting for?


Mon./17, 8 and 10 p.m., $12–$18

Yoshi’s San Francisco

1330 Fillmore, SF

(415) 655-5600


Mirrors and masks



LIT/VISUAL ART At a time when everyone is bemoaning the death of the book from either Kindle or just plain old lack of interest, I stand up for our old friend and former conveyance. There’s something about it — the smell of fresh ink, the feel of the yellowed-pages of a well-worn paperback, that gentle “crack” of the spine of a new volume — that can never be replaced by some black-matte gadget. As a writer and lover of all things book, I’ve been impressed by a few this year that may reignite your love for what’s laying between the covers, just waiting for your return.

Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art (Thames and Hudson, 496 pages, $34.95) is an unassuming tome. Clocking in at just under 500 pages, this softcover textbook-looking marvel has become a mainstay on my research shelf and bathroom magazine rack. Gathering full-color plates of some of the most lush (Delacroix’s Death of Sarandapulus), confrontational (Donatello’s David), and demanding (Jane Alexander’s Vissershok) images in Western art over the last 500 years, Bell has managed to do what so often seems like the impossible in the art world: he’s included damn near everybody. To Bell, Nok terracotta, Chinese Master Guo Xi, and Dogon carvings have as much influence on contemporary art as Warhol, Pollack, and Manet. “I want to believe,” he says in the introduction, “that works of art can reveal realities that had otherwise lain unseen, that they can act as frames for truth.” Mirror to the World does just that, framing a more-true, inclusive history of art while providing a nifty little timeline in the back to play catch-up.

Speaking of timelines, I’m grateful that Simone Werle’s 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know (Prestel, 160 pages, $19.95) has one! As a latecomer to the world of fashion, I know what I like, but sometimes have no idea why, or where it came from. The designers profiled in this book are given full- color spreads featuring their most signature pieces. Armani, Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana are explored at length, while conceptualists such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kubokawa are not overlooked. From early-20th century designers like Coco Chanel and Andre Courreges to contemporaries such as Vivienne Westwood and Tom Ford, this guidebook is handy and dandy.

One of the most beautiful books I’ve gotten my hands on this year is also one of the most challenging and provocative. Martin Eder’s Der Blasse Tanz/The Pale Dance (Prestel, 320 pages, $64.95) is a formidably luscious soft-focus bomb waiting to go off in the reader’s psyche. The German painter walks the thin line between fantasy and reality, nightmare and saccharine dream, child-like infatuation and barely-legal obsession. With a technical prowess to rival Renoir and Botticelli, Eder uses watercolors to draw us into this uncomfortable in-between, turning us into admirers and voyeurs at the same time. From the plush feel of the slightly weathered cover-stock, to Isabel Azoulay’s introduction and its insights regarding feminism and erotic art, everything works together, making Der Blasse Tanz an artifact that tells our oh-so modern story in a way that only a well-made book can.

But if there is any book out there right now that truly justifies why art and photo books still exist, it’s got to be Phyllis Galembo’s Maske (Chris Boot, 208 pages, $46). I love this book! In it, ordinary people turn into mythic figures and magicians, tricksters, and gods through fantastic costumes in African and Caribbean rituals and celebrations. Striped bodysuits that cover the entire body, including the face, conjure both Sesame Street and Freddy Kruger. Outfits are made entirely of bunched greenery. A lacquered wooden mask topped with a headdress and a full-body model doubles and then triples a small boy’s mass. The images themselves are striking, statements on both fashion and fetish. Knowing that there are 180 of them, and explanations for each one, makes the imagination take off on plywood wings.

Whirl trade center



VISUAL ART In 2005, then-struggling Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou presented “Arts, Beats and Lyrics” at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The oversize paintings were blinged-out-mack-daddy-baller self-portraits showing the artist on the covers of well-known and respected magazines. Within two years, his work had been reviewed and featured in numerous publications, including Art In America, Harper’s, NY Arts, Mass Appeal, and The Fader. The sheer voodoo of this act makes Pecou a formidable creative force, and coupled with his knack for spectacle, his opening at Shooting Gallery this month is rumored to be the most vainglorious of the season. I caught up with him recently on the phone.

SFBG I’m amazed by your earlier work because it seems to me that you used sympathetic magic to approach fame. You placed yourself within the context of celebrity and became a celebrity. Was that your original intention?

Fahamu Pecou It’s funny. It was kind of like the law of attraction. You can write your own narrative by believing in the messages you put out. I started doing this marketing campaign because I was frustrated with the way my career was going at the time. I really just wanted to get my name out there. Just my name. I wanted to make sure that when my name came across the desk of curator or gallery owner, they’d say, “I’ve seen this name before, maybe I should learn more about this person.” It was really sort of a joke. As it started to grow and people began to talk about it, it took on a life of its own.

SFBG Did you anticipate that it would go beyond Atlanta and become international?

FP No. It was just a clever, catchy inside joke among me and my friends. The minute I started putting out stickers and posters that said “Fahamu Pecou Is The Shit,” it was a hit. People were jumping on it. It was good that it happened that way because it allowed me to grow with it. Whether I can directly relate it to a specific style, I’ll leave that for people to write about.

SFBG Why did you call your latest show “Whirl Trade”?

FP The theme came from the idea of cultural exchanges between Africans on the continent of Africa and the rest of the African diaspora around the world, and how a lot can be lost and misconstrued when taken out of the original cultural context. We look back and forth at each other, and we do what we think is our best impression of “the other.” It comes out a twisted up and strange simulation.

I was in South Africa for residency on the Eastern Cape and spent some time in Capetown. I had a friend from Detroit with me, and a few friends from Capetown. We were coming out a restaurant and this homeless guy heard me and my homeboy talking. He said, “You guys are from America? You guys are the real niggas.”

We were both like, “Naw man, we aren’t niggers, we’re brothers.” And he said, “No. No, you guys are niggas, and I want to be a nigga too.” He was going on and on about how being a nigga was a good thing, not like these guys who come in from Nigeria and other places thinking they’re real niggas. We were the real deal. And here we are, trying to explain to him how being a nigga is not a good thing. Nobody wants to be a nigga. My Capetown friends were telling me that being a nigga is not a bad thing anymore. I started wondering, where did this come from? That’s what “Whirl Trade” is about: the cultural export of hip-hop culture and the impact it has on the rest of the world. We have this great stage, this platform, where we have the ear of the world. What are we saying? A lot of what’s being said and heard is a lot of nothing, especially when taken out of cultural context.

The response has been great and has sparked a lot of conversation around how we view ourselves and each other. What kind of impression we are making of ourselves to other cultures and, deeper still, what kind of impression do I have about African culture through this same context and my own experience? I couldn’t ask one question without asking the other. I try to be cautious about this in my work. I’m not trying to accuse or ridicule any group so much as begin to ask questions and start a dialogue between groups who think they know each other but don’t.

SFBG You do performances at your gallery shows. Costumes and everything. How does fashion play into your work?

FP In the beginning, it was more about capturing fashion that reflected a whole lifestyle. I patterned it after 50 Cent, who was the catalyst for my whole campaign. I was watching how he was packaged and wondering why a visual artist was never marketed that way. My whole fashion was based on that and Puff Daddy. Then I added my own touches with ascots and blazers and stuff like that.

With “Whirl Trade,” I’m looking at contemporary African fashion. Right now, African street fashion is a mashup of textiles and patterns, colors that almost seem disparate but come together beautifully. That and photographs of Malik Sadibe inspired me to bring in many different patterns and contrasts. It wasn’t that I was trying to copy a style as much as capture the cultural exchange between what Africans think African Americans dress like, and what African Americans think Africans dress like.

SFBG Though you reference hip-hop, I don’t really see you as a hip-hop artist. I sense a cynicism in your approach. Are you disillusioned with hip-hop?

FP I just found myself not so connected to what was being presented in early 2000s. A lot of media-made hip-hop stars came out. It stopped being so much about talent as it was marketing. It became about who was willing to come out and say they sold these drugs or did this killing. At one point that was legitimate, rappers came from the street, but then came these media guys who just said that shit to be famous, just for credibility and that’s what started hurting the integrity of the form.

It stopped being how fresh, how clever or how innovative an artist could be. It became how violent, how misogynistic, how violent a person could be. Extremes of everything — people ended being blaxploitation characters.

I’m talking about that in my next work, called “Hard To Death” — about the evolution of black manhood, and how there’s a lack of visual representation of that evolution beyond a certain point. Most of the images we see are reflections of hip-hop culture, which captures the black male between the ages of 18-25, just when many young men are working things out. It has become one of the only representations of black masculinity, which is very frustrating. My next piece is devoted to accurately portraying the evolution of black men. I’m seeing more established artists like Common and Jay-Z who have grown beyond that dangerous time.

Since my son was born, I’ve been really driven to addressing these issues around black masculinity and black manhood. I feel a sense of responsibility there because my work crosses the lines between popular culture and hip-hop culture, and I see that there’s a lack of responsible voices. My voice can work as a catalyst to start a conversation. I started a blog (passageofright.wordpress.com) to begin talking about creating systems for some kinds of rites of passage for young black boys. I didn’t grow up with a father or a whole lot of role models, so most of what I’ve learned about being a man is from the school of hard knocks. I want to prevent the continuation of that kind of awakening.


Reception Sat/12, 7–11 p.m.;

Through July 3

Shooting Gallery

839 Larkin, SF

(415) 931-1500



Work it!



LIT/VISUAL ART Yvan Rodic has to be one of the luckiest souls on the planet. He’d have to be to make my cynical ass fall in love with him. His new book Facehunter (Prestel, 320 pages, $24.95), a pastiche of photo book, style manual, travelogue and (hallelujah!) manifesto, has just the right combination of couture and subversion to earn a place on every cigarette- burned coffee table in the world.

"Globalization is a myth," he declares in his introduction. "The belief that international brands and pop culture are making the world a standardized society populated by clones is an old-skool science-fiction vision of the future, not the reality of the 21st century."

If anyone would know it is Rodic, who has traveled in nearly 30 countries, taking pictures of real people looking real fly for his blog, which eventually landed him as a contributor to Tokion, GQ, and Modette, which in turn got him a book deal with Prestel. Told you he was lucky. But luck, in this case, is only preparation meeting opportunity, because Rodic has an eye and a philosophy that is long overdue in the worlds of art, fashion and photography.

"Judging from the people I’ve met on my travels, it’s obvious that instead of talking about globalization, we should talk of ‘creole-ization,’" he says. Rodic calls this phenomenon of customizing identity from fragments of culture from different parts of world "New Creole Culture." I can think of another name for it …

Whether standing in front of the lush foliage of Turku or the stark grayness of a Manhattan winter, the clothes and the everyday people in Facehunter are beautiful. The mostly 20-something Nordic models within Rodic’s pictures are to be expected. He calls his peers "the iPod generation," and credits them for taking "this chameleon-like approach to fashion, exploring the many facets of their personalities with radically different looks, or customizing their individual styles with elements from different eras and cultures." John Galliano, Prince, Vivienne Westwood, Afrika Bambaataa, and myself cuff you on the ear for that one, young’un.

The real surprises in Facehunter come from Rodic’s more atypical models: the stout, the squat, the over 30. In these photos, I find the folks who really knew how to "work it" in the parlance of prêt-à-porter rabble-rousers. They bring a radical cohesion to the book’s overall aesthetic. People from cities as disparate as Sao Paulo, Singapore, and Warsaw have a shared sense of what is fashionable, transcending economics, geography, race, and gender — an encouraging sign if there ever was one.

There are no labels mentioned in Facehunter, no designers, allowing the clothes to speak for themselves, and even better, allowing you to bite that style without it coming back to bite you in the ass. Rodic posits that the rise of the "New Creole Culture" encourages this.

"Trends are dead, baby!" my new favorite shutterbug announces. "Nietzsche’s exhortation ‘Become what you are’ is now a reality." I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Dark mirrors



LIT Recently I was at a meeting with an unnamed arts organization, planning for an AfroSurreal art exhibit. As we were hashing out the details of display, the concept of the black dandy become a bone of contention among my learned colleagues. What was, and is, a black dandy? How does the black dandy differ from the white dandy? What’s the difference between a dandy and fop? Aren’t those terms interchangeable? Why bother looking at or for a black dandy at all? I’m seldom at a loss for words — it just takes me a minute to arrange them properly sometimes. (Ask my editor.) But this time, I had nothing to say. I just directed all queries to Slaves To Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 408 pages, $24.95).

Monica L. Miller’s book is the first of its kind: a lengthy written study of the history of black dandyism and the role that style has played in the politics and aesthetics of African and African American identity. She draws from literature, film, photography, print ads, and music to reveal the black dandy’s underground cultural history and generate possibilities for the future.

Slaves to Fashion looks at black dandies of the past, beginning with Mungo Macaroni, a freed slave and well-known force within the London social scene in the 18th century. Miller also studies contemporary manifestations, in the vestments of Andre 3000 and Puff Daddy, showing how black dandies have historically used the signature tools of clothing, gesture, and wit to break down limiting definitions and introduce new, fluid concepts of social and political possibility. Though Slaves to Fashion is über-academic and at times weighed down by post-structrualist jargon, Miller more than makes up for it with uncanny feats of scholarship that illustrate ways in which the figure of the black dandy has been an elephant-in-the-room — albeit a particualrly well-dressed one.

A great example is Miller’s citing of the character of Adolph in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Almost immediately after the publication of this "great abolitionist work," its characters became some of the first American archetypes: Simon Legree and Uncle Tom are two notable examples. In comparison, Adolph — a black dandy pivotal to the story — was excised from the public imagination. Miller sees this as a reaction to what she calls "crimes of fashion," which take place when Africans and African Americans don the clothing of the oppressed to both emulate and satirize the oppressor. Adolph served as a "dark mirror" to both American materialism and the deep fear of the impending gender and race-mixing that would take place after abolition.

This fear, according to Miller, is the difference between the black dandy and the white dandy or the fop. Unlike a Caucasian counterpart, exemplified by the likes of Oscar Wilde, the black dandy comes from a position of underprivilege and uses flair and style as a way to redefine masculinity to include him. In other words, as opposed to a feminine front, it is the black dandy’s fluid masculinity — his "queering" of the term — that threatens to undermine the social order. Adolph is the exact opposite of the static, predictable docility and animalism of "the Big Black Buck" Uncle Tom. When he’s in town, you have to lock up your sons, daughters, wives, mother, father, and yourself because his power of seduction is so great. Think Prince during his Dirty Mind (Warner Bros., 1980) phase and you get the general idea.

Fear, according to Miller, continues to generate a serious backlash in reaction to the idea — let alone reality — of true equality for black people in the west. Images of black cork minstelry that lampoon the black dandy’s aspirations have been around as long as the black dandy. From Zip Coon and Jim Dandy in the early 19th century to present-day manifestations in popular culture, ambivalence — a tool of the black dandy — has served as a double-edged sword. Exactly when and where does "stylin’ out" become "coonin’"? If W.E.B. Du Bois, the quintessential black dandy, couldn’t figure it out, I’m not sure that I can find a definitive answer.

Slaves to Fashion rediscovers its footing in exploring the nature of "otherness." Returning from investigations of the black dandy’s lineage to note his role in contemporary art and culture, Miller shines a light on filmmaker Isaac Julien, editor and photographer Iké Udé, visual artist Yinka Shonibare, and beyond. In the process, she answers a variety of questions regarding what a black dandy is and does. Ultimately, the black dandy’s problem is an AfroSurreal one: by perpetrating these "crimes of fashion," by avoiding and exploding pat definitions of blackness, masculinity, and sexuality, he occupies a realm outside convention, and all too often, recognition. It is from these murky waters of post-postmodernity, I believe, that the black dandy brings a message for us all.

Emory Douglas



As a teenager, Emory Douglas was sentenced to 15 months at the Youth Training School in Ontario. It may have been the best thing for him — and the worst thing "the Man" could have done. In the prison printing shop, he discovered a gift for print and collage he would later use as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. From 1967 until the party disbanded in the 1980s, his iconic graphic art marked most issues of the newspaper The Black Panther.

Douglas brought the militant chic of the Panther image to the masses, using the newspaper to incite the oppressed to action. In the name of expediency and limited resources, he developed collage tricks to maximize his passionate message. His back-page posters emphasized the Panthers’ community programs, like free breakfast for children, clinics, schools, and arts events. His works presented the struggle with a mixture of empathy and outrage — sometimes direct, sometimes allegorical — that remains innovative and contemporary amid today’s high-tech standards.

In a 1968 salvo called "Position Paper No. 1 on Revolutionary Art," Douglas states: "Revolutionary art is learned in the ghetto from the pig cops on the beat, demagogue politicians, and avaricious businessmen. Not in the schools of fine art. The Revolutionary artist…hears the sounds of footsteps of black people trampling the ghetto streets and translates them into pictures of slow revolts against the slave masters, stomping them in their brains with bullets, that we can have power and freedom to determine the destiny of our community and help to build our world." For 33 years Douglas has stood by these words, working toward a better world for the people.

When Rizzoli published a compendium of Douglas’s posters, broadsheets, and fliers in 2007, a new generation became familiar with the causes of solidarity, liberation, and self-determination he holds dear. He has since had large-scale shows at sites such as L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, while his commitment to social change has led to exhibitions and speaking engagements at Oakland’s New Black World and the sorely-missed Babylon Falling in San Francisco. His interpretation of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye for last year’s "Banned and Recovered" show at San Francisco Center of the Book was one of the standout pieces of 2008.

Douglas’ work captures the tragedy and triumph of the disenfranchised, impoverished, and fed up; an eternal struggle against those blessed with power who choose to abuse it. Much like the works of Goya and the words of Hugo, his contribution to that struggle remains immeasurable — not just for what he has created, but for the people he will empower for generations to come.


>>GOLDIES 2009: The 21st Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery awards, honoring the Bay’s best in arts

Sugar Pie DeSanto



It’s a sunny afternoon, but the lights are low and moody at Duke’s R&B in Oakland. Sugar Pie DeSanto sits at a table with her manager, James C. Moore of Jasman Records. Her 74th birthday is four days in the rear-view mirror. A fresher, harsher anniversary has her deep in thought. “Gotta be gung-ho,” she says. “If you aren’t, then you’re a deadbeat — and I hate a deadbeat.”

Legends of the “Old Fillmore” float around San Francisco like boozy ghosts, shaming the city’s golf shirt rewrite of itself. It’s as if all that was hip, clean, and gut-bucket funky about San Francisco has been expunged — consigned to work in the garage, where oily coveralls hide the gabardine suits, and a hat-in-hand shuffle has replaced the high-step. Fortunately for us, some forces from the golden age of San Francisco hip are too tough and resilient to back down, back up, or backstep. We have Sugar Pie DeSanto to remind us how marvelous we were — and can be.

Born Umpeylia Marsema Balinton, the “Queen of the West Coast Blues” was raised in the Fillmore District, where she was part of a girl gang called the Lucky 20s, along with her cousin, Etta James. After she won a talent contest in L.A., R&B frontman Johnny Otis signed her to a recording contract in 1954. Because of her doll-like stature, he labeled her “Little Miss Sugar Pie.”

Though a little under five feet and all of 90 pounds, the woman soon to score hits as Sugar Pie DeSanto was one of the “cussing-est” performers backstage, and a mean hoofer to boot. Her backflips at the Apollo and scissor-kicks on the stages of London are the stuff of myth. Recordings from her stint as a songwriter and performer for the famous Chess Records in Chicago still scorch today. The evidence is all over this year’s wig-flopping, witchy Go Go Power: The Complete Chess Singles 1961-1966 (Kent), a slip-in mule kick to the ass of contemporary R&B.

Sugar Pie DeSanto ain’t slowing down. In fact, she’s throwing down — with a quartet of albums in the last decade and a notoriously wild live show. When she sings “Hello San Francisco,” it’s possible to feel the spirit — and the potential — of the city where she grew up. Almost exactly three years to the day that a fire claimed her belongings, her written story, and most painfully, her husband Jesse Davis, she’s at Duke’s Place, decked out in beautiful blue, holding a piano-key purse, and deep in thought. “Thank you Jesus,” she says wryly, upon being called over to take some photos. A few seconds later, she smiles, and lights up the whole damn joint. www.jasmanrecords.com

Foxy lady


A Hu-Li appears to be your run-of-the-mill lascivious 15-year-old prostitute in modern Russia. She does all the things professionals who cater to the discerning international pedophile do. What are those things? Well, she posts ads on the Internet that read:

"A FAIRY TALE CUM TRUE: Small breasts for big money. A little ginger kitten is waiting for a call from a well-to-do stranger. Classic sex and royal head, anal, petting, bondage, whipping (including the Russian knout), foot fetish, strap-on, sakura branch, lesbo, oral, anal stimulation, cunnilingus (including compulsory), role-swapping, two-way, gold and silver rain, fisting, piercing, catheter, copro, enema, gentle and heavy domination, Mistress and Slave girl services. Face control … Almost everything. Shag me and forget! If you can …

In other words, A Hu-Li flagellates the middle-aged intelligentsia who answer her siren’s call. She likes riding her bike, loves Nabokov, and is still a bit hung up about being a virgin. Pretty typical right?

How about this? A Hu Li is a 2,000-year-old, shape-shifting werefox from ancient China who uses her bushy tail to hypnotize men and absorb their life force. That grab ya? The title of Victor Pelevin’s latest is The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, the increasingly intriguing A-Hu Li is our narrator, and the book has little to do with anything I’ve just written. A Hu-Li is a member of a race of werefoxes who appear to be 15-year-old girls, when they are in fact neither. They cannot die; do not bathe; and never need to eat food, as long as they can feed on the sexual energy of the "naked apes" they have been doomed to interact with for seemingly all eternity. Their tails enable them to sap the energy of their prey while convincing them that they are fulfilling their greatest sexual fantasies. As such, they gravitate toward sex work, and have since time immemorial. Naturally, thousands of years doing the same thing as civilizations rise and fall can leave an immortal netherworld creature cynical and with a lot of time on her hands. Our narrator fills it by seeking enlightenment. Might as well.

Until she meets Alexander, that is, a Wagner-addicted werewolf who ranks high in the Russian Secret Service. What follows is one of the most hilarious and horrific courtships to come out of the former bloc. But guess what? The Sacred Book of the Werewolf isn’t about that, either.

Victor Pelevin may be a literary genius. He is definitely a tricky malcontent. He has written one of the most spiritually satisfying novels ever about wily werefoxes, interspecies sex, kleptocracy, and the joys of methamphetamines. In fewer than 400 pages, he manages touch on the finer points of sages from Nietzsche to Lao Tzu as A-Hu Li and Alexander seek the highest state of their kind … super werewolf. Sound silly? That’s because it is. It’s also pretentious, perverse, puerile, and exasperating. Yet none of that stops it from saving your sullied soul. Sticky fur and a dash of satori — what more could you ask for on Halloween … candy?

Anti-doofus agenda



LIT/MUSIC With influences ranging from the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X to musical orishas such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s that became, though short-lived, the virtual blueprint for a new American theater aesthetic. The movement and his published work — such as 1963’s signature study on African American music Blues People and the same year’s play Dutchman — practically seeded "the cultural corollary to black nationalism" of that revolutionary American milieu.

Baraka lives in Newark, N.J., with his wife and author Amina Baraka; they have five children and head the word-music ensemble Blue Ark: The Word Ship and co-direct Kimako’s Blues People, an art space housed in their theater basement for some 15 years. I spoke with him on the eve of an upcoming visit.

SFBG What brings you to the Bay Area this time around?

AMIRI BARAKA We’re doing two sets at Yoshi’s with Howard Wiley. Those are the kinds of musical things we have a nice time doing. I hope to bring the poetry and music to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And I’m giving a talk at the library.

SFBG What will you be discussing?

AB Obama and his first 10 months, based on an essay I wrote a few months ago called "We’re Already in the Future." I support Obama and I think that the people who supported him initially should keep supporting him because they are forgetting the huge difficulty he faces. This society, they don’t want any kind of change. They do not want him, first of all. Only 43 percent of the white people even voted for him, and a lot those people resent the fact that white America is now mulatto. That election proved that it’s not white America, it’s multinational America, so they’ve set up this roadblock to almost anything he does.

Anytime you can, you see how doofus Americans are, to oppose their own quality of life improvement, their own health care. They’d rather mope along with little health care or none simply because the corporations have convinced them it’s bad for them — it shows you that we have a real education gap in America. Not to mention the racism, which is behind a lot of it, big time.

The people who support Obama need to stand together to fight the right wing. It’s the right wing that is the enemy. Those huge corporations including those mouthpieces they have. The media is just absurd, with [Sean] Hannity, [Bill] O’Reilly, [Glenn] Beck, Rush Limbaugh. These guys are just too much. If they’re not racist, there is no such thing as racism.

SFBG I know that you spent some time in SF. What are your impressions of our city?

AB I was a visiting professor at San Francisco State for about three or four months, that was the extent of my residency. I like San Francisco. I’m drawn to the vibe there. The last time I was in San Francisco, I was reading at Ferlinghetti’s bookstore [City Lights]. Most of my stuff is in Oakland, but whenever I’m in Oakland, I stop by San Francisco.

Seems to me that San Francisco is very expensive, like New York. I live in Newark, N.J., which is 12 miles outside of New York City — it’s got that Oakland-San Francisco relationship. When you’re dealing with New York, you have that high-rent district all the way around. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but going there and being there are two different things.

SFBG Happy birthday. I know you just turned 75. Any wisdom to impart from three-quarters of a century?

AB I’ve been 75 for about five days. I can say that you really need to take care of yourself. That’s the cliché: "If I knew I was going be this old, I would have taken better care of myself," but it’s some better wisdom than what you hear generally.

SFBG You coined the term "Afrosurreal Expressionism." Can you share your definition?

AB If you know the African tales or even African writers and African cultures, then you know they understand the concept of having relationships reversed, which exposes new concepts and dimensions. They understood the power of the conscious and unconscious mind to change the dimensions of the world. The various forces of nature that people developed, that people saw as gods, these elemental forces: the wind, the water, the sun, the moon. They understood how human beings interrelate to those forces. Henry Dumas’ work dealt with these changing dimensions, and people who do strange things in realistic situations. It was Surrealism that changed the relationship to things. Dumas influenced Toni Morrison, who was his editor at Random House. He was a strong writer and he went out of here in a tragic way, being murdered by the police. His stories and poems are Afrosurreal, with African psychology imposing these dimensions on reality.

SFBG What is the role of the artist in the current climate, and what are the tools we can use to bring about social change?

AB The way things work: cause and effect, action and reaction. The ’60s and the ’70s were a period of intense struggle. The Black Arts Movement and the antiimperialist movement laid the foundation to get Obama elected. But then you get a reaction, and it has been quite evident. Imperialist commerce has taken over the arts. Once we were struggling to get black movies made — now we see what kinds of movies are being made by black people, and they are very backward. Act, react. We have to struggle anew to do something about these backwards elements.

Black people have 27 cities: we need 27 theaters, 27 galleries, 27 periodicals. We need to have poets, rappers, painters, actors struggling to raise the consciousness of the people. That is the role of the artist. Black people still live in these ghettos and these ‘hoods. There may be more of a black middle-class, but they often are the ones helping to keep us duped and bamboozled. This is a struggle that has to be. This is reality — like they say, "Keep it real." This is a struggle that has to be.


Nov. 9, 8 p.m., $16–$20

Yoshi’s San Francisco

1330 Fillmore, SF


See monsters



REVIEW Naomi Ophelia Lamar was my cousin, but my big sister. Six years older than me, she ran away from home at 16. Though we stayed in touch, too many years of no contact had changed us both. We tried but could never close the distance. Last year, they found her body in a Dumpster in Birmingham, Ala. She’d been stabbed over 30 times. Her husband had done it. Afterward, he drove to the nearest bridge and threw himself off. She was the grandmother of three. I sat in the bathroom screaming, "We are not garbage!"

Bizarre and horrible things happen. They just do. They happen to us, around us, and because of us. Sometimes the horrible things only become horrible on reflection. We liked them at the time. Sometimes the bizarre things become so commonplace that they stop being bizarre. Both bizarre and horrible things become badges of distinction and honor when we survive. When we answer the call and stagger to daylight.

This is the general premise of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau, 284 pages, $25), which opens with a look at Ricky Rice, a middle-aged porter in a bus depot in Utica, N.Y. It’s 2005, and the world is about to go broke. Ricky’s a downtrodden sanitation worker with a shady past. He’s never seen better days, and none seem to be forthcoming. That is, until he receives a mysterious note reminding him of The Promise he made: a one-way bus ticket to Vermont’s northeast kingdom. On the bus to the frigid north, we hear LaValle’s refrain from an alcoholic goblin on a tear to his captive audience: "Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like …"

The ellipsis just dangles, from the book’s first section on. As the events of Big Machine unfolded, I realized that that very phrase, and that very ellipsis, had been hanging from my lips since last year. It is the jump-off point for Lavalle’s book, and as we travel with Ricky Rice — alongside him, but also inside his mind as it seeks justification and reason — we begin to understand why.

Big Machine is a crafty book. Every page is a precise and illuminating reveal — a large veil playfully lifted from the reader’s initial conceptions of black/white, good/evil, and ultimately, salvation. Each chapter is a possible spoiler. A tough job for the reviewer, to be sure. Especially one who has been anticipating such a novel (and working on such a novel) for years.

Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown worlds: Ricky is recruited, along with six other recovering addicts and petty criminals to become a paranormal investigator. All of them have heard The Voice at the deep bottom of their shoddy existences and answered it with The Promise. Like generations of wretched of the earth before them, they are inducted into a secret society of "negros" ("I won’t say African Americans," says Rice, "it’s too damn long") to find The Voice and figure out what it wants.

From cleaning out bathroom stalls in work boots and T-shirts, Ricky becomes a dandy, wearing the finest clothes that the 1940s and 1950s could provide. Fitted in the best vines, he makes his way to (where else?) the Bay Area to confront a murder-suicide cult, and his own monstrous past.

Far from a standard dry examination of doubt and faith, Lavalle’s allegorical approach is sweeping and swashbuckling. Big Machine takes us from Ricky’s idyllic childhood — sweet as saccharine, with a black tar of burn — to his romantic nadir, dying in a puddle of piss and shit in the basement of a house owned by a man named Murder.

LaValle has named Shirley Jackson and Ambrose Pierce as influences, along with those he calls "the Black Eccentrics": Ishmael Reed, Gayle Jones, Darth Vader. His approach to gothic horror adds black Black humor and a new element of ferocity to the AfroSurreal aesthetic.

There’s a lot of tearing in this book. Flesh is peeled, pried, burned, punctured. Torture plays a prominent role. Children are exploited, souls are gnawed away, and spirits are broken. Bullets fly, bodies are wrenched, mauled, mutilated and discarded — so much so that Lavalle’s main refrain takes on greater weight when it reappears, in extended form, from the mouth of one of Big Machine‘s main characters. "Human beings are no damn good!," the character says. "The despised become the despicable. God Damn! We worse than animals! We’re like monsters."

Monsters. Big Machine has those too. Some wear suits, some wear shawls, some move between the shadows with vise-grip hands. The story is neither miserable nor grotesque, and it is proof of LaValle’s genius that sympathy and forgiveness extends to the whole pitiful lot.

I’ve been following LaValle since I read his 1999 short story collection Slapboxing With Jesus (which takes its title from a Ghostface Killah quote), and followed it up by reading 2003’s The Ecstatic (which in turn inspired Mos Def to title his latest album the same). Mos Def contributed a blurb to Big Machine, and the book’s blurbs are telling: according to them, LaValle is Marquez mixed with Poe, or Marakami mixed with Ellison, or Bosch having a baby with Lenny Bruce. But I feel they all miss the mark — I’m here to tell you that Victor LaValle is a believer in the unseen world. He has been there, and what he has brought back has affirmed my belief too. Yes, there are monsters out there, and what’s an AfroSurrealist supposed to do?

"I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight," says Ricky. "But we’re not going to do that."

De La Soul is alive


CHECK ONE Last night, I played De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros., 1989) for the first time in years. I couldn’t stop laughing.

It was a surprise, even though I always knew that much of De La Soul’s early appeal rested on its humor. Kelvin “Posdnous” Mercer spelled “soundsop” backwards; Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur loved yogurt. (He’s pictured eating yogurt in the album’s liner notes.) They complained about style biters who dug “Potholes in My Lawn”; and called their loopy, circuitous jams “Plug Tunin’.” There were references to soap, water, and Luden’s cough drops. In the first of several “game show” skits that bookended the album, Trugoy remarked that his favorite film was the 1976 sex-and-torture spectacle Bloodsucking Freaks. Twenty years later, De La Soul’s private language — or, to be accurate, “DA Inner Sound Y’all (D.A.I.S.Y. Age)” — still sounds fresh and crazily absurd.

Mainstream rock critics, suspicious of all that hippity-hop stuff, welcomed 3 Feet with restrained praise at first: Rolling Stone, in one of its historic blunders, only gave the album three stars while acknowledging it as “one of the most original rap albums ever.” The yellow-and-turquoise-daisies album art and MTV hype obscured De La Soul’s sharply intelligent sendups of go-go (“Do As De La Does”) and rap clichés (“Take It Off,” which parodied the then-ubiquitous “Funky Drummer” loop). Today, irony is so entrenched in the Generation X-Y-and-Zero lexicon that we forget how pleasurable it is when it’s done right.

Unfortunately, the good vibes quickly turned sour. Shortly after the album’s release, De La Soul ended an Arsenio Hall appearance with “Ain’t Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie,” a refrain first voiced on “Me, Myself and I.” The 1991 follow-up De La Soul is Dead offered a smashed flowerpot and tales of how the crew nearly got kicked off LL Cool J’s tour for fighting, just to prove that, hey, they ain’t no punks. Goofy odes to weed-smoking jostled uneasily with cautionary tales of child abuse and murder. The playful spirit of hip-hop’s so-called golden age was gone, another casualty in the oncoming storm of street realism and gangster aesthetics. (Mosi Reeves)

CHECK TWO I’d dug “Plug Tunin'” when I chanced across it on a mixtape from somewhere. This flow — this new style of speak — was shrouded in slang, occulted, and backed by a sound collage that seemed conjured from a basement where a rusty Victrola played the memories of an old man nodding off in his Lay-Z-Boy.

My boys hated that song. I loved it, but I didn’t “get it.” Armed with more fashion-sense than any of us knew what to do with, Marlon looked over at me and said, “You really like these Oklahoma muthafuckas?” Yes I did. Brothers was dope. From Strong Island, and dope. Rakim dope.

One Sunday, I was cleaning up my place to 3 Feet High and Rising and ran across a roach in an ashtray. Sprawled out on the couch watching the sun stream through my dirty windows, I “got” De La Soul. Every word was deciphered. It felt as if I’d learned a new language, or remembered an old one.

Things changed after that.

The 20th anniversary of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising is a cause for celebration. Anyone else feeling vindicated?

Kelvin “Posdnous” Mercer, David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur, and Vincent “PA Mase” Mason have chronicled the last 20 years through nine studio albums and countless production credits (Camp Lo, Gorillaz and MF DOOM among them). Prince Paul produced them, and in turn their popularity produced Prince Paul. They introduced a sleeping world to the black gale known as Mos Def.

De La is coming back to San Francisco. Witness genius at work. (D. Scot Miller)


With Kenan Bell

Thurs/23, 9 p.m., $29.50

The Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

(415) 346-6000


A distant memory



REVIEW I was cautious when I got the galley for Attica Locke’s first novel Black Water Rising (Harper, 448 pages, $25.99). I’d been intrigued before by beguiling plots of intrigue and suspense, only to find myself in the middle of a tepid affair with no way out except for closing the damn thing and chalking it up to yet another life lesson. All the warning signs were there.

The book’s protagonist, Jay Porter, is an attorney operating out of a Houston strip mall in 1981. His only client is a shady prostitute, who may or may not pay him. His wife, Bernie, is pregnant and he’s barely making ends meet to feed them, much less the baby who’s on the way. Though not happy with his mediocre existence, he’s content enough with his lot to be strong-willed and determined to make it.

Jay has a terrible secret, of course, that threatens to tear the world he has meticulously built asunder. And one fateful night, something happens that sets the unraveling in motion. He saves a mysterious woman’s life and places himself in the middle of a plot rife with sex, backroom deals, and dirty cash that will determine his fate and that of Houston, Texas, and eventually, the world!

"Easy, big fella. Easy," I told myself. "You’ve been hurt before." I saw the signs, as much as any reader would. I saw a Grisham story. I saw a Leonard tale. I knew I was being seduced, but I couldn’t put the book down. The first chapters hooked me like classic mid-list pulp — a phenomenon I miss like pay phones — and it took a minute to realize what Attica Locke was doing.

It wouldn’t be a spoiler to tell Jay Porter’s secret. He did time for running guns during the Black Power movement. This was during the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program, when black dissidents’ phones were tapped, dossiers were amassed, and organizations were infiltrated. Jay Porter the strip mall lawyer has a legitimate cause to be paranoid. This kind of justified paranoia plagues many of the resisters who managed to survive the bloodbaths of the 1960s and 1970s social movements. Lensed through Porter’s claustrophobia, grandiosity, and self-deprecation, demons lurk in every dark corner. As the plot unfolds, the first thing that disappears from view is a tangible reality, one free from dark fantasy and delusion. Jay Porter may be nuts. Then again, maybe not.

Locke, a veteran screenwriter, has an almost supernatural understanding of pacing. This aids her well in storytelling, but even more so in figuring out where to work her magic. Her early 1980s Houston is a city on the verge of Texas-sized change. Porter is asked by his preacher father-in-law to work with the dockworkers union that meets in his church. The black dockworkers are being paid less than the white workers who do the same job. A split in the union along race lines is imminent. A battle between the warring workers breaks out after a young man is beaten. A greater impetus is revealed: the arrival of containers. These containers, it is threatened, will be used on barge, train, and truck, nearly rendering dockworkers obsolete. Jay Porter is asked to speak to the mayor — a "friend" from his revolutionary past — on behalf of the workers. Simultaneously he tries to uncover the identity of the mysterious woman he saved.

This is the one drawback in an otherwise stellar debut. Jay Porter has too much going on. So much that suspension of belief is pulled to the breaking point. So much that many characters who are vital to the plot get unbelievably overlooked. When the Porters’ home is burglarized, for example, Jay leaves his pregnant wife in the house to pursue a lead on one of his cases. When a tough offers Porter money to not pursue another lead, he does it anyway — out of, what, morbid curiosity? The mayor of Houston and many of the other characters are so full, rich, and singular that it is baffling and frustrating when someone as essential as Bernie becomes a bit player in Jay’s solipsistic pursuit. Is Jay Porter crazy, or just an asshole?

Black Water Rising reads like a hard-boiled thriller, but the real trick resides in Locke’s ability to personalize an overlooked part of American history and show how far-reaching, how entrenched, it is in today’s social, political, and cultural fabric. From running the voodoo down on the Weather Underground to using 1980s Houston as a backdrop, he wraps a People’s History of America in a digestible, entertaining package. There are whiffs of Chinatown and White Butterfly, sure, but Locke’s attention to the details between the action makes the novel, and turns every reader into an oracle.

As Jay solves this book’s mysteries, we see pre-Dubya America getting dubbed. We see the sprawl that is yet to be. We see the unions breaking, the factories shutting down, the diners, bars, and cafes closing. We see the Black Water Rising. I may not want to see too much more of Jay Porter, but I better see more of Attica Locke.

Now you see him


It takes a lot to get your head around William Kentridge. His nebulous existence in the world of modern art makes him a slippery figure, able to exist between things we can name. Though he is an internationally known South African artist who works in etches, collages, sculptures, and performance (SFMOMA recently presented his rendition of Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses), he is best known for his "cartoons."

As on view in the current exhibition "William Kentridge: Five Themes," Kentridge’s animated drawings are sublime, provocative, and mesmerizing. He films a charcoal drawing, and by making slight changes using erasures for light and depth and then repeating the process, he tells profound stories about oppression, deterioration, and social justice — in less than 10 minutes. He later shows the drawings with the films as finished pieces. His mastery of drawing is magical. It can cloud judgment. We see William Kentridge; we do to not see William Kentridge.

William Kentridge: Five Themes (Yale University Press, 264 pages, $50), the monograph accompanying the current SFMOMA exhibit, suggests the breadth of Kentridge’s contributions — from opera set design to printmaking — and the depth of his explorations. Versed in opera, Kentridge centers much of his work on the form’s classic themes but updates, twists, and transforms them to speak of his native South Africa and current social conditions. Editor Mark Rosenthal mixes Kentridge’s commentary, plates, sketches, and photos with writers’ explorations of his process and purpose. Not quite a microscope, the result is more like a pair of tweezers, bringing the reader-viewer closer to someone who loves the word erasure.

Through Sun/31, $7–$12.50

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third, SF

(415) 357-4000


Uptown Thursday night


AFRO-SURREAL PREVIEW Fuck all that. Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night (Profile, 1997) is one of the most slept-on albums in the history of hip-hop. Period. Innovative well beyond its years, Uptown Saturday Night introduces the Camp Lo aesthetic — a combination of exquisite wordplay, foppish elegance, and Bronx-style bravado mixed in with a fearsome frivolity. They redefined "gangsta," using the oft-quoted Posdnous lyric "Fuck being hard /Posdnous is complicated" as a motto. Because Uptown Saturday Night IS complicated, which makes it hard. It’s also pornographic and violent to an extreme and probably bears the uncomfortable distinction of being the first, if not only, hip-hop album to portray coprophilia in nearly positive light.

The album is a complete immersion into a certain brand of street slang that bears a lineage with Iceberg Slim, De La Soul, Digable Planets, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Definitely otnay orfay ofeys, the Lo’s first outing is the most utterly inaccessible and damn-near indescribable crossover album of the era.

Camp Lo created such a lyrical Gordian knot that even the most versed connoisseur of microphone wizardry could be left looking baffled with a handful of either jewels or cubic zirconia — only an accurate hip-to-square conversion chart could tell which. "In another millenia /Blow the dust off these jewels," says Geechi Suede, and to this day, Googling the lyrics of their one and only "hit," "Luchini," brings page after page of misquoted and half-heard snippets exposing Herbs. An example: "Keep your ears out for our years"? How about keep your ears out for Roy Ayers? He’s a jazz musician. "Levitating in da’ shiggys"? How about dashikis? They’re a kind of shirt, from Africa.

All Afro-Surreal elements are present: a layered rococo style steeped in international travel; a dandy’s obsession with "vines" from Paris and Milan; a literary approach with references ranging from Donald Goines to Fragonard; and a frivolous manner that belies a serious intent. After Uptown Saturday Night, hip-hop changed, and not necessarily for the better. Go see Camp Lo. Give these men their due.

CAMP LO With DJ Apollo and Sake 1. Thurs/21, 10 p.m., $10. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. (415) 762-0151. www.mighty119.com

Call it Afro-Surreal


I’m not a surrealist. I just paint what I see. — Frida Kahlo


In his introduction to the classic novel Invisible Man (1952), ambiguous black and literary icon Ralph Ellison says the process of creation was "far more disjointed than [it] sounds … such was the inner-outer subjective-objective process, pied rind and surreal heart."

Ellison’s allusion is to his book’s most perplexing character, Rinehart the Runner, a dandy, pimp, numbers runner, drug dealer, prophet, and preacher. The protagonist of Invisible Man takes on the persona of Rinehart so that "I may not see myself as others see me not." Wearing a mask of dark shades and large-brimmed hat, he is warned by a man known as the fellow with the gun, "Listen Jack, don’t let nobody make you act like Rinehart. You got to have a smooth tongue, a heartless heart, and be ready to do anything."

And Ellison’s lead man enters a world of prostitutes, hopheads, cops on the take, and masochistic parishioners. He says of Rinehart, "He was years ahead of me, and I was a fool. The world in which we live is fluidity, and Rine the Rascal was at home." The marquee of Rinehart’s store-front church declares:

Behold the Invisible!

Thy will be done O Lord!

I See all, Know all, Tell all, Cure all.

You shall see the unknown wonders.

Ellison and Rinehart had seen it, but had no name for it.

In an introduction to prophet Henry Dumas’ 1974 book Ark Of Bones and Other Stories, Amiri Baraka puts forth a term for what he describes as Dumas’ "skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one … the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life." The term he puts forth is Afro-Surreal Expressionism.

Dumas had seen it. Baraka had named it.

This is Afro-Surreal!


A) Surrealism:

Leopold Senghor, poet, first president of Senegal, and African Surrealist, made this distinction: "European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical." Jean-Paul Sartre said that the art of Senghor and the African Surrealist (or Negritude) movement "is revolutionary because it is surrealist, but itself is surrealist because it is black." Afro-Surrealism sees that all "others" who create from their actual, lived experience are surrealist, per Frida Kahlo. The root for "Afro-" can be found in "Afro-Asiatic", meaning a shared language between black, brown and Asian peoples of the world. What was once called the "third world," until the other two collapsed.

B) Afro-Futurism:

Afro-Futurism is a diaspora intellectual and artistic movement that turns to science, technology, and science fiction to speculate on black possibilities in the future. Afro-Surrealism is about the present. There is no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afro-Surrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall. What is the future? The future has been around so long it is now the past.

Afro-Surrealists expose this from a "future-past" called RIGHT NOW.

RIGHT NOW, Barack Hussein Obama is America’s first black president.

RIGHT NOW, Afro-Surreal is the best description to the reactions, the genuflections, the twists, and the unexpected turns this "browning" of White-Straight-Male-Western-Civilization has produced.


San Francisco, the most liberal and artistic city in the nation, has one of the nation’s most rapidly declining black urban populations. This is a sign of a greater illness that is chasing out all artists, renegades, daredevils, and outcasts. No black people means no black artists, and all you yet-untouched freaks are next. Only freaky black art — Afro-Surreal art — in the museums, galleries, concert venues, and streets of this (slightly) fair city can save us!

San Francisco, the land of Afro-Surreal poet laureate Bob Kaufman, can be at the forefront in creating an emerging aesthetic. In this land of buzzwords and catch phrases, Afro-Surreal is necessary to transform how we see things now, how we look at what happened then, and what we can expect to see in the future.

It’s no more coincidence that Kool Keith (as Dr. Octagon) recorded the 1996 Afro-Surreal anthem "Blue Flowers" on Hyde Street, or that Samuel R. Delany based much of his 1974 Afro-Surreal urtext Dhalgren on experiences in San Francisco.

An Afro-Surreal aesthetic addresses these lost legacies and reclaims the souls of our cities, from Kehinde Wiley painting the invisible men (and their invisible motives) in NYC to Yinka Shonibare beheading 17th (and 21st) century sexual tourists of Europe. From Nick Cave’s soundsuits at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to the words you are reading right now, the message is clear: San Francisco, the world is ready for an Afro-Surreal art movement.

Afro-Surrealism is drifting into contemporary culture on a rowboat with no oars, entering the city to hunt down clues for the cure to this ancient, incurable disease called "western civilization." Or, as Ishmael Reed states, "We are mystical detectives about to make an arrest."


Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown wonders!

1. We have seen these unknown worlds emerging in the works of Wifredo Lam, whose Afro-Cuban origins inspire works that speak of old gods with new faces, and in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who gives us new gods with old faces. We have heard this world in the ebo-horn of Roscoe Mitchell and the lyrics of DOOM. We’ve read it through the words of Henry Dumas, Victor Lavalle, and Darius James. This emerging mosaic of radical influence ranges from Frantz Fanon to Jean Genet. Supernatural undertones of Reed and Zora Neale Hurston mix with the hardscrabble stylings of Chester Himes and William S. Burroughs.

2. Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it. Like the African Surrealists, Afro-Surrealists recognize that nature (including human nature) generates more surreal experiences than any other process could hope to produce.

3. Afro-Surrealists restore the cult of the past. We revisit old ways with new eyes. We appropriate 19th century slavery symbols like Kara Walker, and 18th century colonial ones like Yinka Shonibare. We re-introduce "madness" as visitations from the gods, and acknowledge the possibility of magic. We take up the obsessions of the ancients and kindle the dis-ease, clearing the murk of the collective unconsciousness as it manifests in these dreams called culture.

4. Afro-Surrealists use excess as the only legitimate means of subversion, and hybridization as a form of disobedience. The collages of Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu, the prose of Reed, and the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Antipop Consortium express this overflow.

Afro-Surrealists distort reality for emotional impact. 50 Cent and his cold monotone and Walter Benjamin and his chilly shock tactics can kiss our ass. Enough! We want to feel something! We want to weep on record.

5. Afro-Surrealists strive for rococo: the beautiful, the sensuous, and the whimsical. We turn to Sun Ra, Toni Morrison, and Ghostface Killa. We look to Kehinde Wiley, whose observation about the black male body applies to all art and culture: "There is no objective image. And there is no way to objectively view the image itself."

6. The Afro-Surrealist life is fluid, filled with aliases and census- defying classifications. It has no address or phone number, no single discipline or calling. Afro-Surrealists are highly-paid short-term commodities (as opposed to poorly-paid long term ones, a.k.a. slaves).

Afro-Surrealists are ambiguous. "Am I black or white? Am I straight, or gay? Controversy!"

Afro-Surrealism rejects the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, women and queer folk. Only through the mixing, melding, and cross-conversion of these supposed classifications can there be hope for liberation. Afro-Surrealism is intersexed, Afro-Asiatic, Afro-Cuban, mystic, silly, and profound.

7. The Afro-Surrealist wears a mask while reading Leopold Senghor.

8. Ambiguous as Prince, black as Fanon, literary as Reed, dandy as André Leon Tally, the Afro-Surrealist seeks definition in the absurdity of a "post-racial" world.

9. In fashion (John Galliano; Yohji Yamamoto) and the theater (Suzan Lori-Parks), Afro-Surreal excavates the remnants of this post-apocalypse with dandified flair, a smooth tongue and a heartless heart.

10. Afro-Surrealists create sensuous gods to hunt down beautiful collapsed icons.


San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the African Diaspora present the works of Mutu, William Pope L., Trenton Doyle Hancock, Glenn Ligon, Wiley, Shonibare, and Walker en masse, with Lam’s Jungle as a center piece. Lorraine Hansbury Theater stages Genet’s The Blacks and Baraka’s The Dutchman, while San Francisco Opera adapts Aimé Césaire’s Caliban and the Fillmore has an Afro-punk retrospective. Afro-Surreal adaptations of Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Hurston’s Tell My Horse (1937), and Marvel’s Black Panther will grace the silver-screen.

These are the first steps in an illustrious and fantastic journey. When we finally reach those unknown shores, we will say, with blood beneath our nails and mud on our boots:

This is Afro-Surreal!

Mos Def


PREVIEW Anyone who heard "Big Brother Beat" on De La Soul’s 1996 album Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy) was soon saying, "Who’s this kid Mos Def?" Still, it’s hard to believe that, 13 years later, the radiant voice on that track would become the ubiquitous scion of that good old Native Tongue can-do.

Mos Def can turn up simultaneously in a movie (his next project is a film version of Iceberg Slim’s Mama Black Widow) and on a television show (you catch him on House last a few weeks ago?), yet still find time to cameo on other people’s albums, win an Obie for his performance in a play (Suzan Lori Parks’ Fuckin’ A), and come out with a book (Black 2.0, due this summer). It’s like, wait a minute, there’s got to be more than one Mos Def.

His four albums explore his tortured id and black people’s rightful place as the inventors of rock ‘n’ roll and just about all forms of popular music — all that, and they still maintain the dedication to socially conscious protest we’ve come to expect from our once and future truth-tellers. His fifth, The Ecstatic, is due later this year. He’s coming to Yoshi’s in Oakland for a few sets with Robert Glasper on piano, Mark Kelly on bass, Chris "Daddy" Dave on drums, Casey Benjamin on sax, and Keyon Harrold on trumpet. Be a part of history in the making. It’s not like you have a choice. His name is Most Definite, not Think So.

MOS DEF Tues/14–April 16, 8 and 10 p.m., $55. Yoshi’s Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakl. (510) 238-9200. www.yoshis.com

His royal highness


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 photographic essay Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Member of the Order of the British Empire runs like clockwork.

At 11 a.m., Shonibare the nobleman is shown waking and then donning a nightcap in his gilded bedroom; he’s surrounded by four ruddy-cheeked buxom maids and a pale, thin butler, who each cater to his every whim. At 2 p.m., dressed in a three-piece blue-gray suit, he tends to business in his private library. Busts of Greek and Roman conquerors sit atop mahogany bookshelves, observing while high-collared, porcine sycophants with handlebar mustaches congratulate Shonibare on squandering what’s left of his father’s fortune.

By 3 p.m., Shonibare’s nobleman has retired to another bedroom, where — sporting a salmon-pink velvet vest and matching satin tie — he reclines on a chaise lounge with a glass of red wine. An undressed brunette woman on his left caresses the vest, her eyes turned upward as if she’s entranced by his wealth and power. A red-haired girl to his right runs her fingers through his hair. In the background, a woman dressed in a hoop skirt fellates one of Shonibare’s sycophants, another woman lies at the foot of the bed, and still another looks bored as she’s buggered by one of Shonibare’s consorts.

Five p.m. brings a rousing game of billiards in the parlor. The day’s activities end at seven, with white ties, tails, and candelabras in a plush dining room replete with red velvet curtains and gilded framed oil portraits of aristocrats in powdered wigs.

Shonibare is a heavily bearded, 46-year-old Nigerian. This hairy black man, assuming the role of a dandy, places himself at the center of all his photos, reveling in absurd glory. "Historically, the dandy is usually an outsider whose only way through is his wit and style," Shonibare explains, in a text within the monograph Yinka Shonibare MBE (Prestel USA, 208 pages, $55), edited by Rachel Kent. "His apparent lack of seriousness of course belies an absolute seriousness, and that attracts me to the dandy as a figure of mobility who upsets the social order of things."

Shonibare has upset the British social order and gained mobility — including an exquisitely absurd and very real royal appointment — by creating Victorian costumes from Dutch wax print fabrics, then placing them on headless mannequins that strike leisurely poses. Much like the dandified role that he often assumes, his art seems excessive and frivolous at first glance — high fashion in extremis. But it takes on greater dimensions with consideration. The Dutch wax prints that play a prominent role in Shonibare’s work, for example, are usually associated with Africa, though they were first designed in Indonesia, then imported by the Dutch, who brought them to West Africa during the slave trade, making them a symbol of the height of colonization and imperialism.

The actions of Shonibare’s figures: skating (in 2005’s Reverend On Ice), seducing (in 2007’s The Confession) and swinging, both literally (in 2001’s The Swing — after Fragonard) and figuratively (in 2002’s Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), contain surreal, violent, erotic, and decadent connotations. Like his contemporary Kehinde Wiley, or like Ghostface and Prince in the realm of music, Shonibare uses the rococo movement of pre-revolutionary France as a point of departure. Figures of excess and tools of subversion, his headless mannequins take on references to the guillotine.

"Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion, " Shonibare has said. "Hybridization is a form of disobedience … an excessive form of libido, it is joyful sex." An illustration of such ideas, this monograph retrospective of Shonibare’s painting, sculpture, photography, and film work is a must-have piece of Afro-surreal ephemera.

Just dandy


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Men dress up. Yes, we do. We dress like animals: peacocks, roosters, cats. We dress like weapons: blades, pistols, and straps. Men dress up. Always have. Always will.

Something has been happening in men’s fashion lately, an evolution that’s taken place underneath just about everyone’s noses. For the longest time it was assumed that men’s fashion was about function over style, resulting in an array of boring, drab clothing. Sexy, exotic, or provocative was taboo.

Hywel Davies’ Modern Menswear (Laurence King Publishers, 208 pages, $40) is a beautifully illustrated book that challenges this stereotype, introducing the new dandy or aesthete in the process. It also covers a lot of territory — geographically and intellectually — through interviews with the designers. "Menswear is no longer status-led or solely rooted in tradition," Davies writes in the book’s introduction. "It is driven by the personality of the consumer. Men will take elements from a range of designers and create a distinct personal style." And that is precisely what Modern Menswear inspires a reader to do.

I would like to take Aitor Throup’s military-inspired pants, please, along with his skull accessories and his tagline, "When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods." Let’s top the ensemble off with one of those baseball-cap masks.

Sadly, Alexander McQueen’s men’s collection hits at least one disappointing note. Apparently the bad boy can’t dress himself with as much verve as he does his models.

I will take the Blaak double-breasted suit. That label’s mix of western, eastern and African influences, its use of natural fabrics, and its fusion of hedonistic street style and subdued anarchy is new. Blaak believes in "The working class hero, The Poet, The Outsider, and Edwardian Pomp and Ceremony with a whispered subversive punch." The label’s ideal customer "is a person who understands the riot of anarchy, the need for the whimsical, and the hidden fine lines bound in society." Damn, these boys speak my Afro-surreal language.

So does John Galliano, whose eclectic mix of nearly every fashion innovation since the fig leaf makes him a patron of the new aesthete. A derby hat and a kimono can be fly, especially with a sturdy pair of boots. "It’s like giving men a bit of what they’ve seen on women without taking away their masculinity," he says, "allowing them to dream more." Savage refinery — ah, nothing like reconciliation!

The book draws to a close with the rich, opulent colors and decadent accessories of Vivienne Westwood’s MAN label, and Yohji Yamamoto’s sublime understanding of the silhouette. There are some outrageous pieces, but Davies’ book isn’t geared toward gawkers.

Fashion is an opportunity to expand possibilities — to dream, as Galliano puts it. Do I have $5000 to spend on a Yohji coat? No. But I may be inspired to modify a pea coat or mourning jacket from a secondhand store after seeing one. Will Vivienne Westwood ever see a dollar of my money? Probably not, but I can borrow her sense of adventure and create a little magic of my own. "If you dress up," says Westwood, "it helps your personality emerge — if you choose well." Modern Menswear makes that process a bit more exciting.

Speed Reading



By Ishmael Reed

Da Capo Press

320 pages


Ishmael Reed is one of the most prolific writers, seers, and pundits of the 20th and 21st centuries. The author of nine novels, six books of poetry, six plays, and four books of political essays has been a constant presence and persistent thorn in the sides of various official experts. What I love about Reed is his refusal to be classified, stereotyped, or labeled. From his first book, 1967’s wildly experimental Freelance Pallbearers, through a turbulent and often silly surge of academic quarrels, he has shared his vision with bravado and courage.

His latest book of political essays continues his crusade for mother-wit in the face of a consistently homogenized culture, whether through an insightful interview with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, or writing that tackles America’s anti-black lending practices. Reed’s take is plainspoken and no-nonsense, yet an element of whimsy seems to permeate even the most uncomfortable subjects. In an essay about the Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant trials, for example, his observation about hip-hop "pimp-culture" is that "Blacks are just as incompetent in this area of crime as they are in all others. Nearly four hundred years on this continent and not a single Martha Stewart or Ken Lay."

The only drawback of this book is that I get the impression that Reed is spending too much time in front of the television. It’s rumored that he has several sets stacked one on top of another so he can watch them simultaneously.


With Justin Desmangles

Sat/17, 2 p.m.; free

Koret Auditorium

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF

(415) 557-4400