Jun 29, 2010

Leaders of the New School?

This past Sunday night marked the 10th anniversary broadcast of the BET Awards.  Much has changed since the cable network broadcast their first award's show from Las Vegas back in 2000.  Since that time the broadcast has moved to Hollywood, spending several years in the same Kodak theater that hosts the Academy Awards. Now the annual awards show resides in the venerable Shrine Auditorium.  There was no Facebook or Twitter back in 2000 where people could openly voice their opinions about the program like they do these days. Black popular culture seemed so much more relevant back then too. 

Watching Sunday night's show left me underwhelmed.  I realize that Alicia Keyes and Swizz Beatz are no substitute for Jay and Beyonce, Jada without Will is kinda like cornflakes without the milk, and Kanye just ain't the same unless there's some white folks around for him to piss off, but still.  Yet, unlike so many others, I don't blame BET for this lack of energy.  Don't get me wrong, BET is far from what it could be, but you can't blame the cable network for the rather apathetic nature of contemporary black popular culture at the moment.

BET has long suffered from the unrealistic expectations that dog a community of people who were so blatantly misrepresented by the mainstream media for so long.  Though BET has seldom set the world on fire with its programming, it has always been unrealistic to expect that one network would appease the tastes of an entire race of people who are differentiated by issues of gender, class, age, sexual orientation, and location, among other factors.  The network's founder Robert Johnson decided to make monetary decisions as opposed to social ones during his tenure at the helm and such decisions have come to define BET's image in the public mind, though its been years since Johnson sold the network to Viacom.

It's not BET's fault that contemporary black culture has given them so little to showcase.  It's not BET's fault that mediocrity has come to define the world of black entertainment as of late.  You can't blame BET for the empty, derivative, drivel passing itself off as black music in 2010.   In some ways this reminds me of that famous line from Sunset Boulevard (1950) when Norma Desmond declares that her star remains large, it's the movies that have gotten smaller. In the case of the BET Awards, it's the culture that has seemingly gone small on us.

As far as awards shows go, the BET Awards is a big budget professional affair.  On a network that has often been criticized for failing to spend appropriate amounts of money on their productions, this is not the case when it comes to the awards show.  The production values are in keeping with other such shows of an awards nature.  In others words, unlike a lot of what appears on BET, this program does not look cheap.  I would be more concerned if I felt that the BET Awards looked like a swap meet version of an awards show, but it does not.  However, it is an awards show, and awards shows are pretty vapid in general.  Such shows are often popularity contests that say more about the current cultural politics of the moment than they do about any real artistic accomplishments on the part of the performers.  The awards themselves are as subjective as the network broadcasting the awards show.

What struck me while watching this year's broadcast was how uninteresting the so-called stars themselves are these days.  Perhaps "stars" is the wrong word even?  There is nothing star-like about Trey Songz, a non-singin' fool if ever there was one.  Nicki Minaj is like a knock-off of a knock-off in a jive-ass wig, or as MC Lyte might say, "paper thin."  And Chris Breezy's crocodile tears were so unconvincing that had he done the same at an acting audition, he would have been kicked out of the room.  Brown's tears make T.O.'s "that's my quarterback" tears seem Oscar-worthy by contrast. 

My point, this new generation of black pop stars leaves a lot to be desired.  All I see now are imitators and biters. Usher made his name as a MJ knock-off, and now Chris Brown is knocking off Usher?  You can only cut dope so much before you have more cut than dope! I mean, let's face it, it's not like Usher was ever all that in the first place.  Nicki Minaj puts on a colored wig, adds some ass pads, and then proceeds to act like it's not obvious who she's bitin'? There was a time when imitating someone else was considered a high crime of culture.  During this time, Nicki Minaj would have been arrested for impersonating a rapper. 

I am from a generation that would run a thousand miles in the other direction to avoid ever being accused of copying someone else.  What happened?  Is there no pride in being original anymore?

Maybe this is just the rant of an OG hip hop head who's getting old?  I was in 8th grade the first time I heard Prince's debut single "Soft and Wet" back in '78.  Seeing him receive a Lifetime Achievement Award ages one pretty quickly.  So I admit that maybe this current crop of stars is not intended to appeal to my generation.  But still, talent supersedes age.  I was annoyed that one of the few younger artists who actually sounds like he's got some real potential, J. Cole, was only afforded an abbreviated performance window before the show cut to a commercial. 

Here's the deal.  I am part of the generation that created hip hop, the most influential musical form to come along in many, many years.  A second generation came along and perfected what was started, while making it profitable along the way.  At some point in this evolution hip hop came to have a bigger influence on R & B than the black church and this would change the nature of rhythm and blues going forward.

It's time for this new generation to create something that doesn't already exist.  It's now time for these youngsters to create their own version of great works like, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Ready to Die, My Life, Brown Sugar, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  It's time to do that which has not been done before.  In others words, it's time to get creative!  After watching many of these so-called stars the other night I came away quite depressed at the possibilities in this regard however.

The music industry itself is weak right now, so it stands to reason that shows awarding musical performance would also be weak.  I understand that.  But true creativity tends to transcend all such distractions.  If hip hop itself could emerge out of the cloud of crack smoke that defined much of the 80s and 90s, then certainly contemporary culture can create something meaningful too?  Or perhaps that's it, without a prolonged crisis like that of the crack cocaine era, creativity takes a vacation?

I would hate to think that we need another epidemic like crack to spur the creative juices.  Maybe though, when the man occupying the White House checks the same box on his census form that the letter "B" in BET represents it means that as a creative people we are no longer hungry?  Perhaps that tape worm was eradicated the night Lester Young defeated John McCain for the White House back in 2008?   Could be? Who knows?  We've never been here before.  I hope this is not the case, but it may indeed be?  If it is, I welcome the evolution to the seat of power, I just hope that the cost of this is not losing our creativity and individuality as a result.

Jun 14, 2010

Extensions of a Man

When I began watching the game of basketball Gerald Ford was the President of the United States, people listened to music on cassette tapes, and Kobe Bryant's father, Jellybean, was still in college.  Kobe was yet to be born.  I remember watching Kareem play the Pistons, when Kareem still played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Pistons still played their home games at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit.   Mind you, I was a very young kid myself at the time.  My love for the game was immediate though and has now evolved over a lengthy period of time.  In other words,  I've seen a lot of basketball!

Long before I had ever taken a graduate school class, I was a scholar of the game.  Once I added the rigors of a doctorate in Critical Studies to my repertoire, I had a whole new language to talk about this game and all that it entails.  My passion developed over years and years, coupled with a knowledge base that now helped me express my thoughts in completely original ways.

The game for me has always been deeper than what we see on the court.  I have often celebrated the game of basketball as a unique window through which one might come to understand the nuances of American life.  Baseball writers have for years articulated such profound thoughts as it pertains to their favorite sport, but in basketball, more often than not, we are burdened with the tedious, insignificant fan boy ramblings of someone like Bill Simmons.  On the other hand, I must say big ups to the man I like to call "Lester Young," President Barack Obama, for using his office to give basketball a bigger and more substantive profile in the culture at large. 

I am writing here as the Celtics lead the Lakers three games to two in the NBA Finals, with the Lakers trying to stay alive, needing a win in Game 6 on their home floor to avoid getting defeated by the Celtics for the second time since 2008.    The challenge set before Kobe and the Lakers is a daunting challenge indeed.  They must win two games in a row, something that they have not done against Boston in the 2008 series, nor during this year's Finals.  How will Kobe and his team respond to the challenge?

Can Kobe climb the mountain of greatness set before him?  Will he be able to "move on up a lil' higher" as Mahalia Jackson might say?

I find this challenge to be particularly appropriate for Kobe.  If he can lead his team to victory in this series it will demonstrate that he is not only an extremely talented player, but also a true leader and one of the game's all time elite figures.  Some say he has already demonstrated that he belongs in conversations with the game's best.  I disagree.  Kobe has had a lot handed to him and he has accomplished a lot as well.  But he has never shown the ability to lead his squad through what appeared to be insurmountable circumstances like these he now faces.  Not to mention, he has also quit on several occasions, most notably Game 7 against Phoenix in 2007.

One of the main reasons that I've always been so hard on Kobe is because I think people conferred greatness upon him before he had really earned it.   Kobe seemed to expect that others should just accept his greatness as a given and this has usually been the case throughout his career.  Well now he has a real chance to show and prove, as they say.  Bringing a team back from the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals is the kind of thing that he needs on his resume, if he wants the accolades that go with being considered among the elite in the game's history.

When you get to this stage in the Finals it's about more than just basketball skills.  It's about mental comportment, it's about basketball IQ, it's about who wants it more.  It's about desire.  It's like my man Branford Marsalis says in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary when discussing  Elvin Jone's approach to playing with John Coltrane, "you gotta be willing to die with a muthafucka!"  Yeah, that's what it's all about, the willingness to figuratively die with and for your solders in order to accomplish a higher goal.

Is Kobe willing to go there?  Is he even made that way?  Or is he such a smugly, entitled prima donna that he feels like he should never have to exert that much aggressive human emotion and force of will to reach his desired destiny?  Does he feel as though he has to earn it or does he feel like it should be bestowed upon him by fiat?  Having watched him his entire NBA career, it's clear that he's never been willing to "die" for his team, but it is this type of sacrifice that he will have to perform if he wants another championship ring.

While watching Kobe go off last night in the third quarter of Game 5, it was quite apparent that he still has not figured out how to have a game as a high volume scorer and keep his teammates involved with the stakes being what they are.  This is what leaders do, they inspire others, often to play beyond their own perceived abilities.  Leaders don't get to blow off their defeats by complaining that they are not getting any help.  Kobe's only been playing in the league, what fourteen years now?!  Statue of limitations is up on the no help excuse by this point.

Which brings me to this point.  As great as Kobe has been as a pro, he would be that much better if he had gone to college for a few years.  There are moments when it's clear that as talented as Kobe is, he is still lacking when it comes to certain aspects of his approach to the game.  Sure, he can act and sound like Jordan all he wants, but Jordan always stepped up for his.  Kobe, on the other hand, is a good actor.

If Kobe had ever been properly coached in his developmental years, if he had learned a few things about retaining his individuality within the team context, if he had learned that sometimes being the best player on the floor still doesn't mean that your team will win, his overall game would be even that much more refined.  I'm sorry, but there are too many moments when he still looks like that kid shooting all those air balls in Utah back in '97. 

I could certainly say the same about thing LeBron too.  At least Kobe does have rings.  But if Kobe and his supporters want him to be talked about with the game's greats, then do what all the great ones do.  Overcome some difficult obstacles, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, not in some meaningless regular season game, in the Finals, where it counts.

There was a moment in last night's game when they were comparing Kobe's performance to that of Isiah Thomas in 1988.  Isiah, perhaps the game's most underrated player in it's history, hobbled on one leg while torching Michael Cooper and the Lakers for 42.  The Pistons got robbed when the infamous "phantom foul" was called on Bill Laimbeer, who clearly did not come close to touching Kareem.  Isiah and the Pistons went down swinging, only to lose by a point.  They lost the final game by three points, when the referee failed to maintain order as fans rushed the floor with a second left on the clock, even though Magic fouled Isiah; a foul that was never called.  A year later Isiah and the Pistons swept the Lakers to win their first NBA title.  Isiah is one of the realest players in NBA history.  Kobe doesn't come close to matching Zeke's grit and toughness. 

Yeah, Kobe beat the Magic last year, but how hard was that?  When your starting center wants to argue with another grown men over who the real Superman is and is so soft that Jordan Farmar can snatch the ball of his hands, in spite of a huge size advantage, that tells you that you are playing an inferior squad.

If Kobe is on Jordan's level, then now is the time to show it. Jordan never lost in the Finals. As I've aid before, we live in a society now where people often become great simply be declaring that they're great.  But greatness, true greatness, must be earned.  Kobe is a great individual player.  That is without question.  But he and his supporters want to say he's transcendent, that he's the greatest of all time.  For that, he will need to show more heart, more leadership, and prove that he can excel when his back is completely up against the wall.

To whom much is given, much is required. It's time to separate the platinum from the white gold now. Man up, Kobe!  It's times like this when true champions emerge and show the world what they're really made of.  At this point the series has come down to who is willing to lay it all on the line.  Is that you, Kobe? Are you a leader of men or just a glorified human highlight package on Sports Center?  We'll see....

Jun 9, 2010

They Reminisce Over You

The pomp and circumstance that surrounds the passing of public figures has become a time honored ritual in our heavily mediated society.   The routine is pretty straight forward at this point.  A legendary figure dies, their supporters reminisce and mourn, while the media goes about laying out a narrative that surveys the public figure's life and career.   Some deaths, like that of Ronald Reagan or Michael Jackson, command global audiences, while others like that of the recently deceased former UCLA coach John Wooden, reverberate throughout the larger basketball world.  This public mourning and reminiscence has taken on added meaning in the digital age, particularly in that ever consuming space otherwise known as social media.

Recently, upon the announcement of Coach Wooden's death, perhaps the greatest coach the college game has ever seen, I posted some comments about the man previously known as "The Wizard of Westwood"  on Twitter.    One of the comments I posted had to do with a long conversation I had many years ago with one of Coach Wooden's most celebrated players, Walt Hazzard, who played on Wooden's first championship team at UCLA and later coached the Bruins in the mid 80s.

Hazzard told me that once back in the 60s he, like a lot of other people, was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  He said Wooden snatched the book out of his hands and told him that he shouldn't be reading what the coach considered to be inflammatory material.  Now such a response from Wooden shouldn't surprise people because of all the attention that Wooden's stoic Midwestern conservatism had received when he was coaching Bill Walton, a popular 70s free spirit who openly participated in the counter culture of that time as a college student and star player.  No one ever said John Wooden was a leftist, so it stands to reason that he would have certainly  been concerned about Hazzard's reading choices back in the 60s as well.

My point is this, Wooden liked to see himself as an educator, more so than a coach.  I think that it was irresponsible for an educator to tell a college student what they should and shouldn't be reading, simply because the book disagreed with Wooden's own principals.  It would have been better to encourage the fact that Hazzard was indeed reading, as opposed to trying to dictate what he read.  What Wooden did is not being an educator, it's called control.  Wooden might have been concerned that Hazzard would be able to draw his own conclusions after having read the book and if those conclusions went against Wooden's teaching then that would signal one less area of control for the coach.

This was only part of it though.  The other thing that I mentioned about Wooden had to do with the presence of an individual named Sam Gilbert.  Gilbert, who was often referred to as "Papa Sam" was a UCLA booster, a term that used to circulate readily throughout college sports.  Gilbert was accused of providing UCLA players with everything they could possibly want, from money to cars, even abortions for player's girlfriends, some assert.  Every great college program had boosters like Gilbert back then.  Things work somewhat differently now in college sports, as agents and other interested parties have come to occupy some of the same underground roles previously held by boosters.  The boosters still exist, they're just not the only one's in the mix now.  UCLA would eventually be put on NCAA probation because of Gilbert, but this was long after Wooden had retired. 

Wooden always claimed that he knew nothing about what Gilbert was doing.  Some suggest he had to know, while others assume that he consciously turned a blind eye to what was going on.  But then there are those who feel that Wooden would never be involved in something so shady, as these accusations went against the honest, Sunday school-teaching, all-around good man image that Wooden had come to cultivate.  Yes, Wooden was held up as a force for all that was right with the world.  He was celebrated for his morality and his integrity.  I'm not saying that any of this was untrue either.  What I am saying is that he was a more complicated a figure than the sweet, lovable grandfather that people made him out to be. 

Ronald Reagan was another figure held up as grandfatherly, and he of course used this image to his advantage.  During the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s, a scandal that directly influenced the rise and spread of crack cocaine throughout the nation at the time, Reagan claimed senility.  He didn't know what was going on.  Others took advantage of his advanced age he would imply.  Though Reagan's popularity took a dip momentarily, it quickly improved, and by the time of his death he was being celebrated as one of the nation's all-time heroes. 

In some ways this is like what we might the "the godfather syndrome."  Marlon Brando's role as Don Coreleone was so captivating and grandfatherly that people often forget that he is a mob boss.  Wooden cultivated an image and played to it.  I'm not saying it was false, but I am saying that it was an image created in a particular historical time.  Whenever I see pictures of John Wooden from back in the 60s and 70s, I'm reminded of figures like Barry Goldwater.  Again, I'm not saying it was a false image, but the image did serve a purpose.  Some people have a hard time linking that image with the facts of who Wooden really was.

Ok, so after posting my comments about Wooden, being especially careful to acknowledge and commend his accomplishments, I start to get a slew of responses in return.  Some responses were of the "thanks, I didn't know that" variety, while others were much more hostile.  Now when you're The Notorious Ph.D. hostile comments are part of package, but I thought I would use these most recent hostile comments as an opportunity to make a larger point.

In the age of social media, we can all declare our intentions out loud.  When famous people die, we can shout them out on our FaceBook status updates, we can post their picture in our profiles, we can write loving tributes explaining what these people meant to us and our lives and send this out over Tweeter.   Such activities allow us to feel connected, while participating in a form of digital public mourning.

Yet, it is important to also point out that these are public figures that I'm talking about.  And public figures deserve to be discussed publicly.  If you're someone like myself, then you make a living commenting on people, places, and things in the media.  For me this is work.  And one of the things that has always been at the forefront of my mission in life is to keep it intellectually real.  I don't agree that John Wooden or any other public figure deserves to be feted as a saint, when he was a human being who accomplished great things, but also made mistakes and sometimes engaged in affairs that were not as morally upright as people would like to believe.

Now, I wouldn't go to Wooden's funeral and tell the Hazzard story or bring up Sam Gilbert, but I'm not going to be invited to Wooden's funeral.  I never met Wooden and other than signing a copy of my book Young Black Rich and Famous--my book on basketball and hip hop, which I'm sure Wooden hated, if he ever got around to reading it--that someone asked me to sign so as to give to him, I had no direct dealings with John Wooden.  My reactions are in relationship to the public figure, because I didn't know the private man.

Last summer, when Micheal Jackson died, this idea that the numerous controversies that had defined the so-called King of Pop's life should be held at bay while his supporters mourned was rampant.  If Micheal's life wasn't public, nothing is.  Public figure don't get a pass.  There is no statue of limitations when it comes to how much time must tick off the clock before someone can say something critical about a deceased public figure.

That sense of social etiquette that your mama taught you about not saying something bad about someone who has just passed away doesn't apply here.  It's not in bad taste to offer critical comments at the death of a public figure. This is not a funeral, it is the public domain.  And in the public domain, it's real in the field!  This sense of social etiquette isn't always followed either.  It changes depending on the public figure. Not all receive this specialized treatment.

It is a person's whole life that determines their ultimate legacy.  A public figure like John Wooden can be celebrated for all that he has accomplished, while also having the controversies that arose during his lifetime discussed as well.  In the end, I think John Wooden was an incredible coach.  He modernized the college game.  But he was also a conservative man of a certain era who was able to hide behind his squeaky clean image.  People tell stories about how Wooden never cursed, for instance, but many wished that he would have because the things he could say without using curse words was perhaps even more abusive than if he had cursed like a sailor.

As a public figure, in the digital public domain, Wooden, and any other public figure for that matter, can be celebrated, but his entire legacy must be held accountable as well.  Like my man Curtis Mayfield once said, "not trying to offend anyone, just basically tellin' it like it is."