Teflon Don

Last night’s class at Kintock, the halfway house in Newark where I teach a music course, was one of those that makes the effort worthwhile. The current group has been tough to connect with. Beethoven’s Appasionata Sonata and Mozart’s Piano Concerto #24 elicited limited response during our last two sessions.

At the conclusion of our discussion on Mozart I told the guys that it would be helpful if they’d bring in music they love and explain to the class why it’s meaningful to them. Two men volunteered to do so. I showed up with Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock CD’s and planned to sandwich them around this other material.

I started out by playing bits of a half dozen or so tracks off the Evans CD and asked what the emotional constant, if any, was in his playing. I was surprised how many people sensed a melancholy throughout, even in the up tempo tunes. Bill’s death at the age of 50 was precipitated by extended drug abuse. Noone seemed surprised to hear it.

One of the prisoners took my place at the front of the room and put the Rick Ross disc Teflon Don into the CD player. As I was walking to his seat I mumbled “Why I got to be in this class, man?” and followed up (wittily, I thought!) with, “When’s smoke break?” The guys laughed.

I don’t remember the name of the track- it was either the third or fourth; the “teacher” was following my example and playing snippets at first- but we listened to one piece in its entirety. Wait, I just went online and retrieved the information. It was Free Mason, the fourth cut. I asked the guys what Ross’ message was and got some pro forma responses: “He’s talking about the ‘hood,” “He’s telling you about his environment,” and so on.

I may be confused, I said- I couldn’t hear every word, but wasn’t he comparing himself to JFK- the ultimate white player? And didn’t he mention those nice houses that people out in the suburbs live in? (*) I get the sense that he feels caught between where he’s been and the allure of what’s now available to him. No?

First one man, then another, and then a third said, “You listenin’, you listenin’.” The energy level spiked. People started talking animatedly, multiple conversations erupted and overlapped. Something had changed.

In 1993, Khalid Muhammad, a Nation of Islam minister, gave a speech at Kean College, just a couple miles down the road from my New Jersey home. In this homily Muhammad referred to the Pope as a “no good cracker.” He also called Hitler “a great man.” The national press picked up on the event. Eventually, the United States House of Representatives passed (unanimously) a special House Resolution censuring him.

Shortly thereafter I assembled a panel of music industry heavyweights in Wilkens Theatre, the Kean College auditorium where Muhammad had spoken. We had a frank conversation about racism in the music business. Fat Joe, a prominent rapper then and now, agreed to sit on the Beyond The Labels panel. Joe made his mark as a bad ass rapper, a real no nonsense guy. His autobiographical track, The Shit Is Real, contains these verses:

This story takes place back in the South Bronx
where at the age of 14 I was already knockin’ off punks…

See I just didn’t give a fuck, and if you had a C-skin
-a leather bomber- you was gettin’ stuck;
that was the way it was.

One day I went to visit my aunt and stuck up my cuz.
See shit was fucked up back then,
No matter what the fuck I did I never had no ends.
And my moms was on welfare,
I knew I had a father but the nigga was never there.

So what the fuck was I to do?
© Fat Joe, all rights reserved

Joe had to cross through a valley of doubt, he told the audience sitting in the Wilkens Theatre, when his work began attracting fans beyond the borders of the Bronx. He’d perform in Cincinnati, or Cleveland- Paris, eventually- and white teenagers would scream for him. They knew all of his lyrics and showered him with mad love. How could he hold onto hatred for the haves? But if he let it go, what would fuel his art?

Fat Joe could relate to what Rick Ross is going through, I thought. One prisoner, new to the group, said that Ross reminded him of some people in his neighborhood. “You got to understand that even in poverty areas like many of us come from, not everyone grows up bad. Some people come from stable families where there’s always food on the table. You get some people who come out of these good homes and try to make it on the street. Then, when they get caught, they turn into snitches. Why? Because they don’t have the strength to live the street life, they were just playin’. Rick Ross reminds me of them, and yeah, I guess he makes me feel a little bitter.”

“Wait a minute,” someone else said. “Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg- you don’t expect them to have lived the stories they tell, do you? Rick Ross is just an artist. Who cares what his own life experience is? We should only be judging his art.”

Then, 56 year old John M., the guy who grew up with Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the entire Rat Pack as his babysitters, a good guy, took the floor and asked the group if they ever felt embarrassed having their kids, or nieces and nephews, listen to the language that’s in these records. The guys laughed, everyone was talking at the same time, huge amounts of energy spilling all over the room. I told the “teacher” that he was losing control, and everyone started laughing again.

It really was a phenomenal moment. Eventually, I went back to my seat and the guys calmed down. I reminded them that the purpose of the course was to search for connections between artists (Beyonce and Beethoven, say, Stravinsky and Shakur), to look for common ground where it might not seem obvious, and to leverage that insight when they get out of prison to establish connections with people who might have something positive to offer- a good paying job, for example.

“Am I the only one who feels that Bill Evans and Rick Ross have something in common?” I asked. “Both of these artists seem to be struggling, trying to come to grips with where they are in life, and I hear conflict and pain- expressed in different ways, to be sure- in the work of both.” A collective murmer- the sound of involvement, bonding even- emanated from the group. I ended the session without playing Herbie Hancock or the other prisoner’s CD, and was surprised to find that we’d spent less than an hour together.

(*)
New Rolls Royce
Guess you made it, nigga
All white neighborhoods, you they favorite nigga
My top back like J.F.K.
They wanna push my top back like J.F.K.
So, so I J.F.K.
© Rick Ross, 2010, all rights reserved

4.19.11

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