Fela Presenting

Bill T. Jones debut as a Broadway director, with his remarkable new musical, Fela!, is best described by one moment in his staging of Fela Kutis smash-hit song Zombie. Fela, played by Sahr Ngaujah, stands at one end of the stageshirtless, sweaty, clad only in tight, pink pantsand hunkers down on a fire-engine-red saxophone trimmed with cowrie shells. He points his sax at two dancers representing Nigerian military police and cranks out a wall of sound that sends their bodies flailing, stunned and overcome. For two acts, Jones audience gets much of the same treatment.

Jones exploration of Felas legendary life fits awkwardly onto the stage. Its neither standard Broadway nor truly a musical because theres not much in the way of narrative. Its far more than a concert, though it could certainly pass for one. And though Jones bold choreography shapes it, its not dance, either. More than anything else, what Jones has put together is a full-bodied, sensory experience for theatergoers. Which is probably the most fitting way to introduce many Americans to the force that was Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Jones is no more willing to be trapped by the stage itself than he is the genres conventions. The bandBrooklyns awesome Afrobeat collective Antibalasstarts jamming before the show even starts. Fela makes his entrance through the orchestra seatsarms thrust high in his iconic pose, a cigarette in one fist and a mic in the other, surrounded by a bobbing, too-cool-for-school entourage. The shows constant motion regularly flows back into the audiences space, with dancers streaking and tumbling down the aisles. Theres even a dance floor in the balcony. We are not asked to passively consume this show. Its our experience; Jones players are merely our guides.

The production recreates a night with Fela and his crew at the Shrine, the infamous Lagos, Nigeria nightclub he created. Back in the day, the Shrines purpose was always twofold: to host raucous, hedonistic parties and to facilitate a bold, populist defiance of Nigerias dictatorship.

The two aims were inseparable and Fela! blends them artfully as well. The audience gets a group dance lesson in the clockbanging out ass bumps for each hour on the dialalongside Felas insightful, if sardonic, musings on the colonialism, corruption and state brutality that have strangled Africa. If you learn nothing else, you walk away understanding that the mans revolution was a hell of a party, too.

Jones opens the show by walking the audience through Felas creation of Afrobeat music and culture. We learn about his youth in Nigerias high life clubs; his jazz and funk immersions while studying in London; his politicization among the black power movement while in America. A creative set design incorporates video, archival images and even occasional supra text, which helps untrained ears suss out the radical lyrics in all of Felas music.

Having established the what of Afrobeat, the show moves into the why, depicting the Nigerian authorities deadly effort to snuff out Felas cultural movement. A gripping number brings the audience into the bloody 1977 evening in which police stormed Felas compound, burned it down, raped his dancers and murdered his equally radical mother. The show tackles lots of that sort of dense content, but Antibalas driving rhythms keep things moving and somehow digestible.

The shows relentless energy is in fact so demanding that two actorsNgaujah and Kevin Mambosplit the lead in rotating shifts. Ngaujah, who began the role in the shows off-Broadway run, goes five days a week; Mambo picks up three days. Fela is onstage for all but two minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour production. Itd be a one-man show, if not for the dozen or so dancers and musicians swirling around him at all times. And that dynamica singular personality within a constantly moving massis definitive of Felas music and movement as well.

But if Jones boldly presents Fela the legend, he plainly avoids Fela the man. (The book is written by Jones and Jim Lewis.) One can understand why: Fela was a mess of a man. Ironically, he parroted in his private life much of the Big Man syndrome that underpins the political corruption he so bravely challenged. He married his dancers27 at one time in a mass weddingand was, by all accounts, a pig about gender, asserting that the true African woman should be submissive. And its hard to ignore a willful, self-destructive streak that may have driven his clashes with government as much as politics did. Fela! nods at these things, but doesnt probe. I probably wouldnt get along with him, Jones told the New York Times.

Its a shame. Jones reservations notwithstanding, his talents seem ideally suited to mining the explosive mix of race, sexuality and gender that helped shape such a complicated figure. But that may have been too much for a Broadway musical. As is, the show delightfully bends and tweaks the genre beyond recognitionas Felas signature phrase puts it, Original, no artificiality. On that much at least, Jones and Fela would have surely connected.

Is New York time that the White House Pimps?

According to reports, the New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor just inked a seven-figure deal to write a volume about the Obamas. The New York Observer reported that this was partly due to the access to the White House she received as a representative of the New York Times:

“It could not be determined whether Ms. Kantor has secured the Obamas cooperation, but the fact that her story featured an extensive interview with them in the Oval Office seemed to indicate that she is going into the project with a good working relationship with them.

” During the campaign, Ms. Kantor produced a number of biographical stories about the president and his inner circle, including one on his time at the head of the Harvard Law Review, one on his career as a law professor, one on his basketball-playing and one on how his friends were bracing themselves for his presidency.”

Of course, Kantor is not the only one in close proximity cashing in on the Obama publishing craze. And there is nothing new about authors cashing in on the access they get as journalists. The Washington Posts Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has turned it into a high art form. He reportedly gets a salary of $100 per month from the Washington Post and mostly works from his Georgetown home churning out best seller after best seller.

(But who needs a salary when your title as a Post editor helps with access to all the major Washington power players since Nixon? Because said title also provides access to the Posts front page for your book excerptsthe kind of publicity that other Washington authors could only dream of.)

I will leave to others the question of whether Woodwards reports provide value-added information Post readers would not otherwise learnor if his work is basically what Christopher Hitchens described as acting as stenographer to the stars. The reality is newspapering is unglamorous work. Woodward and Bernstein made it sexy. They also set the standard for how to cash in.

Its a blueprint most journalists hope to follow, which may be one reason so few in the mainstream news media complain about how individual reporters leverage the public trust of their news organization into big money deals. (Full disclosure, The Root is owned by the Washington Post, and heck yeah, Im still grateful that the Post published an excerpt of my 2006 book when I was a staff writer.)

But traditionally, this is the deal of the Fourth Estate: The powerful agree to sit down with journalists as representatives/stand-ins for the larger public that their news organizations serve. But as traditional news media profits continue to fall into the toilet, its getting harder and harder to make a living by writing for The People. But there is money selling access to the famous. So as the desperation in the field increases, the game is going to be increasingly scoring these big interviews with an eye toward getting that book/movie dealwhere the checks still clear.

Thanks to Obamas historic precedent, we are living in extraordinary times. There is no stopping the frenzy around the Obamas; their brand will continue to make a lot of people rich.

But I dont judge, and my babies gotta eat, too. So heres my free advice to the White House: the Times isnt the only way to speak to millions of people these days . Next time you want to give a sit-down in the Oval Office, make it easy on yourselfpick me!

My Gay Thanksgiving

A few months ago over dinner with my mother, I leaned across the table and asked, Do you wish I was straight?

During a pause that seemed at least nine months pregnant, I felt myself dancing with the demon I thought had left my party long ago.

Over the past 20 years, my mother has moved from standing over me and shouting, You are NOT gay because no daughter of mine would ever be a lesbian, to assuming her place at the head of the large and colorful network that we call our family.

This Thanksgiving, she will preside over our crowded table like the stately queen of a small country. Our family includes my sister and me; my partner, Jana, and our 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter; Lorry, the gay man who fathered the children; and an assortment of friends, exes, aunties and god-children. I am thankful that when my mother bows her head and blesses our family, she means it.

Still, as I looked at my mothers face that evening, trying to read the emotion I saw flicker across her brow, I wondered, Does my mother really accept me for who I am?

That is the central dilemma that plagues so many of us who are black and LGBT. The closet is a dark and lonely place, and even in the gay pride decade of Wanda Sykes, Adam Lambert, Rachel Maddow, The L Word, Ellen and Portia, Brokeback Mountain and Milk, many of us remain stuck inside. Whether we call it on the down low or undercover, large numbers of us are still sitting in the darkness wondering and worrying, will I still be invited to Thanksgiving if my family, my black family, knows Im gay?

This is the crisis many of us face, and the huge disconnect that keeps the LGBT movement from reaching its full potential. Gay marriage or any LGBT-rights initiative or agenda cannot move forward without the support and alliance of other so-called oppressed communities. This means other people of color. To be more precise, Im talking about straight black folks.

We need you to be on our side. We need your support in the state-by-state fight for our right to marry, to care for each other and to raise our children. We need you to speak up when somebody makes a comment about fags, dykes, queens, homos or sinners, whether its some drunk fool at a party or a minister from the pulpit. We ask youour sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighborsto join us in the struggle to assure that lesbians and gay men have all the rights, protections and respect that we are owed and that we deserve.

Were all family; we need you to have our backs just like you would any other member of the family. Help us move from the down low to living out loud. Hiding and lying is unhealthy and unhelpful and prevents us from having full, honest relationships with you, the people who know us best and have loved us the longest and hardest.

That includes my mother, sister and my heterosexual friends. My mother never imagined a family like ours back when she thought I might marry a man and give her a son-in-law and some grandkids. But I know that she loves our crewher two grandchildren; their father, the gay Peruvian grandbaby daddy who is a son-in-law of sorts; and my partner, her daughter-in-law.

But does she really wish I were straight? That evening over dinner, I got my answer. She reached across the table, covered my hand with hers and replied, No, honey. I no longer want you to be straight. Im used to you this way. There was no muss, no fluff, no sugar coating to her answer. It was simply honest and from her heart. What I heard, though, wasI love you just the way you are.

Black Friday is the blackest

Its that time of year again. No, not Thanksgiving. Who cares? Im talking about Black Friday!

There’s a reason why the biggest shopping day of the year is called Black Friday. And it has nothing to with burnt turkey or Targets bottom line.

The annual discounts offered after Thanksgiving can be hell on the newbie shopper. Pre-dawn start times, angry mobs and endless lines all in the name of saving money.

If you dont think you have the chops to take on Black Friday, take a few lessons from The Root.

1. PICK THE RIGHT ACCOMPLICE.

Got friends who can slide blades underneath their tongue? Bring em! The store aisles on Black Friday are not for the weak. You need an enforcer who will make sure you dont end up with a black eye.

2. CRACK THE SYSTEM.

Chances are you spend most of your work day logged on Facebook and Twitter anyway, so why not use both networks to scope out deals and plan your mission? Wanna know even more shopping secrets? Theres an app for that!

3. MAKE A HIT LIST. CHECK IT TWICE.

Do you show up at a restaurant not knowing what to eat? Well, this isnt a restaurant. This is Black Friday; no menus allowed. You make a list; you check it twice; you go into the store knowing exactly what you want. No excuses!

4. JUST SAY NO HELL, NO.

If some shopper-come-lately skips the line minutes before doors open at Walmart or tries to grab that $3 coffee maker you stood hours in line for, give them a, HELL, NO! Roll your neck for effect. Dont be a coward thats for people who shop on the day after Christmas.

5. DONT GO ROGUE!

Stick to your list. Dont lose your friend. The minute you get a false sense of security is the minute you miss out on that HDTV you dont even need. Sarah Palin went rogue on the campaign you see where that got her.

Did the New York Times Pimp the White House?

ccording to reports, the New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor just inked a seven-figure deal to write a volume about the Obamas. The New York Observer reported that this was partly due to the access to the White House she received as a representative of the New York Times:

“It could not be determined whether Ms. Kantor has secured the Obamas cooperation, but the fact that her story featured an extensive interview with them in the Oval Office seemed to indicate that she is going into the project with a good working relationship with them.

” During the campaign, Ms. Kantor produced a number of biographical stories about the president and his inner circle, including one on his time at the head of the Harvard Law Review, one on his career as a law professor, one on his basketball-playing and one on how his friends were bracing themselves for his presidency.”

Of course, Kantor is not the only one in close proximity cashing in on the Obama publishing craze. And there is nothing new about authors cashing in on the access they get as journalists. The Washington Posts Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has turned it into a high art form. He reportedly gets a salary of $100 per month from the Washington Post and mostly works from his Georgetown home churning out best seller after best seller.

(But who needs a salary when your title as a Post editor helps with access to all the major Washington power players since Nixon? Because said title also provides access to the Posts front page for your book excerptsthe kind of publicity that other Washington authors could only dream of.)

I will leave to others the question of whether Woodwards reports provide value-added information Post readers would not otherwise learnor if his work is basically what Christopher Hitchens described as acting as stenographer to the stars. The reality is newspapering is unglamorous work. Woodward and Bernstein made it sexy. They also set the standard for how to cash in.

Its a blueprint most journalists hope to follow, which may be one reason so few in the mainstream news media complain about how individual reporters leverage the public trust of their news organization into big money deals. (Full disclosure, The Root is owned by the Washington Post, and heck yeah, Im still grateful that the Post published an excerpt of my 2006 book when I was a staff writer.)

But traditionally, this is the deal of the Fourth Estate: The powerful agree to sit down with journalists as representatives/stand-ins for the larger public that their news organizations serve. But as traditional news media profits continue to fall into the toilet, its getting harder and harder to make a living by writing for The People. But there is money selling access to the famous. So as the desperation in the field increases, the game is going to be increasingly scoring these big interviews with an eye toward getting that book/movie dealwhere the checks still clear.

Thanks to Obamas historic precedent, we are living in extraordinary times. There is no stopping the frenzy around the Obamas; their brand will continue to make a lot of people rich.

But I dont judge, and my babies gotta eat, too. So heres my free advice to the White House: the Times isnt the only way to speak to millions of people these days . Next time you want to give a sit-down in the Oval Office, make it easy on yourselfpick me!

The Strange Love Affair Between America and the Afrobeat Superstar

Its been a long, slow dance between the United States and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, one that started 40 years ago when the Nigerian musician first toured America and is finally picking up tempo today, with the Broadway show Fela! opening to raves this week and a movie biopic reportedly in the works.

That the Afrobeat star and political firebrand is reaching the wider American consciousness only now, 12 years after his death from AIDS, is just one more piece in the complicated life story of an exceedingly complicated and controversial man. Suffice it to say that the Broadway show didnt spring out of nowhere. Rather, its the culmination of a number of factors: U.S. interest in the Nigerian superstar grew slowly, fed by the creation of new Afrobeat bands (led by the New York-based Antibalas), artistic exploration like 2003s Fela Project and Black President exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the wider availability of his recorded music.

Curator Trevor Schoonmaker started the Fela Project in 1999 by looking for artists, musicians and writers inspired by the musician. He initially met with two kinds of reactions: those who had no idea who Fela was, and those who knew about Fela and were extremely enthusiastic about the exhibition and publications, Schoonmaker said in an e-mail exchange. There was very little in between.

Why the fascination with Fela? Fela was one of the most extraordinarily complex and creative figures of the 20th century and was virtually unknown to the U.S. public, Schoonmaker said. Imagine the U.S. mainstream not knowing who Bob Marley is … seems preposterous, right? Fela was just as significant of a musician and cultural figurejust not as well known.

And for Fela, the U.S. proved to be just as significant. He first came here in 1969, looking for commercial success. Instead, he found something else: A sense of national identity and pride. “I should impress my own people first, he once said. When my people accept me, then foreigners will see a need to accept me. They will now appreciate my music.”

Felas musical journey stretches back to 1962, when he formed his first band while a student in London. (His middle-class parents sent him to England to study medicine, but music soon won out.) Koola Lobitos was essentially a highlife band, but even then, Fela was trying to create something new, injecting jazz and salsa elements into the mix. He returned to Nigeria with band in 1963.

The band went to America in 1969, in a journey that has been widely described as a turning point for Fela in both his musical and political evolution. It started off as an almost comical disaster, though, according to Michael E. Veals 2000 biography Fela: Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, with an AWOL tours sponsor and multiple legal and immigration tangles.

The bands cultural visas expired after three months, leaving them stranded in Los Angeles and facing deportation hearings. But Fela was not willing to go home without scoring some success; eventually he succeeded in getting visa extensions.

Los Angeles proved to be an awakening of sorts for Fela. It was there that he met and moved in with singer Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), an activist and former Black Panther whom Fela often credited with his political education. Among the many books she turned him on to was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It affected him profoundly. He saw strong parallels between U.S.-style racism and the British-style colonialism in Nigeria.

At the same time, Fela was immersing himself in black literature and political philosophy; culturally, he was witnessing the sexual and drug revolution of the 60s firsthand. And through Smith (who is a pivotal character in the musical), he also learned and absorbed the modal jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others. Fela (with his longtime musical collaborator, drummer Tony Allen) renamed the band Egypt 70 and embarked on a three-month residency at a Hollywood club, where the sound that became known as Afrobeata unique amalgam of American and African influenceswas invented on the fly. The band came home in 1970.

BOMB THE ROOT: The James ‘Son’ Thomas Interview

BOMB Magazine is a Brooklyn based arts publication. Since 1981 the magazine has been bringing artist’s perspectives to the public. Unlike traditional arts criticism, BOMB asks artists to interview each other, and the resulting conversation is published. Though the transcripts are edited, the artists participate in every step to ensure that the final piece is authentic to their voices.

To celebrate the completion of the BOMB Digital Archive, The Root is launching BOMB The Root, a thirteen-part series of interviews, audio pieces, and video that we have carefully culled from BOMB’s collection. The series will highlight the many interviews with black artists and intellectual luminaries published by the magazine over the past 28 years.

Born in 1926 in Eden, Mississippi, James “Son” Thomas was a legend in the Southern blues scene known for his deft guitar playing that typified “bottleneck blues,” a Southern style of blues where a broken bottleneck was used to play slide guitar. Thomas, however, had other artistic talents. Considered one of last century’s finest American folk artists, Thomas’ clay figures, including human heads embellished with real human teeth, have been shown in folk art exhibitions all over the country.

Since Thomas died in 1993, this interview, conducted 10 years earlier, is one of the gems of the BOMB Digital Archive. In it blues guitarist-and legend in his own right-Philip Walker talks to Thomas about making his first sculpture (of a mule) and what inspired his life-long art making. Though the interview was edited before publishing, you will notice that BOMB kept intact Thomas’ highly particular way of speaking, this interview is a fantastic document of a specific, Southern dialect and masculine sensibility.

And of course, don’t miss Thomas’ story about meeting Nancy Reagan shortly after his wife had shot him in the stomach. You can read the full interview at BOMB Magazine.

-Adda Birnir

INTERVIEW EXCERPT:

Phillip Walker: You live in Leland, now. Where were you born?

James Son Thomas: Eden. E-D-E-N. Eden, Mississippi. About three miles east of Eden. On the river. 1926. October 14th.

PW: How did you get started doing sculpture?

JT: My uncle used to play in clay; used to try to make something look like a mule because, at that time, black folks didnt have nothing but mules. Like you see tractors in the fields, nowthey didnt have nothing but mules in the field. And thats all hed try to make was a mule. So I tried to make a mule, and just kept on trying to make the mule. Finally, I could make the mule. Then, after that, I started making different things, you know, like birds and rabbits squirrelsstuff like that. And from that what caused me to start making a skull, I made a skull to scare my grandfather with.

PW: For a joke?

JT: Yeah. See, he was scared of ghosts. And I made the skull to scare him. It worked but he made me take it out the house. I was just a teenager and he made me take the thing out the house. Ive got some real teeth up there on the shelf that somebody gave me. I believe it was in Memphis. A jar full. I just aint got around to doing no work.

PW: Are you going to put them in skulls?

JT: Yeah. Im going make them into skulls and faces and different features, you know. What Im trying to do, which I could have done did but Ive been throwed behind.

PW: Are those human teeth?

JT: Yeah, I got human teeth up there. And I had some more human teeth had gold on em and I jumped up and sold this. I sold this for $100 when I could have doubled that money, cause it had gold on it.

PW: What do you think is the most important thing to consider when making a sculpture?

JT: O.K. You dont look like Bo, Bo dont look Joe, Bo dont look like my boy. Everybodys a little different and some peoples favor resemble each other. Now, thats the stuff you got to watch. When it comes down to that sculpturing work, I dont care how much school learning they got, they cant equal up with me. They aint no need to trying, they cant do it.

PW: Because theyre not watching that?

JT: They dont know about that. See, they read up on mine, and I think up on mine.

PW: When you look at another piece of sculpture, do you think you can tell whether they did it that wayby the bookor thought it up?

JT: Oh yeah, I can tell. See, white folks, they reads up on this. Thats like you have a puzzle: this here piece dont go here, it goes here. Thats the way you do that. But now, when you come down to this sculpture, you do this dabbing and you cant mess that upJust say you got a puzzle and you want to make a dog. OK, you know if you try to put the tail here, and the dogs backbone goes hereyou cant put the dogs backbone there because thats the tail.

PW: So when you do a sculpture, its like doing a puzzle?

JT: Right, you got to figure that. But now, the different features in the world, you cant figure that out because its too hard, because everybody dont look alike. You go down there and you see twenty suckers on the street and dont near one of them suckers look alike. Some of them suckers down there got money and some of em aint; their features dont look alike. I can look at them and tell what Im going to do. Ill tell you what I can do: I can let you tie a rag around my head. Bet you five hundred cash dollars right today. You tie a rag around my head where I cant see nothing, give me a ball of clay, Ill take that clay, if you want a quail, Ill make you a quail, Ill make you a damn quail and I aint even had nothing on my eyes. Cant see nothing. Im talking about blindfolded.

PW: Just by feeling it?

JT: Feel it. Feel my way out. Ill feel it out right today for five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars Ill bet you.

PW: So, when youre sculpting, the most important thing is to feel it rather than to see it?

JT: Thats the most important part: feel it. Feel what you do. Some folks goI got to see what Im doing… You aint got to see. If you know what you doing, thats all you got to know.