Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Top Five Favorite MC's

Here are my top five favorite MC’s. Not the list of the greatest ones, just my personal favorites.

5. Phonte from Little Brother—In terms of flow, this guy is so slick and technically sound. Brother can sing his ass off too. Check him out in this video, “Take Off The Blues” with the bowtie off the new Foreign Exhange album, Leave It All Behind.

4. Lauryn Hill—if this soul sister put out more work, she would be number two on my list. Very underrated MC.

3. Andre 3000—People plan their lives around an Andre 3000 verse. What else can I say?

2. Nas—The only MC to this day who makes me drop everything to buy his latest album.

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1. Tupac—Prophetic and poetic, brash and confident, Tupac is the ultimate worker-artist for me.

As always, if you know me, then you know my list is subject to change, so stay tuned!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: Year 2000

In 1985, Ebony Magazine did a piece where artist Nathan Wright predicted what Michael Jackson would look like in the year 2000. This guy is suave!

Book Review: The Scratch DJ Academy Guide (St. Martin’s)

Awwa, awwa, here's a book review I wrote on the ultimate guide to djing and DJ culture, "The Scratch DJ Academy Guide" (St. Martin’s) for!

Reviewed by Sidik Fofana

“The emphasis is now on the DJ and his performance as the leader of the dance,” Tony McGuinness, contemplative Trance DJ-turned-scratchonomic-seigneur acknowledges in the chapter, “The Influence of the DJ” of On The Record. “This is an idea that goes back to prehistoric times; there’s always been a figure in society who leads a mass dance. For me now, it has become much more of a performance.”

Since Hip-Hop’s birth over thirty years ago, the role of the DJ has transcended that distinction: Today’s DJ is no longer the leader of the dance, but the dance itself. If he does not play right logarithm of records—including the necessary blending, scratching, and microphone interjections to go with it—the sacred life of the party is lost.

According to writers Luke Crissell and Phil White, who have shared leaf in the ultra hip mag Nylon and both boast major bylines galore, and Phil White, founder of the Scratch DJ Academy, the ability to DJ is a dexterous but teachable art. Yet, as On The Record so clearly stresses, it is an art that requires an appreciative awareness of the cultural movements that define it in addition to the actual practice of the craft. And that awareness gives DJing its holism, which today’s top DJs like Craze, Sasha, Yoda, AM, and others elaborate on through various advice, lessons, and reflections, prepping aspiring DJ’s just as much for life away from the turntables as on them.

As in the book The Art of Emceeing, in which Dead Prez’s Stic.Man divulges the step-by-step mechanic of rapping, On the Record breaks down the ones and twos of disc jockeying. “There are so many different options for DJs these days—they use vinyl, Serato, Ableton, CD decks,” DJ Yoda comments on the revolutionizing of DJ equipment in the chapter “DJ 101,” “But I think that it’s important to get used to working with vinyl first. It’s crucial to have that basis, because the new technology just emulates two turntables and a mixer.” The chapter goes on to break down the art of scratching, beat matching, fading, and building a set.

Sure, DJing is a skill that does not need a manual as much as it needs lived experience, but the folks at The Stratch DJ Academy remind us that there is unspeakable value in the written experience of world-renowned DJ’s. In that sense, On The Record is not an alternative way of learning to DJ, but a companion to the very process itself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lebron James Gets Dunked On!

You are still the king, Lebron. But here's a little something that proves that you're at least still human.

Smile Every Time My Name Is up in the Source! (June/July 2009)

In the June/July 2009 issue of the Source, I penned two articles. One on up-and-coming rapper Nu Jerzey Devil (he did a crazy track with Lil Wayne) and the other on Asher Roth aka "the new Eminem." The issue is on stands now. Cop it!

Source Magazine Nu Jerzey

Source Magazine Asher Roth

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ricky Rubio is That Dude...

I got a feeling about this kid. Bona fide roundball fans know what it means to have “a feeling.” It’s that gut notion, goading one to make a declaration that transcends logic—like whoever the first guy was who said the Chicago Bull’s third pick in ’83 draft would the best player ever to play the game. Though the feeling is not as intense for Ricky Rubio, I think this kid will be magic on some Steve Nash, Tony Parker type ish. Coming from an ex-high school ball player himself, I will you tell you that there’s nothing more awesome than watching or shit, playing against a point guard whose first step is so quick seems like it takes negative time and whose passes are so dynamite that it takes viewers longer to process than the pass itself.

Already compared to legendary NBA 70’s star, Pete Maravich, Ricky Rubio is wowing fools out there with his flair for the game. I’m talking, wrap arounds, behind the back flings, pretty dimes, and the other stuff that keeps you ooohing. You might not see him in the NBA this year—even though he was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first pick—because contract complications may require him to play in Spain a couple more years, but when he’s in the league, a renaissance will surely begin. So, I just wanted to officially declare this cat is the future NBA point guard of the 10’s and you heard it first from Corner Boy Jazz.
Not convinced? Watch for yourself.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Black Pop Kool-Aid: D’Angelo’s “Left & Right”

This is the latest from one of my favorite writers, Michael Gonzales. This cat is definitely in my top five for Hip-Hop writers of all time...look out for a book coming soon.

Black Pop Kool-Aid: D’Angelo’s “Left & Right”

July 17, 2009 · Print This Article
By Michael A. Gonzales

“To me, there is a difference between artists and stars,” soul singer D’Angelo told me way back in 1995. And there was no doubt that he placed himself in the former category no matter how much the rest of the world wanted to place him as the latter. “I don’t want people to tell me how great I sound, but then I don’t build on it,” he added. “What comes first is the music. I want to make dope music. It’s been like that from the beginning and it’s going to stay like that.”
Twenty-one years old at the time, the former child gospel singer named Michael Eugene Archer was in the process of transforming himself into a powerhouse soul man with his stunning debut disc Brown Sugar.
Yet five years after the release of that groundbreaking album, which sowed the seeds of the so-called neo-soul revolution, the young Virginia native had a lot riding on his sophomore project Voodoo. Literarily taking his sophisticated sound to the “next level,” D’Angelo’s Voodoo was a stunning work of art that quickly became the talk of the town.
Nevertheless, following the runaway success of the damn-near pornographic (some prefer the term provocative) video for the second single “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” and a subsequent sold-out tour, D’Angelo retreated from the spotlight.

With the exception of a few cameos including an appearance on Q-Tip’s 2008 album The Renaissance, the man many hoped would be the savior of R&B has been musically inactive since 2001. There were reports about his escalating depressions and alleged drug use, and it looked as if the rigorous demands of the music business caused the young artist to have a classic rock-star crack-up.
In last year’s Spin magazine article “Body & Soul,” Roots drummer and former D’Angelo collaborator Ahmir “?usestlove” Thompson asserted that the pressures of being considered a pin-up boy put the brother over the edge.
“Everybody is not built to be a sex symbol,” agrees Nelson George, author of the recently released autobiography City Kid and the classic soul book The Death of Rhythm & Blues. “Just look at how it fucked up his hero Marvin Gaye.”
Not to take anything away from Maxwell and the current chart-topping success of his album Blacksummer’s Night, but it was D’Angelo who courageously blazed the trail that allowed Maxwell and other exponents of the so-called neo-soul movement to be different. Though Brown Sugar and Voodoo are his only albums thus far, D’Angelo’s fearless experimentation broadened the language of R&B by exploring new sonic possibilities. Currently signed to J Records, D’Angelo has spent the better part of a decade making his third album James River, which will supposedly feature guest appearances from Prince, Q-Tip, and Cee-Lo. Periodically a label publicist will announce that D’Angelo’s long-awaited return is imminent, but so far no new music has been released.
dp5Recorded at Electric Lady Studios over four years of sessions and released (finally) on January 11 2000, Voodoo was irrefutable proof that D’Angelo had arrived. Culled from over 72 hours of music, the 13 tracks were a fusion of jazz, funk, R&B, hip-hop and an inescapable sense of paranoia best captured on the unsettling DJ Premier–produced banger “Devil’s Pie.” The blazing album won D’Angelo widespread critical acclaim as well as a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album.
Still, it was hardly a conventional follow-up. “I always tell people that Voodoo is more of a musician’s album,” explains soul singer Anthony Hamilton, who sang backup on the Voodoo tour. “The music D made on that record is not the easiest to get into.”
With its bump-n-grind groove and lecherous lyrics, Voodoo’s first single “Left & Right” was a late-’90s anthem of wild nights in the neon-lit metropolis of Manhattan where cool Black bohos and buppies popped ecstasy tabs like Tic-Tacs, cocaine delivery guys parked outside trendy clubs, and everyone was as freaky as they wanted to be.

The danceable “Left and Right” also functioned as an introduction to the basic themes of Voodoo, which depicted the classic soul-man battle between good and evil, love and hate, the sanctified and the profane. “You can hear the darkness in that album,” Grammy-winner India Arie says. “Maybe not so much in the lyrics, but in the tone. For me, it’s like the difference between [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On and Here, My Dear.”
In 2009, D’Angelo remains M.I.A. (though he’s rumored to be back in the studio). Still the internet is overflowing with visual and aural artifacts documenting his two-album legacy including the little-seen video for “Left & Right,” which was shot (but not released) exactly 10 years ago. Originally conceived as a duet between D and his friend Q-Tip, the former Tribe Called Quest leader was later replaced by sexist rhyme animals Redman and Method Man.
“D’Angelo’s manager thought that Tip’s verse was wack,” recalls Gary Harris, the former A&R man who signed D’Angelo to EMI Records. “With ‘Left and Right’ chosen to be the first single, the main issue wasn’t necessarily about the music, but about making it hot.”
Artful and funky, director Malik Hassan Sayeed’s performance video of D’Angelo and the Soulquarian band was a brilliant exercise in Afro-impressionism textured with saturated colors, mood lighting, quick cuts, simulated sex, and a few moments of true beauty.
While Paul Hunter’s pelvis-centric vision of a naked D’Angelo in “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” was a publicity wet dream that earned a nomination for Video of the Year at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, the hedonistic images of “Left & Right” serve as a shocking visual metaphor forecasting D’Angelo’s forthcoming pop-life decline.
It was the summer of 1999, and I was assigned to interview D’Angelo for a then-leading urban magazine. Invited to the last day of filming for the “Left and Right” video, which was shot over the course of two weekends inside a vacant building in the Wall Street area, I was amazed by the Felliniesque vibe of director Malik Hassan Sayeed’s set.
A native New Yorker, Sayeed was director of photography on Spike Lee’s films The Original Kings of Comedy, Girl 6 and He Got Game; he had also worked as director of photography beside video auteur Hype Williams’ on his 1998 feature debut Belly and served as second unit Directort of Photography on Stanley Kubrick’s swan-song Eyes Wide Shut.
“Malik’s concept for ‘Left & Right” was exceptional,” remembers on-set producer Rich Ford Jr. “It was a concert video that paid tribute to funk shows of the past.” Conceived during an era when the hottest music videos were ultra-bright and vibrantly colorful Hype Williams/Puff Daddy collaborations—many of which Sayeed shot as DP—the murky “Left & Right” was the antithesis of that trend.
Walking through a set that resembled a decaying tenement from David Fincher’s Se7en, I peeped funk father George Clinton standing in the corner nonchalantly smoking what appeared to be a crack pipe. “It was crazy,” Ford recalls. “I kept asking George to go somewhere else and smoke, but he really didn’t care who saw him.”
Standing against the back wall, I stared as D’Angelo swaggered towards the bandstand. Unlike the soft-spoken southern b-boy dressed in jeans and Timberlands I’d met four years before, he had transformed into a dandy bohemian on par with Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
dp2 With an electric ax strapped around his shoulders, D looked as though he was ready to conjure his inner guitar god. The formerly pudgy singer now had a body-builder physique, and his once neatly braided hair was wild and loose.
Wandering freely around the massive set, I detected the smell of sweat, fragrant oils, cigarettes and weed perfuming the air. The entire building was crowded with scantly clothed women in exotic feathers, crazed PA’s screaming over the din, the assistant director yelling at the PAs not to let rappers Redman and Method Man leave the building and go-fers running to the store to buy D’Angelo more cigarettes.
Looking like he’d just crashed-landed Funkadelic’s mothership into a vintage clothing store, D was dressed in a glam outfit of black vest (but no shirt) trimmed with faux-zebra skin and velvet pants. A silver crucifix dangled from his neck.
Joining his Voodoo session homeboys drummer ?uestlove, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, keyboardist James Poyser, bassist Pino Palladino and guitar Charlie Hunter on stage, D’Angelo was excited. Unfortunately, the guest rappers were missing.
“Well, where are they?” the director moaned into a walkie-talkie as the film crew set out to locate Red and Meth. Both pothead rappers had wandered away from the soundstage and disappeared. Though Sayeed was a vet of urban video shoots, he looked stressed.
“When the production company saw the chaos of the set, they were in pain,” laughs Ford. “Malik was frantic, but he managed to keep his composure.” The rappers were finally located in a trailer outside playing video games.
By the time the snickering rappers walked to the stage, the music began to blare. Driven by a laidback guitar, soulful finger snaps and macho lyricism, D’s lustful falsetto echoed throughout the room. “Smack your ass, pull your hair/and I even kiss you way down there,” he devilishly sang. “You know I will/think I won’t?”
Hanging over the bandstand, a gaudy chandelier glimmered. Reeking of the uber-masculinity of a prizefighter, D’Angelo reminded one of legendary boxer Jack Johnson stepping into the ring to do damage.
With his sexually charged persona “on eleven,” D’Angelo’s transformation from soul crooner to big-city rock star was in full effect. As the director shot the band’s mock performance, smoke machines sputtered, hand-held camera operators moved through the crowd and the off-kilter song blared from numerous speakers.
“It was like something out of a postPurple Rain rock fantasy,” laughs vocalist Sun Singleton, who played one of the background singers. “Malik’s vision was freaky and as a former film major, I was in awe watching him work. He was serious, but very quiet.”

Standing in the rear, I joined the extras in enjoying the pretend concert as they swung their arms back and forth. After an hour, Malik finally got the shots he needed and called for a dinner break. Minutes later, the unit publicist retrieved me from the excited crowd.
“D’Angelo will be up in a minute,” she assured me as we walked upstairs to a dreary, dimly lit room containing a few chairs. Discolored with rust spots, water dripped from the ceiling in the far corner of the room. I sat down, pulled out my tape recorder and patiently waited for D to arrive.
From the moment D’Angelo stepped into the room twenty minutes later, I could tell something was wrong. Followed closely by six men burly men wearing identical black suits, the intimating guys positioned themselves around the room, looking more like henchman than bodyguards.
Maybe tired, perhaps high, there was something strange about D’Angelo’s behavior. I reached out to shake his hand, but he eyeballed me suspiciously and mumbled something inaudible. Standing around the room with steely faces and outlaw attire, his boys made me uncomfortable.
Afraid that asking the wrong question could be deadly for my health, I turned on the tape recorder. “You’ve been working on this record for a few years,” I began. “Can we talk about the concepts behind Voodoo?”
Fidgeting in the chair, D’Angelo’s steady flow of non-answers seemed like an elaborate joke. Unfortunately though, he wasn’t kidding. Unlike my first interview with him in 1995, where we talked about music and life for hours, the dude in front of me four years later had apparently drunk the Black pop kool-aid.
Right before my eyes, D’Angelo was turning into a parody of the clichéd troubled soul man. At a time when he should have been on top of the world, D’Angelo was instead on the verge of toppling from the pedestal we (fans, critics) had put him on.
And as musical masterminds Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly Stone and Donny Hathaway have proved before him, bugged-out geniuses don’t always make a whole lot of sense in interviews. Leaning back in the chair, D’Angelo stared vacantly as I turned off the recorder.
“This is silly,” I said. “Maybe we should do this at another time.” Pushing back the chair, I stood up. Nobody moved or said a word as I walked across the floor. Closing the door behind me, I walked down the stairs toward the bright lights of the video set.
While “Left & Right” director Malik Hassen Sayeed and producer Rich Ford Jr. were excited about “bringing back” D’Angelo, at least visually, it was only a matter of time before the video became a burden to the filmmakers.
Though highly anticipated by fans and music biz folks—especially executives at MTV who’d scheduled special promotions and a world premiere for the clip—it seemed like the project would never be finished.
“We had already gone $30,000 over budget and the label was unwilling to give us any more money,” recalls Ford. “Malik had all these different special effects he wanted to add in post-production, but it was impossible. The video was due, but Malik wanted to do it his way.”
Disappointed by the lack of creative control, Sayeed, who that same year was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his DP work on Belly, took his name off the project and used the pseudonym Willie Lynch instead.
They ended up missing the deadline for the MTV premiere. “Even when we finally finished the edit,” Ford recalls, “the network punished us by refusing to put ‘Left & Right’ into rotation. That’s why so many people never knew the song was Voodoo’s first single, let alone a video.” Ten years later, Sayeed’s gone on to make videos for Jay-Z (“Jigga What, Jigga Who”), Prince (“The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”) and Lauryn Hill (Ex-Factor). He directs commercials for big name clients like Fuji, Nike, and Miller Light. The D’Angelo video may not be the full expression of Sayeed’s vision, but it holds up surprisingly well after all this time, offering a window into a world that now seems a long was away. And a glimpse of what can happen when you drink the Kool-Aid.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Eight Books You Have to Read Before The End of the Summer

I compiled this list for If you're still got an itchy reader trigger, these suggestions will hold you down. So all that's necessary is that ju pick a book, "July", and enjoy "August" of pleasant summer breeze (play on words is a stretch...but get it?)...

Summer Reading
By Sidik Contributing Critic
Jul 13, 2009, 17:45

Here are eight recently published books chosen by contributing critic, Sidik Fofana, for the summer time. So grab your sunbrella, shades and perch on the sand because these books are guaranteed to give you a good read!

1. TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, $23.95). This newest
installment in the series that spawned "The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency" TV show on HBO—finds its heroine Mma Ramotswe in need of her own detective talents.

2. CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson, by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Civitas, $19.95). Dyson, who has reinvigorated the role of the public intellectual, dazzles us with a collection of essays, vignettes, and musings on contemporary life and politics.

3. SONG YET SUNG, by James McBride (Riverhead Trade, $15.00). In McBride’s third novel, set in pre-Civil war Maryland, a runaway slave inspires a whole community.

4. OBAMA’S BLACKBERRY by Kasper Hauser (Little, Brown and Company $13.99). This hilarious imaginary world of text messages from Barack Obama’s phone will have rolling on the floor laughing.

5. THE LONG FALL by Walter Mosley (Riverhead, $25.95). Walter Mosley blesses with another hero in the form of Leonid McGill, a private investigator trying to go the straight-and-narrow.

6. BURN THIS BOOK edited by Toni Morrison (Harper Studio, $16.95). Toni Morrison and the distinguished PEN Writers discuss, through the beautiful medium of the essay, the importance of the written word.

7. MIDNIGHT by Sister Souljah (Atria, $26.95) This follow-up to the Sister Souljah’s mega success, The Coldest Winter Ever, focuses on the life of Midnight, a Sudan born teenager who has immigrated to Brooklyn with his family.

8. CITY KID: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success, by Nelson George (Viking, $25.95). George tackles growing up in Brownville, becoming a big-time writer, and becoming an even bigger-time film producer in this engaging personal narrative.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Subway Art

Here's a book review I wrote for and the classic book on 70's NYC graffitti by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. Happy 25th year anniversary, Subway Art!

Reviewed by Sidik Fofana

Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, both world-class photographers in their own right, reclaim graffiti fame with this 25th anniversary re-release of their remarkable visual documentation of graffiti’s golden age in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The portfolio-sized book is not one of those stuffy academic releases dedicated to the history of graffiti, its commercialization, or global significance. The portraits in Subway Art only depict either one of two things: the artist and/or his work.

The graffiti writers (most of them started out as young delinquents bombing trains) latched on to the idea of Cooper and Chalfant recording their lives through photos, though they did not necessarily have the foresight to realize they were being immortalized as pioneers of a major phenomenon. Even the photographers themselves were hard-pressed to predict the graffiti’s continental influence. Henry Chalfant admits, “We never thought of the book as an exhaustive survey of the entire history of the graffiti movement; rather it was an extraordinary record of a movement that we had observed from our point of view.”

Surveying the freight-car long photos of iridescent pieces—most of which were done by aerosol cans in train lots at the end of the 2, 3, and 5 lines in the Bronx and Brooklyn—one can’t help but ponder the peril behind producing some of these fabled works. Among the artists who went on put on exhibitions and establish careers as graphic designers were also artists who have been in or out of jail or who have died before their time.

Chalfant and Cooper, who both have worked extensively outside of graffiti in the world of photojournalism, situate these pictures of extravagant artwork within the backdrop of New York City’s crumbling financial standing in the 70’s. Within the book are pictures of graffiti set behind dilapidated buildings and vacant lots, and artists posing on dirty trains.

Of course, graffiti has been both condemned by visual art puritans like one trustee at the Museum of Modern Art who suggested graffiti writers “should be lined up at dawn and shot” and lauded by a Hip-Hop generation that has embraced it and accepted it as a viable medium of expression. But this collection of photographs, very respectably, is just about the artwork itself. The transcending can take place elsewhere.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsfree video player


Barack Obama Pictures: barack-obama-checking-out-a-16-year-old-girl

You've all seen it by now. President allegedly caught looking at 17 Brazilian Junior Delegate, Mayara Tavares. This is ridiculous! A small plebian like Sidik Fofana "onces over" a girl and the world goes on quietly humming, but the president of the United States does it and all of sudden it's world news and a million roundtables form. Oh yeah, by the way, it turns out he wasn't looking at the girl's assets but even if he was? C'mon, we already know Obama is a butt man (see Michelle Obama and the unofficial yet confirmed statistic that most heterosexual men are as well), so please the rest the scrutinizing eye. The sad thing is this is not the end of the 24-hour Obamascope. Stay tuned for more crazy people taking pictures of Obama eating Popeye's fried chicken and doing the Superman. Leave my president alone!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Corner Left Behind

This was originally supposed to be published in the anthology Down to the Wire: An Anthology of Black Thought on HBO's Greatest Show Ever, but the publication was postponed indefinitely. So...'Dik is leaking it out. Here it is:

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No Corner Left Behind:
The Wire’s Accurate Portrayal of Successes and Failures of Baltimore Schools
By Sidik Fofana

Many dismiss the American public education as the burden of government spending. It’s easy to suck teeth at the overcrowded classes, the underpaid teachers, the problem children, and say it’s purely bureaucratic. Yet, the fact remains that not all inner city schools are failing. The fourth season of The Wire takes a closer look at the Baltimore education system. and shows that American public schools are a product of both successful and unsuccessful policies. Thus, the bigger challenge lies in actually corralling those sporadic breakthroughs and replicating them across the city.

At the beginning of season four, Roland “Prez" Pryzbylewski leaves the police force to become a math teacher at Edward Tilghman Middle School. Executive producer David Simon uses the former Baltimore detective’s career change as an opportunity to explore the complex hallways of public education as Namond, Dukie, Randy, Michael, and season four’s adolescent cast, head back to school after a summer spent shooting the breeze on the corner. Simon takes advantage of this new foray to show how both negligent education policies and the ills of ghetto life affect each other. In essence, viewers get two perspectives, one from the educators and the other from the students, filtered through the lens of the Baltimore Police Department.

The very first educational issue that season four brings up is one of numbers. The issue all boils downs to—another shortcoming of the system—the ratio of students to educators being dangerously high. Pryzbylewski, is accepted into a new teacher program, designed to help expedite his certification progress, but he has not actually completed the necessary classes towards his certificate. Yet, in a district where math and science teachers are hard to come by, a few unfinished credits does not deter Tilghman’s administration from hiring. Right from the first episode, viewers see how high turnover rates lead to the employment of under qualified staff. In fact, before Prez even steps in the building, Tilghman’s principal orders a fellow administrator to, “buzz him in before he changes his mind.”

Though many researchers link high staff turnover rates with the low student performance, the Wire shows that public schools are not filled with kids itching to drop out. The show’s corner boys are eager to return to school even if it’s not for academics. Randy is excited about canoodling with the eighth grade girls and Namond wants to show off his drug-financed back-to-school gear. As a matter of fact, the majority of Namond’s crew is anxious about their first day back. Michael and Dukie both live households with crack-addicted adults. Namond, who is gainfully employed through his father’s drug dealing connections, sees school as an escape from the hazardous uncertainties of the corner. They seem to view school as an escape from their dismal lives.

However, Sherrod, a truant eighth grader who rolls a shopping cart around the neighborhood filled with miscellaneous knick-knacks with a heroin addict named “Bubbles,” does go back for academic reasons. Bubbles hires Sherrod to handle some of his lighter transactions, but the orphaned youngster’s difficulty with simple arithmetic slows down business. To make up for his inadequacies, Sherrod, who hasn’t been to school regularly in years, decides to make another effort to re-enroll for the sake of Bubbles’s humble enterprises. “If you want, I could go to school, son,” he says to Bubbles at the end of episode 2. “I ain’t been for a while so I don’t even know if I can. But if you want me to go, it ain’t no thang.”

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The principle problem with public education in Baltimore or in any city for that matter is not the nightmarish bunch of apathetic and mal-adjusted youth, it’s the inconsistency of the teachers, administrators, and policy makers who supervise them. Passers by might think the former if they peeked into Mr. Prez eighth grade math class on the first day of school. His first attempt to explain an algebraic equation finds the class in utter disarray; students interrupt the lesson, a fight breaks out, everyone is out of their seats, and Randy strolls out of the classroom to sell candy, all in the first five minutes. Yet just when Prez’s classroom looks like the classic model of dysfunction, the more experienced Mrs. Sampson steps in and the students scuttle to their seats in obedience.

Mrs. Sampson’s intervention demonstrates a interesting dynamic. In any given public school, there’s a dichotomy between teachers, whether it’s inexperienced vs. experienced, the 8-to-3 folks vs. the overtime folks, the pushovers vs. the authoritarians. Most of the time, a school’s personnel represents a random lot of employees. It’s tough for administrators to whittle down candidates to the most effective educators and there is no doubt that, in between shortages of applicants and the impossibility of measuring qualifications, staff members enter the classroom with varying levels of training. On paper, Edward Tilghman may be a failing school, but it doesn’t lack positive qualities (Detective Colvin roams the hallways in one of his earlier visits and observes interactive classes as well as unengaged classes). Tilghman’s weakness is not anarchy. It’s inconsistency.

The Wire does not shy away from displaying the behavior problems at Edward Tilghman Middle School. No matter how high functioning the class, there are a few students who pose extreme disciplinary threat to the learning environment. Upon several visits, Detective Colvin determines that the students fall into one of two categories: “stoop kids” vs. “corner kids.” The stoop kids are the students who obey their guardians, stay near their front porch, and are not allowed to roam into the concrete wilderness of Baltimore. The corner kids linger outside until after the street lamps dim and are exposed to Baltimore’s crime and drug infested streets.

The focus on the corner kids reveals The Wire at its most socially poignant. By episode four, the spotlight shifts from the classrooms to a new pilot program Tilghman sponsors for its small population of students with extreme social adjustment issues. The program, in conjunction with a study conducted by David Parenti of the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland, seeks to isolate the extreme discipline problems from their regular classrooms and teach them basic social interaction skills. Namond, along with nine other “problem children” are placed in the class.

The classroom immediately becomes a microscopes of deficiencies of Baltimore’s public school system. For one, the ten student class eight boys and only two girls. It’s no secret that the achievement gap of black males in education remains a cause for concern. In Baltimore alone, 38.5 percent of high school students graduated in 2006 of which African-American males were only a time fraction. Also most of the students in Parenti’s study, of which Namond Brice is one, are performing below grade level in Mathematics and English. Brice, as shown throughout season four, lives at home with his money hungry mother who strong-arms him into following in his father’s drug-pedaling footsteps. She berates Namond for not being as cold-hearted as his old man when it comes to hustling, making it very clear to him t school work comes secondary to dealing narcotics. Although Brice shows a subtle yearning to escape this degenerative family business, his own mother shows him very little support.

The same predicament befalls the other young black males spotlighted in season four. Namond’s buddies, Duquan Weems and Michael Lee, are sons of crack fiends who pawn their children’s clothes and sell the household’s grocery items to maintain their habits. Both Duquan and Michael take school seriously, but their dire home situations often impede their focus on academics. When Sherrod, the orphan under the care heroin fiend Bubbles, reports for his first day of school, administrators place in eighth grade despite the fact that he has missed school for several years. His impractical social promotion heightens Sherrod’s feelings of academic inadequacy and by the end of the episode, he is hopping out of the school window and running back to the block.

Truancy is another issue that the Wire takes time to divulge. Even with the dearth of resources, administrators at Tilghman make painstaking efforts to reach out to that population of students. Yet, the school’s initiative, however well-intentioned, is thwarted by bureaucratic policies. For instance, Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly, use the janitor’s payroll and hires Cutti, an ex-convict turned upstanding member of the community, as a truant officer. Cutti, latches onto the cause and dutifully rounds up Tilghman’s absentees from slums all over the city only to learn he has to let most of them go because they’ve already fulfilled their minimum one day of attendance per month mandated by the board of education.

Unjustified bureaucratic decisions also hinder the pilot program, which was making progress throughout the season. Just when eighth grader Namond Brice is getting adjusted to his Tilghman’s behavior code, administrators mitigate his social progress by obligating him to pass states exams. They cite the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal mandate passed in 2001 by George Bush Jr., which increases educational standards and accountability for school districts. It ensures that schools systematically test students with regional exams to ensure each of them meet state standards.

For Namond and the other students on the Wire, systematic exams come in the form of the yearly Maryland School Assessment (MSA), which tests for reading and math achievement. Only 22 percent of Tilghman’s student body passed the exam the year before, Mrs. Donelly requests her staff to teach ELA in every class to prepare for this year’s test. This leaves Mr. Prez teaching a diffident lesson on Greek literature to a room of drowsy eighth graders. The he systematic testing end up assessing the teachers more than the students as educators scramble to teach to the exam.

However, at the end of the day, the Wire remains optimistic about one of America’s most inconsistent education systems. For all the achievement gaps and the emotionally mal-adjusted children, season four shows educators using innovative approaches to address high needs students. By the end of the season, it’s redeeming to see Mr. Prez teaching his eighth grade class probability with dice and the class internalizing the lesson with more ease given the skill’s real life applications (Randy uses Prez’s advice on playing the odds and wins money in a corner dice game).

The Tilghman staff even makes considerable bounds with the emotionally challenged students in the ten student pilot class. Abandoning erudite theories of classroom management and gearing the program towards developing social etiquette, the supervisors better meet the class’s emotional needs. From Detective Colvin and the students at the University of Maryland, the children learned communication (discussing the rules of drug “slinging”), team building (building the Eiffel Tower from a kit), and even social interaction (eating at a fancy restaurant downtown). The University Maryland staff learns about each child’s life away from school and its influence on his or her academic ability.

If anything, the Wire still finds promise in the fragmented Baltimore board of education. The city’s education system is not totally dilapidated. It’s swinging pendulum between success and failure manifests itself in the Michael Lee’s who forgo school for the street life and the Namond Brice’s who eventually escape it. The show also recognizes the Mr. Prez’s and the Mr. Colvin’s, who refuse to let children slip through the cracks and thus rekindle the optimism in Baltimore’s education policies. The next step is leaping from one success to systematic successes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Air" McNair

I was born in Houston and at one point I was at an Oilers fan. The Oilers are now The Tennessee Titans, so I would be remiss not to say that I feel still some connection to this franchise. Anyway, Yahoo got me with their headline that this former NFL star was found slain in a Nashville condo. With Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson dying less than two weeks prior, the shock slash disbelief value is at an all-time high. The details surrounding the death are sketchy at-best and I have a hunch that a true Hollywood story will come out of this, but I myself will not buy into this pitty-patty probing of the lives of deceased celebrities. Nobody is perfect, so let these people sleep in peace. McNair was an amazing quarterback and, judging from the testimonials of his closest friends and relatives, and an amazing person. That's all we need to know.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Farewell Vibe

Man, the recession is a mfka! I hate seeing my beloved magazines struggle like this. Vibe represented my youth (remember the issue right after Biggie died in 1997?) and it also represented my professional career (I was mad ecstatic when my piece on Nicki Minaj made the August 2008 issue). The editor-in-chief, Danyel Smith, is also one of my favorite writers. (I peeped her piece on Keyshia Cole in the Best Music Writing on 2009). I wish I had crazy cash because I would have mos def adopted it. It's a shame. Hopefully this is temporary. If not, we will always remember you, Vibe.

On Michael Jackson and Immortality

What happens when the most immortal person you know dies? It’s really like a relative dying. The world becomes less safe. You feel like you could die any second yourself.

I was born in 1983. I never saw Michael Jackson on TV as a boy performing with the Jackson Five. I wasn’t there to see him switch from an Afro to a jheri curl. I wasn’t even alive when Thriller came out. But I didn’t feel like I missed out.

I love that there was a world before me and Michael Jackson was one of the few iconic figures that represented that world. I loved growing up and piecing together a mental sketch of that world. I felt invincible when the day I found Daddy’s copy of the Off The Wall vinyl, crinkled in the basement. I felt proud when my aunts told me that they skipped school as teenagers to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square. Nowadays there’s no working turntable in the house that I grew up and my aunts are old. Still Michael Jackson, like the Vietnam War, like the Civil Rights Movement, like Ray Charles and James Brown, like my parents’ vinyl collection and my aunts’ youth existed in another world that I never participated in but is forever preserved. And I, weirdly, am shaped because of this world.

I thought Off the Wall was Michael Jackson’s first solo album. That just shows you how gray this other world still is to me. I wouldn’t admit it to any relative or friends but I only recently found—through DJ JAYCEE’s mix Michael Jackson: The Soulful Years—that Michael was making solo albums as a boy even while he was in the Jackson 5. Then I thought of this: line up all Michael Jackson’s album covers and you could literally and physically watch him grow before you. No present day iconic figure is or was that public. Not Jordan. Not Winfrey. Not Obama.

Like many grieving fans, I resorted to YouTube. By now each of Michael Jackson’s videos gross over a million views and I was one of those many trying to find some insight into the transformation, saintliness, the one-in-a-zillionness, the immortality of Michael Jackson. I kept watching videos like the Jackson Five performance of I Want You Back on the Ed Sullivan Show and looking at Michael’s boyish face for hints that he knew the mega success of Thriller was looming in his future. I was studying his dancing in the “Dancing Machine” clip for the rudimentary stages of the moonwalk. I could find very little evidence. Then it hit me: this man, one of America’s most public figures was also one of America’s most private figures.

Watching a clip of Jackson performing Billie Jean, I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael Jackson was thinking at that precise moment on stage. It could have been something simple like, “They love me,” or it could have been something more complex like, “I’m tired of this.” Under all those videos, magazine spreads, books, interviews, and public appearances are an infinite number of private thoughts and actions that fans constantly access to, but were also one of the few things Michael could have all to himself.

So in a way, Michael and his trove of fans across the world could both part peacefully. Fans can depend on every part of Michael Jackson’s musical legacy to still be there. One can play “I Want You Back” and expect the same guitar riff and soulful crooning in the intro. A graduating class can choose to sing “Heal The World” and the lyrics will still be the same as they were when Michael first sung them on Dangerous. A boy from Gary, Indiana can dance his ass off and not have to anymore because MJ has done it for every brown boy for generations to come. And MJ, himself is sleeping peacefully with his innermost thoughts and feelings, knowing that it’s the one thing people will forever try to unlock.