By J.H. Tompkins, San Francisco Bay Guardian
Who isn't sick of the '60s, and who isn't waiting for social movements or art or invention or something to erase the old days from memory once and for all? In the meantime, the weight of bad old days continues to be felt — doubters should pick up copies of Nina Simone's Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit (RCA/Legacy) and the Watts Prophets' Things Gonna Get Greater: The Watts Prophets 1969–1971 (Water). Something was happening there, to paraphrase Buffalo Springfield.
Simone, who died in 2003, was as mercurial and erratic as she was outspoken and impassioned. This anthology, culled from material released between 1967 and '69, is nothing short of amazing. At its best, her work is solidly rooted in the tumultuous world she inhabited while soaring above it at the same time. Listen to the live versions of "Mississippi Goddam" and the nine-minute-long "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." Simone was a regal presence, seemingly able to transform her audience through sheer force of will. At one point during "Mississippi," she declares to a Westbury, Long Island, music festival, "I ain't about to be nonviolent, honey." The crowd cheers wildly in response.
The Watts Prophets — the West Coast's answer to Harlem's Last Poets — came together at the Watts Writers Workshop in the wake of the tumultuous 1965 Watts riots. The upheaval marked the birth of militant black nationalism that challenged the inclusive pacifism that marked civil rights activism, and the Prophets articulated it as well as anyone. The workshop was at that time bursting with creation and possibility; black America was standing up! Amde Hamilton, Otis O'Solomon, Richard Dedeaux, and eventually songwriter and musician Dee Dee McNeil came together as the Prophets to assemble an unpredictable mix of words and music best described not by its style but by its uncompromising message. Song titles like "Amerikka," "What Is a Man," "There's a Difference Between a Black Man and a Nigger," "Fucked," and "Black in a White World" tell the story.
Stacked up against hip-hop's rage, the Prophets' work — they shocked with four-letter words and uncomfortable truths — seems almost polite. But while commercial fashion too often rules hip-hop, the Prophets owed nothing to anyone and never backed down from their beliefs. Heard in context, they were simply outrageous — and uplifting. Acknowledged leaders of the West Coast's black cultural movement, the Prophets were strong, self-assured, angry, inspired, and buoyed by a hope for tomorrow that has since leaked from the cultural firmament.
Acts like the Bay Area's Paris, The Coup, and Michael Franti and New York's Public Enemy have picked up the torch, but their observations and insights don't have much lift. The new Paris–Public Enemy album, Rebirth of a Nation (Guerilla Funk), sounds and feels like a Paris album with PE rapping. The pairing makes sense on paper: Paris has confronted and exposed ruthless, racist, imperial America as much as any rapper. PE's 1987 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam) turned out to be the zenith of political hip-hop, although, truth be told, back then that fabulous album seemed like only its beginning.
That's why Rebirth's rappers paid tribute to Nation like there was no tomorrow, which reminds us of what Rebirth is missing. It's disconcerting to hear Public Enemy rapping to Paris's predictable, melodramatic, R&B-flavored beats — although I listen to his albums so often, I'm not sure how accurate my reaction is. Nevertheless, his sophisticated politics are Rebirth's strongest suit. It's not his anger that's moving — in fact, I could do without the growling P-Dog persona — but Paris has been around the block, he's done his homework, and he consumes current events like some folks eat at Mickey D's. On top of that, he's a successful businessman; only the Coup's Boots Riley can break down the world as Paris can.
He can pin you to your seat, but Rebirth lacks the kind of seditious surprise that'll get you out of it. When the erratic, not particularly political Flava Flav hits like fresh air, something is missing. Or maybe we're prisoners of plenty, living in a retail wonderland choked with Hummers, SUVs, Xboxes, dazzling rims, dot-coms, designer sneakers, and iPods. Simone's work has a timeless majesty, and the Prophets burn with a fire that smolders still. Paris, PE, and company are trying, but it's tough to reach the heavens in today's low-flying world.