Archive for the ‘Harlem’ Category

AliciaKeysAlicia Cook (c. 1979- ), better known by her stage name of Alicia Keys, was one of the top American R&B singers of the 2000s. She is best known for “Fallin'” (2001) , which made her name and is still her most unforgettable song to date. Smokey Robinson says she is one of the best new singers.

So far six of her songs have hit number one on the American R&B chart:

  • 2001: Fallin’
  • 2003; You Don’t Know My Name
  • 2004: If I Ain’t Got You
  • 2004: My Boo (with Usher)
  • 2007: No One
  • 2008: Like You’ll Never See Me Again

“Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair” never hit number one.

Half these songs also hit number one on the American pop chart:  “Fallin'”, “My Boo” and “No One”.

For comparison, during this same period Beyonce had five number one hits on both the R&B and pop charts in America and Mariah Carey had three each.

Mariah and Beyonce have sold way more records than Alicia Keys: they have been at it longer and their music crosses over to white audiences better.

Alicia Keys is not only talented and successful but beautiful – one of the most beautiful black women according to white people. She is half Italian by blood and looks nearly white.

Her father is black (Jamaican); her mother is white (Italian-American). She considers herself to be black, not biracial or mixed race. Unlike with Mariah Carey, it has never been a question. Also, unlike Carey, her early music was more clearly black too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents split when she was two. She saw little of her father, a flight attendant, though he did remain in her life. Her mother was often poor but somehow she always found money for Alicia’s piano lessons. Alicia:

I’ve had a deep love for music since I was four… . Music came before everything, everything, everything. I would risk everything for it.

By seven she could play classical piano. By 11 she was writing songs. One of the songs on her first album she wrote at 14. She continued to learn and practise her singing and piano.

In 1997 she got a record deal with Columbia Records – and dropped out of Columbia University. But then Columbia Records did what they did to Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen before her: tried to make her into someone else:

I felt that they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah or Whitney, and I couldn’t do that. I’m not the sequined dress type, or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I’m not coming like that for no one.

They parted ways.

Clive Davis, the very man who brought us Whitney Houston, stepped in. He was struck by her talent and beauty. She was struck by how he took her seriously.

After many delays – Davis was kicked out of Arista and formed J Records, bringing Keys with him – she completed her first album in 2001. “Nothing before its time,” she says. Davis got her on Oprah’s television show and the rest is history.

– Abagond, 2009.

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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Edmund Perry

EdmundPerryEdmund Perry (c. 1968-1985), a 17-year-old black boy, was shot dead on June 12th 1985 by Lee Van Houten, a white plainclothes policeman,  a few blocks from where Perry lived on West 114th Street in Harlem. The New York Times does not ordinarily report murder north of 96th Street, but this time they did: Perry, it turned out, had just graduated from Exeter, one of the top private schools in America, and was set to go to Stanford University.

At first it seemed like yet another case of an out-of-control policeman who held black life too cheaply. But it turned out not to be so simple: Perry, according to witnesses, was trying to rob Van Houten! With his brother Jonah, no less, who was an engineering student at Cornell at the time! Jonah was later tried and found not guilty. Van Houten’s shooting was ruled justifiable.

Robert Sam Anson, a white writer for Life magazine, had a son at Exeter who knew Perry. Anson wondered what on earth would possess Perry, with such a bright future, to throw it all away by robbing someone.

After ruling out a police cover-up, Anson asked Perry’s friends and neighbours about him. They always had such nice things to say. At Exeter it was the same. But all the nice things they said did not add up. In time he found that Perry had been selling drugs at Exeter. But that only deepened the mystery.

Exeter was not a great place for blacks. One black student said they were a kind of minstrel show put on to give white students a sense of diversity: “By God, their kids are going to be well-rounded. They’re going to have Rossignol skis and Lange boots and a black roommate for ‘an experience.'”

It seems the racism at Exeter affected Perry far more profoundly than the other black students. It consumed him with anger and made him a radical, one who saw Martin Luther King as a sell-out.

His white teachers and classmates did not understand him: every time he tried to open up and be honest with them he wound up hurting their feelings. He could not talk to them. The only people who understood him were black students and the one white teacher who had grown up in Harlem. But they could not help him.

Perry did not fit in at Exeter, and yet Exeter changed him so much that he had a hard time fitting in with Harlem.  He was torn between two worlds with no place to call home.

Anson made all this into a book, “Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry” (1987), but in the end he had no answers. Michael Eric Dyson, who could have wound up becoming another Perry himself, said it was because Anson did not try to understand the black world that Perry came from, so he could not understand Perry or his anger.

The book was turned into a made-for-television film, “Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story” (1992).

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Kelis_7Kelis Rogers (1979- ), better known as just Kelis, is an American R&B singer. She is best known for “Milkshake” (2003): “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like, it’s better than yours. Damn right, it’s better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge.”

Her two other top ten hits on the American R&B charts are: “Caught Out There” (1999), the one where she says “I hate you so much right now!” over and over, and “Bossy” (2006).

No one knows why, but her music does way better in Britain than in America. Maybe it is her hair. I first heard her on Virgin Radio from London (the same is true for Macy Gray). Not only did “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There”  make the top ten in Britain, so did “Trick Me” (2004),  “Millionaire” (2004) with Andre 3000 and “Lil Star” (2007) with Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley, songs  largely unknown in the States.

Kelis Trick meKelis ft. Andre 3000 - MillionaireKelis - Lil Star

Her next album comes out later this year (2009).

She has been married to rapper Nas since 2005, but separated from him in May 2009 and filed for divorce. This came just two months before she is expected to give birth to their son! She suspects him of seeing other women. They met in 2002 at a party after the MTV Video Music Awards. Before that she was just a fan of his.

She grew up in Harlem in New York. Her father was a jazz musician and her mother a fashion designer. Her father is black, her mother is Puerto Rican and Chinese. Her name comes from putting their two names together: Kenneth + Eveliss = Kelis. It rhymes with “police”.

She went to a private school in Manhattan where most people were white and did not understand her. At 13 she cut off her hair and when it grew back she started colouring it blue, green, platinum and pink, something she is known for even now. Her natural hair is Type 3 (pictured above).

Growing up she sang at church and learned to play the piano, violin and saxophone. At 16 she got in to the La Guardia High School for the Arts, a magnet high school in New York. But just then she was kicked out of the house for reasons unclear and had to support herself.

At high school she formed a singing trio, BLU (Black Ladies United). It did not go anywhere but one thing led to another and it brought her to the attention of the Neptunes – Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. With them she was able to land a recording contract with Virgin in 1998. They wrote and produced her first two hits, “Caught Out There” and “Milkshake” and much of her early music.

Kelis about her music:

Am I R&B because I’m Black? Am I pop because I have a song called “Milkshake”? Or can I just be who the hell I am? Good Lord, people make it seem like we’re doing heart transplants here, but we’re just making music!


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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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malcolmx04Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of two main black leaders in America in the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. They were both ministers, King a Christian, X a Muslim, and they both wanted equal rights for blacks, but they disagreed about how it could be achieved: King said it could be done through peaceful protest, Malcolm X said, “Give me a .45 calibre, then I’ll sing ‘We Shall Overcome'”.

Some words and catchphrases that either started with Malcolm X or came to mainstream American society through him:

  • the ballot or the bullet: the two ways to achieve power.
  • white devils: whites as having an inborn evil nature unlike blacks.
  • black power: the only way blacks can control their own destiny.
  • by any means necessary: blacks must defend themselves with violence if necessary.
  • chickens coming home to roost: why John Kennedy got shot.

For most of his life Malcolm X thought that blacks would never get a fair deal from white society, certainly not so long as they remained poor and powerless. They needed their own businesses, their own way of thinking, their own men with guns and, in the end, their own nation.

Blacks should separate from whites: whites cannot be trusted, whites will not give up power willingly. The way whites think suits them, not blacks. Trying to be white or act white or become a part of white society was not the answer – that was a game where only whites could win.

Much of this thinking he got from his father, a poor country preacher who spread the message of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to build a black society in America independent of white society and then return to Africa.

Malcolm’s father was killed by white men who did not like what he was telling black people. Later his mother had a breakdown and was sent away.

He turned to a life of crime and wound up in prison. There he discovered the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims. It gave his life purpose and direction. It made him proud to be black. He stopped straightening his hair, something black men did back in those days (think James Brown or Al Sharpton). He started reading seriously.

Later, after he got out of prison, he became one of the top ministers of the Nation of Islam. It grew from 500 followers to 30,000. His mosque was at 116th and Lenox in Harlem. It stands there still with its green dome.

Despite his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam, they had a falling out. He left and started his own mosques.

Then he went to Mecca.

And there for the first time in his life he saw black men and brown men and white men living together as brothers, as one. It blew his mind. He now knew that all the racism he had lived under in America all his life did not have to be.

But not long after he was shot dead. At age 39.

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Eartha Kitt (1927-2008), American singer and actress from the 1950s and 1960s. She is best remembered for singing “Santa Baby” and playing Catwoman. She was one of the most famous black women in the world in her day. In 1952 the New York Times said, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.” Her sort of music fell out of fashion in the late 1950s with the rise of R&B and rock and roll.

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