Category Archives: NYC

SPIT: A Hip Hop Sonata

A scene from Mtume Gant's debut film

A scene from Mtume Gant’s debut film “SPIT.”

Mtume Gant’s short film Spit is an impactful 16-minute Hip Hop sonata on one hand and a slightly precious, if not heartfelt, cinematic reflection on maturity, art, responsibility, and the decisions we all have to make as artists.

For some of us, the only option is death.  Literally, figuratively – you can interpret it any which way you want but the film’s thrust is about the crisis an artist goes through when unable to traverse or curtail the capitalist values and business mania of the zeitgeist that sees his work, culture, and spirit as nothing but fodder. The story of the artist being chewed up and spit out is not new – in fact, if there are any myths that still ring out in our world – this is one of them.  What is admirable however, is how Gant presents this struggle and how personal of a journey it becomes.

Gant’s strong directorial debut Spit follows Jeremiah “Monk-One” Sinclair (Gant himself) an underground NY Hip Hop artist, as he reaches conclusion to let his passion go because the pain of suffering as an artist is ultimately worse to him that the quotidian nightmares of civilian life or the cosmic rat race that nips at the artist’s heels.

Employing a first person POV (Gant has announced his admiration for Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) that gets shattered in moments of naked honesty such as the most moving moment in the film where, before a literal mirror, Monk-One tries to explain to his girlfriend Cassidy (Suzette Azariah Gunn) that he can no longer rely on her to support him and in just two minutes, a dialogue about love, trust, responsibility, and the existential crisis of black men come into full effect.  Scenes of this nature are rarely seen – anywhere.  And as one who has a particular interest in the revealing of our wounds and pathologies, I applaud the honesty between Gant and Gunn – in what is essentially a duo in the mirror; a dialogue of double-consciousness…and a soliloquy to the audience.

Spit is a ‘power ballad’ and it draws on multiple conventions more associated with musical techniques than recognizable cinematic expression.  But only because it is a “Hip Hop film” in terms of aesthetics – spiritually.  I want to state here that I firmly believe it is an “expressionistic hip-hop power ballad” – because it all takes place inside Monk-One’s head.  (The idea of sampling is also very prevalent. Monk-One “samples” his memory for context and pieces it all together for understanding.)

The rhythms, the vibration, the spare self-referencing, and the political consciousness all acknowledge the tight prism of true ‘conscious’ hip-hop as folk art and self-expression.  It is not an ersatz hip-hop film like 2013’s commercial atrocity The Great Gatsby (yes, the director Baz Luhrmann tried to bamboozle people into believing that it contained a hip-hop aesthetic film because he got Jay-Z to do the soundtrack!) nor is it a film that exploits the cross-cutting beats and rhythms of classic hip-hop in the way that, say, Darren Aronofsky used hip-hop as a frame of reference for his wonderful debut film Pi (1998).

Those films are referenced to give one an idea of what Spit is not. First off, those very different movies were done and conceived by white directors.  This is important to state because often when black artists are dealing with their own “folk arts” there is a tendency to coddle and patronize its audience as if they are tourists.  An example of this is just about any “culture” event taking place at any embassy on American soil or having anything to do with presenting something for a Western Audience.  Thankfully, Spit does not purport to make one understand anything about hip-hop nor does it try to appeal to the white gaze (a lesser and insecure African-American director would do that, in hopes of not “alienating” white mainstream viewers or the blacks who have been led to believe that Kanye West’s persona and music are representative of “true hip-hop.”)  It is a drama that turns a stringent coming of age ritual into a severe rumination on art, vocation, and identity in the 21stcentury. (As an aside, if there is a film that I had to refer Spit to it could be Larry Clark’s  [the African-American director, not the exploitive-schlock-White American photographer who made Kids] 1977 Passing Through.  A movie about a jazz musician struggling with his demons.  Both Spit and Passing Through share a thematic and emotional core, however different.)

Through a taut assembly of scenes reiterating the overriding theme of honoring one’s gifts (in the case of Monk-One’s artistic talents), personal family crisis (Che Ayende and a solicitous Erica Chamblee self-consciously staged to great effect emulating Monk One’s POV – as they relay the fears and hopes of his parents), monologues exploring the relationship of purity and art (or analog Vs digital in the case of Lameen Witter’s droll cameo as Fingers) and an explosive diatribe against the corporatization and perversion of hip-hop music – wonderfully performed with a very palpable frustration by Lance Coadie Williams, who plays Fryor, Monk-One’s manager; a figure caught in a “No Exit” situation; Williams’ burning eyes  captured in a funky hem-hawing long take imbues the scene with tremendous soul that makes up for weaker moments in the film, rendering them benign) the script is intelligent and personal and does not weigh itself down or cut its own knees off by wallowing in clichés or sentimental tripe or counter-revolutionary vulgar language and self-hating dialogue that I’m sure mainstream festivals and the State Department itself would have preferred.  The lyrical screenplay reveals itself plainly in its coming-of-age moments when it digs deep into lingering questions such as: What do fathers pass on to their sons? What is fear?  What does it mean for Black Men, in particular, to be responsible?

The uncomfortability of Spit resides in that last particular question – not because it criticizes or tries to flagellate in front of an audience, but because Monk-One is a highly conscious individual.  He knows exactly what his problems are, have been, will be – and the intellectual knowingness of his character puts a damper on any kind of Hallmark resolution or “Sundance” ghetto chic story.  In a Black context, Spit is a step forward because its characters are just that  – characters.  Shades of colors.  And by allowing scraps and fragments to reveal behavior, they become real.  And that is always the challenge for the dramatist.  Real people are not the issue.  It’s expressing truth – that’s where we often falter.  In both a Black context and a national one, truth is still the number one problem with independent cinema – which prefers to relay Hollywood lies and Liberal-media-sanctioned sentiments over the raw and strange truth of individual lives.

In the context of cinema at large, Spit (which I declare to be a Hip Hop sonata – because a sonata must be played as opposed to the Latin cantata – which is sung; so in this way – a musical piece can be broken down and expressed on a screen.  In essence, the song is broken down and “played” out cinematically as opposed to being a song) takes a small, but powerful step forward in the realm of non-linear cinema, because it does have something to say.  Its formal qualities do not overwhelm its human desire to want to genuinely say and express something.  Either “experimental” dramas allude to twenty other movies or they commit themselves to being abstract in a jokesy-vaudeville way.  Americans have a problem taking themselves seriously. (An aside: All those who prefer their stories of struggle or “hip hop” celebrations in the Hollywood sense will reject Spit on the basis that it is too naked or too dark – one of the greatest ironies coming from the “Hip Hop community” which traditionally championed the raw truth, but which has done virtually nothing to support this film…they’re too busy heralding Straight Outta Compton I suppose.)

Spit is a tragedy.  One cannot be shocked by its ending. The film progresses towards an ending that an audience mature enough and deep enough will understand.  Bleak endings are necessary.  Sometimes we have to step back.  Or even, simply, waive the white flag and give up.  Artists suffer for their art, for the people they speak for, and for their own un-reconciled demons and desires often torn and ripped out of so many years of dreaming and conceiving, doing and daring…sometimes we run out of steam.  As the director himself stated to me, “People are always miffed how artists can find such joy in art but struggle so much with existence. But if we choose a different pathway where does that lead us?”

And that is what Mtume Gant’s movie spits.

Update: As of August 28, 2015 Spit has screened in several national film festivals, notably Aspen Shortsfest and Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival. It will be screening soon in the Harlem International Film Festival. It was a recipient of a San Francisco Film Award.

 Dennis Leroy Kangalee (“As an Act of Protest,” Endless Shards of Jazz for a Brutal World,”) is a poet & filmmaker living in NYC. He is the co-founder of New Poet Cinema. Mtume Gant starred in Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s production of Amiri Baraka’s “The Toilet” at the Here Theater in 1998. It was their first collaboration in the theater.

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Mtume Gant: Remembering “As an Act of Protest”

Fellow filmmaker and colleague for nearly 20 years, Mtume Gant, has written a touching commemorative piece for my 2001 cult film “As an Act of Protest,” which recently received a revival screening in Chicago via Floyd Webb’s Black World Cinema…Click the link below to read his liner notes for this “retrospective” which will be included in the DVD package at the end of this year. 

Maverick Intentions: By Mtume Gant 

Dennis Leroy Kangalee's "As an Act of Protest" starring Che Ayende

Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s “As an Act of Protest” starring Che Ayende

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A Cinematic Protest Returns to the Screen!

Thursday, November 6, 2014 @ 7:00pm!

” The Best Black Film of The Year!”  – Kam Williams, 2002, The NJ Herald

After more than a decade, the 2002 cult classic AS AN ACT OF PROTEST will finally get its Chicago ‘premiere’ at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater, 201 West 87th Street, courtesy of Floyd Webb and Black World Cinema.

A cinematic “line in the sand against racism,” it is provocative, disturbing, and emotionally arresting at times – this is a movie unlike any other made in the early part of the 21st century as it signified a new type of “protest art” within the dramatic arts, linking the political consciousness of 1960’s-1970’s radical theater with the cinematic urgency and simplicity of the “Dogme 95″ Digital Video revolution in world cinema.

Hopefully we can get some folks in the windy city to brave the weather and get a chance to see Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s seldom seen “missile from his youth”!

'As an Act of Protest' design by Benn Starr (2014)

‘As an Act of Protest’ design by Benn Starr (2014)

Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 7pm, Adm. $6.00

Black World Cinema @

Studio Movie Grill Chatham Theater
210 W 87th Street

Additional information:

Click here for video excerpts or more information on the film itself.

Contact: Black World Cinema, 9 W Washington St, Chicago, IL 60602

Curated by: Floyd Webb, floydwebb@gmail.com

Visit http://aaaopfilm.wordpress.com/screenings/ for more information. 

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Gordon Parks: Reflecting, Connecting, Learning…

“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to the The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine.  For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology) 

***

One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)

 

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes.  But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.

I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.

I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).

Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.

Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)

Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

 

Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).

“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert

 

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs.  You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America.  Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own.  The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.

The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”

Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.

Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.

Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers.  And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician.  Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.”  It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it.  If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.

1963 (Gordon Parks)

1963 (Gordon Parks)

A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.

Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!

Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.

His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film "Shaft" (1970)

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film “Shaft” (1970)

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Black Film & The Underground Spirit: 1

Kangalee by Hallstrom

“…the new breed of American filmmakers need to turn a blind eye to the Reservoir Dogs of the American Beauties and express themselves. Black people will play Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” blast Wu-Tang’s most innovative tracks, and spout the poetry of Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez and yet will still think that a film like “The Best Man” or “Shaft” is good enough for them. I know there are a lot of talented, radical, sensitive people out there. But where are they? Certainly not behind the cameras…”

— from “Towards a Black New Wave & Notes from the Underground,”  (Harlem, August 26, 2000)

 

(c) August 26, 2000; April 14, 2003; August 25, 2014 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee

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Schrader, Scorsese, Film, & Racism

“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”

– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970's American Cinema

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970’s American Cinema

This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicans and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.

Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)

And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.

The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.

Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)

I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)

Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.

Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.

Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.

The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)

We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?

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25th Anniversary of Public Enemy & Spike Lee’s Legendary Collaboration…

Riot on the Set: How Public Enemy Crafted the Anthem ‘Fight the Power’

Twenty-five years after ‘Do the Right Thing,’ Spike Lee, Public Enemy and Branford Marsalis reflect on the film’s anthem

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy perform in New York City.
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Kory Grow from Rolling Stone

“We needed an anthem,” Spike Lee said. “When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting. I wanted Public Enemy.”

The director may have asked for an anthem for his 1989 chronicle of big-city racial tensions, but what he got was a salvo. A quarter of a century has passed since Radio Raheem’s boom box served as a megaphone to a generation, spreading Public Enemy’s rap reveille over and over again in the movie, but “Fight the Power” has not lost an ounce of its revolutionary power or poignancy. Chuck D’s lyrics praising freedom of speech and people uniting while decrying racist icons still sound just as vital as anything Pete Seeger wrote, and production team the Bomb Squad’s ultra-modern collage of funk and noise for the track has never been replicated. The fact that Public Enemy made multiple versions of the tune – including the Branford Marsalis–infused, free-jazz cut for the movie and the more straight-ahead approach on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet – only shows the versatility of the song’s message.

To celebrate the legacy of the tune, and its impact both in and out of movie theaters 25 years later, Rolling Stone caught up with Lee, Marsalis and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and found out how they made an anthem.

Where does the “Fight the Power” story begin?
Chuck D: Spike, [producer] Bill Stephney, Hank and I had a meeting, and Spike simply said, “Hey look, I’ve got this movie based on all this tension going on in the New York area, the clashing neighborhoods, and I’m looking for an anthem.” All I remember was Spike was saying, “I’m looking for an anthem.”

Hank Shocklee: Spike’s original idea was to have Public Enemy do a hip-hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is kind of like a Negro anthem or spiritual. But I was like, “No.” I opened the window and asked him to stick your head outside. “Man, what sounds do you hear? You’re not going to hear ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in every car that drives by.” We needed to make something that’s going to resonate on the street level. After going back and forth, he said, “All right, I’ll let you guys go in there and see what you guys come back with.”

When did the “Fight the Power” concept come up?
Chuck D: We like to work from titles down, so we came up with “Fight the Power” first. It was inspired by the Isley Brothers’ song “Fight the Power.” But the challenge was, could we make something entirely different that said the same thing in another genre?

Shocklee: We lived in the suburbs and were sandwiched by nothing but white communities. It was like we were the leftovers: We got what the white communities didn’t want to have, we got their spillovers. So we always had to kind of fight this adversity. We wanted to just make something that was going to say, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not gonna take it any more – I’m going to fight the system.” So that song that the Isley Brothers did, “Fight the Power,” resonated, but their version was a little soft. It didn’t resonate as deeply as I thought it should.

Chuck, at what point did you write the lyrics?
Chuck D: I was getting ready to head out on a European run with Run-D.M.C. in the fall of 1988. I remember writing a big chunk of it on a plane as we were flying over Italy. And D.M.C. was probably in the chair next to me. So I had the aftereffect and the glow of Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay to inspire me, so to speak, in the writing of some of the lyrics.

“Freedom of speech is freedom of death” is a line that has always stood out. What prompted that?
Chuck D: A lot of that stuff like that line is like Bob Marley or Frederick Douglass: “There’s no progress without struggle.” There are a lot of things like that that I was able to incorporate it in there.

Why did you pick out Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 single “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as a negative thing?
Chuck D: Because”Don’t Worry Be Happy” doesn’t apply to protests. If you’re not worried and you’re happy, you’re like, why protest? Not everybody’s gonna feel like that.

What inspired the line about Elvis and John Wayne being racists?
Chuck D: [Comedian]Blowfly had a record called “Blowfly’s Rapp”in 1980. And there was a line in there where one of the characters in the song was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and basically he had a lyric, “Well, I don’t care who you are, motherfuck you and Muhammad Ali.”

Why did you pick Elvis Presley and John Wayne, specifically?
Chuck D: Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else. It’s not that Elvis was not a talented dude and incredible in his way, but I didn’t like the way that he was talked about all the time, and the pioneers [of rock & roll], especially at that time, weren’t talked about at all. When people said “rock & roll” or “the King,” it was all “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, one trillion fans can’t be wrong” type of shit.

But as far as “motherfuck him and John Wayne”… yeah, fuck John Wayne to this minute [laughs]. John Wayne is “Mr. Kill All the Indians and Everybody Else Who’s Not Full-Blooded American.” The lyric was assassinating their iconic status so everybody doesn’t feel that way.

Is that also how “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” came about?
Chuck D: That came from the fact that Spike also discussed how there was a wall in the movie with people we respected as heroes on it. So “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” was saying, “You know what, we’ve got heroes on the wall, too.”

Flavor, how did you end up getting the John Wayne line?
Flavor Flav: A lot of the songs that Chuck D has written, I took parts. I’d say, give me this part, give me that part. And I’m very grateful for the lines he gave me. I ain’t gonna lie, because those are the most memorable parts of the record.

Was “Fight the Power” the first song considered for Do the Right Thing?
Lee: That wasn’t the first song they submitted. It was not “Fight the Power.”

What was it?
Lee: Not “Fight the Power.”

Shocklee: It was “Fight the Power.” He got the preproduction version. It was a sparse outline of the idea of the song. Spike, with all due respect, is not a rap guy, so he’s not gonna understand where it could go until it’s a finished production.

Chuck D: [Laughs] Spike misconstrued it as being a different song. It was a song in a rough stage with different elements brought up to the front. But Spike used it, because he had to present the film to a bunch of different investors. I remember checking out a screening with Hank in Brooklyn, and Spike had put in the rough draft of the song, and every time he played it, I was sinking in my seat, because I was like, “Oh shit. The song is not complete. It sounds like shit to me. And he’s going to put in the movie this many times? What the fuck!” I was like, “Man, we’ve got to come better than that.”

Hank, what was your goal when you were putting together the music for the track?
Shocklee: I wanted you to feel the concrete, the people walking by, the cars that are going by and the vrroom in the system. I wanted the city. I wanted that grittiness, the mugginess, the hot sticky, no-air vibration of the city [laughs].

How did Branford Marsalis get involved?
Branford Marsalis: I think it was Spike’s idea. I don’t feel at that the time that P.E. or Hank would have been suddenly compelled to use a saxophone.

Shocklee: I wanted to have a sax in the record but I didn’t want it in a smooth, melodic fashion; I wanted someone to play it almost like a weapon, and Branford was the guy. He came in the studio and he was incredibly gracious and very humble. He treated us as if we were musicians just like himself.

Marsalis: Hank did something that I’ll never forget. He made me do one funky solo, one jazz solo and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo. And I said, “Which one them are you going to use?” And he said, “All three of them motherfuckers,” and he threw all three up. And the shit was killer. You had this Wall of Sound come in and the saxophones came in, and it was a Wall of Sound to accompany a Wall of Sound.

Branford, coming from a jazz background, what was it like playing over a Bomb Squad track?
Marsalis: It was not a normal chord progression. If it was C minor then it went to A-flat 7. It has the same sensibility as a James Brown tune, which is completely where they got it from. If you listen to when they go, “Fight the Power” and you hear that voice that goes, “Aahh,” that voice is not in the same key as the other shit. A musician would never do that. But it works. It unwittingly helped me expand my brain in a way.

Did you think you had a hit?
Chuck D: No, but when I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh. We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver shit. We couldn’t rely on radio.

Marsalis: They had the greatest marketing tool in the world. They had a movie that people were going to see two and three times, that was going to be all over the world and it scared white people half to death — which ensured that it was going to sell.

Flavor Flav: When “Fight the Power” was being created, all I did was just come in, lay down my lyrics and I was out. I didn’t know that the record was going to be as big as it turned out to be. I just wanted to make a great record and keep it moving. And next thing you know, this phenomenal record was being played on the radio over and over and over. I’m like, wooow. This is crazy.

Chuck D: For all the talk about “Fight the Power,” there was always resistance to Public Enemy. It really got no higher than 16 on the R&B/black charts, which just goes to show you how much help black radio and urban radio gave us. It didn’t even crack the Top 10. It’s crazy, because in hindsight when they talk about the Number One rap record that meant something, “Fight the Power” is always at the top of those charts.

The B side to the original 12 inch features a hilarious meeting between Spike and Flavor. How did that come together?
Chuck D: They’re having a conversation – about what? Who the fuck knows. Flavor won’t remember it [laughs].

Flavor Flav: I don’t remember the B side.

What did you think of the movie’s opening credits, when Rosie Perez shadowboxes to the song?
Flavor Flav: It was just incredible, man, hearing my voice in a movie [laughs]. It was buggin’ me out. It was like the first time I ever heard “Public Enemy Number One” on the radio. It gave me that kind of feeling. Then also hearing my voice all throughout the movie – because that’s the only record that they really played in that movie, [actor Bill Nunn’s character] Radio Raheem would play nothing else but “Fight the Power” on his box, man. It was just an incredible feeling.

Chuck D: It was cool, because I thought I could get away with not doing a video [laughs].

Marsalis: I dug the song. I thought it was a hit from the get. I mean, Rosie wasn’t my favorite dancer necessarily, as someone who had a relationship with the arts that was rather broad. But it was cool. It was great to see. You know, Rosie was fine as hell so I didn’t object to that.

Shocklee: The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boom box playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.

What do you remember about making the video?
Lee: All Chuck D and I wanted to do was reenact a march. So we had everybody show up. We marched from a specific space through the streets of Brooklyn and ended up on the block where we shot the film. We had to do it there. The movie is shot on one block. Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy and Lexington in Bed-Stuy. So we definitely wanted the destination of the march was the block where we shot the film. The stage was there. Perform.

Shocklee: That video was a really good thank-you that Spike did for us. We didn’t get paid for using the song throughout the film. It was the first big production budget that we’ve ever had for a video. When I first got the treatment, I thought it looked very simple. It was just, “Hey, we’re gonna do this march, make it seem like it’s a march on Washington, but we’re going to do it in Brooklyn.” I got to the set around 5:30 in the morning, and people were lined up. It looked like the Million Man March.

Spike, how did you get so many people there?
Lee: We just put the word out: “Public Enemy video.” People showed up. The police were scared though.

Why?
Lee: That many people? They always get scared. But there was not one incident. It was great. And the police were not a problem. As long as you’re done by 6, we’re all right.

Chuck D: It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn. It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.

Chuck, what inspired the video’s intro, where you talk about the Civil Rights March on Washington from 1963?
Chuck D: I remember coming on in the video saying that the whole concept of the march in Washington wasn’t complete, but my words weren’t as sharp as I would like them to be, so I ended up saying, “That’s some nonsense.” And the way it was cut, I sound like I’m out of my damn mind [laughs].

Flavor Flav: That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot. And with that many people at my video shoot, it was crazy. Not only that but we had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant. We had a good time that day, man. I would give anything to live that day one more time, that day was so amazing.

Flavor, who is the little girl you’re holding at the end of the video?
Flavor Flav: That was my daughter Shanique. She was three years old at the time. Now she’s 28 [laughs].

Lee: Chuck and Flavor just had so much fun. It was a great day. VH1 named it the Number One hip-hop video of all time. Well deserved. Rightfully so.

The version of “Fight the Power” on Fear of a Black Planet stripped away Marsalis’ solo and remixed the Elvis line. Why make different versions?
Chuck D: “Fight the Power” came out on Motown first, because of the soundtrack, but we were with Sony. We had to pull some structural things in order have “Fight the Power” on Motown as a single but also our own video on Sony and then being on Fear of a Black Planet the following year as the final track.

Shocklee: Putting on the Public Enemy album, it just didn’t make sense to have the same exact version. And I’m a big fan of each. Each record, to me, should live in its own space.

Finally, now that 25 years have passed, how do you feel the song holds up?
Chuck D: I feel like Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.” “Fight the Power” points to the legacy of the strengths of standing up in music. Spike really made that record what it is. Because who puts a song in a movie that many times? Who does that?

Flavor Flav: I think it’s one of the most amazing things that Chuck has ever written. I’ve always looked at Chuck as one of the most amazing writers and lyricists ever. And a lot of the stuff that Chuck wrote was all accurate information. Chuck has been right a lot of times and that’s why I always backed up my partner.

Marsalis: Come on, that shit is anthemic. And for all of the people that love popular culture, there are a handful of songs that are actually anthemic in hip-hop or otherwise. And that one is one of them.

Shocklee: I think it was Public Enemy’s and Spike Lee’s defining moment because what it had done was it had awoken the black community to a revolution that was akin to the Sixties revolution, where you had Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. It created such an energy surge throughout the community that it became the template for every artist, every filmmaker, every rapper, singer, and it also sparked community leaders and teachers to understand the power of hip hop. And it made the entire hip-hop community recognize its power. Then the real revolution began.

 

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New Poet Cinema Preparing for First Production of 2014

New Poet Cinema - photo by Nina Fleck

New Poet Cinema – photo by Nina Fleck

After a long stretch after our 2011 collaboration Gentrified Minds, I am proud to announce that my partner, Nina Fleck, and myself have resumed work on a series of films that are at once personal and political and highly personal. Like poems.  Shards of Glass Spindled Tears Broken Dreams a trilogy of short films meditating on the nature of disappointment and endings will be shot and edited in May, 2014.  We’ve allowed our approach to “Avant-garde”  and experimental films to be highly intimate and informed by our work as poets and theater artists.

Currently we are looking to hire a MALE actor, 50, any race, with a tragic face that can emit a quiet intensity and one capable of expressing without speaking. 
Actor must also but must be comfortable interpreting and reading text aloud as you will be recording a poem as a voice-over. 

Union and non-union actors.

Email us for more information. One day shoot and voice-over recording in May. Paid. New Media SAG Agreement.

(Note: Year round,  we look for actors and actresses; performers who think OUTSIDE the box (or “models” in the Bresson sense) and possess expressive faces who can easily identify with themes of failure, death, memory, injustice, and the desire for hope.   A link to the New Poet Cinema project will be published by May 1st when the film is in production.) 

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The Nomad Junkie Interview – 2011

Read Sylvia Harvey’s interview with Dennis Leroy Kangalee at the closing of his 2011 performance piece, “Gentrified Minds” which was not only the end of a whole performance project, but his last sigh as his alter-ego, ‘the Nomad Junkie’ — which he abandoned so he could move beyond his rage about gentrification and the death of neighborhoods and, specifically, New York City.

Dennis Leroy Kangalee
*The interview originally appeared in the Bed-Stuy Patch as a part of the column Change for a Dollar that focuses on gentrification.

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For a Second I Thought I Was Mahler

DLK as Mahler

Stepping back in the room, I caught myself 
Frozen
Like a cat burglar who had lost his cool
And for a second I thought I was Mahler —
Perhaps it was my high forehead
And my reversed sloped hair
As if my roots were growing out of the crown of my head and up backwards
Towards the sun (or the Aliens who had neglected me)
I was disappointed to not have looked like Prince
But maybe that’s the price you pay
For living past the age you wanted to die at
I thought I knew that profile anywhere, having seen it stretched across the banner of an old friend’s door 
He was a classical musician
and loved all things sad
 
He would play Elgar on a piano
and insist that it sounded better without an orchestra,
We traded stories of madness and caught each other once again
years later when we both did our stint at Paine Whitney
Our vitals were low, we were anemic, we were angry, we were young
 
And once when I stepped into the sun, my wife cried
And when I asked her why
She said I reminded her of something she had forgotten about in her heart
And while I was hoping it might have been Prince or some rock ‘n roll revolt 
That jarred her memory —
It was the moving shadow around my head, landing into the new apartment we
had just rented —
 
And I cursed myself as I heard our new neighbor jerking off his new leaf blower 
in a coarse Sunset Park afternoon up on the highest hill of Brooklyn where some 
Rich and poor are now living closer and closer —
 
I heard the faint notes of a symphony spilling out of a broken heart. 

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