In 1935, a group of New York communists boarded a German luxury liner during a lavish sending-off party attended by celebrities, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts. Their goal: capture the swastika.
One may have noticed my mind has been on apartheid in recent blogs. One might wonder why I’m spending so much time reflecting on a regime that’s quite clearly gone. Primarily I suppose it’s because it’s an object lesson. Change is possible when the People are so fired up that the politicians have no choice, literally none, but to do the right thing.
Honestly I never expected there would be a peaceful transition in South Africa. After five decades of oppression and resistance, I fully expected apartheid could only end in civil war, and I’m probably not the only person to think so. This is one instance where I’m glad to have been proven absolutely conclusively wrong.
But there is a better reason for me to focus on that particular dead issue. Apartheid by another name was a very real institution in post-Civil War America. We know it here as Jim Crow but it was the same thing, the exact same thing. Segregation was imposed by law across the Southern United States and sanctioned by foul Supreme Court decisions to as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Lynchings were a shameful legacy of those hundred years before Martin Luther King Jr. and the entire Civil rights movement stood up and said “That’s enough. We’ve waited for our rights long enough. We’ve waited for you to respect our dignity long enough.”
We are facing a moral crisis whereby the Trump administration is bound and determined to wind the clock back to the 19th Century, some never-never land of white rule that doesn’t deserve to exist. Plainly with the present conservative majority on the Supreme Court we can’t count on either their good will or their good sense for the next couple of generations.
This is a time we have to stand, not just on the national stage but in our everyday life. Its tie to put aside all labels–male, female, LGBT, black and white–and treat everyone exactly the way you’d expect to be treated, with respect, dignity and plain ol’ common courtesy. Maybe it’s naïve to dream of this but what the hell, till something better comes along I’m happy to be naïve.
Miles Davis is a difficult man to like. He was parsimonious when it came to sharing credit on his compositions and abusive to his wives. Worse, he felt obliged to brag about it. But he was also a jazz genius, a would-be boxer with sickle-cell anemia and, late in his life, diabetes; a man who’d storm onstage for a concert against his doctor’s advice while he was fighting pneumonia.
That being said, civil rights did seem to be something he cared for. In 1985 South Africa was very much on Little Steven Van Zandt’s mind, particularly the resort Sun City, which was planted right in the middle of one of the desolate bantustans imposed on the native South Africans by white Afrikaners. Ronald Reagan’s policy as President was a thing called ‘constructive engagement’, a double-speak term that amounted to encouraging business investment in South Africa in the hope that this would change their racist policies.
Little Steven had a different vision. Recall that this was a time in the 1980’s when large charitable events involving large collectives of pop artists had briefly become the norm. Farm Aid was just around the corner in the U.S., and continues to this day. Live Aid, “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had all brought awareness of the drought and starvation of Ethiopians. But the pop response to the Ethiopian crisis was largely apolitical; it didn’t address the conflicts that had brought this famine on the Ethiopian people.
The Sun City project was different. It had to be. If there was to be change, you had to address the root of the problem, which was the government-sanctioned program of Apartheid. Like all these projects Sun City did not lack for enthusiastic volunteers. And from the first day, producer Arthur Baker and Little Steven thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wild to get Miles Davis to play trumpet over this drum log”, on the demo record?
As it happened, Miles’ sound man had also been Little Steven’s sound man on one of his tours. the job of contacting Miles fell to Danny Schecter, a journalist who early on became involved with the project. Now honestly, Miles Davis was a hard man to get ahold of, but when Schecter made the call, the immediate response was, “When do you want me there?”
On the big day Miles laid down his part over two takes, which would soon form the bedrock of what would become the jazz session for the album. Towards the end of the first take, he did the kind of unexpected thing he was famous for. In a rasp barely above a whisper he muttered, “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”
This was not planned; it was all just improvisation on Miles’ part. Baker and the others thought at first he was talking about the cameraman who was there to film all the project’s sessions. They soon realized Miles was talking about South Africa, so baker said, “Keep those tapes rolling.”
At this point recording technology had advanced to the point where it wasn’t really necessary for every artist to perform their part in the studio all at the same time. It was possible to record all the different parts and mix them all together later into a coherent track. That’s how “The Struggle Continues” came together, and how through electronic means the Miles Davis Quintet was reunited.
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had cut his teeth with Miles’ Quintet in the mid-60’s and had made quite a name for himself as the leader of his own group the Headhunters in 1973. More recently he’d experimented with dance and funk, most especially with his 1983 single “Rockit”. He would be the first artist to play behind Miles’ track, and he would blow everyone’s mind with the seven-minute solo he laid down.
One problem. Little Steven knew Hancock’s work was great, but it wasn’t going to work with Miles’ stuff. Luck was with them. In a few weeks Hancock would be performing at the Village Gate in New York with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, the other members of Miles’ classic Quintet. The Sun City crew assembled at M & I Recording, where Williams had been recording his latest album, there to overdub their parts onto Miles’.
Keyboardist Richard Scher and Nigerian drummer Sonny Okusons had already contributed their parts. A friend of Little Steven had brought his three-year-old son to these sessions. As the musicians were leaving Steven asked, “Well, Sam, what do you think?”
“It needs some guitar,” Sam replied.
Out of the mouth of babes. The next day the great Stanley Jordan added his guitar.
Now on to the track itself. I’m not a jazz expert, I can only give you my best with my pallid ear, but here goes. A slow fade in on the horn brings you to those furious rolling drums. The trumpet sounds an urgent call to action. Two minutes in comes Herbie Hancock’s part, and he’s on fire. Underlying the entire track is a solid bass by Carter and then at four 1/2 minutes we hear Miles’ accusation: “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”
Sun City was released on December 7, 1985. I’d just like to note that Nelson Mandela was released from prison less than five years later on February 11, 1990. Apartheid died a well-deserved death by 1994. I’d like to think Little Steven and all the artist involved in Sun City did their part to make that happen.
“The scariest encounter of the Sun City project had to be Miles Davis,” recalled Steven Van Zandt. “I wrote the intro for him to play… He’s just not friendly. He makes Lou Reed look like a pussycat… He came in, sat down and I played him the ‘Silver and Gold’ tape. He’s sitting next to me, and he talks real low and slow, and right in my ear: ‘Hey man, do you want me to fucking play or what?’ So he does his take, and I asked him to redo it with the mute on. I went and reassembled his old quintetwith Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.”
[wikipedia entry, Sun City]
It isn’t often that a rap song changes my perspective. I’m admittedly not a great fan of rap music; if I want to be yelled at, I have people I work with for that. On the other hand it does throw in some off-the-wall references to kung fu, literary figures and historical events we don’t want to think about.
In 1985 Little Steven Van Zandt drew together a unique collective of musicians from across the spectrum, for the purpose of protesting against the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. The project Sun City drew its name from the glittering resort in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana, which was meant to showcase the ‘greatness’ of white South Africa, and which had already attracted prominent pop artists to perform at their casino.
Perhaps today it can be seen as an artifact of the late ’80’s; or, it may have a frightening relevance considering the exposure of the filthy underbelly of white supremacy here in our United States. What I referenced in the beginning of this piece was Sun City‘s rap track, “Let Me See Your I.D.”, meaning the passbooks all black South Africans over the age of 16 were required to carry on them at all times. If it was not produced on demand, black persons would be jailed and fined. As of 1985,13 million people had been jailed for pass law offenses.
It begins with a concept so obvious that it shouldn’t be so mind-blowing. Grandmaster Melle Mel chants, “Everybody uses black & white/ to draw the line between wrong & right/ but If you use your eyes you can really see”, that ‘white’ is really pink while skin that’s ‘black’ is really brown. Think about that; your skin is not white. Peach at best, maybe. And black, well, that covers a range of shades, none of them pure black.
Poet and novelist Gil Scott-Heron provides a running narration as subtle as the raps are not. “The word casualties comes up a lot…people are talking about isms…” But people are dying, he says, and there’s nothing casual about that. “Let Me See Your I.D.” showcases the talents of Grandmaster Melle Mel, Scorpio from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Peter Wolf, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonny Okosuns, The Malopoets form South Africa. Jimmy Cliff, Duke Bootee and more.
Sadly this track is unavailable for download and I could only find it online as a vinyl single. If you want to hear it today, ironically enough you’d have to find an unauthorized upload on YouTube and break the law.
Freedom has been hard-fought in these United States, and never more so than for those who differ from a pale complexion. This simple drawing commemorates three honored African-Americans.
Left–Crispus Attucks, a free man, freed by his own hand, is considered the first man killed in the American Revolution, when he died at the hands of British soldiers in the Boston massacre.
The Boston Massacre, chromolithograph by William L. Champney, dated March 5, 1770, depicting Crispus Attucks prominently at the head of its victims.
Center–Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, indeed the first African poet in young America. It was a fact she was forced to attest to in court. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious & Moral was published in London in 1773 because Boston refused to do so. Her poem “To His Excellency, George Washington” earned her a meeting with the future President in March 1776, three months before the Declaration of Independence.
Right–Frederick Douglass, the greatest orator of the 19th Century and a fierce abolitionist. The first of five biographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1850.
To all those who stared at their chains and said “No.” For all those who said, “no, I am NOT property, I am NOT your plaything. I am free and I will be respected.”
So, you don’t want to take your kids to have their vaccinations ’cause it isn’t in the Bible. That’s all right, there’s a lot of other useless items that are also NOT in the ‘Good Book.’ This should in no way be considered a comprehensive list; nonetheless here a few lacks I’d love to point out:
-Literacy, so you’ll actually know what’s in the f—kin’ book
-A uniform spelling system where we all agree on verb forms, spelling and grammar
-GUNS; that should please the NRA & all you supporters of the Second Amendment
-aspirin for when your kids get on your last nerve
-fresh running water
-refrigeration to preserve fresh food for days to come
-the most basic understanding of sanitation
–the most basic understanding of medicine
-Tolerance of your neighbors’ religion–oh wait, we don’t have that now, either. OK then, never mind…
-yoyos [I mean the toys, not our politicians]
-the most basic respect for your women-folk
-fire hoses, fire sprinklers or fire protection of any kind
-The Law of Gravity
-Newton’s Laws of Motion
-Einstein’s General & Special Theories of Relativity
-cell phones that allow you to nag your absent-minded children at school or from any part of the country whatsoever
Christopher f—kin’ Columbus
-George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or any one of the Founding Fathers
-The Bill of Rights
-compasses to keep your sorry ass from being lost in the wilderness for 40 years like some people we know
-The Collected Works of William Shakespeare
-chocolate & candy
-latex stretch pants
-Bras, which depending on the person, may or may not be a blessing
I’m beginning to think this book may not have all the answers to life’s questions after all….
I’m going to try to say this as calmly and as rationally as I possibly can. You people are nuts.
By you I mean so-called evangelicals who believe or claim to believe that Donald J. Trump has been called of God, that he is a servant of God or worse, that he is in fact the risen Christ. I need to know where you’re getting your drugs, ‘cos it sounds like you’re on some powerful shit.
Chris Hedges says these people are not real evangelicals, that they are closer to being fascists. The distinction is of little importance since the people in question have the president’s ear.
Let’s be clear on one thing: Donald Trump was NOT ‘chosen of God’. He was chosen of by a Revolutionary War relic called the Electoral College. The sooner we’ve rid our Constitution of that foul institution, the better.
Honestly I don’t know what twisted form of illogic you’re teaching our children in your charter schools but plainly you don’t know Sacrilege when it passes your lips. i was a member of my church for 25 years. I have taught both Sunday School and Priesthood classes. I didn’t read the Bible–I studied the fuckin’ thing, so I can speak with absolute authority on the subject. And I’ll tell you, anyone associating Donald Trump with the Lord Jesus Christ has committed the greatest sacrilege.
Plainly you people have never read the Bible or you might just realize the folly you’ve been spouting. Now I may not worship Jesus, but I certainly admire him and I respect the message he tried to send into the world, a message 99.9837% of ‘American evangelicals’ have ignored in pursuit of one dumbass war in the Middle East after another. I know Jesus, my friends and I promise you, as a member of a sect that has suffered numerous vile pogroms throughout history, Jesus would never condemn an entire race as rapists and drug dealers.
There are limits to how much stupidity I am willing to tolerate, and you false evangelicals have exceeded them. I am disappointed that I live in a country incapable of differentiating between right and wrong and which refuses to accept the willful ignorance infesting religion and our body politic. I will not tolerate your hate or your sacrilege any longer.