Archive for April, 2012

Piers Morgan - self satisfied and smug

Firstly let me start with a confession – I can’t stand Piers Morgan. He has that smarmy self-satisfied attitude about him that he shares with three other of my least favourite people, Jeremy Clarkson, Simon Cowell and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.  They give off an air of ‘this is my world, just be happy that I’m allowing you some time in it’.   Normally I’ll change channels to avoid these men, but on Friday night I had to tune into Morgan’s interview with ex-heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno.

Frank Bruno - loved by the 'Great British Public'.

I was never a big fan of big Frank either.  Despite being blessed with a powerful physique, his boxing skills were mediocre, and, rather like Audley Harrison, he just never had that killer instinct required to be a boxing champion.

He is not the best boxer Britain has produced either – Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, and Lennox Lewis all had more grit, greater skill and reached higher heights – but the British Public always loved Frank.  But why? We all know that the ‘Great British Public’ prefer a gallant loser to an arrogant winner (see Tim Henman) but it goes much deeper than that.

Being a six foot Black man who’s face doesn’t easily break into a smile, I know personally how intimidating some white people find Black men.  Frank is taller than me, more muscular than me, darker than me, and dare I say uglier than me, and yet the ‘Great British Public’ love him, because unlike Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Lennox Lewis and yes, even myself, Frank knows how to make white people feel comfortable.

The humility, the self-depreciating humour, the ever- ready joke, and yes the trademark laugh.  Despite his size and his strength white people can look on Frank and think ‘its ok, we have nothing to fear here’. Frank must have worked out how to do this quite early on in life.  Remember he was expelled from school in his early teens for constant fighting.  Physically large even then, he must have been quite intimidating for his teachers. And yet years later this same man appeared in television adverts for HP sauce and starred in panto wearing a tu-tu.

Frank - emasculating himself for the delight of the public.

As simple as he is, Frank knows that for a Black man to get on in this country, white people have to like you. (As my Grandfather used to say – ‘they hold the handle and you hold the blade’.) With his imposing physical presence that took extra effort for him, so if it requires a little coon-ing and sambo-ing, so be it. (Remember, that Lennox Lewis called Frank an Uncle Tom to his face).

Lennox Lewis called Frank an 'Uncle Tom'.

Just look at the Black men who’ve succeeded in the media in this county –Mr Motivator, Lenny Henry, Ainsley Harriot, Andi Peters  all made careers out of being smiling and inoffensive.  Can you imagine a Black comedian with a dry and serious persona like Jack Dee, or an angry ranting one like Ben Elton getting anywhere in this country?

Ainsley Harriot - modern day minstrel?

Now I’m not hating on Frank, or Ainsley or Lenny or any of those guys.  I can’t diss any black man who’s providing for his family.  I’d rather them, than some irresponsible babyfather with kids all over the place that he’s not providing for, because he’s not prepared to ‘bow and scrape to the white man’.  But while I’m not dissing them, I can’t say that any of them make me feel proud to be Black. Not in the way that self-confident, assertive Black men  Muhammed Ali, or Spike Lee or Usain Bolt does. (Compare and contrast Ali’s classic interviews with Parkinson with Bruno vs. Morgan)

But assertive, self-confident Black men are perceived as threatening  by many white people.  (‘Uppity niggers’ they used to call them in the Southern states of the U.S.). As a Black man you have to take all these proactive measures with white people just to let them know that you’re not a criminal, and you mean them no harm.  Things like smiling, joking, and wearing a suit.  One thing that you cannot do is wear your  hood up.  In many white people’s minds Black man + hoody = criminal.

George Zimmerman - in fear for his life?

Just ask George Zimmerman.  On a rainy night in February he felt so intimidated by Black boy Trayvon Martin (who had just nipped out to the shops to buy sweets, but had made the mistake of wearing a hoody) that he had to shoot him dead just to protect himself.  And apparently the Florida police agreed with his assessment of the situation on the night, because they released him without charge. The Police could see that Trayvon was Black, AND wearing a hoody so concluded that 28 year old Zimmerman was right to fear for his life.  The fact that Trayvon was unarmed and only 17 is irrelevant – he was Black and wearing a hoody.

Trayvon Martin - wrong colour, wrong dresscode?

So for all you Black men out there who are wondering why you can’t get a job, or want to know how to get on in this country, or for all those parents of Black boys who want to keep them safe on the street, here are  some tips for you, inspired by Frank Bruno.

1)       Keep showing them pearly whites – its puts them at ease when we smile.

2)      When confronted by authority figures (teachers, police, neighbourhood watch volunteers etc.) do not raise your voice, and do not gesticulate.  They will interpret that as being aggressive.

3)      Wear a suit – not a hoody (pink is optional).

Have you any other tips to help Black men to put white men at their ease? Feel free to leave a comment.

FOOTNOTE:

Trayvon Martin – Rest In Peace. 

Frank Bruno – Get Well Soon!

Lee Pinkerton

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“People are just so brainwashed I don’t think they know what’s good and what’s not good anymore. Anything popular, even if its wack, is what sets the pace for music. 98% of what you hear on the radio is wack. 98% of musicians are wack. Cos there’s no bar anymore. It used to be that the bar was so high, people had a greater appreciation of the music.”

This quote is taken from a skit on the excellent new album from jazz artist Robert Glasper, and is reflective of the attitude of many older music fans, namely that the high water mark for Black music was sometime in the past and all modern music is rubbish.

The same topic was debated in an article in American website The Atlantic. (Is R&B Having an Identity Crisis? – The Atlantic).

What arrogance to suggest that today’s kids can’t tell a good song from a bad one, and are just mindless sheep blindly swallowing whatever they are fed by the evil corporations/record labels/radio stations.

When you compare some of the genius’ of the ‘golden era’ with some of the dross that clogs up the airwaves today, it is easy to see their point.  But before you fall into that mind trap of lazy thinking you should ask yourself two questions.

1)      Didn’t your parents say exactly the same thing about the music you were listening to when you were a kid?

2)      How does it profit a record label to promote bad music over good?  Surely it is more in their interest to cultivate more talented artists who will have longer careers, rather than having to waste time finding the next one-hit-wonder every year.

For all you music snobs out there, let me tell you what qualifies as good music.  Good music is whatever makes you feel good. It doesn’t matter if the person who created it is a classically trained musician who graduated from Julliard, or a kid who made the music in his bedroom on equipment he looted during the riots.  If it makes you feel good then its good music.

They say that anything that is invented between your birth and the age of 14 you see as perfectly natural, something that is invented between 14 and 21 you see as revolutionary and exciting and you want to dedicate your life to, but anything that is invented after you’re 40 you think is an abomination that  will ultimately lead us all to hell!

This is nicely illustrated when you look at the difference in attitude between your parents’ generation and your kid’s generation to new technology like mobile phones, or games consoles or Facebook! This difference in attitude is little to do with the product itself and everything to do with your age when you first encountered it.

Being part of the baby boom generation my mother was a ‘soul sister’.  Her favourite artists were and still are Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Al Green.  This is the music that I grew up listening to, and also love.  But the music that really speaks to me is the music that I discovered in my teens – the hip-hop of artists like Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Gangstarr, KRS-1, and Ice Cube.

Mother’s favourite – The Temptations

My favourite - Public Enemy

When my mother heard me playing this music in my bedroom, she dismissed it as rubbish, (probably much like my grandfather had dismissed the music of the 60’s that she loved, and is now looked on as the golden era of soul). Her dismissive attitude did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the genre, and I did indeed go onto to dedicate most of my 20’s to the music, becoming a rap journalists in the 90s.

It was in this capacity that I was lucky enough to interview rapper Guru and jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd when they came to the UK to promote Gurus’ Jazzmattaz project.

Donald Byrd

When discussing attitudes to music, Byrd related to me the story of when he took a James Brown record into the offices of Blue Note Records back in the 1960’s.  They literally threw the record out of the window, dismissing it as garbage.  James Brown, the godfather of soul, garbage!?  Such was the attitude of the jazz snobs at Blue Note Records.  Sounds very much like the attitude of the musicians on the current Robert Glasper album doesn’t it?

A similar argument is made about the cinema.  Why are the movieplex screens clogged up with this dross aimed at teenagers, like the Twilight sage, or the Harry Potter franchise or the never ending stream of comic book superheroes, rather than the artistically credible and intellectually challenging stuff that they prefer?  The answer is simple – teenagers and young adults go to the cinema more often than older adults.  Teenagers will go every week if they can afford it, just to get out the house and away from their parents.  They are not looking for any deep and profound meaning from their films, they just want a reason to go out.

For older adults/parents, going out is a bigger deal.  They have to arrange a babysitter if they have young kids, or worry about what their kids are getting upto at home whilst they are out, if they’re older.  So they end up staying at home and watching a DVD or something on the telly instead.

Being a parent of two teenage sons I know the struggle to get kids to watch intelligent films that will require them to exercise some thought. But movie companies and cinemas are not concerned parents – they are businesses who are just giving their core audience what they want.  For us older movie go-ers – that’s what DVD players and Turner Classic Movies are for.

During my journalistic career,  I also had the pleasure of interviewing legendary DJ Norman Jay.

DJ Norman Jay

When discussing his eclectic musical taste , he revealed to me that when he was spotted at a house music club or a rock concert, people would look at him funny and ask him what he was doing there. He explained that he never dismissed any musical genre, because even if you think that you hate it, one song or one artist will come along that ‘clicks’, and then the whole genre will make sense to you.

I’ve tried to live by that advice.  I’ve kept up with all the new musical manifestations of Black British culture.  The Roots Reggae samples made it easy for me to get into  Jungle in the 90s, and in the 00s I got into Drum and Bass thanks to Roni Size.

Roni Size - drum & bass champion

I even dabbled in UK Garage with its sexy champagne swilling club scene, (even though I never made it to Aya Napa).  But when I heard Grime I thought that I would have to part company with the ‘yoots dem’. But then I heard Kano, and later Skepta and now enjoy these artists that are closer to my son’s age than to mine.

Tim Westwood embraces the UK's Grime scene with Wiley & Skepta

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not immune to musical fogey-ism.  I thought I would spend Friday and Saturday nights for the rest of my life listening to Tim Westwood’s rap show, just as I did throughout the 90s.  I never dreamed that there would come a time like now when I tune in and find it unlistenable.

The musical snobs kid themselves that they still like new music if its good, but what they really like is any new music that’s sounds like old music.  The Robert Glasper album is a case in point.  Its released in 2012 but features guest vocals from the Nu Classic Soul genre (Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway) who were all at the peak of their careers over a decade ago.

Erykah Badu - Nu Classical Soul veteran

One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time is Miles Davis. He rose to dominance in the 1960s with his style of cool blues jazz, but he fell out of favour with the jazz purists when he turned his back on trad jazz traditions and began experimenting with funk in the 70s (like Donald Byrd) and doing covers of Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tracks in the 80s.  Miles explained that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life playing the same old songs.  Those ‘jazz standards’; were the pop tunes of their day, but he wanted to play the pop tunes of the present. He even stopped wearing suits saying that that was hip in the 50’s and 60’s but its not hip anymore.  (Typically of Miles, his last album Doo Wop in the 90’s was a collaboration with hip-hop artists).

Miles Davis in the 1950's

So if the music on the radio no longer sounds good, its not because of any real drop in quality (how could you possibly measure that anyway?).  Its because you’ve gotten older.  Music is predominantly made for and by young people – let them have their fun and stop dissing them.  If you want to hear what you regard as ‘good music’, then you’ve still got an old record collection haven’t you?  And Spotify is a brilliant resource to expanding your back catalogue.

A documentary that follows 12 years in the life of a clothes designer, sounds like it might be overlong and tedious – but ‘A Man’s Story’ – the doc on Black British tailor/fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, is never that.

Its shows Boateng rising from his humble Ghanian immigrant roots, to become the youngest and first Black tailor on London’s prestigious Saville Row, to go onto the even higher heights of patronage from Hollywood movie stars and recognition from the Queen (he was awarded an OBE in 2007).  And that is not even the highest of the heights he has reached.  Not only is Boateng at the top of the fashion trade, he has transended that industry to become something of an international icon.

Not only has he done tailoring for the likes of Will Smith, Lawrence Fishbourne, and Jamie Foxx,  in 2007 he was commissioned by the President of the Republic of Ghana, to design and orchestrate a show at the 9th Annual African Union summit  that was attended by Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe, and the now deposed leader of Libya Colonel Gadaffi.  The launch of his project to promote closer links between African-Americans and the African continent was attended by veteran civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and legendary Jazz musician Herbie Hancock. This guy has got juice worldwide.  Even former Secreatry General of the United Nations (and fellow Ghanian) Kofi Annan returns his calls.  That’s how large he is!

But this film is not just a P.R. exercise –  it shows Boateng’s ups as well as downs.  It reveals the breakdown of his marriage, and struggle to maintain a relationship with his children, and it shows that despite his worldwide acclaim, even his life is not without failures and disappointments.  But never the less its inspiring to see a British Black man rising to the very top of his field, through sheer hard work and talent.  And we all need a little inspiration right now.

The Man himself in his flagship Saville Row store

The Man himself in his flagship Saville Row store