In Tribute to Gift of Gab, a Blazing Arrow

Yesterday, June 25, 2021, it was revealed that Timothy Jerome Parker, known worldwide as Gift of Gab, the emcee from the hip hop group Blackalicious, had passed away at the age of 50. Several years ago the man had suffered kidney failure, and reports say that he had to undergo dialysis multiple times a week. Amazingly, he still continued to write songs, record and do shows. The press release stated that there are more than 100 unreleased Blackalicious tracks that we may be blessed with in the future.

GiftofGab2-PowerToThePeacefulFestival2006

I’m actually not quite sure of when I first heard of Blackalicious, the duo comprised of Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, the producer and DJ. I remember when “Make You Feel That Way” was released in 2002 and my older brother and I watched the video, refreshed by everything from the sounds, lyrics to the direction. It was a brief but important reminder that hip hop could be more than what it had become in mainstream culture, a conduit for commercialization and the cult of the self.

I recall my brother buying the album Blazing Arrow and listening to it in his car in the heat of summer. Highlights for me at the time were the collaborations with Zach de la Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine) on “Release, Pt 1”, as well as Rakaa Iriscience from Dilated Peoples, a group that I was damn near obsessed with in high school, on “Passion”.

Around that time, I read about Blackalicious when they were on the cover of the now defunct but extremely significant underground hip hop magazine, Elemental. The cover story talked about their earlier releases in the 1990s, and that’s when I scooped up Nia from probably UndergroundHipHop.com or SandboxAutomatic.com, the former of which, sadly, is no more, while the latter is impressively still around.

The fact that I went back is an often overlooked aspect of the importance of hip hop and the messages it sends and the lessons it lends. Hip hop taught me to look back and to appreciate that which came before. In high school, I was always listening to classics from the past. If it was the year 2000, I was probably listening to EPMD’s album from 1990, Business as Usual, or Gang Starr’s third album, Daily Operation, released in 1992.

Nia, released in Europe in 1999, then re-released by Quannum Projects in 2000, blew me away. As much as I was impressed by Blazing Arrow, Nia was and remains Blackalicious’ absolute masterpiece to my ears. From the opening track I was hooked. “Searching,” with its spacey guitar strings, soulful piano chords and airy woodwinds, has Gift of Gab accompanied by actress, singer and writer Erinn Anova, as they recite a poem that embodies the cycle of life and the beauty in the struggle that is universal. I recommend you read the lyrics and recite them with Gift and Erinn, just as I have:

Blackalicious “Searching” featuring Erinn Anova

Searching…

For everything already there.

For every thought already known.

For everything that ever was, is and will be.

Struggling. Oh, how we struggle.

And the more we avoid it, the greater the struggle becomes,

until we realize, the struggle is the blessing.

Progressing.

Changing.

Evolving.

Growing.

From a seed to a tree.

From a child to a man [From a child to a woman].

From a man to a spirit to a god fulfilling his plan [From a woman to a spirit to a god fulfilling his plan].

Purpose.

No words can describe the unnameable.

No beginning, no end, just always now.

Marveling at the miracle and all of a sudden it all seemed to make sense somehow.

Searching, for everything already there.

For every thought already known.

For everything that ever was, is and will be.

[Niiiiaa, Niiiiaaaa….]

Gift of Gab would have been in his late 20s when those words were written and expressed. He was wise beyond his years, and the wisdom contained within “Searching”, though often overshadowed and overlooked due to the sheer volume of musical releases and countless other distractions vying for our time and attention, will remain cherished and appreciated for years to come by all walks of life, from hip hop purists to vinyl collectors who don’t usually go to hip hop first; to casual listeners and to anyone who just happens upon it. I think he would have faith in that idea, just like as evidenced by his music and poetry, he had faith in people.

Blackalicious at Paid Dues 3

I’ve taken the death of the artist, musician and poet Timothy Jerome Parker pretty hard, and there’s no question that a lot of fans and fellow musicians are feeling the same way. I went through a similar period of mourning after the deaths of Guru and Eyedea, and more recently, DMX and Double K of People Under the Stairs. A part of that emotional experience with the loss of our musical influences is a result of our collective awareness of their monumental contribution to music and art itself. As Chief Xcel expressed about his longtime friend and musical comrade,

“He’s the most prolific person I’ve ever known. He was all about pushing the boundaries of his art form in the most authentic way possible. He truly believed in the healing power of music. He viewed himself as a vessel used by a higher power whose purpose was to give positive contributions to humanity through Rhyme.”

Reading that quote reminds me of the eponymous title track off of the duo’s third full-length album, The Craft, released in 2005.

This Craft, this beat, this rhyme, this vibe
This style, they say music gives new life
From a source inside that is forever flowin’
This stage, this mic, this crowd, this show
This life, I’ve been given a gift tonight
And for that, I vow to be a vessel

When I put my 7-year-old daughter into bed last night, just a handful of hours removed from learning about the loss of Gab, I played the song “Sleep,” a true original from Nia. Oddly, it’s the first time I played the track for her. I can remember listening to it through headphones as it spun around in my CD Walkman years ago when I was home from college. I’d lie awake, listening to the words, hoping that I’d be as good a poet and emcee as Gift of Gab one day, and maybe, if I had a child, this is how I’d put her to bed to sleep.

The shining lights of stages, after the show are faded
The crowd is gone away, and now the dawning day
Gives way to creatures lurking, can hear the crickets chirping
Only the owls can see for this is when they start their prey
The homeless ask for quarters, for shelter and some water
Say “sorry not today” and turn and walk away
The busy street is empty, whistling winds are blowing gently
Listening intently to all of the things they have to say
A day of work completed, a night of rest is needed
Almost done with a book but eyelids to heavy to read it
The fireplace is kindling, snug with your queen and building
About the victories tomorrow’s gonna bring your way…

“Sleep” by Blackalicious

Sleep, Mr. Parker. You found your purpose and it all made sense somehow. You were, and always will remain, a vessel.

Sincerely,

Derek “Proseed” Postlewaite

http://proseed.bandcamp.com

 

Works Cited:

Blackalicious – Nia. Discogs. (1999, January 1). https://www.discogs.com/master/32311.

Kreps, D. (2021, June 25). Blackalicious Rapper Gift of Gab Dead at 50. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/blackalicious-rapper-gift-of-gab-dead- 1189400/.

Strauss, M. (2021, June 25). Gift of Gab, Blackalicious Rapper, Dies at 50. Pitchfork. https://pitchfork.com/news/gift-of-gab-blackalicious-rapper-dies-at-50/.

The Myths Surrounding Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Recently during Black History Month in February, C-Span 3’s American History TV aired a history lecture from Wellesley College Professor Brenna Greer. Professor Greer, an African American woman, aimed to deconstruct the myths surrounding Rosa Parks as just a Black woman who had had enough when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1,1955, and that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short and successfully ended segregated busing.

There are a few major points in her argument regarding Rosa Parks. One, that Rosa’s actions were not done on a whim; that they were deliberate, planned and coordinated. This was also the case of Homer Plessy on a train car in Louisiana in 1892.

Two, that Rosa was not “the first” Black woman to take such an action. In fact, Ida B. Wells, a Black female journalist who publicized lynchings of Black Americans in the late 19th century, had also challenged racial segregation in the 1880s when she refused to move from her seat on a train on May 4, 1884.

Flowing along the myths is the question of why. Why was it necessary to create such myths about a woman and an action of civil disobedience that led to a historic transformation in America’s story?

At one point, Professor Greer asks students to raise their hands if they first learned about Rosa Parks when in elementary school. Most hands went up. But when asked if they learned anything about her in high school, it was a very different story as just two or three hands were shown. Greer attributes much of this to the false notion that children need very simple characters, when in reality, in Greer’s view, children, whose minds are “very flexible,” could certainly understand a more complex character, like the real Rosa Parks.

As for adults in the 1950s, if one pictures Rosa like the sweet, “middle class” and light-skinned Black woman as she can be perceived by the picture below, she is easier for the public to swallow.

File:Rosaparks 4-5 (cropped).jpg
Rosa Parks, 1955

According to Greer, she was typically described as an “elderly seamstress with tired feet” and “many news accounts didn’t even give her name.” Rosa was 42 when she made history. Contrast that with Ida B. Wells, who appears strong and hardened by her experiences in the Jim Crow South. Wells’ own printing outfit was burned down by a white mob.

File:Face detail, from- Ida B. Wells circa 1895 by Cihak and Zima (cropped).jpg
Ida B. Wells, 1895

Additional challenges to segregated transportation from Black Americans in the same year that Rosa made history are also highlighted, including those of Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder and Mary Louise Smith. As Professor Greer put it, “We need to scratch off that Rosa Parks was ‘the first.'”

Professor Greer seems to argue that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s had smartened up to the fact that the press would not show as much attention, and the public would not show as much sympathy, to a Black woman who looked like Claudette Colvin or the other women, who the public would perceive, through media accounts, as “too dark” and “too poor.”

To clear up the myth from the “fairy tale” that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short, Ms. Greer points out that the it lasted 381 days. She poses the question “How long do you think most people, if not yourself, thought the boycott was?” Answers appeared to range from a few weeks to a couple months. The extensive length of time, over a year, is evidence of just how ingrained segregation was in the South. It took Browder v. Gayle (yes, that’s Aurelia Browder), a lower court case that challenged Montgomery’s racial segregation on public buses, which eventually reached the Supreme Court, to finally see an order for integrated buses in Montgomery. A few days later, on December 21st, the leaders of the movement decided to set foot on Montgomery buses once more.

Watch the lecture here.

This article originally appeared on the blog Right Guy, Wrong Town.

A Strategy for Encouraging Children to Read Again…Youtube?

Growing up, especially in my elementary school years, I loved to read. I consumed a ton of Gary Paulsen and Roald Dahl books, which were practically in the curriculum in my school so I can at least say my school was successful in that area. But there came a time, early in my adolescence, where it seemed like I spent more time sitting on the couch and watching Talespin than I did reading classic books. One summer, I assume this was the result of him noticing, my father forced my sister and I to read an hour a day. I don’t even know if it worked. I seem to remember just staring at the page, waiting for the hour to end. My father worked only 10-12 minutes away from the house, and tended to come home every day for lunch. One beautiful day, my sister and I were swimming in our pool, enjoying our time away from school. When our father came home for lunch, he insisted we complete our reading hour, so we sat on the pool deck with books in front of our faces. When he left to return to work and began to drive up the hill on the road along our house, he slowed the van, stopped and presumably stared at his children for 20-30 seconds (he was far enough away that we couldn’t see his face), who were sitting quietly on the pool deck, doing as they were expected, or in my case, just staring at the words. I still wonder if he heard the splash from the pool when the van was clear up the road.

Mom and Dad Set the Tone

I never fell in love with the hour-long reading chore, for lack of a better word, because that’s what it felt like, a chore. I was being forced to read. However, I do credit my dad, and my mom, for my love for reading (Mom was the one who would read to me at bedtime when I was younger). He set an example. My dad is a voracious reader to this day, and now that he’s retired, he reads even more.

Not my old man, but you get the picture, literally.

A Discovery

Now that I’m a father, I’ve been trying to think of ways to get my daughter to engage with books more without forcing her all the time (sometimes I just have to as a parent). I don’t want her to resent reading, and I don’t want her to think we have to make a deal every time I expect her to read (“if I…will you play Roblox?”). My wife and I did read to her nightly up to the age of around 4. Being so young and innocent, she loved the time with Daddy or Mommy, listening to the words, examining the pictures, pointing at objects, being shocked or surprised by a ridiculous turn of events. Now, we still read, but it’s not a nightly affair, even though it should be. Because she reads for school, and last year read for personal pan pizzas earned through the Pizza Hut Bookit! program (she has 3-4 certificates that haven’t been redeemed since the start of the pandemic), reading for pleasure seems so foreign to her now. After thinking I should start a Youtube page that presents exciting and engaging summaries of children’s books and books for early readers, I crawled out from under my rock and discovered that there are a bunch of Youtube channels devoted to reading (though I still might move ahead with the Youtube page for young readers).

The Strategy: Subscribe to Channels About Books and Reading

I’m going to subscribe to a few of these Youtube channels through the profile that my wife and daughter share. The way I see it, an algorithm is manipulating my baby, so I’m going to manipulate the algorithm. In school, my daughter, who turned 7 in August, is just now beginning to learn about the main idea of a story and has to put it in writing, followed by supporting details. The next step, after introducing her to some of these Youtube reading channels, is to buy some of the books she comes across on the channel. From there, “What’s the main idea of the story?” might become a weekly writing assignment tied to the allowance she gets for doing dishes on Wednesdays. If that doesn’t work, I might ask her grandfather to force her to read for an hour every day next summer. Just kidding, maybe.

If you have any strategies to share that encourage children to read, please let us know in the comments.