How “Ha” Sings the Blues

When I was a kid, around 14-15, I was in my parents basement in the summer trying to bench press a measly 50 lbs when a new video came on BET. I never put the weight locks on, so when I heard what I considered trash at the time, one arm gave in, tilting the bar to the right as a 25 lb weight slid off and ran into the wall. My mother screamed down from the kitchen, “Derek, what was that?” I was appalled. It was the official video for what became a breakout hit, “Ha,” by the rapper Juvenile.

I was used to a different kind of MC. I was tuned into the type that was influenced by the likes of Rakim and Kool G Rap. I was used to the powerful delivery of KRS-One, the cadence of O.C., or the smooth and monotone voice of Guru. Juvenile’s sound was foreign to my ears.

A kid who had grown up on the Golden Era of hip hop, creative wordplay and thought provoking lyrics over boom bap beats, I thought Juvenile couldn’t rap. How wrong I was, thinking back now. Here I am in my late 30s and I can the hear the influences of the blues in his music.

Watching The Howlin’ Wolf Story recently, a documentary about the great blues musician, then shortly thereafter hearing “Ha” by Juvenile got me thinking about how connected their music really is.

Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi during the terrifying Nadir Period when thousands of Black Americans were lynched by racist mobs decades before the Civil Rights Era. In adulthood, he moved to Chicago. On the other hand, Juvenile is a Cash Money Millionaires rapper from New Orleans. On the surface, there appears a picture showing two different experiences, but if you look a little closer, you’ll find hues and colors that make those experiences share much in common.

To hear Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) tell it in The Howlin Wolf Story (2003), directed by Don McGlynn,

“…I’m gonna tell you what the blues is: when you aint got no money, you got the blues. When you aint got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues. A lot of people’s hollerin’ about “I don’t like no blues cuz when you aint got no money and can’t pay your house rent and cant buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you aint got no money, you got the blues, ‘cause you’re thinking evil.”

On “Ha”, Juvenile’s lyricism meets the Wolf’s definition. He’s “thinking evil” as he raps in second person.

“You full of that diesel, ha,
You duckin’ them people, ha
Your face was on the news last night, ha
You the one that robbed them little dudes out they shoes last night, ha”

But on the hook, he evolves from one of the traditions of blues music, that of expressing one’s grief, howlin’ about having the blues, to not letting the factors that lead to the blues, hold you back:

“You a paper chaser, you got your block on fire
Remaining a G until the moment you expire
You know what it is, you make nothin’ out of somethin’
You handle your biz and don’t be cryin’ and sufferin'”

In much the same way that Howlin’ Wolf explains what it means to have the blues, Juvenile’s “Ha” speaks to the same mood. “When you aint got no money, you got the blues” says Howlin’ Wolf, while Juvenile raps “you gotta go to court, ha”.

On Howlin’ Wolf’s track “Back Door Man,” Howlin’ is talking about sleeping with another man’s woman and sneaking out in the morning.

“When everybody’s tryin’ to sleep
I’m somewhere making my midnight creep
Yeah, in the morning the rooster crow
Something tell me I got to go
I am a back door man”

– “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf, written by Willie Dixon

The story shares a lot in common with the kind of sleeping around that Juvenile talks about in “Ha”.

“That’s you with that badass Benz, ha
That’s you that can’t keep your old lady ’cause you keep [expletive] her friends, ha” – “Ha” by Juvenile

Juvenile’s personal life reflects the soul of the blues, a musical genre rooted in the hearts, minds and spirits of the descendants of African slaves. He’s had legal troubles, and personal tragedies, including the murder of his 4-year old daughter. Though I’ve never listened to much of his catalog, my research into this connection has piqued my interest.

I can remember in the wake of Hurricane Katrina catching his video for “Get Ya Hustle On” (2006). The video opens with the message: “This is a tribute to those who died in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm may have passed, but for thousands, the struggle is just beginning.”

It goes on to spotlight a neighborhood where homes were destroyed and cars turned over, where crosses adorned with framed pictures cover makeshift grave sites like the scene of fatal accidents, while face masks of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Mayor of New Orleans at the time, Ray Nagin, are worn by young Black kids. As one of the boys turns a mask over to put it on, the words “Help is Coming” are printed on the inside. As history shows, for many, help never came, or at best, came too late. The attitude and point of the song is: no one is going to save you. Your federal government failed you. It always will. Get your hustle on.

“Your mayor ain’t your friend, he’s the enemy
Just to get your vote, a saint is what he pretend to be “

“Everybody need a check from FEMA
So he can go and sco’ him some co-ca-llina
Get money! And I ain’t gotta ball in the Beemer
Man I’m tryin to live, I lost it all in Katrina (damn)”

“[Expletive] Fox News, I don’t listen to y’all ass
Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof with a star pass
Talkin’ y’all comfortable right now to your own land
Till a nigga catch ya down bad, starvin’ and want cash”

The song and video reminds me of the award winning documentary that I only recently watched this past February in honor of Black History Month, Trouble the Water (2008).

The documentary centers around Kimberly Rivers Roberts–and her husband–who filmed herself the day before the storm, as well as the morning that it hits. She’s eventually forced to the attic of her home. She continues to film after the storm and flooding recedes as she looks for her neighbors in the Ninth Ward, all of them vulnerable, including a man, who appears to be an addict, that she spotted asleep on the steps of a porch the day before the storm and had woken up to warn about the hurricane. Though she and her husband survive the storm, their neighborhood was never the same, and they eventually relocate, attempting to get help from FEMA.

Roughly 80% of the city was flooded after the levees broke. At least 1,800 people died. The way the poor, much of them Black Americans, were left without a means of evacuating or immediate help from the government, is reminiscent of the aftermath of the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau near the end of Reconstruction in 1872, a national tragedy regretted by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, for both its obvious neglect and its costly mismanagement, the same type of criticism that FEMA and the George W. Bush Administration rightfully received.

Juvenile’s hip-hop may not be the sample-based, east coast hip-hop that I grew up on, but his poetry and the root of his music is just as relevant and poignant, and its relationship to the soul and simplicity of the blues, as well as the historical experience and present reality of Black Americans cannot be overstated. Now you’re gonna give it a listen, ha.

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.

Civics Lesson: What are Checks and Balances?

Checks and balances…to some, it sounds like a personal finance concept. But to social studies teachers, it’s one of the most crucial ideas in American government that serve as an indicator of whether or not a student grasps other fundamental concepts like separation of powers and the three branches. In short, if your students don’t understand the meaning of checks and balances after a semester of civics, it’s time to remediate and fix the error.

Main Idea of Checks and Balances

Checks and balances relies on the constitutional framework that provides for three branches of government, each with its own separate and distinct roles and powers. One Founding Father who detailed this idea while advocating for ratification of the U.S. Constitution was James Madison (see Federalist No. 47). Madison based his ideas about the separation of powers on the writings of French philosopher Montesquieu. In short, to avoid tyranny and absolute power in the hands of one branch or group of people, separate branches with the ability to “check” or cancel the actions of another branch were essential. In historical and modern terms, one quick example is detailed by the process of passing a bill and signing it into law: if a bill passes in Congress, it is up to the president to sign or veto–reject–the bill. It is not law until signed by the president. That’s checks and balances.

James Madison.jpg
James Madison

Example 1: Legislative Checks the Executive

One role of the legislative branch involves the confirmation or rejection of presidential appointments. No, this does not mean that the Speaker of the House confirms that the president has a dentist appointment at 9 AM next Thursday. It means that when a recently elected president nominates someone to be his Cabinet secretary for the Department of Agriculture, the upper chamber in the legislative branch, the Senate, holds hearings to examine the background and qualifications of the nominee, and ultimately votes to confirm or reject the nominee to the position. That’s an example of checks and balances, and one in which the national legislature holds great power over the executive branch.

Example 2: Executive Checks the Legislative

One of the easiest to remember was detailed in the main idea earlier: the president vetoes a bill. In doing so, the president–the chief executive–has “checked” the power of Congress–the national legislature. Of course, as checks and balances go, if Congress can muster 2/3rds of its members to vote to overrule the president’s veto, the bill will become law, which is another way that the legislative branch checks the executive.

Example 3: Judicial Checks the Legislative & Executive

Another lesson for another time will be on the judicial power of judicial review, which was established in 1803 via the Supreme Court’s decision in Marbury v Madison. That said, judicial review is the power of the courts to overturn what are deemed unconstitutional laws. Clearly, the most landmark reversals are initiated by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v Board in 1954, which overturned Plessy v Ferguson (1896, “separate but equal”). Put simply, when the judicial branch throws out an unconstitutional law, it’s a check on the legislative branch that wrote, debated and passed the bill, and the executive who signed it into law. This check illustrates the immense power of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch.

See Articles I, II and III

Of course there are many other examples of the three branches “checking” the powers of each other, and the primary source to those details is the U.S. Constitution, specifically in Articles I, II and III. However, I think the ones above are the easiest for middle school and high school students to grasp. What are some of your favorite examples of checks and balances? Leave your comments below.