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u3a-chang - The Mystery and Faith of Atrika Bamhaataa l was...

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Unformatted text preview: The Mystery and Faith of Atrika Bamhaataa l was born out of time. —Napoleon Wilson, Assault on Precinct l3. Afrika Bambaataa was a teenager with a big rep. ”When he walked through the projects,” recalls Jayson ”JazzyJay" Byas, ”he was like The Godfather walk- ing through Little Italy.” Jay had moved into the Bronx River Houses in 1971 af— ter his family's Harlem tenement was consumed by a fire. Like hundreds of other youths at Bronx River, Jay started following Bambaataa. ”Barn used to put his speakers out the window and play music all day. He used to live right outside what you'd call the Center. The center of Bronx River was like a big oval. The community center was right in the middle and Barn used to live to the left of it. He used to play his music, and I would ride my bike around all day popping wheelies, you know3'f .iay says. ”He was like the Pied Piper.” . As the gang days were receding, Bambaataa saw the future before anyone else. Each of the housing protects had its own gangs, sometimes turning the two- block distance between them into a no—man’s land. But he Was ready to take people across borders that they didn’t know they could cross, into proiects they weren’t sure they could be in. Bambaataa—he told them his name was Zulu for "affectionate leader”—wou|d lead them where they didn't know they were ready to go. _ Still astonished at the thought of it three decades later, Jay recalls, ”Bam used to say, 'Hey, they throwing a block party in Bronxdale,’ and he has his box and a bagful of tapes with all the music. He grabs the box and when he starts walk- ing to Bronxdale, he'd have like forty people walking behind him. Afrika Bambaataa flying his cut sleeves downtown. Photo © Lisa Haun/Michoel Ochs Archivacom can't Stun Won’t Stop ”Barn was the leader. You’d roll up inn-Bronx River is represented. We up in Bronxdale, we up in Soundview, we in Castle Hill—wherever they was throwrng a block party, we was there. Here comes Barn, here comes the entourage, here comes the army. Wherever Barn was going, that's where some Sl'tll was gon be, that's where you need to be. If you wasn't there even for the march up, you know the word got back real quick. ’Yo! Bam and them moving, there 5 a party If going on over there.’ living Twine at {Inna Of the three kings, the trinity of hip-hop music—DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster FIGSh and Afrika Bambaataa—the most enigmatic is Bambaataa Kahim Aasim. It is not because he is reclusive. In fact, unlike Herc and Flash, he has never retreated far from the public eye. Through his prolific recording career and his ongoing stewardship of the Universal Zulu Nation organization, Bambaataa has lived a very generous life. He regularly crisscrosses the world, graciously giving of himself to fans, iournalists, Zulu members and hip-hop heads every- where. And yet he also remains essentially a mystery. There are things that everyone seems to know about Bambaataa, and things that no one seems to know. The philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss might have called Bambaataa some- one who lives twice simultaneously—once as a man in history, and separately as a myth above temporality. His story seems well documented. He was the Black Spade warlord who be- came the Master of Records. The shaman who had hundreds of hard-rocks dancing to his global musical mash-up of Kraftwerk, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the ”Pink Panther" theme, the Rolling Stones and the Magic Disco Machine. The _ founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, the first hip-hop institution, an organization that tried to raise consciousness like it raised the roof. The preacher of the gospel of the ”four elements”—D.ling, MCing, b—boying and Graffiti Writing. The mis- sionary who took the hip-hop message to the four corners of the globe, and then beyond Planet Rock. ,, When hip-hop lost its way, he added a fifth element—”knowledge. Zulus, he explains, are about having ”right knowledge, right wisdom, right oversta‘nding and right sound reasoning, meaning that we want our people to deal with fac- tuality versus beliefs, factology versus beliefs.” But some facts about his own life are slippery like quicksilver. It is known, for example, that Bambaataa was born in Manhattan to parents ofJamaican and Barbadian descent. But he refuses to disclose when or under what name. Many biographies have incorrectly listed his birth name as Kevin Donovan, another man who happened to be the leader of record~labe| owner Paul Winley's house band, the Harlem UndergtOund Band.1 Perhaps he was in perpetual reinvention as a youth. He had multiple graffiti tags, including BAM- BAATAA, BAM l l7 and BOM l i7—the latter an acronym he once told Ger- man interviewers stood for Bambaataa Osisa Mubulu.2 Bios often list Bambaataa's birthdate as April 10, 1960. Other biographers have listed his birthdate as June 17, 1957. The month of April seems correct. Kool Herc, born in mid—April, has thrown ioint birthday parties with Barn. But if Bambaataa was actually born in i960, he would have ioined the Black Spades at the age of nine, been a warlord before the age of ten, and started The Orga- nization, the precursor to the Zulu Nation, at the age of thirteen. Most likely, Bambaataa was born in April of i 957. He won't say. ”We never,” he pointedly admonishes interviewers dumb enough to ask, ”speak on my age.” He has good reasons for not revealing such personal information. Earlier in his career, revealing his true age might have hurt his credibility with young fans. And he has always been suspicious of surveillance from hostile authorities that . have periodically—andwrongly—attacked the Universal Zulu Nation as 0 via- lent gang syndicate. So it seems as if Bambaataa is who he is because he’s al— ways been. He appears as a man outside of time and age. For his part, Bambaataa coniures himself with good humor. The Zulu Nation's Infinity Lesson #2 explains that the original Bambaataa was a late—nineteenth- century Zululand leader who led an anti-tax revolt against the British colonial authority in South Africa. This Bambaataa was not above using mystical means to inspire his people. After calling on them to abandon the signs and objects of European culture—except for their guns—he told them a resurrected witch doctor had given him a potion that made him bulletproof. He drank it, then stood be- fore a firing squad and commanded them to shoot. ”But when the smoke cleared there stood Bambaataa, smiling and unhurt," the Infinity Lesson reads. ”The ex- planation? Blank cartridges,’r Sometimes factualities and factologies matter less than the myths we want to believe. ”Stopping bullets with two turntables isn't about sociology,” GaryJardim wrote in a famous 1984 Village Voice profile on Bambaataa, ”it’s about finding the spirit in the music and learning how to flash can’t Stun Wnn’l Slap it.”3 No one ever debated whether Bambaataa could stop the bullets. He made you believe he did. So Bambaataa is the generative figure, the Promethean firestarter of the hip- hOP generation. He transformed his environment in sonic and SOCTGl structure, and in doing so, he called forth the ideas that would shape generational rebel- lion. So many of the archetypes of the hip-hop generation seem to rise from the body of facts and myths that represent Bambaataa Aasim's life-Lgodfather, yes, but also original gangster, post-civil rights peacemaker, Black riot rocker, breakbeat archaeologist, interplanetary mystic, conspiracy theorist, Afrofuturist, hip-hop activist, twenty—first—century griot. But two dates help to place the man back into his time and place. In 197], the year of the Bronx gang truce, a young Bambaataa was first bused to Steven- son High School at the eastern, white edge of Soundview as part of a court- ordered desegregation order. Within weeks the appearance of Black students, some of whom were Black Spades, caused white gang members to organize and a racial war broke out across the borough’s borderlands. School grounds became stomping grounds, integration's bloody frontline, with the gangs as the shock troops. But by i981 Bambaataa was in the middle of a very different kind of deseg- regation, a wholly voluntary one. He was taking the music and culture of the Black and brown Bronx into the white art-crowd and punk~rock clubs of IOWer Manhattan. The iron doors of segregation that the previous generation had started to unlock were battered down by the pioneers of the hip—hop generation. Soon hip-hop was not merely all-city, it was global—a Planet Rock. Most old school hip-hoppers look back on those heady days—the '705 turn- ing into the ’BOs—with a sense of wonder that something they had been involved in as wide-eyed youths could have become so big, so powerful. Never Bam- baataa. To him, it was always supposed to be this way. ”Each step was a step-_ ping stone, the gang era and all that, that helped to bring about this formation,” he says, as if he had already been to the mountaintop long ago. Sound Besliny Afrika Bambaataa grew up on the ground floor of one of the fifteen-story towers of the Bronx River Proiects, a complex of a dozen buildings in the vicinity of two other postwar superdevelopments, the Bronxdale Houses and the James Monroe Houses. Bambaataa was raised by his mother» a nurse from a family immersed in in-' ternational Black cultural and liberation movements. As he came of age during the turbulent late ’605, he experienced the fierce ideological debates over the Black freedom struggle—integration or separation, the ballot or the bullet—GS close as the dinner table or the living room. His uncle, Bambaataa Bunchinii, was a prominent Black nationalist. Many in his family were devoted Black Mus~ lims. He seemed born with a sense of destiny. David Hershkovits, a iournalist who came to know Bambaataa during the early ’80s in the downtown club scene, says, ”At some point early on, people had kind of spotted him as somebody to educate and talk to about what's going on in the rest of the world outside of the Bronx. I think he was somehow chosen.” . The late '605 were a period of irreconcilable forces locked in struggle with each other. In the community, political positions on integration, violence, and revolution could harden into matters of life and death. But through his mother's record collection—an eclectic shelf that included Miriam Makeba, Mighty Spar- row, Jae Cuba, and Aretha Franklin—Bambaataa developed a different kind of perspective. in the rhythmic pull ofJames Brown’s ”I'll get it myself” black—power turn or Sly Stone’s ”everyday people” integrationist dance, these positions lost all their rigidity. James Brown could sing Black pride to all—white audiences. Sly Stone could get dOWn with the Black Panthers. Music made ideoiogies shed their armature, move together, find a common point of release, a powerful unity. Bambaataa was coming of age in an accelerated popuiar cutture, a quan- tum explosion in sounds and images. He began imposing his own order on the chaos of representations. As a youth he became fascinated with the 1964 movie Zulu, a Michael Caine vehicle recounting the l 87 9 siege of Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa. The battle remains a celebrated moment in the military. history of the British Empire, an unlikely triumph of a hundred redcoats defend- ing a lonely colonial outpost against an overwhelming onslaught of four thou- sand Zuius. indeed, Rorke's Drift is remembered as something like the Queen's Fort Apache, on Alamo where the whites actually won. Zulu is told exclusively from their point of the view. There are hundreds of can’t Stun Won’t Stop African extras, but not a single Black role of any consequence. In the climactic scene, the red-suited soldiers stand with their bayonets arrayed silently before a pile of Black bodies, a dark tide stopped at the very lip of their boots. Had the movie been released two decades later, after civil rights and Black power, ac- tivists might have boycotted it. But when the young Bambaataa saw it in the early ‘605, he was captivated. The movie opens after the Zulus have routed the British camp at Isandhlwana, with a slow pan of hundreds of dead redcoats streWn across the African plain. It then detours to a maiestic scene of a Zulu masts marriage ceremony and victory dance. The ragtag Brits are seen as individualists who tend to feud loudly amongst themselves. By contrast, the Zulus remain a primitive, undifferentiated mass. Here is the central tension of the movie: Can the divided, outnumbered defenders of white western democracy get their act together in time to prevail over the unceasing armies of ancient Dark Continent despotism? But what Bambaataa saw in Zulu were powerful images of Black solidarity. Before the attack on Rorke’s Drift, hundreds of Zulu warriors appear atop the ridge, leaving the imperial soldiers awestruck. They bang their spears to their shields, give a resounding war cry and storm the garrison. Although many of them fall before the British muskets, they iust don’t quit. Into the night, the Zulus continue their assaults and succeed in setting the outpost on fire. ”That iust blew my mind,” Bambaataa says. ”Because at that time We was coons, coioreds, negroes, everything degrading. We was busy watching Heckyl and Jeckyl, Tarzan—a white guy who is king of the jungle. Then I see this movie come out showing Africans fighting for a land that was theirs against the British imperialists. To see these Black people fight for their freedom an-d'their land just stuck in my mind. i said when I get older l’m gonna have me a group called the Zulu Nation.” Later he would give his followers a round Black Face with white eyes and lips to wear around their necks—an emblem taken from one of New Orleans's oldest and most famous Black Mardi Gras groups, the Zulu Krewe. Civil rights groups had once pressured the Krewe to disband for what they took to be‘offensive blackface stereotypes. But Bambaataa approached Zulu and the Zulu Krewe the way he did political ideologies and his own records. He pulled out what was precious and tossed the rest. He created new mythologies. WNW“mm-.mwmzwmmmnwmsfimimep.mseaW.W.-.s=_.._t... i t i i t i i i t [In the More of the southeast Bronx. Richie Perez, later of the Young lords Party was then 0 across the street from Bronx River Houses. "it I I l ”P - ple 5 Organization for War and Energetic Revolutionaries " P.O.W.E R tookefr: the Black Panthers’ rhetoric but had the somewhat less lofty, if no less urgent Riverinto Spades," he says. P.O.W.E.R 's onl the first gang named on the 1971 Peace Treaty. f As a lSpade, IBambaataa made his rep by being unafraid to cross turfs to orge re ationships With other gangs. He says, ”i was a person who was al— ways in other areas. 80 if i was a Spade, i still was with the Nomads. if I was With the Nomads, I was hanging with the Jave' of the Javelins." Soon, Bambaataa's ability to m look like a weakness, but a strength. lems, I could rally up three to Four hun ove between gangs did not l was the person that if you had prob- dred at one time and move on you,” he can’t Slap Won’t Stop Shaka Zulu. | used things I was reading in school to attack areas and make them ioin up with us,” Bambaataa says. He helped consolidate Bronx River’s control of the Black Spades and enable their spread to the Soundview, Castle Hill and Monroe Houses, and as far west as Patterson Houses. The Spades soon moved into the protects of Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens and became the city's biggest gang. "Everywhere there was a police precinct, there was a Spades chapter,” Bambaataa says. When racial tensions exploded at Stevenson High School, Bambaataa led Spades in confrontations with white gangs all across Soundview and West Farms. But he also showed signs of ambivalence. ”For the first week things seemed to go okay,” he wrote in a class assignment. Then, in the third person, he described the escalation of racial gang tensions to a climactic shopping center rumble. ”After that day Stevenson was never the same peaceful high school again."4 As these bottles were escalating, the 1971 truce brought together Black and brown gangs in the South Bronx. The peace treaty, particularly the Spades’ president Bam Bam's personal commitment to it, had a profound impact on the young warlord. Bambaataa began to search for a way out, and he found his skills in mobilizing for war could iust as easily be turned to peace. As his Friend Jay McGluery told journalist Steven Hager, ”There were so many gangs and he knew at least five members in every one. Any time there was a conflict, he would try and straighten it out. He was into communications."5 Herc’s New Cool offered Bambaataa a way forward, and two former Black Spades had also become DJs—Kool DJ D at Bronx River and Disco King Mario at Bronxdale. Bambaataa apprenticed with both. ex—Spade DJs, then began throwing his own parties in the community center iust steps from his front door. "When I did become a D], I already had an army with me so i already knew that my parties would automatically be packed,” he says. That year, he began the Bronx River Organization as an alternative to the Spades. In some ways, the move resembled the Ghetto Brothers’ transforma- tionf’ Bambaataa says, ”We had a motto: 'This is an organization. We are not a gang. We are a family. Do not start trouble. Let trouble come to you, then fight like hell.' " But some battle lines were dissolving. Partying was a new thing. Bambaataa 3 g s r- 4 E E 2 ”4.......wmmwawnuWWmmswm..m renowned programmer in the borou d U fl. 1' support of the whole com ' ' ‘ munity. it’s like, we’d rath something constructive than to be down the b er see them domg that dOlng head like they used to do in the gang days.” i can’t Stun Won’t Stop Ronald Bethel, l 7, who lived at 2100 Tiebout Ave. Taken into police cus- tody was James Wilder, 20, of 2507 Washington Ave. ‘Disobey ‘ Police said Officers Jeffrey Matlin and Robert Visconti were on patrol on Pelham Parkway when they observed three men in a car who were acting suspiciously. The police motioned to the car to pull over. The car stopped and the three men got out but instead of walking toward the police car the three walked to the rear of the car. Police said one of the men had a shotgun and the other two were also armed. The officers reportedly ordered the men to drop their guns but were fired on instead. The police returned the fire and the three ran into the wooded area of Pelham Park. Shootout The three suspects ran East on Pelham Parkway with the police chasing them. The two officers were later joined by Officers Charles lacovone, Donald Powers and John B. Kelly who aided the two officers in the shootout. Police said the 1968 Mercury, in which the three were riding, is owned by Brown’s mother, Mrs. Sarah Williams. Det. Edward Heck of the Ninth . u . . 7 Homtcrde zone Is assrgned to the case. Bambaataa, who still keeps a copy of Soulski's death certificate, does not speak much on the incident. But he clearly believes something else was going on. His voice lowers to a whisper as he says, ”They shot him all in the lungs and the chest, 0 whole bunch of spots. They tore him up." A month after Soulski’s killing, Bronx cops shot dead a fourteen-year—old who had been ioyriding in a stolen car. A police spokesperson claimed the officers fired after the boy had lunged at them with a knife, but autopsies showed he had been shot through the back. Both these incidents precipitated a different kind of crisis than Cornell Beniamin's had for the Ghetto Brothers; they directed the gangs’ rage outward against the authorities. Representatives from the Amsterdam News ioined community leaders in a amassifimm Vszt/rdw NIWWMWM—krwmmrflfikfifimfl wmmmammwzsw-nwxmsmmfl wwwwmmm “WWW,mW ”mm. 1v: vimfwmwmmqudm misrwewmws Soul Salvation grassroots'effort to reduce tensions in the neighborhoods. They urged Bam— baataa and the Spades not to retal...
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