Writes of passage, an urban memoir: How a Pan-African journal and American glossies put Bongani Madondo on the Write Path
Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word
— Nirvana, Smells like Teen Spirit
I’m a black writer by choice and by experience.
— Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
A little magazine is like the start of a river… We don’t know how long they will live, and they often disappear; but better to disappear than to become a bad magazine.
— Etel Adnan, ‘On Small Magazines’, Bidoun Magazine
In this reworked excerpt from his collection of essays Sigh the Beloved Country, Contributing Editor Bongani Madondo muses on how the Pan-African journal Transition, Vibe magazine and a buncha American Glossies Put Him on the Write Path.
When I came around to it, Rajat Neogy’s now iconic and provocative essay ‘Do Magazines Culture?’, published in 1966 in issue 24 of Transition — the periodical he founded in Kampala — stamped its psychic footprints on my mind in ways I have yet to shake off. Can’t say I’m exactly in a hurry to.
To this day, I cannot say fo-sho if it was his rhetorical manner of posing the question, or the substance with which he wove, threaded and anchored the argument on the role of magazines in our — Black and brown folks’ — complex lives and self-perceptions that kept me awake all these years.
Sure you can relate? D’y’know that feeling that strikes you that someone could be on to something, though what exactly that is needs a bit of sweating hard on the small stuff, paying a bit more attention or just kicking back and waiting with a hunch in your belly that the essence of what’s being hinted at, will somehow reveal itself?
That’s how I felt, listening to Neogy’s question, for it indeed sounded like music to me. What genre, we’d soon found out.
Neogy’s song done gone hooked me on that specific essay and the magazine itself. Coming of age in several spaces — honey, told you my momma was a rollin’ stone; a single black queen down on her luck, perennially search of a convenient home to raise a bunch of us — in this village here, that village there, and, hey over there … across the main road beyond the green patch of veld the size of a gigantic soccer field where the village’s cattle grazed, you will arrive at Leboneng, the Old Money freehold north-west of Pretoria, where I grew up curious, insufferably restless.
Other than my mother’s own built book and magazine collection (books were books and not ‘texts’ then) the broader culture within which I came up was barren, that’s if literary entertainment was your kind of thing. As it was mine.
Because of such luck, unlike mamma’s boss Baas Attie le Roux’s son Rian, same age as me and who grew up on intellectual literature, I only got to read proper journals much more later. It makes sense then that I was only introduced to Neogy’s cool, if a bit intellectually gladiatorial journal long after my contemporaries elsewhere in the world had heard of, read, nah, worshipped at its altar. And long after it had decamped from Kampala to Accra and from Accra to Harvard University where it is still grazing.
The lucky ones among my generation — late 1960s-early 1970s, post-pill and rock ’n roll symphonic farts and geniuses travelling at the speed of light to fuel hippie revolutions from Manchester to Bamako — went on to contribute to it, under its revolving door of editors from Anthony Kwame Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr to Michael Vasquez, Kelefa Sanneh, Tommie Shelby, Vincent Brown, and so on.
I first got acquainted with Transition in 1999 through a new friend, the late England-raised Nigerian writer Ken Wiwa, scion of the famous poet famously slain by the man known as The Butcher of Abuja, General Sani Abacha.
Wiwa junior, a gifted storyteller with a singular writer’s voice distinct from his father’s, arrived in Johannesburg to work on a chapter for his memoirs In the Shadow of a Saint. He arrived to interview children of South Africa’s ‘Struggle Royalty’ — Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko — in between paying courtesy calls to Archbishop Tutu and saying hello to ‘Aunty’ Nadine Gordimer. I envied his unearned, genetic struggle credentials. For a stupid while, I too, wished my dad had been murdered by a whore-lovin’ dictator. Knowing safely that my daddy was long dead, dying without even the courtesy of meeting me when he was alive.
1999 it was.
Wiwa junior’s fellow Bri-Gerian (as I jokingly refer to cosmopolitan Nigerian children born to first, second or third generation Middle Class parents in Britain) Emeka Nwandiko, then based in Johannesburg, brought him to my digs in Yeoville for dinner.
This one-time Jewish bohemian village had morphed into a loud, rowdy and sexy African mini-metropolis, slap-bang on the east wing of the Sin City, Mjipa, Jozi itself. Two weeks later Wiwa and I were still at the dinner table. Discussing everything and everyone there was to discuss; harmlessly gossiping a bit about other writers, as is writers’ nature; admiring and quarrelling with their ideas and exchanging notes on literature, specifically magazines and journals.
Having trained in journalism, I suspect we suspected each other of not being proper writers, whatever that might be.
Just when Wiwa was about to leave, heading back to London, Naija or Canada where he was on a writer’s residency, the brother pulled two dog-eared books out of his rucksack by way of settling his lodgings bill. Naaa-gee-rianz!
He needn’t have settled anything-o. I already felt way over-compensated just by his presence.
Spending time with another writer, especially one with a different background to yours, is gold dust for writers, and I believe all sorts of artists. For me it was like owning a gold-stock in the transient cultural stock exchange that binds us all in this biz called journalism and so-called ‘serious’ literature.
‘Haba! Oga-o,’ he playfully shouted. Pretending to be outraged by the thought. ‘You mean you have not come across or read these?’ Wiwa slapped a brand new copy of Transition magazine, and Salman Rushdie’s essay collection Homelands on the kitchen counter. They fell with a bass-ly twuck!
Thumbing it towards my face: ‘Ey-yo, there’s just no way you have not come across this, nah, broddah.’ (For a Middle Class Nigerian raised in tony schools in England, I felt a sickening and excitable hunch that Wiwa, as well as a truckload of my double-passport bearing Naa-gee-rian friends suffered from a class guilt. Thus that exaggerated everyman’s Naijah accent.)
With that … swoosh! he was gone. Leaving a copy of what was once Neogy’s ‘baby’, which, in the Johannesburg summer of 1999, had long since found a home, at Harvard’s Institute for African and African American Research, currently known as the Hutchins Centre — far away from home geographically, although scarcely removed, I’d love to believe, in spirit and symbolism, from its founder’s cultural and literary ambitions.
Although we know how what is often passed off as the holy grail can mask a reluctance to change and and resistance to self-critique, and often collapses under its own canonical symbolism. A snarky friend once warned me that only public amenity structures needs signs and symbols: writers and stories must sink them both. We don’t need them, even if powerful people do not stop using them to douse our fire.
It is fifteen years since Wiwa left and the question he inadvertently came bearing — like a tweeting bird flip-flapping over the vast African borders, across the Atlantic — on behalf of Neogy, haunts me to this day: Do Magazines Culture?
Late last year, when I was asked to consider performing an essay on the subject ‘Magazines You Grew up Reading’, part of my soul meandered back to Neogy, who, because I had actually never met (he decamped to America in the 1970s after a spectacular failure to revive the thing in Accra), remained fantasy character in my flightful mind. And, for the great legacy he’d gifted the world with, he loomed large as a mentor I never had.
I actually do not have a riposte if the demands of his essay, Do Magazine’s Culture?, invited a repudiation per se, although his exhortation for magazines and journals to embody an ideal, whatever the ideal; say African — and not traditional, nationalistic or indigenisation — has stirred something profound in me.
I never, for a moment, imagined magazines by their nature possessed such powers. Here am I now stepping back to assess and romance with magazines that had radically shaped a greater part of my youth and, by extension, the self I’m drawing from to critique a past then in formation.
I arrived in cold and unforgiving Hillbrow, Johannesburg’s multicultural borough with only sixty cents; a homeless nomad, university drop-out, barely out of his teens. The only thing that mattered then was the inexplicable constant search for identity and something to put in the tummy. Back then I was also nursing dreams of making it as a fiction writer. I had nothing at all, no friends, relatives and nothing to my name ’cept ambition. As it turned out, it was also the time I reacquainted myself with magazines, a journey that began around the age of five.
I was one of those weird types with no address at all, always reading magazines freely in the magazine kiosks and corner café shelves in the city that never so much sleeps as throw you a wink.
Sometimes I’d lurk around libraries, with no library card. Often, I’d sneak in and stay there until the librarian coughed twice; a signal to me and some homeless old guy who, like me, had made the library his home, that the library hours have long ticked-tocked, ticked-tocked and hey, tomorrow’s another day, gentlemen. Until then, I had always confused Rolling Stone with the name of that band of wiggly-waist-ed geriatrics.
By the time I discovered the magazine, its grand-sleazed-out, gonzo, literary, jazzy, and psychedelic allure had long faded away.
Although still helmed by Jann S Wenner, gone was its gonzo-spirit; as was its cinematic, immersion style of narrative embalmed as New Journalism by one of the magazine’s contributors, the white suited elf, Tom Wolfe. Gone were the ‘Noise-boys’: Bangs, Tosches, Meltzer, et al, and their descendants. Gone also was the alternative dream, gobbled up by the 1980s and Reaganomics and the bloated second arrival of harmless pop-culture since, well, the late 1950s post-war boom.
Gone also was Robert Palmer’s mystic excursions into other-worlds. Early in the 1970s after a chance meeting with the magazine’s editor-publisher Wenner at the author of Dispatches, Michael Heller’s digs in Manhattan, Palmer copped an assignment to head out to then mystical Morocco, perhaps pursuing William Burroughs or his long-time pal Brion Gysin. Up there, he discovered, as now recounted in his posthumous collection Blues & Chaos, the sacred Jajouka villages, Phoenician temple ruins, right deep into the ancient Afro-Islamic trance music of Gnawo. About these discoveries, he set out to pen a series of literary sonic testimonials delivered through vivid pieces such as ‘Up the Mountain’, excerpted in Rolling Stone October 1971.
By the time I got my hands on the magazine all that too was gone. What I now know of is way after the fact. Clearly, I arrived to read about the greatest party in the pop-cultural tent twenty years after the last, gloriously drunk guest had crawled home.
And yet, even in the graveyard of a once soul-altering magazine, I found my journalistic gold-dust. The 1990s version was the Rolling Stone of my and Kurt Cobain’s generation and not my hero Nick Tosches’ time.
It spoke to my age, my era, my dreams, anxieties, my sexy, my rock ’n’ roll, my punk, my funk, my politics, my bullshit, my uncertainty, more than any magazine on the shelves then.
Not only did it capture my soul, this Rolling Stone cultured me, Mr Neogy.
The writing was something I more than related to: It was me! Especially the screeds of the single-named curiosity called Touré.
Touré’s soul-quenched Neo-Soul Journalism was a combo of Nelson George’s understated nuance, the NAACP-era pull ya-self by the bootstraps, Jim Crow front-store religious sermonising and the grittier, swingier, edgier, New-Jack Journalism happening just across town at Vibe magazine, gifted us, children of those denied the right to dream with a right to do just that.
Although Touré could never ever be, say, as cerebral cineaste as Armond White was, as operatic as Hilton Als, nor as techno-genius as Kodwo Eshun was, he was something black writing seemed in need of: for the 1990s, the sort of new blackness James Baldwin exhorted his little nephew to dream about, knowing too well the dream might soon become deferred in The Fire Next Time.
At his best he performed his Gonzo-Soul journalism in total mimicry of — better still, elevated — the very performances of those he reported about. For a time, I felt a ball of fire and disgust, wondering, as they say in Anglo West Africa, whycome his series of biographical sketches of the pain of Lauryn Hill never scooped a Pulitzer?
But soul brotha was not the only one in the 1990s Rolling Stone tent of gifted testifiers.
When cats such as Neil Strauss went out to profile say, Courtney Love, or headed out on the road with the Mӧtley Crüe, survived and came back to tell the tales, a reader instinctively realised they were bewitched by nothing else but magic at its darkest genius.
Only in between Rolling Stone’s sheets, even a defanged Rolling Stone, could you find as eclectic a variety as David Fricke, Greil Marcus, Anthony DeCurtis, PJ O’Rourke, Lola Ogunnaike, and for me the prime example of a rock scribe as a shaman Mikal Gilmore.
At Touré’s Rolling Stone almost all of those smart wordslingers were white.
For a boy raised with a healthy diet of Steve Biko’s negritudinal philosophy of blackness, the periodical’s whiteness (that’s before all American media latched on the black-originating, all-cannibalising term, Urban Culture) t’was always going to send me into an existentialist crisis all heart-core Afropunks had dealt with at some point of their moshing.
And so I kept on moving.
Johannesburg: summer of 1992.
The new Afropolis: defiant, show-offy, pouty, reckless, totally African in make up without managing that distinct Pan-Africanism that Lagos, Kinshasa, parts of Paris and New York City have.
Here was a Johannesburg at the cross roads. A city desperate to curate a new image, in a country gripped uncomfortably between a racist past and the scary future unknown. Mandela had just been out for a year. The stillborn revolution was indeed televised.
South Africa was thick with excitement, anticipation and tension.
Out of those streets issued forth a new musical expression forged out of a mélange of Detroit’s ‘house’, ‘mbaqanga’, and of course nascent ‘rap’ beamed through the telly from Gotham City’s boroughs of the Bronx and Harlem, the uptown African republic in whose salons and dives black artists birthed a post-Depression Black-elegance, innovations and hustle — The Renaissance.
Johannesburg’s heat was unbeatable.
Down at the local Nu Metro cinema on Pretorius, abutting the corner of Edith Cavell, the block I prowled night and day, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs-esque charted unchartered areas of gross, pastiche violence, especially the manner in which blood oozed from victims as some kind of avant-pop art, or avant-prop.
In my country, then still gripped in the internecine wars between African hostel dwellers from the rural areas, and the over-politicised city’s young and restless who foolishly, as per all youth, still itched for a real revolution, bloodletting was not as visually attractive. Shit was real.
They shot to kill.
To this day I will never forget the day a bunch of Zulu impies armed to the teeth cornered and shot at us, a group of youths. In Johannesburg, baby, they hacked each other with real machetes, blades running deep into the ribcage of both father and son, leaving scores of women howling at the African ancestors, when not singing dirges for their lost hubbies and sons.
Back then, we had no such fortune of listening to redemption songs. Instead of reflecting, as pop radio is faintly expected to, radio right across all channels was dead. No innovative play-listing, no socially engaging talk-radio, the sound of nothing and aural death was deafening.
Sadly, despite the bells and cymbals of agitation and loud bangs of anxieties pervading the air, there was not a single magazine I felt captured either the city or the country’s zeitgeist.
Once again, a young man on the run from his past, and restless in Hillbrow, I turned my sights across the black Atlantic. Or the black Atlantic found me.
Could be said there was, and there’s still nothing revelatory about this: lost and found by America in your own country: US style capitalism, ferried by the broom-riding (be) witch(ing) missionaries of Hollywood knew and still knows no boundries.
Harking back to the late nineteenth century, my forbearers in literature and the arts, simply among the founding fathers of all of Africa’s black modernity, had themselves, been lost, found, (mis)educated, rescued and influenced by the potent and accessible ‘Negro’ culture, in post-Gold Rush Johannesburg and elsewhere: Sophiatown, District Six and Marabastad.
The first issue of Vibe magazine — which I’ve archived to this day — reeked of an insubordinate don’t-fuck-with-me air.
On the cover — a profile portrait penned by Kevin Powell — was a proto-nativist image of a fiercely fit, topless African man who could be anywhere in any period. Gazing him at the photograph, images of turn of the centuries (19th, and 20th) missionaries and ‘explorers’ resurfaced from the self-suppressed subconscious. Africans in Sundiata Keita’s Bamako. Images of Dinka tribal warriors in the Sudan, or, the Congo, never just Sudan, not Congo, the strikes at their race-fabled ‘hearts of darkness’ strutted with their shimmering, blue-black, National Geographic-sized ripply bodies, across my mind. I too felt like I’ve been summoned to bear witness to the image of a true ‘negroid’ species.
He could’ve been a teenage me, without the tattooed ripply body, and my friends after a swim in the treacherous local Tshwane river.
The cover star, Treach of Naughty, then the face, the body and the spiritual representative of Naughty by Nature, one of the popular and belligerent rap outfits of the time, looked as ungovernable, as Maasai-chic …princely, even.
Right there and then, something stirred in me. The magazine spoke to the restless, angsty, searching soul in me as it would have, then, thousands of those black like me. I felt both a sense of liberation and uplift. It struck me there and then that here was a magazine that knew and spoke of my and my generation’s inner secrets and dreams. Who we are, not what we desired as much as what we will claim. Here was the magazine that would feel, in its editorial pulse, our darkest and most erotic dances, a magazine that’d lay bare the rhythm of the voices in our heads, hold a key to our code-speak, slang, temper and report all that in a tempo and beat, inherently ours. No doubt the magazine also pandered to the uneducated, unchallenged masculinities of the time in all sub-cultures and marginalised communities dotting the globe. It assumed a laddish spirit, though unlike the British laddish culture, with its twin tropes of football obsession and slacker culture.
It quite simply assumed the symbolism of a young defiant man: Latino toughie from Spanish Harlem, Pantsula stylist from Soweto, flossing brother from uptown New York or ‘rude’ bwoy from Kingston, Jamaica. In his company and era, we never as much looked back as dug deep into our yesterdays, if only to mine the reservoirs of nostalgic blackness. With him on our side we dreamt we could rule the world — imagine that. Check: Black Renaissance style? We swagged and updated it. Proof? Janet Jackson’s Got ’til It’s Gone video. Vibe Blues poetry? We re-imagined it as slam. Funk? We invested it into West Coast gangstah cultural stock-exchange, and cashed it out of the dense and Dirty South Stankonia as per Mr Andre Benjamin’s futuristic sermons.
Did I, a semi-village boy in Africa even care or know what ‘stankonia’ meant? Not an inch. Only that it carried the right dosage of putrid energy and almost hyper-physical pulchritude beats in one, if you can imagine it.
As for the general writing, the magazine created space for a new ways of expression without totally tossing the stylistic forbears — Chester Himes, Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Keorapetse Kgositsile — the sin-thesis curmudgeonly spirit of Melvin Van Peebles with the wild style of a Fab 5 Freddy, and so on. In Vibe journalism, though the slang and context was different to mine, I could hear the similar sounds of my folk’s jazz attitudes, the raucous and merry chaos of never ending village weddings, and picture the pimp-roll shuffle of older township tsotsis I knew back home.
The story of me and Vibe is the story of my life, almost. It certainly is the story that best narrates how I got into this art-racket called journalism, or aspects of it: cultural, sociopolitical and profile writing.
Thus it is beyond mere memoir. It is a full-on, galloping, fat, raging, anecdotal autobiography and some more. Because of that I can afford to be at least honest, somewhat.
Unlike my forebears’ favourite periodical, Drum, or my mother’s beloved Pace (South Africa’s township Middle Class glossy journal founded and funded by the apartheid government’s Department of Information), I felt Vibe lacked ass-kicking cover visuals.
Sure, there was that black and blue-ish sepia October 1993 cover with Wesley Snipes. The image looks inspired, if not evocative of otherworldly sexy, on its own. Underneath the Vibe masthead, again, projected fantastic imageries of an African warrior, or sage or north Western African groom (in cultures where men’s looks are valued than the opposite sex), ready for the taking.
How about that now famous June/July 1997 cover of Toni Braxton buck-naked bar a piece of white towel covering just the bare essentials? Although not as racy as Ms Braxton’s cover, the Mary J Blige cover just three months earlier, as moody as any worthy heir of Dinah Washington, Letta Mbulu and ’Retha Franklin should be: Mary in turquoise get-up, astride a chair, no smile, no bullshit, no cover lines at all ’cept ‘Hip Hop Soul Survivor’, messed up my head, hormones and just about the way I proceeded to listen to her music in ways I can only describe as heart-snatched.
Overall though, the art of covers, I am afraid, were not the magazine’s strength. Helmed by the sharp, philosophical style maven, the director of photography, Vibe’s photo-desk was not quite visually blind. Old school, hard copy magazines restrictive cover page format leaves no much space for artistic transgression that inside features allowed. And for all its proto-glossed-up protest mien, at heart Vibe was a lifestyle product. The inside pages offered a different visual gist altogether.
In between the Vibe sheets, photographers such as Marc Baptiste, Piotr Sikora, Lyle Ashton Harris, Mpozi Mshale Tolbert, Jonathan Mannion, Koto Bolofo, Catalina Gonzalez, Dana Lixenberg, David LaChapelle, Albert Watson and Norman Watson conspired to tell a wide variety of wildly, urban, inspired, pop documentaries and portraits fit for both the Louvre and Harlem’s Studio Museum, the boulevard and the black boys On the Corner.
I will echo James McBride, the writer who, by his own admission, ‘slept through the entire revolution’ of his lifetime, hip-hop.
In the 2007 essay Hip Hop Planet in National Geographic, which took him from New York to corners as far as Dakar’s Médina, McBride speaks of hip-hop as ‘dipped-deep in the boiling cauldron of race and chaos’. You could have said the same about this magazine.
One of the Vibe reports from beyond America’s frontiers which I remember fondly, if not with shock. Some of the photographed artists carried AK-47s, live ammunition, and made no apology for it, and the piece was simply titled Rebel Music, written by one of the culture’s pioneers, Fab 5 Freddy. He’d flown to the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s shantytowns to report about Brazil’s booming rap scene. I remember Fab 5’s establishment shot-like opener as though it was yesterday.
‘Think of Brazil, and the first images that come to mind are the massive freakfest of Carnival, soccer, samba, and exotic women cavorting on booty-full beaches. But as I saw for myself when I visited last January for two weeks, Brazil is more like a ticking time bomb, especially in its largest cities, São Paulo and Rio …’
You just had that feeling deep from your belly that what followed was indeed a ‘freakfest’ you, dear reader, would’ve felt so blessed not to be part of, but even more elated for reading about its empathetic insights.
It did feel like strange things happened wherever it was that Vibe was put together and it seeped through into the pages. Rare among magazines, in Vibe virtues such as empathy were expressed interchangeably and sometimes in the same story, with freewheeling gonzo. The two should not work but they did.
Take for example Kevin Powell’s work, especially his first interview with Tupac or whenever he told stories of fatherlessness or the lack of black male role models.
The man spoke from the depth of his belly. His sentences and sub-texture issued from the traditions of gospel pastors even when he was reporting on the most debauched of stories or heart tearing tales of absent black fathers, the staple, today still of much of hip-hop culture’s pounding anger, and literary heart.
In addition to and beside Powell, I kept a Dream-Team list of writers the magazine was never the same without: Bӧnz Malone, Joan Morgan, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Cheo Hodari Coker, Greg Tate, Charlie Braxton, and Kris X.
In retrospect, that is if history could be freed from the strictures of time, objects of our youth allowed if only in our heads to time leap with us as we age, I would be curious how the Vibe of my youth would read, feel and look like to me, today. Were I then indulged to indulge my magic time-lapsing and leaping black-fantasy -’toon world, and asked to guest-edit Vibe issue of my choice today, I would do so knowing too well I already have my dream team of scribes bubbling in my head. I would go for a mix of experience and youth.
I would also leap far and wider, over the oceans to, consciously, factor in a Black Atlantic as well as Asian voices. African Americans, like the rest of us, are victims of American propaganda; our couzies over there have always felt lost in the sea of the black and brown worlds beyond the borders of the United States. The examples of the likes of Du Bois — who settled in Ghana towards his last days — were not emulated by everyone, and indeed perhaps the late twentieth century back-to-Africa movement was more of a romance-blinded gesture than anything.
Africa has always evoked a myriad rush of the senses and confused historical narratives, not only to the African Americans but to Africans left in the continent as well. It was, not until the emergence of hip-hop, an American expression made global by the likes of Vibe, that black and brown youth all over the world staked their native tongues on the art form.
My dream Vibe issue would reflect such diverse voices of blackness. Thus, the likes of Kai Friese and Pankaj Mishra (both Asian Indians) join the likes of Paul Beatty, Barry Michael Cooper, Lisa Jones, bell hooks and dream hampton.
In my grossly fantasised Vibe, Afropolitan intellectual nomads such as Kodwo Eshun, Chris Abani, Ben Okri, Sandile Dikeni, and Alain Mabanckou would be played alongside Knox Robinson, Armond White, ZZ Packer and Sanyika Shakur.
The editorial mix would be a mix-bowl of sensations and spices. Imagine the moody black Brit-MC Tricky, alongside the Blk Jks; Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) with Vieux Farka Touré and Saul Williams with Camagwini? How does the idea of a King Kanye with Zap Mama, both etching their non-apologetic bad-ass-Blackness on a Vibe cover, sit with you?
If I were to single out a writer who impacted on me deeply, Greg Tate comes to mind. He does to hip hop and rock writing what the poet Amiri Baraka’s Yoruba/Zulu/Mandinka spirit-guides did to the blues verse.
To single out this or that piece of work, even in as niche a platform as Vibe is to shoot oneself on the foot. Well, the world is full self-mutilated feet wounds. I will gladly join their ranks.
One piece he did for the magazine that reacquainted me with the African healing gifts in my own family, a journalistic work that — against all odds — transported me back to my hollering, shrieking, quaking, rock ’n’ roll African village of initiates, seers and rain-prophets, is the profile he did on Carlos Santana. Riding high on the back of a collaborations-feast Supernatural, not to make light of the renewed mad love thirty years after the 1971 chart-topping Santana III, Carlos was enjoying his late career’s second-act, and maybe his last. Thing is, though, he was a relic of a psychedelic age and only a few of the 1990s new urban culture arbiters truly knew of his place in the African-Tex-Mex pantheon. Tate was one of the few: Precisely the reason, I suspected, he was dispatched West to the rock’s alchemist’s cave in California. The resulting piece in the September 1999 issue — a red-blood frock attired, and moody-as-fuck Mary J red on the cover — affirmed what I’ve always been unable to express about a certain strand of rock ’n’ roll. ‘I do not play [the] blues. I do not play rock. Neither do I play jazz nor Latin music. What I do is; I play African music.’
Santana and Tate in conversation were a marvel. As was Tate visiting Richard Pryor at home at the height of the comic’s multiple sclerosis.
Many of us growing into our own skin in the 1990s tended to, like people in generations prior, and many after us will, obsess on the game of compare and contrast, reducing everything to winners and also-rans, great versus greatest: The Great White Hope? The baddest rapper. The best most drug-addled guitar God to have ever lived. That hormonal. That boyish. It’s never not boyish.
It’s our weakness.
Back in the early 1990s many tended to throw Tate and Powell’s singular writing styles in some kind of cock-fight, seeking to establish who between them was the baddest muthah (f’cker) on ink. Hip-hop culture being such as a masculinised (male, specifically), these gladiatorial battles in our heads were simply part of a largely tradition male black-on-black violence going back to slavery, the fittest singled out to wrestle battle each other for massah’s entertainment, up to, of course close circuit televised billion dollar boxing sports.
It was nonsensical and divisive in the manner mostly refashioned by male energy, and therein lieth its potency and appeal.
How futile, though. Their writing styles are markedly different. Tate is a free-associative scribe whose best work and chug-along train-full of cross-references works as a kind of performative Afro-futuristic operatas, is a jazz poet in the Amiri Baraka hip manner. Powell might be, for my inadequate reading, more like an heir to one of the Black Arts Movement pioneers, Larry Neal. He was Neal of the MTV era, in you can imagine.
Their range, tone, timbre, and choice of subject were affected, as it were, by the singular paths were both walked to where they arrived at the peak of Vibe’s reign. Tate’s Middle Class parents were chumz with both Dr King and Stokely Carmichael. While, he is, just like my mate, Wiwa: Struggle progeny, Powell was raised by a tough-lovin’ single mother in Newark, Jersey.
The one writer whose work, in quite a different manner, ran with my affections, is a dice-roller, Bronx born and bred Duke of the street, Bönz Malone. If Tate spoke to my head, Powell to the heart, Malone spoke to my waist: to his insouciant, unashamedly street rhythm prose I could dance: my Zulu Ndlamu, and moonwalk B-Boy.
Malone was a combination of Raymond Chandler’s wisecracking, hard living private eye and the hip-hop royalty at home at Paris balls and back-alleys of Harlem, rolling dice, or dollar, often at the same time. He was the Duke of hip-hop streets. Listen here: just look for a short screed in which he dissected John Singleton’s work. The night I read it I wept for Singleton as much as I wept joyously.
In his Vibe columns or social pages you’d see him draped in an ankle fur, some 1950s style Stetson cocked on the side, eyes covered with some big label dusky stunners.
In a way he cultivated the pimp look. Even reading his prose, especially his work, even without seeing his photo, the writing painted the picture of its scribe. I remember thinking, reading his elegy to Notorious BIG: he probably never walks, but shuffles.
Malone’s New Jack Swing prose, partly copped from one of the culture’s progenitors Barry Michael Cooper, and partly from the innards of the ghetto’s slam poetics, suggested there could be something ominously don’t-fuck-with-me-or-you-won’t-see-your-children air about him. You will never know: he was Biggie Small’s friend in ‘real’ life, and you know what they saud about Big Poppa, no?
Later in the years I worked as a critic myself and I leaned back on his body of short, self-consciously mackin’ column: here was a brother gifted with the ability to pry open the vaults of critical, progressive black love from blacks’ blind love.
In times of doubt The Concierge affirmed me. In not so many words, his, Tate’s, Powell’s, Hodari-Coker’s and bell hooks — on the few occasions I read her in the magazine — nudged me along the write path: ‘So long boy,’ their fiercely diverse styles seemed to whisper in my head, ‘go ahead and risk being unloved, if only momentarily. Follow your song.’
By the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Vibe was no longer what it used to be. Neither was I.
In its absence turning me into some in-character, bad-ass muthah, these one point little magazines, perhaps throw in Esquire and a clutch of my dusty pocket-sized pulp-fiction books, She, Kid Colt and Tessa, gifted light and allowed me into a banquet of senses I never knew existed.