For this special Black History Month Amoeblog, we’ve invited author, journalist, broadcaster and activist JR Valrey, aka the People’s Minister of Information, to be a guest contributor and to write the following insightful piece. The Oakland-based Valrey, who was interviewed and profiled on the Amoeblog last month, is known for his work on KPFA radio, his contributions to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, and his recently published book “Block Reportin’.” The book, which will soon be available for sale in Amoeba Hollywood’s ever-expanding book section, features interviews with such important Black cultural figures as political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, hip-hop emcee, poet and actor Mos Def, former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, comedian and social satirist Paul Mooney and the late, great, highly influential Gil Scott Heron. In the spring of this year, Valrey plans to publish his second book, “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2.” For more info and insights on JR Valrey, visit the blockreportradio website. Thanks for your contribution to the Amoeblog, JR Valrey!
by JR Valrey
Black History Month was born out of Black History Week, which was created by Carter G. Woodson, author of “The Miseducation of the Negro,” in the early half of the 20th century. Since then, many people celebrate it by learning about the great pyramids of Egypt or by memorizing Malcolm’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” which is cool, but I want to modernize and diversify the list a little bit. These are some books, movies and albums that I would add to the list of the “Black Experience Study Guide,” because they had a profound effect on how I look at the world in a spiritual, social, political and cultural sense.
This list is my humble contribution to uplifting people’s consciousness about what is happening to Black people internationally, as well as how we feel about life after having our backs against the wall for centuries, with few exceptions. As the late legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane would say, “Here are a few of my favorite things.”
1) ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander
“The New Jim Crow” is one of the best books that I’ve ever read in my life. It gives a chronological history of how the U.S. has become the biggest mass incarcerating nation in the world, way beyond Russia and even apartheid South Africa.
This book talks about the role that political architects like Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and more played in bringing us to the scenario, where 2 million people are currently behind bars. Michelle Alexander also makes the poignant point that there are more Black people in this country tied to the criminal justice system today than there were in 1850, a decade before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. “The New Jim Crow” is an essential read for anybody doing serious study on the on-going war being waged against Black people in the U.S. by the government.
Bay View editor’s note: A revised edition of “The New Jim Crow” has just been released in paperback; therefore, it is now available to prisoners in states like California that do not allow hardback books. It can be ordered from the publisher, The New Press, 38 Greene St., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10013, for $19.95 (though it’s a little cheaper on Amazon).
2) ‘The First Minute of a New Day’ by The Midnight Band
Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson of The Midnight Band were two of the most influential musicians of their era, musically and lyrically. Many have heard of some of their contemporaries like Curtis Mayfield and The Last Poets, but somehow this band seems to get lost in the sauce when it comes to official recognition.
This album is like a time capsule, detailing spiritually the wants and desires of African people that have been oppressed in the Americas for centuries. Songs like “Winter in America,” “Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman” and “Pardon Our Analysis” are timeless masterpieces … not only scathing critiques of the system that has its boot on our necks, but empowering messages for oppressed people to keep their heads up, fist in the air and eyes peeled on the path to self-determination. Songs like “The Offering,” “Must Be Something” and “Alluswe” are revolutionary prayers, extensions of the spirituals enslaved Africans were singing on plantations in the South to organize and politically educate themselves.
The late Gil Scott Heron was one of the most passionate writers of any genre, in my opinion, ever produced in the United States. Brian Jackson is the perfect musical compliment. This dynamic duo has been sampled in rap music by 2Pac, The Coup, Freeway, Common and Kanye, just to name a few.
3) ‘Kongo: 50 Years of Independence of Congo’
This is a documentary that employs animation to tell the history of the mineral rich, under-developed, war-torn African country known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Everyone who listens to the international media from the United States, Europe or the Arab world has heard the stereotypes of African governments being backwards and corrupt and squandering resources, but very few have heard of the European powers who manufactured these situations, helping to put these puppets in power for the benefit of European economies.
This documentary, which is broken into three parts, tells the stories of King Leopold of Belgium, the architect of colonialism in the Congo, who genocidally cut the country’s population in half, because of his ambitions to enrich himself, and later Belgium.
“Kongo: 50 Years of Independence of Congo” also paints a bold portrait of the late great first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who strived to fight off secessionists who wanted to split the most mineral rich areas from the country for the benefit of a few and the Western powers. It was my first time hearing the names of Congolese anti-colonialist like Simon Kimbangu, who was a liberation theologist and died a political prisoner because of that fact, and Paul Panda, who was a Black man of Congolese descent from Belgium, who spoke up and organized for African independence on an international level.
This film discusses the life of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was in power for decades, and who was in part responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. It also talks about the rise, with the assistance of the Rwandan government, of Laurent Kabila, who was later assassinated, and his “son,” the current front man “running” the Congo, Joseph Kabila.
In most electronic devices, there is a mineral called coltan, and 80 percent of the world’s supply of this essential mineral is in the Congo. So for all of us who use laptops, iPhones, iPads and PS3’s, it is our responsibility to know the human costs and environmental costs of these products and to do what we can to eliminate the carnage. The Congolese people deserve to have their sovereignty and right to self-determination respected, and if people want to make and buy things that require minerals from the Congo, then they should pay the Congolese who are the caretakers of that land a fair price.
To properly respect other cultures, we need to educate ourselves, and learn something about them. This documentary is a great start to educating oneself on Congolese political history.
4) ‘The Wiz’
“The Wiz” is a brilliantly crafted cinematic masterpiece that was shot in New York City with an all-star cast featuring Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russel, Diana Ross and more. Although it is an adaptation of the widely known “Wizard of Oz,” it is the Black version that is spiced up with beautifully written and performed music, as well as soulful choreography.
The climax of the film is when Dorothy, played by Diana Ross, and her crew of misfits make it into the Emerald City, aka Oz. There Richard Pryor, who plays the Wiz, scares the hell out of the motley crew using big speakers hoisted on the top of tall buildings and a huge metal face that breathes fire and gives people the impression that the Wiz is indestructible. At one point the Wiz yells through his microphone that the color is red and all of the people follow the trend, even making up songs and dances to celebrate the color. A few minutes later, the Wiz changes the trendy color to green and the people follow suit, making up a new song and dance. This reflects the brainwashing power of the corporate media.
Shot during the political and cultural dishevel of the ‘70s, this tale of mass media manipulation of the human race is even more important today, looking at the fact that more people know of Jay Z and Beyonce’s new baby than know about the war in the Congo, which has already claimed 6 million African lives. Most people in the U.S. could name more sports figures than politicians who make decisions every day that dictate the quality of our very lives. This is a testament to the power of the media.
5) ‘The 7 Day Theory’ by Tupac Shakur aka Makavelli
This was the last album that Tupac Shakur worked on and oversaw before he was assassinated with the help of various police agencies in Las Vegas in September of 1996. Different from “All Eyez on Me,” “The 7 Day Theory” was, in my opinion, one of his most contemplative albums right alongside the classic “Me Against the World.” These were the two albums where we got to see the genius come out of Pac without any obstacles or filters.
Tupac recorded “All Eyes on Me” after he was shot, set up and convicted on trumped up rape charges. The rage and party nature that makes up “All Eyes on Me” reflects a young Black spokesman for his generation that was still maturing, and he was trying to psychologically bounce back from being almost killed and unjustly accused, imprisoned and crucified in the media.
“The 7 Day Theory” is the album he started after he was able to shed those feelings, expel those demons and revolve back to what it is he set out to do. Pac was very verbose about his political leanings, on songs like “Blasphemy,” “Whiteman’s World” and “Hold Ya Head.” He lyrically sprayed venom on “Bomb First” and “Hail Mary,” where he starts out with “I’m not a killer but don’t push me/ revenge is like the sweetest joy next to gettin’ pussy/ picture paragraphs unloaded/ wise words being quoted/peeped a weakness in the rap game and sowed it/ bow down. “
A lot of people had a problem with Pac calling out other rappers on this album. But isn’t that the roots of rap? When KRS 1 and MC Shan battled, it was Hip Hop; when Common attacked Ice Cube, it was Hip Hop; but when Pac spoke up in his rhymes, people couldn’t take it. They thought that he went too far. His words, his writing and his passion were so in tune with each other that people thought that it was dangerous. Isn’t that the sign of a great writer, poet, rapper and musician?
His commentary on other musicians was only a secondary reason why I appreciated this album. The No. 1 reason is that Pac, his emotions and the things that would happen to him in the world gave the planet a bird’s eye view to the worldly intellect, the gentleness of spirit, the confidence and the arrogant, rough attitude of young Black men that is created once we realize that in every country, in every kind of society, it is us against the world: White on top and Black on the bottom. Rich on top and poor on the bottom.
This album elegantly weaved all of these feelings into a cohesive product that the oppressed all over the world and those who identify with them related to, because they knew that Pac meant everything he said, with everything in his being. I aspire as a writer to be able to connect my brain, heart and pen like Pac did on this album.
6) ‘Block Reportin’’ by JR Valrey
This is the book of interviews that I wrote. I think that “Block Reportin’” is an essential read because I interviewed people who made major contributions nationally or were involved in major earthshaking events: controversial people, talented musicians who stand for a cause, legendary political figures who speak on behalf of Black people from all walks of life and more.
Interviews range from the late poet and jazz and blues man Gil Scott Heron to the fire spitting lyricist M-1, half of one of rap’s dopest revolutionary groups, dead prez, to courageous peace activist Cynthia McKinney, who talks about her experience being kidnapped and made a political prisoner in Israel, to Hajj Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of the international human rights leader Malcolm X (Hajj Malik El Shabazz) to CIA financier Freeway Rick Ross, the real dude, not the rapper, to Black Panther political prisoner and the prolific writer Mumia Abu Jamal plus more.
I don’t believe in polite journalism, though I do believe in truthful journalism, so I ask questions that may seem invasive at times, but it is in the spirit of true political education. In the book, I don’t speak the “Queen’s English.” I speak the dialect of masses, the people in the streets who live around us. The reason I do this is to communicate information, not to pass some kind of English exam.
Unlike most school textbooks that talk about the people who are no longer breathing, “Block Reportin’” deals with the people who are still breathing, kicking, fighting and speaking out. This is important because their stories are not over. In some cases you can join their movement and help to affect the outcome, like in the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal or in the case of the war in the Congo that is still on, having claimed over 6 million lives and caused catastrophic environmental damage.
The chapters in “Block Reportin’” are only a few pages long, and there are more than 30 personalities for the reader to analyze who talk about subjects as eclectic and abstract as Malcolm X’s connection to jazz music, which I talked about with Umar Bin Hasan of the Last Poets, and as concrete as the curriculum of the Black Panther Party’s Liberation School, which was headed by Ericka Huggins, who shared her knowledge with me in a KPFA recording studio.
“Block Reportin’” is my attempt at hooking real living history and history makers up with people who live within these neighborhood and cell blocks, because ultimately I believe that our history and the history of resistance in this country in all its forms should be documented and distributed by us. If we fail to do so, our enemies will bury it and change it.
7) ‘Dark Alliance’ by Gary Webb
Sometimes it is said in the Black community that the truth is only the truth when it comes out of the mouth of a white man. So to that extent, I had to include this book on my list of top seven choices of books, movies and music that I would recommend for Black History Month.
“Dark Alliance,” written by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb – who was later murdered – details the U.S. government plans that were executed in the ‘80s to sell cocaine in Black neighborhoods in the Bay and in LA. The mission was to fund counter-revolutions, off the books and out of the gaze of U.S. taxpayers, in El Salvador and in Nicaragua. This book exposes explosive information linking the elite in the highest echelons of the United States government to international drug trafficking.
This is another book that exposes the true nature of the government that we currently live under. Many of the people – excuse me, criminals – named in this book are still alive and still impacting influential circles in the government, military and intelligence agencies of this county. So even after you’ve read the last page, the story is on-going and still unfolding. We’ve had shortages on water in California recently, but never on cocaine, which is grown in South America.
“Dark Alliance” is a classic piece of journalism that I believe should be a mandatory read for every high school and college student in this country.
For more on guest Amoeblogger JR Valrey, visit the blockreportradio website.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’“ and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe,” both available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first appeared on Amoeblog, the online forum of Amoeba Music Inc.