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M-1, half of the activist hip-hop duo dead prez, swigs a suspicious-looking liquid from a plastic container as he awaits his turn on the mike at the annual Black August hip-hop benefit concert. His poison? "Cucumber, parsley, celery, and some other greens," which he blended himself to combat a wicked cough. A fitting elixir for an act that typically draws "vegetarians and sisters who wear head wraps," according to event coproducer Clyde Valentin. In fact, the crowd this night at New Age Cabaret on St. Marks Place is young, bohemian, and multicolored, and the sweaty mist hovering above reeks more of incense than of the less legal combustibles usually found at a concert.
Perhaps the management of Irving Plaza, where the event was originally to be held, anticipated a more volatile scene when it refused to allow dead prez on its stage, forcing planners to move the benefit to a different place and time. But Black August coordinators believe that dead prez's revolutionary messagein antistate songs like "Cop Shot" and "Assassination"rather than crowd safety, was Irving Plaza's main concern. They are convinced that the club's decision was political and claim that censorship dogs dead prez at major performance spaces throughout the city.
The sold-out August 30 benefit was the third in an annual series that commemorates significant events in black resistance that have occurred in the month of August, such as the 1963 march on Washington and the 1971 San Quentin prison uprising, and supports progressive hip-hop and humanitarian efforts. It was originally slated for August 13. But when Irving Plaza nixed dead prez a few days before showtime, the progressive groups and individuals who form the Black August collective decided the benefit could not go on without one of its most politically outspoken acts. Irving Plaza's representatives declined repeated opportunities to comment.
Black August member Kofi Taha recalls how Irving Plaza manager, Bill Brusca, initially explained the club's objection to dead prez, whose members are radical African activists (and equally radical vegetarians). Citing lyrics from one of dead prez's signature songs, "Police State," and a review that called the group's work "music to riot by," Brusca, Taha says, refused to host a group that "supported violence against the police." The offending lyrics, Taha recalls, were pulled from the passage: "I throw a Molotov cocktail at the precinct/You know how we think/Organize the 'hood under I Ching banners/red, black, and green instead of gang bandannas/FBI spying on us through the radio antennas/and them hidden cameras in the streetlight watchin' society/with no respect for the people's right to privacy. . . . The average black male/live a third of his life in a jail cell/'cause the world is controlled by the white male."
"We had to scramble" to find a new venue, says Black August coordinator Monifa Bandele of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. New Age Cabaret agreed to host the benefit and even took down its American flag in keeping with the antiestablishment politics of the event. But the center holds hundreds fewer than Irving Plaza, has a stage a fraction of the size of Irving Plaza's, forbids alcohol, and does not have an adequate sound system or in-house security. The Black August collective shelled out thousands to rent sound equipment and provided its own security. The last-minute change meant losing the original headliners, De La Soul and Mos Def, and forgoing hundreds in ticket sales.
Still, more than one Black August organizer goes out of his way to praise Brusca's professionalism and cooperation up until the club received a final list of acts for the benefit. "I honestly believe he was under some pressure," Taha says, suggesting that Brusca was accommodating higher-ups. Although Brusca reportedly defended the club against accusations of censorship by saying that Irving Plaza will not host provocative but nonpolitical acts like Marilyn Manson, Black August organizers dismiss the justification as a weak excuse.
Police lieutenant Eric Adams, president of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, an organization that has frequently butted heads with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the police union, as well as police leaders, agrees that politics could likely have underscored Irving Plaza's decision. "They have a legitimate concern," he says of club managers. "Not only the PBA but the subculture of policing has shown that when individuals are critical of the police department, they come under some form of scrutiny, either receiving a large number of summonses or some form of police-induced harassment. You really don't want bad business with your law-enforcement officer. It could make life uncomfortable, to say the least." A PBA spokesperson declined to comment.
One magazine music editor snorts that "all these political groups think the establishment's out to get them." And Matt Hickey, Bowery Ballroom's booking manager, insists, "I've never heard of the group." (He refused to comment on a dispute involving dead prez at the Black August benefit that took place at the Ballroom last year, saying he did not work there at the time. No one else at the club would respond to inquiries about management's reported banning of dead prez or its reaction when the collective nevertheless smuggled in the performers and sent them on stage.)