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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.)
But the group has made its reputation with politically charged content similar to what they offered last Wednesday. Upon taking the stage, M-1's cohort, stic.man, greeted the cheering crowd with the announcement: "We just got back from Cuba, y'all!" The duo proceeded to admire women "who look fly in clothes that are comfortable" and extol the virtues of "fresh fruit and whole wheat" and "tofu." But before long they were urging the crowd to say "Fuck Giuliani!" which it did with great enthusiasm. And deferring to popular demand, they closed their brief set with "Cop Shot""Cop shot, cop shot . . . keep shooting my people/we will shoot back . . . another dead pig knocked straight off my block/Cop shot, cop shot, cop shot/black cop, white cop, all cop."
That song, according to Bandele, also got Black August turned away from Wetlands, "what we considered to be a politically conscious venue" and where dead prez has performed in the past. Supporters say the duo is now unwelcome at all the major performance spots in the city.
"It would be naive to think it is not possible" that police pressure put dead prez on the city's performance blacklist, Adams says. Indeed, activists cite numerous instances in recent years of police displeasure at musician critics, especially when the name of death row inmate and alleged cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal is involved. A 6000-strong Mumia rally this May at Madison Square Garden, where artists like Mos Def performed, drew over 100 PBA members who staged a counterprotest. Less visible, says Connie Julian of the Artists Network of Refuse and Resist, was the refusal of some security companies, staffed largely by off-duty cops, to work the event, which seriously complicated preparations for the rally.
A January 1999 Rage Against the Machine benefit for Mumia in New Jersey was similarly protested by police and government officials. And this June, Bruce Springsteen's reference to the shooting of Amadou Diallo in the song "American Skin" brought PBA protesters back to the Garden. The national Fraternal Order of Police has compiled a list of hundreds of artists, celebrities, and venues associated with Mumia-supportive efforts for "identification purposes," including numerous hip-hop groups.
Dead prez's troubles remind supporters of the controversy that surrounded once political acts such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, Ice-Twho in 1992 debuted "Cop Killer," which protests racial profilingand N.W.A., whose 1998 "Fuck tha Police" prompted the FBI to warn off the record company.
Indeed many identify, on law enforcement's side, not only an objection to lyrical content, but also a criminalization of hip-hop as a genre and culture. One music promoter declared that not a single sizable stage in the city since the closing of Tramps has been friendly to hip-hop acts. And Adams says, "The hip-hop community has been classified as enemy of the state by law enforcement agencies. It comes down to everything from their dress code to their lyrics." But, he argues, "Hip-hop is no different than any other art form, any other culture, any other group of youths attempting to express themselves."
Yet dead prez stands out from the majority of current commercial hip-hop acts. They belong to the National People's Democratic Uhuru movement, a spin-off of the Black Panther-influenced Afrikan People's Socialist Party. Their performances are peppered with shout-outs to the Cuban hip-hop scene and Assata Shakur. The rhetoric of radical politics pervades their every sentence. ("It's bigger than Irving Plaza. It's bigger than S.O.B.'s or Bowery Ballroom," says M-1. "They're only representations of the ruling class. The police are only representations of the ruling class.") Reacting to Black August's decision to protest the dead prez ban by pulling out of Irving Plaza and sacrificing major performers and money, stic.man declares, "That's solidarity."