Jesus Walks in Brooklyn
Just back from New York and about to beetle off to Brazil for a month.
Love NYC. Like Skegness, it’s so bracing. I love seeing all my friends and I love just hanging out. It was cold and sunny and the first morning after a jet-laggy night, I ran through the Meatpacking District, fair bouncing off the walls with glee. Splendour all around me, I felt exalted for the first time in a long while.
Went to see Dave Chapelle’s Block Party with Mac at the BAM in Brooklyn.
Along with Herzog’s Grizzly Man, this film convinced me that features are dead to me and only documentaries mean anything. Features films are only good on long-plane journies where the strange hormonal limbo of jetlag makes their inane plotting perfect. I love to watch syrupy romantic comedies on planes: they make me weep hot streams of tears and laught inappropriately loudly. But back in the normally adjusted world they and most other feature films seem – too predicatable.
Documentaries – on the other hand – rock! (Apart from sinister penguin ones). Herzog’s meditation on the Grizzly life and grisly death of the Timothy Treadwell was a revelation; opening up so many lines of thought in such a lucid, subtle style. Despite knowing the one key fact of the narrative (Man get eaten by Bear) everything else danced around in a completely unpredictable, dizzying way. And as always, Herzog managed to keep the most beautiful and the most eloquent moments to the last. Even in documentary he’s a narrative genius.
Michel Gondry’s filming of Dave Chapelle’s Block Party was also genius. To be honest, you’d never know the director of Eternal Sunshine was involved, the film feels so organic and alive. That I suppose is the mark of a true documentarist. What you do feel is a flood of positivity that lifts the heart and made me cry repeatedly without the help of high-altitude confusion.
After the worldwide shame of those pictures from New Orleans, Block Party is the positive pendant to Katrina. A warm, positive expression of everything that is great about black America. As we see Dave Chappelle, legendarily flighty Comedy Central star, in his hometown in Ohio inviting locals to the block party he’s planning in Brooklyn, we see the warm heart of America. Everyone is smiling and friendly. And excited.
And excited for good reason, this party in the summer of 2004 on the corner of Quincy and Downing in Bed-Stuy, was the SHI-IT. Everyone of Chappelle’s favorite hip-hop acts all together for a free party: Mos Def, Kanye West, Dead Prez, Common, Jill Scott, Erykah Badhu and a specially reunited Fugees. And the music was awesome. In all the commercial sludge that has attached itself to hip-hop you forget how it was the most exciting and only genuinely revolutionary form of music since Rock’n’Roll in the 50s. How what Chuck D and Public Enemy were doing in 1989 was the truely seismic shift in American culture since the war: a young, politically aware, socially engaged artform that exhilarated and activated millions.
That sunshiney, sidewalk revolution was still in the air on that rainy evening in 2004. It was a little more aristocratic. Most of the acts were in earth tones, beige jackets and not a stich of camouflage. But for all the maturity of the scene, the energy and nobility of hip-hop was still there. Kanye West (perhaps the most handsome man in NYC) did a version of “Jesus Walks” featuring the amazing Ohio Central State University marching band who’d been bussed down especially for the event. That song makes me shiver but made me practically convulse in the movie. Dead Prez’ “Hip Hop” sent me shivering again with the line:
‘You would rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some
A Beamer, a necklace or… freedom?”
Then we had Jill Scott and Erykah Badu chorusing together on the Roots track “You Got Me” which, when it was released, had seen Scott replaced by Badu by a heavy-handed record company. That was quite a theme. The idea that beneath the corporate maniplation of hip-hop, there was a family and community that was strong and immune to all the mis-information and misrepresentation of the media. Certainly there couldn’t be a better advert for the stately progression of Black Culture.
It was super-telling that after Mac and I left the movie theatre at BAM, we went over to the Opera House in the same building to see Mark Morris’ Dance Company, the doyen of the NY contemporary scene, do two pieces in their 25th Anniversary Season. Morris was a camp breath of fresh air into the rather arid, abstract air of 80s dance, but honestly – the sterile, irritating whimsy that he now passes off for art was breath-takingly bad.
In 1989, the same time that Public Enemy were releasing “Fight the Power”, Morris was in Brussels doing a version of Purcell’s Dido and Aneas. It’s a beautiful piece of music and Morris choreographs it artfully, with each musical trope being illustrated by a dance movement. As a technique this can be a little obvious – but in this dark, Greek-inspired piece it just about holds up. But by 2000 (back in the USA) Morris is making the truely awful “Four Saints in Three Acts” with execrable music by Virgil Thompson and horribly inane choreography – all Matisse colours and cloying folksy skirts. Ew. After the vibrant, human joy of Block Party, it felt like a particularly sad illustration of the etiolated state of mainstream ‘white’ culture in America. Thank god for hip-hop.
The following day President Bush got the lowest popularity rating of any sitting President in history.
Dave Chappelle for the White House.