Saturday, June 24, 2006
Recognized it at first sight ... here was one of the great ones ... .
During the Nineties, I believe, a time of one of the many great adventures in my life -- I served as a self-appointed-co-interim director of the Nu Upper Room in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland. It happened by sheer accident. One of my music store customers was a fascinating youngish dreadlocked green-eyed lightskinned handsome and proud African American man from San Francisco. He called himself Rafiq Bilal, and appeared to be a gentle revolutionary. He stopped in one day when I was behind the counter -- wanting to sell a two album videotaped set of "The Story of Africa." He needed money, and at that time I maintained the only location in the Bay Area that specialized in the rental of African American videos. It was a fateful meeting. I instantly and intuitively recognized him as some one I would love to know -- and indeed did in a friendship that grew and flourished over the next several years.
The Nu Upper Room at that time was an interesting gathering place in the South of Market Area of San Francisco. It had evolved out of a drug treatment program that Rafiq had directed at Rev. Cecil Williams's Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin. It served as an evening meeting place for members of the recovery community -- where there would be fewer temptations to relapse back into the underworld of abuse. Rafiq had created a place where poets, writers, singers and dancers, came together in an informal collective where they could share their work in an atmosphere free of drugs or alcohol, and be safe.
Over time, young people from around the Bay stumbled upon the place and slowly took it over and began to form a loosely-connected artist's showcase where visiting musicians and artists joined with young people and mentorships started to form and the arts flourished. The young soon outnumbered those first participants and this became their "in" place. The young had also yearned for a safe place for themselves in a world increasingly enveloped in the darkness of addictions of one kind or another.
As it is with places where young people of color begin to collect in significant numbers, the S.F. police eventually grew suspicious over time and harassment forced this incubator for exciting new arts to relocate outside of the city; cross the Bay and into an old crumbling Masonic Temple in the Fruitvale District in Oakland. It was here that I first visited this remarkable collection of young people in full bloom.
With no more than colorfully designed flyers scattered in high school campus parking lots and tacked on telephone poles and slipped behind windshield wipers around the Bay Area -- literally hundreds of young people would come together in that leaky old building with code violations galore and few fire exits -- for concerts and Hip Hop poetry jams; young grafitti artists painting with large brushes from buckets -- onto 4'x8' panels of sheetrock -- to the sounds of experimental live jazz as young dancers improvised to the music ... it was a period of the most exciting arts movement one could ever witness or dare to be a part of.
Not too long after I was first introduced to this magical place (where I now spent many weekend hours) Rafiq Bilal suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized in the local county hospital. The Nu Upper Room family was demoralized for weeks before Jennifer Ross, Shakiri, and I began to alternate as a group of "den mothers," kind of interim emergency artistic directors -- as a way to keep the place open and operating long enough to find answers to where it might be moved and nurtured into the fullblown movement we each recognized it to be. We knew intuitively that here was something precious and important, if only we could protect it long enough for others to know ... .
In time the blossoming of something I saw as just as significant as the Flower Child period of the Haight was forced to disband. This alcohol- and drug-free oasis of an environment that was producing such exciting art must soon be abandoned -- due to the impending redevelopment of the Fruitvale district and our inability to meet the really tiny amount of moneys needed to continue to occupy the disintegrating 100 year-old building. I'd like to add that the local police -- fully aware of our activities that ran late into the night on many occasions -- were totally supportive of our presence despite those clear code violations and significant weekend noise. They often stopped by in plain clothes during their off-duty hours to participate in these underground activities. Unlike San Francisco, the Oakland officers were wonderful about looking the other way in order to protect our late-night partying. Those same police in a different time but in the same place, are in a constant struggle to quell the Side Shows that are seen by an unknowing community as a scourge upon the city. Little do they realize what was lost or how different it all may have been had they known and nurtured the Nu Upper Room and its collective of creative artists.
It was on such nights that I often sat in that darkened hall to listen to Amiri Baraka read from his latest works; Steve Coleman lead jam sessions that grew from informal jazz workshops; young rappers express the new cadence and body movements -- competing in the telling of the stories of their lives and peoples; dancers and choreographers testing new materials; there was (now) internationally known visual artist and photographer, Keba Konte; older blues singers and monologists working together. We saw a reunion of the Last Poets of the Sixties and the early days of the great jazz group, Mingus Amungus. Gradually, the age groups shifted to be more inclusive and Robert Henry Johnson (at one time one of the Alvin Ailey dancers) and his mother, a former San Francisco nightclub singer appeared together one evening before an audience of hundreds. Sister Shakiri of Zaccho Dance Theatre, a playright of note presented new works, -- and -- the reason for this entry at all -- Will Power, one of the young guiding lights of the Nu Upper Room, 6 foot 3 inches of lanky richly-talented San Francisco performance artist, would present solo pieces that were astounding in their perception and sheer brilliance. If there had been a Board, Will would have surely been considered its chairman -- and Rafiq's protogé.
After it's closure, that talented collection of extraordinary young artists were scattered to the winds. I tried vainly to find a building to drop over them, but failed miserably. Despite years of building goodwill with the Berkeley city government, I could get no one to listen. Black Repertory was the location I worked hard to acquire for at least a few nights each month. But there was no way to share with the family under whose control it remained through an unbreakable 25 year contract with the city (for a dollar a year!). It was my intention to try to get this city-owned community theater to allow us to book its dark nights to begin to house this emerging new art form and the broad spectrum of young artists who were creating it. I could convince no one of what I'd seen growing in the East Bay -- and gradually those young people of the Nu Upper Room began to disappear to Southern California; a few started to appear from time to time at La Pena on Shattuck Avenue; later a few created Black Dot, a similar though smaller undertaking in Oakland. But the most dedicated moved on to New York where they continued to mature into their arts as performers of note.
Imagine my amazement when last night while watching Charlie Rose interviewing leading intellectuals and theologians Bill and Judith Moyers on the eve of the airing of the first segment of their new ten-week PBS series, "Faith and Reason," suddenly on screen was no other then handsome, brilliant, "...35 year-old Will Power," as described by Judith Moyers. He is now a full-fledged N.Y. playright with a show off-Broadway based on the Oedipus myth -- but done in Hip Hop. A snippet from his upcoming segment has him seated across from Moyers in a one-on-one being interviewed and being treated with the same riveted attention as that bestowed upon the late Joseph Campbell or Salman Rushdie. I was stunned! And oh how affirmed I felt! The world was now ready to see what I'd seen those years ago, but for so many it was too late.
I recalled the last time I'd see Will -- it was some years later -- at La Pena in Berkeley in a one-man show -- and how warmly we met as though the Upper Room experience had been only yesterday. He was superb! Then I lost him again - as he followed the muse to New York and Broadway. I later saw a half-page rave review of his one-man show in the New York Times Sunday Arts & Entertainment section. I clipped and pinned it above my desk until its edges began to curl ... .
Fell asleep thinking about Will and Paul "DJ Spooky" Miller and Joanna Haigood and Shakiri -- and the so misunderstood Hip Hop World that beckoned them into prominence over time. One day we'll look back and see that they and those like them have ushered in the major art influences of the era, and even the exalted intellectuals of the day have been effected by their talents.
Will Power may be the most recent prophet of the Hip Hop movement -- and these may be the early signs that the world has come to terms with its significance.
Can't wait to see the Bill Moyers/Will Power segment on "Faith and Reason" one evening very soon. Will check the PBS website for time and dates.
Photo: Sample of the little card-style advertising flyers young people tucked behind windshield wipers through the community. Most were designed by Naven Norling, a very young visual artist who also eventually migrated to New York. A example of the way the City of Oakland has bled away its most vulnerable and talented young black kids. It was the Nu Upper Room that preceded the Side Shows as the only available youth activity in a changing community.