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Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Sadness reigns ... My dear friend, Rafiq Bilal, the green-eyed Avatar, is dying.

What wisp of life that remains (if any) will disappear in a few hours, surely ...

Yesterday I received an early morning call while driving to work. ("Sorry, Aisha, I can't answer now but will call back soon.") Upon reaching my desk and returning the call to learn that her father, Rafiq, was now beyond medical help. The dreaded words spilled out, "they're going to remove life supports today, Betty, and if you can be with us ... ". Of course.

I've seen Rafiq twice since our great Upper Room adventure over a decade ago. Once a year or two ago when invited to meet with him and those he'd summoned to talk about a possible Upper Room reunion; and again two weeks ago when I visited him in ICU a few days after the historic presidential election. He was lucid and excited despite the tubes and attachments we had to talk through. One of his friends had discovered my references to him on some early blog entries when she was looking for material for his obituary. She emailed me with the sad news. Fortunately, he rallied after being resuscitated 3 times, and when I visited with him, he was in high spirits. The fact that his family, friends, and I could come together so seamlessly after so much time has elapsed speaks to the intensity of our earlier encounter 10-15 years ago.

Quickly dispatching my morning calendar, I hopped back into my car and headed for Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland to join with family members and friends to encircle his hospital bed in ICU and wait for the end. I stood for a time at the foot of the bed with fingers wrapped round his unmoving right ankle; feeling the warmth that would soon bleed away with the ending of the "extraordinary measures" that were holding him in the room with us. Aisha saw faint signs of responsiveness from time to time - indicating that he was aware of our presence.

All of the trappings of the end-times were present; gauges and meters measuring life, respirator regularly keeping its fatal cadence; I recalled similar scenes from earlier times and tried oh so hard to push them away in order to give myself fully to this moment -- this transition into ... .

His is a devout Muslim family with women properly though hastily draping head scarves in accordance with religious protocols. I was out of sync with their reality in my uniform and distinctive NPS hat. It felt strange, but I took heart in the fact that my head, too, was properly covered as the Imam prayed in a language I couldn't identify. There had been no time to change out of uniform though I felt certain that no one took offense. Another example of NPS "in the community." It's also an African American family so there was the low and lovely voice of a young woman singing and humming, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," and "Oh Freedom!" almost inaudibly. The amalgam of cultures was fitting, beautiful, and magnificently "American".

I recalled that bulging manila packet in my files holding remnants of the Nu Upper Room artifacts collected hastily as Jennifer and I were closing the old historic meeting place down for the last time before the old building (recently so festive) again went dormant until the scheduled demolition would take place in preparation for the construction of the long-anticipated transit village.

It all seemed so very long ago -- the Nineties. Remembered how long I've waited for the right place to act as a repository for the collection of colorful and descriptive flyers, posters, articles, Rafiq's manuscripts that so well described his life, his hopes, and his vision for the future.

(Where would the world be without its dreamers?)

I tried to remember why I'd always attributed genuis to this dear friend -- after all what on earth had he personally accomplished during a wildly varied and occasionally troubled life journey?

Among my souvenirs is a manuscript of an autobiography he'd sent to me to critique -- but which I'd chosen to simply enjoy. Then it struck me. What he meant to us all was not so much what he'd done, but what a generation of young people had accomplished because of his unwavering belief in them.

This was the precious gift of

Rafiq Abdul-Malik El-Bilal - 1942-2008

We were all the better for having had him enter our lives and for the sharing of those unforgettable years of creativity, passion for justice and fairness, and communal love.

One day his legacy will find its way into the cultural archives and the world will learn of his positive influences on a generation that is currently infusing the art world with the magic we nurtured together at the Nu Upper Room at the corner of 34th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland, California. Rafiq's was the very soul of Hip Hop at its finest.


Sleep well, friend ... .

Note: For more information about The Nu Upper Room, insert title in the search bar at the upper left corner above the archives, and the link will take you to more flyers, art work, and information about this fascinating experiment in arts and culture in the early days of Hip Hop.

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