KHAFRE JAY

Khafre Jay is the founder of Hip Hop For Change, Inc. This 501c3 education organization uses Hip Hop culture to educate and advocate for social justice in the Bay Area. Khafre has impacted the world through this organization, employing almost a thousand people in his community and raising over three million dollars to advance social justice and Hip Hop activism in the Bay Area. In 2014, Khafre created THE MC program, a modular curriculum using Hip Hop history and culture to focus on healthy expression and positive identity. He has worked with over 22 thousand youth, K-12, to create healthier places for children to foster their creativity and positive identity. He has spoken at universities such as Tulane, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and Stanford. As a performing artist, Khafre has shared the stage with world-class acts such as Rakim, Method Man, Dead Prez, Hieroglyphics, The Pharcyde, Talib Kweli many more. He has used his art as a political tool and performed for the 2010 Democratic National Convention, for Kaiser’s 2018 Health and Equity Summit, and the 2015 and 16 March on Monsanto.

 

EAG: When I realized what Hip Hop for Change is all about, the first thing I thought was, “That is so cool.” It’s social justice, it’s art, it’s community, it’s everything. I’d love to hear more about it.

KJ: I think a lot of people outside my culture think Hip Hop is music. That’s the way they’ve seen it, or I guess that’s the way they’ve been explained to it. They don’t really see the graffiti and see it as Hip Hop culture. They don’t really take into account fashion. Hip Hop is how I dress. It’s also my dialect, my vernacular, my colloquialisms. It’s a real community of people. It’s also one of the most diverse communities and the largest human cultural expressive form that’s ever been created. It’s global. It’s worldwide. It’s the number-one culture that youth, especially Black or brown youth in America, use to express who they are and to have introspection and art. It’s the number-one way America views Black and brown youth, through a lens of Hip Hop. Hip Hop is wildly important to me. It’s not something that I do. It’s something that I am.

That’s not a lot of people’s experience here in America. That’s because 70% of white people, for example, don’t have a single person of color for a friend. Media representations are wildly impactful. They hold a lot of weight. They dictate how viscous it is for me to move through the world, how viscous life is for me.

Right now because of the Telecom Act of ’96 that Bill Clinton signed, we have about three corporations that own around 90% of the means of producing Hip Hop’s depiction. It’s a racket. Black people have never had enough capital in this nation’s history to dictate how we’re presented in mass media. We just don’t. Even in the ’80s the number-one consumers of Hip Hop were still white audiences. In ’91, 80% of Hip Hop was bought by white people. The number one song was Fight the Power by Public Enemy, which is a great thing.

Fast-forward to right now, we still have that 80% white audience, but now what are they hearing? 75% of their audience is college age white men. Those kids probably aren’t going to be investing in empowered narratives from brown women talking about human trafficking or just Black girl joy. That doesn’t mean that that doesn’t exist in our culture. That doesn’t mean my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter doesn’t really need to hear that. What it means is that we don’t have access to that. Those local artists, who are empowered women rapping about their lives mattering, aren’t making a paycheck.

Through that we see how much of a social justice thing this Hip Hop is for us, because this is the means with which we pay ourselves and feed ourselves and house ourselves and clothe ourselves and feed our children, but it’s also how we look inside of ourselves. It’s also the tip of our sociopolitical sphere. This is big for me, and it always has been. It wasn’t until my 30s where I got the means of creating an organized structure of self-determination to be able to support the community that I’ve seen struggling for 25, 30 years, since I learned that this is what struggle looked like. That’s how I got into this.

I became the first Black director for Greenpeace, for their 2000 push for grassroots again, after they hadn’t done it for a while. I learned how to make a half a million dollars a year without going to the federal penitentiary, to be straight up with you. Straight up. I learned how to employ dozens of people and work for a cause. That’s something that I’m very familiar with is struggle for a cause. That’s been my whole life as a Black man. That’s the goal of every Black kid in America, is to find a way to validate the struggle that we feel we’re experiencing.

It took me a long time to realize that these grassroots practices weren’t started from organizations like Greenpeace. It was really built in organizations like Marcus Garvey and Medgar Evers and Ida B. Wells. I’m using my same historical practices to uplift my community. I took those skills, and one night after not getting paid to open up for Rakim, I just had this inceptive moment where I was like, “Yo, why are we struggling? I have this really solid knowledge and grasp of fundraising, and that’s all our community needs.” I just had this idea, if I could teach 15, 20 people to move a mixtape CD on Haight Street, then we can raise enough money to pay everybody in the Bay area who does Hip Hop right and start building a movement around it. That was eight years ago. I’m tired.

EAG: What’s your ultimate goal? I know that’s like asking how big the sky is.

KJ: It’s definitely not ending white supremacy, because I’m not a betting man. That’s a extra communal thing. I’m definitely not a betting man, not after the last 400 years. I have been intrigued. I’ve wanted to be cautiously optimistic recently, because the lexicon is changing. As a rapper, lexicons are really important in the vernacular, vocabularies. That stuff is amazing to me. These ideas that are going around are the confines with which we can dream. That’s it. That’s why Hip Hop is so special. That’s also why I think this political time is really, really interesting to me, because we’ve got people talking about the 1% and systemic inequality, critical race theory. Even if it’s a racket, I still love that we’re talking about that.

 

“When I walk in the streets of liberal, progressive Berkeley, every other white person with a baby grabs their baby tight as they pass me. “

I think I have two primary goals. When I walk in the streets of liberal, progressive Berkeley, every other white person with a baby grabs their baby tight as they pass me. I tell people, “I’m full. I don’t eat babies. I’m full.” I got to say something. I have those coping mechanisms. I know myself. I’ve done this for a long time to become resilient like I am now. A lot of our kids don’t have those coping mechanisms. They shouldn’t have to deal with those aggressions walking through the streets that are the fodder for the school-to-prison pipeline, for the lack of job security and support and mental health care. I can go on for ages.

I would love for us to take back the means of producing Hip Hop for the secondary reason of really getting who we are out to the people so we can stop to be straight up scaring white folks and having them call the cops on us or think this and that, because we are so segregated that media representations are critical to how we can move. I would love to be able to own the means of producing what society thinks, or not me, but our community could own the means of producing what society sees from Hip Hop, so we can stop being lynched left and right.

I think our primary goal is that anybody who’s Hip Hop, if you’re one or 92, if you’re white, Black, Asian, since Hip Hop is the biggest, diverse-est culture that we’ve ever created, you should be able to engage in that culture without exploitation from mass media. We should be able to engage in that culture without thinking that your only options are to rap about objectified women and talk about money that you don’t even have, because that stuff never resonated with me. When I heard Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Black On Both Sides, I was like, “Oh my God, these people are rapping about my life.” Then all of a sudden I was a political rapper because you can’t go back to crap once you realize you have solid gold.

I want to make sure that we can horizontally and vertically integrate all the platforms that support Hip Hop, our magazines, our blogs. I want a lawyer to help me with our record contracts. I want free studios. I want art studios. I want fashion, because that’s the seventh element of Hip Hop. I want health and wellness. I want every facet that people make money in Hip Hop to be controlled by a community platform. That’s really right now a seven-billion-dollar industry, but really Hip Hop is probably worth 40 to 50 billion. It’s just a lot of people aren’t getting what they would invest in. If you had the Queen Latifahs, the Monie Loves, and those MC Lytes and all the other people that make up the bulk and the best Hip Hop that we have.

I think there’s a lot of money left on the table right now. If we organize that platform to uplift people and help them, then it could do a lot in our community. I’m surprised Puff Daddy ain’t thought of this yet. I’m talking to you, Puff. I’m talking to you, Puff. You got the resources, homey. What’s wrong with you?

EAG: There was this moment in the ’90s, and my husband and I talk about this a lot—and just for background, he and I are each mixed race. I know you can’t tell from looking at me; I’ve heard about that my whole life.

KJ: I’ve read about that before. I’ve read about your experience. I empathize. I empathize.

EAG: White kids were like, “Oh, I didn’t mean you when I was talking about Mexicans.” Then Mexican kids were like, “Why do you talk like a white girl? Why are you so pale?” Dude, I was born and then this happened. Anyway, my husband is half Japanese and half white. He looks way more Mexican than I do. Then we ended up having this son with fair skin, blue eyes, blondish hair. Genetics, right? We’ve taught him from day one, “Dude, this was luck of the draw.” He’s really close with his cousins, one of whom is significantly darker-skinned than he is. I’m like, “You are not ever to use this as anything except a way to lift people up and support people who aren’t going to get the respect and the attention that you get.” We revisit it.

KJ: I have to say on LinkedIn and Facebook every so often, “I don’t hate white people.” I put up something about freedom fighters that fought the colonists, and [this guy’s] like, “Oh, you just hate white people.” I’m like, “No, man. You literally are talking about you support vets. How come you don’t understand this?” It doesn’t mean I hate white people. I just ask people, just read up on this stuff, so you can know when people like me speak, we speak from a base of, number one, knowledge, and also radical love and the need for justice, because your son should be as free as a white-looking person, man could be in a society. Everybody should be that free, though. That’s just it. To be able to have that knowledge and teaching that game is really awesome, because we didn’t have this vocabulary when I was being raised.

EAG: No.

 

“We have to make sure that we can wrap these kids up in coping mechanisms and resources.”

KJ: At all. At all. That’s why vocabulary’s so important. If I look at my lyrics from when I was trying to fake what I saw in mass media and when it started turning to gangster rap, versus what I’m speaking about now, just imagine if I was rapping about police brutality when I was 13, 14. I probably would not have got into the trouble I did when I was 16, 17, or 18, when I was rebelling against the system, and I didn’t know how to rebel in a way that was healing and galvanizing and building for myself. I found those same self-fulfilling prophecies that Black kids in the hood fall into. Same self-fulfilling prophecy that white kids in the suburb fall into. Same that Asian kids in Chinatown for example fall in. We have to make sure that we can wrap these kids up in coping mechanisms and resources, or else we’re going to have the same stuff happening.

That’s the thing. I’m not here to first make sure that I am going to survive. I think any white supremacy to the point where I can literally not have to put my hands out the window when I get pulled over, that’s a long way down the road. I just would rather make sure that I know that it’s not right for me to have to put my hands out of the window. I know it’s not my fault and it won’t hurt me while I go through these things. I want to be able to die proudly on my feet, and not live on my knees. I’m not asking for some magic wand to be waved. What I’m asking is to be able to show these kids how strong they are, so if they have to die on their feet, which our kids have to do all too often, they can at least be proud, and they can pass that proudness on and we can start walking with our heads high.

I just did a consultation for a woman who has an amazing nonprofit. She’s going to go through the same trappings. I didn’t even call myself executive director for the first year and a half of building this, the largest education Hip Hop organization in the nation. I didn’t call myself a director, because I didn’t think people would support me. I didn’t. I told her, I was like, “You got the experience of 15 years in doing something, and you also can walk through the hood like this. You’re putting those two things together. Who else is better than you to do this? Who else?” You’ve got to know that. Hip Hop teaches you that. I’m talking to another, because I do consultations for Black people for free, who are starting nonprofits.

EAG: That’s awesome.

KJ: This guy was like, “There’s this $50,000 grant.” I said, “How much you ask for?” He’s like, “12,500.” I was like, “What?” He’s like, “I just didn’t want them to think that … ” I was like, “Nah. Bro. Eff that. Look. If you get 12 and a half thousand dollars, you’re going to do 12 and a half thousand dollars’ worth of the most wonderful things for these young Black kids in your hood that you know better than anybody else what them kids need. You are damn near one of those kids too. If you get $50,000, you’re going to do $50,000 worth of stuff that is amazing. You’re still the best person to get that $50,000.” As soon as I said it, he was like, “Whoa.” I was like, “Yeah, man.” Your son might have the experience where he be like, “Oh, I have $50,000 worth of stuff.” I don’t know.

EAG: I hope, at some point.

KJ: I hope. He should think like that. He should. All we ever want people to know is that everybody doesn’t get to. All we want Dave Chappelle to know is intersectionality. I think we’re always worried as Black activists that white people won’t feel us. I’m like, “First off, we got to give white folks the props.” Half of white folks are not overtly racist, bigoted, or whatnot. In any given room, you’re going to have people that really rock with you most likely. If you go to these spaces of activism, there’s going to be a higher amount of white folks that are with it. Give them their props. I’m really rooting for white folks. White folks are my favorite football team now this year. Out of those white folks, some people will get involved. We’re going to hang together or we’re going to hang separate. If we don’t get our shit together, we’re going to hang. That’s just the case. I don’t get paid enough to teach people what white supremacy is, but I do have a movement good enough for me to try to get as many allies as I can, because I can’t make it without white folks. It’s not going to happen.

We just have to put things in relative terms. I think people are human beings. If somebody grew up in the middle of Nebraska, they probably don’t feel me. They probably don’t understand me. If they are of Celtic descent, but their family hasn’t spoken about being Celtic for six generations, because they haven’t had to, because they assimilated to whiteness, because they didn’t want to get drawn like Black people in comic books, how can I expect them to get my struggle? All they have is Fox News blasting in the back, and people think that’s a legitimate source of understanding Blackness and Black struggle. All right. That shouldn’t mean that I should take up the tools of white supremacy and not have empathy for that person.

Reading The History of White People by Nell Painter showed me love. I think that most of them, if they were in a room with me? Lock the door, I bet you they’d walk out and we’d be hugging and they’d be like, “You know what? I’m going to read some Stokely Carmichael. That dude sounds like somebody I agree with.” These radical Alabama militia dudes, they would love Stokely Carmichael. They’d love him. That’s it. That’s my hope.

I think Hip Hop is one of the good tools, because I don’t know if this is appropriate, but it’s real: these suburban white kids want to be n****s. They think that’s what it is. They think it’s cool. They think it’s fun to be hood. They don’t get it, but they want to. I see that as an issue, but I also see that as a bridge. I also remember when “Fight the Power” was the number-one song. They weren’t trying to be n****s. They were just trying to understand us and fight the power with us. The punk-rock folks that were our brothers in arms, that’s what I see.

 

“If any of this is resonating with any of your audience, I need your help. Come rock with us.”

That’s why I think it’s so critical for us to take back Hip Hop from corporate hands. It’s not okay to hold the hopes and dreams of Black people hostage and take our culture from us to pass on stereotypes to people that can help us and have to help us get free. I think it’s the number-one platform to save our community. If any of this is resonating with any of your audience, I need your help. Come rock with us.

EAG: I started to ask earlier, and then started talking about myself: there was a moment in the ’90s where Hip Hop was super exciting. It was going in this incredibly positive way. The music was super interesting. It was like this amazing renaissance. Then it was like…[record scratch noise]… here’s gangster rap. What caused that?

KJ: Two things. Suburban white people wanted to be n****s, but also capitalism. It’s really hard to sell diverse culture in billions of units. It’s just really hard to do that. It’s not something that can happen. You can’t have authentic culture mass consumed. It does not work. If you’re a corporation that has to make a bet on billions of dollars, you have to put that money in what is most likely to sell. What sells the most in America? Regardless of culture, what? In country they’re singing “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”. I don’t know. In Carl’s Jr commercials they got Kate Upton’s breasts. I have no idea what that has to do with burgers, but it definitely sells in America. In everything, in every facet of media, it’s going to be pushed for sex, drugs, and violence in this society. Violence is a staple of American society, but we only hear Black-on-Black crime stats. Do we know white-on-white crime murder stats? I do. I looked it up, because I care about crime.

EAG: What is it?

KJ: About 83%. I think it was 83% of white-on-white crime and then I think it was 92% for Black-on-Black crime. That makes sense, because Black people are more segregated than white people. White people have more freedom to move around. Most murder is intracommunal.

 

“‘Oh, you guys are misogynists.’ I’m like, ‘What about Carl’s Jr? What about All My Children, homey? What about General Hospital? What about every movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test?'”

EAG: It’s personal.

KJ: Why does everybody know the stats on Black-on-Black crime, when crime is a staple of American society? That’s because people use anything they can to otherize Black people and make us responsible for our own predicament. That is also an American staple. When we look at things like Hip Hop, we’re like, “Oh, you guys are misogynists.” I’m like, “What about Carl’s Jr? What about All My Children, homey? What about General Hospital? What about every movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test? You sitting here talking about Hip Hop, homey? What? Come on now.” Number one, I keep telling young Black kids in the hood, I’m like, “You don’t even know what Hip Hop you like yet. You are just choosing out of the Hip Hop that white America likes most. You don’t even know who you are yet. You don’t.”

We have all these powerful voices. We’re a matriarchal society in the hood anyway, because of white supremacy taking away Black mostly men. We have the lowest instance of rape in the hood of any community, because we don’t do that in Black communities like that, but people grab their women when they see me. They don’t do it for the white men. I get that. I just think that these are ways that we otherize Black culture. We don’t get mad at Mexican people because Taco Bell sucks. We don’t. We want to get mad at Black people because white media chooses to invest in what resonates with suburban white cisgender men at college age.

EAG: Misogyny. Sex.

KJ: That sucks. Not to say that Hip Hop doesn’t have a problem with patriarchy, because American society has a problem with patriarchy, period. That’s what it is. We always look at Hip Hop like, “Oh, you guys are talking about more drugs.” No, we have the least drug references of any genre. They talk about drugs and drinking and getting high more in country, more in emo music and heavy metal and all that, than Hip Hop. Why are we just believing and being mentally lazy when we look into Hip Hop? That’s what it is. I think that white America as a society wants to blame us for our predicament and not look at what they do. This is not a Black issue. This is white people needing to get their stuff together.

EAG: There’s a post going around right now. I’m sure you’ve seen it. I’ve seen it on three different platforms. It’s, “Slavery is not Black people’s history, it’s white people’s history.”

KJ: Straight up. That’s what happens to all of us our music. That’s what happened to jazz. That’s what happened to rock-and-roll. Half of America don’t even know that Black people created rock-and-roll. It makes no sense. They’re like, “The Beatles is the most amazing rock band ever.” Watch that Ray Charles interview when he was asked about how great the Beatles were.

EAG:  Oh my God. I’ve never seen that.

KJ: The problem with Hip Hop is Hip Hop is not just music. It’s not just notes coming from instruments. It’s a different type of math than this technical jazz that white folks can do really well. It holds the hopes and dreams of Black and brown people. It is also conflated with being purely Black, when it’s also representative of Asian folks and Latinos and even white folks in there somewhere too. When jazz gets co-opted, people say, “Jazz is for everybody,” because it’s really easy. It’s just music. When rock-and-roll got co-opted, “It’s for everybody.” The Doors didn’t have to give nobody props. Nobody had to give nobody props. The Rolling Stones didn’t have to say nothing.

EAG: Led Zeppelin.

 

“Your kid is scared of me right now because you looked at me and said, ‘Oh, he’s the danger.’ That’s what you did, person that voted for Biden and Obama twice. That’s what you did, person that wears a pussy hat. That’s what you did.”

KJ: They didn’t have to pay nobody nothing, and then Black people died penniless from treatable diseases, since the number one cause of Black death is not gun violence, it is treatable diseases and a lack of access to care because of white supremacy. That’s why Hip Hop, when it got co-opted, it got co-opted, but then it got used because it has a voice of the youth culture, the voice of popular Black culture. White people only buy what they think is real, just like everybody only buys what they think is real. When we’re telling all these white kids, “Oh, they’re gangsters. Oh, look at the hoods. They’re the ones doing crack, not white people doing more crack than anybody. They’re the ones on welfare, not white people who take more welfare, commit more welfare fraud, raping more people, stealing more, petty theft, grand larceny, white-collar crime.”

Hip Hop got changed, because they realized that, hey, these white kids are actually loving Tupac being gangster and they don’t really care about “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” They didn’t care about all the introspective stuff. They really wanted to see “Hit Em Up” when he was clowning Biggie. They’re like, “Oh, we’ll sell that.” Same thing that represents and reflects and sells well in every American market, but we want to get mad at Black people for it.

That’s why this work is so critical, because how can we ask people to identify with young Black and brown youth, and not send them to jail, when they grab their babies because I look like me? I’ve taught 26,000 kids K-12. I’ve been an educator for 25 years. People to this day grab their babies when they pass me. I tell them, “I don’t eat babies.” Some of them go, “What?” I’m like, “You know what you just did, homey. Look at your kid. Your kid is scared of me right now because you grabbed them, and your kid is like, ‘Oh, what is the danger?’ Then that kid looked at me and said, ‘Oh, he’s the danger.’ That’s what you did, person that voted for Biden and Obama twice. That’s what you did, person that wears a pussy hat. That’s what you did.”

This is what I deal with on a daily basis. This is the intersection that Dave Chappelle was trying to navigate, he did it very badly, when it came to trans Black women and intersectionality. I’m dealing with that on my Facebook. I’m here for that conversation too, because I’m pro-Black. I’m pro everything Black. I’m pro everybody Black. When 83% of trans women that are murdered are Black, I’m going to stop anything that threatens their lives. That’s not going to stand with me, period.

That’s the thing. Hip Hop is the way the world sees us, but more importantly it’s the way that we define our potentials, our positivities, our hopes. It’s our coping mechanism. It’s the ability for me to listen to this person and share what I’m capable of with them and now they know and they don’t have to deal with the stuff that I dealt with. If we don’t own that space, then we’re just going to lose. We’re going to keep losing and we’re going to keep losing. It’s a seven billion dollar industry. Give us our money. Give us our land.

EAG: I notice you posted about the Bruce’s Beach thing on LinkedIn earlier. I’m in L.A. so that’s not too far from me. I didn’t even know that that had happened until maybe last year when it first started making headlines. I was completely unaware of it.

 

“Ninety percent of Black farms since the ’20s were taken from us. We talk about holding space. Holding space is more than just an emotional thing. It’s literally holding space, taking that land back. Imagine the capital that could’ve been accrued, social capital, financial capital. “

KJ: I was unaware of it as well, but I actually on LinkedIn met the lady that’s heading up some of that work. That’s so inspirational. For example, 90% of Black farms since the ’20s were taken from us. We talk about holding space. Holding space is more than just an emotional thing. It’s literally holding space, taking that land back. Imagine the capital that could’ve been accrued, social capital, financial capital. Imagine the people that didn’t die from health issues. They could’ve created more businesses that would’ve hired more Black people in that region, and those Black people would’ve went to schools and spread out throughout the nation to support more Black communities and not deny them loans when they went to the bank. This is how the ripples of this white supremacy cut so deep. Reparations cannot even pay what America owes to us. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start though. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to wait for it. Right now that’s what we’re doing, we’re trying to hold space. I think the best vehicle for that is Hip Hop, because everybody loves it. Everybody I’ve told what we’re doing wants to support it. I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had and ever will have, because everybody wants to get involved.

Right now we’re doing summer camps with East Bay Regional Park. They hit us up like, “How you get Black kids in the park?” I told them when I go out hiking with my daughter, see a white family a mile down the trail, they go, “Oh my God.” I was like, “We hike too. We hike. We do.” Let alone if I’m hiking by myself. Then it’s really tense. Why is it tense in the woods? We created this internship. It’s a paid internship where we get kids, take them out to the parks, learn about the ecology, nature, the original inhabitants, and then we teach them how to rap, how to make beats. They’re sampling sounds from the forest and making beats out of that and rapping about Mother Nature and doing graffiti murals of great blue herons and all kind of stuff. This one 13-year-old created this graffiti piece. It was right after Breonna Taylor was killed and murdered. It was Mother Nature. She was made of water. She was dripping. Her hair was a plant. It said, “Say Her Name.”

EAG: Wow.

KJ: It was just really deep. It’s powerful. Today we sent out an open letter because a school in Stanford, California didn’t think that our pedagogy was appropriate to teach these kids graffiti culture, Black culture. We have to deal with this everywhere. This PTA person thinks that our education director is violent because he’s a rapper from the hood that speaks about his experiences growing up and what he’s dealing with right now in one of the deepest, most intellectual ways. This is what we deal with. We deal with that because his kids are bumping the fakest gangster rap in the world almost guaranteed. How many nicks and cuts do we have to get? How much do I have to cut my dreadlocks off? Should I not wear my End White Supremacy hoodie? That’s why I make sure every interview I have I don’t take my grill off. I don’t take my hoodie off. When I go to the  symphony, I wear this hoodie. When I’m on KPIX News I wear this hoodie. If not this hoodie, it’s a different color hoodie that says End White Supremacy. I’m not here to code switch. I’m not here to change. I just want people to know that we’re human.

I was doing my grassroots canvassing. I had this white lady say, “I’ve never heard somebody speak as intelligently as you with a grill.” When people say stuff like that to me, you can feel the racist wind wash over you. It’s like, “Oh.” It almost blows you over a little bit. I used to flinch to that stuff. Now I’m so ready for it. I’m better able to tell when it’s probably coming. I just held my own. She was like, “Why do you wear that?” Mind you this lady had on diamond earrings, a gold chain, and a tennis bracelet. She was asking me why I wear gold. I just asked her, I was like, “Why you wear your diamond earrings and your necklace?” She was like, “Huh.” I was like, “Yeah. Anyway, are you going to donate? Are you going to donate right now?”

EAG: Before we wrap up, can you give me your top three things that you think are super cool right now?

KJ: They just discovered a triple star system. It might have a planet orbiting all three. Which is really amazing. They won’t be able to tell until the James Webb telescope is online, which I am crossing every appendage I have for that, since it’s going to be one of the most complicated mechanical series of events to ever work right the first time, that’s ever been done in history, which it’s 150 different things that have to happen perfectly, or else that thing is just a rock floating around the sun. I’m super excited for that. What else?

I would say the Mumbai Hip Hop scene is hella inspirational, to see that popping out. It’s just really cool. I had somebody reach out to me from Mumbai, asked me if I knew about that scene. It’s some amazing rap going on. I love when you see cultures mix. That’s what Hip Hop’s best for. That’s really, really cool. I’m trying to do stuff that is not reflective of Hip Hop For Change at all.

Gavin Newsom just made it mandatory to pass an ethnic studies class in order to graduate in the state of California. I’m so happy at all the white people that got super mad at that. I’m happy.

 

“I want you to go home and learn a song from your ancestral language. You’re not whiteness. Whiteness is a loss of culture.”

EAG: [Sarcastically] Oh no, sorry you’ve got to learn about the rest of us.

KJ:  Yeah, sucks. I’m really happy for white folks in general. I’m really rooting for white people right now. I’m hoping that this lexicon is helping more white folks to realize their full humanity, because that’s really what white supremacy does to white folks. We often think about what it does to people of color. We know what it does, but what does it do to white people? When you see a 250-pound man throwing a 70-pound, 12-year-old girl on the floor, that’s wrong. That’s just wrong. There’s no justification for that happening. There’s nothing where a man that big should be throwing down a 75-pound, 12-year-old girl on the floor in her bathing suit, not even clothed. That doesn’t mean that girl’s less human. That means he’s less human.

If you don’t see our kids as your kids, you are half a human being to me, maybe even less. Really it’s like, what do we need from that person? Just pass on, homey. Just pass on to the next plane, because right now you’re causing death and destruction for me and mine. That’s it. We need people to see us as their tribe. That’s a lack of white people’s humanity.

 If you don’t know why your ancestors river danced with no upper body movement, how can I expect you to understand why I’m really scared walking in the streets of Berkeley? I can’t. When I do my lectures at Tulane or Stanford, I leave people with this. I want you to go home and learn a song from your ancestral language. You’re not whiteness. Whiteness is a loss of culture. Within 50 years of Irish people being in America they were 90-something percent pro-slavery and 100% supportive financially and politically of the enslavement of Black people. Fifty years, because they didn’t want to be in comic books drawn like us. Their kids didn’t learn about river dancing. They just thought it was funny too. Their kids’ kids didn’t learn about that. How can I expect them to know about my struggles, especially listening to Fox News? I just want people to learn about themselves. I’m really, really rooting for white folks. My favorite football team.

 

Ω

 

 

 

collage

 

Collage is a longtime obsession of mine. There’s something in the combination of wildly disparate images and objects to produce a larger truth that seems alchemical to me. A few months ago I happened upon the work of a collage artist who works under the name Madcollage, and within ten minutes I’d ordered a piece from her. Two weeks later she debuted another piece, and I ordered that one as well. (I hope to acquire one of her originals at some point.) That speaks, I think, to a common language that exists in that place before words and beyond feelings. Looking at her work feels to me as though I’m half-remembering an important dream I once had, as though I might yet remember the message it held. Here are the whys and hows , as Madcollage sees them, of collage. — Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

Starting my college education in the Escuela de Bellas Artes of La Universidad Complutense in Madrid was my way of formalizing at seventeen what I already knew all along: I was an artist.

While it is still difficult to put into words what makes someone an artist, I had been timidly identifying as one for years. This moment was my coup de grace. There would be no question mark at the end of the sentence anymore.

Until then, I was unable to assertively show it, but like a subterraneous spring, there were times when the undercurrent would breach the surface. I now realize that I have many lovely art related memories of my childhood. They seem to endure over time, drowning out some of the bleaker realities of that period.

I drew and cut, painted, and built artifacts at all hours of the day. I was constantly on the hunt for materials: boxes, bags, ink, bobby pins, toothbrushes, cardboard, rubber bands, colorful wrappers, tempera, nail polish, twine, cloth snippets and tape. Everything was useful.

I got in trouble many times when my mom found out I had used the last drop of her Elnett hairspray to fix a drawing, or when I had cleaned my oily brushes in the bathroom sink. No scolding, however, seemed to deter me. Instead, my desire to do more would grow greater.

My father, who was a writer, had an extensive collection of books. Many of them were art books with gorgeous reproductions. I was fortunate to have access to all of them, and I would look at every picture, dissecting them, soaking up every inch. I pored over work by Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Amadeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. I would copy their images on construction paper with as much precision as I could muster, and by doing so, I imagined I was absorbing some of their essence by means of a peculiar osmotic process. I was transforming. I was becoming me.

***

Many of my favorite memories revolve around visiting El Museo del Prado with my classmates. It was a compulsory rite of passage for many school children in Madrid. This museum, with its marble floors and wide corridors was breathtaking. I loved the smells, the muffled whispers, the milky light filtering from the skylights. My family never went to church, but this was, I imagined, how it must have felt to be in awe of a sacred space.

Despite our chaperone’s best efforts, I would inevitably break away from the group to go see “my paintings”. I would plan my eventual split every single trip. “I had to go see my paintings” I would explain later to a teacher’s aide on the verge of a nervous collapse. I knew from previous experience that, as elementary students, we would not be shepherd towards the artworks I needed to see. Paintings like Saturn devouring his son by Goya. Rogier Van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross. Patinir’s Charon Crossing the Styx. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I had seen them in my books, and they were there, looming large and tangible. I was on a secret mission to find them within the vast halls of El Prado.

I was also seeking the freedom to run along those hallways and up and down the staircase at the back of the building on my own. The adventure of meeting the cherubs and naked Rubenesque ladies, the serious men in black with their ruffled collars and piercing eyes, was a terrific thrill that needed to be savored alone. I loved the stunning portraits of royalty and the unsettling battle scenes. I felt sheltered, comfortable within the walls of the museum, and I considered every visit too short for my taste.

***

My first two years of college were grueling. The focus was on long hours of practice and tiresome chores designed to filter out less capable and apathetic students. It was all about competition. The survival of the artistically fittest.

We had a rigorous training period during which we would draw and sculpt from plaster cast models. Emphasis was put solely on technique. We were to acquire a solid base from which to move onto our personal styles. We mixed our own gesso, our own oil paints, and recycled modeling clay. We learned how to build stretchers and made our own canvases. We worked hard to stay on the saddle, and each assignment was, indeed, a final examination of our potential.

Collage, however, was not even a blip on the curriculum radar yet. Although it was an already established visual language championed by artists like Picasso, Braque, Hannah Hoch, or Max Ernst, we never put it into practice in school. I became acquainted with it overtime, through my own readings and explorations.

***

When I moved to the United States to finish my degree, I had a disheartening experience in school that changed my life trajectory in unfortunate ways. My first semester, I very hesitantly mixed paper cuttings with pencil drawings for an assignment. My drawing professor was much displeased, probably assuming I was trying to take a “shortcut” of sorts. He did not waste any time in dismissing the work in the cruelest of ways. These rudimentary collages were undoubtedly technically inept, but they did not deserve to be mocked. I was trying to find my feet in more than one way, and I had just attempted something new. Instead of weighing in constructively, he simply snickered and proclaimed in a loud voice, “they look like you”. It wasn’t a compliment, clearly, since I had called them my “Monsters”.

I was inexperienced, uncertain of my new surroundings, and young. I was so hurt and so embarrassed that I stopped showing up for class. The incident left me so full of doubt in my abilities, in the choices I’d made, that from there on I drifted away from art school and became susceptible to the influence of people who did not have my best interest at heart.

Life became disorganized and difficult. A career as an artist seemed like a mirage. Going back home was an admission of defeat. I thought myself an utter failure at what I loved most. I punished myself and spiraled down into depression.

***

After years of heartbreak and illness, that little ember of passion for art turned out to be the straw that kept me afloat. Without conscious effort, it slowly grew hotter until I found myself wondering if it might not be possible to reignite it. To my astonishment, collage was waiting for me like a faithful friend. I started making tiny ones on the backs of notebooks. These diminutive collages accepted all my failures, my sadness, and my long absence. They let me start all over, no questions asked.

Collage slowly carved itself a space in my life without judging me and without asking much in return. Soon, I became reliant on collage to placate my anxiety, and to get through the challenges that life had hurled my way, which were many more than I could have anticipated. 

Evidently, to this day, collage does not magically erase my pain. It does not negate any of the hardships, but it has a way of unpacking the suffering. It deconstructs it in ways that I can understand. Collage is a method of reassessment. A creative way of being kind to myself, a skill I was never taught. It has turned out to be a way of finding self-compassion. This period of restoration started twenty years ago, and it is still in progress sparked, in no small part, by collage.

***

During 2020, the year of Covid 19, collage took on an even more essential role in my life. While I always felt somewhat on the fringes and I was an inveterate introvert, the isolation hit me hard. Having collage as an outlet saved my sanity.

I am not being hyperbolic. Many studies show that creative activity dispels rumination, which is a whirlpool of destructive and self-sabotaging thoughts. No matter the magnitude of your fears or the intensity of your worries, research shows quite definitely that engaging in creativity allows you to better mitigate their negative effects. It helps you process the pain, physical or mental, in ways that no other endeavor accomplishes.

I suffer from CPTSD. Getting out of my head is critical to my recovery.  When Covid upended my daily routine, and it reverted to my mental landscape, I found myself witnessing a miserable and terrifying carousel of scary thoughts. Collage was able to diminish my tendency to catastrophize because it requires concentration and redirects imagination outwards. Collage creates an oasis where I can refurbish my mind with more playful, gentle thoughts. I’m still holding onto it with a death grip, lest my mind starts playing tricks on itself. I remember that truism “don’t believe everything you think”, which couldn’t be more suitable in my case. Words to survive by.

In this process, I have understood that creativity requires honesty to be therapeutic. Truth is its currency, and no amount of creativity will yield beneficial results if it is approached from a place of deceit. After all, you can only lie to yourself for so long before your mental health starts unraveling. I know because I have been there. It’s my perennial advice to my students that they create based on their true feelings and beliefs, and not because of trends or the latest news.

When people ask me about my collages and where they come from, it is tricky for me to encapsulate a lifetime of effort, learning and setbacks in a few snappy sentences. In short, they are everything that I know how to be: terribly impatient, candid, intense, persistent, different, chronically worried, unyielding, witty, occasionally pliable, frightened, and secretly hopeful. They remain the most useful tool in my arsenal of coping mechanisms.

So, it is my hope that some of my collages connect with viewers in a way that disables their fears too. If there is a true purpose to all this searching, all this cutting and gluing of paper, linking to other people who feel like I do, is the final, most fulfilling raison d’être.  

 

 

 

 

Find out more about Madcollage here.

Shop her prints here.

Shop her original collages here.

 

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DAVID BOWIE

 

Whenever I think about people who embody my definition of “cool,” David Bowie is always high at the top of that list. Take just one look at him at any age of his career and the man oozes cool from every pore of his body. It’s the way he talked, walked, the way he sang, the way he lived…every single thing about him screamed “COOL!” So of course when I got the opportunity to write about someone I think of as cool, he immediately jumped out in my mind.

So what exactly is my definition of cool? Frankly, it’s hard for me to really define cool because it isn’t just a set of standards that you can measure every person against. Cool for one person might be downright dreadful for another and the two seemingly opposing concepts or expressions could still be pretty cool. For me, cool is being your own person no matter what the status quo tells you. Cool is standing up for what is right even when everyone else around you seems to be siding with everything that’s wrong. Cool is acknowledging that there is beauty in differences and celebrating that beauty with unabashed joy, love, and passion. Cool, similarly to the cliché about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You define cool, cool doesn’t define you. In a lot of ways, my thinking about cool and what makes someone cool are perfectly demonstrated by my obsession with David Bowie. Bowie lived out loud, meaning that he was authentically himself and that, in my opinion, made him unequivocally cool.

I still remember the first time Bowie entered my consciousness. It was in the early 90s and I, like many kids of that era, was obsessed with MTV and VH1, which at the time didn’t have multiple channels and for the most part, aired music videos and news related to music and popular culture throughout the day. Despite not having even the slightest idea what most of the singers, rappers, and bands were talking about in their music, I would sit glued to the screen watching video after video of popular songs of the day and the early trendsetters of yesteryear. It was through those seemingly endless hours of watching music videos that I got to know the likes of Chaka Khan, John Cougar Mellencamp, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Notorious B.I.G., Queen, Sting, The Police, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, and countless others.

Between videos of “In Bloom” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” there it was. From the rise of its “Ahhh” line to the drop of that first “Let’s dance,” I was hooked. If you’ve never heard “Let’s Dance,” you’re missing out. It starts out with this very 80’s rhythmic beat that gets you ready to start moving your body and then you’re met with Bowie’s unmistakably breathy voice that seems to beckon you to get up no matter where you are and do exactly what the song is telling you to do.

As the camera moves forward to focus on Bowie, you see his recognizable slender figure in this oh-so sleek light-colored ensemble. I can still remember feeling entranced by his leggy form draped in billowy, pressed white pants, a light colored button-down shirt with its sleeves rolled up to reveal his forearms, his hands in white gloves as they strummed his electric guitar, and his white loafers casually tapping to the beat. Then there’s his face, which I can only describe as the definition of androgynous beauty. He had these high cheek bones that were the envy of all women hoping to land the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and these piercing light blue eyes that were so unique and enchanting. For many years, I just assumed he had two different colored eyes until I learned that they were actually the result of anisocoria, which is when one pupil is larger than the other and does not change even in the presence of light. Of course, learning this just added to his cool factor in my book.

And finally, there was that hair. Whenever I see a video or image of Bowie through the years, I immediately hear this line from the titular song in Hair the musical, “Oh give me a head with hair/Long, beautiful hair/Shining, gleaming/Streaming, flaxen, waxen.” If there is one thing about Bowie that no one can deny, it’s his knack for one-of-a-kind hairstyles. His slightly messy blonde hair in the “Let’s Dance” video is no exception. Short on the sides and long on the top, his hair is perfectly tossed in varying directions with this section at the front that just hangs forward in this sort of way that you can’t quite tell if it was done on purpose or that’s just how cool people’s hair falls when they are that cool. Either way, I was in love.

 

Still featuring Bowie in the “Let’s Dance” music video

After that initial introduction to Bowie, every single thing I learned about him going forward just added to his cool persona. Take for instance his marriage to the endlessly gorgeous model, Iman. Even in the 90s, the image of a successful and world famous White man married to a chocolate-skinned Black woman was just not something you saw everyday in popular culture. As a kid, I understood all too well the tensions between racial lines, and seeing Bowie so comfortable in his skin and married to this beautiful Black woman just added to his allure as a cultural rebel and icon to me.

 

Photo: Ron Galella for WireImage

Then there were his other musical collaborations and film work. I’m sure by now almost everyone has gotten to hear Under Pressure, which was his duet with Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. Another song that, while it’s not a duet, still gives me such joy when I listen to it is Young Americans. Fun fact: it features the likes of Luther Vandross as backup vocals. That’s another thing about Bowie that I loved—his ability to push the envelope in both his life and his art. At a time when Black backup singers were no longer getting jobs on top records like they had been in the 60s and 70s, Bowie was still creating opportunities for Black backup singers to practice their art form and grow as musicians. (While I’m on the topic of Black backup singers, I highly recommend watching the documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013). It goes into detail about Black backup singers and the struggles many of them had while trying to pursue their musical careers outside of the shadow of famous White singers or bands and groups that were created more for their good looks than their vocal abilities. But I digress.)

As I noted earlier in my appreciation for Bowie’s portfolio of work, his acting performances were also noteworthy. Bowie was one of those rare talents that could cross over from music to film perfectly and he accomplished that with one of my favorite 80s flicks that also featured one of my all-time favorites of Bowie’s looks: Labyrinth. In this dreamy, fantasy film featuring a young Jennifer Connelly and the puppet handiwork of Jim Henson (see The Muppets and Sesame Street), Bowie shines as the goblin king who holds Connelly’s little brother hostage after she angrily and thoughtlessly wishes for him to be taken away. When I tell you Bowie “did” that character, I am telling you he did that character. Everything about his portrayal of the goblin king was Bowie coolness—from his hair and makeup to his rockstar-like wardrobe, it was pure perfection. If you haven’t yet, you must see it or at least look up clips on YouTube. You’ll thank me later.

 

Original movie poster for Labyrinth

Outside of his musical genius, fashion prowess, and just plain awesomeness in general, Bowie was a true renegade. While I was living briefly in Rochester, NY and attending graduate school there, I learned of an interesting connection Bowie had to the city. On March 21, 1976 and after playing a performance at the Community War Memorial, Bowie and three others—one of whom was punk legend, Iggy Pop—were arrested by Rochester police for marijuana possession. Now, to be clear, I am not glorifying marijuana use or getting arrested, but seeing how much of the United States has finally started to change its stance on marijuana, with many states even legalizing it for recreational use, I find it pretty funny that Bowie was part of setting the trend for normalizing its use. I also found it funny that because of that egregious arrest that resulted in dropped charges against Bowie and his crew, Bowie never played in Rochester again.

 

David Bowie’s (hot AF) mugshot after his arrest in Rochester, NY. Credit: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Now, some people might call that “cancelling” but I like to think of it as a protest against the criminalization of drugs. In my mind, Bowie made the decision to avoid playing in a city that wouldn’t allow him to live out loud and for someone as cool as Bowie was, that meant never getting to see him live on that city’s soil. 

In addition to being cool, when I think of Bowie, I think of a man who was extremely principled; someone who wasn’t willing to just ignore beliefs or ideas that were unreasonable or lacked sense. And while this short little tale about Bowie’s arrest is not an attempt at demonstrating why the war on drugs is so terrible (because it is), I do like to think of it as a simple anecdote highlighting the harm criminalization of drugs causes people who weren’t so fortunate as Bowie was to be a successful, White male celebrity with the ability to overcome the damage a drug possession arrest can have on one’s life and livelihood. I know I can’t prove any of this, but I love the idea that it could be a legitimate explanation for his decision to avoid Rochester. 

Whatever the case may be, Bowie is a hero for many rebels, misfits, weirdos, musicians, artists, and creators. Whether it was his out-of-this-world stage act of Ziggy Stardust and the album that was based on it, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), or his portfolio of game-changing music and on-screen roles, Bowie was an innovator who, once you set your eyes upon him, you couldn’t turn away. He always left you wanting more. And if that is not the essence of what it means to be cool, then I have no idea what is.

 

~ Ngozika “Go Zee” Egbuonu

 

SURPRISE + ACTION

Cindy Gallop on Cool

As told to Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

Cindy Gallop is a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, whose background is over 30 years in brand-building, marketing and advertising – she started up the US office of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York in 1998 and in 2003 was named Advertising Woman of the Year. She is the founder and CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld, co-action software launched in beta at TED 2010 and subsequently written up and taught as a Harvard Business School case study, which enables brands to implement the business model of the future – Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial and social). She is also the founder of  MakeLoveNotPorn– ‘Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference’ – a social sextech platform designed to promote good sexual behavior and good sexual values, which she launched at TED 2009. 

I think cool is a massively overused word. And so I’ll be frank, it’s not a word I personally use a great deal because of that. In fact, ironically, now that I’m thinking about it, I use the word far more often in terms of, somebody says, “Let’s do this,” or “I’m going to do that.” And I go, “Okay, cool.” I don’t often say, “This is really cool.” So I guess I’d say to some extent it’s a word that I do feel is re-interpretable, and obviously this is the case in terms of its common usage. Cool can kind of mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s an expression of endorsement, but it’s different for every individual.

I think [cool] is usually something that surprises me. You know, it’s unexpected in some form or other, which means it is not status quo. It’s anybody who is changing the world to be the world that they and we want it to be. I’m regularly asked this question in a somewhat different format, which is, people say, “Cindy, who inspires you?” And I go, “Literally anybody who is actually out there making shit happen in the real world to change the world in all the ways that so many of us want to see it changed.” That is who I consider cool. And the wonderful thing about humanity is that every day there are incredible examples of individuals who are doing something phenomenal. That is simply because they’re doing what they believe is right to make the kinds of things happen that they and we want to see happen.

 I am deliberately nonspecific. I don’t believe in having a set number of, Ooh, these are my heroes. These are my heroines; these are cool people. Every single day there are examples of people who may not have the spotlight of celebrity or the spotlight of style on them. They are doing things that are just phenomenally admirable. And the wonderful thing is that every single day, whether it’s something one sees on social media or report on the news or even something one encounters in one’s own daily life or a friend encounters and tells you about it—there are amazing people doing wonderful, wonderful things. And so I am deliberately nonspecific, because it’s not about the names, it’s about the fact that humanity is just so amazing in so many different ways.

I remember when I was working in advertising and traveling all around the world, running global pieces of business, and I would sit on an airplane in business class, drinking glass of champagne and think, Oh my God, how cool is it that I get paid to do this? I would be on a shoot somewhere. I mean, one is incredibly lucky in advertising. You do get to travel to amazing places to make ads, to meet with clients, to go to conferences.

And so I’ve stood in incredible locations, and just thought, I can’t believe I’m being paid to be here. And what I’ve always thought at the same time is, I hope I never stop feeling that, because the day I feel blasé about any of this, the day I’m not pathetically grateful to be here, is the day that I will no longer know myself. So I look back on those moments and they continue to be incredibly cool. I mean, I still sit in the airplane in business class drinking champagne and think, I can’t believe I get to do this. I hate the idea of being blasé in any form at all. I think it was very cool I got to do those things and go to those places then. I feel enormously lucky now whenever I am booked to speak somewhere and I get to go and speak at a conference in some gorgeous hotel in some lovely resort somewhere and think, How lucky am I to be here? So I feel fortunate enough to have many cool moments all the time.

 

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Photo: Gilly Youner

SCIENCE FICTIONAL LIVING

By Jack Womack

 

Jack Womack has written several books, most notably Random Acts Of Senseless Violence.

 

In the old days, the term science fiction (and here I mean only written English-language science fiction, which has until lately tended to hold sway over how the genre is perceived throughout much of the world) allowed for a wider range of carryings-on beyond those found in the scientific romances of H. G. Wells—there were books where utopias would be found in the form of a gigantic department store, or where dystopias would be presented as places where women wore pants and had the vote, or where lost civilizations had been preserved deep with the earth, or atop mesas in the Andes, and much more. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, the pulp magazine editors of the 1930s who fell into becoming the gatekeepers of science fiction, and later the studio bosses, set the parameters of what was permissible and what was not in order to make believable, i.e. salable, science fiction. In due course everyone agreed upon the basics; that is, 1) Science should nominally be the main character; 2) other characters should be white, male, sexist, possibly xenophobic, and at all times devoid of an inner life (granted, these often seemed to be requirements in much other midcentury fiction); and 3) Science is in practice not necessary to make good science fiction.

Science fiction as it had been known, a sort of pastime for all ages, became something else the moment Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. After ten years of constant attention to the race to the moon, no sooner was it reached than the public made their lack of interest in space, as it was, clear. Instead of the mundane pleasures offered by Skylab, the public turned their attention to the kind of Space they always preferred, the kind where outfits were always impractical, air always easy to find, and where spaceships still made whooshing sounds in a vacuum. And there was much fun to be had with Star Wars and Star Trek, as the unconscious feel that perhaps the earth was offering less and less, seemed to take hold. As the eighties continued on, offering Aliens on the one hand, Blade Runner with another, it was seeming more and more that science fiction was in essence an area in which lay a limitless number of diversified marketing opportunities. There could be no shortage of possibilities in that most frightening of alien worlds, the Media world.

Until, after unending warnings prior to the reality finally beginning to sink in, there was.

The science that is no longer science fiction surrounds us now. There are only so many ways to say that at present we will soon enough be watching our own extinction and while science fiction has suggested this many times in the past, it offers no immediate solutions about what to do when it is actually occurring. Our leaders here and abroad may yet drive us into finality, as if one is trying to outrace the other; as if the certainty of one drives the ones in charge to make it so. Science fiction, as it exists, gives us the imagination and the hope that some of our descendants will be here to see it. That no longer seems a given. There will definitely be a 22nd century, although no one reading this can guess who’ll be here to see it in.

 

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Photo: Alamy Photos

DAVID RAKOFF

 

Cool can cut like a knife.

Or, in the case of Canadian-born but New York City-bred humorist David Rakoff, like a guillotine.

There’s a passage in “I Can’t Get It For You Wholesale”, Rakoff’s witheringly funny exposé of the Parisian fashion scene and its odd excesses, that cements forever his place in the Compendium of Cool. When the legendary German designer Karl Lagerfeld dismisses David with the unkind observation, “What can you write that hasn’t been written already?”, Rakoff’s imagined reply is the kind of cool that can’t be seen head-on; you have to avert your gaze from it, wincing, one hand raised to shield you from the brilliance flashing from its falling blade:

He’s absolutely right, I have no idea. I can but try. The only thing I can come up with at that moment is that Lagerfeld’s powdered white ponytail has dusted the shoulders of his suit with what looks like dandruff but isn’t. Also, not yet having undergone his alarming weight loss, and seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L.?

I mean…just…

GodDAMN.

Rakoff—whose tragic death in 2012 robbed the world of the sort of Swiftian satirist so desperately needed at today’s rancid buffet of edible Élite—was cool in a way he would deny with such eloquent self-flagellation as to make him cooler still; no one could insult David Rakoff the way he could attack himself. “The central drama of my life is about being a fraud, alas,” he tells us in the opening essay of his fist collection, Fraud. “That’s a complete lie, really; the central drama of my life is actually about being lonely, and staying thin, but fraudulence gets a fair amount of play.” And yet there is nothing more genuine, no more vibrant a virtuoso, than Rakoff at work. His prose plucks its readers from the page and wheels them, squealing with delight, in ever-widening gyres of breathless satisfaction, his writer’s eye as steely-sharp as it is jovially jaundiced:

With disturbing regularity, the end of the work day found us at the old Monkey Bar, the Dorset Bar, the Warwick Bar, all attached to serviceable and somewhat down-at-heel hotels. Midtown Manhattan used to be full of just such comfortably shabby establishments where career waiters with brilliantined comb-overs and shiny-elbowed jackets might serve marvelously cheap albeit watery drinks, along with free snacks: withered celery sticks; pretzel nuggets accompanying a cheese spread of a color that in nature usually signals “I am an alluring yet highly poisonous tree frog, beware!”; chicken wings kept barely, salmonella-friendly warm in a chafing dish over a Sterno lamp; and a bounty of unironic, faux Asian, pupu platter dough cylinders, pockets, and triangles that were—oh glory!—fried. Dinner and forgetfulness all for ten dollars.

Reading Rakoff–or better still, listening to him narrate his own work on audiobook or in one of his many appearances on “This American Life”–is an act of hopefulness in an increasingly absurd world, his prose a place to find shelter from our shared exhaustion with…well, everything. He was icily cool in his critiques of everything from cryogenic immortality to the “snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac” smell of chicken shit, but it was the endless warmth of his humanity that made David Rakoff such a gift.

 

~ Clay D. Major

 

Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

MIKE PATTON

 

Having narrowly avoided a degree in English by dropping out of college to join Faith No More in 1988, Patton helped rewrite the sounds of rock and metal. He’s constantly trying new sounds, new genres, new collaborators.  Nearly impossible to track, his projects also include 1960s Italian pop, hip-hop, electronica, noise, soundtrack composition, free-form poetry/jazz/orchestral recordings, and narration for video games. (See Mr. Bungle, Lovage, Peeping Tom, Fantômas,Mondo Cane, and Dead Cross.)

 He speaks Italian (which he learned the hard way: by moving to Italy and refusing to speak English) and Spanish.

He’s performed in both those languages as well as French and Portuguese. He’s got rabid cult followings across multiple segments of society, perhaps most notably in Chile, where he’s considered an honorary Chilean—and where his fans mounted a campaign to elect him president. He signed one of his heroes, composer Ennio Morricone (perhaps best known for his soundtracks to Sergio Leone’s films The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More), to Ipecac Recordings, the label he co-founded in 1999.

Oh, and he uses every single note in his six-octave vocal range.

For extra credit, search up the YouTube videos of him singing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and the Nestle Winter White Chocolate song from the commercial that aired in the early 1990s. Comedy gold, pure and uncut.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

OLD BOOKS

 

Within the pages of a vintage book, current and future events are a known quantity. There’s no mystery, no tragedy that hasn’t already been resolved by the time you’re reading it. Secreted away in its storyline, you’re safe, but you’ve also got other worlds to visit, to decode, and to use as mirrors in which you can see yourself and your life with the benefit of some detachment. For people who learned to escape into books, an old and well-loved book represents a very specific type of happiness.

Some of the best vintage books I read while growing up were about spectacularly subversive girls and women. As a strong, opinionated girl being raised in a ragingly macho culture, absorbing a thousand messages about all the ways in which I was a female failure, I drew courage and validation from those books. Headstrong, kind, and with a fierce sense of integrity and justice, these were girls and young women who were thrown away by society; forced out of their homes and sent to live in Siberia; mocked and misunderstood for being true to themselves. There were, too, the adventurous boys with more freedom than I could ever hope to have; who ran detective agencies and left their crowded homes to live in the wilderness, tame a falcon, and make leather trousers from a deer hide by hand. (The latter seems like a skill I would really put to good use now.)

Others were written from the point of view of witty, brash women, with children and husbands and, among all of that, a palpable sense of frustration at being held back by dint of their gender. Jean Kerr ‘s essays and Shirley Jackson‘s novels about the life of her young family fascinated me in particular, with their astonishment at the utter weirdness of everyday life as an intelligent woman strapped—as though to the nose of a rocket—to a home and children and a man who might or might not be all that interested in any of it.

In these stories, I found traces of myself, the good as well as the bad, and I learned strategies and methods for not giving up on myself. I discovered options I hadn’t known existed for me. Once in awhile I’ll pick up one of those old books again and I’m surprised to recognize myself in the pages, so deeply have their lessons and general style sunk into my DNA.

And all of that before we even get to the particulars about vintage design, or printing, or that intoxicating old-book smell.

John Ptak is a bookseller whose inventory is strictly vintage science, technology, and “the history of ideas.” We exchanged emails about vintage versus modern books.

Vintage books will generally be printed on a better paper than moderns (unless it was during wartime or France between the wars and so on) and so will have a better feel. I think vintage books gave the reader’s eyes an easier time by giving more margin space (and more room for marginalia). I happen to like older design more so than modern, except when it comes to cover design, where the two run a tight race to the coolest. There are fantastic covers designed from, say, the beginning of Bauhaus and such, but the oldsters have their own highly addictive styles going way back to stamped vellum in the 15th century. Dust jackets are relatively recent to the book world, and there I’d probably give the cooler design over to modern than to vintage books.

“Vintage (but not necessarily collectible or valuable) books are also bath-tubable, meaning that if they get a little soggy or splashed they will dry out with enhanced character from the experience. Drinking glass rings on the cover tell stories, as do other attractive defects, a kind of Kintsugi in an odd way, or at least acknowledging or celebrating the rough patches and wear that the book has experienced and tolerated.

“Lastly, vintage books just smell great and could have (and probably do, now that I think of it) their own bottleable fragrance. My guess is that in a blind scent test 9 of 10 would prefer an old paperback smell to a new one.” 

Ah, that glorious scent. A quick look online confirms that it’s available as a bottleable fragrance, as well as in endless iterations of candle scents. And while “old book” might not be a sexy description, it’s better than the particulars. What you smell in an old book is the breakdown of the cellulose and lignin in the paper, turning into several distinct organic compounds, like toluene and ethyl benzene (both of which smell sweet), benzaldehyde and furfural (both smell a bit like almonds), vanillin (guess what that smells like?), and 2-ethyl hexanol (which gives off a slightly floral scent). Sweet, almondy, vanilla-esque, flowery decay.  I think that’s subversive as hell.

Little wonder, then, that vintage books appear in this Compendium, comprising as they do some of the basic tenets of cool: survival, identity, attitude, and subversion.

 

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

THE DOLLARS TRILOGY

Cool is a coin that buys the bearer a fistful of slack.

 

There’s a moment in the stunning 4K remaster of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly that would bankrupt any other actor’s trove of good will: Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name—the eponymous Good to Lee Van Cleef’s Bad and Eli Wallach’s Ugly—is holed up in a war-blasted town with Van Cleef and his gang, and is seen inexplicably cuddling a wee kitten in the bowl of his iconic cowboy hat¹. It’s a blink-and-you’d-miss-it-moment that would be laughably absurd in the hands of anyone other than Eastwood, but Clint’s effortless cool is like the steel plate beneath his poncho in A Fistful of Dollars: an impenetrable barrier to harm, proof against scorn and ridicule. This is a cool that minted an icon, its coin still paying dividends in everything from Tarantino’s entire catalog to the guilty pleasures of The Mandalorian

But Eastwood’s Man With No Name is the kind of cool that cannot be copied: it’s in the languor and looseness of his careless stride, a killing machine in a surfer’s lank-limbed frame;  it’s in the sandblasted squint of the eyes and the thoughtful sip of the cigarillo, lit from a thumb-struck match; it’s in the sun-scorched hardpan of Eastwood’s young face, already cragged and crannied like the dusty Mexican deserts that once rang with the jangle of his spurs. It’s a cool that defined man and genre, borrowed but never bettered.

The Dollars Trilogy reinvented the Western the way cyberpunk would later rewire science fiction: with a gritty, greedy realism and a lived-in landscape bleached of virtue, crowded with characters of questionable morals and motives. Leone’s sweeping vistas are as arid and cultivated as his extreme closeups are sweaty and visceral, all set to Ennio Morricone’s unmistakable, quintessential score. But in the Compendium of Cool, the films’ most lasting legacy will always be the poncho-clad gunslinger, cigarillo clamped between jaw-clenched teeth, his gunsmoke forever drifting over the high plains.  

 

~ Clay D. Major

 

¹ The Man himself may have no name but his clothes were haute couture: Eastwood outfitted himself for the role, shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for the black jeans and trademark hat; he picked up the legendary poncho in Spain.

 

PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

 

 

Her full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking (in the original Swedish: Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump).  She’s only nine, as her theme song says, and lives alone in a giant house with a polka-dotted horse and a monkey who wears a sweater. She’s so strong and smart that she needs no adult protection. (She can lift her horse over her head, for instance.) She doesn’t have to go to school. Her hair’s crazy, her clothes are mismatched, and she wears funny old boots several sizes too big for her. She sleeps with her feet on the pillow and her head under the covers. She can fight pirates, chase away nosy schoolmarms, terrify policemen, terrorize shopkeepers, and scandalize parents. She can fly a hot-air balloon and drive a car that runs on glue. She’s got a trunk full of gold coins for when she needs to buy anything and a tree in her yard dispenses delicious lemonade in glass bottles.

Astrid Lindgren’s 1945 creation exists outside of societal norms—her very existence is a big fuck-you to society. Her mamma’s in heaven, and her papa is a sea captain who must live on his ship; and thus, she’s on her own. Her table manners are atrocious, she picks her nose, doesn’t care if her underwear shows, and, it has to be said, sometimes has a chip on her shoulder. But she’s made of good stuff, is our Pippi. She can’t abide bullies, meanies, or baddies. She’ll always come to the rescue of anyone who’s being picked on. She’s generous that way, and in other ways: sometimes she buys candy for all the children of her village. Other times she shares fistfuls of gold coins with them. She sincerely loves her loyal companions, Tommy and Annika, and is fiercely protective of them (so much so that, weirdly, their parents once went on vacation and left them with her). Pippi lives her life following her heart, unafraid to be herself. Her coolness is legion.

 

“Please help us, before we perish! Without snuff for two days
we wither away on this island.” – Pippi, in Pippi Longstocking Goes Aboard

 

See also:

  • The Pippi-esque portraits made of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, her role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo They’re absolute perfection, and reflect the fact that Stieg Larsson, author of the GWTDT trilogy, imagined Lisbeth as Pippi all grown up.
  • The Pippi merch available on Astrid Lindgren’s website: www.astridlindgren.com

 

– Emma Alvarez Gibson