Smell is scientifically known to be linked memories and the slightly musty, effervescent scent of the underground Harlem club, carried with it decades of history and peoples past. Black People looking for a future within their past and the tomorrow that hope promised. A similar search had brought us five together, seeking out the Harlemite, seated in the corner of the smoke filled room. The room’s blue black haze enveloped his powerful aura, resonated in his heavy copper tone voice, which beckoned us to approach.
We encircled his table, as he looked at each one of us individually, before continuing his introductory oration. “White people have always used our culture, to empower themselves and discredit us, through slander and disingenuous humour.” The mention of humour made us ponder if we had walked into a comedy hall, as the setup before us, seemed jestful at first. This presumption would soon be dispelled.
His identity still hidden by a name unmentioned, the wizened face motioned us to the empty seats before us. The words that followed buried any doubt. Like the two parts sour cocktail of his drink, his teaching method would become an acquired taste for us. “Have you ever heard the comical debate about the contest of caveman versus astronauts? Well the comical narrative had its origins in our own history!”
The taller of the two sisters, sneered with disbelief before responding. “Astronauts? That is a pipe dream. Man can’t leave the Earth!”
“Not yet! But soon, once they break the code in our art; a surface they have only just scratched,” the elder replied, his veneer unbroken.
“How? What does that have to do with cavemen?” the brother to my right asked.
“A sarcastic depiction of our current state; are you a Caveman or Astronaut?” The elder gentleman retorted, eschewing on his cigar, awaiting a response. Bravado, part of the New Yorker’s temperament, spoke back, “I’m the astronaut!” No name had yet been anointed to capture the ethos of Black New Yorkers, but whatever the word would be; the more he spoke, the more we realized he was sorely lacking of it. We were all lacking something, intangible that would make us whole; the reason we had sojourned to Harlem to discover; a journey that began with the elder’s next response.
“How if you cannot fly? You have heard of the great white hope? We are victims of the great white dope; misdirection towards self inflicted hatred and ignorance, being robbed without knowing the riches we possess. Coins are two sided, but you only see one if you cannot flip it. We were once astronauts. Not through spaceships or stolen gadgetry but our souls and elevated consciousness.”
The fierce goddess to my left questioned this, in spite of the heritage manifested in the afro that majestically crowned her countenance. “How has our soul been lost? By not wearing loin-cloths or beating drums in a jungle?” There was something worldly about her. Perhaps it was the struggle in her voice, or the hint of multiple accents, both of which I would become familiar with in the immediate future.
The Elder leaned back, an amused chuckle escaping his lips. “Sister and Daughter, the drums have already been beating, and the only skin you need is the skin of your consciousness, poignant and undiluted. We became the caveman when our soul and consciousness were stolen. The white man got high off of our soulful resonance. Call it cultural appropriation, if you will but it goes deeper than that; the very foundation of the Hollywood machine.”
The second sister, to my right, interjected speaking the thought on all our minds. “How deep does it go? Make points not parables!” In response, he did. “You are here to learn of The Five. Five of what was once hundreds of thousands of enlightened ones. The First Nations called them Shamans. In Africa they were named Waganga, Voodoo practitioners, warlocks and a slew of other names, differentiated across cultures. Their practices were carried over on slave ships and re-birthed as Hoodoo and other forms in the south, and finally brought here to Harlem, incognito.”
“So there are many euphemisms for the dark arts,” I blurted out seeking to cut down a long winded speech. “Yes!” The old turned his attention to me, his eyes eerily mirroring the black blue haze of the room. “Our Black Magic carries with it a negative connotation that has been used to turn us from our cultural practices, natural medicine and means of communicating with our ancestors. It’s this means of communicating and to understand your unknown natural inherent capabilities that have brought you five to me. Why Five? Well five fingers make a fist; a fist to hold on to and grasp what’s yours resolutely! A fist to hit back at the cultural and spiritual degradation we have been subjected to.”
“How given the current economic state of Harlem?” The tall sister questioned.
“By realising that we are all existing and functioning on the wrong frequency. Have you ever wondered why the enactment of our natural medicine and cultural practices were done in our traditional languages? Because that is the medium we live through. The colonialists and slave owners fought against the enlightened ones by forcing their language and frequency down our throats. They banned our language and writing, on the plantation and through their institutions, just like the residential schools, which victimized the culture of the First Nations.”
He paused to sip again from the glass that didn’t seem to empty. “You must relearn your ancestral languages to apply them practically, as has been done in the music of the hidden awakened ones around you. Resonate with your brothers and sisters, like I did in Harlem.”
The third brother of our trio, afforded the opportunity voiced his own inquisitiveness. “Who are you, and what have you done that we should continue listening to you or follow you?”
The shorter sister thought it prudent to intercede on the Elder’s behalf, but he motioned her to keep the peace. “The brother has a point. Who am I and what have I achieved? Well I am Ellsworth Raymond Johnson. Probably better known to you, Harlem and beyond as Bumpy Johnson!” He paused coyly as this sunk in. “As for what have I done, I got the Italian and Irish Mobs out of Harlem, protected the Queen`s racket, before circumstances made her domain pass to me and united the community of Harlem, to stand together and hold our own!”
“So you are going to teach us Gangsterisim?” The cynic in me speaking out brashly slightly irritated. Bumpy’s response was no less eloquent then the man himself. “We are all a product of the circumstances of our times. What I am going to teach you is to rediscover the frequencies of your ancestors and the power that resonates within the arts of our people, which despite misappropriation; the white man has failed to destroy. You may have heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? They serve the same purpose that you shall soon serve.”
They needed no introduction, being more mythical legend than fact; the whispered bogeymen of the artistic world that was just starting to re-emerge or coalesce around inspirations of African descent.
“So music is going to open up a metaphysical door, to hidden powers that we posses?” The shorter Sister’s voice dripped with sarcastic disbelief punctuated by her eyebrows.
“Then why hasn’t this been tried before?” Brother Two demanded
“Who’s to say it hasn’t? Have you heard of the Soul Art movement?”
The two Harlemites among us, spoke out, claiming a hallmark that was their own. “The Soul Art movement was pioneered in Harlem and is as black as Harlem itself. We should all take the time to hear what Bumpy has to say!”
The other three of us exchanged looks of ire, and before we could voice our vexation at being spoken for, Bumpy interceded, reaffirming their proclamation. “Yes! Black Artisans who tapped into the powers of their voices, musical instruments and imagery projection, harnessing a formidable elemental current that underlines blackness. Sadly these endowments are being ripped off by cultural appropriation, masterminded by white society’s capital enterprises; a front for their own mythical warlocks.”
“How so?” The sister beside me asked.
“Black Art is the source of all this ‘Swing’ that they proclaim to have originated. Who had been accused of poaching Charlie “the Bird” Parker’s style and flair? Phil Woods, the white saxophonist. The first of many artistic appropriations, with more planned for the future!”
The mention of appropriation and what I had lost as a result of it, made me erupt once more. “We’re not hearing anything new. The same has been and is still being repeated across the black spectrum of entertainers!” My outburst caused everyone to pause and I took it upon myself to ask the obvious question. “So how are you going to teach us to harness this soulful power if you can’t play or sing yourself? That gun at your hip isn’t a six string guitar.”
“A valid question, considering it’s hard to ask so much of you all without giving you the opportunity to make a name for yourself. As you all know mine, what are your names? Let’s start with you.”
The “You” he referred to was the New Yorker, who unhesitatingly proffered his title.
“Louis Thomas Jordan”
He was followed by the tall sister on my left, the only Floridian native among us.
“Augusta Christine Fells!”
The other brother followed her beat. “Chester Arnett Burnett!
The shorter sister on my right spoke next, with me going last. “Gwendolyn Bennetta Bennett!
Bumpy paused and nodded with a slightly coy smile at the mention of each of our names. “Now that introductions are done, it’s time that you meet your teachers who will train you for what lies ahead!”
“What lies ahead?” Gwendolyn asked, and Bumpy again, smiled coyly, as he rose, silently, smooth and elegant. With a demure grin gracing his ebony countenance, he gestured to our rear with his hat and as we turned to see who approached, we were met with a blinding flash. As our eyes recovered from the unexpected illumination, Bumpy exited in the opposite direction, leaving us to become acquainted with the six future legends yet unknown to us, as they stood before us. The foremost of them spoke, clearly identifiable as the leader.
“By what, he meant who! That would be the appropriation industry. We need your help if Black Art is to survive. The language, ways and power of Black Art and the Griots that practice it must be protected! You are to be the next five in a line of furious fives. I am Grandmaster Flash.”
“Why are you here?” we all asked in unison.
We are here because you, Louis Thomas Jordan, will one day be called the King of the Juke box. You, Augusta Christine Fells, will become one of the most significant black female painters of our generation. You, Chester Arnett Burnett will one day become the Howling Wolf. You Horace Pippin, will one day be known to us as HP15, also a revolutionary painter and lastly, You Gwendolyn Bennetta Bennett will be one of the best scribes of our times, as a writer and journalist who will play a pivotal role in Oppurtunity; a chronicle of the cultural advancements of the coming Harlem Renaissance.”
“If our skills are so diverse, how does it make sense for us to work together? A second question we all jointly asked.
“Well that’s because, together the five of you are going to raise a pyramid through space and time.” We were all taken aback by his revelation and he chuckled at our dropped jaw expressions. “What did you think they were for, or why we built them? There is no permanent resting place when you can traverse time and space.”
Mutendei Writes is a Kenyan born writer, with life experiences in both Canada and Kenya. His first book, The Poetry Express: What Would I Want To Be? – catered to the belief that artists have a social responsibility to address a wide variety of issues. It earned acceptance as a course text at York University in the department of Sociology in early 2013. His second book, The Ideabankisms, an audio book, merged his vocal beliefs on social political thought. It was inspired by the book Swahili Sayings, which he is a fan of, having read it growing up. Read more about Mutendei at www.mutendeiwrites.com.
Candace Hunter is a mid-career artist who resides in Chicago. Her work has displayed locally, regionally and nationally. This past Fall, she became a proud recipient of the 3Arts Award.