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From Boom Boxes to Writing Panther History: Our Collective Soundtrack


 

By the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project | @IPHProject | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

 

In July 2016, Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Mary Phillips, Tracye Matthews and Robyn C. Spencer, four historians working on the Black Panthers, created the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project.  As we collaborated on how to center women, gender and sexuality in Panther history, it became clear how much of our own scholarship reflected not just shared understandings of politics, activism and the academia, but an overlapping aural soundscape. Our generation of Black Power scholars often came of age in cities where the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) roots ran deep despite the devastation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Program. As children of the hip hop, R&B and reggae explosion of the 70s and beyond, music was a lens, a crucible, a muse, and a catalyst. From Detroit, to Brooklyn, to New Orleans, our girlhood flowered and floundered in soil nourished by similar beats, riddims and rhymes. This is our sonic autobiography.

 

Our political consciousness pulsed to a deeply gendered beat. Early rappers like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Ms. Melody, Monie Love, J. J. Fad and M.C. Lyte represented the strong, powerful voices of young women taking control of their own lives. At a time when Black women struggled to emerge from the shadow of the dominant “black men as endangered species” discourse and when the music industry was male-dominated, these artists fought back against their invisibility by putting in the work and creating their own following. That following included us. As young women, we plumbed this music for ourselves, our voices, experiences and stories.

 

IPHP Collective Soundtrack Boom Box copy 2.jpg

 

These musicians showed us that young Black women could have a strong message of independence and have a major impact in and on an industry that was not designed for them.  The lyrical skills and powerful presence in R&B of groups like TLC, En Vogue, Total, Xscape and emerging artists like Destiny’s Child, as well as emcees such as Lauryn Hill and Eve, could not be denied.  In an industry that was transitioning to relying heavily on music videos and a burgeoning magazine industry, they used the power of images. They held up a mirror to Black girls who had a hunger to see our humanity and complexities reflected back to us.  

Me and The Lady of Rage, Mary

 

I absolutely love music. As I rode in the car with my mom during my youth I sang or rapped every song on the radio loud and proud with so much passion. “Is there a song you don’t know,” my cousin remarked. No, there wasn’t. I knew every song and would bop my head to all the melodies. The Deejays were cool to me. I would listen attentively as they gave their colorful commentary and introduced the songs. Growing up in Detroit, “Mason in the Morning” on 98 WJLB frequented the morning airways and my sister, Angela and I listened in. We played this game in which we acted like we were the DeeJay’s and artists in the studio. I would sit on her bed and we would record ourselves imitating a radio show with our mom’s tape recorder. I was DeeJay MJ and my sister was The Lady of Rage.

 

 

“Ya’ll listening to 98 WJLB. The Lady of Rage is here in the studio with us,” I would say as we started the show. “Hey everybody, I Rock Ruff and Tough with My Afro Puffs.” Angela replied. “The Lady of Rage just released her new album and we about to play her new hit.” Then we pressed play on our boombox sitting beside us to record ourselves and our hit cassette singles. After the song finished, we stopped the recorder and enjoyed listening to our radio show. Angela and I would take turns playing the artist and the DeeJay as she was DeeJay B Angie B. We did this over and over again, filling hours of blank cassettes. One time we ran out of cassettes and were desperate to find another, so we went in our mother’s room and swiped one of her cassettes that included her class lectures and recorded over it so we could continue our show. When our mom found out, no one was safe in the house. She had a fit. Looking back now, The Lady of Rage reminded me of a Panther woman. Adorned with afro puffs, a black vest, and black leather gloves, she was outspoken and carried no-nonsense lyrical boldness. She could hold her own in a party of men, which included Dr. Dre and Snoop. In Los Angeles, she had a dominant voice in her all-male crew. As a Black woman, there was nothing like listening to the power of a woman emcee. She boasted independence, self-defense, Black pride, and community empowerment, all aspects of the BPP philosophy.

 

 

Straight outta Brooklyn, Robyn

I grew up inbetwix and inbetween, like most first-generation immigrants. Growing up in Brooklyn made this a matter of course. I could count the amount of people I knew on one hand who weren’t from the Caribbean. I listened to the Sugar Hill Gang as well reggae, calypso and the early strains of dancehall. One of the first songs to capture my imagination was Kuff by Shelly Thunder. It was an unapologetic anthem to the value of women standing up for themselves in the face of male infidelity and disrespect. Me and my friends from the neighborhood called ourselves the “Kuff Gal Massive.” Empowerment as young women was not a given in the many songs which promoted male sexual conquest and the masculinist code of the streets.

 

 

But the women who were coming out in reggae coupled with all the Roxanne remixes, dis tracks and comebacks that were popular at the time gave me life, literally. The music that I listened to was Queen Latifah, Mc Lyte and even Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. The musical genres I loved mediated each other quite well. It was Shabba Ranks’ Mr. Loverman v. Lil’ Kim’s Big Momma Thing. Going to a majority white high school after a lifetime in majority Black educational settings also introduced me to a world of rock and pop. George Michaels, Boy George and Prince queered my music tastes. It seemed like Huey Newton, BPP co-founder, died right in the middle of all of this, in 1989. Message music returned to center stage with explicitly political rap and a shift away from “slackness” towards “conscious” music in dancehall. The Rodney King beating and the growing anti-apartheid movement and year living in South Africa threw Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, South African kwaito artists, and the Roots, Tracy Chapman and the Fugees into my increasingly politicized musical world. Black feminism led by writers like Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara and theorists like bell hooks increasingly became a filter through which I let music in. All of these influences led me to the Panthers.  

 

NOLA Memories, Angela

 

I grew up in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. My young years were filled with all kinds of  music because my mother always had a radio on or was singing a capella. Gospel, rhythm and blues, disco, rock and roll; probably the only music genre I didn’t listen to while growing up was country. Once I entered my teen years, however, my musical interest increasingly included rap music. At the local level, the decidedly Southern New Orleans bounce music and rap scenes were emerging, dominated by emcees and groups like: Show Boys, Gregory D, Mannie Fresh, and MC T. Tucker. Of course, there was the national level. I recall dancing to Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight at a 4th grade school dance. Run DMC, Whodini, NWA, Public Enemy, KRS-One. These musicians influenced me. However, it was the conscious rap and the presence of women rappers with innovative lyrics and strong public images that made the most enduring musical interventions in my mind in the age of MTV, BET/Rap City, VH1 and the emerging music video industry that began selling narratives, not just capturing a band performing on the stage like on Soul Train every Saturday morning. The forceful and confident lyrics and physical presence of rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Monie Love, the late Ms. Melodie and Salt N Peppa, combined with my growing love of reading novels and historical fiction by civil rights activist Ann Moody and authors Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, among others, created this perfect storm that catapulted me into college 1500+ miles away from home, recovering the history of African American women revolutionaries.

 

I learned about the BPP for the first time in Fall 1989, the same year Huey Newton was killed. Soon thereafter, images in the documentary series, “Eyes On the Prize,” revealed to a new generation like myself that there were women in the BPP. Like the Black women rappers who had put in the time and had begun to stand out from among the men in the overwhelmingly male world of rap, I began to understand that women in the Black Panther Party also had worked at ground zero and stood out in the Party, despite their limited visibility in the written historical narrative up to that point. My mission became to ensure their voices and lives are written into the public memory to flesh out the historical record and to impact young activists who might someday need inspiration to rise above their circumstances and surroundings and change the way the world sees the value of their own lives. Today, I use the film medium to capture the experiences of BPP women, allowing them to use their own voices to speak their personal truths and reclaim and define their place.

 

 

School Daze Rap, Tracye

As young Black feminists in college, one of my friends and I would sit and record videos as part of our political work. We cut VHS videotape of MTV Raps, copying all the videos that had women scantily clad or that were by the women artists at the time. Basically, we made a little mix tape on the VHS. We went to dorms and organized conversations with our peers called The Politics of Rap. Inevitably, we had these huge discussions and debates about the ways women are portrayed, and about whether women should be called “bitches” and “hoes.” These same kinds of conversations are really not going on as much now, but that was kind of our way of exercising and figuring out our feminism and how to talk to other Black people about it.

 

The vinyl of the Panthers’ era, and the boom boxes of our youth largely have been replaced by the earbuds of today. But music still plays the same role in our consciousness.  And the organization that COINTELPRO tried to bury continues to sprout seeds. While Tupac Shakur retains visibility as the Panthers’ most direct legacy to today’s hip hop, Black Lives Matter movement activists have turned Assata Shakur’s poetic declaration into their generation’s freedom song: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” These activists have remained insistent about gendering and queering Black liberation and IPHP is part of the response to their call. In writing about Panther women and their history, we write about and through our histories. And the beat goes on.

 

+++

 

IPHP Black Power Formation Photo Text and Logo on Wall Watermarks Cropped.jpeg

 

Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Tracye A. Matthews, Mary Phillips, and Robyn C. Spencer, authors of some of the leading essays about gender and Black Power, founded the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project in July 2016. LeBlanc-Ernest is a Houston-based independent scholar and filmmaker working on a film, “The World is the Children’s Classroom” about the Oakland Community School; Matthews is a Chicago-based historian, filmmaker, curator and associate director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Race, Politics and Culture; Phillips is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lehman College/CUNY and author of a forthcoming biography of Panther leader Ericka Huggins, A Spirit on a Sword: Ericka Huggins’ Life as a Panther, Educator, and Activist  and Spencer is an associate professor of History at Lehman College/CUNY and author of The Revolution has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland.

 




 


From Boom Boxes to Writing Panther History: Our Collective Soundtrack

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