PAYING DUE RESPECT
Any time you see a flaxen-haired eight-year-old with the crotch of his jeans sagging down to his knees, that's black culture too
Sunday 30 April 1995
"IN OTHER words I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there's an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he'll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realises what's been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can't - he goes back inside himself."
"Which one is real?"
"They're ALL real."
Written 30-odd years ago, that exchange between a black musician and his psychiatrist introduces Beneath the Underdog, the autobiography of Charles Mingus. When Jamie Byng, 25-year-old head of Canongate Press, mentioned last week that he planned to republish the great jazz composer and bass-player's story under his new Payback Press imprint, I told him that I thought its opening was up there with the first few lines of Anna Karenina. Yes, he said, but did I know what it reminded him of? And, hardly missing a beat, he read me a paragraph from W E B Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others ... One feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Souls of Black Folk, written in 1906, is another volume in Payback's long-term reprint programme. Sixty years apart, Du Bois and Mingus found the same terms with which to describe the torment of the black man in America. And both take their place in a literary tradition whose vitality has been largely hidden from the view of the white reading public.
Jamie Byng hopes to do something about that. Payback Press is launched this month, and before it is very much older he hopes that the literature of Du Bois, Mingus, LeRoi Jones, Gil Scott Heron and others will be better known to a British audience which, in his emphatic view, has failed to acknowledge the increasingly pervasive influence of black culture over the past half-century. It's a debt made explicit in the choice of name for his imprint, borrowed from the title of a particularly tough-minded James Brown song. "As discussed by Brown," he said in a telephone conversation last week, "the 'payback' is black-initiated , and it's about political and social empowerment. But in my terms it's also about repaying a debt by making people more aware of the tremendous importance of black culture and its role in our lives."
From Chuck Berry to Prince, black culture in a white world has usually meant music, although nowadays any time you see a flaxen-haired eight- year-old with his baseball cap reversed and the crotch of his jeans sagging down to his knees, that's black culture too, spreading its influence in front of your eyes. By contrast with the members of the baby-boom generation, who had to fight for the freedom to buy their Fats Domino and Bo Diddley records, and to whom Muddy Waters was practically a samizdat artist, Byng is part of a generation that couldn't escape black culture even if it wanted to.
He discovered its true richness while studying English literature at Edinburgh University. "I was living with the brother of the woman who is now my wife," he said. "And he had the most enormous record collection. Really obscure stuff from the early Seventies, before disco music started to change things. Rare groove, deleted jazz-funk, reggae, dub ... wonderful music. It blew me away."
Black culture is principally an oral tradition, hedged about with warnings against allowing the influence of decadent western habits and attitudes to diminish the potency of its essence. The most colourful of the many such injunctions came from the immortal Little Richard. "You should never," he growled, "put a tuxedo on the funky blues." Had he thought about it, he would probably have extended the metaphor to include a mortar board and gown. Byng, however, was unafraid. Simultaneously with his immersion in his future brother-in-law's musical treasure trove, his formal studies in 20th century American literature were introducing him to Richard Wright's Notes of a Native Son and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, and to Toni Morrison. It was logical to bring the strands together, and to find a contemporary focus in the revitalisation of black youth culture through the medium of hip-hop and rap music, which did not spring fully formed from the imaginations of kids in the South Bronx and South Central LA but harked back to ancient traditions of storytelling.
"I did my dissertation on 'The Development of the Black Oral Tradition - the Hip-Hop Lyric'," he said. "It seemed to me that the whole field is so overlooked in terms of world culture. I was disturbed by how little was being written about hip-hop, tracing it back to the influence of people like the Last Poets, James Brown, Gil Scott Heron and a few others, trying to make a serious case for it as poetry."
Inspired by the vision of What's Goin' On, Marvin Gaye's courageous and compassionate 1971 song cycle on the theme of inner-city decay, a generation of soul singers reasserted black music's function as social and political commentary in pieces like Brown's "King Heroin", Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", the Last Poets' "Niggers are Scared of Revolution" and Parliament's "Chocolate City". A decade later, inspired by the versifying style and stripped-down rhythms of Jamaican disc-jockeys such as U Roy and Big Youth, the hip-hop generation picked up the theme, mirroring the urban despair of the Reagan-Bush era in a series of records that began with Grandmaster Flash's bleak "The Message" and included the troublesome gangsta-rap hits of Public Enemy, Niggaz With Attitude and Ice Cube, whose lyrics used the vocabulary of the streets, in which all girls were seen as whores and every 10-year-old boy knew how to strip and clean an Uzi.
That story, the rise of the hip-hop nation, is well told by S H Fernando Jr, a New York journalist, in The New Beats, one of the first three books published by Payback, which Byng has established as a subsidiary of Canongate Books, the Edinburgh company which he and Hugh Andrew, another former employee, bought from the official receiver last year, with backing from half a dozen anonymous private individuals. The other two items on the initial list are both classic texts receiving their first British publication: Black Talk, by the pianist and musicologist Ben Sidran, first published in 1971, and Blues People, the poet, playwright and essayist LeRoi Jones's celebrated 1963 meditation on the evolution of black music from the time of slavery up to the avant-garde jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, on whose behalf Jones was a tirelessly eloquent and usually provocative advocate.
Known as Amiri Baraka since the late Sixties, when he achieved further notoriety via his role in the riots in Newark, New Jersey, Jones is perhaps the key figure in Payback's pantheon of heroes. In a play like Dutchman, a poem like "Black Dada Nihilismus" or an essay like "The Screamers", he struggled out of the shadows of Joyce and Kerouac, finding a voice - always intense, often angry - that prefigured the concerns and the cutting edge of the rappers. Not to mention their awareness of style.
"My sister wd be somewhere in the shadows pouting," Jones wrote in his 1965 novel, The System of Dante's Hell, "looking down 4 stories at the chinese restaurant, & hump hatted cool daddies idling past in the cold. Snow already past our window quiet on the street. Friday, cool snow, for everyone cd run out new swag coats & slouch towards their breathing lives. And I'd be getting ready, folding my hand- kerchief, turning around towards the mirror, getting out the green tyrolean with the pea- cock band. Cool."
8 The first Payback Press books are 'Blues People' by LeRoi Jones (£7.99), 'Black Talk' by Ben Sidran (£8.99) and 'The New Beats' by S H Fernando Jr (£9.99), all published this month.
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