Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Digital Text for Jes Grew....,

Jes Grew is the outbreak of jazz, ragtime, and blues onto the world scene. Jes Grew is a psychic epidemic; it is the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world in the 1920's. It is a plague, or rather an anti-plague, which enlivens its victims into dancing, swinging, singing and talking crazy. Jes Grew was a liturgy without a text.

"If it could not find its Text, then it would be mistaken for entertainment."

Continuing from the prior installment on the power of cultural production and barriers to the independent and autonomous exercise of the same - my aim here is to convey what I see as a potential solution path directly through these barriers. The goal is to nucleate independent, autonomous, unstoppable and evolutionary cellular embodiments in which local enclaves of Black cultural genius can Work, get paid, and shape the future.

As I mentioned in my first installment, Jappa's lessons on the comics publishing industry opened my eyes to quite a lot. What's true in the comics industry is true on a larger scale in the music industry. (by extension into the entire realm of cultural production) Unlike comics however - HipHop is a topic at the forefront of popular consciousness. As one of millions of consumer/observers of the rise and fall of HipHop - like many others I have participated in countless discussions with dozens and dozens of folks over the years representing all ends of the spectrum of cultural discourse on this subject.

Everybody has cultural theories and opinions, but very, very few folks had recourse to the facts, insider knowledge, and subject matter expertise to take us out of the theoretical realm and into the specific material issues underscoring what went wrong. Countless articles, books, and even careers have been made off of the dubious business of peddling theories, and a whole useless canon of popular psuedo-scholarly nonsense has been spawned in the wake of this cultural preoccupation.

Thankfully, that's all changed. Norman Kelley summarized the paradoxical political economic context in which Black cultural production occurs and Michael Fisher gave the first person witness - sufficient as far as I'm concerned - for any interested party to fact check, dot connect, and close the case on the material specifics of the rise and fall of HipHop. We now know exactly what went wrong.

Long before Kelley and Fisher broke down this recent tragic subversion - one of our great undersung prophets laid out the entire overarching framework in which this Black boom bust cycle has repeated itself in America. In his autodidactic mashup Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed delineated the exact nature of Black cultural genius and simultaneously pointed out that because our genius has not yet achieved an enduring and institutionalized embodiment under our control;
Jes Grew is a liturgy without a text.

"If it could not find its Text, then

it would be mistaken for entertainment
The creative and improvisational genius of two turn tables and a microphone proliferated far and wide. But two turntables and a microphone without control of publishing and distribution has;

come and gone,

been mistaken for mere entertainment,

and far far worse this time.

All because somebody else owned and controlled the text...,

Somebody else converted our liturgy into their textual BANK....,

Not only was HipHop appropriated and profited from like never before, but for the first time ever - the spirit of the thing was extracted and its form was corrupted and this corrupted shell was weaponized and turned back upon us with devastating effect.

Now ain't that some shit?

Open source is a set of principles and practices that promote access to the design and production of goods and knowledge.
Informing and inspiring the open source movement are the African call-and-response traditions, Jazz and the free dance movements which emerged in the 20th Century. Late 20th Century open source strategies include Fluxus, web jams, Wigglism and the international Hip Hop culture. The rise of open-source culture in the 20th century resulted from a growing tension between creative practices that involve appropriation, and therefore require access to content that is often copyrighted, and increasingly restrictive intellectual property laws and policies governing access to copyrighted content.
The open source movement acknowledges its cultural indebtedness to Blackness. The question now is whether folks involved with Black cultural production can expeditiously and systematically close this feedback loop by embracing the tools, ethos, and techniques embodied in the open source movement. And using these begin to produce and control some of the material deliverables that our genius combined with these methods have the capacity to yield.

Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting that folks turn on a dime and attempt to take the tech industry by storm. That's not our current sweet spot and it's not gonna happen. Rather, what I'm saying is that open source tools and techniques comprise low-hanging fruit - a means freely available to us - with which we can leverage our dominant strength in the area of creative cultural production. Cause our community has more young aspiring musicians, singers, dancers, rappers, writers, artists, animators, interviewers, journalists, cinematographers, recording engineers, salesmen, programmers, etc...., than I can shake a stick at.

My esteemed elder and mentor, the founder and chairman of the Dubois Learning Center, Mr. Leon Dixon has written persuasively about the necessity of precisely such a movement.

Notwithstanding his heroic accomplishments locally - embodying, sustaining, and institutionalizing this vision here at the DLC - Dixon's model for giving Jes Grew an enduring digital embodiment has not yet been adopted, endorsed, or implemented by his peers - most of whom are still mired in 1970's era means and themes. This of course doesn't stop us from doing what we do here locally. It does, however, confine the scope of this unique and truly exceptional elders vision to this locality.

Knowing what went wrong, we're now confronted with the necessity of taking matters into our own hands to ensure that that doesn't happen again. Some very fundamental things have changed since the rise and fall of HipHop.
Congo Square Interlude - New technologies give rise to new infrastructures that can be developed and taken advantage of in the acculturation of today’s youth. And like the participants of Congo Square of old used what they had to address their needs, we have a similar challenge confronting us today. The Learning Center’s Telehub Network is an example of using today’s technology, drawing upon cultural patterns and traditions inherent in our urban cores, to develop such an infrastructure.
One way of achieving the goal of making the fixations of cultural work generally available is to maximally utilize technology and digital media. As predicted by Moore's law, the cost of digital media and storage plummeted in the late 20th Century. Consequently, the marginal cost of digitally duplicating anything capable of being transmitted via digital media dropped to near zero.

So we're presented with some challenges and a singularly large opportunity.

1. Engage kids around the collaborative theme of creative cultural production

2. Provide kids with skilled adult guidance and training

3. Provide them with tools they can use at the Learning Center, at home, in the library, at school - wherever computing resources of varying quality, accessibility and capability can be found.

4. Maintain a level playing field across the group so that everybody is working from the same tool set.

5. Ensure that the toolset is powerful enough to genuinely serve their creativity

6. Do all of the above without a budget.

Open source and cheap thumbdrives came to the rescue. (for the price of a CD and jewel case and cheap 2 Gig thumb drive, every kid got his own portable bootable toolset and data storage) and I mean that. Boot the operating system of a CD anywhere, load up the applications, do your work, and save your work to the thumbdrive.

but that's just the beginning...,

The opensource CMS we use to power our websites runs on an open source relational database
on an opensource operating system and is presented to the web via an open source webserver....,

and then it got better because one of the younglings came upon this gem,

and so the process fed back on itself with an evolutionary quickness and got even better...,

An evolutionary process involving little more than the effort, attention, and creativity of kids, empowered by freely available tools and technology was now underway in earnest. Very little money required to put it into motion, and a high level of enthusiastic participation, because what kid doesn't like to express him/herself?


The learning center has 80 volunteer instructors in reading, writing, math, science and technology. Its curricular subject matter expertise is unparalleled. None of those curricular riches have ever really been documented. None have been digitized. This makes it next to impossible to share the hard won knowledge capital that the center has accumulated.

Document, digitize, and web-enable DLC curriculum.

Funny what happens when adult instructors find out that a group of kids can effortlessly do stuff they themselves are struggling to do.

What? Kids should be able to teach their teachers?

Recruit and work with a larger cadre from the community outside the learning center.

Wash, rinse, repeat.....,

(oh yeah, the big hook underscoring this entire process is the goal of producing commercially viable work product - whatever the kids produce and judge to be commercially viable (think showtime at the Apollo) - we put on sale for them at the web-based e-store - so far we haven't quite achieved that goal yet, but the overall tools, methods, and embodying process comprise a still very nascent work-in-progress - something we just kind of figured out after we started teaching kids how to create their own comics.....,)