Black Egypt: A Visit to Tama-Re
On I-85 near Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, there are almost as many surveillance cameras as lamp posts. Follow the trail of eyes in the sky north, toward the city, and soon its skyline comes into view. Most of the skyscrapers' tops form pyramids or obelisks. That's why, to those inclined to see it that way, the Atlanta cityscape is an enormous monument to Masonic power. There's no reason for anyone to doubt that there are a lot of powerful Masons in the area, or that they're into Egyptian architecture. Those are facts.
Cars move more quickly in and out of Atlanta than any other major American city, probably because there's no waterway. Downtown sits at the intersection of two perpendicular interstates, both straight and extremely wide. To visit Georgia's other set of pyramids and obelisks, you need to go about 80 miles southeast of these immoderate crossroads. From 85, glide onto I-20 east. When you get beyond the eastern (or any other) border of the urban area, the speed limit changes to 70, and everyone does at least 80. So it won't take long to get to Rte. 142. But once you exit onto that winding two-laner, heading south over gentle, red-dirt hills, things start to slow down.
At the edge of Putnam County, a sign indicates it's "Georgia's Dairy Capital." Next, you pass a sign for "Bubba's," which is a convenience store in a BP station, and then one for a farm stand purveying "Boild P-Nuts." In one area Putnam is certainly deserving of "Capital" status, but it only manifests on autumn Saturdays: college football mania. When the University of Georgia team is playing over in Athens, cars on Rte. 142 not displaying a red Bulldog flag are few and far between. To an outsider, it can look like fanaticism.
Not long after you're pretty sure you've gone too far, roll up and over one last hill and the pyramids are right there. There's a black one and a gold one, and a brown-faced sphinx facing the road, and a tall obelisk, and an arch-shaped gate decorated with ankhs and other hieroglyphs, through which runs a road lined with statues of mostly animal-headed deities, all brightly painted in primary colors. Farther back, up on the rise, is a recognizable one, Isis, with ebony skin and her winged arms spread. No level of expectation can dilute the surprise?you can't believe what you're seeing. Tama-Re, Egypt of the West, has that Magic Kingdom quality.
Striking as the Nuwaubians' 476-acre holy land is (and I'll get back to it later), the truly amazing part of their story is more about people. I'm going to call them "Nuwaubians" for the sake of simplicity, with the caveat that one simplifies the Nuwaubian phenomenon only at the cost of accuracy.
There is, or was, an organization called the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, whose members came to Georgia from New York in 1993 and built Tama-Re. But the Nuwaubians I spoke to do not claim membership in any nationalist or religious sect. Denying adherence to any sort of "ism," they describe themselves as Americans of various faiths, with a strong common interest in the history of their people, and in their culture. Since that's not at all unusual, these (and presumably, most) Nuwaubians see their private lives as essentially non-newsworthy. The Land, as they sometimes call it, is as open to curious outsiders and disrespectful reporters as the Nuwaubians feel they can afford it to be. And that's not wide open, because the Land is home to several hundred people. They have endured harassment by local authorities and racist neighbors on and off over the years. The community has no official spokesperson, and its teachers don't grant interviews.
One way the Nuwaubian sphere of information overlaps with the world at large is through the writings of its head teacher, Dr. Malachi Z. York, who is also known as Amunnubi Raakhptah, Chief Black Eagle of the Yamassee, Malachizodok-El, Atum-Re and several other names. Friends call him Doc.
York taught and wrote in Brooklyn from 1967 until 1991; his 300 or so books, referred to as scrolls and tablets, are the Nuwaubian texts. Amazon and Barnes & Noble carry none of them. You can buy some in Nuwaubian bookstores in Athens, Savannah, Atlanta and other cities, as well as in the gold pyramid at Tama-Re. They're also sold off sidewalk tables in black urban neighborhoods all over America, alongside less prolific authors' works of "street knowledge," with which York's books have a few things in common. Like opacity.
York founded Ansaar Pure Sufi in Brooklyn in 1967. That organization became the Nubian Islamic Hebrews in about 1969, and something else after 1972, when York traveled to Sudan. He was based in Coney Island for a time, and operated a bookstore and a printing press on Flatbush Ave. in the 70s. In the 80s he was based in Bushwick, on Bushwick Ave. York's students are best remembered by New Yorkers as practitioners of orthodox Islam?members of certain New York Five Percent Nation, Nation of Islam and Arab Islamic mosques still regard the Nuwaubians as a rival faction?but at different times they followed the paths of Christianity and Judaism.
Operations relocated to Liberty, NY, near the Catskills, around 1991, then to Georgia in '93. At that time the group changed its daily attire from Muslim robes to street clothes. These days, York reportedly spends more time in Athens, the site of a newer Nuwaubian community, than at Tama-Re.
Another place where Nuwaubians and non-Nuwaubians meet is on the Web. There are about a dozen sites run by people who are perhaps best described as Nuwaubian enthusiasts. Though their pages quote York's books and are presented as venues for his teachings, these webmasters in fact speak only for themselves. One legitimate Nuwaubian organization, the Ancient Egiptian Order, operates an official website, at www.egiptianmysteries.com. It contains the same basic information imparted to visitors of Tama-Re: that the culture of ancient Egypt was lost, that it was a powerful culture and that it is being revived in Georgia. (The alternative spelling is used to distinguish the culture in question from the modern nation-state, as well as from contemporary academic theories about the ancient uses and meanings of "Egyptian" artifacts. The ancient Egiptians are said to have been Nubians, the ancestors of black Americans.)
The third sliver of overlap is hiphop. By the time it started taking off, Dr. York was already a prominent teacher of alternative black cultural knowledge, working extensively with young people. He was also an active musician and producer (played disco/r&b), with knowledge of the industry and access to studio equipment.
Doug E. Fresh and Afrika Bambaataa were among the old-schoolers who benefited from Doc's guidance, according to the teacher's adopted son, Tariq L., of the Atlanta-based duo the Hemisphere. Tariq is from Bushwick. He says he remembers policemen thanking his foster father for helping clean up the neighborhood. "Criminals got real humble when they passed by," he recalls.
Tariq is 25 years old now, and as good a hiphop-soul producer/instrumentalist as you're likely to hear, in the underground or on radio (the Hemisphere gets play in New York from DJ Bobbito). He moved to Atlanta in '93 as part of the "spiritual mission" that began in Brooklyn. The Hemisphere, fronted by MC U-George, is basically a roots rap group, with strong reggae and instrumental flavors, partly inspired by but definitely autonomous of Nuwaubian knowledge. They have singles out now and an album due in January. "I just happen to be Nuwaubian," says Tariq. "It's not like I'm telling the world, 'You got to be one.'"
That attitude is common among Nuwaubians in hiphop. So the teachings are a lot less prominent in rap lyrics than, say, Five Percent Nation lessons, which tend more toward the directive. Some fans of Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers might not have known what those guys were on about, but it was at least clear that they were on about something. Posdnuos from De La Soul, on the other hand, has been down with the Nuwaubians for years, but his rhymes lend De La fans nary a clue. Prodigy from Mobb Deep, among the most respected of active rhyme writers (sure to be published in The New Yorker as soon as its editors drop their bias against verse about why one shouldn't step to the poet), revealed in a chat last summer that he adopted a strict vegan diet on advice culled from Dr. York's books, which he recommended to a fan with questions about nutrition. The best independent hiphop album of the modern era, MF Doom's Operation: Doomsday, has on its back cover a photo of the artist and his late brother and KMD partner, Subroc, at the upstate New York Nuwaubian facility. It is not labeled as such.
The crew closest to the edge of the Nuwaubian public/private boundary is Scienz of Life. Until recently based in Perth Amboy, NJ, all three of S.O.L.'s MCs are from the other side of the Hudson. Earlier this year, they and their extended crew moved into a loft apartment about 30 miles south of Atlanta. There, they work on music full-time, cutting new tracks every day, sharpening their live-instrument skills and building a promotional website . Theirs is a situation few musicians without major-label deals manage to arrange. Even groups lent all the resources necessary to master their craft often fail to make as much of them as Scienz of Life, on an indie-sized budget, have. They are inspired.
"We feel Georgia is a place where a lot of our people are making it happen," says I.D. 4 Windz. "Not too long ago I saw that Georgia had the most minority people running businesses and owning property. Seeing as that's going on, I'm figuring, maybe we should go down there, open up a whole new flavor of music, bringing what we got up north down here."
The crew's days start with exercise at 8:30 a.m. Afterward, they settle down at a bank of computers that takes up part of one wall of their huge, unfurnished loft. In the afternoon there's band practice, and usually by evening they've cut a new track or two. Out of this period of entrenched monasticism (the guys' girlfriends and children visit some weekends) they're going to get at least one new album, a tight stage act, a well-maintained website, dramatically improved computer, production, rap and instrumental skills and, rarest of all, the ability to control their careers that comes with the sum of all those.
"The whole independent mindstate is about, 'What can I do with what I have to continue to work independently?and to succeed?'" says Lil' Sci, the smallest and friendliest member of S.O.L. The brother of the more introverted I.D., Sci is probably the one of the group's three rappers least likely to frame its goals in religious terms. "There's no one target that we're aiming at," he says. "It's the Scienz of Life, and no man on this planet can know the whole thing."
The most intense member of S.O.L. is Inspector Willabee, who goes by the name Ra. He's been into Nuwaubian learning the longest, having been down since the Bushwick days, when he was a young teenager. His are the most esoteric verses on Scienz of Life's debut full-length, Coming Forth by Day? He describes the Ancient Egiptian Order as a fraternity or "sacred brotherhood." Asked about his lyrics, Ra says, "Our duty as a hiphop triad is to go out in the world and teach what we've been taught, and raise up our brothers and sisters, to have them walk the long journey on the short path with us. Because we're not in this alone. There's a lot of mysteries and a lot of sciences that have been dormant, waiting for this time, the time of the young warriors to resurrect the sciences."
Ra commands a professorial gravity that belies his 26 years. He's been more or less on his own since he was 15, when conflicts with his mother over the Nuwaubian teachings led to his leaving home and school. (Nuwaubian elders later convinced him to return to both.) He's gone a long way with Dr. York, whom in our interview Ra refers to as "Illustrious Worshipful Master." Despite his seriousness, Ra has a good sense of humor and an appreciation for irony. It's he who points out that the building that houses Scienz of Life's loft was once, of all things, a cotton mill. "There's so many secrets here in the South, and it's all about our people," he says. "It's crazy."
Ra tells me that in ancient times, before even the continents broke apart, the Atlanta area was a recreation spot for a group of Egiptians called Nubuns. "At the time they called [the land] right here 'Utla,' which meant, 'to vacate,' as in a vacation place," says Ra. "It changed from 'Utla' to 'Atlan,' and this is where your story of Atlantis came from. They say Atlantis disappeared, but it didn't disappear, the lands just broke off from each other. And this became known as Egipt of the West" ...and of course Atlanta.
Dr. York, Ra explains, at one time took his students through a course of study on Native American culture, tracing its links to Egipt through ethnic bloodlines, rituals and language. It seems these are central to the Nuwaubian mode of inquiry, which also tends to involve full immersion. "The more you educate yourself about yourself and other people, the less ignorant you become?in order to know anything about a theology, you have to become a part of it wholeheartedly," says Ra. Scienz of Life, too, learns by doing, picking things up as they go along. Ra explicitly notes the resonance between the Nuwaubian process and his crew's ongoing self-education in technology. In both, there are always necessary upgrades to newer, better information.
Having graduated from the Nuwaubian schools of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. gives Ra a serene sense of worldliness. It's a trait more commonly found among children of privilege. "We had to go through it," he says. "[After] educating yourself in all that, you be like, 'Hold up. I can speak Arabic! I can speak Hebrew!' I can go in anybody's community and talk to them, and they don't feel threatened by me? I look like the average little black kid down the street. They're not expecting me to come into their store and speak to them in their language. They expect me to act like a total asshole. When we come in and talk to people in their language, and we talk to people about things that they think that we don't know about, it surprises them and it kind of humbles them out."
Nuwaubians, like 80s hiphop's righteous Afrocentrics, claim that most if not all that's worth knowing originated with the culture of their ancestors. In contrast to those Afrocentrics, the young men of Scienz of Life don't feel ripped off, for the simple reason that they view what was almost lost to history as in the process of being restored. "Peacefulness comes with certainty," suggests Lil' Sci. "When you're speaking about actual happenings and facts, and things that are real, there's no hostility involved."
"Nobody died and then came back and said, 'This is absolutely right,'" adds Ra. "But what we do know is that there were examples set for us of how to live on Earth together in harmony with nature and one another, and if we can follow those examples we can make the world a better place."
The guard I met at the gate of Tama-Ra wore a safari hat. I told him I was a journalist, and he told me I couldn't interview anybody about their personal life or Dr. York's. No one would be available to discuss pending court cases about building permits, which were brought against the Nuwaubians by the local sheriff's office. He also said I couldn't ask about the private affairs of Wesley Snipes. (It was widely reported earlier this year that Snipes purchased about 250 acres of land adjacent to Tama-Re, and promptly applied to the ATF for firing-range permits, as he planned to run a security-guard training facility on his new land. Permission was apparently denied. Snipes grew up in the South Bronx, and his production company is called Amen Ra. He did not comment on the stories.) After I agreed to these terms, he told me where to park my car, and said a tour guide would meet me there.
My guide was a young man, probably in his 20s, named Seti Wah Amun. He apologized repeatedly for his dirty t-shirt, explaining that he preferred to be better dressed when meeting visitors, but had been working outdoors until the moment I arrived. When I'd pulled up I noticed a group of men working in a grassy field. I guessed they were farming, but it turned out they were grooming rocks out of the lawn to prepare for its use as a soccer field. A lot of children live at Tama-Re.
Seti spoke at length about the deity statues (not animal-headed but anthropomorphic, wearing masks), the pyramids (the black one absorbs heat energy, which is used for a ritual that occurs inside), a human maze that can't be seen from the road (called The Labyrinth) and all the other visible structures on the site. Compared to the nearest town, Eatonton, where I'd stopped for a bottle of water, Tama-Re felt like a place built for humans. Eatonton has a deserted town square with a gray Civil War statue and a faux-stately courthouse. The only place where people were gathered was the developed strip with the fast-food franchises and the supermarket, itself dingy and depressing, with aisles clogged by morose and obese shoppers.
(More rich Southern irony: Eatonton was the hometown of Joel Chandler Harris, the amateur folklorist who recorded the "Uncle Remus" tales?about Brer Rabbit and such?which were extremely popular in late-19th-Century America. Harris' work is praiseworthy in as much as it saved for posterity stories that might have otherwise been forgotten, but the best that can be said about his claims of authorship are that they were in step with the racism of his day. Harris went beyond that standard by asserting, correctly, that most of the trickster tales originated in Africa, but dealt black Americans an unforgivable libel by postulating that from this single shard of their demolished culture a theory about former-slaves' true nature could be formulated.)
At Tama-Re a loop of ambient music plays 24-7. It's an abstract "om" drone, not unlike a Tibetan chant tape, possibly performed and recorded by Doc himself, and amplified from speakers near the pyramids. It's probably not audible from the area with the rows of long, block houses in which Tama-Reans reside. That area is off limits to visitors (as are a stage area with a movie screen, and a recording studio), but I could see a jungle gym and swingset in full use. Bushwick it ain't.
The Land rises away from the road in a series of hillocks, like little steppes, and the footpaths seem set up to accentuate this, lending pedestrians a sense of being enfolded within the landscape. The Egiptian structures (which don't look as magnificent up close as they do from Rte. 142, since most are made of concrete painted to resemble stone bricks), fit well within this scheme. That, and the bold-yet-tasteful use of color, make it clear that the Nuwaubian community boasts a number of talented artisans, and a planning commission wise enough to see their plans through for the good of all. "We are the ancient Tama-Reans," said Seti. "It's only right that we display craftsmanship and zeal."
Seti reiterated what Ra had told me about the local Native Americans and the Atlantis myth. He added that America, too, has a basis in Egiptian culture. That's why there's a pyramid on the back of a dollar, and why our government chose to honor the memory of George Washington with an enormous obelisk in DC. The name "USA," Seti continued, is nothing but the Egiptian word "usa," which means "eye." The all-seeing eye, he said, is an important symbol in America. It's on the dollar, too.
To Seti, the effect of American Egiptology is Nuwaubian patriotism. "It's beautiful that we live in a country that recognizes a good system for doing things," he said. "It works. Egipt was a very spiritual place." I asked Seti how he could love a government that sees fit to intrude on his community. (Last year local police came to Tama-Re and padlocked buildings they claimed were in violation of municipal codes.) My tour guide replied, "You get good and bad everywhere you go. I like to focus on people who help, on the good in people, the good in our government."
Soon Seti had other visitors to attend to. A middle-aged black man, bald with a well-groomed beard, and his daughter, maybe 10 years old, were also there for the first time. Naturally, the kid loved it. Her dad, whom I'll call Jack, said she'd seen photos of Tama-Re in her classroom at school. Seti asked where they were from (DeKalb County, back toward Atlanta) and started them off with explanations I'd already heard, so I was granted permission to wander around alone for a while.
I chatted with a few Tama-Reans who were out and about, but, in keeping with the agreement I'd made at the gate, refrained from asking personal questions. Everyone was amiable and down-to-earth. No one else was nearby when I noticed something that would, anywhere but there, surely have been the most impressive thing around. But at Tama-Re I'd actually walked within 100 feet of it once and completely missed it. Twelve Cadillac Sevilles, parked side by side, decorate one of the gentle slopes of Tama-Re. They're old 70s Sevilles?the kind with the truncated back end. These 12 were customized, all different, yet all in a manner best described by the Brooklyn term "pimped out." Extra chrome, especially on the grill, and blaring two-tone color schemes made the fleet (you'd think) impossible to miss. At first it appeared they might have rolled in while I had my back turned, but on closer inspection it looked more like they'd been sitting dormant for a while.
"Yeah, the Seville club is out of commission," said Seti when I caught up with him. He and his two charges were up by the Isis statue, where tours end. He explained that the cars were no more than a relic from the Nuwaubians' Brooklyn days. The organization had a lot of Cadillac enthusiasts back then, he guessed.
Jack was more interested in the education of Tama-Re's children. Seti told him Nuwaubians were free to send their kids to public school, Catholic school, whatever, and that, with state approval, some Tama-Reans homeschooled (similarly, some adults leave Tama-Re for work every day, others work there). "You should homeschool as much as you can," Jack told him. He said he worked with young people, as a juvenile probation officer, and was dismayed at the failures of Georgia's public education system. Seti agreed, noting that the feeling he had in school that "something was just not right" led to problems in his early adulthood. (He cited two examples of misguiding lessons: the story about Columbus discovering America and triple homonym "to," "two" and "too.") Then he repeated that Nuwaubians are free to educate their children as they see fit.
I had a moment with Jack alone just before he left Tama-Re, so I asked him what he thought about the place. He said he found it beautiful and was impressed with the amount of work that had gone into building it, adding that more black people?more people, period?should know about the kinds of things Seti had told us. I opined that not everyone wants new information, and Jack agreed. Then I confessed that I, for one, was not sure how to deal with Nuwaubian facts that conflicted with things I'd learned previously. I asked Jack if he was having the same problem, and he replied, speaking slowing and carefully, "I went to school in the 50s and 60s. Education, back then, was on a 'need-to-know' basis. That raised questions?about information that was withheld. It makes you question, 'Why was it withheld?' and 'Who benefits from that?'"
After Jack and his daughter drove away, I sat at a picnic table near the gold-painted pyramid and waited for the bookstore inside it to open. Turns out the place is busier at night (local papers have reported that there are a few hundred Nuwaubians who live at Tama-Re and a few hundred more in surrounding areas?conservative estimates). Around sunset, a sign above the pyramid door was illuminated, and I traversed the red wooden footbridge, over a moat stocked with goldfish and carp, that leads inside. And this is where the story gets complicated.
The first thing an outsider is likely to notice about Nuwaubian literature is that every word is capitalized. That's actually not so unusual for publications this distant from the mainstream. Then there's the graphic style?York employs a cut-and-paste method, with images sampled from magazines, newspapers and textbooks, as well as many original pen-and-ink drawings, illustrating his text.
Next, one is struck by the content of that text. It is, for the most part, a good deal further afield than my Nuwaubian tour guide and interview subjects let on. For an organization that is not a religion, but has a passion for the study of ancient history and science, the Nuwaubian scrolls contain a remarkable number of writings about aliens and God.
Reporters who did short pieces on the Nuwaubians' building-permit conflicts, or on the Snipes mystery, had to summarize Tama-Rean beliefs in a single phrase. It's not at all hard to use a passage from one of Dr. York's books to paint him and his students with the same brush the media has applied to other strange new American religions. Because those are usually written about only when their adherents incur some tragedy, this tends to make the Nuwaubian phenomenon look ominous.
There is Nuwaubian material about Dr. York being from beyond the stars, and about a millennial occurrence, expected in 2003, involving the ascension of 144,000 people. It's also true that he's fathered children by several different mothers. But statements to the effect that these facts characterize Nuwaubian beliefs?Time's piece on Tama-Re, for example, was headlined "Space Invaders"?are misrepresentations.
In fact, nearly every school of "alternative" information popular in the U.S. since the late 60s is represented in York's hefty output. His patchwork approach is not just applied to graphics. A partial list, from my notes, of places I'd encountered Nuwaubian notions before includes Chariots of the Gods and the Rael's embellishments on that book, conspiracy lit, UFO lit, the human potential movement, Buddhism and new-age, astrology, theosophy and Blavatsky, Leonard Jeffries and other Afrocentrics, Cayce, LaRouche, alternative medicine, self-help lit, Satanism, the Atkins diet, numerology and yoga. Many of these York mentions by name. There are also extensive discourses on the Torah, Gospels and Koran, as well as on Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation.
They all have a place in the Nuwaubian worldview, though York's aims often seem to involve discrediting or debunking religions. The Body Parts of God!!, for example, contains an explanation for the apparent resurrection of Jesus: The apostles sent Judas to the cross instead, the Romans didn't know the difference, then three days later Jesus simply showed his face again.
The farthest-out material always falls into the realm of the non-disprovable, and York's scriptural quotes, translations and evocations of scientific fact (there's plenty of physics and chemistry) hold up as far as they can be verified. Etymological analysis abounds, and sometimes involves Nuwaupic (the Nuwaubian language, for which York has written an extensive dictionary/phrasebook, including both transliterations and hieroglyphics), but, again, it seems that as far as the linguistics can be verified, they are sound.
Descriptions of dozens of extraterrestrial species and how their genealogies are interwoven with humans' are among the most detailed and extensive passages I read. If the overarching thrust of York's fringe syncretism is that everything powerful people call bogus is actually true (and if you think he lifted that from Men in Black or X-Files, consider that York's been publishing without copyrights since 1967), his doctrine of alien miscegenation could be seen by skeptics as a one-up on genetic determinism, and a mirror on American racial obsessions. The belief that our universe's spectrum of intelligence does not start and end with humanity, anyway, is not so rare.
Ra from Scienz of Life and Tariq from the Hemisphere maintain that everything in Dr. York's books is factual and consistent. When asked if they see him as a human being?because in some of his writings he seems to be claiming to be an extraterrestrial?both young men said, yes, of course, and suggested that I understand those passages as channeled. They said he's a man, but not an ordinary man. After reading a few of Doc's books, I consider the last part of that statement indisputable.
It's probably not a coincidence that the two most controversial threads of American underground knowledge are conspicuously absent from the Nuwaubian tapestry: drug lore and anti-Semitism. He's definitely antidrug, and though I did dig up some quotes online, attributed to York, contradicting modern Jews' claimed link to the ancient Hebrews, the passage didn't even approach the accusations leveled in, say, Nation of Islam writings. It's safe to say that Nuwaubians see the mechanisms behind worldly events as more complex than 12 rabbis sitting around a big table.
York does get his dander up in print, at times, about white supremacy and clandestine power. It's no small point of Nuwaubian history that the descendants of Egiptians were largely ignorant of their cultural heritage while Masons and other secret societies used the "lost" sciences to powerful effect. According to Ra, anger about this, like orthodox Islam, was but a Nuwaubian phase: "Dr. York brought us through the school of hating the devil so much, of quote-unquote not liking the white man so much, until we found out it was ridiculous. It makes no sense to hate even one individual. You're stuck on the planet Earth in the year 2000?what are you going to do, keep hating people? Or are you going to educate yourself and other people, so you can teach your children, and so they can teach their children and so on through the generations until the ignorance of the planet is bred out?" he said.
The books are not dated, so it's difficult for readers who were not along for the ride to get a sense of how what Ra describes as a living tradition grew and changed.
The teacher is even on record as opposed to hiphop. Man from Planet Rizq contains a chapter on how different sounds affect the body. In it, York likens listening to rap music to microwaving one's brain cells. "You gotta understand, Doc was coming from a parent's point of view?he's fiftysomething years old," said York's adopted son, Tariq, about that passage. Like many old-school hiphop fans, it seems, Dr. York was dismayed by the murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., and began to view rap as a destructive force in the black youth community. Scienz of Life, too, alludes to flexibility within Dr. York's thought process. According to Ra, "He realized that hiphop is the voice of young people in America?and all over the world now."
Tariq told me one of his favorite Nuwaubian texts is the one used as an introduction to the teachings, a small handbook titled Your Potential. Bound in purple hardcover with the Nuwaubian symbol?which merges an ankh, star of David and crescent?on the front, it's not vastly different from other self-help books that involve the acknowledgment of a higher power. An inscription on Your Potential's inside cover reads, "Don't Try To Change The Wind Or The Sea, Just Change The Sail!" As Tariq sees them, self-sufficiency is the object of his foster father's lessons. "People who are really listening to what he's saying, to what he's really teaching," he said, "are going to make it."
Also on sale in the Tama-Re bookstore are mainstream children's books about ancient Egypt, Tama-Re t-shirts, Dr. York lectures and Q&A sessions on cassette and video, Nuwaubian calendars, the monthly magazine of the Ancient Egiptian Order and many of York's books that are available only to A.E.O. members (anyone can join, though there also exist deeper levels of Nuwaubian initiation). Book sales are the only obvious source of community income. It makes sense to assume that members make donations, and that, given the federal government's expressed attitudes toward both unusual religions and large numbers of highly organized black people, if the Nuwaubians were involved in any illegal or tax-evading activity, they'd have been caught at it by now.
Other reporters have seen fit to call Tama-Re a "compound," and to quote Eatonton residents holding forth on the Nuwaubians in terms better suited to a Charlie Daniels Band ditty about a fiddle duel. I find that inappropriate. None of the Nuwaubians I met could be reasonably mistaken for people not worthy of common courtesy and respect.
The day after my visit to Tama-Re, I sat under a tree outside of the reformed cotton mill, shooting the breeze with MF Doom. He lives near Atlanta, too, and since Ra and the crew came down they've been in contact, having known each other for more than a decade, through Nuwaubian and hiphop connections.
Doom is one of the great intellects in hiphop history. (KMD's 1991 debut album Mr. Hood, in fact, plays extensively on the sort of imagery Joel Chandler Harris helped fashion.) He's not particularly active in the Order these days, but was at Tama-Re last summer, for the annual Savior's Day festival. It's held in June, on Dr. York's birthday, and attracts celebrants from all over the world. A non-Nuwaubian who attended this year's event told me he drove through pouring rain all the way from Atlanta to Eatonton that day, but not a drop fell on the Land.
I told Doom that the scrolls had thrown me for a loop, and asked point-blank for his opinion on the whole Nuwaubian trip.
He said, "What I think, that's just a projected guess. I try to look at the facts about it. The vibe is good?unlike I've ever felt anywhere else. It's one of the first places I ever seen where there's more than 100 people and nobody smoking a cigarette.
"As far as how it's been going, and what he's been saying, and raising the children, keeping people together on some real property," he concluded, "well, I'm looking at it like it's working."
Scienz of Life's Coming Forth by Day? (Subverse) and MF Doom's Operation: Doomsday (Fondle 'Em/Metal Face) are available wherever independent hiphop records and CDs are sold. The debut album by the Hemisphere will be released in January by Soundright Music.
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
School for the Post-School Set
New York City History Gets Personal
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
School for the Post-School Set
New York City History Gets Personal