Rev. Al, Hiphop, Cornpone

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Russell Simmons shook the rain from himself; walked alone across the mostly empty afternoon restaurant.

"What's up."
"It's intimate, Russell. It's intimate."

It was last Tuesday afternoon, rain scoured the Upper West Side, and a portion of the city's black elite, Simmons among them, were gathering to deliver a press conference in the back room of the Shark Bar on Amsterdam Ave., a tiny space aglow with thick yellow light. And talk about falling through a hole in the time-space continuum. It was as if, strapped to the folding chairs in which the journalistic attendees balanced plates of fried chicken in their laps, they'd blasted through nothingness and landed at the nexus at which they now found themselves, where the black Southern past met the Northern black urban present. This high-ceilinged parlor filled with fried chicken, lit by cheering frosted sconces?like a room from a Southern townhouse huddling behind heavy velvet curtains against what wasn't a wet New York fall, but rather a rainy Southern winter; and the pastoral scent of corn pone from Sterno bins.

Meanwhile, so bristly and horrid a representative of the Late-Century Urban Nightmare as the Rev. Al Sharpton spread his pinstriped girth out behind the microphones, his short arms akimbo; and the bright black eyes of Simmons (merchant, as we're supposed to believe, of aural death) shone out from under his tight bald skull. In the other chairs lined up against the wall, facing the crowd of journalists, Roc-A-Fella Entertainment's Damon Dash scowled; Doug E. Fresh (Doug E. Fresh!) smiled and slouched; Andre Harell of Bad Boy and Haqq Islam of University Records hung out, biding their time.

The press conference was to announce a Simmons-led effort to politically mobilize the hiphop community before the upcoming elections. Simmons and his colleagues are organizing voter registration initiatives, candidate/issue education programs and get-out-the-vote campaigns?toward the goal, apparently, of ensuring the ascension to the White House of the several black-culture enthusiasts who populate the Democratic ticket. In addition, the press conference was meant to publicize the Million Family March, which is to be held in Washington, DC on Monday, Oct. 16. The March's co-chair committee includes such black celebrities as Will Smith, Whitney Houston, Venus and Serena Williams, Gladys Knight and Chris Tucker. Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray and Erykah Badu are confirmed as performers.

Sharpton, wearing a navy-blue pinstriped suit, seemed to expand physically as he spoke, like a canned ham left in a hot trunk, his eyes placid and disassociated?as usual?from both his rhetoric and the rest of his face. The line of Sharpton's lips isn't parallel to the line of his teeth, which is disorienting. The effect is the same as if he were just the slightest bit cross-eyed; so slightly that you'd barely notice on a conscious level.

"A voter draaahve that I think is unparalleled in the history of the American electorate...election...will be determined by the youth who will be inspahed by the drive... This quiet giant! These youth, hiphop voters will be the deciding factor... We gonna bring out the vote like never before!... Punish our enemies and rewaaaard our friends!"

Harell, Islam, Simmons and Dash eased back in their jeans, looking a little bit amused, like kids used to listening to their belligerent older brother pick another fight. More corn pone was consumed. It felt warm and secure in the yellow light of this Southern parlor with the fragrant cornpone and the chicken, away from the rain. Simmons took the mic as Sharpton perched his weight on the edge of his chair and stared into the void that separated him from the room's back wall. Harell, next to Sharpton, rearranged himself to accommodate Sharpton's girth.

"The idea is a human family march," Simmons explained in his fascinating accent, which is less apparently black than Queens, the accent of the Fresh Meadows shopkeeper. "It's exciting to me that a group like the Nation of Islam, that's done such great work in the community, would now be calling for a human family march." He added, a bit later: "I'll go see Joe Lieberman tonight out at Ron Perelman's house, and I guess I'll be the only gentile there."

Next Harell spoke, about the hiphop vote. Haqq Islam cited Du Bois and talked about the "extended family" of hiphop.

As Islam spoke, there was a disturbance in the back of the room. A short, wide figure picked his way down the crowded aisle, wrapped in a dark coat, wearing a dramatic widebrimmed black hat, and a dark suit and a white clerical collar. He was beaded with rainfall, and huddled unto himself in the manner of a humble man burdened by grave thoughts. It was a scene from a movie: an eldritch and spiritual fellow of mystery had emerged from the rain, bringing with him a whiff of the outside cold. In fact, it was the Reverend Run. On second glance, he resembled a kindly blueberry.

The Reverend Run! He took a seat; banged fists with his brother Simmons, who smiled like an older brother should smile upon his younger. Run's soft black eyes looked over the crowd. He was wrapped in the clothing of his ministerial severity, for he ministers a church in Jamaica Estates. He looked worried, as maybe ministers ought to. Doug E. Fresh beamed at him. A friendly sense of commonality permeated everything, a bonhomie.

An event like this reminds you of the cheapness of the contemporary American political dispensation, particularly as it regards race. According not only to those from whom such attitudes can stereotypically be expected, but also from the Gore/Lieberman faction with whom Simmons was apparently going to mingle that night, the people presenting this press conference are at best vulgarians and at worst gangsters. It's stupid enough to think of them that way. But beyond that, there circulates the absurd idea that the Russell Simmonses of the world have betrayed their own community (poisoning the minds of the children! teaching deviance!), and that they, and hiphop in general, are not part of a continuum with the black American culture that preceded them, but represent a break with it. If only blacks would eat corn bread and fried chicken again, like they used to, When They Were Good. It's ridiculous. What does Joe Lieberman or Lynne Cheney know about where this fundamental American culture's coming from?

At one point I wanted to stand up and ask Simmons why he was leading his colleagues in support of Gore, given that there existed the superior alternative offered by Ralph Nader. But I stopped myself. Because really, like Lieberman or Cheney, I don't know anything about it; know nothing of how Gore's or Nader's or Bush's words sound to black ears; have no idea what, in some parallel and secret way, the "black community" hears when it listens to those to whom it listens. So I just held my tongue and resigned myself to the corn bread.

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