MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO / “Akel Dama (Field Of Blood)”
If you’re a Meshell Ndegeocello fan, one of the things you have to get used to is frequent and relatively obscure Biblical references. ‘Akel Dama’ was a tough one. I had to go to several websites just to find the actual passage the term comes from. Then it was another several to figure out what the passage meant. Non-believers, pay particular attention. You may be tested on this later:
“Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out. “And it became known to all those dwelling in Jerusalem; so that field is called in their own language, Akel Dama, that is, Field of Blood.” —Acts 1:18 and 1:19 (New Testament)The curious thing (make that: one of the curious things) about the Bible is the startlingly wide range of translations. “Falling headlong…his entrails gushed out” is quite the gruesome turn of phrase, one that leads you to believe that the man in question not only suffered greatly in dying, but did so as a result of some sort of divine intervention. (What I mean is, there’s no mention of his being assaulted by anyone or anything.) But check the ‘Basic English’ translation of Acts 1:18. “Now this man, with the reward of his evil-doing, got for himself a field, and falling head first, came to a sudden and violent end there.” Huh? “Came to a sudden a violent end” could mean all sorts of things—splitting open his head on a rock, armed robbery, a particularly potent heart attack, whatever. Note too that the Basic English version omits the words ‘wages of iniquity,’ another nice turn of phrase and the one that is probably responsible for the well-known saying ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Don’t ‘Basic English’ readers deserve poetry too? Anyhow, it turns out that ‘this man’ (the one who bought the field) is Judas Iscariot. Yes, that Judas—the one who sold out Jesus to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver. But as with all things Biblical, the story of Akel Dama is more complicated than it first appears. Apparently, after Jesus was crucified, Iscariot realized the gravity of what he’d done and overtaken with remorse and guilt, tried to return the money. After turning over his silver to ‘the priests and elders’ (I’m not sure which priests and elders), Iscariot hung himself. For obvious reasons, the priests didn’t think it proper to keep Iscariot’s ill-gotten gains, so they used the silver to buy a field that they intended as a burial ground for paupers. Meanwhile, Iscariot’s suicide attempt failed when the branch from which he chose to hang himself bent to the ground. (More divinity at work.) But Iscariot’s apparent good fortune was actually nothing of the sort. He remained tormented by guilt and although his life was extended, it wasn’t improved. Not long after his attempted suicide, he became afflicted with dropsy (excessive retention of bodily fluids) and after suffering at great length, met his fate exactly as described in the more florid translations of Acts 1:19. Death by bursting. Nasty! In “Akel Dama,” from the album Cookie, Meshell uses the Biblical myth of Jerusalem’s ‘Fields of Blood’ as a backdrop for a dissection / investigation / celebration of the themes of ancestry, sin, suffering and redemption. There’s your connection. At times, Meshell’s metaphor is virtually literal: the songs ends with the sound of a pumping heart. I could talk about the entire piece bit-by-bit—it’s certainly good enough—but I want to focus on just one element of “Akel Dama,” that being Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea Of Ancestry.” More specifically, I want to talk about Knight’s use of language. (If you’re curious about themes and meanings of the poem, type the title in your Google search box. It’s a very well known poem; you’ll get a lot of hits.) The most notable thing about Knight’s writing (and speaking) style is the way it seems to exist at the exact intersection of street knowledge and book knowledge. Knight’s words are the words of a man who is so adept at speaking both eloquently and frankly that he makes it seem as if doing so requires neither effort nor skill. In Knight’s voice, you hear both the easy rhythms of the street and the textbook accuracy of the King’s English…and to an equal extent. There’s scarcely an ‘I be’ or ‘ain’t gonna’ to be found, but then, there aren’t any words you might describe as ‘big’ either. The unnecessary use of ‘big words’ may be a minor annoyance, but the unnecessary use of broken English and street slang is a major pain in the ass. Too much of it and I stop reading. Better to just tell me a character has fucked up English then write them as though they don’t than to make me read or hear garbled English simply for the benefit of ‘authenticity.’ There are other, and better, ways to provide that sense of realness. In Knight’s case, he does it not by copying specific words and phrases common to the Black English lexicon, but by falling in step with the rhythm of Black speech patterns. In other words, Knight’s words just feel right. This is from “Ancestry”:
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He's discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father's mother, who is 93 and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody's birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”There’s no real slang there—so long as they possess an understanding of basic English, overseas readers should be able to ‘get’ the essence of what Knight is saying just as easily as any American would, Black or otherwise. But the beauty of Knight’s writing is that he uses the ordinary (everyday, common words) to create the extraordinary (phrases and sentences that, once you’ve read them, stay with you). Knight’s words have bite. They dig through your skin, burrow into your gut and borrow something on the way out. The man drops casual phrases that make you want to check your insides to see if everything is still in place. (When Knight lists the eleven women in his family with whom he has “at one time or another been in love with,” he notes parenthetically that of his two aunts, “1 went to the asylum.” That’s it. No story, no drama. Just, “1 went to the asylum.”) All of that said, the best thing about Knight’s writing is the way he uses his chosen art-form to humanize his subject matter. I’ve never used narcotics and I’ve never been arrested: on an average day, it’s hard for me to relate to either a junkie or a felon. But when I read Knight’s poems (or better yet, hear Knight read his own poems), I can not only relate, I feel that—as Knight puts it—“I am all of them” and “they are all of me.” I relate. In “Ancestry,” every year when the leaves start to fall, the junkie narrator feels the “electric” call of home. He likens himself to a spawning salmon and surviving his addiction to “quitting the cold ocean,” yet in the last line of the poem, he notes that unlike the fish who navigate the icy Northern Pacific to mate, “I have no sons.” (He means no children and in the context of the poem, you know what he means.) When the narrator finally does make it home, it occurs only in flashback and ends about as badly as you’d expect. It’s hard to imagine this man’s circumstances ever improving significantly, and in fact he is exactly the sort of character who might eventually be laid to rest in a field like Akel Dama—in a pauper’s grave. Even so, when I listen to Knight speak it’s as if his words invoke a spell of empathy. He is neither pitiful nor weak, but I feel for him. He isn’t particularly likable, but I like him. Most of all, I want to believe that he’ll make it home every year, despite it becoming more and more apparent that he won’t, and despite everything I know about junkies and families telling me that both parties might be better off if he doesn’t. Bonus track: “Interlude: 6 Legged Griot Trio (Weariness).” Meshell pulls off the same trick twice, and on the same album. Three poets + one bad-ass groove = one great record. Again, Knight is the centerpiece. This time it’s “Hard Rock Returns To Prison From The Hospital For The Criminal Insane.” The poem is every bit as spectacular and satisfying as the epic title would lead you to believe. It also contains one of the most brilliant sentences I’ve ever heard: “And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit a screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.” Who knew the word ‘syphilis’ could be used as an adjective? The real jewel is Knight. —Mtume ya Salaam Not the only jewel Calling a junkie a jewel is itself a jewel. Etheridge was the quintessential junkie, i.e. someone who would not only hustle his mama for a fix, but also someone who has developed the art of conning and conniving to an extremely high and eloquent level. Nobody is as eloquent as an intelligent and highly literate junkie; nobody has as much time to study language as a junkie in a jail. Plus, Etheridge was also a top-drawer poet at the height of his profession. No one can be more persuasive than a long-time junkie who’s an excellent poet (or vice versa). Mtume, while I happen to agree totally with your assessment of Knight’s poetic skills, you’re overlooking Meshell’s considerable skills as an arranger and composer. Meshell perfectly frames the poetic words not just in terms of meaning but also in terms of the sound of the words as spoken by the authors. In this case we hear not just historic poems but those poems recited by Claude McKay, June Jordan, Countee Cullen, and Etheridge Knight. What kind of genius child figures out how to do that in a hip-hop influenced musical setting? There is no jarring moment of incongruity. There is not one moment that sounds out of place. It is a multi-generational family reunion in which everyone speaks, sometimes overlapping and atop one another, but without any rancor or arguments. Anyone who has a large and varied family that is scattered to the four winds knows that putting all the members under one roof and expecting them all to get along is akin to expecting a menagerie to produce perfect, multi-part harmony. All of which is to say, not only is Meshell’s accomplishment unique, it is also expert. Her tracks are the sonic personification of (to paraphrase Langston Hughes) a montage of dreams deferred. Which brings me to part two of my response. Recently, I have encountered a young group from South Africa called Tumi and The Volume. Tumi Molekane, who was born in Tanzania in 1981 when his parents were in exile, and who moved to Soweto, South Africa in 1992, is the poet and leader. The Volume is a power trio of Tiago C. Paulo on guitar, Dave Bergman on bass, and Paulo Chibanga on drums. They have two albums. Their debut, At the Bassline, is a recording from a live session at a famous South African nightclub. Their sophomore effort, Tumi & the Volume, is a studio album that is similar to Meshell’s Cookie in that it mixes poetry and music, and also uses the voices and images of previous generations. The incorporation of the views and voices of older generations that preceded hip-hop is a common and significant element in both Ndegeocello and Tumi. I don’t know whether Tumi was directly influenced by Meshell but I do know that they are working in the same mines and that they are both producing jewels. Go here to read about and view Tumi videos online. Certainly Tumi is the lesser of the two, but what is important is that they work side by side. One can only imagine what Tumi will produce by that time they get to their fifth album. —Kalamu ya Salaam Disparate points of view I wasn’t selling Meshell short, Baba. I just figured between the Akel Dama thing and the bit on Knight, I’d gone on long enough. I like everything Meshell does...even when I don’t like it, if you know what I mean. I think she’s brilliant, not just as a bassist, composer and vocalist, but as you mentioned, as an arranger as well. She’s also a very, very talented interpreter of other people’s music, which I believe you’re going to get into in this week’s Cover section. You're right too, about “6 Legged Griot Trio”—the way Meshell has the voices talking over, to and with each other is amazing. Not to mention that some of these folk probably wouldn’t have chosen to have much to do with each other. Correct me if I’m wrong, but both Claude McKay and Countee Cullen were gay (or at least bi), right? Listen to some of Gil’s spoken-word work and the last thing you’d ever expect to hear is him sharing mic-space with a gay black man. But guess what? Meshell knows that. I think that’s part of her point. That we can all have our hang-ups, our ignorances, or just our very disparate points of view, and at the same time, we might all have some relevant shit to say. I'm digging Tumi’s music too. Not so much his poetry...not that it’s bad, but it’s just OK. Musically, they have something though. “These Women” is beautiful. I like how they used that bit of "Light My Fire." I always loved that melody, but Jim Morrison is insufferable. Anyway, good find. —Mtume ya Salaam
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