Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson and The Space Program Collective: A review by Tryon P. Woods
This is black excellence. Never mind Jay-Z and Kanye. Forget hero-worship, commodity fetish, corporate-compromise, and the consumption of everyday black lives for individual wealth and national aggrandizement. Black excellence is independent and collective; it is process-oriented and in it for the long-haul. Exceptionality and unattainability are not part of its lexicon; rather, it is there for you when other people’s comforts keep you up at night, as the poet Morgan Parker recently wrote. It might be underground or simply under wraps, but mostly just misrecognized—indeed, how could it be otherwise in the afterlife of slavery, in the throes of what Joy James might call the twenty-first century’s leading racial-penal democracy? Here are the real OGs—the organic griots, that is—as young bloods connecting with a vibrant undercurrent of marronage and deep sight vision (amens for Toni Cade Bambara).
The Space Program is a hip hop collegian collective currently based in Oklahoma. The Space Program’s first album, Curriculum of the Mind, was released in early April and is available for download from its website. The album is truly excellent. The group takes its name from the lead song on A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 album We Got It From Here…Thank U 4 Your Service. On “The Space Program,” Tribe urges listeners to “get it together” and confront the mess we collectively find ourselves in here and now: “there ain’t a space program for n*****/yeah, you stuck here, n****/move on to the stars.” There’s no escape. There’s only honest analysis, hard work, and organizing to make the world we need—heaven will be here on earth, if at all.
If we understand “ethics” as referring not simply to moral judgement, but more pressingly to a sober assessment of the power relations operative in a time and place, then The Space Program hip hop collective extends Tribe’s ethical call-to-arms: “I can observe the hate/I can observe the place/Where the puzzle you grew up in say you don’t deserve a place/Out here worried bout all of what we can do in outer space/But we in the mirror and we don’t know who behind the face” (“Freedom’s Opus”). There is no fleeing from the ugly truth here, to hide out amidst more comforting falsehoods, be it conspicuous commodity consumption, a “thing-oriented society,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once described the U.S.; or the lie of gendered dominance and homophobia; or the hollow gratifications of interpersonal conquest; or the escape of addiction; or even the pleasures of dropping out. The Space Program collective is committed to developing an ethical “person-oriented” struggle with history’s weight on the present. Tribe says you stuck here so you better get yourself focused. TSP says, they’re “snatching and taking my voice,” but we won’t allow them to corrupt our “focus of choice” (“Run N***** Run”).
It is important to note that both Tribe and TSP after it are part of a tradition in black cultural expression that plays with the existential dilemma of black life on planet earth by engaging a wider universe. From Sun Ra and his Arkestra (“Space is the Place”) to Pharaoh Sanders, Lonnie Liston and the Cosmic Echoes, and the unabashed spirituality of Alice Coltrane, other planes are not conjured for escape but rather because marronage (the condition of living apart from the plantation, fugitive from slaveholding society) requires creative place-making. Such aspirations are often hiding right in plain sight, even in the most banal pop songs, as with B.o.B.’s “Airplanes”: “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are shooting stars/I could really use a wish right now, wish right now.” And then, of course, there is Gil Scott-Heron who points out in “Whitey on the Moon” that there is a parasitic relation between “space exploration” (specifically, the military industrial complex; or more generally, state power) and black impoverishment.
TSP is more Scott-Heron meets J. Cole, however, in that its focus is squarely on the post-civil rights era. Affirmative action programs have been less successful in interrupting institutionalized discrimination, one might argue, than has been the emergence of multiculturalism—which isn’t saying much. In other words, the policies implemented as a result of the civil rights movement to explicitly confront racist exclusionary practices in housing, education, and employment were immediately stalled, coopted, undermined, and eviscerated. With that potential modification in state power curtailed, the shift in culture away from white supremacy and towards inclusive multiculturalism not only becomes less threatening and therefore more palatable, it also serves as a cover for revanchist public policy in the post-civil rights period. The situation today, then, is a legal apparatus hostile to the amelioration of racism through the use of “race,” while at the same time, a multiculturalist discourse pervading higher education uses “diversity” as a stand-in for the actual institutional transformations in curricula, pedagogy, resource distribution, and culture that would make tomorrow better than yesterday for black communities. And as Chester Himes put it, yesterday will make you cry.
Curriculum of the Mind thus identifies the university as a contradictory place for young black men. It is at once a site of policing and social control and at the same time the setting in these young men’s lives where they are settin’ off the liberation of their collective mind. The title track converses intimately with the survival regimen that straddles university boundaries:
On “Polaroids” (“place borders around me tryna box me in”), TSP notes the travesty of growing up near Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood without ever learning that in the early twentieth century it was known as “Black Wall Street.” A young black student can recover this history in college, only to find that it’s packaged in a revamped antiblack animus:
What kind of strange freedom-alchemy is this in the multicultural university? TSP evokes the “blue-eyed professor” who teaches black history but can’t set aside his stereotype of the black male as criminal. Malcolm X, too, was fond of skewering the “blue-eyed devil white man” in the very terms historically deployed to dehumanize the African. TSP’s evocation of Malcolm’s devil-critique of white supremacy identifies the university as an annex of the state’s policing apparatus. According to Officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony in Ferguson, MO, after he first shot the college-bound Michael Brown, Brown “looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again…” Wilson’s naming of Brown as a demon, almost fifty years after Malcolm’s death, follows lock-step with the protocols of antiblackness that apprehends black people as simply the “name of what is evil,” as Sylvia Wynter explains.
Black history studied outside of a grounded black studies programmatic context can in this way become a wedge between past and present. History can be wielded as an artifact, not a living cultural tool, and used to beat today’s black students into the prevailing stereotype, or it can be dangled before them tauntingly, as if they’re incapable of becoming entrepreneurs and community-builders like their early twentieth-century ancestors in Greenwood. Of course, Black Wall Street was decimated first by white rioters who murdered black residents and burned the neighborhood to the ground. After the community rebuilt itself in the face of this terrorism, Black Wall Street was decimated a second time by the end of Jim Crow segregation. That integration proved to be as antiblack as the lynch mob is part of the complex legacy that the TSP collective carries. Things are not as they appear in the “post-racial” era. As Solomon Northrup’s memoir and Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film adaption 12 Years a Slave showed, a violin given to a slave can be a more effective means of social control than the overseer’s whip.
The narrative that runs through the album, and especially on the interludes “Brotherly Love” and “Mentor 2 Mentee,” grapples with this contradictory state of affairs. “Brotherly Love” expresses the collective sense of responsibility that has carried the black freedom movement across the generations—we be so I am—and distinguishes selfishness from self-pity. “Mentor 2 Mentee” illustrates how leadership is cultivated in a tradition of critical thought and collective ethos—each one reach one teach one. Investing in one’s education is about accountability to something larger than one’s self—or as Amilcar Cabral put it, referencing the revolutionary struggle in Guinea-Bissau, culture is the weapon of the people:
Because this could be something, this study that you’re doing right now could do something for the culture and I ain’t talking about no mixtape and you get all the sharings, like no. What you gone reap is opening the door for everybody. (“Curriculum of the Mind”)
But Cabral also reminds us to tell no lies, claim no easy victories, because culture has been used as well to get a people to hold themselves down. As Northrup discovered, the violin exposes “freedom” as a ruse, and the whip is made out of the very strings of the musical instrument. Am I “trapped in my mentality,” TSP therefore inquires, enjoining the self-critique so famously established by Frantz Fanon in his study of the antiblack phantasm of a colonized people (“Do I Hate Myself?”). TSP’s response to the problem of internalized antiblackness harkens to Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust where Eula exhorts the clan, “If you love yourselves, then love Yellow Mary, because she’s a part of you, just like we’re a part of our mothers.” She advises her family to stop living “in the fold of old wounds” because they all deserve good lives despite their deep scars.
TSP’s introspection on this score shows why black people exemplify the human condition in the most essential way:
Anyone can relate to being chased by inner demons, fleeing the ugly within, self-doubt clouding the way forward. But TSP shows that for black people this self-hate has an external reality dimension unprecedented and without analog across nearly a millennium of racial slavery. Eminem may be friends with the monster under his bed, but as W.E.B. DuBois explained with his “double-consciousness” concept, as Fanon addressed in terms of black self-alienation, and as TSP is amplifying and “now detoxing”—at this point centuries on from the dawn of the slave trade, black people must confront the externally constructed antiblack caricature of themselves in order to know love. These young black men are heeding Malcolm X’s warning that “we cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.”
One of the most notorious ways in which antiblackness becomes internalized is through sex and gender, and on this score TSP’s album is no less significant. There is not much in Curriculum of the Mind, mind you, that would speak to certain quarters of hip hop feminism or queer hip hop—or maybe it’s just hip hop studies and queer studies in the academy that might chafe at the absence of female MCs in TSP or the lack of any direct discussion of gender dynamics or sexuality. After all, as Greg Thomas has observed, “nothing may differentiate Hip Hop from ‘Hip Hop Studies’ more than their differential relationship to the state.” But look again. Gender is a racial construct at root, and when black men inhabit the racial pathos of their (un-)gendered bodies—the criminal, the addict, the drop-out, the father-lacking, the wayward son—but without valorizing gender or seeking its recuperative hierarchies, we have male sexuality denuded of toxic masculinity. Cathy Cohen once wrote, in a neglected essay from 1997, that blackness is intrinsically queer. Cohen linked the “welfare queen” epithet placed on single black mothers with black gays and lesbians (in 1990s language), arguing that all black people transgress normative gender categories and sexualities, not because of what they do with their bodies, not because of whom they chose to love, but simply because they are black and blackness is construed in sexually deviant terms.
TSP, for its part, is implicitly linking the recuperation of the black masculine warrior-in-training to the deviant order of blackness—fatally and productively queer. For these young men, life on a predominately white college campus can mean being constantly under the erotic scope of the white gaze, whether you are commodified as “the school’s running back” or not. In this light, the absence of a toxic masculinity in TSP is noteworthy, although certainly there are boundaries here that remain to be explored. The single curious and opaque reference to R. Kelley, for instance, raises pointed questions that TSP should clarify given the horror of Kelley’s story for black women, the shame it brings to a black community too complicit for too long with his predatory violence, and the cycles of unaddressed sexual and emotional trauma underwriting the Kelley saga and that can likewise inform and anchor many of the other issues that TSP explores on its album. There is work to be done here.
All told, Curriculum of the Mind records the problem with “freedom”: “I said I wasn’t gonna write about freedom anymore/because I can never get back what I lost in the fire” (“Write [Right] About Freedom”). There is no recouping the lives, the culture, the status of humanity jettisoned in the Middle Passage—the abyss remains in effect. In Chicago, where police led by commander Jon Burge tortured and raped residents throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extracting coerced confessions that sent many innocent people to death row, school children today learn about this police violence through the Burge Reparations Curriculum. A landmark for racial justice, undoubtedly, but as TSP makes clear, the efficacy of history’s lessons depends on the pedagogy of the wider socio-political context. Shine on, says TSP, but “guard your brilliance”: “I’m the consequence of bad decisions, who gave a n**** books to read/Nat Turner in my veins, there is no such thing as a half way crook, grab the/blade from the page, karma cold and massa looking shook to me” (“Guard Your Brilliance”). After Nat Turner and his rebel soldiers were defeated and killed, whites boiled Turner’s body down and bottled the liquid. Black folk from the time maintain that whites imbibed Turner’s remains as an elixir and attempted to get blacks to swallow it. As a result, for generations, black people in the South refused to consume castor oil for fear of inadvertently eating Turner. The omen of rebellious blackness reverberates into the present, spawning black site torture chambers on Chicago’s South Side and where ever the police power seeks to consume black bodies.
“Freedom,” then, can maim you as badly as bondage. While Chicago’s children learn about the city’s track record with torture from one branch of the police power against black liberation (public schools), another branch of the police power (judiciary) exonerates the three police officers indicted in the attempted cover-up of the Laquan McDonald murder. “A tragic comedy how we so free? How we so free and still so demonized with no alibi?” (“Keep Dreamin’”). Sleepwalkers, zombies, sheep, walking lifeless, dream on…if the pain were not so deep there would be nothing to get “woke” from. With Curriculum of the Mind, The Space Program collective is certainly doing its part to withdraw the anesthesia, as Digable Planets once put it, “to lay it on the masses and get them off their asses/to fight against these fascists” (“La Femme Fetal”).