Editor's note: Odie Hawkins was a member of the Watts Writers Workshop that spawned the Watts Prophets, a collection of spoken-word artists considered among the forbears of modern hip-hop. He is the author of such novels as Lost Angeles, Memoirs of a Black Casanova and Busting Out of an Ordinary Man, published by Holloway House.
I sat there, in the middle of a funky hot August day, in deepest Chicago, 1965, sucking on the corner of a half-pint of cheap Scotch--all I could afford after working two weeks' worth of 12-hour days in the post office--staring at the chaotic scenes being broadcast from Watts'Nam, California. I was mesmerized and, in a way, exhilarated. The brothers and sisters out west were saying: "You're goddamned right we're mad as hell and we ain't gon' take this shit anymo'!" It was like a very hyper version of a Civil Rights march. My then-wife, a classically gorgeous, walnut-brown Cre'all sister from Naw 'Leans, just a dance step from Congo Square, strolled past mumbling, "Hmf...lawwwd h'mercy! Will you look at what them fools is doin'? Burnin' they own neighborhoods up."
I didn't bother to respond to her booooshiee bullshit judgment; I had a ghetto chess game going on in my head. Lawwwd h'mercy my ass, them motherfuckers is gettin' ready to get ahold of substantial coins. That's what the King-Pawn move shot to my brain. Obviously they were getting ready to get some money 'cause that's what the government did back then: If those black people are mad enough to burn up their own ghetto, then we better hurry up and throw some ducats at the problem, whatever the fuck it is, or else they'll be firing Beverly Hills and Malibu up, next time. Damn the Commission Reports and all that bullshit, we already know what they're going to say, just fling some bucks down on their rebellious black asses and the problem will go a...w...a...yyy. OK?
Strange how shit can be put into motion. Sometimes you can imagine it, and it'll be. I prayed for the circumstances to open up, to widen the cracks that would give me the opportunity to make it to the coast. I made e'baws. I put in for a transfer to the "EL-A" post office. They had some kind of weird-ass transfer deal at the time that would allow you to go somewhere else, if someone somewhere else wanted to be where you were. Kind of a postal musical-chairs number. I don't know why, but some funky chump at the Beverly Hills p.o. (was the motherfucker crazy?!) wanted to relocate to Chicago. Never found out who he/she was, and didn't give a shit. Part one of my plan had fallen into place; we switched up.
1966. Writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) had put his most humane instincts to work and come up behind the Watts Writers Workshop. Kiss a dick, never been anything like it before and, unfortunately, nothing like it since. Seems that damned near everybody had discovered they could sing, dance, act, paint, philosophize, poet, write, poetize, be f'real. A jet-lagged carpetbagger, I dived into the mix the minute the plane docked. In the wake of the Revolt--which most of the usual mainstream suspects still want to label "a riot"--Watts was in an artistic ferment. The Watts Writers Workshop, y'all, right there at 103rd Street, next to the railroad tracks, had so many world-class poets-writers it was unreal.
K. Curtis "I can get it for you wholesale" Lyle. Quincy Troupe (Miles Davis' cookie man). Wanda Coleman. Eric Priestley ("God is the Sun"). James "In the Temple of My Mind" Thomas Jackson. Harry Dolan. Emery Joseph "I love, we must love, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must love black people, we must looovvvveee..." Evans. Stanley "Negroes" Crouch. Sonora McKellar. Ojenke, O-jen-ke, O. Johnny Scott's shit, which took him to Harvard's 'hood. Kaman "Cliff on the Edge" Daaood. George Wesley "The winking keisters in the shower at Quentin" Bourland. Sharlene "Me bad poet, he knocked me up with his karate chops" Grant. Elvie Whitney. People who only came once. Or twice. The Watts Prophets--Richard Dedeaux, Anthony "Father Amde" Hamilton, Dee Dee McNeil, and Otis O'Solomon--came out of this jambalaya.
The competition--which is not really what it was, if you relate to rap slashes and back to Bebop bashes--was something fierce. Critiques could be switchblade-sharp. "I'd suggest you unplug your fuckin' ears brother, in order for you to really get a clear understanding of what the poem is saying." If your shit was not wayyy up, the best way to survive the evening was by being extremely cool. Like quiet.
The serious could become so tenderly soulful that we simply wanted to cry, embrace our Afikanity, and hear it again. 'Specially the stuff that some of the middle-aged sisters wrote, stuff about what it felt like to wash dishes in your own lil' ghetto bungalows and look at the sparrows shittin' on their window ledges.
My then-wife, the gorgeous One who didn't give a shit about anything that didn't rhyme with money, thought I had completely blown my cool when I announced that I was gonna be a writer. Believe me, the Watts Writers Workshop inspired that kind of craziness. "That's cool with me, Mr. Man, you being a writer 'n' all, but how're we gonna feed the kids, pay our bills, deal with these white folks?" I didn't have an answer for these perfectly legitimate questions, and I didn't look too hard for one. I was going to be a writer. Fuck everything else. I thought I was doing something tough, but it was almost punkish in comparison to the poets who had been declared "The Watts Prophets."
The Watts Prophets had decided to speak the voiceless rage, to make damn sure that everyone, everybody, understood that bullshit would reap dire circumstances. They didn't set themselves up as the spokesmen for the community (no matter how many whitekingmakers tried to do that on them), but rather as antennae for what the community was saying and feeling. A lot of people thought they were better sources of info than the six o'clock news. In any case, they knew when the Watts Prophets got down, that they were hearing the truth.
The Watts Prophets (maybe it was the name) presented challenging attitudes to a bunch of white folks and many African-Americans of a certain mindset. The "poetry" was, and is, bittersweet, outright angry, sometimes blue, confrontational, but never simply "poetry." It was also musical. They set it to music and collaborated with Don Cherry (Amde's boyhood friend, Eagle Eye and Neneh's daddy), Ornette Coleman, Horace Tapscott (God bless his talented ass), Sarah Vaughan, Billy Higgins, Charles Wright, and Quincy Jones. They made two albums in the '70s, Rapping Black in a White World (after which McNeil left) and In the Streets of Watts. (Both were recently reissued by Pay Day.)
Carbon-dating the rap scene by years, the Prophets yanked at everybody's coattails. "Hey World! Hey World!" reflects environmental concerns. "Where Is Your Watts?" burrows under the skin of those who only think of Watts as a geographical location. "Keepin' You Doin' Things So You Don't Have Time to Think" makes the heavy T.V.ists click off the remote for a moment or two. There was too much truth and honesty in their works for J. Edgar "Sweet Pants" Hoover. As he did with the Black Panthers, he had the Watts Prophets investigated, pushed up higher on his naughty board. Years after the peak, a dude confessed in Mother Jones that he had been one of several undercover agents in the Workshop. This particular brother was never too invisible. He was always preachin' hate--"Death to whitey," fire it up! kill! and a bunch of other negative shit. Most of us scribbled "FBI Nigger" and kept on steppin'.
The Prophets did gigs in the 'hood, sure enough, always, but they were being denied the elevation that they righteously deserved. Jane Fonda could say all the shit she wanted to say and still make money. The Watts Prophets didn't have that privilege, even though it was radical-chic time (one of the Watts Writers Workshops mags called it "radical chick time"). Leonard Bernstein was hosting real Black Panthers in his real swank 5th Avenue pad, back there in New York. Jean Seberg (Otto Preminger's St. Joan, Godard's Breathless) was slipping pieces of her Iowa identity to the revolutionary brotherhood. Fonda was openly endorsing Vietnamese independence.
Members of the Watts Writers Workshop were being invited to parties that they had never thought about going to, and some of us went. I went to this one with a Workshop brother one spring. I lived on Laurel Street in Compton, and he lived in the Jordan Downs Projects. We were not members of any affluent anything, just bristling African-American writers, fresh from the 'hood. He, the navigator, read off the address to me for the fourth time. We didn't know where in the fuck we were. In addition to that, after a few hits of this pre-sinsemilla bhang, we didn't really give a shit.
Yeahhh, there it was, 199999 Bostichogenslager Drive, gotta be the place. Lots of cars, house well lit, some kind of music emanating from there. This got to be it. We parked in a convenient space, overlooking nothingness, barked the roach to death, and stepped out, prepared to defend the honor of Watts, the Watts Prophets, and whatever the fuck else that was Black and needed defending. We rang the multi-toned bell, were promptly admitted to a sea of Caucasians. Most of them turned to smile at us.
"Uhhh, brotherman," my brother whispered in my ear, "you sure we in the right spot?"
"Yeahhh," I whispered back. What the fuck did I know? I'd never been in a room full of smiling white folks in my whole life. We mingled; people were cordial, damned near congenial, but there was something missing. We clicked on each other. If this is a party that the poets and writers of the Watts Writers Workshop were invited to, where were the rest of us? My brother decided to explore the perimeters.
"Uhh, Misslady, yawl invite the Watts Writers Workshop here?"
The middle-aged blonde woman, a brighter version of Dick Clark, stared at my friend's beautiful lips for a hot minute.
"Ohh no, we didn't. But you're perfectly free to do whatever you do." A half hour later, a half mile up the road, we played into the scene we supposed to be on.
Pete was not a normal item in any of our diets. Or white pussy or Jungian neuroticism. A bunch of us had to do from scratch. And who was responsible for later setting us up with a gig at this Catholic girls' school, just south of San Francisco? They were so conservative the girls couldn't even tell us where the men's room was. Emery was loaded on Jack Daniel's, Cambodian sinsemilla, and Black poetry. I read something called "Black Pussy." Immediately after our performance, the Momma Superior herself wrote the check and escorted us to the front gate--"Don't yawl never ever think of comin' back here!" she said. Or something like that.
The Writers Workshop had faded by the early '70s, but the Prophets never stopped. We watched the brothers. They did a lil' this 'n a lil' that to make ends meet, kept on being the Watts Prophets. It was like watching monks who had taken a vow or something. "Talk up, not down" became one of their theme poems. They would get kicked in the ass three or five years straight, and keep on comin'. The poetry that they started off with still burns, still smokes, is still real after 30 some years of plowing through American bullshit, Right and Left. Their concerns about racism, classism, generational conflict, ecological and personal responsibility caused some people who have narrow notions to be a mite confused.
But others were not the least bit puzzled--the members of the Hip-Hop Nation who consider the Watts Prophets to be the godfathers of West Coast rap. They were sampled by D.J. Quik, Easy-E, Po' Black Preacher, and others. They recorded and released a new CD, When the 90's Came, with backing from Horace Tapscott, D.J. Quik, and Us3. They toured with Ben Harper. After 30 years, they were "discovered." Over the course of the past few years, after performances at colleges and universities ("Strangely, up till this very moment, we've never been invited to perform at one of the historically black colleges," Hamilton says), festivals, jazz venues, young people's concerts, writers conferences, churches, hospitals, conventions, and God only knows what else, the Watts Prophets are beginning to receive their props. It's about time.
As for the Workshop itself, it was encouraged into being by a stuttering Jewish intellectual, and Budd Schulberg must always be given his props for what he did. He was successful and had nothing to gain by putting his name, his vibe, and his ass on the line. Since the workshop fell apart, no replacement has come forth. And we bleed again, as usual, because the youth in Watts (in all our Watts) has not been asked to re-channel its energies, positively. As long as shit is funky, there's always going to be a need for a Watts Writers Workshop, whether we have one or not.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.