Hey, world

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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.

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Odie Hawkins