"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.