Watts Prophets

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The Watts Prophets were a group of inspired poets who were products of the accumulated economic, social, and political conditions of a community in South Central Los Angeles. Otis O'Solomon, Anthony “Amde” Hamilton, and Richard Dedeaux, long-time area residents and community activists, were the original soul of the Watts Prophets. The poetic works of these men, and of other cultural activist-artists across the nation in the 1960s, were the roots of many expressions that are now part of our spoken language and, more important, the precursor of much of the intellectual expansion of African thought within the academy around African agency. African agency, as it is expressed in the framework of Africology, is the study of African phenomena through the eyes of Africans, who are living the experience with specific ideas regarding the interpretation of that experience.
Prior to the 1960s, many African Americans did not see themselves as the center of their artistic and cultural experience. They were still performing for white audiences and for white interests, although they would write about African American conditions. The Watts Prophets changed this reality: Their words, music, and performances engaged audiences in a new aesthetic of expression. The Watts Prophets presented poetry as an expression of African call-and-response. The call was in the deliberate gestures, poses, eye contact, and rhythmic movement that characterized the performances, and the response was the audience's engagement in those performances. This multidimensional construction of a social dynamic aimed at creating understanding through words and rhythms inspires an African method of observing data and methodology for interpreting the data. This particular kind of data relocates the African personality at the center of shaping the discourse around African agency.

Social and Cultural Relevance

The pro-black stance expressed by the trio in the 1960s articulated the connection between the pressing macrosocial realities of racism, poverty, and oppression that the poor and working-class black community in South Central Los Angeles experienced in their everyday lives and the global context of that reality. This articulation is apparent in the title and substance of their first album, Rappin’ Black in a White World. Today that expression, though not encased in the symbolic ideals of the black power movement, still reveals the pressing issues for the poor and workingclass black community. The focus today is more often at the microsocial levels, speaking to such issues as illiteracy, child abuse, neglect, rejection, HIV/AIDS, and suicide. The challenges facing the black community are the subject of the Watts Prophets’ 1997 CD, When the 90's Came, in which their words reflect the fire, love, and hope that drove them in the 1990s and continues to punctuate their messages today. In a poignant analysis of the global economic and political co-optation of cultural icons and power agendas in their title track, they highlight how “Malcolm had been reduced to a commercial X, the Panthers to a movie, the world psyched into an ethnic fight, while gun runners grow in economic might.” The exploitation of black people by a powerful white majority—out of greed, for economic and political gain—is what drove the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s and resulted in many rebellions across the United States. This longterm exploitative relationship with the black community was a catalyst for the Watts Rebellion of 1965.
The rebellion in Watts focused attention on the inhumane living conditions in South Central Los Angeles, which brought millions of dollars of funding for housing, hospitals, and youth programs to the area. Not only did it bring in government funding, but private liberal philanthropists also added their own gestures to assuage their guilt for neglecting the black community. One such outpouring resulted in the creation of the Watts Writers Workshop, started by Budd Schulberg, screenwriter of On the Waterfront. This workshop became an outlet for a community of creative people to express the myriad experiences nestled on the margins of European discourse.
Hamilton, O'Solomon, and Dedeaux, then in their twenties, were all participants in the Watts Writers Workshop. Cassius Weatherby recommended that they come together because of the possible synergy of their works. When they won second place in a talent show at the legendary Maverick's Flat, they caught the attention of the public as well as of other popular performers of the time. They subsequently appeared between concert sets of Earth, Wind and Fire, George Clinton, and Richard Pryor. In the 1970s the Watts Prophets recorded two legendary albums, Black in a White World and In the Streets of Watts. They were also guest artists on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life and Quincy Jones's Mellow Madness.
The Watts Writers Workshop became a prestigious forum for people from all over the world to come and find a safe space for expression. The Watts Prophets and other poets of the people knew long before the discourse of postmodernism that the word was the source for deconstruction of the realities established by oppressive powers and conditions. As Dedeaux expressed it, in the beginning, “there was nothing but a workshop, some railroad tracks, and a tree across the street, which we called the Freedom Tree.” In the end, with funding from area celebrities, film studios, and philanthropists, the workshop had grown to include a main building, a piano donated by Sammy Davis, Jr., and a 350-seat, $250,000 theater. These were all burned to the ground in 1975 when the power of the workshop to give people hope and freedom to express a growing global culture of power became a target of the federal government. The resident videographer admitted that he had worked as an FBI informant, which confirmed the artists’ suspicions of a government conspiracy in the destruction of the project.

Political Impact

But it was the formation of African American cultural expression through the lived experiences of artists like the Watts Prophets, with the Watts Writers Workshop as their lab, that made possible the African ideological stance that continues to grow in the academy. The Watts Prophets’ music and message in the sixties and seventies was, in addition to being rhythmic and inspiring, also critical, political, and cultural, even though they were not aligned with any particular cause or group. They considered themselves “the community's poets”; they became the prescient voice of the scholars investigating the subjective voice of Africans as agents. The expressions of cultural and artistic workers often become the forerunners to social consciousness and change. O'Solomon's poetic work Hey World was ahead of the curve in voicing for earth sustainability before Greenpeace's environmental messages or a concept called ecology became prevalent. The Watts Prophets represent the integrity of a transgenerational interpretation of African experiences in South Central Los Angeles that are similar to many other African experiences in the continental United States.

References

Keywords

  • workshops
  • Los Angeles
  • artists
  • African Americans
  • gestures
  • trees
  • audiences

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Asante, Molefi Kete. (2002). Afrocentricity. Trenton, NJ: Africa Word Press. The idea behind this book is that African people are subjects and agents who are participating in their own cultural revolution. Thus the book uses the power and eloquence of the young poets of New York and Los Angeles as ways to influence youth.
  • Ba, Sylvia. (1973). The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. This is an excellent discussion of the poetry of Négritude.
  • Karenga, Maulana. (2002). Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. This is the standard work on the development of Black Studies as a field of study.