I'm working on a story about Bay Area author/speaker Adisa Banjoko, who is affectionately known as the "Bishop of Hip-Hop," for SF Weekly. In the last few weeks, he's asked me along to several of his speaking engagements that I haven't been able to attend. The man's been busy, from a Pan-African culture conference at UC Berkeley to visiting day at Vacaville State Prison (the invitation to which I politely declined), all while preparing the March 4 release of his self-published book Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion. And raising two young children with his wife.
[A quick aside: I just found out that Bishop shouted me out during a discussion about Bay Area hip-hop authors (among other topics of more heft) with Davey D on KPFA's Hard Knock Radio. The episode aired on Valentine's Day and is reachable behind this fine link. Darn if that doesn't make me feel good.]
Last week, Adisa came through with an invite I couldn't turn down: Accompany him to San Quentin on February 25 as part of a cultural awareness day. He would join speakers such as former Black Panther Kiilu Nyasha, a vibrant woman clearly not constrained by her (admittedly impressive and hydraulic) wheelchair.
If my San Francisco apartment were, say, six to eight stories taller like the Tokyo high-rise of my dreams, I could probably see over the Golden Gate Bridge and out to San Quentin on a clear day -- that's how close I am to California's most controversial prison. And given the current attention on the facility in the past few months (first for Tookie's execution and again for last week's aborted lethal injection), it seemed like an opportunity that was impossible to pass up. I never call myself a journalist; I'm a writer. But maybe a trip behind the wall would give me even a little bit of that sense of entitlement to call myself a journalist. Just for a second?
Even though I got no results when Googling such phrases as "San Quentin, visitors, shanked," I was still freaked out about going as my remix of reality set in. As a recently birthed fan of the defunct HBO prison drama Oz, my mind had plenty of scary possibilities to chew on. Shankings were only the start: We're talking about things like de-eyeing. And de-Achilles tendoning. (Trust me, you don't want to check the technique.)
What's interesting is that, to me, the scariest inmates on Oz were the little wiry fuckers like Joel Grey's Idzik character (assassinator of a pivotal character, Imam Kareem Said) rather than someone perhaps more obvious, like current Lost star Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje's majestically African warrior Adebisi (who, ironically, was felled by Said).
The image of the Emerald City compound of Oz whirled in my head already, so it didn't get easier when I was warned that the correctional officers would give us a disclaimer before allowing us entry. Something to the effect of their refusal to negotiate for your release should you be held hostage in exchange for an inmate's release.
I hadn't even thought to be afraid of a hostage situation before hearing that, but luckily I had the fresh impression of Season One's infamous EmCity riot to fill in the blanks. (When that went down, not even the priest was spared, y'all.)
Wikipedia happily informed that current San Quentin prisoners include infamous California murderers: Serial killers Richard Ramirez (the "Night Stalker") and Charles Ng (who matched him almost neck-in-neck) as well as the killers of well-publicized Bay Area little girls Samantha Runnion and Polly Klaas. And Scott Peterson. Also: Someone who killed nine of their family members. No doubt, you need to be good at what you do to show up and show out at this institution. Masters of their respective fields.
"You need to go," argued my friend KD, after hearing my fears. "You need to understand it.
"How can you continue to really write about hip-hop without ever having this kind of experience?" he asked.
"Yeah, but I'm sure there are a whole lot of rappers that have never been in a prison yard themselves," I replied.
Another friend, Susie, ranked high on the list of reasons why I decided to go. I knew she'd love to have such an adventure. "You need a healthy dose of detachment and you'll be fine," she advised during her lengthy pep talk. She also suggested counting tattoos if I got too uncomfortable with even my detached surroundings. "You know, like you count yarmulkes at temple?"
Mi amigo dj PUSH initiated the tough love with hugs on Friday afternoon ("Shut up! You'll be fine!") and passed the torch to Adisa, who delivered his Saturday morning wake up call to me thusly: "You're scared? That's corny! We're not doing that!"
The end result of a day's worth of building panic was that I got little to no sleep last night in anticipation of the visit. That was a little bit surprising even though I was genuinely scared before going to bed. Jangled nerves in the morning, so my pal Missy was kind enough to drive me (in my car) there.
Before leaving I had to contend with what to wear. What to wear, what to wear! Not one's ordinary fashion dilemma. I was warned not to wear anything provocative (had to leave the booty shorts in the closet) and no denim, khakis or grey sweats.
I found a long-sleeved black shirt, black pants and black boots. The shirt wasn't skin-tight, but it wasn't baggy, either. Missy told me I should reconsider my sartorial choice, unless I wanted to make the inmates nostalgic for titties and/or their girlfriends. That shirt came off in record time, and was finally replaced by a loose "Motown Music Review [sic]" T-shirt. Best I could do. I definitely was not going to wear my "Compton Cheerleading" or "Body Double" tees, but I didn't realize how much of what I own is actually fairly form-fitting. I thought I was a baggier lady.
If I owned a burqa, I probably would have worn that, although I subsequently found out that those need pre-approval in writing to remain on one's head once past the gates. I'd also later be glad that I wore what I did, for the curvy ladies that didn't think about what they wore there were rewarded with a lot of loud attention. They could all take it, but I would have melted with embarrassment.
Men don't have to think about what they wear to San Quentin. About how much skin they show, what their hair looks like. What they smell like. I made the executive decision to skip the shower today. Skipped the perfume that has been variously described as a "drug" and a "secret weapon."
On the drive there, I took in all the great sights just in case it was the last time I was going to see them: The Golden Gate Bridge, the rainbow tunnel, the Bay Bridge, downtown SF . . .
Fiddled with Missy's iPod to find appropriate soundtracking for the fairly short drive: OutKast's "So Fresh, So Clean" (key lyrics: the sky is falling/ain't no need to panic) and its B-Side "Gangsta Shit" (a laid-back in the Cadillac cut that I like to mix with robotic electro records), Rene and Angela's "Secret Rendezvous" (because I didn't tell my family I was going to SQ beforehand, sorry, Mom) and Creative Source's "Can't Hide Love" (which I'd learn about later, naturally).
Truthfully, after that, I got so nervous that I don't really know what else I played. But it was all assisted by a techno-paced heartbeat.
Stories about San Quentin always remark on the spectacular Bay views it has. It's so true: Real estate developers would kill to have 'em. Other people do.
We were struck by the cute houses that were on the last two blocks before the main entrance to the prison. Who lives there, and what are their world views? During the hours that Missy waited around for us to come out (if she hadn't worn denim she would have been able to slip in with us, as it turned out), she observed the day-to-day activities of the local animal life, including the ubiquitous seagulls, the "shiny puppy faces" (as she put it) of the seals, the curious cats, the Labrador and the golden retriever. I'm sure it was a fascinating microcosm of its own on this anomaly of a street.
First impression while looking through the gate: It's like a theme park. Or Las Vegas' Excalibur Hotel without the moat or fresh paint.
Second impression: It's a lot harsher than that.
We didn't see any of the interior of the complex save for the "sallyport" in the entry way (aka a little pen). It was straight to the yard, with its spectacular Mt. Tam vantage point -- truly breathtaking on such a clear day.
The tension in my body increased when we got into the "party room" that was set up for us to gather in before and after the show (a variety of speakers and musical performances). I took Susie's advice and started to look at tattoos. One diminuitive Latin man had the name "Peggy" written in script on the right side of his neck. The left side of his neck had a portrait of a blonde woman. I wondered if she was Peggy, and the thought that she might well be some other bitch made me relax a little.
The day was being policed (for lack of a better word) by Project Trust, a group of lifers that have committed to keeping the peace. Ernest, a light-skinned black man with incredible blue eyes, explained to us that we could talk to him or the other "Trustfellows" (identified by name-tags) if we felt threatened by anyone or anything. He also suggested that,in the event of the correctional officers telling the inmates to "get down," that we weren't required to get down, but might want to consider doing it anyway. Lovely.
Outside, Yay Area rap star Messy Marv was in effect, as was a young girl from Berkeley called Aquanetta (no shit). Her personality and ballsiness outstripped her talent a bit, but she was their American Idol for that one moment in time.
"Are you ready to hear from a real OG?" asked Nyasha. Her regal Black Panther spirit was rewarded with roars.
"Are you ready to get tipsy at the club?" asked Aquanetta, while writhing on stage.
"Hell YEAH!" was the response.
Adisa gave a short but effective speech that must have been daunting given that the pockets of people listening to him were drowned out by the appreciation of the female form that was happening when some of the ladies got up from their chairs. I'm trying to absorb some lessons in public speaking from this cat, and that situation was a good one.
I made a bit of a friend in Kevin, who leads the prison choir and plays in the R&B band. He's working on his 24th year and lives on the floor below the only gas chamber in California. He answered some of my questions about the various programs that SQ has that other facilities don't, whether educational, religious, health or arts-based.
"If you want to do something with your life, this is the place to be," he said.
I didn't ask Kevin what he did that landed him in San Quentin, but it's likely that his ticket in was a one-way. I didn't ask anyone what they did, actually. Human to human, it just didn't matter at that moment.
Anyway, like Susie said, a healthy sense of detachment was probably the best thing for me. I made a lot of guesses as to who might have done what -- I'm sure I could pick out at least a few of the non-violent drug offenders -- but odds are that I missed the mark every time. I almost fear that the men who I got along with best could have conceivably done some of the worst shit. But why torture myself?
Later, as I recounted my day in a puddle on my couch, my valued colleague Gate$ was only slightly bemused at what I still think of as a fierce act of bravery for a female in a 62-inch frame. Been there, done that, I guess.
"You went where? And?"
"And . . . I conquered a big fear?"
"C'mon, Tamara, people are nice. I went to visit someone in prison today, too." he said nonchalantly. The subject was swiftly changed to something more gossip-minded.
I could actually visualize him shaking his head at me over the phone, en route to his second ATL strip club of the evening (but not the Blue Flame, where lapdances are apparently only $5). I thought he'd at least award me a couple of bad-ass points for it all, and he probably silently did, considering who I am and all. Though he describes himself as "thug lite," it still takes a lot to impress someone who's experienced what he has in life. I'm not gonna try too hard. Gate$ knows what's up, so I'm not worried. Murder Dog wouldn't be the same without him.
I'm grateful to Tony Ng, aka Tone Def, the assistant promotions director from KMEL, for making my visit possible. As DJ, his musical contribution for the day was certainly more significant than he may realize (soothing soul and slick slumpers alike). I might be a real sap, but I started getting a little misty when he played Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Luckily I had my stunna shades on, a $500 pair of Dolce & Gabbanas procured for $40 at Century 21 (Ground Zero, NYC) that once elicited jealous squeals from a gay gigolo on the MUNI Metro platform at the Embarcadero.
But I digress. Tone Def played my jam, straight up: Junior's "Mama Used To Say," circa 1982. That alone was enough. I looked out into the yard and saw one dude grooving and singing all the words.
I was really happy to see such positive community outreach happening on behalf of a radio station that has been criticized for its Clear Channel affiliation and lack of "Bay-ness." I would suppose that such corporate status could immunize them from doing anything for the people, but they're doing it anyway and I have a lot of respect for that. He could have just as easily spent his Saturday handing out promo items at the Serramonte Mall.
The afternoon was made possible by Rudy Corpuc Jr., who heads up a San Francisco-based youth-centered organization called United Playas. I left before I could see him again and get his information, but hopefully I'll track him down for an interview. He was a tour de force that needs more light shone on his positive path.
"This isn't even what I do," he said, looking deeply into my eyes. He's a frequent SQ visitor and often brings in high school students. "I'm really about the kids. I do this because I love it."
But my biggest thank you, of course, is to the Bishop. Adisa recorded his vital impressions of the day before and after the visit for audio posts on his blog Holla at a Scholar!! They are available for listening right over here and I guarantee it's worthwhile podcasting. It's deep stuff, but of course has its fun moments. I love when he's riding across the Richmond Bridge on the way and rapping (to the beat of NWA's "Express Yourself"):
I'm expressing with my full capabilities/Now I'm speaking in correctional facilities!
Love to the Bishop for challenging me to the core. Adeezy got me to go to San Queezy! Who else could have done that? My change is for the better, even though I'm still no journalist. I'm glad I went, and next time -- wow, I'm actually talking about a next time -- maybe I'll ask if Tony will let me bring some tunes . . .
More on the Bishop next month in SF Weekly. Westside rebellion fo' life.
P.S. Word has just come down in the middle of the night that a scrap broke out shortly after the two of us left (half an hour before the celebration was due to end) and that all the guests were escorted out to some discomfort (I hope the young pregnant woman is okay).
Details are forthcoming so I'll refrain from too much speculation, but rumbles about desks transformed into weapons aren't comforting and I am going to join my friend in praising Allah for our genius exit timing. I guess it all goes to show that everything is transitory, but I must admit that this new development sends a few of my thoughts and feelings of an intense day into a tiny tailspin. My gut says it's a case of a few assholes ruining it for everyone. Looks like I'll be claiming some of those bad-ass points after all.
The breaking news comes with some questions attached: Can you trust people who call themselves Trustfellows?(I think so; I bet they helped quell the peace.) Will KMEL and/or United Playas get to continue their work at San Quentin? And if so, could I feel comfortable enough to go back? At the risk of sounding trite, this may end up being a better cliffhanger than the nefarious Moldavian Massacre from Dynasty
. . . or the riot from Oz