Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Mo' Better Hoops": Basketball and the African Aesthetic (Part 1)

Before we begin conversing in this P.O.T. blog space this week, I first would like to thank everyone who actually takes the time to read/browse/skim my articles. Last week, I found out from a friend that one of my articles was nominated by the Hilltop staff for the “Best Column of the Year” award given by the various newspaper staffs at HBCUs around the country. When I heard this news, I was absolutely floored, because as a writer, you’re never truly sure if your writing makes sense, if the words weave together like a Shakespearian sonnet, or if you actually inspire/entertain the reading audience. Simply put, getting public recognition from an established college newspaper like the Hilltop was a symbolic but important step in my growing process as a writer. People like me…they really, really like me, I thought.

After my friend told me this information, I felt like I had just ended my first kiss all over again. My mind turned to jambalaya, my head was spinning, and my lips were unable to conceal my enormous grin. So, to every person who has ever scratched their heads after reading one of my many topical jokes, to every person who wondered why I compared Andre Iguodala to Young Gunz, to every person that prayed for me during my travels to Delaware, Mexico, Panama, and Beijing, and to every person who argues my playoff picks to death, I thank you for your support. Last but definitely not least, I thank Jesus Christ for providing me with the inspiration and the skills. You the man, God.

Okay, now that the emotive stuff is out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff.

Dr. Gregory Carr, professor and instructor of my course entitled “Black Aesthetics” at Howard University, discussed the concept of the “blue note” and its relation to the African (Black) aesthetic. Simply put, the “blue note” is more than just a string of notes and sounds compiled to create enjoyable rock music in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Carr asserts that “blue notes” – or notes played at a lower pitch for expressive quality – are indicative of the full African experience and influence much of Africana (Black) culture, politics, and tradition to this day.

For a contemporary example, we dissected the music of Mary J. Blige. First off, we collectively agreed - for the purposes of this exercise - that Mary J. Blige does not and has never possessed the greatest vocal pipes in the world. Simply put: Mary J. cannot sing. However, Carr argued that if one listens to “Real Love”, "I'm Going Down", or most of Mary J.'s other songs in her discography, an assessment regarding the influence of the African aesthetic can be made. Dr. Carr proceeded to sing “Real Love” a Capella in class, proving by emphasizing the “blue note” structure in the song that Mary J. Blige has perfected (ahem, mastered) the art of hitting the “blue note”. Because of this mastery, fans of her music can relate to her plight, glide along with the rhythm and motion of her songs, and generally block out her relatively mediocre (less than exceptional, anyway) vocals.

I agree with Doc Carr’s sentiment, and argue that the “blue note” phenomenon easily translates over to the formulation of black identity within the context of basketball. “Blue note” or the need to create an Africana identity is an impulse inherent in the minds and hearts of all African peoples and can be channeled into any aspect of society. I had a conversation with my friend Steve, co-host of the sports talk show “Instant Replay” on Mondays from 6-8pm at WHBC 830am with me, and discussed this influence of “blue note” aesthetics – flow, call-and-response, rhythm, etc. - on any players (most specifically, black players) who apply this “form” concept to basketball. I further argue that these black players generally exhibit a poetical mastery of basketball that remains absent from greater American basketball culture.

Check it out.

Before we deconstruct the attributes of basketball found in African cultural traditions, I must first show you, the reader, the two differing viewpoints in regards to basketball theory. In order for you to follow this paper’s line of thought, consider both basketball theory camps as the two different political parties present in the United States, Democrat and Republican. The first camp - Democrats, for the purpose of our example - possesses those purists who believe basketball should exist solely as a creative, free-flowing, untainted exercise in beauty – simply put, “form” or “poetry in motion”. The second camp (Republicans) believe the best brand of basketball to be a game that serves a purpose, a means to an end, a solution to a problem – namely, that basketball exist as “functional”.

Where can the purest expressions of both theories be located? I’m glad you asked.

“Poetry in motion” or “form” basketball can be analyzed in raw form on the playgrounds of tough inner city areas (Brooklyn, Southside Chicago, Harlem, and Lower East Side). Here, the game is played amidst radios blaring and beautiful women, far away from those seeking to poison its beauty with archaic constructions and mundane structures. (Hey, if you need strong movie examples of the blacktop basketball tradition for greater understanding, I’d advice watching “Hoop Dreams” or the first-half of “Glory Road” (when Coach Haskins travels to recruit black dudes on inner-city courts).

“Functional” basketball can be analyzed in its purest form primarily in the Hoosier state of Indiana, a state largely absent of black influences and African cultural meaning-making. Here, basketball was played largely in school gymnasiums due to the excess of farmland, with repetition and “hustle” (a undefined concept that stems from the rural tradition of "hard work" in Middle America) existing as defining characteristics of those individuals considered spectacular by the masses. (Again, for a generic movie example, watch “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman).

In my next few blog entries, I’ll talk about the history of the struggle between “form” and “function” in basketball - a struggle that in some ways reflects a loose schism between blacks and whites in American society. After that, I’ll examine the lengthy trails left by both basketball theories and trace “form” and “function” theory to subsequent basketball superstars in the present day. In addition, I’ll argue for the need to society to once again embrace the elements of “form” basketball in our youth, elements that are swiftly being ignored because of rising greed found in individuals and corporate entities seeking to make dollars rather than promote artistic expression. Left unchecked, this outlook can be dangerous and stifle the creative genes that lay dormant in our youth, eroding away the artistry that makes basketball a unique and beautiful sport, similar to the traditions of preceding African societies.

By the way, don’t think I’m writing this to ridicule and attack white people. There are white players who exhibit "form" in their play similarly to blacks. There are also many white basketball theorists that embrace “form” theory in the sport. Anyway, just make sure to check out my next P.O.T. post for more understanding. Rest assured, it’ll pack a punch and help you waste even more quality time.

As for the Super Bowl, I’ve got Arizona over Pittsburgh. I have no real reason to pick the Cardinals other than my man crush on Larry Fitzgerald’s skills. So, deal with it.

And, as my man J-Till over at Fundamentally Unsound would say, “Peace”.

Michael A. Benjamin, II

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    I'm genuinely, eagerly anticipating these next few posts. I already have a sense of where you're going to take us, and it should be a good ride.

    You should submit these series of articles to a "wider" medium, if you will, after these are published.

    Glad to see there are still a few good writers out there in a cesspool of unoriginal thought and mediocrity....

    Great stuff.

    --5th Floor, Drew Hall, Rm 539