Friday, May 30, 2008

In Praise of Ernest Hardy...

Ernest Hardy is one of my favorite writers on film, music, whatever. Whatever brotherman wants to write on I'm up to reading it. Even when I don't agree with him, he still gives me something to think about. Really chew on, like a mental sassafras or licorice root. The only reason I don't check his blog more frequently is he's often busy with a paying writing gig, or a speaking gig somewhere, and I hate to be disappointed. (Hardy pictured right; photo from The Cocoa Lounge)

Wondering who Hardy is? Well, he's written for Vibe, Rolling Stone, The LA Times, The New York Times, and is a regular contributor to the LA Weekly. He's unabashedly queer, feminist, black, male, outspoken, and brilliant. He's written liner notes for Chuck D Presents: Louder Than A Bomb, the box sets Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America, Superstars of Seventies Soul, and Love, Luther: Luther Vandross, and he won the ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award for Excellence for his liner notes for the Chet Baker box set, Career: 1952-1988. He's also sat on a number of film festival juries including Sundance and San Francisco Int'l (hey now!) and is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But this is all information you can get off the back of some book, or an page. The point is that Hardy is accomplished across various segments of his fields of interest, and respected by his peers. One of my favorite pieces by him is "Outkast in Love" which I read as an acute panoramic take on black male creative collaboration, complexity, mutual respect, camaraderie, and yes, love, all wrapped up in a profile of Big Boi and Andre 3000. Nevertheless on the heels of that portrait, Hardy, while acknowledging much that was right about their big screen debut and the various missed opportunities to play on the movie's strengths, basically panned Idlewild. Of course, he wasn't the only one, but his not pulling punches in that situation was a particular choice, a commitment to ongoing critical engagement.

Mr. Hardy has felt my disappointment and that of others, at the lack of blog posts, and attempted to make it up to us earlier this month by posting at length on a plethora of subjects, including the untimely demise of Janet Jackson's career--which is a sad topic because I frankly had forgotten about the sartorial debacle of a few Super Bowl Sundays ago, and wasn't studying on that. It's like who hasn't had a dress failure or witnessed one at a public and inopportune moment. If you're a woman who's had to straddle various fashion phases you've experienced such things. Oh, the piercing/body art. Well, I'm from Cali and again, whatever--I mean was it ugly? No. So what's the issue? My guess would be the overarching hypocrisy of the corporate-political face of country with its multi-million dollar porn industry that's only rivaled by the sales of the video game industry (the film industry comes in third as far a entertainment industry earning power is concerned), the conservatives getting caught with their hands in the same fetishistic / sex work cookie jar they've written and enforced laws against others dipping into. Ms. Jackson wasn't bringing home potential STDs to her clueless family and/or talking out of both sides of her neck to the US public. But I digress...

This is really about Mr. Hardy and how his keen ability to break it down (dissassembe and reassemble/ deconstruct, reconstruct, and then employ and deploy across a signifying viaduct--for those theory-heads out there) garnered him a 2007 PEN/Beyond the Margins Award for Blood Beats Vol. 1, Demos, Remixes, and Extended Versions (2006) and a kick-ass review in the latest volume of the American Book Review for Blood Beats: Vol. 2, The Bootleg Joints (2008) Since Mr. Hardy has rigged his blog to reveal only his homepage URL no matter what page you link to from his site, I have to reprint the review in its entirety below. But it's worth it. As reader fnj wrote, reviewer Alisha Gaines (a writer to watch for) put eloquently and incisively what many of us have been thinking for a long time, and yes, time come and folks WILL recognize! This edition of ABR also includes a piece on Lisa C. Moore, the publisher of Redbone Press--Hardy's publisher--which is also worth checking out. You can do so at Hardy's blog, on his lengthy post of Sunday, May 11th, 2008.

Alisha Gaines reviews Ernest Hardy's Blood Beats: Vol.2/The Bootleg Joints (Redbone Press, 2008) American Book Review, May-June (2008), v.29, no.4.

The first draft of this review began boldly enough: “There are very few writers I would call genuine ‘cultural critics’ …and then there’s Ernest Hardy.” Satisfied, I kept the line until chancing upon an interview conducted by Steven Fullwood entitled “Writing in Ernest” (2006) in which Hardy emphatically denounces my attempt at flattery: “I hate the term cultural critic.” And while this review is not shaped to meet Hardy’s taste, his refusal to embrace a term often used to describe him challenges the work and role of the cultural critic, but also, more importantly, how the seeming exceptionality of that relation to cultural production has been grossly fetishized. Hardy then goes on to describe himself as simple a “film and music critic,” a description that falls way too short of fully summarizing the breadth and freshness of his work as seen in publications as diverse as
Vibe, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and most notably and regularly, LA Weekly.

Then it hit me.

Ernest Hardy is a black critic.

Let me explain.

Hardy operates from a modality of blackness where blackness is, by its very ontology, a trenchant critical stance. “I work from the position that blackness is the most expansive, dynamic and universal filter through which to gauge and interpret the world,” he says later in the same interview. “It just is. It’s certainly been the most vital and important cultural well in this country, the source of its heart and soul.” It is this very heart and soul that pulses throughout
Blood Beats: Vol. 2 / The Bootleg Joints, the follow-up to the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award winner, Blood Beats: Vol. 1 / Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions. As Hardy’s epigraph to Vol. 1 cites James Baldwin’s hand-me-down advice to “go the way your blood beats,” the quickening in his veins moves him both through and beyond Los Angeles as he turns a critical and adoring eye on communities working, living, and creating, most often in spite of, and in the cracks left by, the seeming hegemony of mass modes of cultural production. Reminding those “struggling creative folk, that you don’t have to wait for the machine to validate you, that you can do it for yourself,” Hardy’s collection of essays, reviews, and interviews unabashedly considers everything from the “real hip hop” of Kim Hill, the recently unappreciated stylings of Dolly Parton, and Agnès Varda’s remarkable documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) to the commercial blandness of actor Freddie Prinze Jr. and America’s favorite wigger, Eminem.

Practicing a feminist politics when most are content to only pretend to do so, Hardy opens
Vol. 2 with a choir of women’s voices, or a “SampladelicaFemmeatopia” as he titles it. Citing Toni Morrison speaking to the Parisian press, “We [African Americans] made modernity in that country [the US],” Hardy then excerpts an achingly intimate conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich before shattering the quiet with the deliciously bawdy Roseanne Barr. This sonic assemblage (or perhaps it is only this reviewer that can hear Barr reminding us that “All of American culture is pimp culture”) sets the stage for Hardy’s special brand of deeply insightful funk even as it is sutured to discussions of the most mainstream aspects of popular culture. In a parenthetical riff on the notorious beef between rappers DMX and Ja Rule, for instance, Hardy sharply declares, “You can take black folks’ temperature to find out how the American body is doing.”

Mining multiple sites of possibility and resistance, Hardy refuses to over-edit, offering us that raw footage most would leave behind on the cutting-room floor. He does so “living at the end of [an] imagination” that sees beyond the stereotypical constraints of both blackness and queerness with a humor that is as profound as it is brash. “If
Sex and the City were cast with Negroes and Carrie Bradshaw had dreads and an ass, this might be the show’s nightlife scene,” he writes to describe Rassela’s, an after-hours spot in San Francisco. While Hardy follows blood, he does so while remaining critical of the hackneyed performances of authenticity that often dictate communal belonging. It is this renegotiaton of what “realness” looks, feels, and sounds like that provides coherence to the collection. In “Young Soul Rebels: Negro/Queer Experimental Filmmakers,” Hardy dares to push his readers beyond the seductions of the minstrel versions of blackness that have become comfortably lucrative for some and a violent undoing for others. He writes,

"We’re all seduced into wanting to play along… Whether it’s spoon-fed uplift the race bullshit or plantation legacies (refurbished by mainstream rap music and videos) of thugs, pimps and gangstas, we are comfortable with and eagerly support images and storylines that merely regurgitate cliché and stereotype or that allow us to be “empowered” by simply putting black faces on cinematic archetype and creaky formula."

Here, Hardy reminds us to subvert, distort, and play with the edges of blackness. Or as he writes, “Blackness is experimental.”

Hardy ends his collection with two very sexy, previously unpublished “downloads”—an almost too lengthy genre-bending essay of personal reflection and multi-person interviews on the gay, mainly Latino, porn scene in New York, and a quilted “interview” with Lil’ Kim stitched together from a series of other sources (her publicist let Hardy know she wasn’t interested in a sit down). While the Lil’ Kim essay is inspired by the now infamous photograph of her sporting a bikini and burqa on the cover of
One World, both pieces fly in the face of propriety, interrogating constructions of colored sexuality and gender that work to soothe and balm, as well as irritate. Hardy theorizes the political through the banal and the spectacular, the funky and the vanilla, while unapologetically forcing his readers to take some necessary conceptual risks: to challenge categories of identity, agitate the status quo, and push the boundaries of what is counted as “culture.”

is black criticism.

Alisha Gaines is pursuing her doctorate in the English Department at Duke University, as well as a certificate in African and African American studies. Her interests include twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American narrative, queer epistemologies, visual popular culture, and Michael Jackson.

Because both Ms. Gaines and Mr. Hardy have inspired me, I will be posting soon on my ambivalent appreciation for MC Jean Grae aka Tsidi Ibrahim aka What? What? aka The Dread Pirate Roberts.

In the meantime, here's Ernest Hardy's September 27, 2007 Quote of the Day via Noctuary's Reggie H. (this I found inadvertently in a search for something else so there's a archive link from from writer Junot Díaz (paired with an unrelated photo which has him looking (perhaps unintentionally) badass) in his Fall 2007 BOMB Magazine interview with writer Edwidge Danticat, talking about language:

"There's a lot of language in this book (The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao) that many could find offensive. The N-word is without question one of them. But as I'm always saying: there's a difference between representing a thing and endorsing it. The Yunior narrator feels comfortable using "the N-bomb" but Oscar never would, not for anything, and I think it's important to remember that. What's funny is that this is a conversation that interests the middle classes and the upper classes in our communities -- but talk to kids where I grew up or where I'm living now and that's not really what's at the top of their priorities. They're wondering why they've been abandoned educationally, politically, culturally -- why living in these urban zones is so very bad for your goddamn health.

"As an artist and as a person of color who've never had a moment in his life where someone hasn't been actively trying to control my tongue, I'm seriously conflicted about these debates. To keep it short: language has never been a good dog and its free exercise will never provide comfort to cultures of respectability. And I guess I've never really been one for comforting my readers either."

• Another rich link from Hardy, to a New York Magazine interview with Joni Mitchell
with some priceless quotes from Mitchell on the state of US music, and why she left the scene and painted for ten years before releasing her album Shine in 2007.

• In case you're wondering about what other writers as well as artists think about Hardy, check out the feedback he got earlier this year when Blood Beats: Vol. 2 was first published (Jeff Chang, Saul Williams, Cauleen Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, plus Phyllis J. Jackson's comments are a crack up--in the best way).

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At 8:14 AM, Blogger EH said...

Thank you for the shout-out. It's much appreciated. I feel bad that I can only update the blog sporadically but I am gonna try to do better.


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