By Ingrid Ellis
In the early 1990’s, a new consciousness crept its way into the Black social scene. Those who were “down” sported Dreadlocks, and African designers like Moshood set the tone for fashion. Folks discovered veganism. Malcolm X, reminders of The Middle Passage and other political concerns demanded attention from the fronts of t-shirts. Instead of nightclubs, the intellectual vibe of poetry cafes resonating with conscious lyrics became the new gathering spot to see and be seen.
If one happened to be inNew Yorkat the time, mentioning the Brooklyn Moon Café is enough said to recapture the mood. The Friday Open Mike Night was an incubator of talent that set unknown artists like poets Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Tai Allen (now of the spoken-word duo Vicelounge), the actor Wood Harris, singer Erykah Badu and many others up for future success. With fingers snapping and incense burning, the mood was warm, eclectic and electrifying. It was a place where young people of color honored their ancestors and culture, but expressed it in a way that reflected a new experience.
Cut toAtlanta,Georgia, where the same cultural vibration buzzed simultaneously. Jason Orr, a music aficionado and city tax collector, was managing the artist Vinnie Bernard, a then unknown whose sound was a precursor to the soulful styles of artists like D’Angelo and Maxwell. Orr had a vision for an arena to showcase the exciting talent in the local music and art scene that was being snubbed by the industry, but also wanted it to inspire cultural consciousness. By the time he sketched out a plan, the now famous logo was already in place. With some of his own money and some sponsored funds, Orr secured the historical Royal Peacock club as his first venue and, in 1994, the FunkJazz Kafe was born.
Thus began an era of a “new” Black music movement that is captured in the documentary film, FunkJazz Kafe: Diary of a Decade, which made itsNew York debut last Saturday at BAM Cinema. Directed by Jason Orr himself, the film explores what Orr calls the “evaporation of soul music,” (as a result of mainstreaming), but also the emergence of a new counterculture and fusion sound. Orr begins this exploration at its root, researching the history of Black music in theUnited States beginning with Spirituals.
“Black music is the Black experience [expressed] through music,” says Erykah Badu, one of the many artists and scholars whose commentary narrate the film. Early on, personalities such as Speech of Arrested Development, the singers, Jill Scott, Cee Lo Green, Joi and activist and academic Cornel West weigh in on the true meanings and origins of Soul, Jazz and Funk. According to Jill Scott, soul is not limited to one type of music, but can be expressed through any type of music that is sung with passion, citing Jimi Hendrix and Patsy Cline as examples. “She broke my heart when she sang,” says Scott. “You can’t tell me that’s not soul.”
Asked to describe funk, Chuck D of the politically charged hip hop group, Public Enemy, quoted Prince, saying “If you could describe it, it wouldn’t be funk.”
All of these styles came together inAtlanta, which became a “melting pot of sounds.” The film credits the influence of James Brown on hip hop, especially in groups like Public Enemy, the fusion jazzfunk sound of the Mizell Brothers on theLondonacid jazz sound (which in turn influenced American artists) and Roy Ayers with creating a sound that sparked much of today’s “neo-soul.”
“Neo-soul,” as artist after artist made clear, was a term coined by the music industry to label a type of music that defied pigeonholing. “I don’t know anybody that would really describe themselves as a ‘neo-soul’ artist,” say Joi. Acts like Goodie Mob, Soul II Soul, Meshell Ndegeocello and Janelle Monae, to name a few of the many shown, blended elements of rock, soul, folk, Jazz and hip hop on stage and demonstrated that they could not be neatly categorized.
Neither could FunkJazz Kafe. The film charts its astonishing success, attracting crowds of thousands who lined up around the block to be part of an event that was hard to define. Orr says that he knew he had something special after the very first event and regretted not having filmed it. Going forward, he vowed to “capture the magic every time.” The music was not only live, but alive, as artists were given free reign to improvise and interact with an audience hungry for new sounds, unfiltered by the music industry. At the same time, FunkJazz Kafe was a bazaar of dance, artists painting live, health, incense and food that encompassed the political and cultural vibe of the time. “It fed all of the senses,” noted one participant.
By the end of the ‘90’s, the quarterly FJK extravaganza had become synonymous with hipness and was being recognized by all major music magazines. “It was some grown sh*t,” according to Joi, a movement that artists and audiences alike wanted to join. It was at this time that Orr says he “became pressured” to take the show on the road. He did, and met with national success.
Diary of a Decade captures the energy and momentum of a musical movement that was really about more than music. Interestingly, according to the film, both the movement and FJK began to lose some of that energy in 2001, after 9/11. With the country thrown into political and economic turmoil, the music industry headed for demise and events such as FJK lost sponsors. “Corporations felt no need for the experiential scratch and sniff,” commented Orr. It became unclear whether the event would see its 10th year.
Yet, FJK survived the storm and continued to attract crowds. The event now required Orr to lease a 3000- seat venue and drew an increasingly mainstream audience that cared less about the cultural experience and more about seeing celebrities. In 2004, FJK celebrated its 10th Anniversary. “India Arie played. It was amazing,” gushed Melissa Thomas, a FJK alum. She noted, however, that the other events, after 2001, had felt more commercial, “less organic,” than some of the earlier ones. “Back then it was definitely something special,” she continued. FJK hosted its last event in 2007 after a two-year break.
In the end, Diary of a Decade allows its viewers to reminisce and reflect on an era that many of us had a part in shaping. Perhaps more importantly, however, it raises the question of how commercialism gives rise to resistance movements in music that then somehow become so popular and mainstream that they again fall prey to commercialism. Though perhaps unintentionally, some of the “unconventional” artists featured in the film prove the point. Cee Lo, formerly of the cutting edge hip hop group Goodie Mob now hosts “The Voice” on network television – the exact type of show that the film cites as evidence of a dying music industry.
Meanwhile, Jason Orr noted in conversation following the film, that he is still eager to continue FJK and embark on other “branded” projects, playfully urging any potential sponsors in the audience to “holla at your boy.” He feels that the lack of industry support for artists will support a resurgence of FunkJazz Kafe. However, as it has become much more expensive (by Orr’s own admission) to host such an event, corporate ties and thus a certain level of commercialism, seems inevitable. One hopes, of course, that a revival of FJK would bring forth a new wave of fresh sounds, but Orr points out that he’ll also seek to bring back artists like Al Jarreau. That may be his best bet, as formerAtlantaresident Melissa Thomas reflected. WithHollywoodand major labels having tapped them, she continues, “Most of the people you see in the film have moved on fromAtlanta.”