By Reza Corinne Clifton
This article appeared in The Providence American Newspaper on October 27, 2005
PROVIDENCE, RI- All over the city of Providence, pockets of young, future leaders are cropping up and moving forward. Generally these people are completing or have recently graduated from college, and are working or volunteering in some capacity to improve peoples lives. I have had the great honor of meeting some of them, and of late, I met another.
I met Ronnie Young at a start-up meeting of RI’s first Black Political Action Committee (PAC) a few weeks ago. Young was among a small group of people deemed as highly capable and chosen by Julian Dash to get the PAC off the ground. On several occasions during the meeting, Young spoke to his commitment and dedication to his community and especially to youth with unmistakable passion and honesty. In our interactions since, this earnestness has remained present.
Young was born, raised and currently resides on the Southside; this is no longer just his home neighborhood, though. Young works for the Community Development Corporation, Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Services (GENS), which services the Elmwood, Southside, and West End neighborhoods in Providence. Creating and offering affordable housing and improving the rights of residents are just two aspects of the work he does in his capacity as community organizer at GENS. This work was recognized at their annual meeting on October 17, a part meeting-part concert with music provided by younger and older artists of Terrell Osborne’s Music One program. Mayor David Cicilline and City Councilman John Lombardi, local artists and small business people Stacie Parillo and Joanna Morway, and various community residents and board members attended to honor GENS’s work.
Forming the Black PAC and working at GENS could have been enough, but not for Young; earlier this month, he joined the Rhode Island Young Professionals. Not necessarily sufficiently exposed otherwise, Young saw joining as an opportunity to network with others like him; those completing or having completed college and entering the professional world while keeping ties to the community.
Young will be graduating from Roger Williams University in December, and until then is taking three classes. With all of these things happening, Young is taking one other big step: he is applying for a position on the Providence School Board. On Monday October 24, Young sent in his application form and a recommendation letter. With another recommendation letter on the way, the only thing left to do is wait.
Despite so much going on with him, I had a couple opportunities to talk with Young. With such a clear idea about the value of giving back to the community, and with attention on being an example to others, I wanted to find out a little more about his history, his interests, and why or how he keeps going. Here are some excerpts from his replies.
Pretty much what else I like doing is singing. I’ve been trying to find things I’d be interested in, and singing is one that makes me happy. I also like to see and make people happy. I explore my singing interests by going to church and singing. I sing solos and a capella on the weeks I attend Bethel AME church on Rochambeau. I sing at weddings too. But really, I sing all the time, like in the car and stuff, so it’s not like I’m not able to do it. It’d be great to sing in a big stadium or venue like that, but right now I’m focusing on my career.
I have worked at GENS since July 25th, 2005. Since I started I have initiated the Parkis Ave Tenants Association. Residential management being one of GENS main objectives and one of my interests, this gave me the opportunity to reach out to over a hundred or so residents within the Elmwood Community. This group consists of all residents of GENS that live on Parkis Ave. This association meets regularly to talk about issues concerning their well being and safety, among other things, within their community. The more the community is informed and more willing to take part in the changes GENS is trying to bring, the easier it will be to succeed in turning Elmwood, Southside and West End into areas all people can be proud of.
Eventually I want to get an advanced degree…probably law school. My current major is criminal justice, and I know I’m going to have to, as I do now just being a Black man in this country and being around certain people in my life, interact with the criminal justice system. It’s not that you have to be a lawyer when you get that degree. You can do a lot of things once you get it. I graduated from High School in 99 and immediately after that I was working full time. I got a full time job at Roger Williams, then began taking classes there at night. At one point I went full time on both.
I stopped working at Roger Williams to work at GENS. I’m so appreciative of Roger Williams, though. I mean, they’ve paid for a lot of my education. I took the job at GENS, though, because it was much more in the direction of where I saw my future. Plus, it means I can work right here in my community instead of in Bristol.
The Black PAC is important to me because I want to have a voice in and for my community. I’d like to show people who are like me, from similar background as me that you can have a voice. Everyone but Black people seem to have a voice. If I can join something that’s going to effect me, my mother, and others like me, then I want to be a part of it.
We all know that the school system is bad; I would like to find out why and inform folks about what I find. I want to bring the other large high schools like Central, Hope and Mount Pleasant up to speed with Classical. High school is probably most important to my heart, just being more aware of the disparities between the schools. But I’m starting to really believe that you have to get them young. I know for myself, I hit a specific point when I realized that school was important. I was in community prep in 7th or 8th grade. When I hit that school, I realized how far behind I was, and this happened in 3rd grade too—realizing how behind in school I was. Both times I had come from public schools.
I basically want to see change, maybe small changes so that students can enjoy their education. I just want to help the kids. I do think that parents should get involved, maybe making parent involvement mandatory. There’s a lot that can be done. I just want to make some change, or support the school board through making some changes.
As long as I can keep my bills paid, eat decent food, have a pillow to sleep on, and eventually save enough pennies to buy a home of my own that is enough economic gain for me. Serving the community and doing something in life to make other people smile makes me happy.
Greater Elmwood Neighborhood Services is located at 36 Parkis Avenue in Providence, and their phone number is 455-0810. The RI Young Professionals meets the first Thursday of every month, usually at Casey Family Services on Eddy Street. Questions about the organization can be emailed to RI_Young_Professionals@yahoo.com.
Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on a High School Reform project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in “The Minority Family Perspective” the Providence American Newspaper and at www.rezaritesri.com.
By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article appeared in the Providence American Newspaper)
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to listen to the CD yet, there are two ways to listen to “Everybody Dig”, the new full length album from RI-based hip hop-soul group, Riders Against the Storm. One way of listening is by simply unwrapping and opening the case, removing the disk, and inserting it into a player with no regard to the jacket and its details. The other way to enjoy it occurs after peeking at the jacket; you will listen to it, and unless you are in the car, you will clutch the case the entire time as you will be drawn to periodically glancing inside at the details in disbelief.
Everybody Dig is an astonishingly mature freshman album by Riders Against the Storm—the then two person team of Ghislaine Jean and Jonathan Mahone—with production assistance exclusively from multitalented musician Abdul Mateen and highly active RI- to NY-based producer Moon. It is a fourteen-track album that blends originally written hip hop, poetry and comedy with instrumentals dominated by the bass and a variety of percussion. It is also a multifaceted ode to righteousness, a healing guide for those ever afflicted by self-hatred, and a direct attack on the racist and misogynistic establishment that purges Black people of self-love.
How do such strong messages emerge on an album that does not date back to the 1970’s? Consider what you first hear upon pressing play: an adult male voice teaching a group of youth performance techniques as he invites them to participate on the album by chanting a chorus of Justice…Freedom. The third or fourth chant in and the album begins full force with instrumentals, melody, etc.; yet the simple humanity and tenderness of the brief “Intro” will remain on your brain as you listen.
These sometimes original, sometimes borrowed speaking moments interwoven throughout the CD provide listeners with a glimpse at the spiritual souls and social politics espoused by Jean and Mahone. Take “Hair Piece”, a poem written by Jean with a musical dénouement at the end: it is a chronology and biography of the pride and shame, abuse and embrace, and changing politics of Black women and hair. But with references to the classic “Coming to America” and to a string of beauty products that every black woman has used, bought, or actively rejected, it avoids being over-preachy, artistically untouchable, or belligerently militant. Instead, if you do not already know Jean, the moments of passion, despair, and comedy reveal a woman that anyone could truly sit with to seriously yet with familiarity discuss this common, sometimes mini sometimes large crisis.
With so much original material—every track was written, performed, and when needed, accompanied by Mahone and Jean—it nonetheless has to be noted that even the borrowed material demonstrate their deep-rooted devotion and dedication to heritage. Track number 6 for instance, “Mama Said” includes an interlude sampled from Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa is one of the godfathers of hip hop, a teacher and really a spiritual and cultural leader of a multi-decade movement in hip hop that repeatedly retransformed the sound and celebrated the African roots inherently borne to hip hop.
Unbreakable and essential roots to Africa was also a major theme of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican, Pan-African leader who, on a platform that included repatriation to Africa, self-improvement, and Black pride through his Universal Negro Improvement Association, is credited with the largest mass movement of Black people in American History. Commonly referenced and revered in reggae music—presumptively also because Garvey was Jamaican—Jean and Mahone do not miss an opportunity to introduce or reacquaint listeners to the words of this important, historical Black leader.
Yet focus not too heavily on the content and message lest we forget about the music. As I began suggesting before, the sound and production quality of the CD is impeccable. No need to worry, then about a drop in the vocals, overpowering instrumentals, or abrupt song ends.
And for those of us who can not get enough of the live music background—commonly associated with hip hop group The Roots—or those like my mother who often cannot get beyond the common-to-hip hop loop—playing the same few bars repeated over and over behind sometimes lively sometimes overly mellow rhyming—Riders’ sound is live, seemingly originating from a diverse stock of instruments, not a keyboard, computer, or manipulated old record. On song number 5, you hear percussion that sounds similar to the tympanis or specifically tuned bass drum, song number 6 is accompanied beautifully by a flute, and on song number 10, present is what sounds like water dripping, which could be a sound effect, but, knowing the integrity of the musicians, is probably an exotic percussion instrument.
Significant to those instrumentals and the vocals on this CD, as opposed to that of many other local hip hop albums—and why soul and funk are likely to be common adjectives when describing it—is the presence of melody, harmony, and, well, good sounds. The water droplet sounds on number 10 are not part of an abstract, where is the head bobbing rhythm epidemic taking over non-commercial hip hop. It is something added for musical diversity by experienced musicians.
And the vocals? Mahone is generally smooth and laid back with a style reminiscent of the Camp Lo guys, Blackaliscious fellows, or Digable Planet dudes—simple but ample note range, and slower pace. Other times he is passionate and persistent, sounding a bit like a Talib Kweli or Common when they are making important points. Yet it is Jean who will invariably make you feel it in the pitt of your stomach and effortlessly in your diaphragm.
An actress and performer as well as singer, Jean has doubtlessly mastered the art of intonation and manipulation by her voice, a skill we see in the black nationalist meets ghetto fabulous comedic skit “Willis and Tameka” and the Afro-centric empowered lesson—or review depending on whose listening—“Colors have meaning” spoken interlude. Nevertheless, this vocal chameleon prowess she displays is not limited to her speech.
Her emceeing style sprinkled throughout is infectious and at times rapid and staccato similar to the well-celebrated Busta Rhymes, and at other times languid and deliberate like Ursula Rucker, but it is really when she is singing that the listener is likely to be most taken. Jean moves effortlessly from a kind of reflective yet assertive style similar to Lauryn Hill’s—on the track “Mama Said”—to the alternating soft to emotionally emphatic you might hear on a Dionne Farris track (pick up the “Love Jones” soundtrack to see what I mean). There are even tracks or moments on some of the tracks when she plays with notes, pitch and delivery a little how trip hop performer Portishead might or similar to how older R&B voices might be altered or updated for a hip hop refrain or loop a la Kanye West. Mostly, though, Jean’s vocals are clear, flawless, and, quite frankly, addictive and infectious.
I could go on and on telling you about this CD, because let’s face it: one, I really love Riders’ take on hip hop, R&B, and message content; two, I know Mahone and Jean, and they are both these lovely people who fuse rare intelligence, spiritual virtue, and bold talent with social altruism and a prolific sense of community; and three, I had hoped to finish writing this review two weeks ago. You really simply must buy it yourself, though, to support this confluence of rare talent, globally appreciable rhythms and genuinely empowering lyrics.
To learn more about Riders Against The Storm and to purchase their CD, visit www.againstthestorm.com or call 401-952-8711. Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on a four year High School Reform project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in “The Minority Family Perspective” the Providence American Newspaper and at www.rezaritesri.com. To contact Reza, email firstname.lastname@example.org.