In the late-1960s a group of young black poets captured the anger of the young African American population. Their poems brought to the surface anger and frustration with the racism and social hypocrisy of the civil rights movements.
Nearly four decades later The Watts Prophets-Richard Dedeaux, Father Anthony Hamilton and Otis O'Solomon-still tour the country, helping to channel the frustration of the youth. While they remain critical of social constructs like the poisoning of the information revolution, the Prophets have shifted much of their focus to a more immediate level. Namely, the deconstruction of the American family.
“The feeling is the same from the low to the high when it comes to the young people,” Hamilton preaches with an aged understanding. “Kids are angry and apprehensive of the future. They are in fear. In many, many places we saw that.
“Children are much more well informed than their mothers think they are, than their parents think they are here in America. And parents are too busy to talk about what it all means.”
Hamilton suggests that the inattention is a direct effect of Americans' tireless work ethic and drive for the collection of material worth. The rat race leaves kids to sit and idle in front of the television or their Sega. Without parental guidance to act as a filter, they're asked to process all of the information fed to them from school, peers, and the media.
“The parents sacrifice the kids in the process of following the American Dream,” Dedeaux claims. “They have been brainwashed into sitting down. They're much more accepting of virtual reality than my generation. I didn't want to sit in front of a Gameboy and play basketball, I wanted to go outside and play basketball.
“I can see that going into many many things, like you have to read a book on how to get a girlfriend now. We didn't need any books, we didn't need any coaching, we didn't need any help. It was natural. There are so many things that are not like they used to be.”
The Watts Prophets have been sharing their wisdom during their week-long residency at the San Diego Performing Arts Center. The Center is hosting more than 20 San Diego County schools, exposing kids of all ages to The Prophets' insights. Most importantly, the symposiums (which began on Oct. 21st, and continue through the 24th) cater to the importance of emotional expression.
“We let the kids know that they have a mentor-they need that grooming to get them focused,” Dedeaux says. The Prophets encourage the kids to talk about their goals and possibilities, stressing that the world will soon be their responsibility.
“We tell ‘em that they've got some difficult decisions to make and they have to be aware,” Dedeaux explains. “We ask them if they want to be the janitors, the teachers, or ‘Do you want to be the legislators and make the rules?'”
One of the most important lessons the students learn is what saved the Prophets-the power of the written word. The Prophets preach that when there's no open ear around, “the paper will always listen.”
“I engage children to sing what popular young rappers are singing,” Hamilton says. “We point out that young rappers like Tupac and Biggie Smalls, whose themes [were] death, ended writing their own script to death. We point this out to kids-the power of words and what they can do and that you can destroy your own self with them.”
The Prophets initially crossed paths following one of the most polarizing events of the 1960s-the Watts Riots. It was a time when couch-ridden Americans flipped back and forth between television broadcasts of Americans fighting a communist North Vietnam and Americans fighting against the American-bred segregational institutions at home.
Out of the ashes, African Americans were faced with the challenge of creating an outlet for their anger and fostering a collective sense of purpose.
The Watts Writer's Workshop was created out of this energy by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg to provide a forum for expression. The workshop attracted and cultivated the growth of cultural leaders like poet Quincy Troupe (featured on the cover of CityBeat's inaugural issue) and jazz artist Dee Dee McNeil. It was also where the Watts Prophets met.
“The workshop wasn't just [about] the Watts riots, it was [about] anything that was happening in the 1960s,” Hamilton explains. “It was the amplifying of the spoken word movement, the poetry movement.”
Originally, the three were sovereign artists who constantly ran into each other at the city's various spoken word nights. After a while, Hamilton, Dedeaux and O'Solomon “always seemed to be together.” And so they have, for 35 years now.
In 1970, The Prophets released an album, Rappin' Black in a White World, and laid the seed for an industry that would come to dominate urban music two decades later. Their poetry was laid over melodic beat structures that would be categorized as rap today. In the '60s, it was nothing that anybody had ever heard.
The Prophets admit they've calmed since their younger and more radical days, now looking at society as one picture that has to somehow blend together.
“The way I feel right now is the same way I felt when the Vietnam War was getting ready to start-we are still against war and we are still against racism,” Hamilton says. “Over the years we have changed our negative attitude to begin to see human beings as human beings.”