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Saint in the City 

MC Pitch Black finds spirituality in the San Francisco streets

Wednesday, Mar 12 2003
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Rapper/poet Pitch Black seems to be living two incarnations simultaneously. In one, he's a scraggly 26-year-old b-boy, a product of the streets who lives and breathes hip hop. He wears baggy sweat pants, speaks in slang, and works a Krylon spray can nearly as well as a microphone. With his music, he takes the violence and hopelessness that can accompany the urban experience and sets them to thumping beats. In both his compelling new album, The Black Insperience, and his prose poems, Black communicates the hip hop generation's concerns -- its inheritance of a violent world and thick glass ceiling, mainly -- in breathless verse.

But Black is more than just another gangsta rapper looking to make a buck off the thug life. In his other incarnation he's Kamao Bakari Abayomi (it means "Quiet Warrior" in Egyptian), a former priesthood trainee in the Kemetic tradition. Abayomi meditates daily, drinks ginger tea instead of 40-ouncers, and teaches inner-city children to write poetry. He even shuns the time-honored MC tradition of battling, viewing the trading of insults as a distraction from life's larger concerns.

In an incense-scented Potrero Hill apartment full of African art and books on things like astral projection, Black explains how his two personas work themselves out. "You proud 'cause you lost 10 partnas to violence?" he asks. "Is that something to brag about? Naw, man, that's nothing to brag about. I'm gonna talk about the same stuff [as other hard-core rappers], but try to shift our perspective on it." In other words, although he may look -- and occasionally sound -- like the other bangers at the club, Pitch Black wants to take you higher.


Growing up in San Francisco's Fillmore neighborhood in the '80s, Black could have been a poster child for the hip hop experience. Raised by a single mother on a limited income, he had a front-row view of the era's overlapping attractions: crack-associated violence and the rap music that scored it. Black, however, followed in his older brother's footsteps, avoiding the drug scene by forming a graffiti crew at an early age. He describes taking midnight bus rides to Chinatown to "bomb" dark alleys: "There were about six of us, just crushing the city at age 10, pulling all-nighters."

To fund their Muni and Krylon habits, Black and his crew break danced before an empty hat at Fisherman's Wharf. Later, after moving to Oakland at 13, he made popping and locking a top priority, eventually practicing with dancers for Michael Jackson and Usher.

While attending Berkeley High, Black also started skateboarding, eventually getting good enough to secure a sponsorship with Real Skateboards. But when an ankle injury kept him from either skating or dancing for a few months, the ambitious teen took up the one element of hip hop he hadn't mastered yet: rapping.

Encouraged by friends, he filled notebooks with rhymes, but remained too shy to perform them before lunchtime crowds. It wasn't until 1996, when rapper P.W. Esquire opened an Oakland music studio called the Dojo, that Black got serious about becoming an MC. "We all just congregated there," he says. "And that's when I actually started speaking my raps." The Dojo's dozen regulars formed a collective called 7 Gen, with Black taking an active role in booking shows and recording music.

But at the same time, his life was changing direction. One evening, instead of meeting friends who wanted him to join in dealing drugs, he accompanied an acquaintance to a "civilization class." Black soon found himself studying with the Five Percent Nation -- an Afrocentric, spiritual-minded school popularized by such rap acts as Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers. He credits the Nation with giving him discipline, responsibility, and a sense of community. "We would all roll together, so it was a constant class," he says. "The whole point was to sharpen each other, to help each other develop and grow."

After two years, though, Black felt he outgrew the movement, turning instead to Kemetic Orthodoxy. (Based on the traditional religion of Egypt, the Kemetic faith is similar to other African Diaspora beliefs like Yoruba and Santería, stressing meditation, community bonds, and ancestral devotion.) "The main thing I learned was how to meditate and really experience my spirit, feel the energies flowing through my body." To illustrate his point, he presses his hand to his chest. "If you do this, you can feel your heartbeat. But can you feel your aura going beyond your skin?"

After two years in the Kemetic system, just months away from becoming a priest, Black withdrew again. "I'm a free spirit," he says. "I got to a space where I recognized that hierarchies, which are a part of all religions, are no longer necessary. Now I truly direct my path without relying on anyone else's opinion on what I should be doing."

Presently, Black devotes his laserlike attention to writing and recording. While working with Renai7sance -- the group he shares with 7 Gen members Shon Rich and Ameen -- on an album, he independently recorded and released his solo disc, The Black Insperience. He also put himself in the public eye as much as possible, opening for neo-soul singer Goapele several times and dropping freestyles on hip hop radio shows like KUSF's Beatsauce.

Beatsauce's DJ Wisdom calls Black "the most centered, self-driven, and positive of all the San Francisco rappers. He knows exactly what he wants to do and how he's going about it." Likewise, DJ Sake 1 of the Local 1200 crew is such a fan of Black's that he helped connect Black with rising star Goapele. "He's spiritual, soulful, and community minded," Sake says. "And he's seasoned, so his sound now is cutting edge."

For sure, Insperience is as diverse in moods as the city it describes. The album opens with African chanting and conga drums, over which Black, in his thick Frisco accent, catalogs black ancestry while making parallels to street life: "Born descendant of warriors who flossed in war paint/ Who ride for the tribe and die for the tribe." Later, on a lighter note, the grinding synth groove of "Errie" backs a tribute to that San Francisco slang greeting and shout of joy. And on the fierce "Understand Me," with its keyboard bass and melody, Black accuses his peers of self-inflicted ignorance: "Cats don't understand me/ Cuz you walk around like you some little-ass kids."

Elsewhere, Black's background as a spoken-word poet emerges. On "Can't Glamorize," Black doesn't bother rhyming to the beat; instead, he summons a resentful teenage mother, an absentee father, and a "little princess" who learns to associate pain with love, using abundant words and vivid characterizations, as if conjuring a sandstorm to carve out three simple stones. Still later, on the sparse, catchy "Communication," Black proves capable of both waxing poetic and rocking to the rhythm. Over metronomic claps reminiscent of a Slum Village track, he challenges a lover to stretch her horizons beyond what he can offer.

But while the record's rugged beats and regional flavor could conceivably add up to commercial appeal -- or at the very least, stretch the parameters of his "Bay Area sound" -- an artist can't live on inspiration alone. Having given up his day job to chase his dream, Black pursued what some might consider the unlikeliest of hustles: making poetry pay his bills.

Amazingly, his plan's working. He's teaching verse to children at the African American Art and Culture Complex on Fulton Street, and performing his works at colleges and cafes whenever possible. "That's what really sustains me [financially]," Black says. "Rapping doesn't sustain this. I do poetry shows and get good money for it."

A few days after the interview, Black delivers a spoken-word performance at Oakland's Java House cafe. Apparently, this is where black bohemia's Bay Area chapter meets on Wednesday evenings -- the crowd is full of earthy-chic folks in crocheted caps and Kangols, seemingly extras from the film Soul Food. As Black adjusts the mike stand, he's joined by a man tapping an African drum with a curved stick, another player plucking a bass, and a third musician strumming a guitar.

The MC rocks a little in his white Pumas, smacks his lips -- a habit of his -- then grows still. He opens his mouth, and the words pour out like a river, coils of rhymes that crash into each other while carrying the whole room in their current. With the wordiness of Allen Ginsberg channeled through the urgent, cool cadences of slam poetry and rap, Black lets loose for half an hour without looking at a piece of paper, coaxing the audience members until they grunt and laugh and shout in unison.

It's clear now that Black's rapping and poetry represent two sides of the same coin. When set to music, his words are more focused, highlighting his gift for internal rhymes and concise turns of phrase. But, as poetry, his verse gets free. I recognize elements of "Can't Glamorize" and "Communication," but the rhythms are more arbitrary, the story lines more expansive. I'm not sure which I prefer.

In either case, both formats offer a fluid mix of spirituality and grit. I recall how, at one point in our interview, Black had described his work concisely, saying, "I try to blend the good and bad." Around me, the room erupts in cheers. There are strangers making eye contact, nodding and smiling. Pitch Black is bringing the ugly streets to us, yet it's so warm and supportive in here that it almost feels like church.

About The Author

Greg Doherty

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