Photo of MC Hammer, Art and Soul Festival
MC Hammer put on a dynamite performance Saturday at the 10th Annual Art & Soul Festival in downtown Oakland - surrounded by a sea of hometown admirers.
Immediately after the concert, the crowd - me being one of them - threw themselves on to the steps of Frank Ogawa Plaza, but a barricade of security guards stopped them. I made my way past them, however, by showing that I had a press pass. Once I was upstairs, I encounter another phalanx of guards and aides-de-camps.
When I entered the suite in the Civic Center building, I found Hammer in a great mood, hanging out with some of his childhood and high school friends. He was joking about sneaking over to the Mayor’s office. (He is an avid Twitterer, I learned.)
Hammer was teasing with some of his old buddies, when somebody called his attention to me.
“Who are you?”
I said, “I wrote White Way Is up.”
"What? You wrote 'Which Way Is Up?'” The movie starred Richard Pryor and was a favorite among African Americans during the 1970s. Hammer, apparently, was impressed, too.
“Man, I got a lot of laughs from that film!” he congratulated me. Then, Hammer turned to the room. “This brother wrote 'Which Way Is Up!' That’s my favorite film.”
I asked to take a photograph with him. He took his camera and said, handing it to some of his running buddies, “Here take a picture of me and Cecil!”
In the course of our interview, Hammer paid homage to Oakland and issued a message to young black men that we are living in a new environment of the digital age. “The world has moved heavily into the information age.”
He himself has been lecturing at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford on social media, and is engaged in helping African Americans fill the digital divide.
Finally, he said we have to “deprogram” young African Americans males because they have become “insensitive to human life.” We have to invent a program, he said, “that shows them that life is precious.”
I asked Hammer some questions about how he saw the world today, what he thinks about Oakland, and why he came to the Art and Soul Festival.
Q: Why was it so important that you make this
particular Art and Soul festival?
A: The significance period, the reason why I was willing to do this show of me being here at the Soul and Arts (sic), is that it is my home. Not only is it my home, it’s a place I understand the heart and soul of. I understand the soul of the city. I felt like now is the a very important time to life up the soul of the city. Last night, we were in Louisville, Kentucky, where we did a big show. By the time we got up, it was 3 in the morning, and we had to be at the airport at 6 – just to even make it here.
We didn’t have time to go to the hotel and pack our bags, but we did it because of this city. Under other circumstances, I wouldn’t do it. But for this town, this city, I would do it. What we wanted to do was to point out the positive things about the city, about the hard working people, the great creative people who love this city. So by coming out and doing this, we put the heart of the city on display.
Q: What encouragement can you give young black men in Oakland who are not finishing high school - to say nothing of going to college?
A: Well, it real simple and straightforward. The world has moved heavily into world where information is being exchanged and real time at a rapid pace - and just to keep up with that, even in [you are in college], you are behind the curve. Unless it is your specialty, your major. So imagine were you would be when you are not even finishing high school?
So the idea is this … the dreams that you have - even if you decided to alter the dream, the white picket fence - if you look what has happened with the collapse of the banking industry, the collapse of the mortgage system, the collapse of the newspapers ... . Which, by the way, is a shift to the digital platform! There is monetizing there.
These things I’m pointing out means that you have to have at least a high school education in order to qualify to access the necessary resources for home ownership (and out making it through high school), is almost an impossibility; so why put yourself into that position? Because if you do, you are forced to hustle - and if you hustle, you have to suffer the consequences. So treat yourself better. Finish high school. Not for your parents. Not for me. But for you.
I’m finishing high school I’m going to college. Because I want my life to be better. You owe that to yourself and the older activist who paved the way so that you should go. To college it wasn’t that long ago when we couldn’t gee into college. Now that the doors are open, we need to fill the colleges and take advantage of the opportunities.
Q: Say some words about what you are doing to bring more connection between black people and the digital divide - information technology.
A: I’m a hard worker and have a voracious appetite for information over the last 18 months. I’ve had the opportunity to lecture at Stanford University, Harvard and Walden School of Business and Technology and Oxford University. I expound on social median and how to use these tools for business and what’s next.
Q: Isn’t it quite a stretch - that here you are a famous performers - and yet you are lecturing at Harvard and Oxford on the Internet?
A: So even, the reason why I’m able to make these connection [between the Internet and his career] is that the foundation was laid for me when at Horace Mann Elementary School, right here in Oakland. We had A, B, C and the separated us and motivated us in elementary school. So having that foundation, the things I do on the collegiate level is because I was inspired as a child in the Oakland school. You teach a child the way he should go he would not part. The same is true for education.
At this point in the interview, I gave Hammer a copy of my book, "Dude Where’s My Black Studies Department?"
He heard me read out the title and laughed - along with everybody else in the room. The room, although at time boisterous, became quite as everybody listened to Hammer’s response to my questions. Now, apparently stimulated by the reference to the book's subtitle, "The disappearance of African Americans" from our universities, he had something more to add to the interview.
"I'll say this in closing," Hammer said. "We have to deprogram. This is the best way, cause I take. It’s like they have been to war.”
He pulled out his cellphone and gave everybody in the room some Twitter facts:
"In the last 31 days, 303 people show. 33 dead. So we have an on going civil war in our community. We have to deprogram our young. A program has to be to show them that life is precious. Put (in it) hope, love, and marriage - all the thing that makes a village.