I cant wait to get the fuck out of Baltimore, the husky Black kid standing next to me at the Mega Bus stop said, both of us were a few feet from White Marsh Mall, waiting to return to Philly. Dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, dude had a thick beard covering his baby face. Looking to be about twenty-one or so, wed just met moments before, but already we were talking like old friends renewing a brotherhood. I used to want to be a cop, he continued, but not now. Those guys are crazy.
Having been in town for a few days, crazy was a word I heard a lot during my stay in Baltimore last week. Three days before I left, the entire city exploded hours after the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the Baltimore resident who was severely injured while in police custody and lapsed into a coma. A week later, Gray was dead and besides the seemingly powerless people in his own community, no one seemed to care.
While there were peaceful protests, for the powers that be, the days simply passed, business as usual. This too will blow over, they seemed to think as Gray lay cold in his casket. In reality, they couldnt have been more wrong. The day of Freddie Grays funeral, having returned from the calm of an Eastern Shore vacation house, I felt the tension of the city rising as helicopters whirled overhead, sirens screamed in the distance and the muttering masses became more vocal than usual. Before the fires and shattered glass, Baltimore already sounded like a warzone.
That Monday afternoon, as I headed to my moms house on the #3 bus, I could hear the chatter as people talked about that poor boy Freddie Gray. On that particular bus line, the riders were mostly Black and none of them were happy. Some people looked as though they were coming from work, while others, with their stone faces, appeared as though theyd been living rough for a long time. Across the aisle, one woman was on a heroin nod while another was hooked-up to a portable oxygen tank. Behind me, a choir of voices talked about the system, the cops and how nothing ever changes. No one said fuck the police, but the sentiment was clear.
Baby Huey – Hard Times
In a town where hard times are the norm, that day was rougher than most in Baltimore. God bless Freddie Grays family, screamed one woman as the bus moved steadily up Charles Street towards the warmth of my mothers house. Two hours later, sitting on the couch next to my brother, we watched as the so-called rioters, many of them students at Douglass High School, set it off at Mondawmin Mall, which was across the street from them. They just burning their own shit, my brother screamed. Thats stupid.
The television cameras showed the kids breaking windows, looting stores and throwing rocks at the cops. But, as usual, there were many stories behind the stories. Later, there were reports that the police instigated the event by shutting down public transportation, while others worked to distance the civil unrest with the peaceful protesters carrying signs and screaming slogans. Every day is a struggle, Baltimore resident and music producer Darryl Pearson said two days later when I ran into him at the broadcast studios of WPB Radio.com. Ive been watching young kids die all my life, its nothing new.
Having started his musical career as a protégé to Jodeci leader DeVante Swing in the early 90s, Pearson has worked with Timbaland, Missy Elliott and most recently co-produced Grown Woman for Beyonce. Some of these kids are living in shelters, they dont see many opportunities, the police are harassing them and theyre mad. Circumstances make it hard to get ahead. When I was younger looking for a job, it seemed impossible. I would walk up and down looking for work and there wasnt any. Baltimore has always been a hard city.
Unlike Darryl, I wasnt born in Baltimore, but moved there from Harlem with my mom and younger brother in the fall of 1978. Living on Monroe Street, the same street that was now filled with angry raging teenagers, it was a different Baltimore. Between the era of civil rights advances and, a decade later, the streets flooded with drugs, the Baltimore I remember was one of family and friends and Black businesses thriving in the neighborhood. Around the corner was the center where I got a summer job sweeping the streets of North Avenue as Michael Jacksons Dont Stop Till You Get Enough blared from the radio.
Folks were far from rich, but there was a sense of pride that had not yet been beat down; pride that once gleamed bright as those white marble stairs outside our row house. However, a few years later, when Ronald Reagan became president and the funding for community programs was cut, factories were closed and crack, guns, and heroin hit the streets heavy, it was downhill from there. Journeying to the old neighborhood years later, there was a bleakness to the block that didnt exist back in the day. It was like visiting a dying friend.
Two weeks before the riots, after a conversation with Curtis Mayfield biographer Travis Atria, I began YouTube jamming selected tracks from the windy city maestros 1975 gem There’s No Place Like America Today, which contains two of my favorite Mayfield compositions: Billy Jack and Hard Times.
While the former is a brutal, but funky (with horns that will make you twitch) tale of a cold-blooded murder, the latter is a scorching, soulful urban blues that served as the perfect paranoia soundtrack while I watched on television the swelling mass of people racing down Monroe Street towards North Avenue, towards that soon to be looted and burned CVS store that became such a talking point. Havin hard times, in this crazy town, Mayfield sang in my mind as Baltimore prepared for the worst civil uprising since the riots of 1968.
Curtis Mayfield – Hard Times:
Coming from the Cabrini-Green housing projects where life wasnt always good times, Mayfield understood firsthand the traps and pitfalls of being broke and broken, of seeing your moms barely scrape by while the next door neighbors baby constantly cried because of lack of heat. The gloom and tension of Mayfields song, which he originally produced for The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend album in 1971 (lead singer Huey died of a heroin overdose before the record was released), was in sync with the heavy-hearted sorrow that vibrated through Baltimore.
Although Mayfield was coming of age in the 1950s and would go on to a brilliant career that included penning and performing civil rights anthems People Get Ready and Youre a Winner, these scenarios of poverty and oppression aint changed much in the dead factory cities across America; if anything, things have gotten worse.
Baltimore is an emotional wreck because of decades of dilapidations, says poet/singer Tai Allen, who was in the city performing when it was about to go down. Crime, police, politics, job and social welfare; the Freddie Gray horror was the proverbial straw. Allens song Go Groove, from his upcoming project The High x The Mighty, was, he tells me, inspired by Baby Hueys version of Hard Times, which utilized a harder beat and rawer vocals. The title of the song is a wake up scream, Allen says.
Baby Huey, a four-hundred pound junkie soul man discovered by Donny Hathaway, sounded as though he seen hard times more recently than some. While Mayfields voice was a blooming falsetto flower crashing through the concrete, Baby Hueys vocals were like shattered glass slashing your face, sharp as the knife Gray carried in his pocket that the police keep identifying as a switchblade. The Baby Huey version of Hard Times was sampled by Biz Markie for his stinky saga The Dragon in 1989 as well as Chill Rob Gs “Ride The Rhythm” and A Tribe Called Quests Can I Kick It (Spirit Remix).
Biz Markie – The Dragon:
A Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It (Spirit Remix):
While Baby Hueys version is more brutal, for me there’s a vibe to Mayfields version that is more hypnotic, more eternal. Further research revealed to me yet another version of the song recorded before either Baby Hueys or Mayfields, the more frantic In My Bodys House recorded by Gene Chandler in 1969, a year after the last Baltimore riots erupted that was prompted by the death of Martin Luther King. Along with Superfly and Future Shock, I think Hard Times is one of Curtiss most important compositions written during his most creative era.
Gene Chandler – In My Bodys House:
Of course, while there are plenty of hard times to go around in Baltimore, there is also a lot of good and hope there that doesnt sell as well as the bang bang murder drug capital reputation that the town has achieved via “The Wire.” Most of these kids dont want to sell drugs, Pearson says. They sell drugs because they have to. Ive seen some of them young boys cry in frustration, because they want to do things, they just dont know how.
Two days after the riots former Def Jam Records executive Frank Johnson, who operates WPB Radio.com with his wife April, was meeting with local preachers, politicians and self-proclaimed leaders of the people concerning the future of Baltimore. It was there where he too was born, raised and continues to run a business. After listening to him speak on a conference call concerning a massive meeting of the minds scheduled for the following night, What do you hope you can make happen? I asked. Without missing a beat, Frank answered, Im hoping we can find some solutions.
I looked at him and smiled, hoping in my heart that life in B-more actually gets better instead of the times getting harder. Dropping me off at the Mega Bus stop across from White Marsh Mall, I gave my play brother a pound and wished him all the luck in the world.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.