Freestyle Fellowship “Five O’ Clock Follies”

Freestyle Fellowship “Five O’Clock Follies”

“On Violence,” the first chapter of The Wretched Of The Earth, Frantz Fanon’s denunciation of neo-colonialism and account of the Algerian struggle for independence from France, contains some of the most beautiful,  erudite, terrifying passages I have ever encountered. “Five O’ Clock Follies,” essentially a Myka 9 solo joint from Freestyle Fellowship’s 1991 debut To Whom It May Concern, is a surreal indictment of military adventurism and police brutality. When I listen to Myka’s twisted imagery and fluttering run-on sentence rhyme style, I am reminded of my earliest attempts to comprehend Fanon’s dense, alluring prose; both works continue to vex and reward me with their difficulty.

I don’t know whether or not Myka 9 or any of the members of Freestyle Fellowship ever read Wretched Of The Earth. They were certainly familiar with Five Percenter notions of an armed showdown between the righteous vanguard of the subjugated black and brown collective and the ruling “bloodsuckers of the poor.” This places them within the sphere of influence of an ideology that was frequently studied and commingled with Fanonian philosophies during the late ’80s/early ’90s, when many rap artists and fans expressed great interest in the texts that informed the famed revolutionary and nationalist movements of previous decades. ((The Five Percenters, beginning with Clarence 13x, were especially enthusiastic about incorporating the tenets and slogans of the various movements that fall under the umbrella of “black power.”))

I think it is entirely possible, then, that Fanon’s core critiques of power relations —however embellished by allusion and interpretation ((To say nothing of translation.)) — gradually crept  into rap music.  They appear to have been applied, in concert with ideas borrowed from a variety of radical writings, to a more modern American context. Certain elements of Wretched — namely its harrowing depiction of colonialism as a physically and psychologically harmful process and its consideration of an underclass-led insurgency as a  form of cathartic liberation— bring to mind the palpable rage directed against police brutality and other forms of systemic injustice that echoes through so many west coast rap songs during the late ’80s/early ’90s.

While many of those songs explored the volatile mood of the time in a starkly literal manner that is attentive to localized concerns, “Five O Clock Follies” presumes that the conflict between poor minority youth and the police is symptomatic of —and inextricably connected to— a larger global conflict between the haves and the have-nots. In Myka’s view, the undeclared wars, “police actions,” coups, rigged elections, and other covert operations conducted by US intelligence agencies in the unaligned developing nations serve to quell anti-imperial dissent while flooding stateside ghettos with illegal drugs. Reagan-Bush initiatives that contribute to mass incarceration, including the bloody, mechanized “war on drugs,” and the dissolution of federal anti-poverty programs, appear to serve a similar function.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the world of “Five O Clock Follies”  is one of stylized cloak and dagger intrigue, or that some of the lyrics describe paranoia and homicidal ideation. Myka and the other members of Freestyle Fellowship came of age in South Los Angeles while the city’s major street gangs were sprouting out of the wreckage of community activist organizations and militaristic political groups that were defused by counter-intelligence efforts in the early 70s. Like many young men of their milieu, they were likely ambivalent about gangs but attracted to their energy, rebelliousness, and their residual — however adulterated— advocacy of communal uplift.

The group’s own attempts at balancing artistic individuality with uniformity of purpose through their participation at The Good Life/Project Blowed may have been inspired in part by iconic rap groups like Run-DMC and Public Enemy. The gang-like attire and carriage of those groups was noted by some observers to have struck a chord with Los Angeles area youth when they came through on tours. Although Freestyle Fellowship often posited themselves as forerunners of a non-gangsta  rap movement — a kind of left of center alternative to groups like N.W.A. — their music taps into the same resentments as their gangsta counterparts, and often employs similar motifs.

P.E.A.C.E. locates the midpoint between Five Percenter/NOI anti-“devil” rhetoric and cautionary street narratives on cuts like “For No Reason” and later on “Six-Tray,” ((From the second Freestyle Fellowship album, their major label debut Inner City Griots (Capitol, 1993).)) which positions him close to the territory charted by Ice Cube and MC Ren in their post-N.W.A. years. Aceyalone tackles the concept of anti-colonial violence on “Here I Am” off of To Whom It May Concern and later on “Heat Mizer,” a mini-song appended to the group’s minor hit “Inner-City Boundaries” ((From Inner City Griots, again.)) that is filled with manic intensity and bizarre imagery. “Here I Am” sees Aceyalone re-appropriating racist imagery to lob a figurative spear at colonialists, echoed later to even greater cartoonish-comedic effect by Ice Cube on De Lench Mob’s “Guerillas In The Mist.”

Myka-9’s treatment of violence is more sophisticated, however. He is on the same page as his fellow rappers in suggesting that the LAPD constitutes a brutal occupying force that targets all low income black and brown youths as potential gang members. But “Five O’ Clock Follies” does not stop at critiquing the physical repression of minorities and countering it with nihilistic revenge fantasies. Myka-9 asserts that the media — morally compromised by an association with multinational corporate interests, not unlike the political arena and educational system— obfuscates and distorts the truth of the global carnage committed in the service of the U.S. government while distracting us with entertainment and fluff.

The appropriate response to such conditioning —itself a destabilizing and dehumanizing force— is for artists and listeners to strengthen their critical thinking skills. “Five O’ Clock Follies” is a challenging but not entirely impenetrable song; the complexity of the politically charged content is matched by a torrent of flows that sound unlike any previously uttered. Borrrowing from jazz vocalists, Myka-9 wraps run-on sentences around the song’s various melodies and polyrhythms as if hounding lazy listeners to keep up. Most rappers of the time would have been content with rhyming strictly within the pocket provided by James Brown and Lyn Collins’s “Mama Feelgood,” but Myka-9’s rhymes start and stop abruptly and he launches into different cadences to accommodate parenthetical associations and afterthoughts.

“Five O’ Clock Follies” is a song written by and for the staunch individualist. It sounds daunting, and it is, but there’s a purpose behind the madness. While the conscious rappers of the D.A.I.S.Y. Age were fixated on matters of the self and cultural identity and eschewed overt political commentary, Myka-9 is confrontational even in abstraction. In his view the individual cannot immerse himself in solipsistic babbling and has a duty to channel his self-expression towards a larger communal goal. He pleas for rappers to redirect the energy of freestyling and battling — impressive creative acts burdened by their militaristic and fratricidal overtones — towards making music that reveals the connection between the plight of the average inner-city kid and the hideous truth of a society that wages literal war against the disenfranchised.

The listener is then asked to be the ultimate arbiter. He must reject the idea that art is always apolitical or abstruse but he must also purge himself of his addiction to  entertainment that merely whets his appetite for vice. He must exercise his god-given capacity for reason and choose music that passionately depicts the tough reality of his life. He must also take heed to the rare song that goes a step further and instructs him how to disentangle  the half-truths and distortions that prevent members of the working class and underclass from confronting and destroying the institutions that exploit and crush them.

Most importantly he must accept that complex messages and harsh realities cannot be comprehended without some degree of difficulty. Myka 9’s performance on “Five O’ Clock Follies” is theatrical and rousing but not at the expense of depth or urgency.  Although it describes the same sordid colonial reality of Wretched Of The Earth, it offers much more in the way of hope and insight for those who might not be inclined to trudge through Fanon’s dense analysis or find themselves bored with the senseless anarchic violence promoted on other rap songs. — Thun

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