My name is Vernon Lloyd Johnson, and I am many things. A violence prevention advocate and practitioner, a youth initiatives coordinator, and as I like to put it, an interdependent ally. When I was 11 years old, I was robbed and assaulted. It took me awhile to adjust to my surroundings, and to trust the communities I stepped into. I soon realized that being an advocate in Chicago’s violence prevention movement requires me to put it all on the line, and that includes my life, my dedication, words, and attitude. I am okay with that. I can not be afraid or scared of the very people I intend to help. I can not look down upon them and make judgements neither. This is the essence of being an interdependent ally. Other people’s struggles is always connected to your own oppressions, and in unison, you embrace and support one another. There is no neighborhood I will not venture into, and no young person that I do not want to have a profound touch of positivity on.

I recently held peace circles for elementary girls on the west side of Chicago. They are the bright stars I see in the night even if it is still daytime to them. There are so many trauma informed situations, environmental, and societal issues that restrain Chicago youth from reaching their potential. I call it ecological oppression. Oppression at a multitude of levels that creates a negative and lasting perception that these young people begin to internalize. Those young girls have already seen many forms of interpersonal violence, bullying, loss of loved ones to violence, jail, or due to health-related ailments. They suffer the brunt of emotional, psychological and physical abuse from those who have issues that they wrongly displace upon them. Communities are ravaged by poverty, health disparities, and other issues. Amidst all of this, these young girls were able to tell me their stories. I told them that I saw them as royalty for having the bravery to share their experiences. Their puffy wet eyes looked up with a spark of surprise and an awkward feeling of happiness and peace they did not foresee. There has to be a reclaim on hope and value of life for our young people. The human spirit is the only unbeatable variable on earth. That ideology has to filtrate from the individual, to the community, and to the policies that effect people so that we may see the positive social change we all yearn for in the great city of Chicago.

-Vernon

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Have you ever seen the movie the “Matrix?” It is a sci-fi action thriller that took on an interesting plot and scenario. Essentially, people were plugged into machines to have their lives simulated. Neo or “The One” has figured out that his reality is not reality. He can see and alter the actual coding in the simulated environment, to make it simple, he the shit. We should all aim to have that perspective as Neo did. Although, that clout of perception can be disguised in a multitude of ways. In the movie, some people did not want to wake up out of the pseudo-reality they created for themselves, and would even try to stop or kill Neo in his fight against the machines. This introductory story will prove noteworthy later on.

I have a short list of guilty pleasures that includes watching reality televisions shows that have demonized African-Americans, I log into World Star Hip-Hop which includes a bevy of topics such as sex, violence, ignorance, constant objectification (women, men, children, etc.), and more violence and sex. I see these things as a mixture of curiosity and allowed ignorance on my part. Yes, allowed ignorance, this is something that I just made up. I think it is a credible word. To me, it means that I am self-aware of the digressive act I am about to partake in, but I do not internalize it. That means I can watch these things, and you will not hear nor see the effects of what I have seen infused into my thought process and actions in my life. Whereas some folks watch these things on television, and internalize what they are seeing into their thought process in having a relationship, how to raise children, how to dress, and even how to talk to people when situations have heightened (it seems fighting is the only answer on most these shows). Another bothersome factoid is how people in similar situations as these reality TV stars are the main ones who criticize them. That is an another blog post in itself in the sheer lack of vulnerability and ownership of one’s actions and feelings. The television shows fail to show the majority of people who have similar situations. For instance, if you are a man who is playing several women (Stevie J), and have several children, a television character may make this look appealing (he usually has a lot of money or makes you perceive that). Some real men may try to live out this fantasy to only have made things more difficult for themselves and those around them. In reality, many of these same types of men in similar situations suffer from depression, no employment, child custody battles, little time to see their children, little education, and have turmoil in their relationships with their partners. It creates a revolving cycle of bullshit. Please excuse my French. These are the vertical messages being fed into society. There are more stereotypes, generalizations, and people who gave up in fighting those stereotypes and generalizations. This is where people lose sight.

Some people do not know how to tell the difference or even worse, do not want to tell the difference. Remember the movie “The Matrix?” The scariest people are those who recognize and act on their ignorance and ratchedness a midst the consequences. Is this not similar to the behavior of many people we see in reality television shows? The hordes of people who yell “Worldstar” as they record an event that could lay them behind bars? I guess there are folks who are Neos, some who are agents, and some who are people who do not want to wake up. Which one are you? I do not want people to feel bad for watching these things (I don’t!), instead, I pray you have the vision to know the difference. Love, hope, charity, and faith.     

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Your life’s value in this world is like tomorrow…it never ends…

I was unemployed at the end of September 2012 from my previous position. It came at a vulnerable time for me, and came fast. Because of the complexity of bureaucracy, I along with two of my co-workers lost our jobs. Due to our supervisor’s pride and mismanagement, as innocent bystanders, we lost our positions. Immediately, I could not but help to think about my co-workers who had major obligations that I don’t have (homes, family supplement income, car payments, etc.). I also thought about how my money helps those around me time to time. I guess I care more for those around me than myself, especially when it comes to a fruitless commodity like money. I was not upset at my former supervisor, instead I’m thankful for her. She gave me a job before I even graduated with my master’s. The essence of God’s love is forgiveness, and moving beyond a trapped mentality of man’s blind anger. I’m free and a man who struggles to progression, but makes the effort regardless without excuses. My worth is not solely economic. I did think about student loan payments, bills, etc. I didn’t let it consume me. I think in terms of confidentiality of your situations, it’s best to find a resolution before telling the masses. Even with the money, I didn’t let it consume me because humility of the past would not let me. Instead, as ALWAYS even when no tragedies have not taken place, I prayed.

I think sometimes as a black man, my culture and peers take money to the pinnacles of extremes. Some folks actually condense their lively worth into employment. This comes to no surprise due to the images and many interpersonal interactions and responsibilities that demand such thinking to take place. It sickens me. It can be demoralizing losing your job, but some people are not equipped for adversity. I poured faith over it all. I know good hearts may not get everything their way, but I know people with intrinsic motivation and perseverance can work through those hardships. I know people who have, which springs hope. Even without those examples, my faith would be unwavering. I have had tougher situations in my way both internally and in our world. There have been times when I wanted to smell and see blood pour, but weakness will then overflow within me. God and love would no longer dwell in my heart. I think part of this is why I am at peace with death and reciprocally so, living. The love and faith I have is limitless, it can only be conjured and illustrated through dreams. I say this deep stuff to point out that life is more than the money in your pocket or the job you have. Furthermore, money does not guarantee happiness. Often times braggadocios folks long for the relationship you have with your partner, the humility and confidence you display, the warmth and peace in your heart, thus your demeanor, or your unselfish attitude, even if it is for their benefit. Essentially, things without empirical value.

A great book to read is called, “The Wealth Cure,” by Hill Harper. He talked about how he was diagnosed with cancer and the materialistic items a day before his diagnosis he savored, was now obsolete in importance. After his successful surgery, he worked on things that didn’t need money, thus, real wealth. He worked out more, ate healthier, worked on some internal battles to become a better man (being in healthy relationships, put aside pride, being with family, assumptions and judgments of people eliminated, etc.). I remembered how lucky I am to have the people I have in my life, the opportunities I have, the short and long-term goals I have accomplished and will do in the future, my faith, and my constant journey towards being uplifted with peace as the by-product. I have learned to persist as a method of utility, no matter the situation.

People often let situations define them, then they are set on a path for a future of disappointment. I see this daily, and it can be hard, but it is harder for a single mother who is in your situation without education or a support system. It is harder for someone who has a felony record, and wants to do right, but is discouraged when filling out an application. It is harder for someone who grew up in DCFS, and has no family or mentors to show them what to do. My future is nothing but bright colors on a canvas going in different directions and patterns, but bright. Our journey never ends with tomorrow, this keys my excitement. Being pessimistic is not an excuse to be negative. It is hard for us all, so shut the hell up. Be appreciative for breath. Be grateful for your family and friends. Have faith. Do these things always and not just when something bad happens on your end. The test of humility is a lifetime ordeal, and not just in moments. In terms of my employment, check my LinkedIn. But to summarize that, a circle of people who were unselfish intertwined and placed in my life by the act of transference, all gave my rose color. Share my story…

-Vernon Johnson

Do you really want to know? I mean really want to know what the status of the average black family in America is? If you do, I’m not 100% sure I can give you the answer. What I can do is offer you my hypotheses. I’m not a certified expert appointed by a bunch of intellects, who have sprawling curriculum vitas and impressive framed parchments emblazoned with shiny stickers and big signatures. No, I’m just a young professional who lives in a black family, who has friends in black families, and witnesses the struggle on a daily. Hopefully that will be enough background to make my observations minutely credible. You on board? You are? Cool, let us begin!

The problem that I’m seeing with the black family is often times just a lack there of… What happened to the nuclear family that we learned about in elementary school? You know the one; with a loving couple (typically married) and their children. Am I the only one who faintly remembers this lesson? Maybe that’s the issue! Having a strong sense of family in the traditional sense (2 parents living together raising their children) is a fleeting concept, not only in black homes but in homes everywhere. There has been a steady decline in the number of people doing what Grandpa and Grandma did. Meet, courtship, engagement, marriage, co-habitation, then children. Now think about the steps most of our peers take to get to the children part… The differences are so drastically different it’s not even worth trying to loosely list them.

I really do believe that this is the disconnect. We’re so wrapped up in instant gratification that our generation really struggles with the concept of patience, including myself. Taking the time to learn who this person is that you want to be with, for the sake of looking for a formidable mate, rather than just a good time is the key. There are way too many innocent children walking around (potentially including myself and a good number of my peers) that are products of a good time. I’m going to plant this seed in your thought box real quick: When one learns that they are with child, if that pregnancy was not the goal of their relationship, the initial reaction is pretty far from joyous. When they get the news the first thing they think about is: “What are/am we/I going to do?”….

What I’m getting at is that unplanned pregnancies have to be warmed up to, and learned to be loved by the parents, versus loving this blessing before it’s a reality. There is the “Oh shit” phase, hopefully VERY quickly followed by celebrations! Let’s do our best to make better decisions when a life is potentially hanging in the balance. Children don’t ask to be here, so let’s make sure when they get here it’s because you wanted them to come. They deserve that at the very least.

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“One ever feels his twoness, –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” -W.E.B. Du Bois

This quote from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, illustrates in a few phrases the struggles and victories I have learned and navigated thus far in my professional career. I’m not a seasoned vet when it comes to professional experiences, but I have constantly strived and succeeded in my ventures not for my own selfish aspirations, but to obtain the things every American wants, freedom, liberty, and happiness.

I have experienced racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice that have haunted the duality of my identity in the workplace. This is how the world is unfortunately; people do not care about your feelings, you getting opportunities, or your education and experience. Some people rely on their privilege more than anything to get them through. Social capital serves privileged individuals well, meaning there are people who have high paid positions just because they know someone and have no practical or educational experience in that area.

As a black man, it is incredibly difficult. Some people would rather you do service type of jobs your whole life no matter your educational experience, than for you to step foot in a corporate setting. Glass ceilings are hexed onto you; Furthermore, you have to have tough skin. Once in these types of environments, you must be this asexual, kind, welcoming, and non-aggressive being. You are automatically seen as a sexual white flesh-eating predator who is mildly aggressive. You are thought of as dumb, in capable, and lazy. You will inherit much responsibility, and little authority or respect. Praise is non-existent, but more so, constant criticism will be sent your way. I have been attacked in front of and behind my back. People (no matter color, gender, age, etc.) may become jealous of you. I have been thought of as a future failure or wished failure upon. I never reveal too much of my capabilities or networks to people, some folks think they have you figured out. In reality, I have taken very meticulous and planned out steps in my approach. I thank God for giving me the innate ability to sense out people. You will know who is in your corner, and who is not in your corner.

I have been in the middle of awkward racist jokes, I have received looks from people that only can indicate they are looking at a violent and ugly being, some women being afraid of me walking behind them in the workplace, and those moments where you are blamed just because. I’ve been questioned rudely by those who do not possess a master’s degree in my field or do not care if you do. At times, I try to not resort to indirect racism or sexism, but after analyzing the situation, it is. What do I do? I continue to proceed with my actions being respectful, assertive, honest, and do my work with fidelity and rigor. Furthermore, I break stereotypes instead of perpetuating them because I have internalized them or need to act out as a statement of rebellion. Also, I leave my work at work. Humility comes to mind. People want you to act out the stereotypes that face you. Sometimes people will say, “Don’t you get sick of it? Don’t you just want to spaze out, your human!” The answer here is, “of course I do.” If I were in a true state of power or owned my own company, I would act accordingly to those abrasions. Even then, caution must be applied. When you are just beginning and trying to climb the ladder of society’s power structure, you have to make all the right moves. Otherwise, the consequences can be dire. I make it a point to climb that ladder so that I may make the social and policy changes needed to help people who are oppressed. It is my duty to do and be my best.

There have been many who want to keep you at the lowest level of the tandem pole. They expect you to not seek opportunities. How do you go against such a power structure that is meant to keep you out? You work hard, you seize opportunities, and you never give up. Something other than materialistic possessions has to be your motivation. For me, it is my friends, family, my future partner, and my own future family. You cannot expect for these things to come to you, but in the same breathe, you must help those around you to grow and uncover the blindfold from their eyes. Knowing that you can accomplish anything you want in this world is some people’s greatest fear, and your greatest victory.

 

Your Love Never Fails…

Observations seem to be my new vice. I observe everything from people to little bugs climbing through a tiny crevice on an oak tree. I have admiration for the imperfections I see, and I have come to the conclusion that perfection cannot be achieved, but only strived for. There will always be problems. You may have a great job, but you may not have a partner to be happy with and vice versa. Some people are so interesting, and have so many good things to say that could shape and help people’s perceptions on life. Instead, in some instances, people are reluctant to make themselves vulnerable or humble to share the real or hurtful experiences in their lives. People instead hide behind a façade of non-emotional walls that makes for more internalized pain and struggle.

These are the horrid results of  receiving horizontal communication, the elusiveness of having respectability for one’s beliefs and actions. I sometimes wonder if people are so empty that declarative statements such as, “All men ain’t shit,” “Imma do me till the end,” “Fuck these hoes,” etc. are only cover-ups for the emotionally tightly packed luggage that got lost in the baggage claim. Some men cry and are hurt by things done to them, but society and unsafe environments won’t allow for sentimental displacement of these feelings. Some women unfairly and sometimes unknowingly box men into traps of hyper masculinity (violent, aggressive, dangerous). I.e. “I need someone who can put me in my place if I get out of hand.” These type of stereotypes are harmful and take away from the good authentic men in our communities.  Chris Hedges hints at this indulgence into celebrity culture and make believe as the, “Empire of Illusion.” There are good men out there who don’t have a fancy car or money, but may be well educated and will surely surpass many others in due time or what I like to call having “progressive potential.” There are great women out there, whose worth is not formulated on their clothing, sexual past, or any other misogynistic characteristic that is the basis for their potential as a partner.

I know my examples may have a heteronormative sentiment, but believe these traits can exist in any type of relationship. We must remember, masculinity and femininity are gender-based (learned) behaviors. Simply, these are examples of how materialistic and unsubstantiated thoughts can hinder the love people seek so much, and ultimately, what everyone wants. Pride can be the blockage to Maslow’s self-actualization in the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It essentially comes down to this, when you place materialistic and unproven material ahead of people’s intangible potential and goodness, you lose before you begin. Frank Ocean’s “Scared of Beautiful” sums it up beautifully. “Scared of the good more than the evil, scared of the light more than dark, scared of the truth so much more than the lie. I’m scared for you…I’m scared of you…scared of beautiful.”

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If you, like me, are an avid listener of great music, but especially jazz then this brief  (not that long, read it) review of my three favorite albums will serve useful for you. I have been waiting to write up this review for quite some time—I like to listen to the albums thoroughly before conversing about it to others. Thus far, I have listened to each of the albums almost everyday since their release. Each of the albums unequivocally add nuance to the genre of jazz in their own distinctive way, which, to be honest, is what contributes to their amazing success. Not to mention the musicians and vocalists. The albums are: Be Good by Gregory Porter, Radio Music Society by Esperanza Spalding, and Black Radio by Robert Glasper (The Robert Glasper Project). If you have listened to any of these albums then you are, of course, listening to some damn good music. The albums are sonorous, the arrangements are just fire, and the tracks, well—you will have to listen.

Be Good by Gregory Porter, which is a follow up to his album, Water (which I should say, was like walking across water, excellent!), showcased (yet again) the agility, classic, and impeccable voice of Porter. His soulful voice takes one on a rollercoaster of classy originals to perennial familiars—his adeptness with his assured tenor voice is nothing par of exuberant. Oh, and the horns, the horns on this album are, in my opinion, worthy of bowing down to the “horn gods” if they at all exist, the arrangements are just pristine. His song “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” is a nice and mellow original piece by him—its like sitting on the lawn in Chicago’s Millennium Park daydreaming—the slow tempo song allows one to tangibly and vicariously live through the vocals of Porter. Likewise the horn, piano, and drums in this piece will have you longing for more as the song nears its end (climax). Nearing the end of the album, Porter ends with what I would label his dénouement—with songs like “Worksong”—which is a breakneck version of the great Nat Adderley’s “Worksong” that will indubitably give you chills.  Porter’s singing is flawless throughout the entire album, and there is some great blowing, the improvisations are vibrant—featuring saxophonist such as Yosuke Sato and Tivon Pennicott. If you haven’t listened yet, you should.

Ah, the great jazz vocalist and bassist, Esperanza Spalding, brings it on her new album Radio Music Society. Sidenote: I have always liked Spalding, before her feature at the White House. Oh, and to be extremely clear, I was glad Spalding won that Grammy! Anyway, back to my review. The Portland bassist-vocalist opens with a groovy up-tempo song “Radio Song” that is bound to get you moving your body (or for the reticent, bobbing your head), she will truly have you “singing along with love in your heart, because you like to, because you need to”. As with Porter’s, her album showcases her nimble voice and mastery with the bass—electric and upright. Just. Splendid. This album melds pop, funk, and soul with airtight jazz—no easy feat. For example, the soulful sound of “Black Gold,” which is an affirming song for all people of color but especially Black men who, to put it lightly, are constantly put down. This song is aimed at listeners who may not have a deep interest in Jazz; however, Spalding keeps the track firmly rooted in a jazz lineage. Then we get to a groovy, sexy, and soulful-jazzy cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” between the saxophone great Joe Lovano and the vocals of Spalding, the two of them, listeners are bound to love this track. If you don’t have it already, you should cop Radio Music Society.

Lastly but certainly not least, Black Radio by Robert Glasper, in one word, is epic! Just the first track “Lift Off” will have you craving more. Analogous to Spalding, Glasper’s album is infused with pop, funk, soul, and, of course hip-hop, which we can hear throughout his album—just magisterial. This is a jazz musicians dream, the ability to fuel improvisations vis-à-vis pop tracks—Glasper does it with precision, soul, and adroitness. Oh, and be sure to adjust your ears to hear his excellent acoustic piano groove, wow! The album begins with a sultry rendition of Mongo Santamria’s “Afro Blue” featuring Erykah Badu’s sly voice while Glasper with his signature style keeps up the track with his acoustic obbligato, must listen! It is sinuous.  That’s not it.  On another track, Lalah Hathaway soulful and expressive voice covers  “Cherish the Day” by Sade—Glasper (with his incontestable skills on the keys) plays a running commentary around the vocal. Continuing his experiment, the sexy-as-hell voice of Me’Shell N’Degeocello sends chills down my spine as she does the vocals on the song “The Consequences of Jealousy,” her voice and the underlying soulful tones by Glasper on the acoustic piano is second-to-none. Oh, be sure to dig the groove session at the 5-minute mark. Then we have one of my favorites off the album, “Why Do We Try” featuring Stokley William (lead singer of Mint Condition), this is a track that is bound to send you on a nostalgic rollercoaster as it did me but also get you thinking about how underrated Stokely’s artistry is. As pop culture critic and professor, Mark Anthony Neal notes, “The genius of Glasper’s new recording is its willingness to expand the range of what we consider black music and what black radio might consider as appropriate for black or so-called “urban” audiences.  Similarly, scholar and musician, Guthrie Ramsey, who also just released his own album The Colored Waiting Room (review coming soon), writes, “[Black Radio] plays with sonic, social, and iconic symbols in a way that recalibrates calcified, boring ideas about genre and turns them on their head, all with a good sense of funky adventure. A must listen.

Pushing our intelligibility of “what jazz is”, all three of these artists remind listeners of the complexity and nuances of jazz and what can be done to it as a genre.  The albums are always on rotation at my home—they should be on at yours as well. In fact, I just ran 4 miles while listening to Black Radio. Peace.