The celebration of Kwanzaa has always been a significant artistic and political expression to me ever since my first exposure to its glow in the early '70s.
My most memorable experience goes back 10 years ago to my home turf of Washington, D.C. It was through a chance encounter with one of my musical heroes that the seven sacred principles of Kwanzaa coalesced in me in the final days of 1994.
They always do each year. But let me tell you, this was really special.
The collective of poets, musicians and dancers that I directed, known then as The Spoken Word Performance Poetry Ensemble, were finishing up a rousing cultural sharing with the kids at a southeast D.C. community center. On the night of Ujima, the third principle of Kwanzaa, meaning collective work and responsibility, we had shared poetry, a Kwanzaa candle lighting, capoiera, African drumming and storytelling. Big fun was had by all as the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, Kuumba, meaning creativity was already in effect.
Later that night, I went with Butch Jackson, a master drummer in his own right with a flare for adding a deep funkiness, to a party hosted by the Washington Area Music Association to honor the godfather of funk, George Clinton.
Down on the waterfront at the Foxtrappe Club, the celebration was underway when we arrived. Upstairs was the WAMA party and downstairs was a book release party for an examination of African Americans and the Internet. George Clinton stepped in to the book party and I informed him of its focus. Without missing a beat he acknowledged the importance of a diverse presence on the Web: "We gonna download it, upload it, gonna load that sucker up!" I directed him upstairs to the party in his honor.
When I got upstairs Butch informed me that George had agreed to let us perform a tribute poem to him that I scripted. Right after he received his award, he called on Butch and me, and we kicked off "Too Funky Tooo Funky," with Butch on djembe drum and me delivering the spoken word send-up. Then George and I freestyled a little bit and closed it out.
If that wasn't enough, he hit us with a bomb by inviting us to perform at one of the three nights at the Warner Theater! We chose the second night since I already had tickets for the first.
We arrived at 6:30 at the backstage door, as instructed, just as George and entourage pulled up in a limo. He said to me, "Knee Deep," in reference to that funkateer and urban-party anthem, our cue to come on.
The show progressed at a careening pace. Just before "Knee Deep," there was the blues bleeding classic "Maggot Brain," with a guitar solo that screamed to distant galaxies. As we prepared to hit the stage, the stage manager, who wasn't hip to Butch, to me or to George's game plan, had security clear out all of the back stage of what seemed like hundreds of family, friends and funk addicts.
We missed our chance, man.
Butch and I brooded all that next day until the Kujichagulia spirit kicked in. That's the second principle of Kwanzaa, meaning self-determination. We went back that night, which was New Year's Eve and the night of Kuumba.
I even got hold of an all-access pass. That's a whole other story. I used it to enter the dressing room during the middle of the show just before George Clinton took a break.
As I entered, I was greeted by Diem Jones, photographer, national director of Writerscorps at the time, author of "No. 1 Bimini Road," and natural healer. "Ah, Dr. Stover," he said, "I see you finally have arrived." He and the general manager were discussing George's stuffy nasalness as the superstar walked in.
Diem had George remove his grand cape and he lit a thick stack of Chinese incense. He passed it over George's eyes and nasal passages, then handed it to me. He proceeded to run his elbow up and down George's spine as he snapped his fingers and chanted healing verbs.
He took back the incense, held it at the center of George's eyes and told him to hit a high C. He was finished.
Clinton jumped up and took a deep breath. "That's better than that acupuncture."
I looked at him with a grand smile and said, "Knee Deep."
He repeated it back with an emphasis that said, "Be there this time, man!"
We were stopped by that same stage manager of the previous night. Then he let Butch pass on to the stage with his djembe drum. He held me back and then went over to joke with a friend. I shot out on the stage and he gave chase. George sent him back offstage and pointed to the microphone.
He brought the band down, Butch picked up our beat and it was on. We had a funking grand time. When it was all over, we were given a standing invitation to join the band whenever.
Here in the Triangle, the spirit and traditions of Kwanzaa continue with many artists and others drawing their own inspirations from it.
I take great pride in having initiated the seven-day celebration in Durham at the Hayti Heritage Center in 1998, inspired by the experiences I had in D.C. during Kwanzaa. It is Imani, the seventh principle, meaning faith, that I carry forward, a strong faith in cultural artistic expression as a constant weapon against the ills of society.