Things Gonna Get Greater: A Conversation with Amde Hamilton of the Watts Prophets
As fashionable as it may be to cast oneself in the role of the unfashionable – the self-deprecation that seeps into the voice of a soliloquizing artist – when you hear Father Amde Hamilton recounting the history of his spoken-word group The Watts Prophets, somehow you know it’s not the same thing. “We weren’t trying to be stars,” he admits frankly. “If we were, we could have had money.”
Overshadowed by the Harlem-bred Last Poets, who collected a Billboard Top Ten record and bulging royalty checks, the Watts Prophets, consisting of Hamilton and fellow poets Richard Dedeaux and Otis O’Soloman, have toiled in relative obscurity since their inception in Watts’ Writers Workshops in the late 1960s. Being sampled by scads of hip-hop’s early platinum sellers recovers a bit of that lost history for crate-diggers and obscurantists; but being cribbed for backing tracks isn’t quite the same thing as being touted the progenitors of a hip-hop movement that has changed the face of popular music.
A new compilation on San Francisco's Water Records seeks to right some of these wrongs scribbled in the pages of history by a fickle public. Collecting tracks from a modest two years’ span, Things Gonna Get Greater: The Watts Prophets 1969-1971 captures in suite, song and spoken word a hint of the passion and ice-cold articulation that confronted communities not quite ready for a self-reflective message.
Bay Area hip-hop writer Jeff Chang recounts the Watts Prophets story in liner notes to the compilation, but listening to Hamilton tell the tale is an interactive experience. He relates the story of their beginnings with the gentle humor and passion of a seasoned raconteur. “Back then, I didn’t know I was a poet,” he admits. “I was lost, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to do something to help the community. I had a habit of scribbling on paper, and throwing it away. I’d just scribble my thoughts on paper, and throw it away. I did that all the time.” Hamilton then goes on to relate how circumstances brought him into contact with Odie Hawkins, a novelist who prominently appears on Things Gonna Get Greater with his free jazz fuck-out “Black Pussy,” at the unemployment office.
“I used to write while I was down at the CEAT office, just scribbling on paper, then when I left I’d throw it away. Odie Hawkins was watching me, and I was about to leave when he walked up to me and asked, 'Are you a writer?' I asked what would make him think I was a writer. He says because I’m writing all the time. I said, 'No, man, I barely got out of high school.' He asked me to a workshop, and now I’m thinking, 'This guy is hitting on me.' So I asked what kind, and he said a writers’ workshop. My next question was, 'Is there food there?' He said probably some snacks, so I decided to come.”
This meeting marked a moment in Hamilton’s career – that initial spark kick-started the fanciful notion that he could have a career in writing. The workshop itself was in its infancy when Hawkins saw fit to drag the green Hamilton along with him. Initially a creation of writer Budd Schulberg, famous for Hollywood screenwriting credits that include an Oscar for On the Waterfront, the workshop promoted a safe place for writing and polishing performance works.
“Budd Schulberg came to Watts right after the riots,” Hamilton remembers. “They used to say he pulled up while the fires were still burning. Yes, he was concerned about the situation in Watts, but his career had had a lag and he saw an opportunity.” A notoriously ardent leftist for the duration of his Hollywood career, Schulberg found Watts a perfect community in which to reinvent himself. Certainly the productive atmosphere of the workshop contrasted starkly to the nasty air of competition and political witch hunts he had to had undergone several years earlier during his days on the Black List.
As for the workshop itself, it was based on performance practice, a format that cultivated the improvisatory urge of the poetry, and also the essential aspect of group collaboration that would nourish the Watts Prophets through their developing years. “We would sit in a circle,” Hamilton recalls, “and someone would get up and read their work, then it would go on to the next person, around the circle, everyone reading their work.” Hamilton remembers for me the moment when he first was asked to read, having no text prepared:
“It got to me,” he tells, “and everyone asked, ‘What are you going to read?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just a visitor. I don’t have anything.’ Odie Hawkins said back, ‘You do have something to read,’ and then he pulls out a bundle of pieces of paper. It was the pieces I had been throwing away in the employment office waiting room. He’d been collecting them after I left. So I stood and read what was on those pieces of paper. And they were blown away. I was too – there were so many talented poets there. That night I met Richard Dedaeux, and a bunch of others.”
Shortly after placing in a local talent festival where one fan adoringly dubbed them the “prophets” from Watts, the Prophets began accruing notoriety. Watts was where it would happen, if it could, for the Prophets: “There were so many poets living and working there. After I met Richard Dedeaux and Otis, we’d go out in groups together all the time. We’d always be together in groups.”
Jazz musicians who flourished in the Watts community were brought in to interact with the Prophets' vocals. Bassist Horace “Pappa” Tapscott, who turned down touring gigs to remain in Watts, sessioned for many of the tracks included on Things Gonna Get Greater. Another significant guest, featured on the album’s most extended musical piece, “What Is a Man,” is the Motown singer Dee Dee MacNeil, who, Hamilton remembers, “drove from Detroit with her kids straight to the Watts Writers Workshop.” For that song, she revises a song she had done with the Four Tops, allowing each of the three men to define in their words “what is a man.”
That kind of appropriation and revision lays at the heart of their method. In a move as politically motivated as it is musically generative, the Prophets learned to implement political phrases delivered with the same impassioned rhetorical style informing their original compositions. The most of famous of these revisions was that of John F. Kennedy’s near-sacred words, which the Prophets modified to be: “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what the fuck has it ever done for you!?!”
“Yeah, that got us in trouble,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “We were way out of line as far as people were concerned. Everyone loved Kennedy – whites, blacks, everyone. But we weren’t just saying that to provoke people. We were informed individuals, we knew things about his administration. Just because he was president of the U.S. didn’t mean he was as perfect as everyone thought he was.”
A moment made perhaps more poignant from its placement on the anthology is the delivery of the pledge of allegiance in the final cut, “Pledge of Allegiance?” This piece demonstrates the immediate emotion that the intonation of their appropriation would bring to a poem. The words themselves are repeated verbatim from the traditional pledge, but the shift upward of a question at the end of the pledge – “with liberty and justice….for all?” – dispels the absolutism that a credo must uphold.
That commitment to their own communities was not limited, however, to uprooting government dogma. Their work uncovers relationships between human beings, both by expressing the commonalities between them and by forging unconventional bridges between members of stratified social classes. Hamilton’s work especially stands out on the anthology as exemplary of how the Prophets paved the way for hip-hop’s earliest emcees; part spit-fire polemic, part sophisticated poetics, Hamilton snarls with a barely suppressed rage never content with centering the blame for society’s inherent ills on any one class, be it minority or majority, oppressed or oppressing.
Largely this attention focuses on the black community itself. Hamilton explains, “We were not pushed to do what everyone else was doing. We weren’t talking about ‘Kill Whitey.’ We were addressing each other, we were looking at ourselves. That was really important to us, because we understood that we stood alone.” The sense of urgency this message bore reveals itself on several of Hamilton’s solo compositions, in particular the inflammatory “I’ll Stop Calling You Niggers.” Hamilton begins the poem by acknowledging previous backlash against his acerbic ultimatums (“My fellow poets tell me not to write poems talking bad about black folk...”). Yet his response is so simple he betrays a hint of surprise in his voice: “…but I ain’t mad at ‘whitey.’”.
Despite this rampant political rhetoric, the Watts Prophets managed to defy partisan lines, and practiced staunch avoidance of affiliation in their daily interactions. “One thing we did was never let anyone put us in a bag,” brags Hamilton. “We walked from Black Panther headquarters right over to the US Organization, and this is when those two groups were fighting constantly. We participated in no particular political movement.”
The same went for religion, and Hamilton stresses the importance of his personal faith – he has since been ordained in the Egyptian Orthodox church – while simultaneously rejecting a hard and fast denominational affiliation. He says, “We all have our religious – Richard and Otis and me – we’re all very spiritual, and we’ll be glad to speak about it if you ask. But you’ll never hear us preaching about it, never hear proselytizing.”
The 40 tracks on Things Gonna Get Greater manifest the claim of its title, which, at the time, might be understood as mere idealism or words of passion. To catch a glimpse of the Watts Prophets in their infancy is to tunnel through a granite hill that has been built up around the political movements of the 60s and 70s and discover some of the unbridled passion that fueled those landmark events, to begin to internalize characteristics that need no explanation or capitulation: fervor, and, as Hamilton refers to the content of his verse, “truth.” “Truth is true” he intones casually, yet with an almost religious seriousness. “I had a guy interviewing me in Philadelphia one time a few years back, and he asked the question, ‘How does it feel to write living poetry?’ That question struck me as a perfect way of saying what we’ve done and what our poetry tries to be. Truth is just as true now as it was when it was written.”
When asked about the current resonance of the political pronouncements in his poetry, Hamilton steers the discussion away from the aftermath of the hurricanes on the Southern coast. As he did when he began with no formal training, only the nascent “gift of gab,” Hamilton tends to view current social situations in terms of words, what the limits are and what power they carry. It’s naturally an act of speech that raises his hackles.
“What [former Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett said, what he did in fifteen seconds caused more damage than Hurricane Katrina, than any hurricane,” Hamilton asserts. “It’s an example of institutionalized racism, and when a man makes a statement like that, he causes things like the riots in Ohio that just happened. These statements give license to people who have racist inclinations to act on them.”
It’s the exchange of words that makes performance the tool for change it can be. “Listen, listen, listen, hear us now, hear us now, we ask you, we ask you, now LISTEN!” intones Hamilton during an interlude included on the compilation. Such a moment requires, even begs for a response. For socially-vested poets, whose words seek to both transform and mobilize their audience, the right kind of social action can’t occur without the face-to-face confrontation, the personal address, and, in less formal terms, a conversation. Hamilton lives the complementary quality essential of any proponent for social change: he listens. As our conversation unfolded, Hamilton broke off a discussion of how the public has received their work over the years, to ask me frankly, “What did you think of the album?”
It’s the kind of question that takes an interviewer by surprise, one that turns me into a subjective presence in this interview. Hamilton isn't interested in discussing “audience” in abstract terms; he wants to know how the person he’s talking to at that moment responded to the poems he wrote.
I thought about all the pieces on the anthology struck me, and those that didn’t; those that pointed at me, and those that pointed at others. Those pieces that downright shocked me. I couldn’t get that piano accompaniment from “What Is a Man?” out of my head the whole interview. I just tried to give him a sense of what those words meant to someone from my generation.
“It's chilling,” I replied.
By Joel Calahan