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Monday, July 18, 2011

'Diary of a Decade' screening brought in the funk and stirred up nostalgia

Confession: I never personally attended a FunkJazz Kafé. Many of the storied arts and music events, which began in 1994, took place several years before I relocated to or even visited Atlanta. Once I got here around 2000, new friends and acquaintances talked about the shows like a membership to an exclusive club: you were either one of the lucky people to get in, or you were out, only to find out what happened from a secondary source.

My plans to attend somehow fell through. I always thought I’d catch the next one.

If you missed out firsthand, FunkJazz founder Jason Orr’s accomplishments were nothing short of awesome. Through word of mouth and minimal advertising (mainly fliers), long before social media, he gathered celebrated soul and hip hop artists, masseurs, poets, chefs and visual artists, under one roof on a shoestring budget without even the mention of a headlining act.

The film, shown at the Rialto Center for the Arts during last week's National Black Arts Festival, opened much like the stories I’d been told. A very casually dressed Jill Scott strolled onstage singing the roof off the mutha to a pleasantly surprised Tabernacle crowd. Her singing is interspersed by comments by Scott herself, Cee Lo Green, Joi Gilliam, Dr. Cornel West, Dick Gregory, drummer Lil’ John Roberts and others who, are not initially named until later, although the Rialto theater audience applauded loudly with recognition.

Diary of a Decade is essentially a compilation of performance snippets and artist interviews of varying digital quality, held together with brief commentary in white text against a black screen. Viewers connected with laughter and profuse emotion as if it were all happening in front of them live.

Even the briefest, grainiest bits of footage, some unattributed — for which Orr apologized in the closing credits — were unable to obscure the magic. The mood in the theater hardly felt like a documentary. It was a rekindling of urban Atlanta’s love affair with the quarterly soul fest.

As Diary veered into deeper territory, the supposed conspiracies on the commercialization of black music appeared less like murky Zeitgeist moments, than blunt criticisms of racism in the entertainment industry and black life in general. Comedian Dick Gregory and writer Kevin Powell also chastised black artists who eagerly participated in the creation of misogynistic and violent music for financial gain.

Ironically, Erykah Badu says that the term "neo-soul" itself was coined by an African-American former Motown executive, Kedar Massenburg, as a means to describe the funkier, edgier, yet retro-sounding vibe led by artists like the eccentric soul chanteuse herself. Veteran WCLK DJ, Jamal Ahmad and singer Joi Gilliam bristle at the term as limiting. Massenburg was not interviewed for the film.

Ultimately, corporate dilution through copycat programs and the post 9/11 economic downturn marked the beginning of the end of the FunkJazz Kafé as Atlantans knew it. Without resorting to alarmism, the film flashed to the actual day of the terrorist attack. Orr, who happened to be in New York then, discussed not only the initial shock and chaos but the eventual deterrents to entertainment spending, both by organizations and individuals. The future of FunkJazz appeared doubtful, but was revived in a slightly different form later in the decade. Diary ends the same way it began, with another female powerhouse, Janelle Monáe, whose performance at a 2007 event parallels the Jill Scott and James Brown clips shown earlier.

Orr admits that he would not attempt to replicate the FunkJazz Kafé legacy, but would work with a corporate partner who is “aligned with us in the lifestyle program,” like a clothing or accessory maker. “Just like me working with the National Black Arts Festival, I’m a lifestyle component and arts component,” he said.

If you get word of a program involving Orr and company that sounds something like a FunkJazz kind of experience, don't miss it. Who knows, you may just be witnessing history in the making all over again.

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