By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
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By Christopher Victorio
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Rapper/poet Pitch Black seems to be living two incarnations simultaneously. In one, he's a scraggly 26-year-old b-boy, a product of the streets who lives and breathes hip hop. He wears baggy sweat pants, speaks in slang, and works a Krylon spray can nearly as well as a microphone. With his music, he takes the violence and hopelessness that can accompany the urban experience and sets them to thumping beats. In both his compelling new album, The Black Insperience, and his prose poems, Black communicates the hip hop generation's concerns -- its inheritance of a violent world and thick glass ceiling, mainly -- in breathless verse.
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But Black is more than just another gangsta rapper looking to make a buck off the thug life. In his other incarnation he's Kamao Bakari Abayomi (it means "Quiet Warrior" in Egyptian), a former priesthood trainee in the Kemetic tradition. Abayomi meditates daily, drinks ginger tea instead of 40-ouncers, and teaches inner-city children to write poetry. He even shuns the time-honored MC tradition of battling, viewing the trading of insults as a distraction from life's larger concerns.
In an incense-scented Potrero Hill apartment full of African art and books on things like astral projection, Black explains how his two personas work themselves out. "You proud 'cause you lost 10 partnas to violence?" he asks. "Is that something to brag about? Naw, man, that's nothing to brag about. I'm gonna talk about the same stuff [as other hard-core rappers], but try to shift our perspective on it." In other words, although he may look -- and occasionally sound -- like the other bangers at the club, Pitch Black wants to take you higher.
Growing up in San Francisco's Fillmore neighborhood in the '80s, Black could have been a poster child for the hip hop experience. Raised by a single mother on a limited income, he had a front-row view of the era's overlapping attractions: crack-associated violence and the rap music that scored it. Black, however, followed in his older brother's footsteps, avoiding the drug scene by forming a graffiti crew at an early age. He describes taking midnight bus rides to Chinatown to "bomb" dark alleys: "There were about six of us, just crushing the city at age 10, pulling all-nighters."
To fund their Muni and Krylon habits, Black and his crew break danced before an empty hat at Fisherman's Wharf. Later, after moving to Oakland at 13, he made popping and locking a top priority, eventually practicing with dancers for Michael Jackson and Usher.
While attending Berkeley High, Black also started skateboarding, eventually getting good enough to secure a sponsorship with Real Skateboards. But when an ankle injury kept him from either skating or dancing for a few months, the ambitious teen took up the one element of hip hop he hadn't mastered yet: rapping.
Encouraged by friends, he filled notebooks with rhymes, but remained too shy to perform them before lunchtime crowds. It wasn't until 1996, when rapper P.W. Esquire opened an Oakland music studio called the Dojo, that Black got serious about becoming an MC. "We all just congregated there," he says. "And that's when I actually started speaking my raps." The Dojo's dozen regulars formed a collective called 7 Gen, with Black taking an active role in booking shows and recording music.
But at the same time, his life was changing direction. One evening, instead of meeting friends who wanted him to join in dealing drugs, he accompanied an acquaintance to a "civilization class." Black soon found himself studying with the Five Percent Nation -- an Afrocentric, spiritual-minded school popularized by such rap acts as Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers. He credits the Nation with giving him discipline, responsibility, and a sense of community. "We would all roll together, so it was a constant class," he says. "The whole point was to sharpen each other, to help each other develop and grow."
After two years, though, Black felt he outgrew the movement, turning instead to Kemetic Orthodoxy. (Based on the traditional religion of Egypt, the Kemetic faith is similar to other African Diaspora beliefs like Yoruba and Santería, stressing meditation, community bonds, and ancestral devotion.) "The main thing I learned was how to meditate and really experience my spirit, feel the energies flowing through my body." To illustrate his point, he presses his hand to his chest. "If you do this, you can feel your heartbeat. But can you feel your aura going beyond your skin?"
After two years in the Kemetic system, just months away from becoming a priest, Black withdrew again. "I'm a free spirit," he says. "I got to a space where I recognized that hierarchies, which are a part of all religions, are no longer necessary. Now I truly direct my path without relying on anyone else's opinion on what I should be doing."
Presently, Black devotes his laserlike attention to writing and recording. While working with Renai7sance -- the group he shares with 7 Gen members Shon Rich and Ameen -- on an album, he independently recorded and released his solo disc, The Black Insperience. He also put himself in the public eye as much as possible, opening for neo-soul singer Goapele several times and dropping freestyles on hip hop radio shows like KUSF's Beatsauce.
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