Thomas Anderson has earned himself one hell of an eighteenth birthday party. On a sunny Saturday at East Oakland's YMCA Teen Center, little kids scramble about playing pool, foosball, and air hockey while "We love you Thomas" balloons scrape the ceiling and a sky-blue birthday cake patiently waits for folks to quit munching on carrots, crackers, cookies, and little cubes of cheese. A bubbly tie-dyed quasi-clown dude roams about juggling various flaming items (clubs, shoes, a tennis racket) before unveiling his grand finale, in which he juggles while riding a flaming unicycle up and down the street.
Back inside, the sound system starts bumping Eminem's "Kim," in which our hero brutally murders his cheating wife. Someone has the good sense to drop the volume fifteen seconds before Eminem slashes her throat and shouts "Bleed, bitch, bleed!" as she sputters and chokes to death.
This isn't exactly appropriate birthday party fare. Then again, Thomas isn't around. He died in an actual homicide a month earlier.
Producer Josh McIntosh has convened us here to celebrate Thomas' life, but also to showcase his intense reaction to Thomas' death. McIntosh's eight-month-old record label, VLP69, begat his half hip-hop/half guitar-folk group Dealers of Life, which begat the full-length Arrested Realities & Convicted Dreams, which begat the G-funk-biting single "Chalk Lines," which begat a video inspired by an out-of-control epidemic of East Bay street violence -- so far this year, Oakland has chalked up more than 100 homicides -- typified by Thomas' death in a September shooting.
We've come to see the video. "I watched it this morning and I cried," Josh says, by way of introduction.
Down in Front cannot with a clear conscience recommend Arrested Realities & Convicted Dreams as a musical enterprise -- we defy you to survive all the way through "Original Country Fried Heterosexual Love Machine." But "Chalk Lines" itself is okay as urban commentary: "Richmond California mass murders should annoy ya," etc. The flaming unicycle debacle concluded, we file into the YMCA and take our seats as McIntosh fires up the tune's video, a passably gritty three-minute clip in which two young children trudge slowly through a nightmare of craps-shooters, Ferraris, liquor stores, street fights and, climactically, a gun battle that leaves a young bystander dead.
Josh orchestrated the shoot over a couple of weekends at various spots in Oakland and Richmond, and cast it with an eye for authenticity. His good friend Anthony Mikell, a Richmond police officer, plays a cop. Oakland High School kids play bystanders. Up-and-coming rappers positioned as the next VLP69 superstars play the street brawlers. And Faye Anderson, Thomas' still-grieving mother, plays the mother of the fictional murder victim. After the song fades out, Faye's disembodied voice recounts the harrowing story of hearing the shots, rushing out into the street, and finding Thomas lying there, dying.
This last casting decision is pretty shocking, but Josh -- who first met Faye through a friend of a friend -- credits his own personal magnetism. "I have a very unique ability," he explained later. "When I look someone in the eye, I feel as though I can smell their soul. And in doing so, I can push them to limits they didn't know they could go to. So I inspired her to do so. I challenged her to do so."
Josh talks like this. Extreme earnestness, extreme optimism. But that, coupled with what he figures is an out-of-pocket $33,000 price tag, has birthed the label, the CD, the video, and what he now describes as "the movement." He sits in the YMCA and tells his audience what'll happen next -- he'll take the "Chalk Lines" video into schools, churches, youth organizations. He'll generate more CDs, more outreach programs, more community dialogue. "We're moving mountains," he proclaims, choking up a bit. And Faye sits in the front row, softly answering, "God is good, God is good" from time to time, as if Josh were a preacher.
Which he essentially is. Josh's VLP69.com bio chronicles an odd, colorful life: The thirty-year-old was raised by his mother and her lesbian partner. He earned a combination degree in chemistry, biology, and psychology at San Francisco State. But he somehow went on to work as a police officer himself for seven years, before, as the bio cryptically maintains, he encountered widespread corruption and "got bit in the ass by the Fremont Police Department ... his favorite saying in reference to that time is, 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"
Now he's a label owner and hyper-intense community activist emulating his four heroes: Gandhi, Einstein, Malcolm X, and MLK Jr.
"I have such passion and such drive that I believe anything is possible," he will explain. "I believe the only limitation you have is your imagination. My imagination, Rob, it flows like you don't believe. There are no boundaries. It's an infinite thing ... I'm willing to risk everything to gain something. And my gain is gonna be making a positive impact on the world."
After the YMCA video screening, a sort of town hall meeting develops. Josh gives a speech restating his goals: "I also have a dream." Faye, remarkably composed under the circumstances, urges kids to respect their parents. Folks suggest ways to combat the violence: education, voting, community involvement, more whuppings for your kids. Anthony Mikell, the battle-weary police officer, underscores the horror that's caused all this: "This wasn't done for entertainment. Those cries that Faye cried, I've heard a thousand times. They weren't meant for the human ear to hear. They're only meant for God."
"We can't change the world," Anthony notes during his speech, and Josh scrambles to rebut him: "That's not true -- we can change the world." With hip-hop as his medium, Josh is about to put his extreme optimism to the test. He's ready.
"I think anything's possible," Josh will explain. "Look, we went to the moon. Humans made fire. I'm talking about something smaller than this. I'm talking about just making a social change. To me it looks easy. That's the difference. Some people might look at changing the world as being a hard thing. For me, it's easy, 'cause it's fun. And things that are fun, it's not work."
His presentation complete, everyone stands up, stretches, and digs into Thomas' birthday cake.
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