by Con Chapman
Rocco Landesman, new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says he will open up funding to rap artists. The Wall Street Journal
I was sitting at my desk, tapping out rejection letters to the poets, community theatre groups and local symphony orchestras whose pending applications sat on my desk like stacks of flapjacks to be consumed in one of those epic pancake-eating battles of the 60's between Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd.
"I am pleased to inform you that we will not be funding plangent voices this year. Or ever."
It wasn't easy to tell the Water Tower Players of Tipton, Missouri, that the $1,500 grant they had requested for lighting and props was being denied. It choked me up to write to Jim McKeskie, the leading mime in the Quad Cities region of Iowa, that he would not be getting the $500 he needed to replenish his whiteface supply. It's a tough job being a grants administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts, but somebody's got to do it.
Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb: He can outeat you.
Then I spotted a familiar letterhead--that of plangent voices, the little poetry journal edited by my former lover, elena gotchko.
elena: "don't do it!"
elena and I had broken up nearly a decade ago after she had asked me which side I liked better, the long or the short, as she was in the middle of her monthly self-administered haircut.
"Uh, the long one," I had said, naively.
"Now you tell me," she said, so angry she forgot to downshift to a lower case letter to start her sentence.
"We all cut our own hair. Blondie here uses a hammer and chisel."
"Well, now you asked me," I replied, quite reasonably I thought. But there's no reasoning with a woman who self-aestheticizes--if that's a word--in the hope that it will make her stand out in the crowded field of disturbed young poetesses. What elena didn't realize--because she was so self-absorbed--is that all of her competitors had been cutting their own hair since they got their My Little Poetess Home Beauty Kits as girls.
So it was a distinct pleasure to tell elena that she wouldn't be getting the $1,250 for "community outreach" she had asked for. Community outreach my foot; if I knew elena and her staff, they would have blown it all on lattes as they sat around shooting the breeze in the espresso joint downstairs from their shabby offices.
"Has anybody out there got the version of Adobe Reader that is supported by Grants.gov?"
The reason for this wholesale bloodletting was the directive handed down by the new boss, Obama appointee Rocco Landesman. D-Rock, as he styled himself, had decreed, after descending from his own private Mt. Sinai with the President, that he would be funding rap artists in an effort to "keep it real."
Rocco "D-Rock" Landesman: Funny, you don't look hip-hop.
So out with The American Jazz Repertory Orchestra. Eighty-six on the Toledo Ballet. Ix-nay on the illiams-Way useum-May of odern-May ulpture-Scay. From now on, rap ruled.
I had prepared for the new regime by acquiring a rap nickname of my own--Two Spinner--using a free, on-line rap star name generator. I had bookmarked a rap-to-English translation engine on my computer so I could separate the gangstas from the wankstas who applied for federal funding. Your tax dollars at work!
I heard gunfire, and looked up to see two young men whom I recognized from the mean streets of the 'hood around the NEA's headquarters at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue; Sound E-Fex, an up-and-coming rapper, and his rap sidekick, BackWurdz.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"Your door was open, so we couldn't knock," Sound said.
"My door's always open--that's our new policy," I said cheerfully. "Come right in."
"Thanks," Wurdz said.
"Have a seat," I said, indicating the two chairs in front of my desk. "What can I do for you?"
"We'd like to apply for a federal grant," Sound said.
"Well, you've come to the right place!" I said. "In fact, this is the only place to be if you're looking for federal money to support your artistic endeavors." I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out Application for Federal Assistance SF 424.
SF 424: Fun with forms!
"Will you be applying individually, or as a 'crew'?" I asked.
They looked at each other, and I sensed tension between the two.
"Which way do we get mo' money?" Wurdz asked.
"Well, our policy in the recent past has been to fund artistic groups since Karen Finley got an NEA grant for smearing chocolate all over herself," I said.
Karen Finley: Uh, actually I prefer strawberry.
"So--together?" Sound asked.
"Well, we're changing," I said, making a little church-and-steeple with my finger tips and looking off into the distance. "We're thinking of funding individual artists again."
"Okay," Wurdz said. "I'm fillin' out my own."
I handed them each a form and a no. 2 lead pencil and they got to work.
"The boxes are too small," Sound said. "I can't fit 'izzle' on the end of any words."
"Use an asterisk," I suggested. That seemed to mollify him--no mean feat, as the posse of a rap rival had once tried to mollify him in the tough Anacostia district and had died tryin'.
"I don't have an asterisk," Wurdz complained.
"I ain't got no asterisk," I corrected him, as I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out a box of the punctuation marks from Staples.
Large economy box of asterisks on sale this week at Staples!
"Thanks, dawg," he said and got back to work. The questions on the form are tough--the U.S. government isn't going to hand out money to just any old rapper hanging out on a corner. We want fresh 'n nasty stuff, the kind that tells it like it is on the streets of our nation, where wankstas cross at the green, and gangstas in between.
I helped them as best as I could without tilting the pinball machine too much in their favor. I'm not just a bureaucrat--I'm an advocate, darn it!--and I want to see kids today going into hip-hop because it's an industry with a future, unlike banking and automobiles, two sick dogs that the federal government had to save from themselves.
The two artists finished their paperwork and handed it back to me.
"How long we got to wait?" Wurdz asked.
"Well, this is the federal government," I replied with just a hint of sarcasm in my voice.
"So what's that mean?" Sound asked.
"You should be hearing from us sometime within the next six months, but you can check your application on-line at any time through Grants.gov by using your username and password . . ."
"I don't want to do dat shit," Wurdz snapped at me. "I want my money now!"
"Chill dawg," Sound said. He seemed to be having second thoughts. "If we take da Benjamins from you," he asked, "we be like . . . bureaucrats--right?"
"That's right--I think you'd be slotted at a GS-7 pay scale."
"And there ain't never been no government ever funded any art dat's worth a shit, right?"
He had me there. I thought of the tons of dreck that is stored in warehouses in The Netherlands, the unintended harvest of that nation's program of grants to, shall we say, marginal artists. You get what you subsidize.
The Pink People: Actual recipients of Dutch national arts grant.
Wurdz was starting to get the message. "So if we take this money, people gonna think we wankstas?"
"Yeah," Sound replied. "We won't be fo' real anymore."
They looked at each other, then at me. "You can keep yo money," Sound said. "Our fershizzlin' artistic integrity ain't fo sale."
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