Bob Law has been using his voice to fight against racial injustice and oppression of the Black community for several decades. This formidable activist is the host of “From the Streets with Bob Law” that can be heard on the WBAI radio airwaves on Saturday mornings from 11 am to 12 pm EST that provides a weekly forum for the discussion of cultural and progressive issues. Law is one of the co-founders of the Respect Yourself campaign, a self-empowering youth program that has positively impacted the lives of young Black children. In addition, he is the producer of the documentary film Say it Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America.
50BOLD recently had the opportunity to interview the legendary Law at Namaskar – Bob Law’s Health & Wellness Store, located in Brooklyn, where he shared his thoughts about topics including, but not limited to, economic power, his role as an activist, the Respect Yourself campaign, and the state of Black music.
50BOLD: You are passionate about how we can use our economic power in the Black community to bring about positive changes. What are the first steps we can take toward making this happen?
Law: We have to rethink our own understanding of economic power. We call it spending power. We’re bragging about how many trillions of dollars we spend and how much more we spend every year. Spending is not power. When you spend, something is being depleted. When your energy and time are spent, you have nothing left.
We think that spending money represents power, that’s why we call it consumer power. There’s no such thing as consumer power. Consumer spending uses up whatever power we actually might have. We need to rethink the role and function of money in society and to use our money in our own interest to acquire power. If we don’t own anything and we’re not trying to do so, but we’re trying to get a seat at the table as opposed to constructing our own tables. The power is in how we control our money and use it as economic leverage.
50BOLD: What are your thoughts about generational wealth and the Black community?
Law: Many people in the Black community have no idea what generational wealth means. I saw a documentary where young students asked the adults they spoke to about this topic. One of the adults said, “Generational wealth can be anything. It doesn’t have to be about money. It can be about passing along knowledge.” That’s absolutely incorrect. Generational wealth is about money. Since you don’t understand it, it sounds right, fashionable, and hip to say anything can be generational wealth. Nobody else is confused about that but for us.
Generational wealth comes from ownership. You have to own something that you can pass along. You need to own land. You need to own a business. You pass that along to the next generation. There are people who don’t understand generational wealth. And there are people who feel like we need not pay attention to that because it sounds too much like capitalism. The activists and the politically conscious step away from it because we don’t want to be capitalists. Maulana Karenga says, “Stop acting like you don’t live in America.” It takes money to live and provide adequately for yourself and your family. Coming up out of poverty has to be a priority.
50BOLD: With regards to our Black politicos, do you think they truly do have a Black agenda? (Kamala Harris, Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Karen Bass, Adrian Malik Fenty, etc.)
Law: No, they have a personal agenda. Their concern is singularly about their careers. Everything they do is to advance their career.
50BOLD: You have fought against the oppression of our people for decades since you were a youth growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. What fueled you back in those days to take political stances such as protesting racial discrimination at White Castle (the popular burger chain), and at the Board of Education, as well as joining the NYC chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) fighting injustices alongside Malcom X?
Law: Malcolm X… We knew the difference between right and wrong in our generation. We already knew that Black is beautiful before we were able to get that narrative out into the community. That’s why we came with that narrative. We began to say publicly what we generally believed. When we were growing up as kids in the 50s and 60s, we thought that things were going to get better on their own. Things were just changing. We knew there was racism, but we didn’t understand the depth of racism. We just saw it as segregation.
I went to the High School of Art & Design in New York City. Me and my friends were art directors and photojournalists. We thought things were opening up on Madison Avenue and there was one Black art director, George Odom; he was a superstar. We saw him as an example that things were changing and getting better. We had nothing to do with it, it was going to happen. Times were changing. We discovered that wasn’t the case. If things were going to change, we were going to have to change them.
50BOLD: You mentioned Malcolm X and one of the things he talked about was self-determination. This struck a nerve with me as a Black man. What was the attraction and impact of Malcolm X?
Law: (laughs) You talk about the saying right now about “Wake up and stay woke?” Malcolm woke us up. He continued to keep us awake.
50BOLD: Yes, he did! In your decades of experience as an activist do you think the media has succeeded in shaping public discourse around issues of race, politics, and social justice?
Law: The media is the major platform in the marketplace of ideas. What they say in the media is all what most people know. Most people are not going to rallies, forums, and first world alliances, and we’re not having rallies anymore. There was a time when there were rallies on a regular basis.
50BOLD: In your estimation how united is the Black Community in the U.S. today compared to the period of activism in the 60s and with other ethnic groups like Asian and Latino?
Law: Disunited! Back in the day, there was a cohesiveness. The official goal of the Black community was integration. All Black people wanted to be integrated. That’s what the Civil Rights Movement preached and promoted. Voting rights because we were denied the right to vote. All Black people agreed that we should have the right to vote. All Black people agreed that we should be fully integrated into American society. That’s where it started.
It began to shift at one point more towards self-determination. Ownership of our own communities. When we said Black power, we meant power to control ourselves. Power to control our own destiny. Not power over other people to take from them or exploit them. We began to realize as I said earlier that there were necessary changes but we would have to make those changes happen.
50BOLD: Staying on the topic of power, I have a question that’s from a young person. Let’s say if someone wants to do better in life and seek self-empowerment, but they don’t have any positive influences around them. What should they do?
Law: They’ve got to love themselves. Looking for positive influences, they said, they don’t see any. They don’t know where to look but there are plenty. They don’t know Maulana Karenga. They don’t know Haki Madhubuti. They only know the people the media chooses to promote, but there are positive influences all around.
I would say to them understand who you are. We say to young people in the Respect Yourself youth campaign to recite this pledge: “If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then my spirit can achieve it because I am God’s greatest miracle.” Understand that first if you’re looking for a positive influence. Michael Jackson said look at the man in the mirror. How do you live? How do you conduct yourself? How do you carry yourself?
We call it the Respect Yourself campaign because once you respect yourself then there are things that you won’t tolerate because you respect yourself. You won’t put stuff in your nose. You won’t drink intoxicating beverages. You won’t lose control of yourself not because you don’t want to be embarrassed, or you might get in trouble, but because you respect yourself.
50BOLD: How did the Respect Yourself campaign come about?
Law: I was in a meeting with a group of Black intellectuals at a brotha’s apartment. Somebody in the meeting said, “I hear all this talk about these young boys and how they’re troubled, unemployed, and undereducated. The little old lady living down the hall don’t care about that. All she wants to know is how can she get into her apartment safely every day. She don’t want to hear about all that other social reality that influences the behavior.”
Well, the fact is that the middle-class intellectuals never had any real interaction with the little old ladies in the community, but I did. A schoolteacher said to me a couple of days later at a restaurant in Brooklyn, “What can we do about these young boys? I don’t wear my jewelry to school because it’s too enticing, it’s a distraction. Their priorities are all screwed around.” She didn’t say, I don’t care about that, I want to wear my jewelry; she said, “My first concern were these young people and what we can do about them.” That middle class analysis was incorrect. I talked to the people who really were the little old ladies in the community and all of them said, “What can you do to help these young boys?”
I was public affairs director at WWRA radio at the time and so the Respect Yourself youth initiative was created along with my good friend Rev. Buster Sawyers. We started this Respect Yourself campaign teaching the Saturday academies, teaching young people to respect themselves, what this really means, and it took off. Then, we formed the Respect Yourself youth choir. The kids in the choir double-crossed me. They grew up. I wanted them to stay 15 and 16 (laughs). The choir was a remarkable experience for them.
Everything else we did in the name of Respect Yourself from Stop the Violence in the Black community to the Respect Yourself little league where all the baseball teams were named after baseball teams in the Negro league. Everybody had to repeat the Respect Yourself pledge. And what parents said was that the pledge really seemed to have a positive effect on their children.
50BOLD: You produced the documentary Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America, which chronicles the impact of Black music. How do you feel about Black music today?
Law: What’s in heavy rotation is not music at all. There’s music still being produced, quality music by genuinely talented artists. The only music that’s being played in whatever music source you listen to, that stuff is not music.
When Bob Dylan said that Smokey Robinson was a great American poet, that was really true, but it isn’t only Smokey. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are great American poets. Bill Withers was a great American poet. Look at how many people have covered and recorded his music. He owned the publishing rights, making him the wealthiest singer every year just from all the people who recorded his songs like Grandma’s Hands, Ain’t No Sunshine, and all of his music. When you hear that music and the lyrics, the story, and the narrative, that’s poetry.
When you hear Smokey sing I Second That Emotion, Ashford & Simpson sing Solid, and Harold Melville & the Blue Notes sing If You Don’t Know Me By Now, the music in that day and era was instructional. The lyrics were poetry and the narrative was about pledging love. Well, the love songs were about pledging love. None of them were about taking advantage of people even when the song was about an affair. It still did not characterize anybody in a relationship as trash. Sure, Me and Mrs. Jones was one of those songs I didn’t approve of then like If Loving You Is Wrong. I used to preach against these songs. However, that was as bad as it would get. It was nothing like what they’re talking about now: killing people, spraying the block. Whatever promotes self-destructive values gets lifted up by the media.
50BOLD: Speaking of self-destructive values, your comment reminds me of the debate surrounding the world nigger, its use, and how it’s embraced as a term of endearment in the Black community when its spelled nigga. Regardless of its spelling, it’s still a derogatory word.
Law It is a word created for us, and not by us.
Law: To state a form of wretchedness. Nigger was not our idea. Once the oppressor gets inside your head, then the oppressor does not need to be present. Your behavior will be oppressive.
50BOLD: Whew! In recent years there has been a growing interest among African Americans in exploring their African roots and forging connections with Africans in the Motherland. How do you think this trend is impacting the relationship between the two communities?
Law: It depends. There are some Africans who are very unfriendly, hostile towards other Black people. I don’t know where that’s coming from. They are aware of our African interest in our roots, but it has not resulted in a universal embracing of each other. The good side is that African Americans are very much interested in African heritage, which is a significant shift for us. We’re the ones who grew up with all these Africans in the movies who were afraid of the dark, superstitious, yelling and screaming. They speak over 800 languages in Africa and in the movies, they only speak one. It doesn’t make any sense. We’re the ones who grew up embarrassed about Africa.
They’re still African Americans who are embarrassed about slavery who like to point out not everybody came over here enslaved. Back in the day, some older Black adults from the 60s would talk about having a grandmother who was full-blooded Indian. Anything so as not to be identified as African.
We have made a great deal of progress in our own hearts, those of us born in this country in relating, without hesitation, to Africa. We better understand our African heritage, our African legacy. We are very comfortable being African. When you go to Africa, the Africans treat you fine and people are looking for ways to do business with Africans. But again, since we don’t own anything, it’s difficult for us to do any meaningful business.
50BOLD: And my final question, Mr. Law, and thank you for your time, is how would you like to be remembered by future generations?
Law: As a drum major for justice.
Bill Holmes is the author of the full-length poetry book, Straight From My Heart; the spoken word CD, The Air I Breathe; the ESSENCE bestselling fiction novel, One Love; and the writer and the director of the independent, short-films The Program and Butterflies. As a poet, he has opened for artists such as The Last Poets and the award-winning jazz musician Roy Ayers. Bill’s work has been published and featured in 50BOLD.com, African Voices and ESSENCE. Bill is the founder of the creative-writing course Write Here! Write Now!, which he taught for five years at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA through the grassroots, non-profit organization PASCEP.