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State Of Emergency: A Conversation With Bill Cosby and the Cosnarati

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"Please listen to the words. We worked hard, very hard to tell you about the state of emergency. Thank You" - Bill Cosby, from the liner notes in The Cosnarati: State Of Emergency

The older demo knows him as Alexander Scott on the TV series I Spy. But most think of Bill Cosby as that iconic TV comedian/actor who played Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, father of a lovable brood on NBC's top-rated '80s sitcom The Bill Cosby Show. The guy made some of us or our kids laugh food through our noses while selling Jell-O's Pudding Pops, and some bought his comedy albums that are still funny to this day. And what would Saturday mornings have been like in the '70s without his ginormous contribution to kid-pop culture, the cartoon series Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids.

Never shy with his opinions or strong suggestions ("Pull up your pants!"), on October 19th of last year, Cosby put his money where his beliefs were, and launched Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency with a series of virtual town hall meetings and listening parties in support of the hip-hop album and its heavily web-promoted November 24th release date. As the press release explained, the album was made up of "music with messages reflecting today's most critical issues affecting young people," and here to discuss it further are Doctor Bill Cosby, Jace The Great, Brother Hahz, William "Spaceman" Patterson, and Super Nova Slom.

Mike Ragogna: Bill, this project started as your idea to put out a positive message using rap as its medium, and it took a couple of years to assemble. What initiated its creation?

Bill Cosby: Here's the deal. As I'm going around and making my callouts -- talking to people in churches and community colleges -- I'm listening to people with certain ideas and philosophies. Some of them, to me, don't really gel with thinking that used to happen when I lived in a neighborhood like that. And when I'm with certain people, regardless of their age, they don't happen to feel the same way as these different "philosophies." These "philosophies" tend to come from people who are talking about a disconnect with society. I'm listening to people who, in trouble, can't seem to make a move to get out of it.

MR: What kinds of philosophies?

BC: I'm hearing things like somebody saw a gold chain around someone else's neck, and the person just walked up and took it. The philosophy was, well, they shouldn't have it there if they don't want somebody to take it. This is not registering with any particular experience I've ever had, and there's a larger number of people who are thinking this way.

I look at the news and I see a newscaster in Washington, D.C., report that five, six girls are going up and down the subway train, they see a girl and they beat her up. The newscaster then tells the audience that the girl was a virgin.

MR: You mean inferring that somehow it was her fault because she was a virgin.

BC: And there were twelve kids in Arkansas who were going to be honored for their outstanding academic achievements during half-time of a football game, and they go to the assistant principle's office and say, "We don't want that attention drawn to us, because there may be violence."

MR: You chose hip-hop as the musical medium...

BC: I'm riding in a minister's car to the airport and I said to the driver, "I want to hear the basketball game." This was after I spoke at a church inside San Francisco. The driver pushed the button -- now, this is the minister's car and I'm sitting up front with him -- and I hear the radio blasting profanity; it was a CD. The driver said, "Oh, that's so-and-so," and I said, "But this is a minister's car." Then, I said, "Come on man, turn it off, I don't want to hear all this stuff."

He took it out and I asked, "Is that yours?" He said, No sir, I'm your age, that's not music to my ears." I asked, "Well, who's is it," and he said very calmly, "I think it's the son of such-and-such because he details the Reverend's car. I said, "You know, this is not the kind of car you'd make that mistake with, this is a Reverend's car. You don't mistake this for just your average car, people know it, don't they?" The driver said yes. I said, "Then if this young man...puts it on while he's detailing it, wouldn't some people know that it's the Reverend's car, and that some irreverent stuff is coming out of it?"

MR: It's a coarsening of the culture, though you're trying to create something positive out of the negativity you've witnessed. What turned it around for you?

BC: Dealing with the people and listening to them, how they seem to be stuck and they don't know how to get out of it. Some people have called and said, "Listen, how come they don't have an organization and an office in this part of the city so we can go there and take care of teenage pregnancy or other issues." So, I call a woman who is prominent with the Chicago Free Press, and I said, "You know, there are people calling me about the things they don't have," and she said, "Sure we do. And it's right across the street from where they live." So, the people are having trouble moving up and out. They're stuck.

MR: In your opinion, who is this affecting the most?

BC: This isn't anything new, it isn't anything that just belongs to lower income people. I mean, there are people -- middle economic and upper economic -- who'll find themselves stuck in their lives and won't now how to get out of it.

MR: How does The Cosnarati approach this?

BC: What we're doing with the CD is offering cuts for people to think. And the book that goes along with it offers them stories of people who made the move.

MR: How does one make the move, especially when economics and a neighborhood's culture is working against them?

BC: When the inertia is stimulated, it no longer becomes entropy.

MR: What has the response been like in town hall meetings?

BC: I did one in Wilmington, Deleware. I'm telling you, man, if you say "Wilmington," if you say, "Baltimore," if you say any city -- Chicago, Philadelphia, you can go to Newfoundland!

MR: So the response has been great.

BC: I'm talking to two white boys in St. John's, Newfoundland, and they want to meet me. I'm there to perform my comedy, and they asked to meet me between shows. I said yes because they said they were working with kids.

Now, these are people born and raised there, and the guy said, "We came to see you because we're having the problems that you've been speaking about and that are in your book." So, I turned them on to the (album's) listening party, and they were very, very happy to have that.

MR: Why do you think they gravitated toward your projects?

BC: Because we're dealing with teen pregnancy, teens dropping out of school... these things are happening all around. But we've got to begin to identify these things. We're here, and this CD is here because we don't want people to look away anymore.

Every time I think about this, I think about those old cowboy movies like High Noon and stuff like that, where the town's people want things cleaned-up. But by the same token, there's only this one guy who's going around with people saying, "Look, you're causing trouble."

MR: Bill, your book pretty much follows the same theme as your CD, right?

BC: But the CD asks that you go into yourself, feel it, then talk with your friends. We need people to talk so they can address these things.

MR: Though this is a universal problem, doesn't it especially affect the poorest among us?

BC: You've got a problem with anybody. None of them want to be poor, and none of them want parents who are broke. You turn on the TV and it says, "Get this, get that," and the kids ask, "Can I have this?"... "No, you can't have that." So, things begin to turn into a negative because the parents are generally saying, "I can't do it," then that negative turns.

MR: How so?

BC: You have a kid that comes down from the apartment to the corner for love, thinking that he's going to bond with some fellas. The fellas don't know about behavior either because they've all come searching for the same thing, they manage themselves. In all of this may come a pistol. So, with their youth and manhood challenges comes the feeling of low self-esteem that says, "I'm not worthy of anything."

A long time ago, it registered with me, "How can a kid dress like somebody who's in prison?" Well, they think, "It's alright if I go to prison because my boys are in prison." But that's not what I was told by the Bloods and the Crips who stopped being Bloods and Crips. Guys who've been incarcerated have said, "No, no, it's not going to be like that when you get in. When you get in, the man is there with the hog on his hip. When he says, 'Stand,' you stand. Your manhood is gone, whatever freedom you had."

Then, you have to be signed into a family, into a house, after you come out of juvenile. I'm looking at a 14-year-old boy who's fallen asleep while I'm talking, and I said, "Why are you sleeping?" He said, "I was up 'til four o'clock in the morning." "Doing what?" "I was with a girl." I said, "Well, why four o'clock in the morning?" and he said, "I gotta do what I gotta do...you gotta take it when you get it, when it's there." I said, "Let me ask you a question. When do you do what you should do?" I'm telling you, you can tell when rules have not been given in terms of behavior.

MR: How does the CD State Of Emergency contribute to the discussion?

BC: The CD wants people to talk, to get inside of themselves because you can't have people across this United States -- whether they're black or white -- allow themselves to be put on video drawing blood and continuing to beat. This has to be some kind of sadness going into frustration going into anger. They want self-esteem so bad, that your life means nothing to them. When you're willing to take somebody's life, then your life is not worth anything.

Jace The Great: I wanted to touch on something that Doc said about the CD. A lot of times, hip-hop has such an influence on a lot of people. They're attracted to a certain kind of material that's being promoted to the masses. It may cause them to think a certain way, and actually react a certain way.

BC: Are you talking about "control"?

JTG: Yeah, to a certain degree. Let's say a concert that's derogatory, that promotes a lot about what you said, Doc. I mean, you have content saying, "I don't care about my life, I can spend the rest of my life in prison, it doesn't matter to me." You've got a kid that relates to this person or artist that they look up to, and they feel like they're living out these lyrics. Someone they look up to is saying, "Why care about life?"

But people are also saying, "Where did I go wrong?" When someone hears, "I can spend the rest of my life in prison," someone else is saying, "I'm learning. Where do I get off this treadmill and get onto my job." When you ask yourself that question, that "low" make you look into the mirror at yourself and get you to ask those questions, actually find a solution. That's what's behind the CD.

MR: Right, in "Where Did I Go Wrong?" you discuss taking back control of one's life, and like every song on the album, it seems to offer a solution from your perspective. You even have a prevention-themed song, "Take Time," in which you suggest the listener identifies and reverses a problem before it occurs by using time better to make better choices.

BC: That's right.

JTG: At a listening party, we commended people for taking out the time 'cause that's what it takes. The time is now, why spend it in the ground, you know? So, in the song, we said we just can't keep looking in the past. We have to say, "Enough procrastinating," about all these different barriers. That we're our own barriers. We're the ones on the treadmills.

Brother Hahz: That's why we've gotta take our time while we still got time.

BC: He's speaking for all of us.

MR: This album is very passionate in the way it treats all the subjects. It sounds like you've all put a lot of yourselves and beliefs into it. And the sequence is pretty tight.

William "Spaceman" Patterson: The interesting thing about the way things are placed on the CD is you can see there's a continuity that flows through it. We start out stating there's a state of emergency, and it's a journey of what maybe someone's going through inside their mind, inside their life. Things are talked about right from the beginning.

The first thing, after it's stated, you ask the question, "Why?" (The next song.) You talk about the visceral images that come from these words, you talk about the passion...every one of us is passionate about what we're doing. At the same time, we understand that we're putting it in the context of a creative art form. Like Jace said, you have kids who grew up influenced by whatever it was that the sponsor puts upon us. The soundtrack of their lives has been, "Hey, I might not live to be 21." They're comfortable with that. Now, they have an opportunity to have a new soundtrack, another soundtrack, one with some other voices that are in the style of what it is they're comfortable hearing -- like rhyme schemes and different kinds of grooves. There are some other stories to be told.

MR: How are the listening parties going?

Super Nova Slom: It's amazing 'cause we have the Boys And Girls Club Of America, and all the chapters across the country have taken on the Cosnarati project as the soundtrack to their organization. So, we went with that esteemed organization where alumnus like Doctor Crosby and Denzel Washington have emerged from. It's real powerful that they've taken on this soundtrack.

MR: That's quite an outreach.

SNS: There's no other hip-hop album in the history of hip-hop to be used as a tool to help inspire the youths. I think that we've found that we can get together and use the music, the message, and the art form that the Cosbys have been working on for so long.

MR: How did the members of the Cosnarati come together?

SNS: There are people like Brother Hahz, myself, Brother Jace, and Spaceman, in addition to the music that we're doing, that come back around to the community organizing that happened to do this work. So, when you ask why they got us, it makes sense when you look at the our backgrounds as not only lyricists and poets, but as activists doing work in our communities. Brother Hahz is very active in his area, and also very active in the church. Brother Jace is in the streets with the movement, I'm in the streets with the movement...we're working in tandem with Doctor Cosby and Spaceman. It's the first generation in hip-hop to actually share generations working together for the good of us all.

BC: But that's the point of why I chose these fellas. There was no list...here are people you have to come to.

MR: Which makes it an even truer statement. I imagine trying to market this project initially was difficult?

BC: When our CD was first finished and we were trying to get a company that wasn't talking insanity, I was asked to call certain people and say, "Would you say this is pretty decent and so forth." Having a group like this would make more sense than if Bill Cosby allowed himself to be in a picture with Lil' Wayne. It just made no sense, but it made sense to them. By the way, Lil Wayne has never asked me, this was just the idea.

MR: In a way, your Cosnarati can become a movement.

BC: I want to thank these fellows, and there are many like us. We're not by ourselves. But it's the difficulty of trying to get our young males and females to appreciate the education, to appreciate thinking ahead, to appreciate getting a job to support one's self, thinking about it in that way.

MR: And you're getting people thinking with this CD and book.

BC: Exactly.

JTG: Speaking of education, there are a lot issues that we're dealing with, and this is just one. It's a state of emergency when children feel like it's not cool to study, it's not cool to learn, it's not even cool to be educated. When children are outcasts when they want to study...no one criticizes that. And it's definitely a state of emergency when you have people being criticized for addressing a state of emergency.

SMS: And we're in a time, Mike, when people use the term "keepin' it real" which is almost like a buzzword for "keepin' it ignorant." Doctor Cosby talks about the whole thinking behind the behavioral patterns that we see -- what's been attributed to the youth out here -- and someone has convinced a lot of them opposite thinking is better. I remember there was time when "keeping it real" meant "keeping it better," it was always about something higher. I remember there was a time, growing up, when we were told you had to be five times better than everybody else.

BH: I think that -- keeping in the same theme as Spaceman -- we really have to change the mind set of the generation that we're living in, and the mind set of the kids that are growing up. That means the way they're brought up, what they think is cool, what they believe is right. They're believing all the wrong things are right because everybody else is doing it.

BC: Let's just take the word "snitch." Now what is that about? You're teaching your children when they see someone blowing someone else's head off, don't snitch. You don't want to be known as that. So that frees up anyone who wants to take a gun and do it because the neighborhood will not do anything about it.

Then I see the news and there's been some stray bullet that's taken out some youth, and I hear the people come and they're frustrated saying, "That's enough. We don't want anymore of this!" But they don't know how to get themselves together. That's what the listening parties will eventually do. They'll strengthen these people so that they'll know that a thousand of them together will cause a different behavior in the eight or ten who want to shoot and do criminal acts.

BH: Yup

JTG: You're right about that.

SNS: It's like dropping a pebble in a pond, you see that wave go out. It just starts and goes out everywhere. I mean, when people start thinking back in their correct mind, they realize, "Wow, it IS wrong to kill someone." You know, when they hear the lyrics to "Look Into The Eyes" -- "Look into the eyes of the kids on the street, all they see is murder. Does anybody care?" and they start to talk about that and understand that in certain neighborhoods, when something happens like that, they send psychologists out, they talk about it and go, "How did it happen? How did we get to this point?" It gets to the point where it's common place for someone to walk around and see chalk lines outside.

BC: They just did a number on two boys -- and I imagine they're Caucasian -- who had planned to do a Columbine. But somebody reported it. Okay, is that snitching if you tell the police and circumvent murders? See, that's the kind of thinking that we can't allow anymore, without saying something, without moving in a better direction.

MR: Do you see any signs of communities moving in a more positive direction?

BC: Two or three years ago, there was a murder in Newark and a demonstration by high school kids saying, "This is enough." But that was one. What we have to do is keep it up, keep it up, keep it up...stay on 'em, stay on 'em, stay on 'em so that our children see that it's for real. Stay on 'em so that our elders see that it's for real.

MR: Sounds like the anthem of The Cosnarati.

BC: That's who we are. We believe that this CD is very, very powerful. We also believe that people listening to it will be mouthing those words and children will hear it, and people will begin to think to themselves, "Look into the eyes of these children..."

2010-03-22-61Su9gVxjDL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State Of Emergency

1. State Of Emergency
2. Why?
3. Runnin'
4. Fear No Man
5. Take Time
6. Where Did I Go Wrong
7. But First
8. Perfect World
9. Dads Behind The Glass
10. Safe Of Your Heart
11. Where's The Parade
12. Get On Your Job
13. Look Into The Eyes
14. I Wish

...AND IN A RELATED STORY (KIND OF...NO, NOT REALLY):

The Bill Cosby Show - Shout!'s Season 2 DVDs Now Official: Box Art, Pricing and Bonus Material

4-DVD set exclusively at the Shout! Factory online store is available on April 20th

Bill Cosby returns as Chet Kincaid, the dedicated and hip gym teacher at Richard Allen Holmes High School in Los Angeles. The second season of Cosby's very first sitcom continued to deal with well-rounded characters in realistic predicaments with a genius comedic style that we would see much more of in coming years.

At the beginning of this month we relayed the news that Shout! Factory was preparing an April 20th ship date for The Bill Cosby Show - Season 2 on DVD. This 4-disc set won't be seen on store shelves, however: it's available only as part of the Shout! Factory online exclusive program. The set has now gone up for pre-order at the studio's online store (see button link below), revealing that the price is $39.99 (plus shipping and handling). Bonus material consists of a New Interview with Bill Cosby.