Friday, May 16, 2008

Par 5, Split Fairway

This is the fifth part of my series called Demolishing and Redeveloping Alphonso Jackson.

I wanted to leave that out of the title because this post extends Jackson's reign at the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development very concretely to the city of New Orleans. It's not just about him because of its consequences for us.

In part 1, I describe how Alphonso Jackson not-so-subtly explained to minority vendors that contracts from HUD would be awarded partially based on the political affiliations of the bidders.

Part 2 briefly describes how the city of New Orleans lost independent dominion over the Housing Authority of New Orleans, how HANO came to be under the direct control of HUD.

The scandal that most directly brought about the resignation of Alphonso Jackson resulted from his actions against the Philadelphia Housing Authority. In part 3, I detail the spat between minority developer and Republican contributer Kenneth Gamble and PHA's Executive Director Carl Greene. Gamble, after failing to meet the terms of his non profit's contract with the PHA, called in Alphonso Jackson to intervene. When Jackson and his people at HUD began to retaliate against Philadelphia by attempting to withhold federal funding, Carl Greene filed suit. The suit became public and the heat of the subsequent congressional investigations prompted Mr. Jackson to resign.

In part 4, I interviewed PHA Executive Director Carl Greene in detail about his experience with Alphonso Jackson and HUD. He had some impressive insights into the public housing demolition controversy from late last year and spoke to the problems that arise as a result of ceded municipal authority.

Why have I been slowly releasing research on Alphonso Jackson and HUD? What does it all mean? How does the scandal in Philadelphia tell us about New Orleans?

I hope to connect the dots for you today. I will draw a lot on the previous four posts of the series to help illustrate the big picture. I encourage you to read those if you can but I hope that this is clear enough to stand on its own.

I can tell you now that this is going to be really long, but I promise it'll be worth it. Take your computer into the bathroom with you.

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Most rewarding thus far, was my interview with Carl Greene. I had hoped that discussing his legal authority to file suit against HUD on behalf of the residents of Philadelphia's public housing would help illuminate the problematic alliance between HUD and HANO in the housing decisions that have occurred here.

Mr. Greene was willing to be so forthright with me about his view of things. His perspective on the operational philosophy of Alphonso Jackson was thought-provoking and was way more frank than I had envisioned when I contacted his office.

There was one thing that really had me thinking for some time after I'd posted the interview.


. . . I think Alphonso Jackson somehow felt as though he was the king of black people and his job was to somehow [benefit] these black contractors at the expense of the law. . . . [I]t's not just African American because I don't think it's just about black. I would say black-hyphen-socially-elite black. There's still a lot of poor black people out there that I'm in the business of serving every day. [Jackson] wasn't doing nothing for them. He went to Congress and said 'oh yeah give them 75%, give them 76% funding, take away all of their money.' But on the other hand, for one guy who can make some records, or some guy that makes contributions, or some guy that hangs out at the right golf club, I mean, the whole socially elite type that he was interested in - he would sacrifice the whole program for the purposes of benefiting the social elite. And that's what it came down to. It came down to the self-ascribed country club social contacts that he had, and he didn't care about the rules when it came to these folks.

--

I think Jackson was left to his own discretion to do whatever he wanted at HUD and he used that discretion - he abused that discretion - to take care of business and personal friends who became part of an elite social and business network. This was done at the expense of the city of New Orleans and its Housing Authority and if the City Council or the Mayor tried to object then he could always threaten to withhold the money or not give the money.
[T]hat was his normal M.O. 'If you don't go along with me then you won't get the money.' It's a 40 billion dollar agency and he's doling out money - he used it as a political weapon to force you to go along with his policy. With the compromising of the political infrastructure [in New Orleans], you had a guy [Jackson] that was in charge of the agency who would beat you over the head with the power of his office if you didn't really vote the way he wanted you to vote on the demolition application, so, effective advocacy for the very very poor folks down there, an effective, professional housing advisory to the Mayor and the Council and the housing authority board was not present. [H]e kind of hijacked that for his office and made it an organization that put on a front of taking care of affordable housing and public housing when at the same time, it was always the people that were part of the social and business elite crowd that he was associated with, that were getting the work.
Now, Mr. Greene of course knew firsthand about Jackson's favors for socially connected elite African American business people through HUD's attempts to retaliate against the Philadelphia Housing Authority on behalf of 2000 RNC speaker and Republican donor Kenneth Gamble.

But there was something else there that really stuck out in my mind and it took me awhile to really put a finger on what it was.

I had to think on it.

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Stroke 1: The philosophy of black capitalism as applied in New Orleans

Black capitalism in general is not bad or dangerous at all. In fact, I like it. Basically, it argues that for African Americans to rise as an oppressed minority, they must accumulate wealth by building their own businesses. Essentially, it's a large-scale "buy local" campaign to keep African American money in the African American community and away from large corporations that contribute to the larger economic system that has cemented aspects of structural racism.

In some instances, however, some African American business leaders have lost their way. They come to exploit the African American communities they purportedly assist by obtaining wealth. I can even see the justification. For example, though Kenneth Gamble was bilking Philadelphia Housing Authority residents, most of whom are poor African Americans, by failing to build the houses his contract with PHA demanded, he could sleep at night because the profits he and his company received from the market rate development he wanted to build would remain in African American hands - his own.

Now let's take a New Orleans example.

In early November, the Times-Picayune wrote about our sanitation contracts with Richard's and Metro disposal. I think everyone remembers that one, it sparked a lot of outrage and a City Council investigation. The gist was that two minority-owned sanitation companies,
Richard's Disposal and Metro Disposal, were receiving suspiciously cushy treatment from the city. While Jefferson Parish receives full sanitation service including "unlimited bulky waste" for about $8 from each taxpayer, New Orleans tax payers receive less service for at least $10 more per resident.

Additionally, as you'll recall, the original contracts with Richards and Metro actually did call for the removal of all "unlimited bulky waste," but after the fact, Nagin drafted an amendment that was sponsored in Council by Cynthia Willard-Lewis that eliminated this requirement from the contract.

*To be fair, Councilwoman Willard-Lewis' amendment was approved unanimously by all members of City Council, save for Stacy Head, who was not present. Councilwoman Head has an ideological opposition against funding certain city services for residents and believes that the city should not pay for debris removal at all. This reflects very poorly on the functioning of Council as a whole and on the individual culprits.

Of course, Richard's and Metro are owned and controlled by Alvin Richard and Jimmie Woods, respectively. Since 2006 alone, Richard's and Metro, or their owners or partners, have given thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Ray Nagin and Cynthia Willard-Lewis.

That's not the end of the story, however. As you might remember, when City Council got around to investigating their prior mistake, Richard's and Metro organized a protest of chambers. They alleged that the investigations into their contracts, which were quite clearly taking advantage of the population of New Orleans, amounted to racism against minority-owned firms. They stacked council with their employees and brought in officials from what could once be called a civil rights group, SCLC, which threatened a comically ridiculous boycott of the city.

Never mind that the inflated garbage collection contracts were hurting predominantly African American New Orleans taxpayers, our neighbors most disproportionately hurt by any form of economic exploitation or tax revenue waste. Never mind that a boycott by any group would disproportionately harm African Americans at the bottom rungs of the service industry economy. The warped interpretation of the black capitalism philosophy allowed Cynthia Willard Lewis, Sanitation Director Veronica White, Ray Nagin, Jimmie Woods, Alvin Richard, and Spiver Gordon of the SCLC to sleep well at night because they were working to keep the money in the hands of African Americans: two sets of hands, those of elite African American multimillionaires Alvin Richard and Jimmie Woods.


Stroke 2: Alphonso Jackson and William Hairston in New Orleans

While HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson's retaliation attempts against the Philadelphia Housing Authority yielded the political pressure that ultimately caused him to step down, Mr. Jackson was also under investigation for his role in steering contracts to his friends here in New Orleans. In October, the National Journal's Edward Pound reported on some nefarious relationships between Mr. Jackson and the firm that ultimately won the contract to redevelop the St. Bernard housing complex. The Times-Picayune also picked up the story. The allegations, at that time and as they developed, were two-tiered.

First, Alphonso Jackson was accused of steering a no-bid contract via HANO to millionaire African American businessman William Hairston to the tune of close to $500,000 for work done as a construction manager over an 18 month period. Later, Edward Pound found that HSD, a Georgia company affiliated with Hairston received an additional $186,000 contract directly from HUD.

So who is William Hairston?

According to Pound, he is:

"a golfing buddy and social friend from Hilton Head Island, S.C."

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, of course, is an extremely exclusive residence and elite vacation destination, where, according to the New York Times, Alphonso Jackson purchased a home in 2004. Hairston's wife, Starletta Hairston is currently running for the SC House from Hilton Head Island as a Republican.

Remember Mr. Jackson's contracting philosophy, as relayed to a conference of minority real estate executive in Dallas, from Part 1 of Demolishing and Redeveloping Alphonso Jackson:

"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.'

"He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Here is a list of political contributions by William and Starletta Hairston over the years. I'm sure that there are more listed under Mr. Hairston's various business ventures.

(Democratic majority whip James Clyburn also plays golf with Jackson and Hairston and also has questions to answer about his role in steering the HANO contract.)

Stroke
3: Alphonso Jackson and Columbia Residential in New Orleans

Columbia Residential is the company contracted for $127 million to redevelop the St. Bernard housing complex. Its President, Noel Khalil is a multimillionaire African American contractor from Atlanta.

According to the Times-Picayune, Columbia Residential via its subsidiary Columbia Highlands LLC had history in New Orleans before the storm:

Last December, a Columbia Highlands employee pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from a HANO contractor he was supposed to be overseeing. According to a summary of the case filed by the government, James Lozano of Atlanta admitted accepting $45,000 from the owner of a construction company helping to build the Fischer Senior Housing Village in Algiers. The money was paid in increments starting in 2002, the records say.

Columbia Highlands initially received a small project management contract from HANO, Moon said. In late 2002, the firm got a much larger contract, essentially putting it in charge of overseeing the redevelopment of all of the complexes undergoing renovation at the time: Desire, Florida, Fischer and Guste. The value of that contract could not be determined Thursday.

Moon said the larger contract was awarded after a competitive-selection process, under which HANO would not have been bound to choose the lowest-priced vendor. She declined to continue the interview after being asked how Columbia Highlands first came to work for the agency.


Remember, HANO was directly controlled by HUD beginning in 2002.

Turns out, Alphonso Jackson and Noel Khalil are close:

At the same time, the secretary still has financial ties to one housing developer. According to Jackson's financial disclosure reports, an Atlanta-based development company, Columbia Residential, owes him $250,000 to $500,000. Before joining HUD, his spokesman said, Jackson was a "partner/consultant" for the developer.

According to his disclosure reports, Jackson is to receive periodic payments "for past services" under a separation agreement with the company. He has received only one such payment in the past six years -- $35,000 in 2003. HUD officials said that Jackson avoids any dealings with Columbia Residential. They released a memo he wrote in August 2001 in which he recused himself from HUD matters having "a direct and predictable effect on the ability or willingness" of the company "to satisfy its obligation to compensate me for prior service rendered."

Columbia Residential's $127 million contract to redevelop the St. Bernard projects was, of course, above-board because Mr. Jackson has agreed recuse himself from the panel that awarded the big four redevelopment contracts?

The four-member selection panel included Scott Keller, who was until recently Jackson's deputy chief of staff and who is often described within HUD as Jackson's "right-hand man." But in an interview, Keller said that because of the press of other HUD business he did not participate in, or influence, the selection of the Columbia Residential team. Keller left HUD in August to become a private consultant.

Nothing to see here, other than a follow-up by Pound that explains how Mr. Keller became a central figure in the investigations into HUD.

As it turns out, however, Keller not only helped choose the panel but also served as a member. The other panel members were another senior HUD official from Washington, a HANO official, and an executive from the Fort Worth, Texas, housing authority. Legal and financial advisers assisted the panel in the selection process.

According to three people with intimate knowledge of the selection process, Keller strongly favored the Columbia Residential team's proposal. Margaret (Peg) Stone, a private financial adviser who is now retired, sat in on the discussions and recalls that Keller promoted Columbia Residential's plan "from the beginning." Stone said: "He certainly liked them a lot.... He advocated strongly for the best solution to the project, which he thought was Columbia Residential."

Khalil, a registered Democrat and donor, certainly knew how to play ball the Alphonso Jackson way in 1999 when he contributed to George W. Bush's first-term campaign.

So to quickly sum up, Noel Khalil of Columbia Residential won a $127 million contract from the taxpayers of New Orleans after formerly employing Alphonso Jackson, who used his chief of staff to pick and serve on the panel that awarded the contract. Columbia Residential continued to make direct payments totaling at least $250,000 while Mr. Jackson served at HUD.

Stroke
4: Columbia Residential, Bayou District Foundation, and St. Bernard

A 501c3 nonprofit, the Bayou District Foundation, came to be the public face of the complicated web of companies and foundations working on the St. Bernard redevelopment:

St. Bernard Redevelopment is the same group of nonprofits and businesses that have struck a partnership that includes the Fore!Kids Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, both established charities.

An affiliate of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Commercial Properties Development Corp., will manage commercial elements of the redeveloped St. Bernard site. A for-profit Atlanta company, Columbia Residential, will develop the apartment complexes. The Bayou District Foundation, formed earlier this year, acts as the public face of the complex partnership.

The Fore!Kids Foundation? I thought this was about building houses.

Why build affordable housing in a city with an affordable housing crisis when you can risk it and try to reach the green in two?
So the Bayou District Foundation is asking park officials to give up a portion of future revenue in exchange for the foundation's massive front-end investment in three golf courses, two of them of a quality that could lure PGA Tour events to the city. The foundation has proposed taking $500,000 from an expected $1.5 million in yearly golf revenue to finance educational and recreational programs at the St. Bernard complex. The plan's backers say they will assure City Park retains at least $500,000 in golf revenue.
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Despite the obstacles, businessmen pushing the foundation plan have high hopes. Federal housing officials have endorsed the developers' broad vision. And the complicated agenda has advantages created, oddly, by Hurricane Katrina.

While they face criticism and questions from displaced St. Bernard residents, the Bayou District Foundation leaders don't face the wrenching prospect of relocating people. The more than 1,000 families living in the 52-acre complex before Katrina flooded the neighborhood are gone, and St. Bernard is shuttered.

Nope, no annoying residents to ask questions, the storm took care of them. Now that we have the backing of Federal housing official (Alphonso Jackson) that our primary housing partner (Columbia Residential) owes hundreds of thousands of dollars, we can just go ahead and build two PGA-caliber golf courses.

It gets even more ludicrous:

Golf and public housing may seem like odd bedfellows. But the plan uses as its model Atlanta's East Lake housing and golf development that replaced a notorious Atlanta public housing complex with what by all accounts has become a thriving mixed-income neighborhood. That unique project taps the golf revenue to finance education and recreation programs for families in subsidized housing.

But, the as that TP article indicates, there are two key differences. First, the Bayou District Foundation's plan will cost at least $240 million whereas the East Lake plan cost $128 million. The other difference is kind of shrugged off in the article, but I'm going to highlight it because it's actually a huge difference:
The New Orleans effort lacks a local "sugar daddy," a philanthropist like Atlanta's Tom Cousins, who spearheaded that project after buying and restoring the storied East Lake Golf Club. And so the proposal will have to rely more heavily on nationwide fundraising and federal financing.
Atlanta's East Lake development was financed by a single philanthropist! Our plan relies on taxpayer money and public lands. That's a huge difference.
"This is not a New Orleans fundraising effort. It has to be national," said Gerard Barousse, a real estate executive and managing partner of the Bayou District Foundation. "He (Cousins) told us he will introduce us to people, make some calls."
Genius! Not only are we going to melt our affordable housing tax dollars with a golf course redevelopment plan, but we're also going to rely on our big brother Tom Cousins to introduce us to his friends?

Well, Mr. Barousse, how's that fundraising effort going?

From an April TP story:

The rapid decline in financial markets has upset plans developers made last year to remake the public housing developments with a mix of public and private money. Since the City Council voted to demolish the complexes late last year, a spiraling credit crisis has made banks uneasy about making new loans. Meanwhile, the value of low-income housing tax credits that will be used to finance the projects has declined.

In recent weeks, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, the state entity handling the award of tax credits, has said that any affordable housing developers who have not yet closed on their financing plans may find themselves unable to do so.

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Gerard Barousse, managing partner of the Bayou District Foundation, which is redeveloping the St. Bernard complex, said the market has gotten tougher, but he hopes to close on financing in July and begin construction at the end of summer. "There's a little bit of a gap that we're working with, but it's not an insurmountable number," Barousse said.

But Bayou District is still shopping for a lender and tax credit syndicator, making it harder to nail down figures. "We're still sorting through a lot of that," Barousse said.

So it's not working out so well? What happened to all of Tom Cousins' friends that you were going to get introduced to?

Stroke 5: Saving for Par?

Let's once again revisit the words of Carl Greene of the Philadelphia Housing Authority:

. . . I think Alphonso Jackson somehow felt as though he was the king of black people and his job was to somehow [benefit] these black contractors at the expense of the law. . . . [I]t's not just African American because I don't think it's just about black. I would say black-hyphen-socially-elite black. There's still a lot of poor black people out there that I'm in the business of serving every day. [Jackson] wasn't doing nothing for them. He went to Congress and said 'oh yeah give them 75%, give them 76% funding, take away all of their money.' But on the other hand, for one guy who can make some records, or some guy that makes contributions, or some guy that hangs out at the right golf club, I mean, the whole socially elite type that he was interested in - he would sacrifice the whole program for the purposes of benefiting the social elite. And that's what it came down to. It came down to the self-ascribed country club social contacts that he had, and he didn't care about the rules when it came to these folks.

--

I think Jackson was left to his own discretion to do whatever he wanted at HUD and he used that discretion - he abused that discretion - to take care of business and personal friends who became part of an elite social and business network. This was done at the expense of the city of New Orleans and its Housing Authority and if the City Council or the Mayor tried to object then he could always threaten to withhold the money or not give the money.
[T]hat was his normal M.O. 'If you don't go along with me then you won't get the money.' It's a 40 billion dollar agency and he's doling out money - he used it as a political weapon to force you to go along with his policy. With the compromising of the political infrastructure [in New Orleans], you had a guy [Jackson] that was in charge of the agency who would beat you over the head with the power of his office if you didn't really vote the way he wanted you to vote on the demolition application, so, effective advocacy for the very very poor folks down there, an effective, professional housing advisory to the Mayor and the Council and the housing authority board was not present. [H]e kind of hijacked that for his office and made it an organization that put on a front of taking care of affordable housing and public housing when at the same time, it was always the people that were part of the social and business elite crowd that he was associated with, that were getting the work.

I've been thinking about what this all means for the city and for the children displaced by Hurricane Katrina and subsequently abused by the affordable housing crisis. It's just so shameful. Not only was Alphonso Jackson executing an increasingly blatant agenda to enrich his elite friends with lucrative HUD contracts or other favors using his political muscle, but our local leadership seemed something more sinister than ambivalent.

They seem complicit.

The racial implications of this are uncomfortable. We have a situation in which Alphonso Jackson and his friends, like Ray Nagin and his friends, have achieved a monetary and social status reserved for a select few.

Golf is symbolic in this sense. It is an exclusive game, a sport with prohibitive membership costs. To get in, the Mayor and his friends and Alphonso Jackson and his friends sold their souls. Their policies and practices have hurt the very communities they purportedly began careers in public service to assist.

Now they serve a different community. They serve Gerard Barousse of the Bayou District Foundation. They serve the Bayou District Foundation's design and construction team (click on 'management team'): Broadmoor LLC is a subsidiary of Boh Bros. Construction.

Now certainly there can be an argument made that the ascent of elite African American business people to country club status is an inspiring feat. Certainly those behind the Fore!Kids Foundation have a stated intention to make golf more accessible to a demographic historically barred from the game.

But I wonder if it's a game worth playing at all. I wonder if it's a game worth teaching our youth. And I'm not talking about golf the sport, I'm talking about the game played by the likes of Alphonso Jackson, Ray Nagin, Jimmie Woods, Alvin Richard, and William Hairston.

Is it really worth teaching a select few how to achieve "success" in a game systematically rigged to prevent the vast majority of their peers from ever playing? Especially when "success" relies upon one's ability to use that exploitive system for one's own selfish benefit at the expense of the larger community.

And that's ultimately what is happening with the St. Bernard redevelopment plan and with the city's larger affordable and public housing non-policy. Rather than address the incredible challenges that ordinary people face every single day in this city and the incredible risks to this city's long, medium, and short term viability, our state, local, and federal leadership has instead adopted a backward trickle-down approach to community development.

Let's not build housing or raise the minimum wage or provide hospitals or schools or public transportation.

Instead let's put up hundreds of millions of dollars for a "vanguard" river redevelopment and promise that the eventual revenue fallout will drip down to residents.

Instead let's demolish salvageable public housing units and install market rate homes to be sold at a profit with the promise that this will help spread neighborhood revival down the road.

Instead let's build three new golf courses and promise that the social benefits of accessibility will allow a few hundred to maybe learn sportsmanship and integrity. We promise that the small business economy will develop as soon as we can get PGA tour events to bring more high end business here.

NO NO NO NO NO.

They want to snooker us into believing that the economic development that follows upfront investment in ventures by and for elite business interests will eventually provide enough tax revenue to then go ahead and invest in the social services and infrastructure necessary to help middle and working class New Orleans families.

That's not what happens. Any increased tax revenue that might arrive will only be reinvested into another chic development project like a new stadium for the Saints or into tax abatements for more luxury condominiums.

That's why you say no right now.

All that initial startup investment they want to shower upon these wealthy developers, contractors, and construction companies might foster more economic development and eventual tax revenue if they put it into the programs, services, and infrastructure that we're frustrated with every day. Maybe instead of investing in a golf course that might eventually entice wealthy golfers to play here, the smarter strategy would be to directly invest into the community so that families will actually want to live here.

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This week, we learned that our fearless President "gave up" the game of golf out of deference to military families suffering through the frustration of a difficult war sometime in 2003.

Yet, at the same time, President Bush's friend Alphonso Jackson was rounding up his own golf buddies for a Katrina aftermath tee-time.

6 comments:

alli said...

Damn, that is some fine work!

You really bring it home at the end there. It's such a fraud, the way they turn the sale of public investments to private wealthy ownership into a community asset. Just more trickle-down bullshit.

I have an issue with the black capitalism thing - and that's because the argument that "black capitalism" is what's necessary to bring minority communities out of systemic isolation and poverty was taken down decades ago - William Tabb did it in 1970 in "The Political Economy of the Black Ghetto." He argued that "black capitalism" actually furthers elite corporate interests by "channeling black protest, creating a stable black leadership, and helping many large corporations penetrate a black economy [with] sizable purchasing power."

Funny how that actually bolsters your argument...

Karen said...

We have City Park filled with unusuable Golf. And The Golf Club in Ponchitrain Park..

E said...

Alli, you make a good point about "channeling black protest."

But my perspective on protest is that there can be many different fronts on which to fight a battle.

I think certain individuals or demographic segments of a minority community can have a more substantive impact by channeling their energies into capital creation for their community.

(OF COURSE I THINK WHAT ALPH JACKSON AND RAY NAGIN DID WAS A TOTAL PERVERSION OF THAT)

But the point is that I don't believe minority protest efforts are best served by ONLY doing grassroots mobilization or something might be more romantic and altruistic for me or you personally.

For instance, if you take hip hop as an example, Jay-Z takes a lot of flak for "selling out" or something. I, for one, personally prefer Mos Def or Dead Prez for staying truer to the grassroots nature of the art form and to hip-hop's ground-up marketing and political ideology.

Nonetheless, if you look at Jay-Z's crossover ability, his quest for capital as a mogul: Even though it has, at times, muted some of his own more conscious or radical lyrical messages, he has had a demonstrable effect on hip-hop's political and social influence.

Anonymous said...

This was a really good piece. The best I've read so far. Now I'm goingto read the earlier pieces. Don

Another decption said...

One should look at the work of Kahil and Columbia in Marietta and Atlanta Georgia......very interesting since they have a proven track record in New Orleans

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