At hip-hop summit, NOI calls tune

September 25, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

HARLEM -- The traffic jam started at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, forcing my cabdriver to creep his way the next two blocks up to 127th Street, site of the Nation of Islam's Mosque No. 7 and the summit called the "Hip Hop Day of Atonement."

New York City police had set up barricades blocking 127th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Police allowed the press through the barricade at precisely 1 p.m. so we could go to Room 429 inside the mosque, where a news conference with NOI New York representative Conrad Muhammad was to be held.

Fruit of Islam men in their somber red and blue uniforms beckoned us to walk through a door on the far right. After a double frisking at the front door (which I didn't mind; this was, after all, the Nation of Islam's house), a young man led us to an elevator that took us to the fourth floor. One of those elegantly dressed Muslim sisters signed us in at the door. Then I tried to elbow my way up front amid a gaggle of cameramen and cameras.

After a 15-minute wait, Shannon Muhammad, a spokesman for Conrad Muhammad, walked into the room. The impeccably dressed Shannon Muhammad had bad news. In fact, the news was in essence a diss to the press. But he was polite about it.

"We are unable to allow reporters into today's summit," he announced. "Reporters who are of African descent will be allowed to attend as guests, but without cameras or recorders."

"Wait a minute, sir," one distinctly Caucasian reporter said from the back. "I'm not of African descent. Does that mean I won't be able to get into the summit?" Another asked if he was to understand that no white reporters would be allowed into the summit, organized after the death of Tupac Shakur.

"No, sir. You are to understand that no reporters will be allowed in," the spokesman answered. The media types were obviously confused about standard Nation of Islam practice, one that was in effect when I visited the mosque in the late 1960s and early 1970s: When the press was barred, black reporters were allowed in as guests. Only rarely were whites allowed in as guests.

This was the NOI's house, so we had to abide by their rules. But the press exclusion left me in a dilemma. Should I use my African descent to get into the summit or boycott it to show solidarity with my excluded white colleagues? That was, of course, assuming I could even get in the door. I discussed that problem with Tony Norman, a black columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Did you see that line outside?" I asked him of those waiting to get in. The line extended from the front door all the way down to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and snaked its way around it almost up to 128th Street. If we had to go to the end of the line, there was no way we would get in the summit. In effect, the NOI had accomplished a fait accompli in virtually excluding press coverage of the summit.

My suspicions were confirmed when NOI spokesmen said the presummit news conference was canceled. Was Conrad Muhammad running late, as they claimed, or did he prefer not to face a press corps that might have questioned him about calling a New York state assemblyman only two days earlier a "snotty-nosed Jewish politician"? We'll never know. But when I went out to stand in line, I overheard a Muslim sister telling some women in the crowd that NOI leader Louis Farrakhan didn't want the media covering the event at all because they "have no respect for black people."

If that's true, then the NOI press folks certainly went beyond the call of duty. Even though we were barred from the summit, Shannon Muhammad and Co. did make an effort to bring summit attendees over to the press area for interviews. One of them was Malik Yoba, the star of Fox television's "New York Undercover." Asked about how he felt about Tupac Shakur, Yoba answered that he and the rapper had been friends about seven years.

"He prophesied his own death," Yoba answered. "Remember the power and energy of words." Then NOI guards led him into the summit.

"He must have had a reservation," quipped Thomas Valcarcel, who stood beside me as the rain increased from a light drizzle to a downpour. "Common folks stand in the rain and VIPs get to go inside. Nothing changes."

Of Tupac, Valcarcel said the gifted rapper could have been another Malcolm X or Bob Marley. He was not, Valcarcel insisted, the thug people thought he was.

"How many thugs do you know who read Machiavelli and Hobbes?" Valcarcel asked.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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