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10 Years of Change: Harnessing the power of P-Funk

Walter Wasacz

To condense 10 years of hyperlocal Detroit participation and experience into a page or two of meandering reflection is a daunting task.

It may not always feel like it, but we've been on a nice run since 2005. The simple idea that Model D launched in June that year — that the Detroit narrative needed to be refreshed in some cases, completely flipped on its head in a few, kicked square in the ass in still others  applies more than ever in summer 2016.

Stories of success are everywhere: entrepreneurship, innovation, and redevelopment (particularly in the city's 7.2 square mile greater downtown) are miles ahead of where we were in 2005.

Midtown booms, property values in Corktown, Woodbridge and the Villages soar. New Center is the new Midtown, the old North End is the new New Center, Highland Park could be the next Hamtramck. It sounds like a game of neighborhood dominoes that New York and Chicago played in the '80s-'90s (and are still playing, in fact).

But there is failure as well. The boom is overwhelmingly white in a majority black city. Not only is it white, but it too often comes with the trappings of those most unflattering traits of American whiteness: it's boring and uncool.

Not everything is, to be fair, but let's admit that a lot of it is. Though they might not be booming economically, the most vibrant parts of the city are in non-white communities. In Southwest Detroit, home to Mexican and Central American ethnic residential and commercial communities; the western edges and southwestern edges of the city, where Arab communities straddle the Dearborn and (let's not neglect) Melvindale borders; and in Hamtramck (and in neighborhoods bordering the city to the north and east), where South Asian Bangladeshi and Middle Eastern Yemeni families have helped transform a place once mostly white and Polish Catholic into an urban village of multicultural vibrancy.

It's hardly a shock then to suggest that Southwest Detroit and the expanding Hamtramck social geographic area are where Detroit is most inclusive, dynamic, kaleidoscopic. The future is beginning there now.    

"Maggot Brain"

I began thinking about how to address the complicated state of Detroit social geography about a year ago, when I was at a meeting at Model D with dozens of very smart people, and where the smartest thing I saw was a guy who walked through the door wearing a "Maggot Brain" T-shirt.

For those unaware (please, how could you be?), "Maggot Brain" is the 1971 album by Funkadelic, the George Clinton-led music collective that brought white, black, yellow, red and all colors of "the other" together under one social revolutionary tent.

Forgive me, smart people, but when I saw that I tuned all of you out. Enough talking and planning to meet and talk some more! Instead, let's all just take some quiet time and meditate on getting it done the way funky Detroit innovators did it in the '70s. Then do it, just do it the way George and his cohort did it.

He came to Detroit in the late 1960s from New Jersey, where he was a hair stylist and doo-wop performer, planning for his group the Parliaments to become the next Temptations. But they were too short, he said, and didn't have the slick dance moves the original Detroiters had. He failed to be what he wanted to be so he summoned the mothership and reinvented himself as the auteur of psychedelic soul, blending black with white, inner with outer space, and created something that has remained freaky fresh for 45 years.

Inspiration and impact

Of course, not everyone can do that. And Clinton's personal journey from the 1960s to now is another cautionary tale entirely. But P-Funk is both local and global, crosses racial and economic lines, and has proven culturally sustainable.

Seeing a T-shirt with the indelible "Maggot Brain" image helped produce the thoughts that gave way to this essay on inspiration and impact and how to find one to make the other happen.

There are solid fundamentals galore in George Clinton's trajectory. Why not use them in scheming up a new startup or in reimagining a tired community revitalization project?

It's not just about the music, though it is hard not to be impressed by a career that spans six decades, producing hundreds of titles under multiple project names. There are more important lessons to learn. He failed before he succeeded, found a better brand, arguably the best ever (line up your your arguments now, General Motors, I dare you), well before branding culture was ubiquitous. He was competitive but listened and learned from his competition (Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix).

P-Funk begat Prince, who in turn gave inspiration to Detroit electronic music artists Juan Atkins, Kenny Dixon Jr., and Mike Banks and Jeff Mills of Underground Resistance. All had a hand in bringing more inspiration and impact to the rest of the world. It continues unabated. Just ask Berlin and Tokyo what Detroit means to them.

No, it's not about music. It's about doing, making, producing. Those guys all get it. They know when to just stop talking and get busy creating the future. That's the gift Detroit keeps on giving. It's wise to never forget that.

Walter Wasacz is a former managing editor of Model D and was part of its original group of writers when it launched in 2005. He bought the self-titled first Funkadelic LP when it came out in 1970 and says 'Music for my Mother' is still the jam.
 
This story is a part of "10 Years of Change," a year-long series celebrating Model D's decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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