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The Battle on Medicine Is a Battle on Black Tradition: Fab 5 Freddy on “Grass Is Greener”

Fab 5 Freddy, aka Fred Brathwaite, already has sufficient cultural clout to final 5 lifetimes. Although greatest often called the host of MTV’s groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps program within the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Freddy achieved earlier notoriety for his Warhol-inspired Campbell’s Soup subway mural, his bridging of NYC’s uptown hip-hop and downtown art-punk scenes, his starring position within the iconic movie Wild Model, his friendship with Basquiat, and, in fact, having his title dropped in Blondie’s “Rapture.” Oh yeah, he additionally directed music movies for songs from Nas and Snoop Dogg’s respective debut albums.

However Freddy’s most up-to-date enterprise is likely to be his most impactful and long-lasting cultural contribution but. This previous Saturday (four/20, for all of you residing underneath rocks), he launched a Netflix documentary entitled Grass Is Greener, which initially payments itself as a window into the world of cannabis-fueled music, however finally ends up being way more. 

The godson of legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, Fab 5 Freddy grew up amongst a wealthy jazz (and hashish) custom, and the movie begins by cataloguing the style’s early historical past with the herb. Weed is likely to be extra generally related to later scenes like psychedelic rock, reggae, and hip-hop, however throughout Grass Is Greener’s first half-hour, Fab 5 Freddy illustrates its significance in African-American music from the beginning of the 20th century.

Slowly mixing in stunning, typically totally terrifying particulars concerning the criminalization of hashish (which didn’t occur nationally till 1937, years after among the early jazz mentioned), Fab 5 Freddy makes use of the favored world of pot-fueled music as a leaping off level for a way more somber dialogue of racial inequity. 

Alongside early advocates like Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, we’re launched to hashish prohibition villains like Harry Anslinger, the primary commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was instrumental in creating the scientifically inaccurate, hysterical picture of “reefer insanity.” By utilizing expertly-researched proof from each cultural and political archives, Freddy proves past the shadow of a doubt that hashish criminalization has been inextricable from racist politics since day one. 


In the event you go in anticipating a lighthearted romp, Grass Is Greener may harsh your mellow. The doc confronts the viewer with the brutal realities and still-gestating results of the Battle On Medicine, illustrating how hashish has been used as a scapegoat in plenty of distinguished trendy civil rights instances. However that is the historical past we should always take into account when speaking concerning the celebration and legalization of hashish. 

That includes interviews with Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, pioneering Excessive Occasions editor Steven Hagar, and different distinguished cannabis-focused members of the music, medical, industrial, and activist fields, the movie presents a concise and compelling argument for hashish clemency and decriminalization, in addition to for inclusiveness for individuals of colour within the newly authorized trade. MERRY JANE caught up with Fab 5 Freddy over the cellphone to uncover the movie’s origins, parse out its total message, and snicker about its most sudden moments.


MERRY JANE: How did the concept for Grass Is Greener first come to you?

Fab 5 Freddy: The thought hit me after I was having a dialog with a buddy, who had been within the underground hashish enterprise for some time, been incarcerated a few occasions. He was able to attempt to make a transfer into the authorized elements of the enterprise, however sadly, those who have prior [convictions] typically occasions cannot work within the enterprise in any respect. So his thought was developing with a consultancy firm referred to as 40 Acres and a Greenhouse, an allusion to the “40 acres and a mule” black of us have been promised after slavery. That sparked a complete attention-grabbing dialog about individuals of colour getting concerned within the enterprise, the hurdles that have been set as much as hold them out, and the way he was going to discover a cool work-around.

Then I started to consider the quite a few songs concerning the plant from the jazz period all the best way to hip-hop acts that have been launched on my present again within the Yo! MTV Raps period. I used to be like, ‘Wait a minute, music has been out entrance popularizing the plant and the concept of hashish for the reason that ’20s and ’30s.’ I simply noticed this continuum and a option to incorporate music to inform the story, after which leap off to completely different conversations about criminalization and social justice that we have to have. 

Why did you resolve to start out with extra music-related, upbeat stuff earlier than stepping into the second half of the movie, which has a extra somber tone?

It was simply the best way that hit me to inform the story. It reveals what the individuals who created America’s music have been doing and pondering. Consider among the plant’s medical advantages which are confirmed: now we have vets coming residence from Iraq with PTSD, committing suicide frequently, sadly. Opioids are the prescribed drugs used to deal with PTSD, however there are confirmed reviews of individuals saying they get higher reduction from utilizing hashish merchandise. 

So again within the ’20s, when a black man could not actually go to a hospital or a health care provider more often than not, you needed to have some residence treatments. Guess what a type of treatments possible was? And consider musicians: you are not going to have the ability to do all of that necessary stuff in your instrument in case you’re drunk, however hashish, in a way, slows time down. That is good for the improvisational elements of jazz music. Louis Armstrong, the progenitor of jazz, was a hashish aficionado. 

We pitched this as a multi-part [series], in addition to a characteristic. If it had been the previous, I might’ve delved into far more music — extra rock, extra reggae, even R&B, like Rick James’ tune “Mary Jane,” or D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” and I wished to interview George Clinton. It was simply fascinating, the entire cutting-edge music individuals that basically set the tone, set the pattern, and helped unfold the phrase. 


I truly wrote a column concerning the earliest hashish references in music a few years in the past—

What did you discover?

I discovered a model of the tune “La Cucaracha” that dated again to the very early 1900s. 

Sure! Sure! Sure! I discovered a clip from an previous movie from the ’20s or ’30s the place they did a complete cannabis-related manufacturing of that tune. We have been digging up so many elderly songs, it was fascinating. Somebody simply despatched me a hyperlink that listed all these merchandise from that period that had hashish in them. I am certain there have been quite a few merchandise that had cocaine or opium in them again then, however there have been additionally lots with hashish listed clearly, to treatment what ails you. 

It is no secret, however when racists noticed that it was bringing individuals collectively to listen to this music, to go that joint in between individuals, they wished to do no matter it took to cease this. So Harry Anslinger created this complete marketing campaign to inform individuals that it will drive you criminally insane. 

It was the “Reefer Insanity” period, which we nonetheless dwell in. Within the movie, we present the position of hashish within the protection of George Zimmerman’s homicide of Trayvon Martin, within the case of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown — even Botham Jean, the place the cop went into the incorrect condominium and killed this man — ‘Oh, he is bought hashish in order that makes him a felony.’ That was fascinating, surprising to study. That is stuff that individuals must find out about. 

So when four/20 comes round and folks gentle up a fats one and have a very good time whereas watching the film, you are gonna be confronted with the fact, and that is not all the time the nice time that you just assume it’s. Social justice must be part of hashish legalization, as a result of it’s going to be the identical wealthy white guys getting all the cash. Those who pioneered this shit on the road degree, who went on the market and risked their necks to feed their households to provide us this innocent plant, they must be at that desk. 


I need to get again to the trendy trade in a second, however you talked about Harry Anslinger. There’s this second within the movie when the digicam cuts to your face while you’re watching him discuss concerning the hashish “drawback” in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, and contrasting them with New England. Whole racist canine whistle. What was working via your thoughts in that second?

What was working via my thoughts was, ‘You ain’t slick, motherfucker’ [laughs]. We see what is going on on. Harry Anslinger’s the one that killed Billie Vacation. All people knew she was a heroin addict, and he had her arrested, handcuffed to the mattress with out methadone, and he or she died handcuffed to that mattress. Within the longer model, I might’ve touched on that. 

On the opposite aspect of the fence, it was cool to find out about Allen Ginsberg’s activism on this topic, how he referred to as criminalization a “methodology of assault” on individuals of colour. Was he the earliest lively protestor of hashish legislation’s inherent racism, or did you discover others in your analysis?

He was, truly. He actually took it mainstream, together with the entire ’60s cultural revolution. My man George Nelson Preston, who was on that scene, he is within the movie studying an article from The Atlantic that Ginsberg wrote, and it simply mentioned a lot. It actually shined a light-weight on what was occurring. All of us study from one another, but it surely’s simply not as broadly reported due to the racism pandemic on this nation. 

Figuring out what I do concerning the Nixon administration, I suppose it shouldn’t have shocked me to listen to him name criminalization a “instrument to repress dissent,” or explicitly speaking about disrupting racial and political communities, but it surely nonetheless did. All of the whereas, although, I used to be pondering that it wouldn’t shock me in any respect to listen to Trump say these issues, too.

That is true.

What does that say about the place we’re at now with the Battle on Medicine?

It is horrible. Earlier than he bought fired, we had Jeff Classes within the movie making a 100 p.c Harry Anslinger-level remark in entrance of Congress concerning the plant — I am certain you all noticed it. However he is not a problem anymore. We have different issues to cope with, in order that bought lower out of the film. However there’s nonetheless individuals within the administration which have that degree of ignorance. As soon as once more, it is purely racist. There isn’t any approach you possibly can inform me you consider all that in case you’re not looking for a option to criminalize black of us. We have to combat it, and when the chance comes, in no matter place it’s, we have got to let our opinions be heard and let our representatives know that we’re not supporting legalization except there’s equitable therapy of these most victimized. 


You caught two or three white hashish entrepreneurs saying some wild, borderline racist stuff at a hashish convention in the direction of the tip of the movie. What about their phrases do you assume exemplifies what’s incorrect with the present hashish trade?

I do not assume there’s any drawback with individuals getting cash on this house. I believe it is nice. I simply assume it must be equitable. So these [white] guys are doing what they’re doing, however while you see these black ladies [in the film] speaking concerning the excessive bar of entry into the trade — you have gotta have $200ok to even get a license — that is that bullshit that is taking place that is designed to maintain individuals of colour out of the enterprise, backside line. You’ll be able to have a look at the economics and see the fact. So the New York State legislature is making an attempt to place the [legalization] vote collectively by June, but when they do not get a invoice that addresses these points, they are not going to let it go. I went as much as Albany and confirmed my movie to about 50 representatives final week, they usually mentioned this has solidified their place. 

You’ve bought a ton of iconic cannabis-referencing songs within the movie. Was it tough to amass the rights to all of them, or have been most artists and estates prepared as soon as they heard concerning the undertaking?

We needed to ‘honest use’ loads of these songs, which means we are able to solely use a very small portion, put textual content on the display screen, do loads of issues that individuals thought have been intentional, however our authorized division was proper there telling us the honest use guidelines. All of the music that follows an precise tune, like when it cuts to an individual getting interviewed, the music within the background is all new music created by my cousin [and veteran music producer] Salaam Remi. That is from the jazz stuff all the best way to hip-hop. We might solely use the actual songs for a number of seconds, after which now we have one thing comparable, however unique, that performs underneath the interviews that observe. We might’ve by no means afforded to make use of the precise songs. 

I used to be shocked to study that Run-DMC’s “Rock Field” was initially about weed. 

C’mon man, my jaw was on the ground after they informed me that. I used to be like, ‘Actually, dude? Wonderful.’ 

So that you have been shocked by that, as effectively?

Unbelievably. That was a type of nice moments that occurred whereas the digicam was rolling, like, ‘Am I actually getting this?’ 

I figured if anybody knew it would be you. 

Proper? After which even Snoop actually explaining how he got here up with the title for The Continual. , I directed his first video, he debuted on Yo! MTV Raps, and I spent a complete summer time residing in Dre’s home. That was one of many defining scenes within the documentary, him explaining how that occurred. I used to be smoking with Tha Dogg Pound on the common, and Dre would hardly ever smoke, he was not a smoker like Snoop was. So it was attention-grabbing, this man’s bought a report referred to as The Continual, like, the nice weed album, and for Snoop to interrupt that down, it made good sense. 

Yeah, Dre named it that though a number of years prior on an N.W.A. tune, he mentioned that hashish provides you mind harm. 

That is proper. That is a very good instance of what hashish propaganda can do. What Dre mentioned in that tune, that is precisely what these early pot tales have been saying, docs saying that it provides you incurable mind harm. That is the place that got here from. That is the great job Harry Anslinger did. In the event you heard that shit from seemingly respected individuals in lab coats, what are you gonna do? Thank god that Snoop woke Dre up. 

“Grass Is Greener” is out now on Netflix — watch the complete doc right here

Comply with Patrick Lyons on Twitter


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