Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Now Playing: The Pointer Sisters, “Yes We Can Can”

I was thinking about the Pointer Sisters today—The 1973 Pointer Sisters—and how their first album was one that rarely left my turntable that year. I was a child and mercifully I’ve held on to most of my records from then; curiously, this one’s  in pretty good condition—too good I’d say, to have belonged to a kid—which leads me to believe it’s not my original. Back then, I was in the habit of marking all my LP records with a DYMO tape sticker that said DENISE. Just like that, all caps, white letters on orange or green, sometimes red or blue though rarely yellow. But because the DYMO tape or any evidence of having been stuck by DYMO tape is missing (I like typing DYMO), I’m thinking the copy I’m holding of the Pointer Sisters’ self titled album on the Blue Thumb label was at some point reacquisitioned, between 1973 and now.

It’s uncharacteristic of me not to know exactly when I came by a record; that’s just how it is with people who collect records (or if you collect anything, you know what I’m talking about). Obtaining the object is part of its memory, which I find is selective and often obscured by all kinds of clouds and things. But records are the proverbial madeleine that take us back to the land that time (and sometimes I) forgot; songs may come and go, but it’s the record that helps me remember.

Opening the gatefold sleeve today, I recalled a few things: How as a girl, I preferred the portraits on the outer sleeve to the stylized inner sleeve which I bitterly critiqued as “staged.” The outer sleeve was real, or so I thought, not knowing photos were taken at a thing called a photo shoot, set up by a photographer (H.B. Greene according to the sleeve notes) who has an assistant. Preferring the sepia-toned “authentic” 1940s styling on the outer sleeve to the glossy, deco design on the inside, I’d pegged the Pointers as down-to-earth, regular people, not Hollywood types; they were after all local, from Oakland. This is how it should be, them living in a Victorian-styled house like the one pictured on the cover,  them dressed in ’40s casual, just as they would everyday.  I never talked to a single other kid about The Pointer Sisters first album or what they wore or how they wore it, I just know I’d still give my right arm for a dress just like the one June is wearing in the photo, perfect as it is in every way. Anyone who remembers these things like I do will tell you that baby June, the youngest Pointer, had the style thing completely locked-up. Such a fashion icon she was, it’s a wonder I didn’t take to wearing a turban like she did, though I think I intuited it probably wouldn’t go over very well at school. Where did a child obtain a turban anyway?

As for the music, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? Forty years later, we all know everything about everything and all I’ve got is my stale madeleine from the early ’70s and my Pointer Sisters reverie. The first time I heard the Willie Dixon song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” it was not performed by Etta James; rather, it was right there in my bedroom with the yellow floral wallpaper, at the end of side two of The Pointer Sisters.  For sure, that was also the first time I ever saw the name A. Toussaint on a writing credit.  Allen Toussaint is of course a legend of New Orleans piano style and the songwriting giant who wrote the album’s opener, “Yes We Can Can.”  Why do I waste my breath? You knew that. Heck, even I knew as a small fry that Lee Dorsey was known for doing the song first; he’d been around the prior decade with “Ya Ya.”  I knew that one by heart for reasons I can’t possibly relay right now without getting way off course. Put it this way: “It may sound funny but I don’t believe she’s coming home” rung some bells for me.  I also liked the smooth vocals in “Jada,” one of the songs the Sisters themselves are partially credited with writing.  But really, what I was most concerned with in 1973 wasn’t the music but in getting hold of some old plastic fruit, likely the cherries from the bowl at my great-grandmother’s house, so I could fashion a bunch into a corsage that I could wear on the lapel of my Eisenhower jacket from Lerner’s, to be worn with some wide-bell high-waist pants and platform sandals. Pointer Sisters style, for real.

In closing, I was going to say I don’t remember what we did without You Tube but that would be a big fat lie. I remember perfectly well what we did and that was, we’d watch really bad video tapes that were hard to store and even harder to find on shelves, usually caked with dust. Once we got the tape in the VCR it had to be fast forwarded and rewound so many times, so maybe, just maybe you could find that segment of Soul Train you were looking for but started to regret you ever taped in the first place, since if you hadn’t taped it, you wouldn’t be messing around with a stupid remote control that never worked because the battery was like 10 years old to begin with.  Recalling this foolishness, I am wasting my own time and now yours, when all I mean to say is,  just try to imagine how I felt when I found this clip of “Yes We Can Can” today, because I can’t possibly describe the feeling of joy, such joy—not in 250 words or less I couldn’t—though I will add this:  If there is one song to have had burned into your consciousness, to have been etched onto your soul, and sent with you on your way into the world, this one isn’t a bad one to have that be. Bless you, Mr. Allen Toussaint and Ms. Pointers, Anita, Ruth, Bonnie, and June. Thank you for the record—and for my memories.  Great gosh all mighty.

Filed under: Now Playing, , , , , , , , ,

Malcolm X Remembered

On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, shot mulitiple times at the podium of the Audubon Ballroom where he was about to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Thousands flocked to Harlem over a three-day period to view his body before the burial.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925 into a Baptist family; his father was a follower of Marcus Garvey and educated his son on all matters of black pride. While serving a prison sentence in the 1950s, he  learned about the Nation of Islam and began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammed; by the time of his release he’d joined the organization and changed his name to Malcolm X. An immediately charismatic leader at Temples one, 10, 12, and seven, his musician following included  Etta James, Johnny Otis and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 1964 ,he left the NOI and made his way to Mecca. As a Sunni Muslim, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz  came to believe that Islam was the way toward racial harmony.

Twenty years after his death, the legacy of Malcolm X had largely not been passed down to the next generation; certainly, his contribution to the black liberation cause had not been fully incorporated into history texts despite the perennial popularity  of the considered classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration with Alex Hayley. But leave it to music—in particular Public Enemy—to recognize and close the gap. The New York hip hop collective began to use Malcolm X’s teachings and speeches in concert with their videos and recordings (Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One and Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, also played a major role in the comeback; the efforts were not without controversy at the time).

Chuck D has said Public Enemy was partly founded on the idea of “connecting the dots” for those unfamiliar with the depth of black history; hard information is tightly packed into their raps that raise a fist in the name of consciousness. Of course this all happened back in the highwater era of Reagan and Bush, or what you might call the beginning of the middle of the end:  As the nation enjoyed its boom-time and Michael Jackson paid a visit to the White House,  the holiday for Dr. King was still left unrecognized by all 50 states. The disconnect had only just begun…

Some say Malcolm X should have a day of his own. But until that’s organized, there are films, speeches, books and songs, like this tribute from musician, poet and educator, Archie Shepp, taken from his 1965 album, Fire Music.  A reading from Keep on Pushing follows.

Filed under: Archie Shepp, Malcolm X, , , ,

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Last year’s most insistent documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, makes its public television debut this month: By any and all means, see this film.

Written and directed by Göran Hugo Olsson and co-produced by actor and one-time San Francisco State student activist Danny Glover, The Black Power Mixtape is a visual record of a period that inalterably changed America, as viewed through outsider lenses.  Edited from footage shot then by a Swedish television crew, the material was rescued and revisited 35 years later by Olsson and a cast of contemporary American musicians and activists who provide voiceovers. The resulting mash-up is as disassociated and cohesive, chaotic and united, as were the times themselves; the film is a testament to the people who lived and died through the upset.

This new version of American history, as told by Europeans and African Americans could ideally serve the new generation as a long-overdue introduction to who and what made the Black Power Movement move. From the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, toward its mission for freedom for all oppressed people, and into black empowerment’s more  general directive to teach true history, self-reliance and pride, the film also spells out the forces that conspired to decimate the people and dismantle the movement from within and outside it.  As for those already well-familiar with the subjects of political activism and the social changes that took place in the US in the ’60s and early ’70s, The Black Power Mixtape offers an opportunity to view rare footage that you haven’t seen a million times; rest assured, the contemporary voiceovers not only add fresh insights but are in synch with contemporary survival issues, as well as with the current protests taking place in US town squares.

My enthusiasm for The Black Power Mixtape is partly based on my interest in the subject matter and my passion for passing on recommended listening, viewing and reading materials; I also see it as the perfect  audio/visual companion to my own text on the subject, specifically chapters four, five and six of Keep on Pushing (though the film is undoubtedly more concentrated and is  enhanced by the voices of Questlove, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and author Robin D.G. Kelley, among other noted artists and activists). I’m about to quote heavily from the film here so if you haven’t yet seen it and like being surprised,  you may want to stop reading and start streaming.

There’s a moment when the historic footage of the activists-then, dovetails in chilling harmony with the now-narration. Talib Kweli, a contemporary rapper/resistor, in the black radical tradition, begins his story of being inspired by the words of Stokely Carmichael. “He was a fiery speaker and had passionate ideas, but he was a calm, cool, collected person,” say Kweli. “None of these people were evil or bad or even extra violent.  Common sense meant that they had to speak and stand up for themselves….” In the name of research and inspiration, and in preparation for his own studio recording, Kweli began to study some of Carmichael’s widely available speeches.  “It was shortly after 9/11 in America,” he explains. “I was making a reservation on Jet Blue airlines to fly to California.  When I got to the airport…they came and intercepted me, all these guys in black suits, and they took me into a back room and started questioning me…They were very concerned with me listening to this Stokely Carmichael speech from 1967,” says Kweli. “We have gangster rappers talking about shooting people all the time but the FBI is not looking for them. They’re looking at me because I’m listening to a speech from 40 years ago…”

As the film wraps, author and scholar Robin D.G. Kelley underscore’s black power’s links to second wave feminism and gay liberation movement.  Readers of Keep on Pushing will also recollect that the entire second half of the book is dedicated to the impact of black power on other minority cultural and political movements, while it also follows power music into its next black incarnations. In The Black Power Mixtape, singer Erykah Badu puts in a word for the importance of documentation—the writing and reading—of black history by blacks, while filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles suggests that the movement was not a racial cause, but a freedom cause, for all the world’s people.

“People need to know, particularly in the 21st Century, it is important even under a black president, to bring the kind of pressure, to force the kinds of issues that will allow us to imagine a future without war, without racism and without prisons,” says Angela Davis.

“The rich are getting richer, not only in America but in the world…” says Sonia Sanchez.  “You’ve got to talk about that one percent or five percent that runs everything. It’s a lot of work. You don’t get any reward…The reward is knowing that when you make transition when you die, if you have children, there’s a better world for them and if you don’t have children, there’s a better world for other people too.”

Check your local PBS listings and Independent Lens for further February screenings of  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975—there are many.  The film is also available as a DVD.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

Now Playing: Come Back, Africa

Come Back, Africa is a rare piece of cinema:  Not only will fans of cinéma vérité, Italian neorealist, and French new wave film find much to love about its style, historians will find it to be a valuable film document of an otherwise largely unrecorded period in Africa’s history.  At once a brilliant documentary and strong anti-apartheid statement, Come Back, Africa is also jammed with music: From the streets and townships of South Africa to its speakeasies or shebeensCome Back, Africa introduced singer Miriam Makeba to the world. Among those impressed by the Lionel Rogosin film was Harry Belafonte; the actor/singer/activist would become a mentor, friend and benefactor to Makeba, would help her secure gigs, and would set her in the direction of performing the sounds of South Africa around the globe, while spreading the word against apartheid. 

With South African writers, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, Rogosin developed a filmic narrative  driven by the dilemma of people being forceable removed from their land. Come Back, Africa “laid bare apartheid’s ruthless cruelties,” wrote Belafonte, as it tells the story of Zacharia, a man who leaves his country life, his wife Vinah, and their children, to seek work in Johannesburg. What he finds there are unfamiliar laws rooted in racism and a series of dead-end jobs. He confronts inadequate housing and street violence, though a handful of souls provide sanctuary; he is introduced  to political ideas and dialogue by the artists and writers of the Sophiatown Renaissance.

Putting non-actors to work amidst the unrest, Come Back, Africa depicted dignity and tragedy; it exposed tremendous human failing, and it revealed glimpses of humanity and compassion.  A prize-winning documentarian for his first film On the Bowery (concerning the men on New York’s Skid Row in the late ‘50s), Rogosin made Come Back, Africa largely in secrecy, under the pretense that he was making a travelogue of South African music. He was eventually granted permission to make the film; Time Magazine called it one of the best films of 1960 (alongside The Apartment and Elmer Gantry).  “I took a vow at the end of World War II to fight fascism and racism wherever I saw it,” he said.

Writer, producer and director Rogosin was characterized by John Cassevettes as “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” He founded the Bleeker Street Cinema and would continue to make films, though later in life, he would have trouble finding the funding for his projects.

Come Back, Africa, starring Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, and featuring Miriam Makeba, has been beautifully restored and is currently in re-release. It screens at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater from February 3-8.

Read more about Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and the music of anti-apartheid in

Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Now Playing, , , ,

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