Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Congratulations Alejandro Murguía

murguíaActivist, writer and educator Alejandro Murguía is San Francisco’s new poet laureate.

Following an incantatory opening by Jorge Molina, Shaman of the Mission, remarks by poetic elder, Roberto Vargas, and a performance by Dr. José Cueller (also known as musician Dr. Loco), Murguía took the stage on Sunday at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium.

“I learned to read in workingman cafes,” he said, as he offered his appointment to the community—those who read before him, the poets of the here and now, and the voices of the future. He read his poems “16th and Valencia,” “Lorca’s Dream,” and “The Poet Recalls His First Reading,” among other vivid, humorous, and moving bits and pieces.

Born in the US but living in Mexico until age six, Spanish is his native tongue, though childhood trauma left him speechless for a spell.  He claims his first English words were “Pepsi, please,” ironic given his concerns as a poet and activist.  As a young man and new arrival from the southland, Murguía was embraced by North Beach poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Hirschman, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman; his compañeros were the writers (like Ishmael Reed, Janice Mirikitani and Jessica Hagedorn) of Asian, Black, Latino and Pacific Islander heritage who were part of the Bay Area’s cultural empowerment movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

In addition to his home among the Beats in North Beach and the poets of progress and resistance, Murguía fell into La Mission:  The district became his cultural home,  the place where he made lifelong friends, got politicized and became a fixture in the neighborhood.  He was among the founders of the Mission Cultural Center, preserving and promoting Latino arts, and those of the area’s indigenous people.  However, Murguía is not just a Latino poet—he embraces his post as poet laureate as an opportunity to serve all of the city’s people.

“From this day forward, we will no longer speak of parallel histories but of a literary history and true history of San Francisco, punto final,” he said. He would like to see San Francisco officially adopt the slogan, The City of Poets, and he suggests that we would all benefit from poetry workshops (but especially those in governance would benefit from studying the relationship between words and the truth, so to speak). Reminding listeners that poetry is a form best read aloud, he encouraged the reading not only of our own work, but of poems written by others.  I once heard him read with tremendous impact from Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. Here’s the clip:

Filed under: Civil Rights, Latino culture, North Beach, Poetry, , , , ,

Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkIt was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states will observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor in their own unique ways.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday”, which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster”, Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley who had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, while it retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  The tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana, on the shocking night John Lennon was killed (though that is a story better read in Scott-Heron’s memoir).

In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full schedule of events currently underway; the  celebrations and various symposiums are of course dedicated to the King’s teachings in non-violence. In San Francisco on January 21, there will be an all-day celebration of King’s life at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m.  The City of Santa Monica also has a full weekend schedule of events beginning on Friday.  The photo above was of course taken during the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington now in its 50th anniversary year. Had he lived, Dr. King would’ve been 84 today—and still dreaming.

Filed under: anti-war, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gil Scott-Heron, Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, MLK 84th birthday celebration, video, , , ,

We Insist! Freedom Now

Two albums credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom are Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite—the first experiment in 1958—and We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite— the fulfillment of the form. Born for the record in rural North Carolina on January 10 (by his family’s recollection it was the 8th) 1924, and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate and performed frequently for the cause.  His Freedom Now Suite was initially conceived as a performance piece to coincide with the fast-approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963:  Fifty years later, as the historic document that freed all slaves celebrates its 150th anniversary, Roach’s piece with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln, (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.freedomnow

The cover art, in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphic and image-wise in its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, a reference of course to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen for anyone interested in such things. Making a link between the oppression of blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land.  Fifty-three years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.

The following clip depicts civil rights power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Civil Rights, France, Freedom Now, Harry Belafonte, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, video, , , ,

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