Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Never Forget: NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers (June 12, 1963)

It’s been 50 years since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in his driveway, returning home from a meeting over matters in the NAACP. Following the cold-blooded killing by a white supremacist, and coinciding with the period of ever-intensifiying racial hostility in the South, writers got more and more direct with their songs of southern hate.  “The Ballad of Megar Evers” is an a cappella spiritual by the Freedom Singers (a different group than the one founded by Cordell Reagon); Bob Dylan covered the Evers tragedy and its political ramifications in “Only a Pawn in Their Game;”

Phils Ochs weighed in with “Too Many Martyrs.”

Perhaps most famously, there was Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Though it was the bombing of the four little girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist that forced Simone’s lyric,  the situation in Mississippi culminating in the assassination of Evers earned the song its title.  Evers’ killer was finally convicted in 1994.

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Filed under: Bob Dylan, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, video, ,

The King Of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-five years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, , , , ,

Bob Marley Day: Positive Vibration

“I and I vibration is positive (got to have a good vibe),” sang Bob Marley. Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1946 in the Nine Mile village of St. Ann’s Parish, to a black mother and a white father.  Shuttling between two worlds, two homes, Marley translated a fractured urban/rural experience into a music with an alarmingly positive vibration that also sent a message.  Born from an expression of outrage at injustice and frustration at western societal values, Marley’s sound was as unique as it was soulful and universal; today, his image serves as an international symbol of peace and liberation. There were of course detractors—people who found fault with Marley’s brand of “Rastaman vibration”, his strength and his convictions. “Government sometimes maybe don’t like what we have to say,” he once said. “Because what we have to say too plain”, while  non-believers had little patience for what they heard as platitudinous refrains, along the lines of “Every little thing gonna be alright ” from the song, “Three Little Birds.”

Doom-saying, despair, negativity and futility were not in Marley’s repertoire: “Why not help one another on the way? Make things much easier,” he sang. He also backed up the message in the music with action, as in 1978, when he was called out of exile by Jamaican authorities and asked to return home to Kingston,  to join the effort to help quell escalating violence there. At the One Love Peace concert, Marley called opposing party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and raised their hands in a show of unity.

Taking his cues from the messaging in the records of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the teachings of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey (a Rastafari prophet), and with devotion to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie whom he believed to be the incarnation of Jah or God, Marley, alongside Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, brought reggae music to the world as the Wailers.  Their songs provided not only temporary relief from fear, loneliness, isolation and other human conditions, they were also stepping stones toward solutions to world war, poverty, famine, and all forms of human rights violations.  A short life with maximum impact, Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36;  his eulogy was delivered by Prime Minster Seaga.

In this upcoming clip, comedian/activist Dick Gregory pays tribute to Marley’s work as he introduces him to the stage at the Amandla–Festival of Unity for Southern Africa, held at Harvard Stadium in 1979 (the event also attempted to shed light on race relations in Boston).  Marley is accompanied by his band and the I Threes, featuring Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and his wife, Rita Marley.

[youtube.com/watch?v=2TXkFB8CcWU&feature=related]

More on Bob Marley and music activism in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Bob Marley, Keep On Pushing, Reggae, , ,

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, , , ,

“All I Want is the Truth”

Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.john

“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog.  “We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono.  Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen.  Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says.  And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife.  But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , ,

Keep on Pushing (Again)

Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.

Among the  young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.

The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language  borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause:  “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.”  “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems.  “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent.  These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads.  As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.

The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters:  images-1Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions.  “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire.  In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home.  That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known.  “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,”  he once said.  Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone.  Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.

You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, , ,

Hello Mumia, Goodbye Columbus

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, and its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal as most people know, is not an announcer by trade; better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In a new film, Long Distance Revolutionarywhich made its worldwide premiere over Columbus Day Weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, filmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than rehash the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist forced to moonlight as a cabbie, they shine a light on how he’s used the misfortune as prophetic opportunity, to become a voice for the voiceless.

In the film, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who speak to the important role Mumia, the writer as political prisoner, plays on the world stage, as he reflects the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free; the mystery that unfolds onscreen is more to the point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Mumia keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of his literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him.  Of course the most resounding voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world; it can also be heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  For the Mill Valley premiere, Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area which he remembered from visiting once as having a “luscious sun,” where he, “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice was M-1 of Dead Prez; traditionally, it is musicians who sing out for injustice, in the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film), indirectly leading to his exoneration. Eddie Vedder’s recording of  “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandless), serves as a closing theme. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is on move: Long Distance Revolutionary is on its way to festivals in Denver, Copenhagen and New York City.  It opens in wider release in February of 2013.  Here’s the trailer.

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

Make Way For the Handicapped

There is a section in Keep on Pushing which addresses how the songs of black power made way for the songs of liberation of other oppressed groups: women, homosexuals, brown, yellow, and red folks, as well as the disabled. At our Keep on Pushing events over the last 12 months, Cindy Lee Berryhill has been among the musicians accompanying me at readings, singing the songs of freedom and pitching in with anti-war and other anthems. Her song, “Make Way For the Handicapped,” is meant to empower those with missing  parts—or anyone who feels unaligned and out of sorts, I suppose. Personally, I have a new appreciation for the song by Berryhill and her old bandmate Max W. Temporarily impaired due to injury, I am relying heavily on the three limbs that are still able, and the kindness of new friends and neighbors as I hobble down the street. New to a culturally diverse neighborhood, it’s a bit of a sociological experiment to observe how people are taking to me, the gimpy new gal. There are those who avert their eyes, while others will nod or say hello as they pass by, leaving me in the dust.  And then there are those who’ve got California soul; they see beyond skin color and age and physical disability; they see a member of the human race who’s falling behind. “That looks like hard work on a hill. If you’re going a short distance I could give you a ride—I have a dog,” said the young man apologetically. He was wearing a wool cap, likely on his way to work—general contracting by the looks of his truck. “I’d take you up on it,” I told him, “But I need to learn how to use these things,” motioning with my crutch. And that was how it went, in a matter of about 30 seconds. But that simple gesture made by a stranger turned my day around. Later in the afternoon, a bank teller intercepted me as I walked toward the line, offered me a seat, and suggested I take one of the candies from a dish on his desk.  “Sometimes a sweet makes the day a little nicer” he said. I couldn’t disagree and grabbed a lemon Dum Dum.  So thank you, wool hat guy, and thank you bank teller. I am grateful to you for your kindnesses. Now here’s that song by Cindy Lee Berryhill (with Lenny Kaye on guitar) I was talking about:

Filed under: Civil Rights, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , ,

From Today’s Pasadena Weekly

Speaking truth to power

‘Keep on Pushing’ author Denise Sullivan, Buddy Zapata and other musical guests at Vroman’s Saturday afternoon

By Bliss 07/05/2012

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We live in undeniably restless times. Parallels can be made to the far more tumultuous 1960s, one critical difference being the lack of unifying music. The Occupy movement’s impacted pop culture but no anthems have emerged a la Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” or Edwin Starr’s “War.”

Music’s motivating role in protest movements is the focus of Denise Sullivan’s absorbing book “Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop,” from which she’ll read at Vroman’s Saturday. Five years in the making, it traces how freedom songs contributed to folk, punk and rap.

“I started by wanting to look at the music from the Black Power era, which is basically defined from about 1967 to about 1975,” Sullivan explains. “It grew into this larger survey of American resistance music, because all of that music comes out of the African-American struggle for equality and freedom.”

In following connections from blues legends (Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins) through Woodstock-era icons (Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Saint-Marie, Gil Scott-Heron) and ’70s/’80s pop stars (Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen) to contemporary activist/artists (Michael Franti, Tom Morello), Sullivan quotes Dave Alvin, Solomon Burke, Chuck D, Odetta, Phranc, Bobby Seale, John Trudell and Little Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams amidst a broad spectrum of artists.
Wayne Kramer recalls how MC5 received “intense criticism” from some who believed they should play for free. His comments feel particularly timely in light of recent controversy surrounding David Lowery’s response (http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/) to an NPR intern’s essay (www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with) asserting her peers will likely never buy music they “love.” Kramer also says MC5 wanted to make records because “it was a way to reach a lot of people.” Can music still reach and motivate large segments of the population?

Sullivan believes it potentially can, while acknowledging music doesn’t have the “currency” it had in the ’60s. She compares 1985’s star-laden, anti-apartheid single “Sun City” to recent disaster fundraisers.

“Everybody knew that song, everybody knew that video,” she says, citing “Sun City’s” MTV rotation. “We don’t have that kind of common experience. The concerts for New York City or Katrina — those were things we could experience collectively. Does it take a disaster, though, to get us all to plug into the same channel?

“A lot of artists are contributing to the Occupy effort, playing at charity efforts and all kinds of events every day. Probably now more than ever, there are musicians working at that level. Do we get a chance to hear them? Not always. You have to seek them out. It takes work.”

On Saturday, accompanied by Buddy Zapata and other musicians TBA, she hopes to create what music provides: an intimate sense of community.

“The way our lives are set up today, it seems we are less often able to gather in those kind of community spaces and have those kind of experiences. That’s how movements grew, and that’s how topical songs develop.

Denise Sullivan reads from “Keep on Pushing” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Free admission. Info: 449-5320. denisesullivan.com

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, ,

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