Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

In Memory of RFK, 6/6/68

From the text of Keep on Pushing, page 76.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was preparing his bid for the presidency, looking as if he would surely be the one chosen to lead his country through the deep water. Like Dr. King, he had grown in favor of withdrawing troops from Vietnam. From his seat on Capitol Hill, he had become a fierce advocate of civil rights and economic justice and the social programs to accompany those ends, supported by a progressive belief within his faith. Following his victory in the California primary election, on June 5, 1968, he too was shot down, two months after the loss of Dr. King.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?

So went the Dick Holler song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” it’s final verse devoted to “Bobby.” Written in response to the 1968 assassinations, it was first recorded by Dion DiMucci; Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Belafonte were also moved to record the song, as were others as time and the years wore on.

In this clip, Smokey Robinson sings and talks a bit about what the song has meant to him, during a 2010 performance at the  White House.


Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

Julia Ward Howe: Another Mother For Peace

About once a year you hear the name Julia Ward Howe: She gave us Mother’s Day, declaring it first in 1870. Howe was primarily a writer and an activist; her work included poetry and lyrics, and she rallied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and peace. Born in 1819 in New York City, most famously she adapted the lyrics to “America” to fit the women’s suffrage cause. In the Civil War era, in folk tradition, she rewrote the words to the existing songs “Canaan’s Happy Shore” and “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us” as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which also provides the melody of abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body,” circulating at the same time). In her memoir, Howe wrote of the poem coming to her in her sleep, and rising to transcribe the words: “I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper,” she wrote.

A century later, the song was repurposed by Len Chandler for the Civil Rights Movement as “Move On Over.”

You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome

Hey but John Brown knew what freedom was he died to win us some

And the Movement’s moving on

One of the singer-songwriters on the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene (one of his original melodies was borrowed by Bob Dylan), Chandler stuck with topical songs and movement building, and went on to put “Move On Over” to work in the anti-Vietnam War effort, updating it again and performing it for troops throughout Southeast Asia. What a striking example of how a song can travel the miles, from one movement to another, to another, without losing authority or missing a beat of its heart—or its intention to preserve humanity, and the life of some mother’s daughter or her son.  Glory Hallelujah, Len Chandler and Julia Ward Howe: Your mothers would be proud. And to all the mothers—including my own–along with the stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and others it takes to get the job done: Happy Mother’s Day. Love and thanks for birthing and raising your children and helping them through.

I thought you mothers (and others) would like this image–it’s a lithograph by Charles White (1918-1979). The Chicago-born artist made his name mid-career and later, largely on the work created and shown in Los Angeles during the ’60s. This work from 1976 is titled “I Have A Dream,” and was included alongside White’s politically-charged and socially conscious-works in the Hammer Museum exhibit, Now Dig This! (I’ve heard it will begin traveling soon). I think moms will also dig this well-known song but lesser-seen clip of  “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, performing at the Save the Children concert event in 1973.

More on Len Chandler, Julia Ward Howe and Marvin Gaye in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , , ,

It Was A Good Day

Today marked 20 years since the LA uprising of 1992. Ignited by the acquittal of the four police officers that had brutally beaten motorist Rodney King, the riot was not surprising given the history of police brutality and misconduct in the under-served community. South Central Los Angeles had been under pressure for at least four decades at the time of the six-day riot: Segregation, lack of services, and poor relations between residents and the law were the usual elements that conspired to combust in urban unrest.

Four years before, the matters of racial profiling, gang violence and more were brought to the world’s attention when in 1988, N.W.A. delivered Straight Outta Compton, a collection of raps concerning life on the street there.  Broadcasting their tales of hard and violent times in South Los Angeles, the group caught the attention of the FBI, which in short order made investigative efforts toward shutting them down. Records were pulled from shelves and stickered with warning labels, though eventually an entire industry grew from similarly styled graphic tales of survival fights and criminal scenarios. Ice-T’s sometimes cautionary crime-rapping tales were also associated with the birth of the west coast gangsta boom and he caught his share of resistance too. As it turned out, there was a gigantic market for this reality-art, and as the insurgent sound of N.W.A. went  on to define the early era of gangsta rap, the group’s tussles with the law began to echo the lifestyles described in their songs.  Here is N.W.A.’s least inflammatory rap, wrapped around the track, “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band:

N.W.A. and gangsta rap would forever alter hip hop. The music’s aims remain embroiled in controversy and even conspiracy theory, yet it is undeniably a moneymaker.  In Keep on Pushing, I attempt to untie some of the threads that run through the art of hip hop, commerce, and the dilemma posed by gangsta rap as part of a larger investigation. Shining a light in the corners of music history where the sounds and singers converge with law enforcement, and where incendiary art confronts the force of the market, is part of a larger unfolding exploring the tradition of songs calling for change.  I specifically included the music of the late ‘80s Los Angeles in the text to illustrate how hip hop broadcast the news from America’s urban centers in a way that the mainstream media was not able to manage.  Hip hop, including the earliest examples of gangsta rap,  is a demonstration that there are some songs that go beyond simple entertainment or artistic expression; rather, they have the potential to inspire, record otherwise unwritten histories, deliver the news, and give voice to those who may otherwise go unheard.

“Why get mad at the brother bringing the news?  Get mad at the person making it happen,” said Tupac Shakur in the early ‘90s. Anyone who knew hip hop or the conditions in South Central at the time would not have been surprised to hear there was a riot going on in 1992; an uprising was inevitable given the conditions. N.W.A. were simply reporters, the eyes and ears, that brought the noise from Compton to the world.  They  were not the first, nor will they be the last to bring their experience from South Central to a wider audience through a song.

In the 1920s till the 1950s, Central Avenue was the hub of the LA R&B and jazz scenes, springing such giants as Lionel Hampton and Johnny Otis, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus.  These were artists whose commitment to music and the fight for racial equality extended beyond entertainment.  As a one-time member of Hampton’s band, Central Ave. regular, avant garde piano stylist Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra in 1961.  A vocal opponent of racism and advocate for social change, in the ‘60s, Tapscott worked with young artists in coffeehouses and community centers of Watts, the creative center for South LA’s artists and its progressive politics in that decade.  Today the spirit of community action and harmony through art lives in Leimert Park.  Immediately following the ’92 uprising, some of the area’s visionary citizens banded together to create a safe haven for the preservation of jazz, poetry, theater and visual arts, providing community space for the still under-served and post-riot, imperiled community. The independent film, Leimert Park documents the transition and the extraordinary rebirth of arts and culture in South LA (the name currently in rotation for the area formerly known as South Central, as in South of Central Ave.) since 1992. Here’s a clip from the film, featuring the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, with vocalist Dwight Trible.  The group celebrated its 50th anniversary of being last year with a series of concerts.

And so I conclude this entry with a thank you to the artists and advocates, the poets, writers, filmmakers, dancers, actors and musicians of South Los Angeles, for documenting your place, your time and your lives—for extending your art and your hearts—to the world.  I truly hope that this April 29, 20 years on, was a good day in the neighborhood.

Filed under: Hip Hop, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , ,

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, , , ,

Etta James: 1938-2012

R&B legend Etta James, who would’ve turned  74 in a couple of days, has passed away after a long battle with leukemia complicated by dementia. Discovered by Johnny Otis (he was the one who rechristened Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James), she was brought closer to the mainstream by Leonard Chess, and remained in her lifetime the First Lady of the Blues.  James was known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, as well as for her struggle with drug addiction.  Inspired by Malcolm X, she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean.  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  “I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick.  She lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive.  Following a near decade sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and receive awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, for her contribution to early rock’n’roll.

Sadly, Ms. James’ final months were disquieted by family finance trouble and a lawsuit pending between her husband, Artis Mills, and her son, Donto James (which was reportedly settled before her passing). She also made headlines in recent years when while falling ill she was still touring, performing, and calling out Beyonce (the singer had portrayed her in Cadillac Records, though it wasn’t the celluloid portrayal of her that the blues diva minded so much—in fact she went on the record as quite liking it). James didn’t like it when Mrs. Jay-Z went and performed the James signature song, “At Last”, for the President and Mrs. O at the inaugural festivities, though she eventually came clean about the hurt feelings behind being excluded from the inaugural ball proceedings.  Truth be told, James would’ve had to have had to considerably clean-up her NC-17 stage show for a G-rated White House appearance, as even in her early ’70s, the blueswoman walked the razor’s edge. Ms. James has been in my thoughts this past year, and especially in the last day since her early mentor Johnny Otis’ passing; my condolences to the James-Mills families, friends and fans.  Here she is one more time, with Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, and Keith Richards, singing Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Gal”.

More on Etta James, her relationship to early rock’n’roll, and her experience with the Nation of Islam in Keep on Pushing.


Filed under: Blues, Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Johnny Otis: 1921-2012

Johnny Otis, the great bandleader, writer/performer/producer, nurturer of musical talent, political activist, broadcaster, preacher, visual artist, and apple grower has died.  He was 90 years old.

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley.  It was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who suggested that he relocate to Los Angeles where he joined up with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue; from there, his career as a bandleader began in earnest. He hit with a version of “Harlem Nocturne” and took his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan on the road, bringing his revue to Black America.  Known to some as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” what Otis gave to rock’n’soul as a DJ, producer, writer and advocate of African American culture is incalculable:  He produced Big Mama Thornton and the original version of “Hound Dog”; he was an early discoverer of Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John, whom he noticed at a Detroit talent show.  He gave early breaks to Little Esther  Phillips and Etta James (he produced “Roll With Me, Henry”, her answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and produced some early takes by Little Richard.  He played on and produced “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and wrote “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”  He nurtured artists from Jackie Payne and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well his son Shuggie Otis, and his grandson Lucky Otis.  He remained devoted to R&B throughout his lifetime, promoting it on his public radio broadcast, The Johnny Otis Show, on which he also spoke out about the issues he was passionate about—chiefly poverty and racism. “The fact that so many human beings in American are without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or hope for the future constitutes a national disgrace,” he wrote in 1993.  “I fear that as more of our country’s wealth is concentrated into fewer hands and American corporate fascism becomes more entrenched, the shame in the streets will grow.”

Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle for equality in the early ‘60s, and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying. His first book, Listen to the Lambs concerned the Watts riots of 1965.  Influenced early on by Minister Malcolm X, Otis ultimately entered politics working as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a lifelong California politician. Otis also started his own churches, the Landmark Church in Los Angeles, turned Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa: All were welcome.  “The most meaningful activity at our church was feeding homeless people,” Otis wrote.

Otis was also a visual artist with paintings, carvings and sculptures to his credit; believe it or not, he also marketed a line of apple juice, made from apples grown at his Sebastopol farm. Splitting his life between his native Nor Cal and his adopted Southern California homes, he died in Los Angeles, leaving his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and an entire extended Otis clan.  My condolences to all of them, and to all those who loved him: “Rock Steady”, Mr. Otis, and thank you.

Johnny Otis is among the artists whose stories contribute to the rich history of where music meets social and political activism.  Read more about Otis and others like him in Keep on Pushing.  He told his own story in Upside the Head!  Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, available through his website.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Chuck D: A Hero to Skid Row

Rapper Chuck D brought the noise, the love and his ministry of music on Sunday to the folks who need it most:  The residents of LA’s Skid Row, the largest community of homeless people in the USA.

Chuck D organized Operation: Skid Row with LA CAN (Community Action Network) which provides homes for the homeless and with whom he collaborated on the new book, Freedom Now, concerning the human right to housing. He brought Public Enemy (Flavor Flav, Professor Griff)  along to the show which also featured the old school talent of Brother J of X-Clan, Kid Frost, Yo-Yo and Egyptian Lover of “Egypt, Egypt” fame, as well as Money B and Korrupt (read the full report from the LA Times).

“When America has a recession, black America has a depression. When America hits depression, then you have a group of people based on their visual characteristics who are in total desperation,” Chuck D told the Ventura County Reporter last week, though details about the concert were kept vague until the last minute,  to keep the focus on homelessness and to discourage gawkers and overzealous fans.

The Skid Row neighborhood is described as having the largest “stable” population of homeless people—approximately 4,000— in the US, though in practical terms, the area is anything but stable:  It is under-served, its residents for the most part are unheard, and it exists as a world largely invisible to the greater Angeleno and American population. Filmgoers caught a glimpse of the Hollywood version of Skid Row in the 2009 film, The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr,   based on the true story of LA Times reporter Steve Lopez and his relationship with a homeless musician, Nathanial Ayers.  At the beginning of 2011, Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Patt Morrison of KPCC broadcast a two-part series on the area in which she spoke to residents, some of them belonging to families spanning three generations there, as well to law enforcement and emergency and social service personnel who serve the neighborhood.  More recently, eyes have been on Skid Row in relation to where its concerns intersect with the Occupy LA movement.

I can think of no better way to honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his actual birthdate than by shining some light on the plight of our poorest—the bottom one percent—and making the effort to extend a hand to them. “Feed the people, their minds, body and souls, and hopefully attract attention to make this invisible situation visible,” says Chuck D, now celebrating 25 years since the release of Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show.  I have a feeling this is not the last we’ll be hearing from him or from hip hop on the matter of Skid Row.

More on Chuck D, Public Enemy and hip hop consciousness in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Concerts, Hip Hop, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , ,

Survive Baraka, Survive

“Never settle for the given.  What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” like the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time, he said. Baraka was at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last weekend, in conversation with his daughter, Kelly Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, to discuss art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asks of himself and of other artists.

Born LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lives today, Baraka chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. His album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.

Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who?  who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Blues, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

Goodbye Old Year, Happy New You

Among arts enthusiasts, there is the year-end tradition of list-making, that compulsive, hierarchical compiling of bests and worsts that at its most sinister and cynical is rooted in the marriage of media and market forces and at its most benign is a form of entertainment for us media freaks and geeks. I happen to enjoy the tradition of critically reviewing the year in culture; it helps me remember its themes and threads and some of the good times as I determine what I shall carry forward versus what I’d rather forget. Listmaking or at least the act of reading and sharing of lists, is a form of community; and a little like resolutions, a list can hold you accountable for your taste, revealing however impeccable, poor, quirky, or mediocre it might be. Top Tens are also great conversation starters, and they can contribute toward creating a grassroots buzz for the otherwise unheralded.  Word of mouth is still my favorite way of receiving a recommendation, especially when so many other channels of information have been cut-off or rendered unreliable.  “I didn’t hear it, but a friend told me she liked it,” is often a good enough reason for me to try something new. Which brings me to my own list of a few of my favorite things from 2011.

Tassili by Tinawiren produced by Ian Brennan: Mali music spiked with the art rock of TV on the Radio, a taste of New Orleans from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and all the soul of Tinawiren’s distinct desert blues.

Detroit Ville Sauvage aka Detroit Wild City, directed by Florent Tillon, concerns the regenerating landscape and pioneering people of one of America’s greatest cities.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, conjoins lost and found footage of the struggle in the ‘60s and early ‘70s with the voices of contemporary artists and activists (its narrative echoes the story told in Keep on Pushing, but that’s not the only reason I liked it).

La Havre by Aki Kurismaki.  A middle-aged French bohemian with problems of his own offers asylum to a young immigrant from Africa, separated from his family in the port city of La Havre.

Activist and educator, Dr. Cornel West and journalist Tavis Smiley for The Poverty Tour.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee for her activism.

Journalist Amy Goodman for her coverage of the Occupy movement

All the citizens who occupied our streets and parks, from coast to coast.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  The story of trio of students forced to reevaluate everything they’ve learned up until graduation day will ring through for not only ’80s grads but the graduating classes of  2012 and 2013, too.

The Last Holiday by Gil Scott-Heron: A memoir as well as the story of how a hip hop original, alongside Stevie Wonder, contributed toward establishing the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t wait to read it.

Who and what contributed to some of your most treasured moments, events and artistic endeavors from the year that was?  And what are you looking forward to in the year that is?

Twenty-eleven was chock-a-block with personal milestones on my calendar—not least of which was the publication of Keep on Pushing--though I’d like to begin 2012 with a few words of thanks for the memories, inspiration and encouragement from this past super-year. First to my readers—whether we are strangers, relatives, colleagues, kindred spirits or friends for real, your support of the book has meant a great deal to me.  In the cases where we’ve dialogued, whether about the book’s themes, its soundtrack, the artists, and my reasons for writing about them, your inquiries and  feedback have been most gratifying. I am indebted to the thoughtful interviewers—broadcast and print journalists—who took the book to their hearts and invited me in for conversation.  In a new section of the blog headed Audio, I’ve recapped some of those recorded highlights (or I should say, the miracle that is internet radio and its archives has preserved them, in perpetuity).  Also, I owe yet another round of thanks to the publications that reviewed the book, as well as to the book sellers and librarians who invited me to participate in events at their stores and institutions, my editors and publisher Lawrence Hill Books and its distributor IPG, as well as the the musicians and poets who supported me at those appearances by performing for free. Chuck D’s tweet  about the book on New Year’s Eve ended the year on a sweet, high note.

We plan to Keep on Pushing throughout the election year with our revue. If you are a musician, a poet, an educator, activist, or a citizen who wants to get into it and get involved, please be in touch. Wishing us all peace, prosperity and good health in the new year (and whatever else it takes to move up a little higher, someway, somehow).

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street, Reviews, , , , ,

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