Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Janis Ian’s Talking Gay Marriage-21st Century-File Sharing Blues

As the sun sets on June and Gay Pride Month, today marks the 43rd anniversary of The Stonewall Riots.  The event officially marked the beginning of the movement for gay liberation, the time when activist groups in the New Left tradition began to form a militant alliance for equal rights; one year later, the first Gay Pride parade was held on Christopher Street in New York.

In 1969, Janis Ian did not yet identify as a lesbian, but as an 18-year-old folksinger who’d made her name at 13, inspired by the Greenwich Village folk scene, she was sensitive to the civil rights fights of her day and made a point to sing out. Her 1965 song,  “Society’s Child,” concerned interracial romance at time when it was still illegal in some states; in 1967 “Society’s Child” became a hit.  Forty years later, Ian was among the few people to write a song and sing about gay marriage (titled “Married in London”).

Her views on the very 21st Century issue of file sharing were also cause for controversy:  As an early adapter to the Internet, in 2002, she came out strongly in favor of free downloads which was not the position the record companies were taking. (For an economic breakdown on the ways in which file sharing is harmful to recording artists, I recommend you read everything David Lowery has written on the subject, starting with this letter to a file sharing enthusiast, which went viral last week). Ian paid for her outspokenness and details the story in a  series of articles and within the interview below.

Though I regret that more of my  conversation with Ian didn’t make it into the manuscript of Keep on Pushing (our conversation took place while the book was in editing), I am presenting my talk with her here, largely as it appeared in Crawdaddy!  Since we talked in 2010, the writer of “Society’s Child” has since turned 60; she and Pat Snyder have also celebrated 20 years of love and partnership.

“I predict that within the next two to three years everyone is going to go back to telephones,” says Janis Ian. Sound unlikely? That’s what people said when she launched a website and message board in 1992 and bet on music’s future at the dawn of the world wide web, too. Proving the skeptics wrong, Ian took more heat in 2003 when she came out in favor of file sharing, a view not generally shared by her contemporaries.  And yet, as the decade closes, Ian, a self-managed artist, has found the totally wired life to be less than satisfying; though it’s great for her business, it’s not necessarily good for her art.

“This is my year of I Can’t Cope Anymore,” she says. “I don’t Twitter; I have a MySpace page that hasn’t been updated since 2008. I have a Facebook page, and I get a gazillion friend requests everyday. Why would I want to be friends with you? I don’t even know you!” Though Ian’s exasperation may sound like every boomer’s reaction to the interweb, she’s clearly no techno-phobe or old fogey; she’s simply a techie with a desire to unplug and, as an early adapter to online music and one of its biggest advocates, she’s allowed to vent. “I’ve always been interested in technology. I had a home IBM machine when they first came out. When I was 16, I did binary programming to earn extra money for awhile,” she explains. “I had been online really early—early enough that my AOL name is janisian. It was just obvious that this is where it was going. I mean, it was really obvious. It wasn’t obvious to me that we’d have iPods. I would never have dreamed about that. But it was obvious that this might be an amazing means of transportation and connection.”

“Connection” is a word that that comes up often in Ian’s story—as a songwriter, her career is based on reaching people—but plugging into a collective, connective power has been more like a mission for her. In 2002, Performing Songwriter published her piece “The Internet Debacle”, though before the article had even gone to press, Ian had royally pissed off the powers at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and others in positions of influence in the music industry. “Am I concerned about losing friends, opportunities, my 10th Grammy nomination by publishing this article?” she wrote. “Yeah, I am. But sometimes things are just wrong, and when they’re that wrong they have to be addressed.” Ian took the position that free downloads were good for catalog sales, contrary to the industry’s claim that they were killing the business. And though she didn’t expect the article to be posted on over 1,000 websites and become subject of discussion from USA Today to the BBC or to create the firestorm of controversy it did, she is no stranger to friction: Her career was founded at age 13 when “Society’s Child”, her song about interracial love, was initially hated, banned, and ultimately honored as the groundbreaker it was. It is amidst a similar backdrop of high achievement, low ebbs, and complete chaos that Ian has constructed a life that has included not only music, but the study of acting and writing science fiction.  In 2009, she released her recorded best on a two-disc collection of Essential Ian and told all in a book, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, now released in paperback. But make no mistake about the compiling: They’re just warm-ups for another song, another tour, and another day at the job site. As for so many workers, slowing down isn’t an option for Janis Ian.

A Virtual Life

“I was just reading a New York Times article that said Americans have now added the equivalent to a month of work hours to our work year since 1955,” says Ian. “But to be fair, almost every independent artist I know over the age of 30 is going through the same thing. The world has gotten so much more complicated and immediate; it’s sucking all our time. None of us have time to write, to play with each other… though I don’t know if it’s that different than it’s ever been. You could probably listen to Beethoven bitching about business… We’re all trying to guard our legacies, and at the same time, make a living.”

When Ian titled her 2006 album Folk Is the New Black, she wasn’t kidding: Compared to when she wrote her first song in 1963 and began to haunt Greenwich Village, there are exponentially more folksingers in the land than there are coffeehouses for them to perform in, though few of them will leave the legacy to protect that Ian will. As an exceptional product of her times, Ian played the B-3 organ into the wee hours alongside Jimi Hendrix in Village clubs, while she also had an interest taken in her by Leonard Bernstein, among other extraordinary highlights. As a teen, Ian walked with music’s giants. “[Dave] Van Ronk was great to me, always. Baez was great to me, Odetta was wonderful to me… Joplin was great to me, Hendrix was great to me, the guys in Joplin’s band were great to me… everybody except for the folk Nazis… I was pretty fortunate.” Yet none of her experiences embedded in the ’60s rock scene prepared her for the 21st century and what it had in store for her as a performing singer-songwriter.

“I’m on the same treadmill as every day-jobber I know, in that, I’m fighting to stay current and am getting further and further behind. Part of it is my choice: I would love to have a great manager, but a great manager is not going to make enough money off someone like me. I would love to have a great personal assistant, but I really can’t afford a great personal assistant. On the other hand, I’m dragging around 45 years of luggage.  In this brave new world, I’m looking at five boxes of audiovisual tape that need to be transferred to digital. I’ve got two tables of CDs of myself, which I haven’t listened to, things like living room concerts and master classes. I’ve got two bags worth of slides that need to be transferred to digital, but first I have to go through them… I’ve got boxes and boxes of CDs that need to be sorted. I have two piles of CDs that people want me to listen to, and my desk is an archaeological dig. Meanwhile, I’m trying to deal with a former webmaster who went AWOL about six weeks ago and left me with nothing… this one went off with all my artwork.”

Remember, this is Janis Ian talking: Former child prodigy, writer of “Society’s Child”, “Jesse”, and “At Seventeen”, maker of over 20 albums, including one that went to number one. If things are so difficult for her, the average working songwriter is likely to be screwed. “My friend Jeannie said, ‘You know what, Janis? So you’ve got extra zeros in what you have, but you’ve got extra zeros in what you owe.’ And if you think about it, if I didn’t have hit records, I wouldn’t be paying $600 a month in storage to make sure my masters are safe. It’s all this extra stuff that comes with it that means someone like me is eventually going to start talking with places like Berklee College and saying, ‘Take this stuff off my hands and I’ll leave it to you.’” I’ve heard of the acquisition of a living artist’s ephemera by institutions of higher learning—surely there is one awaiting her call.

“I don’t even want them to buy them,” she clarifies. “I just want them to store them. It would be great to find buyers. If you find any, send them my way! It’s the same problem with instruments. I have probably 20 guitars and they’re wonderful guitars. I bought a lot of them in the early- to mid-’70s. I have a really nice vintage Les Paul. I’ve got one of the first Eddie Van Halen’s. I’ve got a Lloyd Baggs, and he doesn’t even make guitars anymore. I look at them and think, ‘If I sell all these, I could probably finish paying off the mortgage.’ So why am I looking at all these guitars that I never play? I looked at my partner yesterday and said, ‘You know, we keep working our asses off, so we won’t ever be impoverished. At what point do we get to sit back and enjoy it?’ I feel like we’ve all fallen into my parents’ trap… much as we tried not to, here we are. I’m sorry, I’m blathering on.”

No need to apologize, I tell her, I’m listening hard. As a self-employed writer married to a self-managed musician, I doubly understand Ian’s dilemma of running her self-proprietorship while keeping an eye on the future. Plus, Ian’s stories are not only relevant to self-employed writers and artists, they contain valuable information for anyone interested in this business we call music.

The Industry of Music

“We used to be in the business of music, as in busyness. We are now in the industry of music. That makes us more like US Steel, Alcoa, GE, than anything to do with the arts. I hope that it would be self-limiting, like museums are, but it’s not because of technology. So what you have are these huge, moribund institutions—what are there, three record companies now, maybe four? And they change just as slowly as any institution.” Ian suggests that it’s literally a lack of vision that prevents the changes from rolling. “If you’ve ever tried to get a streetlight put up, you know how slowly these things work. I think what’s happened is something very similar to why Columbia Records lost out on the Beatles and the Stones and the early wave of pop music: Mitch Miller was head of A&R, he detested rock ‘n’ roll and said it was pap. When my first webmaster and I first went to BMI and ASCAP, back in the early ’90s, and we said, ‘People are buying albums off of this new medium; there is going to be a way to give them sound bytes off of this new medium and you have to start negotiating right now [for payment of royalties],’ they laughed at us. They thought we were stupid. The record companies are the same. It’s only this last year that things have begun to change at all.

“It took them ’til three or four years ago to realize that domains would be a good thing to own. Remember when they were all trying to compete with Napster? The crappy websites they put up? Oh my god! Thank god for Amazon and iTunes, because those two have done more to help the music business than the record business has done. Sorry, but we’re on a pet peeve of mine!”

There is plenty of irony in Ian’s early argument for ownership and online music, and it isn’t lost on her. “Here I sit, worrying about how I pay the enormous cost of maintaining a huge website and I noticed Sony maintains Leonard Cohen’s and James Taylor’s and Paul Simon’s. They get a free ride. And that’s a huge advantage. On the other hand, you don’t own your own domain. I don’t know, maybe they have leasing deals. Knowing Paul, that’s entirely possible. Pluses and minuses,” she says. “Free downloading wasn’t hurting anyone but songwriters. Songwriters are getting screwed by free downloads.”

Nevertheless, Ian has always made music available for free on her website. You can go there right now and download her topical song about gay marriage, “Married in London.” Ian is so hot on providing music for free that record executives once suggested a boycott on her, though there has never been much love lost between her and her former labels. “Again, from personal experience: In 37 years as a recording artist, I’ve created 25-plus albums for major labels, and I’ve never once received a royalty check that didn’t show I owed them money,” she wrote. As an artist who has always made her living from touring, the exposure the web affords her has been worth the trade-off.  “… When someone writes and tells me they came to my show because they’d downloaded a song and gotten curious, I am thrilled!” again, quoted from “The Internet Debacle.” Ian may be the exception to every rule, but seven years after she and others fought in its favor, the free download is an expected and accepted part of music consumption.

“I own a lot of my work, because I had very good lawyer. I don’t own the early stuff, I own 13 of my albums in North America and I own 16 worldwide. That’s the only way an artist can survive the new model, by keeping ownership and publishing. Because I was successful, I could go back and renegotiate. What I keep telling younger artists is the truth is that no one has sold a million albums or made a living only through the internet. Once that happens, the whole paradigm changes. But at this point, if you want a career that’s lucrative or powerful or has that amount of exposure, you still need a major. Certainly, if you want an international career, you still need a major. I think if the majors start behaving like responsible adults, who knows, it may work out. But greed always gets the best of everybody. It’s hard to convince young artists that 100 percent of nothing is really nothing. Half of my songs were reacquired, after I’d given up 50 to a hundred percent of the publishing. If you aren’t in a position of strength, the stuff is lost forever.”

Society’s Child Comes of Age

Ian’s first demo was recorded in 1963. Even in her earliest works, like “Hair Spun of Gold”, a kind of “It Was a Very Good Year” rendered as a folk ballad for the teenage set, she revealed an understanding of the world beyond her 12 years of age. The songs, as well as “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”, were featured on her 1967 self-titled, Shadow Morton-produced debut album. Morton was known for his involvement with the three-minute teen dramas by the Shangri-las from Queens, but Ian was a different kind of New York girl: Her parents were subjects of surveillance for their political beliefs and Ian was pressured to adapt “Society’s Child” to steer away from race matters. However, her folk roots and convictions told her not to back down.  Though the song was withdrawn, two years later it became a hit, and helped secure Ian’s future as a working musician when she was featured singing it on a television special hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Ian’s teenage hit-maker status also made her the perfect fodder for the teeny bopper magazines, of which she was no fan. The more conservative New York Times didn’t write much about her and Ian didn’t like Rolling Stone’s treatment of female artists. But she fondly remembers Crawdaddy!, which she said filled the breach. “Crawdaddy! would write about you like you were a full artist and you were doing work that might survive your life,” she says. But Ian was having trouble surviving her own life: Burnt out by the demands of teen stardom, she took what would become her first in a series of breaks from the spotlight. In her autobiography, she writes of the time between “Society’s Child” and her next success, the heartbreak song “Jesse”, as a time when she felt as if something was terribly wrong with her. Accidentally discovering the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, she found in his lines the freedom to devote herself to being an artist instead of pop stardom.

My eternal soul
Redeem your promise
In spite of the night alone
And the day on fire.

“I’d finally connected,” she writes. “Someone else felt like I did. Someone else had been an outsider, had tried to fit in, and had failed. Someone else gave words to my feelings, made me aware that out of such torment could come great art. And what a concept, that the artist must remake himself daily, and redefine himself in every waking moment! What a notion, that words had colors, feelings of their own!” And so it was Ian who remade herself for the first time. She broke back into the business at the time of a new women’s singer-songwriter’s movement, the outgrowth of the larger women’s liberation cause. Her song “At Seventeen” revealed the experience of teen alienation from a woman’s point of view and earned her a Grammy and a number one album in 1975. But there are days when Ian feels remorse about her greatest hit. “I hate to think that ‘At Seventeen’ is any part of that whole bleeding-all-over-yourself school of songwriting, writing from the internal rather than the external, that really started with the whole Joni Mitchell thing and hit a heyday in the ’70s and came right back at us after disco. At the end of the day, all of our lives are so boring compared to the grand scheme of things.” I suggest that “At Seventeen” still strikes a universal chord of outsider experience. “I would hope so, that would be great. That’s certainly how I approached it. But in my occasional ‘My god, what have I created?’ moments, I don’t think so.” She continued to write while her songs were getting cut by major artists, but after a good run and dogged by personal and health problems, by the mid-’80s, Ian was ready to retreat again. “My career was pretty much over in 1986,” she says. She used the time-out to study acting with the Stanislavski Method teacher, Stella Adler. “She gave me a language for what I only felt in my heart,” Ian wrote in her autobiography. “She set me free, telling me it was not only good to be an artist, it was noble.”

Returning to recorded music again in the early ’90s with her album Breaking Silence, she used the moment to come out as a lesbian, convinced that if sharing her experience could help someone, her pain would be redeemed (today she lives in Nashville with Pat Snyder, her partner of nearly 20 years).  The comeback had her juggling positive press attention and live dates, but once again, she was on the recording and touring treadmill. “I had something of a resurgence… but it got really old really fast.”

Having risen to the challenge of re-establishing herself as a musician in a fickle business, Ian then proceeded to reinvent herself as a science-fiction author and as a columnist (her sci-fi short stories have been published in various anthologies and her work as a columnist for Performing Songwriterand The Advocate is archived at her website). She continues to devote more time to prose writing and a couple of years ago took a year off to write her autobiography; she found that she liked the stay-at-home writer’s life, way more than the road. “For the first time in a decade and a half, I actually had spare time. I reaffirmed some friendships and I made a new friend, which for me is a lot; I don’t make friends quickly. And I went to the clubs a bunch and re-familiarized myself with a lot of songwriters and singers, got to listen to music, I took some trips… I went to Virginia to hear bluegrass. I actually had a daily life. And then I looked at the economy, because I was thinking of trying to build my world around a life like that, and I thought, ‘I can’t afford this.’ So it’s back on the road. In some ways, that’s my day gig. Why should I be any different from anyone else with a day job? At least my day job is something I love doing.”

But she’s back on the road with a difference: Ian’s full rig, the outboard gear, the bank of pedals, and the guitar hero solos have been traded in for an acoustic. The only augmentation to her set comes in the form of stories, something she learned to tell while on her book tour. “The first time I tried to read from the book it was just horrible. So I apologized and put the book down and started telling the chapter as I remembered it. For me, the stories have become like the songs. They have their own rhythm and their own beat.” And if the book is any indication, they’re juicy too, though they are ultimately the stories of a woman in search of making a connection, with her muse, herself, and her people, the fans with whom she connected through the message board she built up in 1993.

“When my book came out last summer… they rented a bus and went all over the United States with me. If you do it right, it becomes a community,” she says. “I’ve been very clear from the beginning… I didn’t intend to make money off of that part, that I considered me paying for it part of the cost of doing business.”

Ian has also returned to songs of societal concern: “Married in London” tells of a marriage recognized everywhere but at home. “I normally don’t get up on a soapbox about things, but I was really furious. First I had to watch the Reagan years and the Bush years co-opt my country and turn it into a place that is not the place my grandparents wanted to come to, and then I was watching as my country turned its back on me and those like me, on every level—politically, socially, economically—and I was watching these people say to me, ‘All right, never mind the wedding ceremony.’ They were saying to me, ‘You can’t inherit social security. You can’t leave your partner everything.’ To me, as a songwriter, the copyright act now has reversions built in; well, those reversions can only go to your wife or husband, they can’t go to your spouse. So I can’t leave any of that to Pat. She has no standing. I couldn’t even leave it to her children. I was furious. My tour manager at the time said, ‘You need to move away from this; you need to put this in a song.’ I was writing a song that was really angry and then about halfway through I looked at it and said, ‘This is terrible… no wonder people don’t write angry songs anymore.’ It’s so rare to hear anything on the level of ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.’ I thought, ‘I need to laugh at this,’ and so I started to write it, and it was funny. And then I thought, ‘How do I explain it to a straight audience without scaring them?’ Because that’s the trick with something like the gay rights issue. How do you present it without excluding anyone?”

There are a few more changes to the new Janis Ian: “Edging toward 60, letting my hair go white, getting rid of my lenses, wearing glasses on stage, which was always anathema, weighing more than I want to weigh… It’s all a part of saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to be 60 in a few years and this is not the same person, even if I sing the same songs a lot of the time.’” She has accepted her status among music’s elders. “You know, with Odettta’s death, between her and Van Ronk, I think it really came home for me, how limited these people older than me are. I mean, there’s Pete [Seeger], of course, who will apparently endure forever, and there’s Joan… Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell… Dylan, a lot of lost people like Ochs, Janis Joplin, those folks. And then there’s me, who’s kind of between the Baez/Collins’ and the Ani DiFrancos. I suddenly realized at Falcon Ridge [folk festival], I was being looked up to by the younger artists, as somebody to learn from and as a mentor… it’s really a weird feeling.”

Despite the usual complaints, Ian assures me there is an upside to the inevitable decline. “One of the cool things that you might look forward to about getting older, that I really learned from my book, is there is no shame in looking back. When I was younger, that seemed really embarrassing, but as you get older, you look back and you suddenly realize how many things you thought were so important were so meaningless and how many things you thought were not important are really a big deal.” Like? “Writing an article for Performing Songwriter about internet downloading would assume such huge proportions. It does kind of act as a leveler in your own head and your heart. It’s like being able to look back and go, ‘Pat and I are 20 years this year.’ That’s a leveler. I would never have thought that would happen. I think at the half-century mark we become conscious that, at its best, half our life is gone. But whether there is a way to start stripping away from my business, and stripping away at other things, and figure out what I’m going to give up in return for gaining some time, I haven’t figured it out yet.”

Perhaps when the telephone makes its comeback in a couple of years, as Ian predicts it will, we’ll give her a ring and find out how things turned out.


Filed under: Civil Rights, Folk, Greenwich Village, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , ,

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, , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme