Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Mumia Abu-Jamal & Matters Of Black Life

I have composed my thoughts about the new book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read the piece by clicking through to Down With Tyranny!

Abu-Jamal’s collection of essays, published by City Lights Books, covers the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans since the late ’90s to the present. The writings are an attempt to examine how the country arrived at its new stage of intolerance and what can be done from here. As told from the perspective of a writer who has spent the last 30 plus years behind bars, and most of those years on Death Row, the analysis proves to have been prescient in its wisdom and precise in its depiction of the US problem with white supremacy and law enforcement’s impunity when it comes to taking Black lives. I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

 

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Filed under: anti-war, Books, income disparity, police, racism, , , , ,

Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal

mumia-writing-wallMumia Abu-Jamal has been in jail longer than members of the millennial generation have been alive. Those who’ve followed his case know he’s served his time in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution “ona move,” to use one of his catchphrases. The most identifiable prisoner in the known world, through his own persistence and with the help of a core council of support who works to deliver his books and his Prison Radio broadcasts, Writing on the Wall is his latest communique to reach us from the confines of the prison nation. Published by City Lights Books and selected by Johanna Fernández, a scholar, educator and coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, over 100 previously unpublished short essays by Abu-Jamal well-cover our history of violence (from the police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, to commentaries on the violence in Ferguson, MO ) and the media circusry that accompanies it. Prepared in the style and format of his Prison Radio pieces broadcast on public radio, Fernández wrests hope from Abu-Jamal’s prophecies that one day America might live up to the truth of its own advertising. “Like Nelson Mandela, Mumia defies his captors by preserving his integrity and compassion in the face of the hateful repression orchestrated against him,” she writes. Read the full review at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Book news, Books, France, , , , , ,

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

Rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political. and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

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