Author Of "Keep On Pushing" Denise Sullivan Celebrates MLK Day With Reading & Singalong @ YBCA in SF

Posted by Billyjam, January 17, 2013 08:01am | Post a Comment
When the Amoeblog last caught up with Denise Sullivan in September 2011 it was to have an in-depth discussion with the Northern California author about her then recently published book Black Power Music (From Blues To Hip-Hop). At that time the Crawdaddy columnist and self-described "record geek" discussed her engaging book that effortlessly intertwines American history of the past numerous decades. The book nicely covers a wide range of protest/revolutionary music from early folk-blues, through the musical soundtrack of the civil rights movement (soul/funk/rock), and up to the contemporary hip-hop protest music. In that earlier Amoeblog interview Sullivan discussed many things including how she went from writing a book on the White Stripes to a book on Black Power Music. "Matters of race and the sexes, the Great Migration, what was once called the "American Dream," industry, ingenuity, and the entire great American songbook are of deep interest to me and all are tied up in the White Stripes story," she said at the time. "Keep on Pushing is a similar story, only it has a lot more people (many of them black, others are Native American, women, or economically strapped, most all of them are trying to survive America), and music is big part of their toolkit. Specifically though, in the case of both books, it was fine art photography that initially inspired me to launch my investigations: American Ruins by Camilo Jose Vergara, and The Black Panthers by Stephen Shames."

In the sixteen months since Keep On Pushing has kept Sullivan preoccupied giving talks and readings on the topics raised in her book. On Monday January 21st in honor of the 2013 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration Sullivan will host another Keep On Pushing themed event at the Yerba Buena Center for The Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco; an all day event (11am to 5pm) that is being billed as "a reading, signing, and singalong with special musical guests." This week I caught up with Sullivan to talk about this MLK Jr Day event and other topics related to her book.

Amoeblog: Since you were last interviewed in 2011 for the Amoeblog when your great book, Keep On Pushing (Black Power Music - From Blues To Hip-Hop), first came out where has it taken you to - IE what places to speak on its content and what have are some of the subjects or discussions/debates your book has sparked?

Denise Sullivan: Last time we talked, I was about to begin a series of readings in California. In San Diego, I met the singer Lisa Sanders who would subsequently hop on board what we came to call the Keep on Pushing Express, lending her voice to the proceedings. One day she told me that the book was going to take me to places I never expected and you know, she was right. Eighteen months later, it appears Keep on Pushing was more than a book to put on the shelf and is central to the focus of my work, as I continue to document and pass on to the next generation the ways music and culture have and continue to be directly linked to social and political change, not only in the US but around the world.

This might sound crazy, but on New Year's Eve 2011, Chuck D tweeted about the book and I swear, it lit a fire under me that breathed a whole new life into the project:  It was a validation that I wasn't seeking and certainly didn't expect but as I'm sure you can imagine, it was a pretty sweet coming from one of hip hop's strongest artists and advocates, while some of my peers (the white men and women writers in the music journalism field in positions of power and influence) had largely cast the book aside for not being black enough. But as to where I've been since we talked: bookstores, schools, libraries, and public events like San Francisco's MLK Day---any place interested people gather to talk about these things---and I discuss with people the African American roots of protest music, protest song's enduring power and legacy, and its place in the world today. At that same reading in San Diego, we gave the floor to a vet who wanted to talk about his experience in Iraq and some of us had questions for him. It's been these kind of moments that have been most meaningful and enlightening to me, one of the reasons I write books---to talk to people and learn from their experiences. The younger folks who turn up seem to have wide interests in music and civil rights and a hunger for context and education on these subjects, I suspect, because arts and cultural education has largely been taken out of their classrooms.

Amoeblog:  In the one year plus since the book was published what artists or subjects have come along that you would definitely include if the book were to be published today?

Denise Sullivan:  There are enough artists to do a part two of the book, focusing on contemporary artists.  Jasiri X and Bambu have been very busy documenting the life and times of what young men of color are up against out there and I'm interested in what they are saying. I love Santigold: She is smart, is a high achiever, and knows music without boundaries. I recently interviewed Tjinder Singh of Cornershop and not only does he know plenty about US Civil Rights and soul and hip hop, his songs are rooted in the experience of growing up as a brown skinned person in England.

I would definitely broaden the scope to touch on some of what I addressed in the book regarding the US black power movement's influence on international music and the worldwide effort for freedom from oppression, the kind of thing Bob Marley and Fela Kuti studied directly and folded into their music. The combination of the energy behind that influence and their own inherent talent, drive and personal beliefs made them giants not only in their respective fields of sound but in all music, especially music with a message. With that in mind, I would choose music from a country in crisis, like Mali. Tuareg group, Tinariwen, are the obvious choice, but Bamako's Amadou & Mariam, the mid-life, blind blues players, speak to life in their country too.

I would like to shout-out to the tireless ones, the musicians who keep showing up: Tom Morello, Ben Harper, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Wayne Kramer, and they don't stop...
If you have any names for me to consider please toss them out there. I don't keep track of every record that comes out anymore. I just read today that folksinger Erin McKeown has a record of all topical songs, one of them written with reporter Rachel Maddow.  I need to check that out---bad times are good for real- talking songs.

Amoeblog: Your book covered a nice wide spectrum of music from folk and blues to hip-hop: do you see hip-hop today as a modern day folk or blues music or something different?

Denise Sullivan:  Billy Jam, I can't possibly weigh in on the state of hip hop today---it's certainly diverse, there's the good and the bad, and the subject can be contentious so I leave those better equipped, like yourself, to handle that. I will say this: I am with Chuck D inasmuch as I think so-called luxury rap is ridiculous. It has been past its sell-by date for quite some time and needs to be retired in a time when the climate's still changing, the food supply's at risk, education, health care, the job market, human welfare, all a shambles. In a year of stop and frisk, Trayvon Martin, mass shootings, increasing mass incarceration, and a presidential election in which we learned among other things that racism is alive and well, there are plenty of topical ideas for hip hop to dive into and it is doing it.  In that way, hip hop is like folk music, documenting the times, providing insights, now and years from now, people will still be listening and uncovering the messages its most visionary poets delivered.

Amoeblog: Your book covers such soul classics as The Impressions - who gave the book its title - and I am always hearing people go on about how say soul music today is shallow and lame in comparison to the older stuff like the Impressions. This applies to every type of music in fact but is it just people getting older and romanticizing on "their" music (from their youth) or was music, specifically protest music, better before?

Denise Sullivan:  Sure, nostalgia is part of it. But I know young people and have occasion to talk music with them and the ones I know really dig the '60s, '70s and '80s stuff. They may gravitate to it first for its sound or look, but it wouldn't be attractive or worth a thing if it didn't have substance and meaning and what is meant by soul.  I think it's that which they crave: The mass culture based on art for commerce steadily became devoid of soul and depth by design by the '80s: It is a point I make in the book, but early punk and hip hop's ideas were expressed as a rejection of what was being served us on the surface and instead, was an invitation to dig deep. Part of that story is how punk embraced Motown and old rockabilly and MCs and DJs rapped and scratched over old disco and jazz records---they were seriously good, enduring tracks. (I don't know if you knew this, but I tried my hand at beat-mixing in the clubs, I had all the early Sugar Hill twelve inches---so of course I think the golden era is the best, but then, it was!). Clearly music no longer plays as an important role in the culture as it once did, and while we occasionally hear flashes of originality and brilliance, the sun has mostly set on contemporary Western music's worldwide influence. Did I answer the question?

Amoeblog: What can people expect at your upcoming event - Keep on Pushing reading, signing, and singalong?

Denise Sullivan: I'll be reading the parts from Keep on Pushing, specific to Dr. King's life and where it intersected with the music of the movement in the '60s, and the way his work resonates in song from there to here. It remains largely unacknowledged that it was a musician - Stevie Wonder-- who was responsible for building a grassroots citizen's movement that culminated in all 50 states ultimately recognizing the federal holiday in the name of Dr. King.  I will be joined by at least one of the musicians profiled in the book.

Amoeblog: 7) When you think of MLK what are the top three songs that always pop into your head - ones that capture the vibe of the man and his message - not necessarily about him directly?

Denise Sullivan:  I think of "Precious Lord" by gospel creator Thomas A. Dorsey, known to be Dr. King's favorite spiritual, as sung by Mahalia Jackson, which pretty much says it all about the man and from where he got the inspiration for his message. I always think of Nina Simone extemporaneously doing "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)," though it was right after his death, it celebrates his life.

And of course I think of Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday," though I'll tell you something that doesn't make much sense: The song isn't as well-known as it could be. Though as someone said to me recently, "This song isn't going away anytime soon." Sure, it sounds totally '80s, but there were a few things from that decade worth carrying forward, and the establishment of the King holiday, in part thanks to Wonder's song and gathering of thousands of signatures on the concert trail that petitioned congress to pass a law, turned a dream into a reality. Can you think of another time music and the citizenry came together in such a significant way? Gil Scott-Heron called it "The Last Holiday."

Stevie Wonder "Happy Birthday (live)"

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Dr. King (1), Martin Luther King Jr. Day (4), Martin Luther King Jr. (4) (1), San Francisco (368), Nina Simone (19), Mlk Day (3), Bob Marley (7), Mlk (3), Dr. Martin Luther King (2), Jr. (5)