Los Angeles, Leimert Park
A New Groove Against Police Brutality
Revolutionary Worker #923, September 14, 1997
Sunday, August 31 was one of those slow roasting summer days in Los Angeles. And when the sun went down it got even hotter as Artists Against Police Brutality opened up the doors of the Vision Theater in Leimert Part for Art Speaks!, a benefit concert/gathering to raise funds for the October 22nd National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality and the Nickersons 7 Defense Committee. The killer line-up brought together some of the hottest bands and poets in the city to take a stand against police brutality. And for six hours poets, musicians, and more than 500 people celebrated together in jazz, spoken word, funk, hip-hop and salsa.
Medusa, a hip-hop artist and poet, whose poetry appeared in Tupac Shakur's film Gridlock'd, told the RW, "It was time we spoke as a collective. A lot of us speak on this in our songs, and some of us are afraid to touch on it. So as a collective together sometimes you feel strong enough with the force to say whatever you want to. I believe that if everyone can stand united for a cause we can achieve anything. We can use our pen and our instruments as our weapon."
As people arrived--making their way through an intimidating police presence enroute--live DJs worked the lobby where photographs and pieces from local graffiti artists were on display, including three huge canvasses from a graffiti gallery which the police had raided twice and tried to drive out of business. Black panels with the names of victims of police brutality and murder signalled the presence of the Stolen Lives Project--where a group of young people submitted names of two friends, killed this summer by police under suspicious circumstances, as others bought ribbons with the names of people killed by police around the country.
Performers and audience alike were visibly impressed with the diversity of the crowd, who came from all over the L.A. area, and beyond, to Leimert Park, an important center of Black culture in Los Angeles' Crenshaw District. "We welcome our sisters and brothers to ART SPEAKS,!" a program statement by the artists said. "This event's purpose is to promote awareness and inspire action in our families and our communities. Some said that this couldn't be done. Some didn't want to see it happen. Some tried to stop it. Coming together tonight Black, Brown, Red, Yellow, White, women and men, old and young, gay and lesbian, immigrant and native born, we are all participants in tearing down the barriers of cultural apartheid. Look upon the sister or brother next to you with respect and love and with the knowledge that we are all gathered here with our diverse backgrounds, talents and ideas for the common goal of opposing police brutality. Our Strength Is Our Unity."
From Ozomatli, one of L.A.'s hottest new club bands, to the legendary jazz pianist Horace Tapscott, the night was filled with a historic line-up of musicians and spoken word artists.
Taumbú, a master of indigenous instruments, kicked off the concert, fusing his own experience with police brutality in Leimert Park into the sounds of his diggeree-do, congas, flute and an ancient stringed instrument. Infinity Project, a young quartet of jazz musicians, featured a blistering alto sax, followed by poets Disturbing Silence and Angelic Vagrants. The Foundation, which blends poetry and DJs, began with a poem dedicated to the "spirit of internationalism and the Filipino people." And as the DJs kicked on the turntables and laid down a groove for more poetry, the four Latina women of In Lak Ech, laid down anger and humor on the status of women in society.
The unique sounds of the popular hip-hop group Black Eye Peas tumbled on stage with guitar prominent alongside bass and drums. The guitarist told the RW about the group's excitement in coming to Leimert Park. "It's really crucial to do something within this community. It's a beautiful thing that's happening for a good cause. When there's a public outcry for something it's good that there's something positive that comes out of it." Will, the lead singer, is a young Black man from the mainly Latino East L.A. housing projects of Pico-Aliso, who experienced police brutality first-hand. He told the RW, "I understand the cause and I appreciate the cause and I'm for the cause. I hope we accomplish more of a global unity among youth and people who are going to come down today and just mutual respect, from African American to white, Asian, Hispanics, and not just different ethnicities but different types of people in general."
Topping off the first half of the show were acclaimed poet Kamau Daáood and Medusa, who performed with Feline Science & Dr. EZ. With a warm introduction by fellow-poet Jerry Quickley, Kamau Daáood rubbed the rim of a brass bowl to produce a single sustained note. As the note died away he began to read. Kamau Daáood is known throughout the Black community where, together with jazz drummer Billy Higgins, he co-founded the World Stage in Leimert Park as a jazz and poetry performance space. From the Watts Writers Workshop founded after the rebellion in 1965 to the ongoing Ananzi Writers Workshop at the World Stage, Kamau has sought to bring music and poetry to the young people and to train new writers.
For Art Speaks! Daáood presented an audacious work, detailing the struggle of Black people against oppression and dehumanization in the belly of the beast. Through shifting personas, he wove a picture of human beings whose humanity is thwarted by an inhuman system. His words repeatedly drew gasps from sections of the audience. When he ended with another slow crescendo from the brass bowl, the audience shot out of their seats in a standing ovation.
As Dr. EZ produced a slamming beat from the wheels of steel, Medusa began her set with much drama, back to the audience in a high-backed chair, as Feline Science called to her. In "Peep the Mind Blend" she told the story of a brave woman's mission to "free all the strong Black men from a maximum security prison,"--a bold theme, which captured the militant imagination of this audience.
Throughout the evening, concert organizers shared stories with the RW about the behind-the-scenes energies of Art Speaks!. Everyone seemed slightly amazed that it had all come together. But when the artists came together to do this, it inspired others to join in. People passed out flyers at other artists' performances as well as their own. Promoters called to volunteer their services to promote the event. Artists put together a public service announcement for the radio. A printer called to offer reduced rates. Filmmakers offered to document the event. There were dozens of calls to the Art Speaks! information line asking where was Leimert Park and how to get there. Four days before the event, someone volunteered to be stage manager. The stage set was raw and basic, it was noticeably warm inside the hall. But Art Speaks! had a spirit of sharing that led to some intense performances. "We're in a war," said one of the musicians when technical problems materialized. "Let's go ahead and do the best we can with what we've got."
And then there was the negative vibe of the system which had to be overcome. A week before the concert, the Los Angeles Times ran a story saying that the Vision Theatre, which was started by actress Marla Gibbs as a space for the community, had been repossessed by the bank, touching off rumors that the concert would be canceled. Only four days before, the insurance company backed out "because of the subject matter," and when organizers succeeded in getting a cooperative insurance agent, the concert was jacked up for five times the normal rate. On the day of the concert itself, cops flooded Crenshaw Boulevard leading to Vision Theatre, pulling people over right in front of the theater all afternoon.
But this night the people prevailed. And at the end of the day, the theater management waived the time limit for the concert--which was allowed to go into the early morning hours.
"There's a lot that we can all do together to stop this rampant police brutality from going on," said Joey Johnson, who opened the second half of the show on behalf of the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. Speaking about the police torture of Abner Louima in New York, Johnson told the crowd, "We're going to make a statement that we're not willing to live in a society where this kind of torture, this kind of brutality is supposed to be the norm." A dramatic on stage appearance of the Nickersons 7--who were attacked and arrested on April 20, 1996 at a demonstration against police brutality in the Watts housing project of Nickerson Gardens--moved the house. "They're scared of the people in the projects," Xochi of the Nickersons 7 told the crowd. "They're even more scared that all kinds of multinational people from different sides of the street came all the way from the Westside to Leimert Park, came from South Central and Watts to Leimert, came from Leimert to Leimert to support this event. That's scary to them. It's right to fight police brutality! Free the Nickersons 7!"
Jerry Quickley, a member of the Los Angeles Slam Poetry Team and the 1996 Southwest Slam Champion, told the RW before the concert, "We planned on doing the show and the execution of it three months ago, round about in June of this year, two months before the Abner Louima case in New York. Sadly, you could almost predict that there would be some new atrocity between when we started planning it and when it actually occurred. Now whether it was a shepherd in Texas or Abner Louima in New York or Alicia Soltero here, these atrocities are consistent and they're consistent by the people we pay and who are entrusted to serve us--and this is clearly not the case, particularly with people of color and the poor. Unfortunately you don't have to wait long for those type of abuses to occur. You don't have to wait long to have your outrage rekindled. Because it occurs on a daily basis."
Jerry Quickley brought several works to Art Speaks!, including "Police Report"--about his own experience of police brutality at the hands of the LAPD in Westwood, when he was pulled out of the car and thrown on the ground just because he was a Black man driving a rental car and wearing athletic clothes. In a special piece, "Troublemaker," written for Abner Louima, Quickley was joined by three other poets--plungers in hands, punctuating their reading with the sound of the plungers popping against the stage. They began with the haunting image of a man standing at a subway stop as a train goes by. As the sound of the train becomes unbearable, the man starts to scream, but the sound of the train drowns out his screams. No one at the station notices. The image, and the popping of the plungers, recurred as the poets recounted the damage done to Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct house, the lies and excuses of the system, and the people's need for justice.
The intensity and the magic continued as Strangefruit, an all-woman group that plays a fusion of hip-hop, rock and funk, was followed by poets Ta'shia Asanti and AK Toney of the Ananzi Writers Workshop. In an impromptu moment, Richard Montoya, of the Chicano comedy group Culture Clash, was called out of the audience to give an inspiring monologue, about the oppression of Chicano people, the Nickersons 7, the brutalizers of the 77th Street Division and multinational unity, backed by recorded jazz and the drumming of Big Black. Big Black, a legendary conga player who signed the 1996 statement in support of the October 22nd National Day of Protest, had run into some musicians from Ozomatli at an African Marketplace festival that afternoon and brought his drums to Art Speaks! hoping to jam. "I think people are hungry for good music," Big Black told the RW, "and music has a way of keeping people together, bringing them together and making them rub shoulders and hob-nob. I popped up unexpected. I was so happy so see what's happening, and I'd like to see it continue."
During the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Horace Tapscott put his piano on a truck and went into the streets to play for the rebels. Horace has dedicated his life to the community and the people. He is committed to passing on the vibe to the generations that come after. And on August 31, he passed that vibe along. With the Pan African Peoples Arkestra plus vocalist Dwight Trible, Horace took the stage and without a word began to play "Thoughts of Dar es Salaam," from his new album. His piano and the Arkestra provided a base for inspired solos--including an amazing vocal by Dwight Trible, which touched off a burst of applause and appreciation, and an intense final solo by Horace himself.
It did not matter a bit that most of the audience was not familiar with the language of jazz, or that there were many years between the musicians on stage and the youthful audience. It mattered less that people in the crowd spoke different languages. The notes were like a needle that wove its way through the crowd. As Horace Tapscott pulled his hands together to end the set, he also gathered in the audience, touching and uplifting them and drawing them together. Bassist Al McKibbon, who also signed the October 22nd statement last year, said about the fight to end police brutality, "I think it's a beautiful thing, and I think it's very important that we make a move in that direction. And it's nice to see the youngsters pursuing it as much as the older has pursued it. And now it gives us a chance to be involved but we don't have to carry the load."
Ozomatli--recently called "the band of the moment, the hottest in L.A.'s thriving club scene" by the L.A. Times.--provided a hot finale. Blending Caribbean rhythms, African drums, traditional Mexican tunes, rap and funk, Ozo is a picture of the city's youth--Asian, white, Latino and Black. As soon as Ozo hit the first note, the crowd was on its feet, dancing. And after a sizzling 40-minute set, five Ozo members strapped on their drums, grabbed their horns and led the audience down the aisle out of the theater. The walls were shaking in the lobby when an LAPD squad car pulled up in front of the theater and stopped. The musicians led the surge out into the street, where dozens of people were still hanging out, drinking coffee and playing chess at 5th Street Dick's next door. Art Speaks! ended in the middle of Leimert Park with drums and saxophone at 2:00 in the morning. And with so many lines crossed, and so many barriers torn down, it was impossible to think about going back to art as usual.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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