With Justice in Mind
Revolutionary Worker #937, December 21, 1997
From December 4 through December 8, music and art events in several cities were inspired by the call for a Day of Art for Mumia Abu-Jamal put out by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!. So far, the RW has heard about happenings in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. On December 9 the British band Chumbawamba included a shoutout of "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" in their hit song Tubthumping on the David Letterman show. This week the RW reports on "Poetic Justice" from Los Angeles; more on New York next week:
El Niño brought hard rain in L.A. on December 5 but did not deter the thousand people who came out to take part in "An Evening with Justice in Mind." As a live broadcast went out over the Internet worldwide, the Los Angeles night brought together different nationalities, art forms, ages and neighborhoods in a concert built around the theme "Criminal Justice...Poetic Justice...Just Us!" The concert was sponsored by the Just Us Committee which united a range of artists including members of the newly formed Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!
Dozens of graffiti artists, poets and musicians turned out to speak out against injustice with their art and, in particular, to speak up for Mumia Abu-Jamal. The performers included comedy by Culture Clash and spoken word by actor Alfre Woodard and poets Rah Goddess, Keith Antar Mason, Jerry Quickley, Wadda G, Exene Cervankova, Yvonne de la Vega, Ken Scott, In Lak Ech and D Knowledge. Music came from hip-hop artists Aceyalone and Abstract Rude from Haiku d'etat; Medusa and Feline Science with Dr. EZ on the turntables; Quino (from Big Mountain) and Critical Mass; the Che Guevara All-Stars (most of whose members play with Ozomatli); and Spearhead. This wild mix was matched by the mix of the audience. Middle class people from West L.A. shared space and thought with graffiti crews from Echo Park, Venice, East L.A. and South Central. People from the projects in Watts sat with people from the condo canyons of Wilshire Blvd. Every nationality in the city was represented.
The power of the performances was magnified by a stunning graffiti piece on the theme of life in urban L.A. The backdrop was created by Axis, Kofie, Nerv, Vyal, Asyl'm, Man One, and Duke--some of the best graffiti artists in the city who were brought together for the project by the graffiti art gallery In Creative Unity (ICU). ICU also showed a number of other pieces which were lowered onto the stage at various points throughout the evening.
After a brief opening act and a warm welcome by Culture Clash, who both performed in and hosted the event, actor Alfre Woodard stepped up to the mike. As the rain beat harder on the concrete outside it gave up a steady beat for some powerful words that captured the spirit of the event and helped kick it wide open. Woodard explained why she was in the house: "Anytime thinking people gather together to decry injustice, cynicism and neglect, and to strike a blow for possibility, I want to be present." Reading a number of pieces from a new anthology of prose and poetry called In Defense of Mumia, Woodard ended with a selection by Sandra Maria Aceves called "Til the Cows Come Home." This was a celebration of resistance to injustice which Woodard dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal and political prisoners who are the voice of the voiceless as well as to the audience at the concert.
Many of the artists who participated in Just Us were also involved in staging Art Speaks!, a benefit for the October 22 coalition and the Nickersons 7 on August 31. And they were eager to continue this potent new creative collaboration. Jerry Quickley, a poet and one of the organizers, spoke about this to the RW. "I think there's a real calling bell taking place. The things that are going on make you turn your head and your eyes and your ears to what's going on. Your response can be either to look on in horror or to speak out. Many artists are choosing to speak out." And beyond the artists themselves, many other people involved in the technical end of things also stepped up to volunteer their skills and equipment. Quickley also spoke to this, "One of the things that was very inspiring about it is that we had a host of equipment providers and vendors step forward and provide thousands of dollars worth of equipment and their services free of charge because they believed in this. These are the owners of businesses, not some small kind of low-level worker that's bucking the system. They really have come out and come forward and supported us. It's been a great community vibe. This has been a furthering of what we accomplished with Art Speaks!--taking it to the next level. We're really happy with it. There's been this giant organization of artists coming out and coming together and supporting this across the board. This is another artist-run concert."
Robbie Conal, a guerrilla poster artist and one of the organizers of the event, spoke about the "Just Us" side of things too. "Our idea was to gather up performers from every discipline: musicians, comedy skits, spoken word, poetry and also graffiti writers, all of whom express themselves about social and political issues in their art. The idea is to show the audience that there are people who do this and they have a lot on their minds, and to show them that they can do it too."
Through music, comedy and poetry, people explored many themes--from Culture Clash's portraits of immigrants crossing the border to Spearhead's heartbreak tale of a ghetto youth in search of work--returning again and again to Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keith Antar Mason took us on a poetic journey to Mumia's cell, and Quino's new song was inspired by Mumia's story. David Lester, from the Artists' Network of Refuse & Resist!, spoke briefly about Mumia's case and called on people to give Mumia a "holiday gift" by flooding the powers with protest messages.
The first few notes of the Che Guevara All-Stars seemed to send out electric bolts to the seats as almost the entire audience jumped to their feet and rushed to the stage. For the next half hour the driving salsa/hip-hop/funk/meringue/rock beats from the All-Stars took over everyone's mind and body. Afterwards, Wildog, the bass player for the group, talked about the vibe he felt between the audience and the artists. "It was great. We got to do this again and again. It was incredible. It felt so free up on the stage. This was beautiful!"
Spearhead once again brought people to their feet and to the front of the stage. Their almost two-hour set mixed hip-hop, funk and reggae and laid open the lives of the people and all of the injustice that comes down on them. Michael Franti's high-energy performance and powerful lyrics reached down and grabbed people's hearts and minds and drew them full into the vibe of the night. Spearhead played a lot of songs from their latest album, Chocolate Supa Highway, as well as one brand new song and ended their set with a call to Free Mumia.
Culture Clash--a popular Chicano troupe who describe their work as "13 years of revolutionary comedy"--kept things moving as the hosts for the night. Their side-splitting satire added just the right punch to the mix. And one piece in particular brought many to tears of laughter and anger as Culture Clash contrasted the syrupy lies of what America is supposed to be with slide show images of what Amerikkka really is--especially for immigrants. This piece ended with a brilliant satire featuring a Vegas-style showman--Neil Diamonte--belting out the song "Coming to America," an in-your-face celebration of the immigrants crossing the border any and every way they can.
Artists were joined by Kamal Hassan from the Malcolm X Grassroots organization, who spoke about political prisoners in the U.S. and the upcoming Project Jericho demanding justice and liberation for political prisoners and prisoners of war, and Cecilia Rodriguez, the official representative of the EZLN, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, who spoke about the low-level war the Mexican government is waging against the people of Chiapas and called on the audience to support the struggle of the people.
Poetry and Spoken Word was an important part of the whole night. Poets from every scene in the city were in the house. Ken Scott, a Black poet, brought the house down with his piece "Life Ain't Funny No More" about the ravages of drugs in oppressed communities and the reality of who is behind it. And Exene Cervankova, formerly part of the band X, a major punk band in the early 1980s, gave an inspired performance and later talked with the RW about her feelings on the concert. "This is kind of the way it's supposed to be. Nobody puts it together because it's hard. I've been doing this for 20 years. You could look at it as another show, but I think it's something special. The mixed company is part of it. Not just being with a bunch of fucking white people every time I read. It's really nice. Women do stuff together all the time, but it's really cool to have all kinds of people." D Knowledge, a poet with roots in the Leimert Park poetry scene and branches that reach out nationwide said, "It's such an important event to have such a multi-cultural and multi-generational crowd to support such a powerful cause and to have artists who really have integrity to display messages that aren't necessarily mainstream but that are truth, that are educational, that are informative, that are enlightening, that are encouraging, that are progressive, that are just full of life and full of energy."
By the end of the night artists and audience alike were walking about seven inches off the ground--a mystery that some blamed on El Niño. Some folks left the concert and got on the R&R! bus to the San Francisco demonstration in support of Mumia. Others stopped and checked out information tables in the lobby. And everyone raised their voices about doing this again real soon--or, as Exene put it, "quickly before the world ends!"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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