ArtSpeaks for Stolen Lives

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1091, February 18, 2001, posted at

The club was packed, people pressed into every inch of space--flat up against the stage, standing on top of tables in the far back corners and up against the railing on the upstairs balcony. Anti-police brutality videos, murals and paintings flashed on a large screen to the left of the stage. Portraits from the Stolen Lives book--of people killed by police--looked down on the crowd from high on the walls. A banner demanding "Freedom for Mumia" was draped across the DJ stand on the stage. Beats pounding in the night laid a path through poetry, hip-hop, rock, and salsa. Hundreds of bobbing heads and waving hands, people danced in sea of resistance art, their minds and hearts soared.

This was ArtSpeaks! 2001. Over two nights, January 28 and 29, 1600 people filled the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. They came for music, art, film and dance by more than two hundred musicians, DJ's, poets and other artists. The artists came together around the theme of Stolen Lives--the lives lost to police brutality--and around political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, "whose life we will not let them steal."

This was the fourth ArtSpeaks!, a music and art festival hosted by the Artists' Network of Refuse & Resist! This year's concert took on a special meaning in the wake of the Ramparts scandal, the police state created around the DNC, and the police attack on the October 22nd march in Los Angeles. Everyone was psyched. Artists came to create and perform art inspired by the fight against police brutality and the battle to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

It was a festival of amazing collaborations and powerful new works. The people came to show their support and celebrate the struggle--to sing and dance to music and art that came from and fed their hearts. No one was disappointed. Consciousness and artistic quality were outstanding. For six hours each night there was a powerful connect created between the artists and the audience that is all too rare these days. In a review of the first night of ArtSpeaks! the Los Angeles Times critic said, "music and radical politics are not always an easy mix--one ingredient often tends to eclipse the other. But Sunday's concert at the El Rey Theater protesting police brutality was a mostly memorable night of hip-hop, pop and jazz."

The Sunday night concert was an amazing mix of musical styles and people. The East L.A. Sabor Factory, a ten-piece band made up of Chicano youth who grew up in the barrios of East L.A. and first met each other in a high school marching band, set the tone for the night with their high energy set of salsa, funk and hip-hop. Aztlan Underground took it higher when they hit the stage dressed like indigenous warriors and surrounded by police crime scene tape. Their hard driven rap-rock pounded away at the police and all of Amerikkkan society and at the same time professed deep love for the people. Jazz vocalist Dwight Trible brought a startling contrast to the stage--pulling the audience into his unique vocal stylings and taking this hip hop audience for an unexpected and much appreciated ride.

Video and visual art was a powerful component of ArtSpeaks this year. A number of filmmakers contributed short films or five-minute clips to air between sets. Other visual artists contributed slides of their work to be shown during the concert. The Stolen Lives PSA's, produced by the Artists' Network--featuring many musicians and other artists as well as family members of those killed by the police--were played periodically throughout the night.

Midway through the Sunday night concert a hush fell over the room as Greg Jordan took the stage with a picture of his son John, murdered by Long Beach police in 1999. "This is a picture of my son," Jordan said, "He's dead...his eyes are closed, but I look out at you and your eyes are wide open, and I get so much hope and energy from that." Representing for the Stolen Lives project, Jordan told the audience how this project has changed his life and the lives of other families by connecting them to the struggle against police brutality and the October 22 marches.

Poet Jerry Quickley, collaborating with DJ Dusk, followed an energetic and heartfelt performance by Freestyle Fellowship, and drew the audience deep into the night.

Rapper Mos Def made a surprise appearance and dropped some freestyle rhymes--calling attention to the conviction of 13-year-old Lionel Tate, convicted of murder and facing a life sentence in Florida for the accidental death of a young girl.

By the time Blackalicious took the stage the roof was ready to blow. And they finished off the night with a set where the beats and rhymes hit people on a dozen different levels--interweaving joints from their current CD with freestyle lyrics about police brutality, justice and Mumia. Their beats became the heartbeat of the crowd for the next 45 minutes. After the concert, Blackalicious MC, The Gift of Gab, talked with the RW about why they took part in ArtSpeaks!: "We wanted to be part of this mission, especially the mission around Mumia. I think music has always had the ability to help bring about awareness. I think it can definitely help mold reality. It can't change anything by itself, it can't stop anybody from doing what they gonna do or make somebody do something they don't want to do, but I think it has a definite influence and it's very important because of that. It does a lot to inspire people."

Sunday night's show was killer and Monday matched it. Leon Mobley, with his djembe driven funk band, split open the night with a short wild set. Boots, the MC of the Coup, brought the crowd to a complete, stunned silence when he did an a cappella performance of his piece "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Grenada Last Night." A collaboration between Mike Ladd and DJ Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5 brought together Ladd's urgent blend of synthesizer and spoken word with Cut Chemist's amazing beats. Money Mark laid out a uniquely beautiful set--including a piece called, "If You Strip Search Me Now All You Will Find Are the Bruises from Your Rubber Bullets." Rakaa-Iriscience and Babu from Dilated People brought a new burst of energy onto the stage late into the night, joined later in the set by Evidence.

At 1 a.m., when Ozomatli stormed the stage, it was like someone had electrified the floor. Everyone started dancing and didn't stop until the set was over. Ozo turned up the heat of the night with that special blend of resistance and kick-ass music that is their trademark. They dropped a couple of slammin' new songs and one or two old favorites. But the high point of the whole night had to be the epic jam that took over the last portion of Ozo's set. In a song dedicated to the new generations of rebels yet to come, Ozo was joined on stage by guest MC's Boots, Rakaa-Iriscience, Jerry Quickley, Jonathan from Seattle based Source of Labor, DJ Dez from Slum Village and DJ Rhettmatic from L.A.-based The Visionaries.

Introducing one of their new songs, one of the members of Ozomatli talked about the need to stand up against all the cruelty and oppression in the world today--"We are giving each other the strength and love to go out to the front of the battle in a war against those who take from us."

As people headed into the night, it felt like we were leaving liberated territory: for two nights, we had celebrated, laughed and cried; we were angered and enlightened, healed and challenged; attentive and raucous. And we came out of it, together ...changed.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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