The resignation Thursday of SFPD chief Greg Suhr arrived amid vocal protests from the arts community -- including a highly publicized hunger strike from the 'Frisco Five,' involving three hip-hop artists. But in the wake of Suhr's resignation, which local musicians are continuing the fight for social and political change?
It turns out there are many. With police shootings and homelessness, rising inequality, and clashes between long-established communities and naïve new residents, these are hard times for the Bay Area. But it's also a renaissance for musical resistance.
Gentrification and displacement
Terrie Odabi didn’t set out to write an anthem protesting the demographic changes sweeping over Oakland. A veteran vocalist and rising force on the Bay Area blues scene, she’d kept her politics off the bandstand. But after continuing reports of conflict between longtime African-American residents and recent Oaktown arrivals, she decided to sing out -- which led to “Gentrification Blues,” the defiant opening track of her new album My Blue Soul.
“There was the church in West Oakland where people started calling the police and making noise complaints,” says Odabi, who celebrates the release of My Blue Soul at Oakland’s Sound Room on June 11. “There were the drummers on Lake Merritt getting the police called on them. The lyrics just started coming to me. The gist is you can live anywhere you want to, but to come into a community and not respect what’s going on, that’s being entitled.”
It’s no coincidence that so many of the artists delivering potent musical manifestos, like Odabi, have deep ties to jazz and blues. The history and aesthetics of African-American music -- going back to Congo Square in New Orleans -- are all about transforming the materials at hand into tools for survival, sanctification and resistance, as Greg Tate argued in a recent essay for The Fader, titled 'Why Jazz Will Always Be Relevant.'
“Collage, cut-and-paste, sampling, remixing, and genre contamination has been a preferred mode in African-American music since the 1800s,” Tate writes.
Hands up, don't shoot
Cultural collage and cross-pollinating traditions have also been a central component of the Asian Improv movement, which took shape in the Bay Area in the early 1980s when it staked a deep claim to the liberatory imperative and experimental ethos of radical black music. Pianist and composer Jon Jang, who first gained international attention with drum legend Max Roach and erhu master Jiebing Chen in the Beijing Trio, presents excerpts from a work in progress titled Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! at Fort Mason Center’s 308 Gallery as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival on May 21. A collaboration with poet Amanda Kemp, the seven-part suite focuses on black men killed during police encounters, including Oscar Grant and Mario Woods.
Drawing inspiration from Roach and Charles Mingus, who both took early and outspoken stances against white supremacy, Jang has designed a set for a multi-cultural, multi-generational cast of musicians, including drummer Akira Tana and saxophonist Hitomi Oba, who contributes “An Offering to Sandra Bland.” The program also features Mingus’s “Meditation on Integration,” and “Prayer for Melvin Truss,” a piece composed by tenor saxophonist Francis Wong in memory of an unarmed African-American 17-year-old shot to death by a San Jose police officer in 1985.
The program makes the point that the struggle is long and ongoing, “a lesson from W.E.B. Du Bois that I learned from Amiri Baraka, ‘The Sisyphus Syndrome,’” Jang says. “The allegory is that black people would reach the mountain fighting for justice, and the rock would fall back down. History repeats itself. The rock goes up and then goes back down, and the role of the artist is to interpret the past, define the present, and imagine the future.”
Max Roach’s long shadow also extends to drummer Anthony Brown’s two SFIAF performances on June 5, when his Grammy Award-nominated Asian American Orchestra presents the premiere of “Freedom Now Suite 2016,” a reimagining of Roach’s seminal 1960 album We Insist! (the AAO reprises the suite at Oakland’s Musically Minded Academy on June 18). Widely hailed as an early merging of civil rights and jazz, the original album with Oscar Brown, Jr., Abbey Lincoln and Coleman Hawkins contains songs such as “Freedom Day,” “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” and “Tears for Johannesburg.”
In the same way that Roach utilized percussionists Ray Mantilla and Michael Olatunji to embody connections between African diaspora cultures, Brown has expanded his singular mix of Western and traditional Asian instrumentation with the four-piece Ojala Bata Ensemble. Working with powerhouse vocalist Amikaeyla Proudfoot Gaston, Brown conducted research in the Max Roach Collection at the Library of Congress and “discovered so much about the project that we didn’t know, that has not been made public,” and those elements inform the new suite.
A 'universal synagogue'
Violence afflicting black communities, from inside and outside, is the central concern of choreographer Nicole Klaymoon's Embodiment Project, which presents “Chalk Outlines” on June 11 at Yerba Buena Gardens. Featuring original music by soul/jazz singer Valerie Troutt performed by her vocal ensemble MoonCandy, “Chalk Outlines” is an outgrowth of the hip-hop dance company’s mission to bring various street dance forms to new audiences.
Much like Jang and Brown cite the influence of Roach, Troutt credits as inspiration the power of traditional African-American forms from Linda Tillery and Melanie DeMore. “It’s like Amiri Baraka said, if you trace the music of a people, you know where you’ve been and where you’re going,” Troutt says. “Working with Nicole Klaymoon, we are using elements of folk, percussion and voice that’s reminiscent of a chain gang, the gospel choir, and mourning mothers, all those kinds of sounds. But also house music, because the nightclub is a church, our universal synagogue for people to come and get free.”
Writing the songs of unity
Music was a vital force on the front lines of the recent demonstrations supporting the Frisco Five, a struggle that brought musician/physician Rupa Marya directly into the fray. Though she engaged in the protests as a doctor, spearheading the efforts to monitor the health of the hunger strikers -- including rappers Equipto, Selassie and Ike Plump -- the experience inevitably fed back into her ever-evolving creative work as a composer, performer, and bandleader of the April Fishes.
Marya's currently looking for a sound that embodies social change, a sound “that could make people feel comfortable in the same room,” she says. “It’s remarkable how segregated San Francisco is. For me, watching white friends stepping in solidarity with black and brown friends has been so powerful. What I hear in my mind is music that reaches across typical genre forms, a black music, Latino music, white music, Asian music that’s going to allow us to come to from a place of identity and move past it and form alliances.”
That’s a song we'd all love to hear.