Los Angeles: ArtSpeaks '98
by Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #977, October 11, 1998
Some concerts take your breath away and reinvigorate you at the same time.
It was sometime in the middle of ArtSpeaks '98 that a brother I knew from clear across the city came up to me in the Vision Theatre, gave me a big hug and said, "It doesn't get better than this!" Then he smiled the biggest smile I've seen in a while and rushed to the front of the theater to dance for the next five hours. All around me people were dancing, laughing and cheering. Something happened in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on September 19 and I've been searching for the words to tell about it ever since.
More than 1,300 people came together for ArtSpeaks, a concert against police brutality. The people, artists and audience, carved out a space where we could share our songs, music, poetry, laughter, anger and occasional tears. In ArtSpeaks we created a whole new place--if only for a day--a place where we were together. It was a place to take a stand against police brutality and to celebrate our culture of resistance.
We were Black, white, Latino and Asian, young and old, men and women, jazz musicians, rockers, poets, graffiti artists, reggae musicians, performance artists, hip hop artists, lighting designers, stage crew, technicians and on and on. We spoke and performed in Spanish and English. We hit the ones and twos, freestyled and played the classical cello. Hundreds of us lined up outside waiting for a chance to get in.
And there were no conflicts among the people. Many white and Latino people had never been to Leimert Park, a center of Black arts, before. The local merchants and sidewalk chess players had never seen so many different types of people filling the streets of Leimert. And it was all good.
The vibe around ArtSpeaks began to be created months before the concert date as the Artists' Network of Refuse & Resist! brought together artists and arts organizers from every community in the city to plan for and build the concert. Guerrilla artist Robbie Conal donated his flaming police baton poster as the graphic for the event. This bold image captured the spirit of the concert and tweaked the imagination of resisters throughout the city. Art supplies were donated for the graffiti arts section of the concert. Graffiti artists Mear and Vyal C.O.I. produced a stunning backdrop for the stage and Erick "Duke" Montenegro, another well known graf artist, produced the lettering for the ArtSpeaks logo. Another artist created a special edition T-shirt for the concert. A local theater company donated frames to mount the vinyl. A whole new stage set-up, complete with a new curtain and an amazing set of stage lights, was donated and erected by people who work in the Hollywood movie industry. Technicians, stage crew and staff all volunteered their talents for the concert. By the time the curtain opened on September 19, more than 300 people, including performers, came together to put on this concert.
True to form--and just to make their own point about police brutality--the LAPD pulled a really piggish stunt the night before the event. At 8:30 p.m. Friday night, as people were putting final touches on the theater, they noticed a police helicopter flying around the area, and a police car cruising up the alley behind the stage door.
People in the neighborhood counted at least seven police cars pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the Vision, filled with tables where people gather to drink coffee, talk, play chess--part of the vibrant African American cultural scene in the Leimert Park area, which includes jazz, poetry, hip-hop and blues clubs and performance spaces. People reported that the cops were carrying shotguns. At the same time, two cops came to the door, threatening people and forcing them out of the door. They said that they "had a report" that a "seven-foot tall Black man" was seen climbing over the top of the building, and they were going inside to search. Ordering the crew out of the building, the cops refused to let anyone, including the building manager, witness the search, because they said they "might start shooting," and "innocent people" could get hurt. After 30 minutes they left.
Calling in phony reports on anti-system events is a well-known police tactic, and people on the street told concert organizers that the police invasion had all the hallmarks of a planned operation as seven cars pulled up and parked in a neat row. Plus the police story was especially ridiculous--claiming that a white motorist driving by had glanced up to the top of the theater building and seen someone running across it. In fact, less than 45 minutes before the police got there, two people had walked through the entire theater, and checked the latches on every door and window. "This probably has to do with the event that's going to be here tomorrow," was one comment from the street, where ArtSpeaks and the National Day of Protest have broad support. However, if the police intended to send a message of intimidation, their see-thru harassment only strengthened the collective resolve of the artists to resist.
On Saturday morning 18 graffiti crews arrived at the Vision to set up their vinyl and begin sketching out their pieces for the graffiti arts show coordinated by ICU--In Creative Unity. By noon vinyl was hanging from every possible spot and as people began to come through the gates the artists were in the midst of creating a bold and beautiful wall of art against police brutality. It was a trip to see all these artists, the people whose art is illegal in this society and who create their art under constant police harassment--even ending up in jail--cutting loose to create some really powerful and inspiring art.
One special guest at the graffiti event was Rodney King, the man whose savage beating by the LAPD ignited a storm of protest against police brutality that led to the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. As King helped one crew on their piece he talked to the RW about ArtSpeaks, "I think it's real good. It's a way of putting some light on it and it's a way of fighting back, too. It shows people do care about each other and what's going on. It brings people together for a good cause, to fight back for what's right. I think it's real good because there's so much police brutality going on. Mine just happened to be on tape."
At 2 p.m. Leon Mobley and Da Lion, an African percussion group, began drumming in the graffiti yard and then led a procession through the neighborhood and into the front doors of the theater. Like Sankofa drummers standing on the shores of Ghana to welcome back the spirit of all those slaves stolen from Africa, these drummers welcomed the people into the concert and helped shape the space for this festival of resistance. When the drummers ended their welcome set, D'LO read a greeting from the Artists' Network: "As artists we are constantly told that our main concentration should be on our art and not on social injustice. And all of us are told that artistic stages are places to forget about social injustice. Today we prove this wrong. Once again the authorities tried to prevent this concert from happening, and once again, they failed, and give it up for that! Coming together tonight, Black, brown, red, yellow white; women and men; old and young; lesbian and gay; immigrant and native born--we are all participants in tearing down the barriers of cultural apartheid. And we are here to celebrate our culture of resistance. So look on 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 that one common goal, of opposing police brutality."
And ArtSpeaks began to roar. It would be impossible to do justice to all of the bands and poets who performed. From the Colombian music of Very Be Careful and the hip hop of CVE and Legion to the alternative rock of Lysa Flores and the poetry of Jerry Quickley and La Nola, from the reggae of Big Mountain and friends to María Elena Gaítan's cello crying over video images of the beating of Mexican immigrants by Riverside sheriffs in 1996--each artist turned in an amazing performance and each gave their all to the audience.
In turn, the audience gave their love and respect to the artists. Every artist who performed commented afterwards on the vibe in the house and how proud they were to be part of a group of artists standing up for the fight against police brutality. Medusa, a powerful MC who brought down the house with a tight and funky performance, put it this way: "It's like I write on people's tapes, `Do it like you mean it.' And when you do it like that you do it with a lot of love, and you'll get exactly what you put out. When you have a whole organization standing up and pushing through something that you've always felt and always thought about, but never had the nerve to just react on your own, and here you are seeing a group of people--there's strength in numbers, you know what I mean? You automatically, `Oh, man, if they can take a stand, I can stand with them. So this is going to get bigger and bigger every year. It blew my mind when I walked in and saw how many people were here to support. Not just the artists, because when you got past the artists you were really looking at the cause, and it was like, `Yeah, I'm down for that.' And it's like, man, wait till next year. It's gonna be off the hook. People going to be flying from all over to try to be there."
ArtSpeaks was a musical train. And while every moment was good, there were some outstanding highlights. Midway through the night, jazz vocalist Dwight Trible, who pulled together a special band for the night, began his performance with a musical shout that reached deep inside all of us and pulled out our dreams, hopes and desires. I've seen Dwight's singing move a crowd to tears of joy and sorrow and his performance at ArtSpeaks was one of his most powerful. His voice wrapped our dreams and hopes up in songs and sent them back to us as a musical gift. He opened up new spaces for us to explore. Dwight, who is well known as an advocate of peace and love, explained why he felt so strongly about performing at ArtSpeaks: "As long as there is police brutality and racism and all those kinds of things going on, even though we stand for peace, I feel very, very, very justified in standing up here and saying that we must resist it."
Dwight was joined on stage by Kamau Daaood, a poet and one of the creators of the arts scene in Leimert Park. Kamau brought the crowd to its feet when he read from a poem he wrote 25 years ago about the horrors of life for Black people in this "land of flame and madness" and the need for people to focus on the ascension out of all this horror. Kamau opened his set by speaking about the responsibility of artists to stand up against things like police brutality. "As artists we struggle to change hearts and minds and we really abhor the lowest level of humanity which is force and violence. But sometimes we must struggle against that force because our words are not enough. So we do all we can to keep things peaceful. But to turn our backs on realities that are happening in the world would be a great, great sin and an injustice. If you know the kinds of things that are happening in the prisons and in the alleys late at night and at the police stations--and it's not to say that all are this or all are that--but it's just too much. If there's anything happening that's wrong at all, if anybody's getting beat or falsely imprisoned or misused and abused--if it's 1 person--it's got to be resisted!"
One of the most moving moments of the night unfolded as Dwight Trible called jazz pianist Horace Tapscott onto the stage. Horace had been scheduled to perform but was unable to play due to an injury. As the audience rose to its feet, the Artists' Network presented Horace with a signed copy of Robbie Conal's flaming baton poster in recognition of his contributions to the culture of resistance throughout his life--from his days playing music for the people during the Watts rebellion to his work with the Black Panther Party and his continuing work creating and passing on the culture of resistance. As Horace accepted the award the entire audience jumped to their feet for an overwhelming and extended standing ovation.
Between musical sets, the October 22nd/Stolen Live PSA's that the Artists' Network helped produce were projected onto a large video screen at the front of the theater. And, as the night really began to roll, Klavos from the October 22nd Coalition made a brief but inspiring speech about the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.
When Leon Mobley and Da Lion returned to the stage for a full set their drumming released a river of music to rush into the theater for the next four hours. The drumbeats wrapped themselves around people and pulled them to their feet to dance. On stage, Leon actually seemed to become one with his drum as his whole body rose with every hand on the drumskin. The legendary L.A. underground hip-hop group Freestyle Fellowship took over the stage and MC's Acetylene, Mikah-9 and P.E.A.C.E.--joined by Rifleman, Abstract Rude and dj's Kiilu and Phyz. Ed--tore the house up with a combination of their classic material and a whole lot of new freestyle lyrics about the life of black youth in L.A. Many of the artists in and around Freestyle Fellowship have some ties with Project Blowed in Leimert Park and so have their own firsthand experience not only with police brutality but with police whose mission it is to stamp out the culture of Black youth.
When Freestyle Fellowship finished their set the anger against the system in the house was thick. And then the drumbeats for Ozomatli's traditional marching band entrance were heard echoing from the theater lobby, and the house began to cheer and dance.
When Ozo mounted the stage they brought people to their feet and kept them there for the next two hours. Ozo turned in an even higher energy performance than usual--an amazing feat since they had arrived from a gig in Arizona earlier in the day, flying into L.A. for the concert at 8 p.m. Ozo concentrated on playing some of the most politically compelling songs from their debut album including La Chota, Aquí No Sera and Coming War. Towards the end of their set, Ozo were joined by Angelo from Fishbone and Money Mark for an extended jam. Then, in what has become an ArtSpeaks tradition, Ozomatli ended the concert by leading hundreds of people out of theater, across the street and into the park for a spontaneous victory celebration.
As I walked back into the theater I looked up the marquee for the Vision Theatre which read ArtSpeaks '98. I couldn't help but smile as I thought about all that we had accomplished on that day. A new vibe was created and it still lingers. Inside the Vision Theatre on September 19 our hearts and dreams soared to the domed roof of the theater, draped over us like a rainbow and for a time we all had a glimpse of what the future could be. This was ArtSpeaks 1998.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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