Revolution Online, May 2, 2011
Interviews from "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World"
Taking Flight From the Stage
April 11, 2011—Harlem Stage, NYC. It was a night like no other. The Host Committee for "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World" promised a taste of a new world, a few precious hours in the future. From the sense of camaraderie in the lobby and the stunning exhibit of visual art all the way through to the closing jam of Ain't No Stopping Us Now that had the audience dancing in the aisles, the promise was more than fulfilled.
Something very special came together, you could feel the electricity afterwards as people poured into the lobby, talking, reliving the night and looking to the future. A woman from the projects in Harlem who I met the day before, rushed me after the concert, gave me a big hug, and with an ear to ear smile said, "I thought it was fabulous. I thought it was fabulous and for me being a new person, dealing with the revolution, actually I've been listening to the revolution, reading things about Bob Avakian and the revolution, and I'm a firm believer now. The system has to change and Bob Avakian and the revolution is the ones who are offering our children a change. Without them we have nothing."
But it was more than that. I've been to a lot of concerts and talked with a lot of artists over the years. The whole scene on April 11 stands out. I had the opportunity to talk with many of the artists who performed that night. Here too was a taste of a new world. Celebrating revolution and a vision of a new world gave everyone a different kind of high. It meant different things to different people. Many were deeply moved by what they saw in Bob Avakian and his work—they talked about a sense of hope and possibility—and they wanted to get this out as far and wide as possible. Others were plugged in on and coming from a broader tip, wanting to pierce the clouds with loud and joyous shouts for revolution. And running through it all, there was a shared sense of purpose and community—among the artists and with the audience—and a gut deep hope that this was just the beginning.
The following are excerpts from interviews I did on this amazing evening with artists and others who participated in the program.
I'm a comedian, actor, writer, playwright. And I am here on the celebration of revolution and a vision of a new world celebrating the premiere of Bob Avakian's book BAsics, and more than anything, I think, raising consciousness about the reality that revolution and the need for a new world is tangible. So I'm just here lending my talents in supporting and rallying everyone here to join the cause.
MS: You were talking earlier about how you got into this, and you said you usually talk pretty blunt, and you were looking at the situation in the world today as, how do you wake up the dead? How do you see this event fitting into that?
A: I think everyone in the era of Barack Obama, we have burn-out in that we feel that hope has not been achieved. So you're trying to talk revolution to the disenchanted, and when you speak of revolution, people are just going to dismiss you. So to try and make the cause of revolution to be realistic, is to kind of really have a game plan. And each time I speak to everyone at the bookstore, it's always, "What is the plan? What is the plan?" And one of the things that I really believe, what moved me through the arts, is that when you have an event, the event really inspires. An event can really just catapult people. It's not going to necessarily change the world, but what it does is a good way of agitating the complacent.
And what I think we're trying to do tonight, is to kind of inspire people to look at another way of attacking a situation that may seem dire, but there is a way out. And I think revolution, and a lot of what Bob Avakian speaks about, is realistic, and isn't, you know, radical in that it seems like something that's just unrealistic. I think on the other hand, I think it's very realistic. So I think what Avakian is talking about is the kind of direction we should go towards, which is question the corruption, and give the voices of people who aren't heard a chance to be spoken.
MS: In this show tonight, to be frank, there are a lot of people who have just heard of Bob Avakian, or have a passing familiarity. And then there's others who have a deep familiarity with him. And you're someone who actually has been involved with getting Avakian's voice out for quite some time now.
A: I always make the joke that I don't know anything about communism. I can't even spell it. But, you know, when Avakian talks about challenging corrupt governments and corrupt systems, and helping out the poor, and find a way for the people who are poor and the prole who are working class to come and mobilize and fight for their rights, that's a cause I, as well as I'm sure many would be a part of. So when Avakian speaks of these things, it caught my attention. I just feel like most of the leaders in America, their agenda really isn't to help. It's for personal power and, you know, alternative reasons.
I think with Avakian, you can kind of sense that he's very sincere. So I don't know the man personally, but I felt that what Avakian, and what the people who have surrounded him in this movement are trying to do is help those who are being oppressed and to really rally and try and fight for justice. And being that I totally support that, I think it's a movement that you don't have to be of any denomination or any group. You just have to believe that people are suffering and you want to join this cause to help them. It's really that basic—no pun intended [Laughing].
It's really as simple as helping people who are suffering and trying to assist them and give them help wherever they can and support them. It's really as basic as that. No pun intended! [Laughing again.]
MS: This program has brought together a tremendous mix of artists. What do you think about all of this coming together?
A: I've always felt that art really is a way to inspire people. The beauty of art, whatever the genre, whether it's music, theater, film, dance, spoken word, art has a way of just really connecting with an audience, especially live performance. Live performance, the audience is really sharing that moment with the performers. Tonight is a very diverse, eclectic group of performers. And I think one thing these performers have in common is that we have a burning desire to really communicate with our audience and really express their frustration, and the pain and the suffering. And all good art really comes from that. So to really have a group of artists come together to express that is—it's amazing!
MS: There's the other aspect of this, which is the vision of a new world. To me that's a critical point. People may get a taste of what it's like to live in a whole different place.
A: Yeah, I think the key of tonight is saying that the world is at a place where it may seem as hopeless, but we're offering you something that's beautiful. We're offering the audience to feel that there is hope, that there is a way out of this, that it doesn't seem as dire as it is. I think what Avakian and the rest of the people involved in this movement are saying is there is a game plan. There is a way to approach the situation. And by acknowledging that it is corrupt, and by acknowledging that our leaders, whatever they are doing is not working, that's the beginning. And then I think we go to a place where we say, "You know what? The people are the ones that can really make the difference. The people are the ones that can really voice their opinions and challenge the corruption."
I think it's really as basic and simple as that. The history of this country is that it has been based on exploitation and corruption, but the people have mobilized and overcome. Every uprising has come through the people. And I think today's movement is basically a continuation of that, that it's really in the hands of the people and that there is a way out of this dire situation.
MS: Anything else?
A: I hope people will continue to support what Avakian is all about and support the bookstore definitely. It's the best bookstore on the planet, Revolution Bookstore. And just keep on questioning, keep on believing.
MS: What would you like to see come out of tonight?
A: Oh, wow, what I would like to see is a lot of especially young people really look at the world differently and not feel that they're powerless, to feel that they can come out of tonight and feel like their voice and their words and their feelings and their actions really, really can inspire and really make a difference. And that we all united can really challenge the corruption and revolution is something that is possible.
I'm a singer, songwriter, actress, activist, spiritualist in many ways. And I'm here representing truth and love with my beautiful brothers in the struggle, Outernational. I'm playing some guitar, and I'm singing some music.
MS: What made you want to participate?
BB: Because I feel in my heart and soul I've always been a revolutionary, and I feel more connected to that movement than to most other things that are moving. Although at times I feel like I approach things from a more spiritual standpoint in terms of evolution, and revolution in the spirit self, self-evolution, I believe it's really important to question everything and I really respect people that take action and keep people aware, that want people to be aware and have information and be educated about what's really going on in the world.
MS: Do you know much about Bob Avakian or the RCP?
BB: I actually don't know a lot about him. I have heard him speak. I think he's very visceral and raw and inspiring. I wouldn't say that I'm a Bob Avakian supporter. I don't know enough about him to truly take that standpoint. But definitely because my friends are so involved, I always love talking to them about it. But I love people's desire to question and to change the way the world is.
So if it's about positive change then I'm about it. It's like, I'm for anything that is truth and justice.
MS: What do you think of the lineup?
BB: Well, I think art is revolution. And I think art molds and takes the shape of many forms, with words, with music, with dance. And I think that the people like reg e. gaines, here tonight, who I've met over the years. Actually I don't know all the other people who are on the list tonight because I haven't seen the program yet. I'm being real straight up. See? I told you I was for truth.
I think it's really exciting to be involved in anything that is artistic and revolutionary, because that is where I believe the revolution begins, is in our art and our expression.
MS: What do you hope to come out of tonight?
BB: I guess tonight is to build a stronger community… And I love Revolution Books, and I think for me it's to inspire me again to really be more involved. I'm happy to be here because I've always wanted to be involved artistically. I've never liked the dogma of being a speaker and like—but my attention is to create unity through music. So for me being a part of something musical and communal in this way. I feel to inspire myself again, to stay on the path.
I've been on tour with a band called Scissor Sisters, and we've been opening for Lady Gaga for the past month and a half. So I've been in the machine. I've seen the machine. And she promotes a lot of really positive things. And my band that I'm with is a fantastic, fantastic group of individuals that really promote self-love, self-awareness, gay rights, all that really great stuff. But it is definitely a part of a bubble. I've been in a bubble. I've been in a world of great privilege, although we are on a tour bus a lot of the time. I wouldn't call that privilege all the time. But I'm taken care of in the world and I know so many people aren't. In my heart and my travels, every day that I'm on the road, in my spirit I always feel like I need to be giving back more, I need to be giving more. And so being here is a renewal of that, and to inspire others, of course, but we have to take ourselves into account first. Before we can feed others, we gotta grow arms.
I'm the trumpet player, keyboard player, accordion, glockenspiel, tin whistle and everything I can get my hands on for Outernational.
MS: What brought you here?
Dr. B: Well, there's a few reasons that brought me here. This is going to be a long answer. First of all, two and a half years ago I joined the band Outernational and those guys kinda turned me on to the paper and Avakian. I had not previously known anything about that—kind of what modern communism was. I didn't really know that. So I'm kind of here to insure that what that man has to say be like a part of the discussion in the world. Like I guess I feel that the media is very left- and right-sided and there's nothing else coming out that is like radically different, and I feel like this country and the world will need extreme radically-different change, not just like band-aiding the problem. We'll need real change if we're actually going to survive as a human race. That's what I believe.
MS: Avakian playing into that?
Dr. B: For me personally, I'm not really sure. I guess I feel really strongly that I want to meet the man, and that I can't make any decision about him until I meet him. I've read some of his work. I like Away With all Gods! That was one of the things I really liked about Outernational. It was like, "Wait a minute! You guys don't believe in god either? You're not down with god?" I really do feel like religion holds back humanity as a whole. Like that is preventing us from evolving as a species. Like I just think it holds us back.
MS: What about tonight's theme: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World?
Dr. B: I guess I feel like, if we continue the way we are, as a society, it seems like there's only one way we will go, down. You know what I mean? Many people will die in unjust wars. Many people will die of starvation. We kind of need to figure out a way where we can all get along that doesn't involve profit all the time, that isn't always about who's the richest or who's got the most this, but more about, hey! no one on earth is starving. That's an accomplishment. Not like, "We have several i-devices you can purchase." Not that there's anything wrong with those. Those are cool. They help people listen to the music I make.
Guillermo E. Brown
I am a musician, percussionist, writer, singer, songwriter, electronic artist working in various domains and projects. My good friend Mike Ladd contacted me through AD and she let me know about it. I started kind of researching, asking some questions.
MS: What do you mean researching?
GB: I was really kind of intrigued that Matthew [Shipp] and William [Parker] and Mike were all people I worked with before a lot in various different ways were a part of it, and other folks that I kind of respect were at least lending their voices to it. So I was kind of interested to hear more and see what's going on here. I feel like I have some questions, and I'm always open to new perspectives about the way the world is or what different ways things can happen in the world and new ways of thinking, unlocking doors and locks and crossing boundaries. I'm way into that so I'm always wanting to be part of a discussion and check things out.
MS: What else attracted you to this event?
GB: I feel like there's just a big question about what's supposed to happen in the world right now. And just from my perspective as an artist and performer trying to make a living and trying to think about the future, or just living day to day, the day-to-day challenges. Maybe there's several other possibilities for figuring out a way to live and a way to be. So that's kind of why I'm here. Just to kind of hear other voices, to be inspired, to learn to see some different perspectives, to disagree and to kind of hash it out: another chance to hash it out and hear and be part of something and get in touch with an energy, of people who I don't know and then some people who I do.
MS: You've captured something about the purpose of the event.
GB: It's just about being open for me, right now. I'm not a follower of Bob Avakian, I'm not a follower of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I'm a human being living in the world today, trying to do my part to be able to be a positive force in the world, a positive force for change, and a positive force for understanding and supporting other humans and being part of a larger system that's beyond me. So I'm here to be part of the discussion.
MS: What do you hope will come out of tonight?
GB: I hope that I learn and I hope that I'm inspired and that I can inspire others. I hope that we get some clarity on what needs to happen and maybe some more ideas or some light bulbs go off about what I can do and what others can do and what we can do together to change things just a little, step by step.
I am a singer, a vocalist, a performing artist, a little songwriting. I'm an educator, though. And I think of myself as an activist, using my voice and my art and talents in order to change things. There was a quote that Bob Avakian said about, c'mon let's stop this BS, this is ridiculous all this "ho" music. This is absolutely ridiculous. And we should stop. I have this lyric that says, "What if the words we say led to a better way of being certain our future's a brighter day?" That's what to talk about today.
That's what we should be about. That's what we should use our art and our cultural expression to uplift, to solve problems, to make it better. We need to write lyrics to increase an atmosphere of peace: make our expression bring solutions to the thing. So that's why I'm here, because I want to see a change. And I have a lofty goal of wishing I could change what we accept as entertainment in America. Because it would change how people accept it around the world.
MS: Your opening performance tonight was incredible.
MB: It was an honor, I was really glad to have been asked… please come sing, "A Change Is Gonna Come." I said, "OK, cool. I love that song." So then in our emails, it's like, yeah, it could be "Change Is Gonna Come," or "I Wish I Knew How It Feels." I've recently even done "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free," so I said, "Oh, man, I want to find a way to do both. So that's why I kind of medlied it and made it so one song came in the middle of the other, but we ended back with "Change Is Gonna Come." And you could tell by the audience, it was a nice way to slip it in.
MS: What grabbed you about this event?
MB: Really, I'm fairly easy. The person who asked me, I know what he's into. So I knew it would be deep and heavy. And then I got home and I spoke to the representative and I said, Sure, I can do it. And then I got the book and I saw what it really is about and what it's really based around. And I said, OK, deep waters, high cotton I'm stepping in, but OK. One thing my dear old dad did teach me was you can't cave. You've got to have courage. So maybe you don't always understand, or to get a certain frame. Because I came up in the time where communism was such a horrible thing and we were fighting against the Soviets and the communists. And when you hear that dogma all the time, and nothing in school is countering that. Unless you go out and get it yourself. Luckily I did have some influence because of my father and other people around him and people in my community in Chicago. That I know better than to just look at it like, "This bad. This good. Only way."
…There was something about seeing Bob Avakian speak [on video], and I never had. It's one thing to read the person's words on page. But to see them, it brings it alive. I guess there's something humanistic in seeing this man speaking.
There's just something—it's heightened, you know what I mean? I don't know if there's a sense of compassion, of human relation you feel by seeing him on screen saying the words beyond just those black letters on that white page. They jump off, they get you. You say, "Yeah, man, I feel like that. Wow he put it so articulately. I'm glad he said it like that, let me remember that, let me write it ten times so I can be able to say it." So it has such a concise meaning.
So that was one thing. And then, yeah, you know seeing people from—just diverse people and playing different types of music, and hearing what little of the poetry and stuff that I did get to catch. We need more of this. It's like we're so inundated on a daily basis with BS that's supposed to be—it's like entertainment for the sake of amusement. I don't think that's the best use of our time. I really don't. And we do have to become deeper thinkers. And we know that. After the 60s, the thinkers haven't been being raised. They've been getting us ready for consumerism, to just kind of accept things and to buy things and to pay for things and to go along with it. And they've been pretty effective in the media that has now become as mass as it is. It has a hold on us. Not just here in the United States.
So it's a tough battle but like you said, we got to do this. What are you going to fight for? I love the cancer analogy [referring to quote #18, chapter 6 in BAsics]. The fact that no, it's not cured. But that doesn't mean that it's not worth fighting against, that it's not worth seeking a cure, seeking a way of life that eradicates its existence. But the first thing is to imagine that's not the way to be, being a capitalist and feeling like, "We're America and they're not doing something over there, so we have to go in and we have to control them, and if it means killing a bunch of people with all these bombs that we've made you guys pay for and you can't even have health care, hey, that's just how it is, you know? Because we have to do this. We're protecting the world and our own interests."
But what is your interests? To be greedy. To be so greedy that you'll sell us all this shit that just poisons minds for the sake of you making money. Really? OK.
MS: In your wildest thinking, what do you hope comes out of tonight?
MB: In my wildest thinking, that there'd be a way for this to almost be like a blueprint at least for it being produced in other places, all around, kind of all-the-time-ish. That's lofty because we know what it takes to produce something like this. There could be a big one in the Midwest, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast and just to start galvanizing people. And yes, of course, the follow-up of the emails and keeping in contact with people and letting them know what's happening. But it is lofty. I think about how things got done in the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement when somehow, without nearly the technology and stuff we have now, people came together, bus boycotted, marched on places, and really made their voices heard or sometimes just stood up against the hoses. Golly, can you imagine people doing that right now in America? I don't know. I don't know if they're willing to stand up and die for stuff. But that is what it definitely calls us on the map on that stuff.
I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm here in New York. I was invited to participate in the celebration Monday night the 11th, the Bob Avakian event. I'm a former Black Panther, a community activist and just a servant of the people. That's what I learned back in the 60s when I joined the Black Panther Party was to be here and to serve the people and that's what I still do today.
MS: What brought you to the event?
RB: Actually the fact that it's about revolution. It's about bringing people together. It's about uniting. It's about doing away with the system. Which must be done in order for people to be free and to be happy, not only here in the United States but throughout the world.
MS: What do you think about replacing this system?
RB: That's one of the things that BAsics, this book, BAsics, I'm reading that and I'm more interested in it. All I know is that people have to be emancipated, the whole world. I've always believed in freedom, justice and equality for everybody and we just have to struggle in order to bring that about. I'm not going to be the one to decide what the new world will be. In fact, that's the youth. They're going to be determining what the new world will be. I just want to make sure that it's free and that they have an opportunity to build something better.
MS: What do you think of BAsics so far?
RB: I think it's great. I have to admire Bob Avakian because of his intellect, his deep thoughts and the fact that he's been around so long doing this, just like I have. There's something to be said about people who are consistent in trying to bring something about. And he has definitely been that. I don't know if he remembers, but I think I met him back in '69 it may have been in San Francisco. Well, I saw him. We were in the same room together with a few people. We didn't actually get introduced. But he has been a person who has been consistently on the side of the people all these years, so I'm on his side. Anybody that's for the people, I'm for them.
MS: You were part of the San Francisco 8?
RB: Yes. I had the fortune and misfortune to be part of the San Francisco 8. Eight of us were indicted in 2007 for a crime that had been committed in 1971. And in New Orleans in 1973 several Panthers were tortured for four or five days, horribly, and forced to confess and implicate other people, myself included. And because they were tortured the judge threw it out. What was illegal, though, in 1973, because of the PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security, nowadays there's a question. They tried to bring back the confessions that were obtained through torture and they actually arrested us in 2007.
Because of the support of the people, not only in the Bay Area but nationwide, and internationally, we were able to beat them back and beat them off and today I'm a free man standing here today talking to you. And continuing the struggle. All power to the people!
I'm a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and I'm a co-host of tonight's "Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World" happening on the occasion of the publication of BAsics, a new book by Bob Avakian.
MS: What's the relationship among the different aspects of the show?
CD: I think there's a very close relationship. First off, in today's world with many, many people here and all around the world dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and wondering what if anything can be done to bring into being a different and better way of life for people, a celebration of revolution and a vision of a new world is definitely something that needs to be celebrated and projected much, much farther out in society. And the publication of BAsics, a new book by Bob Avakian, comprised of quotations and short essays from his writings, over the past several decades is definitely the occasion to celebrate revolution. Because this book concentrates more than 30 years of work addressing everything that stands between humanity and its complete emancipation. And it does it in ways that make it more accessible to a broad array of people. Students in colleges, high school kids, people in the projects, intellectuals can dig into this, begin to grapple with what he's bringing forward in short and concise ways, and it can be an on ramp for people to go more deeply into the kind of work he's been doing.
As somebody that was part of the generation of revolutionaries who were reared on Mao's Little Red Book, I see Avakian's BAsics having the potential to rear and sustain a new generation of revolutionaries.
I'm really eager to experience tonight's events and to help spread its reverberations to begin to realize that potential to reach out to and bring together a new generation of revolutionaries and provide them the sustenance to do what's needed, and that's transform the world and emancipate humanity.
MS: What do you think of the mix?
CD: This is just amazing. I was in the green room. You know, you've got tap dancers, you've got spoken word artists. You've got rock bands, jazz musicians, all kinds of people. You've got mostly professional artists and there are a couple people who just came in who auditioned in the projects and got a slot on this program. It's going to be an amazing evening. Some of the people are more familiar with some of the kinds of art we're going to see, but they're also going to be wowed by the other kind, and by the ensemble of it, how it all together impacts you and gives you a glimpse of a different kind of world—a different kind of culture, but also a different kind of world, that could bring into being different art, different culture, different relations among the people and even transforming humanity itself. So this is just cool.
MS: What do you hope will come out of tonight?
CD: Well, I hope to come out of tonight with a few things on a couple different levels. I hope to come out of this with an event whose reverberations can spread not only here in the New York area, but across the country, and to project out this celebration of revolution, and to project the book, BAsics, which provided the occasion, and the author of that book. I also hope to come out of this with more relations among the people who came together to put it on: The artists who are doing the event tonight, the activists, artists and educators who put it together, who worked to make this happen, and who threw in, including dealing with last-minute emergencies. We've been working together in ways that we hadn't before, and I don't want this to be that we have fond memories of a great event, but the actual beginnings of forging more of a solid core with a lot of elasticity around celebrating and promoting revolution and the vision of a new world.
MS: Also having a chance to set foot in that world.
CD: Yeah, because I'm choosing a quotation to read tonight that actually talks about imagining a different world and different art and culture. And after tonight you won't have to fully imagine it because you will have had a brief experience of it. And that can actually help motivate people to go out into this world with all its madness and degradation and BS, but work to transform it and work to bring the world that you got a little taste of tonight, into being.
reg e. gaines
MS: What compelled you to be a part of this?
reg: Well, because in a way, I don't do enough, 'cause I know this. I'm not twelve years old. I know what's going on. I seen the Panthers, I seen the Nation of Islam, I seen racism and police brutality up close. I was alive when John Kennedy got shot. I was alive when Malcolm X got shot. I was alive. Those were my wonder years. So I don't do enough. I should do more. So any time that I can do something like this, and it's based around art. Like I want to be around these people first of all. I want to hear—Oscar Brown Jr.'s daughter, right? I want to hear Matthew [Shipp]. I want to hear Mike [Ladd]. I want to hear Miles [Outernational]. I ain't seen Miles in a while, but I want to hear Miles.
So, part of it is experiencing the brilliance of the artist. You got a serious bunch of artists up in here. It's really dope because everybody's all like blasé, blasé. Then there's all the drama—where's my green room? It ain't the drama. I'm worried about trying to get me one of them sandwiches so I can take it home with me. So it's real. On top of everything else, everybody in here is real. And to see the army that's upstairs, and directing traffic, and sitting by the door. So there's an army here. So that's a positive feeling, too. So to be a part of that is wonderful, and like, do I have anything to say that could lead somebody to read that book?
So what am I going to say? So I'm like going to read a poem I constructed many years ago, alright. Because I thought it was time for me to start talking about solutions. So, for tonight, the first word that we need a) reconstruction. That's how I started the poem. But tonight I'll switch reconstruction with revolution. We need a revolution, we need a new deal, we need another flag minus stars and stripes replaced by a spoke and wheel so we can turn this thing around. I'm ready to roll.
And my sister's singing, and my sister's going to be singing "People Make the World Go Round," by the Stylistics a capella, and we gonna try to blend it and meld it together. No rehearsal. She was, "Reg, we gonna rehearse?" No, we don't roll like that. Then I go sit in the audience while Matthew and William are sound checking. They didn't rehearse, and they up there just like, boom! Four bars and they're in it. And I'm like, that's what I'm talking about. So everybody here—not everybody, I can't speak for everybody—but most of the artists here, like Miles said he got something constructive for this. Kind of like something that's really going to speak to the issues and what this event's about. But the improvisational aspect of it is all based on emotion of us being here doing this event. It isn't so much about, OK, I'm going to be brilliant tonight here, or she's going to sing this, and they're going to play that, it's going to be brilliant. But it's like, are your emotions being fueled by the theme? Can you comment on the theme in a way that's more beautiful than it is in the real world? Because that's what we're supposed to do as artists. So can we talk about revolution, each one of us in each one of these vignettes that we are involved in, can we speak about revolution in an artistic/cultural way that opens somebody's mind in the audience who's like, wait a minute, that's kind of dope. I know that song "People Make the World Go Round." I don't know what he's talking about. I kinda hear the words here and there in it, but there's got to be a connection. And it'll make them listen. So Shelly singing—if she just scatted, she would tell more of a story than I'm ever going to tell saying my words—so I'll ride the crest of her… That's what it's all about.
MS: What do you think can happen in the audience as a result of all this?
reg: People could be moved to create. Somebody who's not even calling himself an artist could leave here and go like, whoa, let me create something, paint something. Let me write something. Let me whistle a melody about us needing to get together. 'Cause if you ask me, the most powerful aspect of tonight would just be people walking out of here like, yo, let's do this again. Which means creating community, creating family. Let's do this again. Let's get together and do this soiree again. But on a bigger scale. We can do this on a bigger scale, because for all the hard work that's been done to put this together, and when I walked in here to sound check, and I'm looking at—because I've done stuff here, I directed Miguel and Amiri's Mongo Affair in here, a couple years ago. And I walk in here, and it never dawned on me then when I was directing, but I walked in and said, "The place is too small."
When I walked in I was like, there's not enough seats here. Because so many people should be up in here I'm thinking like, it may not be filled with people, but I'm saying, but even if it's not, it's still too small. It's too small for the message. It's too small for people not to come hear Matthew and William Parker. It's too small for people not to come hear all these artists—Cornel West's video, whatever, it's too small.
So what do we do, put it on the airwaves? So I'm thinking right now, when I walk through the door, this should be on TV. This should be on cable. This should be a show, an HBO show or something. They're always trying to do something that's supposedly on the cutting edge. This is cutting edge. It's definitely artistic and entertaining, not entertainment. It's not no knee dance or no wilding out. But it's entertaining because these people are all brilliant at what they do. So why wouldn't HBO kick in some money which then could go to what this is all about anyway. So how come people aren't thinking, how can we get HBO to fund this, cause they need us for their air space. Give up some money, and then the money could go to the revolution.
That's what I thought when I came in the door. There should be HBO or Showtime that's paying for this and then the money, boom, then you got some real money. And it don't take but one or two of those.
Moist Paula Henderson
I am thrilled to be included in this exciting lineup of my fellow musicians and artists here at Aaron Davis Hall. And we've been invited here to celebrate the launch of Bob Avakian's new book BAsics. I'm getting the sense that a lot of people have traveled a very long way to come here. So this is very exciting.
MS: (theme of evening) What does that mean to you?
MPH: Revolution and a new world is to me taking whatever you have and using it to effect some kind of change. Just like moving past the status quo. So it could be like a little thing or some people devote their lives to revolution and it's a really big thing. But it can be little things too. I think I operate more on the little things level, but I definitely like to feel that in my life as a performer have been able to explode stereotypes, gender stereotypes as to who does what. I'm an instrumentalist, and sadly people still find out I'm a musician and they say, "Oh, you're a singer." and I'm like, "No, I'm not a singer." I'm a terrible singer as we just heard. I can't sing. But just on the way here I was walking to the subway with my instrument on my back and some guys on the street said, "Oh, you play that!" And of course I had to turn around and say, "Why do you think I'm carrying it on my back up a hill in the heat. I'm not carrying it so some man can play it. Yes I play it."
That's not my motivation to play it. I don't know where my motivation comes from to play this thing. It came in my life magically and I've never been able to stop so far. But that is wherein it's relevant to what's happening here at Aaron Davis Hall I think. Because at the time that I began doing this in the early 80s, there were only a handful of women playing instruments in rock bands. It was a radical thing then. It's considerably less so now, but it's still 27 years later, a little radical. And I long for the day when that's no longer the case. It's not like I'm trying to push for that. It's something I notice, that it's still an anomaly.
MS: Are you familiar with Avakian's work?
MPH: I have been given a copy [of BAsics] and I have flipped through it and it's on my pile of books that I'm struggling through to read. These days I don't read books like I used to, but it's there. I'm familiar with who Avakian is through someone I met socially and he told me about Bob and gave me the Revolution newspaper. So that's why I know who it is. And then I was invited to be part of this and heard about what it was. So I was able to say I know who that is. I know what he does. I have a general sense. I'm not deeply familiar with his work or accomplishments or writings. But in a general sense I know what he's about. Which is why I'm here because I wouldn't come if it was something that I felt that I wasn't supportive of in a general sense.
MS: You have here both people who are really familiar with Avakian and that are just finding out.
MPH: BAsics is a great book for that reason. It's introductory for a lot of people. A lot of people are not really up for starting in deep and getting overwhelmed by a lot of ideology or material. But this is kind of like pretty easy. Some of what I saw, I opened it up, looked through it and it said a lot of things that I already know to be true but that I don't really think about every day. I don't take them for granted—I don't take my life as it is for granted. I'm very caught up in music. So that's where all my energy and thinking goes. I'm not involved actively in politics, other than I go around carrying this 40-pound instrument [baritone sax] on my back, and go play it in clubs.
MS: What do you think of the mix of artists here tonight?
MPH: I was very attracted to the assortment of musicians because I'm familiar with most of them and I respect them a lot individually, the ones I know, everyone. So I was very honored to be included. And it's very impressive. I guess I wasn't really surprised that any of those were here, because it's kind of like you know who's on your same page and who's not in a basic way I think, you know, in life. So there were no surprises for me really, as for who's on the bill. And these are people I know a little bit. One person I know very well, but I don't know what their points of view are on a lot of subjects, but I'm not surprised that those guys are here. We all go through the same kind of thing and we're coming from the same planet or something. So I wasn't surprised to see who was here and like I said, they're esteemed musicians and I'm very flattered to have been invited.
MS: What do you hope to see come out of this?
MPH: Definitely the spreading thing. I feel like, as a musician who's involved in this, this is an opportunity for me to connect with these other musicians in some like-minded situation where we're all having this experience together and, you know, there is no musician on this bill that I would not be thrilled to work with in the future. And so there's a spreading kind of thing. One thing that I do always hope, I think at an event such as this is not such an issue, but one thing that I hope is that I can always reach people. It happens a lot at less specific gatherings. But it occurs to people that—I love it when someone comes to me and they say, Oh, I never saw a woman playing a saxophone before. It still happens all of the time which is kind of incredible to me but I'm like, well, women can play saxophones. You know, like there you go.
So I'm always hoping that I can change the way that somebody thinks just by being in front of them doing what I do. But I can feel like, we've been here for a couple of hours and everybody's very nice, and cool people and like connections and tomorrow we'll all be on Facebook tomorrow [laughing]. Except for the ones that are too clever to be on Facebook because it's probably some imperialist evil machine that's going to shut us all down anyway. But it's always good to meet new people and find out what they're doing and then the world world grows in that way, or one's world grows.
I'm all about making anything more fun. This is fun. So I kind of predict that everyone who's concerned is going to have a positive experience here tonight. And that will affect whatever happens tomorrow, next week, three months from now, as far as we're all concerned. I feel like a lot of serious political issues, movements, are devoid of celebration and so they get a bad rap in the world because it just seems like a drag, you know, honestly. And it doesn't have to be. People are people are people and everyone all over the planet likes to laugh and sing and dance and have music and like, you know, that's a real human thing. Throughout the ages of the human race everywhere. This thing, celebration. And maybe it's important to consider that it should always be included as the flip side of like more serious thought, as well. Because we are all humans. Everybody needs to like enjoy whatever is available to be enjoyed. Here it's so much. We're having a good life here. So I feel like it's my responsibility because it's available to me to enjoy it. I have to be out there walking down the street at night if I want to because I can. You know, that sort of thing. So I try and take advantage of all the freedoms I have and luxuries I have because I don't think that just it's a given in life that everyone just gets—I know that, obviously. It's not a given in life that everyone gets that. So I'm into spreading that, whatever I experience because of that, like if I can just kind of convey that through music and someone hears it and it makes them feel good well then that's kind of a motivation to me.
Nicholas Heyward, Sr.
I'm the father of Nicholas Jr. Nicholas Jr. was a 13-year-old honor student from Brooklyn who was shot and killed by a New York City Housing Police officer September 22, 1994. Nicholas Jr. was playing an innocent game of cops and robbers with about seven other young children. They ranged in the age of seven to thirteen. He was shot and killed by a housing officer who was basically a rookie officer. He was supposed to have been on a 911 call from what they was telling me, men in the building with guns. He responded alone. They say that he, when he reached the landing where the kids were at he said that the stairwell lighting was dimly lit and that Nicholas came out of the darkness of the stairwell and he shot Nicholas once in the abdomen after hearing a clicking sound.
This was all told to me and basically to the public by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes who closed the case based on those findings. About two years later in a deposition that was done on the officer, the officer made statements in that deposition that he was not on a 911 call, that the stairwell lighting was not dimly lit, and that things did not happen in a split second. All those new findings were basically Charles Hynes' reasons for closing the case in the beginning. That's why I continue my pursuit in trying to get Charles Hynes to reopen and re-investigate this case. In the deposition also the officer basically stated that he watched Nicholas jump up and down the stairs before firing his shot.
It's just been kind of critical for me these last sixteen years. I mean, this happened 16 years ago but it still seems just like yesterday, I guess because it still happens across the country. There's just too many innocent people getting gunned down by the police.
MS: What compelled you to be on the host committee?
NH: When I really look at the world. I'm 53 years old. I been around for a little while, and I've experienced quite a few things in this world myself and after actually witnessing and being around a lot of other family members who were victims, or their loved ones were victims to police murder, it just saddens me that these elected official and the system as a whole can allow this to continue in the manner in which it does. These officers are not being punished. They're getting away with murder and they're getting away with brutally beating innocent, unarmed individuals. And I listen to what Avakian is talking about. He speaks with truth and he basically backs it up with facts. He's not just someone who comes out and just say this or say that. Whatever he says out of his mouth he's ready and he's willing to back it up.
And when I look at the world, these elected officials constantly saying that we're living in this great country, and democracy is so great, but when you really, really take a look at what's going on in this world, I mean all across the world, people are suffering, suffering very badly. And I can't understand how you can have so many rich billionaires, which are basically only like 10% of the population and the mass majority of the people on the planet are poor. And it's been like that for thousands of years. It don't make no sense to me. It just doesn't.
I read a lot of Avakian's work, and he really sends a positive message and, I mean not only involving the government, the system as far as the government is, even in religion also. I be feeling a lot of the truth that he presents to the people. That's basically why I decided to be a part of this today. I mean, I really give a lot of support to them. You know, and I'm ready, as far as the new world order, and stuff like that there, I think Avakian has a better world appearing for us than these supposed-to-be people who are running the world right now.
MS: What do you think of the lineup?
NH: I think that is just great. A lot of them, the artists that are here today, I mean I really, I applaud them. I really, really do, for giving support for Avakian and the change for a new world. I really give support to them. I really wish that a lot more artists will come out in support of this. Because I always, when I speak from time to time, I would always try to reach out to the more well-known artists like Jay Z and P Diddy and guys like that there. Because I think that, you know if they would just try to give more support to the people who are really trying to make change for their people in this world in a whole, that it would be a bigger and more stronger message—artists really have a powerful message in their voice. These guys that's out here today, I just really give them a lot of support and applaud them for what they're doing.
MS: What comes out of tonight?
NH: I hope that people who are not completely sure on what Avakian is about or what he's trying to do for the mass majority of the people, that this could be a bigger eye opener for them, in that they would realize that this is really the reality for the people for a better world. That's what I'm really hoping, that they really come to terms with themselves and can really see that Avakian is the man to give their support to, as far as making a better and a positive change for the world in a whole.
I'm from the band Outernational. I'm here at the BAsics celebration, performing, gaining inspiration and try to invite as many people to come along.
I think a lot of people understand that the world is in a very bad place right now, and I don't think we have to discuss that right now. What we need to discuss is what do you do about that? Is there a way out? How does that look and what is that? I've looked at a lot of different things and Bob Avakian's ideas make more sense in the world more than anything I've ever heard before.
MS: What does the event look like to you?
LM: I hope to see the ideas in the book kind of spelled out, acted out and even felt out if I can say that, through these performances and the speakers. I know that there's jazz musicians. My group is playing. Poets, experimental music and I'm hoping that they all take the content of the ideas and weave it into their performances so that we can really have something where we get to experience it, even for a moment.
MS: Tell us about your performance tonight.
LM: We're going to perform our song "Qué Queremos?" It's a bilingual song. And for the first time we're going to be performing it as a very large collaboration with other artists dear to us. You're going to see different instruments, you're going to see and hear different sounds coming together. We're going to have surprises. We're going to have men and women together. We're going to have a lot of voices. It's really going to allow the meaning of the song to take flight and I think it's going to be—we're going to leave people something to feel, not just something to think about.
MS: What about the audience?
LM: I want to see the barriers between the people breaking down tonight. I want to see it happen in the room and I want it to happen when people leave.
MS: What do you hope will come out?
LM: I hope to see a wave of understanding and inspiration around revolution and Bob Avakian's ideas, and a whole other world and a whole way things can be different that's really understood by people as something to work towards and as something worth living for and going after.
I'm here to support the Revolutionary Communist Party, Bob Avakian, who's a kindred spirit. I don't know him personally, but after reading his book, you know, things he was talking about are similar situations that I experienced in the same area in Berkeley, California. It was also interesting that he's actually from Fresno. My people are from Fresno, too. So we share that in common. I've just seen a lot of common things with him and myself, the Bay Area, and the TOC [Tournament of Champions, a high school basketball tournament], the fact that he liked basketball, and football. He talked about the football program at Berkeley High, which I experienced a lot. Me and my brother were pretty good athletes. And the whole thing about Cal, and the whole thing about racism in Berkeley and all of that. I experienced all of that just a few years after him.
MS: You grew up in Berkeley itself?
MS: What was the scene like then?
DM: The thing that he talked about in the book, he was talking about People's Park. When People's Park happened, I was at Willard Jr. High School. The thing that was phenomenal about that was, at that time, Ronald Reagan was the governor. A friend of mine had gotten shot in the foot with one of these buckshots. They were using buckshot on people. And there was an incident that happened where they called in the county sheriffs, and they came in, they marched in our school. They tear gassed our whole school.
And they made a big mistake, in fact. People's Park is like four blocks up Telegraph towards Sather Gate from Willard Jr. High School. And the baseball field might have resembled People's Park. So what happened was, we were out having lunch, kids out in the baseball field part of Willard Jr. High School, having lunch. They tear-gassed us from the sky. We were like 12-, 13-year-old kids. You know, seventh and eighth graders. And they thought it was People's Park. They missed. And this really pissed us off. I was the president of the student body at that time. So we were talking about, well, hey, OK, they tear-gassed us, the school, we're going out to People's Park now. We had an excuse. We were all, our eyes crying.
We became revolutionaries because they struck us first. And we're kids. My son is the same age now. And I can't imagine him being tear-gassed by some county sheriffs that are so fucking stupid that they're trying to teargas People's Park, which is fairly up the street, my friend, but they get the Jr. high school. I think they turned us all into revolutionaries at that moment.
MS: You've always seen your music as having some connection with how you're shaping the world.
DM: You look at titles. That's why I think that titles are so important. Every time something would happen in the world, I would write a song. Like I remember when those Hanafi sect of the Muslims, they took over this building in Washington and I wrote a song called "Holy Siege on Intrigue." I did a little suite for that. I remember when Dart Man was on the streets of New York, I wrote a song called "Dart Man." I was always going to be writing songs anyway. So I always looked for a very intriguing title that would represent whatever was happening socially at the time. When I lived in New York especially. I don't do it so much now. But events always seem to shape the music. Because I'm going to be writing music anyway. I always thought that once I wrote a song, or once I was in the process of writing a song, something would be happening to make me start thinking about it. And then that thought process, I'd go to sleep and wake up.
It's like the way painters work. You dream what that thing is and next thing you know you find the right ways to express what that tune is, you find the right notes to express what that situation was. Next thing you know it comes together and it becomes a song. And it actually does relate to social events. I think that's important because I always thought that musicians, if we're honest musicians, we should be able to kinda be a semaphore of the times that we're living in and represent. If somebody were to come and hear a capsule of our art, music, they would know. Our music might reflect the social ramifications of what was happening in the world.
I always felt like, that's the kind of thing that I could channel through me, not particularly in a spiritual or a revolutionary way, but whatever it comes out to be, it ends up coming out to be that anyway. So it's just natural. Revolution is a natural for me. That's what I told the young people. If young people don't protest about something, then they're not even—they're like some kind of Yuppie kids or some shit. They don't have no voice. As a generation you've got to get mad about something, other than your parents.
MS: When you were invited to take part in the celebration, was there something that made you think you had to be part of this?
DM: Like I said at the beginning, what made me want to do this, is my kinship that I feel with Bob Avakian even though I don't know him. Maybe it's because of things he talks about in this book about the Bay Area [Avakian's Memoir]. I related to every word. Every word is me. I've been feeling these things for a long time, and he expressed them. And even though I don't know him, I'd like to know him, and maybe one day I'll meet him.
MS: What would you like to see come out of tonight?
DM: That people hear each other's views, and we accept each other on different terms. Everybody's valid in their way of expressing their form of revolution. I live in France. It's a country where people go in the streets and manifest. That's what they do. Me, I personally don't want to be around there because they get pretty violent up there. But I'm with the young people. We may not see it in our lifetime but maybe we're going to come up with a good idea.
I'm one of the Last Poets. I'm here mainly because for forty years, my poetry has tried to inspire and motivate a serious change, a real change, a revolution. One of my most famous poems that's known all over the world is, "When the Revolution Comes." It's a famous poem, but we haven't had that famous activity happen yet. But things are so bad now, and everybody is feeling the crunch. I think this is a great time to try to waken some people who are trying to sleep, and I think to support those who understand we need a change.
So when someone came to my house and talked to me about it, I had no choice, because I'm about the same thing. People say, "Oh, are you still Black against white?"
I say, "No, I am humanity against inhumanity. And if you're about being inhumane, I don't care what your color is, you're my enemy. There's no doubt. So, being here, having a chance to share and hang out with some other human beings who care was something that I looked forward to. I know that we got a lot of work to do. But, I'm very happy that we got some people who are willing to do the work. So let's hope it spreads.
MS: The atmosphere today is one in which this discourse, this idea of revolution—for a lot of people up in Harlem, there hasn't been a lot of talk about that, so when they saw this event, they were really moved by this, the idea that this revolution and a vision of a new world would be in the mix. Then when I showed them the list of the artists that were performing, they were really blown away. What do you think of that?
AO: It's necessary. That's basically it. It is absolutely necessary, for not only our survival, but for our living. Things are so bad in this country and other places, artists—all your art with a consciousness is like a revolutionary army. So I don't care if you're a dancer, or a singer, a poet, whatever you are, these kinds of events, all the aware artists should be at it because it's necessary. We need to show a show of strength, that we're not going to take it lying down. And the artist is the best one to articulate what the problem is, to offer solutions, and to fire you up.
MS: What do you hope comes out of tonight?
AO: Knowledge. A certain feeling of accomplishment. And I hope that it sparks some more things like this. You see, a lot of our young people are acting crazy now because it's the absence of a movement. We don't have a movement. Everybody's about self. So if we can kinda take something like this, and recognize we are all in the same pot together. And we start thinking about each other, working together, having committees, study groups, all kinds of stuff like that, it can make a very big difference. So I hate to see stuff blow up like this and then just disappear. So I hope that's not the case with this. I hope that there's a follow-up.
MS: I've been talking to people about revolution, and their reactions are a mixed bag, but I think something like this can have an effect of bringing that to people.
WP: This event should be repeated monthly, as quick as it takes to refuel and come back out. I think that events like this should take place in every neighborhood. They should have different locations to do it, to bring out the message to different people. Because the thing is that people right now, they're on automatic pilot and they're asleep. That old expression, the get up and go has got up and went—that's the way it is. So people need to wake up to what's going on. And this is the beginning of a consciousness raising. Because that's what you really need, everybody be able to stand on their own two feet and to raise their consciousness and get involved in figuring out what they can do. To make some changes in the world.
MS: What compelled you to take part?
WP: The idea of bringing on revolution in America. Now we speak of political revolutions, social revolution, cultural revolution, all of these things are a part of it. Because the idea is that people have to just, even on a small level, begin to make changes. Whether you're going to make a change in your diet, whether you say I'm not going to support these corporations, whether I'm not going to watch this TV, I'm going to go support live music, whether I'm going to stop so much internet and start talking to people and reading books. These are all little drops in a big pot that are eventually going to lead to some kind of larger revolution, but in order to do that, you really have to have everyone's consciousness and senses at a high level, working at a high level. And every way in their life that they can, they're supporting the idea of change.
MS: What in your mind would a new world look like?
WP: Well, a new world could basically look like this world. It's just the idea that the world would not be run by corporations and run by rich people. And people who are in this underdevelopment nations and all the victims of imperialism, who've had a foot on their neck all these years, will be given the right to not be punished for being themselves. They'd have jobs, they'd have their needs taken care of and they'd be able to live to search and follow their dreams, whatever those dreams would be. Right now it's just about money, money, money, money, money. It's just about rich people who, again, run the world, doing what they have to do, about oil, about starting wars, about destroying countries and then the people who destroy the country, they rebuild the country because they own those companies too. You know, the same people that make the bread make the bombs.
So it's just about making some kind of change where leaders become responsible. And a democracy is where we have a vote. If somebody says, OK, I think we should go to war, but I can't go to war, which is mostly an invasion nowadays, not a war, without the consent of the people. So if we elect somebody, we should be asked, do we agree with the policy? And we're never asked. We're told. We turn on the TV and we're told, well, the president said this today, he's doing this, or he cut this. They never ask us anything. We have no say-so. Therefore it's really not a democracy. So if just some of these things can be addressed. And I think it can only be addressed if people wake up and begin to exercise their rights and say we can't take it anymore, we're not going to live like this anymore. The focus of the world has to change, on what people do, or power do in the world, it's got to begin to change.
MS: What do you think of Avakian and BAsics in relation to a vision of a new world?
WP: I think people should read the book. And again, it's a stimulator. It has a lot of historical facts, information, not so much just blaming, but it sort of inspires you to begin to investigate. Now, you don't have to read the book and say, "OK, because Bob Avakian said, this is true." He's mirroring what happened. He's mirroring a tale. He's mirroring an idea. So you can say, OK, imperialism. So what is imperialism? Bob Avakian says imperialism is the cause of all the troubles in the world. So you investigate it. And then you find out what he's saying is true.
So the book is very important, that people read this book, and if they're not into that, they have to read something. They have to do their own research, they have to do something. But the book is a start as a platform, springboard to jump on to find themselves, to find what's going on. To be enlightened, to awake their senses.
MS: This is putting revolution out in a way it hasn't been out.
WP: And it's including everybody. You have all kinds of music, all kinds of poetry, all kinds of art involved, the visuals, the books, the poetry. And it's important, because we're beginning to include everybody. One of the things wrong with the government is that there's no representation. When you look at the Congress, you should have some plumbers, you should have some electricians, you should have some musicians, you should have some people in coveralls, not just guys who look like penguins in suits, all white guys in suits representing us. They don't know anything about me, they don't know anything about people's grandmothers, or little kids. So this event is beginning to include everybody. And that's how it's got to be. Because everybody is affected. It's not just Black people, it's not just Chinese people, it's not Korean people, it's not people from South America or Mexico. Everybody who lives in America is affected by the policies, so everybody has to be included, because it also begins to move in the direction of brotherhood and sisterhood. And that's so important to begin to go in those lines.
MS: That is important. What do you hope to see out of tonight?
WP: I hope people come away after experiencing this, that they come away with a buzz, they come away uplifted. So that tomorrow they'll think about maybe quitting their job. They'll think about what they're going to do. They'll think about how important everything they do in life is, and they'll begin to read some more of the book. And they'll read another book, and then read another book, and then start beginning to put the string through the beads in this necklace, and string it together and then make a commitment, and not really believe what they're handed down.
I'm sure there's some people here who are already initiated. But hopefully there are a lot of people who are uninitiated and they're just waiting to get a kick, to get a boost, to get a jump start to try to get into these things which will lead them to themselves becoming a light so that they begin to tell people about what's going on in America, and begin to stimulate others. So you have this kinetic thing, magnetic thing happening from an event like this. So that the next event there's more people and people start planning their own little events. Anything can happen from it, but the initial thing is that everyone is inspired and stimulated to do things. About change in the world.
I'm a visual artist, revolutionary artist. Some people might have known some of my work from my history. Back in 1989 I had a work called "What's the proper way to display a U.S. flag?" that became the center of nationwide controversy. George Bush the First publicly denounced it. Congress denounced it as they passed legislation to outlaw it and a whole lot of people dug it because it was giving them the opportunity to talk about and think about and wrestle with what is this empire and what is its flag? So I'm a visual artist.
MS: What are you doing here?
DS: I am here joining with a bunch of people that are celebrating revolution and the vision of a new world. I curated along with a friend of mine, Kyle Goen, a show of visual art that's part of this celebration of revolution and a vision of a new world on the occasion of the publication of BAsics.
MS: Let's talk about BAsics and Avakian.
DS: I think it's sort of a mind-blowing book. I've read Bob Avakian's work pretty consistently over the past 20 years. But having a chance to sort of step back and see some of the breadth of what he's written particularly over the past seven or eight years. It's kind of incredible that somebody has thought this much about how you would make a revolution, what kind of revolution it needs to be, who would participate in it, the shortcomings of past revolutions and come up with a theory that actually make revolution and communism both viable and desirable for the 21st century. He's really given his heart to the people.
You read the book and even if you've read a lot of his stuff, it's incredible what it is, and then you know the way it's written, some of it's really simple and basic—not simplistic, but simple. The first quote is "There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery." That's a simple and basic truth, and it's like, well, that's simple and basic, but a lot of people don't know that or wouldn't agree with it in a certain sense. And then there's stuff that's longer and more complicated.
It's the kind of thing that even if you don't read a lot, people can get into and people in this country where the schools are just messed up, there's a real opportunity for people to engage that, whether you've got a PhD in critical studies, or whether you struggle to read a paragraph at a time, this is a book, if you want to know how to change the world, that you can actually get to know how to do it through this book.
MS: Let me ask about the content of the visual art show. Tell us a little about the pieces that are up here now.
DS: There are twelve pieces in the show and the show kind of embodies the breadth of the program overall. Some of the artists that are participating are typically thought of a street artists or graffiti artists. Some of them are performance artists. Some of them are very, very well-known and prominent and show in major galleries. But it really ranges. Some of them are from foreign countries who were either born there and came here quickly or came recently. Some of them are native born. There's diversity in terms of generations. It's got a piece by Emory Douglas who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and then most of the people are a lot younger than that. Some of the pieces, there's a piece by this artist Wafaa Bilal, who's an Iraqi artist. He came here shortly after the first Iraq War. And his piece is really heavy. It was inspired a bit by his brother who continued to live in Iraq and he was killed by U.S. so-called "collateral damage." So Bilal's got this piece where he had his back tattooed with a map of Iraq, and then he had a pin-point put for every U.S. soldier killed and every Iraqi killed. The U.S. soldiers were in red and the Iraqis were in florescent green. So there were 100,000 dots on his back from all the Iraqis killed, and 5000 for the U.S. soldiers. Then as the performance was happening he had people start reading the names of the people he knew. So this happened over a 24-hour period. There was an audience watching him get tattooed. So the piece is just a shot with blacklight so basically his scarred body is lit up just after this tattoo happened. It's a really heavy piece to look at just what the effect on the body of U.S. imperialism is, even from someone who didn't literally get bombed.
There's a piece by this Kenyan artist, who lives here now, and has lived here most of her adult life, anyway, Wangechi Mutu. It's a video piece and it's a loop that has this woman on a sort of deserted nighttime street, a cosmopolitan street. Nobody else is on the street. She's pushing this cart and you don't know what's in the cart. And she reaches in and throws a shoe right toward where the camera is, which is sort of the perspective of the audience. And then she reaches into the cart repeatedly and gets more and more shoes and just starts throwing them. And you think of the guy who threw the shoe at Bush. I don't know exactly what she meant, but it's very evocative of that. There's a real defiance in it. The woman may be beaten down, but she's not broken at any stretch.
There's work that looks back at slavery by Kyle Goen and by Hank Willis Thomas. Hank Willis Thomas has a piece titled "Absolut Power," sort of riffing on the Absolut ads. It's got a picture of an Absolut bottle that's turned into a slave ship. Kyle Goen has this piece that's just a portrait of Harriet Tubman. It's sort of like two different sides of how to look at that past which is foundational to America. There's a piece by Richard Duardo which is a sort of stunning portrait of Bob Avakian. Richard is known for doing portraits of sort of cultural icons. He's done people like Keith Haring and Duke Ellington and Che Guevara and people like that, Grace Slick, people who are defiant. So he includes Avakian in that pantheon of people that he's known for doing.
There's a lot of other incredible work.
MS: What about your piece?
DS: I've got a piece called. "Imagine a world without America." As I said, I've been reading Avakian for a long time. He wrote a statement which became important to me when I had the controversy around my flag work, and it started out, If you could imagine a world without America, then you've already taken a stride toward becoming a proletarian internationalist. And he goes on, if you can get beyond the wars and the rationalization that justifies that, then why would you want to lower your sights to anything less, and why wouldn't you want to give your whole life to actually bringing that world into being?
So about 18 years later, I'm thinking about that quote, as I'm thinking of a work to make, and so I come up with this piece that is, "Imagine a world without America." It's a world map; it's a square map, and Europe and Africa are in the center, and if you grew up in Europe or Africa it would be anyway, but as Americans we think America's in the center. The way it's framed, most of the United States is kind of cropped off of it. You get to see like, Florida and Alaska, but everything else just crops off, so you get this de-centered world that has no borders, and the map is the reverse of red, white and blue: It's orange, black and green. Then the black text just says, "Imagine a world," and very, very faintly it says, "Without America." So I do want people to trip out and imagine a world. I think there's not nearly enough imagination in the world these days and I want people to literally just do that. It's a conceptual work in that way. And then in a complicated and provocative way, without America. So the piece is literally showing a world without America.
MS: What do you hope to see tonight and coming out of tonight?
DS: Tonight I hope that there are a lot of people that have an experience they've never experienced before. I hope their minds are blown in the best and most fun way. I hope people have big smiles, hear great music, hear great poetry, can have it in the mix of writings from prisoners talking about what Avakian's works mean to them, have some of his readings in there and seeing some amazing art and just having a joyous, wonderful, exciting, uplifting step into the future. So that's what I hope people experience, and I hope to experience part of that myself.
Then I hope coming out of this people feel the renewed capacity in connection to each other and the capacity to lift their sights and actually really go forward in a range of complex ways building a revolutionary movement, a movement for revolution. A lot of people coming are not activists in that sense. But those people have a lot of understanding that's important and a lot to contribute, whether it's giving a lecture in their high school class, whether it's bringing somebody in to talk to their college students, whether it's baking cookies in the housing projects, whether it's coming into Revolution Books to hear a talk, whether it's making some art or maybe some collaborations will come out of it from some of the musicians.
There's a lot that can come out of it, but hopefully I feel people in multi-layered ways feel more capacity and desire to help humanity get to a whole radically-different and far better future, and connect with Avakian as part of that.
I'm a pianist and a composer and I'm here to play music with William Parker tonight in a duo situation and to contribute to the awareness of a global outlook for a better world and looking past the oppressive systems that hem us all in.
MS: What did you grab onto in the theme of revolution and a better world?
Shipp: I come at it from a little different angle, but what impressed me about Bob's work was an openness and a non-doctrinaire attitude. He always talks about a firm center and elasticity, and the fact that he talks about how revolutionaries have to have a poetic spirit. So I think freeing imagination is one reason we go into music, poetry, dance or whatever, and I really feel that the way he approaches things leaves a lot of things open for all kinds of possible syntheses and things to happen that you can't maybe pinpoint, but if we have a situation where people's imaginations can be unleashed, lord knows how things can evolve and come into being.
So basically all that is to say that what I really liked about his work is that he approaches things in a non-dogmatic way. And at the same time he recognizes all the failures that have happened in revolution in the past. We have to learn from all the mistakes in the past but that should not close your mind to the fact that something better can emerge in the future.
MS: I think the solid core with elasticity and the poetic spirit are important points, and that's one reason there is such a diversity of artists coming together.
Shipp: Watching the first half, that's what captivated me. So many different angles, through rhythm and dancing and through spoken word, which actually, even though poetry has an abstraction, so it's actually concrete language. And also I'm really touched by the letters from prisoners, because that's getting to the heart and soul of what the system can do to people, and how people can see some hope at the end of the tunnel or not, and what we're trying to speak to. So that type of letters from the prisoners is its own special type of poetry.
MS: These are people being judged to be the worst of the worst in society. That one quote, you can either do something with your life or do nothing with your life.
Shipp: Yeah, it was very heavy. Especially the cancer part, too. That was very, very interesting. Bob is definitely very fascinating. I don't know a lot about him, but I know a little about him. I've read some of his works. Again, I'm myself kind of in the spirituality of a certain sort.
MS: I want to explore that some more.
Shipp: Like a lot of jazz musicians, I live a post-Coltrane psychological space, not that my music sounds like that, because it doesn't, but if you come out of that head space and that's how you got into music, there's a quest for a universal language in music that—for instance if you look at Coltrane. I mean he grew up in the Black church, but his musical vision is more kind of universalist. And his wife, Alice, is actually a practicing Hinduist. She has albums, Om Namah Shivaya, which is a Shiva Hindu chant.
So, he's using music, Coltrane is using music in a kind of ecclesiastic way to almost get back to—theoretically, if you take the myths in the Bible, if before the Tower of Babel, because in that story there was one universal language before that and they tried to build a tower up to heaven and then the so-called whatever it is, Jehovah—James Joyce called him "Daddy Nobody"—up in the sky confused their tongues so they all had different languages. So when I hear Coltrane's music, I hear him in a quest with musical language to get back to that kind of universal language. That universal language could be like physics, actually. You could conceive of it in many different ways, which is another thing about Bob's work, getting back to him. He tries to synthesize everything. I was reading one of his books and he was referring to a lot of things in modern physics and it's just interesting to see somebody take a very scientific approach to Marxism. I found that interesting, that somebody approaches it as an actual science. I was like, wow.
So my way of coming at it is meditation, silence, and I don't believe in the anthropomorphic god that traditional religion believes in, but I do believe in an invisible energy source that is the whole and that kind of powers everything. It's unfortunate that we have to have this word god, it's a three-letter word. It's a stupid word. It's been misused. It's been used for a lot of horrible things, but I don't define myself as an atheist. I'm not in the Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, that type. Because that to me is a religion also. I know Bob's approach is definitely the matter in motion approach. But the thing that's interesting about it is his approach allows my approach. That's what's so interesting to me, I read his books and there's a few things he's kind of dogmatic about, and I actually agree, I would agree. As I said, I don't define myself as an atheist. I would actually agree with 80% of the stuff in a Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins book, actually, especially about organized religion.
But what I found so interesting about Bob is that even though there's some differences in how I approach it, I can see myself operating in that realm of trying to bring about transformation in the way he is. And it would be no problem. And I know people in his circle, and got to know them. I mean, they actually approached me and I was just like, OK, I see certain things this way and they don't, but it was just no problem, because the general world view allowed that.
MS: What would you like to see come out of tonight?
Shipp: The word get around about Bob's writing and a lot of people checking it out.
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