“o-o-h child” – the five stairsteps (1970)

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On April 28th, John Singleton, the pioneering black filmmaker, passed away after suffering from a stroke.  His career was honored by numerous actors and musicians paying tribute his legacy and the impact he had on American filmmaking for, as Ice Cube said, bringing “the black experience to the world.”

The Music Box Theatre, in honor of Singleton, programmed a tribute showcasing several of the director’s most enduring impactful works; Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Rosewood. Programmed under the title of “You’ll Never Be As Important As the Ocean: The Films of John Singleton,” these three films illustrate Singleton’s unique aesthetic style, his commitment to document the experience of black men and women, and his ability to deliver an enduring and relevant social commentary.

Kicking off the tribute was a screening of Boyz n the Hood, Singleton’s directorial debut from 1991.  Set and filmed in South Central Los Angeles, and launching the film careers of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr., Boyz n the Hood is a slice of life drama about living with the violence of gang culture and the systemic forces that perpetuate an endless cycle of death within the black community.

Though a strong admirer of Singleton’s work, I had not seen Boyz n The Hood since high school. Now in my 30s, living in Chicago, and more social conscious of the systemic oppression endured by people of color, this tribute to Singleton became an appropriate time to revisit the film.

As I watched the film, I was amazed by how much I still remembered.  Though it had been a long time since I last watched it, Boyz n the Hood had left an indelible effect on me.  As a teenager, the film was a window into a world very much unlike my own.  Though a narrative drama, watching the film became an education. Now, so many years later and more educated on the systemic oppression the film addresses, the reaction I had to Boyz n the Hood was deeper and more significant.  Due to its alarming relevancy, nearly three decades after its release, I left the theater with a heavy heart and walked home thinking about the world’s injustices; oscillating between thoughts on what I can do to help and feelings of hopelessness.

At last night’s screening of Boyz n the Hood, the screening was hosted by Sergio Mims.  As the festival Consultant of the Black Harvest Film Festival, an annual celebration of independent films documenting the black experience and now entering its 25th year, Mims discussed the life and legacy of Singleton.  Joined by Mims onstage was Joe Doughrity, a production assistant for the film who would then develop a close personal and professional relationship with Singleton and was described by Mims as Singleton’s right-hand man.  Doughrity, sporting a Boyz n the Hood crew jacket, talked about meeting Singleton, their mutual love for films, and his experience working on the movie.

The most amazing thing about the production of Boyz n the Hood is that Singleton was only about 22 or 23 when he directed the film.  He had written had developed the film initially in 1986 as a documentation of the life he experienced.  Though the studio wanted to option the film, Singleton protested that he would be the one to direct.

His direction of the film is most notable for shooting the entire film in sequence.  Films are typically shot to accommodate schedules and locations, often staying in one location to get all the coverage before moving onto the next location.  The order the film unfolds is exactly how Singleton scheduled the production and as you watch it, you can the director becoming more confident and daring with his directing.  Singleton would not only become the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, but he is the still the youngest to hold that distinction.

After all these years, though I remembered a lot from the movie, the scene that has stuck with for the longest is the closing scene of the childhood segment of the film.  Set in 1984, the Ice Cube’s and Cube Gooding Jr.’s characters are children and the audience gets a glimpse into the environment and the impact it has on the social and mental development of these children.  In the scene, Doughboy, Ice Cube’s character, is arrested for stealing from a local corner store.  He is put into a squad car, along with a friend, with the scene scored to the song “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps.  As someone who loves music and film, and how the two come together to complement each other, that scene has lived with me for a long time and it was an emotional experience to finally see it on the big screen.  And to think that someone in his early 20s could direct such a powerful scene speaks volumes about Singleton’s talent.

The Five Stairsteps, often referred to as “The First Family of Soul,” were a soul group from Chicago comprised of five siblings.  They released their first single in 1966 but it is the 1970 release of “O-o-h Child” that has become their most enduring song.  The song contains an uplifting message for a community that has suffered so much strife for generations.  With the message that “things are going to get easier,” the Five Stairsteps offer comfort to those who have faced adversity.  Used within the context of Boyz n the Hood, the song offers a commentary about the societal and racial tensions that lead the arrest of a small child and his detainment in juvenile detention for seven years.  Within that context, the uplifting message carries added weight making the song’s theme of things getting better sound simultaneously attainable and impossible.

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“rock & roll” – the velvet underground (1970)

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If you lived in still at any point in the last 25 years, and consider yourself somewhat media savvy, you may have stumbled upon the name Jim DeRogatis.  DeRogatis started his Chicago media career at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992 as their resident music critic.  He had a brief departure from the newspaper in 1995 while working as a writer for Rolling Stone, but was fired for a bad review and returned to Chicago.  Since then, building upon his reputation as a great writer and discerning music critic, DeRogatis would branch out from the newspaper writing for several other publications, teaching at Columbia College, and even hosting a popular show on public radio.  Despite the national distribution of his writing and radio show, DeRogatis largely remained a local Chicago.  That is until, only with the last year, he finally gained the respect and attention he deserves for an investigation, ongoing for two decades, about the most notorious sexual abuser in music history.

On June 4th, DeRogatis’ latest book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly was published, a book documenting an investigation that has gone one now for 19 years.  In November 2000, DeRogatis received an anonymous fax that would change his life. The fax alleged that R&B singer R. Kelly had a problem with underage girls which immediately sparked an investigation by DeRogatis that has been ongoing for nearly two decades. As the journalist who broke that story and has consistently been covering it for 19 years, DeRogatis documents his journey proving that Kelly had exhibited consistent predatory behaviors against underage girls from the earliest allegations in 1991 to how those patterns of behavior evolved to include an alleged sex cult of brainwashed women in 2019.

Often alone in this journalistic endeavor, though aided by his writing partner Abdon Pallasch, DeRogatis received pushback from politicians, law enforcement, lawyers, journalists, music critics, Kelly’s fans and employees, and even family members of the victims with the intent to protect a musical figure that generated so much revenue for so many people. In addition to covering the timeline of the abuse and the investigation, DeRogatis offers thoughtful analysis about how systemic issues within law enforcement and the entertainment industry, as well as social and racial factors, failed so many young black girls and women who sought justice for the crimes committed against them by a man they loved and trusted and whose music provided the soundtrack for their lives and lined the pockets of others. Relatively unknown and unappreciated since starting his investigation in 2000,

DeRogatis’ work has since been validated within the last year due to additional reporting from other media outlets and a successful Lifetime TV documentary series, all of which expound upon DeRogatis’ work. However, all this seems too little, too late for DeRogatis who delves into the problematic reality that, while Kelly was on trial in 2008 for his sex abuse crimes, the singer was experiencing his most critically and commercially acclaimed period of his career with his albums selling better than ever and critics praising Kelly’s genius while dismissing the sex abuse allegations as being trivial distractions. This book by DeRogatis not only makes the case that Kelly is the most notorious sexual abuser in music history, but it also sheds light on how poorly black women are treated in society by exposing the patriarchal and racist political, business, and social systems that silences their voices, erases their identities, and robs them of their humanity.

Last week, I attend a panel discussion organized by the Chicago Humanities Festival featuring DeRogatis discussing his book as well as the ongoing grand jury trial Kelly currently faces. During the panel, DeRogatis was joined on stage with Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the co-founders of #MuteRKelly, with questions moderated by Kyra Kyles, an award-winning writer.

During the panel, the group discussed DeRogatis’ investigation and the many systems and people that not only pushed back against his reporting, but who had also failed the young black girls and women within the segregated communities adversely affected by poverty and other racial and social factors.  The panel also discussed the secret to Kelly’s seemingly untouchable profile being his money and how his music has collectively raised over $1 billion, prompting Barnes and Odeleye to discuss the success of their tactics to tighten Kelly’s revenue earning by protesting and, ultimately, shutting down his concerts. It was a powerful and emotional discussion.

Before the panel discussion, DeRogatis performed a reading from his book. Specifically, the ending of his book.  After 19 years of talking to several dozens of Kelly’s victims, and the countless people who enabled the singer, DeRogatis finally met the women who was the first to challenge Kelly for his abuse and pursue legal action. In a small café on the northside of Chicago, DeRogatis met with Tiffany Hawkins who publicly discussed her relationship with Kelly for the first time.

Hawkins met Kelly in 1991 at the age of 15 where she was coerced into a sexual relationship with the singer, as well as experiencing violence retribution for not obeying his orders. In 1996, Hawkins sued Kelly for $10 million but settled in 1998 for an undisclosed amount.  Hawkins spent years healing from the abuse, focusing on her own life and wellbeing, and raising a family.

Reading from the book, DeRogatis asked Hawkins if she could listen to Kelly’s music anymore. She couldn’t stand it for a long time and hearing his music everywhere would cause untold stress and grief, but she learned how to tune it out.  When DeRogatis asked about her interest in singing, referencing her early career as a backup singer for Aaliyah, Hawkins said she could not singer anymore.  Though she tried singing years after the abuse, she just didn’t have the passion anymore.

As DeRogatis read about the next question he asked Hawkins, he started to become emotional.  With his voice wavering and fighting back tears, DeRogatis asked Hawkins if she could listen to any music at all.  Hawkins answered no.

DeRogatis shared how not only had he built a career on his love for music but believing that music saved his life.  Hearing that someone could not find joy in something so beautiful, so universal, and so joyous unfathomable to DeRogatis. Kelly’s abuses are many and unspeakable, but to rob someone of their ability to experience happiness from music, an artform so unique and expressive and beloved to so many, that was too much for DeRogatis.  Even after 19 years hearing what he has heard and seeing what he has seen, this is the detail the elicits such an emotional reaction.

In this except DeRogatis read from, which closes out the book, DeRogatis refers to his life as one “saved by rock and roll,” a line from the signature song “Rock & Roll” by the Velvet Underground.  Released on the album Loaded in 1970, but not as a single until 1973, “Rock & Roll” has endured as one of the band’s most signature and defining songs.  In the liner notes for the box set Peel Slowly and See, “‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.”

As with Reed, and many others, rock and roll saved DeRogatis’ life.  It has certainly saved mine.  However, for Tiffany Hawkins and the dozens of others, known and unknown, hurt by Kelly, music has become something impure and corrosive.  Lives destroyed by music. Destroyed by Kelly. A monster. Soulless.

“conversation music” – mike reed (2017)

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While the weather, being chilly and rainy at times, does not indicate it, summer is her in Chicago.  For the next few months, Chicago citizens who spent all winter hunkered in their homes during what was a particularly tough winter, which included a polar vortex, will be letting it all hang out at their favorite seasonal hotspots.  Whether it be tanning at the beach, sipping tasty beverages on a restaurant patio, or strolling through the park, summertime in Chicago is a fine time.

I had an incredibly busy fall and winter.  Between a writing project and freelancing for a film festival, with all this being in addition to my normal job, I stayed really busy time with overlapping responsibilities.  When summer in Chicago hits, I still fairly busy.  However, unlike all the work I was doing in the months prior, this busy is more about fun in the sun.

Summertime in Chicago makes me a bit anxious because of how short it can be in relation to the lengthy winters.  I feel some anxiety thinking that I must spend as much time as possible outside in the sun so as not to waste it. I’ve recently gotten over that line of thinking and realized that it is ok not to be outside all the time.  Indoor summer fun can be great too.  It is all about moderation.

However, back to the busy schedule.  My summers are typically not very leisurely.  Sure, my job slows down a bit and I do less volunteer shifts with the radio station and folk music school.  But I fill in all the gaps with lots of other activities.  Going to the movies, weddings, hanging with friends, etc.  I’m an active, extroverted person and Chicago summer is mean to be enjoyed.

I do get an occasional weekend where I have nothing scheduled, and sometimes that gives me some anxiety.  However, a nice, long, aimless walk through the neighborhood or a park helps.  I have no particularly place to be but I’m getting myself out of the apartment and immersing myself in the splendor of Chicago summer.

Naturally, I’m just a planner.  Always have been and there’s nothing telling me to stop that now.  So, I don’t get to do many things that are spontaneous.  Sometimes I crave that spontaneity.  But the funny thing is when I have a day where I have nothing scheduled, I spend so much time thinking about what to do and what’s the best way to enjoy the day.  It is like trying to find something watch on Netflix.  You spend more time deciding what to watch than enjoying what you are watching.

Oh well.  I’m told there is no wrong way to spend a summer day in Chicago.  Just wake up, listen to what you want, and then just go do it.

This summer, I want to get out and explore cultural events in the city I have never done or haven’t done in a long time.  One of the great things about living in a major city like Chicago is that there is always stuff do.  Lots of great music, art, and culture in this city.

This past Tuesday, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art.  Since I volunteer nearly every Tuesday at the music school, I never get a chance to go out the MCA when the main gallery is free to Illinoi residents.  However, a friend of mine invited me to their Tuesdays on the Terrace event, an evening of free music hosted in the terrace garden of the MCA.  It is a weekly event running every Tuesday from the beginning of June through the end of September.

On this occasion, my friend, his girlfriend, another couple, and I got to enjoy the stylistic free jazz drumming of Mike Reed.  With warm, sunny air surrounding us as we chilled on the grass, we listened to the local jazz auteur and had great conversations over wine.

Reed, though born in Germany, was raised in Evanston and started his jazz career in Chicago in the 1990s after graduating with degrees in English and psychology.  He started playing in the local jazz scene with such acts as Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra and the Josh Berman Quartet.  Along with cornetist Josh Berman, Reed has also launched several music cities at various venues around the city including the Hungry Brain.  Reed is also the founding director of the Pitchfork Music Festival and is the owner and director of the performing arts venue Constellation.

In 2017, Reed released the album Flesh & Bone on the label 482 music.  Reed composed and recorded the tracks as well as played drums.  He was backed by a variety of great jazz musicians including Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Jason Roebke on bass, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, and Ben Lamar Gay on cornet.  While there are some tracks that contain spoken word and poetry elements, most of the album is instrumental free jazz.  The third track, “Conversation Music,” is a standout track.  Reed’s drumming is slow and subtle while a sinister saxophone and clarinet undulate throughout the track fluctuating between performing in unison and seemingly in competition with each other.

The MCA knows great art and great music.  If you’re looking for some lowkey summer fun in Chicago, the music you’ll hear at Tuesdays on the Terrace is a good way to go.

“the shores of normandy” – jim radford (2019)

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Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an Allied invasion of Normandy as part of Operation Overload during World War II.  It is a defining battle during a defining war with effects that still reverberate to this day as the world recognizes veterans from the war, both living and dead, the millions of lives lost from the destruction.

During this time, President Trump has been visiting the United Kingdom and taking part in activities commemorating the anniversary of the battle which signified a major turning part in the war.  With such an occasion, tact and humility are needed to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  That is not what we get with Trump.

Trump is a coward, as Senator Tammy Duckworth declared, and I have to agree. Trump received five deferments during the Vietnam War, two of which were allegedly for bone spurs.  Now, we have had presidents who have not served in the military and some who have even criticized American involvement with international conflicts.  However, we have not had one that has expressed such cowardice through their denigration of war heroes, false promises to veterans, and maligned understanding of the impact war has on families than Donald Trump.

In an interview with Pier Morgan, Trump discussed his Vietnam stating he “was never a fan” meaning that he did not support American intervention in the country.  While others felt the same way.  Trump also did not actively protest the war.  Others did not as well.  Where Trump’s cowardice comes through is how he is able to rationalize his deferment.

During this interview, Trump stated that his lack of service has been rectified by him being elected president.  Specifically, Trump said, about serving in Vietnam, “I would not have minded that at all. I would have been honored. But I think I make up for it now. I mean look, $700 billion I gave last year and then this year $716 billion and I think I’m making up for it rapidly because we are rebuilding our military at a level that it’s never seen before.”

In response, Senator Duckworth responded to Trump’s comments by saying “I don’t know anyone who has served in uniform, especially in combat, who would say they are a fan of war,” she said. “In fact, I opposed the Iraq war, but volunteered to go when my unit was deployed.”  Donald Trump, who has never been forced to be accountable about anything, is able to, over 40 years later after being issued five deferments, claim he would have proudly served in a war he opposed.

While the Vietnam War was, and remains, rather unpopular in American history, the way World War II has been depicted in popular culture has reflected an opposite, often rose-colored, reputation.  For many reasons, World War II has been revered as a defining moment in recent history, an epic battle of good versus evil, where America, and the Allied forces by extension, represent the last bastion of freedom against the existential threat to democracy by Hitler’s fanatical fascism and his commitment to racial purity enforced through systemic genocide. Even Trump echoes this simplistic understanding of the war with comments during the Piers Morgan interview saying, in conjunction with his view on Vietnam, “But, uh, nobody heard of Vietnam and then say well what are we doing. So many people dying. So I was never a fan of — this isn’t like I’m fighting against Nazi Germany. I’m fighting — we’re fighting against Hitler.”

Our society reveres our veterans, and rightfully so.  However, we cannot ignore the inherent problems within America before, during, and, unfortunately, after World War II.  Breaking down popular conception of the war, there are countless books and resources that document American debate about interfering in European conflicts. And, more disturbingly, there existed a contingent of Americans that championed Hitler’s ideals and leveraged them as a reason to not engage militarily with the dictator.  While high school courses and popular culture may paint such a complex war in simple terms of good versus evil, Americans were divided because of their racism and prejudice.

While fascism went out of style and stayed underground for several decades after World War II, it has come back in a big way.  Since the early 1990s, fascism and neo-Nazis in Europe have quietly garnered support.  And now, in 2019, we are in the middle of the first term of a president who has emboldened fascist contingencies within his base.  The extreme factions of Trump’s support base, consisting of white supremacists, American isolationists, and just plain Nazis, have now become organized, motivated, and vocal on social media, championing the president to continue sowing discord among Americans for beliefs that resulted in a global conflict in which upwards of 85 million people lost their lives.

This conflict is recent history.  There are people who were alive then, some of whom fought.  The idea that we can be so blind to the reality, or even nuance, of war, whittling it down to concepts of good versus bad or right versus wrong, is unsettling.  And even more disturbing is the fact that there are significant social and political movements that want to return to fascist order that resulted in the war.

I know it can be easy to be cynical and be all doom and gloom about the future. Trump certainly doesn’t make it easier.  However, fascism is on the rise in Europe, especially in eastern Europe.  I hope it can be quashed, but it has a strong momentum fueled by racism and political desires to disrupt global alliances and treaties.  As the world solemnly reflects on arguably the most significant of World War II’s defining moments, the idea that we could realistically be in the same position, but with nuclear weapons, is terrifying.

Jim Radford is the youngest known D-Day veteran having served as a ship’s galley boy during the Normandy invasion.  He helped construct a harbor and ran supplies on the beaches.  In 1969, being a fan of folk music, he wrote a song called “The Shores of Normandy.”  In 2019, 75 years after the Normandy invasion and 50 years since writing the song, Radford recorded a version of the song which has hit the number spot of Amazon’s singles chart.

In “The Shores of Normandy,” Radford sings about his experience in the invasion.  About the song and why he chose to record it in 2019, Radford said “It’s very important to me and other veterans that there should be a place like this where people can come and reflect because we’re not going to be around for much longer to tell the story, and the story needs to be told because people need to learn lessons from it.”

Profits from “The Shores of Normandy” will support the British Normandy Memorial.