Review: Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987) ~ An Anthology of the OBAC Writers’ Workshop
“A Black aesthetic is based upon the conviction that Black people share a complex of perceptions that do not have the same meaning for other people. While it is true that all humans, have certain basic physiological and emotional traits, socio-historical experience divides us into ethnic groups whose members have more in common with each other than with members of other groups, even though there may be overlapping. We all belong to ethnic groups. Ethnicity is inescapable. There is no such thing as a “universal” person.” ~ from “Some Thoughts on The Black Aesthetic” by Eugenia Collier
While a flourishing hippie subculture was feasting upon the remnants of the literary and social counterculture once cultivated by the pioneers of the Beat Generation, Black literature was experiencing yet another cultural quickening in the form of the Black Arts Movement. A broad contingent of artists, critics, authors and intellects who eschewed the duplicity of Black authorship past which found our most nimble writers contorting themselves and their uniquely Black experience into a form more palatable for a mainstream white aesthetic now carved out independent publications, art houses, theaters and workshops. The call for Black Power, rising political resentment and a renewed embrace of the ideals of social separatism saw the revival of a “do for self” ethic sweep through the Black community. The old Civil Rights era alliances of the previous decade had shriveled and died upon the vine. Black people were shifted once again to membership along the social fringe.
Those arising during the Black Arts period began to wield this exclusion as an incentive for the development of an insular artistry deeply rooted in the language, style and existence of Black people which came to be defined as the “Black aesthetic”. A diminished appreciation for historical nuance often finds a more comprehensive story about the movement left untold. Much like the locational specificity of the Harlem Renaissance overshadows discussion about Black authorship outside of Harlem or Negritude in the Black Francophone diaspora, it is most often the case that the Black Arts Movement as a mystical literary milestone eclipses deeper scrutiny of any cluster of regional activity which contributed to its occurrence. The burden of fault rests with both poor scholarship and a lack of prominent documentation on how the movement transformed the creative landscape for Black artists throughout the country. Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago is a history which serves to both amend and extend that record.
Nommo documents the creative and critical literary content generated by members of the Chicago axis of the Black Arts Movement operating through the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) over the course of 20 years at the time the book was published. Throughout their 30 year tenure, OBAC organized three artist workshops consisting of Visual Arts, Theater and Writing which provided spaces for peer review and mentoring. The Visual Arts Workshop was able to complete a longstanding mural known as the Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley. The Theater Workshop found itself in a prodigious era as Chicago’s urban magnetism assembled the creative synergy which culminated in the Kuumba Theater, Southside Community Art Center and Afro-Arts Theater. The Writer’s Workshop saw a diversity of authors from varying levels of professional notoriety move through the nourishing space to bolster one another towards more keen insights and greater acclaim.
Nommo captures the essence of this extraordinary collective through writings which appeared in both the individual works of featured artists along with the OBAC writing journal also titled Nommo. The writing frequently manages to be both profound and overwhelming when one attempts to read the text without pause. Occasionally it veers off in directions which appear to be ideologically enigmatic such as Carolyn M. Rodgers’ “Black Poetry-Where It’s At” which found me pondering to myself if these were not merely a group of reckless young adults who had become fascinated with the sound of their own voice. She uses the space of her commentary to elaborate on the various forms and directions being created, evolved and engaged by Black poets in her generation. It is not until you reach the section entitled “Remembering Hoyt W. Fuller” that you can reflect deeply upon the measure and meaning of advancing the Black aesthetic. Rodgers’ determination to characterize the nuances of Black poetry as they existed then was rooted in a desire to stretch the boundaries of acceptable literary discourse where Black people were taught to circumscribe portions of their language and being in order to fit into the classical (read: white) construct being studied in academia. She refused.
While it is left to one’s imagination to consider how the plays were interpreted on stage, the works of members from the Theater Workshop are exhibited including “Masque Etude” with its rich symbolism and spartan, poetic dialogue or the reflective examination of an interracial relationship of convenience from “Mr. Gooden’s House”. The poetry, prose and essay material assembled here searches out these tiny kernels of the Black experience and seeks to magnify their importance that we might appreciate, acknowledge and analyze them as art. The Black aesthetic as understood by Hoyt W. Fuller was not simply amplifying the widely touted sentiment that “Black is beautiful”, but building upon that notion further for if we value things of beauty then let the elements of Blackness be appraised the highest amongst Black people.
In closing with their reflections upon the life and legacy of Hoyt W. Fuller, the daring stance taken by OBAC is shown to be helmed by a fearless defender of Blackness. Fuller towers above this anthology existing still as the guiding light behind its formation. Throughout the tiny vignettes of his life, I found myself hungering to know and understand even more than these selections were able to express in the space of such brevity. Nommo is a text worthy of continuous examination. While no organization finds themselves advancing the Black aesthetic with such a rigorous and thorough program as OBAC did in their time, it remains important to our children that we link together the body of material already extant in order that they might learn early in life what is beautiful, valuable, worthy and artful about the Blackness they inherit. It ain’t just a pigment. It is a legacy.
In Radiant Praise Of The Sweet Goddess Project
Destination: Experimental Station. Several years ago while residing in my Hyde Park apartment on 48th and Drexel, I struck upon the idea of purchasing a bike for some light travel through the neighborhood during the warmer months.
When evaluating places to obtain a ride, Blackstone Bicycle Works arose as the nearest available option. I had first learned of Blackstone while doing community resource mapping with City Year, but the unusual hours they kept prevented me from paying a visit to the shop. Upon finally deciding to drop in, I set out on the bus with the address transcribed in a notebook. After 5 cycles spent pacing the 2 blocks between 61st and 63rd Street, I surmised that this trip and my phone calls would prove fruitless for the day.
A balmy Sunday evening last November found me repeating the same curious process I had done so many years earlier. I never did find the Experimental Station after my first failed attempt. Were it not for another couple hustling their way across the street from a parked car, I might have gone away puzzled on this occasion too. Seeking not to arouse suspicion, I followed them around the corner toward the inconspicuous entrance. Once inside, we were welcomed to the Sweet Goddess Project by a gracious hostess and a flurry of literature as I toted my traveling music bag in preparation for dancing at the Shrine later that evening.
The exposed red brick wall and photo array to the rear of the performance floor foreshadowed the experience to come. A reminder of the gritty origins of underground dance born of any shelter offering open floor space and running electricity. Yellow and blue lighting framed the stage on either side hearkening back to the optics that live in night clubs and on dance floors where the music never seems to be loud enough. The DJ teased out with a mesh of electronic and world sounds at one point folding in a kalimba leading us closer to an audio crescendo, but drawing back before it culminated any movement.
My eyes darted between a Moleskine notebook and the audience. Each time I threw a glance about the room I found another familiar face from our exuberant community of dance living and breathing beneath the Chicago night. There was an immediate expansion of joy within my heart as we came together to partake of this expression. It was a feeling of kinship that existed here amongst us loving the music, embracing that sound and inhabiting a lifestyle. Enter Meida with her ever so gentle reminder, request and demand to silence all cell phones or other noisemaking devices.
Beyond this point in the performance, I must admit that I can not be entirely faithful to the journalistic intent. Writing notes about this show became increasingly difficult as I found myself so deeply engaged in the music, movement and layered visual experience that I was compelled to bang my drum at quiet and loud intervals throughout the show. My writing hand hushed so promptly that I found only time to jot down a series of terms hoping they might assist me later in transcribing verbally what I had experienced emotionally.
Playful. Brash. Synchronized. Spontaneous. Reminiscent. Nostalgic. Jazzy. Electric. Soulful. Soft. Sinew. Sticky. You may assemble those words in whatever order offers you the greatest measure of meaning and utility.
The Project made brilliant use of a series of video interviews that were done with groups of women regarding their experiences in the house music scene in order to punctuate the transition from one performance to another. These interviews covered first virgin steps into the party and onto the dance floor, carving spaces in party promotion and DJ’ing and extending the engagement of House music far beyond mere entertainment or social diversion into the arena of a philosophical construct for how we move through through the world as seen and felt vividly through women’s eyes.
I am a zealot, enthusiast, devotee and acolyte for the work of the Sweet Goddess Project and Honey Pot Performance, but you shouldn’t take my word for it. You should investigate and discover their process for yourself. On February 3rd and 4th, the collective will be performing at Northwestern University’s Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center in the Ballroom Theater. For more information on how you can partake in this work, visit the Honey Pot Performance blog or their invite on Facebook.
Late Fall Musings on Aniba Hotep & the Sol Collective
“Give that baby water / And bath her in the garden of the sun / Give that baby water / Cause water will go back to where it is from / Freedom” ~ Give That Baby Water by Aniba Hotep & the Sol Collective
In April of 2010, I developed a serious audiophile obsession after being within earshot of a group known as Aniba Hotep & the Sol Collective. I later discovered they had released an album entitled “Sol of a Goddess” which I knew was a must have for my audio collection. While they had a website posted, the Paypal link on the site wasn’t active for processing payment. Neither deterred nor defeated, I reached out to some band members I found to be part of my social network. I was not in the least disappointed for my effort. The album was a warm, lush concoction of live instrumentation and layered vocal arrangements which fulfilled long forgotten musical yearnings and sauntered gently through my ears. It was indeed and in fact a delicious assemblage of sound. I later went on to purchase their follow up EP “The SOLution” which continued the tradition of beautiful music established in the orchestration of this first album.
With all of the enjoyment I had experienced from recorded material, I had not yet seen them play a live show despite numerous opportunities having arisen. On October 22nd, I decided to rectify that as I sat in Wicker Park at Jerry’s sipping on one too many bottles of a generous selection of hard ciders: Ase Pear, Hard Julian and Original Sin. This might not have been such a terrible thing were it not for the fact that I had spent much of the day in my role at the Healthy Food Hub as the Dancing Cashier. By the time I arrived at the show, I was acutely exhausted. Never afraid to push the envelope in writing, dance or life, I took the time to wet my face and kept busy etching at my notebook until the show started so that drowsiness would not overtake me.
I took down a few observations about the venue which seemed a slight small to me. We in the artistic world classify these spaces as cozy when drawing your attention away from the fact that you should be careful not to bump the person to your rear when exiting to the restroom. I didn’t make any bones about that as it would certainly make for a more intimate concert experience. I noted the eclectic, artful decor; the warm, ambient lighting. Jerry’s had done well to set the mood for those whose sojourn here found them on date night.
While I sat nursing the first cider, one of the hosts came to ask me if I might be able to change my seat in order to accommodate two sisters wanting to be seated together. This shifted me from the long side of the table to the seat on the end which to my delight turned out to be center floor and the most optimum viewing angle for the main event. The show set in motion just after 10:30 pm when “The Big Payback” sounded the triumphant onset of a playful jam session amongst the members of the Sol Collective. The crowd warmed up while fingers snapped and shouts of musical approval were bandied about generously.
The background vocalists made their way to the stage first in fabulously fitted blue pantsuits. Aniba came forward shortly thereafter in what appeared to be a black sash, blue halter and black pants though I Iater came to wonder if the color of the pants might not have been a deception of lighting. The band brought the change up and suddenly we were engulfed in a Sol Collective rendition of The Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” which found the musicians playing a little too loudly against the vocals, but still extending forward the playfulness of the opening jam session. Suddenly a question struck me as I examined each aspect of the stage, “Are they barefoot?” I was tickled in the deepest part of my belly at that realization, the intimacy of this minor detail only serving to enchant me further. After I watched the EPK a few more times, I realized that they play most of their dates in a similarly Earth-grounded manner. As a dancer who delights in any excuse for going barefoot, I honor that.
The selection that followed listed in my notes only as “Sweet Talker” found the vocals much tighter with some intriguing drum transitions. By the time they had set themselves upon “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul Now?” and “Waiting On You”, I was thoroughly delighted by their choice of complex vocal arrangements in both cover songs and original material. Aniba proved unafraid to play staccato over the track or add new flavor to well established songs using jazz and gospel technique claiming the voice as its own magnificent instrument.
“Sweet Thing” was remixed with all of the buttery soft and soulful nostalgia that Chaka’s original invoked as she vocally looped the opening line “I will love you anyway”. The Sol Collective’s rendition of “It’s Love” found all of these abilities colliding inside of a single song. Aniba, Neri and Caress’ choral interplay and the band’s skillful smooth transition indicative of classic jam session musicianship showed in their skill for claiming a contemporary cut with a still strong resonance. Aniba again played with the levels in her voice in similar character to Jill’s own antics on the original song until the band threw us a head spin by playing the break from “Da Butt” before changing back to the closing harmonies from “It’s Love” to end the first set.
The group went on to play 3 more sets that evening. This first set was described as “Uptempo”. Set number two was “Soft Soul’. Set number three was “Jazz”. Set number four was described simply as “Soul”. The highlight of the second set was a gem that seems to absent from both of their albums which I think was called “Landmark” during which Aniba recounted living in Virginia for many years and coming to Chicago to start a new life. This combination of lyrics and words that I drew down for my notes entailed the following “Don’t stay where you have already left / I don’t want to be your landmark / Runaway / Say everything you’ve ever wanted to say to me / Cause I don’t know when I’ll be coming back to town”. This year marks her 34th year on the planet. While I was playing the “Sol of a Goddess” album at a recent Healthy Food Hub Market Day, Dr. Jifunza’s ears perked up and asked “Who is that? Aretha?” “No Dr. J. That’s Aniba Hotep & the Sol Collective.” I think that mistake on the part of a listener from a generation steeped in soul should portend all you need to know about how deeply the Sol Collective has mined the soul tradition of the past while being attentive to the evolution of the future landscape of soul music. Check out their EPK below and when you are done, visit their fan page on Facebook so that you won’t have any excuse for not being in the front row of their next show. Your so(u)l will undoubtedly be replenished.
O’ Chicago How I Hate You So
It is not simply my inability to recycle outside of the doors of my own home because you were so stricken with ineptitude as to be unable to manage a program that required you to issue a single blue can having already been purchased to every home in the city. No. It is not so simple as this.
Would that the journey towards green living were so easy, we might see everyone doing it. No. I didn’t pout so much when you placed the community drop off bin in a remote and out of the way park district which closes at eleven and ensures that should the urge strike me to recycle midnight or later, I am relegated to a journey to Pullman. I could deal with these things.
That overflowing can now forcing me to take my car full of cumbersome recyclables home and return again another day. No problem. I’ll humor you since an entire community uses this can.
The final straw comes in the heart of the worst yet of our pre-winter white slush. You saw fit to come along today and drive one of your big trucks through the snow banked lot and empty the communal can, but no one saw fit to plow a simple path up to the can. And here I find myself stuck waiting on end for a wench to extract me from this predicament that your inane nature has visited upon my head. I hate you Chicago! You’ve made my disdain expand tenfold in a simple car ride that didn’t reach home.
Smile. Goddess Child.
The Goddess in you might make even a bemused child smile.