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Writers, Riots & the Expo Line

In the wake of the 20 Year Anniversary of the 1992 Riots, journalists have written several articles on the literature and music inspired by the riots. Many covered the same authors and talked about the usual suspects, like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre's "The Chronic." Valid as these figures are, many relevant authors and musicians have been left out of the discussion, like the poets at the World Stage in Leimert Park, underground lyricists at the Good Life Café, and forgotten books like Juan Felipe Herrera's "Love After the Riots" and Brian Cross' "It's Not About A Salary: Rap, Race & Resistance in Los Angeles." After discussing these works, the final part of this essay will briefly address the new Expo Line.

David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times writes, "In the wake of the Watts riots, Budd Schulberg helped to found the Watts Writers Workshop, mentoring African American writers such as Coleman, Quincy Troupe, Eric Priestley and the performance poetry group the Watts Prophets. In the wake of Watts, the city catalyzed around a variety of elements, not least the iconography of the fires, of L.A. turning inward to devour itself." A few sentences later he says, "No equivalent sense of history emerges when we think about 1992. Instead, we are left with fragments, snapshots, the loose tiles of what former Mayor Tom Bradley liked to call 'the glorious mosaic,' which the riots revealed to be a lie."

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Contrary to the quote above, there is an equivalent sense of history that emerged after 1992; it just hasn't received the media attention or publicity of 1965. There are numerous authors, musicians and filmmakers that produced work based on the 1992 Riots. Part of the reason the history from 1965 is more memorable is because the 1965 Riots were the first major riots during the Civil Rights era. By the time of the 1992 Riots, riots had become old news and the media lost interest. Reality television began in the 1990s and priorities continued to shift.

Among the many recent essays on riot-inspired literature, Wanda Coleman is the only author that mentioned the many poets of Leimert Park. Though there are many well-respected authors and poets from the area, Coleman ironically notes that the only author from South Los Angeles to have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize is Tookie Williams. Meanwhile heartfelt work addressing the real issues by writers, like Lynell George and Erin Aubry Kaplan, gets outsold by tell-all memoirs like Monster Kody. As Coleman notes, "writing about racism isn't sexy."

Poets from the World Stage in Leimert Park have carried on the tradition that began at the Watts Writers Workshop. For that matter, many of the original members from Watts were seen at the World Stage Writing Workshop after 1990. The poetry community in Leimert Park gained extra momentum after 1992 and has been going strong for over 20 years now. A.K. Toney says, "Over 200 poets have graced the World Stage over the last 22 or so years." Kamau Daaood's 1997 poetry album "Leimert Park," and his 2005 City Lights book, "Language of Saxophones," are both masterful works covering the spirit of community. Michael Datcher's 2001 novel "Raising Fences" is another notable book from the community.

The 2007 anthology, "VOICES FROM LEIMERT PARK," edited by Shonda Buchanan, published 48 Poets from the area. Writers like Daaood, Pam Ward, Ruth Forman, S. Pearl Sharp, D Knowledge, K Curtis Lyle, Imani Tolliver, E.J. Priestley, Jaha Zainabu, Merilene Murphy, Hannibal Tabu, Jerry Quickley, Peter J. Harris, Paul Calderon, A.K. Toney and others.

California State Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera's poetic novella "Love After the Riots" includes 54 poems that cover an eight-hour period over one night during the riots. Beginning at 7.30 p.m. and continuing until 6 a.m., the narrative follows a Chicano couple traveling around the city: "Rome sparkles by the flames of the Harbour Freeway." There's a mystical, supernatural feel to the short poems. Herrera's allusions to Dante, Fellini, Michelangelo, Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee imbue the poems with meaning on multiple levels. Published by Curbstone Press in 1996, the alienation of the riots is undercut with the right twist of dark humor.

Brian Cross' 1994 book, "It's Not About A Salary," published by Verso, not only addresses the 1992 Riots -- it's also the first in-depth West Coast hip-hop history. Though Cross is more well-known as a photographer and doesn't consider himself a writer, his book remains one of the best hip hop history books written. Born in Ireland and moved to Los Angeles in 1990, Cross came to get his Masters in photography at Cal Arts. His book covered the hip-hop scene in early 90s, not just gangsta rap like NWA, but also the equally historic underground hip hop musicians from venues like Water the Bush, Brass, and the Good Life Café.

The Good Life was located in South Los Angeles at a health food store. Their weekly Thursday night open mic was run by B.Hall. She demanded emcees refrain from cursing -- she wanted them to think about their words, and push forward the art form. This was in complete opposition to the gangsta rap era. Good Life regulars like Medusa, the Freestyle Fellowship, Chali 2na, Riddlore, Pigeon John, Volume 10, T-Love, Abstract Rude and 2Mex created a space where you had to lyrically push the envelope. Freestyle Fellowship were the first group from the Good Life to receive a record contract. Their 1993 album INNERCITY GRIOTS birthed a generation of daring emcees. Hip hop historians consider it one of the most influential hip hop albums of the 1990s, hailing the Freestyle Fellowship as lyrical pioneers in the same way as Bebop musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker & Lester Young influenced jazz.

For more info on the Good Life Café, check the 2008 documentary, "This is the Life." 2Mex says in the film, "The Good Life is as important as the Seattle music scene, the punk rock music scene, the New York punk scene, as important as the Southern hip hop movement, all of those movements. But of all of those scenes, it gets the least light." Hip hop scholar Jeff Chang is one of the only columnists to note the influence of the Good Life, and Brian Cross' original book is now out of print. Verso would be wise to re-issue it.
Numerous other multicultural musical groups like Ozomatli, Visionaries, Dilated Peoples, Black Eyed Peas, Breakestra and Burning Star emerged from the funk/soul underground after the riots. Similar to Good Life artists, these musicians created organic music representing post-riot Los Angeles. There are countless other examples too extensive to mention here. The poets and musicians have been creating critical work whether or not anyone pays attention.


Panoramic Views on The Expo Line

The Good Life Café was located on Crenshaw and Exposition, a few hundred feet away from the new Expo Line train station at Crenshaw. The new Metro line opened on April 27th; I had a chance to ride a few days after opening. On an overcast Tuesday I left my car at Cal State L.A. and took public transportation to Union Station. The Red Line train too me to Seventh and Flower, where I got on board the new Expo Line. Though we need much more rail, the Expo Line is a welcome addition to our landscape.

Eight stations are open and the line extends for now to La Cienega Boulevard at Jefferson Boulevard (Culver City stop is expected to open this summer). The big winners are USC and Trade Tech College students that live along the rails and adjacent residents that work downtown. The line goes south along Flower Street before curving around the southeast boundary of the USC campus to head west. The sweeping curve is the Expo Line's only underground portion. It never goes completely underground, but it wraps around the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Figueroa Street in a tunnel. Emerging on Exposition Boulevard heading west, I look out the window to read a quote on a USC building: "The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." Below these words I see the name Michelangelo. The museums of Exposition Park loom to the left and the train heads west towards Vermont Avenue.

I see small craftsman homes, dingbat apartments, photo enforced stoplights, parking lots under construction, bum proof benches, Dorsey High School, Price Self Storage: "Is your life too full of stuff?" Much of the Expo Line slices through industrial landscapes. The Farmdale Station is under construction, and the skate park at the Rancho Cienega Recreation Center is fully functioning. The train climbs up an elevated platform over the street at both La Brea Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard. Baldwin Hills, Culver City and Rancho Palos Verdes loom to the south and the Santa Monica Mountains and skyscrapers of the Miracle Mile, Century City and Downtown flank the view to the north. The Hollywood sign is almost hidden in the day's fog. Arriving at the La Cienega Station the panoramic view of the city is breathtaking.

Expo Line at La Cienega/Jefferson | Photo by JulieAndSteve used under Creative Commons


Top: Leimert Park Theater by orngejuglr used under Creative Commons.


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About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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