Rappin' Black in Los Angeles


As famous as the Harlem Renaissance is, Los Angeles has had an equally storied history of African-American Art. Much of it based around poetry and music, the movement to spread black arts has been celebrated by many writers, a few of whom I will highlight this week.

Steven Isoardi

"The Dark Tree," written by Steven Isoardi and published by the University of California Press in 2006, is a compelling account of the Jazz and Community Arts Movement in Los Angeles. Isoardi, who previously served as editor for "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles," illuminates the intimate connection between music, poetry and revolutionary politics.

Figuring prominently in the narrative is Horace Tapscott, legendary L.A. composer, trombonist and pianist (and Isoardi's friend for many years). A mythical figure revered as much for his musicianship as his leadership, he believed in uplifting the community through music. His concerts were known for their intersection of music, dance and poetry, read by poets of the Watts Writers Workshop like Jayne Cortez and Ojenke.

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The Watts Writers Workshop was a gathering point. Founded in 1965 by writer Budd Schulberg shortly after the Watts Riots, it quickly became an incubator for a burgeoning cadre of talented poets, including the Watts Prophets, K Curtis Lyle, Ojenke, Jayne Cortez, Quincy Troupe, Johnnie Scott, Wanda Coleman, Kamau Daaood, Eric Priestley and Cleveland Sims. It's safe to say that they made history. The Watts Prophets for example, are considered progenitors of West Coast Hip-Hop, beginning with their recordings in the late 60s. Their biggest record was called "Rappin Black in a White World."

Rappin' Black in a White World LP by the Watts Prophets
Rappin' Black in a White World LP by the Watts Prophets

"The Dark Tree" features several quotes from Amde Hamilton, aka Father Amde of the Watts Prophets. He describes the two schools of poets from the Watts Writers Workshop: "The Watts Prophets were one school, and you could say that our school went into the hip-hop thing. Ojenke and his thing went into the Kamaus and the Quincy Troupes. But Ojenke is the papa of those styles there, that preacher kind of thing." Ojenke is still around these days, but rarely publishes or performs.

Ojenke's lifelong friend Eric Priestley was also involved with the Watts Writers Workshop. Priestley stands with Wanda Coleman, K Curtis Lyle and Quincy Troupe as one of the most prolific writers of the early members. He published several books, taught at several universities and worked as a screenwriter. His most recent novel "For Keeps," published by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, is a locomotive of Los Angeles imagery. Author Pam Ward writes, "From his 'Z' talk vernacular to the monotone clip of L.A. cops, Priestley's ear, pressed to the pavement, has spit-perfect pitch."

Daniel Widener

Daniel Widener's book "Black Arts West," published in 2010 by Duke University Press, picks up Steven Isoardi's work to frame a wider narrative of African-American writers, musicians, visual artists and filmmakers in Los Angeles between World War II and the riots of 1992. His opening says it all: "This is a book about art and revolution. More specifically, it traces the inter-play between efforts to develop a consciously black art and the broader African American liberation struggle."

Widener's chapter on black filmmakers in Los Angeles is particularly outstanding. In affiliation with the UCLA Film School, a community of black independent filmmakers came to rise in the 70s. Known as the "L.A. Rebellion" school, they produced little-seen but influential films like Passing Through, directed by Larry Clark, and Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett. The Hammer Museum recently honored the legacy of these filmmakers with a special exhibit and screening. All in all, Widener does an excellent job capturing the scope of the last 50 years of Black arts in Los Angeles.

Billy Higgins at World Stage | Photo courtesy of Federal Highway Administration
Billy Higgins at World Stage | Photo courtesy of Federal Highway Administration

By all accounts, L.A. black arts patriarchs like Horace Tapscott and drummer Billy Higgins believed in mentoring the youth. "Passing the Magic" was the idea of sharing wisdom with the younger generation with the understanding that they too will one day pass the magic on as it was taught to them. This is the principle behind the World Stage in Leimert Park, a venue for live performances and music lessons opened in 1989 by Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood. "Passing the Magic" is the central idea of community arts.

Douglas Kearney

Contemporary Los Angeles poet Douglas Kearney is doing his part to pass the magic. One of the most active poets on the West Coast, his writing tackles racial politics in the 21st Century with his own brand of phrasing wizardry: "Blackface is the shadow nothing makes." Skilled in graphic design, Kearney lays out his own books with experimental typography. His first full collection of poems Fear, Some was published by Red Hen Press in 2006, and two years later he was awarded the Whiting Writers Award. His latest chapbook Skin Mag was recently published by Deadly Chaps. Kearney's live readings are dynamic events as well - he's been known to use a digital projector to interact with on-screen poems and images. Kearney's bold work as a poet and educator (as a professor at Cal Arts) is breaking new ground and honoring the legacy of giants like Horace Tapscott and Billy Higgins.

The poets and musicians mentioned within this column are all focused on art's redemptive power and building community. Three generations on the same stage, all the ancestors on the same page. This dynamic landscape of generations of poets and generations of musicians are powerful stars within the firmament of L.A. Letters.

Top: Photo of the Watts Writers Workshop with founder Budd Schulberg courtesy of the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College.


Mike Sonksen aka Mike the Poet is a spoken word artist, tour guide, educator, journalist, and historian. His weekly column L.A. Letters celebrates bright moments from literary Los Angeles, alternating each week between written and spoken word. See his Departures StoryShare videos here and here. Keep up with his activities by following his tumblr and Youtube channel.

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