A New Generation in Watts Takes Up the Mantle of Change and Justice Through the Arts | KCET
A New Generation in Watts Takes Up the Mantle of Change and Justice Through the Arts
“To be angry at the looting, ‘rioting’ and chaos taking place in this country today, is like being mad at the effects of a terminal disease without looking at the cause. The effects of such dis-ease in America are inherently the result of the cause, which is a buildup of over 400 years of mucus that has spread through this country's DNA.”
These words declared by the poet, educator, activist and Watts native Oshea Luja on June 1st following the nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd echo the sentiments of millions across America. The cause of dis-ease in America is the ongoing systemic racism and police brutality that denies the humanity of African Americans.
In light of the recent nationwide protests, there’s never been a better time to revisit the past, present and future of Watts in South Central Los Angeles. Watts has been a site of struggle against racism, residential segregation and a birthplace of art movements. The 1965 Watts Uprising is a touchstone in American history that foreshadowed issues still unfolding today like police brutality and institutional racism. There are almost no other Los Angeles neighborhoods that can match Watts when it comes to cultural, political and social history.
Today, a cadre of local activists and artists in Watts are using storytelling and human relationships to promote change, justice, equality and communal values. Changemakers like John Jones and his East Side Riders Bike Club, the actor Bruce Lemon Jr., the poets Oshea and Melanie Luja from Still Waters Writers Workshop, the MC/activist Stix from the Thinkwatts Foundation and the Watts Poets at the College Bridge Academy Watts are creating solutions and turning it into concrete action.
They are continuing the legacy of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Watts jazz pioneers like Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus, Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the Watts Writers Workshop, Assemblage artists like Bettye Saar, Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge and hip-hop trailblazers who grew up in Watts.
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Watts in the Historical Context
In the beginning of the 20th century, Watts was an undeveloped agrarian landscape. The neighborhood was “named after C.H. Watts, a Pasadena real estate and insurance man who also operated a livery. It developed as a black island in an otherwise white sea of southeastern L.A. County,” writes social historian Gerald Horne.
Horne’s 1997 book, “Fire This Time,” is a deep dive into the history of Watts and specifically the 1965 Uprisings that started in Watts from a bungled drunk driving arrest on a hot August evening along Avalon Boulevard. Horne examines the 1965 Uprisings and the extended history of Watts. Using official Papers of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots also known as the McCone Papers as guides, Horne goes hour by hour describing the specifics of almost every one of the 34 deaths. Most of the casualties were committed by the LAPD, L.A. County Sheriff and National Guard.
“The Watts Uprising,” Horne declares, “was a milestone marking the previous era from what was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a ’white backlash’ that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House.” Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor utilized coded language and dog whistles used by politicians today like “thugs” and “law and order.”
As Horne explains, 1965 in Watts was a touchstone that foreshadowed other insurrections across America soon after in Detroit, Newark and Boston and the rise of Black Nationalist groups like the Black Panthers and US Organization. The Watts Rebellion — along with the assassination of Malcolm X a few months before —-ushered in the rise of a multimedia Black Arts Movement that Watts served as one of the epicenters.
The parallels between 1965 in Watts, the 1992 Rodney King Uprisings and the protests in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder are uncanny. Each insurrection started from police misconduct. The first two rebellions were 27 years apart and the second and third were 28 years apart. If a generation is 25 years, Los Angeles has had one uprising a generation for the last three. To add further context, the Zoot Suit Riots were in 1943, 22 years before 1965 in Watts.
Obviously the events sparked by George Floyd’s Minneapolis murder have not been as deadly around Los Angeles as the earlier two insurrections and they did not begin in L.A. like 1965 and 1992, but the societal factors that started the earlier unrest remain in place.
To discuss the 1965 Watts Rebellion without examining the neighborhood’s historical trajectory would be incomplete. Watts started as a railroad station built in 1904 at 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue along the Pacific Electric Red Car line. Positioned halfway between Downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, there was ample vacant inexpensive land. It was even a separate city before being annexed into Los Angeles in 1926.
In the early 1900s, Watts was one of Los Angeles’s only multicultural neighborhoods along with Boyle Heights and San Pedro. The native Angeleno multi-instrumentalist jazz legend Buddy Collette grew up in Watts. In his autobiographical book “Jazz Generations,” Collette wrote, “we grew up in Watts and there were all kinds of people there, all races: whites, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese. Part of the reason was because it was a reasonable area, cheap, plenty of land. For maybe a $1,000 or $2,000 you had a home.”
Just west of the Los Angeles River, some even called Watts, “Mud Town,” for the wetlands and gullies in the neighborhood next to the Compton Creek which runs through Watts and feeds into the bigger Los Angeles River a few miles south in Compton. Gerald Horne notes that some Watts residents raised chickens, would fish for crawfish and catfish and that “the emptiness (was) interrupted by Japanese produce gardens.” Charles Mingus writes about swimming in a Watts gully in his autobiography “Beneath the Underdog.”
As the early 20th century unfolded and residential housing covenants became strictly enforced, Watts became more of a Black neighborhood because it was one of the only areas African Americans could buy homes. Moreover, though Watts evolved into a largely Black enclave, there was always a Mexican section called La Colonia. A 1994 Los Angeles Times article reports that “By 1950, African Americans would make up 71.2% of Watts’ 36,744 residents and Latinos 19.1%, according to a 1955 report by the private Welfare Planning Council, a think tank.” Figures for other groups were not in the report.
Former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez spent much of his childhood and some of his early adulthood in Watts. His poem “Watts Bleeds,” captures poignant snapshots of the late 1950s: “Watts bleeds, leaving stained reminders / on dusty sidewalks. Here where I strut alone, / as glass lays broken by my feet / and a blanket of darkness is slung / across the wood shacks of nuestra colonia.”
Many of the most famous West Coast jazz musicians and poets grew up in Watts. Buddy Collette’s autobiography paints a picture: “Watts was very conducive to creativity. When Charles Mingus, Bobby and Cecil (Big Jay) McNeely, and I were going to school, we saw Simon Rodia working on the Watts Towers. Mingus lived on 108th Street, the McNeely brothers on 109th, and the Towers are on 107th. When we went to Mingus’ house, we’d walk right by and see Rodia. Of course, then it was only a four or five foot wall, no towers yet. This was about 1935, 1936.”
The Music Finds a Way
Buddy Collette and the bassist Charles Mingus met as teenagers and started playing together right away. Mingus’s autobiography shares their youthful escapades. Among many anecdotes in their lifelong friendship, they gave impromptu concerts riding the streetcar from Watts to Downtown L.A.
Collette describes more: “We’d get on the Red Car at 103rd and Grandee, near the Watts Towers,” Collette writes, “and ride into Los Angeles for the half hour it took us to get there. As soon as we got on board, Mingus would unzip his bass cover and say, ‘C’mon, let’s jam.’ People liked it; we usually played some blues. It got to so whenever we were in the car, they expected us to play.”
Collette and Mingus were not the only legends who grew up in Watts. Etta James, The Woodman Brothers, the McNeelys, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy and the Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps were also from Watts. The iconic artist Betye Saar also spent much of her childhood in Watts and like Collette and Mingus, she saw Simon Rodia working on the Watts Towers.
A generation after Bontemps, the pioneering Watts Prophets poets Father Amde Hamilton and Richard Dedeaux grew up in the district as did the Black Arts poet Jayne Cortez and members of the Watts Writers Workshop like Eric Priestley and Ojenke Saxon. Other prominent poets like Wanda Coleman and Will Alexander also grew up in and around Watts in the 1950s.
“The Music Finds a Way,” by Steve Isoardi uses oral history to tell the stories of musicians who grew up in Watts, Compton, and South Central after World War Two. This new short book emerged because as Isoardi was working on “The Dark Tree,” the book about Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the musicians he interviewed told him many compelling tales about the 1940s and 1950s.
In the book, Isoardi describes the 1940s Watts landscape. “The economic center of the community was 103rd Street,” writes Isoardi, “which contained a few blocks of small businesses, theaters, and various eateries. Adjoining streets were populated by families of workers and professionals in their own homes, as well as other areas dominated by the large housing projects, most built after the war, including Hacienda (recently renamed Gonzaque) Village, Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts. Emerging artists were to be found in all of them.”
“The Music Finds the Way,” tells the story of how these artists “were able to discover and forge culturally-focused artistic lives, while growing up in the challenging social conditions of Los Angeles’s postwar black community.” Isoardi also spotlights music teachers like Samuel Brown, Percy McDavid, Milton Hall and Chuck Edwards that mentored future greats.
By many accounts Watts’ early history was idyllic. Most of the Black population in Watts came from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states. The booming defense industry during the war years made Los Angeles a hotbed for jobs and Los Angeles’s Black population doubled between 1940 and 1950 with many landing in Watts. Thousands of Black Angelenos who later moved to Compton, Crenshaw or Inglewood in later years first started in Watts.
Malik Walker is a Los Angeles native, U.S. History teacher, and radio host that grew up listening to his grandmother Henrietta Ethel Gentle tell him about her 1940s childhood in Watts. “You didn’t have to lock your doors,” she says. “Everyone was very neighborly." Walker’s interest in musical history started with his grandmother’s stories. Born in Louisiana in 1940, she lived in the Nickerson Gardens housing project from 3 to 10.
Walker’s grandmother excelled in the classroom. “Teachers in the Watts community were dedicated to the youth,” Walker says. His grandmother remembers two of her elementary teachers. “Ms. Allen stood out because she was an African-American teacher,” Walker states. “The presence of having someone that looks like you in a profession such as teaching was profound.”
Mr. Harper, Walker continues “was Henrietta's music teacher. She along with her teacher and classmates would take field trips to Bel Air and Beverly Hills schools to sing.” Malik Walker is now an award-winning history teacher that mentors his students in the spirit Isoardi catalogs in “The Music Finds A Way.” Walker carries the torch of these teachers.
Burn, Baby Burn!
On the flipside of the creative landscape was the cycle of social, economic and political events that led to the 1965 Watts Uprisings like police abuse, widespread unemployment, poverty and exploitative business practices by many local merchants. Authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener assert that the LAPD’s “stop and frisk” policies with Black and Chicano youth caused residents the biggest collective alienation and frustration.
In Davis and Wiener’s book, “Set the Night on Fire,” they write, “the LAPD operated the nation’s most successful negative employment scheme. While giving low priority to white collar crimes, whatever their impact on society, the department fastened a relentless dragnet on poor Black and Chicano neighborhoods. Without the slightest pretense of probable cause, the cops stopped and searched people, particularly young men, in the hopes of finding some weed or a stolen item. Those who verbally defended themselves, however innocent, would usually be offered a ride to jail. The result was an extraordinary accumulation of petty arrests (but not necessarily convictions) that made a majority of young men unemployable.” For decades, thousands were sabotaged by these policies.
The longtime Watts resident and musician Johnny Otis wrote a candid, eyewitness account of the Uprisings published in 1968 titled “Listen to the Lambs.” Otis knew the neighborhood and its residents intimately. “A man who has been completely oppressed in the past,” writes Otis and “is being economically strangled in the present, and who has no hope for the future, has nothing to lose by going berserk.” Otis co-owned the Barrelhouse nightclub in Watts and lived with his family on Wilmington and 118th by what is now the 105 Freeway.
Though Otis was the son of Greek immigrants, he married an African American woman and lived his entire adult life as if he were Black. He wrote a column for the Los Angeles Sentinel and tirelessly advocated for the Black community. He saw the 1965 Watts Uprisings as a crossroads. “As I watched the street blaze up from 103rd,” Otis wrote “I thought, ‘Burn, you son of a bitch. Burn!’ Not that I enjoyed seeing people lose their businesses, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I meant burn down, symbol of deprivation and human misery.”
These sentiments from Otis in 1968 corroborate with a recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times written by Kareem Abdul Jabber. “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn,” Kareem writes. “But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”
Otis and Kareem capture the frustration but even more so the longing for rebirth and new beginnings at the heart of rebellion. In 1965, 103rd Street ended up being the most heavily looted street, so much so that people called it “Charcoal Alley.” As devastating as the fires were, an incredible movement of artists, activists and Black Nationalism came to rise along 103rd Street immediately after the flames quelled. By 1966, the many artists were being grouped together as “the Watts Renaissance.”
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The Watts Renaissance
“Soon 103rd Street,” writes Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, “was home to some of the most vital cultural institutes of the West Coast: the Watts Writers Workshop, the Mafundi Institute, Studio Watts, Watts Happening Coffee House, and the Watts Towers Arts Center.” The Watts Towers Arts Center was under the direction of the soon to be legendary Black assemblage artist Noah Purifoy. Purifoy worked with the artist, musician and educator Judson Powell. After the Rebellion ended, Purifoy and Powell walked along 103rd collecting three tons of debris which they used to create their groundbreaking exhibit “66 Signs of Neon.”
The exhibit was held nearby at Markham Middle School on Compton Avenue in 1966 during the inaugural Watts Festival. Assemblage art was in vogue at the time at the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, but the manner in which Purifoy and Powell created it, elevated the form and imbued it with a spirit of rebirth and beauty like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
In the catalog essay, the artists state: “The ultimate purpose of this effort, as we conceived it then, was to demonstrate to the community of Watts, to Los Angeles, and to the world at large, that education through creativity is the only way for a person to find himself in this materialistic world.”
Moreover, the catalog states that, “the assemblage of junk illustrated for the artists the imposition of order on disorder, the creation of beauty from ugliness. Its analog was the essence of communication, for the placing of unrelated objects in a pattern conceived by intellect and emotion made them speak coherently.”
Purifoy and Powell’s exhibit transmuted the spirit of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers with the energy of the Watts Rebellion to create a whole new grammar of assemblage art that continued in the years to come by Bettye Saar, John Outterbridge, David Hammons, Timothy Washington and many others. The Watts Towers Arts Center has been a major force in the community for 60 years. Multiple generations of youth and artistic greats have passed through, even Nipsey Hussle took music classes there in the mid-1990s.
The transformative power of the Assemblage Art Movement matched the free jazz of Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the poetic voices of the Watts Writers Workshop and an emerging group of Black filmmakers. There were also R & B groups like Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. read Isoardi’s “The Dark Tree,” and Daniel Widener’s book, “Black Arts West,” for a deeper dive.
Another aspect of the Watts Renaissance is the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers that came to be known as the “Los Angeles Rebellion.” Widener’s “Black Arts West,” spotlights some of the best known films and lists associated filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Ben Caldwell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, James Fanaka, Pamela Jones, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, Alile Sheron Larkin, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Barbara McCullough, and Jacqueline Frazier. The documentary, “Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema at UCLA,” tells the movement’s longer story.
These filmmakers met at UCLA Film School and produced about two dozen films from 1970 to 1982. Charles Burnett, who grew up in Watts, is perhaps the most well known. His 1978 film, “Killer of Sheep,” is set in Watts. Considered a masterpiece of avant-garde filmmaking, the nonlinear narrative focuses on a man who works in a slaughterhouse and lives with his wife and children.
Showing the everyday struggle of Watts in the 1970s, it depicts a certain innocence because this was a few years before crack and gangs multiplied. Carefree kids roam and chase each other around the open space near the railroad tracks. A group of men play dominoes. The protagonist and his wife slow dance after a long day in the slaughterhouse.
Burnett’s black and white film is shot in mostly single frame scenes with long takes emphasizing singular everyday moments. These long takes make for a film that is surreal, tragic and comic simultaneously. According to Widener, “Burnett explicitly sought to portray characters like those he knew growing up, with the limitations, complexities, and questions that ordinary black people have.”
Beyond the visual verisimilitude, the soundtrack includes William Grant Still, Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson and Earth Wind and Fire. Songs like Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” and “Reasons,” by Earth Wind and Fire juxtaposed against the black and white scenes synchronize to highlight what Widener calls “a larger sense of social immobility on the parts of all the characters in the film.” In other words, the songs voice their frustrations and longing.
In one of the most moving scenes, the protagonist’s five-year-old daughter sings along with “Reasons” by Earth Wind and Fire. Her poignant singing epitomizes their family’s capacity to survive. Similar to the free jazz of Horace Tapscott, assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy and the Watts Writers Workshop poets, Charles Burnett and the Los Angeles Rebellion filmmakers are urban alchemists that create something infinitely more beautiful than what they were given.
Social Poetics into the 21st Century
The Watts Writers Workshop is among the most influential writing workshops of the 20th century. Daniel Widener writes in “Black Arts West,” that “the Watts Writers Workshop undoubtedly emerged as the most visible of the community-based cultural institutions to develop in Southern California after the Watts riot of 1965. By the group’s first anniversary, thirty participants were preparing an anthology for publication, NBC had produced an hour-long television special, and essays by workshop writers had appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, and Time.” The Watts Writers Workshop ran from 1965 to 1973, but their legacy continues.
The influence of the Watts Writers Workshop continues to this day with both spoken word poetry and hip-hop. Writers from the Workshop like Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daaood, Eric Priestley and the Watts Prophets continue to publish. Many other great writers were not official members but still passed through like Jayne Cortez and Wanda Coleman. Moreover Father Amde Hamilton from the Watts Prophets writes in his book, “Me Today, You Tomorrow,” that Jayne Cortez was teaching poetry workshops of her own in Watts before the famous workshop started in 1965.
Jayne Cortez later moved to New York. Nonetheless, she was the first poet to perform alongside the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in the early 1960s. She recorded nine albums of her poetry accompanied by her band “The Firespitters.” Her surreal style and ability to perform accompanied with jazz set a precedent that future greats like Kamau Daaood continued. Her legacy influenced Los Angeles poetry, the Black Arts Movement, spoken word poetry, and her ability to put her poems to music continues to be a touchstone. Wanda Coleman always said Cortez was her first inspiration.
Another of those influenced by Cortez is contemporary surrealist poet Will Alexander, who grew up near 116th and Avalon. Alexander was born in 1948 and attended Horace Mann Middle School with Kamau Daaood. Both Alexander and Daaood are surreal poets published by City Lights. Alexander has an essay about Jayne Cortez in his next book. Though not part of the Watts Writers Workshop, Alexander came up at the same time and both shared influences.
“I was invisibly preparing myself to write,” Alexander says. “I had been listening to the great jazz practitioners around 14 or 15 and had subconsciously begun subsuming the incandescence of improvisation. By the time poetry appeared to me, I was already enriched by the sounds of Dolphy and Max Roach, of Trane and McCoy Tyner. Over time I was able to speak with Dolphy's folks and visit his workspace prior to its entry in the public domain. During this visit I was able to sit in the same chair that Coltrane sat in when I spoke with Mr Dolphy about Coltrane's desire to practice and play Eric's Bass Clarinet which he did play on ‘Offering’ one of his last recordings.”
The longer story of the Watts Writers Workshop is told in books by Widener, Isoardi, Davis and most recently in “Social Poetics,” by Mark Nowak. Nowak uses the term social poetics to refer to what he calls “a radically public poetics, a poetics for and by the working-class people who read it, analyze it, and produce it within their struggles to transform twenty-first century capitalism into a more equitable, equal, and socialist system of relations.”
Nowak took the term “social poet” from an influential 1947 essay by Langston Hughes, “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” Hughes is one of the all time great public poets who spent over four decades critiquing racism and inequality through his writing. The first sentence in this Hughes essay alludes to some of the good trouble his work got him into:
“Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow” Hughes exclaims, “must lead a very quiet life. Seldom, I imagine, does their poetry get them into difficulties. Beauty and lyricism are really related to another world, to ivory towers, to your head in the clouds, feet floating off the earth.” The social poetics of Langston Hughes directly connects to the social poetics at the Watts Writers Workshop and this is why they are covered in the first chapter of Nowak’s book.
Nowak spotlights social poets mapping a history of the working class poetry workshop over the last 55 years. His narrative covers social poets in Los Angeles, New York City, Nicaragua, Kenya and South Africa. Nowak writes about the Watts Writers Workshop as an ideal example of social poetics. A key ingredient of social poetics, Nowak writes, is poetry as people’s history in the same spirit as Howard Zinn’s influential, “A People’s History of the United States.” Historians have called people’s history, “history from the bottom,” and even “public history.”
Social poets tell the stories of the people by the people for the people. Nowak is right beginning his book with the Watts Writers Workshop because the Watts writers have been pioneers in both spoken word poetry and the evolution of hip-hop.
Today, social poetics continues in Watts with the Watts native poet Oshea Luja and his wife Melanie Luja and their Still Waters Writers Workshop. Better known in the poetry community by their nom de plumes MrFood4Thought and Queen Socks, they are closely connected to the Watts Writers Workshop.
Mentored by their heroes, this creative couple teach at the Watts Learning Center focused on sharing the knowledge passed on to them. “The Watts Prophets have had a tremendous influence on my art,” MrFood4Thought says. “I can trace my creative influence directly to The Watts Prophets, Kamau Daaood of The World Stage, Jalal Nuriddin & Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets, and poet, author, filmmaker, S. Pearl Sharp. These specific giants took me under their wings and guided me into deeper delineations of my art. Forever grateful to them I am!”
Kamau Daaood and S. Pearl Sharp are important purveyors of poetry who spent significant time in Watts. Sharp is a former Poet Laureate of the Watts Towers Art Center, has written several books including “Black Women for Beginners,” and directed several documentaries. Daaood was the youngest member of the Watts Writers Workshop and for over three decades he performed poetry with Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.
Sharp’s 1985 film, “Life is A Saxophone” spotlights Kamau Daaood and is mostly filmed at the Watts Towers Arts Center where Daaood was poet in residence for many years. In the documentary, Daaood performs with drummer Billy Higgins, dancer Lula Washington, bassist Roberto Miranda, martial artist Dadisi Sanyika and musicians Nirankar Singh Khalsa and Dadisi Komolafe.
Daaood’s performance style is hypnotizing and the vintage footage from the mid-1980s is priceless. Also known as the Word Musician, he is a pioneering voice in spoken word poetry. His surrealistic imagery traces back to Jayne Cortez and also connects to his lifelong friend Will Alexander. MrFood4Thought and Queen Socks have done many poetry events over the years with Daaood and Sharp.
One of the Birthplaces of Hip-hop
MrFood4Thought’s interest in poetry dates back to his grandfather and their times together in Watts in the 1970s. His grandfather owned two local soul food restaurants. He credits his grandfather for his love of history, art and culture and that the secret for a good life comes from, “family, good health, and great food.” Luja’s first book was titled, “Royal Feast,” honoring his grandfather.
Oshea Luja knows Watts better than almost anybody. “I went to Grape St. Elementary, Markham Junior High and I graduated from Jordan High School,” he says. “Markham was a strange experience when I went there in the mid-1980s. Gang banging was at its peak, and Markham sat right on the train tracks which divided the two sides, Bloods and Crips. I lived on the Crip side. There were shoot-outs, fights and major tension every day of school.” Luja managed to escape it all unscathed.
During this time hip-hop was coming to rise and though New York City is more famous as the birthplace of hip-hop, Watts played a role too. The Watts Prophets are considered along with the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Oscar Brown Jr. as godfathers of hip-hop. The 1971 record by the Watts Prophets, "Rappin' Black in a White World" was selected by Rolling Stone to be one of the 40 Most Influential albums of all time.
MrFood4Thought explains further that "The Watts Prophets 1971 title and composition — ‘Rappin’ Black In A White World,’ was the first time ‘rap’ was used to define an artform. Prior to this, there's no known documents that support other artists defining the art as rapping. This is extremely noteworthy, because it means that rap was first defined and developed as an art form in Watts, California.”
I have seen Father Amde Hamilton from the Watts Prophets perform at Compton College and Southwest College recently, and he’s still compelling to listen to. He’s recording a new album of poetry. His 2005 book, “Me Today, You Tomorrow: Journey of a Street Poet,” collects 40 years of his writing.
MrFood4Thought wrote an essay a few years ago “A Toast to Spoken Word,” which presents a history of spoken word poetry, its connection to hip-hop and his own rite of passage growing up in Watts. A defining moment in his own evolution is when Richard Dedeaux of the Watts Prophets gave the seal of approval to the Still Waters Writers’ Workshop. Dedeaux personally passed on a copy of the Watts Prophets workshop handbook, “Talk Up Not Down,” so that MrFood4Thought and Queen Socks can teach their workshops in the same method as the original Watts Writers Workshop.
MrFood4Thought was also mentored in Watts history by his longtime barber, Mr. Mitch who owned Mitchell’s Barbershop at 112th and Wilmington. He recalls an incident when he was 10 that Mr. Mitch told him about 1965 in Watts. “It was not a riot!” Mr. Mitch said. “I was there, it was a rebellion from years of discrimination and police brutality from law enforcement and the city of Los Angeles.” Mr. Mitch’s shop displayed a lot of newspapers and magazines with articles about Watts. It was here where Oshea Luja first learned about the Watts Writers Workshop.
Luja is passionate about celebrating Watts. “It’s a tremendous honor to represent Watts,” Luja shares. “There’s a sense of pride and power that comes with being raised in this beautiful, troubled, notorious district. Sorta like how James Baldwin must have felt to grow up in Harlem, it was a continued thread throughout his work. The same with Watts for me, no matter where I live, what I create, it will always have an unmistakable Watts thread at its core.”
Later this year, Luja’s next book will be published. Titled, “Watts - Conception & Mis-Conceptions (1906-2006) 100 years of Art, Culture and Tradition,” he sees the book as his duty as a community ambassador. “I knew early on that one day I would be called to give an accurate account of my time spent in Watts,” he says. “I also knew that my voice and vantage point would be refreshing and necessary. Being that nearly everyone who had written about Watts did not grow up in the city. So the work was from the outside looking in, and I knew my work would be from the inside looking out.”
Since 2007, Luja and his wife, Queen Socks have hosted “The Still Waters Experience” as an intergenerational, multimedia poetry event. He credits her for inspiring him to tell his community’s story. “It was not until I met my wife that I was able to have the capacity for such an enormous story. My wife, Melanie Luja a.k.a. Queen Socks is a creative powerhouse in her own right, and together we are balance personified.” They are also caretakers of the Watts poetic legacy.
They have honored the Watts Prophets, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, Raspoet Ojenke, Dee Dee McNeil, Kamau Daaood and many other luminaries. In each of these events, the featured poets are presented with handcrafted, one-of-a-kind award trophy plaques for their contributions to the past, present and future of poetry.
The Angels of Watts
The history of Watts is fraught with highs and lows. There’s no better example of this than the several housing projects in the middle of Watts. Initially built in the 1930s and 1940s, these housing projects intended to provide assistance for low-income households by providing public housing priced well below the market rate. Simultaneously, many were built with utopian ideals like the Garden City style with lots of green space. As Malik Walker’s grandmother, Henrietta Ethel Gentle shared, growing up in Nickerson Gardens in the 1940s, there was a close knit community.
Nonetheless over time, many of the projects were not maintained and this lack of upkeep from the public agencies charged with their care led to an increase in crime and their gradual deterioration. Father Amde Hamilton’s poem, “The Projects,” is one he wrote in the 1960s. Only 7 lines long, it reads: “When I lived in the / projects in Watts, I / always wondered / whose project / was the projects / and just what that / project was.”
John Moore is 33 years old and he grew up in Watts. Moore says that there are many quiet forces within the community doing important work but most of them never make the news. “Unfortunately a gunshot is always louder than an ‘I love you’” he says, “so the negative stories are always amplified but the love runs deep in Watts.”
Moore remembers Mother Kennedy. “She was the matriarch of the Kennedy family in the Imperial Courts projects in Watts,” Moore recalls. “While many of her impacts didn't make the news she gave the community its balance. Whether it was her heart for the people there, her prayers for everyone who would come in and out of her house, the example she led as a strong black woman, how she embraced everyone as family.”
Moore has memories of elders like Eugene Johnson and David Dunson. “Eugene Johnson,” Moore shares, “was the director of a Watts branch Christian ministry called World Impact. Not only was he involved in the spirituality of the neighborhood but he also helped push social reform between the locals and the police, led education programs which evolved heavily around literacy and high school graduation, helped direct food drives to make sure people were fed, and also would give his time, energy, and money to everyday activities in Watts.”
David Dunson was a music teacher like those spotlighted in Isoardi’s “The Music Finds A Way.” He started a music program in his house where kids could learn music production. “He would purchase equipment out of his own pocket,” Moore recalls. “He let kids explore their highest potential and creativity. He eventually built his own studio which acted as a safe haven for kids after school which after time had multiple ‘mini-studios’ and a computer lab for learning. He had many partnerships with Ludacris and Pepsi to help add to his vision for the community.”
John Moore wants the world to know that Watts has a huge heart. “What Watts did for me,” he says, “is provide me with a sense of community. It ingrained in my heart a love for those around me and a need to be connected to something larger than just myself. It instilled the seeds of compassion and empathy.”
Food Drives & Bike Rides with the East Side Riders
The community spirit of Watts carries on in John Jones III. Jones started the East Side Riders Bike Club in 2008 with the intention of increasing bicycle ridership in South Los Angeles, educating the community about safety components and to build unity across Watts, Florence-Firestone, Willowbrook, Compton, Carson and Greater South Central Los Angeles.
Jones has lived his entire life in South Central and is deeply committed to improving his community. In May 2020, he told me, “Every morning when I wake up, I say to myself, who can I make happy today?”
Tafarai Bayne is the City of Los Angeles’s Commissioner of Recreation and Parks. “I've always been impressed by the work of The East Side Riders Bike Club, under the leadership of John Jones (III),” Bayne says. “Whether it's helping to secure miles of bike lanes, their community feeding program (which has only gotten larger during the coronavirus pandemic), or their general advocacy work for the residents of Watts, the city of Los Angeles is blessed to have them consistently putting in the work to build a better city.”
Jones’s family is involved in the East Side Riders, including his father and children. One of Jones’s best friends and core member of his team is the muralist PeQue Brown. PeQue painted “Heart of a Legend,” a large Kobe Bryant mural at 103rd and Compton Avenue on the Chase Bank Building next to the Watts Civic Center. PeQue often does live art with MrFood4Thought at the Still Waters Experience.
The latest venture of the East Side Riders is their community feeding program. Starting on March 16th when the coronavirus quarantine began, they have prepared over 75,000 meals for Watts residents from March 16th through early September. Stationed at the corner of 103rd and Compton Avenue in the epicenter of Watts, the Eastside Riders team begins cooking at 6:30 every weekday morning.
Most mornings, they distribute over 800 meals beginning 9:30 until they run out of food just before noon. One morning, I saw cars facing south on Compton Avenue stretching three blocks from Century to 103rd. Jones and his team wear masks and hand off packaged plates of pancakes and sausage to people who pull up. Sometimes they can give more away depending on who donates to the East Side Riders. It can be bags of fruit, other times they have given out backpacks, face masks and hand sanitizers. Jones has even been known to give bikes away.
Jones collaborates with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC). WLCAC was founded by Ted Watkins shortly before the 1965 Rebellion. Ted Watkins was John Jones’ mentor. Watkins advocated for the homeless and is considered one of the most effective activists in Los Angeles history. Gerald Horne writes that “Watkins did good work. By leveraging funds from the UAW and other sources, the WLCAC controlled a considerable portion of the economy of Watts. It even planted 22,000 trees at a time when environmental consciousness was not widespread.” Though Watkins died in 1993, WLCAC is now under the direction of his son, Tim Watkins.
In 1994, the Will Rogers Memorial Park was renamed Ted Watkins Memorial Park. Positioned in the middle of Watts at Central and 103rd Street, the park’s eastern side along Success Avenue features the Promenade of Prominence, commemorating local politicians, activists and others with marble plaques set into the sidewalk.
John Jones believes in human relationships. He has relationships across the city from the humblest local grandmother to groups like Watts Rising, LA Grind, Every Table, Cedars Sinai, Sisters of Watts, Foot Locker, the LA Galaxy, Los Angeles Rams and Annenberg Foundation. His work is so inspiring that he’s recently been joined on a few mornings by luminaries like members of the LA Rams and Kobi Jones, the former LA Galaxy great.
Bridges Across Generations
Another local group that collaborates with John Jones is “Feed South Central,” a coalition of mostly young women that collect donations and feed the homeless in Watts and South Central. Started by 30-year-old Jazmin Gonzalez, a writer, activist and emerging community leader, Feed South Central goes out on the last Sunday morning of every month to feed unhoused people they see around Watts and Greater South Central. I went out with them in January 2018 and witnessed them feed over 100 people in three hours.
“Watts is rich with community, culture, kinship, and love,” Gonzalez exclaims, “here we protect our own, and our own is not defined by race or lineage. Watts is the community that alongside South Central has raised me, the community that held me in the absence of a father, the same community that has helped me feed the homeless for five years and counting. Watts is a very challenging place to live, but poverty breeds ingenuity, and those of us that survive this place… thrive everywhere else.”
Another activist in the spirit of Gonzalez is Mike Murase, a Japanese American activist. “I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in what is now called South LA, in a working-class community where Japanese Americans coming out of World War II concentration camps lived side-by-side with Black families,” he says. “My consciousness was shaped, not only by my own experiences but by witnessing how Black people were treated by society. My earliest influences were Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.”
Murase has worked with the Black community for 30 years. “For a short period in the ‘80s —when gangs and drugs were sensationalized in the news — I was a part of a job-readiness program for young people living in Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts and other neighborhoods,” he recalls. “I met a lot of people who absolutely fit the profiles of Crips and Bloods, but as I got to know them individually, I wondered how they survived their life-conditions in an environment that they had no role in creating. Some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, creative people I met in my life came out of ‘the bottom of Watts.’”
Jazmin Gonzalez corroborates Murase’s sentiments. “I know the media will have you believing that Watts is a dangerous place whose only notoriety is poverty and crime,” she says. “While I won't deny the existence of those things, I attribute them to systemic racism, redlining and lack of proper nourishment. I can defend Watts and say it's the government's fault and for a long time I did, and sometimes I still do because it's true. But Watts is so much more.”
The Jordan Downs Illumination
Nothing in Watts whispers.
Every open window is a shout,
A night dance to a driving
Pulse that crashes through
The broken walls of a Jordan Dawns
Excerpt of “Night Dance — Watts 1975-78”
The redevelopment of the Jordan Downs Housing Project is a key contemporary issue. Centered on Century between Alameda and Grape Street, Jordan Downs is next to Jordan High School and dates back to the post-war era. Jordan Downs now has a higher Latino population and the redevelopment was stalled for years. In 1992, Jordan Downs was the site of the historic gang truce and a flashpoint for the Uprisings. (Read Jeff Chang’s 2005 book, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” for more on the truce.)
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Jordan Downs redevelopment will turn the 700-unit public housing project into a 1,400 unit mixed-use urban village with apartments, townhouses, restaurants, retail, a new community center and green space. Fortunately, Watts was recently selected as an awardee for the United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles was awarded $35-Million in April 2020, which means that the Jordan Downs Redevelopment can finally happen.
One of the deciding factors that made the HUD choose Watts as an awardee was a visit their team made to Jordan Downs last year. Upon their arrival, they were greeted by Cornerstone Theater and a site-specific play, “A Jordan Downs Illumination.” The play highlights the history of Jordan Downs from its early years, the 1965 Rebellion, the Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner growing up there, the 1992 gang truce to the shifting demographics there in the 21st century.
The pop-up installation the HUD viewed that day included the performers Bahni Turpin, Devonne Bowman, Richard Gallegos and Bruce Lemon Jr. Lemon is a Watts native and proud to have been involved in both the production and the fact their play was one of the deciding factors for the grant to be awarded. Lemon’s been a central player in the Watts Village Theater Company and is the host of KPCC’s “UnheardLA.”
“I didn't perform in the original production but for this installation I took on the MC role,” Lemon recalls, “as well as pulling the pieces together as producer. Meaning transporting all our equipment, coordinating the actors, edited video, as well as performing. We kicked off that visit and I got to be the first voice they heard that day making a case for my community. The people of Watts and the Housing Authority have been working on this for years but damn it feels good to know I was a part of this win for my city.”
The process of creating “A Jordan Downs Illumination,” took two years. “We spent two years,” Lemon says “building the show through deep engagement in the community where we went to community meetings, held story circles and really became a part of the community. Even more than we already were as MC Earl, another Cornerstone theater company ensemble member, is also from Watts. There was a deep research process and investigation into the redevelopment and what that meant for the current residents of the Jordan Downs and all of Watts.”
“With no shortage of bad press about my community,” Lemon laments, “it was important for us to highlight the beauty and the history that makes this community what it is. Even in the midst of a very violent summer, perhaps even because of that summer, we wanted to tell a different story than people normally tell about Watts. It was an immersive experience taking a roaming audience through each decade of the Jordan Downs. We built a replica of one of the one-bedroom units with walls made of fabric containing speakers playing bits and pieces of interviews with generations of Jordan Downs residents. We also created an experience where the audience tries to carry out the arduous task of relocating families from the old Jordan Downs to the new Jordan Downs, a process that is incredibly difficult.”
This type of immersive theater is important to Lemon because he has lived almost all of his life in Watts aside from graduate school in New York City. He came into the Watts Village Theater company as an actor fresh from grad school a decade ago. The cofounder and longtime artistic director of the Watts Village Theater Company the late Lynn Manning asked Lemon to join the board and Manning became his mentor.
“He chose me as his successor to be the artistic director when I had absolutely no idea what that meant,” Lemon says. “After his passing in 2015, I was thrust into that position, ready or not. Every year since then after my work with Cornerstone on ‘A Jordan Downs Illumination’ I have brought a different show to Watts.”
Lemon helped produce the LA Engagement of “The Every 28 hours Plays” which is a national performance project that takes its name from the shared and contested statistic that every 28 hours a Black person is killed in the US by police or vigilante.
Lemon speaks at schools around Los Angeles. “I've been blessed to be in position to work with students at King Drew High, Locke High, College Bridge Academy Watts, and Jordan High School through the College Track program by either hosting a class or taking them to shows or bringing a show to them.”
Lemon is well-known throughout Watts and his face is on the East Side Riders Bike Club’s van along with other community greats. Lemon believes in the educational power of the arts. “For me to be a source of arts and arts education,” Lemon exclaims, “or to bring a busload of high school students to the opera for an experience I had to seek out as an adult, and even now to have a hand in securing the future of my community makes me feel like I've been a part of something bigger than myself already.”
I Remember Watts
In the spirit of using poetry and hip-hop in service of justice is a collective of high school poets, The Watts Poets. Operating out of the College Bridge Academy Watts, they are a model of Black and Brown unity representing 21st-century Watts beautifully. For five years they have hosted youth open mics along with poets Monique Mitchell, Joslyn "Ink" Beard, Frank “Busstop Prophet” Escamilla and Matthew "Cuban" Hernandez. They also collaborate with Bruce Lemon and the Still Waters Writing Workshop.
The Watts Poets’ teacher Bridget Arlene, shares the history of their school and her poetry students: “For 16 years we were located at the Mafundi Center, in the same building as the Watts Coffee House and Watts Village Theater, where the Watts Writers Workshops flourished. Every day we studied and wrote poetry in the same hallowed space as our poet ancestors The Watts Prophets. We still begin each semester by studying tracks from ‘Rappin’ Black in a White World’ because we know the power behind these words.”
“Today, we honor the Watts Prophets by keeping our love of hip-hop and our knowledge of the culture is present in all we do,” Arlene says. “Many of our students experience violence and death; their poetry is often a way to process grief, their raps celebrations of life.”
Angel Banuelos is one of the graduating students. She says, “I feel that a lot of people have a set idea of Watts and the people who come from Watts that is completely outrageous and unfair. I feel personally responsible to make a change.” Banuelos will be attending Cal State Monterey Bay this fall.
Bridget Arlene is very proud of Banuelos and all her students. Every year they publish an anthology. Last year's celebrated Nipsey Hussle and Efren Almaraz (a CBA Watts student poet who was murdered.) Below is the closing stanza from a collaborative poem “I Remember Watts,” written by Lupree Gray and Jahcure Scott, two graduating seniors, who will be attending Cal State Dominguez Hills:
Watts ain’t always beauty - it holds history and pain
The loss of our love ones
I guess our projects full of sin
But besides all the negativity
Watts stills teaches lessons
whether you’re building community at Jordan Downs
striving in the Nickersons
or chasing Imperial dreams
I remember Watts because Watts remembers me
HiiiPower: Love, Respect, Honor
As MrFood4Thought reminds us, Watts remembers hip-hop. The hip-hop tradition in Watts continues with the seminal independent hip-hop record label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) which started in 2004. The founder Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith grew up in Watts in Nickerson Gardens. TDE is the label for Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad and several other artists. The label’s known worldwide for capturing the zeitgeist of now.
TDE is the favorite hip-hop label of my old poetry students at View Park High School like Christopher Siders. Siders has been talking about TDE since 2008. He declares, “Top Dawg Entertainment’s principles of “HiiiPoWer” (Love, Respect, Honor) resonated with my youth in the late 2000s. From penning relatable stories about life in the streets of South Central Los Angeles, Compton, Watts, and Carson; to the everyday struggles of being a Black man in America.” The ethos of love, respect, honor that TDE stands for inspires Siders and his partners to pursue their own creative projects. Siders is a poet, producer and hip-hop journalist and his crew is called Shadows of Society.
Jay Rock is from Watts and he and Kendrick Lamar were the first two artists signed to Top Dawg. Jay Rock’s released several mixtapes and three studio albums. His second record, “90059” is named for Watts’ zip code. May 24th, 2019, was declared Jay Rock Day in Watts and he received a key to the city. Respected for his lyrical storytelling and ability to tell it like it is, Jay Rock is currently being praised for his guest verse on the Anderson Paak track, “Lockdown.” Jay Rock’s verse is featured in the version in the video.
Released on Juneteenth — the holiday celebrating the liberation of slaves on June 19, 1865 — the protest song describes a recent Black Lives Matter rally in L.A. Both Paak and Rock’s lyrics in the song address current events like people uprising, George Floyd, COVID-19, police killings, rubber bullets, teargas, the quarantine. It's a timely, powerful song. Here’s the first half of Jay Rock’s verse:
Jay Rock captures now with the same accuracy that the Watts Prophets did 50 years ago. This lyrical precision is why TDE is held in such high esteem. Top Dawg Entertainment is also doing food drives similar to the East Side Riders. In June 2020, they collaborated with the Thinkwatts Foundation started by the MC/Activist Stix on a campaign that fed thousands of Watts locals. On June 10th, they delivered box lunches to all the Watts housing projects: Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, Gonzaque Village and Avalon Gardens.
NBCLA reported on April 23rd that Anthony Tiffith, the founder of Top Dawg, donated $86,000 to pay rent for seniors in 311 units in Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts and his own former home of Nickerson Gardens. Dating back to 2014, TDE has also done Christmas toy giveaways in Watts.
The Thinkwatts Foundation that partnered with TDE on June 10th works in this same spirit. According to their website, their “primary objective is to be a positive difference to adolescents and adults who are raised in underprivileged communities.” They specialize in developing opportunities that empower economic development. Their founder Stix is a Watts native who also goes by Wattsstix.
Stix is in the process of building a headquarters for the Thinkwatts Foundation. Recently on his Instagram page he revealed that their headquarters will provide workshops on financial literacy, entrepreneurship programming, coding classes with career assistance, a basketball court, recording studio and a garden as a part of their community facilities. Stix’s vision of uplifting his community through self-determination and direct action is in the same spirit as Nipsey Hussle.
Stix has recorded official songs for the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Football Club. Similar to John Jones he bridges everyday people and corporate groups. He represents Watts and Los Angeles mindfully. Shortly after the civil unrest and protests of late May after George Floyd’s murder, Stix spoke on May 31st at an official Los Angeles County press conference about fair justice, building Black business and decreasing community tension by understanding circumstances like the many years of police brutality that led to the protests. He advocated rebuilding the community from within and that we rethink policing. His Thinkwatts Foundation practices the principles he espouses.
A quote in Johnny Otis’s “Listen to the Lambs,” from 1968 remains truer than ever in 2020. "White America stands at a critical crossroad,” Otis declares. “She can meet ghetto disorders with increased police power in the belief that oppressive punitive actions will make the problem go away or she can start getting at the economic and social causes of the riots. Unfortunately, but typically the trend is toward punitive police power."
Though there are many individuals addressing the economic and social causes of civil unrest like the activists mentioned in this article, we continue to see punitive police power in Los Angeles and across America. Hundreds of peaceful protestors were arrested on May 31st and some shot with rubber bullets. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a radio journalist from KPCC was shot in the throat. If authorities really want to quell the unrest now is the time to listen to people like Stix.
Watts has come a long way from its agrarian roots to the Rebellion to 2020. For generations it has been featured in popular culture from the “Wattstax” documentary, “Sanford & Son,” “Menace 2 Society” to books like Gerald Horne’s “Fire This Time.” The once mostly-Black neighborhood now has a Latino majority. Nonetheless, in 2020 there is more unity than ever and there have been several rallies and peace marches in Watts following the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd. Native sons like MrFood4Thought, Bruce Lemon, John Jones, Jay Rock and Stix are rebuilding their community promoting strategic partnerships, mutual aid and using the arts and storytelling to empower the people. These current changemakers in Watts follow a long line of greats dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. By closely examining the past, present and future of Watts we see how we got to where we are and what can be possible when people work together to make it better.
The 1993 book, “Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising,” concludes with an essay by Cornel West titled “Learning to Talk of Race.” The final words of West’s essay pertain to Watts, Los Angeles, America and the world at large. West declares: “Let us hope and pray that the vast intelligence, imagination, humor, and courage in this country will not fail us. Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”
The empathy and compassion of Watts emissaries like Bruce Lemon, John Jones and the East Side Riders, Oshea and Melanie Luja, Jazmin Gonzalez, Stix, Top Dawg Entertainment and the many others mentioned above offer a model for building community and healing our collective wounds. There is so much to learn from the past, present and future of Watts.
- Thank you to the Los Angeles poet Amy Uyematsu for giving me the Langston Hughes book, “Good Morning Revolution,” which includes this rare Hughes essay from 1947.
- One of Nowak’s mentors was Amiri Baraka, the founder of the Black Arts Movement. Baraka changed his name from Leroi Jones after Malcolm X was killed in 1965 just before the Watts Rebellion. Baraka, Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda are quintessential examples of poets that used poetry as a social practice to uplift the public.
Top Image: Watts Towers view from below | Carren Jao
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