Literature, Music and a Culture of Resistance — An Interview with Kalamu ya Salaam

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Photo by Alex Lear

Photo by Alex Lear

Born 24 March 1947, Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer and teacher from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Kalamu is the co-director of Students at the Center, an independent writing program in the public schools of New Orleans. He is the moderator of e-drum, a listserv providing information of interest to black writers and diverse supporters worldwide.

 

 

 

 

HEArt: It has been close to 15 years since we discovered your e-drum listserv. That was when HEArt was a print journal. The listserv was all-encompassing, addressing political and social justice issues that spoke to a broad audience. For HEArt, it was an invaluable entre into communities that would otherwise have been difficult to reach. Now, you are still here, sending out daily emails rich with interviews, videos, poetry, essays, publishing contests — every imaginable piece of information that anyone concerned with arts and social justice could want. How did you start? What is e-drum’s mission, what has it achieved, and where is it going? Do you ever feel like you could use a break?

KyS: The listserv started when I was invited to participate in the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1998. I told the members of a writing workshop I directed, Nommo Literary Society, that I would send them email reports. They shared those reports with friends and associates, who in turn, asked to be included. Afterward, I decided to continue communicating via email.

Originally called cyber-drum, e-drum’s mission was to advance the struggle in general and share information with young, developing writers — hence, the notices of publishing opportunities. I felt a responsibility to help others on their writing journey the way I had been helped. Initially, it was text oriented. After about five years, I was on the verge of stopping because I thought the time and resources it took might be better used to benefit our people though the development of other projects.


E-drum’s mission was to advance the struggle in general and share information with young, developing writers.


When Katrina happened, and I was forced to evacuate New Orleans, it was a major test. Could I maintain e-drum on the road from the many places I found myself on any given day and night? Because it was distributed exclusively by email, I accessed the Internet via dial-up with AOL, which had land-line links all over the country. By March of 2006, I was back in New Orleans, still doing e-drum but also partnering with my son Mtume producing Breath of Life (BoL), a weekly music website focusing on black music, which he had started in June 2005.

Photo by Alex Lear

Photo by Alex Lear

BoL turned out to be a big success for six years running. At its height, we got 10,000 hits a day and had a huge international audience. What was initially exciting for me about BoL was not just writing about music but being able to share songs. Every week I prepared a mixed tape of the pieces discussed in the write-ups. The write-ups were archived in a searchable database.

In 2011, Mtume assumed responsibilities that made it difficult for him to prepare a new segment each week. At the time, I was co-director and teaching six classes a day at Students at the Center (SAC), an independent writing program in the New Orleans public schools. I was also involved in a number of major publishing projects. By 2012, when I turned 65, it was clear to me that I had to make some decisions. So I decided to discontinue weekly updating BoL and focus exclusively on e-drum.

Today, e-drum is both more challenging and more rewarding than when I started — especially in the last couple of years. There are still a few technical and design issues I have to address, but I will eventually get it to function at the high level BoL established. Wi-fi and faster computers make it possible to easily incorporate video and audio, which has greatly expanded its look, sound, and feel.

E-drum requires a minimum of five hours a day to complete. In addition to the Yahoo-based listserv, the info is also posted via Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, and LinkedIn. I have a software palette that I use on a regular basis: Shovebox and NewsBlur to keep track of Internet sources; Grab and Graphic Converter to utilize graphics, audio and video; and of course, Google and Safari. 


Moderating e-drum is my commitment to the future, an honoring of my history, and my regular, day-to-day dues-paying activity.


Moderating e-drum is my commitment to the future, an honoring of my history, and my regular, day-to-day dues-paying activity. I am completely independent — not affiliated with any school, church or foundation — and do not have a staff working for me. I often want to take a break, but I believe it is important work, and positive feedback encourages me. Moreover, as my father always pointed out, “You don’t get no credit for what you do for yourself. You suppose to do for self. You get credit for what you do for others.”

Photo by Alex Lear

Photo by Alex Lear


You don’t get no credit for what you do for yourself. You suppose to do for self. You get credit for what you do for others.


HEArt: The listserv almost always starts with a piece by you from your blog, Neo-Griot, — a poem, essay, story, interview — that challenges readers to think differently, to understand something more about what it means to be a minority in this big group we call human and, in some cases, to act. You expose your own life (most recently in the essay How I Became the Walrus) and also share conversations you have had with influential writers. Tell me about your own writing. What has shaped it? How has it changed over the years? Do you feel as an artist you are reaching the audience you need to reach? Do you feel as an activist that your writing is a weapon, a tool?

KyS: In 1968, I joined the Free Southern Theatre (FST). With my mentor Tom Dent, I co-edited the FST literary journal Nkombo. In 1970, I was a founding member of The Black Collegian Magazine and served as editor for 13 years. Before joining FST, I wrote mainly poetry and fiction. While at FST, I wrote over thirteen plays, some of which were anthologized. I also took up journalism seriously while working with The Black Collegian (1970 – 1983) and during my years with SAC, began writing movie scripts. Today my main focus is prose and poetry.

Langston Hughes shaped my vision of what it means to be a writer. He wrote in all genres and was a major editor. I thought that’s what a writer was supposed to do: write in all genres, travel extensively, edit, and encourage other writers.

James Baldwin was a great influence in challenging me to remain socially relevant and to work hard at developing my prose pieces. Although I never met Langston Hughes, I did meet, interview and spend time with Baldwin.

Amiri Baraka also deeply influenced my writing techniques and my imagination in terms of what was possible in the literary arts. Over the years, I worked closely with Baraka on a number of projects and published writings as well as produced recordings with him.

Tom Dent is responsible for grounding me in the social reality and history of New Orleans. Early on, I did not think of myself as a New Orleans writer. But after working with Tom, I understood the necessity of honoring my roots, and Tom’s tutelage gave me an intellectual foundation upon which I built particulars. My major literary project of the moment is New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader.

Photo by Alex Lear

Photo by Alex Lear

Still, the strongest influence on my writing is music, as both a model and inspiration. Although I eventually gave up being a musician in favor of becoming a writer, music informs and shapes my writing.
For a deeper understanding of my writing I refer you to an in-depth interview available on the ChickenBones website moderated by Rudy Lewis. As for whether my writing is a weapon, a tool, a product to sell, whatever, I reference a poem I wrote to one of my students:

Touch
 — for Asinjae Monae Jackson

we can live together / and still some crazy way
there be a certain wall of silence surrounding personal matters / usually
only a few intimacies and renegade thoughts, embarrassing ideas
too risque or too taboo / to share with others, even blood
close others, or friends who’ve known us since before we could read, not
to mention also with intimate others with whom we share physical
nakedness

there is an us that we decline to let others see
except when we honestly write

& even then we try to keep most of our deep interiors / under
the wraps of acceptable thoughts

but

still sometimes

we peek out / something serious escapes

and like a jolt of electricity, say from a toaster when we've stuck a butter
knife inside trying to retrieve a small crust of bread / or even the static
on a winter day when our woolen slippers on the carpet causes a little
spark and we flinch, like that

we touch others and they are surprised / by the force of who we are /
and we in turn are surreptitiously delighted

when they say to us: i never knew
you felt like that

we should consider all of our writing is a kiss, a caress, or even a fist, but
in any case, all cases, if we are true to

our selves our writing is us touching another

 

HEArt: If you had to defend the power of art to influence social reform, how would you do that? How do you personally see language shaping or transforming social change?

KyS: Ultimately, survival is the sine qua non. However, as functioning human beings, we are never satisfied with merely surviving; we want to live. And living is all about contradictions. Art is the expression of and the meaning we attempt to impose on those contradictions. We desire beauty in life, for example, but we require death. We kill animals in order to live. We consume death. Our beautiful lives are dependent on the ugliness of death. Great art deals with this and other fundamental contradictions.

With this established, the real question is how art is used, how the artist uses art, how art is disseminated, consumed or utilized by its audience. Context is the key, not the art in and of itself.


Context is the key, not the art in and of itself.


Thus, the content of the art matters but not in the abstract, not divorced from its social context. Race, gender, nationality or ethnicity, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to define me or any other human being, especially when any one of those particulars is separated from the social context of time and place. The essence of any human is found in his or her particular relationship to the surrounding social and material environment, which are themselves, a vector of time and place. Put the same human being in a different time and/or place and a different result will manifest.

The power of art is precisely that it can help to locate our specific existence within that context. Art identifies us — it cries “I am.” The study of art enables us to identify who the artist (the “I,” figuratively the “eye”) is, as well as to identify our individual and collective environment. Beyond identity, art also encourages us to create/destroy, to adopt/avoid. We interact with the worlds within which we live, struggle and die; and that interaction changes both us and the world. Great art helps us understand the dynamic of contradictions and change. It is in these ways that art is both a catalyst for social development as well as a reflection of the insights and power of dialectics.

Great art helps us understand the dynamic of contradictions and change. It is in these ways that art is both a catalyst for social development as well as a reflection of the insights and power of dialectics.

That said, I do not believe in being culturally prescriptive. I do not believe in telling artists what they should do. Yes, I have strong beliefs, and yes, I was part of the Black Arts Movement. However, that was and remains a voluntary commitment. Every artist has the right to create art in the style and content of their own choosing.

At the same time, I also believe that those of us who choose to be relevant have a responsibility to address our objective social and material reality. We live in the world with all the rest of humanity. We don’t live inside our individual thoughts and feelings. The United States of America is in a period of crisis and decline. Those of us who think that the post-Obama era offers us the opportunity to grow and develop, to be humanly creative and productive, are, in my admittedly radical perspective, making a huge mistake ignoring the objective status of the majority of our people.

Capitalism will not save us. This is not just a social concern. The massive negative environmental impact of global warming, the dangers posed by nuclear toxic waste pollution, plastic waste’s negative impact on wildlife and the oceans must be addressed. While racism remains a problem, in terms of the next twenty years, racism may not be the major issue we will be forced to consider.

Photo by Alex Lear

Photo by Alex Lear

HEArt: You refer to yourself as an elder. As an elder, you have a lifetime of experience to share with others, particularly young people. What is it that you want them to most know about or learn from your time here?

KyS: I will answer by quoting my favorite haikus:

haiku #100
        what we know limits
        us, wisdom loves everything
        not yet understood

Learn from me to love learning. Learn that love is important.

haiku #103
fists can never hold
water nor love, but cupped hands
firmly opened can

haiku #130
nothing else changes one's
life as much as does love or
the absence thereof

HEArt: Of contemporary writers, who in your opinion will assume the cloak of a Baldwin, a Lucille Clifton, a Richard Wright?

I think the time is past when writers from the United States will dominate third world discourse. Toni Morrison is our last global heavyweight.


I think the time is past when writers from the United States will dominate third world discourse. Toni Morrison is our last global heavyweight.


Most of our current crop of literary figures function as part of, rather than in opposition to, modern American society. The history of Africans in America, those commonly referred to as African Americans, is a one of resistance to oppression and exploitation. Today the bulk of our people remain oppressed and exploited. The literature that reflects our people and our social conditions should at the very least engage in discussion and dialogue about issues such as massive systemic incarceration, AIDS and mental health, gender inequality and homophobia, sexual and domestic abuse. But instead, it is headed in the other direction, the direction of assimilation into the mainstream, attempting to make the mainstream more hospitable.


Most of the current literature by people of African descent in the USA is headed in the direction of assimilation into the mainstream, attempting to make the mainstream more hospitable.


The problem with this is that a few of us can be accepted even as the bulk of us continued to be rejected. Most mainstream writers are college educated and thus, oriented toward mainstream concerns or solutions. The literature sometimes characterized as “street lit” is very much in the capitalist bag, concerned with money, conspicuous consumption — especially in terms of lifestyles —and pleasure principles, chiefly in the areas of sex, drugs, food and social standing.

None of this literature interests me, and certainly none will produce a writer of the status of Baldwin, Wright or Clifton. The only contemporary writer whose body of work I have read is the Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, mainly because I am interested in his writing techniques: the way he approaches his subject matter, his use of short vignettes and his off-kilter approach.

On the other hand, deep “black” artists may be working in other disciplines, especially cinema, rather than in formal literature. The continuous development of black music from the post civil war era with rag time and the negro spirituals, on through jazz and blues in the opening decades of the 20th Century and culminating in the world-wide domination of rap in the 21st Century, is the best example of art both expressing the views and values of our people as well as having a major effect on the social conditions of its era. Our literature has never been as strong in a global sense as our music, nor has our literature been as important internally in terms of expressing our deepest views, values, feelings and aspirations.

If we want to consider the power of art with respect to African Americans, our music is the single most important art form, both among us as well as between us and the rest of humanity. Our literature lags far behind in terms of representing us to the world and being recognized by world audiences.


If we want to consider the power of art with respect to African Americans, our music is the single most important art form, both among us as well as between us and the rest of humanity.


Literature produced by African Americans is on the wane. However, literature from Africa and others in the African diaspora, is on the rise and winning worldwide recognition. If you want to look at it from a commercial perspective, you can ask which post-Toni Morrison African American writers are as successful as the emerging crop of West African or Haitian writers such as Edwidge Danticat and Dany Laferrière.

HEArt: The last word is yours.

KyS: Our world existed before we did and will exist after we are gone. While we are here, human beings attempt to give meaning to our existence. We attempt to say this is what it means to live. This is what it means that “I” have lived, that my parents, my ancestors, my children have lived. In this connection, I have argued in the past, and I continue to believe, that the only culture African America produces that will have a major impact is the culture of resistance, by which I mean art forms that pose an alternative to, if not an outright opposition to, the American status quo.  

To join e-drum and receive a daily email digest with hotlinks to each post send an email to:

kalamu-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Blog = kalamu.com/neogriot
Email = kalamu@mac.com
Twitter = @neogriot
Facebook = kalamu.neogriot
Tumbler  = kalamu.tumblr.com
LinkedIn = kalamu-ya-salaam