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Bay Area African American Women in Music: Ledisi Counts Stevie Wonder, Prince & the Obamas among Her Fans

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Even before her rise to national fame began 11 years ago, Oakland soul singer Ledisi had formed a mutual admiration society of sorts with some of the best vocalists in the business.

 

They included Rachelle Ferrell, Lalah Hathaway and Rahsaan Patterson. Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle and Prince would eventually become members of the unofficial Ledisi fan club, followed by Stevie Wonder – who invited her to sing a duet with him on the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World,” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 2011.

 

“You ever talk to someone and you think you’re being natural and then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m talking to a person I idolized while I was growing up?’” she said to this writer two weeks following the performance.

 

“I step outside myself and go, ‘You’re talking to Patti or you’re talking to Stevie or Lalah.’ I remember hearing their records to get me through something, and here we are just discussing life – nothing deep, just anything, and not about music. It’s just being friends. I’m always blown away,” said Ledisi.

 

Among the singer’s non-musician fans are President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, for whom she has performed three times at the White House. She said she’s gotten to know the first couple “really well.”

 

“We’ve had conversations and dialogue that I don’t want to talk about in the press,” Ledisi stated. “They really love music, and they appreciate jazz a lot. For President Obama’s 50th, they had Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder and me. It was great.”

 

Ledisi and her family came to the Bay Area when she was 11, and briefly lived in San Francisco before settling in “far, far East Oakland.” They previously lived in a New Orleans “shotgun” house, which she recalls as being “like a long closet.”

 

Her mother and stepfather, both professional musicians, slept in one bedroom, she and her two sisters in the other.

 

Ledisi – friends call her “Led” – first sang with Prince in 2008, joining a list of artists from Oakland and surrounding cities – Sheila E., Levi Caesar, Rosie Gaines and the last Bonnie Boyer, among them – who’ve worked over the years with the Minneapolis musician.

 

“We’re good,” she said when asked about Prince’s attraction to East Bay singers and instrumentalists. “We’re honest when we play, and we carry our feelings in our music a lot more. I think it has a lot to do with a lot of the people from the South moving there. And then it’s the funk and jazz elements that we have.”

 

She will perform on Thursday, June 11, 7 p.m., at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. Tickets range from $39.50 to $99.50 and are available at www.montalvoarts.org.

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Art

‘An Archeology of Silence’ Exhibit at De Young Museum is Something to Talk About

Kehinde Wiley’s new exhibit “An Archeology of Silence” made its U.S. premiere at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit, which opened in March, runs through Oct. 18, and is free to all Bay Area residents on weekends.

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Artist Kehinde Wiley captures the sadness of unjustified deaths of youth in his collection “An Archaeology of Silence” at the de Young Museum. Photo by Daisha Williams.
Artist Kehinde Wiley captures the sadness of unjustified deaths of youth in his collection “An Archaeology of Silence” at the de Young Museum. Photo by Daisha Williams.

By Daisha Williams
Post Staff

Kehinde Wiley’s new exhibit “An Archeology of Silence” made its U.S. premiere at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit, which opened in March, runs through Oct. 18, and is free to all Bay Area residents on weekends.

According to his website, Kehinde Wiley is an American artist born in Los Angeles in 1977 and is best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings.

The recipient of the U.S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts, Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, and France’s distinction of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, Wiley earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, his website reveals.

In 2018, Wiley became the first African American artist to paint a presidential portrait when he was selected by former president Barack Obama.

Wiley created “An Archeology of Silence” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in response to the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020.

Wiley’s 25 works include sculptures and paintings large and small.

Walking through the exhibit feels surreal. Wiley has effectively captured the beauty of Blackness in the face of tragedy: the works evoke feelings of sadness, helplessness and admiration. The rooms are silent, except for occasional whispering, though there is a guided audio tour available while browsing the exhibit.

The paintings are vibrant and brightly colored, consistent with Wiley’s established art style. The room otherwise is dark, causing the paintings to stand out, shining a light on the way that Black bodies are often only really seen in the wake of their deaths.

Especially now, in the age of technology, people are able to view traumatizing acts of hatred inflicted on Black people by simply turning on the television. Wiley states, “That is the archaeology I am unearthing: the specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.”

For the premiere of this exhibit to be in the Bay Area feels fitting, in part because of the vibrant Black community that lives here, and also due to the fact that the Bay has seen its fair share of violence inflicted upon Black bodies.

Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, states:

“Utilizing the historical visual language of the dying hero, Wiley’s portraits of Black youths render visible previously obscured victims and survivors of systemic violence. In the Bay Area — a place that has resisted violence against Black people, as evidenced in the Black Power movement and the current Black Lives Matter movement — Wiley’s work has deep resonances. They ask each of us, how are we implicated? And how do we take action?”

In collaboration with Live Free USA, Wiley will continue his series of conversations associated with the exhibit at 1 p.m. on Sept. 16, this time discussing reparations. The event is free with seating in Koret Auditorium on a first-come, first-served basis. It does not include access to the exhibit.

From San Francisco, the collection will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from Nov. 19, 2023, to June 19, 2024; Pérez Art Museum in Miami from July 26, 2024 – Jan. 12, 2025, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art from Feb. 22–June 22, 2025.

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Activism

Acknowledging Our Ancestars is Good for Our Souls

Ancestors are those in our maternal and paternal bloodlines born before us (in most cases) who have transitioned from the Earth to an invisible-spiritual-sky realm. We use ancestors interchangeably with Ancestars to honor some African ancients’ belief that our dearly departed return to the stars from which they came once they leave the Earth. 

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Daktari S. Hicks, PsyD and Monique “Kiki” Lyons, MA, AMFT
Daktari S. Hicks, PsyD and Monique “Kiki” Lyons, MA, AMFT

By Daktari S. Hicks, PsyD and
Monique “Kiki” Lyons, MA, AMFT

Except for some ceremonial moments and times, i.e., Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, Memorial Day, etc., we don’t think a lot about our ancestors.

Most of the time, in fact, we don’t think about those who walked in life before us and left footsteps for us to follow.

In many cases, we just bury them six feet under; or we cremate their physical bodies and scatter their ashes in a body of water or house them in an urn.

But are the dead really dead? As Black psychologists, we think not. The master Congo Nganga Dr. K. Kia Bunseke Fu-Kiau has taught us that we are seeds in a seed, from a seed, in a seed, from a seed ad infinitum.

We come and go and return and go and come back and go and come continually. As Black psychologists, we do believe in the continued existence, spirit, and power of our Ancestors, the invisible ones, or the dwellers of heaven (the sky world).

Ancestors are those in our maternal and paternal bloodlines born before us (in most cases) who have transitioned from the Earth to an invisible-spiritual-sky realm. We use ancestors interchangeably with Ancestars to honor some African ancients’ belief that our dearly departed return to the stars from which they came once they leave the Earth.

Us Black folk also adopt chosen, non-blood related Ancestors due to their vital impacts on us while they were alive and long after they’ve gone. Ibaye (“blessings to ancestor”) Sir Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown, and Billy Stewart, a few of our Chocolate City-DC ancestors, where Dr. Daktari was born and raised.

Ibaye Monica Renee Hastings-Smith, Dr. “Papa” Zakariya Diouf, Zeke Nealy, Kamau Amen-Ra, and Dr. Angelina Graham, some of our local Oakland community Ancestors.

Nana Peasant, a character from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust” says, The Ancestors and the womb … they’re One, they’re the same. Those in the grave, like those who’re across the sea, they’re with us. They’re all the same. The Ancestors and the womb are one … Call on those old Africans. They’ll come to you when you least expect them. They’ll hug you up quick and soft like the warm, sweet wind. Let those old souls come into your heart. Let them feed your head with wisdom that ain’t from this day and time.”

Our Ancestars are vital because they serve as ever-present driving forces that guide and direct us on our divine paths.

An African proverb states, “A wise will is dedicated to the Ancestors, for it’s them who gave you everything.”

With that notion in mind, we inherit the good, bad, ugly, and phenomenal from our ancestors via genetic, familial, psychical, spiritual, cultural, and social modes of transmission. Within our collective ancestral memory bank, we can tap into intergenerational memories/stories of distant Ancestors that impact how we think, feel, and act yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

We co-authors crossed paths in 2017 when our ancestors deemed it necessary while attending an ancestral veneration ceremony at Oya Nike’s Botanica in Berkeley, CA, led by Curandero/Santero/Palero Baba Ruben Texidor.

We continued along our shared ancestral journey in 2019 by participating in Lead to Life’s Guns to Shovels Ceremony at Oakland City Hall where we erected altars for the ancestors, drummed/danced for the orishas (deified ancestors in the Yoruba tradition), and witnessed fireworkers meld guns (used to take lives) into shovels, which were used to plant trees on reclaimed local Ohlone land.

Via public/private communal ceremonies, we learned to cultivate ancestral healing. We acknowledge, communicate, and collaborate with our beloved Ancestars in an effort to resolve their unresolved trauma and access our inherited legacies of dynamism, resilience, revitalization, spirituality, and vitality.

The ancestors are, in fact, you. Acknowledging our ancestors is to honor the best of ourselves. We are the ancestors come to complete what they left incomplete, to finish the song, to finish the dance step, to finish their task, to finish our elevation and affirmation.

We encourage you to reach out, connect with, and honor your ancestors for reciprocal rejuvenation by creating an ancestral altar in your home/community, offering them omi tutu (fresh water), giving them their flowers, cooking their favorite meal, playing their favorite songs, and paying attention to your dreams, which are the “voices of Ancestors.”

We also invite you to attend the Annual Maafa Commemoration Sunrise Ceremony at Ocean Beach, which typically occurs on the second Sunday of every October.

The Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) Bay Area Chapter is committed to providing the Post Newspaper readership with monthly discussions about critical issues in Black Mental Health. The ABPsi-Bay Area Chapter is a healing resource. Readers are welcome to join us at our monthly chapter meetings every 3rd Saturday via Zoom. We can be contacted at bayareaabpsi@gmail.com.

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Arts and Culture

COMMENTARY: Note From New York As Reed’s “The Conductor” Completes Off-Broadway Run

If “The Conductor” never plays again, I will have been privileged to be part of its evolution from Zoom readings from a year ago to two full off-Broadway runs in 2023. That’s six weeks of live shows, 24 shows in all. But wouldn’t it be nice to have the show satirizing the Bay Area’s race politics actually have a run in the Bay Area?

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By Emil Guillermo

Oakland resident Ishmael Reed’s 11th play, “The Conductor,” came to a close last week in New York.

If “The Conductor” never plays again, I will have been privileged to be part of its evolution from Zoom readings from a year ago to two full off-Broadway runs in 2023. That’s six weeks of live shows, 24 shows in all.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have the show satirizing the Bay Area’s race politics actually have a run in the Bay Area?

That would make it a homecoming of sorts for Kenya Wilson, who spent her early years in the Bay Area, the daughter of two members of the Black Panther Party, Walter and Tracy Wilson.

One of the perks of doing the show is being part of such a great group of actors. None of the cast members are household names yet. All are working, paid, professional actors still pursuing their dreams.

Wilson was part of a cast that included Brian Anthony Simmons as Warren Chipp, a fired SF Bay Area columnist; Sri Chilukuri as Shashi Parmar, an Indian American activist in the San Francisco school board recall; Monisha Shiva as Kala Parmar, a lecturer in women’s studies at a local college; Laura Robards and me as conservative television commentators Hedda Duckbill and Gabriel Noitallde.

A play about a diverse America should have a diverse cast, including understudies Joy Renee, Humzah Akbar, and Aaron Watkins.

I should note, Reed has cast me, a Filipino American, in all of the white roles (voice over only).

And then there was Wilson, who played reporter Melody Wells, fitting because Reed has subtitled the play “A Living Newspaper” after a 1930s WPA project where artists and writers took the subtext of the news into the theater to create informative and provocative works that took its cues from society as it unfolded.

And that adds to the significance of Wilson’s role in the play as a Black woman journalist. Not only does she get to spout the poetic literary lines of Reed, but she also gets to lay out factual information on Black women that makes audiences see her as their champion.

As an actress, Wilson admits she only knew about some of the powerful things she was given in Reed’s writing. She knew about the now-deceased writers Bell Hooks, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison. But she also realized how politicized the education system is in America, as to who gets taught what ideas, and what ideas are simply ignored.

Black women, generally, are ignored.

“When it comes to Black women, we are on the bottom of the totem pole,” Wilson said. “I feel when we voice our experiences people don’t want to hear it, and they just assume that we’re all just complaining.”

In her one big scene, Wilson is not complaining but rather making the case for Black women.

“For instance … unintended pregnancies for African American women are 19 times higher than those of white women,” Wilson said. So are chlamydia and gonorrhea infection rates, as well as rates of cervical cancer and breast cancer. “And all of these things are reproductive and sexual in nature. And it just takes me back to times when my ancestors were enslaved, and we were there to breed for more slaves,” Wilson said. “And it’s not a coincidence to me that we have a higher chance of dying in childbirth. None of this is a surprise to me because this is a country that doesn’t care about Black people.”

Wilson’s key scene is a “debate” with an Indian American woman about the plight of Dalits, or lower caste “untouchable” women. Wilson always wins the audience back when, after the hearing about the plight of Dalits, Wilson responds, “Being a Black woman is no lottery prize.”

It’s a line that should also win back critics of Reed from years past who saw him as somehow anti-feminist.

“Definitely not this play,” said Wilson, who has already appeared in multiple productions this year, and is scheduled to appear in another play in Philadelphia. After a 14-year respite from acting, she’s been back at it the last six years and hopes to be on Broadway soon.

But she would definitely welcome a part in the further evolution of “The Conductor.”

Reed’s dubbing the play a “living newspaper,” is instructive. That may be the conceit that keeps “The Conductor” alive, with new iterations written by Reed and performed by a stable cast in real time, telling the story of America’s changing racial politics.

But would that be on some grassroots stage in the Bay Area? Or digitally via podcast or as radio drama?

Oakland resident Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor” has closed off-Broadway for now, but its future is wide open.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. His one-man theater performance, “Emil Amok, Lost NPR Host: A Phool’s Filipino American History,” runs on Sept. 14 @930pm Eastern in New York this week.

https://www.frigid.nyc/event/6897:499/

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