African arts, culture + politics

Word games: Talib Kweli


(ARISE magazine, issue 18)

Such is the power of social media that before Talib Kweli had even touched down in South Africa this August, to judge the Sprite Uncontainable Hip Hop Talent Search, the US rapper was already embroiled in lively debate with his SA Twitter followers. On being told that Africans hate the term ‘the motherland’ he tweeted, “[It] could come off as corny, but for us struggling with the effects of the slave trade saying motherland is a point of pride.” When another fan declared African-Americans “not real Africans” he diplomatically replied, “I disagree but, hey, to each his own.” And when accused of referring to Soweto as a country he quickly, and indignantly, responded, “I’ve BEEN to Soweto. Did a show in the street with Black Thought, Dead Prez, Boots & Jeru.”

Kweli was referring to his 2001 visit as part of the Black August Hip Hop Project, which saw several US rappers tour Durban, Joburg, the Cape Flats, Cape Town and Soweto to promote Black August’s work fighting for the rights of political prisoners. The trip had a lasting effect on Kweli. “[It] defined my role,” he told Charise Cheney in her book Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics In The Golden Age Of Rap Nationalism. “I had access to food, shelter and education [growing up], I have to use those resources to help people all over the world. If I can’t see that after trips to all those places then I’m a fool.”

On Push Thru, the first single off his new album, Prisoner Of Conscious, Kweli proves he’s no fool, delivering lines such as “fighting for freedom like the people in Tunisia/ spread to Sudan and Egypt, this is the music for the movement”. “My aim was to make an album of love songs but it ended up being deeper,” he admits. “There are a lot of songs dealing with the opposite sex though.” He describes the album as “lush and romantic”, which is perhaps less surprising given some of his collaborators: Seu Jorge and R&B singers Melanie Fiona and Amber Strother (Nelly and Busta Rhymes also feature).

Prisoner Of Conscious is Kweli’s second release in recent months, coming off the back of his free mixtape Attack The Block. “People in this generation expect free music, period,” he says. “To work against that as an artist is to work against yourself. God willing the mixtape will drive up a buzz for the album, and I also wanted to do a mixtape with a real DJ like Z-Trip, that had actual mixing.”


Collaborating with established artists and discovering new talent are skills Kweli has nurtured throughout his career – from teaming up with Mos Def, Hi-Tek and Madlib to co-founding record label BlackSmith Music (with Corey Smyth). In SA he drew on this experience to decide the three winners of the talent contest: rapper Hydrochloric, graphic designer Dane (aka Stops) and b-girl ShamRock. “Cape Town was incredible,” he enthuses, “The performers were great and I look forward to seeing the winners in NYC [where he will mentor them]”.

Kweli took to the stage too, putting on killer shows at Cape Town’s Trinity club and Joburg’s OST. But SA is not the only pin on Kweli’s map of Africa. He’s also been to Nigeria (see right) and Tanzania (for the MTV show Tripping). “People of African descent have Africa running through their bones,” he says. “It’s a connection that slavery and colonialism could never erase. So when I touched down, even the distant felt familiar.” Kweli has expressed an interest in genealogical testing – but, he says, “the science I’ve seen behind tracing one’s roots past the slave trade is hokey at best”.

From the moment his professor parents named him Kweli (‘true’ in Swahili), Africa has been ingrained in the rapper’s life. “My parents’ generation came of age in 1960s America when black consciousness and pan-Africanism was on the rise,” he says. “Those values were taught when I was young, then reinforced when I listened to hip hop.” In terms of African music, Kweli namechecks MC Tumi, Seun and Femi Kuti and is keen to hear more. “African music, other than our popular music influenced by African rhythms, is not mainstream in the US at all. We have a long way to go with that.”

As well as an album, Kweli’s also been busy motivating his fellow citizens to vote, taking to Twitter to scorn Nicki Minaj for seemingly showing support for Mitt Romney (“Just heard a dude on Hot97 say he won’t let his daughter listen to Nicki Minaj cuz she endorses Romney. Really? That’s what it took?”). ARISE spoke to Kweli before the election took place, but he had no doubt what the result would be: “Obama will win for sure, no question. The election seems like a distraction, because it’s a popularity contest. And Obama is definitely more popular.” How right he was.

The rapper’s also been working on his autobiography and has already shared one chapter, That One Time When I Was Atheist, And The Influence Of Malcolm X, on his Tumblr. Coming from a man who once bought a bookshop in Brooklyn with Mos Def it’s not a surprising move. “I would like to create industry around myself rather than waiting for an industry to support me,” he says. “The book is part of that. I feel my story can be as inspirational as the music.”

Prisoner Of Conscience [Javotti], out Feb


Talib Kweli shot his video for Hostile Love in Lagos. But he’s not the only one repping Africa on MTV.

Rick Ross, Lagos (2012)
Rick Ross caused a Twitter storm with his Hold Me Back video, in which the rapper swaggers through the ghettos of Lagos State, dishing out dollar bills.

Solange, Cape Town (2012)
Solange roped in a troupe of snappily dressed sapeurs for her Losing You video, shot against the barbershops and streets of Langa township.

MIA, Morocco (2012)
In MIA’s Bad Girls, gun-toting, headscarved women strut the dusty streets of Ouarzazate. After the redhead genocide of Born Free it’s almost tame.

Westlife, Gauteng (2011)
Bafflingly beloved across Africa, Westlife shot their video for Lighthouse in SA’s Cradle of Humankind heritage site. Cue swaying grasses and safari tents.

African arts, culture + politics

Recipe for success


(ARISE magazine, Issue 16) Adopted from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, made in America, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has blended the ingredients of his bittersweet life and come out sizzling

Out of the kitchen to launch his latest book, Marcus Samuelsson has walked right into the fire. It should be a time for celebration, but the release of his memoirs Yes, Chef, has instead put the 42-year-old in hot water. First there was The New York Observer’s scalding critique, in which writer Eddie Huang scoffed that Samuelsson’s famous Harlem restaurant Red Rooster “fails utterly in its goal of paying homage to the neighbourhood, coming off instead like an embarrassing exercise in condescension, much like the book”.

Speaking to Samuelsson days after the piece was published, on the eve of his US book tour, he was clearly still angry and quick to disregard Huang’s comments. “I don’t look for validation. I look at our work here and our purpose here, and whether someone is going to agree with that or not it doesn’t matter. I’m still gonna be here.

“As an African, we’re used to getting jumped at left and right – we get tested all the time… I recognise when somebody tries to enter themselves into the conversation. We live in a world now where even if you don’t produce good content you can just jump in by screaming at those people who do”. He could equally be talking about another man not best pleased with what’s in Yes, Chef: British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. In the book, Samuelsson claims Ramsay called him a “fucking black bastard” during an enraged phonecall back in 2000. Ramsay denies the allegation, his spokesperson describing it as “completely false and extremely offensive”.

While Samuelsson says elsewhere in Yes, Chef that he has “no big race wounds”, he does recall a bully at school in Sweden asking him why he wasn’t good at playing “negerboll” (neger is Swedish for ‘negro’). “Me and my sister just wanted to be like Swedish kids but we couldn’t,” he says. “That’s why it’s so sweet just to be here [in Harlem]. When we stand out it’s because of our actions, not anything else”.


As the owner and executive chef of Red Rooster Harlem, Samuelsson has carved out a niche – bringing his own twist and glamour to the neighbourhood’s legendary soul-food scene. It’s been a long journey to the top. After studying at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, Samuelsson apprenticed in Switzerland, France and even on cruise ships. In 1994 he arrived in America to take up an apprenticeship at Aquavit, and a year later was made executive chef at the Nordic-inspired restaurant. Within three months he had received a prestigious three-star rating from The New York Times – the youngest chef ever to do so – and went on to win two titles from the James Beard Foundation (the Rising Star Chef Award in 1999 and Best Chef In New York in 2003). In 2009 Samuelsson reached the pinnacle of his career when he was asked to cook for Barack Obama at his first state dinner. His fame shows no sign of waning, with regular appearances on TV shows including his own series Urban Cuisine, Top Chef Masters (which he won in 2010), The Today Show and Dr Oz. Yes, Chef is his fourth book, and Red Rooster is only one of his restaurants (the others are Ginny’s Supper Club, newly opened downstairs at Red Rooster; Marc Burger in Chicago; and Costa Mesa – with Norda and Street Food in Sweden). He also has a website,, “for men who want to eat and drink well”.

Given his eventful life story, public squabbles are unlikely to concern Samuelsson too much. “My mother walked 75 blocks – that was a test in life,” he says, “A real test in life”. He’s referring to his birth mother; the woman who in 1971, in the small Ethiopian village of Meki, gave birth to a boy called Kassahun Tsegie. When he was three years old, his mother put him on her back and, with his sister Fantaye in tow, set out on the long road to the capital Addis Ababa, in search of treatment for the tuberculosis all three had contracted. Seventy-five miles later they reached the hospital – but Kassahun Tsegie’s mother died shortly afterwards. The two siblings recovered and a year later were adopted by a white Swedish couple, Lennart and Anne-Marie Samuelsson, taken to Sweden and renamed Marcus and Linda.

In a recent piece for Huffington Post, Is That Your Baby? Growing Up a Child of White Parents, Samuelsson recalled his childhood with “the original Brad and Angelina (if Brangelina lived in a small fishing town and made cabbage rolls”. “There was so much love, so much positive energy. I never heard my parents say,  ’We have adopted kids’. The minute my sister Linda and I landed in Sweden, we were their kids.” In our Big Question feature in Issue 13, ARISE asked ‘Should non-Africans be able to adopt African children?’ How would Samuelsson have answered? “It’s a complex issue and I think that sensitivity and tone are the key things. It worked for me and my sister but it might not work for everyone else… [and] as I said in the Huffington Post, maybe one day there’ll be an African family adopting from Europe.”

Despite their differences, one thing united the family: food. “We had to learn how to create our sense of family value, and food became this thing that we hung on to,” says Samuelsson. “In my Ethiopian family it could be a tribal handshake, it could be singing, it could be language – we had other ways to connect. When you are a large family you figure out what can be that connecting tie.”

In his online biography, Samuelsson reminisces about how he nourished a love for food in Sweden: “Every morning I went fishing with my dad, Lennart, and my uncles. We caught crayfish, lobsters and mackerel, and often smoked and preserved the catch. My grandmother, Helga, would gather us in the kitchen to teach us how to pickle fresh vegetables, and make meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam”. The legacy of his childhood is still apparent in his cooking today, where the emphasis is on fresh and local ingredients. At Red Rooster you can snack on Swedish delicacies, including pickles, cured meats served with lingonberry jam, and Helga’s Meatballs, which even Huang had to concede are “excellent”.

But on the menu you’ll also find African specialities – from coffee and tea to injera, the spongy bread that is a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. They’re souvenirs of Samuelsson’s first return trip to Ethiopia in 2000. “I got to know about myself, I got to know about different types of food and I developed an African and Ethiopian side to me that I didn’t have before,” he says. Another thing he didn’t know until his sister Linda decided to dig into the family history was that he wasn’t an orphan after all – his father was still alive and he had eight half-brothers and half-sisters. How was the reunion? “It was amazing and very strong,” he enthuses. “I didn’t know him the way I knew my Swedish father but there are other things you pick up like language, his laughter, his walk. He is a tribal leader… and my mother sacrificed herself so that me and my sister would be able go to the hospital, so I knew there was a lot of strength within my family and that has helped me each time I’ve had obstacles in my life.”

Samuelsson later travelled to 20 different African countries, including Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Unsurprisingly, exploring African food was a highlight. “I stayed with families. I wanted to know it from a family point of view rather than a restaurant point of view,” he says. The trip resulted in the book The Soul Of A New Cuisine, which is full of beautiful photography, stories and recipes from the trip. Samuelsson also went on to create a pan-African menu for the since-closed Merkato 55 in New York. Would he give it another go or even launch his own pan-African restaurant? “It depends,” he says thoughtfully. “Here at Rooster we have a lot of African-inspired dishes and I feel that a lot of the dishes that I wanted to do there [at Merkato 55] I encompass in my restaurants and those dishes are very popular… I wanted to create a menu from Harlem: African-American cooking, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Mexican food – but also immigrant food from Africa and Sweden.”


The staff at Red Rooster are as diverse as the cuisine they serve. Says Samuelsson: “Asian, black, white, Jewish, Christian… with a diverse team we’re gonna be more set up for understanding the customer and we can cook better food.” He is also helping to inspire the next generation in his role as a UNICEF ambassador and through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), an organisation that since 1990 has provided culinary training and employment opportunities for young people. Samuelsson has been hands on, taking on graduates from C-CAP to work in his kitchens. “Having my restaurant and being on TV is a platform,” he says. “Coming from where I come from you have to give back”.

With the notoriously antisocial hours of a chef and all his philanthropic activities – not to mention building a relationship with his estranged daughter, Zoe, who was raised by her mother Brigitta with financial support from Samuelsson – it’s a wonder Samuelsson has any free time. But when he does, chances are he’ll be spending it with his wife, Ethiopian model Maya Haile, who he married in Addis Ababa in 2009. “Marcus was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and then moved to Harlem,” Haile told Glamour magazine six months after the wedding. “I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Holland and then moved to…Harlem. How many people have experienced those things? Right away our shared backgrounds were something we connected on. And we both love basketball.” And, of course, food. “I cook at home but so much of my time is spent in the restaurant,” says Samuelsson. “My wife cooks a lot of Ethiopian food, which is great. When I want a good Ethiopian stew I just go home and it’s right there”. In Haile, Harlem and his passion for food, Samuelsson has finally found a place to call home.


Invisible People film UK homeless


(The Pavement, 17 July 2012)  “Hold on a minute.” Seconds after meeting Mark Horvath, founder of pioneering US video blog Invisible People, he disappears into the crowd outside Charing Cross station. He’s spotted three sitting men by the entrance and wastes no time in getting acquainted. “You guys sleeping rough? Want some socks?” he asks cheerfully, before kneeling down to chat properly while commuters stream by unseeing. Horvath seems to have a radar for homeless people, which is unsurprising given he has dedicated his life to trying to help them. One of the men agrees to be filmed and as he recounts his experiences, passers-by look over curiously. With a camera in his face, he’s no longer invisible.

Making homeless people visible is exactly why Horvath set up in 2008. Some 17 years ago he too had been homeless, living on Hollywood Boulevard, and knew what it was to be ignored, to not be able to tell his story. He managed to rebuild his life, built a successful career in television and settled into a three-bedroom house (“I know the best of both worlds – I know how to dumpster dive and how to tie a Windsor knot”) – and then economy crashed around him. Facing homelessness for a second time, he decided to set up Invisible People and go on the road. “It wasn’t the best timing. I had just lost my house to foreclosure, was facing my own financial crisis and it was a really dark time.” However he was embraced by the social media community and the site flourished. Today Invisible People has three million views on YouTube and 18,000 followers on Twitter. “The amazing statistic about Invisible People is the amount of people that stay,” adds Horvath. “Twenty-five per cent stay longer than 10 minutes and 14 per cent stay longer than half an hour. That’s huge.” Its success is the subject of upcoming documentary @home, which follows Horvath on his 2010 Invisible People road tour, meeting homeless people from Las Vegas to LA.

Right now, though, Horvath is in the UK on a whirlwind visit (thanks to free airfare from British Airways), taking in London and Chippenham (home of the Doorway Project). Although this is his first time in the capital, Horvath says he has no desire to do anything touristy: “I’m here just to meet homeless people, meet homeless friends. Most people would probably want to go to Big Ben or the London Eye. I’ll eat fish and chips and that will be it!”

Already the site is populated with videos of people he’s met so far in London. The first features 22-year-old Natasha, who has been living on the streets of London for four years. Leaning on her crutches, she quietly explains why she hasn’t been housed (“I’m not a drug addict, I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not pregnant, and they’re three things that get you help”) and her face lights up as she shares her dream of being a writer.

Filming the piece was tough, said Horvath, “I didn’t know what to ask her – it broke my heart… because I know what a young girl has gone through or will go through on the streets”. Already the video has been watched more than 160,000 times on YouTube, and attracted everything from offers of support, a place to live and a hand in marriage to vitriolic comments suggesting she is lying, on drugs and should get a job in McDonalds or as “a street hooker”. Nadia Gomos aka @Homelessgirl1 examined the responses in her blog post Analysing The Controversy Surrounding The “Natasha” Video (now on Huffington Post), concluding “All I know about Natasha is two minutes’ worth of footage on a person who has lived for 22 years… Whether we like it or not, we as a society have failed her.” Even Horvath comes under criticism, with one commenter writing: “Had an email back from Invisible People and they don’t have any contact details or way of contacting her, seems to me to be completely pointless highlighting a problem on a personal level like they did and then not enabling people to help that person.”

The aim of Invisible People, however, is not to act as an agent between individual homeless people and the general public, but to encourage passers-by to notice the homeless people they walk past every day. Nevertheless Horvath is not naïve that he or those he films won’t face criticism or appraisal: “The interesting thing about the internet is that everybody is up for review, so you have to live transparently. And there are always people that are going to be negative. This is how I responded, because it’s the truth; when you saw me homeless, would you have believed me when I told you I used to work in television?”

And despite the negative feedback, Horvath is still a big believer in the transformative and supportive power of social media. “Social media saved my life and it helps me save other people’s lives… Love and reciprocity plays really big on social media. If you’re good to people and real and tell a story people are going to react to that in a positive way.” As well as Invisible People he has set up We Are Visible, a website offering homeless visitors advice in social media literacy, from how to set up a blog to tweeting. “When I first started this I thought when a homeless person in Phoenix, Arizona or someplace says ‘I’m hungry’, the service providers would be on Twitter and say ‘hey, we have food’” says Horvath. “But what happened, which was a little more gorgeous, was homeless people helping homeless people over social media. Then I realised the power of peer-to-peer support.” In response he is in the process of turning it the site into closed network for people to help each other.

Another reason for the change is privacy. “One of first things that is so hard for a homeless person is to raise their hand in public and say ‘I’m homeless’,” explains Horvath. Since he’s been in London, he met many homeless people who although not willing to go on camera were keen to swap email addresses and keep in touch online. Horvath’s @HardlyNormal and @Invisible People timelines are full of conversations and appointment making with homeless people and service providers in London – all keen to meet or share ideas. “I landed and Jenny Edwards [CEO of Homeless Link] – she’s like an icon in homelessness here, she’s an amazing woman – she tweets me about the StreetWise Opera at the Royal Opera House. It was history in the making…it was almost like it was my destiny to be there and I was just blown away amazed.” Since the performance an online twitter petition has sprung up calling for a homeless opera at every Olympics, starting with Rio in 2016. “We’ve seen in the Middle East and other areas where social media has really led to some change,” says Horvath. “I really believe that’s where the change is going to happen. Because there’s so much money and so much bureaucracy in homeless services, that until the people on the streets have that voice you’re not going to see real change or see change happen fast.”

By voicing their views, he believes, homeless people can help homeless services ‘fix’ provision. “No homeless person I’ve ever met said ‘put in me a room with other 100 men, have me sleep on cots, give me one bathroom with two stalls and kick me out in the morning – and that’s going to cure my mental health and drug addiction. But that’s what we do.” Having been homeless and now working in a homeless shelter as his main source of income, Horvath himself is a natural intermediary. “When you listen to homeless services you hear a story. When you listen to homeless people on the streets you hear a story. And the truth I think lies somewhere in the middle. Cos everyone is going from their perspective and obviously a lot of street people are speaking out of their hurt and that’s because the system is broken. And refreshingly enough I was talking to homeless service providers last night [in London] who were saying ‘the system is broken, we got to change it, it’sjust change is slow and it’s a lot of work’.”

Horvath is optimist change can come. “When I was a kid I was a rebel, and if I saw any injustice I fought, I screamed, I yelled. And the only thing that changed was me. Now that I’m older I believe you have to work within the system, you have to make friends not enemies. I come in and say ‘hey, system’s broken, how can we fix it together?’” This approach is bearing fruit. In Arkansas, a farmer donated 40 acres of land that is being used to feed 150 low-income families a week. The Canadian government commissioned Horvath to go to 24 cities in Canada to help champion the Canadian Alliance To End Homelessness, which he says “will save thousands of lives and a lot of money”. Terry Pettigrew was reunited with his long-lost brother shortly before he died of cancer, after the Calgary Times put Horvath’s interview with Pettigrew on its front page. And that’s just the beginning.

“We live in a visual world – Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube,” explains Horvath. “Where homeless services are missing the mark is giveour homeless friends video cameras. If you’re going to give them a Smartphone make sure it has video and have them upload what their day is like. That’s where you’re going to see change.”

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: March 11 1959. A Raisin In The Sun


(ARISE magazine, issue 14) On March 11 1959, Lorraine Hansberry sat down inside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, waiting for her play A Raisin In The Sun to begin. At the time, civil rights activists were intensifying their fight against segregation in the Deep South. Inside the theatre, history was also being made as Broadway prepared to welcome its first play written by an African-American woman.

Despite a talented cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, the Broadway preview on March 10 received a lukewarm reception from its mostly white audience of theatre insiders. As the curtains lifted the following night, the 29-year-old playwright clutched the hand of her producer, Philip Rose, with no idea what the evening held in store.

She needn’t have worried. As the curtain was lowered, the audience roared in appreciation. Even the critics rose to their feet, calling Hansberry to join her cast on stage. “It was the most electric night I spent in the theatre,” Poitier later remembered. A Raisin In The Sun went on to enjoy a run of 500 performances, win a prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and be nominated for a Tony Award. The cast also reprised their roles for a film adaptation in 1961.

It was a welcome reward for Rose, who had spent more than a year struggling to drum up interest. “The theatre owners were concerned that there would be no black audience,” he later explained. “The other side of the coin was the producers felt if they did get the black audiences the white audiences would stay away.”

In the end, theatregoers of every colour flocked to see what all the fuss was about. James Baldwin wrote: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theatre. And the reason was that never before… had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theatre because the theatre had always ignored them.”

Taking its title from Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred, which begins “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”, the play centres around the Younger family, who are awaiting a life insurance cheque for U$10,000 following the death of the father.

They disagree on how best to spend the money: Mama dreams of a bigger home; her frustrated son, Walter Lee, of hanging up his chauffeur’s cap and opening a liquor store; and her daughter, Beneatha, of becoming a doctor. When the family are offered money to not move into a white neighbourhood, they must decide what is more important: money or dignity.

“Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life,” Hansberry wrote to her mother in 1958, “and I think it will help people to understand how we are all just as complicated as they are – and just as mixed up – but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.”

Through the Nigerian Joseph Asagai and his relationship with Beneatha, Hansberry reflected the growing Afrocentrism of black civil rights campaigners – including herself (Hansberry studied African history with pan-African author W E B Du Bois and later wrote Les Blancs, a play set in the fictitious African nation of Zatembe). It was also, noted Roots’ author Alex Haley, “the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress.”

Since 1961, A Raisin In The Sun has returned in many forms including a musical adaptation, Raisin, which won a Tony Award for best musical in 1973, and George C Wolfe’s sketch The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play, which mocked the by now beloved classic. In 2004 the play returned to Broadway for a US$2.6million revival with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs reprising the role made famous by Poitier. While reviews of Combs’ performance were mixed, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who respectively played Mama and Ruth, scooped a Tony Award each and the whole cast also starred in a film version in 2008.

When Hansberry died of cancer in 1965, at the premature age of 34, Martin Luther King sent a message to be read at her funeral: “Ms Hansberry’s commitment of spirit, her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” The fact that A Raisin In The Sun continues to inspire and instruct students, actors and activists decades later is testament of the veracity of King’s prophetic words.

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: 3 March 1991 Rodney King and the LA riots


(ARISE magazine: issue 12) A home video that captured Rodney King being beaten viciously by white police officers shook Los Angeles – and the world – in 1991. It exposed the racism and prejudice still engrained in America decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Twenty years on, the raw brutality of the grainy, black-and-white footage is as powerful and shocking as ever.

In 1991 the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had no senior black police officers and, according to the independent Christopher Commission, formed later that year to examine the workings of the LAPD, racism
and prejudice were rife. It was in this setting that Rodney King was caught speeding as he drove home with two friends on March 3 – triggering events that would change the course of his life and his country’s history.
King was no angel. On parole from a prison sentence for robbery, under the influence of drink and fearing arrest, he refused to pull over. Instead he led the California Highway Patrol on a high-speed car chase, pushing the car to over 100mph. When he was finally caught, he was surrounded by LAPD squad cars and ordered out of his vehicle. The four accused officers later claimed that King was aggressive and tried to resist arrest. So, they said, they restrained him, first with two Taser stun-gun shots and then with blows from their batons – all supposedly in self-defence.

That might have been the end of the story had it not been for local resident George Holliday, who video-taped the incident from his balcony. The story that his amateur video showed was very different from the one told by police. Far from acting in self-defence, at least two of the officers repeatedly beat King with their batons and kicked him as he lay on the ground, almost motionless, while several other officers looked on. The pounding lasted more than a minute and a half. When it finally ended, King had fractured bones in his face and leg, deep cuts and heavy bruising.

Holliday took the video to TV networks and its subsequent broadcast caused public outrage across LA, the USA and beyond. The officers were charged with using excessive force and appeared in court the following year. In the face of the video evidence, their self-defence claim seemed incredible, yet even more incredibly, it worked for them. On April 29 1992, an all-white jury acquitted all four.

The response, particularly in the predominantly black neighbourhoods of south-central LA, was instant and furious. For communities that had been at the receiving end of police profiling, racial prejudice and harassment for years, the verdict was the final straw. In the four days of rioting that followed, cars were set alight, retribution attacks were carried out on white and Asian people, and National Guard troops were sent in. In total, 53 people died, more than 2,000 were injured and at least 7,000 were arrested; the cost of damage caused to property came in at around US$1bn. Horrified, King made a public appeal on TV calling for peace and promising “we will have our day in court”. His desperate entreaty, “can we all get along”, became famous, and the riots soon came to an end.

A year later, King did finally get his day in court. This time, the four police officers that had attacked King were charged with violating his civil rights. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were cleared but the jury found Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell guilty and each was sentenced to 30 months in prison. In 1994, King was awarded US$3.8m in damages from the City of Los Angeles. King’s life since has been eventful. He’s been arrested
for domestic violence and drunk-driving, spent time in prison and had another close shave with death after he was shot while riding on his bicycle.

He has returned to the public eye with bizarre appearances on reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew, a televised boxing match with a former police officer, and his recent engagement to Cynthia Kelley, one of the jurors in his civil case against LA City. Nevertheless, as long as King’s name remains synonymous with police brutality, his story will continue to serve as an important reminder of a dark period in recent American history.

African arts, culture + politics

Streets ahead


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) After storming Broadway and London’s West End with an all-black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, producer Stephen C Byrd is now assembling a star-studded cast for his upcoming update of another Tennessee Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Already involved are Blair Underwood, Boris Kodjoe, Zoe Saldana (pictured), Anika Noni Rose and, possibly, Djimon Hounsou – Byrd says he’s currently looking into signing up the Blood Diamond star. Grammy Award-winning musician and composer Terence Blanchard is onboard to create an original score.

Unlike Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which starred James Earl Jones, not all the performers in Streetcar are African or African-American. The multiracial cast will also include Hispanic actor Jimmy Smits, Indian actress Sulekha Naidu and a white actress playing Blanche’s best friend. “We wanted to reflect the true culture of
New Orleans as it is today,” explained Byrd. “Streetcar has always been a culturally encoded play, with white
cast members in both the film and other stage productions. This will be the first time we are seeing
this production done with a non-traditional cast on a Broadway and West End stage”.

A Streetcar Named Desire begins a 20-week run on Broadway around June, before moving on to London’s West End. “I’m very excited,” enthuses Byrd. “It’s one of Williams’ most intricate plays, the diamond in his repertoire. The director, Emily Mann, lived with him for a year and has a very visceral feel for his works and how they should be interpreted”. And with March 26 marking what would have been Tennessee Williams’ centenary,
the timing couldn’t be better.