African American classical music: Renaissance woman P. Kujichagulia speaks

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

Kujichagulia
Kujichagulia

Ms. Kujichagulia is one of the most revered Pan Africanist griots, lecturers, writers and musicians based in the Bay Area at this current moment. This native daughter of Hunters Point has been around the world and has spent a lot of time locally finding solutions to African people’s problems brought on by white supremacist capitalist oppression.

She has been to the continent to study and teach, as well as inside the bowels of San Quentin. She is a phenomenal and legendary jazz trumpeter, who also raps about our people’s movement and struggles, reminiscent of the Last Poets and the late Gil Scott Heron.

On Sunday, Feb. 1, 1-3 p.m., to kick off Black History Month, she will be giving a lecture called “Racism and All That Jazz” on African American classical music, aka Jazz, in the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St. No matter what you think you know about the topic, this presentation will definitely be something to remember. Hope to see you there. Now check her out in her own words.

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell the people a little bit about how you became conscious, be it that you are a daughter of Hunter’s Point?

Kujichagulia: Growing up during the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s on Northridge Road in Hunters Point and later on Shafter Avenue in Bayview nurtured my childhood dreams. In addition to playing outside until the street lights came on, my creative father would often sit me down to listen to his Jazz albums and reel-to-reel recordings.

Meanwhile, my insightful mother (a Catholic school teacher and want-to-be pope) allowed me only two options of extracurricular activity: Go to church or go to the library. Since I resented the white-washed images and messages of Christianity, I chose to visit the library.

While there, Mrs. Young, Head Librarian at the Bayview Hunters Point Library at Third and Revere streets serendipitously became my after-school mentor. This wonderful woman introduced me to a large section of the library where, as she proudly exclaimed, “All of the books in this section have been written by or about Black people.”

At age 10 I skeptically looked at her and rudely blurted out, “How can that be?” Of course I, like everyone else in the public school system, was taught that Black folks never did, built or created anything and that our history began and ended with slavery.

On Geronimo Day, on July 17, 2011, in Bobby Hutton Park in West Oakland, Kujichagulia sets spirits soaring, backed by her band and her little granddaughters, Xion and Saije. – Photo: Malaika Kambon
On Geronimo Day, on July 17, 2011, in Bobby Hutton Park in West Oakland, Kujichagulia sets spirits soaring, backed by her band and her little granddaughters, Xion and Saije. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Mrs. Young simply escorted me down one row of bookshelves to another. In doing so, she revealed a multitude of black images, writers and history I never knew existed. After feeling angry and betrayed by my “education,” I began checking out and reading as many books as possible while maintaining my “A” grade-point average in school.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had read every single book in that section of the library; I was “literally” re-born. Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Shaka Zulu, Hannibal of Carthage, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Dr. King, George Jackson and countless others became my idols.

Thurgood Marshall became my role model and I prepared to become a Supreme Court Justice. So at age 16 I graduated from high school and entered Southern University on my way to becoming a lawyer, judge and eventually a Supreme Court Justice in order to eliminate the racism and injustice that permeated American society.

However my urgent desire to sit on the Supreme Court died once I realized “the law” has nothing to do with justice in America.

M.O.I. JR: When did you decide that you were going to be an oral historian?

Kujichagulia: I was born with this Ori (destiny). The Ancestors revealed this to be my purpose on the planet; I graciously submitted. After reading, studying and traveling with historians Doctors Josef ben-Jochannan, John Henrik Clarke, Asa Hilliard, Jacob Carruthers and other great historians, I offered a question to my mentors, “Would you please write a liner chronological history of human events and African civilization in one book?”

They all gave the same response, “You do it!” So I did. After years of meticulous research and cross-referencing I wrote a 500 page book, “Recognizing and Resolving Racism,” that chronicled the evolution and history of hue-man beings and civilization from Africa (3.5 million BCE to the 20th century CE).

Kujichagulia drums as the entrancing Yamanya Napue dances at the first Black Media Appreciation Night, on Nov. 26, 2012. – Photo: Scott Braley
Kujichagulia drums as the entrancing Yamanya Napue dances at the first Black Media Appreciation Night, on Nov. 26, 2012. – Photo: Scott Braley

This monumental journey led me to the realization that I had memorized a huge portion of world and Black history and knew I had to share it and pass it on … thus, the innate griot/Djialli in me was ignited. So I began presenting this wealth of information through poetry, music, dance, performance and presentations.

Griots can preserve history. Even if all our monuments are desecrated, all the books are banned or burned and the media powers down, this hue-man history will survive. In the meantime, “Recognizing and Resolving the Roots of Racism” (ISBN 978-1-4507-4050-0) can be purchased online or special ordered through any book store.

M.O.I. JR: You have a presentation coming up at the San Francisco Main Library on Feb. 1, talking about African American classical music. What is our classical music? What makes it classical?

Kujichagulia: Yes, on Sunday, Feb. 1, 1-3 p.m., I will be presenting “Racism and All That Jazz: The Evolution of African-American Classical Music” at the Koret Auditorium at the Civic Center-UN Plaza SF Public Library, 100 Larkin St. I’m honored to have the fabulous Yemanya Napue, percussionists Val Serrant and Sosu Ayansolo and visual artist Duane Deterville collaborate with me on this presentation.

This event is free to the public because this information should be common knowledge. As we know, white supremacy promotes the myth that only Europeans have classical music. This fallacious concept is so widespread that the word “classical” has become a synonym for the word “Caucasian.”

However, all cultures have classical – traditional – music. Although the classical music of Africans in the United States was labeled Jazz, the phrase “African-American Classical Music” recognizes the origins and stature of this world-famous musical art form.

M.O.I. JR: Who were some of the innovators of this music form?

Kujichagulia: While many of the originators of pentatonic progressions and syncopated patterns remain unknown, these African retentions are embedded in Black Spirituals, Blues and Jazz. Everyone from field workers to instrumentalists contributed.

Kujichagulia performs again at the second Black Media Appreciation Night, on Sept. 13, 2014. Behind her is Val Serrant, who makes drums talk. – Photo: William H. Jones Jr.
Kujichagulia performs again at the second Black Media Appreciation Night, on Sept. 13, 2014. Behind her is Val Serrant, who makes drums talk. – Photo: William H. Jones Jr.

While the list is endless, for the sake of simplicity we can acknowledge Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Christian, Eubie Blake, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fletcher Henderson (the King of Swing), Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and John Coltrane as JUST A FEW of the better-known innovators of African-American classical music.

M.O.I. JR: Why is it important that we remember Jazz in this way?

Kujichagulia: Jazz is the history of Black excellence, elegance, genius and ingenuity in the USA. It is imperative that we remember African-American classical music in this way because Jazz is to America what the pyramids are to Africa.

Not only is Jazz one of America’s only indigenous art forms, like the pyramids, its eclectic acclaim as its very existence negates the insane myth of white supremacy. Hue-man history (4 million years of evolution) and hue-man civilization (more than 10,000 years of African/Black genius) flourished long before being imitated, white-washed, devalued, denied and/or destroyed by racism in the current era.

If we are to survive and thrive as a species, it is essential that everyone remembers history its purest form – pre-racism, pre-white supremacy (the past 500 years). Since racism will never admit civilization began in Black Africa (not Greece or Rome) or that Jazz began with Blacks (not Benny Goodman), it is everyone’s job to reveal these truths because the truth will set us free.

As saxophonist Archie Shepp so eloquently explained, “Black music is a reflection of Black people as a social phenomenon. Their purpose ought to be to liberate America aesthetically and socially from its inhumanity.”

M.O.I. JR: Do you think that the legacy of Jazz has been adequately preserved in the consciousness of Black people in the United States?

Kujichagulia: The legacy of Jazz has NOT been adequately presented, preserved, respected or celebrated in the consciousness of ANY people in the United States. It’s no accident that there is only one all-Jazz station (KCSM) in this entire country.

It’s no coincidence that people associate Kenny G with the word “Jazz” and don’t even know Freddie Keppard or John Coltrane. Thanks to racism and white supremacy, every child over the age of 3 has heard and probably used the “n” word at least once, yet few hear or say the words “Jazz” or “Africa.”

Nonetheless, African-American classical music pioneered the re-Africanization of Black culture in America; it exonerated the African drum, then reinstated African rhythms into mainstream music and pop culture. It has always been the music of self-determination and liberation, which is why it is often watered down, underrepresented or misrepresented in the USA.

Renowned Jazz show host Greg Bridges poses after the show with his guest, Kujichagulia, for this 2007 picture. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report
Renowned Jazz show host Greg Bridges poses after the show with his guest, Kujichagulia, for this 2007 picture. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

M.O.I. JR: What role did Jazz musicians play in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement?

Kujichagulia: African American classical music, its inventors and innovators fueled the war for dignity and human rights in this country. Like traditional Negro Spirituals and the Blues, Jazz enabled us to document and endure the horrors of racism in America. Every era of American history from enslavement-capitalism to industrialization was recorded by African-American classical music.

M.O.I. JR: Who do you listen to today in contemporary Jazz?

Kujichagulia: While Lee Morgan, Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Johnny Hartman and Ben Webster are some of my favorites, I also like Terrence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis.

M.O.I. JR: How does it feel to be teaching in your hometown for Black History Month?

Kujichagulia: I’m ecstatic! Although it’s an honor to travel as the “out-of-town guest artist or lecturer,” it’s a blessing to be appreciated at home as well.

M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with you?

Kujichagulia: Mail can be sent to me at A. Wisdom Company, P.O. Box 31944, Oakland, CA 94604 and 510-798-7330 is the number where any message can be left 24 hours a day. For more information, please visit www.kujichaguliaphavia.com and http://www.examiner.com/ethnic-community-in-oakland/kujichaguliaphavia-kujichagulia.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.