by The People’s Minister of Information JR
On Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Denver, at approximately 2:20 pm Houston father, activist, radio station owner and musician Zin aka Anthony Mills, 42, and Jonathan Nichols, 29, lost their lives in a four-car collision on Colorado Boulevard and East Mexico Avenue, according to the Denver Post. Zin was also a former radio broadcaster with Houston’s Pacifica radio station KPFT until he got fed up with the white racist liberal politics that plagues the inner-workings of the whole network and left to start All Real Radio.
I met Zin about 10-11 years ago through a mutual acquaintance, and we became fast friends and comrades in doing Black determination radio together. On his radio show, SOS Radio, we would share knowledge, contacts, guests and occasionally work together on national media campaigns like so-called Katrina aka Hurricane America, the Justice for Oscar Grant campaign and Ferguson, where I would either call in from the Bay Area and talk candidly about what’s going on in my concrete jungle or I would be on the road like when I was in Ferguson reporting in about what I was seeing and experiencing on the ground. That was the last time we worked together.
I also interviewed him in the SF Bay View newspaper about his album that he dropped under the name “Trickle Down.”
One of my fondest memories of Zin is when he, the National Black United Front, Seidah and Sierra hooked up an event in 2011 for Malcolm Shabazz and me to speak in Houston during the “Block Reportin’” book and “Operation Small Axe” documentary promo tour. We had fun, made some good connections and met a lot of people. I got to see how Zin was heavily involved in political and cultural community work as well as witness his love for the craft of broadcasting.
During this particular time, I also met Akua Holt, a good friend and radio comrade of Zin who worked with him on KPFT and in the community. I wanted to talk to her about the power of our productive and constructive brother who lost his life far too soon.
M.O.I. JR: How and when did you meet Zin? What was your first impression?
Akua: I do not recall when I first met Brother Wali (Zin).
That’s a running joke in the community. It seems that very few people can recall when they met him. He was a man on the move with a mission.
He knew I produced shows on air and at a major theatre in Houston. I was fortunate to experience him hosting a few sets at Mahogany Café, which included Olu Dara (father of Nas). He was a part of the spoken word scene during the mid ‘90s.
Zin understood the bridge of the gap. He gave respect to the poets such as Jabari Aziz Ra, Israel McCloud, Dr. Obidike Kamau, Thomas Meloncon, Lorenzo Thomas, Baraka Sele and many others who paved the way for other progressive voices in Houston.
M.O.I. JR: Over the years, what kind of work did y’all do together?
Akua: We were fortunate to work on a number of huge projects together. I used to produce a major event in Houston featuring a number of cultural workers including poets, dancers, musicians etc. Zin had a natural talent of hosting our cultural events and engaging the audience.
Each spoken word and musical production would often attract more than 3,000 people. Due to the issue of obtaining insurance for Hip Hop or rap concerts, I focused on spoken word and music. I think Houstonians found the shows to be a breath of fresh air.
After hosting for a number of years, Zin honed his skills and knew precisely how to take the audience to another place and space – a space that validated their humanity and worth, a place of fun for family and friends. The entire experience was absolutely magical. Each year, artists would rock the house and engage people to move to a higher plane by doing positive work in their families and communities.
Another positive story I’d like to share is his involvement with the Houston International Festival (I-fest). The festival historically ignored Hip Hop for decades. The year they decided to highlight Ethiopia was the year we lobbied for Zin’s group to perform.
I think his band was the first Hip Hop band to play at I-fest. Although the festival folded after many years of attracting millions of people, I am elated Zin was able to bring his flavor to the mix.
M.O.I. JR: What did you think about his show Damage Control?
Akua: Damage Control was a unique format which allowed local artists to develop their craft as writers, poets, musicians, rappers and entrepreneurs. Matt Sonzala, who is also the co-founder of South by Southwest, was a co-founder and co-host along with Brother Zin.
According to Sonzala, Zin left the show to produce SOS Radio. Well, that’s the common belief among many. However, this characterization is misleading. After a number of meetings with community stakeholders and KPFT management, Zin and a few others were added to a new roster of African American producers and hosts. At that time many Pacifica stations were going through an overhaul mandated by the court to improve and increase the number of producers of color.
M.O.I. JR: What did you think about his show SOS Radio?
Akua: The show was a new endeavor for Pacifica in Houston. For years, hip hop and rap were not on the airwaves for a number of reasons. Most of those reasons could not be justified.
Eventually, the world changed overnight and Hip Hop was to be respected by those who were not able to embrace this new genre – free speech coming from African American communities around the country. East, West and Midwest, rap music was well established.
However, most independent artists who lived “down South” had been ignored by the music industry and the media. Zin uniquely filled that gap with his open door policy featuring new artists and nurturing an entire movement to produce socially conscious music of Sounds of Soul (SOS Radio).
SOS radio was a platform for Zin (Wali) to engage his audience with cutting edge underground music, speakers, dancers, poets, writers as well as cultural workers from all walks of life. He was coming into his own as a human being, evolving to a higher state of consciousness that made people gravitate toward him.
He became a beacon of light and possibilities for independent artists and those aspiring to work in the genre. His message, “We make the world better,” resonated with his world. That world included his family, friends, fans etc.
M.O.I. JR: What was important about his style of radio?
Akua: The importance about his style of radio was his delivery. The swag, the ease in which he would flow from something intellectual such as Dr. Francis Cress Welsing and maybe spinning one of his classic songs, “Black Butterfly.” He played other music as well, including Fela, Nina Simone, Earth Wind & Fire, Maze, Rick James, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Third World and music of today.
He new how to blend genres like the sunset turning into night. A smooth blend of funk, soul, hip hop, jazz – you name it, he was spinning it, along with food for the soul.
He also had the incredible ability to coin phrases such as I’m Zin. Z to the I to the N. Zin was a genius at branding. Keep doing your research about his life.
I spoke to another friend of Zin’s who knew him from his early days at Prairie View A&M University. He was called Lil Ant on campus. Short for Anthony.
Brother Mutakki spoke about his travels with Zin around the world, including Amsterdam. Only Zin would broadcast live from Amersterdam! Mutakki said within minutes crowds of people appeared to hear Zin spin.
M.O.I. JR: Why did Zin leave KPFT?
Akua: Zin was upset about the level of discrimination and disrespect at KPFT. He understood how to produce shows that brought in diverse voices to the station.
Everyone knows that Pacifica listeners are older, grayer and whiter. In order for the network to survive, it must embrace a younger demographic without alienating its base.
I think his gift and skills were often taken for granted. As a producer, I totally understood his frustration in getting support for his ideas and building a base to sustain his vision.
M.O.I. JR: What did you think about Zin creating his own radio station? What did you think of the programming on it?
Akua: Zin was adamant about taking his creative movement to another level after experiencing rejection from a number of radio stations in Houston, including Black owned and operated stations. He spoke to me about a number of African American stations that were not interested in airing progressive music and/or independent African American artists.
He liberated himself and created another alternative for his music and message. All Real Radio was born out of that frustration. And his motto, “We make the world more better,” will continue through the lives of people he touched.
There is still a level of anger and disappointment by some of his friends and fans about his negative encounters at KPFT. I see this as an opportunity to revisit the situation and have a discussion with the Local Station Board (LSB) and management about community building with progressive Black people in liberal progressive environments. After all, Pacifica is radio for peace, right?
M.O.I. JR: Can you also talk about Zin’s activist work in the Houston area?
Akua: Great question. Many people know Zin as an artist, producer and radio host. However, he worked with a number of groups in Houston such as S.H.A.P.E. Community Center, National Black United Front, Texas Death Penalty Abolitionist group, Marcus Garvey Garden, Amandla Productions and many others.
I’d like to think of Zin as a person who had the vision of an eagle. He didn’t start out that way. He evolved with the support of family and community into this sage – a person who is being venerated all over the country for his love of family, community and most of all WORK!
That’s Lil Ant. Brother Wali. Brother Zen. Making the world mo betta. That’s Z to the I to the N. His legacy belongs to his family and the community. Together it is our responsibility to keep his message alive.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about Zin’s music that he made as a musician?
Akua: Listen to his music. Especially “Black Butterfly” from his CD “Seeds of Survival” or log onto SoundCloud. Listen and learn. The message is there for all to see and hear.
His music was in the moment. It spoke to political, economic, cultural and social issues. It was uplifting to those seeking to revive their spirit on something of substance.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get the news that Zin had been killed?
Akua: I got the call from Brother Alafia, who is an elder and cultural worker in Houston. Alafia created a group called D.R.U.M. back in the day, and Zin was involved in that group.
I was completely stunned! Alafia, if you know him, heard my gasp and filled in the gaps with words that I do not remember. With a heavy heart, I was unable in the moment to hear anything else.
Immediately, I told Alafia how much I loved him and thanked him for calling and his service to the community. Additionally, I apologized to him for those days that we all have when we’re not our best selves.
I remember a mentor of mine would say, “If I’ve said something to offend you, charge it to my head and not my heart.” We all knew that about Zin. He wasn’t perfect. And, I cannot think of a human being who is perfect. However, it was his desire to speak and live in truth that attracted so many people to his message and music.
M.O.I. JR: How can people stay in tune with the events surrounding Zin’s transition as well as radio shows doing memorials for him?
Akua: Matt Sonzala and others hosted a three hour radio tribute to Zin on Damage Control last week, on Jan. 6. It can be heard on the KPFT archives at kpft.org. In addition, I am working on a documentary piece that will feature a broad spectrum of people and organizations that Zin was connected to. A few independent journalists got together to create a digital footprint in the archives which will include Zin’s story.
To find out more information about Zin’s memorial, log onto www.allrealradio.com.
M.O.I. JR: What is the name of your show? And when and where can people hear your work?
Akua: The show that I produce is Pan African Journal. It can be heard on the Pacifica Radio archives at www.kpft.org in addition to Connect the Dots hosted by Student Minister Robert Muhammad.
JR, thank you for doing this interview about Zin. It is not the totality of his life, only a glimpse into a tiny portion of his life he shared with me and others.
Much love and light to the Zin’s immediate family, including his sister and brothers as well as his dad, Mr. Mills. He loved his daughters and his wife Ciandra very much. An African proverb says, “He who learns teaches.” That is (was) Zin. Teaching by example.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.