Soulful Critical Thought: bell hooks and the Making of a DJ Scholar
“Your heart has to be ready to handle the weight of your calling,” is what she said casually over Korean BBQ, and for this reason and more I grew up reading bell hooks. ‘Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery’ was my first dance with her mind. In it she taught me how to identify the ways that patriarchy, white supremacy and global capitalism threatened humanity’s well-being. More specifically, she challenged me to examine the ways in which our own families replicate models of oppression, sometimes trumping the need, or the awareness of the need, for self-care. bell hooks called on me to think critically as a strategy to heal from social and emotional trauma, a task that would require a lifetime of unlearning.
When commissioned by Dr. Melynda Price, Chair of the African American and Africana Program at the Univ. of Kentucky to make this mix, I was struck by the fact that not a single song came to mind, which is unusual for my process. Typically I have an idea of the direction of the mix, with at least one song to start. But bell hooks has written over 30 books. What could I say musically that would affirm, celebrate and soundtrack her commitment to education, activism, radical openness and feminist scholarship? What music could match ‘the life of her mind?’ The moment I asked that question, Nina Simone appeared. I had a start.
I continued to dig deep into the crates of bell hooks’ life in search of clues about music she loved. On one of those days, after a few hours of probing, she mentioned Tracy Chapman in a lecture. My second artist arrived. From there, I recognized that women’s voices would occupy a large amount of space on the mix. And how easy it would be to create a mix using only women to pay tribute to a world-renowned feminist thinker, right? No, this would not be true to the range of music I have access to, or the core of her ideas. bell warns us to not confuse patriarchy with masculinity. Teaching us that patriarchal dominance can only be destroyed when all of us adopt feminist politics. That said, I invited men to be a part of the honoring, particularly men I feel loved by. Would bell love Bilal? In the song ‘Robots,’ he critiques hyper consumerism similarly to the way she critiques the commodification of Black culture in her work. And Lionel Hampton is from Kentucky, did she grow up listening to the sound of his vibraphone? And consistently she’s made the important distinction between misogynistic and ‘conscious’ rap, would she dig Mos Def? And could Gregory Porter, speak to her encounter with desegregation in the classrooms of the Black south? In this moment I decided to put together a compilation of music that would communicate the essence of her message, or at least, my understanding of it. It would be a mix in dialogue form.
I’ve learned so much from bell’s refusal to adhere to restrictions about what she could and could not write about, and what topics she could and could not explore. When she shifted her focus from critical gender theory with books like Ain’t I Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics to a series of books focused solely on love (Salvation, Communion and All About Love), I knew she was making the decision to become more accessible to communities, beyond the academy. I knew she wanted to have more nuanced conversations about the revolutionary qualities of love and through this series, I was reminded that love was located at the center of the pursuit of social justice. For this reason, I felt jazz had a place among the songs. Betty Carter’s ‘Open the Door’ and Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ has so much emotional and cultural wealth, and jazz itself provided the soundscape for many social movements and plenty of freedom fighters, Malcolm X included.
I discovered the Uptown String Quartet in my college years while working in a record store. I was excited by the fact that they were four classically trained Black women musicians from Harlem and one of them, Maxine Roach, was the daughter of jazz drummer Max Roach. I’ve been listening to their song “JJ’s Jam” for about 20 years and never imagined having the opportunity to add it to one of my mixes. It’s a song from some of the quietest moments in my life; a song with so much space and beauty that I wanted to play with voices and personalities over the music. I thought of the bell hooks book “Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem,” which features the hand of fellow Kentuckian Muhammad Ali, whom bell loves, on its cover. In my research I discovered an interview between Nikki Giovanni and Ali and it fit perfectly between the song’s imaginary lines.
Another book that came to mind during my process was Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life. It’s a memoir about love, writing and sexuality. Wounds of Passion tells the story of how bell wrestled with an emotionally charged long-term relationship that forced a questioning of her values and worldview. At the same time she was managing the stress of being a black woman academic in hostile predominantly white institutions. She shares that this was one of the most tumultuous romantic partnerships in her life, one that she still refers to, one that still tugs at her heart. Frida Kahlo and Diego came to mind and I used my favorite song from the movie’s soundtrack (Frida), “Alcoba Azul” to express the emotions that give birth to a complicated, transformative and sacrificial love.
Finally, I wanted to leave listeners with the opportunity to feel a sense of hope. To operate from a place of abundance and not the despair normally attached to the business of struggle. I selected a song inspired by something I heard bell hooks say in an interview. She shared that through his life as a farmer and with his profound appreciation of the earth, her grandfather taught her about the importance of life beyond suffering. She took from him that people of color needed to move away from what can feel like a commitment to misery and shift our focus towards self-sufficiency, pleasure, joy and self-care. Aretha Franklin’s “How I Got Over” from the “Amazing Grace” album worked perfectly for these words.
I had the opportunity to present this mix to bell hooks in person. She attended my lecture at the University of Kentucky’s Finding our Place: A Conference in Honor of the Work and Writing of bell hooks. I was moved beyond words by the level of attention she paid to my every sentence, image and sound. I was almost brought to tears when she cheered me on as an active and vocal member of the audience. She expressed to me a love for my mind, an interest in my work and an excitement about being fully seen by me, through my art. We broke bread and shared intimate stories about our histories and exchanged visions of our future. It’s safe to say we bonded. She invited me to her home and pointed out her most precious possessions; her books, kitchen, and meditation space. Her home was a Frida Khalo inspired sacred place with art collected from her travels around the world. The yellow and red painted wooden benches and chairs brought the African and Latin Diaspora to Berea, Kentucky. I felt instantly that the mix was a success. My selections were true of who I thought she was within and beyond print. bell hooks is a genius. she’s vulnerable and complex, sharp and unashamed of the way she walks the world. And with her courage, discipline and dedication, she’s carved out space for me to exist. Please enjoy “Soulful Critical Thought: bell hooks and the Making of a DJ Scholar,” for it was without a doubt, a labor of love.