Watts Uprising, 50 Years Later

DJ Lynnée Denise entered her second quarter as an adjunct professor in the Pan African Studies Department at California State University Los Angeles. She taught a range of literature, music, and history courses related to Black American and African Diasporic social experiences. Last fall, Lynnée was invited to speak at the "Relations of Protest: Lessons from Watts" being presented in the 50th Anniversary year of the Watts Uprising. The event was co-sponsored by the Pan-African Studies Department with the Cross Cultural Center and the American Communities Program.  Drawing from her ‘Black Protest Music’ course her talk examined the role of music as a restorative force following the uprising and pulled footage from the Watts Cultural Festival’s WattStax concert from 1972. She built a discussion around a clip from the concert which featured Stax label artists The Emotions, performing the Black gospel classic “Peace Be Still.”

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The clip, represented the label’s attempt to speak to the working class people whose soul music was rooted in the Black church and the blues tradition, and whose lives and daily experiences had been questionably ignored by Stax’s label rival Motown. Lynnée asserted that “Motown’s highly commodifiable soul music, to some degree, represented Black middle class aspirations of integration and of attaining the traditional American dream.” Motown’s movement to California, following Detroit’s 1967 uprising, she shared, was read by many as a further attempt by the label to disassociate itself from the political turmoil that centered black rage in the Motor City. Watts had a reason to be proud of its use of the arts to heal a community torn by poverty, police brutality and limited resources to help its residents access social mobility. The program ended by highlighting contemporary artists, namely Khalil Joseph, who are using film to resituate Watts in the public imagination. Joseph calls on the cultural work of the LA Rebellion, a crew of Black UCLA film students from the 1960s-70s who used the camera and filmmaking as a way to place Watts in its social and cultural context, Charles Burnett and his film “Killer of Sheep,” epitomizes this effort. 

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