Poet Kamau Daáood Explains The Rhyme And Reason Of Art In Black Los Angeles
My fingers are dancing grassroots
I do not fit in form, I create form
Poet and performer Kamau Daáood, at age 61, takes the stage at L.A.’s Hammer Museum following two much younger spoken word artists. Accompanied by Trevor Ware’s walking bass lines, he dives into one of his best known poems, which he wrote for his mentor, the legendary pianist and community activist Horace Tapscott. His brow furrowed as if searching for something in meditation, his deep voice growls through lines connecting vivid imagery of music, nature and spirituality. “I seek the divinity in outcasts, the richness of rebels / I will pray for you on this snaggle-toothed piano / songs for the unsung.”
In another selection, his long opus in honor of John Coltrane, he begins with soft, declarative lines. “John Coltrane was a freedom fighter / Liberator of the spirit from the shackles of form… / expanding beyond the boundaries / blow away decay…” And as he builds, his voice grows sharper, taking long scatting detours, screeching in bursts like the altissimo range of a tenor sax.
It’s a spoken-word reading, to be sure, but Daáood ’s work, more so than most contemporary performers in the genre, bounces off the music in ways that reflect his rise in the Los Angeles art scene years ago.
The Hammer’s exhibition Now Dig This! Art in Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, to which the poetry reading is connected, shines the spotlight on L.A.’s many overlooked black artists. Daáood, who is intimately linked to black L.A.’s art scene, is an ideal person to help in this effort, which is produced in conjunction with Pacific Standard Time, a campaign across a multitude of museums to bring attention to formative Southern California artwork. The exhibition closes Jan. 8.
Because of the lack of opportunities, historically, for black artists in L.A. to display their works, there’s been such a backlog of painting, sculpture and performance art from this era that the amount and diversity of the works can be overwhelming.
Like Daáood's poetry, much of this art feels musical. The assemblage artists combine found objects the way Ornette Coleman uses scales. David Hammons’s painted black figure draped in the stars and stripes echoes Jimi Hendrix’s distorted take on the American national anthem.
For Daáood, who knew many of the artists when he was helping to create the World Stage in South Los Angeles for neglected artists and performers, the exhibition is an overdue highlight of black artists’ contributions to L.A. culture.
“Many of them were very much contemporaries of better known white artists that were working at the time,” Daáood says in an interview. “John Outterbridge was a contemporary of [Robert] Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. All those cats, they were working in the same period of time. But because of the cultural divide, they did not get to receive the support and acknowledgment of the work they did.”
The show champions selections even many who are familiar with L.A.’s art culture have never seen. The fact that such a major component of L.A. culture has gone unrecognized by the mainstream art world makes the exhibition, curated by Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones, all the more important and fascinating.
The title Now Dig This! not only calls to mind the music of Sly and the Family Stone and the West Coast jazz that helped define Southern California culture for decades, but also evokes the urgency for the work to be seen. “Even the artists themselves felt they were coming out of nowhere, felt they had no history, because it wasn’t taught,” Jones says in a phone interview.
Black artists and performers often lacked the resources and support from outside organizations necessary to do art. When Daáood created the World Stage in 1989 and when Dale Brockman Davis and Alonzo Davis created the Brockman Gallery in the late 1960s, it was to fill the need of artists to join together for support.
Daáood and others would sometimes circumvent the need for gallery space by performing in public. “We used to just get on the bus, no plan no flier or nothing,” he recalls. “No money’s gonna come from it. Who’s gonna know about it? Who’s gonna document it? A lot of us would do stuff just for the sake of art.”
Prana moving through time signatures
Bop blown through a wormhole
Aimed at the earlobe of God
Pondered DNA in saxophone solos
As an up-and-coming poet, Daáood knew visual artist John Outterbridge, whom he saw as a mentor, and worked with him for years when Outterbridge was director of the Watts Towers. Outterbridge, who was about old enough to be his father, showed him how to rein in his anger when creating performance poetry. “John kind of tempered me,” Daáood says. “I was a young poet with hair all over my head, wearing overalls and angry all the time, and John kind of broadened my world.”
When Daáood was just starting, he was furious about injustices he saw in the world, but he discovered it was too easy to express mere anger. The higher art was in expressing joy. “That’s a major bridge I had to cross when I was a youngster,” he says. “It was not enough to make people feel bad and talk about how crazy the world is. I needed to have solutions and I needed to point in new directions in the work. Once I put that in the work, it took a quantum leap.”
Indeed, Outterbridge takes a contemplative, tactile approach with his art, creating sculptures and dolls from found items such as old rags and metal objects.
“When I think of anger, I think of emotion,” Daáood explains. “When I look at John’s work and the skillfulness and craft that he put into it, I think of thought. I think of skill, I think of mastery. There’s something in anger. It’s not a bad thing if it is channeled and harnessed in order to transform.”
That dynamic of anger against thought is especially evident in the works of the visual artists on view at Now Dig This!
Melvin Edwards’s sculpture, “The Lifted X” from 1965, is an abstract homage to Black Power icon Malcolm X. Edwards’ welded steelwork smolders with emotion, but also thought. Some of the shapes are mangled like a crushed fist. Others are simply diagonal steel bars. It’s an intimidating image of a larger-than-life historical figure.
The Charles White paintings on display engage viewers with reflective images that clearly comment on specific events. “Black Pope” puts an African-American Holy Father in sunglasses that could belong to Bootsie Collins. His rendering of political activist Angela Davis, which portrays her as almost goddess-like, is the most literal example of activism through art in the exhibition. It’s accompanied by a letter White wrote demanding her release from prison.
For Daáood , the mentorship wasn’t so much pedagogical as it was inspirational.
When he would interact with artist David Hammons before Hammons moved to New York, he would see the way Hammons lived in his works of art, sometimes literally. “I was walking through his studio, there were prints all over the ground, and I was stepping over them, like ‘Hey, man, get this shit up off the ground.’ And I would open up his refrigerator, and there’s shoes and books in the refrigerator. And he said, ‘Hey, man, what did you think you were going to find in there -- food?’”
And another time: “You’d go in there the day after Christmas, and you’d see 20 Christmas trees with the stands stuck to the ceiling so it looked like a forest over your head. I mean, David used to just take the top of my head off.”
Some of us live hard
Understand the nuances in a moan
As evidenced by practitioners like Daáood, performance is an essential aspect of the Hammer’s exhibition. Walking into the room featuring work by performance artists Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi at Now Dig This! is like walking into a kind of frozen dance recital.
Hassinger’s wire rope installation in the middle conveys the same sense that all its parts are moving. The pieces of wire rope come together in a circle, looking like something you might find underfoot in a forest, but could just as easily appear in a scrap yard. Nengudi’s figures made of pantyhose and sand-filled bags seem to dance around Hassinger’s piece.
Hassinger’s installation, River, sitting outside the gallery near the library, is a wrap made from chains and ropes, incidentally collected from the Port of Los Angeles. It flows into a coil resembling a noose or possibly a delta. Like all Hassinger’s work, it gives a sense of time and of movement.
To Hassinger, the work has a personal rather than political meaning, though others have viewed the ropes and chains and seen them as references to the shackles of slavery. Hassinger didn’t see it that way, though she has done works that channeled that the life of her father, which she said saw its share of lynching and incest.
“My father’s life kind of reads like Faulkner,” she says when describing one of her pieces. “I was determined that my children not inherit that anger and despair I felt I’d inherited from my father.”
Nengudi’s pantyhose figures draw on her experience of the tensions of pregnancy not only on the body but on the mind. “I was fascinated by how the body expanded and contracted and – usually – went back to the same shape,” she says.
David Hammons’s assemblage homage to Charlie “Bird” Parker – using a saxophone with a rusty spade coming out of the mouthpiece held by hands coming out of the wall – reflects so many of the issues in Now Dig This! Performance, music, hipness, the natural and the mechanical. Like Bird’s life, much of the work offers infinite cool colliding with tragedy. Like Bird, the artists were also on the edges, setting the stage for whatever came next.
Daáood’s poem “Leimert Park” depicts him standing on a street corner, telling “old-school stories with a bebop tongue to the hip-hop future.” Now Dig This! could be a beginning of that future, tapping into the history of art of L.A.’s black artists to open the door to another era. It gives a platform to a group that previously had to provide its own. The exhibition, however, with its scope that officially ends in 1980, leaves the art world hanging on the edge of what might be called the hip-hop generation.
Daáood acknowledges what any socially conscious person acknowledges about hip-hop, such as materialism, violence and misogyny. However, drawing on his experience working with multiple generations and types of artists in L.A., he does not let that discourage his optimism for the future. “You have artists that are very lofty in their thinking, very spiritual,” Daáood says. “There’s a spectrum, and you can’t just put a label on the genre and say it’s one thing, any more than you can say that for any of us. … I believe that the best part of ourselves will rise. I believe that there are people doing great things to brighten the world.”
Hear a selection from Daáood's album Leimert Park: