Archive for the ‘music’ Category

I’m so excited and honored to be included in this festival! Along with award-winning authors Jacqueline Woodson and Rita Williams-Garcia, I’ll be reading on 9/22 as part of an evening we’re calling “Great Women Were Once Great Girls: An Evening of Strong Girls in Fiction” (8-10pm at Outpost Lounge in Ft. Greene, BK). More details can be found on the Facebook page; you can also check out Toshi Reagon’s website for more information.


What is Word*Rock*& Sword?


In response to the conservative political backlash against women’s rights, the first Word, Rock, & Sword festival will unite New Yorkers for eight dynamic days of creativity, support and activism. Conceived by musician-activist Toshi Reagon, Word, Rock, & Sword offers performances, screenings, classes and discussions at Manhattan and Brooklyn performance venues as well as yoga studios, cafés and bookstores, September 18-25.

On Saturday, September 24, famed multimedia art cabaret Le Poisson Rouge will host Word, Rock, & Sword: A Musical Celebration of Women, featuring Tamar-kali, Toshi Reagon, Joan As Police Woman, Meshell Ndegeocello, Morley, Imani Uzuri, Slanty Eyed Mama, Arooj Aftab, and many other noted music artists.

Festival highlights also include a free screening of No Woman No Cry, a documentary by Christy Turlington Burns at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza on Wednesday, September 21. In this gripping directorial debut, Turlington Burns shares powerful stories of at-risk pregnant women in four parts of the world, including a remote Maasai community in Tanzania, a slum of Bangladesh, a post-abortion care ward in Guatemala and a prenatal clinic in the United States.

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Roots & Blues, Part 2! It’s been a long time coming, but I guarantee you this interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie is worth the wait! If you missed Part 1 of this series, do take time to read poet Arnold Adoff’s thoughtful responses regarding the inspiration for his latest book of poetry.

ZE: It has been argued that “trauma resists representation.” How did you approach the illustrations depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage? As a children’s book illustrator are you expected to make every subject “beautiful”?

It’s all about nuances and the experience a painter has gained in order to shout things softly to his audience. The metaphorical poems in Roots and Blues masterfully intermixed historical names and events into a continuous flow. I feel that the words have a similar sentiment to Blues music, by the way the atrocities and triumphs are a continuous poetic flow.  To paraphrase Tom Feelings, any subject matter can be presented to people of all ages, one has only to hear the blues to know something horrible can be told in a beautiful way.

I also believe that if you present a trauma with a melody, metaphorical words, or with attractively arranged pigments you can at least get the public’s attention, but it’s the artist’s experience and ability to use nuance that will get people to care. If done carefully, I believe that the art will be embraced as something beautiful, at least for some of the people. The poems from Roots and Blues mimicked the essence of the Blues and the history of brown folks’ “American” journey. So I, in turn, mimicked Arnold’s words in a visual form, which I suppose is the purpose of an illustration.

The visuals are muted grays and blues that I hope are in tandem with the dull pain to those words that were intermixed with pockets of joy. This is the first time I used a glazing technique for an entire book. I chose to knock the colors down a bit, kind of a bluish gray pallor cast over what was once vibrant colors. I was able to wipe away and rebuild certain places in the painting so that the glaze would in fact brighten certain areas within the images. This was done to have pockets of vibrant colors in cool and distant images.

Yes, I’m often expected to make my art beautiful (if not cute) but I tip the balance towards images that will challenge our children. Foremost I paint for myself and do this with the hope that other people will “get it.” I keep it fun and interesting but also honor myself as an artist.

ZE: In the blues tradition there’s a fine line between ecstasy and agony; talk about your strategies for capturing both emotions in your illustrations.

I am all about balance, in my life and in my art. The artwork for this book was my best attempt to capture Arnold’s flow of opposites, colorful moments as a contrast within a long, painful journey.

He has an ability to give historical facts, capture the emotion of the times, and barrage my mind with a stream of visuals. Nothing was sugarcoated in the writing; perhaps that would be a disservice to the people that went through that pain and to the young people that need to be prepared for the world’s realities. It seems to me that Arnold danced between these two conflicting emotions all the time (ecstasy and agony) while not being too nostalgic. The poems and the times they comment upon are raw. He put himself out there as an artist and I wanted to keep up with him visually.

But Poetry is one of the most difficult things to illustrate for me, because you have to be decisive when interpreting the meaning of a series of meanings. I always think that such a work can be read so many different ways and too quick of a decision towards the meaning can kill the audience’s growth. On the other hand, indecision in the illustrator can often produce a visual incongruity. In illustration I think the major point is to be able to process the mix into an interesting visual summation. Poetry seems to be a mix within a mix, an art form capable of having many tentacles. I think that it takes a delicate heart and advanced mind to embrace something that can be so mercurial, definitively stated and so personal to the reader. I feel as though such a listener wants to create his own relationship to those words, so being told what’s definitive as the meaning (visually) can come off as a killjoy.

I respected his art by approaching the series of poems as one steam of ideas. In some cases I focused on the idea of something literal…a piano player or image of a jook joint etc., and other times I attempted to comment on the spiritual side of things. One of the first pieces shows three figures connecting with land and water; eyes are closed and bodies contorted.  On one hand, it would have been easy to define the words near it as a piano player image, but I took the harder road and commented on the metaphorical aspect. I wanted to introduce the reader to the origins of it all: the respect for the land and the process of life, it’s circular direction between death and life. We come from the earth only to go back within it, so this first painting is about impossibilities and how something that doesn’t make sense sometimes has an order to it. Time must pass in order to sometimes understand that disorder. The land, people and gestures are my way of introducing the readers to what they might expect for the other parts of this book. To expect that the impossible will make sense and to take the subject matter with solemnity and inspiration. I had to pace myself and pace the imagery for the book. At times you will see the agony in the lack of facial expressions—simply eyes closed or the gesture of the hands and body—and other times the figures will be directly looking at you, engaging you as the viewer. It’s art that shows itself but invites you to find your own meaning based upon your own life experiences and whatever you can project into the historical and artistic experience.

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I should be exhausted, but I’m not.  I’ve written more than three thousand words today, and I’m not done yet!  All week I’ve been trying to write, and every night I would fall asleep on the couch, wake at 4am, and unsuccessfully try to fall back to sleep in my bed.  On Wednesday I woke with a stabbing pain in my left shoulder but I didn’t want to get back up to take some painkillers.  So I pressed my eyes shut and tried to sleep but, of course, the pain kept me awake.  And as I lay there I basically wrote my novel—in my head.  I saw the scenes unfold, one after the other, and I’ve spent the whole day trying to write it all down.  The TV’s been on, too…I watched Power Paths, a brilliant documentary about several Native American tribes in the southwest and the Plains who mobilized to bring green energy to their reservations and the region.  When I needed a TV break I played Oro, the latest album by ChocQuibTown, over and over and over even though I have no idea what they’re saying since they rap/sing in Spanish.  Then the TV came back on and I saw an infomercial for a compilation of music from the ’70s, which sent me in search of this song:

It’s a wonder I got *any* writing done, as easily distracted as I am.  But it isn’t writing, really.  It’s more like transcribing.  I’ve seen the scenes, so all I have to do is write it down…

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thank you, Katrina

Sometimes it’s hard moving between worlds.  It was good for me to come back from NOLA and go straight back into the classroom; I was able to stay in that “zone” for a little while, but today I’m back to my own reality.  I think it might be time to head back into the academy; this kidlit thing isn’t really working out and it’s starting to get me down.  I’m not going to stop writing, but I think I need to try a new approach—maybe try operating from within the academy instead of the blogosphere.  But this post is about my visit to New Orleans.  I don’t think I have a whole lot more to say, but I feel like I need to admit something.  Yesterday in East Harlem one child asked me how I felt when I found out Bird was going to be published.  And I told him how Hurricane Katrina motivated me to start sending my stories out again; Katrina hit in August 2005, and I had been living in Baton Rouge for only about 3 weeks…I’d just started a new job at LSU and I already knew I wouldn’t be staying long.  Then the hurricane threw everything into disarray, and I was filled with so much rage and I had to do *something* to take my power back.  So I went through all my manuscripts and sent out everything that was ready–picture book stories, academic essays, plays.  And a few months later, I found out I’d won the New Voices Honor Award; after that I got into an MFA program, I got accepted to a summer artists’ residency, I got a job offer in the northeast, and my first play was named as a finalist at a Chicago theater.  It was Hurricane Katrina that lit that fire inside of me—the rage she inspired drove me to look for a way out, and that’s exactly what I found.  When I think about my time in Louisiana, I still get mad.  It’s an irrational kind of rage—aimless, really, because I’m just mad at everything and everyone.  I hear the phrase “way of life” and have to bite my tongue.  So I didn’t go to New Orleans out of any sense of nostalgia; there’s nothing romantic about the city for me, and I didn’t expect to do any touristy things during my time off.  I don’t eat seafood, and I don’t drink; I do like jazz, but I never connected the particular songs or artists I love with New Orleans.  When I lived in Baton Rouge back in 2005, I remember a prominent black poet telling me that New Orleans was “the only truly great American city”—the only one to produce anything of value (she meant jazz).  And I thought to myself, “What about New York?  What about hip hop?”  But then I thought, hip hop doesn’t need NYC any more than jazz still needs New Orleans.  I didn’t say that, of course, because she was homeless due to the flooding and I was an outsider—not a Yankee, maybe, but a northerner nonetheless.  I’m always wary of exceptionalism, whether it’s New Orleans, or Haiti, or the USA.  Anyway, all this is to say that I didn’t expect to “have fun” while I was in New Orleans.  But I did—my host, Karen Ott, took me to the House of Blues one night and to Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse the next; Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band blew me away and their vocalist, Yolanda Windsay, put Beyonce to shame with her rendition of Etta James’ “At Last.”  I ate a lot of good food, including the BEST school lunch EVER—white beans and rice!  But I don’t wake up thinking about the food or the jazz.  I wake up seeing the faces of the kids in the 7th grade—and the boy in the 6th grade who said he saw a mirror when he looked at the first page of Bird: “Because I’m a black boy and I like to draw, too.”  I see the girl in the front row who didn’t want to read her poem aloud, but asked me to read it privately.  And it was clear that she got teased a lot, no doubt by the pretty blue-eyed girl in the row behind her who was acting like a typical mean girl.  Yet she herself had written a touching tribute to her beloved teacher the day before.  All you can do in two days is listen and learn, observe and try to inspire.  I read my favorite chapter from Wish, and when I put the book down, a boy in the back row said, “Keep reading!”  So we read another chapter together.  The boy who’d been pushing my buttons all afternoon wrote one of the most powerful poems I’ve heard in a while.  Who’s your addressee?  Some kids spoke to bullies, some spoke to those outside their community.  All had their own ambition, plans for the future, their own sense of themselves.  And they were not willing to let something like Hurricane Katrina define them.  Foremost in their minds was the one-year anniversary of the loss of one of their teachers.  Most of them met President Obama when he visited their school, and they’ve got signed books from JK Rowling.  I’m no celebrity, but I hope I made an impact.  And I hope I now think of those kids when I think about New Orleans.  It’s time to let that anger go.

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merci, Mariam!

Mariam and I met in 1997 when she came from Paris to spend a year at NYU.  Yesterday we sat in a cafe on campus and marveled at how much has changed—on campus, in our lives.  We’ve both lost our fathers; we both want a transnational life; we both cherish moments of solitude.  I spent last night listening to the amazing CDs Mariam gave me as a gift—Rokia Traore’s Tchamantché (which means “balance”) and Didi Bridgewater’s Red Earth: a Malian Journey.  Can’t get “Dounia” out of my mind…makes me yearn for fall.

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If I were trying to be poetic, I would say instead that I’m enthralled.  But stuck works—obsessed, fascinated, fixated.  I can’t get this song/video out of my head, and I can’t thank Shadra enough for posting it on Facebook earlier today.  Serendipity?  Or a sign…

Earlier this week Jenn on the Carl Brandon Society list forwarded this trailer for an interesting afrofuturism film called The Last Angel of History.  And it’s very male, but visually impressive.  This video for “Going on” speaks to me in part because of its simplicity—these look like real kids with their beautiful dark skin and natural hair; they dance, they sweat, they march purposefully through the empty streets (of Jamaica)…I recognize the landscape, I believe in this narrative.  And, of course, it makes me think of Genna and Judah and how disappointed readers may be with the conclusion of this sequel. At the end of the video, when they’ve opened the portal, it *looks* like they’re about to hold hands….but they DON’T.  Instead they crouch down like competitors in a race, and as he passes through the portal, the words “Don’t follow me” appear on screen.  But she disregards this command…

The director, Wendy Morgan, is *Canadian*!!!  Check out this interview with her, and then check out the lyrics…can’t you just hear Judah saying this sh** to Genna?

This is the start of a journey.
And my mind is already gone
And though there are other unknowns
Somehow this doesn’t concern me.

And you can stand right there if you want
But I’m going on
And I’m prepared to go it alone
I’m going on
To a place in the sun that’s nice and warm
I’m going on

And I’m sure they’ll have a place for you too

Anyone that needs what they want, and doesn’t want what they need
I want nothing to do with
And to do what I want
And to do what I please
Is first of my to-do list
But every once in a while I think about her smile
One of the few things I do miss
But baby I‘ve to go
Baby I’ve got to know
Baby I’ve got to prove it

And I’ll see you when you get there
But I’m going on
And I’m prepared to go it alone
I’m going on
May my love lift you up to the place you belong
I’m going on
And I promise I’ll be waiting for you…

Morgan also directed Janelle Monae’s video for “Tightrope,” which I listen to endlessly…getting ready to write usually means turning inward—away from the world, the noise, the distractions.  But I realize how closed I’ve become lately…no new music, no art, no adventures.  Sometimes you have to open up AND shut down—if you know what I mean…

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So I’m reading Efrain’s Secret right now, and realized I need to follow up with Sofia Quintero about doing an interview…then I go to Facebook and Sofia’s posted two awesome links:

1.  My Brown Baby ~ author/mom Denene Millner asks why she can’t find books that feature black children on the shelves of her local Borders store…

…which, of course, made me think of Ari and her letter-writing campaign to get Borders to “act right.” Link #2 also had Ari’s name written all over it:

2.  Global Fusion Productions puts the focus on Tego Calderon and his determination to assert his African-ness as a Latino artist.

I’m always interested in learning more about Afro-Latino identities and communities, and sites like this make me realize that I have a lot of work to do…

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Lena Horne passed away last night here in NYC; she was 92.  I have to say, I think I first heard of Lena Horne when I was a kid watching The Cosby Show.  And when she finally appeared on the show, I couldn’t understand why Cliff Huxtable thought she was such a great beauty.  But then I hit graduate school and saw Stormy Weather…and then I saw her appeal (though I couldn’t separate her talent from her *very* light skin).  Lena Horne once lived in Brooklyn, and word is Alicia Keys will be playing her in an upcoming film…

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Thanks to Claudia for posting this link on Facebook: Pop Culture Shock blog shared this link about Nicole Mitchell, a Chicago jazz musician and composer who has written a tribute to Octavia Butler….

Also, a lot of people have defined her, as well as jazz musician Sun Ra, as “Afrofuturists”–people who took this idea of “intergalactic” music–music that reached back into ancient times and then reached forward and beyond what had ever been done before. That’s a concept I’ve also embraced as a musician. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) also embraced this “ancient to future” concept. It’s almost like being a scientist–by using music as a way to experiment with new sounds and understanding the impact it can have and understanding its power to be transformative and inspirational to people. That’s what I’m trying to do with Intergalactic Beings out of my inspirations of Octavia Butler.

Are women book bloggers making nice or faking nice?  Check out this provocative post on HuffPo

Book bloggers and reviewers–female book bloggers and reviewers especially–often seem to subscribe to a kind of cultlike apologism, in which they feel the need to defend the author as a person even if they are temerarious enough to be displeased by her book. Negative reviews are met with a resounding chorus in the comments: the author is a wonderful person, the author worked hard, the author did her very best. The idea is, apparently, that women are so exhausted by the intellectual labor required to produce the text in question that we are unable to withstand any subsequent critique, and ought instead to fall back on some kind of rosy-cheeked sorority of lady writers, exchanging stain-removal tips and sob stories.

Lastly, you know how your blog’s dashboard shows which searches led people to your site?  Well, yesterday I noticed that someone out there in cyberspace asked this: “Where does Zetta Elliot live?”  CREEPY.  Every bio I have out there ends with, “She currently lives in Brooklyn.”  Did someone really think they could find my home address online?  I regularly post my upcoming events on this blog, and don’t think I should have to stop; after all, that’s the most appropriate way to meet an author…maybe it’s just a potential reviewer who wondered whether I live in Canada.  I’m going to hope it’s not a stalker.  Living a public life is tricky, but folks should respect the right of any blogger to lead a private life OFF line…

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