TCI Transmission 06: Lonnie Holley on the possibility in a zillion grains of sand
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Today we release the sixth episode of TCI Transmissions. Each Transmission adds to our archive of experimental soundscapes, collected ideas, voices, and other snippets to help you think, create, and expand. As always, we will publish them here, or you can find us on your preferred podcatching service (iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Overcast, etc).
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This episode features excerpts of a longer interview by Michelle Lhooq with Lonnie Holley. Lonnie is an African-American visual artist and musician. He was born on February 10, 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama and has devoted his life to the practice of improvisational creativity. We have included the transcript of this audio below if you want to read along while listening.
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Lonnie Holley: Thinking about political or what’s kinda created on that stage is gonna look like life itself, human involvement with life. What do one do when they see a betterment for life. That does come about whether it’s through material resources or physically being involved. My thing as an artist and a musician, my works had to come out of that same grain of production, same thought, same thought pattern, same makeup. As far as political is concerned, I think when I talk about a clogged up drain, doesn’t allow the water to flush out of the city, that would flood it. It’s more like political because I’m caring about that, beyond the footsteps, again, the footsteps are very important, the marchers, the contributors. I think was has been exampled for us as political protesting. It has been when we find out that something needs our support, we get behind it, pretty well, all of our life into it. As far as my kind of working as an artist, coming through the civil right era itself, the growth of what African American, blacks, colors, all the way back through the negro days of participating together, to allow something to happen, for the betterment of everybody.
Seeing that betterment, seeing it develop, seeing it is almost like being on the backstage and all of the other stages of these activities has occurred and happened and turned into historical events and got their pedestals or got their opportunity to be on the walls of history. Historic information, and so much of that we lost. We lost so much. My thing as an artist and singing something like, “I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America,” is that every day, for a lot of us in America, every day since the ships rolled in from Africa, with them being chained and bound. Those that made it… cause that was a harsh journey from Africa to wherever, the islands or America or wherever, and then to get here and to be bound into a kind of captivity. You can’t go anywhere, America was this great big island. Once you got on it, you needed to have boats, so you didn’t have no way. You didn’t have the tools to build what you needed to get off of it, like you were stranded. So now you’re having to live with it and develop your very, very best, and I think that’s what I’m doing as an artist, also. I’m developing my very, very best to show that these are the things that we had. These are our opportunities, you know, this is what I’m saying.
I’m representing something that is so unique, so special, and it’s called our African American-ism. Just having that, African American origins. African American man. African American father. African American brother. African American son. You see what I’m talking about. African American thinker. African American in the ocean of thought. I try to sing about what our possibilities are… what a zillion grains of sand. A zillion grains of sand, just a little bit, we can use them up so fast. We can take them right outside this door and say we’re gonna construct ourselves a building, and use all those grains of sand and mortar alone, to construct and build a building and bricks. Those same zillion grains of sand can also go into casting the cast iron, whatever else that need to be cast, we can use that sand to cast it. All the way down to the smallest most technical necessity.
Hell is more like a word to us. The reality of what a lot of people call hell is being without. Or not knowing how to benefit from what’s around us. Hell could be an absence of appreciation. Hell can be someone had not loved you enough to let you know that your brain is the most important thing about your humanism. Hell could be coming out the door and you’re broke and you have no money to buy a meal or find a bed to sleep in or pay for it. Hell is being less, money less, homeless, less. Less is a powerful word. We don’t just use it as less, you less, you see what I’m saying. We always gonna put homeless, money less, powerless.
As a people, our arts has been our support. If somebody’s cripple, they need a walking stick or a walking cane or a crutch. Our art has been those things for us. The whole thing about African American art, how much of it got through our way, again the way we did it. My thing is recollecting how easily an idea can be taken from the African American and somebody else get ahold to that idea, sign it up, clean it up, sparkle it, paint it, glitterfy it, and then it’s got a value. This is what was happening over, and over, and over again. Our contributions were just shined up, painted and made to look better by somebody else’s hand, but it was always our plan. It was our plan, but a lot of times if you look at somebody… I’m gonna have example a few artists in here, someone like Mr. Thornton Dial. Another artist I think great, Ronald Lockett. I’m thinking of some other artists like the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers. We was exampling the little bitty pieces, just like the piece, the thing that you have on. I really love what you came to meet me in, because we taken it to the digital now. It’s no longer we gotta use all of your little fragments and your little pieces of debris down to the particle, we’ve already done that.
If you look at the contributions, my thing is I know the truth, but how the truth has been documented to make a lie stand out as a lie. For one thing, the periods of time, if you say African American artists, we came into America, we had these thoughts and values in our brain cells, in our DNA, and we did these different things and we developed them. We still use parts of those things because they were in our DNA. Constructive manner of any type of art, from the pigmentation, of the colorization, all the way to where was the placement of every little thing. We was afraid of it because it mighta had some animal hide in it, it might of had animal teeth in it, it might of had little fragments of bones and all these other things that was mixed in, onto a piece of leather. It was on our jacket or it was something carved out of wood, and we had a few other things attached to the wood, may they be found objects or objects put together, objectivity.
Again, now how all of those materials and things fitted into our way of helping the process, or the fight, or the struggle, because we took those things of the aftermath of the events that had occurred and we made art of them. We put them on the wall like all of these oil wells like you see behind me, but also I see the drive in theater, if you can look at the screen way back there. It’s a screen from a drive in theater, then from that one to that one over there, and then if you look up, hold your head up, you can see it reflecting of that in that, without that even being on [pointing to a TV]. How do we see that deep, how doe we care that deep? Because of our ancestors.
I think maybe at 10 and a half I was put in this place called Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. I was ordered there and all the other children of Birmingham was ordered there by Bull Connor, off the streets, he gave a curfew. My parents or nobody else didn’t know where I were and they just locked us all up, but there I gotta whooping every day for not knowing how to pick cotton.
My thing when it come down to the children that’s at the border now and the treatment that they’re possibly or maybe getting. If it’s just harsh enough to say, “Shut your damn mouth.” Or, “Get over in there.” Or, this is such a treatment, “Get behind.” You know what I’m saying, you got them locked behind… It’s a condition that you will never forget. These are conditions that we are putting humans in a mental state… that’s the reason why it’s very important for me to sing out. Please, please let’s gain our focus and our ability. Let’s gain our posture of being true to what we said. I’m not gonna let nothing, I’m not gonna let nothing distract me to the point that I’m gonna kill or we gonna kill each other. The thing about what we are being distracted to right now is more like in school violence, in institutions when you start breaking down the character of institutions where humans that’s going into these institutions cannot get along with each other, man that’s bad. That is really bad. Then you think about the materials that is being or is suffering from that, not only their jobs, but the quality of our values, the quality and quantity of our values.
The depths of my thinking, I do often, and still I often cry about it because I feel that nobody don’t care about what I’m saying or singing. I know I’m way beyond my family’s values of my thoughts. I’m way beyond what, again I did this piece, “On the Other Side of the Pulpit”, because I was beyond what the church thought. That I said, “I’m not an amen man.” I’m not interested in coming in there, just reading things about what other people historical are, documentations are, whatever that was documented about that person’s life way back then. I’m not interested in walking through museums every day, just looking at what other artists has created. I’m interested in what I’m creating. Again, I’m interested in what I’m creating all the way down to, again, you saw it a few minutes ago, but it’s important for me to get that point across. I think, again, I thank Matt Arnett and William Arnett and whoever else has been a part of me getting my works into the different museums.
Now at first that type of atmosphere or attitude that I went in to the museums through were more like through the back door, meeting the director. So I came in through the back door meeting the director, not through the front door. I wasn’t coming through all the art that was on exhibit. I was coming in through the back door, showing the director what I had, not what I saw of somebody else.
Again, I have to cry about it because I’m alone in this endeavor. I don’t think nobody else can go there with me. I can’t take nobody there with me. I have to go there when I go to sleep. I’m trying to see what is the fire, what is the effect of the fire, then I’m looking at, it’s going to rain. I’m looking at the moisture because of the heat. The heat is rising, so there’s a cloud of heat that is going somewhere and doing something to the levels of the mountain that are actually snow capped and ice is capped. Now this ice and this snow is melting much, much faster. That’s gonna cause a great amount of landslide, because the land is going to be burnt bald. Once the land be burnt bald, there’s going to be a certain amount of sickness because of the fire burning different creatures.
Then the creatures themselves eating or protecting from the carcass of dead that has been dead or just dead that now have to be washed away. It’s a lot of things that once these things occur and then seeing the many snakes that is crawling, the little things that’s crawling. All these things needing support of of their life spans or needing to eat, needing to drink. There is no water. Water now has been turned into ash dust, has been turned into chalk from the burning of the different types of wood. There is bad water in the hood. It’s the right song to sing right now, not for Flint, Michigan, but for America missing it. That’s the way it come to be a song because America, Americans missing, you don’t miss your water until the well burn dry. These kind of things.
Again, I get… My whole thing is I constantly call my grandmother’s spirit and my mother’s spirit. My mother given birth to 27 children out of her 32 pregnancies. I’m thinking that’s one of the strongest moral formation of brain strength that I ever saw in my life. I’m looking at my grandmother in her 80s working for Poole Funerals, digging graves for three of the little girls that got bombed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. “Not only Deanna, but also I’m woman. I may not go down to Kelly Ingram Park and be a foot soldier like that, but I’m gonna go up to that graveyard and I’m gonna dig those children’s graves and I’m going to be a foot soldier like that. I’m going to go to the city lot or the landfill. I’m gonna put up with that hot, burning pitchful manner. I’m gonna rake and scrape as much as I can out of that hole. And here come my grandson coming out of Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children where he had the hell whooped out of him everyday for not knowing how to harvest or pick cotton or load watermelons on a wagon or pick peanuts or pecans out of their field.”
It was so many things that, “Get your ass in the corner.” There I was in the corner. That’s where I cry. But, in that corner what grabbed those tears and dried them up, I moved away from humans and I moved to the music that was coming from the jukebox. That soothed me, even though these issues that I have to deal with humanly are now I have to because I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all these other kind of ways. There’s so many ways. Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie, Lonnie. Okay, so it’s Lonnie Holley or how many likes have we got from just putting, “I woke up in a fucked up America,” on I think a week and a half ago. Almost 25,000 people liked that already. I don’t know hardly none of those people by their name. You gain friends from what you do. That is the truth.
We as humans are no more than history words that need to be printed. Instead of us acting and playing and allowing ourselves to be used as the dummies of the quicksand field of stupidity, we should say no more. We’ve experienced these fields enough now to turn and write the history of the sand that we’re sinking in. We can write the history and say that the sand that we’re sinking in is full of debris because of everything that was being washed in that same muck-ified sand, that same oily, greasy, all kind of transmission fluids and all other kind of oils and motorization and any kind of grease that allow friction to be eased. Those was the grease this… I was thinking about it tonight. That can easily be done. It’s orchestrated. It’s almost like all of us is like watching the graves now filled with debris. Now filled with debris and cracking tombstones that is falling deeper and deeper and deeper down in the grave.
Hope needs to be work. You just can’t say hope. Hope don’t go nowhere. Hope needs to be work. Faith need to be … Faith, you got to do something in order to cause faith to be activated. The whole thing that I’m trying to show is no matter what you do in life, you got to do the whole thing. To do or not to do. Dr King said, “If I did not get off my horse to help this man, what would have happened to this man if I did not?”
I’m not preaching to you. I told my grandmamma, I said, “I don’t want to be a preacher.” I told my mama … Mama said, “You can make a great minister.” I don’t want to be the minister. You got a daughter to do that. My children are evangelists. I got children that sing in the gospel field. I got 15 children and all of them is artists. All of them is artists. I can’t put them in no bowl like that. Everything in that bowl is totally different, but it’s the dip in the middle that makes it delicious or makes it different in taste. All I could do is say, “Children, you are the bowls of fruit.”