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Tamar-kali on scoring the Little Richard doc and the white-washed canon of American pop music

Little Richard appears in Little Richard: I Am Everything by Lisa Cortes, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Little Richard appears in Little Richard: I Am Everything by Lisa Cortes, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Little Richard: I Am Everything debuted at Sundance 2023 U.S. Documentary Competition. The film, directed by Lisa Cortés, shines a clarifying light on the Black and queer origins of rock ’n’ roll, and establishes the genre’s big bang: Richard Wayne Penniman. WBGO's Digital Content Manager, Jamara Wakefield spoke with the film’s composer Tamar-kali about the whitewashing of rock and roll and reclaiming the history of Black Music through Little Richard's vast legacy.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Jamara Wakefield: Before we get into Little Richard and all things fabulousness, talk to me about your relationship with music across genres and your earliest memories of music.

Tamar-kali: I'm a second-generation musician. My dad was a bass player and in general, music was an integral part of life growing up as a Black girl in Brooklyn. In the time that I was being reared in Brooklyn, music was coming out of windows, music was coming out of cars, and also with my Southern background, my mom being Gullah Geechee and me living with my family in the summers and just those ethnocultural African-American musical traditions that I was exposed to. Even though I grew up Catholic in the North, when I would go down South, I would be surrounded by the blues and gospel. In general, my family's pretty musical. My aunt sang as well. So there was always some type of melody or sound or parties, whatever. Music was a huge part of my life in general. Just kind of like another thing you do other than eat and sleep and dream. You dance, you sing, you know? It was integral part of life. In terms of learning to write music and be a performer, that happened pretty early on because my dad was a musician and so my first lessons were at home. But from there, going into school, I became a choral classical singer because I was Catholic. And so classical music came into my life from that frame of reference.

I love that. It sounds like music has just always been there for you. The landscape of your life. This film includes the testimonials from musicians and cultural figures, as well as Black and queer scholars and, of course, Penniman’s family and friends. And, of course, we hear from Little Richard himself, and these collective voices come together to reclaim a history that was appropriated by white artists and the music industry. Can you talk to me about the whitewashing of Black music and then speak on how this film really is tackling the residue of that violence within the music industry?

I think it’s a long standing, well-documented tradition. I would tell folks to watch the film because there's nothing more clear cut than seeing the archival footage. This is a source for deep pain for a lot of Black folks. Whitewashing, erasure, it is violence. It renders you invisible when you are flesh and blood. To have a portion of our citizenry here in America constantly feel unheard and unseen, it definitely does a number on your psyche in time. Then there's the economic piece, where you can't make a living and survive off of the thing that you yourself created. And through its appropriation you see people being able to create a foundation and generations of wealth over what was taken from you. I think that the nuance that's missing from the conversation, it's not about different people not being able to do different types of music. It's about the erasure of the originators and literally making it impossible for them to build and grow off of what they created. When you have someone appropriate art and culture and basically are able to generate wealth for generations and you've been sidelined, that is an act that needs to be repaired in some form or fashion.

Lisa Cortes, who really leads the creative direction on this film, wants us to go there. This film really gives Little Richard all the flowers, all the credit for being the blueprint in terms of rock and roll. Can you talk to us about your relationship with rock and roll?

This film was about Little Richard, but one of the things that made me say yes was the fact that she does identify Sister Rosetta Thorpe as the person who gave him his first opportunity. That was really important to me. Had she not been mentioned, well, “Hmmph.”

I grew up in New York in the ‘80s and the concept of sound clash, of mixing or intersections of things, were always there. Especially as I've gotten older, I'm very conscious about framing it as something unusual. I think it might be unfamiliar to the average person because it's not focused in mainstream spaces, but intersectionality is just a part of life. Starting with W.E.B. Dubois talking about double consciousness, it's just more compounded. There are more than just two frames of reference that we're dealing with at any given moment. People love what resonates with them. There are a lot more people who are Black that resonate with aggressive and intense sound than people think. But it's just a matter of folks just not having that frame of reference.

With my dad being a musician, I grew up listening to all kinds of kinds of music at home. One example I give of what drew me to rock is, I remember on BLS when Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” was out and was on the radio. Total Georgie Porgie. It's like people were musicians, they were writing, they had their expression on the airwaves and that could vary.

When you are nurtured by many sounds, your expression is reflective of that. I want to make sure that I really speak to the fact that this is not some strange phenomenon. It's just that it's not given the platform of discussion. I feel like even in the discussion of it, oftentimes there's still a marginalization that happens. In the example of some of these new cultural events or festivals like, say, Afropunk, it's a way of…instead of nodding to the subculture and where it comes from, It's a way to put on a costume, whether it's Coachella or Burning Man. It's like, “This is when we're gonna put on our freak costume and we're gonna have a moment to experiment and explore.” And that's fine. But the only thing is that when people who are about that lifestyle for real, really creating music and art with these concepts, I think that it's important to do your due diligence to figure out who those people might be. I think that they should be able to eat too. Does that make sense?

Listen, we all gotta eat. That's the problem. That is not a game.

You can see that as a microcosm within so-called like-minded communities, it's like being in this bubble of America, we sometimes have to look internally and notice that we are exhibiting the same behaviors within our own communities that we've seen things happen to us. For instance, it's great to experiment and explore and you have your little festivals you go to, but if the folks who originated it can't eat, it's a problem. Just like this original art form, rock and roll, which was slang for sex, becoming this America phenomenon, going from race music where it was like, “We're gonna rock the poor, the white youth's brain with this Negro music.” Like literally there are tons of news clips saying that to then moving into this space where this is ours. This has always been our thing. We can do tha, tmong each other as well. I just think that we need to be mindful. Like it's fine to explore and experiment, but can everybody eat?

I think it's really interesting the point that you're raising. I hear you talking about community in multiple levels, because the music itself is created from community. We see in the film the places that Little Richard used to hang. They were hanging and performing and playing the way that creative people play with sound and with words and performing. The context of queer spaces and queer balls and all of that as well. The music itself organically comes out of community. People are together and that applies to hip hop, applies to the blues, applies to work songs. Then what happens when the music spreads outside of that original inner community? Then the moment where it almost feels like the external world is cosplaying the original community.

Amen. Too, I think it's important for us to caution [that] it took a village to create a little Richard and the film shows you that. I think we all need to be more self-reflective and understanding that we have a tendency in this culture to frame things by one leader, one originator, one maker, and culture doesn't work like that. Human beings often come up with brilliant ideas in different parts of the world. You can look at culture, dance in different spaces, people that were thousands of miles away, because there's something about the human condition where sometimes we come to the same conclusion, not even knowing what the other person is doing. It did take a village to make Little Richard. I think it's important that we not frame some of this stuff in this very hierarchical, one boss, one leader thing, when it's the culture of a community.

I think that's perfectly said. I had a friend tell me once, we were talking about music and it was in the context actually of hip hop, and pop music and music that they say quote unquote crosses over to mainstream. He said to me, “Who did the heroes listen to?” The people we label as heroes, we lift them up on pedestals. We can't avoid the fact that that does happen. So he was like, “Who did MLK listen to?” Because that's the lineage. I love that you brought up Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

That’s an interesting segue because when we talk about appropriation and this whitewash of the story of rock and roll, what's so interesting is that there was a phenomenon of terror here. “Negro music is gonna ruin all of our white youth.” It wasn't until folks in England got a hold of it and then it was filtered through their experience that things really flipped around and it became this global sensation. Then it becomes this multimillion-dollar industry and this whole phenomenon. But it was something that was homegrown that could not be accepted as is, because of the messenger.

One of the things that I love about this film is that I feel like you dropped the word intersectionality. I feel like we see Little Richard at a crossroads of his identities. For me, that feels very humanizing, because first of all, films about music and music people or anything related to music, it's usually the epic hero tale. Or it's very sad. “Then they died in the bathroom.” It's one or the other. And for me, just seeing that he was religious and also queer and a musician. And also moving between these worlds. How did you as a composer, approach this project creatively so that you could also continue to humanize this piece in terms of the soundscape?

We started from a very expansive idea. Lisa was very clear and had very specific language around this kind of almost extraterrestrial quasar or vibration…this interstellar, almost interdimensional quality. A celestial body on Earth. Those are the types of words we were playing with. I thought that was great fodder to start developing a palette from. That's what I was working from and with, and then creating these tones of the struggle within him, between the sacred and the secular. That push and pull. Those were the major elements and pieces. Then as you're showing his life, there's locational things. So there's a bit of upright bass in there that gets a little jazzy or bluesy, depending on the location in the film as we're talking about his growth into this dynamic artist that he became. But the nucleus was in the stratosphere. We started there and then came in, as opposed to from within and going out. We came in the other direction. It was super expansive and then got tighter.

What is the process of composing teaching you about yourself as a musician?

Composition happens in so many different ways. I've been composing since I was a child technically. But composing for film is an opportunity to really develop strength outside of the very myopic personal or solo artist perspective, which I think then when I return to my solo work, gives me new perspectives and just strengthens my practice. So much of what I do as an artist and as a composer in general, it's very solitary. I was an only child. I have half sisters, but I didn't live with them. As a solitary person often, and even in my work, sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.

When you're working on a film and you have collaborators and there's this process of submitting things for a response, getting that feedback and revising so that you can essentially take a journey to what it will be, which requires more than just your own opinion and for it to resonate with the director. I think it's just a good practice in general and it really helps to develop my art beyond just myself.

I think so many creatives would agree and identify with what you said. I had a mentor tell me once that “If I could do the whole project by myself, is the vision of the project big enough?” As a writer and artist, we can definitely go into our shed and get it done. Yet the process of working with others and being in conversation with others and in orbit with others creatively, it really does push us. It pushes our humanity and brings us to a new place of understanding as well. I want to switch gears and talk about what you've been up to. I love that you were involved with the Los Angeles Opera. Can you tell us about We Hold These Truths?

I was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera to do a piece for their digital short series. During COVID, opera actually did very well and introduced itself to brand new audiences through the digital short. I have been doing some work around, just thinking a lot about everything that transpired while we were in lockdown, George Floyd and Elijah McClain. And thinking about how so often people frame these experiences from a very new or contemporary lens and that it's new to them, or even sometimes, it's new to our country. When people think about the civil rights movement, they often think about the sixties, but the civil rights movement where black folks are concerned in America, began as of abolition. There's so much work, scholarship, art, poetry, pertaining to the process thereafter.

Vocalist, composer, singer-songwriter Tamar-kali
Vocalist, composer, singer-songwriter Tamar-kali

The basic people are just quite unfamiliar and it's one of those things where, especially right now with what we're dealing with the educational system in America, it's interesting, but so many of us dating back to the double consciousness, a lot of what we've learned about our cultural history was at home. You did not get it at school. I didn’t learn about Tuskegee in school. I didn't learn about Benjamin Banneker in school. There's so much that I could tell you that I didn't learn about in school. I learned from my parents. Because we are an oral tradition, people that was and still is quite commonplace.

There was this whole other supplemental education that you got because PWI’s standard education was not going to provide knowledge of yourself to you. I wanted to give more context. I felt like it could be of great help. Also the fact that some of this stuff kind of undergirds the marginalization of African American composers as part of the American orchestral canon. You have folks practicing these high arts from way back and so We Hold These Truths speaks to that. It's using poetry from the 1800s, Paul Lawrence Dunbar through Claude McKay in the Harlem Renaissance. That was the focus of that work because it's work that I've been circling around for a while.

I love that you shared the reality that [for] so many of us, our education about Black music and Black history and Black literature, it was home. I think about my mom's and the interesting thing, if I can add to that, is not only was it home, but it wasn't off limits to us.  Any book that my mom had in her collection, any record that she had in her collection, it was mine to share and partake in and dance to and listen to while we clean the house.

When I was working on this piece, my mother-in-law shared with me her mother's copy of Paul Lawrence Dunbar's book of poetry. It had an inscription and it was so delicate It's in a plastic bag, but to be able to touch it and have that tangible experience was really something.

Exactly, like the way it's passed down. It's so interesting because, at least for me, I didn't really even think about genre. I've never had to think about genre until I stepped out of my home because in the same home where we listened to funk, we also listened to hip hop, we also listened to gospel. So for me, Black music is Black music. I never really had to contend with this idea that some music is black music and some isn't for us. And I never had to contend with that until I left the house.  

Talk to us about what you have going on and what's in the pipeline for you.

I am working on a couple of things. I have some film work in the pipeline that should be coming out for 2023. I’m wondering how much I can share. My website is tamarkali.com. But a couple of things that'll be happening in 2023. One is my first full length theatrical stage piece, conceived and directed by Bill T. Jones, called Watch Night. I'm the composer for it and it will have its premiere at the new performing arts center at Ground Zero, the Pearlman Arts Center. Last year I debuted at the end of the year a song cycle that was commissioned by Beth Morrison Project called Melancholic Ghosts and Other Mothers, featuring the poetry of Lola Ridge, Gwendolyn Bennett and Jesse Redmond Fauset. I'm going to be releasing a 10-inch recording of that work. I've got another opera digital short coming. I like to go in deep, going to the lab, going to the workshop. Then I like to sow and reap.

Jamara Wakefield is an arts and culture writer and creator currently living in Newark.