WBGO Studios celebrates Black Music Month with House Music podcast.
Come Sunday host, Lezlie Harrison interviews Jamara Wakefield and Carolyn Byrd about the history of House Music in New Jersey and their podcast 'Black House Black Joy' debuting on WBGO. Subscribe and listen here.
Producer and writer, Jamara Wakefield joins WBGO Studios with the Black House Black Joy podcast that invites listeners to immerse themselves in the rich history and evolution of the New Jersey House Music community. Come Sunday host Lezlie Harrison interviewed Jamara Wakefield and Carolyn Byrd about the history of House Music in New Jersey.
Watch their conversation here:
Listen to their conversation, above.
Lezlie Harrison: I am what is known as a house head and my journey found me many nights in the iconic Club Zanzibar in Newark back in the early 80s, so I am thrilled to be both with both of you and to be able to tell the story and hear the stories. Jamara, your creative practices have focused on documenting the lives of Black people. What was your impetus for creating Black House Black Joy?
Jamara Wakefield: I'm originally from Boston and moved to the tri-state Area for school, like lots of people. Then I was teaching in Paterson, and I moved to New Jersey. I was really searching in myself. Like, what am I going to do here in in Jersey, really asking the universe what my purpose was, knowing that I was a writer, knowing that I'm passionate about the lives of Black people. Really just trying to figure it out. Then a friend, DJ Roc Anthony invited me out to a House Music event, and it was the first time that I had been in the House space in Jersey. Personally, I just fell in love. From there, I wanted to make sure that I did this in an ethical way. So I asked him and asked other people in the House community, if if we started an oral history project, if we made a film, if we archived the lives of this community, will I have your permission to do so? We received a resounding yes from the community, and I've been filming, dancing, and having a good time since.
I lived in Boston too. I don't remember any House Music per se, but I remember driving from Amherst, Massachusetts when I was in college and coming to New York and New Jersey. Somehow, we scraped together some money to come down to the House scene in New Jersey or in New York. What was it like working with your peers on Black House Black Joy, focusing on the cultural and societal impact of House Music?
Jamara Wakefield: I learned a lot. About two months into filming this project and doing these interviews, I realized that the Jersey House community, like many Black communities, has been long documenting itself all by itself. Honestly, I was hanging out, having fun meeting folks, really getting acclimated to live in Newark, but the community itself had already been documenting it. I learned that really what I was doing was just showing up and bringing all these pieces together for a film and for a podcast. Black people are going to celebrate themselves if no one else does. It’s just been a pleasure for me.
How did you meet the House Mother?
Jamara Wakefield: One of one of the rules in this oral history project for me was that I would never do any cold calls. Everything was by referral, so I'd meet one person and then if they were supportive and we had a great interview, they would introduce me to someone else. That domino effect. Someone said, you need to talk to Mother Byrd because she is an icon and there are few who have been doing it longer than her. We met at the Linden Festival and had a nice conversation. I'll just say that I have been a huge admirer and loving up on her in public ever since.
Mother Byrd, you are a legend for a reason. House Music brings people together from all walks of life. You've seen many generations of the kids coming through on the House scene. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with House Music.
Carolyn Byrd: I got into that House scene by hanging out in a club that I shouldn't have been in because I was underage, and well, it can't do nothing to me now, but I I ran away from home. I ended up in the club and ended up getting the job the same night I went there and saw the show got in touch with, got got to be friends with the artist that was there and that the rest is history.
Yes, it is. You've seen some of the greats come through on the House scene. The DJs like Timmy Regisford, Larry Levan, Louis Vega. What is the future of House Music and where is it heading?
Carolyn Byrd: Wow, I don't know because there's so many genres of House Music now than back in the day. I have to just going clubbing in house then EDM and all this electronics. I guess with the innovations of technology changes, people change the sound.
You said something about the different genres of House. When I was coming up, there was New York House, Chicago House, New Jersey House. That was it. Now it's become this global movement.
Carolyn Byrd: Right. It’s global and if you go down to South Beach, they have what they call the Ultra Music festival because at one time it was the Winter Music Conference, but that no longer exists now. It's the Ultra Music Festival which are all different genres of music, but it used to be underground House where we would enjoy ourselves to the music, the dance, the the culture. But now it it has completely…I'm trying to calculate my words so that I don't pinch on anybody. But when they say housing, we're not pinching. When I go I'm expecting real underground House Music, but it is totally different music than what I'm used to hearing. It's all boots and pants. I'm like, what? It's not soulful.
Well, soulful equals House. I actually went dancing recently. It had been a while since I'd been in the House setting. It’s like a blessing. It's like a church service. It's like a Hallelujah. Get your dance on kind of groove. That's what makes House Music special. What are the differences between the newer generations of House heads and our version of House heads? I'm assuming we're in the same age zone. You're probably younger than me, so let me not assume that.
Carolyn Byrd: I really can't put a head on it because when I'm there I don't differentiate from the actual age. But I tell my peers to welcome the youth into House. Don't disdain them. Don't keep them out. Welcome them in because this is an art that if you don't, we're going to lose it. So get those kids in there. Bring your kids. I remember going to clubs where when I dj-ed parties, people would bring their kids to the club on Sunday afternoon, before it got really loud. And the kids would love it and they would enjoy it. This one kid just did the dance parade Sunday. He usually does a float every year. Club kid Louis. I remember his mom bringing him to the Paradise Garage. Now he's all grown up, but he's still doing it. This is all he knows all his life.
Jamara, what do you hope that your podcast and eventually your film will do for the House community?
Jamara Wakefield: Well, I think the house community is doing a lot for itself. I think this work, honestly, is holding space to one document, a history that needs to be on the map. We always talk about Chicago and the UK and Detroit and different places, which is amazing because it's all love. It's all the House. But Jersey has such a long history over 40 years of sustaining its own community. Whether it be club culture or festival culture. I think this podcast, which is perfect for Black Music Month, is really just celebrating the folks who are on the ground. Like they're the people who are going to come out and dance to house, whether or not this film, or whether or not this podcast exists. The best we could do in this present moment is document it and, and lift it up and celebrate it in front of the whole world so that, I hope a hundred years from now they look back and say, you know what, they were doing it, you know what, they had a community and it's about music, but it's also about more than music. It's about caring for each other and it's about joy and survival also. I hope we're just leaving some breadcrumbs for the future to look back and say, “Dang, that's cool.”
Ms. Byrd, you tell the story about being at Zanzibar when the word came that Nelson Mandela would be freed. You just talk about the impact of having that energy in the room there. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Carolyn Byrd: Every time I think about it, I get goose pimples. Because I'm always reading the news. Back then I was reading newspapers. We didn't have the internet. Just before I went to the club, they had announced on the news that in two weeks, Nelson Mandela would be freed. I could not wait to get to the club to tell everybody the good news. When I said that, the pressure and power of excitement actually blew me back. I could feel the vibe from the people of how happy they were that this man that had been arrested and been locked up for 27 years is about to be free, and then ended up becoming the president of South Africa. It was just so amazing to me.
Do you remember the song that was played after that announcement? Do you remember what everyone danced to?
Carolyn Byrd: Yes, it was “Motherland” by Jay Williams. It started out “Africa, Africa, Africa” and all that. Talk about a party. We celebrated for Nelson Mandela that day.
I bet you did. Unfortunately, I was not there. I can recall some nights at the Club Zanzibar but definitely I wasn't there for that one. We all often are asked how COVID has affected us personally. How did COVID affect the House scene, other than you couldn't go out dance?
Jamara Wakefield: I'll talk from a creator, filmmaker, oral history person who was documenting the scene. It paused our entire production. No one knew what we were going to do and then people started passing away. People whom we had interviewed—DJs, promoters, managers. DJ Hutch passed away. Other folks passed away and it was a really difficult time. What's crazy amazing about the story about Nelson Mandela that you just told, Byrd, is when you're on that dance floor, you are celebrating with so many people. You're celebrating individual victories like getting through the day, getting through the week, but you're also having this collective experience with everyone. So to not be able to have that collective experience of dancing together and feeling that beat together and being close to those speakers together, was really difficult.
And what about you?
Carolyn Byrd: I've made a quote in the past in reference to that. because we'd be in the club on Sunday and they would actually bring gospel choirs to the club and we would have church in the club. For me to explain that to them, I would tell 'em we dance as we praise our master.
House Music to me is so spiritual. In that regard, to see people really get their praise on, on the dance floor, with the music and the DJs and the lights, it's just amazing. Here's a good question. Zanzibar versus Club Shelter?
Carolyn Byrd: Oh God. Is that a question or a statement?
What did you learn from your time at both of those places and how do they differ or how are they both similar?
Carolyn Byrd: Well, first of all, let me say that Zanzibar was a prerequisite to the Shelter. As was Paradise Garage. And with those two clubs, mashed together became Shelter, but that was because the Garage closed and Zanzibar closed. Thank God TImmy had a vision that he wanted to do because he had visited Lagos, Nigeria to Fela Kut’s club. That's what he wanted to emulate. I don't know, because I've never been there, but to hear him speak of it, I wish I could have. I just know that if it wasn't for Zanzibar and Paradise Garage, Shelter would've never existed. I remember when I first went to the Shelter, before I started working there. I was just leaving a party in Queens with Tony Humphreys and Abigail Adams, who I used to work for Movin’ Records in East Orange.
She said, “Do you wanna go to the Shelter?” I was like, “The Shelter, what are we gonna do at the Shelter? Talk to homeless people?” She was like, “No, it's a club.” I say,”Really? The Shelter?” She took me there and I stood on those steps. I saw all these bodies and arms up in the air and dancing. Timmy was playing “Be Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness and Ann Nesby. She was performing that night and I just saw these arms up in the air and all these bodies and movement. It seemed like everybody was in sync. And I said, “Abby, this is my new home.” You had to live it, you had to be there.
And the likes of people just stopping by hanging out. My nephew woke me up and said, “Stevie Wonder’s up in the booth.” I said, “No, he is not.” I looked up and there was Stevie Wonder. One time I was running into the booth to pick up something and come back. I almost ran into Prince and almost knocked him over. They weren't even performing. Janet Jackson, MC Lyte, Wesley Snipes just hanging out. I'm like, “Wow, this is really something here.” How everybody just don't go to any club. So like back in the day with Studio 54 and Grace Jones and da da, da da.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.