Category Archives: the Freshness

Three the Hard Way: Breaking the feedback loop of time.

three the hard way

Friday July 10th marks the opening of a culminating group exhibition, part of my artist residency at the University of Chicago.

from the show’s description:
“Three the Hard Way” is an exhibition takes its title from a 1974 blaxploitation classic in which three action heroes, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Jim Brown must save the race from a neo-Nazi organization bent on black genocide. The exhibition features the 2014/2015 Arts + Public Life/Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture artists-in-residence Ayana Contreras, James T. Green, and David Leggett, all squarely post-Civil Rights children born after Williamson, Kelly, and Brown saved the world. Although we may breathe a collective sigh of relief, the work of these artists suggests there is much to account for since then culturally, politically, and socially. How do we square nostalgia for a Black Nationalist period with events in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting?

My work particularly asks about the dialogue that can exist between older materials (photographs and records, particularly), and the hot-button issues that still haunt us today (police brutality, poverty, racism, et al). It also asks if we are in some sort of feedback loop, where the socio-political progress folks hoped to see come out of the Black Power era has yet to fully manifest itself.

As we draw more and more parallels between this moment’s societal ills and the social issues of previous eras, what ideas can we extract from those earlier times? What can we use to break the feedback loop and to push forward?

Guest curated by Hamza Walker.

Exhibition on view Jul 10–Aug 23, 2015
Logan Center for the Arts / 915 E 60th Street, Chicago.

“Nights at the Museums” Opening Reception: Fri, Jul 10, 6–8pm / Free


All Events located in Gallery

Wed, Jul 29, 6–7:30 pm – Artists in Conversation: Ayana Contreras

Wed, Aug 5, 6–7:30 pm – Artists in Conversation: James T. Green

Wed, Aug 12, 6–7:30 pm – Artists in Conversation: David Leggett

Sun, Aug 23, 2–4 pm – Closing Reception and Catalog Release
Presented by the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life, Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and Logan Center Exhibitions.


Windy City Breakdown: The intersection of black power, culture, & entrepreneurship 60s/70s Chicago.

The end of May 2015 marked the end of my first Art Exhibition: Windy City Breakdown. The solo exhibition illustrated my process and research. The work also explored locally-sourced vintage vinyl records and paper ephemera from my personal collection to reveal aspects of Black Chicago during times of collision among the arts, entrepreneurship, and Black Power. Th happened at the Washington Park Arts Incubator as part of my Residency at the University of Chicago.

Here’s some photos from the show.

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Reclaimed Soul: A Thin Line Between Chicago Soul and Gospel.

Reclaimed Soul Host Ayana Contreras explores the thin line between the Gospel and Soul scenes in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s, and plays cuts that dip into each genre. Featuring music by The Salem Travelers, Gospel Clouds, Brother Samuel Cheatam, The Independents, and much more.187256-001

Just to illustrate the ties that bind Chicago Soul and Gospel, Samuel Cheatam rose through the ranks of both the Tabernacle Church of Prayer Choir and the Mount Pleasant Choir before self-releasing his first solo work, a working of the classic “Troubles of the World” on the Cora label in 1969. His single was produced by none other than Chuck Bernard. Chuck Bernard was a Chicagoan by way of St. Louis. He was a hip, gritty soul singer, playing in clubs and recording in the late 60s on St, Laurence, Satellite, and Zodiac. Cheatam’s Bernard-produced 45 sold well enough, leading to a reissue by West Side Chicago-based label One Way Records. A subsequent 1977 album was called “Stranger In The City”. This give-and-take was very common in Chicago, despite the historical chasm between the secular world and the sacred.

For fresh episodes of Reclaimed Soul, listen in Thursdays at 8pm CST on, or tune in to 89.5fm (NW Indy) and 90.7fm (CHI)

100 Saxophones for Sun Ra

100 Saxophones for Sun Ra

Chicago Free Jazz composer and saxophonist David Boykin invites you to participate in 100 Saxophones for Sun Ra. David is currently a Resident Artist at the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life/Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture.

David has put out an open call for 100 saxophonists to participate in a musical tribute to Sun Ra in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. 100 saxophonists will convene and perform “Happy Birthday” at 12 noon in Washington Park (on Chicago’s South Side) on Thursday May 22, 2014, his 100th birthday.

According to the open call:

“This is a historic opportunity to share our collective energy in honor of this musician whose musical, political and spiritual philosophy has been impactful and transformative to so many. His legacy continues because of the ways in which his musical innovation has been central to the free jazz movement in Chicago and beyond.

[David] chose this space and place because of its significance to [Sun Ra]. Along with other musicians, artists and activists he gathered in the park to play and to teach. In celebration of this work we invite you to participate in this gathering of saxophonists of all ages.”
RSVPs should be sent by email to

Free bus transportation is available for student groups that wish to participate. Please contact Dominique L. Boyd for bus arrangements at

Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) was a prolific jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his “cosmic philosophy,” musical compositions and performances. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a 1979 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

sun ra blue

In Rotation: Ayana Contreras of Vocalo’s Reclaimed Soul on a softly stratospheric Andrew Hill LP


The music that is currently in rotation (in my head), as excerpted from

Ayana Contreras, DJ and host of Vocalo’s Reclaimed Soul, blogger at

The Natural Four, Natural Four This was released here in Chicago on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1974. The Natural Four was a group that came here from San Francisco to record because Chicago was a soul-music center. Unfortunately, aside from scoring a Top 40 hit with this album’s classic lead track, “Can This Be Real,” the group was unable to break through. Natural Four brims with loping strings, aggressive horns, and slinky harmonies.

Andrew Hill, Lift Every Voice I collect old Blue Note albums, and I’m often initially attracted to their covers. This 1970 release features Hill’s face superimposed over stars and violet nebulas, and the record itself is softly stratospheric in its energy. Hill leads a crowd of vocalists and an instrumental quintet that includes Richard Davis on bass and Carlos Garnett on tenor sax. With song titles such as “Love Chant,” “Ghetto Lights,” and “Hey Hey,” the record gently envelops you with a sense of perpetual motion—sometimes it feels like you’re swinging in a hammock, and sometimes it’s like you’re running electrically in the streets.

Sunday Williams, “Where Did He Come From Sunday Williams recorded this single in Chicago around 1969 for Bill Meeks’s Alteen label, based on Stony Island Avenue. It did OK locally, mainly thanks to the cheery flip side, “Ain’t Got No Problems” (which features the hook “Know what to do with my man, yeah!”). Really, both songs are stellar. But “Where Did He Come From” has a hauntingly beautiful staccato horn intro, coupled with dreamy vibes and a rock-solid bass line.

Proof positive that I do listen to stuff that’s not from Chicago, sometimes. For the rest of the article, click here.

The Jazz-Soul of Chess Records

chess checker

Chicago’s Chess Records may be best known for its blues artists such as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter. But in the 1960s, they also had a wealth of hip Jazz and Soul artists, many of whom recorded for Chess’ Cadet subsidiary. On this installment of Reclaimed Soul, host Ayana Contreras featured the Jazz-Soul side of Chess, with music from artists including Clea Bradford, The Dells, McKinley Mitchell, Dorothy Ashby, Ahmad Jamal, The Soulful Strings, and much more.

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on or over the air in Chicagoland on 89.5fm (NWI) and 90.7fm (CHI)

Kitty & the Haywoods: a slice of Chicago Sister Funk.

kitty and the haywoodsThe Emotions were not the only sister group to come out of Chicago. It was all in the family for Kitty and the Haywoods, as well (although they actually consisted of three sisters and a niece). Before Kitty and the Haywoods’ self-titled debut album, Kitty had a long recording history as a background vocalist for such acts as Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier. She was also a member of The New Rotary Connection (along with Shirley Wahls) after Minnie Riperton departed from Rotary Connection.

1974, Kitty and the Haywoodweiss recorded a single as Kitty Haywood & the Haywood Singers called “Big Black Cloud”. It was produced and arranged by Charles Stepney (who was the creative force behind Rotary Connection). Kitty had also previously released a solo record on the Weis label.

In 1976, the sisters sang back up for Aretha Franklin on the “Sparkle” soundtrack, which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. Before that, they recorded quite a few jingles in town.

The album Kitty and the Haywoods (1977) was produced by Mercury Records label mates The Ohio Players, and it sounds like a gumbo of the Ohio Players and Labelle at their silver-lame-wearing best.

What I appreciate most about Kitty and the Haywoods is that they were quite literally part of the backbone of the Chicago Recording scene. Too many background vocalists faded away into the shadows, remaining anonymous. But these ladies were able to shine.  Jive on!

A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

death_blog__full (1)



This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.

Merri Dee: Media Legend On Chicago Radio Again.

merri dee WBEE

Many Chicagoans know Merri Dee as a personality on WGN-TV; but her roots on Chicago Radio are undeniable. She hosted a popular program in the late 60s and early 70s on WBEE (a station out of Harvey). The above ad for her show, “The Merri Dee Magic Sound” ran in the Woodlawn Booster back in 1970.

About a year after this ad was published,  A stalker shot Ms. Dee multiple times and left her for dead. She ultimately recovered, and went on to spend nearly 4 decades at WGN.

Merri Dee is an amazing woman who has overcome the odds (including abuse and attempted murder) to be a beacon of light, a trailblazer, and a role model for women of color… especially those (like me) who work in media here in Chicago.

Ms. Dee will be the featured guest on Vocalo‘s Barber Shop Show (which airs live from Carter’s Barber Shop  in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood). She will talk about her life, and her newly published memoir, titled “Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace”.

The Barber Shop Show is hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, and streams on Fridays at Noon. On-air, Chicago listeners can tune into 89.5fm or 90.7fm. Tune in tomorrow (June 28th) at Noon for her riveting story.

UPDATE: In case you missed the show, you can hear the archived version here:

Black Radical Imagination: Landing in Chicago’s Woodlawn Community this Sunday.


This Sunday, a film screening called Black Radical Imagination will happen at the Black Cinema House in Chicago’s Woodlawn community. Black Radical Imagination stemmed from a series of discussions around the boundaries and limitations that are historically given to people of color. Specifically, in the film industry these restrictions are often digested and kept to propel a vicious cycle of negative identification. Black Radical Imagination invokes a futurist aesthetic where artists identify themselves and reclaim their own unique stories. Black Radical Imagination is curated by Erin Christovale and Amir George.

Sunday, May 19 at 6pm
Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave.

Seating is limited, so please RSVP by emailing to reserve your seats.

Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras interviewed one of the filmmakers, Christina De Middel (De Middel also took the stunning photo above).

In 1964, still living the dream of their recently gained independence, Zambia started a space program that would put the first African on the moon, catching up with the USA and the Soviet Union in the space race. That was the true story that inspired De Middel’s short film and photography series, both titled “Afronauts”.

We will hear their discussion on tonight’s episode of Reclaimed Soul, plus a pulsating rhythmic gumbo of futuristic African music from the 1970s & 1980s, and plenty of good old fashioned soul (all spun on wax).

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on 89.5fm (NW Indy) and 90.7fm (CHI)


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