7 African artists share their feelings on the glory — and missteps — of Beyoncé’s Black is King

Of all the life-altering and terrifying changes that have occurred in 2020, one of the more fascinating shifts has been happening in celebrity culture. Stars have always been placed on a pedestal, and now that pedestal’s being shaken. 

Maybe that’s why I initially had little interest in watching Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Black Is King. As a self-described member of the BeyHive, I surprised myself when I couldn’t even bother to check out the trailer. (I partially blame the source material; last year’s terrible remake of The Lion King still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.) 

But after numerous friends texted me — blasting me for not watching it — I finally succumbed to pressure and took in Black is King. It didn’t take long to understand why I’d been bombarded with so many exclamation marks. The film features a myriad of Black performers who are beautifully shot, spectacularly outfitted and elegantly staged. It left me struggling to contain my emotions. Black is King is a visual masterpiece that is overwhelming and grand and excessive and extra in all the ways we have come to expect from a Beyoncé project. But alongside its eye-popping visuals, Beyoncé’s love letter to Africa has drawn some eyebrow-raising critique.

Reading review after review, I became hungry to hear the thoughts of African artists. The first time I viewed the film, I was watching with one of my best friends, Muginga António, an architectural designer from Angola who also attended school in South Africa. Her observations helped me to realize just how many cultural references I was missing. And I wanted to learn more. 

So rather than share my thoughts (which are many) on Black is King, I’m turning this space over to seven female-identified and gender non-conforming creatives. All currently based in Toronto, they were either born in or raised by parents from Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Angola. Participating in this dialogue are António, writer/filmmaker Aden Abebe, visual artist Bishara Elmi, choreographer Esie Mensah, artist/curator Chiedza Pasipanodya, author Téa Mutonji and fashion designer Abiola Akinsiku.

Their opinions and insights are varied and rich, and they provide important perspectives that I think need to be front and centre in any conversation around Black is King.

[embedded content]

How would you describe your response to watching Black is King for the first time?

Esie Mensah: To be honest, I really wasn’t expecting much, and I almost didn’t want to watch it. Listening to the album last year — I applaud her for working with the biggest artists on the continent, but I just didn’t want this to turn into the Beyoncé show. However, from the wardrobe to the movement, I was screaming as I saw Africa manifest on screen. 

As someone who paved the road for the Afrofusion/Afrobeats scene in Canada, to see our spirit not get lost on screen is huge. The energy was explosive and raw in “My Power,” jovial in “Keys to the Kingdom.” Papi Ojo dancing beside the Queen herself? Chale, c’mon! 

I was proud to see that she caught the vibe of the Afro contemporary movements coming out of the continent. Moves like Zanku, Gwara Gwara and Burna Boy’s favourite Gbese kick had me dancing and throwing up gunshots at my computer screen. 

The vibrations coming out of Africa right now have been life-changing. I often question if they are aware that they are changing the world. The ancestors manifested a spirit in this generation that will bring Africa into the future. From movement, to fashion, to music — both on the continent and in the diaspora — [we are] rewriting the narrative of what Africa can be. Whether you enjoy the film or not, the message is loud and clear: “Remember who you are.”

Beyonce and Papi Ojo in Black is King. (Giphy)

Aden Abebe: I could write a whole dissertation about this film. Within the first few minutes of Black is King, I was locked into an emotional journey that I didn’t want to end. 

The first song, “Bigger,” begins with Beyoncé on the beach, holding [a] baby in her arms. 

Baby in her arms, she bows in front of two men dressed in white, wafting frankincense. We then see her by the ocean, joining in as mothers touch their children’s faces with holy water. 

As an Ethiopian who grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church, every bit of these scenes reminded me of home, of my culture, my mother and the love that it symbolizes to bless your child. 

Beyoncé repeatedly singing the words “you’re part of something way bigger” brought me to tears. This level of intentionality communicated love for her Blackness, love for our Blackness, love for our heritage, love for our legacy and love for us as a community of artists. In tears!

From Black is King. (Disney+)

Chiedza Pasipanodya: My initial response to the film was complicated. Complicated because I was born in Zimbabwe and have lived in Toronto for 20 years. Complicated because I felt proud of its positive representation of Blackness (of which there is often so little in mainstream media at this scale) and yet suspicious of the Disney brand. Complicated because I loved the music and danced through much of it, but was wary of the dated representations of Africa as seen through Beyoncé’s storytelling. 

I understand the work she is trying to do through this film, for her son and a Black livelihood and thrivance. It is the same work of repair and elevation, of strengthening one’s purpose, that was instilled in me from a young age by my elders and has shaped my identity. Even with all the symbolism, softness and affirmation, there is an uncomfortable feeling similar to how I felt when I first watched Drake’s God’s Plan video: a feeling of this seemingly profound and highly affective thing happening on camera alongside a negative and extractive act. It is what Ilan Kapoor calls “celebrity humanitarianism,” which helps promote a celebrity’s brand and institutional aggrandizement while advancing consumerism and corporate capitalism, rationalizing the very global inequality it seeks to redress. 

As I watched, in the background my heart was, and is, heavy with an awareness of the current economic, political and human rights crisis occurring in Zimbabwe, and how a beautiful and enticing film like this does very little to repair it. 

After watching the film, I am thinking about who this film will serve. How will it serve those on the continent, those in the diaspora? How will it serve capitalism, Black Lives Mattering to non-Black people and the issues of representation surrounding the cultures and traditions reflected in the film?

Was there any particular moment that you found particularly moving? 

Téa Mutonji: In a general sense, the more I see little Black girls as little Black girls, I quite literally struggle to contain my emotions. 

Rarely on television, in Hollywood, in literature, are little Black girls allowed to be little girls. I feel the same way about little Black boys. I would like to see more literature, more texts, that give childhood back to Black children. Black is King is full of dark Black-skinned children in their youth, in their innocence, in their love of community, of art and music. 

The beginning of “Brown Skin Girl,” seeing these girls as debutantes, watching them run in the field — this broke me. Blue Ivy singing broke me. The angel spreading her wings as the melody fades broke me. It broke me, and then it put me back together.

Abiola Akinsiku: As a dark-skinned woman, I appreciated the celebration of my skin tone in “Brown Skin Girl.” What she produced felt genuine and sincere. I saw her embrace of Kelly Rowland as a call for Black women to strip away all the negative tropes cast on us, as well as those that we cast on ourselves. It was a call for us to strip down to our most naked selves in order to honour, acknowledge and love the strength and beauty that makes us who we are. I also liked the juxtaposition of white garments against the skin tone shown in much of the video. 

Still from Black is King. (Disney+)

EM: For me it was “Brown Skin Girl.” I got about halfway through the video and the tears started to fall. I thought about my younger self and how much I needed to see this when I was 10, 22 and 29 years old. 

Actively speaking out about shadeism/colourism has given me much time to contemplate what I didn’t receive as a child. Seeing and engaging with active images of dark-skin women being celebrated shifts your barometer of self-pride. I think about my niece and this next generation growing up with these positive images. [They] can reconstruct a new reality. 

I do feel it’s important to remember that the song “Brown Skin Girl” is being sung by Beyoncé, who is a lighter-skinned woman. There are many people that feel excluded from the song because they [think] the words don’t apply to them. But it’s not about feeling excluded — it’s about acknowledging these women as seen. The conflict surrounding beauty between dark-skin and light-skin women is extensive, and the need for healing is long overdue. I think this song can continue to support a conversation of healing amongst Black women. 

MA: Watching “Keys to the Kingdom” was pure nostalgia of growing up in South Africa. I was shocked at their ability to cover so many memories in one video. Chale, I wanted to cry! 

It opens with the architectural masterpiece that is the National Arts Theatre, the main performing arts centre in Lagos, which is shaped like a military hat. It then moves on to Tiwa Savage singing in front of a Ndebele house design. [It’s] a type of African art practiced mostly by the women of the Southern Ndebele people, and popularized in North America by the visionary artist Esther Mahlangu of the Ndebele tribe. All this while our very own Zulu princess, singer/actress Nandi Madida (who plays Nala in Black is King), is strolling around Ndebele grounds getting married in a traditional Zulu wedding alongside legendary Soweto actress Mary Kuksie Twala-Mhlongo (now an ancestor)? What! Showcasing Afrofuturistic and traditional beauty, these buildings tell our stories. I was beyond ecstatic to see some of our radical styles of architecture on the screen. 

Still from Black is King. (Disney+)

As much as this is a Beyoncé project, it is also showcases artists from across the African continent: musicians, directors, designers and more. Are there any artists whose work you were particularly excited to see/hear? 

Abebe: Black is King is an astounding example of collaboration in art and storytelling. When I watch it, I see the contributions of an army of artists who together created an epic expression of beauty, manhood, regality, and godliness, not sourced from colonial depictions and teachings of these things, but rooted in African traditions, African rituals. And [it’s] framed within the African landscapes of rolling mountains, scenic rivers, waterfalls, and oceans. A personal favourite element of the film is Pharrell Williams singing on a stage made of blue jerry cans. Jerry cans! To repurpose something that seems inconsequential and rework it to become something grand — like a stage for a world-renowned artist — is very much an African way of doing things. It was incredible.

MA: I was so happy to see Blitz Bazawule as one of the directors. He made a stunning feature film called The Burial of Kojo. I love how he brought the African cinematography to Black is King. I was also very happy to see Joshua Kissi as one of the directors. It has been extraordinary to watch [his growth] since Tumblr days. And [I love to see] the continued support Beyoncé shows to Senegal’s very own Sarah Diouf of Tongoro Studios.

There are numerous cultural references in this film that North American viewers may not recognize — from set pieces to dance moves, hairstyles to rituals. What are the moments that stood out to you?

Bishara Elmi: I caught a lot of references. My favourites were the African cosmologies of ancestors watching you from the stars, [the] Grace Jones shoutout, and the […] shoutout to Malick Sidibé and contemporary African photographers that were the pioneers of African portraiture. And the J. D. Okhai Ojeikere [reference], of course.

From Black is King. (Giphy)

MA: All the pre-colonial hairstyles worn by the Mangbetu Congolese people and Yoruba women seen all throughout the film. You already know I’m plotting to try them on myself! 

The cattle and cow prints, which in the Bantu culture represents harvest and wealth.

The Himba women prepping otjize paste made from butterfat and red clay to put on their locs and skin, which protects them from the sun and cleanses the skin in periods of water scarcity. (The clay is also an insect/mosquito repellent and deodorant.) 

Interestingly, the Himba people work vigorously to ensure that their beliefs and cultures aren’t contaminated in any way by outside influences, [and as a result they] have mostly avoided contact with modern society to keep the culture alive. So the fact that Reginaldo Mar, a Namibian creative who works closely with the Himba women, was able to get special permission from the OvaHimba leaders to let the women leave the Kunene Region [and] get on a plane to fly to Durban was insane to me. 

In order to do so, they had to get these women birth certificates and passports on very short notice. The Beyoncé team maintained integrity in how the tribes and people are represented, and for that I applaud them.

Still from Black is King. (Disney+)

Do you see any part of Black is King as a work of appropriation? Beyoncé worked with numerous collaborators, and yet critics continue to address the subject due to the power that she wields.

BE: No, I don’t. The discussion on appropriation is important, but it’s also important to not get carried away. Beyoncé is a part of the African diaspora. The African diaspora cannot appropriate what is also theirs, which in this case is continental African cultures.

CP: I loved the collaborations in the film, especially the video for “My Power” with Yemi Alade, Busiswa, DJ Lag, Moonchild Sanelly, Nija and Tierra Whack. Unfortunately, like other critics, I do see many acts of appropriation because Beyoncé is from a dominant culture as a Black-American and is adopting elements of […] continental Africans’ culture, of which she is not a part. This is the definition of appropriation. 

We see this as she lets the dominant African cultures — those of Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa — represent themselves, while the less dominant cultures are represented by her. 

Now, is it unusual for artists to do this? No, it is commonplace. In many ways, it is seen as an acceptable way of introducing novelty and newness to the dominant culture. But I think we must make no mistake: this is an inherently colonial practice. 

Beyoncé has said that this film is her “love letter to Africa.” It seems as though her kind of love is one in which you consume a thing until you become it. This consumption may be likened to what Brazilian poet and theorist Oswald de Andrade calls cultural anthropophagy, the urge to ingest a culture and digest it in terms of one’s local reality. 

My issue with the representation in this film is that these representations, symbols, and references of Africa the monolith then work as a substitute for something that is far greater, more pluralistic, and very able to represent itself on its own terms.

Still from Black is King. (Disney+)

Abebe: Growing up, I remember people making fun of African peoples: our accent, languages, cultural dress, food, eating with our hands, everything. It was especially hurtful seeing it come from Black people because it signalled a desire to be separate and distinguished away from Africans. 

Fast forward to 2020, and I see African Americans ordering Ethiopian food on television and dressing up in dashikis and ankaras for prom.

In many ways, it feels like waking up in an alternate universe. “Wakanda Forever,” The Year of Return, ancestry DNA tests and Black is King: [they] are all responses to this shift of reconnecting to Africa, and ultimately, to home. 

Black folks want to expand their knowledge, to identify to a place and a land that accepts them. Some have argued that this film appropriates African cultures, and to them, I say: Africa belongs to Black people. Period.

Appropriation is the process of claiming something as your own and taking ownership or credit for it. Black is King is a collaborative work of art that pulled on the knowledge, histories and cultures of contributing artists involved in its storytelling. Beyoncé shares the spotlight, and in doing so, reflects a truly African value for communal giving and communal rising, and I am really proud to see it.

When the trailer for the film was released, there was an immediate response on social media that the images were drawing on dated and tired illustrations of the continent. Some people labelled it the “Wakandafication” of Africa. After watching the film, do you think those critiques continue to hold weight?

TM: A lot of the criticism of Beyoncé’s work is inherently anti-Black. The idea of “Wakandafication of Africa” comes with the deeply problematic belief that Africa isn’t beautiful. To imagine Africa without brutality is essentially deceiving. To imagine Africa as wealthy is uncomfortable. It goes against the narrative. There are only a few texts that depict Africa the way Beyoncé and Wakanda does. 

Though I agree with some criticism, you lose me the second you talk about the supposed “beautification,” of Africa. 

I’ve seen Africa in its sandy beaches, palm trees and deep greens. I’ve seen Black women in their dark, sun-f*cked, glistening melanin glory. In my childhood, as a tween refugee from Congo, the Africa I saw on TV [was] the Africa of children with pronounced bellies, people dying of famine on the street, the Africa of recently attacked women with bruising skin. That Hollywood Africa began my path toward self-hate and identity crisis. That was not my continent, and if it was, I didn’t want any part of it. 

This isn’t to say hardship, poverty and dead bodies aren’t true to my country. To some extent, they are, but so is Wakanda. So is hope, so is love, so is magic. Black is King reinforces my path toward “Brown Skin Girl” self-love, toward my Congolese pride and my African loyalty. And Black children, especially, need to have access to these images, too.

CP: This film for me seems interested in the business of creating monoliths and monuments through its use of the same colonial tools employed through history to build narratives about us. The problem with monoliths, as we are currently witnessing, is that they enforce ideals that are not fluid and often oppress those that are unable to adhere to them. Here, these dated and tired illustrations of the continent appear to be an attempt to enforce a particular worldview that misses the mark on acknowledging the fluidity of the many cultures that were referenced, and the many others that were not referenced (“3,000 ethnic groups,” as my Zimbabwean cousins [have] reminded me in our group chat).

Black female artists are rarely given seemingly limitless resources to create. But Beyoncé’s work is also deeply tied to a glorification of capitalism. Many on social media have critiqued this. How do you feel about the excess, wealth and splendour that is so frequently on display in her work?

Akinsiku: Unfortunately, Black is King was [a] display of the excess, wealth and splendour that not only Beyoncé, but other affluent Black artists enjoy. It was an excellent depiction of how Black people in the diaspora who have never been to Africa — or have been to those parts that cater to the rich and wealthy — have fantasized [about] the continent. 

Many people’s thoughts on Africa are not founded in reality, and though I want to believe that Beyoncé is aware of the truths related to the continent, I don’t believe that her album was a reflection of [that] knowledge. 

Yes, Africa has vast wealth and is rich in natural resources such as diamonds, gold and oil. The reality is that so many living on the continent do not get to enjoy its riches. 

Further, so many on the continent die and are murdered for these resources. And so as I watched her album — with her draped in diamonds, wearing luxurious garments (many of which were made by houses led by white creatives) in lush, lavish and palatial venues — I struggled with simply viewing her album as a piece of artistry.

[I struggled with] viewing it as a piece of work that was a reflection of what so many Africans do not get to enjoy. [I struggled with] the acceptance that those in the diaspora are actually a part of the system that continues to rape the continent, enjoy[ing] the spoils without having to experience the reality. [I struggled] with the realization that the imagery in her album should, in fact, be Africa, but instead is [an Africa] reserved for those who can afford to buy the experience.

Still from Black is King. (Disney+)

TM: In literature, I think we call this magical realism. This work, Black Is King, is an inspired-by-life fiction, a performance. And the intent, more than to tell an accurate story, is to ignite. It’s for bliss, it’s for joy, it’s for imagination — in the same way fairy tales and fantasy movies give us hope, make us feel powerful. 

In this particular work, Beyoncé is essentially playing with folktale as a narrative device. Folktales are grand; they’re extravagant in nature. I expect nothing less than splendour to deliver it correctly. 

Beyoncé’s work does this effectively. The outfits, the costumes, the sparkles, the landscapes, the big castles. [They] give us permission to dream, therefore, let us dream. Black Is King, Black is royalty. That’s how you create that glass-slipper magic. And, isn’t Africa amongst the wealthiest continents in natural goods? 

Also, anyone who’s hating on this excess wealth, to them I say: “That’s that jealousy, don’t you jealous me.”

From Black is King. (Giphy)

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Sunday Conversation: Rising senior discusses return to school,…

… and specifically an African-American woman, I experience racism on a consistent … speak up about the racism and biases against people … learned and accepted that allowing racism, even the most covert … forms, only encourages racism to persist. You’re … RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News

Downtown Indianapolis ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural on Indiana Avenue defaced

The “Black Lives Matter” mural created by local artists and activists in Downtown Indianapolis has been defaced.

On Sunday morning, community members woke to the mural along Indiana Avenue covered with splatters of white and gray paint. Residents who contributed to the piece told IndyStar they were informed of the damage overnight, and word of the vandalism spread quickly across social media.

The mural is still legible, but every letter of the piece has been marked with splashes of paint. It remains unclear who caused the damage.

White or gray paint splashed over the Black Lives Matter mural on Indiana Avenue is visible Sunday morning, Aug. 9, 2020. The mural was finished for less than a week before being defaced Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Indy10 Black Lives Matter and other community groups organized a mural painting event on Aug. 1. The event included speakers, live music and spoken word performances.

The Indianapolis City-County Council approved the mural in a resolution against racism, and community organizers chose one Black artist to paint each letter of the mural on the road between the Indianapolis Urban League and the Madam Walker Legacy Center.

In addition to the words “Black Lives Matter,” the mural includes the names and faces of Dreasjon Reed, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Taylor and other men and women killed by police.

Mali Jeffers, an organizer of the mural painting event, told IndyStar that painting the mural on that street was intentional.

For Indy’s Black community, the avenue was the center of Black life in Indianapolis during segregation. Jazz music spilled from clubs, where cabarets, burlesque shows and drag performances also attracted crowds.

The street was also home to shops, restaurants, doctor’s offices and shoe shine stands.

Many local historians point to the 1960s as the beginning of the end for the area due to urban renewal projects and the construction of I-65. IUPUI also expanded onto Indiana Avenue and now sits in what was once a Black neighborhood.

The area was dealt its final blows in the 1970s and ’80s when the city began bulldozing its historic buildings to raise skyscrapers.

On Thursday, Jeffers announced on Facebook that mural would be open to the public and closed to vehicular traffic through Labor Day.

The intention was to keep both the art and residents heading to Indiana Avenue to view it safe.

This story will be updated.

IndyStar Pulliam Fellow Christine Fernando contributed to this story.

Call IndyStar reporter Justin L. Mack at 317-444-6138. Follow him on Twitter: @justinlmack.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

From Broadway to the silver screen: Vocal black magic in musicals

The opening sequence of the 1979 film version of All That Jazz sets the scene with George Benson’s 1978 hit cover of “On Broadway.”     

Benson has continued to wow global audiences who probably have no memory of its link to All That Jazz, or to The Drifters. Here he is, performing the song, over 30 years after he first covered it.

Growing up with a stage actor for a father—a profession shared by many of my parents’ friends—it never occurred to me that most stage shows weren’t integrated, and so I never really thought about casting or who wrote or sang songs till I got a bit older.

Since I was taken to the theater pretty often, I have to admit that like most kids, I was pretty enthusiastic about musicals, while only a few of the dramas held my interest until I grew older. At home, we had quite a collection of show tunes, and over the years my own collection has grown. In keeping with my ongoing Sunday music series, I’d like to share some show tunes that were either part of a Black show, or performed and popularized by Black singers.

The year I was born, in 1947, Finian’s Rainbow debuted on Broadway, and I soon learned every song in the show. My parents and their leftist friends loved it: Not only was it integrated, it also addressed many of the political issues of the day.

Judith Mahoney Pasternakreviewed Finian’s Rainbow in 2009.

A “left-leaning Broadway musical” didn’t use to sound impossible, or even unlikely. George and Ira Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind penned the political satire Of Thee I Sing in 1931. In 1937, working for the Federal Theater Project, Marc Blitzstein put such a strong pro-union, anti-capitalism message into The Cradle Will Rock that the feds pulled the plug on it. And in 1947, with Finian’s Rainbow, E.Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy and Burton Lane put together a Broadway hit that combined socialist and anti-racist ideals, deliriously clever lyrics and a rollicking score of eminently singable tunes. The original 1947 production ran for 725 performances and gave to the U.S. songbook the standards “Look to the Rainbow,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I’m Near),” “If This Isn’t Love” and “Old Devil Moon.”

The rather complicated story line follows Irish immigrant Finian McLonergan, who has stolen a leprechaun’s pot of gold; the leprechaun, who has followed him to the Southern state of Missitucky to get the gold back; McLonergan’s daughter Sharon’s and her U.S. romance; Missitucky’s greedy, land-grabbing, bigoted U.S. senator; and the racially integrated community whose land the senator is trying to acquire. The community makes up the chorus, which was one of the first integrated choruses on Broadway.

The song I loved from Finian was “Necessity,” performed here by Terri White, in the 2009 New York’s City Center Encores! series. White was no stranger to necessity in her life.

What a difference a year makes. For three months in 2008, White, 61, a performer since her childhood in Palo Alto, Calif., was “so down I was doing chin-ups from the gutter,” she says. She had broken up with her longtime partner, and, as piano bars in New York City closed down, couldn’t find enough singing jobs to pay her rent. She lost her apartment.

Depressed, White – who in 1980 co-starred with Glenn Close and Jim Dale in Barnum and sang in Liza Minnelli’s Radio City Hall show – was too embarrassed to seek help from social services and only told a few friends of her situation. She crashed on a few friends’ couches, but mostly slept on a bench in New York City’s Washington Square Park.

We should all be grateful she auditioned for Finian’s Rainbow.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I heard Dinah Washington’s take on another oft-recorded song from Finian.

Dinah Washington was one of the greatest female vocalists to have sung jazz and popular music in the 20th century. Her style and delivery have been emulated by many that followed but few have had a voice to match the Divine Miss D. Her life was the stuff of movies, but even Hollywood shied away from trying to capture it on film as it was just too complicated. Fortunately, her immense talent on record has been well documented and she sounds as good today as she did when she made all those classic albums.

Born in Alabama, Ruth Lee Jones grew up in a staunch Baptist family in Chicago, singing and playing the piano in the choir at her local church and quickly becoming adept at gospel’s characteristic off-beat, syncopated rhythms and bent or sliding notes. At the age of fifteen, she performed “I Can’t Face The Music” in a local amateur competition hosted at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, won and was soon performing in Chicago’s nightclubs, such as Dave’s Rhumboogie and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel.

She had a voice that was like the pipes of life. She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang.’ – Quincy Jones

  Her crisp delivery of “Look to the Rainbow” in 1955 is an absolute thing of beauty.

Over 20 years later, Al Jarreau—the consummate jazz, scat vocalist—would score a major hit with the album Look to the Rainbow and the song of the same name.

Another early Broadway production that was integrated and featured Black actors was Lost in the Stars.

A musical drama in two acts. Book and Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Based on Alan Paton’s novel, ‘Cry, The Beloved Country‘. Music by Kurt Weill.    

Lost In The Stars was Kurt Weill’s last score for Broadway. He personally considered it to be an opera and the critics agreed with him – it was performed by the New York City Opera in 1958. Set in South Africa, it tells the story of Absalom, the son of a Negro teacher, who is driven to the murder of a white man in a desperate bid to provide for his wife and child. Arrested and condemned to hang he is visited by his father, who departs in despair. Before his son is executed, the murdered man’s father comes to the preacher to offer compassion and understanding instead of hatred and retaliation. The powerful score includes “Who’ll Buy?”, “Trouble Man” and the title song.

Todd Duncan’s name is not well-known these days, however he was a major “first” in the opera world. From his 1998 obituary in The New York Times:

Todd Duncan, the baritone who created the role of Porgy in Gershwin’s ”Porgy and Bess” and was the first black singer to join the New York City Opera, died on Saturday at his home in Washington. He was 95.

Mr. Duncan, whose stage credits beyond Porgy include the Lord’s General in Vernon Duke’s ”Cabin in the Sky” and Stephen Kumalo in the first production of Kurt Weill’s ”Lost in the Stars,” was known for his elegant phrasing and burnished tone, as well as his dramatic persuasiveness. Those qualities won him his debut role at the New York City Opera in 1945, when he sang Tonio in a production of Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Although he had appeared in New York with black opera companies, starting with a 1934 production of Mascagni’s ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” with the Aeolian Opera, his City Opera debut made him the first black singer to perform opera with a white cast. That debut occurred 10 years before Marian Anderson made her celebrated debut at the Metropolitan Opera. By then he had also appeared at City Opera as Escamillo in Bizet’s ”Carmen” and in the title role of Verdi’s ”Rigoletto.”

We’re so lucky this recording exists.

The ”divine” Sarah Vaughn was no stranger to show tunes, and recorded many of them over her vocal career of 50 years. Here’s her version of “Lost in the Stars.”

Porgy and Bess is probably one of the most well-known and controversial Black shows to have ever been performed on stage and film, beginning with its first performance in 1935, and that controversy continues today. Michael Cooper, classical music and dance reporter for The New York Times wrote of this history in 2019.

It was one of those mythic New York nights: the Broadway premiere of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in 1935.The starry opening drew Hollywood royalty, including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After the ovations died down, the A-listers headed to a glamorous after-party, where George Gershwin played excerpts from his score on the piano. By the next morning, though, the questions would begin. Those questions — about genre, about representation, about appropriation — have followed “Porgy” through more than eight decades of convoluted, sometimes troubling history, and remain salient as the Metropolitan Opera opens its season on Sept. 23 with a new production, its first performances of the work since 1990.

More urgently, is “Porgy” a sensitive portrayal of the lives and struggles of a segregated African-American community in Charleston,S. C.? (Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as “great art” and “a human truth.”) Or does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes about black people, told in wince-inducing dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it “racially demeaning.”)

Is it a triumph of melting-pot American art, teaming up George and Ira Gershwin (the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to tell a uniquely African-American story? Or is it cultural appropriation? The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard. And has the Gershwins’ insistence that “Porgy” be performed only by black artists —originally aimed at keeping it from being done in blackface — helped generations of black singers by giving them the opportunity to perform on some of the world’s great stages? Or has it pigeonholed some of them, limiting the roles they are offered?

Or is the answer to all these questions “yes?”

I can’t answer those questions, except to say that I consider the music from Gershwin’s play to be some of the finest I have heard—most notably the recorded duets between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I could listen to their version of “Summertime” non-stop, until winter comes …

… at which point I would just crank up “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

While looking for music to feature for this post today, I came across a clip of Nina Simone performing a live studio version which I had never encountered before of “I Loves You, Porgy,” with “Strawberry Woman” and “Crab Man” as the intro. 

Nina rearranges the order, singing the ‘Crab Man’ lines after those from ‘Oh, Dey’s So Fresh and Fine’. Either way, she thus begins the piece as a sales girl, calling out her wares. Her voice is disengaged and distant, plaintive but pure, and tremulous on the word ‘vine’. She brings out an aspect of the songwriting, ‘just off de vine’ homophonous with ‘just off divine’, establishing from the outset a discrepancy between hopes and ideals and a bitter reality. The music slows and shifts as she repeats the phrase ‘devil crabs’. These crabs are a distraction from more pressing thoughts, but they evoke a memory, and now she swirls and segues from a recollection of her daddy to think of Porgy. ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ begins – ‘Porgy, don’t you know I love you / Don’t let him take me / Don’t let him handle me / And drive me oh so mad’ – and Nina’s voice at once deepens into a profound melancholy.

Nina had always considered herself a pianist. She began playing by ear at the age of three, and studied classical piano before applying to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Retaining the belief that her rejection had been made on the grounds of race, she only began singing when, playing the clubs of New York, she found that gigs and money were easier to come by if she committed to use her voice.

Her piano playing here is perfectly paced, steadily unfurling with the words of the song before an interlude. When she resumes singing, her voice is accompanied deliberately by the bass and percussion. Navigating blindly but resolutely – ‘But when he comes I know / I’m gonna have to go’ – her perseverance is rewarded by moments of calm.

The quality may not be great, but this performance is dazzling.

In this 1985 version, live at London’s Savoy Theatre, Simone tells the story of how she sang the one song she knew to get a gig.  

Another major Broadway musical with an all-Black cast was Carmen Jones, which opened in December 1943 and ran until February 1945; it relocated Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen  to World War II America. The Otto Preminger film version was released in 1955, starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey, and got very mixed reviews. Dandridge got an Oscar nomination, however, her voice was dubbed by Marilyn Horne, as was Belafonte’s, by LeVern Hutcherson.

Thankfully, they let Pearl Bailey sing.       

Pearl Bailey would go on to take Broadway by storm in her starring role in an all-Black production of Hello, Dolly!

She even received a special Tony award in 1968 for her performance.

Bailey passed on, at the age of 72, in August1990. John S. Wilson wrote her obituary for The New York Times.

”If I just sang a song,” Pearl Bailey once said when she had been drawn into an analysis of her performing style, ”it would mean nothing.” That is a debatable point. Her voice had a distinctively warm timbre and her natural vocal inflection was filled with fascinating colors and highlights.

Like Jelly Roll Morton, the great jazz pianist, who was fond of saying that he changed everything he played ”to Jelly Roll” (as, in truth, he did), everything Miss Bailey sang came out ”Pearlie Mae style.”This included the so-called risque songs that were a staple of her night club acts or the songs she sang in ”Hello, Dolly!” ”House of Flowers,” ”St.Louis Woman” and other Broadway musicals. In truth, Miss Bailey never ”just sang a song.” The stage Pearl Bailey was a close reflection of the private Pearl Bailey.

She was a trouper in the old theatrical sense. She had fierce pride in the level and consistency of her performance, no matter what the circumstances. She was disturbed to see this quality going out of show business, and she sometimes talked of forming a troupe – she still thought of it as a vaudeville act long after there were no more vaudeville theaters where it could play – through which she could instill the old discipline of trouping in promising young performers.

The Broadway song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the 1945 musical Carousel, got a new audience at Brooklyn’s Fox Theater in 1964. A newly formed singing group, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, shown here in a clip from DJ Murray the K’s It’s What’s Happening, Baby, which aired on CBS in 1965, brought the house down. 

For an amazing gospel rendition, no one can top Aretha Franklin, who recorded it for her 1972 Amazing Grace album.

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin went back to where it all started. Over two days at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church,she gave audiences – which included Clara Ward and Mick Jagger – a glimpse of what she learned in the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. The resulting live album, Amazing Grace, sold 2 million copies and won a Grammy. Executive producer Jerry Wexler, himself an atheist, said the album“relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”Greatness, indeed.

Greatness, indeed.

Another major Black Broadway hit is the adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which gained fame as a white production before it was transformed into The Wiz.

The original production, starring Stephanie Mills, opened January 5, 1975 at the Majestic Theatre. The show ran 1,672 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The original production starred Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and featured Tiger Haynes, Hinton Battle, Ted Ross, Andre de Shields, and Dee Dee Bridgewater in supporting roles. The show was revived in 1984 starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy once more.

“Home” became Mill’s signature song, but her Broadway career was a long one. 

Her voice abilities became evident early on and by the age of nine, she was mesmerizing crowds in her first Broadway musical “Maggie Flynn,” sharing the stage with co-stars Shirley Jones and the late Jack Cassidy. Other early credits included appearances in such pop culture classic, shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” “Wonderama,” “The Electric Company” and “String” (presented by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City). For six consecutive weeks, an eleven year old Stephanie won the famous Amateur Night at the renowned Apollo Theater and a first recording, “I Knew It Was Love” landed her the much coveted role of Dorothy in the Broadway musical “The Wiz” at the age of fifteen for 5 years, Stephanie Mills wowed packed houses with her amazing vocal gift.

This very ‘80s music video will bring you “Home.”

The film version of The Wiz famously starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The yellow brick theme, “Ease on Down the Road,” earned a Grammy nomination in 1979.

And 1981 would bring another major Black production to Broadway: Dreamgirls. The show told the story of a doo-wop girl group, the Dreams, who would rise to stardom and experience tragedy along the way.

The show’s hit, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” propelled Jennifer Holliday into the music history books.  

Ms. Holliday’s Broadway hit went on to become a number one R&B hit and a top 40 pop hit. The song was topping charts and blaring out of radios across the country, thanks, in part to New York DJ Frankie Crocker, who religiously played the song every morning on his radio show. By 1983, Jennifer Holliday was a household name, (and) “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was the song everyone was talking about. That year, she won the Grammy Award for Female R&B Vocal Performance, beating her lifelong idol, Aretha Franklin. “I figured there was no way that I could win,” Ms. Holliday said, laughing softly. “But that’s not what happened. They voted for me, and I was so shocked. I was just overwhelmed and happy, because I really did want to be a recording artist.”

Three years later, that feeling of shock and wonder hit again when she won a second Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance for “Come Sunday,” a Duke Ellington piece from her second solo album that honored Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer. Taking home Grammy number two was just as surreal as the first time around, Ms. Holliday remembered.“It was one of those beloved songs. I was only thinking about Mahalia Jackson, but it also carried its own story and nostalgia for people,” she said. “So, that meant a lot to me.”

Here she is at the 1982 Tony Awards, where she won the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, for her creation and portrayal of Effie.

There would be competition ahead for Holliday. Another Jennifer—Jennifer Hudson—was cast for the film version of Dreamgirls in 2006.

“Jennifer’s first professional role came with a local production of the musical Big River when she was nineteen. However, it was her exposure during the third season of TV’s American Idol in 2004 that introduced Jennifer Hudson into a nation duly impressed with her powerful soulfulness.  It took a few songs for Jennifer to make it at the pre-show auditions: “I flew to Atlanta, slept in the big Georgia Dome and the first time I had to sing while others were auditioning too.  They wanted an original tune but I didn’t have one so I did this kinda obscure song, “This Empty Place” that I first heard performed by Cissy Houston. Then, the judges wanted to hear something they knew so I did Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” and then “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child.] “The rest is history. After Idol, Jennifer auditioned for the part of Effie in Dreamgirls, beat out thousands of contenders for the coveted role and went on to win an Oscar.

Listen and see why Hudson took home the Oscar.

Now, I have friends who have engaged in endless debates about which Jennifer they prefer, which Jennifer sings this song best … and I’m tellin’ you, I’m not playing.

All I can say is I watched the two of them do it as a duet at the BET Awards, bringing the audience to their feet in a sustained standing ovation. Get ready for goosebumps.

Now, I’ve barely scratched the surface today; there are so many other stellar performances that had their genesis on stage or screen, so join me in the comments to hear more, and to add your favorites.

And while you are casting your vote for the songs you like, don’t forget to get out the vote in upcoming elections. 

We will win in 2020 if people can vote. By calling Democratic-leaning swing state voters every Tuesday or Thursday with Turnout2020, we can help them get absentee ballots for the November general election right now. Sign up here to participate in Turnout Tuesday, so that no one has to choose being their health and exercising their right to vote.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Law enforcement agencies in Volusia-Flagler struggle to attract African-American officers

African-Americans might not look kindly on an officer, a local Black police officer said, even one who looks like them.

As an African-American kid growing up in Harlem, Ben Yisrael became interested in law enforcement as he watched police chase muggers and catch criminals.

But some family, friends and acquaintances were worried or just didn’t like his interest in crime fighting.

“Just the the challenges that I would deal with,” Yisrael said about their concerns. “The challenges with racism, and it wasn’t just with white folk. It was all the way around.”

African-Americans might not look kindly on an officer, he said, even one who looks like them.

“They may be of the opinion that I’m a sell out or Uncle Tom, because I’m with the Police Department,” Yisreal said.

But Yisreal became an officer just the same. He is now a captain at the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.

The captain is among a small fraction of minority officers and deputies in most local police departments. The low number of minorities in police departments in Volusia and Flagler counties in comparison to the populations they serve has always been a problem. Stepped up recruiting efforts in recent years have failed to improve the overall situation.

In Volusia and Flagler counties, 8.82 % of deputies and police officers are African-American while African-Americans make up 11.4 % of the combined population of 668,365 people in the two counties, according to the U.S. Census.

There are no African-American police chiefs or sheriffs in Volusia or Flagler counties, but a Black man is running for sheriff. Retired Flagler County detective Larry Jones is challenging Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly in the Nov. 3 general election.

Jones said minority representation in law enforcement is critical for all agencies. He stressed that Black officers have to have advancement opportunities.

“Twenty years ago, you would’ve never seen a Black man running for sheriff in Flagler County,” he said. “It’s a very important issue nationwide with all that’s going on today. And nothing really has been done about it. So we’ve got to make a change.”

Recruiting falls short

Volusia sheriff’s Capt. Yisrael said he sometimes hears complaints about law enforcement from other African-Americans, but often he can explain a situation and the person complaining gains an understanding of an action taken.

“This cop treated me wrong or he could have treated me a different way,” Yisrael said he hears people say. “And when we talk it through, I realize it wasn’t harassment. The officer was just doing his job. They may not be happy with the outcome but they have a better understanding of why the scenario went the way it went.”

The perspective of African-American officers may be needed more than ever as protests roil the nation after the killing of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, died after a now-fired Minneapolis white police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The former officer, Derek Chauvin, is now facing murder and manslaughter charges. The incident was recorded on citizen video.

Despite that needed perspective, African-American officers and deputies still only represent a small fraction, often in the single percentage digits, of most departments.

Some departments in recent years have more successfully recruited minorities than others. But overall, racial breakdowns in local police departments have not changed much in the past six years. That’s the last time The News-Journal examined sworn-officer rosters following the tumultuous summer of 2014 when Black man Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off weeks of riots and protests around the nation.

Brown was killed three weeks after a police officer choked another Black man, Eric Garner, to death on a New York City sidewalk during an arrest over illegal cigarette sales.

Some law enforcement leaders say efforts to add minorities to police forces won’t get easier in the near future with the anti-police sentiment across the country sparked by Floyd’s killing.

The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 had 17 African-American deputies representing 3.7 percent of its force. Today, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has improved with 25 African American deputies representing 5.9 percent of its 420 sworn law-enforcement officers.

African Americans make up about 11 percent of Volusia County’s 553,284 residents. That percentage has not changed in six years.

African-American interest dropping

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said it’s been difficult to attract African Americans to the badge locally in his past 14 years, four as sheriff and 10 as police chief in Daytona Beach.

“The number of African Americans who take the certification exam has dropped every year despite our recruiting efforts, despite our scholarships, despite everything that we are doing,” Chitwood said.

The biggest challenge, he said, is there just aren’t enough African-Americans in the hiring pool. One reason is the one cited by Yisreal: African-Americans are sometimes discouraged from putting on a badge and returning to police their communities. Some are discouraged by family or friends who have had negative encounters with police.

Another reason is that there aren’t as many African-Americans taking the state test that qualifies people to be hired by police agencies.

In 2019, about 4,900 people took the state exam to be certified as a law enforcement officer. Passing the exam does not make a person a law enforcement officer but does qualify them to become one if a police agency hires them.

Chitwood said 555 African Americans became eligible upon taking the test and there are 367 police agencies in the state of Florida, or about 1.5 applicants per police department.

“There is no way you’re ever going to diversify in a thousand years if you can’t figure out a way to drive up the numbers of African Americans entering law enforcement,” Chitwood said.

Chitwood said he has reached out to the churches, to the NAACP, Bethune-Cookman University and has held job fairs in hopes of attracting African-American police.

Lack of trust and confidence

Distrust in police can keep minorities from joining law enforcement, said Maria B. Velez, an associate professor in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland.

“Potentially, the argument would be why would people join an organization that they don’t have any confidence in or less confidence,” Velez said.

Velez’s research has found that communities function better if their local elected officials and police departments are representative of their communities.

“If you have a larger share of Black and Hispanic officers in the police departments, that will encourage more trust in neighborhoods in the police and government,” Velez said in a phone interview.

“It sends a signal that the city is listening to the potential grievances of people who are marginalized, in this case African Americans and Latinos, about how policing and more generally how government is done,” Velez said.

Yisrael, 44, has been with the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office for 17 years. He said law enforcement got his attention when he was young.

“It’s something that I always wanted to do,” Yisrael said. “I was born and raised in New York City and I saw a lot of police activity and it was exciting to me as a child.”

He said he has no issues with recent peaceful protests against police in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“I’m all for protests,” Yisrael said. “That’s one of our rights in America, freedom of speech. We get out here and express our concerns with peaceful demonstrations. Nothing’s wrong with that. And here in Volusia County, I haven’t seen any issues. Everyone is doing it pretty well.”

Yisrael said peaceful protests and contacting local and congressional leaders is the way toward change. Volusia County is ahead of the curve when it comes to law enforcement working with the community, he added.

“I think we’ve made preparations for this climate,” Yisrael said. “We started working on this years ago and I think because we started working on this years ago it put us in a better place to deal with what’s going on now. Our situation isn’t perfect but it’s a whole lot better than other places are dealing with.”

’Bridge the gap’

Daytona Beach Police Chaplain Monzell Ford, who is African American, was also interested in becoming a police officer when he was growing up in Los Angeles. But he was discouraged from doing so by the community perception of police, he said.

Instead, he took an opposite path. He joined a street gang, the Crips. He ended up getting shot. He said a couple police officers took the time to convince him to take a different path in life.

“I think quite a few people are actually uncomfortable on how they would be perceived in today’s world if they put on a badge,” Ford said.

But it’s important to keep working to recruit more African Americans, he said.

“The more African Americans you have patrolling and policing in predominantly African-American communities, it will be a better feel and you will be better able to bridge the gap,” Ford said. “Because then you will at least have, quote-unquote, one of us. And if there would be a problem, you wouldn’t be able to say it was racism anymore.”

The Daytona Beach Police Department has made recruiting a priority, and is doing better than other local agencies in bridging that gap.

In 2014, Daytona Beach Police had 28 Black officers making up 13.3 percent of its force. It now has 58 African-Americans, representing 19.6 percent of its 295 officers. The city’s percentage of African-Americans has remained steady at 35 percent.

Police Chief Craig Capri said the department has a former law enforcement officer whose sole job is to recruit.

“It’s hard to recruit officers in general with what’s going on around the country,” Capri said. “But we’ve been successful, I think, because we’ve really focused our efforts on it.”

He said there are plenty of places to look for candidates locally, including Bethune-Cookman — a Historically Black College or University — Daytona State College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The location between military bases in Jacksonville and Brevard County is also helpful, Capri said. Plus, Daytona Beach has brand-recognition as a place to go.

The department also has an African-American second-in-command in Deputy Chief Jakari Young. Young, who Mayor Derrick Henry has touted to become police chief when Capri retires later this year, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Capri said that he is proud of the diversity in his agency. But he said it’s a challenge to maintain.

“It’s a small number that we have to fight for to get,” he said.

Capri also said he expects recruiting of minority officers will become more difficult, at least in the near future.

’All-out attack on law enforcement’

“I think in general you are going to see a lot less people putting in for law enforcement jobs based on what is going on around the country and in the media,” Capri said.

The chief called events in the wake of Floyd’s killing “an all-out attack on law enforcement.”

On Volusia County’s west side, DeLand Police Department is much smaller than either Daytona Beach or the Sheriff’s Office and its 8% of Black officers falls some where between those.

But DeLand has improved over the years. In 2014, three of DeLand’s 64 police officers were African-American, meaning 3% African-Americans patrolling a city where 17% of its 27.031 residents were African-Americans.

Today, the city’s population has grown to 34,851, but its share of African-American residents has decreased slightly to 15.6 %, according to the census. The police department currently has 61 officers, five of whom are African American.

Police Chief Jason Umberger wrote in an email that the numbers are an improvement from three years ago when his agency only had one African-American officer. He said the department is working to recruit “the best qualified people who reflect the face of our community and are in need of some new officers.”

Six DeLand police recently quit to take other jobs.

Umberger wrote that some prospective officers don’t make it through training while others decide the career is not for them. He wrote that others leave the department for opportunities at larger agencies with better pay.

Departments with no Black officers

Five departments in Volusia and Flagler counties don’t have any African-American officers: South Daytona, Holly Hill, Lake Helen, Flagler Beach and Bunnell.

In 2014, Holly Hill Police had one African-American among its 25 officers. That one officer meant the percentage on the force of African-Americans was 4%. The officer patrolled a city of 12,119 at the time when 1,087 or 9% of residents were African-Americans.

Holly Hill has now grown to 12,357 residents and, according to the U.S Census, its African-American population has increased to 2,421 or 19 percent. But the city now does not have any African-Americans among its force of 26.

Police Chief Steve Aldrich wrote in emails that he is currently accepting applications to fill an anticipated vacancy. He works with Daytona State College to find applicants.

“We have hired a diverse workforce, but being a small agency it is historically difficult to attract applicants, particularly African American applicants,” Aldrich wrote. “We have employed African American officers in the past, but they have each left our agency to explore employment opportunities or larger police agencies.”

Tom Foster, Bunnell’s police chief, said the lack of African-American officers in his department is not for lack of effort. Bunnell does not have any black police officers.

Foster tries to recruit at area colleges, but it’s an uphill battle. His department’s starting salary of about $38,000 is one of the lowest in the region.

Bunnell has a sizeable Black community that makes up over 20 percent of the city’s population. But Foster said it’s not fertile ground for recruitment as there’s little interest locally to join the force.

“It’s a national problem,” said Foster, who’s been Bunnell’s police chief since 2014. “I’ve been fighting for cops since I became chief here. It’s getting harder and harder.”

Competition is fierce as law enforcement agencies near and far scrap for qualified candidates. Foster said he’s competing with agencies like the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which offers new hires a salary that hovers around $50,000 along with signing bonuses that range between $1,500 and $2,500.

“I’m frustrated,” he added. “I’m frustrated we can’t get good folks. I’m frustrated I can’t get any African American men and women here. But I cannot compete with the bigger agencies who are offering more money to these young men and women than we can.”

Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney said smaller departments like his, which has 15 officers and has been approved to two more, have infrequent vacancies, sometimes once every two years. Flagler Beach has zero black officers.

Doughney also said Flagler Beach, like other smaller departments, don’t have as many specialized units as larger agencies, like a K-9 unit or narcotics unit. Flagler Beach does not have a SWAT team but one of its officers is on the Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, he said.

“A lot of people are looking for that they want to be on a SWAT team or on a motorcycle unit, ” he said.

Flagler County Sheriff’’s Office dwarfs the other two police agencies in that county.

Cmdr. David Williams is one of 20 African-American deputies and Williams is working to increase that number. He has helped with recruitment for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office since 2008. It’s been one of his primary focuses over the past two years.

He goes to job fairs and visits campuses like Florida A&M University and B-CU once a year. But he said he hasn’t seen high interest from students at historically black colleges and universities.

“A lot of young Black people are not interested in law enforcement,” he said. “So how do you recruit minorities to be cops if they’re not interested in it? They’re not taking the classes in college. They don’t even come to our table.”

Some say they are deterred by the pay – the starting annual salary for Flagler County deputies is around $42,000.

That is similar to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office where a help-wanted ad on its website said the starting pay for a deputy was $41,709. Daytona Beach Police pays a starting officer $40,367 and Orange City Police pays $40,710.

Others have told Williams they feel like they would be hated in their community if they join law enforcement. Some seem uninterested in working years as patrol officers before rising to detectives or K9 deputies.

Larry Jones spent 30 years working for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and rose to the rank of sergeant before he said his career reached a glass ceiling. He upset former sheriff Jim Manfre, then an incumbent, in the 2016 Democratic primary before losing to Staly in the general election.

Jones said the solution to the recruiting more Black officers is starting early. His plan is for school resource officers to mentor elementary schools students who show interest in law enforcement.

“Keep them on the right track and get them involved as much as you can,” he said. “And when we do that, once they get to high school we put them in the academy and we’ve got a good candidate because it’s in his heart. That’s what he wants to do.”

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office had 136 sworn deputies in 2014. Eight of them were African-American. Black officers made up 5.8 percent of the ranks.

Blacks made up about 11.4 percent of the county’s population then. But in the six years since, three statistics have grown.

’More work to be done’

Flagler County’s overall population has swelled more than 15 percent, per U.S. Census estimates. The number of sworn officers has increased to 224. And the percentage of Black deputies – 8.9 percent – has risen closer to that of the county’s overall population.

Census records show 10.7 percent of Flagler County’s 115,000 residents are Black.

In a written statement, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly indicated he “has made it a top priority to have a workforce that is educated and reflects the community.”

The sheriff said he’s hired 21 minority officers since taking office in 2017 and sought the help of the NAACP and Bethune-Cookman University in recruiting more Black officers. Staly noted he’s also nurtured an internship program at B-CU, the Daytona Beach historically Black university.

“The sheriff continually emphasizes that a workforce that mirrors our community is significant,” his letter stated. “The FCSO is working to accomplish this through utilizing best practices for recruitment through internships and police academy scholarships for qualified applicants.”

Linda Sharpe Matthews, president of Flagler County’s NAACP chapter, said “There’s more work to be done.”

Sharpe Matthews said she plans to meet with Sheriff’s Office officials to discuss the prospect of implicit bias training for officers as well as a civilian complaint review board.

“What I see in the statistics is there is an effort to be made by swearing in more officers,” she said. “But those officers aren’t reflected in patrol. Those officers are inside. They’re school resource officers, they are detention center officers, and they should be officers that we see on patrol.”

Williams grew up in Long Island, New York. His father was a longtime officer in the New York Police Department. He was lured into law enforcement by the “extended family.” He remembers annual picnics at Yankee Stadium with his father’s partners and was drawn to law enforcement because of the brotherhood he witnessed as a kid.

“I just liked the respect,” he said. “I liked the camaraderie among his peers and the extended family.”

One of the main draws for Williams was the respect he saw his dad receive from the citizens in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, where he worked for years. Much of that reverence for law enforcement has been lost, Williams said.

“You just don’t see that on a grand scale anymore,” he said. “It still exists, but it is not what the mainstream media is pushing. They’re pushing the negative.”

Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy Royce James, 42, an African-American, said he heard negative things about the police while growing up in public housing in Daytona Beach. But he was never personally mistreated by an officer.

“At a young age I was taught by my peers to not trust police, that the police were your enemies, they are not your friends. Stay away from them, despite never being mistreated by police,” James said.

James was settled into a successful career as a financial adviser when he decided to put away the calculator and pin on a badge. He started out with the Ormond Beach Police Department where he spent six years before leaving for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office where he has been the last two years.

James said he made the career change because he got bored working as a financial adviser. He has had no regrets.

“I love the fact that every single day I come to work is completely different from the next,” James said. “And I have no idea what’s coming, almost everything is a surprise.”

He said complaints about racism are overblown.

“It’s easy to say, ’I didn’t get hired because of some racial disparity on a test or they are racist,’ ” James said. “There is racism, but not to the extent that they say there is.”

He said he is living proof of that. He said all the people that have hired him for jobs have been white. And if his life is in danger, he said his fellow white law enforcement officers would rush to help him.

“If you want something in life, go get it,” James said. “Stop with the excuses. Stop with the, ‘I’m not getting this because I’m Black.’ Stop it.”

School official under fire for Black Lives Matter support

… conversation about race and racism, particularly during this period … George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police … work with Students Talking About Racism, or STAR, has … its administrator, Schifanelli, that racism is an insignificant issue … RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News