“We have 45 minutes of free time in Philadelphia. Should we try to fit in the Art Museum before Soundcheck?” These are the kind of conversations my traveling partners and I would have when coming into a new town for a show. To many, being on the road sounds like one long joyride, full of idle time and vacation-like activities. For my family, we would try to fit any museum in that we could. We once saw the David in Florence before my performance that evening; Trips to the Met before City Winery shows in New York; The Van Gogh Museum just hours before my first note at Paradiso in Amsterdam. But, recently, a museum came to me.
I had played Portland the night prior and was moving through to Seattle for a show with country artist Hal Ketchum. I was hoping to visit the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum that evening, time permitting, but it seemed unlikely. It usually is. But as I walked through the hotel lobby I saw the Mobile Museum. ‘What a concept?’ I thought.
I spent the next hour or so looking at artifacts of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum. Khalid El-Hakim, the founder and curator, created a collection of artifacts that give a more authentic depiction of America’s sordid history of racism as well as a celebration of the enormity of some of the greatness that emerges out of struggle, than any institutionalized museum I’ve seen.. There is nothing sanitized or sugar-coated about the content. Khalid scoured antique shops across the country looking for artifacts of Black History and America’s truth. Many of the pieces will make you ashamed and sickened; black mambos, inconceivable newspaper headlines, grotesque animations. While it certainly offers a celebration of great leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. the ones deemed “acceptable” for textbooks, Khalid’s museum shows a fuller picture of the true narrative.
So much about Khalid’s idea and museum inspired me, including all the musical artifacts. Arguably no culture on the face of the earth has created such an invaluable wealth of music to the World as Black culture. You can’t separate the struggle from the music that surrounds it. It doesn’t have to be specifically protest music to represent this ever-present struggle. My favorite short story; “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin digs into the world of a heroin-addicted jazz musician and his brother. Two black Harlem residents trying to make sense of the world relative to their place in it. In the end, they both make sense of their struggle and music is the vehicle. Music can be a home, a safe haven, a voice. In addition to the place music has in his museum, I wondered how it fits into his world of inspiration. I asked the Detroit native to talk a little bit about this and share what he is listening to now for motivation while on his Nationwide school tour with the Mobile Museum.
CB: You have some music artifacts in your Museum collection. Could you tell me about a couple of them?
Khalid: The artifacts in the music section of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum range from original church hymn sheet music from the late 1800’s to an original mixtape CD from Nipsey Hustle. So it’s very wide-ranging covering the genres of gospel, blues, jazz, rock n roll, r n b, techno, reggae, and hip hop. Some of the standout pieces are those that are autographed by various artists. There are artifacts signed by Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Richie Havens, Tina Turner, David Ruffin, Issac Hayes, Lena Horne, Michael Jackson, Chuck D, Queen Latifah, Will Smith, Nipsey Hussle and many more in between.
CB: What gave you the idea for the Mobile Museum?
Khalid: Initially, the idea came from wanting to address the issue of accessibility of providing a Black history museum experience for schools that couldn’t afford to take their students on field trips. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t just a local issue but truly a national issue. I grew up with the privilege of having the Charles Wright Museum which at one point was the largest Black museum in the country. As I began traveling, I realized that most people have never been to a Black museum and probably will never go to one. So making it “mobile” was important to bring an opportunity to people who would not otherwise have had such an experience.
CB: What role does music play in the Detroit scene?
Music is at the core of the culture of Detroit. When I think of Detroit a powerful soundtrack comes to mind. I think of John Lee Hooker, Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, the whole roster of Motown, Aretha Franklin, The Clark Sisters, and The Winans Family. It’s the jazz of Yusef Lateef and Donald Byrd. Detroit radio has not been the same before or after The Electrifying Mojo. Cable dance shows The Scene and The New Dance Show put a stamp on a whole generation of youth in the 80’s and early 90’s. It’s Detroit’s contribution to Hip Hop culture with Awesome Dre, Boss, Proof, Slum Village, J Dilla, Jessica Care Moore, Royce 5’9, Eminem, and Big Sean. DJ’s and producers, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins created the genre of Techno music that in many cases was credited to DJ’s in Europe. All of them have shaped the musical landscape of Detroit and I’d argue is the source of its COOL.
CB: Tell me about a couple of songs that have really motivated you to do what you do and speak the truth?
Khalid: I come from an era of thematic albums. We are in a current era that is driven by singles and these songs don’t last in the cultural memory of people. So, when I think of being inspired by music I think of albums. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and The Last Poets’ self-titled debut album are at the top of my list in terms of projects that have continually inspired me over the years. I still listen to them regularly and they not only inspire me but ground me as a Black man who has dedicated his life to serving humanity. One can only wish to create a work that generations of people will draw inspiration from. Those albums are examples of projects that will stand the test of time.
CB: If you had to pick one protest/socially conscious song to speak to/about racism past or present, what would it be?
Khalid: My number one song is Public Enemy’s Fight the Power! It’s brazenly bold, uncompromising and still gets me hyped! It’s the “movement” music of the Golden Era of Hip Hop like We Shall Overcome was the “movement” music of the Civil Rights era. The song is a reminder of the continuity of The Struggle, it is timeless.