Shana Redmond is an interdisciplinary scholar of music, race and politics who teaches global jazz studies and musicology in UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music and the African American studies department in the UCLA College.
She recently lent her voice to a four-part documentary series titled “By Whatever Means Necessary: The Times of ‘Godfather of Harlem,’” a companion piece to the critically acclaimed EPIX streaming series “Godfather of Harlem” starring Forest Whitaker. Season two of the period crime drama based on the true story of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson premieres April 18.
“By Whatever Means Necessary,” streaming now on Amazon, was nominated earlier this month for a 2021 NAACP Image Award, for outstanding directing by Keith McQuirter, who called upon Redmond for her perspective and insight to help tell the dramatic true story of Harlem and its revolutionary music during the 1960s, and connect that history to our present moment. The series combines personal stories with powerful music and rare archival footage to go beyond the black-and-white historical images into the multicolored souls of musicians unafraid to use music as a weapon for change.
As we reflect on Black History Month, what do you wish more people knew or appreciated about the music of 1960s Harlem? Who are some of the unsung or under-appreciated Black artists of that time?
One of the most important yet under-recognized elements of that musical moment and scene is its radical internationalism. Not only were many of the Harlem creatives and musicians immigrants from the African diaspora but it was common for U.S.-born musicians, like Harry Belafonte, to study and collaborate with musicians from all over the world in recognition of the fact that the political times required global perspectives and solidarity. One group of the time who modeled this but is little recognized was The Voices of East Harlem, a choir of young people who came together at the end of the 1960s and made their imprint in gospel, folk and protest music through concerts domestically and abroad.
The title of the documentary series is powerful. What does the phrase “by whatever means necessary” hold in the context of the artists highlighted in the series, and in general for Black Americans in the time period the documentary addresses?
The title of the documentary is a play on the famed 1964 statement by minister and radical human rights activist Malcolm X, in which he argued that Black people would fight for their humanity “by any means necessary.” The language was also used four years earlier with the same sentiments in a speech by the Martinican intellectual and revolutionary Frantz Fanon. The creatives in the documentary were similarly moving toward freedom through their own unique and powerful means: music.
As we seek to broadly confront systems of oppression and inequity, it seems more important than ever to find and tell the stories of Black excellence in all areas of American life and history. What role does celebrating Black musicians and artists play in that?
For their intensive relationship to the body, economics, the state and (most importantly) the people, Black musical forms are the most capacious and accessible resource available for knowing the histories, present, and futures of political struggle. It is not simply a story of brilliance that need be celebrated; it is a forum of profound thought and rebellion that is best honored through prolonged and intensive study.