Rashod Ollison has loved music for all his life. As a young boy growing up in Little Rock, Ark., music provided him with solace from his hard scrapple life. Motivated by that love, alongside his brilliant gifts as a writer, Ollison has gone on to build a successful career as music journalist writing stories about the influence that the art form has on all on us. Slightly shifting gears he has written his first book, Soul Serenade, which has garnered praised from critics around the world and introduce this talented scribe to a whole new audience. The Robertson Treatment recently spoke to him about his new book and his passion for music.
Robertson Treatment: What motivated you to pen your memoir?
Rashod Ollison: In spring 2010, I moved to Virginia Beach for my position as the pop music and culture critic at The Virginian-Pilot. Professionally, a great move; personally, though, quite challenging. I was lonely in the sprawling ‘burbs, where I knew no one and where the socialization was nothing this city rat was used to. (I’m still not used to it.) I also called myself falling in love for the first time in my adult life. That ended horribly, stirring some old abandonment issues, and I sank into a deep depression. I soon started a three-pronged plan: “Operation: Re-invent Rashod.” I was a size 48 waist and close to 280 pounds, so I joined a gym and hired a fitness trainer. (I’m at a 36 waist now and about 55 pounds lighter.) I also hired a therapist, and I started writing my book as a way to challenge myself creatively and to exorcise the burdens of family pain, grief and sorrow.
RT: This book is in many ways like a great music soundtrack. Where did the idea come from to create parallels between music and your life experiences?
RH: Everything about the book – from the way I wrote it to the way it landed at Beacon Press – was organic. Music has always been such an integral part of my life that it seemed to be the most sensible and coherent way to tell the story of my family. Music – soul, the blues, funk, some rock – was like another relative: informing, encouraging, and providing solace and a much-needed escape from chaos and madness.
RT: Why does music play such a primary role in black life?
RH: Going back to the days of slavery, music was the way we communicated messages of empowerment and inspiration. There was also coded language for escape. (“Down by the riverside,” etc.) Our collective response to music, from the church to the jukejoint, has always been electric and visceral. Black life itself is stunningly musical – especially what we do to language, the rhythm in our walk, the way we greet each other with complicated handshakes. Black life and music, they’re inextricable.
RT: The book goes into great detail about many challenging aspects of black life. How did you manage to move beyond those challenges to build a successful career?
RO: I never really thought about it. I was fortunate to have always been a focused person. I knew early on, around the fourth grade, that I was going to be a writer of some sort. I was blessed to have teachers who saw my talent and encouraged it. Something deep inside of me knew I wouldn’t be like the men in my family. I knew there was something more to me than wasting away in the streets. I saw no glory, no honor there. And I was intellectually insatiable and shy, so the library became my Eden. Plus, my mama made it a point to push me because she saw the kind of man my father was, how he had been so enabled by his family. The same was true with her brother, my Uncle Wayne, and a host of male cousins. Mama was a feminist before I knew what the word meant. She wasn’t upholding any patriarchal bullshit in her house. Education was my escape. I always had faith that my writing would open doors for me. As I’ve worked on it – and it is work – the doors have opened.
RT: What’s your relationship like with your dad today?
RO: Daddy died when I was 18. The book ends at his funeral. I was barely a month away from high school graduation and on my way to college. He died as my life as a grown man was beginning, and I was so angry at him for dying. It wasn’t until I was around 30 that I started to grieve his death. In writing the book, I feel I have a better understanding of the kind of man he was. He was broken and cowardly. But he imparted some things I still carry with me such as an unshakable sense of pride in who I am. He had a narrow, almost cartoonish nationalist perspective. He believed all black people and all things black were inherently good. He’d often tell me, “Black is where it’s at.” And because he was a superhero in my five-year-old eyes, I absorbed that message. My perspective is far more nuanced and much wider than Daddy’s, but I didn’t grow up with that racial self-loathing thing that plagues so many black folks. I have Daddy to think for that.
RT: What would you like readers to take away after reading Soul Serenade?
RO: It’s written differently from a lot of memoirs I’ve read, especially recent ones written by black men. I wrote it like a novel and I took many liberties with structure. My relatives become fully rendered characters. I’m not explaining things as I do when I’m writing journalism or criticism. I’m showing you who I was and who my relatives were, and what the neighborhoods were like. Your hear the neighbors talk and comment on actions; you hear the music playing in my room, and you go on trips with me as my imagination takes flight, fueled by the music. So readers can take away whatever they want. I hope it’s something that encourages growth.
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