*Noah Stewart has built on the successes of his mentor Leontyne Price, Sir Willard White and Jessye Norman to become the first black musician to peak on the British classical chart. With his debut album, the 33-year-old Harlem born tenor has blazed a trail.
But he is more than a novelty. His rich voice has resonance and commands attention captivating the ear and the emotion as exemplified by the stirring Without a Song.
Inspired by Mario Lanza, the tenor who became a Hollywood movie star, and with arrangement from producers Steven Baker and Christian Seitz, the album includes operatic arias such as Recondita armonia from Puccini’s Tosca. On Pourquoi me Reveiller, from Massenet’s Werther, Stewart’s voice really shines.
But the album also includes the spiritual classic Deep River, and traditional standards such as Amazing Grace and Silent Night. Though he did not grow up singing gospel, Stewart’s voice hints at the blues/jazz scene associated with his New Orleans heritage.
His road to riches story includes study at LaGuardia High School where he developed his craft providing back up vocals for artists such as Hootie & the Blowfish, Mariah Carey and rapper Coolio. A scholarship led to further study at the prestigious Julliard School, and his debut album demonstrates the resulting seasoned vocal.
It seems ironic that while working as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall Stewart was advised against humming, but such a voice cannot remain silenced for long; indeed audiences are demanding to hear it live and recorded.
Stewart’s charming and sophisticated image help to sell a genre to new audiences. His humble beginnings make him relatable and the accessibility extends to the album and facilitates his mass appeal. The warmth of his tone means that his version of Leonard Cohen’s much-recorded Hallelujah sounds fresh.
Having performed around the world in roles such as Cavaradossi (Tosca), Don José (Carmen), Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) and Rodolfo (La bohème), Stewart has established a reputation in the classical world. But on this album, the expressive power of his voice can convince new audiences that his talent is no act.
Noah is out now on Decca Records. Noah Stewart plays the Union Chapel on 22 May.
*The power of the late great Gil Scott Heron’s way with words is hard to ignore. His poetic ability makes this much anticipated book a joy to read. It not only engages, but it also educates. If it were just a biography tracing Heron’s 1950’s Southern roots, it would satisfy. But, it goes beyond a personal history to trace a national history in the story of Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to have slain Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a National Holiday.
From candid tales of his well-respected grandparents and parents, with their flair for sports, advocacy for academia or quiet personalities, to his relationships with his own children, we get a great insight into Heron’s influences. Aside from familial role models, iconic musicians such as Wonder made a huge impact on Heron’s world. It is fascinating to read about Heron’s longstanding friendship with Wonder or his brief encounters with a young Bob Marley and Michael Jackson while on tour.
There are many exciting tales from the road once Heron, who was awarded a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award this year, had made it big as a performance poet/musician signed to Arista Records, and as an author of The Vulture. But, his early years at university are equally noteworthy demonstrating musical prowess, a social conscience, and his defiant rallying voice in student politics at Pennslyvania’s Lincoln University.
Much lauded, cool and laid back, Heron’s determination and conviction to follow his dream of becoming a writer is inspiring. A few beautiful pictures add extra character to this already charismatic book. A world of jazz, race, and activism, it details how dreams became reality. The revolution may not be televised but I’m glad it is recorded.
The Last Holiday – A Memoir by Gil Scott Heron, priced £20 is out now published by Canongate Books.
*As the name suggests, this documentary produced by BFM Media and Sun Ra pictures, celebrates the sweet sounds of Lovers Rock. Director Menelik Shabazz narrates a tale of love and romance, which embraced South London in the seventies and eighties. The soothing sounds of romantic reggae sold the experience of immigration and migration, the sounds of the Caribbean on British soil via first generation British musicians and music lovers.
Actors such as Robbie Gee and Victor Romero Evans, Comedians Wayne Rollins, Kwaku, Mr Cee, Glenda Jackson and Rudi Lickwood, Sociologist Dr Lez Henry entrepreneur Levi Roots, author Neferatiti Ife, Journalist Snoopy and Presenter Eddie Nestor, reminisce from an insightful and informed perspective about the unique genre and participate in a series of skits covering its image.
Archive footage serves to educate and entertain about the groundbreaking scene and the network of iconic independent British reggae record labels such as DIP and Fashion Records – home to the late Smiley Culture, notable producers such as Dennis Bovell and Augustus Pablo, and the culture of Sound systems such as Coxon Sound. Viewers can learn about the impact of artists such as Peter Hunningale, Sylvia Tella, Carroll Thompson, Janet Kay, Aswad, Tippa Irie and UB40.
Lovers Rock formed the soundtrack to a generation’s rebellious teenage years as they sought to escape parental problems, and worked up a sweat dancing amid paraffin heaters. But the genre, which celebrated black pride, also witnessed a political heat against the backdrop of police brutality, the SUS laws, anti-racism marches, the 1981 Brixton riots and New Cross fire, which killed 13 black teenagers.
Recreated dances bring back fonder memories for contributors such as Comedienne Angie Le Mar. Recent live footage of performances by the likes of the late Louisa Marks, the late Jean Adebambo, Sandra Cross and newcomers such as Ava Leigh and Alton Ellis’ daughter Lovella Ellis, demonstrate that the genre has preserved its vibrancy and its audiences around the world.
It has some interesting lessons for those keen to break into the music industry from marketing and mix tapes via house parties and PAs, to the perils of contracts as singer Kofi (Carol Simms) of trio Brown Sugar recounts saying she made little money from their hit single I’m in Love with a Dreadlocks, which wasnumber one in the reggae charts while the group were still in school.
The film charts the demand for Lovers Rock as it went from niche to mass market with Janet Kay appearing on Top of the Pops when Silly Games went national in 1979 after spending six months on the reggae scene, and the further triumphs for British reggae in the shape of Maxi Priest’s US success. The film also makes the link between the melodious largely female dominated scene and today’s grime movement. The triumphant film is precious; marking a great British legacy, which is often forgotten by the mainstream industry despite the genre going global (Japan and Latin America) and having shaped the UK’s appetite for future fusions of black music.
The Story of Lovers Rock is out now priced £15.99. Running time: 96 minutes including trailer and scene selection.
*Sisters With Voices AKA SWV, are back with a new single Co-sign taken from their upcoming album I Missed Us set to be released on April 10 via eOne Music and Mass Appeal Entertainment.
The RnB trio from New York who formed in 1990 as a gospel group are one of the most successful RnB groups of that era. They had a string of hits such as Weak, Right Here/Human Nature, I’m So Into You, and You’re the One. Though the group disbanded in 1998 to pursue solo projects, they reunited in 2005. Their most recent UK performance was alongside Faith Evans in December 2010 at indigo2.
The RnB superstars will be joined by Ginuwine who has multi-platinum and platinum-selling albums and singles, and became one of RnB’s top artists in the same period. He formed a supergroup with H-Town and Playa and his sexy performances have always been a hit with his female fans. His most recent album was 2011’s Elgin. His most recent UK performance was alongside J Holiday at indigo2 last June.
Dru Hill and Silk will also join the line up at HMV Apollo London on Sunday 12 February. Dru Hill recorded seven top 40 hits in the UK, and is best known for the hits In My Bed, Never Make a Promise, and How Deep Is Your Love. Their most recent album was 2010’s InDrupendence Day which they promoted in the UK that same year
Silk are best known for their hit singles Happy Days and Freak Me from their debut album Lose Control. The album reached double platinum. They made a popular come back in the UK at the indigo last February alongside Kut Klose.
In a pre-valentines day special presented by S & C MEDIA LTD, this eclectic old school line up will be delivering musical gifts for RnB lovers. With comedy from Choice FM DJ Kojo and Slim, this is an event not to be missed.
14s and under to be accompanied by an adult. Tickets range from £28.50 to £50.00. Show starts from 7pm and ends at 11pm.
*Jumping The Broom captures a recurring debate that has been splashed across the headlines of numerous media outlets, the African American’s quest for love. But this film goes beyond niche appeal. It translates a single ladies quest into a universal pursuit. Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) has brought her milkshake to her last yard and resigns to reserve her cookies for a cutter worthy enough. The missing instrument in her life is soon replaced when she runs into Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) a Goldman Sachs Banker from Brooklyn.
Within six months the lovebirds are engaged and destined for a new life in China but their nuptials are as delicate as the name of their potential new home suggests. Threats to their future exist in the form of their polar opposite families. The Watsons are uptown; apparently wealthy and middle class; the Taylors are downtown; working class and sassy. Not even Sabrina’s mother Claudine (Angela Basset) and her hilarious wedding planner Amy (Julie Bowen) can protect the big day from calamity.
Director Salim Akil perfectly frames the tranquil and picturesque surroundings of Martha’s Vineyard, which are escapist but for the fighting in laws who cause ripples in the waters that threaten not to be stilled. Loretta Devine intimidates as Jason’s angry, dependent and over bearing mother Pam. Though she tickles, delivering some of the best lines. Her best friend Shonda (Tasha Smith) is the perfect sidekick while uncle Willie Earle (Mike Epps) and cousin Malcolm (DeRay Davis) join them on the ride to the island for the weekend wedding.
The geographical divisions are not the only ones explored in the film. The Watsons are divided by recurring secrets and lies in the form of Greg Watson’s (Brian Stokes Mitchell) secret phone calls and a secretive aunt Geneva, the multi-talented (Valarie Pettiford). While the numbers may be even, the wedding party is at odds to mesh. Blythe (Megan Good) is reluctant to succumb to her attraction to Chef McKenna (Gary Dourdan), and Malcolm’s game just does not add up to success with any lady. Sabrina’s cousin Sebastian (Romeo Miller), a 20-year-old senior at Yale, fares little better in his attempt to make a cougar out of Shonda.
It is doubtful that love will conquer all when the Watsons and the Taylors clash over standards of etiquette and decorum, and argue about everything from the menu to the dancing. But the real sticking point centres on the tradition of Jumping The Broom. As the modern couple considers sweeping the symbolic custom under the carpet, the pre-wedding family dinner descends into a multi lingual fracas. But after dinner revelations cause the real upset.
Writers Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs deliver a smart, fresh and funny story with balance and subtle social commentary about culture, class, identity and values. They successfully juxtapose convention and innovation. Producers Bishop T.D. Jakes (who makes a cameo along with El Debarge) and Tracey E Edmonds produce a touching narrative with religious undertones, but the film is inclusive rather than exclusive. The soundtrack, which features Patton’s husband Robin Thicke, provides the perfect accompaniment to this romantic comedy, which is released in the UK just in time for Valentines Day. Viewers will fall for this movie again and again.
Jumping the Broom, rated 12, is out now on Sony Pictures Home Entertainment priced £19.99. Bonus material include commentary with Director Salim Akil, Paula Patton and Laz Alonso, as well as two featurettes: “You’re invited: Behind the scenes” and “Honouring the tradition of Jumping the Broom.”
*Swedish Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has produced a fascinating documentary that anyone interested in black history should see. From the outset it juxtaposes the equalities of America with the inequalities and exposes the injustice, which lived just a few, miles from justice; the distance between the two was measured by race.
The archival 16mm black and white and colour footage shot by Swedish filmmakers, was unearthed from a basement of a TV station after 30 years. The film primarily focuses on Howard University Alumni Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, the Trinidad-American black activist. Carmichael was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became the ‘Honorary Prime Minister’ of the Black Panther Party. Affiliated with Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements, he popularized the term ‘Black Power’.
In the film which was co-produced by the actor Danny Glover, Olsson presents the eloquent orator Camichael making rousing speeches about Dr Martin Luther King and the bus boycott to largely white audiences. Carmichael analyzes the effectiveness of Dr King’s non-violence approach at the time.
The historical evidence is put into context be a series of interviews with musicians such as Erykah Badu, actors such as Melvin Van Peebles, poets such as Abiodun Oyewole and Sonia Sanchez, and professors such as John Forté and Robin Kelley, recorded in 2010. Rapper Talib Kweli is heard assessing Carmichael’s strengths, personality and legacy as we see Carmichael traveling around Europe. Kweli also tells an interesting tale about Carmichael inspiring one of his records and being investigated by the FBI/CIA after studying him; highlighting the threat that Carmichael’s ideas are sill perceived to be.
Olsson does a great job contextualizing the American Civil Rights movement amid the broader political scene with reference to the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The film reminded me of how much I love history. It is amazing to watch Carmichael interviewing his mother and hearing about growing up in poverty due to the discrimination is father faced. There are many revealing moments with footage of Carmichael singing in his hotel room and doing regular things.
The DVD takes each year between 1967 – 1975 in turn. By 1968 The Roots Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, who produced original music for the soundtrack alongside Om’Mas Keith, notes that Dr King’s assassination was no accident; as he moved towards a more militant anti-war position. Desegregation was one thing but economic power was another.
Actor Harry Belafonte provides insight into how Dr King felt in the last days of his life when he did not fear for his life, but instead for the quality of it. He aimed to fight new battles not on race but education, health and welfare. The DVD includes a clip from Dr King’s speech in Memphis the night before he was killed. It also shows Dr King in his casket. It highlights the deaths of other prominent black people in 1968 such as Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton, as well as key moments in black history that year such as athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Olympics Black Power salute at the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, and incidents of policy brutality in America.
The DVD is moving in showing such palpable moments in history. A clip from Malcolm X’s 1964 Oxford Union debate is precious. Vox pops from black people on the streets of America of losing heroes such as John F Kennedy, Dr King and Robert Kennedy, and footage of poor mothers with multiple mouths to feed are just as meaningful. It is all the more moving to see such despair in the late sixties and look at where things stand today.
The film also features moments with Black Panthers, Bobby Seale and Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey P Newton who declares that new leaders are born and made, and highlights the important work the Black Panther party did introducing free clinics and free breakfast clubs – an initiative the American Government was to adopt. It can be disturbing to hear kids singing about guns but commentators such as Erykah Badu put into context the realities of self-defense and the extreme circumstances. The film charts the progress of the Black Panther Party as more members are arrested or killed; and the party in general moved towards socialism.
Political Activist and author Professor Angela Davis, the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, is another great commentator who contributes to the film on top of an intimate, candid and exclusive interview from her prison cell as a 26-year-old woman in 1970. With her trademark afro, wearing a red polo neck, brown skirt and red tights, Davis vividly recalls the scenes she witnessed as a youth including being stopped and searched by the police and her ties to one of the four little girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham Alabama church bombing.
The film is empowering and audiences can only thank the team, past and present, for being brave and passionate enough to tell this story, especially considering that in 1970, America’s TV Guide lambasted Swedish and Dutch TV for being anti-American in presenting an alternate interpretation of history.
The film highlights the advancement of the early seventies where black was beautiful and knowledge was power. It features an interview with Lewis H Michaux in 1973 at his iconic Harlem African National Memorial Bookstore, where Malcolm X spoke, and a year before it closed down.
By 1974 when Nixon resigned, Watergate was overshadowed in black communities by heroin, which the Government flooded the neighborhoods with. Even Vietnam Veterans returned with drug problems. Angela Davis aligns the influx of narcotics with the decline of military and revolutionary impulses. A few years after man had conquered the moon they struggled to combat earthly highs. A young female drug addict tells a particularly harrowing tale of abuse and prostitution; one can only hope she has beaten her demons.
As inner cities became gentrified, new leaders emerged such as the nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who is also featured in the film. The story comes full circle analyzing the legacy of the black power movement; its rationale, radicalism and rhetoric, which has been referenced for other human rights movements. Erykah Badu notes the importance of black people documenting their history, though it is a Swedish team behind the production. It is important for people to document their history but when resources such as this are so valuable it matters less who produced it, and more who can benefit from it.
Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is out now from Soda Pictures priced £9.99.
The satirical special documentary feature, This Film Is Meant To Be About Stokely Carmichael about Carmichael’s British cousin and National Film and Television School alumni Isis Thompson’s struggles with identity, featuring Dami Akinnusi and Darcus Howe, will divide opinion.
The film premiered in UK cinemas during Black History month in October. It has already toured cities across America.