Detroit is one of America’s most culturally rich cities, especially (but certainly not only) in regards to its music contributions to the world. Everyone knows about Motown and Eminem, but the city’s musical heritage spans from the 20th century heyday of American jazz to the raucous jams of MC5.
Almost ten years ago, there was global outrage when it was revealed that the then-abandoned old Motown building was being razed to make way for a parking lot. (This was not the label’s first home, which is now a museum, but the ten-story building that housed the company before it moved to Los Angeles in 1972.) As that building was demolished, the air was literally filled with invaluable old papers (from invoices signed by various Motown stars to music charts) fluttering to the ground.
There was nothing quite so dramatic on display when the Detroit Sound Conservancy recently raced to preserve what they could of assorted collectibles that had been warehoused decades ago by James Jenkins. In 1974 the retired Detroit bus driver singlehandedly salvaged what he could when storied jazz club the Graystone Ballroom met the wrecking ball. Out of his own pocket, he warehoused the items he’d collected in hopes of opening a museum to celebrate Detroit’s jazz history. Journalist Tanya Moutzalias has the twists and tragic turns of his efforts in this article that recently ran on the MLive site.
Moutzalias’s article, beyond telling its specific story, is a reminder of the extraordinary history that has been allowed to crumble and be discarded as a result of decades of political corruption in concert with the philistinism that permeates our culture – where it is almost a point of pride to be ignorant of art and history. What makes this story and countless others like it unfolding across the country especially painful is that so much of what is being tossed out and paved over in Detroit right now is black history and culture that is at the center of American history and culture. Contemporary conversations about appropriation and erasure must necessarily also tackle longstanding, deeply ingrained political policies and institutional practices that make the undervaluing of black culture and artistry a component of the undervaluing of black life.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism,Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.