African American cultural producers in Europe

Engaging with Skip Norman’s films of the period between 1966 and 1970 forces us to face the limits of any approach to film based on auteurism. Not only were many of the DFFB films produced collectively and within a film school context, they also point to a largely invisible network of diasporic practices of African American artists in Germany (and Europe) in the 1960s. The names Cullen Maiden, Billy Brooks, and Donald Coleman, all of them involved in Skip Norman’s films, bear witness to these connections. Most likely, they are indicators of a larger web of personal and working relations in Berlin and Europe at the time.

Cullen Maiden, the narrator in Blues People (1968) and Strange Fruit (1969), was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. He was trained as a singer at Ohio Wesleyan University and continued studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Thanks to The Rockefeller Foundation Opera Voice Scholarship, he was able to receive some of his education in Munich. Information about Maiden is scarce, but a blog entry on the website of the British Library informs us that he found work in East Berlin: “Like many artistically talented African-Americans, Maiden found he could get far more work in Europe than the United States so, in the late 1960s, he joined the Komische Oper Berlin where he gained a favourable reputation for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also worked in Scandinavia and finally settled in London.” Apart from his engagement at Komische Oper in East Berlin, he also regularly worked with Kurt Masur and the Leipziger Gewandhausorchester (cf. an audio-clip from a performance in 1973). A collection of his poetry and other writings appeared in 2008 under the title Soul on Fire, echoing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

Skip Norman’s film Strange Fruit (1969) ends with a song by Billy Brooks and his band El Babaku. A year later, On Africa (1970) begins with the same song. Brooks, a drummer as well as flutist, had come to Europe in 1964. In Berlin, as Andrew Wright Hurley wrote, he “quickly became a stalwart of the German jazz scene.” El Babaku, a band that uses neither chords nor horns, focuses on African (mostly Nigerian) rhythms, but also finds these rhythms in Cuba and Latin America. In the liner notes to the album El Babaku Live at the Jazz Galerie, recorded on May 3, 1971 at the jazz club at Bundesplatz 193, Brooks argues: “The power, the new thing about jazz was the rhythm. But it was hidden in horns—in melody and harmony. To make it even more powerful, we have to go back to Africa—and to Cuba and to Latin America where African rhythms are unspoiled.” Brooks politicizes rhythm and formulates a critique of European notions of progress that are transmitted via melody and harmony: “The harmonic progressions in European music are symbolising progress. Progress is the character of Europe—of the white man. […] Power is the African way. Power and subjection. In other words, the African submit to what they are doing. The European character is progress. To do a thing and outdo it next time. It became infectious. Like the atomic bomb. It progresses to its own end …”. One of the trancelike, hypnotic songs on the album, “Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz,” is dedicated to Malcolm X and bears his Muslim name and title. Another member of El Babaku was Donald Coleman, a percussionist born 1939 in New Jersey. Like Brooks and Maiden, he came to Germany in the 1960s and later lived in Koblenz. Unfortunately, his German language webpage doesn’t seem to have been updated for a long time.

Skip Norman left the USA in 1961 to live and study in Göttingen. He moved to Berlin in 1966 to attend the first year of Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie (DFFB) and stayed until the mid-1970s. Like Cullen Maiden, he regularly spent time in Scandinavia (Denmark), where he recorded Bobby Seale’s speech for Strange Fruit in 1969. What kind of diasporic kinship and friendship lies behind the joint work of Norman, Cullen, Brooks, and Foreman? To what other diasporic artists and activists was the Berlin scene connected? Where are its links to the present?



Andrew Wright Hurley, The Return of Jazz: Joachim-Ernst Berendt and West German Cultural Change, New York/Oxford, 2009, p. 206.

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February 25th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / Contexts

The Reconstruction of Ukraine. Ruination / Representation / Solidarity, online symposium, September 9-11, 2022. “The Reconstruction of Ukraine: Ruination / Representation / Solidarity” devotes particular attention to cities, architecture, art, culture and psychological trauma – but the scope of the conversations it aims to start is broader. In due course, the discussions held during the symposium may coalesce into myriad projects, initiatives and experiments undertaken by government institutions, municipalities, educational and cultural bodies and other more interstitial actors. The ambition of this symposium is to establish a platform for dialogue, facilitating communication, collaboration and constructive argument between diverse actors and initiatives.

George Edwards (Zetkin Collective) on war, nationalism and the “anti-climate lobby” (via Arts of the Working Class): “The latest prognosis of this particular war was spelt out in a flurry of reports from the IPCC; the most recent, described as ‘an atlas of human suffering’ by the chief of the UN, demanded ‘rapid, deep and immediate’ emissions cuts in all sectors to ensure an inhabitable planet for all. In step with the science, many wish this conflict to mark the beginning of an intensified programme of decarbonization, ridding economies of not only Russian, but all fossil fuels, wherever their geological source. But whilst political leaders scramble abroad to secure new sources of fossil fuels – sweet-talking sheiks and summoning LNG terminals from the ground – a resourceful and committed cohort, let’s call them the anti-climate lobby, refuse to accept this diagnosis. The partakers in the fossil industry have seized upon this crisis, sensing it as an opportunity to enlarge and entrench economic interests rooted in fossil fuels. As the course of action prescribed by the IPCC imperils this line of business, the attempts to secure fresh investments in fossil fuel infrastructures, to lock-in production and secure profits for the coming decades may feel all the more pressing. The solutions they pose also fit within the national frame and it is with nationalist political forces that they find their most ardent allies.”

July 31st, 2022

The fundamental difference that we face in Europe at the moment between the Western approach characterized by the pursuit of peace and the Eastern one focused on liberation and independence poses a dramatic challenge – in order to survive and progress, democracy as a political regime has to be capable of defending itself also in a military way.” Armed Democracy revolves around the concepts of imperialism, liberation, fascism, autocracy, revolution, and militarization in pursuit of the world to come on Europe’s burnt out land. Conceived by the Kyiv Biennial and Biennale Warszawa from the East Europe Biennial Alliance, this special public program, curated by Vasyl Cherepanyn within the 2nd edition of Biennale Warszawa, the program is a first part of the series organized by the East Europe Biennial Alliance discussing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and taking place in Warsaw, Prague, Kassel, and Riga over the summer and fall of 2022.

Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022
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