Music

A Family Affair

Navigating the legal landscape of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s legacy

Jason Schumer

Jazz artist Maggie Brown bursts into song at one point during our conversation in Bridgeport Coffee. She uses her phone for digital accompaniment, pulling up a track that “speaks to the young people”—a jazz rhythmic loop—before launching into the first verse, “I’m fed up with all this bad news/ The crime here got me singing the blues/ I wish the headline could report on something good, instead of shooting in my neighborhood.” The coffee shop table transforms, momentarily, into a one-person stage.

“What if the words we say led to a better way of being certain that our future’s a brighter day/ Well people, people that’s what to talk about.”

She’s free-scatting over the beat, fingers drumming the table before interrupting herself. “Here come his words,” she says, before launching into the verses of her father, the late South Side jazz legend Oscar Brown, Jr.

It’s an improvisational demonstration that encapsulates the musical heritage that Maggie grew up in, a mix of jazz, poetry, and hip-hop; but more than that, it’s a confluence of what currently and has always preoccupied her: music as a family affair, and in particular, the legacy of her father.

While each member of the Brown family has some presence in the music industry—Maggie is an accomplished performer, as is her step-sister Africa, and so was their late brother Oscar III—the familial constellation revolves around Oscar Brown, Jr., his work, and, now, the effort to preserve it. The South Side jazz giant, composer, and activist factors into nearly every conversation that Maggie has about her solo career, but one senses that it’s not an unwelcome association for her. While Maggie admits that she’s often on the receiving end of calls to “do her own thing” and “step out of your dad’s shadow,” she also expresses a belief in the continued ability of her father’s work to be a healing salve—a belief that roots her commitment to spreading it.

“I think it’s the rising,” she says. “The fact that the poetry and music is stuff [that] rises to our need for being able to articulate who we are, and how we feel [as] black people. And also to show our beauty and to redeem, to rise above this struggle. So his material, it spoke to our human condition—his stuff ties us back to the Great Migration, his stuff ties us to Chicago in the early 1900s when he was growing. Even when you look at ‘Work Song,’ the men working on the chain gang and some rural situations too.” And indeed, much of Brown’s work vacillates between intimate historical commentary and incisive contemporary criticism of black history. A recent staging of Brown’s In De’ Beginnin’ at eta Creative Arts, for instance, was a retelling of the Genesis story from a black perspective, which involved mixing scripture, black vernacular, and iambic pentameter.

Maggie’s advocacy of her father’s material has been in the works for quite a while now, beginning far before 2005, when Brown passed at the age of seventy-eight. Maggie recalls family meetings where cataloging her father’s deluge of poetry, songs, plays, and essays would come up. It occurred to a young Maggie (about eighteen or nineteen at the time), that Brown’s body of work was “massive and kind of undiscovered.” Brown, known for hits like “Work Song” (popularized by Nina Simone), “Signifyin’ Monkey,” and “The Snake” (quoted by Trump on the the campaign trail, an event the Brown family worked to send a cease-and-desist letter in response to), had in fact produced a far larger corpus of work than was ever published or known by the public. In a 2015 interview in the Tribune, Maggie noted that in many ways, it was Brown’s anti-commercial, anti-business inclinations that had contributed to the lack of publication and publicity of his work during his lifetime.

“He was so dead set on not letting anything get commercialized and compromised, that it left him difficult [to deal with],” she said in the interview. “He didn’t want to put [music] out there any old way.”

It was this attitude that left behind a goldmine of unpublished material after Brown’s death—and left his family with the immense task of sifting through his creative output. Naturally, the works were in varied forms—typewritten manuscripts, handwritten notes, floppy disks (“You remember those?” Maggie asks), and computer-typed documents, all of which were scattered between residences in Chicago and Washington, where Brown had lived. At the end of it all, Maggie estimates that they had catalogued some one thousand poems among other written works, most of which have never been published.

To this day, this archiving work remains central to the popularization of Brown’s work that Maggie envisions. Having a collection that is easily available to the public is her ultimate aim, and to that end, Maggie is now looking to the digital realm. “A cybrary,” in her words, would be the goal—having Brown’s work live on in pixelated posterity. And in talks with her for this digital push is the Rebuild Foundation, an arts and cultural development organization started by Theaster Gates and behind community-focused projects like the Stony Island Arts Bank. It’s a move that has been part of Maggie’s attempt to broaden the reach of Brown’s works and bring it into the contemporary arts and music scene of the city, rather than have it remain in the annals of forgotten history.

Early in 2016, what would have been the year of Brown’s ninetieth birthday, Maggie put out a call to arts organizations across the city to urge that they adapt Brown’s works for their season’s offerings. The call was answered by the city by way of Maggie and Africa performing a set that incorporated several Brown works in the city’s Jazz Festival, a staging of In De’ Beginnin’ by eta Creative Arts, and a showcase by Muntu Dance Theater incorporating features of Brown’s work. Maggie describes these arts organizations, particularly the latter two, “like family,” with the same community focus and concern that has always undergirded the Brown family’s musical work, especially on the South Side. Brown had notably collaborated with members of the Blackstone Rangers gang in a musical stage show entitled Opportunity Please Knock in 1967, a collaboration which, as he described in a 1996 interview with Rick Wojcik, “really changed my life…because it let me see that there was this enormous talent in the black community.” Or, in Maggie’s words: “there’s gold in the ghetto.”

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Jason Schumer

Jason Schumer

In the background of these new revivals of Brown’s work, though, and behind the intimate and communal atmosphere surrounding his legacy, there have been complications about the legal management of his artwork.

A legal quagmire emerged following Brown’s passing in 2005. Vehemently against the commercialization of his art, Brown’s attitude of institutional resistance had bled over into other spheres of his life. He didn’t believe in paying taxes, for one—Maggie explains that he believed black people, who’d been enslaved and then suddenly made taxable citizens without recompense shouldn’t have to pay taxes—but, more relevantly to the current legal situation that Maggie and Africa deal with, he hadn’t left a will.

This meant that the aftermath of dealing with music and publishing rights soon became a protracted battle between Brown’s remaining family members and record companies, and also within the Brown family itself. It was a process that Maggie says “set us, me, my sister, my siblings, into a bit of a tailspin.”

When it came to establishing who owned the rights to Brown’s work, Maggie says dealing with the recording companies was straightforward. Because the terms of a typical recording contract that her father had signed in the 1950s and 1960s were more often than not unequal, giving the companies far greater leverage over their artists than the artists had rights to their art (an issue still relevant today), the “hit songs” that Brown recorded are still owned by companies like Columbia Records under the original terms. Maggie didn’t find the prospect wholly unsatisfactory, however, simply because “there’s all this that hasn’t been touched, tapped, or exploited…there’s wide-open range.”

That wide-open range quickly formed the battleground for family disputes. All currently unpublished material by Brown is owned by the family as a whole under an imprint called Bootblack Music. From time to time, it turns a profit from artists choosing to cover this material, or sample it, or otherwise utilize it. (Maggie relates to me a bizarre instance where rapper Cassidy’s sampling of Diana Ross covering Brown’s “Brown Baby” became grounds for licensing.) After his death, because of a lack of a will, intestacy laws kicked into effect, which meant that Brown’s estate was equally divided between his late spouse, Jean Pace Brown (Africa’s mother, now deceased), and his remaining children. Maggie tells me that the struggle over the estate was largely one that emerged after her stepmother’s passing, when a stepsibling residing in California (a daughter from Jean Pace Brown’s first marriage) began staking claims to the rights to Brown’s creative work. Maggie declines to go into detail, but tells me that the dispute was protracted and tumultuous for the family.

Within this climate a third-party representation company called CMG Worldwide was brought in as an independent, third-party mediator, through whom requests to use Brown’s work now go. Maggie serves as co-manager of Bootblack Music, with the stepsibling based in California pulling co-manager duties. It’s not the ideal settlement for Maggie and Africa, but it’s one that they’re learning to work with in the mission to popularize their father’s work.

CMG entered the picture last January. In an email statement to the Weekly about their status in representing Brown and their working relationship with the family members, the company stated, “CMG Worldwide is the agent for Oscar Brown, Jr.’s representatives, who are the owners of Oscar Brown, Jr.’s right of publicity and trademark rights, along with various interests in works by Oscar Brown, Jr., such as poetry, songs, etc.” That’s a far cry from the personal style of communication that used to occur, when Maggie herself fielded queries from people interested in using her father’s work—people who, often, were longtime friends or associates who knew her father, or arts organizations like eta Creative Arts that she regards as “family.”

It’s a professional relationship that Maggie professes is still a learning process, with her and Africa still needing to guide CMG, especially in toning down corporate modes of communication. In the eta staging of In De’ Beginnin’ for instance, Maggie recalls the CMG representatives’ communication with eta: “They came with all this stuff and I was like, ‘Hey hey hey hey, this is like family, and we’re open to them,” she said. “I invited [eta]. Don’t bulldog them. Do that when Broadway wants to do a piece. We want them to toe the line with us. But this, go easy.”

Whether going easy or toeing the line, the Browns will now find themselves dealing with this triangular legal-representative situation for at least the next five years—the duration of the current contract.

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Even as they adjust to the legal complications of managing their father’s legacy, the biggest obstacle Maggie and Africa face in exposing more people to their father’s work may be the passing of time. It’s easy to feel that as years pass and the generation more familiar with Brown’s work begins to fade, so too will his legacy and memory. Maggie is taking cues from younger Chicago- and South Side-based artists in learning to counter that. Particularly, she mentions that new methods of distribution are allowing artists to reach a larger audience than ever before. The conversation, naturally, turns to Chance the Rapper, whom Maggie “is so proud of,” having been friends with his mother, Lisa Thompson Bennett. She talks about giving music away, and how initially unpalatable that notion was to her.

“[Brown] used to say we should give it away,” she says. “We should give the music away, and that people of like minds would come together and support us and we didn’t have to sell the music. I always had great resistance and my brothers and sisters too, like ‘Oh no, we can’t just give it away. We’re trying to send kids to college and buy homes of our own.’ And when I look at what people like Chance the Rapper’s doing right now? I feel like a fool.”

What ultimately matters to her, she says, is that Brown’s work gets out there some way, somehow, to work its healing magic. One gets the sense, in talking to Maggie and Africa, that the concept of music as action that can save, heal, and change is more real to them than it is to the average person. When asked why it was important to continue a legacy such as her father’s, Africa wrote in an email response, “In De’ Beginnin’ 1978 was my first taste of performing live, and it’s at the core of who I am today. Because at a very early age, I got the sense that in my family, we were Freedom Fighters and in a hostile situation. Important historically because of the righteous path he chose to use his talent, with words as a weapon against injustice.”

The same stubborn optimism and belief in the pure restorative ability of music persists in Maggie. In our conversation, she expresses a desire to one day have a brick and mortar center in Chicago that continues her father’s legacy of “edutainment”—educational entertainment. It would be, she envisions, a space that could teach you how to “deal with your talent,” using artistic gifts in a productive manner, in much the same way her father’s community-centered arts work functioned when he was alive.

“One thing Oscar would always say is that you can’t drown out noise with noise,” she says. “You gotta put it onto one. You gotta heal it. You can’t hate, or out-hate hate. You know what I’m saying? You gotta introduce a love thing to quell that. And get it on to one. And get everybody in a common ground, or a common harmony or rhythm, as the case is when music is involved. And then kind of feel our common humanness.”

The words of her and her father present a refreshingly reassuring vision of music—listening to Maggie, one feels that the kind of spiritual salvation both she and Africa talk about is within reach. But with the knowledge of the kind of corporate and organizational obstacles that the sisters now face, one only hopes that the glimmering strength of Brown’s music and legacy can pull through until there’s enough of an organizational groundwork to circulate it far and wide. Until then, the sisters continue pushing and performing, while, behind compromises and complication, Brown’s musical healing continues to work its magic.

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