Sofie Lie

The Meter of the Blues

With the Oscar Brown Jr. Archive Project, artists Maggie and Africa Brown have finally come home

He was a wordsmith with rhyme
I can’t even take the time
To expose you to half of what he wrote

But let’s just say
Pick a subject of the day
And there’s a song of our daddy’s I can quote.

Oscar Brown Jr. stood up for civil rights
and he didn’t set out for the fame.
The man was a genius when it comes to making rhymes
It’s a shame y’all don’t even know his name.

Sisters Maggie and Africa Brown are used to harmonizing. As they slide into an impromptu performance during our conversation, their voices support and blend with each other, amplifying their message: you need to know about their father, playwright, poet, and songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. His name belongs with South Side greats like Gwendolyn Brooks and Sam Cooke. Lorraine Hansberry directed his first play, for crying out loud. So why isn’t he part of the pantheon of Black achievement? If you ask his daughters, it’s because his work has been suppressed by established systems and institutions for more than fifty years.

In the 1960s, as Maggie Brown said, “They removed his records from the radio stations. [They said] he was too outspoken.” Africa Brown attributes the censorship to “his relentless way of expressing the Black experience and rebelling against the system with his words.” In fact, the bulk of Brown’s work was unpublished at the time of his death.

There’s a reason for that. Throughout his life, Brown was wary of allowing his work to be compromised by commercial establishments; he would not agree to a partnership that he felt would tone down his message. That message isn’t always obvious; the thousands of lines and verses Maggie and Africa have reconstructed are impossible to condense into one lesson. Nevertheless, the more you engage with his work, the more Brown’s simple yet radical baseline philosophy begins to coalesce: the Black experience and the human experience are one and the same.

Mainstream culture during Brown’s life simply was not ready to engage with such a nuanced consideration of Black life and pain, especially pain inflicted at the hands of White Americans. It is only due to a combination of timing, luck, and years of tireless fighting that Maggie and Africa Brown have been able to bring their father’s work into the light of the twenty-first century. The path to The Oscar Brown Jr. Archive project’s success has been riddled with feuds, oppression, and strife. Through sheer tenacity and faith in the power of their father’s words, Maggie and Africa Brown are finally free to give Oscar Brown Jr.’s message to the world.

Maggie was the first in her family to see the potential in their father’s work.  “It’s like she was seeing ghosts all this time, and people didn’t believe her,” Africa said. It was only after Oscar Brown Jr.’s death in 2005 that the rest of their family caught on to the value of his archive. Africa and Maggie joined forces to protect their father’s legacy, and a bitter legal battle ensued over who owned the rights to his work. The case lasted for twelve years, and it only ended last December.

While the legal battles dragged on, another attack on their father’s legacy came from a different corner. During his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump appropriated an Oscar Brown Jr. song called “The Snake” and read the lyrics at rallies to fuel his anti-immigration rhetoric. As the Brown sisters put it, “Trump took our father’s work and used it to promote his hate speech.” To add insult to injury, when Trump bothered to credit the writer, he misattributed the song to another artist who covered it. Maggie and Africa were forced to go on CNN and MSNBC to set the record straight.

Africa and Maggie Brown’s connection to this archive goes beyond the simple fact that it is their father’s work. “We are married to the soul, to the music. We have a different relationship to it than our brothers and sisters…because we performed it with him when he was alive,” said Africa. Only three of the seven siblings—Maggie, Africa, and their brother Oscar Brown III—engaged with their father’s work during his lifetime. After their brother passed, Africa and Maggie knew they had to rely on one another more than ever.

In 2018, another blow struck their creative family when the sisters lost another essential collaborator: Calvin “Coco” Brunson, who was Oscar Brown Jr.’s artistic partner. Where Brown wrote the words, Brunson composed, arranged, and played the music. After losing their brother, father, and musical mentor, “We were holding on to each other for dear life!” laughed Africa. And yet, those losses have fueled their drive to bring their vision to fruition, both for their own sake and in the name of the family who never got to see it.

Finally, on the very day that the Brown sisters were celebrating what would have been their father’s ninety-second birthday, their hard work and determination paid off. At a fundraising event, they had a chance encounter with Daniel Logan, whose family runs the Logan Family Foundation and who turned out to be a fan of their father’s work. More than a year later, that chance encounter has led to their current residency partnership with the Logan Center for the Arts, at the University of Chicago.

“He came right forward and gave us…what we asked for,” said Africa. “My sister and I, we’ve always known we have a treasure. And we’ve always known it needed to be preserved and utilized… but we never had the facilities, or money, or resources.”

Through the arts residency, the Brown sisters are archiving, recording, and producing their father’s plays, musicals, and songs—with not only time and space to produce their work with total creative control, but also access to the resources of a large academic and artistic community.

The residency consists of five staged readings of various plays and musicals that are previously unpublished. The Logan Center has provided space, production time, and administrative support throughout the reconstruction process—because so much of Brown’s work is only partially recorded or written down, Maggie and Africa have essentially had to recreate the art with the help of memory, creativity, and a community of fellow artists, many of whom even worked with their father fifty years ago. As Maggie said, “Having a residency means having access to all the great things that are available to a person on this campus.”

The sisters have also relished their membership at the UofC’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Apart from the business resources it provides, the Center is located at the intersection of Oscar Brown Jr. Way and 53rd Street; it is on the site of the old Harper Theater, where their father wrote and produced a show in 1967 called Summer in the City. Now, Maggie and Africa get to work on preserving his archive in the building where they worked with their father on some of his art in the first place. Africa put it perfectly: “Talk about full circle.”

It is hard to overstate the brilliance of Brown’s writing. His poetic prowess was on full display at his daughters’ staged reading of Crecie, the third of the five works to be produced during their residency, at the Logan Center on January 20. Decades ago, Brown made the connection that iambic pentameter and the blues share the same rhythm. That connection resulted in Crecie, an operetta that depicts the lives of people enslaved in the antebellum South.

In true Shakespearean tradition, the operetta disguises biting social commentary with bawdy humor, all in perfect iambic verse with rhyming quatrains. Brown’s work, however, improves on the Bard’s by adding haunting arias and blues-driven bass lines. With stories that address colorism, reproductive justice, and toxic masculinity, Crecie feels startlingly contemporary for a script written fifty years ago.

Two more performances are planned for the winter, with Cybersoul debuting in February and Kicks & Co: Play Symposium in March.

After fighting for so long, the Brown sisters are finally out from under from legal barriers, racist appropriation, and the shadow of loss. Finding the right partners has made all of the difference. The momentum of this project in the last few years comes from working with local theaters like eta Creative Arts in South Shore, with South Side artists, and with institutional partners who know how to sit back and let creativity reign. They are finally free to devote their energy to producing Oscar Brown Jr.’s work with the  vision and unapologetic brilliance it deserves.

The sisters describe this project as the “manifestation of a vision, a destiny,” and “nothing but a bunch of blessings.” To become posthumous co-creators with their father, to learn and arrange and produce in the very spots where he once sat in the wings, anxiously watching his show from backstage, is more than meaningful. As Africa said, “It means a lot to us to be able to shine light on what has been kept in the dark. What people have heard of my father’s work is just a very small part of what this large vast lifetime of work is.” And both sisters agreed: “We’re just getting started.”

The next performance from the Oscar Brown Jr. Archive project will be a staged reading of his play Cybersoul on Sunday, February 24, at 4pm. Free with registration. arts.uchicago.edu

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Ailea covers arts and culture on the South Side. She is an actor, dancer, writer, and educator. She last wrote for the Weekly about tap dance organization M.A.D.D. Rhythms; catch her hoofing at the next M.A.D.D. Rhythms Tap Jam.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, I can sing so many of Oscar Brown Jr’s songs, from Hazel’s Hips to Nothin but a Plain Black Boy, to Afro-blue to When Malindy Sings, and Take Me In, Tender Woman and Brown Baby. Oh and Signifying Monkey! When I came to Chicago in 1962, we played his records over and over. After a bit his stuff disappeared. I explained it to myself by thinking it was because he was writing art songs, more like European songs than American popular music. The sixties and the Beatles and punk and hip hop were coming along.

    All I knew was some records. It will be wonderful to hear more of his work. I don’t know about white appropriation, just that he spoke to this white young woman. It seemed to me that the African American community left him behind as history went on. Leaving me with gorgeous songs.

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