Music Gallery Logo
Close

Follow Us:

X Avant 2020: Norman Otis Richmond Interviewed by Chaka V Grier

Published on: February 3, 2021

Photo Credit: Elijah Nichols

“I REMEMBER ONE OF MY WHITE COMRADES- HE SAYS ‘YOU FINALLY MADE IT,’ I SAID WHAT DO YOU MEAN? HE SAID YOU’RE WRITING FOR THE TORONTO STAR. I SAID WHAT ABOUT ALL THE WORK I DID FOR BLACK PRESS, DOESN’T THAT COUNT?”

 

David Dacks: Night two (of the X Avant festival) and this time we have a very special conversation between the one and only Norman Otis Richmond and Chaka Grier. A little bit about both of them in a minute but let me tell you that the X Avant festival that started last night with a heartfelt session with a tribute to Ron Gaskin and will continue through the 18th of October. Check our website musicgallery.org/xavant for all the details. All the events are free but if you want to support the music gallery, go to musicgallery.org/support and maybe take out a membership or make a donation.

Alright, on to the main event, Norman Otis Richmond is a walking history of Black music in Toronto and beyond. More than 50 years in, around and beyond the music business, his work has explored art politics and everything in between. Host of Diasporic Music, once on CKLN FM and you can check his website right now: it’s online. and co-founder of the Toronto chapter of Black Music Association. He’s expert in many cross-currents of Black musical manifestations from jazz to traditional African to soul and so much more. Chaka is a writer, an interviewer, and an essayist. She’s completing an M.A that explores the intersectionality of womanhood, race, culture and film and television. Her work as appeared in O the Oprah magazine, Musicworks, NPR and Bandcamp among very many others and now I’d like to throw it away, that’s right throw it to Chaka and Norman. Take it away.

Photo Credit: Elijah Nichols

Chaka V Grier: Thanks David, and hi Norman, we were talking beforehand.

Norman Otis Richmond: I’m really excited about everything, thank you.

C: Yeah I’m thrilled for this talk; we have a lot of ground to cover because you’ve had one of the most interesting lives of a journalist that I’ve read. So let’s start from the beginning. When we spoke a few days ago, you made an interesting comment to me. You told me ‘I was born in America but I’m not American’ and I want to go back to your childhood because you were born in Louisiana and then your parents moved to L.A. How old were you and why did your parents choose to move to L.A?

N: Well let me tell you the truth. My mother tells me that I was conceived in Los Angeles and she went back to Louisiana so she could be next to her grandmother, (my mother’s mother). When I was six months old, I was taken back to Los Angeles. They wanted me to live in Los Angeles, because you know I was born in 1946, and Emmett Till was killed – anybody can google Emmett Till – but he was murdered and dumped in a river in 1955. Things like that occurred in the south as well as the north. For many, many years, so most people felt that it was better, well we thought it would be better to be on the west coast. There were job opportunities on the west coast. So my grandfather and father moved to Los Angeles, and my grandfather had a job at a place called RH Osborn where they made plane wings for planes. So they were part of what you call the aerospace industry and you know my grandfather would send my uncle back, one of my mother’s brothers back and they would bring people back from Louisiana to work in this automobile plant RH Osborn and basically that’s how we came to Los Angeles California.

C: What was it like growing up in LA? We know so many us of know of LA especially from the 90s but what was it like in LA during your youth?

Norman Otis Richmond: Well first place we lived was near a place on Central Avenue. It was like a legendary place because Central Avenue is where all the nightclubs were and that’s where they had a Black hotel, I think it was a Jamaican brother actually owned a hotel in Los Angeles a Black hotel but we lived Central Avenue in the ghetto. And my sister, I had a sister that was born premature, and I moved to a place called Aliso Viejo which were the projects. And Aliso Viejo was near the white memorial hospital, so because my sister was born premature we moved to the projects because it was closer to the hospital. Our right next door neighbour was a none other than H B Barnum, and H B Barnum was the musical director for Aretha Franklin for like 50 years.

 

 

C: Wow!

N: And H.B Barnum every time he used to come to Toronto he would always you know call me up and you know, get me. So basically, I’ve been around music like I said all my life and then my father was a musical fanatic but how would you want me to… ask the question one more time.

C: Well what you’re saying kind of brings me to another question because it seems like music was your first love, with that, in your youth did you want to be a musician singer because you said you love singing and you’ve done music so with that one of the things.

N: Well I either I either wanted to be it was three things I wanted to do, I wanted to run in the 100 meters in the Olympics, I wanted to play center field, uh for baseball, and then the singing part came later because of my father, I was a I was a mama’s boy and a daddy’s boy.

C: Yeah.

N: Because I was the first child of you know on that side of the family and you know I was a spoiled brat you know, they gave me everything and I basically wanted to play, I wanted to play baseball but the problem with playing baseball is that I went to johns, a school called John C Fremont, and I wanted to play center field and my father bought me a baseball glove, he wanted me to play first base and I was always teasing him I mean even at that age. I said you know pops, you know thank you for the first basemen glove but I want to play center field because I want to I wanted to catch the ball like Willie Mays, you know Willie Mays – all the women be screaming at Willie Mays because he was in center field.

C: Yeah.

N: And you know all the women like the center fielder, got all the attention but the problem what I had playing center field was I went to this place called John C Fremont and the people that were playing baseball, both two of them went on to play in the major leagues. One of them was Bobby Tolan and Bobby Tolan was he played in the World Series a couple of times and then there was a guy by the name of Willie Crawford and Willie Crawford could hit a ball and the ball would go to Tijuana Mexico, Bobby Tolan could hit a ball and it would go to San Diego. Norman Richmond could hit a ball and it might go to, uh, it never would leave the infield. I used to sing all the time, my mother told me that I was a Little Richard fanatic and you know when I was growing up I used to watch Little Richard. He considered himself the king and queen of rock and rolI. I met Little Richard when I was 17 years old. I started recording when I was 16. So we had a little group, we had recorded a record. I was with a group called M & M and the Peanuts, we could, let’s not always tell them that we should sue Eminem the rapper so we can get us some money but I was with M & M and the Peanuts so we did shows with Little Richard.  Little Richard actually wanted us to come on tour with him but we couldn’t go on tour with him because he wanted to kick the woman out of the group. It was three people in the group, one was a woman and Willie Malone and Pat White were (married). Little Richard wanted Willie and me to come and join him and you know Pat and Willie were married so there was no way.

 

C: Yeah they would say.

N: That would take place right.

C: So how do you go from this youth in LA you really loved; around when did you get into activism? Because when the Vietnam war happened your life took a major shift. Were you an activist before that shift which you can lead us to? Or was that when you sued America? Did the state, did that turn you into an activist? Can you talk about that?

N: What turned turn me into an activist was when I was 14 years old I was going to a school called John C Fremont Highschool and – can go into who went to John C Fremont?

C: Well give us a couple names, any names we, any names we would recognize.

N: Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter who was the head of the Black Panther party of southern California. Jayne Cortez the poet. Don Cherry, he played with Ornette Coleman., Richard Stebbins was an Olympic Champion. Bobby Tolan, like I said world series Willie Crawford.

C: Wow.

N: And there were a lot of brainiacs that went there – I’m having a senior moment. But we produced more than athletes and entertainers.

C: Yeah.

N: There were quite a few, I think there was one Rhodes Scholar that went there, I Can’t think of the person’s name right now.

C: So you were 14 and you’re at this high school and what was happening that started making you become who you are today?

N: What happened was I was 14 the first week of high school, and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was murdered, and I was in school and Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Okito , and Maurice Mpolo were killed in in the Congo. I was a young man and (there was a guy named) Charles Wright, he was part of, there was a number of street organizations they called gangs. He had an automobile at that particular time, he was one of the best dressed people and he had all of the girls and he was making fun of Patrice Lumumba and Kasavubu. Instead of calling him Joseph Kasavubu, he was calling him “cassie booboo” and just making all kinds of negative things about Africa. There was a young man who was in the Nation of Islam who saw me because I was shaking my head, I couldn’t put it together. The young man asked me “would you like to hear the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammed? I see that you are shaking your head about (how) they’re talking all that crazy stuff”. So when I was 14, I went to the mosque, at that time they were called temples. Temple 27 and I heard the teachings of a guy by the name of John Shabazz who sounded just like Malcolm X. John Shabazz is still in the land of the living and he was talking about I remember he says that the original, you know who was the original man and he talked about how they, the Black man (they weren’t talking we weren’t talking about women at that time) but the Black man was the first man so on and so forth, history started with Africa which I could unite with and then you know he started you know just dropping history about how we had been mistreated and you know I became interested in in in the movement. But at that time I was 14 and I started running track and trying to, I never made the baseball team because like I said, you had Willie Crawford and you had Bobby Tolan and they went on to play in the major leagues. I ran a little track and I was pretty good, pretty good in terms of running track. Then I got involved in the Los Angeles city college and I joined this the what is what is the student union that’s, you know, the student movement at that particular time. At that particular time people that were going to Los Angeles city college and there was a young man by the name of Sigidi Abdullah, who wrote “baby take your time, do it right”. He became producer of the S.O.S. Band, he wrote that particular song.

 

 C: One of my favourite bands.

N: Yeah everybody became a Muslim except me. I recruited just as many people into the nation of Islam than Malcolm X did at that particular time but I never joined. I became involved in the movement at that particular time and then I was drafted and there was a group called the Self-Determination committee headed by a young man by the name of Robert Brock. Robert Brock was an outside type of brother and he sued the U.S Government and I signed on to that and there was one other guy that was with us and he will remain nameless because they, uh, copped out.

C: Co-operated.

N: Yeah.

C: Yeah.

N: And they convicted me, for 5 years and a $5000 dollar fine and I was told that I wanted to go to jail because I thought I was I was kind of a tough guy. When I didn’t think I was a tough guy but I just I didn’t want to leave the United States. I thought that I was going to make a point (by) going to jail and all the other older people says “no, no, no, no, that’s a waste of time, you know, leave the country” and sub-sequentially I was trying to go to Africa. I didn’t have a passport and I ended up in Toronto. I was trying to go to Montreal but the farthest I got was Toronto, Montreal was east. Initially I was supposed to go to Montreal because Montreal was the hot spot at that particular point.

C: Yes yes Miles Davis, a lot of people Montreal was the spot for music and everything.

N: Yeah because Sonny Rollins, who is from, who has the Caribbean background he used to come to Montreal from the time he was a teenager and a lot, there was a link between Montreal and New York city yeah.

C: So when you came to came to Toronto, you mentioned to me that there was a man, a Guyanese man who really helped you find your whole new home here. Can you talk about the elders or the people who supported you as a young man when you were now here in Canada?

N: Yeah there was a young guy, there was a young man by the name Jan Carew (who) was born in Guyana and he lived in Canada and he lived in England and when I met him he had just come from Ghana. He was living in Ghana, he was working with Kwame Nkrumah’s government. We had a meeting at the Home Service in Toronto. Place called Home Service, that’s where the Black women used to bring all of the immigrants that came to Canada. At first you would go to the Home Service and they would set you up with a place to live so on and so forth. So we had a meeting at the Home Service and we had two speakers. One speaker was Jan Carew and the other speaker was a young man by the name of Ted Watkins who was from California. He was a football player, he played with the Hamilton Tiger Cats and he had won the Grey Cup at one time and subsequently he was killed in Los Angeles in California. They say he was robbing a store and everybody knew that was a bold faced lie, but anyway Jan Carew was there and basically took me under his wing, he was like the underground. He was like the Harriet Tubman at that particular time. Everybody went through Jan, and Jan would get you place to stay and Jan basically mentored me politically and he helped me with my children, with my son and everything else. He passed away a couple of years ago in Louisville Kentucky. Jan was well into his 90s when he passed away.

 

Photo credit: Elijah Nichols

C: Wow so what led you to journalism and radio because you wanted to sing you wanted to be in sports, you had a lot of other dreams, when did those two become the thing you pursued?

N: Well when I came to Canada, we started an organization called the Afro-American Progressive Association. Many of the people from the Caribbean did not like that particular name because they thought we were the people that started the Afro-American Progressive Association. There was one gentleman from the united states who was older than all of us, the second gentleman was a young man by the name Jose Garcia and he was from Aruba and Curacao and Jose Garcia could speak English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento and uh we chose the name Afro-American because Afro-American contrary to popular belief was not started by Jesse Jackson but it came from a guy by the name of Carlos Cooks who was from, he grew up in the Dominican Republic. Carlos Cooks took the position that an Afro-American was anybody from Canada, if you were an African or you’re Black and you were born in the Western Hemisphere, you’re an African but you’re an American because geographically, the Americas, the Cubans are Americans and they’ll tell you that in a minute you know, the America, you know the United States of America does not have the monopoly on “America”. All the people in the western hemisphere are Americans so that’s how we came up with the concept of African-American.

C: But what led you into the radio and journalism.

N: Oh okay sorry about that!

C: You started off at Contrast, what led you to Contrast?

N: Oh okay, I studied to be a radio tech, x-ray technician, and I did a little bit of radio and I always listened to radio religiously and there was a young man by the name of Rick Holmes. Rick Holmes was from Nashville, Tennessee, him and a guy by the name of Jamming Jai Rich and also there was a white dude by the name of Hunter Hancock. But anyway he had the Black community locked up because he used to do all of the hops, you know they did shows for kids at you know for teenagers. I was fascinated by this guy… Rick Holmes and he used to work at a store called Zieglers, that was a place down the street from Los Angeles City College. So we used to just go down and just listen to him talk … I mean he could talk, he could rap and I remember he would always talk about “I’m going to make like a leave and tree, make like a banana and split”. I guess a lot of people would say he was corny, but we thought he was the hippest thing in the world but anyway. I wanted to be like Rick Holmes so I got into radio. Politically, people started getting arrested, we started a newsletter in Toronto and the newsletter was called Harambe. Harambe is a Swahili word for “let’s pull together”. So at this newsletter, I don’t think there’s any copies of it, but anyways this brother, one of the brothers in the group was a young man who was trained by the Communist party. So he would always tell me and tell us that he was older than all of us, that you have to be a one-person organization. So you have to have as many skills as you can: you have to be able to speak, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to lay out a newspaper. As many things as you can, because you know you have to train other people. So we call him DT, his other name we call him Papa Doc, he was the one that got me to writing and when people started getting arrested, I basically started writing you know “free this guy, free that guy blah blah blah blah blah” and that’s basically how I got into in into journalism. Then I was writing for Contrast and somebody whose name I will not mention (he would not print me because he thought I was an illiterate Negro from Mississippi, you know. He had gone to Ryerson and you know, I graduated from high school. I was at the bottom of my class, I graduated average and I never did anything in school except tell jokes and act a fool) and anyway it was a young man by the name of Daryl Auwai. Daryl Auwai is still in the land of the living, he might be even watching this show right now. Bromley Armstrong started the newspaper called the Islander. Bromley Armstrong was a trade unionist in Toronto born in Jamaica – came to Toronto I think (in) 1947, I think he was 19. Anyway he was trade unionist and anybody Googled Bromley Armstrong he was a legend, he has a book out on about his life but he was a legendary figure, and Daryl Auwai he had started a newspaper, rival newspaper from Contrast called the Islander and Daryl  Auwai had me write an article in that particular paper and I actually got paid for it. The article that I wrote, I think was on Betty Wright – Betty has just passed away…Betty was living in Miami . She married a guy by the name of King Sporty and King Sporty was, wrote “Buffalo Soldier” with Bob Marley and she toured with Bob Marley (Bob Marley came to Massey Hall). Betty toured the whole world with with Bob. She recorded with Peter (Tosh), she recorded with Bunny (Wailer), she also (worked with) Joss Stone.

C: Okay yeah.

N: I met her, interviewed her and like I said I actually got paid for doing that particular story. That’s when Al Hamilton (of Contrast) took me seriously and I started.

C: There’s 2 articles I read of yours “Too Black Too Strong”, which you sent me.

N: Yes.

C:  That I want to get into, but before that I want to get into Prince, because it’s the Music Gallery and music is what we’re going to talk about as well. You wrote a great line saying that Warner Brothers Canada, I believe, still owes you royalty for pretty much putting Prince on the map in Canada. Can you talk about Prince? One of the things I want to say is what’s so fascinating about Prince is since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, before that many of us only knew Minneapolis because of Prince. This kind of hybrid transformative quality he brought to music… you were one of the first to write about him in Canada. What drew you to his sound and how was it following his career?

N: Well I was not one of the first, I was the first!

C: Okay!

N: What happened was I went to Los Angeles California in 78 and 1979 and I went to Warner Brothers Records, they were in Burbank and I remember when I was walking into Warner Brothers. Eugene Record, lead singer of the Chi-Lites was walking out and I remember I bumped into him and we talked for a long time. When I went into Warner Brothers, they gave me all kinds of albums, one of them was Prince’s first album and I came back to Canada and I wrote about Prince in Contrast and then when I came on the air – I had to show for a brief time on CFNY which was in Brampton but it was a major station – and I played Prince, you know, “I want to be the only one you come for!” (and) I think “I want to be your lover”.

 

 

I found out later that all of Prince’s grandparents were from Louisiana and one of his grandparents was from Arcadia, Louisiana which is where I was born. I found Prince to be fascinating because Prince claimed he was not political but If you looked at the statements that he made in the work that he did for example when Lauryn Hill was in jail, Prince looked after her family.

C: Wow.

N: Yeah, he took care of them. Spike Lee, when he didn’t have enough money to finish the Malcolm X film, Prince helped him with that. Prince was strange in a very positive way. I mean he talked about being a Jehovah Witness, he was a 7th Day Adventist at one time and I think Larry Graham – he is Drake’s uncle, Larry Graham (of) Sly and the Family Stone (then) he made a name of his own, he got Prince into the into the Jehovah Witness situation.

C: What about Prince’s sound? Because he had a very pop but still kind of abstract sound. I want you to get into artists you find really inspiring, who push music. What about Prince’s sound made you know, he was going to be who he became?

N: First of all, he could play, he played all the instruments on the particular album. He wrote all of the songs. I saw prince in in in the 80s in Detroit. Purple Rain was his first album I think (note: For You was his first album), he had purple yeah I think I saw the film and then I saw him live and I saw him twice. I saw him in Toronto and in Detroit. I never saw him again but I was supposed to hook up with him just before he passed away. I got an email from his office saying I was going to do an interview with him.

C: That would have been amazing.

Norman Otis Richmond: Yep, when I saw him, oh he made a believer out of me because I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan but Prince could do too many things, instruments, he could sing, he could do the falsetto thing, all the voices that he could do, the fact that he could play all of the instruments.

C: Yeah.

N: And put on a show as well.

C: I want you to talk about what you’ve seen over the past 30-40 years covering music in Canada because you gave, you said to me an interesting quote. I only remember part of it but you said European control over African creativity, and you seem to be have challenging that from the beginning. How was the music scene in Canada when you first began and do you think it’s improved at all for black artists?

N: Well first of all, all of these Caribbean people coming up here who had music already if you were from the eastern Caribbean. Of course you had calypso and if you were from the French territory you had Zouk and all that kind of stuff and of course in Jamaica you had ska, reggae and all of that… Caribbean people, like all people, played jazz as well but they couldn’t do that in Canada. They all had to play, all of the Caribbean folks that I know, in order for them to earn a living they had to play R & B, and then they took second fiddle to the white R & B artists. It was only after Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and reggae started breaking that Caribbean people could actually be Caribbean people.

 

“CARIBBEAN PEOPLE, LIKE ALL PEOPLE, PLAYED JAZZ AS WELL BUT THEY COULDN’T DO THAT IN CANADA.”

C: Yes.

N: So they had to play funk, try to be sing like the Temptations. Then the European, the Euro-Canadians they controlled the jazz (in) particular, jazz and the blues. Black people couldn’t even sing the blues in in in Toronto. All of the blues legends here were and we had some good ones. Some great blues people from Canada, one example is Harrison Kennedy. He’s from Hamilton Ontario, he went on to sing with The Chairmen Of The Board. You can’t get any more bluesier than Harrison Kennedy, but all of those guys, they couldn’t even work.

C: When did you see the evolution where black artists started to be able to have more power over their music or more respect in their music. We all know we have Drake.

N: Well.

C: Yeah.

N: Cut you off, I’m sorry no go ahead.

C: Yeah so now we have like Drake and The Weeknd who are known worldwide and I think Canada, the world is seeing that Black Canadians exist and we make amazing music, but did you start seeing this trajectory happening before these two artists?

N: Oh yeah Deborah Cox, Deborah Cox. But right now Drake and The Weeknd control the world.

C: yeah.

N: Well let me say The Weeknd there was a song by the Temptations have covered by The Weeknd (“Earned It”), (it was) a beautiful song by the Temptations which was written by The Weeknd. Drake is the number one artist on planet earth.

C: Yeah how do you think this, how do you think this has happened, like for black Canadian artists like I know we have a long way to go but how do you think it happened that these two got this kind of attention?

N: I think right now, Black Canadians basically run the music business in terms of being the biggest artists in male and female and sports right now. You know, the Raptors have been world champions, the blue jays that won the world series. I mean, Toronto is on the map… I know that a lot of people want to move to Canada.

C: So let’s go back to your career because in your article which I suggest everyone read “Too Black, Too Strong”. You start off really poignantly mentioning a writer who wrote a piece in 2017 saying that the media system in Canada is a form of oppression for black and people of color and Indigenous and you wrote about how when you read that article, it reflected your experiences writing for mainstream media. Can you share some of those experiences?

N: let me see, first of all I started writing for Contrast and like I said I wrote for Share and you know the African Canadian or the Black press and in the late 70s. Well I was always into reggae from the get go.  But anyway, I did an interview – first of all I went to California and I met Rick James, Rick is no longer in the land of the living. I remember walking in on Rick James and he had a kilo in his front, in his door. You walked in and there was a kilo of marijuana, and I know I never will forget that and anyway Rick James liked to argue and I was always the type of person, that if he was a superstar then you know the thing is you’re supposed to suck up to somebody who’s that. You’re supposed to suck up if you meet a superstar, try to get on the good side and I started arguing with Rick and he loved that. He loved the fact that I would talk back to him because there was, a white DJ up here, who me and him at that time basically fallen out but then he was a great DJ, he knew black music backwards, forwards, sideways and Rick asked me how he was doing. Me and this white gentleman at that time had fallen out so I started “talking about” the DJ and Rick he got mad at me. I basically said “later for you and that dude” and Rick liked that, because I guess he had so many was it sycophants.

C: Sycophants.

N: Yes man.

C: Yeah.

N: I remember he says you got a white girl, right? I said no no no, he said “what the hell, why else would you live in Canada except to just to get white girls?”. I said no, I have a lady from Jamaica and he basically busts out laughing. He says “alright he said if you’re not going to go back to the States, what I want you to do is call Neil Young’s father Scott Young”, he was a sports reporter at the Globe and Mail.

C: Okay.

N: So let’s just call Scott Young, and tell him that Rick told you to call him. So, I called Scott Young and I told him that Ali had just fought. Ali had lost was getting ready to fight again and he was singing and I was going to say “well you know, Ali could be a singer if he doesn’t want to box anymore” and I’m talking about the fact that he had recorded with Sam Cooke. Mr. Young told me that he couldn’t help me but to call the Toronto Star. He gave me the name, and I called the Toronto Star and they published the article on Ali and then I must have I must have written for the Toronto Star for maybe about 18 months after that. Basically Rick helped me and turned me on to Neil Young’s father, Scott Young. I remember one of my white comrades – we were in some listening party – he says “you finally made it”, I said what do you mean? He said you’re writing for the Toronto Star. I said what about all the work I did for the Black press, that doesn’t count? And I remember I always thought that was an insult to me. I mean we haven’t arrived until we write for, you know… our own press doesn’t count, (let’s) put it that way.

C: Yeah, in the article you talked about why you (left the) mainstream, and why it ended. Talk about that – have you wanted to write for mainstream again, or are you happy sticking with independence?

N: It’s not a question of wanting to write for mainstream, I want to, I would write. I think I’m good enough to write for the mainstream and I think that all young writers should want to write for not only mainstream… we need to control some things but I think we should concentrate on building. I mean Marcus Garvey had the Negro World and the Black Panther party had, the Black Panther, that was the name of their paper, and of course you had the Muhammad Speaks at one time. Those papers were selling. That was when we had a thriving press and I don’t know if we’re gonna have that again because of social media and so on and so forth. Newspapers like that might be a thing of the past.

Norman Otis Richmond Protesting at the Junos 1989

Photo by John Mahler, Toronto Public Library Archives, Courtesy of the Toronto Star

 

C: Before I forget, before we get into 2020 and what’s been happening here and and how your work is so relevant for this year we have been living through, I want to talk about your protest of the Junos in the 80s. Can you talk about that and do you think the Junos have learned since then?

N:I think the black folks and their allies have basically forced the Junos, they’ve had to kind of flip the script. I think Jully Black did she host the Junos in one year?

C: I’m not sure.

N: I think Jully, yeah.

C: Can you explain to the audience why you had been protesting then?

N: They had no they had no Black music categories in the Juno awards. I think I wrote an article “white on white” and it was just, I used to go to the Junos. I started going to the Junos I guess in the 70s and most of the years there might have been two of us there. Myself and Dan Hill and maybe some years there might have been Claudja Barry, I don’t even know if people remember Claudja Barry. There were there were no – we weren’t even in the audience – there were no categories so we basically thought that we needed Black music categories: R&B, Reggae and all they gave us was R&B, Reggae and we wanted a calypso category as well. They didn’t put in the calypso; we were arguing for a calypso category to be put in the Junos because at one time Calypso was the biggest music in the world. The first (million) selling record of all time was uh Harry Belafonte’s Calypso album. We were basically saying that you guys make all this money off Caribana and the Black folks, you know, they can sell patties and sell some water and sell some fruit juice (while) you guys control the airplanes and hotels and make all the money.

C: Yeah so now we’re about the last 12 minutes of the talk so I wanted to switch over to – it’s such an honor to speak with you, because anyone who choses maybe to spend this weekend looking through your work sees how you have been laying the ground for black journalists like myself and journalists of colour and radio hosts of colour for decades now. So you have a hindsight many of us don’t have and I would love for you to share on a few topics in light of the police violence that we’re kind of recognizing here in Canada and acknowledging and trying to fight against and in the US and politics and music and everything. What do you think, what first, what have you thought of this year, what’s happening?

N: This year is like, to me, it’s like all the other years in terms of you know I was born in Louisiana and grew up in Los Angeles and came to Toronto and I think at one time when I first came to Canada that there may have been maybe 5000 people of African origin in in Toronto. I know a lot of people who came here first, the Indigenous. Well I shouldn’t say there’s no Indigenous Africans, we all came here, we’re brought here but some of us have been here longer. I remember people telling me these stories about how they had to duke it out in the streets with the owners, they got respect because they fought back even when it was only 5000 people.

C: Yeah.

N: But then when the numbers started coming up here, Black people basically changed this whole society I think. You had people coming from the Caribbean, you had people coming from Africa. You had people coming from West Africa and then East Africa and then you had the whole religious question. I mean I think Islam might be the second biggest religion in Canada now and a lot of that has to do with our people, African people coming from, we have Muslims coming from Trinidad, Guyana, and of course you know Senegal and all parts of Africa so I think that is that has kind of flipped the script considerably.

C: Yeah in media and music and that kind of, are we doing well? What areas do you think we need to continue to work on?

N: I really don’t know how we’re doing as a group because I think that the music business is an individual type of situation where you, you know you get rich or you die trying for yourself. I think there’s a group they called (Advance Music Canada) I think they’re pushing Canada period. I don’t know if they’re Afrocentric or not but I think that you know the music business is such an individualistic thing. Berry Gordy was get rich or die trying. Dick Griffey and Sound of Los Angeles (SOLAR Records) that was a get rich or die trying, and all the hip hop folks are probably might be a little bit better than my generation, the generations before them, because at least they’ve had sort of a collective situation where they come in as a three, four, five people together as opposed to just one man or woman and I think (they) are doing a little bit better when it comes to ownership now. You know, I shouldn’t say that because uh Sylvia Robinson from Inglewood New Jersey was first of all, Sylvia Robinson started Sugar Hill (Records).

Chaka V Grier: Okay

Norman Otis Richmond: I think Sylvia Robinson had a Guyanese background I believe. She did that song “Love is Strange”, that was in the 50s, and then she did the hip hop thing, she (was) one of the most powerful women, she’s no longer in the land of the living but she kind of goes against the curve because she was into ownership like I say way, way back.

 

C: So a lot of elders led you along your path and you’re still on the front lines fighting for like equality in Canada and getting our music out there and the diversity of our music and our cultures. What tips, ownership is a big part of what I think young black journalists and artists need to know, but what other tips do you think you want to give to like the next generation coming up who are saying “how can we make a difference that lasts against white supremacy in media and white supremacy in music”? What do they have to do to make sure this year, as this dismantling continues, that it doesn’t get built back up a year or two from now.

N: Privately or publicly become part of the of the Black liberation movement and I’m not saying you have to go to the whole of press conferences, say I am a member of the African Peoples Socialist party and our objective is to unite Africa and you know come, we need to have an all African socialist government. I’m not saying that that might be what you’re about but you don’t necessarily have to come and hold, like my grandmother used to tell me, never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. You know, politics and economics is what is going to free us.

C: Yes.

N: But like I say, if you’re really in that type of position I really don’t think it’s necessary for you to hold a press conference and say “I am a revolutionary and I want to seize the means of production” I mean but I think we need to –

C: Make our voices heard in politics more and industry, get a seat at the table.

N: No, I think we need to take over the table. We’re not fighting for a slice of the pie. I think we want to fight for the recipe.

 

“NO I THINK WE NEED TO TAKE OVER THE TABLE. WE’RE NOT FIGHTING FOR A SLICE OF PIE. I THINK WE WANT TO FIGHT FOR THE RECIPE.”

 

C: Yes, wow love that! So as we’re wrapping up we have just a couple minutes. Can you tell me, you’ve done so many interviews, who would you have loved to perform with or interview that you never got the chance to or who you hope to?

N: I would have loved to have spoke to Duke Ellington.

C: Yeah.

N: Duke Ellington I would have loved to have met, I would have loved to talk to. (Are you) talking (about) people who are dead, alive?

C: Well I was thinking people who have passed who you would have loved to sat down, you’ve written about Malcolm X and I love your work on what you’ve written about him, like Duke Ellington is kind of where I was going.

N: Yeah Duke Ellington. I saw Ella Fitzgerald, but I would have loved I would have loved to sit down and talk to Sarah Vaughn.

C: Yeah yeah.

N: I would have loved to talked to her, I would have loved to talk, I saw Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Vaughn was a different kind of lady, I remember she was out in Ontario Place and the sound man couldn’t get it right and Sarah dropped some F-bombs on him. I mean Sarah could curse like a sailor. She was very, very out spoken.

C: Yeah.

N: And there’s a friend of mine that claims, a friend of mine named, give him a little shout out, Clint Marshall. He tells me that Sarah Vaughn has Guyanese background too.

C: yeah! I’m researching that so thanks for the tips, keep telling me. It’s two minutes in and I want to thank you for this hour, I knew we wouldn’t be able to even really touch the surface of the history you carry but I’m honored to be beginning this process here for myself, getting to know your work and what you’ve done and I thank you for that. I want to thank the audience who tuned in and I want to thank David Dacks and the Music Gallery for inviting me to speak with you and I suggest anyone who wants an adventure to check out Norman Otis Richmond’s work because it’s some of the best storytelling and writing and history that we have in Canada so thank you.

N: I would like I would like to thank Malinda Francis who was my business partner for putting me in cyber space and helping me get my work out there I would give myself maybe a five on the technology thing, but I think she’s a ten!

C: Thank you.

N: You have to have a team.

C: You definitely do! Thank you everyone, have a good night. Bye bye Norman.

N: Take care.

-transcribed by Harshi Dharmasena

Share the Page: