Shanta Nurullah interviewed at her home in July 2013 by Rebecca Zorach for Never The Same
Shanta Nurullah is a storyteller, musician, writer, and teacher. She has been performing as a musician, storyteller, and actor since 1972, presenting concerts and workshops in educational and cultural institutions across the country and abroad. She has has appeared at the National Storytelling Festival, the National Festival of Black Storytelling, the National Geographic auditorium, Columbia University, The Chicago Jazz Festival, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. She has released several recordings and has won numerous awards. With other members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) she co-founded Sojourner and Samana, two all-woman groups in which she played percussion, bass and sitar. She also teaches Wiggleworms classes for young children at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Rebecca Zorach: Do you identify more as a musician or more as a storyteller or is it so intertwined that you can’t separate the two?
Shanta Nurullah: I guess it has really depended upon what I’m doing the most of. I’ve identified primarily as a storyteller for longer periods but at the moment I’m feeling more like a musician, which has to do with my work at Old Town School. But I’ve been involved in music pretty consistently since I was 5 years old. But until I got hired at the Old Town School, music could never pay the bills; storytelling did. And then in 2001 I moved to Las Vegas and in one sense it was a really silly move to make but in another I just had to go.
RZ: You had to go to Las Vegas or you had to leave?
SN: I had to leave Chicago, right. I just couldn’t stand seeing the same people and the same scenery and the same same any longer. I had been saying for a number of years that as soon as my youngest went off to college I was going ot leave Chicago, so that’s what I did. The irony was that she was applying to East Coast colleges and then ended up in Michigan, so we ended up further away from each other, she ended up without a home base basically because I made that move. So it was a strange period.
RZ: And then when did you come back?
SN: 2008, so I was gone for seven years. Another reason that it was weird was that was toward the height of my storytelling career. That year I had gotten the Illinois Art Council’s artist fellowship. Things were going pretty well, you know, had been going well for a while and then when I left I was gone a little too long so that when I came back, you know, the people who were programming, those people had all changed, and not enough people remembered me, basically. So the first couple of years back were really hard just in terms of survival. But now I feel really good about what I’m doing and how my life is.
RZ: So you’ve been involved in music since you were five years old—can you tell me about that?
SN: OK. My great aunt, Nanny Strayhorn Reed, was a classical pianist. She was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi, as was my grandmother, her sister. She moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, in the early to mid twenties. On my mother’s side and my father’s side and my grandmother’s side and my grandfather’s side, they moved to Chicago. My aunt was pursuing this career but she took on piano students and my brother and I studied with her. So I did that from age five to fifteen. At the same time I was doing tap dancing with Tommy Sutton at Mayfair Academy. He was a childhood friend of my father and he learned how to tap by going and standing outside the stage door in the alley at the Regal on 47th and King Drive when Bojangles was in town (Bill Robinson). And Bojangles would come out and teach the kids steps. That’s how his dance career got started. He and Daddy were friends and when he opened his first studio it was in the same neighborhood where we were living.
RZ: And where was that?
SN: Chatham. So we were on 85th and Vernon, his studio was on 79th and King Drive (South Parkway at the time). So I was in one of the first classes that he taught. I kept that up from five to fifteen, and at fifteen I was done with both of those things.
RZ: And it was classical piano?
SN: Yes. I was trying to be cool, it never quite worked out for me, but I did stop doing piano and tap at that point. But both of those things created a valuable wealth of experiences that I have drawn from continuously. I mean performing: we did a lot of performing in both twice a year recitals for piano and the annual recital for tap. But Tommy was taking us out, we would dance at The Grand Ballroom on Cottage Grove and at the Rehabilitation Institute, so we got a lot of experience. Oh and twice on Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
The early days of TV, we were on TV. So that performing experience and the discipline of going to lessons and being under a teacher and having to practice that was all good.
RZ: And then when you were fifteen did you pick up any other instruments or did you…
SN: I just stopped and focused on finishing high school, and then when I went to college, that very first semester I registered for individual piano lessons and went one time and the guy wanted to correct every single thing; the way I was sitting, the way I was holding my hands, you know, the way I was playing the keys and I’m like, “uh-uh.” I’m not gonna start all over again, you know, if everything I’m doing is wrong, just forget it. So that was it for me and music for a minute. A couple of years. Because when I was a junior I got a chance to go to India and heard the sitar and just fell in love and took lessons and…
RZ: So you took lessons there?
SN: In India, yeah, and did my project on Indian classical music.
RZ: And that was a semester, a year?
SN: Six months. So it was a good foundation.
RZ: And then you came back and you had one more year of college?
SN: Actually a little less than a year because I finished early because of the credits that I got in India. Then when I came back home in the spring, that’s when I got involved with Kuumba Workshop.
RZ: And what was that like? How did you get involved in Kuumba?
SN: Well, I went looking for something because I had heard about the Black Arts Movement and actually did the independent study for my major on the Black Arts Movement, the literature part really.
RZ: And was it being called the Black Arts Movement at that point?
SN: Yeah. So for my independent study I recorded myself reciting a lot of the poetry from that time; much of it from Larry Neal and Leroi Jones’s Black Fire. And then I had the chapbooks that the various poets were putting out, and the significant thing about that, years later, was that, when I went back to Carleton I took Rahsaan, who’s my third child, he was graduating from high school sometime in the nineties. Anyway, when I went back to Carleton and paid a visit to the English department, to my teacher who had been my adviser on that project, he said that my recordings of the poetry changed forever the way he taught poetry in Carleton, which was, you know, that was really something, you know, in terms of being a compliment and seeing, you know, that I can have that kind of impact.
RZ: Where were you finding the poems? Were there bookstores—did you have to come to Chicago to like find a bookstore that sold them?
SN: That I don’t remember, but somehow I got ahold of those books. And so I was looking for basically a theater outlet or someplace where I could get involved. Heard about Kuumba and went up to the third floor of the South Side Community Arts Center and Val pulled me on in and it was not only a performing experience but just an exposure to so many people, I mean, Val was friends with everybody, right? So Mari Evans and Gwendolyn Brooks were around a lot and Haki Madhubuti and Useni Perkins. Just being exposed to these people. A lot of them were involved in OBAC at the time. Margaret Burroughs’s home museum, now known as the DuSable Museum, was right across the street, and we would go over there. It was a grand, just a grand time to be exposed to a movement that was just so powerful. The writers and the poets and the actors and the dancers and the musicians were all collaborating and there was just such a great energy in the air, you know, and it was just fabulous to be a part of that in some small way. And Roberta Ingram was my friend in Kuumba and we started Kuumba around the same time. She did a lot of tech stuff as well as playing a number of reed instruments and she lived on my way home, so I dropped her off one evening and she said, “Why don’t you come on in?” I came in, went into her room and there was a bass sitting in the corner and I picked it up and started playing it, and she was so astounded that I was playing this instrument I’d never even seen before, then she gave me the bass and the amp, sent me home with it, right? So then I brought it up to Kuumba playing whatever notes I could figure out, you know, in that ritual part of our Saturday night performances, and Val suggested that I find Pete Cosey, so Pete Cosey was my first bass teacher and after I’d been with him for a little while, he suggested that I find Phil Cohran, and I stayed with Phil for a few years.
That was a nice flow, you know, that one person turned me on to the next person. And at that time the AACM was meeting and performing next door to Pete’s house, ’cause his mother had this daycare center, Child City I believe it was called, and they used that as a performance space, so I got to know some of the cats in the AACM. I had also hooked up with Robert (Lewis aka Seitu Nurullah) by that time and it was just, you know, everything just flowed and everything would flow into everything else. It was a very heady time.
RZ: Can you think of examples of the flows between music and theatre and the visual arts?
SN: Well, what immediately came to mind for me was the poet Gi-Ra. He would read or recite his poetry with various AACM groups, and either he was either an ad hoc member or an actual member of the AACM. Seems like there was always spoken word at least involved with the music in some way, and then the musicians knew the visual artists, the musicians knew the dancers, the dancers would perform with the musicians; it was all mixed up. Whoever, you know, decided they wanted to work together.
RZ: So and you were performing as an actor with Kuumba as well as just playing music?
SN: I think with the plays I only had minor roles. What I loved most was doing the rituals, which would usually be after the plays I think, before or after. And I just really got into reciting poetry. One of my favorites was Haki’s, I don’t remember the name of it, but the keyword was “change”; “Change change change, be a change, live your change.” I had done some theatre at Carleton as well but never anything major—I take that back, I did have a major role. At the end of freshman year, this was shortly after Dr. King was assassinated, some of the students got together and decided that they would take a play into the suburbs of Chicago and that would be their contribution to raising the consciousness of suburbanites. So it was me and this group of white students, and we formed the Uninvited Company, which up until I think last year was still functioning at Carleton. We did this play and I was the central character in that play, and then after the play we would have a Q&A with the audience. The more we did it the angrier I got. Because these people, “What can we do?” you know, just “Well, what can we do?” And I guess I wasn’t fully able to articulate at that point that it’s not the responsibility of black people to tell white people what they need to do, you know? So when we finished that summer, that was the summer I got my Afro and the summer I got radicalized, basically, did a lot of reading and…And this play and we stayed-when we first came at the beginning of the summer we stayed at the home of one of our classmates, then we ended up residing at St. Xavier College, and somebody had the TV on and we jumped up and got in the whatever our vehicles were and went down and were a part of the protest in Grant Park for the ’68 Democratic National Convention, so you know, my biggest memory of that was being tear-gassed during that protest. So in 2004, while living in Nevada, I was a delegate for Obama to the State Convention and there was some poetry in that, you know, that I had been present at the Democratic National Convention and now I was working toward the first black president.
RZ: So the experience of doing that play and touring around and getting the questions and being frustrated with them, was that what radicalized you or was it other things in combination with that?
SN: Well the experience of being one of the handful of black students at an all-white liberal arts college in the middle of the cornfields in Minnesota was radicalizing in itself. I mean I grew up on the South Side, went to an all-black high school, all-black grammar school, just had very little contact with white folks. That summer when I came back I was supposed to room with the same roommate and I was just so blackanized that I didn’t want to have a white roommate anymore, right? And it was really sad, it was really stupid, cause Joan hung in there and we’re still friends even today, she just waited till I calmed down a little bit.
RZ: I’m kind of curious about your seeking out the Black Arts Movement and Kuumba. Was that about finding an artistic way to express your political commitments or was it finding a supportive community for your artistic life or a little of both?
SN: A little of both I guess. I wasn’t really planning on an artistic life; I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted at that point. But I wanted to be involved and what I came to understand that I was involved in was what people were calling cultural nationalism and making art that could uplift the people. And that’s what we were all trying to do at that point. My first job out of college was at Malcolm X College, which was fairly new at the time and so exciting. It was such a community, I mean, I walked down the hall, “How you doing brother, how you doing sister.” It was just that kind of camaraderie, great murals on the doors and walls and…
RZ: Eda [Eugene “Eda” Wade], right?
SN: Yes, yes. Again, another place to meet people who were involved in the movement.
RZ: So many people taught there! As I interview people I hear it again and again, Barbara Jones Hogu taught there, Phil Cohran taught there, right? Were you teaching?
SN: It was amazing, I was straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree and I ended up teaching at the learning center, which was where people went for freshman writing and composition, so I was an instructor, I had classes. And most of my students were older than I was, you know? Cause I was 21 teaching these folks who had returned to school. It was cool. It was great for romance too, you know. My godmother taught at Malcolm X, she was the head of the nursing program. I don’t think she got me the job, she may have pointed me in that direction. I was a receptionist for a couple of minutes then got this teaching position, which was really cool. And then my supervisor, Alice Robinson, I think, got hired over at UIC and she took a bunch of us with her over there. So I taught freshman writing for a few years there as well, after Malcolm X.
RZ: And you-so at the same time as you were doing that you were also doing music and theatre and…
SN: Yeah, music and theatre and having babies. In working with Phil Cohran, studying with him, he was big on the community sort of supports the artists, we should be able to survive based on our art. I really liked that idea and internalized it to the point that I quit my teaching job at UIC, which financially turned out to be just a really bad mistake. So after that I experienced the starving artist life, which was not cool at all. It took awhile to bounce back from that one.
RZ: And when was that?
SN: ’75, ’76, something like that.
RZ: And Phil Cohran really encouraged you with the sitar, right?
SN: Absolutely. The first day I went to him I just had the bass with me and he asked me what other instruments I played, I said, “well, I have a sitar at home but I can’t really, you know, bring it out because those people in India they said I couldn’t really play it unless I studied for five years and played for eight hours a day.” “Sister, that instrument’s from Africa and so are you, bring it on up here.” He basically gave me permission to express myself, which I’d been doing at home; I was playing the blues on the sitar at home but I didn’t think I could do it in public, just hadn’t crossed my mind. So we did harp and sitar duets. One of the great things about Phil was that he would write songs that would bring out your best, you know, wherever you were on your instruments or with your voice, he would write music that would enhance and showcase it. So he wrote me a song called Sitar Blues and it was my jam.
Yeah, that was really cool. And from him I learned all about odd rhythms and modal music and those continue to be the best things that I do musically. You know, eastern sounds and blending western and eastern sounds. Making music with a purpose, with meaning. How to put on a good show, how to craft a show, I put that to good use in my storytelling life. What to talk about between the songs, you know, how to do the banter, basically. It was some good lessons. There were some terrible things about Phil Cohran too, you know. I was just at a discussion the other night and they were talking about what led to the condition of black people right now, you know. The downside. One of the women named Phil as one of the people who destroyed the will of young women by promoting, I mean it’s a cliché, but walking three steps behind your man, supporting your man, you know, a black man is king and you are his to do whatever he wants to do with you, kind of thing. And Phil was a Taurus and Seitu was a Taurus and they didn’t like each other.
RZ: What’s your sign?
SN: Gemini. And I felt just torn between these two really strong personalities. So I ended up quitting Phil’s group just for my own peace of mind, right, and then in ’78 I put on my first concert with my own group and at the second concert started doing poetry and stories in between the songs ’cause I was doing these Sunday afternoon concerts and people were bringing their children and children would get antsy at all this instrumental music, right? So I started doing stuff I had written, and some of it had already been published in Ebony Jr. magazine and there was a children’s librarian, Annie Lee Carroll, who worked out of Carter Woodson Library. Woodson had just recently opened, and she was at one of those concerts and asked me to come and do a children’s program at her library, and I just fell in love with that audience, you know? And that was the beginning of my storytelling career.
RZ: And when was that?
SN: ’78. And she promoted me to her colleagues, took me to a couple of conferences, put me on stage, it was cool. And then at some point in time, you know, Storytelling just took over and but I was still having these bands on the side. Rita Warford was in the AACM and we talked about having an all-women’s group, and she knew some people and I knew some people and we formed Sojourner. So four of the women were from Detroit and four from Chicago. We were basically just coming together when we had a gig and we would do crash rehearsals, you know, people would contribute songs, we’d learn the songs and do the gig. And people still talk about Sojourner today, I mean it was a really powerful dynamic group and the music was good. I just ran across some tapes; the music was really good. So Seitu and I were producing a lot of those concerts and we would rent a venue and do the publicity and the whole thing. He was very supportive of what I was trying to do. But you know, after awhile we just couldn’t get along.
RZ: Sojourner was the first group-the first all-women group, and then Samana and when did you form that?
SN: ’91, ’92, somewhere around there. Sojourner went till about ’83. I was separating from my husband and I had to focus on how I was going to take care of these four kids so I decided to get a job, which would put me in a position of being able to do that and when I stopped promoting Sojourner nothing happened and the group just didn’t happen anymore. So in the early nineties my older daughter, Naikwa, was on the L and ran into Maia. Maia was with Phil Cohran, and we kind of passed each other, we weren’t really in there at the same time but I was leaving around the time she was coming in. And so my daughter put Maia and I in touch with each other and we decided to get together and just play. And Maia had met Niki (Nicole) Mitchell, Niki was busking downtown at the time, so Maia brought Niki along and we got together and played a few times in my living room and then I was asked to play a benefit at the HotHouse for Light Henry Huff, who was very ill at the time, and they wanted me to do storytelling. I said, “But listen, I’ve been working with these sisters, why don’t you let us play some music?” So we did a trio thing and it was just so well received that we said OK, we’re going to form a group out of this, so Samana came out of that and we did Samana for eight years. Really intensely, we would rehearse twice a week, Saturday morning at six o’clock, Thursday evening at seven. And, you know, sometimes we would cancel those Saturday morning rehearsals but not very often, but we got a real momentum going and had a really tight group, which was inspired by Sojourner but was not Sojourner, although we did pull in some of the sisters from Sojourner for a few concerts. Darlene Blackburn danced with us sometimes, Ann Ward joined us, Chavunduka. You should know Chavunduka. Just in terms of that message music and socially conscious art, she and her husband have been doing it consistently ever since then. She came through Phil’s workshop as a teenager, young teenager. She’s been at it a long time. Beautiful voice. Great singer. Very political, worked with Stokely Carmichael, Kwamé Touré, and her mother was and is involved in the movement so there’s a lot of history there. They live in Woodlawn I think. So Samana: sometimes Samana was just me and Maia, sometimes we would have as many as 10 or 12 women on the stage and we got a chance to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival, which had always been my dream. We did the Michigan Women’s Festival, we opened for Richie Havens at Big Top Chautauqua, we were on a festival with Betty Carter in Minneapolis. We did some good work and my booking agent for storytelling, Joanne Murdock, represented us for a while and exposed us to some audiences we would not have found otherwise. We did a recording, which we thought would be a breakthrough kind of piece for us, and it wasn’t. It got some radio play, probably still gets a little on WHPK or stuff like that, but after 8 years of intense working and nothing really opening up, people got distracted and went off to do other things; Maia moved to California, Niki formed her own group which she had been itching to do anyway cause she felt like we were too restrictive and we didn’t let her solo enough, we didn’t use enough of her music. She just took off after she left Samana, absolutely went into the stratosphere, and I’m just so proud of her and her accomplishments. Niki was so absolutely totally focused on music, I mean it was everything. And she would go from one gig to the next, I mean, she might do 3 or 4 gigs in one day with different groups while at the same time, you know, getting her master’s or whatever degree she was working on at that time. She’s just amazing. So she needed her own group, she needed to jump on out there.
RZ: When you said Samana was not Sojourner I wondered if—not just in terms of membership but also musically, or in the kind of material you would do, there were differences?
SN: Musically only in the-the instrumentation and who was writing the music. Maia did the majority of our music so she was musical director and I was basically business manager slash bass sitar player. The vibe was different because the women were different. We talked about doing, Samana slash Sojourner collaborations but we never did.
RZ: Were there other people, aside from Phil Cohran and you, who were particularly interested in eastern musical traditions?
SN: Absolutely, and that, you know, much of that was inspired by Coltrane and his explorations, of Yusef Lateef, but the people in the AACM, I mean, Henry Threadgill, Douglas Ewart, you know, they were making their own instruments…Douglas was making these didgeridoos and rain sticks and he has one name that I’ve never been able to say with, it starts with a c… And he I think for the past 18 years or so has been teaching Asian music at the Art Institute. Mwata is doing didgeridoo and oboes and stuff, those sounds. Yeah it was that eastern influences, African instruments, influences. Yeah, everybody was doing that.
RZ: In the visual arts a lot of the language that people used in the late sixties and seventies, is about Africa specifically, but sometimes looking at people’s work, I’m wondering, is that a mandala, or something that came from Asian art. So I don’t know if you can speak to a general interest in Asia as a cultural reference or…
SN: People used to talk about the east, even today at AACM concerts open with everybody facing the east and praying, meditating, humming. The east encompassed not only Africa but Asia. And just in terms of India, I mean, when I was there I was hearing about the Dravidians and then Phil would talk about the African explorers who went from Africa to India, who went south, and then the Europeans came from the north, so in India, you know, northern India is whiter than southern India is. And then Phil would talk about Chinese music and Chinese rhythms and the pentatonic scale is a real strong part of his approach. The pentatonic scale is the basis of the spirituals as well as the basis of a lot of Chinese music. So Miles Davis was doing modal music, Raga’s a modal music, you know? So a lot of people were drawing from that.
RZ: Let me ask you about, a little bit more about storytelling. When you started doing storytelling was it with Sojourner?
SN: The first thing was just Shanta Nurullah, that sister with the sitar. And then that group became Insight, Shanta Nurullah with Insight, and that was during those days that I started doing the storytelling.
RZ: And you were talking about how part of the reason you did that was because kids would get restless during the concerts and then you were focusing your storytelling on children.
SN: Right, I even had my business cards as “stories and music for children.” And then I went with a couple of friends to the first National Black Storytelling Festival, and here were all of these people doing the same thing I was doing, they were calling it storytelling. I’m like, “yeah, OK, that’s what I’m doing!” I’m a storyteller, so the next cards that I had made were “Shanta – Storyteller.” Yeah, I didn’t have a label for what I was doing; I was just doing what I did.
RZ: When you were composing stories, were you thinking about wanting to have an impact on kinds of things that kids were thinking about?
SN: Oh absolutely. In the 70’s when I was with Phil, coming out of Phil’s school, it was all about…I remember having this conversation with Janice Robinson who’s a trombonist in New York, and I was talking about, you know, I only want to play with black people, I only want to play for black people, it’s just all about-it’s race, it’s all about race, uplifting the race, and she’s like, “Oh yeah, OK, all right.” It was all about uplifting the race and so with Storytelling, I was doing historical pieces like Paul Laurence Dunbar, which Phil did a lot, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and it was always stories and poetry and music; a blend, which I still do today. It was about trying to convey that pride, that information, that inspiration, that example to the children, but along the way a couple of things happened: white people were paying me money, black people weren’t. I was seeing that there was a value in me performing for primarily white audiences, white audiences of children in suburban and rural communities because then I can be at least one positive black person that they would see, because I did not trust that they were seeing that on television, they weren’t having any contact with African Americans. So, you know, for however many minutes I was with them, I could be a positive image, a counter-image for what they might’ve been holding. And that was how I rationalize my transition from black only to a more global perspective, and appreciation the value of me going out into the world rather than just staying insular. That was a good move and I still subscribe to that.
You know, Seitu used to complain about me: “you’re always changing, always changing your mind, you’re always doing something different!” which I continue to do, but there’s some core values that have been consistent with me throughout the years, setting the positive example, lifting up Africa in a way that isn’t done enough, reminding people of where they come from. My definition of a storyteller is one who remembers and reminds. And then, in my spiritual journey, I learned, learned about working with the energy and colors and affirmations, setting a purpose, so a part of my performing ritual became saying a prayer before I would go out on stage and that prayer would usually be something like, you know, “may I, may I touch at least one person. May I inspire, motivate, educate somebody today.” The funny thing about that, you know, I truly believe that whatever you believe is what happens for you, right? So I came to believe that it was necessary for me to say this prayer before I went onstage. And some days I would forget to do it, and on those days, very early on in my performance I would start stumbling or forgetting stuff. I’m like, “damn, I forgot to do my prayer,” so then I’m telling the story and doing the prayer at the same time, trying to get it straight again!
RZ: Does anything stand out for you as an experience of realizing that someone has been touched or inspired by your work?
SN: Well, yeah. Like the whole bunch of people telling stories in Chicago now! There’s a whole organization of black people telling stories in Chicago. I wasn’t the first, Ruth Allen Fouche from what I can tell was the first, and I got a chance to meet her and talk with her, but I was the most visible so I inspired a whole lot of people to take up storytelling. I actually taught a number of people how to do it, or how to find their voice. I taught at Columbia for a while, about six years or so and one of my students there is now designing video games and storytelling through his game designs. His name is Allen Turner. Another of my students is a producer at WBEZ. So people at Columbia were taking Storytelling; a lot of them were filmmakers or fiction writer majors who were, you know, looking for a way to improve their skills in that. There have been women who have talked about the impact that I’ve had on them. I know I’ve impacted a lot of people because they tell me, cause I see it in what they do; I see them getting the gigs I used to get, you know? And my mother she said, “you just taught too many people”! But I wouldn’t have done it any other way, I wouldn’t do it any other way. It was a gift that I discovered I had and when you have a gift you’re supposed to share.
RZ: Would you consider yourself a feminist?
RZ: And how did that come about?
SN: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou. I’m very much influenced by things that I read. Feminism, when I was up into cultural nationalism, feminism didn’t fit. As I went out into the world, as I experienced life as an oppressed female…I mean I had a marriage that just was totally oppressive; I wasn’t allowed to wear pants, I had to cover my neck and cover my head and I couldn’t be out after dark and I was verbally, you know, just beaten down, not physically but verbally, to the point where when I got out of that marriage I, you know, I just didn’t know who I was, I didn’t have any sense of self left. And in the process of rebuilding myself I suppose I became a feminist, you know? So that was part of that stuff that those women the other day were talking about, the stuff that happened to us as young women in that movement. The exploration of music with women was an experiment to see, you know, how would it be different, how was women’s musical conversation different than when we played with men, or when men played with each other? I don’t know that I ever came up with the words to describe those differences but I sure felt it and we definitely conveyed it, and people felt it. Being on Facebook, you know, there’s this birthday thing, right? And for every year for the past few years my first ten or twenty birthday greetings are all from men who talk about my music, you know? So it wasn’t just the women who were feeling that, you know, the men were being inspired and feeling it too, whatever they were feeling.
I belonged for a time to a sisterhood called Sturdy Black Bridges, it was a support group basically, and there were several sisterhoods at the time. In my mother’s era they just called them clubs but we functioned basically the same way, and there was even an annual conference of sisterhoods from Illinois and Wisconsin, they would meet out at Oconomowoc. Anyway but in coming up with bylaws and mission statements, I remember this conversation where one of the members was insisting that, you know, ” we are not lesbians, we are not feminists.” And so, when I found myself to be a lesbian and a feminist, then I had to absent myself from that group. I no longer felt like I fit and I didn’t want to fit, yeah.
RZ: In listening to your CD I wondered about your feminism—“A Village of Women” and “Friendship.” Thinking about the impact that you’ve wanted to have, do you think about the impact that you could have on girls in particular?
SN: Definitely, yeah. I raised two daughters and two sons. Personal experience made a feminist out of me, as well as the great minds that we’ve been exposed to.
RZ: Are you still doing storytelling?
SN: Not nearly as much. The thing is, when I came back, I’ve never had the amount of work that I had before I left. On average I do between two and four storytelling shows a month, it’s still happening. Sometimes I’m bored with the thought of it, but once I get in front of the audiences, it’s like flipping a switch, yeah.
RZ: And what kinds of audiences?
SN: Oh it really varies; small groups in libraries, entire schools, grammar schools or high schools, college kids, hospitals, churches. I haven’t done prisons for a while but I did do prisons. Festivals, museums, a lot of museums. I had a regular thing at the Field Museum for years, really through Douglas Ewart, who worked with them and established their world music program and so in that I brought out a lot of my instruments but did storytelling as well. Got a lot of work from that—Art Institute a lot, Chicago Children’s Museum. I used to be on the road so much. I wore out several cars, you know, just riding those highways. Museums in other cities, colleges in other places. I think I’ve told stories in about 28 of the 50 states as well as Canada, China.
RZ: And when you said earlier that white people were paying you to tell stories and black people weren’t, is that just about economic resources or is it about taste? I’m curious about that.
SN: Well it was a definitely an over-simplification. There were some black teachers that would get their schools to sponsor me, but it came to the point where the overwhelming majority of my work was coming from white institutions, governmental institutions, you know, Chicago Public Library, Field Museum, school systems, the library systems and what one of my partners used to say, “you bringing me out to white people’s land again.” Some days it feels like I’ve virtually been to every small town in the Midwest. Yeah it’s, arts councils, so resources, yeah.
RZ: And when you do storytelling gigs now, what are you hoping audiences will get out of their experience?
SN: A good time. I think what I do is ignite imaginations and wake up memories. Some people will come up and start telling me stories that they remembered from their childhood. Kids will tell me, you know, what they were seeing while I was telling the story. I think just the experience of listening to the story is so valuable and at our best we are teachers and we are healers. And we do that while entertaining. So there are some lessons that just go down; they go down easier in the story than they do in a lecture or in a book. I just love it when you can see that the eyes brighten and the joy when they get it, you know? I was in China at a teacher’s college and the students were studying English so I was asked to slow down my delivery because they would be able to understand me if I just talked a little slower, so anyway, get to the town and it was so cold and the stage was outside, so it was a stage and then just this lawn. My show was scheduled to start at 7 and at 6:54 there were only two people there. At exactly 7 the entire lawn was full of people, right? And so I’m telling the stories, you know, from my repertoire, my stories, and this one story, man they got it, they got it better than any American audience had ever gotten it, I’m like, “yeah!” you know, it was just so thrilling, you know? And then afterwards they mobbed me and then for at least an hour, you know, the girls were surrounding me, boys were standing off to the side but the girls were asking me questions about my hair, what I had on, you know, just everything. They just wanted to soak me up. So there have been times when I felt like in a way it didn’t really matter what words came out of my mouth, what mattered was the love that people could feel from me. And for me, that’s what Wiggleworms is all about too, you know, like I’m just up in there loving and music is my vehicle to do it. And it’s the same with the storytelling. It’s about me sharing me and if all they get is a good feeling then, you know, I’ve been successful in my work that day. The teachy-preachy stuff? You know, it’s no longer as important as I thought it was, you know? But it’s still there. Sometimes I really get on my soapbox. I probably get on my soapbox more with audiences of young black people, cause when I say, “How many of you have ancestors from Africa?” And only one or two people have raised a hand, then I’m off and running, “well, let me tell ya…” You know? All of you could really have your hands up, blah blah! So I guess it depends on the day and the people as to what constitutes a good performance for me. There have been times since I’ve come back from Las Vegas, there’ve been some performances that I’ve done during which the audience just turns off to me. And this calls me to question whether I have any relevance still. And I’m worried that I’m not connecting to these folks, but then two days later I’ll turn around and make a connection, you know, I’m like, “OK, OK.” But it’s different. It’s different now. The young people are different now.
RZ: Is there any consistency to which audiences respond well and which might not?
SN: It could be what’s in the stars, what’s happening in the stars, it could be the dynamics in that particular place. I’ve often talked about how I can walk into a school and immediately know what the culture of that school is, and I definitely know what it is during my performance. There are places where the teachers bring in their papers and they’re grading papers while you’re talking, so what message are they sending? They’re sending the message that this isn’t important. Or the teachers would be yapping with each other, you know, having conversations. I just stop and read ’em on that: “excuse me!” When the principal doesn’t greet me or even bother to come in. There was once a situation, it was somewhere out in the suburbs, and the PTA was sponsoring the program and this woman said to me before I started: “Well, you know, you can see yourself out when you leave.” I’m like she thinks I’m just liked the hired help or something, you know? So, you know, I’ve had just all kind of experiences. Most of them good but from time to time, I just wonder why are these people in education.
RZ: We talked before about the visual arts—who was particularly important to you at that time among the visual artists?
SN: I think some of the people I was-I was recommending to you were-were jewelers. So Sika Diwenfo, who’s in California, Akosua Bandele who’s in North Carolina but comes through Chicago regularly, Idfu used to make these crowns out of wire and, you know, used a lot of spirals and he would wear his and then he’d make you one if you wanted it. Barbara Jones, Robert Paige, Jeff Donaldson, Murray DePillars, Calvin Jones, Omar Lama. He did a Coltrane that’s in my bedroom. And these cats were friends of my husband, so I got to know them and hang out. I married a man who was 9 years older than me…
RZ: How old were you when you got married? You must’ve been pretty young.
SN: Well, we didn’t get married. By the time we got married we had three kids there standing with us. But we got together when I was 21. He was 30. And I had discovered that I liked girls when I was in college but there was no public discussion about homosexuality and so I just thought that something was wrong with me. I had this hot love affair with this young woman and then I came back to Chicago and I was like, “I got to give that up, I gotta get right.” So I met him and he said, “I could make a woman out of you.” “Well take me.” And I truly believe that the reason I got with him was because I was trying to run away from being a lesbian. The other reason was that these four spirits were supposed to come through our union. And they did. And I was a submissive common law wife!
But these people that he knew were really cool and they did beautiful work. And he would do the art fairs and I would hang out there. It was all right for awhile. It wasn’t all bad. But see, he had the same thing that Phil had about “well, we’re artists, we should just be able to do our art.” After the divorce I went back to liking women. Yeah, I got myself straight in my mind, which was that I was not straight. But I became very controversial among the nationalists once I was out.
RZ: When did you come out?
SN: Well, it’s still a work in progress. I was with this woman who didn’t want to be out, and I wanted to be out, and my daughter died, my older daughter, and at that point my woman was right there with me through all of that, and at that point I just no longer cared who knew. So that was the time around Naikwa’s death. And then we eventually broke up, a lot of it around that closeted situation; I just no longer wanted to be in the closet. So then I was with a woman who had been out since she was a teenager and we had a commitment ceremony, to which nobody in my family came, and my friend whose place we were having the ceremony invited two of her friends who we didn’t know, and they left there and just told everybody, so one of the elders called a meeting, the topic of which was: what are we going to do about Shanta?
RZ: One of the elders of your family?
SN: Of the nationalist community.
SN: One of those councils of the elders members. One of those folks getting in my business, and I’m like, “you motherfuckers.” You know? There was a real tense period, which was part of why I left Chicago actually, for a while. Because I just needed a relief from all that condemnation and people acting all weird with me, you know, people who had known me for years, I’m like “you know, I’m the same person you used to know and love,” you know, “you just didn’t happen to know this particular thing about me,” you know? So living in Las Vegas was freeing. One day we were driving on the expressway and I was just absolutely giddy, I was just free. Because I was out at work, I was out at the realtor’s, I was out at the grocery store, you know, I was just out, and it was cool, you know, it was a good feeling. On the flipside, though, Las Vegas was not very cultural; it has entertainment, it doesn’t have much in the way of culture. And I wasn’t with my family and friends and I realized how important that was to me, you know? It took being away to realize that. So to figure out how to negotiate being me and being with my loved ones—it’s a work in progress. So, you know, in terms of being out, I mean, there are times and situations where it’s important and there are times where discretion is the better route to take. Working with children, some people still associate homosexuals with perverts and pedophiles—that’s not where the problem is, people! So no need to advertise my sexuality in situations where I’m working with children. If people know? Fine. If they don’t know? Fine. If they can tell? Fine. If they’ve got gaydar and they can tell? Fine, you know? But I’m, you know, I’m not trying to hide anything but I’m not broadcasting it either. This is a good neighborhood to be in for just being yourself, and I worked for a couple of years at Women and Children First Bookstore, which is a great place to be and be a dyke, just be as butch as I want to be up in there. So…yeah. I’m good.
RZ: There’s a book that someone should write, I think, about the relationship of black power and cultural nationalism to homosexuality and differing sexualities.
SN: The nationalists were worse than the church people when it came to homosexuality, you know, claiming that it was an invention of white folks and it didn’t exist in Africa, you know? Just absurdities—very intolerant. The black community as a whole, intolerant, but the church and the nationalists—really intolerant.
RZ: Nationalism is a lot about reproduction, right? It’s…
SN: Yes. Perpetuating the race. My husband tried to do polygamy on me. Fortunately the other women, they weren’t going for it, but some of these brothers would have two, three, four wives, all of whom were collecting public aid. What is that? Just pimpin’, you know? So I couldn’t get with that disconnect, you know. In Islam, which a lot of them would quote or use, you can have up to four wives—if you afford them. And, you know, they were looking at the polygamous African societies. The whole thing, nationalism, cultural nationalism, a lot of it was based on idealized notions of Africa. They had very little basis in African history or the current state of Africa. These idealized notions had a function in terms of self-esteem, countering all of the negative stuff, countering colorism—not so much classism but really colorism, a lot of the physical hang-ups that we had. You know, pointing to a time grander than slavery, which was about as far back as history got, at least when we were coming up; we were slaves and then we weren’t, so books like my favorite, Chancellor Williams, The Destruction Of Black Civilization, where he talks about the great kingdoms and queendoms of Africa, and C. L. R. James’s stuff, which was just off the wall—it served a purpose but was not based on reality, it was used to uplift and inspire, but it didn’t have that accuracy and that substance. So the Africa thing was and is still used really in absurd ways. The pan-Africanists, who have actually gone to Africa and worked with people in various movements in Africa, they probably have a better handle, a more realistic perspective. But they’re dealing with politics and liberation. But the cultural nationalists… So, when I finally got to Africa, I went to Zimbabwe on a bicycle tour, it was Zimbabwe and Botswana, and I was like just really disappointed because, well, it was more westernized than Chicago. I see more folks in African clothes in Chicago. Zimbabwe, where’s all the color, where’s the music, you know? So I came back complaining and the folks said you needed to go to West Africa first, what I did not find in Zimbabwe I would probably find in West Africa, you know? The vibrancy. So I need to go back.
RZ: So, do you think cultural nationalism was a political dead end, or just a matter of some aspects of it that need to be retained and others that need to be left aside?
SN: Yeah I would say retaining some. But, you know, not a dead end—I mean it led to Harold Washington being mayor of Chicago.
RZ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SN: I was pursuing life as a writer as well for a while but at some point I realized I don’t really like writing. I even was going to do a book on black women and music; I did a bunch of interviews and did articles from that research but an editor told me, and rightly so, that I didn’t really have the content for a book. But I met some great people and hung out with Mary Lou Williams a few times and, just a bunch of women: Hazel Scott, Elizabeth Cotten. I had some great experiences talking to women in music. And that was the thing. Nicole Mitchell broke down some barriers, some ideas that people had because she’s just so fierce in her musicianship and her creativity. But my experience in Chicago in music was that if I didn’t form my own groups and put on my own shows I didn’t play. I didn’t play. In retrospect, I understand that it was not just a cut and dry sexism thing, it was that I wasn’t always working on my music; I had too many interests and didn’t have that consistent growth and development and depth that would have me on people’s minds when they wanted a really good player, you know? Really good bass player. I get specialty work like when somebody wants a sitar, which is cool, when somebody wants some mbira—at Old Town School though I get bass work. I’m one of the few bass players in the early childhood department, so when they put together small groups out of there to do shows I often get bass work out there. And one of the many things I love about Old Town School is that you’re valued for whatever it is that you bring. You don’t have to bring a set list of things, you know, just whatever you have they find a way to put it to use. And you have enough freedom to infuse your classes with whatever you want. There’s a formula, there’s certain elements that should be there but you also can do your thing. So that whole drumming thing that I do, you know, nobody else does that. And the people who come back, you know, who enroll session after session, that’s the stuff that they come for; they come for the Shanta stuff. I love the benefits of working there; deeply discounted classes, half-priced concert tickets, discounts in store. They make it a nice place to work for musicians and sometimes I just walk in there and say, “wow, I’m working in a music school!” This is the first time in my whole life that my primary income is from making music of all the years that I’ve been involved. And sometimes when I, you know, strap on my guitar and walk out the house I’m like, “yeah, I’m a working musician.” And it feels good.