The Great Understander
Riz Rollins Reflects on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
S eattle has a wise man. His name is Riz Rollins. He'd never tell you he's a wise man, but do the real ones ever do that? For 25 years, he's been DJing KEXP's airwaves, mostly at night. Riz knows the night. He's a sentinel of the nocturnal, and he turns speakers into eyes. Riz reads the digital breeze like tea leaves, deciphers the code, and plays exactly the songs the night needs to hear. When he DJs, he spins more than the tune; he spins the earth. Monday nights from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., he hosts a variety show that goes in perfectly on everything; Sundays, his show Expansions, which turns 20 next year, is on from 9 p.m. to midnight with DJs Masa and Kid Hops. If something is ailing you, he's a healer, a solver of stress, the Great Understander. If positivity is a gun, Riz fires a .44 Magnum. This year's MLK Unity Party marks its 14th year of existence. Riz spoke about it, his presence beaming intensely. Right away, he laid it down, saying, "I don't have a car, but I kick foie gras's ass. You know, adorned by fresh spring figs and shit."
What are you doing? What are you listening to? What are you wearing? I'm googling recipes. I have an idea for a beet stew made with oxtails. I found something that might play. Listening to Christian Prommer, "Drumlesson Zwei." It's perfect for that gettin'-ready-to-do-something feel. I'm wearing a T-shirt and pannies.
This is the 14th year of your MLK party. What made you want to do the first one? What went off in your head? It was as simple as wanting to go out on an evening before a holiday, coupled with the fact that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the most brilliant human being one could wish to share a lifetime with. And since it was in the earliest days of doing Expansions on KEXP, we thought it would be great to simulcast the party live on the radio. Sadly, we won't be doing that this year.
Has that motivation to do the event changed through the years? Have you felt there were different reasons it needed to keep it going? The motivation has heightened a great deal since the first one. The attendance has steadily grown. First it was at Baltic Room, then Chop Suey. We've done the majority of them at Neumos, and all of them on Capitol Hill. This will be the first year we've done it in Columbia City. My favorite one was the one we did in the two days leading up to Obama's inauguration. And the inclusion of the gains made in gay rights give me personal motivation to continue the celebration.
When you say you are celebrating MLK Day, what are you celebrating? I'm celebrating being empowered by a life sacrificed so that my life and my world is a better place. Every opportunity in my life, where I've lived, where I've worked, and whom I've loved, has been influenced in some measure by this one life, this one human being whom I remember in my youth. From his philosophy to even his face, he has been profoundly influential and continues to be.
Do you know what MLK's favorite music was? His favorite music seems to have been gospel and spirituals. I believe his favorite artist was Mahalia Jackson. I used to do a mix of a Mahalia song with another artist, Solid Doctor, who sampled her. Aretha Franklin's dad used to host both Dr. King and Mahalia Jackson in his home when she was growing up, and she still talks about how influential they both were in her life and art.
What are your memories of MLK? In what ways did he enter your life? When I was 9 or 10, circa 1961, our family moved to a predominately white neighborhood in Chicago called South Shore. If you've ever seen a production of A Raisin in the Sun, my life kinda starts where that film stops. It was a very difficult time in my life and the beginning of a few years where I experienced racism on a very daily basis. I was routinely chased and bullied and spat upon, and jeered at and even humiliated by teachers in school. I internalized all that hate, thinking I had done something personally to cause it. But in 1963, I just connected with the idea that it wasn't me, that it was the world around me, and it was all, every bit of it, due to the differences between my skin color and those of the white people around me. That was the whole of it. Probably through television, I saw him and others that looked like me catching the same hell I was going through and far worse.
I remember hearing the "Dream" speech the evening after it happened. I remember his reference to black kids and white kids playing together and thinking, I didn't want to be tolerated and accepted by other kids, I wanted us to play together. This at a time when not many of them would. I remember President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and a friend of my mother's told me that I should remember that day the rest of my life. I remember his visit and march in Cicero, Illinois, a suburb where he noted that he'd never seen such pure hatred in any other place he had ever visited. I remember hearing other black people wishing that he'd go back to Georgia and mind his own business. I remember him speaking out against the war in Vietnam. I remember people saying that that war was not really any of his business. I remember the day he was shot. And the day Malcolm was shot. And the days the Kennedys were shot. Recalling it now, I fight the sorrow that comes from living a long, full life in a country so fucking gun happy. I remember anger and sorrow and grief beyond measure, and all of it in the first 14 years of my life. I remember when I left Chicago for the first time to work in Yellowstone Park, and standing alone on a trail some distance from Old Faithful thinking it was the most magnificent place I'd ever seen, and the thought that thundered in my mind, "You know, Dr. King died so you could live in a place like this. So you should live like this."
I'm thankful you're with us, Riz. What awarenesses do you want to raise? While I never imagined this when we conceived of this celebration, I've known many people who came just because it was a Sunday night thing to do, and then made a connection to a man whom they realize they don't really think much about. And that's cool. Some people need speeches, and some people need study, and some people need music and dancing. I don't care how a person gets into interacting with his life, just that they do.
I've heard you talk about the relationship between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, and the cross section in between. What do we need to know? We need to know that the tension of conflating gay and civil rights has always existed in the civil rights movement. Racism, sexism, and homophobia have held hands for a very, very long time in this country, and many of our activists have long struggled in fighting them. Every single instance of a violation of civil rights occurs in the gay community in the same measure as it does everywhere else, and no one can speak to this issue better than gay people of color. If African American citizens have borne the lion's share of the brunt of the denial of civil rights, African American queers suffer more dramatic injustices living in the intersection of the two. The levels of acceptable violence, the ongoing willingness in this country to marginalize gays of color—of ALL colors, ignoring and erasing them from our shared history. Many people still don't know that one of the pinnacle moments in the history of civil rights, the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, was orchestrated by an out gay man, Bayard Rustin—a man who dedicated his entire life to securing civil rights for all people. Until recently, his legacy has been ignored to the point of near-obscurity. President Obama recently bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor an American citizen can receive. He also bestowed that honor on Sally Ride, the first woman to ride into space, and both were survived by partners who accepted the awards on their behalf.
In what forms does racism exist in Seattle? What can we do to eradicate it? I couldn't begin to offer any kind of cogent analysis of race either in my community, or in this world, in this short amount of time. And I won't try to do so. Except, to oversimplify Dr. King's philosophy with one very basic clichéd premise: "Either we learn to live together as brothers, or we die together as fools."
Who's doing good out there in the civil rights arena? Who do we need to empower? There are so many people and organizations that are doing great works, I couldn't mention them all, and I believe that there are many more I don't know about. I'd love to do an event where we introduce people and feature more of them. Our community partners this year are the Social Justice Fund Northwest and WAPI Community Services.
If you were mayor of Seattle, what are the first three things you'd do? First I'd quit [laughs]. Then I'd gather my peoples for a grand and fancy dinner. Then I'd come home and continue counting my blessings.
I saw one of those biblical pictures of white Jesus the other day. You know, the beautiful, hippie white-ass Jesus, with children around him. When you see a hippie white Jesus depicted, what do you think? Maybe a story from your Bible days? I love stories from your Bible days! I grew up with those traditional pictures of Jesus for a time, but those depictions changed dramatically in African American churches in the '60s. I mostly refer to them today because I'm attracted to longhairs, among my many attractions, but none of them do Jesus justice. Either the face is wrong, or more importantly, some other things don't ring true. There is no record of Jesus smiling or laughing in the Bible, so who knows what that looks like. So to portray Jesus in those ways usually fails. All the more reason to grapple with the spirit of the man rather than how we might imagine him.
What's a verse from the Bible that resonates with you? And what's one that makes you go, "This is bullshit." As you are undoubtedly aware, there are many passages in scripture that are head-scratchers. Even though I was raised to have great sympathy with it, for all the Christian love that's bandied about, the Bible can be a sordid and ultraviolent read. [Laughs] I couldn't pick out the most infuriating passage. My favorites also tend to be deeply personal and don't hold well to objective scrutiny. Dag. That's a tough one, but the one that seems germane to this conversation is among my favorites: Talking to a scholar of religious law who wanted to know what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answers him, but continues, saying the second-greatest commandment is "Love your neighbor as yourself." Matthew 22:39. If you're gonna take one thing that Jesus said and run with it, "Love your neighbor as yourself" will keep you plenty busy.
If God created the sun on the fourth day, HOW HAD FOUR DAYS PASSED? [Laughs] Are you high? Let's see. Most scholars I learned from explain that the "days" mentioned in that Genesis account are probably epochs and not 24-hour days as we've come to understand them. So whatevs.
What are some tunes you're going to drop at the party? I think I can speak for Masa and Kid Hops by saying our DJ manner is very much like cooking a fine meal. We'll gather all the ingredients in the weeks and days leading up to it, but we won't know exactly what we'll play until we get there. There is one song I might play, and while it doesn't have any of Dr. King's vocals on it, it does have a snippet of Nelson Mandela on it. I've been known to play Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up (Eric Kupper Vocal Mix)" and Moodswings' "Spiritual High (the Rare Lost 'Star Trek' Mix)."
Sharlese Metcalf told me to ask you if you plan to drop any special disco surprises at the party. ANY disco I drop is gonna be a surprise, but "Ain't No Stoppin Us Now" is a good 'un.