by Tyler Becket
Rashod Ollison is the author of the memoir “Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age through Vinyl,” as well as a music and culture critic for the Virginian-Pilot. “Soul Serenade” focuses on his family in the years between 1983 and 1996, the “story of a gloriously earthy, working-class black family whose trials and triumphs were shaped and informed by the blues, gospel, funk and hip-hop.”
Mr. Ollison and I sat down for this interview in September, seven months after “Soul Serenade” was released. He discussed his life as a music critic, the challenges of creating a memoir, and broke down the best albums of the past fifty years, from Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson to Kanye and the Black Keys.
TB: I just wanted to ask you, what are the skills that make for a good music and culture critic? What makes that a profession you can work at and excel in?
Ollison: It’s different for everyone who does it, but for me what you have to have is a passion for and an insatiable curiosity for the history of the music. How it’s evolved and how people respond to it and how you respond to it. And I always say that having solid writing and reporting skills [is essential]. The more you do that, the more you write and report on this type of stuff, the more you learn the right kind of questions to ask yourself and the people you’re talking with: what to ask, what to look for.
For me my life has always been about engaging music in some ways. What I do for a living is an extension of who I am. I get paid to talk about music and to challenge myself and what I think I know about music. Especially when I get to interview artists and fellow ‘pop-culture vultures’ and “experts” on different angles of the music business— the marketing of it, the branding of it— I’m learning something new every day. And of course we’re in a social media age, so that encourages a fragmentation of how people listen to music. You learn and write in doing this job that the more things change, the more things stay the same. People crave a sense of engagement in music, so it’s my job to write about what draws us to music, what keeps us engaged: the marketing of it, the things that have changed in regards to how it’s produced. New artists on the horizon, old artists that are still there. And in particular, with the older music, how people change with it. And when people are writing about the fine arts, when they talk about Beethoven and Mozart and art that is 400 years old, it’s still relevant because people still respond to it. It still holds some part that reflects to us our humanity. And I feel that pop does that in a lot of ways, so it’s the same sort of principle.
TB: So you mentioned your knowledge of music, the skill required for writing and interviews: it’s a very interdisciplinary work you’re doing. Is there a common thread in all that that you find appealing and made you pursue this? Or are you just a multi-talented man?
Ollison: (Laughs) I think, as I said before, I can’t imagine my life without music, without talking about it or engaging in it in some way. There are songs I listen to and I have listened to dozens of dozens times, and I still hear, depending on my mood, something different. And as I evolve and grow in my own personal life that is something I am able to take away from the music that I probably would never have thought about.
As far as covering music, when I started out it was strictly reviews and interviewing artists who have come into town. It has broadened since and turned into more of a Culture thing. Music is my base but I consider myself more of a culture writer instead of simply just music. Music is something of a launching pad into broader cultural topics.
For instance, one of the things I have done since I’ve been here, I remember writing about Kanye West, not so much about his music but how his music and how his persona is a reflection of things that I see as very much part of the black middle class. The way he sort of has a very entitled feel, and how he sort of brings in so many types of threads in his music and he’s always seems to be trying to redefine what black is, you know, in the mainstream gaze. That’s very indicative of how the black middle class acts. He is of that ilk, of that class. And so I thought that was a way of talking about how his bratty persona and his music have been reflective of the black middle class always obsessing over the mainstream while wanting to be its own entity.
When I first started into the business that wouldn’t have been a topic I thought to spring into. And also it’s to keep my job interesting. I wanted to broaden the scope a bit. For instance I am working on a piece on Nat Turner. He was not a musician. My interest is particularly of how things are represented, how blackness is represented in culture, which is important to me. And of course that starts in music for me, and black music has been appropriated in all sorts of ways all over the world. That leads into different sorts of discussions and topics that challenge me as a writer and as a reporter. I have to study stuff, and connect threads, that are outside of just covering music.
TB: For you to get to do in-depth reading and in-depth critique of these works and personas, was getting there more a matter of you gaining the insight and maturity to write these sorts of things, or was it gaining the respect and trust of your editors?
Ollison: I think it’s a combination of both. It all really started when I came to the Pilot. Before I was at the Baltimore Sun, and I was a pop music critic. The job was pretty much confined to reviews, and previews, though sometimes that would involve larger profiles with artists. There was some cultural stuff, but it was strictly tied to music. And I was feeling myself getting a little burnt out, and I had colleagues who were pop music critics who did get burnt out, and they started to resent the job, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. So the lay off at the Baltimore Sun was actually a blessing, because I was tired of working there anyways.
So when I got here, the job was sort of this nebulous thing. They knew they wanted an entertainment writer, but they wanted me to make the job whatever I wanted to be. At that point I hadn’t matured and evolved enough to where I wanted to write about broader subjects and more cultural things using music as sort of the foundation. So it’s actually been here, and I’ve been here for about six and a half years, where all of that has come into fruition with a lot of the stuff I’ve done.
And then I think the editors here had a lot of faith in me. Cause when I got here and I had this idea of what I wanted to cover and how I wanted to cover it, but I hadn’t really done it. I had some tentative pieces that were more cultural criticism, but they certainly wasn’t what I’ve been done since I got here. So the faith of the editors really helped with that, but it was a combination of the faith of the editors as well as having to mature and evolve as a writer before I could write those sorts of stories.
TB: So how did you get to the place to write “Soul Serenade”? Because that’s a whole separate project, a completely different writing from what you do day-to-day. What got you there? What got you ready to do this project?
Ollison: When I moved here, there was a lot of stuff that happened when I moved to Virginia Beach for the job. I didn’t know anything about the Tidewater Area until I came here to interview for the job. And I wasn’t sold socially, that this would be the area for me. But I knew that the sort of open, blank canvas was part of the job. I mean, I took a bit of a pay cut, but I knew professionally, this makes sense.
When I got here, I was very lonely, very depressed. I was in this very brief, I’d hate to call it a relationship, it was more of a Situation, that didn’t work out, and I got kind of heartbroken about that. And I was personally and professionally in a place where I wanted to push myself beyond what I’d been used to, and do something different. And I was also very depressed.
So I started this sort of three-pronged program at the time, I called it Operation Reinvent Rashod. I was very overweight so I hired a trainer and joined a gym, I hired a therapist to help handle some abandonment issues that had surfaced in that brief little affair-thing I had going on. And also I wanted to challenge myself as a journalist with contextual writing and explaining things. And my degree was in Creative Writing and Journalism, and I wanted to get back to the creative writing side and challenge myself in a way that the professors challenged me to show, not tell.
So the idea for the book, I thought about taking parts of my life and appropriating them for a novel. But when I was reinventing myself and this pathway to self healing, the writing part of it was to write about my life. And it just became one of these organic things, it started with that first sentence of the book, “The picture revealed the happiness I never knew.”
And I wrote it straight from there, the whole book. I thought it was all sort of going together, I was feeling better because I was losing weight, and because endorphins were happening and helping me out of this depression, and the therapy was helping me face a lot of old stuff from my past that I hadn’t dealt with and still really bothered me. And writing about it helped, especially since I was not having to explain anything but instead made it a very visceral experience for myself and the reader. It forced me to relive those moments. It helped me to face some things, and also to arrive at a place of sympathy, no not sympathy, but empathy and compassion for myself and the people in my life who hurt me.
The writing challenged me to bring to life the central arc, the 1980s, and 1990s. I was doing some reporting too: I went back to Arkansas and all those neighborhoods we lived in. I was very young when a lot of this stuff happened. I had to check and verify some memories, and interview a lot of people to get perspective on things that happened before I was born and all that. To give context to the story but to give it a visceral feel, to bring it all to life. It took a lot of strength, actually.
As a journalist I have to say “well this happened because blah blah blah.” Here I had to show the dimensions of people in my life, which I welcomed. I think that the journalism helped in writing in that I had to get to a place where the writing had to be concise to me and also had the specificity that you get from journalism and reporting and all that. And I read a lot of poetry as I was writing “Soul Serenade” because I wanted to focus on the language to make it very economical and to the point and lyrical in some places. I was using that language to describe a very inelegant situation and inelegant people. ‘How can I do that?’ I put that challenge to me as I was writing the book. It was very challenging for me on a lot of different levels.
TB: You talk about empathy here, that has to be one of the greatest challenges in any memoir piece: to see everyone’s side and perspective. But especially in a case where you are dealing with issues of race and homophobia and growing up as a black man in Arkansas. What sort of length of time did that take?
Ollison: It was really an organic thing, it was happening as I wrote the book. I worked on it for four and a half years, and sometimes it was very hard to do. I would take a month off from writing because it was too much. All that was still going on, the therapy and talking through some things, and I would talk to the therapist about some of the things that I was working on in the book. And he would recommend sometimes stepping away from it. And when I returned to it I had a clearer head, so to speak.
The other things of that people have taken from the book with the homophobia and all of that, the matter of race? As I was writing I wasn’t thinking about those things. What I was thinking about was the experiences I had and writing them in such a way that whoever read this book could put themselves in it. There aren’t a lot of descriptions of how people look. I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t filter the story through a sentimental lense. Having to see my mother in a way that wasn’t always heroic was hard for me to do, but therapy helped me let go of these sentimental images because that’s not real. But it still had to make it so that the language I rendered my mother’s character in, it came from compassion and empathy, that it came from a place of love.
And I also wanted to do something else that Toni Morrison had mentioned herself in interviews, which was her directive when she started writing, was to take the white gaze out. So that meant I wasn’t going to explain what black life was. Now I have read several memoirs, in particular written by black men, that did that. And they were well-written, and some of them were good, but I noticed that they were explaining things to readers that didn’t have to be explained to me. And if you’re writing a very human story with rich cultural specificities and nuances, when you bring those out, or tease them out in some cases, you don’t have to explain anything.
And the reaction was that ironically a lot of white readers were able to relate to the book. And I even had a book signing where an older white woman was there, who got it, and she said, “You know there were a few things I had to look up, some references that I didn’t understand, and I’m glad that you didn’t posture for me. I was dropped into this life that I knew nothing about, and that no one black could explain to me.” That to me was a huge compliment, that was one of the missions, that whoever you are, white, Jewish, Asian, whomever, straight, that you could read this book and be dropped into it without me having to take you by the hand and explain anything to you. I didn’t even want to do that to black readers who may not have been raised in the south.
TB: So it felt very authentic to you and you got that response from your readers. That has to be very rewarding.
Ollison: It’s very rewarding! So far, and it’s not that I’ve heard from everyone who’s read book, but people who have commented online, and the people who come to the readings, that’s been a mixed crowd mostly, but the more careful readings and more empathetic readings have come from white readers. And not even that white liberal guilt shit, it’s like they felt challenged in reading the book. They felt they were given a view into the life that was complicated and nuanced in ways that weren’t for them.
And black readers, while there’s nothing sentimental to my book, they attached a sentimental reading to the book. I think a lot of black readers do that to sort of buffer them from having to deal with a story where the family is the anti-hero. A lot of black people know we have a lot of shit in our families that aren’t that great. We still feel generally feel that our family is a safe harbor, because outside is so racist. That’s not always true for everybody, but black people in particular want to believe in us, some sense of ‘we’ve got each other’s back.’ And that’s not always true, that certainly wasn’t true in my case. And some of my black readers saw that and realized that and it was a painful read for them, but others said “Oh I need to attach that [sentimentalism], because otherwise i’d have to look at my family and see it’s not what I think it is.”
TB: That is really interesting to have your book treated like a Rorschach test, almost. To have something that has objective qualities to it and have a reader come back and say, ‘It’s a sentimental book,’ or someone else to say, ‘There is no sentimentalism.’
Ollison: It is interesting. I say that with the articles I write, you have no control over how people perceive them. I’m always interested, and I’ve learned a lot from the reviews of the book. Some folks, it’s not that I tell people they’re wrong for that, that they’re wrong for reading it that way, however you interpret it is how you interpret it. It’s deeply interesting to see what people get from the book and how they interpret it. But generally speaking, white readers have given it a closer read than black readers have so far.
TB: To shift gears a little bit, I want to hear a little bit more about your thoughts on music. Especially in the past fifty or so years. What recent albums have you really loved and appreciated.
Ollison: I do a blog here, Behind the Groove, where I listen to a lot of older stuff and go crate digging. I’m trying to think of newer stuff I really liked. The one album that I bought on vinyl, it’s two years old, that I keep coming back to again and again, is The Black Keys, “Turn Blue” album. I really really really love that album. I can’t stop listening to this record. I have it on CD and I have it on vinyl. A good friend of mine, he was a former pop music creator, he said, ‘I like the Black Keys, they’re one of those people that theoretically make sense, but I don’t find myself drawn to it.’ And he was able to come to this album and talk about it in this way, and I was just the opposite. Theoretically I understand what you’re saying, but I am so attracted to this record.
I think part of it is that they are so sonically mixed, they are doing a lot with R&B and soul and rock and it’s all filtered and some of it feels very sort of analog but also very contemporary. It’s one of those records that beg you to engage with them. Even on the first few listens I wasn’t really into the lyrics I was just into the textuality of what was going on in that record. I heard it in a record store, Vinyl Days, in Virginia Beach off of Laskin Road, I go there all the time. They were playing the title track and I was like, ‘Damn I like that.’ And I asked the girl behind the counter, ‘Who is this y’all are playing?’ and when she told me I was like, ‘That’s the Black Keys?’ because I loved their last record, “El Camino.” And I said that’s kind of different from the last album, and I just bought it!
There’s few new records that really excite me, but that would be one. I tried with Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly. That’s one of those albums that theoretically makes sense to me and critically I understand people’s response to it. But personally after I’ve listened to it to be caught up— I haven’t written on it— but personally I feel like it’s not a record I feel I need to return to. Like a lot of newer artists where what they purport to stand for it doesn’t make its way onto the album. There are political threads, and I listen to the record and this is not a knock on it, it felt like this rambling diary of a black man trying to find himself. Which to me isn’t overtly political in the way that a lot of critics have written about it. There are a lot of interesting textures and things on the album, that made me say, ‘Ok I like this.’ I did like d’Angelo’s record, “Black Messiah,” but again that wasn’t one that, theoretically I liked, but was it one I played at home a lot? No.
You know what I liked? This is getting a little old. Are you asking about records of the past fifteen years or so?
TB: Sure, that’s “recent.”
Ollison: I liked Kanye West’s last album. I’m trying to think of the name, I forget the name of the record (Note: Kanye West’s last album was “The Life of Pablo”). His antics are completely overshadowing the records. But that last record I really liked. He uses a lot of punk motif and I thought that was an overtly political record that a lot of people overlooked. The connective thread was the sort of paranoia of being a black man and trying to find himself in whatever spaces he’s trying to find him and there’s this paranoia that’s not going to leave him alone. He used a lot of punk motifs to underscore that. I thought it was a brilliant record. I forget the name, his last album.
TB: Looking at these albums that have recently caught your attention, what do you think has changed? What is the biggest difference between these albums and the ones you grew up with?
Ollison: I think the biggest difference is that pop music now, and I’m not one of those peoples that’s like, ‘Oh back in the day it was way better than it is now,’ but how we engage it is different. We engage music on these devices now so it’s different from the cassette or even a CD or album where you had to sit and listen to them together. So the experience is different. And so now I think the music now lacks this sort of emotional, Everyone-Listen-And-Engage sort of a way. It feels very insular to me. It may just be me being old, too, which I accept. And some of it I feel like I have to be part of a special club to understand. And I’m cool with that and I’m not one of the people who get angry because it doesn’t speak to me.
And when I’m asked why it’s because there’s something about the lyrics the style of the music that feels very compressed. And that’s something that artists have, a lot of these smaller artists have these closeted fan clubs like on Twitter. And it’s not like you can find their music at the record store. Cause there aren’t that many stores. So as a result I thinks the music doesn’t have the same open-hearted feeling where you can come-on-in, like the music I grew up with.
Soul music and even a lot of the pop was influenced by the gospel vision of black music at the time, which was steeped in the church. The church was all about that integrated vision of church, ‘We can all come in here,’ and there’s cultural specificities about the performances, and everybody is welcome of course. White writers and white artists took from there. And there was this sort of, “Come and listen to this, even though this is part of my emotional pain, you probably have had this too.” I always feel as if the music from that era was the arm outstretched. It feels like you either get it or you don’t’. Now what we have is hashtag music, and you may not understand what this hashtag means, but those who follow it do and that’s fine.
TB: So there are very specific avenues or audiences for music. You talk about it in your book, associating music with specific family members or your mother’s moods that say, in a very broadcasted sense, ‘This is part of the identity and part of the experience.’ That makes a lot of sense.
Ollison: There was also the sound of the voices, too. I didn’t have the language for it as a child but I could listen to the music that was played around the house of relatives and friends at the time. So we’re talking about Rick James and the OJs and Aretha and Chaka Khan and all these people, I noticed a response that people had to the music it was a very similar response to the music people heard at church. It was a testimonial sort of thing, they heard something that related to them. And also the sound of those voices, the way Eddie Levert sang or Millie Jackson sang, the sound of the voices around me, they weren’t singers, but there was a musicality to the way they talked and the way they expressed themselves. And I was able to kind of connect that to the music they listened to.
TB: Your work draws heavily on voice, especially for your family members. What did it take for you to render those voices accurately? Was your closeness to these characters something that was helpful or did it present its own challenges?
Ollison: Even as a child, I paid close attention to rhythm and cadence. I was naturally drawn to it. I made correlations between the tone of someone’s voice and the music I loved. For instance, my mother’s voice was sharp like a trumpet, a motif I use in the book. My closeness to my relatives and the other characters in the book helped because I had grown up around them and always knew their voices, so it was easy to approximate the way they phrased things.
TB: Since you’ve done as much work as you have with these songs, I want to look back at some of the music from your book that were part of the soundtrack of your life. I’m just going to play a song and whenever you’ve had enough, you can talk about what made that song work or what made that song special or powerful.
(Aretha Franklin’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” plays)
Ollison: It’s funny you play that. That was a huge hit for Aretha Franklin in 1968, but that’s one of my favorite songs by her. She wrote it. What I love about that song is that it has a hell of a groove to it. Of course Aretha is one of the most celebrated singers, but I think that her talents as a musician are kind of underrated. She sets the groove with the piano, the drive of the song. My mom used to play this when she was in a good mood. There’s no way you could listen to this and not feel like dancing or responding to it. A lot of Aretha’s songs are very sad, you’d cry to them, but this one you groove to them.
I have the album that this song is on, it’s one of my favorites, but this is actually on my iPod when I got to the gym. It gets me going on the elliptical. Everything about this song, the groove, the horns the vocals— I think those are her sisters Erma and Carolyn on background vocals. This came out in ‘68, it has that something of the drive of Motown, of their hits at the time. Which makes sense became Aretha grew up in Detroit and Motown was in Detroit, so it was that same sort of bustling, hard-driving groove that you could probably only get in Detroit at the time.
TB: Here’s another one, from a little later on.
(Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” plays)
Ollison: Of course, the “Thriller” album! Almost the first half of my book is about Michael Jackson as a god-like figure. The amazing thing about this album and the songs off of it, was that if you were around in 1982— and I was six— there was no escaping it. This could never happen again, there’s no comparison to the ubiquity of this album. There was no escaping it! This song in particular, I remember the video for it, it was one of the first videos I had ever seen, it was on MTV. It’s one of those songs that I haven’t been able to listen to without seeing the video in my mind. It was seared in, it had such a profound thing to see him strutting through this deserted street, the streetlights lighting up underneath his feet, and just how cool he was in the video. The song itself, though, some could argue that it was kind of misogynistic or whatever, and it is.
This was the time where the visual and the music meant a lot. This album was such a visual album at the time, the videos were such a huge production for the singles, that it is almost impossible to separate the visual from the music. I think both have to be powerful to fuel them in that way. For me listening to Billie Jean is more of a visual experience than an aural experience.
And personally I prefer “Off the Wall” to “Thriller.” “Thriller” is a great album, I have more sentimental attachments to it. But critically and musically I love “Off the Wall.”
TB: And one last one.
(Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” plays.)
Ollison: Marvin Gaye is my favorite male singer of all time, period. This song came out the year I was born, in 1977. It was played so much when I was growing up that I thought it was a new song. It wasn’t until years later, we’re talking ‘83 or ‘84 when I was a kid, at barbecues all the time. I said, ‘Oh this is a new song.” And people said, “No, that’s old as you!’
Listening to that now, I think that gets back to the point of how the music was this communal thing, it went so far that it had this party atmosphere in the back, you had people shouting and being a part of this party. And the song is actually about Marvin being shy at this point and being a wallflower and being too shy and not being able to do that. But the music and the atmosphere cheering of all that is all about you getting off the wall and dancing.
This is another song that when I hear it I think of just joy and grown folks dancing, this is another song that I have my own memories associated with when I hear it. It was the song at barbecues and family gatherings that would unite everybody. The grown folks were usually drunk by the time this song came on, and there’s a twelve inch version of this that’s eleven minutes long. The song evoked partying. There was no way you could put this record on and just sit and listen to it, with your hands all clapping. No, no, people got down. I always associated this with what I call hood parties back in the day, because there was no way you could have a party in the hood and not have that on. And that’s still true.
TB: That was a fun one.
Ollison: And of course, Robin Thicke’s appropriation of it, (laughs) that brought it back to the forefront. When I heard Robin’s song, I was in DC, in a taxi, in an Uber, with some friends when his song came across with him on the radio. And my friend Tippi was with me, and she was like, “Oh that’s that song I was telling you about that Robin Thicke’s got out.” And I was like, “Oh, he sampled ‘Got to Give it Up’!” And that was the first thing I heard when I heard this song. Of course then there’s the lawsuit, all that, but the song had just come out at that point. And I was able to pick that up right away. And I thought, “Oh cool, Robin bringing it back!” And apparently he didn’t do it legally, apparently.
But that song is just joyous. It represents pure soul joy-ety. And Martin was another like Aretha who was the master of groove. He could play piano, too. Singers often set the groove in the rhythmic way they can sing, and he also could do that, and he does that on this record, too. Not singing against the beat, cause that’s more of a rap or hip hop thing, but singing behind it or with it.
TB: I think that about covers it for me. Is there anything else you want to share now that would help our readers understand you as a craftsman, someone who has worked a lot in journalism and now in creative nonfiction fields? What do you think distinguishes the good and the bad in the writing in this field?
Ollison: That’s a good question. Good writing in my book doesn’t read written, if that makes sense. I think there are some writers who write and you feel the pretense. I think we all go through that as writers, where you’re trying to find your voice. But when you’re reading something and it doesn’t feel so written, it doesn’t feel like these sentences all over the place, it feels more like a speech than a conversation. I think that’s what make the difference. I do this whether I’m writing a blog, journalism, or for the book, I read every page aloud. The ear is a really good editor. If there was a certain rhythm that it didn’t have or stopped me or I had to take a breath, then I’d say ‘Something is wrong here.’ And especially when I was recreating dialogue, it helped me to write, to speak it. And sometimes I would even record it and play it back to make sure it captured the voice that I wanted to capture.
That’s what makes writing very effective, as a subject of course, but it doesn’t feel as if it’s been fussed over so much, even if it has. To get to that point where it’s a very easy read, or a breezy read, that’s very hard but that’s what you want. And especially if the sentences are crisp and clear, and if it doesn’t get in the way of the meaning, and it doesn’t read as if it’s so written, with all these damn adverbs and whiny shit. Sometimes I think of writers like someone who oversings, like Christina Aguilera used to do. It was like why do you have to do that? And the most effective songs, and the songs you’d most remember, are the ones that are dressed pretty clearly and sung pretty clearly. I think it’s the same with writing, where it feels clear, like it hasn’t been fussed over, that’s what people return to and want to read. It takes some practice to get there. I’m still trying to get there.
Tyler Beckett is a guy from Georgia trying to unpack what all that means. He has work atGuernica and fiction forthcoming at Dogzplot and Matchbook.