A couple of years ago I did a Night Lights show about Oscar Brown Jr., a singer and songwriter I’d long admired for his compositional skills, his vocal verve, and his cultural and political activism. With his hip, cocksure, proto-rap delivery and tunes such as “Mr. Kicks,” “Forty Acres and a Mule,” and “Bid ‘Em In” that combined humor and strong social messages, he was a pioneer of early-1960s vocal jazz. At the time I felt Brown was undercelebrated for his accomplishments, both as an artist and as a figure of inspiration. Several months after we aired the program, Brown passed away, and we reran it as a tribute.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; filmmaker donnie l. betts was onto Brown long before me, and spent nearly six years making a documentary about him. Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress covers the performer’s life from beginning to end, drawing on extended conversations with Brown himself, his family members, and artistic friends and colleagues such as Studs Terkel, Amiri Baraka, and Abbey Lincoln (who sang some of the songs that Brown wrote with Max Roach for what eventually became We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite), as well as historical performances and footage, including Brown’s stint as host of the TV program Jazz Scene USA. The end result is a definitive portrait of Brown; as he told Betts after viewing it, “You really captured me.”
This past week betts was in Bloomington to screen and promote his film, and I spoke him with him about Brown’s early Chicago days, how Brown got into both activism and songwriting (and ended up combining the two), Brown’s relationship with young African-Americans in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, and why Brown did not record for 20 years. betts also offered some interesting background to some of the scenes in the movie, such as Brown’s encounter with two former Chicago gang members who participated in a musical that he wrote:
Watch the trailer for the film: