Angeleno digs into roots to revitalize the southern social culture of juke joints

4 mins read

Los Angeles local pushes against growing invisibility of Black culture and communities by resurrecting a southern tradition transported by black migrants.

The sun just broke through low hanging clouds as Matito Ki-Abayomi drives his 18-wheeler truck south on Central Avenue just past Imperial Highway in Los Angeles.

From house windows and passing cars along the major street dividing the east side and west side of the city, Reggaeton, old school Mariachi bands and Latin pop music vibrate the air. Not even two decades ago, it was different. There was more of a mélange of Selena and Snoop Lion.

Before that, in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Central Avenue was predominantly Black with jazz and blues clubs dotting the landscape. Everyone from Charles Mingus to Ella Fitzgerald gigged many times over in the area. Billie Holiday was a regular.

Now there is only one club left, The Barnyard on 96th and Main Street.

In 2010, Ki-Abayomi wanted to capture the fading culture of live music in Los Angeles. Actually, he wanted to retain the visibility of black musicianship that fell outside the margins after the Watts riots in 1965, but largely died when crack cocaine took over in the early 1980s.

Though some of the music industry’s major record labels are about 15 miles away from Watts, it is a lifetime apart from economic empowerment in the heavily segregated city.

“There are so few places in Los Angeles where there is live music, and a place where black people jam, outside of church,” says Ki-Abayomi.

Stone’s Juke Joint is a night of live music that takes place at selected venues in the city.

So, Ki-Abayomi created, Stone’s Juke Joint, a recurring event at different venues in the city in which he recreates southern cultural comforts with a night filled with local musicians and singers.

“The juke joint is something that is a place where you can come and hear some feel-good music and get some feel-good food. Relax and hang out and meet cool people, but also experience black culture,” he explains while honking the horn of the gleaming truck that just hooked a left onto Slauson Avenue, a street that goes from production studios in Culver City to the vatos on the East side.

Relocating Culture

Growing up, Ki-Abayomi heard two distinct musical genres at home. While his mother is from southwestern French Louisiana, home of Zydeco, his father is from Mississippi, the birthplace of blues. On Sundays, he recalls hearing everything from Buckwheat Zydeco to B.B. King.

“Although my parents lived in states that are next to each other, the musical scene was different. Growing up they would go to a Zydeco festival in Los Angeles one week then a blues festival the next.”

Ki-Abayomi migrated to Los Angeles with his southern parents and sisters from Ohio. He was born in Baton Rouge, La. “My moms and pops would talk about juke joints, all the time. For blacks, it was one of the few places they could go and socialize and listen to good music in a segregated south.”

Today, Los Angeles, much like the half-century old stories of a racially divided Deep South, is carved with ethnic and racial perimeters.

In 2015, Los Angeles County settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department for violating the Fair Housing Act when inland cities of the county, Palmdale and Lancaster, discriminated against African-American voucher holders for subsidized housing.

Norrinda Hayat, one of the trial attorneys at the Justice Department who worked the case said that “Palmdale and Lancaster criminalized black people who moved out of L.A. for better housing opportunities and essentially better lives.”

Palmdale, California in Los Angeles County.

Hayat, a law professor and Director of the Housing and Consumer Law Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, continued. “Mothers were targeted and literally pulled out of their beds in the middle of the night by police who said that they violated their Section 8.”

For years, the unspoken laws of redlining and years of institutionalized racism led to Blacks concentrating themselves in areas like Watts, Compton and South Los Angeles. Now, these areas have grown to be largely Latino. The building of a metro line added to Blacks’ displacement already occurring under encroaching gentrification that is forcing out middle-class African-American populations from the famous Crenshaw district.

Sustaining Culture by Making People Visible

Music, as it was in the mid-twentieth century, cuts through a growing invisibility of African-Americans in the city.

Ki-Abayomi, who produces a web series called “Only in LA,” works to keep an authentic part of the city that he says is undermined by the global entertainment industry it houses.

“There are so many shows and songs about L.A., but most do not show the real L.A.,” he emphasizes.

Matito Ki-Abayomi visits Primo Donuts in Los Angeles for his show, “Only in L.A.”

“There are people that come from the Valley to Stone’s Juke Joint because they want to hear music with soul,” says Ki-Abayomi. “People from the industry dip into the juke joint all the time because the vibe is not on some Hollywood fakeness.”

Cannabis and Black Culture

On Saturday, April 21, his juke joint takes on another venture, celebrating cannabis culture during the 4-20 holiday, internationally known as the day to celebrate marijuana.

Like many Blacks who have been left out of the legal weed industry, he hones in on the marijuana revolution in another way. At his juke joint, a cannabis-themed party called, “The Day After,” takes place on the next day of the green holiday at The Whipp Social Club at 7617 South Crenshaw Boulevard, at 7:30 pm.

California has some of the most progressive laws in decriminalizing cannabis. In January 2018, California’s Proposition 64 was enacted, legalizing the use of recreational weed.

Currently, the state produces about 15 million pounds of marijuana with most growers in the northern part of the state.

Ki-Abayomi jokes while maneuvering tons of dirt in tight city traffic when there should not be congestion, “Weed is like the California cigarette.”

It is midday and the hazy city is alive with hints of marijuana in many cars blasting various melodies in the diverse metropolis. From Slausan Avenue, Ki-Abayomi turns his truck onto Crenshaw to unveil a large groove in the middle of one of the most popular strips in Los Angeles; the finishing touches of the Metro rail line are underway.

He nods to a construction worker controlling traffic.

He says, “Cannabis culture for black people in LA [has] always had an intersection of good music and good weed before the laws changed. Actually, that’s what was done at juke joints. All the red light illegal activities or those that were considered taboo were done there. I know my grandfathers were in many juke joints in their day. I just carry on the culture.”

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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