Bobby Sullivan co-founded the classic DC post-hardcore group Soulside in the early 80s, and went on to play in many other DC groups such as Rain Like The Sound of Trains, and Seven (with his brother Mark). He currently lives in Asheville, NC, where he does prison outreach work and records under the name B. Subtle.
I recently spoke with him about his current work in the Rastafarian UniverSoul Order Prison Ministry, as well as his other social justice projects and his music. It’s my honor to welcome him to TFH.
Interview by Josh Medsker
What was your impetus for forming the DC chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross?
Bobby Sullivan: We started the DC chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) in the ‘90s, because as a collective called the Beehive, many of us felt this to be the best way to raise awareness about one of the most urgent issues facing us these days in US – the dramatically expanding prison industrial complex. Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier were high profile political prisoners here, but there were many more revolutionaries from the ‘60s and ‘70s who were still languishing behind bars. As a collective, we were studying a variety of books by and about revolutionaries from that era. We were very interested in looking at their successes and failures, so we could forge a path that would be effective in mobilizing people to confront all the pressing issues that were still apparent in the US.
Emma Goldman and Antonio Gramsci were also focuses for the group. The book that most pointedly had our attention was Night Vision by Butch Lee and Red Rover. It was written and released by a publishing offshoot of the Weather Underground. The other two books associated with that group were Settlers by J. Sakai and False Nationalism/False Internationalism by E. Tani and Kae Sera. All three provided a history and analysis that was all but missing from any other source at the time.
I had recently moved back to DC from my college days in Boston. There I had taken a class with Howard Zinn, had seen Noam Chomsky speak on numerous occasions and more importantly had met and seen speeches by Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale. I was very interested in harnessing the growing DIY/punk scene to pick up where others had left off – not to engage in any violence, but to raise awareness around pressing issues and to provide support to those who had been captured and framed along the way.
When I moved back to DC in the nineties, it was to restart the Food Not Bombs chapter there. Once the Beehive opened a store front, it became our home base. We lived there, cooked there, had a free store, a ‘zine/record shop and had many discussion groups. Starting the ABC was a natural progression.
Almost immediately we set up speaking engagements for Ramona Africa who had recently been released from prison. She was the only adult survivor of the bombing of the MOVE Organization’s headquarters in West Philadelphia. We connected with her at one of the many rallies for Mumia Abu-Jamal we went to at the Liberty Bell. We were there in court when Ramona and MOVE won their case suing the city for the horrendous attack that had been carried out. We were also some of the few at the 10th anniversary of the MOVE bombing press conference, which the MOVE kids held to address some bad press that had recently come out. Birdy Africa, the only child survivor of the bombing had given a disparaging interview to the press. Among the notable speakers was Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a member of the Panther 21 who had just been released from prison and the actor Giancarlo Esposito who has since had quite the career. By then he had been in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing and more recently Breaking Bad.
The Beehive also worked closely with Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, a member of the Chattanooga chapter of the Black Panther Party and the author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution. He was probably the main impetus for us forming the DC ABC. We were pen pals with numerous political prisoners. Marilyn Buck who had been busted for among other things, breaking Assata Shakur out of prison, was a frequent pen pal and I actually spoke on the phone with Sundiata Acoli, Assata’s comrade who was/is still behind bars. I remember receiving some great correspondence from Marilyn addressing some of the critique she and her comrades received in False Nationalism/False Internationalism. My point here is not to name drop, but just to make the point that we were surrounded by a lot of very intelligent activists and we wanted to do our part.
In what ways did your days in the DC punk scene spark your passion for boots on the ground activism? Or was it before that, even?
BS: That scene was rife with activism on many fronts. I believe the new genre we were forging was a form of activism in itself, democratizing the way music was released and breaking down the barriers between musicians and their audiences. It was a form of global communication before the internet. In fact when Soulside played in Poland the Berlin Wall before the Berlin Wall came down, the scene there that hosted us was given credit for teaching the Solidarity Movement ways to have their own independent media. Fanzines in addition to the music and activism had already made a global impact. In fact when I went to Slovenia with Rain Like The Sound of Trains in the ‘90s, we played in a bomb shelter and it was their local chapter of Food Not Bombs who had been some of the first to take in and feed the refugees from the war there.
In the US we had seen the success of the “Divest From South Africa” movement and earlier on in the ‘80s there were numerous punk percussion protests at the South African embassy in DC. It seemed a poignant way to use music to confront the powers that be. Even though the police kept us from being able to be right out in front of the embassy, we could be sure they heard us. When Soulside recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s song “War”, we sampled a segment from Radio Freedom, “the voice of the African National Congress” at the beginning of the song.
Also, Positive Force was a huge influence on that scene. Many of the shows we and others played were benefits set up by that group to raise awareness about homelessness, apartheid and so many other local, national and international issues. Mark Anderson, the main motivator of that group was one of the many “Big Brothers” I had in that scene. I would say that there was a lot of mentoring going on, musically and politically.
As someone in a band singing about the problems of the world, I felt it was important to be involved in actually trying to change things. Yes, I was an idealist, but I think it was that kind of idealism that started that scene and kept it going. Speaking out about what we believed in was the norm and following it up with action was only natural.
I am very interested to hear about your prison work! When did you start doing it, and how did it come about? Were you doing this work before UniverSoul Order?
BS: When Soulside first started, Johnny (the bass player) and I worked at RAS Records just outside of DC. It was a reggae record label and distributor and we were primarily responsible for the mail order. Frequently we would get orders from prisoners. When we realized how financially challenging it was for them to order the cassettes, we began to tape the albums they requested on blank tapes and then sent them on. This was the beginning of my understanding of the needs of the incarcerated, as we exchanged many letters back and forth.
My work with the Rastafarian UniverSoul Order Prison Ministry (RUO) began when Ras Miles Jacob Marley moved to my current place of residence in North Carolina. He started the organization in Florida, after some inmates requested him to do so. He was a reggae DJ at the time and some prisoners who were tuning in to his show contacted him because there had been some violence in their prison between different factions of Rastafari brethren. Once he went in to meet them, they requested that he represent a “UniverSoul” perspective to bring unity to the Rastas in prison that were from the different “Mansions” of the Faith.
Ras Marley is an ordained minister, so he is able to represent Rastafari in an official capacity according to the prison guidelines. It turns out Rastafari is a recognized religion within the US prison system, so Rastas have the same rights of worship as any other recognized religion. We are able to visit prisons ranging from minimum to maximum security in the region, conducting “religious services” for the brethren. That means we can bring in drums and have a whole day with them, chanting, reasoning, showing videos and bringing in bands. At Marion Prison in NC, a medium security facility, we brought in two groups from the Virgin Islands – Niyorah and Bamboo Station.
One time we brought two Rastafari Elders – Binghi Irie Lions from the Nyahbinghi Mansion and Priest Haile Israel from Ras Michael’s band. Seeing the prisoners reason with Elders from Jamaica was a sight to see and it brought tears to Binghi Irie’s eyes. Working with the RUO has definitely been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Even the prisons’ own literature says that the best way to help the prisoners get acclimated to society after release is for the community to visit them as much as possible. One brother from Marion Prison who got out a few years ago, is now a friend of mine here in NC!
The prisoners tell us that our “services” are the only ones that draw people from multiple religions. At our events we have Jewish, Nation of Islam, Muslim, Moorish Science, Christian, Native American Brothers, and more. Many are inspired by the example of Haile Selassie’s inclusiveness. One of my more challenging speaking engagements at a maximum security facility was following a rousing speech by a Nation of Islam Brother on the history of Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey. The Spirit of these guys is formidable for sure. And in fact it is refreshing to share the Kulture when the distraction of the herb is not present. It can be a much Higher experience without it!
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