That’s what you get with Rashod Ollison, The Virginian-Pilot’s music critic and soon-to-be published author of “Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl.”
Rashod tells it like it is when it comes to music, life, social justice and self esteem – especially as it relates to the black community. Some readers take issue with his strong opinions. That’s their problem. He knows where he comes from and how he got here. He doesn’t need your approval, mother fucker.
At this point, you may be picturing some stereotyped angry black man, but you would be very wrong (and possibly racist). He’s not angry. He’s confident, and he has soul. Take a look through his archive of stories and reviews. You can witness him unravel an arrogant celebrity’s invisible robes so eloquently the celebrity doesn’t even notice the breeze. You feel compassion as he reveals the beauty of an otherwise dismissed character. You find yourself celebrating the singers, musicians and divas who bring him joy.
Rashod reminds you that good writers take you places you weren’t expecting – whether you like the ending or not.
This Sunday Rashod will join us for Sunday’s Tell Me More… Storytelling Night, to share a personal story of “hope.” Also gracing the Push Comedy Theater stage will be local author Mike D’Orso, whose nonfiction works have informed movies and inspired graphic novels. His books include Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood and Eagle Blue: A Team, A Tribe and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska. D’Orso co-authored with civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.
If you don’t realize how cool it is that we have Rashod and Mike on the stage Sunday, you are missing all the points. First time, long time. Local authors. This is exciting!
If you do get it, revel in your knowledge by taking in Rashod’s storyteller Q&A.
RASHOD OLLISON’S Q&A
Name: Rashod Ollison
Location: Virginia Beach
Deb: Who are you? How should people know you?
Rashod: I’m a lot of things: an openly black and openly gay man from the South (Arkansas to be exact) but my attitude is very urbane. People should know me through my humanity — and wicked sense of humor.
Where do you come from? Where have you been?
I came from a gloriously earthy, working-class family in central Arkansas, dysfunctional folks who didn’t support or validate my sensitive nature and intellectual ambitions. But they gave me a very strong sense of self, nonetheless. I choose who I am in this world not the other way around.
Where have I been? In my skin and loving it. Seriously, though, my life so far has been divided between living in central Arkansas and bustling metropolises on the East Coast.
Why the heck are you here?
A rage to survive and a Power that protects me always as it/she/he provides opportunities for me to grow.
This may sound philosophical and metaphysical, but… What is soul? Do you have it? Is it something you are born with, or can you acquire it? If so, how? (I’m asking for a friend.)
I have loads of soul. Perhaps it was something I was born with but I believe it was gifted to me by very soulful parents and grandparents. Soul is that infinitely deep river of feeling that informs and replenishes everything else about you. Others who engage you feel it, too, and they’re renewed by it or drown in it. We’re living in such a fragmented culture that glorifies mediocrity and confuses distractions for engagement. Soul requires your undivided attention and a lot of courage, which, unfortunately, you don’t see too much of these days.
Your memoir, Soul Serenade, debuts in January. This is your first published book, yeah? That means you’re a legit author. How does it feel?
Everything about the book — from the way I wrote to how it landed at Beacon Press, my publisher — was all organic and deeply felt. The best writing I’ve done so far is on the pages of that book. Advance reviews have been glowing. I guess I’m a legit author now. But I’ll really know it if this book becomes a bestseller and the royalty checks are fat enough for me to turn into the black gay Harper Lee.
Music. Sometimes we don’t even notice it lingering in the background of an event or movie. When it’s missing, the whole atmosphere, the whole story, is different. How can it be taken for granted yet be so important to so many? How is that music can bind a story so subtly and completely?
Music has the power to shape our emotional development, especially as children. It certainly can serve as a portal for escape but it can inform, too. Going back to the days of slavery, music for black folks also served as a way to convey necessary information and encouragement in the face of gross injustices. Music can be a balm or a bomb, the connective thread that binds us no matter who we are or what we’ve been through.
Working as a critic often puts me in a precarious position because people take their music so seriously. If I skewer an artist, especially a “legend,” who resonates with a certain group, my inbox becomes flooded with hateful emails. If I praise a performer, readers will send notes thanking me. But often they didn’t read the review or feature closely. They were just looking for me to validate their musical tastes.
Engaging music, like engaging any art, should encourage voyages of the heart and mind. In that respect, music isn’t a mirror but a door. At this point in my life, I’m not interested in reflections of myself. I want to go through doors that lead to places I’ve never been or to perspectives I’ve never considered.
I hear an early reviewer wrote down every song you mentioned in your book. That’s the playlist of your life. Your album. The outline of your story.
Your book is written, but the story isn’t finished. What song or songs will herald you into the future and why?
There are two songs that immediately come to mind, both with the same title, “Better Days.” There’s a version by Roy Ayers and Rufus & Chaka Khan, both recorded around 1976-77. With the publication of this book and so many changes in my life in the last five years, I feel as though I may be on the cusp of a professional and personal breakthrough. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m ready and set for better days.
Another song in the same secular inspirational vein: Brenda Russell’s “Expect a Miracle.” It’s featured on her 2000 album, “Paris Rain,” which I played incessantly that year while living in Philly. I loved the easy-flowing melody and Latin-tinged groove. But 15 years later, the lyrics speak deeply to me. I’ve grown with the song. Facing any storm, and I’ve had a few recently, I expect a miracle. I’m here because I’m supposed to be, and I have something to do that’s well beyond what I think I know.
Off the music topic: Of all the storytellers who have influenced you, who would you most like to meet? Why?
Toni Morrison. Her books, especially her first one, “The Bluest Eye,” which was the first Morrison novel I read, gave me permission to do what I do as an arts journalist and now as an author. After reading her, I could assume the centrality of my culture without explaining anything, without obsessing over or editing myself for the “white gaze.” That was so liberating because it made me see my own humanity and the humanity of others. No matter the cultural specificities, it’s the human story that connects us all. But appreciating those various nuances that make us different anchors and enriches that human story.
Are you different from the person you were when you first arrived in Hampton Roads? How so?
I’m very different. I’m about 50 pounds lighter, dropping 10 pant sizes. I joined a gym and hired a trainer soon after moving here as a way to tackle a deep depression I had fallen into. I also hired a therapist so that I could work through old abandonment issues. Writing the book was a way to challenge myself creatively. All of it was interconnected: I had to be in decent physical shape to handle the psychological and emotional upheaval of going to therapy and writing such an intensely personal book.
What have you found here that you are glad you found? What do you wish would go away?
I’ve found great colleagues and friends and professional validation and respect. As a city rat, I wish the boredom and restlessness of suburban living would go away.
Where do you go from here? What’s next?
I’m not sure what’s next. Whatever it is, I’m expecting better days and a miracle.
SEE RASHOD ON THE TELL ME MORE… STAGE
Rashod will join the Tell Me More… Storytelling stage at 7 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 20 with author Mike D’Orso, actress Anna Sosa, who is appearing in the VSC’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” and Daniel Neale, a local musican and busker whom Rashod once interviewed in relation to the busking laws passed in the City of Norfolk. (Small world, isn’t it?!)
Each third Sunday of the month, Tell Me More… Storytelling hosts storytellers sharing personal stories based on any inspiration they glean from a word and song provided by the show’s organizers. This month the word is “hope” and the song is “Better Days,” by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. Admission is $5. For more information and updates on Sunday’s show, follow the event on Facebook.
Interested in giving storytelling a try? You can find a list of themes and pitch a story for an upcoming show on the Tell Me More… Storytelling site.
Want to know what you may be getting into? Press play on Tell Me More… Live’s most popular podcast since our last live show. Chris Pickett shares a story about how he ended up crawling out of the trunk of a wrecked car.