Harpist Brandee Younger graced us with a piece two years ago to honor the late Dorothy Ashby. The post ran on August 6, 2013 on what would have been Ashby’s 81st birthday. In light of recent events concerning the continued injustice and police brutality due to systemic racism, Younger follows-up 2013’s stunning post with her exploration of Ashby’s place in the great pantheon of artists who stood up for social justice.

Read Part I of Brandee Younger’s “Who Is Dorothy Ashby To Our Generation – Part 1” here.

Who Is Dorothy Ashby To Our Generation? - Part II

Artwork copyright 2015 by Margit van der Zwan

You want to know why Negroes riot? You want to know why we’re angry?  – Dorothy Ashby

In reflecting on the legacy of Dorothy Ashby, there is so much to her that has not yet been fully explored. Ashby, who passed away 29 years ago on April 13th, 1986, was an amazing musician but she was also vocal about the injustices faced by African-Americans. Lately, as more mainstream musicians speak out about societal issues, it’s important to note that there is a history of artists doing this and Ashby should be mentioned as one of them.

In February of 1965, Ashby was a musical guest at an event in Detroit, Michigan to honor Rosa Parks. The main speaker for the event was Malcolm X, who had flown there the same day his house was firebombed. Malcolm X’s speech, sometimes called “The Last Message,” was given a week before he was assassinated. I cannot help but wonder if Ashby had an opportunity to speak to either of them, to ask them any questions about their journey and struggles. There is little doubt in my mind that they both inspired her, and experiences like these resonated with her even if her music did not have an overtly political message.

While much of her music was not a platform for social commentary, she used theater to not only collaborate with black creatives but also to depict life within black communities. In the late 1960’s, she and her husband John Ashby created “The Ashby Players,” a touring theater company based in Detroit. Together they wrote plays such as “The Choice”, which tackled abortion, contraception and welfare; and “3-6-9: An Intimate Look at the Ghetto”. In the ’60s, it was uncommon to explore these controversial topics from a black perspective. She was doing this at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which shows how forward-thinking and bold she was.

Another play she created, “Game”, was written to be set in “any metropolitan city after a riot.” The play included original compositions like “Black Has Come of Age,” “Soul Chamber” and “I’ll Help Some Other Day.” She explored topics in her plays that are still relevant some 40 years later, and one can only imagine the response she received at the time or the type of impact it may have had on society.

In these times where a new movement for equality has risen, I think Ashby would have made music for this generation and would have lent her support to social movements. Usually when I describe her to someone, I say that she was an artist and activist because she represented so much more than just her music. I wonder if she knew the path that she was paving and the impact that she would have on artists of all genres, to come.

Words by Brandee Younger (@harpista)
Artwork by Margit van der Zwan available via Etsy

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