J. D. Steele showcases civil rights icons with short film ‘Listen! Please!’

Submitted photo (l-r) Mahmoud El Kati, Josie Johnson, Bill English and Sallie Steele Birdsong

J. D. Steele steps outside his accustomed profile—singing star-songsmith-producer—to pursue a lesser-known passion, activism, with the recent premiere of the documentary short, “Listen! Please!” (JD Steele Music Productions/Atomic K Productions).

George Floyd’s tragic death provoked international unrest the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1960s, with rioting across America, literally from sea to sea. “In the wake of the unrest in Minneapolis this past summer, and as we enter Black History Month,” Steele reflected, “it is important to reflect on the experiences of those who have come before us in order to move forward.”

Accordingly, “Listen! Please!” showcases iconic civil rights veterans Mahmoud El Kati and Josie Johnson, grassroots notable Bill English, and Sallie Steele Birdsong, the matriarch of the famed Steeles family. “Now, more than ever, we must understand where we have been to understand where we are going,” said Steele.

Prof. El Kati stated in the film, “Racism is inbred in the way the United States came into being.  The framers of the Constitution were idealists. And they wrote a beautiful document. The most profound document since the Bible. It started, ‘All men are created equal.’ [But] you can’t start off with that line and justify slavery.” 

This and other pointed insights characterize the roughly 15 minutes of testimony by men and women whose perspective on our social fabric is key to making any change therein. 

JD Steele spoke with MSR about “Listen! Please!” Find an excerpt of that conversation below.

MSR: So, where do you we start?

JDS: Let me tell you what happened. I got a call out of the blue from a friend of mine [executive producer Penny Winton] who is a philanthropist. She’s a White woman who’s been an activist in our community in North Minneapolis many decades. [I] helped her raise funds for a nonprofit Pathways over in South Minneapolis.

She called out of the blue, after George Floyd’s murder, and said, “You know what, you should do a documentary on racism.” My first thought was, I’ve never done a film. I was going to refer some good friends who are filmmakers. But the next morning I had an epiphany. I said, “I think I can pull this off!” because I work with a brilliant videographer, Karl Demer, who co-produced it.

MSR: How did you decide on the interview subjects?

JDS: Well, we need to respect and listen to our elders more.  And I wanted to do it on systemic racism because I’ve had friends—African American friends—who said they weren’t sure they knew what system racism is. So, I had conversations with these four octogenarians who shared their insight and life experience. It knocked me off my feet.

MSR: You and your siblings are international music stars. Why this activism?

JDS: I’ve always been an activist. Since college. I was marching in 1968, ’69, 1970. I’ve always been politically conscious and globally conscious. That’s why I spend so much time in Africa.

 I’ve spent time in India, South America—these are places I’ve gone to work with young people in the slums. I’ve spent a lot of time doing that. So, my consciousness has always been there.

It’s just that at this point in my life, I’m not going to be marching. I tell my students, “Y’all get out there and march. I’ll be in the bunker because I’ve already done all that marchin’.”  Now, I want to inspire young people and inspire people in general. The reality is I understand what system racism is. And I want to clarify as much of it as possible.

MSR: What difference will this film make?

JDS: My hope is that it compels people to dialogue about what systemic racism is. That word is bandied about a lot, but many people don’t understand what it is.

MSR: You understand from personal experience?

JDS: Well, it even impacts music. The Steeles recently were commissioned to do an arrangement of an opera by Scott Joplin, who created ragtime. In the 1890s, he was the Stevie Wonder of his day. In 1907, he moved to [Manhattan, NYC] and created this fantastic opera “Treemonisha.”

He took it to the Metropolitan and some other opera companies, and they said, “Oh, no. Black people don’t do opera.” So, he financed it and it was big failure because White people didn’t review it; they didn’t want to see it. He died in 1938, I think. “Treemonisha” today is one of the most popular in the world.

During the early 1900s, there were Black vocalists who could sing the hell out of opera. But they couldn’t get work because White people said, “You need to stick to your spirituals and blues.” Even now I’m hard pressed to find any young Black people who want to sing any opera. 

MSR: Anything else you want say?

JDS: Yes. I interviewed four very elite octogenarians. Our elders have a lot to say and we have a lot to learn from them. They have been there. They’ve seen it and done it.

MSR: They hand down history.

JDS: Exactly.

“Listen! Please!” premiered February 8. View the film on Facebook or YouTube.