In this episode, we dig into a conversation with Marsha Music. Marsha is the daughter of pre-Motown record producer Joe Von Battle. She’s also an acclaimed writer of essays, poems, and narratives on life in Detroit.
Together, we celebrate the work of Betty DeRamus. Betty DeRamus is a veteran and award-winning journalist, DeRamus was the jury’s pick and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. She has been awarded a Michigan Press Association Award, as well as a Deems Taylor award for a profile of Roberta Flack published in Essence. A passion for the troubles and triumphs of ordinary people, Betty DeRamus wrote two nonfiction books, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad and Freedom by Any Means: True Stories of Cunning and Courage on the Underground Railroad.
We explore how DeRamus’s practice of creative storytelling connects to Music’s role as a griot in the Black community. Marsha also discusses how the history of Detroit informs her identity as a writer.
In this episode, we talk about:
- The history of Detroit and the Black Bottom Neighborhood
- The importance and validity of oral history
- How to find inspiration in the place where you live
- Betty DeRamus
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[00:00:09] Marsha Music: This font of creativity that comes from the, from the crucible, the pressuring of humanity, this has really become a mark of Detroit. Its ability to hold on.
[00:00:35] Michaela Ayers: Hello there, and welcome to Black Her Stories, where we tap into the lineage of Black women artists who inspire us and shape our stories.
Join us for nourishing conversations with leading writers, storytellers, and entertainers that center the lived experiences of Black women past and present.
[00:01:03] Michaela Ayers: Together, we will explore what possibilities exist when creativity meets history, when we harness our creative power to unlock our purpose. I am your host Michaela Ayers.
[00:01:27] Michaela Ayers: Emergent. Original. Fundamental. All of these words are my attempts to describe the indescribable Marsha Music, whose creative power is so deeply rooted in Detroit’s rich soil that it’s hard to tell where her story stops and the oral history of this great city begins.
[00:01:55] Michaela Ayers: Marsha Music is the daughter of pre-Motown record producer Joe Von Battle. She is also an acclaimed writer of essays, poems, and narratives on life in Detroit.
Ms. Music has contributed to a number of oral histories and over a dozen literary anthologies and films including works featured on HBO, PBS, Amazon Prime, and the History Channel.
She was the recipient of the Kresge literary arts fellowship in 2012 and awarded an art challenge grant from the Knights Foundation in 2015.
[00:02:31] Michaela Ayers: Marsha has performed her renowned one-woman shows and poetry on many Detroit stages, including the Detroit Symphony and Detroit Opera. In 2019, she published her first book, the Detroitist.
[00:02:46] Michaela Ayers: And today, Marsha is writing another book, this one about her father, and co-producing a documentary about his life and times called Hastings Street Blues.
Now, believe me when I tell you that it was an honor to witness Ms. Music as she unearthed fascinating stories about her life in Detroit.
[00:03:12] Michaela Ayers: In the weeks since this interview, some of the ideas that emerged through our conversation have come into focus in my mind.
There are two big themes that I’d like to share with you.
[00:03:27] Michaela Ayers: The first is identity of interest. As an artist, I’m always curious about how, as our pursuits change, our expressions of self change, too.
You see, identity is both who you are and what you’re into. As you listen, consider the words that you use to describe yourself. How do they adapt as your areas of interest shift or solidify?
[00:04:00] Michaela Ayers: The second is honoring oral traditions. The quote “History is written by the victors” implies that history is not grounded in facts. Rather, it’s the winner’s interpretation of reality that becomes the official record.
Dominant culture prioritizes the written word over collective memories that are no less true or valid.
[00:04:28] Michaela Ayers: As you listen, I invite you to think about your relationship with history, especially in this moment. How do you separate fact from fiction? Who gets to write your culture’s history, and why?
[00:04:51] Michaela Ayers: So without further ado, let’s dive in to my conversation with Marsha Music.
[00:05:08] Marsha Music: Well, I wanna tell you I’m very gratified to do this. I’m very gratified. I never have, you know, I do a great many interviews and panels and all kinds of talkies, you know, and I’m never asked about me.
I’m always talking about the projects or the issues that I’m involved in, like things about my father, his record business, or the Hastings Street destruction and urban renewal and gentrification and all of these different things.
[00:05:47] Marsha Music: I am rarely asked about myself, about me, about my process as a writer and me as a writer. And so I’m very happy to talk to you, because I feel very honored that you would want to know something about me.
[00:06:06] Michaela Ayers: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Well, I felt honored to be in this space with you, so thank you for saying yes. And I would love to go ahead and get us started. And so to get to know you more, I would love it if we could start out with, you know, on your blog, Marsha Music, you describe yourself as a primordial Detroiter and a Detroitist.
So I want to know what do these words mean, and why are they important to you?
[00:06:35] Marsha Music: I began calling myself a primordial Detroiter sort of as a hook for my blog. It developed during a period in which I realized that I loved writing about pre-development Lafayette park. I was in a period of intense writing about Lafayette park and the neighborhood that preceded it, which is Black Bottom.
[00:07:10] Marsha Music: But I became intrigued with the very foundation of that community, of both communities, the land. The marshy land. How did this land come to be called Black Bottom? Because it wasn’t called Black Bottom because of the predominance of Black people that live there, although that is how the name became associated.
[00:07:35] Marsha Music: It was called Black Bottom because of the dark loamy soil. This very rich soil that the colonizers discovered to be quite fertile. And in fact, you can even see the evidence of it even today with the lushness. The very verdant green of Lafayette Park, with its expanse of honey locust trees, which form a canopy over that community.
[00:08:10] Marsha Music: So during a period of researching and writing about that, I realized that I felt that my own roots felt primordial in Detroit, even though I am only a second generation Detroiter. My father came here from Macon, Georgia in the 1930s, Sso it’s not like my own family goes back to Detroit for any long generations.
[00:08:39] Marsha Music: But I had a feeling of being connected to Detroit for eons. You know, I feel like my roots go deep in that swamp, deep in that loam of the area near Black Bottom, you know, and the other areas that have created Detroit. In fact, I’m working on a project right now with photographer Michelle Andonian.
[00:09:06] Marsha Music: She has an amazing project. It’s called CORE 375, and it’s looking at the creation of the 75 Chrysler freeway loop, business loop there, and what preceded it.
And in this project, we are going back even further than the land as it was found by the English and French, et cetera. Even before the Native Americans. We’re trying to go back even further than that to the ice age, to look at the formation of the land and waters itself.
[00:09:45] Marsha Music: And so that is a wonderful project, you know, a chance for me to really get primordial on you, you know, as it were.
And then later, as I was writing more and more on Detroit topics, I began to just coin myself—I’m a word woman, and I began to look for a, way to brand myself or call myself, and I began to call myself the Detroitist.
[00:10:18] Marsha Music: Because I had no real desire to write about anything other than Detroit and Detroit subjects. And I think that the Detroitist is a certain affectation of my primary interests and my relationship to the city also, as a kind of unofficial ambassador. People come from all over the world and are told to look me up if they want to talk about the history of Detroit or the sort of culture of Detroit as it is.
[00:10:54] Marsha Music: And I’m certainly not the only one of those. We have a number of very significant historians here in Detroit, but I’ve become identified with Detroit in a certain way.
And so when I adopted the moniker of the Detroitist, it stuck. And I regard myself as THE Detroitist, and I’ve self published a book and called it The Detroitist, because its topics are primarily Detroit, because that’s what I write about.
[00:11:27] Michaela Ayers: Right. Well, even in your share, I love the connection to the land, like this deep rootedness that you feel in this place called Black Bottom, but even before it was called that. And then, you know, when I first encountered your work, it was through your book. And I loved hearing you say that you’re a word woman, because it’s so clear.
[00:11:49] Michaela Ayers: It’s so clear when you spend time on your blog, that you’re so passionate about this place, where you live and not just in this current moment, but also in the past and the different variations of Detroit and the different incarnations of Detroit over time. And so I definitely see that. And I hear that in how you’re, you claim this identity as a Detroitist, so thank you for sharing that.
[00:12:13] Marsha Music: It has been a privilege to come to be so positively identified with the city and to be regarded as a voice, a singular voice, of the city, you know? I’m always just thrilled and humbled and tickled by the ways in which other people have identified me with Detroit. And it’s a real blessing.
Although I just cannot talk about myself as a chronicler of Detroit without mentioning people like Jamon Jordan, who is now the official historian of Detroit.
[00:12:58] Marsha Music: This brother has been a beacon for the study of Detroit and its whole history, meaning the history of African Americans in Detroit, which has always been ignored in the “official histories of the city,” down through the years. And so he is one of those who were standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, attempting to resurrect our role in this history.
[00:13:28] Marsha Music: And I would also mention Ken Coleman. And Ken Coleman is another long time historian of the city and has made it his task to constantly elevate the role of African Americans in Detroit and our place in Detroit’s history. And there are a lot of people who are really engaged in trying to tell the true history of Detroit.
[00:13:52] Marsha Music: And so I’m just grateful to be one of them.
[00:13:56] Michaela Ayers: Yeah. Well, I think I want to pick up this oral history, the storytelling aspect, and begin to really weave that into your icon, Betty DeRamus, who you chose. So Betty DeRamus award-winning journalist, author, and fellow Detroiter. What about her story stands out to you?
[00:14:16] Michaela Ayers: Why did you select her?
[00:14:19] Marsha Music: When you asked me to choose a woman writer, a Black woman writer that I would like to talk about for this podcast, I initially said Toni Morrison. Because Toni Morrison for me is the, the ultimate. She is, you know, she’s the greatest of the great, and I’ve just been a lover of Toni Morrison ever since I first began reading her books. But to hone it down to a Detroit writer, it was immediate for me.
[00:14:53] Marsha Music: I admired, as a young person, Betty DeRamus. I don’t know anything personally about Betty DeRamus. I never came to know her. I would read her as a younger person, particularly in my teen years, but I want to back up though.
In Detroit, in my era, growing up basically in the sixties and early seventies, there were very few Black writers in media, in the mainstream white newspapers, Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press.
[00:15:32] Marsha Music: There were not very many until the ‘67 rebellion, which compelled some of the newspapers to begin to hire Black journalists. Prior to that there were very few, I’m not saying that there were none, but there were very few.
Betty DeRamus however, when she came along in my life, she was a storyteller, really.
[00:15:57] Marsha Music: She had a way about writing about everyday things in Detroit in which she would wind history, Black identity, history of the era and of the ages, all of this would be wound into just a simple story about whoever she was talking about at that given moment.
And I was just in awe of her, of her ability to do that, but it was an awe that was not exclusive of my own ability.
[00:16:37] Marsha Music: In other words, when I read Betty DeRamus, I was very aware that you can do that too. I can do that. I didn’t know how it was going to do it. I didn’t know when.
But I knew that—it was almost as if she spoke, and my voice spoke through her in some way. I understood what she was doing and I never thought…I always wanted to be a writer, but I never thought really that I would carve out my life as a writer.
[00:17:06] Marsha Music: I never did.
[00:17:08] Michaela Ayers: Well, one thing I want to, I want to breathe into what I heard you say around Betty DeRamus, and what I hear is the power of representation, when I hear you say, seeing her style of writing, seeing the way that she told stories gave you a kind of inspiration, but also like kind of like a guide for what would be your future writing style and your writing practice.
[00:17:32] Michaela Ayers: And so I’m curious about, you know, what has her writing taught you about history and the Black experience?
[00:17:42] Marsha Music: I think that she, in her writings made sure that she validated the existence of the Black people of the past. That she validated them in a way of affirming their humanity. They are not just ciphers in the ether.
[00:18:06] Marsha Music: They were living human beings with living problems and she was able to connect because she would start often with a contemporary person that she was talking about but then wind her way back into a history. She would tell her own history that way. She might start out saying, you know, I went to a barbecue family reunion.
[00:18:29] Marsha Music: And then wind her way through the stories until she’d get virtually to slavery, to enslavement, you know. She’s just a stunning writer and it was her clarity that I think I was attracted to. She didn’t have any avant garde abstraction or anything like that. She was a real storyteller.
[00:18:54] Marsha Music: So she was a person who I greatly admire. Her, Susan Watson also.
I greatly admired Susan Watson and these were both newspaper writers, Black newspaper writers. And plus we were just so proud of them. Because they had made it into mainstream newspapers, you know, and not only did they make it there, they were still telling stories about us. But you know, BettyDeRamus of course, down through the years, I lost track of her.
[00:19:25] Marsha Music: You know, she was just a distant memory for many years. And then on Facebook, she pops up on Facebook just a few years ago and I was so stunned. I was so happy, and here she was as a Facebook friend, someone that I could just reach out and connect with, I would just be so thrilled to even be conversing in a thread in which she was, you know, it was just your hero in real life, you know?
[00:20:00] Marsha Music: And so I was never so honored when she sent me a post one day and said, Marsha, I just want to tell you, I just bought your book and I am so thrilled, or something like that, reading it. And the only problem is I want to make sure I get your autograph. Oh my God. I could’ve fainted right there. I could have just fainted right wherever I was reading it.
[00:20:27] Marsha Music: I mean, this was like a full-circle moment of a lifetime to have someone who I listened to, as virtually a child, and have her say that about my book The Detroitist because I think that, hopefully, I told certain stories in a way that she would appreciate, you know, because she was just, she was just stunning.
[00:20:51] Marsha Music: And so Betty DeRamus is no joke.
[00:20:55] Michaela Ayers: Yes, absolutely. Well, and I, I’ve really enjoyed doing the research about her. I was not familiar with her or her work before you submitted her. And I started Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From The Underground Railroad, and even in just scratching the surface of this incredible book, I feel like it’s taught me more about the human story of the underground railroad than any history book ever has.
[00:21:21] Michaela Ayers: And I agree with you in the way that she is able to break down and provide life-affirming stories about Black ancestors, but also kind of breaking down the mythology of the underground railroad in this very narrative-driven way.
[00:21:41] Michaela Ayers: Not shying away from like the brutality of enslavement and the brutality of, you know, experiencing and moving through the world as a Black person and striving for freedom. And so I, I’ve been so grateful to learn about her and her work and how she ties this thread between journalism and storytelling, which I feel like is so unique.
[00:22:03] Marsha Music: She was really an astonishing writer. Really was. Really is.
[00:22:11] Michaela Ayers: Yeah, well and her writing style has been described as oral history, buttressed by hard facts, which I love, I thought that was such a great description of her writing style. So I would love to know how her approach to storytelling, how has that informed your writing practice?
[00:22:30] Marsha Music: Well, if you look at it from that definition, I think that there is a tendency to view oral history as unfactual, as less than, and therefore that’s how you get a statement like that, you know, oral history buttressed by facts as if oral history is not factual. And because, often, our people had been denied access to the ability to write or read. So much of our history has had to have been dependent upon oral history.
[00:23:14] Marsha Music: And there has to be a certain level of legitimacy of that oral history because in some instances there is no way to confirm its truthfulness or not.
You know, we have to rely upon so much in the culture that surrounds a history, in order to affirm its validity. I realize that I have been able to live a very special life.
[00:23:47] Marsha Music: I lived a life with a father with a record store in a historic place, and I spent much time there witnessing. I’ve been a witness.
You know, I’ve been able to live this life, experiencing a lot of different things in a very limited location. I’ve only ever lived in Detroit or Highland Park. I was raised in Highland Park.
[00:24:12] Marsha Music: You know, I grew up, I was born in Detroit. We moved to Highland Park. I lived in Highland Park all my life until I got grown. Then I moved back in Detroit, and then I moved back in Highland Park, and then I moved back in Detroit where I am now.
That’s the only place I’ve ever lived, Detroit and Highland Park, but in this small globe of world, which is Detroit and Highland Park, I’ve been able to witness a lot.
[00:24:37] Marsha Music: And so, all of those experiences the Lord has allowed me to have, they become distilled into words.
And so that I’m able to paint these pictures, you know, like I was thinking this point and—you know, a musician, I always wished I was a musician. You know, I’m not a musician and that’s what I wish I was. I wish I could play piano.
[00:25:01] Marsha Music: You know, I did play bass clarinet as a child, and I may go back to it just as a hobby. I may go back to it.
But as far as being like a pianist or anything like that, I never was, or even really a singer. But you know, musicians, especially really gifted musicians, you know, they’re able to do this work with painting these pictures with sound.
[00:25:25] Marsha Music: And I realize I do that with words. You know, I want to paint pictures with words, you know, I want you to be able to see, see what I’m seeing through my words, you know, or either see what you see through my words about what I see.
[00:25:52] Marsha Music: From the mire and murky loam, Bottom Black with Dusky soil, the First People walked this land, heard the river’s rush and roar. Near the water Savoyard, there in battles took a stand, made the fateful crimson flow near the strait called Le D’etroit. From Black Bottom’s swamp and fog, green and verdant ribbons grew, lush farms risen from the bog, furs and stoves and ironworks.
[00:26:27] Marsha Music: From the briny underground there arose a great world noise, symphony of city sounds sights and wonders to behold. Hear inventions’s hum and clang, foundry’s fire and factory’s bang. Listen to assembly lines. Hear production’s sturm und drang. Hear the hiss of molten iron turning into Model A’s. Listen to the shouts of hires working for five dollar days.
[00:27:01] Marsha Music: Nations gathered in this place, varied hues and diverse face. Working people prospering but segregate the darker race. Clack and clatter of streetcars, sounds of great Grand Central trains. Immigrants and great migrations, streets are packed between shift change. Come from Europe, up from South, workers moving all about. Roads and streets exhaling steam, hiss and whining of machines.
[00:27:37] Michaela Ayers: That was Marsha Music, performing Memories and Dreams, written for a production of the Detroit Symphony entitled Symphony in D.
[00:27:57] Marsha Music: I have once read that, I’ve read more than once, that the more particular a person is about the things that they write, the more detailed, the more that writing is going to appeal to a greater number of people of all different kinds, because you’re really writing about the human condition.
[00:28:20] Marsha Music: You know, when you start becoming very particular about the way that you write, because humanity is in the details of one’s existence and the existence about which one writes.
[00:28:33] Michaela Ayers: Right. Well, and I, I think to reflect back what I’m hearing too is, you know, because of all of these different windows of life that you’ve had, all informing how you tell a story, I think that that really helps at least somebody like me who’s, you know, coming in contact with your blog and there’s poetry on there.
[00:28:53] Michaela Ayers: There’s stories on there, there’s video on there. There’s so many different ways that you’re collecting and archiving stories through your blog. It’s helpful to see or hear you talk about how all of these life experiences are informing the way that you’re telling, you know, Detroit stories and Black stories, but really in looking into the details, we’re just talking about human stories here, you know.
[00:29:17] Marsha Music: There’s a very compelling story about a woman in Detroit, African-American woman by the name of Rosa Gragg. And she was a very active woman in the community, a civic activist, particularly in the time in which they were trying so hard to elevate the status of Black women in Detroit, and to find their place in this city as contributors and leaders.
[00:29:53] Marsha Music: And she bought a home on Ferry Street and Brush, right on the corner, and she had mortgaged her own home and made great sacrifices in order to do so, put down a substantial down payment, and after having gone through this process, they discovered that there is a restrictive covenant on this house. And restrictive covenants are languages that are put in deeds in order to restrict who can purchase a house.
[00:30:35] Marsha Music: So in those times, it was very common for restrictive covenants to say that Black people or Jewish people or other people, but mostly Black people, could not buy this particular house. And the language was written right in the deed. And so she purchased this house and then the white neighbors complained.
[00:31:01] Marsha Music: The neighbors said Black people can’t buy this house on Ferry Street because of the deed.
And with this resourcefulness that Black people and Black women so often have to come up with, she closed off the door on Ferry Street, opened up the wall and a door on Brush Street, which is the other street that it’s on, it’s on a corner, and completely created a new entrance on Brush Street, and had it designated with a new address.
[00:31:41] Marsha Music: And in this way she circumvented the racist requirement that Blacks not be able to buy on Ferry Street because now the address is on Brush Street and that is where her organization of Detroit Women’s Clubs had its home.
[00:32:03] Marsha Music: And it is still there today being well-maintained and cared for.
[00:32:09] Michaela Ayers: I love this story so much because I feel like it serves as like almost a metaphor for the creative power of Black women and like our imaginations, our ability to, you know, identify an obstacle and as a result, be able to bring to life the solution for ourselves.
[00:32:31] Michaela Ayers: And I just appreciate that story so much, just as a acknowledgement, as a embodiment of that creative power.
And the follow-up question that I have, that I really believe that only you can answer, is how has this resourcefulness, how has this creativity of Black women, in your opinion, how has it shaped the history and the culture of Detroit?
[00:33:00] Marsha Music: I think that Detroit is really marked by a culture of what one might call making a way out of no way. Of being able to withstand extreme pressures that are caused by the inability to do certain things, just because of your color, in the environment of real, relative prosperity, which was so incongruous that here was a city which was full of veritable riches, in architecture, in letters, in humanity itself.
[00:33:45] Marsha Music: And yet they found themselves pressured against walls of segregation of, of hatred, of venom. And these women in particular, they learned how to educate their children despite this. How to have their children flourish even, like so many of the women who lived in Black Bottom, they sent their children to Miller high school.
[00:34:14] Marsha Music: And with the support of these women and the teachers there, these women created a school that produced some of the most gifted, talented, learned, musical, scholarly people in the world, world-renowned people. And this font of creativity that comes from the, from the crucible, the pressuring of humanity, this is really become a mark of Detroit. Its ability to hold on.
[00:34:54] Michaela Ayers: Wow, well, I think what I’m noticing, just kind of absorbing your story. There does seem to be this really strong rootedness that has allowed, or kind of propelled you into this creative life. And so I’m wanting to kind of think about somebody who might be listening to us, and maybe who doesn’t have that sense of rootedness, doesn’t have that connection to place and history like you’ve had.
[00:35:20] Michaela Ayers: What advice would you give them? Just in terms of a place to get started or a place to look for inspiration?
[00:35:26] Marsha Music: You mean as a writer? As a writer.
[00:35:29] Michaela Ayers: Yeah, as a writer.
[00:35:31] Marsha Music: Go to the river.
[00:35:34] Michaela Ayers: What’s there?
[00:35:36] Marsha Music: The Detroit river is really the root of the city, is the foundation of the city. And it is the place from which things were carried away from and brought to the city.
[00:35:51] Marsha Music: And when I was a younger woman, an elder woman told me, when you have troubles, go to the river. And put your feet in the water.
[00:36:07] (upbeat piano music)
[00:36:17] Michaela Ayers: As I reflect on my conversation with Marsha and the archives of her generous memory, there are a few ideas still lingering in my mind.
First, I want to return to the space of vivid universality. While our experiences are diverse and vast, the human story is revealed when we dive into the details. When we write with specificity, we open a window to human connection.
[00:36:55] Michaela Ayers: Second, I want to bask in what Marsha calls the font of creativity, the figurative spring that emerges from the trials and tribulations of the human experience. The cultural markers of our most challenging experiences become the crucibles for creativity that can sustain us through those tough times.
So while we may feel the pressures of life, the cool rivers of our imaginations offer us some necessary reprieve.
[00:37:32] Michaela Ayers: A sincere thanks to Marsha Music for joining us in this episode. And a very special shout out to Betty DeRamus.
If you’d like to connect with these artists, be sure to check out our show notes, to learn more about their work. If there is someone in your community who loves Detroit history, as much as I do, please send this episode their way.
[00:38:01] Michaela Ayers: This episode of Black Her Stories was produced by Laura Dolch and me, Michaela Ayers. It was edited by Jennifer McCord. Our music is by artist, composer, and my dear friend, Chris Sims.
For more episodes, hit subscribe or follow wherever you’re listening right now. And if you’d like to get in touch, I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line at nourish.community.
[00:38:35] Michaela Ayers: And in the spirit of curiosity, I’m going to leave you with a question:
How does the history of the place where you live ignite your imagination?
Thank you so much for listening. And until next time, please take good care.