A member of the musical Steeles family, J.D. Steele is a composer, singer, arranger, producer, voice teacher and choir director.
And now, a filmmaker.
Steele’s first film, “Listen! Please!” is an 18-minute documentary about systemic racism that will debut Monday on Facebook and YouTube. Starting with a simple definition of the term, it’s a series of interviews with four esteemed Minnesota Black elders. All moved here from the South and lived exemplary lives, helping to shape our community and beyond.
Mahmoud El-Kati – Steele calls him “a modern-day griot” – taught history at Macalester, wrote articles, essays and books about the Black experience and fought for social justice. Josie Johnson is a Minnesota civil rights icon who created the African American Studies department at the University of Minnesota and became the U’s first Black regent. Her memoir, “Hope in the Struggle,” came out in 2019 from the University of Minnesota Press.
Bill English is a founding member of the Northside Job Creation Team (NJCT), a former vice president at Control Data Corporation and co-founder of the Sabathani Community Center. Sallie Steele Birdsong is mother to six children including J.D. Steele. She has 17 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
The four experienced housing discrimination, racial profiling, police intimidation and microaggressions – what El-Kati (quoting W.E.B. Du Bois) calls “a series of little meannesses that come at you every day.”
El-Kati remembers a parrot in a corner store that had been taught to screech “N—– stealing!” Johnson spoke up as a teen when a salesperson called her mother a girl. English was stopped by police for driving while Black. At age 65, in her own neighborhood, Birdsong faced police with drawn guns and suffered a racist slur.
Three of the four are in their 80s; Johnson recently turned 90. They have all made a difference and changed countless lives for the better. Seeing them and hearing them speak, you feel that if you were in their presence, you would behave yourself. Yet their lives have been a constant struggle with discrimination, humiliation, and the awareness that the wrong word, the wrong move, and/or being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get them killed. After his encounter with police, English says, his legs “started shaking like a dog.” Birdsong was so shocked she didn’t care what happened next.
Steele had no plans to add filmmaker to his résumé. In July, not long after the killing of George Floyd, he was approached by his friend Peggy Winton, the founder of Pathways, a healing and wellness center.
“She called me out of the blue and said, ‘You should do a documentary on racism,’” Steele said by phone on Wednesday. “My first thought was, ‘I have some really good friends who are filmmakers that I could refer her to.’ I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning with an epiphany: I’m going to talk to some octogenarians, because I don’t think we respect our elders enough, and we have so much to learn from them.”
It’s hard to make a film on a short timeframe in a pandemic. El-Kati lives in a care facility with COVID restrictions. Steele met Johnson outside the Dunn Bros. in Loring Park. He spoke with English on his deck and Birdsong at her home. Once the interviews were filmed, “my biggest challenge was I had five and a half hours of interviews to squeeze into 18 minutes. I could have done an hour on each person.”
Steele also composed the music heard in the film. It’s performed by his brother Billy on keyboards, with Chris Smith on bass, Kenyari Jackson on drums, Spencer Christianson on guitar and Daryl Boudreaux on percussion. “Since I am an African American composer, I have a little bit of jazz, a little bit of gospel, a little bit of blues. I close with a classical piece under the credits.”
“Listen! Please!” makes it clear that solving systemic racism is up to white people. But the film isn’t for white people only. “I have African American friends who have said to me, ‘I’m not quite sure if I understand what systemic racism is,’” Steele said. “That term is being bandied about quite a bit right now. I’m hoping this gives them some idea of what it is and how deeply rooted it is in our society. Hopefully, it will compel them to open up multicultural dialogues, because once people understand what it is, they can combat it.”
Steele is exploring ways to take his film beyond the internet, perhaps to public television and festivals. “I want everybody to see the film, so everybody can dialogue about it. Maybe get some school districts interested in sharing it with their high school students.”
Meanwhile, “Listen! Please!” will premiere on Monday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. on Facebook and YouTube. After the premiere, it will be available to view on demand. Donations will benefit the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis.
V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.
V Streaming now on demand: Walking Shadow Theatre Company: “21 Extremely Bad Breakups.” A hit at the Red Eye in 2018, where it was filmed, Amy Rummenie’s play returns just in time for Valentine’s Day during a pandemic. In 21 short scenes, with five actors playing multiple roles, it chronicles love and its catastrophes, some involving a metaphorical bus. Jean Wolff is the narrator; Ricardo Beaird, Neal Beckman, David Beukema, Anna Hickey and Alison Wilson play multiple roles. Based on a chapbook by Mark Leidner, directed by Rummenie. Adult language and situations. FMI and tickets ($10). Through Feb. 28. Online watch party Feb. 12. P.S. We miss the Red Eye. A small, intimate, one-of-a-kind theater near Loring Park, replaced by condos.
L Today (Thursday, Feb. 4): The Walker Art Center reopens. Members have first access to the galleries from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can check out the newest exhibition, “Low Visibility,” before anyone else. The galleries will open to the public from 5-9 p.m. Everyone must reserve a ticket online in advance. Follow COVID protocols.
V Tonight (Thursday, Feb. 4), 7 p.m.: Schmitt Music: Steinway Artist Nachito Herrera: Concert and Conversation. The great Cuban American pianist who lives in our midst (and nearly died last year of COVID) has been named a Steinway Artist, an honor that puts him among other keyboard luminaries, including Leif Ove Andsnes, Kenny Barron, Alfred Brendel, Fred Hersch, Igor Levit, and now we’re just pulling famous names from a long list. Schmitt Music piano specialist Mark Mueller went to Herrera’s home for exclusive performances and conversation. On Facebook. Free.
V Starts Friday (Feb. 5): MN Opera: MNiatures. We can’t yet watch big operas on stage at the Ordway. But what about tiny operas on our devices? MN Opera commissioned original mini-operas, each 8-10 minutes long, from four pairs of Minnesota artists. It’s a diverse group. Each team received a $3,500 stipend, additional funding and support for singers and instrumentalists, and assistance from the MN Opera New Works team in developing their work. Friday’s world premiere will be “Dear America, Beat Your Heart Defiantly, Naked and Open With Love” by Rebecca Nichloson and Asoko Hirabayashi. New MNiatures will debut on Feb. 9, 12 and 16. FMI. Free on YouTube, Facebook and MN Opera’s website.
L Saturday (Feb. 6): The American Swedish Institute will reopen. With a brand-new, exciting exhibition called “Papier” by two Swedish artists from Stockholm, Bea Szenfeld and Stina Wirsén. Szenfeld’s paper couture has been worn by artists including Lady Gaga and Björk. The exhibition features a dozen of her wearable pieces plus an installation titled “Grief.” Wirsén’s drawings set the scene and act as backdrops. Everything is made by hand with scissors, pencils, pens, paper and staggering amounts of time. The show is about “being alive in the human body, about beauty, about aging, about flesh and bones, and paper. It’s a love story about handicraft.” It will also be a feast for hungry eyes. Speaking of feasts, FIKA, ASI’s famous restaurant, will also reopen. Timed reservations are required for the galleries. Hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Follow COVID protocols.