Rashod Ollison

Cultural Critic and Memoirist
Rashod Ollison

Photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim

Music Credits:  Excerpt of “Soul Serenade,”  written by King Curtis and Luther Dixon, performed by Aretha franklin, used courtesy of Atlantic Records.

Excerpt of “I’ll Take You There,” written by Alvertis Isbell, performed by The Staple Singers, from the album, The Best of the Staple Singers, used courtesy of Fantasy Records.

Rashod Ollison: “Soul Serenade,” Aretha Franklin.


Rashod Ollison: What I love about that – there’s a part of wanting to be free and wanting to be connected and wanting to be who you want to be, and there’s a tenderness and a defiance in the performance. Yeah, that was my adolescence <laughs>.

Jo Reed: That’s cultural critic Rashod Ollison talking about “Soul Serenade,” the Aretha Franklin song that gave his memoir its title. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

In his new memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age through Vinyl, Rashod Ollison describes his childhood in Arkansas through the music that sustained and nurtured him. Although Rashod came of age in the 1980s, he listened to music of an earlier generation—artists like Bobby Bland, David Ruffin, and, of course, Aretha Franklin. The records were a legacy from his absent father, and it turned out to be a legacy that served Rashod in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Rashod Ollison is now the award-winning music and cultural critic for The Virginian-Pilot.

By any measure, Rashod Ollison had a childhood to be reckoned with; there was poverty and there was violence. And then Rashod also had to cope with the sense of feeling different from other boys. So, the decision to revisit his boyhood was not made lightly.

Rashod Ollison: The idea for the book had been rolling around in my head for at least 10 years, and I thought that I would appropriate parts of my childhood for a novel, but when I moved to Virginia Beach to take the job at The Virginian-Pilot as the culture writer, I hit this depression. I was in this brief but painful relationship that stirred up some abandonment issues, and I was just in a really bad place. So I thought that I would start this three-pronged program, Operation: Reinvent Rashod. So the first one was to hire a therapist, hire a fitness trainer ‘cause I was a size 48 waist, almost 280 pounds, and it was time to get that together, and also to challenge myself in a creative way and write differently from what I do as a journalist, which is always explaining and giving context. This was to show more of the creative-writing side of my degree; I was a creative writing and journalism major. So all three were interconnected, ‘cause I had to be in a good place emotionally and mentally to write this book. I didn’t want to filter through any sentimentality or resentment or anything. I had two things posted nearby as I was writing; one was a poster that said “Write through love,” which for me was to tell the truth, and I also had a picture of me as a seven-year-old kid and “Write for Dusty,” write for the little boy I was. So this book was an emotional catharsis but it challenged me on so many different levels, creatively, spiritually, emotionally, so when it was done—and again I’m going through a weight loss, I’m going through therapy—it felt complete.

Jo Reed: That’s a great approach actually, hit everything.

Rashod Ollison: <laughs> Right.

Jo Reed: And Dusty was what you were called you were a kid? Dustin is your middle name, so you were Dusty until you became Rashod.

Rashod Ollison: Right <laughs>. And to folks at home, I’m still Dusty. My mother – she remembers sometimes and “Oh, excuse me, Rashod” <laughs>.

Jo Reed: Well, tell me about your growing up. You grew up in Arkansas. Tell me about it.

Rashod Ollison: Grew up in central Arkansas in the three cities that sit smack-dab in the middle of the state. So my family is from Malvern, then Little Rock and Hot Springs are the bigger cities. And it was a – well, it was a self-contained life. Malvern was interesting in that during the turn of the century, a lot of Blacks from Mississippi and Alabama and the southern and eastern parts of the state had migrated to Malvern to work in the Acme brickyard and Reynolds Aluminum plant. So by the time my parents came about, there was a middle class established in Malvern so it was very much a self-contained community there. And even in the ‘80s, there were still remnants of that, and there was a certain attitude that people had. I didn’t grow up with any of the racial self-loathing things; people were very proud of who they were. Now these communities, of course, had a lot of dysfunction in them, and some of that is alluded to in the book. But there was a sense of resilience and pride that I remember my relatives and people from Malvern having that I pretty much absorbed.

Jo Reed: There’s a photo on the book jacket, and you open the book with a description of that photo. And I found myself returning to that photo over and over and over again, and I really would like you to read the description, and then we’ll talk about it.

Rashod Ollison: Sure. “The picture revealed the happiness I never knew. On the back of the beat-up black-and-white, wallet-size snapshot, the names are in lovely penmanship, probably Mama’s, Raymond and Dianne Ollison. The location: Juarez, Mexico, where my parents honeymooned in September of 1970. In the picture they sit in a café booth. Daddy’s arm wraps around Mama’s slim shoulders as he presses his dark, angular face next to hers. He gives the camera a seductive stare. With flipped bouffant hair Mama looks like a member of the Marvelettes. Her smile is so wide, sweet, and radiant; it melts the heart. I’m startled at how svelte she is. For as long as I can remember, Mama has battled serious weight issues. I saw the photo nearly 40 years later and its effect was like fresh air circulating through a musty room. Mama Teacake, my maternal grandmother, gave my youngest sister, Reagan, the picture just before she died. When Reagan shared it with me I was at her place in Little Rock. We were close to 30 and had grown up knowing only the stormy years of the marriage, which ended just as we started grade school.”

Jo Reed: What happened to your parents, Rashod?

Rashod Ollison: Well, they were good friends growing up in Malvern. They had a pretty warm friendship and before my father went off to Vietnam—he was drafted right after high school—he asked my mom to marry him. So my mother agreed, and they got married, and it was a difficult marriage from the start. They had very traumatized childhoods, particularly my mother, and they were very young; they were 18 at the time. And when my father came back, he was addicted to heroin and had suffered, basically, a nervous breakdown over there and was dishonorably discharged. And he comes back and, from all accounts, was never the same. And so from the start, that marriage was doomed. There was so many risks. They gave it a shot; they were in it for 13 years, which is a long time. It was a lot of physical abuse, emotional abuse. My father was a flagrant ladies’ man; he had two children during the time my parents were married. And 1983, when I was six, after 13 years my mother said, “That’s enough.” She’s told me since then that she still wanted to be married to him; they loved each other. But the violence had gotten – so that she didn’t want what had happened to her sister, who was killed when she was seven years old in a domestic dispute between her mother and her live-in boyfriend. She felt that that would probably happen—someone would get hurt—so she felt, for the sake of us, “Okay, I need to get out.”

Jo Reed: And you were six.

Rashod Ollison: I was six, yeah.

Jo Reed: But your father left you his music.

Rashod Ollison: He did. He did. I have vivid memories of us going to this little record store in downtown Hot Springs after he would pick me up from school, when I was in kindergarten, and he would give me this informal tutorial on soul music. This is the early ‘80s, ’82, ’83, so this is MTV, Pat Benatar, Michael Jackson, Prince; these are the folks that are ubiquitous on TV and the radio, but he insisted that I listen to the Staple Singers and B.B. King and Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack. And he never treated me like a kid; he always treated me like his little running buddy <laughs>. So he fostered this love for music for me, and when he and my mother divorced, he left behind these records. So I would listen to them as a way to stay connected to him and try to figure out who he was through the songs he had, and I ended up finding myself in those records.


Jo Reed: The music seemed to be such a place of refuge for you throughout your childhood.

Rashod Ollison: It absolutely was. It was a place of refuge and solace and escapism. Now, I’m a child so I’m not understanding the lyrics, necessarily, but what I could immediately connect to was the strength that was conveyed in the way these artists sang. And there was something, of course, gritty and something conversational and engaging about it. It reminded me of the conversations I saw in the living room during my parents’ card parties or people talking on the porch. There was something about that music that felt very much connected to where I was. And so, for me, feeling very lonely and what I guess now we would know as depression, I would listen to this music and just imagine being somewhere else or imagine that these people, the artists, were singing directly to me in a comforting way—that the strength and the vulnerability that they conveyed in the song was somehow directed to me as a kind of a hug in a way—that everything is going to be all right. And that’s one thing about – that’s beautiful about soul music is the emotionality that’s in it and the communal sharing of it and the sense of – that it’s transcendent, that it will be okay.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I like what you said, the combination of the strength and vulnerability, because I think both things are so equally true. I mean it might be pain, but that is big pain.

Rashod Ollison: Yes, it’s big pain. That comes straight out of the gospel tradition of – this gospel vision of seeing something better. Even though it’s messy right now, it’s going to be better, and conveying that through these guttural moans and wails, and it all comes from there, really.

Jo Reed: How often would you see your father?

Rashod Ollison: It was very erratic, which was so taxing for me ‘cause I missed him so much. It wasn’t very regularly. I guess when I was around maybe 11 or 12, which was around the time we moved to Little Rock from Hot Springs, he took a job with Reynolds. He transferred to Portland, Oregon, and so he was there for several years for basically my entire teen life, adolescence. And I didn’t see him at all, really, for years until the job at Reynolds pretty much played out. And by that time I was in high school, and just consumed with my academic life and angry with him, and I wouldn’t go see him. He was in Malvern; he was staying with his parents, my grandparents. And so it was very erratic, and in the book I wanted to convey that he wasn’t around, but I missed him so much that I write him as this ghost figure.

Jo Reed: And that’s exactly where I was going, because he is this presence. And the way you describe him, it’s so vivid. It took me a moment to realize, “Oh, he’s not there.”

Rashod Ollison: Yeah, and that was the best way, I guess, sort of a magical realism device. And to me, he might as well have been a ghost; he haunted every – I wanted to see him. And if you think about it, when you’re missing someone, whether they’ve left you physically, they’re dead or whatever, you miss them so much that you think you see them. You’re out somewhere and you’re like, “Is that?” And that’s how I was; I would think I would see him. There were moments in my life where I wanted to see him, and I would imagine that maybe he would pop up.

Jo Reed: Let’s talk about your mother. She was such a hard worker, oh my God, and –

Rashod Ollison: Uh huh. She still is.

Jo Reed: – and even though you had to move a lot when you were a kid because of money issues, she always made sure it was a safe neighborhood, that the schools were good.

Rashod Ollison: I’ve always had deep respect for her, my sisters and I, both, for how hard she worked, but it wasn’t until I was writing this book where I realized how resourceful she was. This is during Reaganomics, and she’s a single Black woman, and she has three kids until my oldest sister leaves the house, and each neighborhood we moved in was better than the next and this was before credit checks so <laughs> it was easy to move around. She’d come home, “Hey, the rent is too high. We got to move.” It made me nervous and of course made me anxious, because I didn’t like that instability. And we were moving and changing schools, but it was always – she always made sure we were in safe neighborhoods and in good schools and good grocery stores, which is how I moved, check out the grocery store, check out the school district, which tells you everything about the community. And she knew that, and Mama had also come from a village community, so when we moved to these neighborhoods she would introduce herself to the neighbors and say, “These are my children. Here’s my work number. If you see them doing anything, let me know.” And each place we moved, there was some little makeshift village there—people watching us, neighbors. Most of these people were women who were also single parents. I understood, now, what she was trying to do. I mean she was basically trying to keep her family safe and also just put herself out there in the community and do the best with what she had and she was – in some cases it was miraculous what she was able to pull off.

Jo Reed: I love the expression, “I’m trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.” Yet you also describe your mother, and your sister Dusa, and your aunts, as well, as putting on their armor. Describe that and what that meant.

Rashod Ollison: In writing this book and making sure that I didn’t filter it through a sentimental lens, I had to look at them as human beings—my mother not as Mama but as Dianne Ollison, this woman. And they were all very complex women, and a lot of them had been abused or were in abusive relationships. They were a bundle of contradictions; they were very liberating in a way and very resilient in a way but very vulnerable. They pushed patriarchy in a way <laughs> and they were also victims of it. The blues women, I called them, who felt that they needed to put on an armor in order to go out in this world, ‘cause they were Black women, they were poor, and so they were easy prey and this is what they had to do.

Jo Reed: And with your mother, as you say in the book, she really had – I want to say inability. I don’t even know if it’s an inability or not. The point is she really didn’t demonstrate a lot of affection. I mean her love for you, and I’m quoting you now, was manifest through the fact that you lived in a nice house, there was food on the table, you had clean clothes, and you were going to school.

Rashod Ollison: Uh huh. That was the best she could do.

Jo Reed: And in this world that is a pretty damn good thing.

Rashod Ollison: Oh, that’s a – it’s a wonderful thing. And that was where my parents were opposite. My mother was – has always been dependable; she’s always been there. If it’s going to get done, it gets done immediately. In fact, if there is any crisis, you don’t go to her – you have to have a plan, ‘cause if you don’t have the plan, she will come up with one for you and will <laughs> force it on you. She’s just powerful in that way. And my father was the opposite; you couldn’t depend on him for anything, but he was always emotionally available and affectionate, and I missed that. And Mama was not able to – she wasn’t able to give that, but given the childhood she had and where she had come from and her mother. And that was one thing in the book that I realized was when I would observe her in action with Mama Teacake, her mother, there was always this distance and Mama was reaching for her mother as I was reaching for her. So there was this pattern of abandonment on that side of the family ‘cause my grandmother had been an abandoned child, and those scars cut very deep, and they filter how you see the world. And sometimes you just become hardened, and you just don’t give because it takes too much to give in that way, or you just don’t know how to do it.

Jo Reed: I think there’s also kind of a possibility of, “I don’t want soft children.”

Rashod Ollison: Yeah, or that <laughs>. That’s one thing. It was crucial and especially for me. I was the only boy, and I was the most sensitive kid in the house.

Jo Reed: You cried a lot, and that became a source of more stress for you.

Rashod Ollison: Uh huh, right, because it was like, “We don’t have time for the crying. You’re just going to have to suck this up. We’re trying to live.” For me, I think that was part of my sensitive nature which I’ve nurtured as part of my artistic nature. Sure, I have to have that. But it was a balance, ‘cause now I understand what they were trying to do then. Particularly as a Black male—a Black gay male—that was something I was going to have to have going through this world: a toughness, a resilience. And I think they feared that if you’re too soft, this world is just going to walk all over you. And so I understood that <laughs>. I got it <laughs>.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it’s hard, but you also realized you were kind of different from other kids.

Rashod Ollison: That’s right.

Jo Reed: I mean you were really a solitary kid.

Rashod Ollison: Uh huh, yeah, very much so. There was a part of me that wanted to, of course, as each kid, belong, but I felt as though I didn’t. As a kid, if there was anything different about you – now especially as boys, there was the whole idea of being a mannish boy or being thuggish, and so if you have those affectations or could have pulled them off, then no one bothered you. I couldn’t and I was – wasn’t necessarily an effeminate, kid but I mean I was to myself a lot. And I gravitated toward arts stuff, and no one understood that. All of my male cousins played sports; I was not interested. I had the body for it, but I <laughs> just wasn’t interested in that. And so they didn’t know what to make of me, and so I was just alone all the time. So there were the records, and then there were the books, and I just found refuge there. And even as a teenager, I worked in the library. And when I was coming into my own and realizing, “Okay, I’m a homosexual male so what do we do with this?” Well, we look things up, <laughs> get some information.

Jo Reed: I thought working at that library was kind of brilliant.

Rashod Ollison: It was. It was so liberating, too, ‘cause I was 15. I was at that age where I was just curious about everything. And of course this was before Google, so I was working there, and I’m like well, let me look this up on sexual health and – or Black history or whatever ‘cause I was working there. And I had used that an escape, anyway, in elementary school and junior high and high school. And during lunch period, I would go into the library and read, and it was a safe haven. The librarians were always nice to me <laughs>. I would do my homework, and I just had this little – I just lived inside my head, and the library was a safe haven.


Jo Reed: In your memoir, you write that you assessed your mother’s mood by which Aretha Franklin song she was listening to. Can you read that section?

Rashod Ollison: “The fiery, holy sounds of Aretha shouting the good news shadowed by the southern California choir sometimes filled the house well into the night. Whenever Aretha was on, order seemed restored. Her majestic voice grounded us, especially Mama. After she came home from her job at Coy’s restaurant where she prepared fancy salads all day, Mama often reached for Aretha. The songs she played indicated her mood. If “Respect” or “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” rocked the house, her spirits were up. Soaring ballads such as “Angel” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” meant she was reflective. Moody cuts like “Ain’t No Way” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” meant she didn’t want to be bothered, so we tiptoed around her. Even as a child, I gathered that Aretha’s music, especially her classic Atlantic recordings, was an extension of church. The air changed. A sense of reverence rained down as her voice soared from the speakers. I straightened up and listened. Coupling the sky-ripping strength of Aretha’s voice with Mama’s warrior-woman presence, I felt protected in Daddy’s absence. So much of Mama’s life was reflected and refracted in Aretha’s lyrics: the longing, the loss, the hope, the faith, the perseverance. In 1967, the year of the singer’s pop breakthrough, Mama turned 17. She entered womanhood with the Queen of Soul as a cultural guidepost. Aretha was the natural woman-genius from down the block, world-weary and accessible, nappy edges and all on full display. She mingled the muddy funk of the Delta with the cosmopolitan sleekness of the North and in her music, Mama seemed to always find a home.”

Jo Reed: That’s great. It’s wonderful in the way it shows Aretha Franklin in such a personal way—the way she operated in your home—but it’s also illustrative of something you do throughout the book, which is really talk about this music in a larger context as well. You do both.

Rashod Ollison: For me growing up, I mean Aretha may as well have been an aunt. People talked about her music as though it was part of the family. I couldn’t help myself as a cultural critic and as a music writer to invite the reader in to know that – of course you know a name like Aretha; you know her importance. But we can personalize what this importance meant in the family for a woman of my mother’s generation, at that time, that music spoke to a new emergence. I mean a lot is going on with feminism and Black arts movement and Black nationalism and, of course, Aretha’s voice and what she embodied played into all of that. And so there was a larger sort of cultural context but it was a more personal thing too where her music spoke directly to folks.

Jo Reed: I thought you really captured that so well in the book. How did you figure out that you were smart?

Rashod Ollison: <laughs> Teachers told me <laughs>. And I thank God for the teachers I had. I describe them, especially in the elementary school we went to once we moved to Little Rock. I would describe them as like church mothers; they were. They knew that I was lonely or depressed or withdrawn, but they would always say something. They always spoke it in this very affirming way. “You are smart, child. You can do this. These kids are making fun of you but they’re going to read about you one day.” They would just say these things, that I’m sure that was maybe just a kind little reflex for them, but for me it meant the world ‘cause no one had told me that, and no one at home told me I was smart. And then they went an extra mile and there – if there were scholastic opportunities to be placed in advanced classes, they sent a note home to my mother and said, “Listen. Rashod needs to be in these classes. He needs to take this test.” And Mama always respected teachers, so whatever they thought was great, she signed it and it was done.

Jo Reed: Was it Mrs. Lambert who gave you books?

Rashod Ollison: Yes, Miss Edith Lambert. She gave me an anthology of Langston Hughes poems, and later they – she would sneak me Maya Angelou poems or tell me, “Oh, there was one, honey, I love, Eloise Greenfield.” And I had teachers who did that in junior high. I had a teacher in the eighth grade, Miss Carpenter, who gave me to read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which – I mean Toni Morrison is the beginning and the end for me, so when I read that book, I just knew whatever Morrison did in this book, I wanted to do that. So they saw that I had this thing for writing, and they wanted to encourage it in any way that they could. So in addition to schoolwork, they would call me after class and say, “Here. When you have time read this book; I think you’d like it” and I did.

Jo Reed: The book ends with you going to the University of Arkansas. You were certainly out to yourself by that point, but you hadn’t come out to your family.

Rashod Ollison: No. And people have asked me, “Well, when did you come out?” It really wasn’t anything to come out about. I think they knew. When I was looking back and the way they used to police my mannerisms and tell me how to talk and how to stand, they knew. And of course, it was hurtful to me ‘cause I felt as though I was being judged and there was something “wrong” with me. But the way I see it—and perhaps they were being judgmental; I don’t know—but I think they also knew that they wanted to protect me in some way. And that they knew that, “Okay, if this child is gay, God, what is he going to face going out in this world?” But I had accepted it for myself. I didn’t have a problem with it. I wasn’t distressed about it. What helped me was being in the library reading the works of James Baldwin. There was an anthology I’d come across called In the Life that was edited by Joseph Beam. There was an anthology of writings by Black gay men who talked about what it was like to struggle. So I didn’t feel alone. So by that time, I’d made up my mind that this is who I am. And if my folks were not going to be accepting of it then that was their issues; it wasn’t mine.

Jo Reed: Your teachers would say that to you a lot, and your mother too, in some ways.

Rashod Ollison: Yeah, in some ways.

Jo Reed: I mean –

Rashod Ollison: Uh huh. Yeah, it was my teacher Miss James. She said, “People are going to always talk about you, and that’s none of your business what they think about you.” It’s not <laughs>.

Jo Reed: I know. I read that, Rashod, and I thought, “God, that’s – yeah, yeah.”

Rashod Ollison: Yeah <laughs>. It’s none of your business <laughs>. And Mama would say the same thing. She was like, “If they talk about Jesus, what makes you think they ain’t going to talk about you? Folks always talk.” And she would say, “People are going to accept you or reject you, and you’re not in either choice.”

Jo Reed: Do you still play your father’s R&B records?

Rashod Ollison: I do. As I was writing this book, I was listening to a lot of my music digitally, but then I missed the vinyl experience. So one Saturday I went out and bought a turntable and an expensive stereo system and started collecting all these records. And now I’m almost at like 2000 records. And that’s ridiculous.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Rashod Ollison: In the morning, the first thing I do when I put on the coffee is put on a record. The last thing I do when I go to bed at night is take the record off. So it’s there engaging me the whole time.

Jo Reed: I’d just like to step back for a second. As a cultural critic, as somebody to whom both books and music has spoken to and shaped your life in so many ways, can you talk about the importance of music and books in the lives of young people, and especially young people who come from underserved communities or from family dysfunction?

Rashod Ollison: Literature and the arts – I always think of metaphorically as a door, because when you’re in underserved communities, everything is shut. You’re told “No, no, no. You can’t do this. You’re too ugly. You’re too this. You’re too that. We don’t have enough.” And in art, there are no boundaries. You can be whomever you want to be. You don’t have to leave your house. You can go to Russia and read this book. You can go to Poland and read this book. When you encourage the person’s imagination, especially a child, that’s where all the change starts. That’s where the intelligence, I think, is rooted – is where if they can imagine it, something just flowers and blossoms in them. And I think – children I’ve always believed are very imaginative, anyway. They have to intuit a lot; they don’t know anything, so they’re based on their intuition and what their imaginations tell them. But if that’s nurtured through music and through art, it’s boundless. And they may not become artists; they may become mathematicians or engineering. But it’s opening up that imagination to let them know that, “You can be anything you want to be.” That was important for me, because I was in such a restricted place; everything was “no” or we didn’t have enough. And it was such a sad – I was missing my father, and I didn’t want to eat another frozen pot pie <laughs>, so I could read this book or I could listen to this music and let my imagination soar, and that eventually gave me the courage to just pursue whatever I wanted to pursue.


That is author Rashod Ollison. We were talking about his memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age through Vinyl.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In his memoir Soul Serenade, Ollison describes how music was a lifeline during a difficult upbringing.