Out writer and music critic Rashod Ollison dives deep into the past with his new memoir, “Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl,” in which he chronicles growing up as a young gay black man in the projects of central Arkansas during the 1980s and ’90s. With a father who wasn’t always in the picture and a tough mother and grandmother running the household, Ollison took refuge in the soul and R&B music of the day, which influenced his outlook on life and his queer sexuality.
Ollison said he didn’t plan on writing his memoir but was inspired by some trying times in his adult life.
“I was working my way through a depression when I started it,” he said. “I had just moved to the Virginia Beach area. I was lonely and had just went through a breakup that was pretty bad. It had stirred up some abandonment issues. I though the best way to tackle that was to go back and deal with some issues from my childhood. But the idea for the book had been whirling around in my head for at least 10 years.”
Ollison said he initially planned to tap into those experiences for a novel, not a memoir, but the latter eventually emerged during the process.
“In a lot of ways writing it was emotionally liberating. All of the resentment and stuff that I had been holding onto for so long just melted away because I had a keener understanding of what was going on with my family,” he said.
Ollison’s circumstances might have been unique, but he said readers from all walks of life have been able to relate to his life story.
“It’s very culturally specific to central Arkansas in the 1980s and ’90s, but you’re looking at a group of traumatized people and the only way they know how to love each other is to keep each other alive,” he said. “They fumble and they do a lot of dysfunctional stuff. What pushes the story is the sense of resilience that is there. Anybody can relate to that. People who grew up in central Arkansas may recall some of the cultural touchstones that were there, but people from all over the place have been able to relate to it.”
One misconception he does find is that many people think Arkansas is all country.
“Most people think of Arkansas as rural but central Arkansas at that time was very much an urban area,” he said. “It’s going to be a different experience when people read it. People think Arkansas was this rural place with people sitting on porches and picking greens out of the garden. You had that but it was very much still a city with a lot of city problems, gang violence being one of them.”
By the time Ollison reached his teenage years it was the 1990s and the popular music of the day was going in a darker, more misogynistic direction, which is why he gravitated more toward classic R&B.
Ollison said hip-hop and R&B are still trying to work their way back from that place.
“A lot of the music that we heard, the gangster rap and Snoop Dogg, gang violence was so huge in Little Rock that it was the ubiquitous soundtrack,” he said. “It was such a powerful part of that era. Now 20 years later we have movies like ‘Straight Outta Compton’ that has a sentimental look at what that era was like but it was very dark. I think that we maybe are still reeling from that and trying to find a way where the music can get back to a way of expressing pain and vulnerability that isn’t so much about posturing and hiding behind this hyper-masculine mask. It is still there but not in the way that it was in the 1990s. It’s become this navel-gazing narcissistic stuff that we see in the music of Drake. Now hip-hop feels much more narcissistic and harmless in a way.”
He added that younger generations of music fans have an easier time finding music that resonates with them compared to when he was a kid.
“I would assume that there is some little gay boy that is listening to Beyoncé or Rihanna and maybe sees something in those artists that I saw in Aretha Franklin and Chaka Kahn,” he said. “For me, that music that I was listening to wasn’t of my generation. It was the music of my parents. I heard it so much that I adopted it as my own. I was coming of age in the ’90s so it was grunge, gangster rap and Mary J. Blige. Some of that music is in the book and it did influence me in a way. I think what is different now is that young people today have a wide variety that they can choose from. They have immediate access to all types of music online. They might not even relate to stuff on the pop charts. So the music for young people now is so infinite, so it’s hard to tell.”
While there are certainly more openly LGBT music artists for fans to latch onto these days, Ollison said their presence back when he was growing up probably wouldn’t have made much of an impact on him and his tastes in music.
“Frank Ocean is cool but he never really just came out,” he said. “It’s always been assumed. I don’t think it would have helped me. I was drawn to artists whose emotionality and music was so bare and so raw. It didn’t matter to me that they were gay or identified as such. I was just drawn to the strength that they embodied in the music. I wanted to be as strong as they sounded. It wasn’t that I wanted to emulate them but there was a strength that I heard in their music that was part of their whole gospel sound that was very much a part of my life. As far as finding a role model in popular culture, at the time there wasn’t much for me. If there had been someone, I probably wouldn’t [have gravitated towards them], unless their music was emotionally as naked as Chaka Kahn or Bobby Womack. I do remember finding Sylvester records in high school and not knowing what to think of that but liking the music. That connected to the camp and glam of disco that I liked. But I don’t know if I would have been attracted to a Frank Ocean at that point if he were around then.”
To give readers some depth to the experience of reading his memoir, Ollison has created a Spotify playlist of songs mentioned in his book to function as the soundtrack to his story.
“That was an idea I had after I finished the book,” he said. “I thought that, with a story so steeped in music, that there should be some accessibility to the music so maybe you could go online and listen. Some of the artists from that era a lot of people are familiar with, like Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson. But most of the songs I’ve chosen are not the big hits that everyone knows from them; they’re B-sides and cuts that didn’t make the pop charts. I thought it would just give more of a flavor and feel for what the era was like and the music that I was hearing.”