In February, National Public Radio ran an interview with radical composer Fred Ho, then in the last stages of the battle with colorectal cancer that would eventually end his life on April 12th. Even with just audio, it’s clear that Ho is dying; his voice is tired and frail. Nobody would have blamed him for slowing down after the cancer metastasized in 2012, but that was clearly the last thing on his mind.
“The metaphor for my life is to turn pain into power,” he told NPR. “It’s to never become a victim, [but to] become a revolutionary.”
Ho’s attempts to fuse art and revolution can be seen on the front of any of his albums. On the cover of Big Red!, his face peeks out over vibrant patterns of yellow, blue, red and green. Malcolm X is pictured on one side, Mao on the other, Mumia squarely in the center. The album’s trajectory veers from jazz to the musical traditions of the Ewe people in modern-day Ghana and Togo, to the vocal styles of Korean singer Rami Seo.
There is a clear polemical edge to the album; Ho intended one track as a response to Branford Marsalis’ disparaging remarks about avant-garde composition. The title track is a dedication to free jazz great Archie Shepp (with whom Ho once worked). And just as Shepp once penned his own “Blues for Brother George Jackson,” on Big Red! Ho also celebrates America’s best-known political prisoner in his “Free Mumia! Suite.”
Straddling completely different eras and aesthetics, the album is a reminder that while art can’t directly challenge capitalism, it can challenge the logicundergirding the system. While Ho’s work provided a living connection to a tradition of musicians who attempted to do just that, he was also an artist who attempted to take on the contemporary stagnation of art under capitalism during an era decidedly hostile to such projects.
Naturally, this put him well outside the mainstream. But that didn’t prove much of a hindrance. According to his friend and sometime collaborator Bill Mullen: “In some ways the lack of recognition was Fred’s greatest gift: he reinvented ‘the radar’ for revolutionary artists who wanted to fly higher.” This spirit of reinvention was of course key to Ho’s life and work.
Ho never shied away from describing any of his own painful experiences. His father was a Chinese immigrant who was subject to vicious racism when Ho was young — an anger he then brought home to take out on his family. His mother bore the greatest brunt. His father wouldn’t allow her to get a job or even learn English, and she was placed on a paltry allowance. At the age of six, Ho saw her arrested for shoplifting sanitary napkins.
When he was fourteen, he discovered the baritone sax: “This big horn that has this unwielding, raw and uncontrollable sound … that became my voice.” This was the early seventies, when many Americans of color were discovering their voice through artistic, cultural, and social movements. Ho looked to religious and then political organizing, briefly joining the Nation of Islam before turning to socialism and revolutionary nationalism in the Marxist-Leninist group I Wor Kuen, which soon merged into the League of Revolutionary Struggle.
The concomitant musical milieus were just as diverse at the time. Ho and other members of the LRS were inspired by and participated in the flourishing Black Arts Movement. BAM was as broad as it was radical, incorporating not just free jazz but soul music and poetry, playwriting, performance and painting. Though Ho’s own music wouldn’t hit its stride until the mid to late seventies, just as these movements’ influence was beginning to wane, he stayed conscious of the need to be just as experimental as those who shaped him.
Key to Ho’s compositions was the notion of “the popular avant-garde,” a formulation that sought to resolve the contradiction pondered by Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno, and other cultural radicals. At its heart were two truths: that there is nothing intrinsic in “popular culture” that requires it to be so woefully manipulated by the narrow horizons of the market, and that the avant-garde should not only be the purview of the elite.
The contradictions between the two can’t be resolved without the music industry and the broader society’s thorough reorganization. But this did not make Ho’s experimental work any less engaging. As Robin DG Kelley notes in his introduction to Wicked Theory, Naked Practice, an anthology of Ho’s essays: “What makes Fred Ho unique is that he actually struggles with cultural theory as a framework for practice, not simply as a mode of analysis.”
Mullen draws this out even further:
The point was that art should honor histories of struggle: class struggle, struggles for self-determination, struggles against women’s oppression. He didn’t so much fly below the cultural radar as smash it. Like Bertolt Brecht, Fred wanted everyone in his audience to walk away from one of his performances with new tools and ideas for challenging exploitation and oppression.The end result was a profoundly flexible idiom, one that could be as unpredictable as it was fascinating. His music could mash up the music of Japanese sugar cane cutters and the rhythms of Pacific Islanders and American funk without stumbling for a second. His operas could pull on anything from comic books and martial arts movies to African anti-colonial rebellions to the far reaches of outer space for inspiration. His protagonists could be androgynous monkeys, Chinese peasant leaders, or Assata Shakur.
These were not lazy amalgamations thrown together for the sake of novelty — they were carefully crafted, innately curious experiments that demanded the same sense of curiosity from the audience and constructed new narratives that ran counter to what is acceptable in popular culture.
Ho undertook all of these projects while jazz was becoming muzak-ified, its subversive edges filed off so that it might become better accompaniment for mall browsing. This may at least partially explain Ho’s rejection of the very term “jazz,” though his feelings ran deeper than that. His was not background music, something listeners could let drift to the back of their minds as they went about their daily lives. Ho demanded the same acknowledgement of his artistry that beboppers and free jazz composers before him did. It is no coincidence that as the music industry sought to produce music that was more palatable and thus easier to sell, Ho searched for ways to make his music more complex, challenging, and organically unorthodox.
A few months ago, I wrote a review of Yellow Power, Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho for Jacobin. It appears in the next print edition — sent to the printers mere hours after Ho passed away on April 12, before news of his death had begun to spread. In the review, I recounted the way Ho had reevaluated everything in his artistic practice and personal life after being diagnosed with cancer in 2006.
His diagnosis led to his authoring two books: Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior, which unflinchingly and graphically described his struggle with ten surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy, and the general physical and psychological toll they took; and Raw Extreme Manifesto, which recounted his rejection of allopathic medicine and embrace of an extreme raw vegan diet. As Ho insists in the title, it was a way for him to change his body, his mind, and the world.
There are many of examples of revolutionaries demobilizing by shunning struggle and adopting of nonconventional lifestyle choices. But, as I write in the review:
While it may not be constructive to investigate our own lifestyles in, say, a strike committee or tenants’ organization, art is where we might ask questions that open the door to envision other, more fulfilling ways of being, free from the strictures of a system that views us and our labor as disposable.This was Fred Ho’s great strength as an artist: he allowed his life and his art to reflect the vicissitudes of an inhumane and unsustainable social structure. He was fond of saying that capitalism is the cancer — that the disease’s proliferation wasn’t just a result of the near-absolute toxicity wrought by globalized capitalism, but that cancer was itself an allegory for capitalism’s dominance.
Even as the cancer ravaged his body and chipped away at his abilities as a musician, Ho continued to battle and explore ways for his art to transcend. “This cancer was a gift to me,” he says in the as-yet unreleased documentary Fred Ho’s Last Year. “Despite the physical losses, I was gifted with tremendous philosophical and creative gains.” In a stark way, Ho allowed himself to become a microcosm, embodying at once the degradations and violence of our economic system and the relentless creativity that can come when we resist with every atom of our being.
Contemporary culture writers love to describe well-known artists and their work as “immortal” without much explanation for what exactly that means. Always implicit is the notion that the art was somehow successful by the standards of profit and marketability. Ho’s standards were markedly different.
“I consider my ‘success’ not in mainstream bourgeois terms of ‘fame and fortune,’” he wrote for an essay that appeared in Wicked Theory, “but in the fact that I have been able to unite my career, my art, and my revolutionary politics.” In the last years of his life, he went to great lengths to make sure that other musicians took up that mantle. If that ends up the case, then Ho needn’t have been concerned about his legacy.
First published at Jacobin magazine.