By Annie Lane
Longtime library clerk Jimmy Lovett celebrated his June birthday early and the same way he has for more than a decade–paying tribute to underappreciated African American singers in honor of Black Music Month.
Hosted by the Say It Loud Committee, Lovett and crew presented Unsung and Off the Chain on Saturday, a performance best described as a lip-syncing version of Soul Train.
“It’s like karaoke without the singing,” said Lovett, a Normal Heights resident who will be 45 this year. “We literally become the artist.”
In addition to Mayor Bob Filner, roughly 50 people were in attendance. Proceeds from the performance were split between the City Heights Library’s Performance Annex and the Malcolm X Library, where Lovett will buy more books for its children and teen collection. Lovett said the biggest community impact can be achieved with those two genres, especially because many teen books double as adult reading material.
While much of Lovett’s nearly 17 years in the San Diego Public Library system has been spent at its Central location, it’s the Malcolm X branch where he has worked for the past eight months that holds the biggest place in his heart.
“Malcolm X is my favorite library in the whole world because I was there when it opened. My soul is in that library,” said Lovett.
An avid reader from a young age, Lovett said the profession was a natural fit.
“As a kid, I remember coming home from school and going to the library. I read all the time” Lovett said, adding that it wasn’t too long ago that literacy was a rare privilege for African Americans.
Lovett, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology, said he mostly prefers non-fiction works.
“People need to read non-fiction–I don’t know why people read anything else,” he said. Then he softens a little, remembering the wise words of an old friend. “He would say, ‘If a person is even reading a comic book, that’s powerful.’ And it’s because they’re reading.”
Lovett said the Malcolm X Library has “people in there from the minute we open until we close,” estimating it serves tens of thousands of people a month, whether in the library proper or the connected rehearsal and meeting rooms.
But like businesses and organizations everywhere, the library has seen shrinkage in the number of staff over the years.
“We got trimmed down–everybody got trimmed. The libraries are functioning, but they are functioning on short staff,” said Lovett. “But I don’t think we’ll ever close. Malcolm X is fortunate because the community will never let it be closed. It would be an outcry.”
For Lovett, supporting the library while also paying homage to greats like Ellis Hall, Betty Lavette, Little Jimmy Scott and others is the best of both worlds because of the awareness it brings.
“Black music month is underappreciated and not given respect even today in 2013,” Lovett said, a volunteer and the producer and director of Unsung and Off the Chain. “If you don’t get on the pop chart it seems you don’t get recognition.”
This year, in addition to the My Love Is All Around pantomime horn section, Unsung and Off the Chain showcased the PGK Dance Project, a Germany-founded and now San Diego-based contemporary dance company, which received a standing ovation.
“[We incorporated] a lot more people [and] a lot of dance, which I’m really excited about because dance is really important in the African culture,” said Lovett of this year’s lineup. “Dance is it … dance has always been important.”
Most important, however, was the simple act of acknowledging the fundamental impact of African American musicians throughout history–most of whom have largely been ignored outside of the black community.
“We know that we give the artist the total respect they deserve,” Lovett said.
The Say It Loud Committee originally formed in 2000, and has gone on to perform a total of 11 shows in a fundraising effort for the Malcolm X Library. In addition to Lovett, the committee includes locals Vertez Burkes, Tina Stafford, Bobby Hearns and Sam Cerrato. Lovel Waiters, who has since lost her battle with cancer, also was a pivotal influence to the group.
“If it wasn’t for her, there wouldn’t be no Say It Loud,” said Lovett of Waiters.
In fact, it was Waiters who wrote the show’s original script, in which the audience is transported to an imaginary time where radio deejays at the helm of Station WBOOK play all of one’s favorite tunes.
Like years past, this year’s show is solely the result of the hard work of roughly 50 volunteers –nearly 20 of whom are library staffers, including aides, clerks, assistants, librarians and branch managers. Despite the obvious chain of command during work hours, Lovett said the barriers disappear during rehearsal.
“I’m kind of emotional because for people to give their time in this day and age is really something,” said Lovett, his voice cracking. “There’s a little drama because we’re performers, but there’s a lot of love. There’s no structure about who’s doing what because we’re all working together.”