As the new CHB contributor interested in doing neighbor profiles, I thought I would start off by interviewing someone I know. Selah and I met about five years ago at The First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights. A lifelong resident of Brooklyn who grew up in the old Weeksville neighborhood of Crown Heights, Selah moved to Clinton Hill about 15 years ago. He says he discovered the area by accident when he was at Lafayette High School, needed to do summer classes, and wound up in summer school at Brooklyn Tech.
Fort Greene in 1968 was an incredible bohemian scene, which Selah quickly became hooked on. Artistically inclined, he also took advantage of an opportunity he had around that time to take classes in music and drama at Pratt Institute. His drama teacher there was the TV and film actor Joe Morton. He also got bass lessons from Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, who lived on Cambridge Place near DeKalb. Additionally, he studied with Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who was Thelonius Monk’s bass player for a long time. It wasn’t until 1979 that Selah got his first apartment in the neighborhood, which was on South Oxford Street. A long-time housing advocate and youth worker, Selah currently works in the court system.
I asked him about his path to becoming an activist and musician. Selah comes from a solidly middle class and political black family. His father worked as a correction officer and was involved in the Democratic Party, where some of the people he helped elect was Sam Wright, the former Brooklyn City Councilman and State Assemblyman, and Stanley Steingut, The former Speaker of the State Assembly. Selah’s mother was a probation officer who was also one of the founding members of Progressive Women for Civil Rights. Both parents went on the March on Washington. Selah’s cousin was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He introduced Selah to jazz and took him to a SNCC Convention, where he met Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown, two of its most prominent leaders. While still in high school, Selah joined the Black Panther Party. Nowadays he describes his politics as “progressive”—not nearly as radical as back then.
Following in his parents’ footsteps, Selah’s been involved in the election of practically every black politician in Brooklyn. He met his wife, Bernette Carway-Spruiell, while working on former State Assembly Member from the 57th District Roger Green’s campaign and has also worked on the campaigns of Velmanette Montgomery, Major Owens, Letitia James, and most recently Hakeem Jeffries. Not surprisingly, he was an early supporter of Barack Obama. A Working Families Party member, he belongs to the North Brooklyn/Crown Heights Club. During the primary election, the North Brooklyn/Crown Heights Club joined forces with Brooklyn for Barack and their efforts brought out people in droves for Obama in the 10th and 11th Congressional Districts.
Selah’s family was also musical. His father had a great voice, and his mother trained in opera at Morgan State University, one of the historic black colleges. She was offered a scholarship to study opera in Germany, but chose to raise a family and became a social worker instead. Growing up, Selah’s mother would play piano, and he along with his sisters would sing at different churches in Brooklyn. Selah sang in church and school choirs. During high school and college, Selah performed with several rock, R&B and jazz bands.
I was curious about Selah’s work with The Fort Greene Project (http://www.thefortgreeneproject.com), a music ensemble he leads. He explained that it was never a band in the traditional sense of the word, but more of a community of musicians that Selah works with on special projects. The group is currently on hiatus.
Besides being a talented musician, Selah also studied drama while a student in college, at the Afro-American Studio and at The Negro Ensemble Company. He’s done Off-Off Broadway theatre and was involved in the Black Theater Movement. In addition, he’s had walk-ons for shows like “Sex & the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
I asked Selah what his thoughts were on how the neighborhood has changed as it’s become more gentrified over the last decade or so. Selah says the neighborhood has clearly changed a lot since gangster rapper Biggie Smalls held rap sessions with his cohorts from the Junior M.A.F.I.A. Crew in P.S.11 Park. He insists on correcting the false impression people have that Biggie was from Bed-Stuy. In fact, Biggie was from Clinton Hill and grew up on St. James Place. Bed-Stuy’s motto is “Bed-Stuy Do or Die,” and it probably appealed to Biggie’s handlers as a more obvious place for a gangster rapper to hail from. Selah believes that youth music culture is still alive and well in the neighborhood; it’s just become more bohemian and less rough over the last decade or so. He wishes that weekly “Slams” such as The Brooklyn Moon Cafe’s Friday Poetry Night would come back.
Selah says that Brooklyn is a wonderful place and is convinced that Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are way hipper than the Village; however, he doesn’t like the high rents or how housing prices have skyrocketed. In his view, newcomers unfortunately don’t always respect the culture of the people already here. As an example, he mentions how a few years ago new brownstone owners near Brown Memorial Baptist Church on Washington Avenue complained to the police about “noise” coming from the church’s renowned choir during rehearsals. His advice to them would be, “Don’t try to change everything. There were people here before [you], and they have a right to be here as well.”
Finally, I asked Selah what some of his favorite places in the neighborhood are. While he seldom finds time anymore, he enjoys hanging out in the sculpture garden on the Pratt campus and in Fort Greene Park. Madiba would definitely be his favorite neighborhood restaurant. For entertainment, he highly recommends saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, who plays Thursday nights at Frank’s Lounge on Fulton Street. Youngblood used to be an associate of Jimi Hendrix. Before we ordered another drink and chatted further off-record, Selah insisted, “You have to check him out.”