In Durham’s West End stands a symbol. This community, once thought of as “off-limits” to whites, is changing fast. At the center of these changes is the Salaam Cultural Center, a meeting place, liquor-less night club, and sometimes a restaurant. On its side is a huge mural of a black man and a white man shaking hands.
As you enter, you’re greeted with the smell of incense and the sound of soft jazz from the simple wooden stage. Local paintings and photographs hang on the walls. Brother Yusuf Salim, a tall wirey black man, founded Salaam along with two younger white musicians, Billy Stevens and Roger Tygard. He comes gliding through the room, all arms, legs, and smiles, and welcomes everyone with a warm hug — “Alright, how are you my brother?”
Brother Yusuf is quite a presence at Salaam, and throughout the West End. He’s nationally known as a jazz composer and musician, but his respect here stems as much from his community work as from his piano-playing. He seems to be everywhere at once — sweeping the streets; washing dishes; doing drug rehabilitation counseling; performing in clubs, hospitals, prisons, on television; and always reaching out with projects he refers to as “contagious humanity.” Every summer he leads a group called “The Clean-up Squad,” about 50 volunteers, mostly neighborhood children between five and fifteen, who daily clean up the neighborhood with rakes, brooms, and litter bags.
Yusuf often finds himself in the role of peace-maker, acting as a bridge between different cultures and people, and trying to “set a positive example” for change within the community.
His is not a naive optimism, but one tested many times during his 52 years. Yusuf was born Joseph Oliver Blair in Baltimore. His mother ran a “happy house,” where many musicians would gather for weekend parties. Yusuf fell in love with the music from his listening perch upstairs, and as he grew older joined in himself.
At fifteen he began what was to be a 30-year addiction to heroin. He played in the Royal Theater House Band, accompanying many of the great musicians of the time, from Moms Mabley to Sarah Vaughn.
During his military service, Yusuf played with the Marine Corps band at Cherry Point, where he had to walk alongside the band, apart from the white musicians.
After his service, he was introduced to Islam by his drummer, Brother Daud. It was a profound experience, and he dropped his heroin habit for five years. “Islam filled a void,” he said. “It eliminated some of the spiritual pain.”
After traveling with Red Prysock ’s Orchestra, he returned to Baltimore and to heroin. He was convicted for possession in 1967 and spent two years in prison.
Back on the streets, he continued to develop his jazz talents, as well as his addiction. In 1974, Ken Murray, a Moslem minister whom Yusuf had exposed to Islam years before, met him in Baltimore. Murray brought him back with him to Durham, where Yusuf was able to kick his habit, and set up a new lifestyle among the Islamic community in the West End.
Islam is a religion of intense faith and devotion, based on the teachings of Mohammed as presented in the Koran. During his life, Yusuf has seen the American Moslem movement change from hard-line black nationalism, under the Hon. Elijah Mohammed, to its present, more humanist stance, under his son, Wallace Dean Mohammed.
Brother Yusuf is a hard man to capture on paper. He uses words like notes of fast jazz, searching for the exact expression and flowing through many attempts on the way, sometimes changing direction in mid-stream. His speech is punctuated with smiles, with soft thumps on his chest, and with elaborate movements that act out his stories.
He’s free with his warmth, his language, and his laughter, and the bottom line is always the same — “All praises due to Allah.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: Was the piano your first instrument?
YUSUF: Yes. When I was in high school, there was an old band director and piano player named Louella Wilson. Lessons were cheap then, maybe a dollar and a half per lesson. So I paid him ten dollars in advance. We never really did get down to it, though. My first lesson, with ten dollars paid in advance, he asks me, “What do you notice about the piano?” He kept me sitting there for fifteen minutes before he revealed to me that there were black and white keys. That was a dollar and a half and he split. That kind of shook me up. Anyhow, I wound up getting my money back. The interest had settled in really serious by then. I started running into some of the other musicians in town, asking questions and buying books about music.
SUN: What was the jazz community like?
YUSUF: I remember when there wasn’t as much classification of music styles as there is now. The music coming out of my African community, like the blues, were called “race records.” On the record charts they’d have pop, classical and race. And everybody was listening to the same music, whether it was Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, or Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. We didn’t have any so-called African-American radio stations. When I turned my radio on I was listening to Glenn Miller just like my little Caucasian brothers and sisters over on the other side of suburbia. But now there’s separation; you have some people who think, “Well, I don’t like this because this is black and this is white.” There was a time when it was just music. Also, back then, you couldn’t just run into a studio and put a record out. There was a criterion in the studios for everybody, the Caucasian performers and the Afro-American performers
I remember when what I call the quality died out and it became more of a show thing instead of an artistic one. I remember embarassing situations, like brothers doing nasty dancing and singing nasty lyrics. Real culturally degrading things. I remember things like Payola — you could put anything on a record if you could pay a disc jockey to play it. I also remember back in the early 50’s there were some African-American brothers around Baltimore who were really a heck of a vocal group, they sounded like The Four Freshmen. They went to New York to a recording studio, and the producer told them, “You’re a good group, but you sound too much like white boys.” I will never forget that, but see, Allah blessed me with the consciousness to translate that statement. He was saying that these African-American brothers were singing that real hip harmony and knowing what they were doing intentionally, in contrast to the brothers out there who were submitting to producing garbage in return for a Cadillac and a couple of sisters. To me, he was saying, “You’re too sophisticated to be a nigger.”
SUN: What about drugs? What influence have they played in your life?
YUSUF: I was adventurous, so adventurous that I wound up in the drug culture, which was a peership among all hip musicians. It was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the nature of the drug was a pain killer. As African-Americans we had such physical and psychological pain, we needed the drug. The curse was that it was something that I had no control over. You know, I wasn’t the grower, I was just the consumer. And I had a habit.
I saw the drug society, the addict society, begin with a small group of addicts who would go to New York and cop, and bring it back into the drug community, and then grow into a situation where the non-using profiteer came in, with a manipulating attitude. I remember going to New York and buying an ounce for 75 or 100 dollars, something that would cost a couple thousand dollars now. I’m saying the economics didn’t cause all the violence and all the confusion they do now. As a young addict I could take five dollars and maintain myself for a couple of days. So you didn’t have all the robbing and the looting. The greasy dope fiends came along because cats had to hustle all day long trying to get high. A man couldn’t keep himself clean because he was hustling all day long and sleeping in hallways, and became easy to identify. As an addict, I used to say the fox is worth the chase. Then it came to the point where I had to hustle 50 dollars to pay for something that I remembered only paying five dollars for and still not getting any results out of it.
When I wound up in court the last time for possession of narcotics, this little Caucasian brother, who was a United States chemist, comes up to me and says, “Damn Slim, is this what they selling you up town? If they were selling me this garbage for my money, I’d go after them with a baseball bat. What you got here is less than one percent of one percent opiate derivative, which is just enough to get you the two years that the judge is about to give you.” The fox had really gotten not worth the chase.
I’ve seen a lot of changes. The Lord blessed me to be here 52 years. It’s a blessing to be able to say then and now. There are a lot of young brothers going around angry without the advantage of being able to see the changes.
SUN: What was your prison experience like?
YUSUF: The biggest stretch of time was two years. I loved it. I loved it so much that I refused parole. I had heard Islam. In fact, I credit Islam with allowing me to go through experiences like drugs and prison and allowing me to maintain a degree of moral stability. It gave me the model to wake every morning and say; “Boy, one day you’ve got to get yourself together.” That’s what that initial dose of Islam gave me. It made me think, “Damn, this is not forever. I’ve just got a problem now.” There were already Islamic groups in the penitentiary, small and catching plenty of hell for trying to avoid things that were against their religion. Allah blessed me to be the kind of person who could mediate between the prison authorities and the nationalistic element. I can appreciate now what a blessing it was to be there with that attitude.
I was in contact with what a lot of people would call my less conscious brothers. I was challenging the system through educating my brothers. We could look at our Caucasian brothers in the eye, without fear of our life.
I remember a parole board, famous for racism, which would ask you a couple of questions and all your anxiety would not satisfy this board to give up time. What they would do is bring you in and then send you back out on the wall, waiting, and then have a conference among themselves and then call you back in. I’ve seen guys out on that wall perspiring, fainting. When it came time for me to go, I walked in, and told them, “Sirs, I’m not interested in parole,” and started back out the door. One of them started hopping up and down, saying, “Are you sure, are you sure?”
SUN: How did you feel about the hard-line nationalistic stance of the Moslem community back then?
YUSUF: During the nationalistic period I feel Allah blessed me to go through this without becoming fanatic. There was a part in the doctrine of the Honorable Elijah Mohammed that called the Caucasian brothers devils. Now I even gained a blessing from that, because it sent me into etymology. I realized devils just meant doers of evil. When I could break that down to doer of evil to take some of the mystery out of it then I wouldn’t have to look for the devil under the ground instead of in my heart or the heart of my fellow man. But as an addict, I had to be, of necessity, a social being. That brought me in contact with my Caucasian brothers and sisters who were musicians, like I was, and it was impossible not to feel some of the purity of heart of my Caucasian brothers and sisters. I heard what the Honorable Elijah Mohammed was saying, and it was good that he could bring us from a lateral to a perpendicular in our attitudes and complexes. Because, in his lifetime, we as African-American could actually entertain the idea of Caucasians as ex-slavemasters. And that was good for us, because it brought us up, it brought him down. So like Malcolm X said, the American society with its racist attitude, black and white, is like a drug situation. One had an upper and one had a downer. The Honorable Elijah Mohammed’s philosophy was to detoxify the situation. He gave the upper a downer and the downer an upper.
The devil is a situation of the heart. God and devil come from the heart. I know that a lot of us can stand 20 feet away from each other and call each other niggers and honkies, or we can deal with each other on high, and fall in love.
I’ve got reference points. I can’t lie to myself. I remember when it wouldn’t be possible for you and I to socialize in this very building. Not too many years before I came here this was a segregated restaurant, where African-American brothers and sisters had to go around to the side door. In this dear Salaam.
SUN: Do you think people’s attitudes have changed?
YUSUF: Absolutely. I remember when we had no redress. Now we can go to court. That was in my lifetime. If I was a 22-year-old African-American who had never paid no dues, I might be able to lie to myself and say that things ain’t no better. But I can remember when things were really worse. I’m worried by this attitude of young brothers and sisters walking around with mean mugs who have never caught hell. I see their mothers and fathers who caught all the hell with all of that spirit and that smile on their faces.
I have a great deal of confidence in us as a people. The rest of the world is waiting for us, we’ve got a lot of teaching to do, but the first thing we’ve got to do is to forgive and forget. We can go down as the contributors to humanity that we’re supposed to be; we can say we overcame, and went on to civilize our slave-masters. The world is waiting for us to make a positive contribution, but we’re still being manipulated through pacification.
SUN: What kind of pacification?
YUSUF: In the time of opportunity, to have the media continually point out how disadvantaged you are, that’s manipulation. The power of suggestion. Then you’ve got black nationalist movements being supported by white racists to keep up the confusion. We don’t need nationalist movements anymore. That’s putting fire on the flames.
I know that some of my greatest enemies are Afro-Americans, and my greatest friends Caucasian. Some African-American brothers and sisters haven’t come to the consciousness of universality; they see me talking to a white brother like you, and they go through some changes.
Brother Daud used to be in a game called Murphy in Baltimore. He’d promise a man a female who doesn’t exist; they call that the Murphy. You send him in one door and then go out the other with the promise of a lady upstairs. You make them put their wallets into a paper bag when you go into the house. Daud told me that he dealt with Caucasian brothers looking for black sisters with Ku Klux Klan cards in their wallets.
I know that a lot of us can stand 20 feet from each other and call each other niggers and honkies, or we can deal with each other on high, and fall in love.
SUN: How do you get them to put their wallets in the bag?
YUSUF: You’ve got them in a maze; they can’t see because of their lust. Daud used to tell them, “Look boss, a woman who would lay with you like that would steal from you.” So they’d put in all their belongings, watches, wallets. Now, here’s a man with a Ku Klux Klan card in his wallet who is out on the town for some black booty. On the other side you have African nationalist Mau-Mau mentality brothers who love white women, but don’t like white men. You got white brothers who love black sisters but don’t like black brothers. That’s a psychological couch case that we all have to deal with as human beings. We’ve got to rise above our waists.
The symbols of that one, that penis, and that zero, that vagina, that’s one of our big problems. Applying the symbols of black and white to human beings is an exaggeration of that. You’ve got sex and color.
SUN: How do you deal with groups like the Klan?
YUSUF: I just pray that Allah will bless me to where we can purify the hearts of our Caucasian brothers and sisters who are living with that curse of ignorance, or racism. I’ve done it, man. I’ve talked to Ku Klux Klansman who started the conversation feeling one way and came out of it feeling different. Once I was a panel guest before a predominantly WASP-mentality group of Caucasian brothers. One of them asked me, “Look here Slim, what do niggers want to be called?” He was having a problem with this. He might have come upon an African-American brother who wanted to be called Black and called him Negro and got punched in the mouth.
Being a musician and an addict, I had to be a socially healthy being to be functional. It helped keep me from the curse of color. They say that white boys can’t play jazz. I know plenty of Caucasian brothers who can out-play me. I know that jazz is such a therapeutic art form that it’s too great to be nationalized. It’s not black music. I know that there was a marriage in New Orleans between the drum and the horn, between rhythm and melody, European harmonic melody concepts and African rhythmic concepts. It’s certainly therapeutic; it builds bridges. Everytime it has a resurgance, like a phoenix bird, it’s during a time of depression. The whole feeling of it generates spirit.
SUN: I’ve heard you speak of Salaam as more of a message than a restaurant.
YUSUF: That was a comment that was made by a brother named John L, a calypso artist from the islands who has been in Durham for a while. He came in here one day and saw three or four continents represented. He looked at me, and said in his West Indian accent, “Mon, this is more than a restaurant, this is a statement.” I said, “I have to go along with you there, my brother.”
Salaam is the Arabic word meaning peace. Peace through inter-cultural exchange and better understanding of each other. There’s never been any money made in here, but there’s been plenty of love and human exchange. Those elements are contagious. They spread out through these doors and down through the back-streets.
SUN: What is it like working out in the community, with the clean-up squad and your other projects?
YUSUF: In the summer, before the restaurant is open, you’ll see a lot of children here with their brooms, getting ready to come out with me to clean up the streets and make some contact with the older people in our neighborhoods. There was a time when the kids knew each other and the parents knew each other. Then there was a break-down; people stopped communicating with each other, and when that happens you stop caring for each other. So, the clean-up squad is a conversation piece, because when the people see us coming into the neighborhood, they want to know what in the world? You’re all just out cleaning the neighborhood? Also, now it’s gotten to where the older people in the community know all the kids by name. If they know the kids by name, when the kids think about doing something wrong, then they think again. They think, “I can’t do that, these people know my name, and my mother.” And when the older people know the kids they feel that they can trust them a little bit. That’s a good relationship. The kids can get to go to the store for the older people on the block, like I used to do when I was a kid. We’d make nickles and dimes, plus it was a service to our senior citizens.
SUN: You’re certainly not afraid to reach out to people. What kind of responses do you get?
YUSUF: All kinds. Being crazy enough to be hugging people, I get all kinds of vibrations back. I’ll be holding somebody in my arms and I’ve had people say, “I needed that.” Other times there will be that rejection thing. Sometimes you’ll be wrapped around someone and you feel trembling, sometimes you feel warmth, then you feel it dissolving.
Last night, I was speaking to a brother through the back door of Salaam. Then Allah moved me to go out there and grab him. This man actually took a deep breath and said, “Whew, I needed that. You really made my day.” Then he told me why he needed that. That brother was about to do something crazy.
A name is an attribute. Joseph Oliver translated to Yusuf Salim. Joseph is Yusuf in Arabic, Oliver is translated to Salim which means peace because the olive branch is the symbol of peace. So my attributes mean the increaser of peace. I woke up one day and said, “Damn, why have I always been breaking up fights in jail?” I’ll go to the penitentiary and break up 11 or 12 fights, step in between two people and say, “Peace in the name of God,” and don’t even get swung on. I feel that Allah has blessed me to try and live up to my attribute. Out there on the corner by Salaam, man, I take knives and sticks away from people who are about to kill each other. They know that I care. They don’t swing on me. I’m learning this too — Allah needs people to be mediators. Dig the psychology of this! Out on the corner, these two jet-black brothers are about to commit fratricide. I stepped out onto the corner after we’d finished a show in here one night, sweeping the steps, and I hear a brother say, “I’ll kill you, you motherfucker.” Right away I walk up to him and say, “Brother, it ain’t worth that.” And I wrap myself around him, and whisper in his ear, “Think it over brother,” and he’s got his pistol pointing up in the air. He keeps yelling, “I’ll kill you nigger, I don’t want that bitch!” I stayed with him, whispering in his ear, and he collapsed and let his arm come down.
I’m learning that when you step in between two people who are about to do something like that, these people are glad. It’s not human nature to be vicious like that. They need the time to think. I’ve met plenty of brothers doing life sentences who said, “Damn! If I’d just had a minute to think.”
SUN: You say that you’re blessed to play the role of peace-maker. Is this role the real you?
YUSUF: What do you think?
SUN: I think it is.
YUSUF: (smiling) I’d rather be in Baltimore shooting dope. But I was like this then, too. I look back sometimes and say, why have I done these things? Why has this been my nature? Whether this is the real me or not, I feel good about it. There was no time I can remember that I didn’t feel a deep caring for humanity.
SUN: There was one time that you kept a bunch of us out of trouble across the street.
YUSUF: That’s right. There was another example. That could be my life. I don’t get a chance to think about it. I just spontaneously do that. I tell you one thing. If it was the real me I probably wouldn’t do it. No, it’s not the real me. That’s my answer. It’s the workings of God through me. To give me courage enough to step between two goddamn fools who are trying to kill each other. Dealing on the level of my decision, that brings in ego. If a man is battling with his ego, he has a problem serving God.
SUN: How does your music fit in with your message?
YUSUF: The music is just a vehicle. I can look around and see better musicians all around me who aren’t getting all the publicity that I’m getting. That makes me realize that it’s not the music. The music just puts me on the stage in a position to reach out. My real profession is human relations. I just happen to play a little piano.
SUN: Salaam seems to give away as much as it sells. Does this reflect your own dealings with money?
YUSUF: I’ve become famous for being so materially disoriented that people want to manage me. I feel good about having shared. Some people get down on me for being so free-hearted. It never fazed me. I remember an old man once telling me, “Young man, don’t let them ever change your heart, that’s like casting bread on the water.” It took me a long time to understand what he meant. When you give you’ll receive. It’s like putting money in the bank. If you give up some heart, you’ll receive some. I never have been hung up on material things, and I’m glad.
I’m very optimistic, because I see the hearts and consciousness coming back to people these days. I’m seeing people getting tired of fighting each other. I never thought I’d see the day when people in the United States of America refused to go to war. I never believed in my lifetime that I’d see the purity of heart that I’m seeing in a whole generation of my Caucasian brothers. I’ve got to be optimistic. I see a desire for outreach that’s so potent in my young Caucasian brothers and sisters that they’re going against the wishes of their mothers and fathers. What they call the generation gap is really the destruction of a lie, or lies. When I see brothers able to inherit anything who would rather play a harmonica and have some good social exchange, that’s a statement that no conscious man can ignore.
Our attitudes are so important that they affect the stability of the whole environment. Our attitudes are so important that when we really get our heads on straight, black and white, just our attitudes alone will be able to bring about the situation of peace on earth. Check out the word beatitude in your dictionary. You’re just putting the word be in front of attitude. A be-attitude is a state of being, a state of bliss.
SUN: Do you ever feel that violence is necessary?
YUSUF: Certainly. There’s a season for everything. I feel like a lion among lions and a lamb among lambs. I like being a lamb most all of the time. When I come to the point of being a lion it metabolically upsets me for a long time. That makes me bear witness again that that is not the nature of man. I very seldom have been angry. It hurts me a lot to be angry. The only times I get angry are when principles come up. Do anything to me, but don’t step on my blue suede principle shoes. Like if someone takes advantage of a weaker person. That’s the kind of situation that will stimulate me to put my life on the line.
SUN: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
YUSUF: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. All praises due to Allah. All praises due to Allah.