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Ben Caldwell, artist and founder of KAOS Network, photographed in front of his Leimert Park studio. Elder Ben, as he's called, is well known as a neighborhood historian and has observed a change in air quality over time. (Amari Dixon/AfroLA)

Artist Ben Caldwell on the power of race, place and culture in his beloved Leimert Park

The revolution will be…digitized. Ben Caldwell’s Leimert Park of the future embraces art, community, technology to keep Black culture alive. AfroLA’s Marilyn Berlin Snell spoke with Caldwell multiple times in recent months to produce the following conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Arts educator, independent filmmaker, and visionary Ben Caldwell is a neighborhood treasure with international reach. In the mid-1980s, he created what would become the KAOS Network Media Lab on the corner of 43rd Place and Leimert Boulevard, a community training and arts space that for 40 years has focused on South Los Angeles youth, providing a gathering place for aspiring artists, creative expression, and mentorship in media arts and technology. 

I first met Caldwell in person at this year’s Kingdom Day festivities. He was sitting at a tall bistro table outside KAOS Network, greeting friends and keeping an eye on the kids sitting at tables near him working on various art projects. Everyone who passed seemed to know who he was. I felt like I knew him, too, but only because I’d just finished the incredible multi-dimensional book he’d co-written with Robeson Taj Frazier, KAOS Theory: The Afrokosmic Ark of Ben Caldwell. The book is a technicolor journey, capturing Caldwell’s cultural and personal ancestry; his formative early years in rural New Mexico, where his bond with nature both grounded him in place and freed his spirit; and on to the moral certainty that grew in him, as a young Army draftee in Vietnam in 1967, that he was an artist, not a soldier, and he wanted to shoot photos and capture images – not “enemies” who had never done anything to him. 

An old building directory for businesses painted on a concrete wall next to a new building under construction next door.
An old building directory for businesses in Leimert Park is a testament to history beside the rising modernity of a new apartment complex under construction next door. The juxtaposition highlights the city’s evolving landscape, blending heritage with progress. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

The man who emerged from the ashes of that controversial war has devoted himself to the light – how it plays with shadow in nature and on the Black body, how it animates the soul, and how he can work with it to tell his uniquely envisioned stories and teach others how to tell theirs, too.  

In the late 1970s, as a graduate student at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, he became part of a group of African and African American student filmmakers – which included Julie Dash, Larry Clark, and Charles Burnett – that pioneered an alternative Black cinema. The group (labeled by others the “LA Rebellion” – a term Caldwell dislikes), drew on the racial and political climate of the times to create entirely new community-based approaches to filmmaking that conveyed Black experience, traditions, and culture from the inside out. As collaborators graduated and went their various ways, Caldwell committed to staying and working in South L.A.

In 2015, several of Caldwell’s films of that era were honored as part of London’s Tate Modern showing of, LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema. Organizers pointed to Caldwell as an artist who successfully “bridg[ed] cinema and the visual arts of the time with strong links to community.” Though Caldwell has developed a clear vision of the kind of future he’d like to help usher in, he’s agile and adaptive about how to get there. He listens to the young creatives around him so that, together, they fortify the intergenerational work of community building. That mission continues to this day, with Caldwell making his art and his mark in dialogue with his beloved South L.A. community, linking arts education and community organizing every step of the way.

Graffiti on a wall in Leimert Park Village in spray paint and chalk. Images and text include commentary on Black liberation, mental health and denounce the murder of Black men at the hands of police.
Graffiti on a wall in Leimert Park Village. Images and text include commentary on Black liberation, mental health and denouncing the murder of Black men at the hands of police. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

A Sankofa African proverb says that, “One must return to the past in order to build a future.” Caldwell’s work embodies this wisdom, much of it currently focused on harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) in the service of telling culturally relevant stories that embrace past, present, and Afro-futures. 

That beautiful day in January, I got a chance to glimpse Sankofa wisdom made manifest. After speaking for a while on the sidewalk, Caldwell invited me and my husband into his Media Lab, where his KAOS Network was building an autonomous vehicle prototype he aims to have operational in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics in L.A. He had us sit in the “vehicle,” a sort of empty shell with seats facing each other, and put on virtual reality (VR) goggles. Suddenly, the very grounded space of the Media Lab gave way to another world. The vehicle began constructing itself around us and we glimpsed a future where techno-savvy artists like Caldwell – intent on celebrating the cultural relevance of hyper-local history and creativity – are in the driver’s seat of AI. He later showed me Sankofa City, a video collaboration celebrating how Leimert Park’s rich art and music history could be enjoyed as you moved through space in such a vehicle. 

When I returned a few weeks later to do a proper interview, Caldwell’s friend Jeffrey C. Stewart dropped by for a visit (friends and admirers form a constant flow at KAOS when Caldwell’s in the house, it seems). Stewart, a professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, had recently hosted a reading of Caldwell’s newest artistic collaboration, the spoken-work-in-progress “Love in Exile” at his pop-up Jazz Coffeehouse in Isla Vista. As we watched video of the event – a man with a resonant voice reading a letter to Tupac Shakur in prison from his stepfather as a jazz combo accompanied him – I got yet another glimpse of Caldwell’s multi-dimensional work. 

He’s an elder now, at 79, but seems to have understood early on the importance of gathering in the harvest sown by his ancestors, his life experience, his family and community, and also emerging technology. In the following conversation, edited for length and clarity, we discuss his early life and artistic sensibility, his ideas about keeping Leimert Park’s culture strong, and how to seize the day with technology and shape a thriving future.

I. An intrinsic avant-garde spirit

MBS: This won’t be news to you, but you don’t think like other people. You think outside of the box. The word that comes to mind is “avant-garde.”

BC: Yeah. I like “avant-garde.” I was looking at myself at 18, 19, saying, “I want to be a surrealist.” And now my place [Leimert Park’s KAOS Network Media Lab] is for people who are outside the box – even though I want to work with everyday people. The whole thought is that the avant-garde needs to have a home, too.

A man sits in a chair next to a portrait painting of himself by a local artist. A small dog stands by his feet.
Martial arts Grandmaster Osiris sits next to a painting of himself outside of the Lion Art Gallery in Leimert Park. The zcrylic on canvas painting is by local artist Unyenz, one of the Lion’s rotating artists-in-residence. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

MBS: Why was that important to you?

BC: Because most artists who are extremely good feel like outsiders. They’re always seen as outliers. So, I thought I would offer up a place for a group of people who are really possessed by art, you know? In order to be an artist, you almost have to be possessed by it because it takes 24/7 to work with your ideas. Musicians are always thinking about rhythm patterns. Artists are thinking about placement, framing, and color. They are contextualizing the feeling of things and how that shows within color and ideas. How that translates to paper or music or words. All of those things mix in the people who have chosen that way, and they tend to not always flow with everyday people who follow rote life. 

MBS: You’ve said your family set was migrant farm workers, so did you come out of the womb with your avant-garde spirit? 

BC: Yeah. I just came out like that. I don’t know how I knew, but my first drawing in [elementary] school won a blue ribbon, for a horse drawn on a copper template. From then on, I considered myself an artist. 

MBS: You also had to have been a very observant kid. 

BC: I just liked the way horses were made. The jaw and the nose and the ears. The hair that they had on one side of their neck, the construction of the body and the muscle types. All that was interesting to me. And my grandfather was a rodeo person, so maybe that was why I was kind of drawn to the horse at first. 

MBS: You grew up in rural New Mexico, cowboy country.

BC: Yeah. Very, very cowboy country. Our next-door neighbors had horses. I was raised around that.

MBS: In addition to the spirit you came into the world with, the place you came from and the natural environment of that place seems to have had an influence on you.

BC: Very much so. The southern part of New Mexico doesn’t have those dramatic edifices around it like Ship Rock [on the Navajo Nation] and all those types of real beautiful monoliths. Around where I was raised, it was kind of flat. You could see mountains on the horizon but you could see to the horizon. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever been out in the wilderness when there is no light, but that’s what happens in New Mexico. When you step out at night you’re awestruck. As a child I didn’t have a division of what things were. I felt the earth move under my feet. I could hear it rumbling. It kind of scared me. The Earth is moving very, very fast and gravity’s stickiness keeps us on the ground. But if you’re in the desert, it’s almost like you’re going through space because you can feel the movement, you can feel space and space is there. There’s nothing between you and the universe. That really impresses on your mind in a way that I would say city folks don’t get. What I say now is in New Mexico you can feel your “earth feet” coming in. It’s like when you’re  standing in a moving boat. It’s a way to live.

MBS: Most humans don’t think like that, especially as a child.

BC: <Laughs> I do. 

MBS: You just talked about being able to feel the rumblings and movement of the land and of experiencing the non-separation between you and the universe. I also know you grew up in the border town of Deming, where the movement of people – migrant workers, Mexicans going back and forth across the border – was a fact of everyday life. Time and space, borders and place, are all concepts that are very stable for most people, but not for you. Do I have a thread there?

BC: That is an interesting way to see it. First, they don’t call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment for no reason. I found out later when I worked with Native Americans that the way I experienced the world as a child is a very Native American way to look at the earth. 

Also, my babysitter was a bruja – a spiritual medicine woman who would walk with me through the desert. Like George Washington Carver, [the American scientist, inventor, and mystic who talked to plants that then, he said, revealed their secrets to him,] she gave me another sense of the plant life. They spoke to her. She would go out and get the medicine for our family. But you don’t just get the herbs any time. You get it at specific times. It’s paying attention to nature. As a kid, you’re just absorbing all this.

MBS:  The natural world is embedded in a lot of your early work in photography and film. You say that you came out of the womb with your surrealist sensibility and also that nature played an important role in your artistic formation. One of your first films, Medea, [shown as part of the Tate Modern exhibit] really blended the two. 

A mural of Black female figures painted in shades of purple with abstract patterns drawn on top.
“My mural is about connectivity through Blackness, joy, presence, and spirit. A reflection of the care and communion I have felt here in Los Angeles,” said Adee Roberson of her work in Leimert Park. Her mural is part of a collaboration between For Freedoms and Converse, a series of five murals in historically-Black neighborhoods across Los Angeles to visualize and actualize the creative power of Black femmes. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

BC: Yeah, Medea was about a baby. It’s kind of interesting because I never thought of it as me, but I did think of it as a baby born with all of this DNA of historical facts about who they are. Then to show that once the baby explodes out to life, how do you know who you are? Culture provides identity, purpose, and direction. If you know who you are, you know what your purpose is. Then you can focus on your cultural purpose in life.

MBS: It’s interesting that you come from New Mexico and the natural world is so important to you. And you’re also this technology geek. How do these two aspects of your character fit together?

BC: For me, technology is just an extension of us as nature. I don’t see it as something separate from us. I see it as us because it’s just a tool that humans created. I think that’s the reason I can run forward with AI. AI is not fearful to me because I’m not a colonizer. I don’t think that something horrible is going to happen. Horrible happens when you’re planning on it because you’re the person that brings it.

MBS: Do you have faith in the nature of people like Elon Musk? Guys like him have the money and the power to chart the path of AI.

BC: The thing about them is they were able to win because they’re ahead. But even if they’re trying to do [negative things] with that tool, we can checkmate them real easy because they’re not creative. Just because you have a saxophone doesn’t mean you know how to play it. Someone who takes the time and knows how to play it can really do it well. AI is just going to force us creatives to use more of our brain power. This past year, I spent almost three weeks focused on AI so I could really see where its cultural parameters were. It can’t even tell me about New Mexico.

MBS: Why?

BC: Because it hasn’t been inputted yet. It’s not important. The Indians aren’t important. I asked AI about those things, and it said for me to look it up in the libraries in that region. That made me smile. You know what I’m saying? It understands the Western world very, very well. And that Western world has a dystopic view because of the dystopic way that it went at the world. We have to remember what they did with the Native people. You know, it’s a lot of beauty here, but we also have to be real about whose bones we’re standing on as a part of making this America happen. 

I’m not fearful of change but we have to run at it and adjust it. I would say that my process sets up a system so it can be anti-colonized in its structure, because you cannot use the management system of the colonizer to decolonize things.

“I’m not fearful of change but we have to run at it and adjust it. I would say that my process sets up a system so it can be anti-colonized in its structure, because you cannot use the management system of the colonizer to decolonize things.”

MBS: That’s quite an undertaking.

BC: That’s what our job is.

MBS: Deconstructing everything? 

BC: Not everything. Just deconstructing the things that need medicine help.

MBS: What a lovely way to put it.

BC: That’s the way I see myself: managing health and wellness – even of the folks that did the colonizing. Because what it’s done is it’s led them down a life that is taking – and the taking is short term. Mother Nature then does what it can to get everything in line. We’re not stronger than Mother Nature. We’re a part of her. The colonizing [mindset] thinks it’s stronger than Mother Nature. The ancients didn’t fight their interconnection with nature. They didn’t think that they were more powerful than that.

That’s what I saw in Vietnam. In ‘Nam, I watched [the US military] decimate Mother Earth, just so we would have a [clear view] to shoot. Clearing it just for military purposes. That’s what woke me up on this way of seeing us as a part of nature. We have to change everything, including how we think and how business is done. 

II. Build up the neighborhood, build up the culture

MBS: How do ideas about living together and being sensitive to those around us, about finding different ways to think and trade and do business, fit into your notion of where you live now in Leimert Park and your vision for its future? 

BC: I see it ecologically, like it’s an ecological network that we’re around, and if the earth around you isn’t healthy then it’s hard to plant a tree. I think seven generations forward. How are my daughters and my daughters’ children going to deal with this neighborhood that I see here? How can I do the best that I can to not make it unlivable? You know, that kind of thought is the reason that I’m building up the neighborhood.

MBS: And why did you decide to plant your tree, so to speak, here in Leimert Park?

BC: I’ve traveled all around the world, and I think this place is quite unique.

MBS: How so?

BC: It’s an artist-started Black community that is about [73%] Black in a place – Los Angeles – that’s about 8% Black overall. It’s a real important thing for a community like this to happen. And it’s a good test for how things could be in the world.

MBS: What’s the test and what do you want to see? 

BC: It’s a place where we shed the cocoon. [Caldwell holds up Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, which had just been given to him by his friend Jeffrey Stewart.] This book talks about the next step of what we are doing as people on this planet. Because, like I said, we’re not separate from Mother Earth. Mother Earth is changing vibrations, and we’re vibrational tones whether we like it or not. We’re not just a physical object. Our science is built out of the whole physicality of things but we’re more than that. And a lot of us artists have been able to work on that. 

It’s about decolonizing the language. Like this project I’m working on now, “Love in Exile,” it’s on love. In the colonizing way of saying “love,” you only think of one or two things. But in Sanskrit there are many ways to describe love; same in old Turkish texts. That makes it a lot easier. In this country, it’s harder. As a teacher, for example, when I first started working with kids I had a girlfriend, but I had to separate myself from the kids once I separated from her. Because a man by himself working with children – there’s no way to explain the closeness that a male has with children in this colonized way of looking at love. You know what I’m saying? 

It made me drop out of [teaching] until I got a mate or somebody who could work with the kids, too, because a man by himself with children – and being a big Black man like me – there’s a lot of stereotypes around it that you have to fend off. Not only fend off, it’s just like, why do you have to climb out of a hole that you’re not even thinking of? You know? Those are the kinds of things that I think we have to do with our language because this language defines things in a way that has made it hard to be an artist. 

I first [started thinking about this] when I was doing research on Africa because [the literature] is just full of language that is very denigrating, like “Bushman.” Or “Hottentot.” And then the scientists are picking it up and using it. They don’t want to call them their original names? Not Hottentot but Khoikhoi? Just because they couldn’t pronounce it? You know what I’m saying? 

MBS: I want to ask you about this language issue, but more personally. For example, when talking about your collaboration with other Black students in the 1970s at UCLA’s graduate filmmaking program, you resist the label given your group – “LA Rebellion” – and prefer to use “LA School.” Why?

A man walks past a mural on the side of a building wall depicting key Black figures in the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany and Nicholas Biddle.
Leimert Park mural of key Black figures in the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany and Nicholas Biddle. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

BC: Think of “slave rebellion.” Just because we didn’t do what the colonizers were saying we should do, we were “rebellious.” It’s an outsider’s view, just like it’s an outsider’s view to call it “the blues.” We weren’t sad. We were just talking amongst each other about the realities of our experience. Why am I having a hard time with love? You know? That’s all it chronicles. We’re having a hard time with love because we don’t even know what love is because we’ve had 400 years’ separation from handling what a relationship could be like between a man or a woman. These are the first generations of people out of that. They were trying to just figure out love.

“Just because we didn’t do what the colonizers were saying we should do, we were ‘rebellious.’ It’s an outsider’s view, just like it’s an outsider’s view to call it ‘the blues.’ We weren’t sad. We were just talking amongst each other about the realities of our experience.”

I prefer “LA School” because it says it’s something that came within our own scholarship.

MBS: You identify more with that definition?

BC: That’s why we went to college! <Laughs> We have to have that definition. I constantly remind my colleagues that we went to school to tell this story. It’s our job to tell our own scholarship because we have the terminal degree within our discipline [as Black storytellers]. 

MBS: There’s one other language issue that I want to touch on, which is the way you self-identify as a Black man proud of who you are and where you come from. You’re unapologetic about that and often point out that any time a Black person exhibits pride in themselves and where they come from it’s mischaracterized as arrogant or militant. You also say that you’re not political, you’re an artist. But it seems that simply by being proud of who you are, by the way you self-identify, it’s almost a political statement in this country. You’re “political” by your very being.

BC: Yeah. I think it’s, again, an outsider’s view. I’m just being an artist who’s trying to make sure that I can nurture and grow my art. I want to do that within the context of what I am feeling as an artist now, and not have it forced into some kind of pattern that I see as just colonizing. It’s colonizing to force this kind of [label] and I don’t think it’s helpful. There have been instances when I’ve worked in the film industry where, because of that controlling [mentality], it makes it impossible for things to grow. We’re here to grow and to do that we have to build up a kind of “social ecology.”

And we have to do it with each person. Just like each person’s taught to go to war, we have to teach people how to be human. I call it being human. I don’t call it political because politics to me gets people killed. Religions get people killed. And so those are the two things I stay away from. I work with the colleges and art people. I don’t want to work with any of the politicians ’cause they aren’t getting things done. It’s mostly talk. I don’t see any real action. The only people I see doing action are artists.

“I’m just being an artist who’s trying to make sure that I can nurture and grow my art. I want to do that within the context of what I am feeling as an artist now, and not have it forced into some kind of pattern that I see as just colonizing.”

MBS: You’re talking about decolonizing the language through the power of self-understanding and expression?  

BC: Yeah. Because part of Jim Crow is to make us discuss things that are irrelevant while somebody else is planning. If you make it where you have your trajectory correct, then at least everybody is espousing ideas that aren’t just myths. We’re not just fighting off ghosts. Because that’s kind of what I’ve noticed people do here [in Leimert Park]. Remember, I came here as an incubator. I’m still trying to study this but I think we need to just take a deep breath and see who we really are here and what is it that we really want. 

“…Part of Jim Crow is to make us discuss things that are irrelevant while somebody else is planning. If you make it where you have your trajectory correct, then at least everybody is espousing ideas that aren’t just myths. We’re not just fighting off ghosts.”

MBS: In addition to transforming how the community sees itself you’re also talking about inviting people to come into the community and see it on new terms, in new ways. The new K Line is already inviting people into the community of Leimert Park, known as the “heartbeat of Black culture in L.A.,” but not in the way you’re talking about. There’s a lot of fear about gentrification and people coming in and changing the culture. You’ve said elsewhere that you weren’t so worried about that. Why?

BC: It’s an abnormal thing that took place in Leimert Park in the sense of it going from zero to 98% Black. That’s abnormal. We’re only 8% of the LA population. 

MBS: The “abnormalities” of racist deed covenants, redlining, and white flight in the 50s and 60s helped.

BC: Well, yeah. But what I mean is it just opened the floodgate to people who wanted really good property and the white families left because there were more Black people around. See, one of the things I think you’re hearing in my use of the language is I don’t try to think of what all these problems were. There were some real strong problems. I came here and I watched the gang thing happen. Same thing with the drugs. All of that was happening. Real threats. It made it fearful for the community to even be around each other. And then Rodney King’s thing really made it happen. But what we have now is a high percentage of ownership and a high percentage of wealth among Black residents here.

Two men play chess at a table on the sidewalk outside a medical clinic building.
Two men play chess on a deserted street in Leimert Park on Marketplace Sunday. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

MBS: So, you don’t worry about the dilution of a strong Black culture by the influx of white people looking for good housing prices and maybe not caring about the place they’re moving into? 

BC: Our autonomous vehicle/autonomous culture project and our Sankofa City video is about trying to fight that psychosocial trauma feeling that comes up in folks. People say “gentrification” really easy, even though I tell them that we own all of this. But people think we’re going to lose it because of the historical way that society has come at us. It’s an interesting thing to work with that kind of internal fear.

“People say “gentrification” really easy, even though I tell them that we own all of this. But people think we’re going to lose it because of the historical way that society has come at us. It’s an interesting thing to work with that kind of internal fear.”

I think [white newcomers] can stay here as long as they let us be Black and not try to make this Larchmont. If they try to make it Larchmont, they’ll find it’ll be pretty hard for them because this is not Larchmont. It’s a different kind of depth here. 

MBS: You feel that the Black culture of Leimert Park is strong enough to survive an influx of people who may not care about its proud Black history?

BC: I think the people who are going to come, especially from out of the country, like us a lot more than the people who are here.

MBS: Exactly. But you’re talking about the people that will come to Leimert Park as tourists. They’re different than the people who are buying the houses that are on the market right now. 

BC: Well, the ones that do that, I think if they come here, they’ll either adjust or leave just like they did before because this is is going be an African American enclave, just like the Korean enclave or just like the Japanese enclave. This is going to be that, it just is. Like I said, we’re 8%  of the Los Angeles population but [73%]of Leimert Park’s population. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. We just need to get together.

III. The app that changes everything

MBS: How do you grow the kind of “social ecology” – a term you used earlier – to get people to come together to activate and enhance their cultural inheritance? 

BC: As an example, during the 1984 Olympics I worked as an engineer on what we called the Electronic Cafe. We put together a futuristic site that ended up being Zoom <laughs>. All of what we do with Zoom now we were doing with a slow-scan process, writing, telegraphing, all the things. We were amalgamating those up on different phone lines and then connecting the phone lines. We had five phone lines that would run together and we were able to send slow-scan pictures between them. It wasn’t too dissimilar to Photoshop; it was: scan a photo that would slowly appear, one picture after another. And then we could talk on the other phone while that was happening. And then we could send video writing on the other to receive text.

A lamppost with street signs with an art deco building in the background.
Nonprofit Art + Practice at the corner of W 43rd Pl and Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

We amalgamated those [processes] and we put ’em in people places. They were precursors to cyber cafés. We set up one at El Mercado in East L.A. MOCA, the temporary contemporary, was our hub. We also had a gumbo house that was behind me here in Leimert Park. That was part of the reason I chose this building [on the corner of 43rd Place and Leimert Boulevard]. ‘Cause I had done this work for the Olympics. We had a Jewish cheesecake coffee shop in Venice and a Korean restaurant on Eighth Street. We interconnected these sites for eight weeks and we worked out the template, which was to propagate the idea of using this open-source world for the reason that open source started, which was to make it free and open to the community, just like the internet is now. Open source is the business template that I’m wanting to do.

MBS: Is the “autonomous vehicles/autonomous culture” concept you’ve been developing with others part of this next-generation “social ecology” idea? 

BC: Yes. That’s what the shuttle system is. I was just pitching it to some [L.A.-based] universities to do a kind of movable iteration of our Electronic Cafe during the Olympics – to have it ready by then. The tools that are coming up right now, like AI, kids are being trained with these tools and they’re super focused on them and they’re building up skills. [The problem is] we are not having the proper teachers for that. 

“The tools that are coming up right now, like AI, kids are being trained with these tools and they’re super focused on them and they’re building up skills. [The problem is] we are not having the proper teachers for that.”

MBS: Say more about that.

BC: Each teacher who has a cell phone in their classroom, what do they do? They tell the kids to put it away. That’s the biggest encyclopedia that any culture has ever had in the classroom and teachers aren’t utilizing the powerful skills that are sitting right there in each kid’s hand. 

Kids can make movies, they can tell stories. That’s the thing that I did with each of my sites when I built [the autonomous vehicle concept] out. We practiced it first with five sites and then with 10 sites. Basically, at each of the sites I would let them test these tools and they ended up with phenomenal concepts that you could never even think of by yourself. 

The times that I’ve worked – what would you call it? – “commercially” in Hollywood, most of it is ego-centric. Capitalism is ego driven and shark oriented, and all of that is not a healthy way to look at the world. It’s crazy.

MBS: How would an open-source business template – a sharing- rather than shark-oriented system – look in regard to your autonomous vehicle project?

BC: One of the things with this system is, remember, it’s free. When we tested our shuttle system, it was free. The thing that’s good about the capitalist system is it [requires people pay] to move through it. We can do some work with that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same way that I’m going to egotistically take all those billions for myself. There’s another way that you could build it out that’s balanced. 

Right now, we’re pitching Culver City to do our shuttle system. I want to go to Koreatown. I want to go to Downtown. The Bunker Hill area has asked us to talk about [our project]. There’s some interesting history there that would be fun to deal with and join that up with the Disney Theater. There are a lot of different ways that we can build this out that doesn’t necessarily have to be ethnocentric. But I do think it should be hyperlocal. 

It’ll be a real shuttle system, but with the capacity, like we do with our cell phone now, to go to that virtual wall if you want to. Think of it this way: The first thing you do with Uber is you pull down an app, right? So [imagine you’re on Metro] headed to Culver City. You pull down our app on your phone, which you can do because of the fiber that’s already built in that machine that you’re moving in; the hyper fiber is already in the Metro. You’ll walk into that fiber and get on our app and do whatever you want to. You could have your special glasses on because our VR glasses will not be as wrapped around as they are now.

A woman pulls a handcart in past a new apartment building under construction.
A woman pulls a handcart in past a new apartment building under construction in Leimert Park. (Debra Orols/AfroLA)

Everything is going to change. You can just tap into our app with your Ray Bans and see something, and then you’ll be able to pull up the screen and you’ll be doing it in the air. You will be able to do the things you need in order to connect. And then when you switch into the shuttle car that you ordered, that will pick you up, you’ll be able to just go seamlessly to that and work with it. Whatever you’re doing. If it’s gaming, if it’s storytelling, if it’s writing stories, sending it to your job, whatever you’re doing it makes it seamless. And if you’re doing that, then it takes you either to your job or you could go to your home, or you could go to the cafe and just have a seamless tie-in with this. With our system, you’re locked in just like Facebook because the moment that you’re in it, you’re on that Facebook app. And that’s where the algorithms get studied. We’ll be able to help in that it will stop the colonizing mind from being so voracious and just grabbing everything. We could stop it at our door and say, ‘Let’s negotiate.’

MBS: What’s the negotiation? That you’re now learning differently about the place you actually are moving through and its history?

BC: Yeah. If that’s what you want. Part of [the project] right now is making an “art bus” scenario. Let’s say you come to town and want to see the art areas within Leimert Park, the different art galleries and things like that. Leimert Park is currently one of our nine proposed destinations and that number will grow. It’ll be easy for you to do and if it’s free, just like the internet, then it’ll be even more of an incentive. And then we can get paid off the algorithms just like they do with the internet. 

“Let’s say you come to town and want to see the art areas within Leimert Park, the different art galleries and things like that. It’ll be easy for you to do and if it’s free, just like the Internet, then it’ll be even more of an incentive.”

MBS: And is your goal to have this up and running by the next Olympics? 

BC: Yeah, especially within our footprint of Hyde Park to Jefferson, and La Brea to Western. Within this footprint we can do a real strong test for 2026 with the World Cup, and then 2028 for the Olympics, and then a 2030-and-beyond plan after we’ve assessed what we’ve done. There’s something that happens when we all collectively get together, a kind of a cultural focus that happens where the [algorithmic] “cloud” kind of understands the direction. That’s the test that I’m wanting to see. Can we do that as artists? How can we help heal the community? Is there a way that I could pre-envision with the community what it would like to be in a best-case scenario?

“How can we help heal the community [as artists]? Is there a way that I could pre-envision with the community what it would like to be in a best-case scenario?”

MBS: It sounds like this aligns with your concept of the “total economy” for Black commercial enterprises in Leimert Park. Coming together and supporting the culture while supporting the community in a commercial sense.

BC: We want to build our autonomous vehicles and join the market of sales in this world. That’s the problem: in this country we’ve gotten people in between us and we don’t get the full amount of money. We haven’t pooled our wealth and made it merchandisable. 

That’s the hole I’m trying to fill. It’s just like, ‘Come on, y’all.’ Think of the World Cup. Do you know how much money Black people generate? A lot. And we’re not going to play with that? It’s crazy. I’m planning on doing pop-ups because I want to show people that it can be done. Cafes. Bring people in, feel comfortable, have outside al fresco spaces. We can make it work. For the World Cup and the Olympics, we’ll create places and they’ll be talking to the end of the century about how wonderful it was here. 

“Do you know how much money Black people generate? A lot. And we’re not going to play with that? It’s crazy. I’m planning on doing pop-ups because I want to show people that it can be done. Cafes. Bring people in, feel comfortable, have outside Alfresco spaces. We can make it work. For the World Cup and the Olympics, we’ll create places and they’ll be talking to the end of the century about how wonderful it was here.”

MBS: Before we end, can you talk a bit about your current art project, “Love in Exile?” 

BC: The whole idea is to deal with love stories between family and loved ones who are either refugees or behind bars. About how love letters between people in these situations penetrate barriers. That’s why we called it Love in Exile. It’s an improvisational piece that’s different every time. We will bring in different stories as we move it around, so it’ll be hyperlocal every time. It’s an avenue to rethink the entire penal system and what we need. 

It’s also an investigation to see how we can heal. The [Isla Vista] performance happened in the context of a lot of disruption on the UC Santa Barbara campus caused by the Gaza War. It’s very divided between Jewish and pro-Palestinian students. This particular event was a kind of a space where everybody could be together and share their own sense of mourning without it being fractionalized the way it’s been in the media and on campus. I thought that the letter to Tupac from his stepfather would work. We also had a singer, her voice kind of channeling Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and many others; it was almost like a priestess singing, and it was beautiful. We’re going to try to do some more with that. 

MBS: Is it fair to say that this and the other projects you’ve talked about are in keeping with your mode of work that you’ve been doing since you came to Leimert Park? Imagining a different kind of future and insisting on your own language and your own vision grown within the community?

BC: Yeah. I think it happened from the moment I started film school. We just saw how desirable it was to be with the other [Black] students because of the way [the program’s decisionmakers] were structuring things and the way they saw us. We saw that we better do that. My first time showing up on a public shoot, a guy on the set used the n-word telling me to do things. He was the lead actor. This was in the early seventies; he was just so casual about it. I talked to the director and he’s like, ‘Oh, Ben, you let that bother you?’ I walked off the set. That’s the way I had to do it. I wasn’t gonna sit there and just go along with the person. 

MBS: And you and other Black filmmakers were celebrated in 2015 with a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. 

BC: I loved the way they announced our work in London, like, ‘They’re the chaps that took Hollywood on and won.’ That’s the way I think we have to think about the Sankofa project. You were asking how can some of these things happen? You have to just take it on. We can win because we’re pretty good at what we do as a culture.

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