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Patt Morrison asks: MacArthur 'genius' Josh Kun on the real Los Angeles behind the Hollywood curtain

Patt Morrison asks: MacArthur 'genius' Josh Kun on the real Los Angeles behind the Hollywood curtain
Author, educator and cultural historian, USC professor Josh Kun was named a 2016 MacArthur fellow. (Los Angeles Times)

New Yorkers are moving to Los Angeles by the platoon. It is sweet revenge for the mockery of yore. Aldous Huxley said Los Angeles was "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis," Woody Allen snarked, "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light." And for one edition, the New York Times headlined our otherworldly power like this: "After Detour to California, Shuttle Returns to Earth." Far from being hollow and shallow, Southern California's cultures, plural, have always been manifold. USC's Josh Kun is one of five new Southern California winners of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants." His mother used to be a docent at the La Brea Tarpits, and in his research, Kun has taken up spelunking into the musical, political, literary and gustatory culture of L.A.

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When I read about the award I was very pleased for you. At the same time I thought, finally — people have discovered that L.A.  has a cultural history.

Well, I share the sentiment about the often reluctance or willing reluctance to not deal with L.A.'s cultural history part. But I want to be very very clear that my work with L.A.'s cultural history is part of a great tradition of scholars and activists and writers and amateur historians who have meticulously been trying to preserve and take care of L.A. cultural history.

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We have this rich, rich complex multilayered history that on some levels and in some sectors of the city's industry would say we are rewarded for the erasure that allowed the city to keep moving forward — what Norman Klein has written so eloquently about as the real politics of amnesia here.

This idea of Los Angeles as the place to start over and begin again —  it's been so important to countless people who reimagine themselves here, but at the same time it's really crucial that we continually come back to the social violence that can be at the core of that act. When you're writing over something, you are often erasing that thing in the name of building something new.

And of course these things are coming up right now in very, very strong ways in terms of urban renewal projects and gentrification.  We are very quick to forget they represent the displacement and removal of entire populations of people.

Your work certainly hasn't been where most people look to, which is history and Hollywood. And for the most part it's not been the white, middle-class history.

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There have been histories of Los Angeles culture and Los Angeles entertainment, let's say, that we all know has been very well documented, to the point that they've been over-documented. The histories of Hollywood, histories of particular eras in Los Angeles, in the 1940s and 1950s, have been written about with great surplus.

So I really try when I can in my work  to do projects around L.A.  cultural history to make sure that I'm examining right away where I am starting from. Am I starting from Hollywood? Am I starting from Venice or Santa Monica? Or am I starting from Boyle Heights or am I starting from Silver Lake, or … ? Where in the city you start to think about the city changes the way you think about it. And especially in Los Angeles, where you live has historically been able to to tell you perhaps how you are designated racially or ethically.

You were born here. I believe you grew up on the Westside. How did you make yourself aware of all that was underfoot, of all that was around in the past and the present here?

Look, I think I still have blinders on, but that's inevitable. I'm just hyper-conscious of it and I try really hard to always check myself about those blinders.

But yes, I grew up on the Westside and like many people who grew up on the Westside, the idea that East Los Angeles is what happens east of La Cienega was a common notion of LA geography.

If you grow up on the Westside, it's very easy that you hear people in a very casual way talking about Los Angeles really as ending at — La Brea is pushing it. Vermont? Forget it — that's a whole other world. Let alone East Los Angeles itself.

I feel very lucky that I grew up in a household where music was always on.

My father was a big fan of folk music, a big fan of the Weavers in particular, and I grew up with him and my mother going to see music that was about social movements and about community.

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I really do think that by hearing music like the Weavers, it showed me at a very young age that other world existed, other viewpoints existed, other languages existed, other politics were possible.  And without music, I really would never be doing any of the work I do. It's still why I do what I do.

I think music and other forms of the popular arts and popular culture — one of the great things it can do when it does it right is it shows us new maps. It shows us different views and it sometimes can help us push back against the normalizations of our own world views as the center.

One of your books is called "Songs in the Key of Los Angeles." You looked through the library's collections of sheet music about Southern California.

You mention the sheet music collection of the Central Library of the Los Angeles Public Library. It's an extraordinary collection that's been going on for decades that was created by librarians and stewarded and indexed and organized by them. It was very interesting to see to what a strong degree a lot of the early sheet music of Los Angeles was kind of musical versions of civic boosterism — the extent to which so many early LA songs in the collection are about invitations to come west, to come to California, the land of sunshine and oranges, come get a little bungalow or a little cottage, fall in love with the California rose —  songs that promise sunshine as a cure to tuberculosis and health problems.

But then, the deeper we got into it, of course you start to really see the songs as early reflections of the multicultural and multiracial  communities who were making music and living in Los Angeles at the time.

To go back and look at sheet music from the late 1800s, early 1900s, and see the role that printed music and published music was playing in how people were thinking about Los Angeles was very, very interesting.

In part also because it was not about Hollywood. It was about downtown, early music publishers in downtown Los Angeles, or it was about Pasadena or it was about East Los Angeles. And it was about a really different geography of cultural production that a lot of L.A. music history that has been out there hasn't touched on in great detail.

Was there one particular piece of music that struck you as a surprise, a joy, something out of left field?

A song called "Angeltown" from the 1950s. It was one of the first ones that we came across, because it starts with A —  it was in the "A" box. So that helped out really well!

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"Angeltown" was a song that turns out might actually still be considered the official song of Los Angeles. It was actually a song that began because of a columnist at the L.A. Times who felt upset that there was no great L.A. song. So he convinced two Hollywood songwriters to write a great song about Los Angeles in the 1950s. And that impulse, that desire to sum up our city in a song — or as I've also seen in the past couple of years, to sum up the city in a plate of food!

But then you listen to "Angeltown"; it actually sounds much more like the 1920s and '30s and the lyrics of the song are kind of hearkening back to this bucolic Eden of Los Angeles, even in the post-World War II years when Los Angeles was going through these very heavy urban transformations.

You mention food as well; music and food as well are two areas that people of many cultures can share, at least nominally without conflict. And your book "To Live and Dine in LA  — Menus and the Making of the Modern City" again draws on the Central Library collection, but looking at a food history that did not begin with taco trucks, that did not begin with Ma Maison.

You could make the argument that it does begin with taco trucks — actually not taco trucks per se, but at least taco vendors or tamal vendors at the original plaza of Los Angeles. Some of the first places you could buy food outside and eat and consume food outside of the home were the street vendors. And I think it's interesting how the battles, the ongoing battles about legalizing or not legalizing food vending on the streets of Los Angeles, on the street corners, goes back to the founding of the city.

People take Hollywood seriously but everything else is put on an axis in relation to Hollywood.

Maybe it's the stereotype of the dominant narrative that keeps getting repeated over and over: it's the Hollywood story or the beach or whatever that becomes those things that everyone focuses on.

You see this every time the New York Times does a culture or style piece about Los Angeles. Everyone in L.A. is upset about it, that they got it wrong again, they got us wrong again.

There's a history of the depth and complexity of what L.A. is as a city that a lot of people just don't understand. And maybe it's the geography but I do think as a western city that is also of course a Latin American city that is also an Asian city, that is also, that is also, that is also — Los Angeles is all of these other things.

It's never been one thing and in fact some of the greatest moments of misrepresentation and greatest moments of violence in Los Angeles —  cultural violence, symbolic violence but also physical violence —  come when somebody tries to impose one vision of what L.A. is supposed to look, sound, feel and taste like.

I do think there was particularly in the post-World War II years this exporting of the idea of Los Angeles as a white paradise at the level of popular cultures. But in reality of course we had this multiracial city that was a hub of black life, a hub of Mexican and Latin American life, a hub of Asian American life — all those communities actively making and producing culture that was not part of the L.A. story.

We're in the midst of an incredible —  I won't even call it renaissance, but incredible upheaval of black arts and Mexican arts in particular in Los Angeles around music, around visual arts, conceptual art, around food, an incredible moment with native art in Los Angeles.

I used to care how other cities regarded Los Angeles, and get upset if they committed those sins of shortcomings you spoke about. And now I don't think I care, because Los Angeles is sui generis. It is its own place that defies anybody's measurement.

This is what drives me crazy: When I hear people who are from L.A.  who still use the phrase back east — I'm going back east. Where are you going back to? You're not from there!  I do think there's a kind of colonialist narrative that still, the East Coast is the beginning of America, which sure has some historical resonance to it. But to think about the west, to think about Los Angeles as a place to rethink what the United States means, to rethink the borders and boundaries of America.

That's among the reasons why L.A. is so exciting and so transformative, is  because we are at the physical borders, but we are also at the cultural edges of new ways of thinking that make this city so vital and so important. And looking east, back to the east coast, is not the most productive thing for a city that I think for the most part has its eyes and ears pointed elsewhere.

The MacArthur Foundation doesn't use it but it's the shorthand word — genius. Have you dropped the g-word yet, like, Sorry I didn't fill the gas tank — genius!

Can you imagine if I said yes? The MacArthur Foundation doesn't use it. It's not part of their language. It's a ridiculous term. I don't recognize myself in that term. I don't recognize many others, actually, in that term.

What "genius" does is further reify and lionize the idea of the individual who, by him- or herself, creates these groundbreaking ideas and does work in solitude. But really we all come out of unity. A phrase like "genius" is, to be honest, a kind of insult. It insults the collaborative nature and the shared nature of all the work that we do together.

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