Born Magdalene Arndt in 1940, Leni Sinclair grew up in East Germany listening to jazz artists like Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald on Radio Luxemburg. At age 19, Sinclair moved to Detroit to study at Wayne State University. She quickly became involved with the radical political and cultural scene, becoming one of the two members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the city.
In 1964, she met poet John Sinclair, and married him the following year. Together they set up the Detroit Artists Workshop, a network of communal houses, performance space, and print shop that became the center for the Detroit music scene, attracting the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, all of whom Sinclair photographed.
Police began targeting the Detroit Artists Workshop, raiding it in 1965 and 1967, and arresting John Sinclair on marijuana charges. Undeterred, the Sinclairs soldiered on, practicing the peace, love, and free vibes of hippie culture before such a thing existed. Throughout it all, they remained dedicated to art, music, and activism, going so far as to establish the White Panther Party to support the work of the Black Panther Party before the term “ally” gained clout.
With the publication of Motor City Underground: Leni Sinclair Photographs 1963–1973 (MOCAD and Foggy Notion Books), Sinclair looks back at her extraordinary work documenting the art, music and political scenes of late 1960s Detroit. The book opens at the March on Washington of 1963 and chronicles performances and artists’ events at the Detroit Artists Workshop, early concerts with the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges in the Grande Ballroom, anti-war protests, the Detroit Uprising and the Black Panthers, and Sinclair’s ongoing documentation of Sun Ra, and other luminaries in jazz, blues and rock and roll.
Here Sinclair looks back at a life on the edge, when radical culture transformed the face of the mainstream forevermore.
Can you take us back to 1964 when you founded the Detroit Arts Workshop and speak about the importance of creating a community for artists at that time?
“Since I came to America I was a student at Wayne State University and I got interested in student politics. I was elected to the student government and I joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) very early on. There were only two members in 1962 including myself.
“My interest coming from East Germany was always in the political scene and comparing it to where I came from and realizing there are problem in America as well as East Germany. After hanging out with political students for a few years, I met John Sinclair, who was not into demonstrations of student politics but he was more radical than anyone I’d met before because his attitude towards life in general was that of a rabble rouser, organizing jazz musicians, and all kinds of things.
“I was interested in aspects of this movement, or this attitude was even more political than going to a demonstration, a meeting, belonging to something. We had jazz musicians in our group like Charles Moore, when they sat in with some other musicians in the after hour club, the other musicians said, ‘What is that? That’s not jazz, get out of here!’ (laughs) so that prompted us to want to have a place where we could do that without any restrictions.
“That to me was more radical than anything I had experienced in my life, so I hooked up with John Sinclair, and eventually we married and worked together as a team very productively for years. He got snatched away from us and put in jail.”
Can you speak about the impact of the 1965 and 1967 police raids on the workshop, and how this event may have impacted or shaped your work as an activist in the 1960s?
“It was all about marijuana prohibition. John Sinclair had moved to Detroit from Flint and he had knew people that smoked weed and so the police were always after us. We advocated for the legalization of marijuana. We knew that prohibition was a lie because once you tried you knew it wasn’t bad, like heroin or other hard drugs, and now we know 60 years later, now people know it’s recreational.
“I don’t even make any distinction between medical and recreational — it’s always one in the same. It doesn’t do any harm to you, it only does harm to the police state that used that issue to oppress people they didn’t like.”
Can you speak about the decision to reorganize the workshop as Trans-Love Energies Unlimited in 1967?
“After the Detroit Artists workshop and John Sinclair went to jail the first time in 1966, when he got out of jail, it was like while he was in jail for six months the whole country changed. All of a sudden there was this big phenomenon that they wrote about in Life magazine called the ‘hippies.’
“I love hippies now although I never considered myself one. Hippies to me are one of the greatest forces that contributed to the end of Vietnam and Nixon having to leave office. They changed society forever because the difference between what people did in the ‘50s and what they looked like is attributed to the hippies.
“After the phenomenon of the hippies started, we opened up a whole lot from being a clique of hipsters, we expanded our horizon to he greater world and embraced it. When we met the people in MC5, and there were millions of people all over the country following this phenomena we had to take a look around and we opened the Detroit Arts Workshop doors to people to come.
“A lot of people had followed the phenomenon in San Francisco of the Human Be In, thousands of people with flowers in their hair and beads, they looked for something like that in Detroit. In San Francisco, the psychedelic era was ushered in with the help of Beatnik poets like Allen Ginsberg, people who helped organized the Be In.
“People in Detroit were looking around for the beatniks, and they found us and we opened the doors to the community and people from everywhere would come in, read magazines, we had vending machines for snacks, and the doors were open 24/7 – anyone could come in and hang out. A lot of the people who came, they helped us in what we were doing making books and magazines and distributing them.”
Could you speak about how these experiences inspire you to create the White Panther Party? Can you speak about how the Black Panthers inspired you to use and create to fight against the unconstitutional acts by the US government?
“It was a fun time until 1967 and the urban rebellion in Detroit, which changed a lot. We got raised, the police took some of the people to jail. That’s a whole ‘nother subject, we could talk forever about what happened during the riots, but things changed after that and we got run out of Detroit by the police. They harassed us like they harassed all the Black people.
“When our living quarters were firebombed and we couldn’t live there anymore, the place was demolished not by fire but by the first being put out, it was full of black sooty water we couldn’t walk there, we couldn’t cook, we couldn’t live there so practically overnight we had to flee from overnight to save our life and we moved to Ann Arbor, which seemed more conducive to our lifestyle.
“But it wasn’t an easy beginning in Ann Arbor either. The right wing people there had a demonstration protesting against us and they were carrying signs like “Sin, Like in Sinclair” (laughs). They personally attacked us before they even knew us.
“While we were living in Ann Arbor, we followed the work of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and were very supportive because the BPP was helping the community, helping the people get food, confront police brutality, so we followed that. Then some white racial from Berkeley wanted to join the BPP because it was not a Black Nationalist, they were organized like the Marxist Leninist Party.
“When the white radical wanted to be part of it, the leadership of the BPP said, ‘You can’t join us because we are the Black Panthers, but if you want to help us you can start organizing your own people.’ We took that to heart because we were already doing that, so we decided to take them by their word and start the White Panther Party in support of the BPP and also to emulate the things they were doing in their community.
“But in retrospect, I would never ever allow myself to be called the WPP publicly because now white means white supremacists and we were just the opposite. There was some backlash against us from misunderstanding the term white, and eventually we had to change the name and became the Rainbow People’s Party.”
Can you share any lessons of the era that art particularly applicable to the times we live in now?
“Study history, don’t forget about the repression: the McCarthy era, the Nixon era, and the war in Vietnam – the same things are still happening today. Like Jesse Crawford used to preach at the MC5 concerts, ‘You either part of the problem or you are part of the solution.’”
All Photos: © Leni Sinclair