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How Music Critic Rashod Ollison Overcame Abuse & Found His Soul

Rashod Ollison's memoir Soul Serenade.
Hyunsoo Leo Kim

Gay and constantly bullied, Ollison documents his grueling life in the Arkansas housing projects in his memoir, Soul Serenade.

Coming of age in 1980s rural Arkansas, Rashod Ollison--affectionately called Dusty-- always knew he was different. Boys at school mocked his higher voice and flapping hand motions. His eldest sister claimed he had too much sugar in his tank and his overworked mother, Dianne, scolded his senstivity, cutting to the bone with reprimands like, You go 'round here actin' like a woman. Reagan [his younger sister] act more like a boy than you. You wanna be a girl?

In Ollison's highly personal and engrossing memoir, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl, the culture critic and Virginian-Pilot music journalist explores the cycle of abuse, constant bullying, and difficult circumstances that upended his childhood. Through extremely evocative language and recreated dialogue, the reader is transported to a time when food was never a certainty and Aretha Franklin was queen.

At school, the word "faggot" was considered a casual slur, and Ollison couldn't find solace at home, as his family was constantly moving between Arkansas housing projects. Music served as Ollison's only true safe haven and passion. Instilled in him by his estranged father, music would lead Ollison to a life far from his past.

Following his memoir's release in January,we spoke with Ollison about his therapeutic writing process, what advice he'd offer his younger self, and the power of Chaka Khan.

Out: When did you decide to write Soul Serenade?

Rashod Ollison: When I moved to Hampton Roads [Virginia] from Baltimore it was a different social situation than what I was used to--suburban life, families, Golden Corral, minivans. After about a month I met this guy, caught myself trying to fall in love and ended up getting my heart broken. So I was lonely, heartbroken, and very awake and decided to reinvent myself.

I started Operation Reinvent Rashod. It was three prong: I hired a therapist to work through some abandonment issues that resurfaced during my breakup, hired a fitness trainer to shave some of this bacon off my ass, and I started to write. The idea for the book had been rolling around for at least a year. I thought initially I'd create parts of my childhood for a novel, but it ended up being a memoir written like one. I couldn't write anything else until this was written.

Did the writing process help you come to terms with all of the difficulties of your childhood?

It was like four years of writing. There was a lot of transformation and emotional upheaval. I've described the book as something of an exorcism, because it released a lot of family grief, pain, sorrow, and a lot of resentment, too. In order to heal, you have to revisit those places or that time where you were hurt. I was able to relive those situations and arrive at a place of empathy and compassion. It didn't make what they did okay. But seeing there was a pattern of abuse and abandonment in my family going way back, I understood, Oh, that was the lens they were looking through. I saw how this was a cycle and I knew I wasn't going to be what my father was or what my mother had been.

By understanding that cycle of abuse, were you able to better understand your mother?

I understood her more as a woman. We have these roles like mother, father, sister, brother, and we have expectations. We try to reconcile who we think they should be with who they have shown themselves to be. When they show you who they are, that's who they are. I was writing a truncated family history which was very tragic and I understood that mama didn't have that emotional connection with people or decided to not show that side of herself. I don't hold anything against her. I wasn't looking for someone to say Oh, I'm so sorry I did you that way.

If you could go back to the 1980s and offer yourself advice, what would you say?

I would tell my little boy self and teenage self, You are ok and it will get better. And it does. But no one told me that. I would tell myself, Everyone else around you, they're wrong. When I was writing the book, I kept a picture of myself nearby. A picture of me as a 7-year-old, this skinny kid, missing my front two teeth. I look incredibly happy and incredibly crazy at the same time. I wanted to write the book for that boy. I dedicated the book to my parents, but in my mind I was dedicating it to that little boy who felt alone. Someone always made fun of him, and it's a shame no one hugged him.

How did you remember or select the songs you included in the memoir?

Writing the book was writing around the music. It was, How do I weave this music into this point in my life? I'm thinking of an instance where I bring in Chaka Khan in fourth grade. I'd heard her music, but that was when I engaged in her voice. I was being bullied at school and didn't find any consolation without being called a faggot at home. That's when I remember listening to music as a way to find things to empower me. Listening to Chaka Khan, I remember physically engaging in the style of her voice which sounds like defiance. I wanted to create an impressionistic feel for the reader of what it felt like for me to listen to this music.

"Faggot" appears throughout the first two parts of Soul Serenade. When you were first called that, how did you react?

I didn't know what it meant. I went home to my older sister, who was a teenager at the time, and innocently enough asked, What's a fag? I knew it sounded nasty. It sounded terrible. Like what the hell is that? I remember people said it all the time. A sort of casual slur. It was the regular language in and around the neighborhood. When I learned what it was, I was like, That's not who I am, whatever that means. Again, I wasn't adjusting myself in order to fit in. That wasn't going to work either. I'd never been able to do that.

What does that word mean to you now?

That word doesn't mean a thing. I know whatever it is, I'm not it. It's like someone calling the wrong name. Someone calling me Bob. I don't answer to that. This was a time when folks weren't politically correct around kids. Whatever conversations they had, they didn't say, Oh we can't say that in front of the kids. They cussed and we picked up those words. People just casually said, Oh that faggot over there. I wanted the language to express the flavor and feel of how people used it. I wanted to show how that word was part of the vernacular. No one said gay or homo. It was fag.

How would you define the concept of masculinity?

For me, masculinity is defined by your character, and being able to understand who you are. I think RuPaul is one of the most masculine men based on my definition. Whether he's in a gown or tailored suit, he knows who he is. The little things we put on to denote masculinity in the black community: tattoos, pants hanging off your ass, and a certain swagger. That's costume. People talk about outward stuff that doesn't mean anything. You meet guys who embody that on the outside, but you engage with them and there's nothing there. My three-year-old niece got more swag. Like what the fuck is that? It has everything to do with asserting who you are without making anyone feel less than. We need more men like that.

Did your father's multiple affairs affect your own relationships?

It did, but in the opposite way. I saw that my father, who I adored, was a flagrant cheater. But he wasn't the only one. A lot of the men just did. If they had a decent paying job, like my father did, they thought, I can have a wife here and a woman across town. It started in the music. The R&B at the time was about cheating in the next room or three-way lovers. Even as a kid I just thought, Why?

I rarely saw any happy marriages growing up. I just saw people getting fucked over. I saw that and thought, I'm not gonna be like that. I'm certainly not going to string someone along and make him think we're together, but I'm fucking half the town. My actions have to align with my words. I don't believe in gray areas in relationships. Growing up I saw a lot of people exist and manipulate those areas and people got hurt. I saw a lot of women walking around, who never got over that pain. That was definitely my mother. I said that's not going to be me.

Circling back to music, is there a particular song that take you right back to those days in Arkansas?

"That Girl" by Stevie Wonder. That was one of the biggest songs around in 1982. There was a lot of sadness but there were some good times, too. When I hear that it takes me back to Hot Springs, Garden Street, and Omega Street. Anything by Rick James takes me back instantly, because during summer '82, '83, and '84, he was ubiquitous. That was back when music wasn't so disposable. People would play albums two or three years later. Any time I hear Rick James I think of summer, ribs, and running up and down Omega street. I think I was just playing Rick James last night.

What is the best advice your mother ever gave you?

There was a point in the book where she tells me, People are either going to accept you or reject you. But she told me that in a way like, Alright, get out of my face. I got shit to do. She was always stressed out and flustered and her mind was always on making ends meet. She would deliver these pearls of wisdom in the same way.

I had a teacher, Ms. James, who told me that in the fourth grade, What people think about you is none of your business. The truth always registers even when you don't want to hear it. During those crazy years of moving and chaos, it always stuck. If I'm crushing on this dude and he's like, Eh, it's like, Oh shit, but it has nothing to do with me. [Laughs]

Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age Through Vinyl is available on Amazon.

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