Dave Wagner talks to the Director of Arts and Culture for the city of Detroit, Rochelle Riley about the year-long “Undefeated” initiative and her new book that harnesses the cuteness of children dressed as Historical Black figures accompanied by short essays about these historical heavy hitters.


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Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Start with the title “Undefeated” and tell us about that.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  Well, that’s how I’m feeling right now as we work very hard to move past COVID-19. We did a series of conversations, almost 30 of them last spring with artists and performers and organizations called The Way Forward. And while that was important and that’s what we’re looking at, I wanted something that spoke to the resilience of Detroit, which we’ve always been. So we will not be defeated by this, we will continue to have our great arts and culture, and when we come out on the other side of this pandemic, we’re going to have the joy that we had before it struck.

Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Detroit, at once was called the Paris in Midwest and I think we’re proving our resiliency once more with all of the arts, and artists and performers that are here in Detroit.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, because I tell people all the time Detroit never left, we just stopped talking about us. We are still the Paris of the Midwest, we still have the amazing talent. Detroit has more talent on one street, than some cities have within their entire borders. But we felt a little defeated, we felt like we weren’t really worthy, we didn’t brag about ourselves, and it’s time for us to start doing that again. We have an amazing creative stratosphere here and my job, you know, thanks to the Mayor, is to be the person to remind you of that, to nurture that and by God, to make sure it gets even better.

Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Well, this is a year long celebration, now, I want people to know, that you’re looking for artists, visual artists, musicians, performers, and everyone from the entire cross-section of our community can submit their work. Tell us about that.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  Well, we kicked this off during Black History Month because it is Black History Month and I wanted to make sure that people saw some of the really great brilliance of African-American artists and performers and everything from storytellers to dancers. But the undefeated campaign is for all artists of all ages, sizes, colors, genres, we want everybody in the city to feel like this is their time to shine.

Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Something that you’ve just done, a brand new book and it’s called “That They Lived African Americans Who Change the World”, tell us about the book and how it came about.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  Well, I am so excited and this is what it looks like, yes. A couple of years ago on Twitter and Facebook, but on Twitter, particularly because I’m fierce on Twitter, there’s this young mom in the Seattle area who was posting photographs each day in February of her daughter, her 4 year old daughter, 5 year old daughter dressed as a famous African-American woman. And it wasn’t just a costume; she embodied those folks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Bessie Coleman and Aretha Franklin, just amazing. And I thought, God, that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. She did it again the next February, and I said, I have to find her. And I found her on Facebook and I talked to her and I said, I would like to write some inspirational biographical essays to go with those photos, people should know who these women are. And she was so shy, she wasn’t really sure. So I got on a plane and I flew out to Seattle and I got in a car and drove to her suburban town and met with her family and got her to do it. And that’s how we wound up with this book. So they’re 10 photographs, actually, 11 of her daughter Lola, and all of these amazing characters, including Rosa Parks, in this iconic photo of her being arrested.

Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Oh, my goodness.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  And that’s my grandson, Caleb, as W.E.B Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.

Dave Wagner, Interviewer  Thurgood Marshall.

Rochelle Riley, Author/Arts Advocate  Yeah, Thurgood Marshall and he also portrayed Frederick Douglass and so in between shoots, we would take a break and he wanted to go to the movies with the Frederick Douglass hair, and I said, no, you can’t do that. But we did get to go with the Thurgood Marshall hair. So I walked around with this 8 year old kid with gray hair and people were like, I wonder if that’s that kid from that movie where he gets really old. But it was an amazing experience to teach them about these folks and we want to use it to teach, all kids, of all races, and all sizes, and a lot of adults that every important person was once a child.