Leimert Park, Los Angeles–Ben Caldwell sat at his desk in Leimert Park working on his film, when he heard sirens getting closer. He has owned KAOS since the 1990’s, which operates as a technologic think tank for young adults–a business Caldwell started after teaching film at Howard University.
It was not unusual to hear sirens in this part of Los Angeles during these early morning hours. As he peeked out the door of KAOS, Caldwell saw smoke rising from a building on Crenshaw.
“I’ve been on alert at my business because we have been having a lot of periodic fires. I’ve had to call the fire department for two separate fires in Leimert Park. Then last year, we had the fire out in front of the Vision Theatre. I’ve also stopped some people some time ago,” said Caldwell.
The motto for business owners in the area is “we are our brothers keepers” and they aim to have a sense of understanding towards the plight of their houseless neighbors, many who camp in Leimert Park.
He says he is still trying to understand how the entire building was engulfed in flames so quickly. As the white building at 4345 Crenshaw Boulevard went up in flames, so did a sense of Black Los Angeles history. The colorful AFRIKAN SPACEBASE mural by artist Malcolm Emilio sprawled over the fading, vacant building burned with it.
Lonnie Simmons and The Total Experience
This mural on Crenshaw and 43rd included positive affirmations and listed natural herbs and plants used to heal the body. It was painted on what was once the Total Experience Club, owned by Lonnie Simmons. The Total Experience was described by Caldwell as the Apollo West ( he first visited Leimert Park as a film student at UCLA) and he says the nightlife culture on Crenshaw at the time was like Sunset Boulevard.
“That’s the way I saw it. When I first got here and went around the neighborhood I was like, wow! Man, look at this. We looked at the Total Experience and they had like Cameo there, then you go up the street and would see an advertisement for a Blues artist, then we had Regency West—there was just so much that was going on here,” Caldwell recalled.
All the extremely historical soul singers performed at the Total Experience Club during the 70’s and 80’s, in a venue that could hold around 1,500 people.
“It had a line waiting to come in, it was really a phenomenal place that was just across the street. It was a lot of history that just burned down,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell remembers Simmons and his brother having white and maroon Rolls Royce’s. Simmons also founded Total Experience Records and had tremendous success with the artist and music side of the Total Experience brand.
Simmons would eventually branch out with his record label stationed in Hollywood, which Caldwell says was across from the Palladium. He also composed music for his artists, writing several #1 songs for some of his main acts including The Gap Band and Yarbrough. This success would lead to distribution deals including one between Total Experience and RCA Records in the 80’s.
Even after closing both the Total Experience club and record label, Simmons still made money from his songs being sampled from various artist throughout the years.
L.A muralist and former Black Panther Mohammed Mubarak knew Simmons and designed the Total Experience logo. He writes in his tribute to Simmons for EurWeb.com,
“Being there at the Total Experience Club almost day in and nightly I was blessed to be able to see every R & B act perform there beginning with Harold Melvin And the Blue Notes, to the Main Ingredient, Chaka Khan and Rufus, The Dells, The Dramatics, Blue Magic, Johnnie Taylor, B.B.King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Delfonics, The Manhattans, (I could go on and on folks) and The Spinners whom I believe put on one of the best shows there.
This one thing about Lonnie that will forever stand out to me is the fact he always showed love and loyalty to me that I didn’t always show to myself. After I first met Don King in January 1982 at Ceasar’s Palace I painted a portrait of Don that I wanted to take to him in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio and I didn’t have a way to go. Lonnie bought me a round trip plane ticket and put 600.00 in my pocket so that I could make the trip because he knew that I really wanted to go and I had no other way.
And when I had fallen on hard times in the late 80’s he was always there for me and never turned his back on me. I was also blessed to be able to design the logo for his record company which made me feel so honored to do.”
When asked when the vibrancy and night life on Crenshaw began to fade away, Caldwell points to that all too familiar tool used as an instrument of destruction in Black America. He says that drugs began to infest the community during the 80’s, halting the progression of where the community was headed.
Emilio started on the AFRIKAN SPACEBASE mural in 2017. He was inspired to begin the mural based on his life experiences and wanting to activate an ancestral stream of consciousness. The passing of L.A artists and community members Nipsey Hussle and Ras G, were Emilo’s muses to complete the mural. He intentionally called on the men of Neighbors Skate Shop in Leimert Park to bring more local energy.
“I’m very grateful to have the energetic intentions of those brothers–very pure–to give me the strength I needed to focus on the more intricate parts,” said Emilio.
Living in the Crenshaw District on Brynhurst, Emilio was in-tune and familiar with the community. It came natural to provide his talents to the project. Originally from Toronto, his mother is from Chile and his father from Barbados.
“I was always walking past that space and was just feeling called to activate it in someway. Feeling called to bring forward something that had been there long, long ago,” said Emilio. “You could see that what they were attempting to do with the Metro Line was going to have some sort of gentrification concepts in it.”
Emilio says he was told the building had been a club and at some point and then a warehouse that housed guns and supplies but that the building had not been active in about 20-25 years. The property is currently owned by a wealthy Iranian-Jewish family and the family’s patriarch is said to own over 140 L.A properties.
Botach Tactical sells guns and equipment to law enforcement agencies and is owned by one of the patriarchs sons–who has a good reputation with the Black business owners who rent from him in Leimert Park. During the early 2000’s Maxine Waters found her way to Botach Tactical which was then headquartered in Leimert Park, demanding to see the property over community concerns.
Emilio worked on the mural for 15 days over a three year period. He started first by himself, then more people from the community started coming by to support. This, he says, was an affirmation that his intent was being felt by the community.
“I’m grateful that work served its intergenerational purpose and had an impact. This global shift is calling on me to channel something greater that just can’t be reached by low vibrations.”
Hope Rises Through The Ashes
Both Emilio and Caldwell have at least one thing in common. They are both optimistic about the future despite what many think is a loss. Caldwell wants the community to not get caught up in the physicality of the burned buildings on Crenshaw.
Instead, Caldwell says to see it as an opportunity.
“We are 8% of the population but along the strip [Crenshaw] between here and Inglewood when we did the numbers five years ago, we owned 79% of the businesses and people living there. For a population like ours and we own all that we do in this neighborhood–that’s something we should celebrate and a mantra to keep going.”
Caldwell says that the main thing is to put our best foot forward as a community. The new Metro Line will bridge Leimert Park to so many different communities, including Black folks internationally. He says he thinks the community can really excel, if we focus correctly.
“We need to learn how to sell to the international communities. Not just ourselves. I’m excited because all the people I work with, we have to leave L.A to get paid. This will be the first time where the people will come to us,” said Caldwell.
To support the new AFRIKAN SPACEBASE click HERE.