Born, raised and schooled in three cities below the Mason-Dixon line, Eddie Bailey was determined to get out of the South, and more specifically, to New York City. With a degree in film from Howard University, “twenty dollars, a cell phone, and no bank account,” he landed at the home of a college buddy who worked for Goldman Sachs. "He was just cool," Eddie says, "And let me bum on the couch for four months." Fifteen years later, we sit in his light-filled Brooklyn home in anticipation of the February 19 release of his fascinating first film, Memphis Majic on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Prime (streaming, DVD and Blu-Ray), to discuss the journey to his emergence as a documentary filmmaker and his delayed pride in his Southern roots.
The documentarian impulse is evident in evocative, framed photos of city life on one wall and family portraits on another. Enlarged childhood snapshots of he and his wife of nine years, Andrea, anchor the wall and are surrounded by images of various kinfolk. He points out a picture of three generations of Baileys: he, his father and grandfather, Memphian men each bearing the name Eddie Savoy Bailey, and one of his beautiful mother, Victoria Carol Johnson. The only son of Eddie Jr. and Vicki – who divorced while he was still a toddler – Eddie the third was raised in his early years by his mom until she left him in the care of her parents in Memphis while she established a new life for them in Atlanta where he would join her the following year.
He shares the story of his granddad, born in 1920's Indianola, Mississippi (the hometown, Eddie notes, of B.B. King) when naming a black child for a U.S. President was thought to confer honor and prestige. Theodore Roosevelt Johnson did grow to honorable manhood. Although he was a bright eighth-grader when he arrived in Memphis at age thirteen, this black child from Mississippi was unjustly placed in the fourth grade. He would go on to attend the historically black Lemoyne-Owen College, and ultimately become a principal in Memphis city schools, a vocation held for forty years, Eddie shares proudly. Mr. Johnson's "side-hustle," selling Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia sets door-to-door, both supplemented his municipal income and opened worlds to his young grandson, who as “the only kid on the block,” voraciously devoured the volumes, instilling a love and respect for nature. "I think it also fostered my interest in documentary style storytelling because I read encyclopedias all the time," he says.
Barring time spent with his beloved cousins, he lived as an only child until his younger sister, Erin, his father’s daughter came along a decade later. In the gap year away from his mom, weekdays were with his mother’s parents and weekends with his paternal grandparents. “Raised by elders during this time, I learned how to connect with old folks,” he says. “Frequently somebody they knew had a stroke, or somebody died, and that was the conversation. I think it gave me a pragmatist’s point of view of the circle of life and death. Now that I look back on it, I really appreciate it,” he says.
The paradigm shifted when he joined his mother in Atlanta, from soaking in the wisdom of the elders in Memphis to basking in the glories of childhood in the Georgia capital. “I was around a bunch of kids. There was no culture shock; I was a chameleon, I functioned well. I climbed trees, got dirty, picked up snakes." A succession of reptile and amphibian pets included a turtle, a lizard, a fire belly newt and his favorite, a garter snake that slithered away after growing robust enough to escape its cage on his balcony.
Atlanta life meant hanging outdoors. "If you didn't go outside you were wack. So I would come home from school, put down my books and go right outside. We would play football in the dirt, throw up tackle, basketball." He excelled at the only organized sport he participated in, Tae Kwon Do, which he'd started in Memphis, but didn't become serious about until he was around eight years old. He competed for two years in a row in the Georgia State Tae Kwon Do Tournament in the eight and nine division, garnering a gold medal in sparring, a silver medal in form and technique and the following year, a bronze in sparring. "I really enjoyed it," he says, showing me a medal he later won as a Howard student competing at Princeton.
Eddie Bailey Jr.'s "good job at Kodak" took him to Aurora, Colorado; Rochester, New York, and suburban Chicago, where Eddie III was first called the N-word. "I never really faced open racism until I came to the North. My dad lived in a town in the western suburbs called St. Charles, Illinois, which is about an hour outside the city. I’m walking down the street, and these white guys come through in a station wagon. They holler out the car, 'NIGGER!' I was a scrawny kid – about 12-years-old. They were big; they had to be twenty years old! There's a huge difference between twenty and twelve. I couldn’t win."
Again in Chicago was another threat to his 12-year-old being, this time at the hands of the police, when he visited his white friend, Cole, a boy from the neighborhood who was "on punishment." He was speaking with Cole through his bedroom window in the basement when Cole said, "just come on in." He was reluctant, but Cole said, "Naw man, just come through, she’s [his mother] not gonna know." Eddie recounts the story: "A neighbor was watching and called the police. The police burst in the door, get everyone out the house; it’s total confusion and mayhem. They single me out, guns are on me; they tell me to get on the ground, and the cop says, 'If you run, I’ll shoot you,’ and his partner says, 'If he misses, I won’t.' Then my dad happens to go by, but I didn’t call for him. I’m thinking two things: One, what if he gets upset that I’m causing this commotion with the police? And, two, what if he gets upset and the police shoot him? So I just let him pass." Eventually, the police conclude the boys are just children flouting rules and "laugh it off," Eddie says. Though not identified by name, Eddie's guns-drawn-on-a-child experience made its way into the St. Charles local newspaper – in the comedy section.
Eddie's teen years were all about hip hop. "I remember Run-DMC’s 'You Talk Too Much,' in the 80s, but I was too young to grasp it. My real awareness came from an aunt who lived in Philly; her children were all East Coast music. I remember one summer my cousin was playing Showbiz and AG, and he was talking about lyrics, I'd never heard somebody talk about that before. I thought I like this. And it had a little jazz to it, so that's when I really started listening. I’m talking about Nas, J Clan, Biggie, Cella Dwellas, AZ, Mike Geronimo. East Coast hip hop; that became the soundtrack of my life," he says.
He and his friend Adrean would go to Lenox Square Mall on the weekends to score maxi-singles from Coconuts Records. "I bought [Nas’] 'The World is Yours. I remember listening to it, and I’m like, yo! I like this — the imagery.” He pauses reverentially. “I’ve never been to Queens, but I feel like I’m there. After that, I bought Illmatic, and I heard 'New York State of Mind.' I was sold.”
Moving into the visual space blew his mind. "There are two videos I remember vividly," he says excitedly. One my boy put me on to: 'I Got Cha Opin, the remix’ by Black Moon. I saw that and went crazy; with that Barry White sample? I was like YO!" Get him talking about 90's hip hop, and he is in his element: "The second video was ‘Cream’ by Wu-Tang Clan. It wasn’t just a gritty video; there was a certain beauty in it, a certain romance to the grittiness. Even in the dilapidated neighborhoods, there was a certain cinematic quality that drew me to it. And even though I grew up in Lithonia, Georgia, which is middle class, black America, there was something about how they visually told that story in a way that said, I’m not from here, but I can dig it. With black people in America, you may have a cousin raised upper middle class and a cousin who grew up in the hood; your lineage is still the same. You're out of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration."
Her son may have been a hip hop head, but drive time with Vicki Johnson meant listening to her music. "Living in Atlanta, you spend a lot of time in the car. With Mom, it was the oldies, all the time. Anything from the seventies, late sixties, early eighties, it was on that station." He started connecting the dots between the music his mother enjoyed and the hip hop he loved. "Okay, this is the dope thing about 90s hip hop. I think people in the nineties respect old school music, 'cause they sampled everything. So that means you would have to go back. Where did they get that? You’d have to go back and research it."
"I was probably the most uninterested person in everything except hip hop music as a teenager. My mother bought me a Super 8 camera. I didn’t even mess with it." But somehow he'd known since the age of six that he'd make films. "I didn't know to call it a filmmaker, but I was always telling stories; making up stuff, So I guess that's how I knew." With a recurring vision of a man running down the street as in an action film, he knew that he was the observer, not the subject. "I knew I was behind the camera. I would tell people I wanted to be a storyteller. I got in trouble in the second grade for writing a story about this man and woman in the jungle. There was a lot of cursing in it." A classmate reported it to the teacher, who then called his mother. She took note of his inclinations and tried to direct them positively. "She was just cool, very supportive like that," Eddie says of his mom." So if I mentioned something, she’d try to foster that interest."
"There was a point when I wasn’t doing so well in high school, and I didn't want to be left behind – it's one of my fears." Seeing his Philadelphia cousin prosper at Howard University made him rethink how he was performing as a student. "After tenth grade, I buckled down and became more serious about what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to be a loser." His cousin's photographs of Howard life with "so many beautiful women on the yard" sold him: "I want to go there, that's where I want to be!" He considered NYU, and knew he wanted to live in New York eventually but attending a black college was very important to him, and Howard had a film program where he studied with Shirikiana Gerima in his senior year. He recalls another professor, “Rocky,” considered a tough teacher, who shared words of praise. "He told me 'You’re a very talented young man.' And I’ll never forget that because it was coming from him," he says thoughtfully. "I wasn’t a standout film student, but I was pretty good."
He flies high the flag of historically black colleges and universities. "HBCUs are vital," he says emphatically, "to black life. To me, personally, it was amazing. You get to meet people from all walks of life, every state, every country." Statistically, "HBCU’s produce more black professionals than other institutions. And 80% of Black doctors (and dentists) in America went to Howard and Meharry Medical Schools," he says. (According to a US Department of Education study) “I think there’s a difference between students who went to HBCU’s and black students who went to predominantly white universities. From what I notice, HBCU students are a little more loud and proud about who they are as black people, and I think that’s okay.”
Having a place to crash on his friend (and fellow Bison) Alex Dixon's sofa made it possible for Eddie to make a move from post-college Atlanta to New York and soon find work as a Production Assistant on various MTV shows, and reality shows like “The Apprentice”. Then he became “an on-and-off associate producer, story producer and then by default, I became an editor. I needed a project edited, and no one could do it, so I had to learn. Once I learned, like with Tae Kwon Do, I said Oh, I’m good at this. I can do this. Being an editor made me be a better storyteller." Though initially intimidated by editing software, he learned Final Cut Pro and then "graduated to Premier. I’ve been an editor now for about six or seven years."
He cut his editing teeth as a casting editor for reality television, taking contestants' frequently poor quality, fifteen or so minute audition tapes and cutting them down to 3-5 minute videos. "We had to do two or three of those a day; I did that for a few months, so it made me faster and built my confidence."
In 2005 he worked as a PA on a reality show called Full Plate, in which super busy working women took time to prepare a meal for their loved ones. Vivacious entrepreneur, Andrea Fairweather, founder of Fairweather Faces, Traveling Beauty Services appeared on an episode to cook for her Dad. With the mandate to not speak to talent, Eddie was assigned to drive Andrea to set/location. Friendly Andrea chatted away, but he couldn't respond. They later learned that they both attended Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn. A few months later, cajoled into going to what he thought would be a "corny" church singles mixer, he ran into her again and asked her out the next night, which happened to be Valentine's Day, though chocolates, flowers, and heart-shaped cards weren't on his mind. They went to a local nightspot and just hit it off. But it wasn't until he realized that she was the person he talked to every day that he knew they would be more than "kicking it." He proposed to her on his birthday. This September will mark ten years of marriage.
Since 2013 Eddie has worked for CUNY TV, primarily editing segments for magazine shows. It's a position he calls a "TV person's dream job. I work for the government; there are no corporate sponsors; you're not competing, so everything's chill. It's not like TV which is very demanding; this is not. There are benefits; it pays pretty well, enough to live in New York and be okay." It's a sweet deal, less stress and fewer hours than average television.
"Working at CUNY afforded me to get the film done." His salary funded the documentary, which took three years to complete from pre-production to filming and editing. "I thought about getting money from other people; then I decided no, I want this to be me. Getting money takes time. If I have the money now, I can do it myself. I saved about 50 grand on an editor. I needed someone to shoot it. I can’t do that, but I could direct and come back and chop it up."
The genesis of the film is in his life-long love of dance. Back in the day, he was a pop-locker, and he even married a former dancer. "I was always interested in African American forms of dance; I was interested in how black Americans interpreted dance. Then I started to focus on Southern hip hop, the rhythm of southern music and how it makes you move." Although New York offers myriad opportunities for cultural immersion to study West African dance, Eddie believes that in the South, the movement is a little closer to the source – "The street dances that are made up in the South and the continent [Africa] are a lot closer than people think. Someone may see dancing in the South and say it looks like a slave dance, but slave dances: the wing thing, that’s a West African thing." He marvels: "How people interpreted those West African movements with American music, and it came to be this Black American thing, it's phenomenal. So when I saw jookin, this uniquely black; uniquely Southern something I’ve never seen? Man, it’s urban ballet. That’s their term for it, and I think it’s fitting."
Jookin evolved from Gangsta Walking, an earlier Memphis dance style. Eddie first saw it in "its evolutionary form when YouTube was getting poppin, back in 2006, 2007" and became an immediate fan. Years later he reached out to one of the jookers, just to tell him "how dope I thought he was." The dancer recognized Eddie from a Smack DVD in which he'd been onstage filming a battle rap between Loaded Lux and Calicoe – and it opened a conversation. That Thanksgiving holiday in 2013, Eddie went to Memphis and began to develop the idea.
"As I was doing the film, what sparked me was I really liked how the guys were making a vocabulary for jookin; writing it down. They were taking it so seriously." Now based in LA, Charles "Li’l Buck" Riley, who appears in the film, is the most widely known of the Memphis jookers, due in part to his fortuitous pairing with Yo Yo Ma, on Camille Saint Saens' Black Swan, which went viral and has taken him to Beijing, Versailles and garnered an iPhone commercial. Li’l Buck's acclaim notwithstanding, Eddie says, "When I would tell people I was working on a documentary about jookin, people didn’t know what it was. But why?"
In examining the story of Memphis' 21st-century dance form, Eddie realized that the story of the mostly black, blue-collar city itself is integral to the emergence of the genre. "Memphis has a lot of history. Earth-shattering history, that I never knew," he explains. "It's where the blues was cultivated, not necessarily where it was born, but where it was fostered and nurtured on Beale Street. It is a city of many black entrepreneurs." Central to Memphis' survival as a city, he says, was the business acumen of entrepreneur and philanthropist, Robert Church, Sr., reputedly the South’s first black millionaire. "He had brothels, he opened the first black bank in Memphis, he is the man who saved Memphis from going into ruin in 1877 when the yellow fever epidemic broke out." Though born into slavery, Church's white father took him in when he was twelve after his mother died and "raised him on the Mississippi River steamboats where there were scumbags, and gamblers and lowlifes," Eddie says. "He knew what white men liked: money, liquor, and prostitutes." And that’s what Church, who could pass for white, offered in full supply. "He was responsible for building Beale Street, and he financed Ida B. Wells’ trips to Chicago and California when she needed it. She got run out of Memphis when she wrote that paper about the People's Grocery lynching. He also financed W.C. Handy’s career. Robert Church, Sr. then passed that dynasty off to his son, Robert Church, Jr. who was into politics. He ended up getting into some trouble with Boss Crump, a political boss in Memphis, much like those of Tammany Hall in New York. Crump, a white man, ran the state of Tennessee like a dictatorship."
In exchange for the black vote, Crump excused Church Jr. from the responsibility of paying property taxes. Once those votes were secure, Crump seized Church Junior's beautiful home in an integrated, upscale Memphis neighborhood of Victorian mansions. The city got new equipment for the fire station in 1954. The spiteful Crump used the Church mansion to test out the equipment, repeatedly starting and extinguishing the flames, eventually allowing the home to burn to the ground and paving the way for FDR's slum clearance program: demolishing the century-old homes to make way for two public housing projects, the Foote Homes and the Clearborn Homes.
Eddie was astonished to learn his own family's connection to local history. "My cousin, D’Army Bailey, (a late jurist and activist) bought the Lorraine Motel (site of the MLK assassination) in 1981 and turned it into the Civil Rights Museum. His brother, Walter Bailey, (coincidentally the name of the unrelated, and original owner of the motel) who’s in the film, is the former Shelby County Commissioner, the longest-serving (44 years) county commissioner in the country. He was instrumental in integrating Shelby County schools in 1965." He was also part of the legal team that brought the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in light of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, for what would become the last days of his life. "I never knew this; my grandparents never talked about it.”
"Memphis Majic is really about the infrastructure of Memphis told through the lens of jookin. In a lot of ways jookin helped me to rediscover Memphis." And oddly, life in New York helped him reconnect to his Southernness. "It wasn’t until I moved North that I realized how Southern I really am. The way I talk, that’s the most obvious. My nature; everything isn’t urgent, everything isn’t now, now, now, like in New York." The languid pace of the South is more in keeping with his way of being. "I’ve been here fifteen years, and I don’t walk fast. I’ll never walk fast," he laughs. "There’s a certain non-sophistication, and I don't mean it in a bad way. Everything doesn’t have to be a production; it can just be."
Gravitas Ventures, the largest distributor of documentary and independent films picked up Memphis Majic in October 2018. "I decided to license them the movie instead of selling it to them outright so that I can have ownership of it and the freedom over it to do what I want." He has screened the 72-minute film, his first, at the Bedford-Stuyvesant/Crown Heights Film Festival in Brooklyn, his current home; at Howard University, his alma mater; and at Indie Memphis Film Festival in his hometown. "People in Memphis loved it. It was sold out! It was a mixed crowd, but a lot of black folks showed up,” he says proudly. "And it wasn’t just prominent black folks. It was just folks from the city showing up, and I like that. That tells me it speaks to them. That meant a lot to me for them to come out and support it. People were grateful that I linked the history of Memphis with jookin.
He is pleased with the film he's created but wishes he could have captured the stories of more female jookers (Ladia Yates is featured prominently, but the others simply weren't around during production.) As with many street dances, like breakdancing and pop locking, males predominate, but there are women jookin, he says, "And they're damn good. Goooooood. There’s this one girl named LaShonté I wish I’d gotten in there, Oh my God, she’s ridiculous! She’s amazing. Her ankles bend all types of ways."
A woman who did contribute to Memphis Majic is his wife, Andrea, who has an executive producer credit on the documentary. "Watching Eddie realize his dream has been inspirational," she says. "This was something he’d never done before. I had no clue the monumental undertaking it would be. I had respect for Eddie during our courtship and watching him as a husband, developing that way, but now I have it even more so. That this project happened was so heavily ingrained in his spirit; it was necessary to his happiness. Experiencing it with him, seeing the beginning, seeing the middle as he figured it all out, he was a master."
His martial art mastery demonstrates his discipline. "Whatever I put my mind to; I go with it, full steam ahead, like Tae Kwon Do, which is not as important to me as it used to be anymore. I think we have seasons in our lives. It served its purpose; its season is done." Now, his immersive passion is with filmmaking and in Memphis Majic, he brings to the forefront the next "uniquely American" performative art form after jazz, but make no mistake, in this "Majic" the "j" is for jookin.
1. Going down south. When he was younger, he couldn’t wait to leave, but he has, with time and distance come to love his southern heritage. Born in Memphis and raised on the outskirts of Atlanta, there’s always family to connect with when he visits. And history to explore.
2. Eating out. He doesn’t have a favorite cuisine; he enjoys a variety: Mediterranean, soul food, West Indian, Thai and American fusion. And he’s an omniivore – likes good veggies with his red meat.
3. Intense dramas and crime shows. Some faves include Spike Lee’s Clockers and the series Breaking Bad, True Detective (HBO), Goliath (Amazon Prime), and Ozark (Netflix).
4. A good bar. It’s where he likes to meet with friends. It can’t be too stuffy nor too trendy. “Too trendy means I have to dress up and too stuffy means I can't let loose. I like a hybrid of the two.”
5. Chilling with my wife on the weekend. The busy creatives treasure time to reconnect.
6. Watching the scenery unfold on a train ride. “I usually take Amtrak from New York to DC. I like the city landscapes – especially going through Philly. The city is rough-looking in a beautiful kind of way. I always wonder what the people are doing down there and if they're comfortable when they sleep. I also like seeing the marshes in Jersey. It reminds me of the saw grass in southern Georgia and Florida.”
7. Black American history. He dives into historical texts and he enjoys talking with elders to get their stories and perspectives. “Right now I'm reading Denmark Vesey: A Buried Story of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It for the second time.
8. Nature shows. He watches BBC Planet Earth, Nat Geo Wild and River Monsters, to name a few. “I generally like anything about the African savannas. The precariousness of life and death always amazes me; it is peaceful and inspiring to watch. I say that because nature is unbiased in who gets to flourish and who gets to perish. It's beautiful and terrifying at the same time.” And the encyclopedias he read for entertainment? “My interest in nature was heightened through those books.”
9. Architecture strolls. “I like to take walks in the city and look at the architecture.”
10. Spending time with my family. Of course it’s great to see them on birthdays, at weddings and graduations, but for Eddie, it’s all love, all the time for parents, grands, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. “It doesn't have to be on a holiday, it can be just getting up with the family to do nothing."