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Music and Justice: The Legacy of Gary Stewart

Gary Stewart’s passion for politics mirrored his love of music. His death rocked friends who remembered him as a deeply invested participant in whatever organization or cause he backed.

Bobbi Murray

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Gary Stewart photo courtesy of LAANE.

“This morning’s brief promise of Spring was punctured by the news of the passing of Gary Stewart,” Elvis Costello wrote on Facebook last week when learning of the death of Gary Stewart, the music curator who worked with Costello to compile decades of his work into a catalog for release on Rhino Records. Stewart, who served as Rhino’s A&R head, and then as chief music officer for Apple Music after Steve Jobs had first recruited him to help establish iTunes, was also widely lauded within the industry for his work with charitable causes. But that description isn’t quite accurate, Los Angeles progressive community activists have told Capital & Main.

Stewart wasn’t after charity—he was after fundamental change.

“For Gary it was all about building power, it was all about shifting power to change society for people who have been marginalized and oppressed,” said Amy Sausser, a communications specialist who had been friends with Stewart since the early 1990s.

Stewart served more than 20 years on the board (several of them as chair) of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which provides support to social justice campaigns and honored him with its Founders Award in 2011. He sat on the advisory boards of the LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which also named an award for him, and of Community Coalition, which does intensive grassroots organizing in South L.A. around racial justice issues.

“I am so proud you chose us to tackle white supremacy,” Alberto Retana, the coalition’s president and CEO who recruited Stewart to its board, posted last week on Facebook.

“He had done a lot around social justice, economic justice and he wanted to figure out a way to tackle racism and race in the country, but most importantly in the city of Los Angeles,” Retana later said in an interview.

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Stewart’s death by suicide rocked friends who remembered him as a deeply invested participant in whatever organization or effort he backed — raising money, bringing in donors, lending his business experience to teach organizations how to make the most of resources. He seemed to do it as a matter of course, as if, one friend said, he thought that anybody could do what he did.

His passion for politics mirrored his love of music. “I think he first got politicized through music,” Sausser said. “He was a nerdy kid who loved music and it was a great time for political, left-wing music. Punk rock, I think, sort of led him to politics.”

Laurence Frank, now president of Los Angeles Trade Technical College, was an organizer when Stewart first ventured into progressive politics with Coalition 88, a grassroots group that worked in low-income neighborhoods with historically low voter turnout, especially South Los Angeles, to boost participation there during the 1988 elections.

Stewart walked in the door and volunteered. “He was an extremely funny guy, seemed as sincere as you could come up with,” Frank said. “He came in day after day and was willing to do the shit work. During the election we got to be friends.”

But organizing work ain’t all rock ’n roll.

Michele Prichard was another Coalition 88 organizer and recently recalled the moving-in chaos as members set up shop in a run-down strip mall storefront on Western Avenue near the 10 Freeway. “I don’t know where he heard about us,” said Prichard, who had to ship 5,000 voter guides outlining ballot measure endorsements to an ally and assigned the chore to the new volunteer. Stewart rustled up the shipping materials himself—there were none in the office — and made the trip to the downtown L.A. Greyhound bus station.

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Stewart’s affinity for pop culture initially baffled some of his fellow campaigners—it was different from the no-nonsense culture of organizing. But then they got it, Frank said. “We loved the way he talked about pop culture. He pushed pop culture the way we pushed politics, and the relationships between politicos and culturalists was totally symbiotic.”

Prichard became the executive director of the nascent Liberty Hill Foundation and recruited Stewart, who had moved into his A&R position at Rhino, to the foundation’s board.

“He brought his business acumen into the non-profit and social justice [world],” Prichard said. “He was one of the first people to talk about metrics—‘Okay, how much are we trying to do, by when are we going to do it?’”

“Gary was a lightning bolt when it came to raising standards, raising money, pushing me to having a clear pathway,” Retana said. It wasn’t enough to have an ambitious goal. We needed to have a plan to achieve it. He believed in big, bold goals but he equally believed in a real plan to get there. He wanted honest assessments.”

Roxana Tynan, LAANE’s executive director, recalled times after huge, exhausting fundraising events, when she just wanted to take five and get a drink. Stewart would sidle up, announcing, “I have some criticism I’d like to share. “

“He always had very good advice,” Tynan said. “He was critical but he was right. It was all in the interest of having us succeed and be more effective. Where he weighed in [on] was what he really understood and knew, which was raising money and getting donors excited and getting folks involved.”

Stewart was driven to pursue perfection in his music work–he would hold out on releasing compilations for months or sometimes years until he acquired all the right tracks.

His political life was the same.

“He had really high expectations of organizations and elected officials. He had high expectations of himself,” said Paula Litt, who served with him for decades on the Liberty Hill Foundation board.

Added Sausser: “It was really important for him that it was not only the right kind of work or the right intention–but that it was being done in a way that was super-effective. And strategic. I think he played a role with every organization he worked with of pushing the idea that it’s not enough to be just right.

“You have to win.”


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