By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
I received the news on Sunday, April 13th that someone I had known for more than thirty-eight years had passed away. Fred Ho, the renowned musician, writer and revolutionary lost his eight year battle with colon cancer.
Our friendship was complicated. Long periods, particularly in the early 1980s, went by without any sort of interaction. Over the years we would find ourselves enmeshed in political disputes about anything ranging from the ‘political correctness’ of inter-racial dating to ecosocialism. Fred’s passion for social justice and radical politics frequently resulted in heated debates and, not infrequently, the need for a ‘cooling off’ period.
Yet, at the end of the day, Fred was my friend and someone I not only cared for but also deeply respected. Fred understood, better than many, the critical and essential need for a cultural wing to all social justice work, including but not limited to radical politics. In that sense he was very much a ‘child’ of Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader of Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde’s struggle for national liberation against the Portuguese. Fred appreciated that culture, whether in the form of poetry, jazz, operas, etc., was not simply a means to reach a people, but that it served as an essential means of connecting with people. His opera, “Voice of the Dragon,” is one of the most fascinating, exciting and provocative pieces of music that I have ever seen performed. It tells a story about Chinese revolutionaries in an ancient time, but it actually is a challenge to those who fight oppression today.
Though Asian American, Fred had a deep and profound appreciation of African American history and culture. In no way did Fred attempt to sublimate his identity or transform himself into an African American. Rather, he saw in the African American experience a central struggle against white supremacist national oppression in the USA and one around which so much in the USA evolved. His appreciation of African American culture, and jazz in particular, did not result in mimicking but instead in working to further the development of an art form that is not limited to the African American experience, though clearly inspired by our struggle. His artistic work sought to unite Asian, and particularly Chinese, experiences with those of African Americans which was just as much a political declaration as a cultural statement.
Fred fought a long and courageous battle against cancer. One of the most remarkable features of his struggle was his refusal to back down. Until nearly the very end, Fred stayed active, encouraging those around him, performing and meeting, or just keeping on. It was only the other day that I knew that the hour was about to strike when I received an email from his long-time friend Ann Green telling the world that Fred was quickly declining. There had been earlier warnings but somehow Fred seemed to come out on top. This time, however, the moment had arrived.
Fred Ho occupied a very unique place in culture, politics and, indeed, friendship circles. In many ways as enigmatic as the late Amiri Baraka, Fred sought to be an example to all those who, when facing what appear to be insurmountable challenges, understand that they must move forward until the last breath of air is exhaled.
We will miss Fred, but we will always appreciate the marvelous contributions with which he left us.