Rock on

(Originally published in The California Aggie)

From the beginning, Mark “Stew” Stewart’s musical career was destined to be anything but typical.

For starters, the singer/songwriter/musician from Los Angeles formed a rock band 15 years ago in Los Angeles and named it The Negro Problem.

“If I was in a store looking through band names trying to figure out which records to buy, who was cool, if I saw a band called The Negro Problem, I would buy it immediately. ‘Who the hell is this? I want to know who was crazy enough to name their band this,’” Stew said in a phone interview.

“But on another level, it was a private kind of joke within the band. We thought if our music ever got to a record exec, they’d listen to the music and say, ‘This is OK, but the problem with the band is the black guy in front.’ So we used to joke that I was the “negro problem.” Those were different times, when black musicians playing rock music was a stranger thing.”

But doing what is expected of today’s rock bands has never been Stew’s style, and it’s paid off. In 2006, Stew and collaborator Heidi Rodewald wrote and composed an original stage musical called Passing Strange, about a young African American man who, with the help of rock-and-roll, travels the world in search of “the real.”

The show was picked up by Broadway in 2008 and ran for 165 performances. Stew won that year’s Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and director Spike Lee later adapted the show into a television movie.

Stew said that staying true to his own vision and concentrating on his music instead of fame helped make Passing Strange a success.

“I think if you try to get to Broadway rather than just trying to be a good artist or trying to be good at what you do, you might end up creating crap. It might be a better idea to just write good songs. Because who would have ever thought that a rock band would get to Broadway?” he said. “We decided to do exactly what we wanted to do no matter how much it made us outsiders, and look where we ended up.”

Now, for the first time since Passing Strange, Stew and The Negro Problem are back together. They’ll kick off the West Coast portion of their cross-country tour with two performances at the Mondavi Center this Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I think the one thing we consistently deliver is an experience unique to that evening and unique to that audience. I don’t think we ever play the same show twice,” Stew said. “For us, our job is not to deliver something that’s a product. We want to deliver a living artistic moment, as crazy as that may sound.”

It’s a philosophy that has stuck with Stew throughout his career. Even as a child, his focus has always been on the integrity of the music he creates.

“I grew up feeling that music was not just fun, but was important and somehow culturally significant, just like novels or poetry. I wanted to be a part of that from the beginning,” he said. “And every time you turned on a TV in the ’60s a band was playing. I thought I could form a band and have my own sort of gang. A gang that only hurts people with music.”

Ultimately, Stew said, he writes music that he wants to hear himself – for an audience of one.

“I’m just like a guy in a basement fooling around with a toolkit or chemistry set, trying to build something. I make something, and then I’m having fun making it, and then I’m done and if anyone else comes down to the basement that’s cool. And if a thousand people like it that’s great, too.”

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