Shocking and tragic end to activist’s incredible life
Andrew Philemon Jones didn’t just play the violin, he made it sing. Horsehair bow flying over the strings, resin rising like smoke, he’d walk around the room, coaxing notes and chords from the fragile shell that came at you in a wall of sound.
Throughout the performance, his eyes would peer out over the lacquered wood, gauging the effect of his solo symphony as his digits ran up and down the fingerboard. A wry smile completed the picture of Andrew in his glory, provoking with music before setting down his beloved violin to provoke you with ideas.
In all the years I knew Andrew, he was a gentle soul – angry at injustice towards humanity but possessing a great love towards humans. News of the manner of his death in South Africa came as a shock. In late October, after an argument with his estranged wife – the mother of their three young sons – Andrew left their office, returned with a handgun, and fired one bullet. The shot went through her shoulder. He pulled the trigger a second time. The gun jammed. Andrew killed himself after she fled from the room. He was 58 years old.
Andrew had battled demons but demons could hardly explain or condone such a violent end.
Friends and family who attended his funeral in Johannesburg, the city where Andrew had started a new life after leaving Boston in 1995, were similarly shocked. His wife, Kubeshni Govender Jones, was sufficiently recovered to attend the services, as were their boys – Cochise, Sicelo, and Ayanda.
Many Bostonians may remember Andrew as the driving force behind the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project (GRIP) – the movement for the secession of Boston’s African American neighborhoods into a new municipality. The 1986 referendum campaign attracted national attention and embarrassed the Flynn administration, which mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat a ballot question seen as a vote on the quality of City Hall’s governance of Boston’s black community.
The idea for black self-governance was not a rebuke, however, to the South Boston-born mayor who made racial reconciliation a theme of his administration. It came to Andrew during a stint as an ABC News field producer covering a town hall meeting in Vermont, where the notion of self-determination, deeply stamped into the character and landscape of rural New England, struck in Andrew a resonant chord.
It just seemed to Andrew like the right thing to do. “The right of a people to self-determination cannot be denied,” he often said. “It’s as American as apple pie.”
Working with urban planner Curtis Jones, Andrew launched the campaign in 1985. By the following year, the pair had come up with the name “Mandela” for the municipality in honor of the imprisoned South African leader.
Faced with the hope of self-rule on one hand and predicted financial disaster on the other, voters rejected the question by a 3-1 margin in the midst of national news coverage of the bid for black self-determination.
Andrew was “crushed” by the loss but acknowledged that GRIP should have been hatched at kitchen tables in Roxbury rather than over linen table cloths at the Harvard Faculty Club. Joyce Ferriabough, who ran the opposition campaign, respected Andrew’s passion but questioned his judgment. After hearing Andrew grumbling about Flynn’s “plantation politics,” Joyce confronted him.
“How do you want your ass-kicking?” she asked. “Over easy or well done?”
Andrew just laughed. “You had to hand it to him,” said Joyce. “He had a sense of humor.”
Andrew had first come to New England as a child of the segregated Creighton Court projects in Richmond, Va. – a violin prodigy plucked from the banks of the James River and sent by the program A Better Chance to the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was a varsity football player and wrestler and played in the school orchestra.
Andrew loved competition. He thrived on full contact – physical and political. In music, it probably explained his love of Beethoven, the sweeping contrasts and plunging moods of a score in constant struggle.
After graduating from Exeter in 1970, he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, but concert halls and recording studios couldn’t contain his searching mind and restless spirit. He got a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1982 and set out to use the media to change the world. Or, as a more seasoned Andrew put it later, “I switched from one form of entertainment to another.”
The inevitable clash occurred when ABC sent an executive to the network’s Prudential Tower suite to advise bureau employees, who had long complained about strange fibers in the office air, not to talk to the press about asbestos dust falling from the ceiling. Andrew laughed at the man in the suit and denounced the network in public.
The end of Andrew’s network producing career gave rise to a successful run as an agent provocateur seeding intellectual sedition through documentary films. In segments for public television stations around the country, including many first aired on Boston’s WGBH-TV, Andrew told the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, captured the growing pains of Russia in the first gasps of post-Soviet life, and conducted pioneering interviews with the reclusive leaders of North Korea.
He broadcast reports from Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Jordan, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Mexico and Zimbabwe. He picked up a New England Regional Emmy and scores of film awards along the way. His segments aired on NBC, Black Entertainment Television, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the PBS Network and Russia’s TASS News Agency.
When leaving Russia after his last trip to Moscow, security stopped him at the airport gate, suspecting that the black American with the Homey the Clown haircut had illicitly obtained the expensive, 19th century violin in his possession. A burly guard came to escort him to a private room for questioning.
Andrew held up his hand. “Now wait a minute, fellas,” he said. “Just give me a chance.” Andrew removed the instrument from its battered case and tightened up the bow. Cascading notes from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major spilled from the strings. Andrew smiled his smile. A crowd of spectators, drawn by the bravura performance, applauded. The apparatchiks shook his hand and let him board.
In all his travels, Andrew did not just report history, he participated in it as an unabashed advocate, unafraid to show his political stripes. Hours before filming the first salvo of bombs falling on Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, he was playing violin as a guest musician with Iraq’s national orchestra.
In 1989, Andrew interviewed members of Manual Noriega’s government hours before Special Forces troops assaulted the Panama leader’s barracks headquarters. Leaving Panama City with his precious video, he came upon American soldiers engaged in a firefight and barely escaped strafing machine-gun bullets when they turned their weapons on his approaching vehicle.
In 1995, Andrew left behind his U.S. producing career and a teaching post at Northeastern to move to South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s homeland and a society busy re-inventing itself.
He was one of the first black men to earn a pilot’s license in the republic. On the media front, he turned his critical eye to the faltering promises of the ANC government, which brought political but not economic empowerment to the masses of poor blacks still living in townships. He produced programs for South African television and in the course of his work met Kubeshni Govender, a talented media professional who helped launch their own company, Black Earth Communications.
After marrying and starting a family, Andrew and Kubeshni ran a successful media and production business, interrupted at times by Andrew’s focus on a crusade to protect “reproductive choices for men.” His “Fathers Bill of Rights” campaign grew out of his own bitter experience as a father forced to pay child support for a daughter born in the 1980s whom the mother and the courts would not allow him to see.
Andrew’s decision to force the issue in a 2003 Massachusetts Probate Court appearance led to a 40-day sentence at the Suffolk County House of Corrections for refusing to pay arrearages. Typical of Andrew, jail-time proved to be more educational than punitive, opening up his eyes to the reality of the prison-industrial complex and the sometimes whimsical power of the law.
In the dedication to his provocative 2009 book, “Diary of a Mad Black Voter,” Andrew offered special thanks to the judge and prosecutor who put him behind bars “and ignored everything I had to say about freedom of choice, justice, liberty, father’s rights, the illness of my sons, the safety of my family, and dignity. For had you not done so I would have been cheated out of the most special 40 days and nights of my life.”
The book, a searing examination of the Barack Obama candidacy as either a redemptive opportunity for black America or a cruel illusion, was based in part on his perceptions of the ANC’s failure to bring real change to the struggling poor of South Africa. In writing the book, Andrew thought back to his cameo role playing boxing promoter Don King’s aide in the movie “Ali.”
Zelig-like, Andrew was in Maputo, Mozambique, at the time of the 2001 filming and found himself in front of the cameras.
“One night, Michael Mann the director decided to replace 30,000 black Mozambicans, who were supposed to be spectators watching the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ with cardboard cutouts flown in from Hollywood,” wrote Andrew.
“My thought was ‘This is deep.’ All these people replaced just like that by cardboard figurines that actually looked better than the people did in the final movie. So that’s when it hit me that all of us regular people – black, white, yellow, whatever – walk a tightrope between what is real and what isn’t in our media-drive society. And at any time ‘mediarchical’ forces can replace any of us with cardboard cutouts.”
Andrew struggled against forces most people took for granted. He questioned everything.
Reflecting on Andrew’s life, Kubeshni recalled her husband’s belief in “Gaia,” the concept of Earth as a living organism on which mankind has become a threatening rather than benign and integrated presence. “Despite his reverence of Gaia – the living spirit of the planet – he came to believe that his way in life was to fight for everything all the time,” she wrote.
“In adopting this stance, he missed out on the blessings that were his from the start. I pray that our boys are always able to pause and still their emotional beings long enough to hear the tone of the universe, to realize the sound of peace and love that we are born with despite the trials that life will bring us.”
The last major work of Andrew’s long career as a political and media gadfly was a feature film completed just weeks before his death. The final scene was shot in the same cemetery where his body was cremated.
The film left Andrew frustrated because he had no luck finding a distributor willing to release it.
That failure came after he had come close to fulfilling a long-held dream of media self-determination. Black Earth Communications had won a valuable satellite TV license from the Botswana Telecommunications Authority to launch Black Entertainment Satellite Television.
But financing troubles scuttled the effort. “Andrew,” said a friend, “was a visionary but not a businessman.”
Meanwhile, Andrew’s marriage had faltered.
Darkness closed in. The end came after Andrew penned a final message.
“The illusion of death is that it’s final,” he wrote. “It isn’t. There is life after death. Life’s greatest illusion is that the conscious mind resides inside the body. It doesn’t. The truth is that we are avatars.”
If so, then Andrew is still playing that violin, sawing out notes for heavenly hosts, mortals, and avatars alike, his eyes peering across the strings, provoking, searching, and ever restless.
A memorial service for Andrew P. Jones will be held at noon on Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Cedar Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.