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Shira E has this haunting kind of voice, the kind that immediately silences a room full of people in the midst of hearty conversation. There is a palpable quality to the sound that she emits through her lungs, a thick-like-molasses and indulgent vibration, lulling you into some otherworldly experience. This is what I witnessed when I walked into Launchpad during the Women Love the World Conference last month. I entered into the dimly lit room with this small silhouette of a person standing in front of a large projector, playing the Roland 404 synthesizer, and hand drumming. I was in love with whatever was going on and needed to meet this person.
We set up an interview at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and sat on a bench under some trees, and got to chatting. Shira shared with me her beliefs about the practicality of poetry, the challenges that women face when trying to tap into electronic music, the simultaneous significance and insignificance of our existence in this universe, and her exciting new Indiegogo campaign to help her spread her awesome new album all around the country.
You mentioned that you recently relocated to NYC. What brought you here?
I live in Brooklyn, but I swore I would never live here in the past. I was done doing all of these jobs, while writing, and doing music mostly on the side after touring for a bit with poetry. I had fed my artistic life, and eased into a place where I was mostly not doing it anymore. But then, synchronistically, I quit three jobs and then fell in love, and she lives here, and all of that pulled me to the city. I had never felt that way before in terms of a city calling me, but I felt like I wanted to put an intention into art instead of just doing it because I love it. When you make a move like that, you’re putting your pennies in a jar, but you’re actually feeding yourself what you want to be fed.
What are you currently doing in the City?
I’m a teaching artist: I teach gay elders poetry on Wednesdays at a place called SAGE, I’m also in Queens with teenagers teaching writing and theater, I’m a mentor with Urban Word, and I teach online writing classes to individuals all over the country, which is really fun. I’m also making music.
Music-wise, what are you working on?
I’ve been working on a record for probably a year. I’m with a new machine--the sampler. Before that I was all guitar-based and with ukuleles and stuff like that. So I’m percolating and recording and just working with people on art.
What sparked your interest in going electronic?
I just had the desire to do it for so long, and truth be told, I just felt like I didn’t really see women doing it, and it feels kind of funny to say because now I see so many women doing it, but at the time I didn’t. I grew up playing the guitar, so I knew the ins and outs of it; It was something that was safe, that I felt comfortable with. Going electronic, it was exciting and unsafe in a way. I had just dreamt of doing it for so long, and seeing people doing and all of this cool stuff, like someone with six samplers, and one loop pedal...
Part of the intention of moving here was that I was going to buy a sampler. I had never touched one until a year ago. I had asked guy friends to help me, but there were only a few who were willing. You really need to feel a sense of encouragement with that stuff, really with anything, or any art form. Now when I’m playing, a woman will just sneak up to me over my shoulder and say, “can I see?” and I’m like, “come on! Touch it. Look at it. Take out the wires, and do what you want,” because it’s really not our turf.
Why isn’t it our turf?
Stereotypically. I even remember being in high school and being the one female rock player in a circuit of friends. I had to find them, like I made girl bands and things like that, but I guess I more so mean that for me to walk into a guitar center and ask for cables, or something like, a guitar felt way smoother and easier than going in there about gear that I knew nothing about, or felt like were more stereotypically linked to guys. When I thought of that music, I thought of Animal Collective. I couldn’t even think of groups with women before, but now I can probably name five or six.
Can you name some?
I can name Grimes. I can name Tune-yards. I feel like when Tuneyards popped up, I was like, I don’t necessarily want to make that music, but I was so excited just to see the level of intensity of skill that come with those electronics, and I think I also didn’t have an entrance into a scene where that was true. I’m sure there are cities where women are dominating the scene. I just didn’t have the entrance into that.
What was your learning process like?
I felt so compelled that I just sat with the manual. I’m not techy at all, which is why it was so intimidating. You can even take gender out of it—I’m not techy. I just sat with it, and I would try to spend two hours just with the stupid manual to just figure things out, and then my friend Emmanuel, who’s insanely talented and in Many Mansions, I would go over to his place and he would show me stuff that I had totally intuited wrong, and would re-wire and teach me. With his loving help and just a lot of devotion—I think I was just honestly ready for a challenge. Previously, I would bend the guitar with all of these crazy tunings just to make these sounds that I wanted, and I sort of hit a ceiling, and this was definitely so out of my comfort zone. I was so excited about having so many sounds available, not just guitar, but I could put anything into that sampler, and it would just create a forest of different sounds.
What kind of a sampler do you use?
It’s a Roland 404. I’d say, it’s older, but folks still use it.
Do you now have interests in other electronics?
Not really. The truth of it was that I kind of wanted a band. If I think that I absolutely need to have drums, then maybe I would start to synch up the sampler with the live drums or get a drummer, or something like that. Right now, that machine is still so new to me still, that I just want to get more cozy with it before I add a loop pedal to it or anything too naughty. Though I really do want to play electric guitar with it. I miss that fuzzed out, delicious, electric guitar. That’s a secret dream.
How does poetry play into music, and vice versa?
My name [Shira] means both. It means poem and song. People have asked me often, which do I love more? Or how do they affect the other? Because I have grown up doing both, I really feel like they are two arms. It’s not like one is more important, but they are just so vital. Even before coming to meet you, I was kind of in a weird mood space, so I just played for five minutes, and it just cleared me out somehow. I think with music, with both of them, there’s a way that I’m in conversation with myself. Like I know myself better because I have these tools. I can’t imagine not having them. It seems I can sit down and have a conversation with myself and then become a different Shira. That’s actually crazy ya know? They offer me similar things, but they also diverge in what they can give me beyond those similar things.
I went out with my friend Beverly, who is 94. I met her at the class I teach, and we were having drinks, and she was like, “okay, you’re in front of God. Music or poetry? And I don’t want anything bullshitty. This is really happening, which one is it?” I felt like, what am I supposed to say? Even though both are so important to me, I think there is a way that music does something--it almost includes the writing in a way, but writing can’t really include the music. It can leap and have it’s phonetic delight, but music just cuts in a different way. It doesn’t mean that a poem can’t cut the way music can, but music does something that’s not word oriented, even when I think of the sounds that we transmit, part of it is not language oriented, it’s just full body oriented, if that makes sense.
What kind of power does poetry have?
Oh my god. I really think, like how people stand up and salute the flag--I actually don’t really know because I was born in Israel, I came here at six, so I’m kind of confused about what people did at schools. If they still do that, I just wonder what it would be like if they started school and everybody had poetry time. It's like the clam that takes the dirt and makes the pearl--to be able to have that process within ourselves, and to give kids that. It’s such a tool, that refines your understanding of how to communicate with people, it refines how much you appreciate life every second. I just imagine everyone, down to the president being a poet. It actually makes me embarrassed and a little weary at how I used to look at poetry when I had idols at 18, and saw folks like Saul Williams and would freak out. Now I see poetry in a totally practical light.
When did you figure that out?
When I moved here, I was right at the age that I was fluent in Hebrew, but was learning English, and so language wasn’t a given. I heard things a different way than someone who grew up here being told, "book means book", and "cat means cat", and that’s what it is, but when you have something else to think of as a language, and you're learning new words, it just tweaks your brain a little bit to handle words differently. They weren’t just things that you would say to your mom as a kid, it’s also how you maneuver the world as someone in a new world.
I remember being in third grade, we were doing spelling, and my teacher was like, "I don’t know if she’s been in the states long enough to be in this spelling group." They gave us kids words about the season, vocab about flowers, and I remember--it sounds braggy, but it was just a fact--that I made something of the words that my mom and the teacher were both like, “whoa! Oh my god.” I think it’s that ability to really care and have love for these objects that people call words that you can move them around and express something and see what they are. You can’t take them for granted. You can do things with them that are brand new.
Does New York help or hinder your ability to find clarity through art?
I need to make things. It’s my way of being a better Shira, which I didn’t really realize until my friends were like, “yo, you need to make something, because you’re having a hard week.” In that sense, I look at the places that I’ve lived, which are like Brookline and Boston in Massachusetts where I grew up, and I look at Northampton, Amherst, and then I look at here (NYC). I think that I always was making, but the difference here is time. I don’t know if it’s just because I'm getting older, but the constraints and limits of time, but in Western Mass, I worked less, and I could work less because I could pay for things for less, so I had more time to delve into writing. But now that means that my focus is so intense here. When I do sit down, and I’m with my sampler, I’m like, “okay, it’s you and me. We’re stuck in an elevator called tonight, and we’re just going to do this!” So there’s that. I think it’s affected my focus.
In general, the intensity of the city, asks something back, whereas the landscape and colors of Western Mass is just simple ease. It’s the word that I think of when I’m there that allows for a different style of art making, a different response.
How do the people around you influence the way you create?
I kind of understood something early on because I played a lot of team sports and you really rely a lot on each other, and you have to be available and be kind actually, otherwise it doesn’t work. Your team falls apart. There’s a way in which I saw that, if a person, a fellow teammate could affect me so much, I had that power as well. That is ever-present in my mind. I’ve always been able to have community and people around me who challenge me, and inspire me. When I haven’t had that it’s been horrible.
Can you talk about that?
When I was at UMass I was writing from 12-4 am every night, just on my computer--work that now when I look back cannot be seen by anyone! I was trying to connect with people, but I just couldn’t really find it. In high school, I had a lot of access to very different artists, from vegan nutty nuts, to painters, to someone who was a jockey who wrote incredible essays. It was all available. To shift to a huge university where I just couldn’t really find that was overwhelming. I felt more freedom when I transferred to Hampshire College to pursue art more aggressively.
I first went to Hampshire as a UMass student and joined the five college slam team, and transferred while I was on that team. It’s kooky how it happens, when you find those people, you realize that you didn’t have that before. I had something lovely in many ways, but that type of intensive, “I can’t fall asleep until I share this poem with you. And you can’t fall asleep until you hear it.” The intensity and joy in that was different. The teammates were from all five colleges, and that community became very strong for me. The way that I feel about that community was, I’m sure that when people were around James Baldwin, they were like, “this person is a trove, an international treasure,” and there are folks that I’ve met on the team who I felt that way being around them.
What fuels your passion on a day-to-day basis?
Sometimes I'm dry. Always having my mind attuned to the fact that I might write or I might create something, just that simple fact feels exciting. Another thing that I think of is our human connection. How crazy it is that we are here in the first place? It sounds psychedelic, but it's actually crazy. If I have awareness of that fact everyday, that we are on a spinning blue dot, when I think of that, I am filled to the brim with poems. I feel so fundamentally perplexed at the thought of just being here, that I can get caught up with bills and all that stuff, but when I just take a second to just feel the weight of that and the lightness at the same time, it opens everything. I don't have to ask for inspiration. We are made of it. It's everything.
It's weird for me to think that, "I have to pay this medical bill, but I'm on that teeny tiny dot," that they are someway equally as real. I think that's at the heart of my writing, that both of those statements are true.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Original photo essay by Seher Sikandar
George DuBose got his big break with a studio photo of the then largely unknown New Wave band The B-52’s in the late 1970s. The shot, taken in 1978 and originally in black and white, would end up being used as the cover—with hand-drawn color added to the image after-the-fact—for the band’s breakout debut the next year. Shortly after, DuBose was offered an assignment for Rolling Stone to photograph the same band. In the following years, he developed a portfolio of images that includes shots of a pre-fame Madonna—while still shopping her solo demo as part of the band The Breakfast Club—Tom Waits, album covers for The Ramones, and more.
Before becoming the first photo editor at Spin magazine in the mid 1980s, DuBose began photographing Hip Hop artists like Run-DMC and Soul Sonic Force. Tony Wright, the ubiquitous creative director at Island Records who added color to DuBose’s image of The B-52’s, offered the young photographer a position at Island Records’ art department in New York City. It was in that position that DuBose photographed Biz Markie for the rapper’s first single. Throughout the ‘80s DuBose would photograph some of Hip Hop’s earliest stars for album covers and promotional material.
Recently, DuBose, who now lives in Cologne, Germany, consolidated a career’s worth of his Hip Hop images into The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography. The collection traces the photographer’s work from Afrika Bambaata to Masta Ace to The Notorious B.I.G. The book is also the first time that DuBose’s previous Hip Hop themed I Speak Music series is available in one place. Given the occasion of the release—the book came out in December—Project Inkblot spoke with DuBose about his early days shooting Cold Chillin’ artists, his perspective on the budding Hip Hop scene of the 1980s, and a funny story behind photographing I.U.’s single “Who Got Da Gat.” The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography is a look at Hip Hop’s development as much as it is a glimpse behind DuBose’s lens. The book is available on Amazon now, but if you hit George up, he’ll sign a copy to you personally with your purchase (mine is on the way).
You’ve just released The Big Book of Hip Hop Photography, which consolidates work you did throughout your career. Can you talk about how you first began photographing Hip Hop artists after working within new wave and punk initially?
I was photographing bands at various night clubs around Manhattan. Max's Kansas City, The Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Studio 54 and of course CBGB's. In the beginning, the bands that interested me were New Wave, which was a very wide and open genre. Because of my work with the B52s, I became connected with Tony Wright, the creative director for Island Records, NY. Island had signed the B52s for a recording contract and the band wanted to use one of my photos that I had taken on my own to make street posters that advertised their gigs. I paid for the posters and put them up myself.
Tony offered me the chance to start an art department for Island in NYC, previously the only art department was in London. As Senior Art Director, I also was allowed to photograph and design covers for Island and for my clients that I freelanced for. One of my first black music covers was for Alphonso Ribiero aka The Tap Dance Kid. Alphonso was signed to an independent label called Prism Records and Prism was distributed by Island.
A few weeks after I shot Alphonso's cover, I got a call from Lenny Fichtelberg, the president of Prism. He told me he had another artist to shoot and was I available. I went to the Prism offices and met a young guy named Biz Markie. Biz was known as The Human Beatbox and I was impressed by the beats and scratches that he could make just with his voice and throat.
Biz's concept for his first single titled "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" was that he would have his mouth full of little gold musical instruments. The kind you might hang on a Hannukah bush or a Christmas tree. I got the little instruments together and told Biz to meet me at my studio where we would do a shoot. I shot Biz with the instruments, I shot Biz without the instruments, I shot Biz alone, I shot Biz with his pal, TJ Swann and another cat, whose name I can't recall.
When I delivered the massive amount of film and slides to Prism, I asked Dee Garner the product manager for Biz, who was going to do the design for Biz's single. Deetold me that she had no idea. I told her I could do the design as well.
Biz had worn a hat during his first single shoot and I asked Biz where he got the lettering that spelled out "Biz Markie" on his ball cap. Biz told me that there were several shops in Times Square where one could buy hats and t-shirts and have iron-on lettering pressed on to the clothing.
I went to Times Square, found a shop that had this Gothic style of lettering, something similar to Fraktur. I bought all the letters to spell out "BIZ MARKIE, MAKE THE MUSIC WITH YOUR MOUTH, " I used this font for Biz's first single and that Gothic style of fonts became the most popular and recognizable Hip Hop font ever.
In an old interview that appeared in the magazine Chapter 14, you described the process of gaining traction within Hip Hop as first starting with a commission from Cold Chillin’ to shoot album covers for MC Shan and Biz Markie. You tell a great story there about the oddity of being White while photographing in some tough neighborhoods of color throughout New York. Did you ever photograph the emerging street culture of Hip Hop while in those communities, or did your work focus primarily on rappers and artists as subjects?
The late 70s and early 80s were wild times in Manhattan. It was pre-AIDS and some of the scenes at some of the night clubs were pretty wild. People were doing everything else in the bathrooms but going to the bathroom. I documented club scenes as I mentioned earlier, I photographed bands in performance, but I wasn't going around Brooklyn or the Bronx. I wasn't a native New Yorker and didn't have any contacts in those boroughs.
I was a musician's photographer. I did publicity shots for bands and pictures for their demo tapes, 7" single sleeves and 12" vinyl covers.
I heard "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash, "Rhapsody" by Blondie, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop with techno, Soul Sonic Force was copying music from Kraftwerk, the B52s stole the music from Peter Gunn Theme and called it Planet Claire. I thought Hip Hop was just another part of New Wave. It was all mixed up.
I shot Roxanne Shanté in front of a broken down brownstone crack house in Harlem and she was more nervous than I was, I shot Biggie in his 'hood on the corner of Utica and Bedford, but I wasn't there to photograph graffiti or local break dancers and as I told Mr. Cee, Biggie's producer, I wasn't going to go there alone with my cameras. Mr. Cee had to come along...
I’m not sure if there are many examples of photographers that worked so significantly within both Punk and Hip Hop simultaneously in the way you did. Given that some of your most popular early images are of bands like the B52’s and The Ramones, did you see overlap between Punk and Hip Hop in the early ‘80s? The first Ramones cover you did also has obviously staged graffiti all over the place.
As I mentioned, Soul Sonic Force was biting on Kraftwerk, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop and techno. I was part of the "downtown" crowd and we would listen to anything new...once at least. My crowd seemed to have eclectic tastes and we didn't feel that we were "locked in" to one style of music.
My favorite club, The Mudd Club, had Frank Zappa and David Bowie as guest DJs. We would hear everything from old Michael Jackson to Plastic Bertrand. If it had a groove, we would groove to it.
I think a lot of young people today are "compartmentalized". They listen to a very narrow range of musical styles and dress in specific brands that mean various things to themselves and their peers.
I am pathologically curious and always want to hear new, new, new. At least once.
Two of your most popular images of Hip Hop artists are portraits of the Soul Sonic Force and Run DMC separately. In an exhibition of your work about a decade ago, the flyer shows both of those photos side-by-side. It’s such a wild juxtaposition, because, even though DMC’s style was very current and aggressive at the time, it seems so conformed in hindsight next to whatever SSF are wearing in the opposing photo. What was your sense of the fashion within Hip Hop throughout the 80’s?
When Hip Hop started, there was no "Hip Hop" fashion. The getups that Soul Sonic Force wore for their first publicity photo shoot clearly illustrate that. Biz Markie wore a referee's shirt and black shorts for his first single and then went to Dapper Dan, Harlem's most famous custom tailor and had a shirt, short pants and a ball cap made from brown leather with Louis Vuitton logos all over.
MTV was still over the horizon, the music and fashion we had was our own. Our lifestyles were still unattractive commercially and that made it ours alone. In those days, no one could sell us “a look” or a sound, ‘cause we were still working on creating them ourselves.
MC Shan was the first artist that I worked with who had an endorsement from a clothing label. I remember one single I worked with him on where he was "pimpin'" Karl Kani. I had never heard of KK and Shan told me that he got the clothes for free if he wore them on a cover...
Generations of teenagers have continually searched for fashion and music that differentiates their generation from that of their parents. The more the fashion and music styles appall and upset their parents, the more the kids know they are on the right track.
I wonder if you’d be willing to share a short extract from your recent book. Is there any particular story behind a cover that is your favorite or the least well-known that you could share here?
The last shoot I did for Cold Chillin’ and I.U. was a cover for a single titled, “We Got Da Gat”. To explain a little.
I.U. meant by “Gat”, a Gatling gun. These are handcranked machine guns with six or more barrels that spin as they shoot their bullets. The Gatling gun was invented by Richard Gatling in 1861. In contemporary times, the Gatling gun has morphed into the minigun that one sees on today’s Apache helicopters. What I.U. was trying to say with the title “We God Da Gat!” is that my gun is bigger than your gun.
I called Centre Firearms in Manhattan, the source for real and replica guns of all eras. I had rented guns for the Ramones “Adios Amigos”, where the Ramones were being executed by the Springfield rifles of a Mexican firing squad. I asked Centre Firearms how much would it cost to rent a Gatling gun. I was told that they didn’t have any Gatling guns available, those were all in museums. A Gatling gun in perfect working order with a 105 shot magazine and a carriage is worth more than $300,000 dollars today. They did offer to rent me a minigun for $10,000 a day.
Well, I wasn’t making a movie and the budget for this single sleeve wasn’t going to cover that kind of expense. Not to mention that this was around the time that Walmart and several large record distributors were refusing to sell any rap album covers where the guys had guns on the covers. Roxanne Shanté got away with a little lady Derringer, but that was about it. So I suggested to I.U. that we scale down the scene. I suggested that we create a “drive-by” scene. For those that don’t know, a “drive-by” is where a gang of drug dealers drives by the street corner where a rival gang is selling drugs. I.U. would be standing in the backseat of a convertible, with his hand inside his coat, as if he was reaching for a pistol in his shoulder holster.
On the sidewalk would be the “rival” gang holding baseball bats and crowbars. The idea was that I.U. had a pistol and the rivals only had bats and crowbars, giving the idea that I.U.’s gun was bigger...
I organized a dozen baseball bats and crowbars, loaded my equipment into my trusty old Volvo station wagon and drove to Hempstead, Long Island to meet I.U. and his crew. I.U. had promised to organize a convertible. When I arrived at the location, I set up a studio light, got electricity from the nearby 7-11 convenience store. I put the studio flash up about 30 feet in the air to simulate a street light.
I.U. arrived with about 20 guys. He had three nice new cars, a Saab convertible, a Corvette and a Firebird. I put my camera on a tripod on the top of my old Volvo for a high point of view.
My idea was that the cover image would look as if it was viewed through a night vision telescope. Like I.U. and the drug gang were under police surveillance. I carefully explained the concept to all the guys, I distributed the baseball bats and crowbars and then climbed up a ladder and got on the roof of my car. I told the gang that I would count 1-2-3 and I.U. would stand up and reach inside his jacket. The guys on the sidewalk would look terrified and run away.
“Does everybody understand the plan?” No smiling or laughing...This is supposed to be serious. Got it.
“Yeah we got it.”
“1-2-3!” I.U. jumped up, the driver and two guys in the back seat jumped up and they all were holding guns! I didn’t even take a shot.
I slowly climbed down from the top of my car. I walked over to the car that I.U. was in.
“Grand Daddy, you know that Dee at Cold Chillin’ had said NO GUNS!”
“Aw, come on, George. Just take a couple of shots for me and then we will do it without the guns.”
I said to I.U., “I.U., I was in the Navy, I know guns. There are two things in life that I don’t do. One, I don’t ride on the backseat of motorcycles and I don’t take pictures of guns unless I know that they are not loaded. Show me that your AK47 isn’t loaded.”
I.U. pulled back the bolt and there was a bullet in the chamber ready to fire. There was a banana clip fixed to the AK47 that was fully loaded with 50 cartridges. I looked at the four guys in the Saab, one was holding a four shot Derringer, one was holding a Glock 9mm, one was holding a “street sweeper” or an automatic shotgun with twelve shells.
Unload all these weapons and I will shoot a roll of y’all with your pieces.
I.U. clearly didn’t know his gun was loaded, he didn’t even know how to unload it. A friend had to do that for him. If I.U. had flipped off the safety and pulled the trigger, that gun would have taken out the whole crew and me along with them.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot he's written for HipHopDX, Applause Africa, OkayAfrica Bonafide,and more. Get in contact with Jay on Twitter @jbal4_ or email at [email protected]
When I met poet and teacher, Safia Elhillo, I immediately thought: here is a woman who looks like my niece but embodies the wisdom of my old, serene, wise grandma. How the hell is she only 23 years old? Safia has occupied more zip codes in her years on the planet - from Egypt to Switzerland - than some do during a lifetime and conveys a level of maturity, humor and intelligence far beyond her years. Despite claims of having an "immigrant girl complex" due to her pick-up-and-leave upbringing, Safia seems to know exactly where she belongs and has shared the stage with iconic artists from ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots to the late Gil Scott-Heron and poet Sonia Sanchez. She's also published a book of poetry via Well & Oftenentitled "The Life and Times of Suzie Knuckles" which she describes in part, as 'a girl-meets-boy story with a colorful supporting cast of deceased rappers and complete strangers.'
I met the lovely and supremely talented Safia to chat about the similarities between Cairo and New York, teaching poetry to kids who don't claim English as their first language, and the bullshit role of the suffering artist.
Tell us a bit about where you’re from and when you began developing a love for poetry.
Where I’m from is the most complicated question. My family is from Sudan and that’s my go to - is that I say I’m from Sudan - but I haven’t actually been there for more than 6 months at a time. I have this immigrant girl complex where I don’t know where I belong, I’m in limbo. When I’m in America, I’m Sudanese. When I’m in Sudan, I’m American. I am trying to exist in that hyphen, Sudanese-American.
My dad worked for the UN with refugees so they would put him in a conflict zone and send my family to whatever country was nearby and safe. So while my parents were together we were kinda chasing [him] around the world. I was born in Maryland and lived in Tanzania, Egypt, England and Switzerland. When I moved to NYC for school, I just stayed.
What made you stay in New York?
I’ve actually been trying to figure that out because I’m not sure if it’s because New York is the only place I’ve ever really lived as an adult. I knew I wanted to go to NYU because of this program they have where you can design your own major. And actually, New York and Cairo have this kind of energy - it’s really charged and it’s what I respond to. I’m quiet and kind of a hermit so if I’m in a quiet place there’s no balance. I don’t feel like I have any external energy to feed off of. New York gives me the energy to get up and get my life. I like that it challenges me to find my own balance, it’s not a peaceful city. You have to make your own peace.
I did an oral history project my senior year where I interviewed a bunch of people from various Diasporas about home and what it means to live in a Diaspora. My mom’s interview was really great. She was saying, ‘I made home’ and I like that idea, that you’re in control of where you feel most at peace and you get to make that for yourself, wherever you choose. I like that New York is loud and chaotic because it shows that I am able to carry home inside of myself and make that peace in myself even in a place like this.
You have such a rich upbringing that I’m sure informs so much of who you are as a writer. Do you only write poetry?
I wrote a lot of papers in school and strangely enjoyed it. Generally, I’m very afraid of prose. I don’t trust myself with it.
What do you mean when you say you don’t trust yourself?
You have to say what you mean in prose and I don’t know how to do that. In poetry you get the luxury of the smoke screen where you can say what you want to say to the best of your ability and it’s up to the people reading it to interpret it. People tend to think we’re [poets] a lot deeper than we are. I loved reading as a kid and I knew I couldn’t speak English but I could read it. When I first got here I had a really thick accent. My introduction to English was through literature so I’m much more comfortable writing than I am talking. When you write you get to write it exactly how you want to before someone else gets to see it. That’s my favorite thing about poetry, the smoke screen.
My grandpa was a poet – he writes poetry in Arabic. He didn’t pursue it as a profession but even to this day, in the middle of a conversation, he’ll just break out into verse. My aunt also writes poetry and she studied playwrighting. She was kind of the artist role model in the family and the first person I saw who actually made a career out of it. Everyone in my family is artistically inclined but tends to go the sensible route. My aunt did really well and it was nice to see that my family always celebrated her work. That made me feel it would be ok for me to go down that route if that’s what I chose to do.
Do you view sensibility and art making as separate things?
I think so. I’m kind of spoiled because this is what I do for my job and it’s also what I do for fun. I’m getting my MFA in poetry and I teach high school students. For some reason, that doesn’t make sense in my head. I grew up thinking that the job wasn’t the fun thing. So I think I’m still holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Art is considered to be this outlet where you go to decompress after a hard day. I have this phrase: ‘if my outlet is my job then what is my outlet?’ If I start to write because it’s what I have to do then how honest is my writing?
Talk to us about teaching. What is that experience like for you being a poet and artist and working with the students?
I teach at two high schools and one is an international high school. One of the high schools is a high school for new immigrant and refugee youth who have been in the US for four years or less. And they are all new English speakers. I love the language and the syntax that comes out of translation-ese English. I think that’s what inspired me to start writing. The way my mom and grandma would say something when they thought it in Arabic first and then translate it would come out sounding like a poem. I get a lot of that in my classroom. The kids will write an expository statement and it will come out sounding like a poem because their sense of syntax – there is a little bit of distance because they don’t know this sentence is supposed to be structured like this. It gives them freedom. One of my students said the other day ‘tired eyes show there is war inside of you’ and we weren’t even talking about poetry. She just said that as a statement. They’re awesome.
I was on the NYU slam team [competitive spoken word poetry] for four years and before that I was on the DC team and then I coached for a year after that. It was probably one of the most humbling things I’ve done because it taught me not to push my aesthetic on people. My job is not to teach a bunch of kids to write how I write or to like the poems that I write. It’s really about getting to know someone so you know their strengths and how to bring that out. It’s not about me, at all. That’s hard to come to terms with in the beginning and it was great for my own writing too. Whenever you’re around other writers who are doing different work from you it introduces new points of views and new ideas that help you as an artist.
Is there a specific routine you have for your own creative process?
I tend to do most of my writing late at night. I keep a little notebook with phrases and words I overhear that I like. So because I have this phrase bank always available, when I sit down I don’t feel like I’m expected to write a poem from scratch. If I still feel stuck, I’ll read a poem by someone I love or just a piece of writing. I’ll refer to one of my books and re-read a passage and it’s get me re-excited about language.
Sometimes when I’m really lucky, I won’t need to go through the notebook. There will already be something there. The book is mostly for the days where I don’t feel I have something ready and I need to go back. It’s like a cheat sheet.
There seems to be this ease to the way you work. What do you think about the notion that artists need to be suffering to produce art. Is that a necessary part of the process?
That’s what worries me. The official title to my major as an undergrad was ‘Poetry as a Tool for Therapy.’ I was worried that I was kinda being a hypocrite about it. It got to the point where I didn’t know how to write if I was in a good place, at all. Writing became something I did when I was sad. But when I’m happy, I’m too busy being happy. It’s not so much like that anymore. I think of it as a discipline and as a craft. I am branching out and doing more research-based poems where I don’t always have to write about how unhappy I am in my relationship or whatever.
You mentioned you were on a slam team. Was that present with the poets? The idea that it was important to channel your pain into compelling poetry?
I think there’s this culture in slam where you get rewarded for being the most wounded. That was worrisome to me. It was my responsibility to be wounded and I wouldn’t get better until I had documented it and gotten something out of the experience. I was capitalizing off of my own fucked-up life which is not healthy and not conducive to healing. I feel like I had to take a step back and be like, I’m not going to pimp my own sadness. Now that I have removed myself from that competitive environment, I don’t feel the need to exploit my own sadness. If I’m feeling bad my first thought is not ‘oh, I should totally write about this.’ Now I just let myself be present and go through it. It actually makes it easier to get through. I don’t feel the need to wallow in this place until I get a product out of it.
How does that play into romantic relationships?
I feel like I don’t write about love when I am in a relationship. When I am in a relationship and it’s good then I’m too busy being in a good relationship to write about it. It’s only when things aren’t good that I feel like I need to use this outlet. Ideally, when I’m in a healthy and happy relationship then I communicate freely with my significant other. When I’m not as happy, I’m not as inclined to express myself and then that builds up and I begin writing. I’m in a very happy relationship so I haven’t been writing many love poems because I don’t want to be the asshole bragging about my great relationship. No one cares. [Laughs]
That also sounds self-fulfilling. If I believe I need to be in a dark place to create good work then subconsciously, I might want to get to that place to produce that work.
Exactly. I studied trauma a lot so I felt like I was being this big hypocrite. The whole idea to heal from trauma is to finally be able to express what you’ve been going through so you can kind of leave it behind and keep it moving. I felt like I was re-triggering myself over and over so I could get back to that place. That was the only place I felt like I could make good work out of. The good news is that it’s not true. The poem doesn’t have to be about something sad or horrible or traumatic. Subconsciously, I thought the poem had to be dramatically bad to be worthy of poetry, which is kinda bullshit.
So now I’m in a pretty happy place in my life and no one wants to hear a poem about how I’m gong to yoga consistently [laughs] but it’s pushing me to look outside of myself for material. I’ve been dong a series of poems on this old Egyptian love singer. I’m doing a Frida Kahlo series – that kind of thing. I can't get behind this idea of talent. I think it's a springboard at most, and means nothing without work and practice. I am more likely to be compelled by someone who practiced enough to reach a certain point than I am by someone whose talent automatically puts them at that point. Basically, work ethic over talent, every time! There is so much interesting stuff out there and I can be ok and also be writing. It’s less of a self-involved process, which is cool.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s like there’s this collective narrative for artists/creatives that implies you must be miserable to produce great work.
In any kind of art there is this myth of the tortured genius and that is who you need to be to create compelling work. I used to mentor this girl who wrote this line I never forgot, ‘honest poets are never happy people.’ And I really believed that for a while but I don’t think it has to be like that. I think it’s more reflective of your creative ability if you’re able to produce good work that isn’t braggy when you’re in a happy place. It doesn’t have to be a happy poem. I don’t need to write about the great banana bread I made. I understand that - but there is a whole world out there I’m allowed to write about. I don’t only have to write about the deepest darkest corners of my soul. I’ve done that already.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Homeboy Sandman began his professional music career a little more than six years ago. After more than a year as a high-school teacher in New York City and then pursuing law at Hofstra, the Queens native picked up the mic full-time and self-released his debut Actual Factual Pterodactyl in 2008. In the five years since, he released a commercial debut in 2010 with The Good Sun, signed to the off-kilter, indie Stones Throw label the next year, and has consistently released music in the form of one-off tracks and cohesive EP’s. His first release of 2013, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, strikes a chord. It wasn’t just an outlier in Hip Hop, it was an obvious pinnacle for the emcee himself. It was his first full release—albeit a short one—with a single producer behind the boards, and it kicks off what will hopefully be a long run at the format. In September Homeboy Sandman dropped All That I Hold Dear as a follow-up, transferring the production duties from one long-time collaborator in El RTNC to another in M Slago (that later EP also showed off his sister’s painting skills on the cover art tip). This week we linked up with Boy Sand to talk a little about his music, but more so about his life and education, using his music as a tool to connect with children in the classroom, his earliest Hip Hop memories, and the current state of New York City politics and culture. The day we spoke (in the second week of October) more news of recent developments in the battle to preserve the Long Island graffiti destination5 Pointzhad come to light and we ended up circling back on the topic a couple times. If nothing else, the battle for 5 Pointz is a case-study on the ideologies and politics of Homeboy Sandman. He’s not ready to let go, and as he told me more than once, “this is our thing.”
You’ve been adamant about visiting and speaking in schools, what is it you try to bring to the classroom?
It depends. The last school I went to was in Washington Heights, they were working on creative writing. I was there under the auspice of talking about live performance or creative work. There was a lot of poetry and some kids were doing music as well. I really like to get in there and I like to just talk to kids about rap and coming up. I got so much to talk about with regard to the media, and how come the media is pushing this or that. Kids in the city, rappers are their number one role models, just straight up and down. It’s silly, it’s sad—you know rap, the people that determine what Hip Hop culture is, are determining what inner-city culture is, what youth culture is across the world. Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like “wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,” you know what I’m saying? This is unfortunately what a lot of these kids is thinking, so I’m able to get in there, I’m able to have more breakthroughs with the kids in an hour now that I’m rapping than I was able to in a whole year as a teacher—and you know, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, when I was a teacher I would go in a class and say “damn all these kids running around trying to be rappers.” That was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.”
You’re signed to a record label and the landscape may be a little different for that reason, but your livelihood really comes from you. It always strikes me that there would be a lot of anxiety when someone’s depending on their art as a living, and it just doesn’t seem like you have that holding you back. Can you talk about that a little?
Yeah, I could speak on that. I mean, whose livelihood doesn’t come from them? I’m trying to think about the best way to answer that question. I mean first and foremost I believe in God, people got a bunch of words for God—the Universe, God, different religious names—I use the word God. I believe that I have responsibilities as a human being. I believe that I have a degree of choice and a degree of options, a degree of control, but I believe that the vast majority of control is out of my hands. I believe my responsibility and obligation is to the do the best I can, to try and be the best person I can be [and] make the best art I can make, be as honest as I can be, be a stand-up guy, try to be the things that I believe I’m supposed to be and that my father taught me I was supposed to do. It’s been reinforced to me time and time again that if you do the best you can, you’re gonna be okay. You know what I mean? What’s the sense in worrying, you can’t do any better than the best you can. If you do the best you can then you’ve already done what you’re supposed to do.
At the base of all that too is the fact that I know rap. I know music. When I was in [boarding school] I felt very much by myself. And Hip Hop music became, for me, home. I’d be like “these kids aren’t like me, I’m all by myself, I’m just gonna be under these headphones, this is how I’m gonna tap in.” So I spent an exorbitant amount of time just soaking in—I know what makes a fat rap record, I was always up on the cats that was fat. I recognize that I have a one-of-a-kind gift when it comes to rhymes. I recognize that the world is changing and focus changes, but the truth is, people that love to be impressed, that love to be inspired by music, that love one-of-a-kind music, are not going anywhere. Music that’s popularized may not be with them in mind anymore, there are kids out right now as talented as Stevie Wonder that are not getting put on because it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.” If Aretha Franklin is out now, she’s gonna do fine if she puts in the work ‘cause there’s people that really want to hear [her] sing. And just like me—I’m gonna be in every single ear in the world, I see the end of my journey I just don’t see the path. But I know where I’m going. Right now, I’ve always recognized that I’m going to be okay because I have a one-of-a-kind gift, a one-of-a-kind talent.
I came up [and] I couldn’t wait to tell my homeboys, “yo, you hear this new Redman?” I was the first cat putting cats onto Broken Language when Smooth Da Hustler came out. And I was the man for that, and I recognize that that’s still around. There’s still people that wanna be like “yo, you heard this cat Homeboy Sandman? Listen to this.” They get social capital and clout from their friends ‘cause they were the first one to know about Homeboy Sandman. And those people aren’t going anywhere, people who love music and who love art are still here. So I just have to put in the work of getting to them and I’ll always be okay. I’ll always be fed, I’ll always be happy, and I’ll always be in control. I can’t really fail ‘cause my talent is real. The only thing I could do is lay back and get lazy, but I’m not gonna let that happen. So as long as I don’t let that happen and I have a real gift, it doesn’t even seem realistic to me that anything could go wrong.
You talk about your father and credit him with a lot and I know he’s not from this country. I wonder what his relationship with Hip Hop is like? I’m sure he rides for you but is there a disconnect generationally or with language?
My pop is from the Dominican Republic, he got to this country when he was in the fifth grade. And though he didn’t speak a lick of English, he grew up in Jamaica Queens. He was very much a Hip Hop kid, I don’t know how old he is now but he was coming up in New York when Hip Hop was coming up in New York. When Hip Hop was coming out, it was everybody that was in the city, in the hood, in the street, it was Black kids, Puerto Rican kids. It was New York, it was all New York. It wasn’t like he came to this country in his 30’s, he came of age in New York City and is very much a New Yorker. My first exposure to Hip Hop, the first Hip Hop memory I have is my father walking all around the house saying 'don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.' That’s what he would say when I would start bugging out.
How do you reconcile what’s going on currently with Hip Hop? You look at 5 Pointz, there’s a lot of cultural artifacts that are kind of waning. Documenting early Hip Hop culture is not something that has really caught on in the mainstream. You named your record Kool Herc, can you speak a little bit on the importance of early Hip Hop culture?
I think that that removal of the past, which you talked about kids not knowing Kool Herc, I think that it’s purposeful. Hip Hop started off as a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I used to be the dude [that said] “Hip Hop started out with love, it was about peace” and it was actually Crazy Legs who set me straight. Crazy Legs was like “yo, let me hip you to something Boy Sand,” [he] obviously came up in it. And he said, “listen, half the cats that was creating Hip Hop was stick up kids, Hip Hop was never about all love.” There was cats about love that was making Hip Hop, there was cats that was robbing that was making Hip Hop. What it was always about, was talent. That’s what Hip Hop was about. ‘Cause cats didn’t have this, didn’t have that, didn’t have much to be proud of. But he was an athletic kid and he could be a b-boy. If you had the gift of gab you could be an emcee. If you had a little artistic talent you could be a graph writer. The elements of Hip Hop come from, are birthed from just talent and nothing else. You look at the deejays, we’re musicians but we don’t have instruments! We gonna have to take somebody else music and make that our instrument.
Hip Hop is born on talent is what you need. In a lot of ways you come to 2013 and the image of Hip Hop that’s perpetuated by many people is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very empowering thing and it’s a very weakening thing. But you have a child coming up thinking that Hip Hop is their culture, and thinking that their culture is all about you being cool because of what you have instead of realizing that their culture is all about you being cool because of who you are. It is a complete manipulation of all the real foundation and principles of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop music is all over the world. The essence of cool, these kids in the Bronx in the ‘70s, they captured the essence of cool for really what it was. And that’s why it’s been undeniable to people all over the world. And that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I try to utilize it as.
I talk about it all the time, there’s people that are seeking to use Hip Hop to manipulate people, to sell a lot of product. I’ve talked about people filling prisons with Hip Hop, I’ve talked about Hip Hop artists being popularized way more to sell the product placement included in their records than anybody concerned with their talent. I’ve talked about the evil forces looking to kill this culture. And I think it’s very important that they make sure that nobody knows who Kool Herc is, that nobody knows who Crazy Legs is, make sure that nobody knows that when I grew up I heard all different types of rappers, some were killers and murderers, some were players, some were just cool dudes just chillin’, other dudes worked at the Mickey Dees. I think it’s very important for them to make it look like Hip Hop is about a person acting a certain way and is only cool because of the things they have.
An initial idea for this conversation was to talk about some of the books you’ve read recently, you mentioned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander before we talked, can you speak on that book?
I think everybody should read that book—you know, you bring up 5 Pointz and people really need to stand up for themselves. Stand up for yourself. Everybody determines what sacrifice they’re gonna make. People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life. Out here on the streets of New York people are getting hands put on them. Didn’t we all learn as children that that’s not supposed to happen? That we’re not supposed to let people put hands on you? Here on the streets of New York and all over America people are getting enslaved. That’s what this is. How are you going to be against enslavement and allow yourself to be enslaved? You can’t be—it’s a lot to think about, but people should read that book because it pretty much sets straight what’s going on. I think there’s a good chance that anybody that reads that book will be convinced that Jim Crow is still alive in America in a different form, and that slavery is still alive in America in a different form. And hopefully, after that, they’ll feel like if it’s worth dying to change that, it’s worth dying.
Alright, last question. You’re a lifelong New Yorker, how do you feel about New York today? Obviously you grew up in Queens, but how do you see New York today as opposed to the New York you grew up in 20 years ago?
That’s a good question, man. I love New York like crazy and you know, for me, I did have the benefit of being able to leave as a youth. You know so many people never get a chance to leave and are like “yo, New York is driving me crazy” and they think that the grass is greener. I’m lucky that I have the perspective that I get to leave and come back, I think that’s one of the reasons that I love New York so much because I got to miss it so much as a teenager.
There is a battle going on in New York right now. 5 Pointz would be ours, my whole take on 5 Pointz—you know I was at some of the meetings, some of the city meetings, and I got up and said “this is silly because 5 Pointz is ours. Why are we even acting like we even need to come to this meeting?” We need only accept the fact that this is ours, the same that you feel the wallet in your back pocket is yours. If I went to go take it out would you call a meeting? Would you tell me not to do it? This is our thing.
I’m very sad about the 5 Pointz thing, it’s come up a few times today. And I’m really thinking, I was like “yo, I’m gonna be the first one there when the bulldozers come.” And I’m really thinking about if my responsibility is to go there and be there by myself, I don’t know, I haven’t made my decision yet. In New York City there’s a war going on right now between two different sides, there’s the side that thinks that money is everything. The people that think money is everything, they don’t really know what’s important, if they did they wouldn’t think money was everything. But there’s those people that think money is everything and they’re becoming really abundant, they’re all over the place. And there’s the people that don’t think that money is everything. And [those] people really need to answer the call, really need to decide how important some of this stuff is to them. I can’t remember a time where people were so much like “you know what, as long as I’m still alive I’ll let them take everything.” I don’t remember it being like that in New York City. I’ve seen it get worse and worse.
Things tie together, I think about police brutality. When I was a kid people knew there was police brutality but I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that one day a man would get shot 41 times—41 times, think about that number—and people wouldn’t do anything but yell and scream. I never thought that that could happen, but alas, when I was a teenager, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and that number seems crazy to me. But people said “dag I guess that’s messed up there’s nothing we could do about that.” And at the time I could have thought to myself, “dag, 41 times, at least they didn’t shoot’em 50 times. Fifty times, if someone got shot 50 times then we definitely would’ve done something besides go outside and yell.”
Sean Bell sure enough was shot, I was living on 148th and Hillside, Sean Bell was shot five blocks down the street on the eve of his wedding. Fifty times, [they] shot a human being 50 times, and the day that the verdict came out, there was extra cops on horses all over Jamaica Queens. And 50 is a crazy number, and if I said to you right now that if they’ll shoot a human being 200 times people wouldn’t do nothing, you would say to yourself “no way, no way, they can’t shoot a human being 200 times and us not do nothing,” but that’s where we’re going because [last] time it was 50 and after that it’ll be 70. Ten years from now they’ll shoot somebody 200 times. By then maybe we’ll all just be hiding in our houses because we didn’t go out and save 5 Pointz. Who really knows? But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter at @jbal4_
Years ago, I knew Stephanie Rooker as a ferocious vocalist who headed the soul outfit The Search Engine, but for the past few years, Stephanie has been training extensively in a healing modality involving music/sounds, aptly called sound healing. Just this month Stephanie launched Voice Journey Sound Center, a unique course of vocal training that uses the tenants of exploration and inner work to help students reach new vocal abilities, that in turn increases mental clarity, physical well-being, emotional strength, and other physical, physiological, and emotional benefits.
Stephanie met up with me for a quick meal in Soho, where she taught me simple sound healing techniques, and talked rather candidly about her experience negotiating her solo music career and her community based healing work through music, realizing that they are really not so disparate--in fact--they are both equally valid in her life's work. Stephanie uses her unique experience as a jazz/soul vocalist, her training in West African music and the many traditions of the African Diaspora, as well as her healing work to create something intimately hers, yet hugely accessible to all.
What exactly is sound healing? And how do you teach it to people?
Everything is vibrational. Sound healing, very broadly, is basically using vibration to change the state that you currently are in. It can be something as obvious as your breath rate, your heart rate, physical frequency, or your nervous system, and other vibrational parts of our existence: mental clarity, stress, tiredness. Low frequencies make people tired. High frequencies make people stimulated through their brain. If you are really tired, and you go as high with your voice as you can, your brain will wake up, and you shift in your vibration. You can call that sound healing.
You can open up your listening. You filter out a lot of listening a lot of the time, and you shut a lot out. If you just open up your listening and take in everything that you hear, it’s really an amazing and stimulating practice. It’s like opening your awareness, or like putting on glasses. Suddenly you see things clearer. Basically, sound healing is that in any way that you can think about. There’s sort of a constructed new-age idea of sound healing that it has to be chanting, kirtans, etc, but really it’s very broad.
Your new organization is called the Voice Journey Sound Center. Tell me about the voice.
For me, it’s all about the voice, because the voice is inside of you. Unlike other instruments that you see externally, the voice vibrates within you, so it has a much more direct effect on our physiology, your brain, everything. So, how do you teach that? There are a billion different ways. There are a lot of different traditions.
Indigenous traditions have been doing this forever. Pretty much in every indigenous tradition, there is some element of sound healing, connecting to spiritual or healing practices. There are a lot of places to draw from. And even in just music—if you think about avant-garde improvisational vocal jazz type stuff, it’s about making sounds in creative ways, and breaks all of your perceptions about what it is that you’re supposed to do, or what’s within a paradigm.
For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body. That’s the real crux of it for me. The former part almost comes as a result to the latter part. You can practice scales and techniques and exercise. Sure your voice can get better because you’re practicing, but to get to the other place of where the voice can take you, surrendering to whatever it wants to do, that’s where most people have their issues, because they get in their own way.
The truth is the voice can do so many more things that we could ever imagine if you just let the voice do what it does. So often we feel like we have to do it. It goes back to the whole ownership of work thing. Am I doing this to me, or am I just making sure I’m as out of the way as possible, so that I can fully experience this process.
"For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body."
What is your process with your students?
It’s different for everyone. It depends on what they want and where they’re coming from. I always start with a humming practice. That sort of puts us in the present moment, vibrationally. Sometimes we work on music. I have some students who want to work on songwriting. Some students think they are not singers and they want to be, so we do more work to help them truly experience their voice.
A lot of my students really want to incorporate their voice within their spiritual path, or their meditation practice, and so we work on that. We work on meditative practices that work for them, and put them in a place of a meditative mind state. Some people have to learn how to just have fun with their voice, and not think it’s a serious. Sometimes I just play with people, and play different games to get people into the creative process of just singing. It’s really fun. It’s the best teaching I’ve ever done. I’ve done traditional voice lessons, which in comparison is very surface level.
Teaching sound healing seems like a very different experience than being a performer.
I believe that I’m supposed to do this work, but the interesting thing about it is that it’s very humbling. It’s not like, “I’m Stephanie Rooker, and I do blah blah blah.” In this work, there’s a sense that I’m not really doing the work—that I’m facilitating the space, and that music is doing the work. There’s an interesting paradigm where—this is my work—but I also feel like I have a respectful distance from identifying too much with it, because I don’t feel like it’s me doing it. Does that make sense?
In you giving credit to "the music" and not yourself in this process, do you think that has to do with gender, and women historically and socially deflecting attention away from themselves?
I think because I connect very spiritually with what I’m doing, it goes in and out of having it be ego. That fluctuates from, “oh, it’s just little me over here doing this work,” to “I’m over here holding this space, using all of the skills and knowledge that I’ve gotten up to this point,” owning that, but not taking it to the next level. The other side of the ego says, “look how awesome I am. I made these people do all of this. I made them use their voice.” I’m not interested in that, but it’s interesting how that pendulum works. My teacher has really helped me a lot with that, Silvia Nakkach from California. I’m now getting certified in her Yoga of the Voice training. She’s a huge force. She has all of these phrases that she uses, silly isms, and one is “I’m innocent.”
I feel like, I am just doing what I’m meant to do. It’s less about Stephanie Rooker, which was me doing everything for me, about me, even though my music wasn’t about that. I was hustling gigs, I was trying to get press, it was all Stephanie Rooker. At a point I just felt like it was whack. There was also the business side that took over the art. I felt like a total poser, like, “I’m the shit, come pay me money to see me play.” Meanwhile I hadn’t practiced in weeks, because I was emailing everyone and freaking out about getting people to my shows.
Does that mean that your solo performing career is being pushed to the side?
I’m putting it aside for now, as far as the energy that I’ve been putting into it. I’m not putting any energy or time into booking gigs. Sometime ago, I was talking to one of my mentors right before the tipping point moving forward with Voice Journey— which wasn’t even Voice Journey at the time—but just this idea. Then I was dealing with this performer identity that I was struggling with, and which just clung to me. I talked to her about it. She said, “It sounds like the light is shining on that voice healing work for you. You’re never going to NOT be a performer. You’re always going to be a performer. When you have children, your newborn child takes priority, because it will not survive without you tending to it.” At that point I had been singing for 8 years or so. She said, “Your 8 year old can take care of itself. It can go make a sandwich. It can do those things. You’re not abandoning it, or kicking it to the curb.” So that was a really huge point for me, and it was very painful. It was super super hard to even pull away that little bit from my performance identity.
What was that like?
It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform. People keep asking me to perform with them, and to do projects or record. It’s just awesome. Every chance someone offers me an opportunity to sing, I’m like, yes! I’m taking this as a sign from the universe that I should never forget about that part of me.
"It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform."
Sometimes we want what we want, when we want it, and we are impatient for success. There is always a gestation period, that we as a society seem to forget.
Yeah. But I have to say, the whole transition with music and performing was a huge process in itself. I released “The Only Way Out Is In”, and was working with a publicist, and doing all of these things, and nothing was popping. Even my publicist was like, “I don’t want you to pay me. I really believe in your music. We’re going to get you something awesome, and then you can pay me.” And I was like “great!” Meanwhile I was enrolled in the Sound Healing Institute, and dealt with that creative bruise, of: I really poured my soul into this project, and it’s not catching. But I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I process, I would not be where I am right now.
Now I feel like, that had to happen. Like I said, even in my music, I’ve always been about this. Also, awakening to all of the elements of sound healing has changed how I think about performing and how I think about music.
After the release of my record, I played a couple of gigs with my band. It wasn’t like I just said “oh the album sucks.” The album didn’t suck. I loved the album. It’s one of my proudest things, but it didn’t achieve anything externally for me. We did a couple of gigs, but I was realizing that I was shifting to a new place with how I was feeling music, and not everybody in the band could get that. I was feeling very much like I was running new software on an old operating system. You know what I mean? That’s why I was even more about chilling from performing. I was noticing a transformation with music, and I didn’t want to just plug into the old ways, because it wasn’t going to work.
I think when you said “gestation period,” I think that was part of it too. I got through that transition of what I think music is now, and I got an expanding context. It was a really intense period.
You have a blues workshop coming up this week. Can you tell me a bit about that?
If there’s healing music, the blues is it. There’s such a mystery and lineage of it, the healing elements are just so obvious to me, you know what I mean? Having studied West African music and music of the Diaspora, you see all of those elements in it. At Oberlin I took a blues improv class, which was a turning point for me. The teacher, Adenike Sharpley—she was amazing, and I loved her—but she’s not necessarily easy to love. You either love her or hate her, because no one is entitled in her world. You have to work. If you are not doing the work—Just no. I immediately saw her as a teacher, and was willing to do whatever I had to do to study with her, and it wasn’t about having her like me. I just knew she was for real. That class really talked about elements about the cultural evolution of slavery and how that came out in the elements of the blues, and spirituals, field shouts. That’s been something that I’ve been checking out for a long time. I gave a workshop on this at my teacher’s retreat in Santa Cruz, California, and it was amazing. People loved it.
This is my demographic right? People who are so-called new agey and spiritual, who love to sing, but for whom there's somehow a cultural chasm that isn’t being bridged. I offered the blues class, and everyone loved it so much, they demanded that it be offered again the very next day. I think it really helped people to connect with those elements, but also in that context of blues as a lineage leading up to today.
I have also taught hip-hop workshops. For both, it’s just pulling out the elements: What are the elements of the music that work on us? What makes us love it? What about it makes us cry? Why are we crying? Or why are we laughing? And what is the function of these techniques, and the intense sensuality? It’s a release. All of it is a release. It’s bringing the context and lineage to the present day, and allowing people to really understand them and voice them themselves, but also with respect of the culture that it came from, and respect the culture that is still suffering today from the same shit. It’s very emotive. People really need a release more than they would ever know or admit. There are some awesome singers that are going to be there, but it’s not about awesome singers [laughter]. It’s about drawing those tools out so that people can use them, not in an appropriating way, but in a healing way. That was the thing that I was afraid of with a woman who commented on the events page for this upcoming workshop. In essence, she was asking, “who are you, white girl? Yeah, sure, teach us about the blues? What do you know about it?” I got to a place where I realized (with my husband's help) that I didn't need to defend myself, but that I do want to stand for how needed I believe this work to be & replied thusly.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’ve been challenged similarly about the whole sound healing thing by music therapists. It’s like, “what are you doing? You’re not a music therapist. You better know that you’re not a music therapist. Be clear that you’re not saying music or therapy in any of your work.” I’m like, I know. I’m just saying that there are elements of this that can be accessible to a whole lot of people, and if a lot of people are using these tools and are aware of where they come from and what they mean, there is huge healing that can happen, and huge transformations can take place.
Check out Voice Journey on Facebook, and check out the blues workshop on the 26th.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff. There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.”
And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.
An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?
This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.
When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.” And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…
You had to choose.
Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.
So is that why you decided to major in theater?
I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?
So, I got my BFA in Acting at North Carolina School of the Arts.
And then you come to New York.
Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.
So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.
Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’
I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.
Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?
Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.
You are a vessel.
Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry. Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’
And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.
Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?
But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that. We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.
I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.
And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.
What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?
I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows. And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….
It’s like dating.
You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”
Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like. ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)
And then the Farm?
There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met. She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.” I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.
Was it like, you’re looking at New York Magazine and you wanted to read the Michael Pollan book and you were like, ‘wait, I have a farm?’
Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time. I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.' I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.
I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.
It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be. I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together. In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.
I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.
I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…
Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me. But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists. So we basically did that for a summer and a half. We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.
Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.
Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.
Was it divine?
Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?
So, like a challenge?
Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.
And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...
I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.
So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?
There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family. I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family. We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…
They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.
Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.
Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?
Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.
I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?
Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.
Interview by Tanisha Christie
Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike. She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie
Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.
It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.
You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?
The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!
Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling?
Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.
For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?
Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.
As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.
Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?
Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.
The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.
What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges?
Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.
It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.
It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!
How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?
Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.
You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?
Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.
How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?
I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!
Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.
Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?
Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.
That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.
What legacy are you looking to leave with your work?
Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature image by Rachel Main
Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place. A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned.
I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music.
You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?
Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.
What do you think the reward is?
I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.
Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?
It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.
Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.
From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.
Sounds like there’s a science to it.
In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?
For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.
In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.
You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”
Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?
I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.
What do you mean by that?
You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?
When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.
What brought you to Boston?
I went to Berklee College of Music.
You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?
I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.
I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.
Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.
Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--
I don’t think they do either—
--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.
If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.
Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?
The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.
words by Boyuan Gao