Viewing entries in
Featured

Feature Interview - Boushra Almutawakel's Lens Into Yemen

5 Comments

Feature Interview - Boushra Almutawakel's Lens Into Yemen

If you live in the West, you'll probably find it difficult to believe that one of  Yemen's first women photographers first picked up a camera in the 1990s. Boushra Almutawakel is celebrated for not only breaking the gender barrier in regards to Yemeni photography, but her provocative and engaging works have yielded interest internationally, landing her in The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow's blog, The Economist, and in prestigious galleries in embassies and museums around the world.

The globetrotting mother of four spent some of her childhood and early adulthood living in the U.S. Her homebase is currently in Yemen, where she lives with her daughters and her husband. It is through the lens of her camera that Boushra most boldly negotiates her Western sensibility with her life in the Middle East, where an interesting narrative unfolds. 

What do you find compelling about images through photography? Why not painting, or some other medium?  

I was always intruiged by the arts, including photography.

I got into photography by chance, and it's something that happened over time. I wanted to learn about photography as part of a bucket list. I did not expect to fall in love with it as I did. It was like magic! Also, it started it out as just a hobby that became a bit of an obsession. Eventually, I was invited to exhibit, my work started selling, and I was hired to do some photo projects. In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen. Photography is a very powerful medium in the arts, journalism, the internet, and in the media. It is instant, real (although it can also be deceiving at times), communicates in a way everyone understands, and freezes moments in time allowing the viewer to leisurely study an image over and over again. I love creating and observing photographic images. There are images that are forever burned into our psyche. Although I am a photographer, I am also interested in other art forms and multimedia. If it were up to me, I think I would have been a painter.

In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen.

How long have you been a photographer? 

I have been doing photography since 1992, but professionally since 1998.

What do you shoot with?

Currently I shoot with a Canon 5d, and hope to get back to shooting medium and large format film.

Your work obviously comes from your subjectivity as a woman, but why is it that you photograph so many women subjects, including self portraits?

I have photographed many other topics, but I do love photography related to women. I am a woman, I have four girls, and so it comes most natural for me to photograph women or issues related to women. It is what is closest to my heart and what I know most about. I hope my work regarding women will generate curiosity, conversation, and debate, especially in the areas of social norms and stereotypes, and women’s rights. As women, we have sooo many issues to contend with, so many wrongs that need to be corrected, not just for women in the Middle East, but women everywhere. There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny--some of the things I would like to address in my work.

There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny—some of the things I would like to address in my work.

What type of socio-cultural-political commentary have you covered in your works so far? Especially relating to Yemen, and Islam?

I have photographed women and children in very remote areas throughout Yemen, photographing things related to education, health and development. I did a series under the title of "My Father’s House," a British Council project, where I photographed interiors of homes of different socio-economic backgrounds. Before that I photographed a series on contemporary Moslem life in Yemen, looking at the integration between religion and tradition, where one begins and the other one ends. My latest series is on the veil. It is an ongoing series that I started in 2001.

Tell me a bit about the Barbie series, where you have an Islamicized Barbie positioned in various day-to-day settings. 

Growing up, I played with the Barbie doll along with other dolls. As an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Fulla a few years ago, the Middle Eastern Islamic version of Barbie. She comes with a headscarf, and abaya (a long black light coat), and permanent long underwear. You can purchase one that comes with prayer clothes and a prayer mat, and when you press her back, she chants a prayer in Arabic. I fell in love with Fulla, and bought my girls the doll. It was just nice to have another option to the blue-eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious). So I decided to photograph her. At the suggestion of a mentor/friend, I lost myself in play, taking me back to my days when I was a little girl playing with dolls. I created different scenarios, and photographed them. Slowly I started seeing snippets of my life or the life of other Yemeni women play out in these scenarios. I had such a blast. I still have a long way to go with Fulla and her adventures.

It was just nice to have another option to the blue eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious).

You went to school in the U.S. How was that experience being in a country that at the time (and still is today to a degree) anti-Muslim? 

I first went to the U.S. when I was 6 years of age, living there till I was eleven. My family and I traveled to the U.S. for our summer vacations. I later went to the U.S. to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, and later with my husband to study photography. Overall, my experience in the U.S. was very positive, and memorable. I think since I went to the U.S. at such an early age, the U.S. felt like my second home. Although I was aware of prejudice against Arabs and Moslems, mostly through the media or other’s experiences, I don’t recall being treated badly because of my race or religion. Even during a period when in college I wore the hijab, I felt others embraced my difference, and were curious. Then again I spent most of my time in the U.S. in Washington DC, which is quite international, with people from all over the world.

Was there any particular experience growing up that you now realize had a significant role in defining how you see yourself today?

I had many (both good and bad) defining moments that make me who I am today. Some of these experiences are very personal, but all I can say I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind, I learned to be more independent, about the importance of working hard and doing your best, not matter what it was.

...I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind...

What are some prevailing themes in your life right now that you would like to translate to your photography?

I have so many projects I would like to continue or start some of which are photographing key Yemeni women, women who have made it or brought about positive change, etc, as a way of honoring them, and highlighting these women and their stories to other women and girls, to possibly inspiring them in fulfilling their dreams; continuing my series on intercultural couples, which I find fascinating, and motherhood--the magic and the madness.

Where are you showing/what are you working on now?

Currently some of my work is being exhibited as part of a group exhibit titled Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Paris at the National Museum in Sana’a, Yemen. The British Museum in London acquired my work, and I will be part of an upcoming exhibit on Photographers from the Middle East at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.

Words by Boyuan Gao

All photography by Boushra Almutawakel

5 Comments

Shira E Is Electric

1 Comment

Shira E Is Electric

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

1 Comment

George DuBose: Iconic '80s Hip Hop and Punk Photographer

1 Comment

George DuBose: Iconic '80s Hip Hop and Punk Photographer

kukoo

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 jay@projectinkblot.com.

1 Comment

Poet Safia Elhillo on Why The Tortured Artist Myth is Sometimes Bullshit

1 Comment

Poet Safia Elhillo on Why The Tortured Artist Myth is Sometimes Bullshit

safia-001

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

I think there’s this culture in slam where you get rewarded for being the most wounded...I was capitalizing off of my own fucked-up life... I feel like I had to take a step back and be like, I’m not going to pimp my own sadness.

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

1 Comment

Homeboy Sandman on Education, Media, Hip Hop and His Native New York

2 Comments

Homeboy Sandman on Education, Media, Hip Hop and His Native New York

homeboy_sandman_333857

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.”

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,’...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.

...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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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_

2 Comments

Stephanie Rooker's Voice Journey

Comment

Stephanie Rooker's Voice Journey

Stephanie Rooker

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.

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 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’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

Comment

From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

Comment

From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

1010368_600619263292565_1827125364_n

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?

Yes.

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.

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.

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...finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

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.

Exactly.

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)

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. 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.

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…

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.

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

Comment

Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

Comment

Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

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!

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...it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people.

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...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.

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.

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!

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.

The other thing that I have experienced, is that if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well...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.

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

Comment

Georgia Anne Muldrow And Dudley Perkins Speak On The Funk, Black Power And Spirituality

1 Comment

Georgia Anne Muldrow And Dudley Perkins Speak On The Funk, Black Power And Spirituality

625712516924

After a heavy string of releases beginning in 2006 with her debut Worthnothings, Georgia Anne Muldrow eventually signed with the California based label, Stones Throw. Her husband, label mate and artistic partner Dudley Perkins (a.k.a. Declaime and former Madlib collaborator), both left the label in 2009 and went on to release music via Mello Music Group. Most recently the couple ventured off on their own in the creation of record label SomeOthaShip, a fitting title for their new music. Together, the pair released an initial full-length collaboration in 2007 with The Message Uni Versa under the collective name G&D. While they have followed up with other side projects and one-off collaborations (Georgia produced the entirety of Declaime’s 2011 LP Self Study and then linked up with Madlib for her own solo record Seeds the following year), the duo finally returned under the G&D moniker this past May with The Lighthouse.

In many ways, The Lighthouse airs out the couple’s most recognizable signatures: Georgia’s incessantly funky production, her meandering vocals, Dudley’s almost awkward rawness on the mic and more generally; their shared, somewhat oddball metaphysics. Our conversation launched almost immediately into Dudley explaining music’s inherently spiritual role (it’s “a nutrient”) and its recent fall from grace in the mainstream. In their music and in conversation, it’s easy to pinpoint some of the couple’s more out there musings, but in either case there’s an undeniable sense of understanding and passion about their work and life in general.

Can you explain your take on the function of music?

Dudley: Music is a very powerful tool, vibrations. Our bodies sort of function on a vibratory level, you know. Music rides on air, it’s something you can’t see. The divine things, the things you can’t see are very vital to human life. And music actually rides on these vibrations, on air, so it actually makes it a nutrient. It can actually tune you in or tune you out. We know the cats in the military [with their bombs], the murderers, the hired killers, when they go kill these kids and stuff like that, they actually listen to music to hype themselves up, you know? Or before people go do boxing or go do sports or other activities, there’s like a theme music popping off.

So I think, we’re just trying to play a part in the higher vibratory theme music, through all this bull-crap that’s going on in music. A lot of our brothers and sisters that are asleep through this music, a lot of the people that put them to sleep are [musicians] ‘cause they’re awarded for ignorance so they keep doing what they’re doing. But a lot of youth are waking up now, they’re not going to follow their fathers, uncles and mothers and their aunties and stuff down that road of dark music, music that has no place on earth.

Where do you see the Black Power movement in 2013, particularly within the context of music and musicians?

Georgia: For me, I feel like when a mother, a Black mother, carries a child in their womb, that’s Black power, you know? Black power is prevalent within every human life, but it’s just us in the societal construct who would be identified as Black, because we’re all of African ancestry, it’s a proven fact. It’s just basically, how Dudley was saying, you can Google a website that’s for elementary school students about African culture, you can go into a library and they’ll say “what is the instrument that comes to mind when you think of Africa?” The first instrument that comes to mind when you think of Africa is what?

The drums.

...it’s an energetic thing, if I’m in a conversation with somebody I’m not just gonna be cussin’ them out and then expecting them to love me, you know? So why would you cuss somebody out on tape and tell them that they’re broke and I’m rich?
— Georgia

Georgia: The drums right. Even a fool could recognize that that’s the heartbeat of our cultural expression. Then, let’s use that same tool that reached everybody, use it in the way that it was intended when it first got revealed to this planet. Because they had drums that could bring the rain, drums that could heal the sick people, drums that bring young boys into manhood and young girls into womanhood. We don’t have that in a prevalent level culturally in this country. And this is throughout the diaspora, there’s a lot of folks that go without these rites of passages [like] “now you are a man, now you are a woman, these are your responsibilities, these are your gifts.” We don’t have that, a lot of that was taken away, the drum was taken away We’re just a continuation of that metaphor really, it’s an energetic thing, if I’m in a conversation with somebody I’m not just gonna be cussin’ them out and then expecting them to love me, you know? So why would you cuss somebody out on tape and tell them that they’re broke and I’m rich?

The government talks to us from the TV, I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to be like Obama. I definitely don’t wanna be just a source of entertainment when people are hurting, laughing is good but it’s better if someone can feel like a true healing from the inside instead of just a shallow laughter that distracts them from the problem. I rather if somebody is gonna laugh at what we’re doing it’s like an “aha” laugh, like “I’m finding it, I get it.” I’m not here just to be that entertainment and be that Betty Boop or that minstrel show kind of thing ‘cause we don’t think about those things in our daily conversations with people we love. Our conversations with people we love are about what tools do we have that we can further liberate the minds of our people, the hearts of our people, the physical bodies of our people, that’s our daily conversations so naturally it’s going to bleed into the music.

One of the things I was actually going to ask you about was about African cultural continuity and rhythmic continuity in particular, you already kind of answered my question.

Georgia: It’s really deep because Black folks is more African than they give themselves credit for, especially here, a lot of people really hang tight onto the “I’m African-American” and they really hang tight onto that. You’re just African, you’re living in this place but you are an African person, you know? I think one of the gifts of the diaspora is that we are not holding onto a nationality, we’re holding onto our genetic codes, our genetic memories and things that are within us that are very internal and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s very powerful. That’s why it’s been looked [on] with a lot of disdain and there’s been a lot of pain caused on people who claim that.

You can say Jamaican pride all day, Panamanian pride, Ghanaian pride and everybody will love it and even the White folks will eat it up. But when you say Black pride and you say Black power and you say Black music, a lot of folks shy away from that because it’s intimidating.
— Georgia

You can say Jamaican pride all day, Panamanian pride, Ghanaian pride and everybody will love it and even the White folks will eat it up. But when you say Black pride and you say Black power and you say Black music, a lot of folks shy away from that because it’s intimidating I think out of feelings of guilt that people have. When people want to put our struggle on the back burner and just look at countries and different things people do in the name of diversity, and when there’s something that unifying it puts people in fear because a lot of us have been breastfed on that colonial agenda and we don’t even know what it is. A lot of folks can’t even identify it within themselves but that’s the reason why people turn their nose up when you say “Blackness gives me power.”

We got the words going but at the same time it’s a vibrational thing, so even if somebody’s turning up their nose to a song like that, the vibrations is still going in there like medicine through their cells, through their eardrums, gotta process the music and it’s gonna leave some residue of some medicine in their brains. And that’s what we’re getting to ‘cause we’re living in a day and age when there’s a complete inundation of just jiveness, just straight up [shallowness]—either people that’s arguing on reality TV, causing destruction, chaos.

The basis of Black power is to understand who we are, what it is that we have, the things that make us unique, the things that make us strong. So that we can go further without fear, because fear is based in lack, fear means that you think you lack the strength to handle a situation.
— Georgia

The basis of Black power is to understand who we are, what it is that we have, the things that make us unique, the things that make us strong. So that we can go further without fear, because fear is based in lack, fear means that you think you lack the strength to handle a situation. When we go through life with a lower percentage of fear you’re more powerful, you know what I mean? And that’s really our aim, just to get people less afraid of themselves and to loving themselves and appreciate who they are.

It’s a spiritual battle, balancing your spirit in this society in this day and age is very real. If you have kids—you know we have kids—you see it clear and presently, the danger that they’re in. This is the way we pray, this is the way we meditate, this is the way we can recharge, just to make this music. And it’s a blessing that people like you call us asking us you know what’s behind this. Those are the side-effects, people embracing the music and buying the records.

So Georgia at some point you said “everything you do is gonna be Funky,” where does Funk fit in or how does it bring it all together?

Dudley: Well all music is Funk. I don’t know about Celtic music.

Georgia: Celtic got some Funk.

Dudley: They got a little bit of Funk?

Georgia: They probably got a little Funk in the Celtic. [Laughs]

Dudley: All music is Funk, it’s just when it’s done right it’s Funky.

Georgia: I always see the Funk as a manifestation of order within chaos. Because we live in a time that’s very disorderly and very offbeat, the adaptation of that environment into a new [way] of order. For me, when James Brown came with that whole philosophy of the one, of everything being on the one. You hear a song like “Make it Funky,” it’s a bad song but at the same time you hear a very militant vibe because everybody is in step with one another. And it’s like that’s the funk. Funk is very deliberate. It’s like this order that can’t be shook within any environment.

I was thinking about it, as a fan of Funk music but also just coming into this conversation that Funk isn’t just an aesthetic designation, there’s some energetic aspect to it as well.

Georgia: Absolutely. Yeah in anthropology you look, the roots of the word “funk” go very deep depending on where you go on the continent of Africa. It all comes back to Africa, you know. In Kikongo funk means to let loose spirit.

Oh wow I didn’t know that.

Georgia: Yeah and then if you go into the Wolof language “funk” means respect, to respect. If somebody has the funk on them they are respected. Another expression of funk is, you know, if you have exerted effort and you are sweating like literally to the funkiness, you have exerted that effort and work to the point that the funk is on you, and it’s merit.

Also, when you disrespect the Funk, that’s not Funk...you can’t disrespect your ancestors, the women in your life, women on Earth, you can’t disrespect your people, you can’t use it for vanity, you have to use it to heal or to create that Funk...
— Dudley

Dudley: Also, when you disrespect the Funk, that’s not Funk. It actually takes away steps from you, a few notes you’ll lose when you disrespect the Funk. That’s like disrespecting what people call God and stuff like that. You can’t disrespect your ancestors, the women in your life, women on Earth, you can’t disrespect your people, you can’t use it for vanity, you have to use it to heal or to create that Funk that Georgia said at the end of dancing and stuff like that. True Funk will have you dancing.

Georgia: Yes.

Dudley: But they got it twisted. They trying to funk with the Funk.

Georgia: It’s just like how you see beautiful movements like the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers and you can go further back to organizations like the Mau Mau and the Chimurenga, you know, these kinds of things. There was always some kind of agent there that tried to be an opposing force to that movement that was camouflaged in the rhetoric but the intention was completely different and you see the effects of that. And the Funk is the same thing, the cats that knowingly abuse [it] and choose to put the words of negativity and disunity and chaos into the Funk, those are people that me and Dudley consider as jive, completely part and parcel with whatever you want to call it, COINTELPRO, Patriot Act, you know, colonialism. Trying to get people’s mind to think in lack.

Alright last question, Georgia I read something where you said “you need to chart some spiritual territory in the realm of computer music,” we’ve talked about this on the site before that music made on the computer can incite some kneejerk response that’s it’s not real or organic, so what did you mean when you said that?

Georgia: That’s a very good question because it’s a dialogue I have with my folks all the time. And we stay in dialogue about that and the whole analogue versus digital and the kind of mind game that people try to play on folk that it’s different when there ain’t really no difference. It’s your mind, it’s in your mind.

You gonna hear me repeating myself a lot because at the end of the day it goes from feelings that you have, feelings of empowerment versus feelings of lack. So when you’re on the computer and you got these feelings of lack going on, you know like you want to quantize every single little thing, quantizing means like the beats your programming are corrected by the computer, the computer is thinking for you. You’re not trying to customize no sounds [or] find your voice, you know? So that the computer can be your tool instead of you being the tool of the computer. Anything that you’re doing, whether you’re a writer, a painter, in any aspect of the world or just as a person, you need to find your unique voice because we’re all made uniquely.

For me I don’t see it as no different thing, I’ll get on the drum set but I can make the computer sound like the drum set I can’t afford. For me I like computers because they free me of a lot of limits, and the only limit is what’s coming through me.
— Georgia

For me I don’t see it as no different thing, I’ll get on the drum set but I can make the computer sound like the drum set I can’t afford. For me I like computers because they free me of a lot of limits, and the only limit is what’s coming through me. The environment that I’m very privileged and honored to have is with the ancestral rhythm. And they using me to do this music so even if I was on a rubber band on a corner, they’re gonna use me to do whatever I gotta do.

That’s my whole thing, I feel like a lot of the dance music is a beautiful thing because it got this tribal sound but I think at the same time it would do good for folks to really do their research on the music of the world instead of just kind of assume a one dimensional aspect of tribal music.

You talk about binary code, that ain’t nothing but rhythm. That’s a hand [on] and a hand off of a drum, that’s the way I see it. Even furthermore, a lot of people have made correlations to Nigerian or West African divination having a lot to do with the creation of binary code. We have this diviners that have either shells or nuts and they cut them in half, you know, and depending on which way up or down it’s a whole program, it’s a whole story and how they can go on to correct the things in their life. So this computer thing is older than just like a CPU. When I look more into what computers are and what they’re capable of it’s right in step with throwing shells on the diviner’s board, it’s the same thing. It’s a beautiful honor to be a part of something that’s so old and not going away and will never die which is music, it’s an honor for us to be a part of that because it ain’t going nowhere.

Words 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.

1 Comment

Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

2 Comments

Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

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.

...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...

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.

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.

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.

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.

words by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar

2 Comments

Artists Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle on Black Female Identity

Comment

Artists Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle on Black Female Identity

naked

The title of this article was originally called " When and where I enter: the digital visuals of Novel Idea and Kyana Brindle of 1NMedia Salon and was scooped from Paula Giddings’ seminal work When And Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.  Published in 1984, Giddings shares a historical perspective of how Black women responded to their circumstances - struggling against both racism and sexism from the seventeenth century to the end of the 70’s.   – and finding pockets of success despite the hardship. Conceptually, When and where I enter, is a statement of will.

Novel and Kyana first met in 2003 through a performing artists collective called Smokin' Word.  [Full disclosure: I had met them around this same time.]  They have developed a friendship over the last decade that has now flourished into this collaboration – Naked Layers. Part performance art, part theater this work is reminiscent of artists Coco Fusco or Adrian Piper. Now some folks might find work that’s processing identity reflexive or passé.  Every generation of artists has a plethora of views on this stuff. As a Black chick myself, I appreciate seeing other women grapple. If only to give myself permission to continue to grapple and share; if only to feel less alone. In watching this series, I thought of Michalengo’s David  or Venus de Milo. In fine art, we often see nudes, static staring. Why does the moving image take it to the next level for us? Are we more prude now? Has pornography and reality TV jaded us to individual expressions of nakedness and vulnerability?

I speak to both of them about their process and the process of collaboration.

Describe yourselves as creatives. What is your artistic form? What do you enjoy doing? What are you afraid of doing?

Novel: That's a hard question because I don't like to limit or put myself in a box. Right now I would have to say I'm a filmmaker or media creative. I enjoy creating visuals that tell a story. This could be with digital photography or shooting a film/video. I also play around with identity stuff: logos, websites stuff like that. And I write a bit and this has many ways of manifesting. See? It's hard for me to identify one way that I create. I guess it's easiest to just say I'm creative. (Smile)

What kind of pieces are you writing?

Novel: I'm working on two film scripts, Life as Becky, which is about an adolescent black girl who grew up in a white neighborhood. It's basically her search for identity. And Runner, which is about a black man's journey back to his daughter’s life...sort of.  I have a book I haven't touched in a bit that I would love to finish called BullDaggah.

By not limiting your creative work, is this liberating or frustrating? Do you feel like you could accomplish more if you stuck to one art form?

Novel:  It’s both liberating and frustrating. Maybe I would [accomplish more] but then that's not who I am. Sometimes, for me anyway, what I want to say doesn't always fit in the form that is convenient. So it pushes me to explore other forms. Sometimes it just comes to me in a different form so I have to honor what it wants. As far as accomplishing more, if you mean success, well that's another topic for another time.

Kyana: I identify primarily as a performer and writer. For me that can encompass the many things I do as a writer, actor, singer, and all-around creative person. I love to express and explore creative energy through movement and sound.  I also see myself as a facilitator of the creative process. I love to sing. Singing is my greatest love and also my greatest fear, as it is my most primal form of expression. I would love to sing more and collaborate with other singers and musicians, and have done a little of that here and there, but it still scares me to move fully toward that dream.

What was the inspiration behind 1NMedia Salon?  What has been the greatest challenge? What do you hope to accomplish?

Novel:As far as inspiration for 1NMediaSalon, I would have to say the artist’s process has been the biggest. I have always worked with other artists in collaboration so I think I wanted to create a platform that would be about that. This is why our motto is Get 1N.  It's about the act of collaboration, a signal, you know? Kyana clued me in on the ‘salon’ part some years ago when she assessed that many artists had come through my space to create and incubate and even exhibit. And the ‘media’ part is mainly the form. As far as challenge? The biggest one for me is just getting folks to say 1N and not N1 (smile ). I hope to accomplish good art.

What was the concept behind Naked Layers and why?

Kyana: Naked Layers came out of an idea Novel and I had for some "tasteful nudes" we wanted to put on the 1NMediaSalon website. As we further explored the idea, all of these feelings and worries came up for me around being photographed naked, and I realized that that was where all of the energy was. We decided to create a film project around some of the themes and issues about nudity and nakedness, and it's just evolved from there. I felt like sharing my exploration of all this body stuff could open up a conversation and experience for all of us, and that seemed important to try.

Describe your process of working together?  What really worked?  What did you have to let go of for yourself?

Novel: As far as process with Kyana, well I think it's just about communication. We bounce stuff off each other, try stuff out and if it works it works. If it doesn't we talk about why. Our process is very organic. In the case of our Naked Layers project, it's about getting to truth so we kinda have to get out of the way of ourselves.

Kyana:This is my first time working with film and it's been an interesting process. I am more used to performance, where you have an idea and you get up and do it - you can see an immediate result of that. Film is a very different process, a totally different animal from theater and performance, and it's been challenging for me. The wonderful thing is that Novel and I communicate really well. There is a lot of trust between us and that definitely helps, not only in sharing my ideas but also in actually getting naked for these film pieces. Novel and I talk through our ideas and also share our feelings about what comes up. There is a mutual appreciation for the roles we both play and for how vulnerable we both feel in doing this project. I also really respect Novel's skill and vision as a filmmaker, and we've learned to give and take constructive criticism from each other. I am used to being more in control of the creative projects that I do, and Novel understands when that rears its head while also gently letting me know when I'm being a pain in the ass and need to relinquish my grip a bit. We work really well together.

When I watched Naked Layers I felt is was very direct and honest but thoughtful.  Not like Reality TV "honesty" but not particularly innocent either.  What do you hope viewers receive from the piece?

Novel: First off thank you T for seeing that! I guess with any piece I create I want or hope that it resonates, and that it rings truthful. Particularly with this piece though because its so or I should say it feels a bit dangerous. And yes ,you're right, it's not innocent. We are aiming for truthful reality. Please call us on it though if it starts to feel contrived. (smile.)

Kyana: I really just want folks to have an experience with it. Whatever it is. I feel like my "stuff" around vulnerability and exposure and my relationship to my body are things that people can connect with in some way, and that may lead someone to explore all of that for themselves and have more love and compassion for themselves. I think it would be great if we could all give ourselves a break.

Kyana, earlier you said that singing is scary for you? Why is singing scary for you? What will you do in terms of process to overcome that fear? Will it be that same that you used to take your clothes off on front of the camera. That is pretty primal in and of itself.

Singing is scary because I feel so exposed when I'm doing it. I would like to make an effort to sing more publicly to overcome that fear. And yes, taking my clothes off is pretty much the epitome of exposure! I hadn't thought about it that way. Hopefully this process with Naked Layers will help me to push past my fears about singing.

Novel, when editing, did you know what you were looking for during the edit? Or did you let the piece reveal itself to you.

Novel: I wish I could say I knew what I was looking for.  Each piece has been different and because of what it is it is the boss of me!  So yes it has definitely revealed itself to me.

Naked Layers: "Getting to truth" pertaining to what? Is it Kyana's truth because she's the subject/object? What truth are you getting at as a director? Or are you getting to her truth?

Novel: Right now it is Kyana's truth but because she is gracious enough to share her process we get to share in it. If I'm doing my job right as a director I think it might just provoke us to ask similar questions and peel off our own layers. Each time Kyana and I go into production and shoot one of these things I feel like I want to throw up. Really. It's hard shit. I love it but it ain't easy. I know in my heart because its not easy we must be on the right track. So in answer perhaps  I'm getting to a truth? Hell I don't know. I just have to keep going and see what happens.

Novel, you mentioned earlier that you hope to accomplish good art, define that.

Novel: I did say 'good' art, didn't I? I guess what I mean by that is honest art. I want to be able to say at the end of the day that this came from a real place of inspiration. I would also hope that my art touches someone or provokes some sort of change.  For the better.  But that can't be pre-determined, right? I just have to take a leap of faith with it all.

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

Comment

Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

Comment

Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

Panamathumb3

I was first put on to the Beat Making Lab through a friend of mine who thought I would find the project interesting. She was right. I was energized, inspired, and straight up wowed by the work professor and musician Pierce Freelon and his partner, co-teacher and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) had created. 

Founded by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and described as an "electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack" Beat Making Lab was first designed as a course for its students to learn the art of beat making. After Pierce took over for Dr. Mark Katz, he and Apple Juice Kid realized their curriculum had the potential to have a global impact. Through a crowd funding campaign, Beat Making Lab set off for Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo working with youth in community settings to teach them how to make beats and songs. 

Currently in collaboration with PBS, episodes are aired every Wednesday and detail the adventures in beat making as youth from Panama to Senegal to Fiji co-create songs using beat making technology as taught by Pierce and Apple Juice Kid. The results are beautifully shot and transportive episodes, dope beats, a real sense of community, and what looks like a whole lotta hard work and fun. 

How did you come up with the idea for the lab?

The Lab started as a class at the University of North Carolina where I've been teaching in the department of African and Afro American Studies since 2009. Over in the Music Department, Dr. Mark Katz (who is currently the chair of the department) and producer Apple Juice Kid founded the class as a 3-credit hour music and technology course in the Fall of 2011. Dr. Katz went on leave the following semester and he and Apple Juice asked me to co-teach the class instead. That's when the seed was planted for Beat Making Lab to grow into something bigger.

On a daily basis, Apple Juice Kid and I discussed the possibilities of taking the class and the curriculum off campus and into a community. We were in the midst of planning to build a community studio when our colleague in the department, Dr. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, told us about an amazing community center in Democratic Republic of Congo. We had initially thought about building our community Lab locally, in Durham or Chapel Hill, but were intrigued by the prospect of taking the grassroots initiative abroad. There was no money to pay for the experiment, so AJK and I crowd-sourced funds through an Indiegogo campaign, with donations from the Department and the community. Once we hit the ground in Congo - we knew we'd started something that wasn't going to end anytime soon.

Why was this idea important to you? What impact were you hoping to make?

In the beginning, we didn't know what impact we were going to make. Check out our fundraising video. We called it "Carolina to Congo: a beat making lab experiment" because we literally didn't know what to expect. We knew that we had a wonderful resource and curriculum; and we knew we had a community that really wanted to learn how to make beats. Music is a great tool for dialogue, healing, expression and building community. I hope we were able to do some of that.

What has the process been like building the Beat Making Lab? What have been some of your challenges and successes?

Challenges have included cultural sensitivities around sampling, logistics of organizing large groups of students for 2-week sessions, language barriers and political conflicts in some of the countries we've worked. The experience has been humbling. In the past 6 months I've worked with students in five countries I've never been to before. I'm learning Swahili, Wolof, Spanish and French; and making beats with radically different demographics, from groups of all-women rappers, and traditional Fijian musicians. The process has been challenging, inspiring, fun and exhausting.

What similarities and differences do you notice from teaching students at Chapel Hill to students in the DRC or other areas you’ve traveled to? Are there cultural differences to learning these new skills?

Every group brings its own nuance to the table. In Congo, we were surrounded by rappers. It seemed like everyone could spit in several different languages and dialects. Our song Cho Cho Cho features emceeing and singing in English, Swahili, French and a fusion of the three. Panama, on the other hand, was very different. Many of our students were percussion players, and part of a live carnival band called Barrio Fino. They brought a different  atheistic, skill-set and approach to beat making. In Senegal we were working with an all women's ensemble of rappers, singers and producers called GOTAL. Unlike previous groups, they all knew each-other years before the actual workshop - so communication and collaboration was a walk in the park. Chapel Hill groups vary from semester to semester as well - demographically, skill-wise and culturally. You never know who you're working with until the first day of class.

Both of you worked together as co-teachers at Chapel Hill. How did traveling together expand your relationship? How have you two grown in your working relationship and friendship?

I've known Apple Juice for years as a musical collaborator but now we're business partners as well. We have a very different but complimentary skill sets that work well together; ie. I'm a rapper, he's a DJ - I'm a professor, he's a producer - I'm a writer, he's drummer. It's worked very well for us so far. We founded a company called ARTVSM - to merge the worlds of art and activism. This is the soul of Beat Making Lab and a common thread with everything that we want to do in life.

How has the process been of working on BML as partners? How similar/different are your working/creative style?

Great. The most important thing is that we're both on our grind. We both put in work - all the time; and that's exactly what it's taken to pop Beat Making Lab off.

What have you been most surprised by and inspired by in your travels?

Most surprised: the music. We've made some incredible beats and songs over the past several months and I couldn't be prouder of the work our students - many of whom are first time beat makers - have put in.

Most inspired: the model. We're attempting to build a sustainable community space, where the students teach each other and the music funds the workshops. Sometimes when I step back and access the implications of what we're trying to do, I'm inspired. And its not something we came up with on our own. It's been a community effort and we're proud to be a part of it.

A musician we interviewed in the past was quoted as saying, “I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn’t too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I’m hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I’m not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.”

What are your thoughts on this? From the web episodes, you’ve clearly succeeded in building a creative community. 

Two thoughts on this: 1. We encourage collaborative beat making. On the first day of class we make beats with our hands, beatboxing on tables, and creating sounds organically in a cypher. This sets a tone we like to maintain throughout the Lab. Students work in groups, sometimes 3 or 4 to a computer. Its not quite as individualist as he describes. 2. our best friend is the splitter. Five headphones inputs per computer. They come standard in every Beat Making Lab.

In one of your webisodes, you mention you are teaching the students but that you are also learning from them. What have these students taught you about the creative process?

How to improvise, how to listen, how to communicate effectively without sharing a native language with someone, the value of good leadership and collaboration.

How far do you see BML expanding? What is your vision for the future?

We hope to put our curriculum online for free, for anyone who wants to learn how to teach what we do. We want to create our own open source beat making software so anyone with the will can gear up and start making beats without paying for an expensive new software. Ultimately - we want kids everywhere to be able to make beats if they want to. That's the ultimate vision.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Saleem Reshamwala

Comment

Akua Naru on Performing, Living Abroad, and the Creative Process

Comment

Akua Naru on Performing, Living Abroad, and the Creative Process

akuanaru_press1

American artists have often found a particularly welcoming audience throughout Europe. From early Jazz performers in the first half of the 20th century to independent Hip Hop artists in the 1990's, it's often the case that non-charting musicians support their craft on the international circuit. While Hip Hop artist Akua Naru is adamant that Cologne, Germany is just a base for her meandering travels and an incessant tour schedule, there's no doubt she has benefited from that musical base. 

In 2011 Naru released her debut album, The Journey Aflameon German-based Jakarta recordsand followed up with a live-band interpretation of many of its songs the next year with Live & Aflame Sessions. Currently working on her next project, which will feature a special guest in the form of famed drummer Bernard Purdie, Akua took some time to speak with Project Inkblot about her perspective as a writer, a recent confrontation on the road and Hip Hop's global relevance.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your being an American artist based in Europe, can you talk about how that lends itself to a different perspective or set of opportunities?

Of course it’s a bit different here, there are a lot of opportunities for artists to tour in Europe, I would say on a much larger scale. People here are willing to support artists that are not signed to major record labels, they just gotta like the music, you know? And I think that this is the reason why a lot of artists in the states [that] might have had a record out ten or fifteen years ago know that they can come to Europe and do really well just performing in different cities country to country. And in many ways it’s been great just travelling city to city and performing. I mean in terms of where I’m based, I don’t know if it really matters, I like Cologne a lot but I travel a lot. So it’s just that, it’s a base and because I’m here I’m able to be in other places [as well].

This may be a loaded question, but going to a place like Zimbabwe or going to Amman, what’s it like going to these places where a lot of Hip Hop artists don’t end up touring?

I mean, each place is different. It’s really great, it really continues to bring to my attention how amazing Hip Hop is. Like, I’ve been places where I’ve seen people where you would think there was no point of connection, they might be older or younger or they look totally different or they speak a different language, but they could rap the same song that I love, whatever song it is. Breakers, poppers, lockers, graffiti artists. I was in India a few months ago and I was teaching some Hip Hop workshops and I also gave a few performances, and just to see, you know, just to work with these women on writing their own rhymes and telling their stories. To see how they came into the workshop and the kind of performances they delivered as we were leaving this workshop, it’s just amazing.

It’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly.

Who would have thought that Hip Hop would have become so global? When Erykah Badu said it’s bigger than the government, in many ways she’s right. It’s really great, it’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly. It’s the grace of God, there is no way to describe how it feels. And also I think to represent the women in Hip Hop it makes it even more powerful.

I think it’s kind of a tired topic at this point to think about the lack of female emcee’s and maybe that’s because that’s a conversation that needs to emphasize the exposure of female emcees rather than the lack of them.

You’re right, it’s not about the lack of women but about the kinds of exposure that women Hip Hop artists are given, that’s really a good point.

I read that you and your band were recently confronted by a group of people in Romania, can you explain what happened?

It was in Hungary. Well actually the show was in a city called Cluj in Romania and it was awesome, we sold the place out, I think the maximum capacity was a thousand and they let in an extra 350 people, a lot of them had come a distance to come to the concert. I was really honored, it’s a great feeling to be an artist and to know that people are listening and will go to that extent to see you live. Like what else could you [ask for] as an artist? So I was already on a high from that and we were on our way back and, like I mentioned, we had stopped in Hungary in a rest area and I didn’t realize that we were being confronted by Nazi’s. I mean, these were people that seemed to be aggressive and they were chanting something that I didn’t understand. But I had just thought that they were celebrating a soccer match because you know people over here go crazy over soccer, so I just didn’t think twice about it although when we rolled up the way that they looked at me was kind of strange but my head was somewhere else, I wasn’t thinking about it.

And then as the situation started to unfold—you know I’m from the States, I remember growing up and seeing the Ku Klux Klan assembling outside of a supermarket, but I didn’t grow up where we were familiar with the whole Nazi language, of course they have the same premise that skinheads and the Klan [do], I mean, you know they operate from the same foundation. Some of the gestures [and] some of the language they use to hurt and to threaten and to imitate, it was foreign to me, I didn’t know that that’s what they were doing, I didn’t get it until a few minutes later when the people who I was with had made me aware of what they were trying to do and then it was really clear because they started to come to stand outside of the glass and started staring through the window. It was very clear then of course what their problem was and they wanted to aggress some of the people I was with.

We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do.

And it was just—you know as much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t be telling the truth and it’s important for me to be honest. Normally I wouldn’t post anything personal online but I thought about it for a few days and thought 'no, let me share this experience that happened to me' because a lot of people are in denial of very explicit and obvious situations like that so of course they’re going to be in denial of racist incidents that are a bit more subtle. Yeah, I was really hurt by that. It’s obvious that we can’t go anywhere that we want to go. And as the situation escalated I wondered if the police would have supported us and to what extent with the story that I’m telling. So I’m grateful that we were able to get out of there without it turning into something more.

I think it speaks to the fact that the work that you and other musicians and academics do is still incredibly important.

Absolutely, whether or not this situation happened or not, you know what I mean? There are definitely instances that happen everyday, some not as extreme as that one, that reveal to us that we have a lot more work to do and that make me grateful to know that there are people in the world—there are musicians and some scholars—who are trying to make changes, that are trying to forge social justice in institutional change and it’s definitely necessary, it’s urgent and it’s important. I wasn’t really shocked unfortunately. We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do. So I wasn’t really surprised, I was hurt by it to be honest, but I know that there are a lot of fascist movements and there are a lot of people who don’t want progress.

That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work.

Is that something that motivates your writing?

To be honest, I’m just writing. Of course I’m a Black woman, me being a woman and me being a Black woman has a lot to do with my identity and how I see the world and that comes across in my writing and in my message, my perspective and my ways of thinking [about] and being in the world, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m positioning myself, I’m not sure—I would have to think about it—I’m just writing what’s important to me and addressing issues that are important to me first.

And I guess that in me understanding that these issues are important to me they’re important for me to communicate for myself for other people who identify as I [do] might relate, and people who don’t might relate as well. That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work. To your question, I’d have to think about how I’m framing myself, I don’t know if I’ve yet built a frame, you know. When I sit down and say iI want to write this,' I’m just interested in writing and communicating something first, I’m not meta-analyzing in the moment that I’m creating.

Hearing you talk about it and in your music it’s obvious that you really love writing.

Absolutely. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. If you let my mother tell you she’d tell you, I don’t know how I learned to read, I’ve always had just a natural love for reading, writing and literature. For as far back as I can recall, having memories, recalling events, they always involve me writing, reciting, recollecting, you know, and just putting it down. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I hope that I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life because it’s something that brings me great joy.

Well leading from there, you’re working on some new material. I guess you were working with Bernard Purdie in the studio, that’s crazy. So can you talk a little about what you’re working on and then just having the opportunity to work with people like Bernard Purdie or Angelique Kidjo or ?uestlove?

To answer that question, it’s very short, it’s a great, great honor. To me as a poet, as a writer, sometimes it’s difficult for me when I have to accept that I don’t have the words to describe something, it hurts, but I don’t have the words to describe that. All I can settle for is to say that it’s an honor and I’m really grateful, I thank God. It’s an honor to be able to create and work with people that are legendary, amazing artists, it’s a great honor.

To answer your question about Purdie, I’m working on my new album and he is a special guest and I’m very happy about that. So that’s what that’s about basically. It’s awesome.

I think some people will see Bernard Purdie and get excited immediately and others may not know him but will be able to appreciate the work that he’ll provide.

And I think that the people that don’t know him, they’re not conscious of it but they do know him, they’ve heard him, you know what I mean? If you listen to “O.P.P.” [by] Naughty By Nature or I could write a list of tracks where his beats, his drums were sampled, if you listen to Hip Hop music, you have heard him. So maybe they’re not conscious of knowing him but they do know. He’s a legend.

Your last album was really centered around the live music and interpolating some of those tracks for a live band, I would guess that the new album is going to feature the band as well?

I can’t tell you too much Jay [laughs]. Well I’ll just say for myself as a writer that you can be sure that the narrative is still going to be progressive, political, honest. Musically, it’s going to be Hip Hop of course. There are going to be some live elements as well, I’ll just say that. It’s definitely not going to be that when you listen to the album you’re going to think 'what?' You know, it’s kind of just like the next logical step. But definitely there will be some live influences on the album.

To know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist.

Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, I know you’re busy and in a different time-zone, so obviously we’ll be looking forward to the new album, whatever approach you’re taking with it.

Thank you for listening, it really is a great honor to know that people are listening because when I sit down and write I’m not thinking about the people, not to sound selfish, but when I sit down and write I think first about myself and being honest and true to the story that I need to expel and it’s about me first. And to know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist and I really appreciate you for that.

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

Comment

Performance Artist Jomama Jones on Creating Your Own Path

Comment

Performance Artist Jomama Jones on Creating Your Own Path

IMG_1919-1

I had the opportunity to meet Daniel Alexander Jones many, many years ago while we were both teaching artists at CenterStage in Baltimore. Daniel was a thoughtful playwright, educator, and activist; we were like-minded spirits and quickly connected. Fast-forward a decade and a half later, he’s now a tenuredProfessor of Theatre at Fordham University.

In addition to his teaching gig, Daniel is also a brilliant performance artist. We reconnected in 2011 while he was in preparation for his cousin's (wink, wink) show, Radiatein New York City.  The creation of his fictional cousin, Jomama Jones, a dynamic stage performer  in the likeness of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Nona Hendryx, has resulted in performances heralded by The New York TimesThe New Yorker and The Village Voiceto name a few. Jomama’s performances are a combination of poetry, storytelling, song, and political and social commentary.  Her rock-pop-folk –soulful music coupled with her reflections on her time abroad, musings on the human condition, elegant humor, and genuine warmth penetrates the hearts of her audiences’ and are akin to attending a spiritual revival.

Yes, I’m a fan. Jomama Jones is real and she will fill your heart with love.

Below is a recent conversation with Daniel and Jomama in Central Park.  I encourage you to read thoughtfully as this is a lesson in a holistic view of the creation of character and invites you into the depth of one’s creative process.

Now, I know Daniel and Jomama are related but when did the two of you first meet?

DAJ: In 1995, I was working on what would become my first full-length performance - Blood:Shock:Boogie an autobiographical, comic book piece that looked at my childhood. I referencedSaturday morning Soul Train. While working on that section, this figure came raging into being - Jomama Jones. In the piece, she was receiving a Lifetime Achievement award on Soul Train from Don Cornelius and when she comes out to accept the award it doesn’t go very well because she is adamant that while she’s receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award that it’s not the end of her career. When performing Jomama then, I found that her energy was almost bigger than the world of that piece.

Was this a one-person show?

DAJ: It was, but nothing I ever do is only one person so I ended up having two other people with me. Most of the work I do is performance art.

Define performance art for you?

DAJ: The site of the work is the actual experience of performing it and of witnessing it as an audience member. There is a degree of spontaneity and improvisation in the making and the doing of it. The components of text, image, gesture or choreography, and music are meant to have fullest realization in the moment they come together in the act of performance. Whereas, I would say that it’s slightly different than traditional theater, where many of the things have been locked before they meet an audience.

I’ve known Daniel in many different settings - as a director, an educator, and playwright.  He seems more structured in his process and Jomama seems much more improvisational in nature.  And when she’s performing, she is fully realized.

DAJ: I observe that there is a ‘twin-ing.’ I don’t want to call it a duality because I don’t think there is an opposition there.  It’s not a split of one person, there are two beings. And with that comes a clarity about Jomama’s own power; her ability to choose and also to respond to experiences with curiosity, with real joy and, this word continues to come up - certainty. What I note of myself is that I have experienced a great deal of static in my journey. Whether that is [through] institutional or cultural models of art making and ways of collaborating.  She does not seem to care about the limitations that they would suggest.

She gives you, Daniel, a freedom.

DAJ: I don’t know if she gives me freedom. She has her own freedom. I think I’m learning from her and she feels far more actualized than I do to myself.

What always strikes me, is that you, Daniel, have all of this information about divas in music, socio-cultural-economic-political history -  that seems to be reinterpreted and transformed through Jomama.

DAJ: What I have to delineate here, is that I am a channel for that to come through. Since I was very little, I’ve been interested in these things. From who played the percussion on the B-side of a certain album to the larger questions about (those divas’) navigating an identity during the civil rights movement. But I am not “doing it” when [Jomama’s] there. That’s the thing that is hard to describe.

Now, that is a trip.

DAJ: It is a trip but it’s the truth.  I can’t manufacture things that she would say. I think of the language of jazz that has threaded itself through my career in terms of how I make art.  There is a space in jazz called the break, where you go beyond the edge of what is known in the music. When you are out of the bounds of the melody and the extact structure, there is a place where you travel that depends upon, one foot being firmly grounded in what you know [in the music] and the other elsewhere. So what may very well be true is that, if I am vessel, I am also player. So this body (pointing to himself) is the instrument, my aesthetic and sensibility, my historical knowledge; but by golly, I’m not actually the thing that’s being played. She is the entity that is working itself out through me at this given time and I’m honored to be that.

I understand that.   While Daniel and Jomama may inhabit the same in body, they are different in spirit and mind.   And who’s writing the songs?

DAJ: Jomama with [Musical Director] Bobby Halvorson. I do participate.  We made a new record, “Flowering.”

I’m going to ask a simplistic question: Is this drag?

DAJ: My experience with Jomama is that while it’s passing or shifting along the gender performance spectrum, Daniel goes away. There is a physical part that I feel recedes to as a kind of witness to the whole experience. I’m merely, attempting to get out of the way so she can do what she needs to be doing. So, the difficulty sometimes in explaining this is that they see a ‘man’…

They see your body…

DAJ: …my body. They hear mydeep voice. What has been interesting in my experience is that people who come assuming it’s going to be “drag” that by the time we’re in the second song, they’re like ‘oh, that’s not what this is.’  Some people have been disappointed, because they came to see the "sassy, black drag queen” and then they meet Jomama who is not that.  But most people are pleasantly surprised…they go past that identity moment…

Well, then they begin to really listen.

DAJ: They listen to what she’s saying.

So, Jomama…what are you doing? At its base, you are a singer and a performer. And you tell stories but I’ve always felt there is more there.

JJ: What I would hope that I am doing, is the same thing the sun is doing right now reminding us of what is possible and is what is already in us waiting to be fed. Waiting to bloom.  Sometimes it will be a song.  Sometimes it will be a performance.  Sometimes it will be, as we are having now, a conversation. Sometimes it may be something simple as a look that I share with a stranger. Or as I would like to think of strangers, friends whose names I do not yet know. But it is a deeper work.

Do you think Daniel tries too hard [to be an artist]?

JJ: Yes. It’s exhausting which is why I keep my contact with him limited. But he’s very near the end of this cycle. It is frustrating to watch … it’s almost as if you’re watching a turtle butting up against a rock and you wish you could just turn it ten degrees so it would go along down the path.  Eventually it will turn on its own. And part of what you have to do to understand is by observing and being patient, that we must each make our own way.

How old are you Jomama?

JJ: Dear…

The reason why I ask…I ask for two reasons, one I know that Daniel is in his 40’s and I’m in my 40’s and hitting my own turtle-rock moment.

JJ: How lovely, dear.

Uh, thank you. And you left the country for a while and decided to come back so, the reason why I asked how old you were is, did you do that recently?

JJ: I left in my 20’s. I was away for quite a while. What is that saying,  ‘if you don’t pay attention to aging, it won’t pay attention to you.’ (Chuckles.) I left in the 1980’s, so I’ll leave you to do the math. I left for very…very personal and political reasons. Of course, the personal is political. Chief among them, were the sense that I was watching, what I perceived to be, the dangerous part of the evolution of the country which involved a shift of the pursuits of the individual at the expense of others, of community; of the very basic care, welfare that we might invest it in others. And on a more personal level, I was creatively frustrated by my relationship with my, then, record label and to resist as I could the tide shift that I saw toward a further segregation in music. There was less and less opportunity.  And frankly, I did not want to be regulated to the segregated label in record bin. My platform was far larger so I decided to leave. And it was the best decision I could have ever made.

And what did you do when you were away?

JJ: I went everywhere.  I traveled the world and I continued to sing and I continued to write music. And I had ended up settling most recently in Europe because it fed a certain part of my consciousness by giving me space, to envision something new, while also providing me with a crossroads experience until I was ready to make my comeback.

Which is now?

JJ: Yes! Almost three years.

What has changed in the landscape?  Not only in terms of a creative process, but also as a platform?

JJ: Well, it’s much more democratic now.  I am tremendously excited by work that is being done by younger artists in music who are not bound stylistically in terms of a marketplace. If their muse leads them to live performance, so be it. If their muse leads them to record an entire album on their iPad or iPod in their living room, so be it. And they are finding means of direct delivery because now their art is going to be speaking to the communities that they wish to reach, freely. And just as I and many of my colleagues, in the day, have broad tastes in music, and in culture, why not be able to spread our light, to follow our interests, other than feel like we need to box ourselves. I don’t like boxes. I hope that’s a good answer.

It’s a complete answer. Your creative process…what is it? What does it comprise of?

JJ: For me, it’s what am I arrested by. I’m awakened by messages in the night by dreams, images.  Sometimes it will come through as a color as if as though I was looking at a palette of colors and each one is pregnant with information. I’m following the smallest signs.  The appearance of a bird on my windowsill; a spark of conversation passing the window. I’m arrested by moments that are like small packages that one unwraps and that inside those packages are questions. And those questions, they sit with me.  They trouble me. They worry me until, all of a sudden, language will appear. A melody will appear. And I take those things and I record them. I’m drawn by a need that I can fill through the work that I make.

Does Daniel share the same process?

JJ: No, no, no.

He seems to have more rigor.

JJ: Dear, this is quite rigorous.

Rigor in the sense of, um…

JJ: He makes things busy for himself. I prefer the Ockham’s razor model of a straight line.

He seems to have more rules.

JJ: He seems to have more doubt. I don’t share that. The rules are contained within the inspiration. The shape is there already. One just simply needs to give it room to demonstrate itself. If you listen keenly enough; if you’re patient and are not worried. Too cerebral, which I fear, he is. Too cerebral. Doesn’t trust.

How did you come to trust? Or do you even care about that anymore and you just do.

JJ: It’s not a question, it is. Again, my dear, turtle against the rock. Take the turn.

Interview by Tanisha Christie

Feature image credit: Amelia Leigh Harris

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.

Comment

Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

Comment

Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

When I think of my childhood, trees and grass aren't the first thing that come to mind. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my Summertime childhood memories tend to invoke the stuff of urban 80’s movies including, but not limited to: the jingle of the impending arrival of the ice-cream truck, the gorgeous smell of spoiled garbage and hot pavement, Big Daddy Kane blasting out of boom boxes,  my brother and I playing exhilarating games of freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, catching fireflies and examining their florescent glow, and of course, mothers yelling out of their windows, “time to come inside"! - their shouts echoing off massively tall buildings.

As Zebi Williams, founder of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica says, “ [in Jamaica] the earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you.” Zebi's childhood involved more of Mother Nature than mine and her desire to return to her beloved hometown spawned by memories of her idyllic childhood, resulted in the creation of a summer youth camp.  At only 19 years old, and as a new mother, the Jamaican/Washington DC native started the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp ten years ago as a way to create a space for neighborhood children to learn about the arts and entrepreneurship in a fun, creative, open environment that teaches self-development, self-love, and the power of community. The humble and brilliant Zebi spoke with Project Inkblot about the effect of our environment on our creativity, her incredible volunteers/teaching artists, her vision for the camp, and why following your dreams as a parent is just as important for your children as it is for your soul. 

How did the idea for the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp start?

It started because I really wanted to go back to Jamaica. I was born in DC. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is American. I’m multicultural and biracial. When I was in third grade I moved back to Jamaica for a time and that’s the part of my life I remembered I love the most. From 8 to 13 years old I lived in this village up in the Blue Mountains. We had no paved roads, no light…and I lived in a house with 20 of my cousins and most of that time was spent outside. It was a small house, two bedrooms. I loved all of the imaginative play. We’d roast cashews, make our own fires, and I just loved it.

When I came back to America, I felt homesick. I always knew I would go back to Jamaica and that that would be a big part of life.  In college, I studied cultural anthropology with a focus on sustainable development for the Caribbean. I decided during my sophomore year that I wanted to go back to Jamaica and volunteer but I couldn’t find any volunteer opportunities. My mom was like, ‘well why don’t you start your own thing’? I always loved summer camps because I had my time in Jamaica where I was always in nature and then I had that time in America where I would be in summer camps. I felt like that was something I could do. I could create this summertime experience for kids in my hometown. I was 19 when I started the camp and I was feeling rebellious and going through my existential crisis -  reading Malcolm X and watching Life and Debt. I thought, I need to be out in the world doing something.

There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It’s something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

What’s Life and Debt?

Oh, you have to see it. It changed my life. It’s a movie about the IMF and the global economy and how the economy in Jamaica is basically owned by the IMF. Tourists come to Jamaica and all they see is this glossy image like, ‘yeah mon, no problem’. There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It's something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

From that film, I saw all of these big problems that were systematic and big and I thought, I don’t know how to affect those problems but what I can do, is I can offer a break. I can offer a time for the kids to step away and just be kids and have that same enjoyment. That’s basically what the camp is for them, a week vacation. I feel like that will have an affect on their development and their well-being.

How many kids do you accept into the program?

It’s in my hometown, where I grew up. We have 125 children so basically all of the children come. We’re basically raising a whole generation of children. What’s special about this is that everyone is getting the same education.

How did the vision for the camp develop?

The first year I went down, there was no real vision. I took a break and I came back five years later and at that time I had more of a focus. I knew the focus would be the arts because I knew all of these artists in Brooklyn and we really wanted to create a movement but I’m also an entrepreneur so it was like, arts and entrepreneurship. We have children from the age of 5 – 17. When they graduate from the program they become junior counselors and they go through a rite of passage. The oldest kids right now are 19 years old.

We place them in different African named tribes. A lot of Jamaicans don’t love their blackness or their Africaness. They’ll bleach their skin or think black is ugly or that being African is negative so I want them to know more about what African is. They get to know parts of the culture and it’s about loving yourself and all of the different layers of what that is; loving your history and where you came from, loving your flaws, and loving your talents. We have the tribe time when the kids are with counselors who are doing self-development activities with them and also taking them on hikes, going to the river, and having mentor time with them. They also get to go to art classes. The younger ones get to test out different art subjects. Maybe today they’ll do drumming and tomorrow they’ll take dancing. If you’re not exposed you may think well, I only like doing this because you haven’t tried enough things, you don’t know what your talent is. So we give them an opportunity to expand their horizons.

That sounds like such gratifying work. Is there a particular example that sticks out with a student?

There is this area in the community where people are kind of shunned. The community wouldn’t touch the kids from that community, they wouldn’t hold their hands, the kids weren’t really going to school. But with the camp we brought everyone together and we were like, you’re going to treat everyone with respect. There was this one girl who was from that community who was an amazing writer. She was ten years old and during lunch one day she came to me and said, ‘Zebi, I want to show you my poetry’. She was really quiet and the kids were always picking on her and so she felt down about herself.

This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us...all the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

She read her poems to me. Her poetry was amazing. This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us and we were able to show her that it was an amazing talent, by being her audience. We had a talent show that year and she got up on the stage and the adults got to see her perform. Now she’s our poet laureate. She’s written more books of poetry, she’s writing plays, she's writing songs. All the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. She’s going to a boarding school on a scholarship. And the adults were like ‘whoa’ they never got to see how talented their children are. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

Why do you think that is?

So many reasons.  I’m always having conversations about this. Why are we hiding our lights as adults? Why are we hiding our lights as children? Even this little girl, I see so much of myself in her. She’s at this stage where she knows herself but she’s not able to experience herself and I feel that same way. So sometimes it’s me feeling like I’m not a leader but knowing that I am a leader. You know you have a bright light but you’re not always able to experience your bright light. We have to learn to surround ourselves with people who see us. I’m grateful that as an adult I’m able to be around people who see me and want me to be myself because they believe in themselves.

When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like, you need to just focus on her. But I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be?

You have a ten-year old daughter, Zia. How does being a mother affect your work as an entrepreneur and your vision for the camp?

I’m learning the balance of being a mother and following my dreams but also respecting her vision of what she wants in her life. What’s great is that she’s a really bright, communicative, creative child so she loves it. She gets a lot of one-on-one attention from our teachers and volunteers so they’re like her aunts and uncles. She’s always raising her hand in meetings and contributing her viewpoint as a child. I had her so young and I was really career driven and have been since I was young. When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like you need to just focus on her but I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be? That’s a conflict that happens within my family and with the elders around me. Wanting me to be solely present to being her mother.

Being an entrepreneur and creating this program takes a lot of my time. It’s long hours and she has to be at the meetings and it’s a commitment that I’ve made. Maybe she’d rather be at the park playing with her friends or at home and she has to be at this meeting with me. But it’s important that she sees me following my dreams. It’s important for our future relationship because our relationship is going to be very long. When she wants to be her own woman, I don’t want to be there like wait - you’re all I have.  I want there to be a respectful and balanced relationship between the both of us. I see that as the long-term vision even though right now it can be challenging. She and I have a great relationship and she sees herself as the person who will be taking over the camp when she gets older and being the future director [laughs]. She looks up to me and that feels really important to me. And I look up to her! She’s around women who are transparent in their own development. She sees our struggles, she sees what we go through, and it’s not perfect. It’s very real. She’s surrounded by so many confident women so I feel good about that.

It sounds like you’ve created many lasting relationships with the volunteers. What it is about Jamaica, and the camp specifically that attracts so many teaching artists?

I think environments speak to who we are. There are environments that we’re made to be in so when you go back, it resonates with who you are. It’s like we’re a tribe of people who are not in our home. And then you gather and you’re like, ‘oh this is where I am supposed to be’. That happens a lot with my volunteers. They find their home in that space. It’s cool because I have a lot of volunteers who are from New York. They have such a desire to be in the county. A lot of my volunteers have been coming for five, six years because it becomes their community. They can really feel like they’re connecting to the environment and the people they want to connect to.

A lot of them are bringing their children and so their children now have a second home. I really enjoy seeing my friends’ children come down and seeing that they can have what I had. I had America but I also had this safe special place in Jamaica that kept me innocent and connected and rooted.

You speak about this sense of connection. What do you think they’re connecting to?

I hear over and over again that people feel like they’ve grown after their trip to Jamaica, like they have had an accelerated growth spurt. There’s an aliveness to the environment. At night, everything is talking and moving. The trees are singing and the stars are bright and you’re in this living organism. The earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you. You really slow down and you’re so observant. The volunteers go back to New York regenerated and able to give.

You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle...you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

I imagine that has an impact on them creatively.

Exactly. You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle. It’s not America – there’s a more unpredictable, fluid rhythm. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

What do you envision for the future with Lil’ Ragamuffin? How big do you see this growing?

We’re building an arts and entrepreneurship center. Right now, we’re a center without walls. We don’t have a structure. Trees and rain affect our classes but we’re committed to the work. But we’ll have this arts center and the center will have year-long programming [instead of just one week] so it will be a space for other arts program in Jamaica. It will be a place for artist residencies. If you have a project you are working on, you can come down and work on that for a month and take that project into a space that encourages that creativity. I am also going to be working as a consultant for people to start camps where they’re from. I’ve had people from places like South Sudan, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic who want to create this camp model in their hometown. My one factor is that I want it to be someone who is from that location, so that it’s a local initiative supported by an international community. So those are the projects we’re looking to create but the Lil Raggamuffin camp is the engine that got that going.

It sounds like there's a part of you truly at peace with the process as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

I recently got the land to build the center and when I got that title, I had this huge feeling of accomplishment like, this mission is going to be accomplished and I will be able to step away at some point from the daily grind. Maybe that’s an illusion, maybe there’s more work that comes with it. It feels like a game. I’m really enjoying this whole process of problem solving and meeting people and having these serendipitous encounters – it’s such a part of my life.

I want to build it so there’s income coming in so I feel financially more at peace. Sometimes I think, sure if I would have chosen another path it would be easier. I would be making a lot more money and I could use my brilliance to make someone else money and have a simple 9- 5 and have weekends off but that’s not my path. I also feel like we have lots of lifetimes in our life. We’re not going to be doing one thing forever, especially now, when things are changing so fast. I see it as right now this is my life. I’m doing this in part of my lifetime and next I’ll be a film director, and next I’ll be a consultant traveling all of the time so it’s like, learn to be patient and play this part out.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Images provided by the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp

 

Comment

Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

Comment

Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons.  It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.   

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.

I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?

Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.

How did that affect you visually?

It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.

It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?

I hated it.

Were you resentful?

Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--

And they wanted you to go into accounting?

I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.

Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?

Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.

Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.

* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area

What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?

I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.

Where did the punk influence come from?

I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.

With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.

You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?

Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.

You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?

I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.

What's the fascination with ET?

I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.

How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?

I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?

When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?

When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.

Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?

It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.

My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.

Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.

You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.

No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.

What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?

I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.

Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?

It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.

I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.

You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent. 

I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.

Talk about that a little bit.

You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.

How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?

When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”

What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work? 

You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.

For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)

Comment

Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

2 Comments

Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

AoNC

When Projet Inkblot reached our first reader in Brunei Darussalam, we were floored, but first we had to look on a map to see exactly where that was. So imagine our utter amazement when we were first introduced to the work of Chris Guillebeau, a traveling entrepreneur, New York Times' best selling author, and blogger, who as of a few weeks ago, completed his goal to visit every single country in the world that he had the ability to visit. That's 193 countries in total! Chris connects with audiences in far reaching countries daily (that most people can't even pronounce, let alone know how to locate on a map), and offers readers brilliantly simple advice about running a business, living authentically, travel hacking, and the art of non-conformity--which is exactly what his blog is called.It's easy to envy someone with so many enormous accomplishments under his belt, and not see it as being attainable for oneself, but the truly inspiring thing about Chris is how much he cares about helping others achieve similarly bold goals. He does it by being transparent about his process, vulnerable to his loyal readers, and being an optimistic, accessible, and encouraging leader. He also gives pragmatic and action-oriented advice that is easy for even the most fear-ridden person to follow. Reading his blog posts and highly personalized newsletters, it's impossible not to be invigorated by his infectious spirit.

We were lucky to catch Chris right before he took his trip to his last of 193 countries, Norway. We were hoping to uncover his big secret to success, but what we found instead was the story of just a regular Portland dude who stayed persistent, consistent, and focused throughout the years to yield the results that he is able to show for today. Below is a mix of our Q&A, some of our favorite resources from his blog, and opportunities where you can also become a cyber-mentee of Chris' (like us), and join his international community of nonconforming adventurers. 

Did you have lots of people around you living unconventionally that you modeled yourself after, or who helped you identify the way that you wanted to live?

Not really, at least not the first part. I think you have to find people who see the world in a similar way as you. Fortunately, once you go looking for them, they’re not usually hard to find.

Was there a website, or websites that inspired you to create an online community for entrepreneurs and travelers?

No website, but I knew there were plenty of independent people out there who wanted something different. I hoped to contribute something positive that didn’t currently exist, at least not in the specific way that AONC became.

A must-have guide to starting your very own website/online platform:

279 Days to Overnight Success

How did you know that online was the format that you wanted to reach the world and inspire people?

Well, online is the only scalable way. I used to live in West Africa and had a great experience working individually with people, but if you want to reach people all over the world, you need some kind of platform. That's what I love about blogging—anyone can connect with a wide and disparate audience regardless of geography.

Here's a taste of what Chris covers on his blog

I reached out to you personally and asked for your help in asking for help, and being vulnerable. You basically told me to fear not! Which was both a good and bad answer for me. Bad because I wanted you to tell me a magical answer that would kill my fear, but good because you were absolutely right.  Did others give you tough love when you were just figuring out your direction?

I didn't mean it as tough love; I just meant you needn’t be afraid in asking for help. Most people are good and most people will provide whatever help you need, when you need it.

Are there ever periods where you don’t have sustained bursts of ideas and energy, which lead you to question your path?

Yes, and those are frustrating! There's no easy answer to this problem, but it does help to create a certain structure for your work. Knowing what you need to do but needing help getting started is a lot easier than not knowing what to do.

Deadlines help too: if I know I have to post every Monday and Thursday, I'll be sure to do so. If I know my book is due on a certain date and there are numerous people at the publisher who have scheduled time to work on it, I need to honor my commitment to them.

But as mentioned, I too get stuck sometimes.

Wait, he has an entire e-book to answer this question.

The Towe,

a guide to creative living

Everyone has a team. What does yours look like?

I have no employees and my team is pretty small. I do work with a couple of great designers and a genius developer. For the World Domination Summit, our annual event in Portland, we do have a growing group of part-time staff and volunteers that meets bi-monthly throughout the year, and then more often as we get closer to the big weekend in July.

Here's how to join Chris' 'small army of remarkable people'

When you first started out, did you have a target demographic that later changed as your work evolved?

No, I’ve never had a demographic at least in the traditional sense. Instead I have more of a psychographic, or people that identify based on shared values and ideals. They are all ages and backgrounds and come from more than 100 countries.

Chris just beta launched "Adventure Capital", a 12-month online teaching program for creative entrepreneurs

It seems like more and more people are taking the plunge and choosing to live ‘unconventionally’ now. What is special about our time where people are mustering up the courage seemingly more than ever before?

People have always been somewhat dissatisfied with traditional paths, but what's changed is that now there are far more alternatives than ever before. At the same time, there are also a lot more role models. Most people won't change their behavior based on something that an author or celebrity says—but when they see their friends, colleagues, or neighbors doing something new, some of them will feel personally inspired to make a change for themselves.

Unconventional guides to work, travel, and money

The $100 Startup is like a less cheesy, entrepreneurial Chicken Soup For the Soul, in that it uses so many great examples that anyone can refer to and feel reassured that the dream is possible for them. Was that book a one-shot deal, or will there be more like that to help people get their work off the ground?

I’m glad you liked it. I love writing books and hope to write many more. :)

Check out The $100 Startup, and explore the resources that accompany the book

Read Chris' debut book: The Art of Non-Conformity (based off of his blog)

What is one place in the world (that you traveled to) that you identified the most with, not necessarily culturally, but where you learned the most about yourself?

I like the qualification you included. Of all the places where I learned about myself, I'd certainly put Sierra Leone and Liberia (both in West Africa) at the top of the list. They aren't easy countries to travel in, but I had a great experience as a volunteer on a hospital ship. I continue to think of those places almost every day, even as I'm pursuing very different projects and doing different kinds of work.

Check out Chris' travel goals, and how he achiev

ed them

Do you plan on setting new travel goals for yourself after you reach 193 countries?

Yes, but they'll be different. I'm not interested in revisiting all 193 countries or going to the moon or anything like that. What I want to do is work much more closely with our community of unconventional people from around the world. I'll keep traveling, in other words, but in a more focused way than before.

Read Chris' reflections after his final country: "How Does It Feel To Visit Every Country?"

What is the single most memorable thing that a fan/supporter has ever expressed to you?

In different ways, people often express that reading AONC or The $100 Startup helps them to see that they are not alone. The first time I heard that statement, I knew I'd be doing this kind of work for a long time.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Chris Guillebeau

2 Comments

Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

Comment

Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

AG_1

If you've ever created any kind of movement, you know the dedication, resolve, humility, confidence, determination, and resourcefulness it can require. And while everyone looking through the sidelines marvels at how effortlessly you pull things off, they often remain unaware of a single truth.That ish takes a lot of hard work. 

Alyson Greenfield is one of those people who gets things done. Inspired to create her own music festival after noticing the lack of artistic platforms for women musicians, Alyson created The Tinderbox Music Festivalin 2010. Debuting at Southpaw in Brooklyn and featuring 19 women artists on two stages, Tinderbox continues to expand. Last Fall, they featured their biggest show yet -  37 artists from around the world rocking out on three different stages at NYC's illustrious Webster Hall. 

In 2011 I had the opportunity to work with Alyson on Tinderbox's second show, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and was often inspired by her relentless energy, resourcefulness, sharp business sense, honesty, kindness, and creative vision. Almost 5 months after their Webster Hall event, Project Inkblot spoke with Alyson as she and The Tinderbox Team excitedly geared up for 2013.  Ever the truth teller, Alyson spoke with me about how important it is to take care of yourself when you're creating something of such magnitude, how success can sometimes feel like failure, and how Tinderbox forced her to come to terms with what really matters.

How did Tinderbox start?

It started in 2010. Lilith Fair had come back on the scene - it was big in the 90’s – it’s a whole festival of women artists. I moved to NY in 2009 and I was thinking, I would really love to play this. I was a women’s studies minor and I was on the Chicago National Organization for Women’s board and it just made sense for me as a musician to do this. I had just moved to New York and I had been talking about starting a blog. A friend of mine said, 'well, your blog has to have a focus.' So, I started a blog pitching myself to Lilith Fair and every entry started with, Dear Lilith Fair. I really like to be creative and it was a big outlet for me. I didn’t get to play Lilith Fair but it was a great experience. I had helped run some unofficial showcases at SXSW that year and I had never done bookings or promotions before but I booked a bunch of acts and I thought oh, I can do this.  I thought well, I’m not going to play Lilith Fair but I know a bunch of women who are amazing musicians. It seems like there was a desire for women to have a platform not only in the music scene but to be around other awesome women. I thought, well I have this music and business sense, why don’t I just create my own event instead of trying to be a part of someone else’s? Within a few months, we got ASCAP and Bust Magazine on board and had the event at Southpaw on two stages with 19 different artists. We just kind of pulled it off. We had this awesome community vibe. The venue said they’d never had such well-behaved artists. What was so great was that so many people were coming up to me like ‘wow, we heard so many great artists.’ They hadn’t heard of most of them. Every year the artists fall in love with some of the other artists and collaborations come out of it. I’m really excited about Kalae Nouveau and Charlene Kayewho met at Tinderbox and are collaborating now. I love when that happens.

That must be so gratifying.

Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. In some ways I’ve created something that is bigger than me. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how much of my life this can be because I have other responsibilities. At Webster Hall, so many people kept on coming up to me telling me how inspired they were. That was the word of the day.

We went from a 500 capacity venue at The Knitting Factory to a 2,600 capacity venue with three stages and 37 artists from four different countries. We blew the roof off from where we were before. It was really exciting and challenging and the event itself was amazing. Performing at Webster Hall as an artist was incredible and otherworldly.

What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.

How did you get all of these people on board? 

There were a few people who came on board last year who, without them, Tinderbox would not have happened. Nasa Hadizadeh, Rebecca An…they were just instrumental. Then I brought on an assistant, Alexandra Martinez. These women were invested in Tinderbox like it was theirs. They came with great ideas and busted their butts and there were tons of other volunteers. They just took it on. I would ask them, why would you do this and work so many hours? And they would tell me what they were getting from it. I would feel bad because I didn’t have the budget to pay people or myself. The way people worked just astounded me. I would have conversations with people and they would share the value of Tinderbox with me. I felt uncomfortable asking people to do things especially when I wasn’t paying them. It was difficult for me to not feel guilty about not giving people paychecks. I had to understand that this was a reciprocal relationship. I’m getting something, they’re getting something and we’re working together to create things. I delegated and these women really took things on. What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.

What are some of the changes you noticed in how you were running Tinderbox?

I felt less alone. I even had people say to me that when I first started Tinderbox I would refer to it as ‘I have to’ etc. That changed to ‘we’ as in, 'we need to' and people were like, that’s a good thing you’re saying ‘we.’ I learned that it’s important to trust people and to identify to people what they’re best at and let them do that. Once they did that, they would come back with results. We had meetings all of the time and I had to learn how to negotiate and deal with different personalities. People have different ideas and they feel strongly about them and this year we were dealing with different sponsors, and so many more people. I also learned how to be more diplomatic and honest. Everyone worked so hard. People were invested with their heart, as well as their time.

But after Tinderbox this year you realized you needed some time off from the project.

Tinderbox kind of took over my life. I had to pay my bills and I didn’t know if this was the thing that could do that. I couldn’t put my life on hold and not be able to take care of my basic needs any longer.  We were working with artists and venues that were a lot bigger than what we had dealt with before. I’m good at negotiating, connecting and networking but there was a learning curve. I held it down but we didn’t have the capital at the ground level. We’re still young and we didn’t have the funding, and everyone was volunteering.

I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I am just crazy driven and don’t stop to breathe sometimes. If I have ideas, I will accomplish them but sometimes it comes at the risk of my sanity.  I had devoted my life and sacrificed things like a regular income. I was focusing on it all of the time and you know how it is, you can work on it day and night and still never be done. I was still doing little things here and there to provide for myself but at the end, I just felt defeated.

I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe... I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy...I started resenting Tinderbox.

Can you speak about why you felt defeated?

A lot of things came down on me because in these types of circumstances, things come down on the founder. I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe. I don’t know if it’s a do-it-all mentality or what. I’ve always liked to work. Ever since I was a kid, I had projects and would organize and set these structures. I was a perfectionist and I would just do and do and do.

I was like, I don’t know if this is going to happen again. I kind of felt like I had lost myself. I was living in this fantasy land where I thought if I worked my ass off, it would come back to me but it didn’t matter because it didn’t come back. It is coming back now – but at that time, it wasn’t. I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy - and I have a lot of energy – I was just done. It takes a lot for me to be done. I started resenting Tinderbox.

I think that happens to a lot of people.

Of course! Because if you don’t feel like something is giving back to you and you’re putting everything into it then that’s not balanced. There were incredible things that happened but I was almost mad at it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Pretty soon after the event, people were like ‘when’s the next one? I want to apply. What venue will you do it at?’ I was like, I don’t know if there will ever be another Tinderbox again. I cannot talk about it. Then I realized I had to get back to being a human being. I needed to provide for myself. I’m going to be the best at providing for other people when I’m setting an example and providing for myself. This is a key thing with women. Women are so good at providing for others and not always themselves.

Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others.

Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others. One of the Buddhist teachers says, ‘you know when you talk to yourself in your head and you’re being really mean to yourself, well would you talk to a good friend like that?’ And usually the answer is heck no. You’d rally for your friend instead of throwing punches. Having compassion is so important as well as realizing that things will happen on their own time. I think for me, also, there was a lot of thinking that things have to happen now. I spent so much time and energy on Tinderbox and I thought, things have to happen now! I have to prove this is real. I’m so over that now. In the second year we got press from TheNew York Times but it wasn’t enough. It was like, no – this year it’s going to be at Webster Hall. I had this unrealistic expectation that it had to be a certain way.

There was a sense of attachment?

Yes. It becomes really stressful because you say that it can’t be any other way. I think collectively, over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditation and really looking at myself and being honest. I realized I was being pretty mean to myself when Tinderbox was over. I felt like a failure. From the outside it wasn’t that way but from the inside, it felt that way. I started thinking I have worth because I am here and I’m human. I had gone camping in the summer with some friends and I was by the ocean and I thought: this ocean doesn’t care about Tinderbox. The world is so big. We make everything such a big deal.

After Tinderbox, I took a couple months away from it and I looked at our sponsorship deck, which is a compilation of our press, mission, goals, artists etc. and I thought, whoa - this is really successful. I kind of blew myself away. I had never really thought of that before because I was just working and doing and feeling like it wasn’t enough.

...it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.

You didn’t realize how successful you had been before?

Sure, I had little glimpses here and there but it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.

I reconnected. I genuinely like people and I finally realized I have something to give that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the music industry or being a musician or having a MFA. How can these gifts manifest? Maybe it’s something I never thought of. I let go of what I thought I should be or had to be to feel worthy. I thought, my priorities are: I need to pay my rent, I need to provide for myself and I haven’t been focusing on that. Now I have a few different jobs and I like them. They bring out different parts of my personality. And that’s nice to know. Things have been coming my way. When you’re open, the world gives you answers. Now I feel like the world is reaching out to me. I am also acknowledging now – I have always had this little thing on my shoulder that’s like ‘you’re not there yet. You better keep working’ but it’s like hey – I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t think I really thought that. I just let go…and it was hard. I opened up space so that things could come in. When you’re not making space for things to come because you’re always trying to get and go somewhere…when you can sit and be still….things can happen. All of these opportunities keep coming to me now. And the thing is, is that nothing seems like such a huge deal. It feels like ok yeah, let’s try that out whereas before everything was such a huge deal. Also, not taking yourself so seriously, that’s really important. Hitting that brick wall – it almost took that to build myself back up. At the time you think it’s the worst thing in the world but it’s really beautiful. Sometimes you have to go to the bottom in order to take those baby steps back up.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature Image credit: Jasmina Tomic

Comment

East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

Comment

East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

Michael Shawn Cordero

Some months ago, I started hearing a lot of buzz about this new web series called East WillyB, and I grew intrigued. The show is set in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where long time Latino residents are having increasing culture clashes with the young hipsters moving in. At the heart of the series is the show’s producer Michael Shawn Cordero, who was born and raised in Bushwick, and contributed a lot of his own experience into the development of the show. As Cordero describes below in our interview, mainstream media has made few attempts to portray the new generation of Latinos in a genuine light. Cordero talks about his involvement with the East WillyB movement flipping the game of how Latino's are portrayed in media, his boutique gallery Fresthetic in Williamsburg, and his work as a youth media educator in the community.

How was East WillyB conceived, and at what part of the development did you join as the producer?

East WillyB was created by my good friend Julia Grob and Yamin Segal. Julia approached me because she wanted to set the series in the community of Bushwick where I was born and raised, and wanted me to take part in the production, design, and artwork for the series. So I jumped onto the opportunity to represent my community and soon ended up as a producer for the show. We shot parts of the pilot season in my grandmother’s backyard and my parent’s house served as a production base.

Being a New York native and Bushwick resident, how have the transitions in the New York that you knew growing up, also translate into the themes of the show?

Well it's pretty much one of the main themes of show. It's set against the ever evolving cultural landscape of Brooklyn. It's about a community facing the change and what it means to the New York culture they grew up with. It deals with gentrification as told through the eyes of a historically latino neighborhood and how to adapt to that and the effects on their relationships, careers and family.

As the producer of East Willy B, what is your role in casting, writing, character development, and the general culture of the show?

For the new season that we raised 50k on kickstarter for, I was a fly in the writer’s room and offered insight on the direction of the characters and the authenticity of how the neighborhood was represented. I designed all the branding/graphics and website for the show and manage all the creative.

I have this affair with legacy and i’m always thinking of what i’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. Its one of the pillars of our history as people.

Is one of the characters modeled after you?

lol. I tend to see aspects of me in a lot of the characters. Manny and his big dreams aspirations of being a filmmaker, Ceasars’ protective nature towards his neighborhood and Willie’s relationship with the legacy of his father’s bar and the community.

Your personal mission is to effect positive change and leave a lasting positive impact on communities. How much are art, politics, your cultural subjectivity intersected in your artistic/creative work?

It's the foundation of everything I do. I have this affair with legacy and I’m always thinking of what I’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. It's one of the pillars of our history as people. It’s proof we were here. Our politics and culture survive through it. I strive to visually tell our stories and always want my work to be reflective of our times.

Have there been other Latino/Latina focused hyperlocal films or television shows based in New York, even if they only survived a very short blip in time?

I know there has definitely been films like I Like it like That, Hanging with the Homeboys, Raising Victor Vargas, which are like more than 10-15 years old, and more recently Gun Hill Road. When it comes to a series, something episodic, besides the reality show Washington Heights recently, I don’t think there have been any successful attempts. I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably.  They have a warped impression of Latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV.  Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York Latinos honestly represented on TV. I think we are very inspired by what Spike lee did for NYC African Americans and Latinos in the 90's and I feel we are trying to invoke that spirit for Latinos in this new generation and age of Brooklyn.

Willie is a very emotive or easily affected character. What do you think are the issues that stay most prevalent in his mind? What is he trying to negotiate? How do you relate?

I think Willie’s character is about preservation. I think he is scared of the change just like other members of the neighborhood but as a leader in his community he feels like it rests upon his shoulders to battle the fear openly. He is very protective of the legacy of his father’s bar that he inherited and doesn’t want his generation to be the witnesses of its possible extinction. His younger brother, who is played by Rick Gonazalez this season, got out of the neighborhood and is a big reggaeton artist in Puerto Rico, and Willie is kinda envious of that a little bit because he had his own dreams of being a salsa singer when he was younger. So he is very much trying to hold on to history and part of his development is how or if he embraces change. Even with his relationship with Maggie he is holding onto his past which is why she doesn’t see a future for them.

I can definitely relate with the legacy issue and wanting to keep my culture alive in my community, but I’m not as threatened by change as Willie. I feel more challenged to make sure we plant our roots deep in our communities.

What is the impact of the show East WillyB in your own community?

I feel like a lot of people are very excited that their story is being told by us. Julia and Yamin chose Bushwick because we are right in the middle of this culture clash that Williamsburg witnessed 10 years ago and we all saw what has transpired there and in Los Sures. But at the same time it's also about the characters that exist in a Latino community and give us a more accurate representation that is something other than a drug dealer or maid.

Who do you guys hope the show reaches? I’m sure you want to reach as many people as possible, but who would be your ideal target demographic?

Our demos are pretty broad cuz we feel like the show speaks to so many in different ways. We’re sure it will resonate with 18-34 Latinos who represent that new generation of English and Spanish speaking Latinos in the U.S, people looking for alternatives to what they see on HBO with Girls and actually see real portrayal of Brooklyn and NYC Life. Anybody living in a community affected by gentrification and a collision of cultures.

I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably. They have a warped impression of latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV. Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York latinos honestly represented on TV.

You’re also a youth educator. What are some of the greatest takeaways that your students leave your instruction with?

I can teach students technical aspects of design and video production like using programs and camera operations but I like to focus my work on content and make sure they are creating with purpose.

What are the most valuable aspects of working with young people in a creative context?

There are not a lot of options for students, especially underprivileged youth in NYC, to take part in creative programs that truly give them a voice and make them feel important. Historically, funding for such programs are always the first to be cut, so I feel like the value of my work with youth is tremendous and will guide our future because they are the leaders of tomorrow.

What are the most validating aspects of being a storyteller?

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome. One of the most important responsibilitie for you is making people feel--not only feelings, but a place, a time--any type of art to be honest. Thats the most validating for me, the fact that I see people are feeling what I felt or anything close to it.

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome.

Were you ever discouraged from being an artist?

Nah never, my older brothers were artists as well, as well as my father. My mom is a teacher, so discouragement didn’t really exist, my parents really provided a great space for me to follow my dreams, even to this day.

What else is on the horizon? What is your big goal for 2013 and beyond?

Hopefully we get East WillyB fully funded or picked up and we can continue the telling our stories through a couple of seasons.

Also I've got a lot great things going down at Fresthetic, my boutique gallery in Williamsburg. We have a great lineup of artists showing this year and more products. As always everyone is looking forward to this summer for our annual Makossa Brooklyn Cookout with DJ Wonway Posibul.

I'm also looking forward to what my students create this year with all the developments I have been guiding them through. Its always exciting to see youth take advantage the great resources we provide them and watching them develop and find their voice.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Comment

We Dare You To Look Away: Andy VC on Photography and Human Rights

Comment

We Dare You To Look Away: Andy VC on Photography and Human Rights

Documenting human rights violations around the world sounds like a pretty sobering job. While most of us in the "first "world become irate at the mention of a Monday morning conference call, Colombian photographer Andy Vanegas Canosa (Andy VC) has spent the last ten years traveling to places where the working and living conditions are inhumane, at best. Andy VC's images, particularly his close-ups, suck you in - making you feel instantly connected to the people he photographs on an intensely human level. The experience is both unsettling and beautiful. Through his subjects' eyes, he manages to exhibit both human dignity and suffering, often simultaneously. 

A recent second place winner of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, Andy VC continues to capture images that speak to the joy, sufferings, and resilience of human beings. Yes, I am a little obsessed. Yes, I could go on and on about his work but it basically means nothing until you actually see his photos. The former lawyer and self-taught photographer spoke with us about the psychological effects of his work, his love for Afghanistan, and the importance of illuminating societal ills.

When did you discover your love for photography?

My family are lawyers and so I studied law and went to Spain. I was very disappointed with the legal environment. I was working for the private and public sector and I found it to be a really corrupt system. I was deeply sad by that. I always liked photography, since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to buy a camera. I was always surrounded by social issues because I grew up in Colombia. Twenty years ago it was a very difficult country, similar to how Mexico is now. I grew up in this kind of environment and this had an impact on me. When I discovered photography, it gave me a really strong tool to raise awareness. I always wanted to be a photographer. I found photography to be a great way to escape this world and to really give something to people.

How does photography brings awareness in a way that writing about something or creating a video doesn’t?

There are many ways to raise awareness. Photography is very fast. You can see a photo and it can raise so many emotions. I think that’s the power of photography.

I try to give some presence to the people who have been forgotten. The impact of this well, I cannot measure this. The main goal is to raise awareness so that people can open their eyes. These problems are there and they need solutions.

After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard.

You said in another interview that, 'I love what I do and I would not be able to picture myself doing something different. However, everything in life has a price. It is a profession that affects your life in ways nobody could expect.' Can you talk a bit about what you meant by this?

I receive many messages where people say things like, ‘wow what a wonderful life. You travel the world and take photos.’ It is amazing and it’s why I love my job. But the price is that every time you cover these social issues, it leaves scars. It’s a psychological effort. After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard. Also, your family is worried about you and sometimes I’m sad that my mother is sad or my brother is sad. They understand, but it’s not easy seeing your family worried about these things. It has a big price emotionally and psychologically that you may not have in another job.

Traveling is also good and amazing but it’s very difficult. At least, this is my point of view. You have to learn how to be with yourself and know yourself and know loneliness. It is a process and it takes time. It’s amazing and beautiful but some people are afraid of freedom.

In Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful.

Your photos are so deeply intimate, how do you create a relationship of trust so that people are comfortable with you taking their photo?

This is a process as well, in terms of how to approach people. I find when I go to these conflict areas; people are very nice and friendly. They always invite you to sit and talk with them. I always talk to people if I can; sometimes I can’t so I just interact with my body. Sure. I believe in body language. If you show you are nervous or afraid, people can feel that. Sometimes people say no and you have to respect that even if you know it will be an amazing picture. If people say no, it’s no. I have found that Colombia is the most difficult place I have worked. Some people will kill for nothing. I was working in a poor area of Bogota and it was scary. Even in Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful. So friendly, so inviting. They like to ask a lot of questions. Where do you come from? Where have you been? What are you doing here? Most of them have never seen a camera in their life.

Have you ever taken a photo of someone who has never seen their image captured in that way? What is their reaction?

Some people are like, how is it possible that I am inside this box? [laughs]. Most people become more relaxed and enjoy the process. I never force people to take pictures or direct them on how to pose. I just take the photos naturally. There is a moment for everything. I like my work to be natural.

To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works.

Your photos are so authentic and feel so natural. Do you have a process?

I wouldn’t be able to answer this question 100%. I never studied photography and never took classes. If you want to be a photographer you can just start taking pictures. It’s a process you learn day by day.

For these photos, it’s a mix of risk. Sometimes you have to take risks. And you have to be social. To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss [laughs]. After the first kiss, things go much better. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works. You can take pictures with any camera.

Can you talk some more about taking risks in your work?

If you are working with gangsters, many of them don’t like to take pictures so these people are very difficult to work with. There is a risk in going to them and a risk in asking if you can take a photo. Sometimes you don’t ask because of the situation. I was in Afghanistan and covering drug users. I was under a bridge and 800 people were using drugs, mostly heroin. People got very angry and were yelling and throwing stones so we had to leave.

What made you interested in covering drug use in Afghanistan? That’s not something highly covered in the American media.

I used to work for the United Nations in the office on drugs and crimes and I got to know a lot about drugs there and I got very interested in the topic. There are many drugs that people don’t know about and many ways to take them -  it’s crazy, it’s a different world. It’s interesting how it can run a country. Corruption exists a lot of time because of drugs. In Afghanistan there are more than a million people consuming drugs, it’s a social problem. It requires social mechanisms to solve it. Many NGO's try to work with drug users. The UN is involved. There’s a huge debate about whether drugs should be legalized.

The photo you have of the man on heroin is whoa – it’s so powerful. How did you take that photo?

Well, the man was extremely high. We have the responsibility to cover these problems that people are facing. I can write you a paper on what it is like for people to do heroin but if you don’t see it, it’s not the same. I try to allow people to feel some of these emotions. He’s not only high, he’s suffering. Being addicted to heroin is one of the saddest things you can see. This guy was in a center for rehabilitation. He had come that day and he was really high and in a special room waiting for the effects to go away. It is a very powerful image. Every time I see this image, I am like, wow.

Can you talk a bit more about some countries you’ve been to? Is there a place you've traveled to you found  particularly eye-opening?

The dumps in Mae Sot. It’s a border town in Thailand, there is a Burmese refugee camp but then there are other people who are illegal immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. So they live in Thailand but they are not refugees so they live in a dump and it’s a community of almost 100 people. They live under some inhumane conditions, you cannot even imagine. They live amongst poisonous snakes, dead animals and they live in mountains of garbage, literally. Imagine when it rains, the smell is absolutely impossible. There are many children playing all around and eating food from the garbage. It’s very sad. You face realities you can’t even imagine. Then you come home and your brother is asking for an iPhone and you’re like, c’mon.

When you return home or to “first world” countries how do you deal with that mentality after you’ve witnessed some of these sufferings?

It’s very difficult. Some people don’t understand. First, because people don’t understand the situation and they don’t understand what I do. After those experiences you just don’t care too much about materialistic things. You lose friends also because people don’t understand you and you don’t understand them or you do - but you don’t want to be a part of those things.

You open your eyes. You see things that people don’t see. You come home and your friends are frustrated about small things and you think, you are so lucky that you have the life you have. You shouldn’t complain. You start to see things in a different way. You’re growing up and everyone grows up. Everyone changes friends…it can be difficult.

What do you love about why you do what you do?

I’m very lucky. I love traveling but I’m lucky because I have a passport that allows me to do that. I have a Spanish and a Colombian passport. If I didn’t have the Spanish passport, I might not be so lucky to travel like I do. Traveling can be very cheap. You can travel in a very cheap way. Many people don’t even know you can spend less money than being at home. Everyday is a new adventure. If you want to move, you move. It makes you more tolerable. When you travel, there is a community that doesn’t exist anywhere. Sometimes you might meet up again with some people you met in Latin America who are now in India and it’s unplanned.

I have a friend I met traveling who once told me “traveling restores your faith in humanity.”

Yes, of course. The thing I really love is meeting people. All around the world you meet great people with great projects and interesting ideas and different ways to see life. I really enjoy hearing these different points of views about life. This is the thing I love most.

 Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credits: Andy VC

Click here to view more of Andy's work and to purchase prints.

Comment