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Chef, Author and Activist Bryant Terry is a Bad Ass Food Revolutionary

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Chef, Author and Activist Bryant Terry is a Bad Ass Food Revolutionary

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Bryant Terry is an activist, author, mentor, speaker, educator, chef, practicing Buddhist, daddy, hubby and a champion for social justice via the food liberation movement. Inspired by his grandparents' Memphis kitchen, his work with New York City youth, and the Black Panther's Free Breakfast movement, the Oakland, Cali resident is passionate about self-empowerment through healthy eating. He's a stand for folks in the lower economic stratosphere, especially people of color, having access to fresh food. He's also passionate about the benefits of growing, cooking and eating healthfully. Bryant is out to have communities mobilize to better take care of one another without having to rely on Wholefoods to come in and save the day.

Part recipes, part historical narrative - his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan, shares Bryant's love for creating delicious meals drawing from across the African diaspora. I haven't received my copy yet but I imagine I'll be remixing some of my vegetarian recipes soon. I throw coconut milk and curry on everything

I got to hang with Bryant in his lovely home in beautiful Oakland and we chatted about how he found his path, the politics of food, and his evolving definition of activism.

What made you so interested in food? How did that begin?

The work that I do now as a food activist, chef, and cookbook author - the foundation comes from growing up in Memphis. My family came from rural Mississippi and had farms. For me it was second nature to grow up in community gardens…so when I started doing this work in New York I really thought it was something people were missing. You know, living in the concrete jungle, not having these green spaces, not being really connected to the process of growing food and making food. It was such a treasure for me. I really wanted to ensure that the younger generation were able to connect with our earth and know how to cook food from scratch.

Growing up with my paternal grandfather who cooked a lot as well [was important for me]. My grandmother had a stroke in her 50’s. He cooked the food, cleaned the house because she couldn’t do that on her own. Having a grandfather who really took care of the daily functions of the kitchen and made all the meals and was the nurturer of the home made it really safe for me. Growing up, I loved cooking. I loved baking. I felt very welcome and very safe in the kitchen because my grandfather was such a manly man and he was really buff and also so gentle, loving and caring.

For a lot of folks, cooking from scratch is sorta revolutionary.

And that’s why when I talk about my work I talk about it almost like an act of remembering, revitalizing, and celebrating the traditions of our ancestors. It wasn’t like they were eating local or sustainable. They were just eating the food they grew because that’s what you did.  So part of my mission is to help mobilize. To help push back on this perception that eating this way or cooking this way is 'white' or a bourgeois thing.

It sounds like you’re interested in the relationship between culture and food. What are your thoughts on this? I mean, I can buy quinoa in Bedstuy, Brooklyn now. That wouldn’t have been available before.

Well, I think a lot of it is about marketing to a certain demographic. When you think about the food corporations who are producing a lot of healthy or organic products, they’re marketing to people who they can charge a higher price to because that is their goal; to make a profit for their shareholders. I often talk about the way in which we can’t rely on food corporations as the solution for food injustice. We think about communities that have very little access to healthful food and it’s easy to say well, we just need a supermarket there. A Wholefoods or whatever.

If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment.”

If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment. I think about this quote Malcolm X said, about having businesses in your community that are owned by people who don’t live there. He said, when that man leaves at the end of the day he takes that bag of money out of the community. When you think of supermarkets, often times the profits are going to some corporate headquarters that are a long ways from that community. When you think about community gardens or urban food stands or farmers markets set up by people in the community who look like people in the community then those have lasting sustainable solutions. If you have the supermarket there and they leave, then people don’t have any food sources anymore. That’s what happens to a lot of urban areas that are now described as food deserts. I think we have to be careful when we talk about creating solutions. We don’t want to create that same process again.

Let’s talk about the past work you’ve done with youth. Tell us about your experience with Be-Healthy.

Well one of the first steps for me and the reason I write cookbooks and do a lot of speaking at community events and colleges is that I truly believe that one of the most important steps is making people aware of the issue and what’s at stake. I always talk about the three levels of making changes: as consumers, as community members, as citizens. We need to make sure our local elected official or state and our federal officials are creating policies that ensure that food is accessible to everyone. I think to go into a community and even get people to think about why they should be invested you have to make them feel invested about wanting to eat fresh food. I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.

I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.”

When I started the organization, Be-Healthy, I was like, why are these young people coming in here talking about ‘I don’t eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t drink water.’ So to even get them to a point where they’re like I want to be a food activist, I want to be active in my community, I want to be a peer educator, I want to get people in my community invested in these issues. They need to be invested. They need to feel like this is something they care about.

How long was Be-Healthy around for?

Five years. It was implemented with a group of people I know from cooking school, grad school and the artist and activist community I was working with in New York City. Because of the population of kids we were working for, many of who had very little resources or access to healthful foods, we didn’t just want to have a program where we were talking to them. We wanted to be tactile, practical and engaging. I thought, what’s more engaging then teaching them how to cook as a way to politicize them, as a way to engage them?

I thought what Be-Healthy brought to the movement was the emphasis and importance of cooking as a tool for liberation. We would get the young people and have Thursday and Saturday workshops and go to the community farms or urban gardens and have them learn about these foods. We would get in the kitchen and make a meal. What we found was that young people were so much more invested when they made it! The ones who would be like, ‘I never eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t eat that quinoa stuff.’ When they made it, they would be like ‘well, I wanna try what I made.’ The more they opened up there palate, it just broke down their resistance to trying different things or eating fresh foods.

It must have been gratifying to see some of the changes in the students.

We celebrated the small victories. I think, as an educator, you can’t get too caught up in the immediate outcome because you might not see it immediately. The impact may not manifest for years. I think that was a position we had to hold that we were just planting seeds and hopefully it would stick and make an impact. For a young person to come into the program like, ‘I don’t drink water, only soda’ and by the end of the year, come in with a water bottle or with a bag of dried banana chips they bought with their own money instead of cheetos…those were huge victories for us.

But one of the biggest successes was this young woman who was about 16 or 17 who had a 2 year-old at the time and she wasn’t into eating healthfully but she wanted to eat more healthfully for her son. She wanted to share this with other teen moms. So we did a workshop about prenatal health and postnatal eating and it went phenomenally well. The young moms requested more workshops and out of that we raised money and started this project called The Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies project which was about working with young moms. So for that to come about organically from one of the young woman in our project was a big deal.

What keeps you committed to this? What's your bigger vision?

One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.

A large part of the vision is having the communities who are most impacted by food injustice or food insecurity, by the exponential rise in preventable diet related illnesses that we’ve seen over the past several decades, having them be in charge of not only bringing more sources for fresh affordable healthful food into the communities, but take the lead in reversing some of the chronic illnesses that have been rising in the community. It starts with what we’re eating and how we’re thinking and what kind of physical activity we’re engaging in andreally understanding it’s not about popping pills or going to some physician and having them take care of you. It’s having us take care of ourselves.  It’s not about the individual but it’s about communities coming together and communally ensuring we’re improving our public health. One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.

That’s insane. I didn’t know that.

This whole idea of us advancing and having all of this technology…I grew up understanding that those things meant we’d live longer and have a healthy and robust life. So, the fact that younger people are at risk for having a shorter life span really bothered me. I mean I have Twitter, Instagram and all that and I have a complicated relationship with it but I do feel like they can be important tools for educating and organizing but I would argue that the most important work happens when we’re in person, face to face and connecting in real time. I think those tools are great in actually bringing people together in real life because I don’t think just sitting behind a screen is going to solve our problems. I think we need to exchange and connect and work through it in real life.

This is your fourth book. Did you always want to be a writer?

Well, it’s my third I have written by myself. I co-authored one. I studied English in college and history in grad school and it’s funny because I think my parents were a little concerned like, ‘ok you studied English in college and history in grad school and then you’re in cooking school, you’re kind of all over the place’ but I feel like the work I do now - and I think they get it – brings all of those things together.

You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit. Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.”

In grad school, some of the research I was doing was about the Black Panthers and their projects in the late 60’s. Many had to do with providing low-income people of color with basic needs. The program that moved me more than anything was their free breakfast for children program. Having learned about that program and also doing work in partnership with communities that were dealing with some of the highest rates of chronic illnesses and seeing that these were “food deserts.” You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit.  Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.

Your work seems to encompass so many different elements; writing, teaching speaking etc. do you enjoy working in that way?

It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world.

I love it. I get bored easily and I like the fact that I can be sitting here doing this interview with you and then I go pick up my daughter and just be a daddy for a while. Later I’ll be editing my book and then on Monday I fly out to Indiana and give a talk to a group of college students. Then, next week, I’m going to be flying to New Orleans and am being honored at this vegan gumbo fest. It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world. I feel like it’s just the ideal situation. I feel like I am blessed to be able to do that and sustain myself and my family. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been doing this work for over a decade.

I mentor a lot of younger chefs, activists, authors and I will tell them, I was doing stuff for years for pro bono and there was a time when I was doing all these talks around NYC and the country for free. I realized that  I just wanted to get the message out. It wasn’t even about the money. It was like, this is something I feel needs to be shared and then also, I wanted to be able to sustain myself. You just gotta put that work in. Sometimes it’s just about people seeing your track record and that you’re committed to it and that you have interesting things to say. A lot of time you’re not going to get paid to do that. So for me to be at this point, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel like I have put in years of blood, sweat, and tears to be at a point where people value my work and want to bring me out to speak or pay me to write a book.

Yeah, it sounds like what you’re hitting on is patience, dedication, commitment and actually having something to say. I like that you said you don’t feel guilty.

I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like, ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.

Well, the material manifestation of my ideas in a book is so rewarding. This is going to be my first hardback, full-color book so just that process is so rewarding. That’s why I love this balance in my life. I truly feel like I am an activist in my heart and re-imaging what activism looks like. I think I grew up with this narrow idea of what it meant to be an activist like, grassroots activism. I think that work is important and my work started as a grassroots activist working with young people but I also understand there is a need for people to have a national platform, there is a need for people who are shifting peoples attitudes and habits and politics in a larger way. I feel like that is a role my work has been playing and I think it’s equally important. I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like,  ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.

What are some of the challenges of finding your way?

Well, a lot of times I’m like, ‘I’m not where I want to be’ or, ‘this shouldn’t be my first full-cover hard backed book. I should have had that two books ago. I should have my own TV show on the cooking channel’ or whatever. I think just going back to my Buddhist practice and being present with what is and that it is perfect in this moment. If I’m stuck thinking about the future too much, I’m not being present. If I am present with my work and my family, then I am very happy. That’s what most important to me, that I am happy and comfortable and doing what I love and I have an amazing family. I think that is something we all need to remember: to be present when things are shitty and understand that that is part of the process and not getting stuck in it and sitting with it and letting go so I can move to the next moment.

Short film credit: Barry Jenkins

Interview by Jahan Mantin 

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Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

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Ok, so what is a "boi?" according to Urbandictionary.com (a HIGHLY trusted source), it's a word used in "the lesbian community, a young transgendered/androgynous/masculine person who is biologically female and presents themselves in a young, boyish way." Ryann Holmes, the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, whose mission is defined as "to spread love through community-building events, music and art while sharing our journey as bois of color who believe in safe spaces, accountable action and self-care" has a more interesting way to answer that question. 

In addition to providing physical space for bois to commune, chill, talk and party, Bklyn Boihood also produces a yearly calendar that slyly and geniusly pokes playful fun at annual firefighter calendars by using a similar format that instead, promotes beautiful, regal, stylish images of bois of color empowered by their image. Bklyn Boihood also host an annual retreat and conducts workshops at colleges and community organizations on "Un/Doing Masculinity" which champions "healthy masculinity, intersectionality of identities and anti-misogyny for bois of color all over the world." 

We spoke with the exceptionally down-to-earth, intelligent, and cool-as-hell Ryann about the origins of Brooklyn Boihood and its journey to becoming an international movement (at the interview, we were told the collective had just been granted a publishing deal for an anthology due out mid 2015), Ryann's own struggles with self-acceptance and the complexity of masculine and feminine identity.  

So, you were telling me that you’re a bit tired from hanging out with Nikki Giovanni last night at The Red Rooster in Harlem. That’s some impressive sounding ish.

Ha - yeah, my brother is in college in Virginia and became friendly with Nikki, she's a professor at Virginia Tech, and I met her last night. She is incredible. She said something really great last night. She said that she lives in Southern Virgina and the pollen is so thick that this room would be covered in no time. It comes through the window, and your house is so dusty. Every morning you wake up and there’s this dust. You dust it off, you wake up again, there's more. She really believes in pushing people towards what they can do, because you can only do what you can and if everyone continues to dust, that means someone else can do something. You do what you can, and you make it possible for someone else to do what they can. When I was with her last night, I was like what time does your day start? She's like 5:30am - I don't know how old she is but she has so much energy. We were there till' midnight and I was telling my brother, like, I gotta get out of here. I'm tired! But I think having that outlook is what keeps her going.

That’s a beautiful analogy. Is that what you feel you’re doing with Bkyln Boihood? Making room for the next person?

Yeah, definitely. Bkyln Boihood evolved from me - out of something I was so naturally called to. I’m from Maryland and was born in DC and have lived in NYC for almost a decade. Bkyln Boihood started in 2009 and we started gathering people together. Come January 2010 we had the website going and started openly promoting the calendar. I’ve always been a person who under any circumstance or situation -  if I feel injustice or feel like  people aren’t being respected - even if it isn’t myself, I feel it the same. So it was only natural that in my identity, I couldn’t actually stand walking through life feeling this way or not loving myself or being in places where I didn’t feel like I could discuss my identity.

What was it like for you growing up? 

I was so embarrassed, unclear and confused about what I was supposed to be doing and I wasn’t being affirmed at all. I didn’t disclose a lot…I was outed in high school, I didn’t come out. I didn’t have that many people super close to me to relate to. I didn’t have community. I was searching for myself and didn’t have enough confidence to really do me and not be looking around like, ‘is this weird?’ Just because of the nature of who I am, when I got to NYC, I sort of settled in and got comfortable and made a community hub. I’m that person who is like, ‘wanna come over tomorrow?’ and I met you two days ago. So my space really quickly started to grow...that was my nickname, ‘the hub’ and that’s how my mom was. We were that house on the block that all the kids were at.

Has your family been supportive?

It’s a weird thing. I don’t do the type of work that is easily shared. I don’t know that people get it – get the magnitude of it. My parents are proud of me, but they don’t fully understand what I’m doing but my siblings, they follow me and keep up with me online and they’re so supportive, my sister buys a calendar every year.

Was there a moment where you had this idea or did it happen over time?

It was probably a build up of things. I came to New York to really explore and embrace my identity. I started to present more masculine and I was meeting different people and connecting and sharing my experience. I was thinking ok, I’m not imagining that I feel this way. I really began to connect with people and recognize my power. With an old friend, we started Bkyln Boihood together. We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.

We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images.

That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images. Other things were coming out but not in the way that I wanted it to be portrayed. If I saw things with boi’s of color, it wasn’t that professional or I wasn’t really diggin’ the fashion. It just didn’t translate. It was so bizarre, us looking in the mirror...we were like, people should see this and we should show them. We were like, why not start a project and take leadership? So that’s what shaped the idea of the calendar.

It sounds like you’re a natural community curator. Who were some of the people you were meeting when you first came to New York?

When I first got here I ended up meeting a woman who I ended up dating for four years. She was from Yonkers and we began exploring Brooklyn. As I met more people, I started wanting to be involved and started asking about an organization I could work with. I started volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project and that was sort of my entry into the activist world. It gave me a little more language to say what I was feeling and to identify who I was. It was an interesting environment but at the same time, it wasn’t quite right. I still felt there were things that were missing. It didn’t fulfill me enough and that led me to want to create another type of space.

I think lots of  high school students can relate to feeling isolated or trying to figure themselves out. Yet you’ve created a community where young bois of color have an alternative to that.

It’s so intense. We’ve gotten letters from people in different places. I remember getting a letter from someone in Kenya who had gotten the calendar in a really sneaky way and it meant everything to them to just know that we’re out here doing this...that they can exist in this and that they’re actually a person and affirmed. I get so emotional talking about this. I mean, we have our struggles but we live in New York City, I can walk from here to there. To  think about how much we do have...and be able to tell people about that…it’s completely changed my life.

It’s revolutionary.

Yeah, it really feels like that.

Within the queer community, I imagine there are a lot of sub-communities. Did you get any push back from other groups? 

Yeah, definitely. Neither of us [the co-founders] have activist backgrounds. I remember when I first got to Audre Lorde I was like, I don’t know what these acronyms are. It’s get a little academic. There are parts of that that I love but it wasn’t exactly for me. I felt like it could shut people out and isolate people that were like me and maybe not able to completely connect with it. When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

That shifted when I went on a leadership retreat for the Brown Boi Project in 2010. I went out to Oakland and that conference shifted the course of my life. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. We stayed in this big mansion and had workshops and were inundated in everything from self-care and financial stability to breaking down gender justice and femininity and masculinity...and it wasn’t just queer and trans folks, there were straight black men who were part of the program. It was really transformative. At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

What is the greater purpose?

I mean, it sounds super cheesy but it’s to spread love and that starts in the way we care for each other to how we choose to be a platform and to the way that we create space with people and in communities. Even if we have to do something that’s hard or controversial, we always try to come from a place of love.

At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

Can you talk a bit about your work mentoring young people? 

I also mentor young people and we talk about sexuality and homophobia and the young girls, a lot of them have no problem saying, I love women but at the same time they say a lot of really negative things about gay men, femininity, and gay feminine men. If a gay man isn’t feminine, there is this disbelief that that can even exist. I tell them all the time, the society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. To me honestly, I feel like all it is energy. I feel like our spirits are ebbing and flowing with one another and we all have different ways that manifest. Some of us choose to express it more than others whether it be through how we present our gender, who we choose to love.

The society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified...it’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love.

Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified or there to enhance masculinity or serve the more negative aspects. It’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. There’s so many misconceptions. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love. It’s so vast, the ways we can actually connect to ourselves and each other. We limit ourselves and we shun those who don’t...we shame them and make them think that they’re weird but actually they’re doing what comes natural. To me, this is the more incredible thing to do. I’ve always maintained a particular type of energy from when I was a baby and I was lucky enough to have a mom who was like ‘ok, fine, you can wear the baseball hat.'

I think folks who define themselves as heterosexuals have a lot of stereotypes or misconstrued ideas of “boi” relationships. Does the “straight” opinion even matter?

It’s funny because if you look up femininity in the dictionary it will say things like ‘weak’ or ‘nurturing’ ..if you talk to a young black man and ask him who is the strongest black icon in his life he will often answer his mother. To be cliché, I feel that people fear what they don’t understand. They have a hard time with someone threatening what they understand about themselves. It matters to me because it affects my life. If you feel a certain way, your actions may reflect that. That’s what leads to people being in violent situations.

That’s why I work with young people. I’m interested in talking to people who don’t get it - who are like, what? I’m not interested in sitting in a room with people who get it – I mean, it’s important to continue to analyze but I like to push it and talking to 16, 17 or 18 year old men who have been on the block their whole life, that’s what they know. I just feel like something has to happen to people...to have some relatable moment, where they see beyond themselves. If you think you know shit, that’s when you stop letting yourself learn more shit. That’s when you’re in trouble. That’s why I like young people. They don’t mind being told what you think you know may not be the truth.

What are your thoughts on boi relationships in which one or both people are mimicking masculinity in dominant and oppressive ways?

I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from.

That’s not a foreign experience. That’s the problem with a lack of visibility and a really short list of examples…people latch on to stuff. So if there’s this self hated and it’s internalized when it comes to not wanting to identify with certain parts of womanhood or perceived womanhood plus wanting to be affirmed in how they present and their masculinity...the reason men embody these negative things is the misconception that this is what makes you a man and a lot of that comes from this really false sense of what it means. It actually looks crazy as hell, especially in certain bodies, like how could you treat women this way and look at yourself? I guess that is what we push back on and I think it’s just a part of a lot of people’s process because they don’t have any other framework. I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from...just to provide another framework because if all you have to model is the men in your life or other bois who are mimicking that shit, then that’s what it’s gonna be.

Did you ever expect Bklyn Boihood to have blown up like this?

I always believed it could, somewhere deep down. We always spoke about it really affirmingly but we never expected it to reach overseas and for people to be ordering it from London, Nairobi, South Africa, Brazil…there’s a woman who takes 20 or 30 to Brazil and gives them to bois. We exist all over the world and all over the planet. That to me is amazing, for there to be no mainstream visibility and for people to be at home just like me, in the mirror, getting dressed, figuring myself out and coming to terms with who I am.  For the people on that journey, that just makes me want to keep on doing this work, keep affirming each other, it’s just amazing. I think the next part of our journey will be to not only reach but continue to expose these individuals and stories.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image, photo credit: King Texas

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

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

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

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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

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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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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

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

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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

 

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East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

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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

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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

Ira and Ayra

Ira and Ayra are a special pair. Not only are they business and creative partners, but they are also twins. Ira is the dreamy and somewhat elusive creative, and Ayra, the smart talking, sharp-minded business woman. Ira is a theater director, and Ayra, a marketing strategist. Ira lives in Brooklyn, Ayra, in Amsterdam--but for some time before that--London and LA. The duo grew up in Amsterdam. Their identities as "Black women"--had a much more pluralistic meaning in The Netherlands, as their family originated from where many people-of-color from Amsterdam emigrate from--the Caribbean. Having spent a short, yet significant part of their formative years in Aruba--where arts education was limited as compared to the abundant access that they had in The Netherlands--inspired them as adults to bring their creative expertise and international art networks to Aruba.This is the story about Art Rules Aruba (ARA), the two-week-long summer arts program in Aruba that Ayra and Ira dreamt, organized, and implemented; despite being told that they couldn't, despite not having any money, despite being criticized for their organization being "too black." Just having officially announced their 4th year (this summer), ARA has brought the best-of-the-best art educators from around the world to teach Aruban youth about performance, dance, visual and multimedia art.

*Interview conducted with Ayra*

You guys are twins. Did you both love the arts equally as kids, or was one more into it than the other growing up?

As far as I can remember--equally, but it wasn't so much a case of loving art or loving dance.  We started at the age of three and it has never left us, which means it's all we know. It's part of who we were, and who we are today.

Where are your cultural and ethnic roots?

Aruba and Curacao on our mother's side, and our dad is from Suriname. We were born and raised in Amsterdam, so culturally there is also that aspect, but our South American and Caribbean roots have always been more prevalent in our household.

Did you guys always know since you were kids that you would someday create and run a business together, rooted in the arts?

We always knew we would work together. The business side--The Pancake Gallery--was not actually planned. It just made sense when the time came to make our work official, become professionals in it, and give it a name.

How was Pancake Gallery born, and what was the initial objective?

I had my own company, Taboo Management, which was more an avenue to take on freelance marketing and PR jobs. When it came time for Ira to establish her work, she came up with the company name--Pancake Gallery--and a personal objective for her work. I soon decided, why not do all our work under one umbrella? And decided to combine forces with Ira's company. It just made sense.

After the merge, we started thinking seriously about the overall objective of what we wanted to do. This was some time around 2007. I was living in London and Ira in New York, so we thought about ways to connect the cities where we lived, adding Amsterdam in the mix as the city where we grew up, as well as the Caribbean, our family's roots. As we made our personal connections internationally, we we so many like-minded people with the same idea's and ambitions as ours, which then led to the idea to create something that would link all of these people to each other. The vision to take people with us on our journey, and through our work was born. That is what became the foundation of our work with Art Rules Aruba.

...when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there...

At what point did you come up with the idea to bring a comprehensive teaching artist program to Aruba?

The idea to do something in Aruba started about 20 years ago when we were 12 years-old, living on the island. We were those kids that we created the program for--bored in the summer with not much to do.

Like I said, we grew up in Amsterdam taking dance classes our entire lives. So when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there, involving education and the arts. Honestly, for years I thought about bringing books. I had this very vivid vision to help build a library in Aruba.

When you walk into the local library, even today, it reeks of old books. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to send new books to the schools and library's every year. When we went to school in Aruba in 1993, we were using books that were over 20 years old. Almost 16 years later, something clicked that showed us it was time to return with something to give back. We decided that the best gift was to share our artistic knowledge and experiences. What made it even bigger than we imagined was bringing the people who we ended up enlisting to come with us.

Why was going back to Aruba necessary for you guys personally? 

Personally I just wanted the youth on Aruba to have what I had: access to information, an international education, and experiences that could shape the ambitions of these young people beyond what they envision for themselves. Also, there are too many unheard voices and hidden talent across the Caribbean. Aruba will always be our home in a sense, because we spent part of our childhood there. That's where this journey needed to start for us in our careers. Suriname is another home, and it's our next destination for this work.

Did you plan on Art Rules Aruba (ARA) being a one shot deal, or did you want to see it as a staple of the arts education in Aruba?

It was not a one shot deal at all, but we also didn't orchestrate a structured plan for it to be a staple program either. Maybe somewhere I hoped it would become a staple and I knew it would have that potential, but we weren't sure if the 'powers that be' and even the local arts scene would allow the program to have play such an important role on the Island.

To a lot of people on the Island, Art Rules Aruba was initially seen as a threat. As crazy as it may seem--since we had not lived in Aruba for years--there were people who were not comfortable with the idea of "outsiders"-- as they would sometimes call us, coming to the Island and 'taking over the art scene.' Nor were they comfortable with us developing the biggest youth based arts program on the island. There was an aspect of competition that was a challenge for us when we first began.

To take that conversation even further, the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered "too black". The journey came with a lot of strides, but also many set backs, and honestly, in the beginning I had no idea where this ship would dock. In the end, because we had a vision, and mostly because we worked hard (and maybe had a little bit of luck and knew a few amazing people), Art Rules has become a staple program in Aruba, and in hindsight, I am truly thankful for the journey that it took to get us there.

...the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered “too black”...

What were parts of the process that were most challenging, in getting the project off the ground the first year?

Money! My mother put €1000 euros in my bank account, of which half was spent on a flight from Amsterdam to Aruba to get myself to the island in December of 2009. When I got to Aruba, all I had left was a little pocket money just enough to rent a car and eat. The rest was smartly spent on some heels, a few sharp outfits from Zara, and my 40 page proposal under my arm. This was truly all I had at the time.

As far as selling the project, I did not see this as a challenge. I knew in my heart the way Ira and I wrote the proposal that it would sell itself!

This was not a dream for us. It was a vision. It already existed. All we needed was to get the people there involved.

Did you guys have any personal challenges as siblings or as business partners? Do your ideas for the organization ever differ?

We have the same vision for the company, yet the execution is a very different thing. As much as we are the same, at the end of the day, I am a fierce business person and Ira is an artist. I cut the deals, Ira edits the videos. I organize the production, Ira mentors the kids. In the beginning I had this crazy idea that my sister and I would have the same work approach. Through experience I have learned that we truly are two different people.

What is your working relationship like? Who runs what?

Our work relationship shifts with time. Whatever we have in hand at the moment, we take a look at the work and decide who is good at what. We select our tasks based off of our strengths. If there is a time we can't handle the pressure, we then ask for each other's help. Since 2010, we've also had an amazing web designer by the name of Justin McKenzie (a.k.a Toprock) who has been able to translate our ideas visually in the most creative ways. Then there is our our Latina sister, Mariaelena, from New York, who accidentally became our project manager. Mari was visiting ARA in its first edition and ended up becoming our stage manager at the closing of the project. She has been with us ever since.

How does Pancake Gallery use Arts Rules Aruba to “Integrate and connect international arts communities” as you suggest in your mission?

Simple. We have 18 teachers from New York, London, Amsterdam, Aruba and in between. All of these people aren't only representative of different places around the world, but they are all connected to a local arts scene, which they represent when they bring their knowledge and expertise to ARA. If you were to zoom in on their personal background, we can add that our team consists of Haitian, French, Bajan, Dutch, Sudanese, Surinamese, British, American, Nigerian, and many more cultures around the world. That in turn, connects us to people from all these places. If we want we can do Art Rules Barbados, or Art Rules Sudan, it can now all be possible. That's what we have accomplished from integrating and connecting with one another.

How do you select the multidisciplinary artists from around the world to teach each year?

We do not have a format. In the beginning we looked at people that we knew personally or who were recommended through personal friends. By the third year, we learned not too work with too many friends and to set higher standards to our criteria of selection, which include: the ability to teach, the experience of working within education, the experience of working with youth, and having the right type of personality. It is very important to work with people who are flexible and can be open to the idea that ARA comes with a certain ethos.

What is the lasting impact that the two-week program has on the participants?

I think this is more of a personal question for them to answer, but from what we have seen and experienced, some of what we've heard from the kids were: they felt like ARA shaped them, opened them up, inspired them, got them to lose weight. There were so many different things that we've heard. The main impact that I believe Art Rules Aruba has had on the participants is that it has given them a sense of identity, and has empowered them to feel that they have the complete right to freedom of expression.

One student said "When Art Rules is not here, we are all like weirdo's, but when you guys come, we can feel normal again".

Do you ever feel a sense of completion?

Business-wise no, I always want to continue to do more and accomplish more as an organization. Personally, there is a sense of completion after every year, but as soon as November hits and we start thinking of the next year, we know our work has just begun, and there is a lot more work to do.

What (if at all) is the end point? 

I do not know if there is ever an end point. Education is a way of growing, and art is the purest form of expression to your identity. We definitely bring the two together. I also wonder, when do you ever stop growing or being who you are?

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Art Rules Aruba + Pancake Gallery

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Featured Interview - Katie Wilson's Beats, Flights and Life

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Featured Interview - Katie Wilson's Beats, Flights and Life

katie_pic

Remember your favorite high school teacher? He or she inspired you, motivated you, got all Dangerous Minds on your classroom and made you think that once you moved past your hormones, you could actually be the first woman/black/gay/transgendered/clown president? We have no doubt that Katie Wilson is that teacher to her students. A native of Canada, the New York City resident created the Global Studies Workshop with the City University of New York (CUNY) - a global exchange program that begins with an eight month long curriculum on the history of hip-hop before departing on a ten-day, life changing trip with her mostly Bronx born and bred students to Berlin, Germany. In addition to the cross-cultural experience, the students - both American and German – are all aspiring rappers, singers, and spoken word artists and are expected to collaborate and perform during their visit. CultureFphiles spoke to the brilliant and visionary Katie about the origins of the program, the social impact of hip-hop, and hearing Turkish German rap for the first time.

Tell us how the program started and what your involvement was.

I was having lunch with a professor from Fordham, Dr. Naison, and some of my colleagues. He was talking about this amazing half-German, half-American social worker in Berlin named Olad Adden who worked at the largest social service organization in Berlin for youth. Olad created a recording studio for young people focusing on rap and hip-hop. His project started to grow and he received funding from the Goethe Institute in Berlin to initiate [a foreign] exchange. Dr. Naison mentioned they were looking for an organization to host the American side so that the Germans would come to NYC and then six months later, the Americans would go to Germany. Dr. Naison started talking about it and I elbowed my way in and was like, ‘I’m doing it.’ I have a clear and evolving vision of the society I want to contribute to and this was an example of a serendipitous moment when a social interaction provided the opportunity to actually move in that direction.

What about the project piqued your interest?

I used to work as a wilderness guide. It was an international program based in California and I was taking kids whose parents paid a lot of money for 4-6 weeks abroad. I went to Fiji, Australia, Europe…all of this amazing stuff. I would do that during the summer and then I would work at CUNY Prep during the school year and I would think, damn, I want these students [CUNY Prep students] to have a similar experience.

Why did you want to share that experience with the CUNY Prep students?

[Because I saw] the impact on the students I worked with at the wilderness company. I’ve worked with teenagers for almost fifteen years and I see the types of transformation that happen between 16 – 20 years old. With the kids in the wilderness program, there was that experience of being abroad and understanding where they, as Americans, fit in a global spectrum.

Teenagers are asking questions like, 'Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I interested in? What am I good at?' That’s why I love working with teenagers because wherever they are experiencing the ages of 15-20 is going to answer those questions for them. So, a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world.  I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it.  My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.

Were most of the students who you were working with during the wilderness program mostly affluent, white kids?

Yes - and the students at CUNY Prep were mostly low-income, students of color. I would say 80% of CUNY Prep students are from the Bronx with the remaining students being from Harlem and Washington Heights. Mostly Latino, African-American, African, Caribbean, and all low-income.

...a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world. I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it. My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.

Tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced prior to leaving.

We left for Berlin in 2010 with six students. We were in Berlin for ten days. Honestly, I don’t think anyone actually believed it was going to happen…that we would pull it off.  We didn’t have funding for flights until three weeks before and I think I just had to say at some point, the money is going to come and then we finally got it. With the first group it was so powerful because we were scrambling to make it work. I partnered with a MC called Farbeond. So that first year, it was six kids and then we had two students who Farbeond worked with. It was a powerful first 48 hours where it set in like whoa, we’re actually here. This actually happened.  The amazing thing was that the kids bonded so much - they really congealed as a group. I saw them peeling away layers of who they need to be to survive in the Bronx and what their capacities are as artists and global citizens representing the US, the Bronx, themselves and CUNY Prep.

How important and instrumental were all of these relationships to building the program?

It’s all about relationship-building.  Especially in the field of education and youth development, relationships with colleagues with whom I am collaborating must be authentic.  I am humbled by how important my role as a mentor and teacher to young people really is; therefore, I approach collaborations very seriously.  We each have our individual talents and skills, but any project, business, or social movement is grounded in human beings working to communicate and collaborate with each other. We are social beings - we are dependent and connected - as families, communities, nations and as an entire planet. I think we forget that sometimes in psycho-individualistic NYC, but at the end of the day we need each other.

What was it like for the kids on a performance/artistic level. What was that experience like for them performing in Berlin?

Some of the students were performing for the first time ever in their lives. ]They were transformed by the experience of getting up on stage and performing their own work and their collaborative work for the first time in a different country.

It must have blew them away. 

Yeah, it took them a while to get used to hearing German rap. They were like,“what the hell are they saying?” and, “they are rapping so fast!” They were amazed by it but also, like “haha that sounds funny” [laughs]. There’s also a large Turkish population in Berlin so hearing a Turkish kid rapping in German who spoke English with a Middle Eastern accent…it was like, what?! And that’s amazing - that confusion and having your mind blown - that’s what it’s all about. The kids also couldn’t get over how supportive, friendly, and non-threatening the environments [they performed in] were as opposed to where they grew up in the Bronx.

It’s important for young people to see hip-hop performed in a non-machismo, unaggressive way.

Exactly - and music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not. You can track historically, in this country, what’s happened in terms of social movements and what music has helped pushed that.  As I build the curriculum for this program, it’s important to analyze the history of hip-hop and where it comes from and where it’s going…and hip-hop has just become more interesting globally. That’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, 'oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself' and so we have to facilitate that process.

What specifically got you interested in teaching the kids about hip-hop? What drew you to the music and made you interested in incorporating it into the curriculum?

Something I always say is that I’m Canadian. I was raised in the suburbs in the country. I listened to hip-hop in the 90’s but I was more into reggae and rock. I’m not a super hip-hop head and I don’t purport to be a hip-hop expert. I think it’s actually a benefit in building this program because I’m coming from a youth development perspective and as an educator and I’m really about transformative education.

...music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not...that’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, ‘oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself’ and so we have to facilitate that process.

My love for hip-hop music and culture has deepened over the past 15 years. To be an effective educator, it is essential to understand, give voice to, and build relationships with your students.  Youth culture is - and always has been - synonymous with the culture of music.  For the past 30 or so years, hip-hop has been a dominant sound in youth culture. Since the genre is also a complex culture, its impact is profound. It is not simply about enjoying the sound, it’s about a message and, in some cases, a resounding call for societal changes. Hip-hop messages range from simple to revolutionary to spiritual.  As an educator, exploring this global culture - its past, present and future messages with my students is a very important and powerful lesson.

Many of your students are from the Bronx, what were some of the major cultural differences you all experienced?

The history of WWII, Hitler and the presence of the Berlin Wall is pretty predominant and I think it’s intentional that you’re made aware of that history. I think that in the US, we’re not made aware of what has gone on [historically] and a lot of the students were like well, how come there isn’t that same aspect of playing homage? I thought it was so brilliant that the kids were pointing that out. We went to the concentration camps and took a train way out to the suburbs and there are tons of beautiful houses and then all of a sudden you’re at the end of a lane and there’s a museum and a whole concentration camp with tours.

Many of the students you work with come from challenging backgrounds. Do you feel they were more hopeful after they returned from Berlin?

That was a mixed bag – one of my biggest challenges with this program was [that the kids] said they felt safe, happy, and free traveling but then they return to their struggles. I want to work really hard to make sure this experience is transformed into a lasting experience.

How do you make that transition easier for them?

Both times I had two students who returned and were depressed because they returned to sleeping on the couch and not having enough food in the fridge and were really struggling.  Part of my work is to provide them with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens.  It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community. Most of the kids are in college and have managed to maintain academically which is something I’m a huge proponent of. The testament is that the kids who went in 2010, I would say 5 of the 6 students are incredibly successful right now. One is DJaying, the other won all of these spoken word contests and was in Paris, another girl really discovered her self as a singer [in Berlin]. Another student has started his own business…and these are like 20, 21 year-old students. I’m interested to see this next round of students and what will be some of their accomplishments.

Part of my work is to provide them [students] with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens. It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community.

It sounds like you’re giving your students tools to become better leaders.

Yes, a common vision I have in my work as an international wilderness instructor and as CUNY Prep's coordinator for the Bronx Berlin Program has been to guide my students in thinking critically about themselves, the US, the countries we visited, the inter-connectedness of the planet and the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of our world.

In my opinion, much of the US citizens' relationship to the global community is based in the notion that we are the greatest country on the planet and every other country is somehow lesser than. That is just not true and is an incredibly problematic perspective, especially for youth to adopt since the planet they are inheriting is rapidly globalizing.

What do you envision long-term for the program?

I’m still thinking about the possibilities. I just love how it worked out so organically and I don’t want to decide on some outcome of what it’s going to become and then shoot for that goal. Right now, my goal is making sure it’s solid at CUNY prep. I would love to find a grant to fund it. I’m really trying to make the program sustainable and formalize it programmatically. Hopefully, I’ll be able to create other abroad programs at CUNY Prep.

To find out more about the Bronx-Berlin project click here.

 Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Trey Wilder

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