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Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia

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Zerihun Seyoum: A Painter's Lens of Ethiopia

I know one person who lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  His name is Zerihun Seyoum and he is a painter.  I learned about him this summer while at the Center Waaw, an art residency in Saint Louis, Senegal.  Staffan and Jarmo, the two wonderful people who run the place, showed me his work, because they had exhibited it in Europe in the past.  Having once seen images of Zerihun’s paintings, I found that they are not easily forgotten.  They have a disquieting voice and a persistence about them. They, like the city he paints, seem never to be asleep. If his paintings could be people, they would be restless insomniacs, ready to speak to anyone who walks by.  The potential and the vulnerability contained in such an encounter is perfectly encapsulated in a painting called “Making the Line.”  It shows a child drawing a line, though the balance of power could be more in favor of the line than the child.  No wonder: to draw a line is to make a miracle, and miracles are dangerous.  In Zerihun’s paintings--not just a disaster-- but a global cataclysm is often just a hair away, yet he mercifully keeps his paintings balanced between miracle and disaster.I was very glad and grateful that Zerihun agreed to an interview for Project Inkblot.  I hope he does not mind that when I pass through Addis, I will come find him in his studio. We certainly would love to have him visit us in New York.

If someone asked me to describe your paintings, I think I would mostly use verbs. You rarely depict a moment of stillness: people, objects and places are almost always depicted amidst a very active universe, and they are active themselves. Everything is on the move, and this movement is very energetic. 

Sometimes this movement seems to verge on a collision or some sort of accident. On your canvases everything strives, yearns and reaches toward something. Can you please talk about what action means to you? And how it relates to painting as a medium? 

As an artist you don't start painting to make people, objects, and places stuck on the canvas. You know and feel so many ways to express things and at the same time you are on a blank canvas yourself. It’s a long process happening on the inside, but when it comes out, it's a thing that's expressed in the moment--all at once--so there's a lot of simultaneous movement, and so there is constant movement in my paintings.

This happens not just in painting but also other art.  And so then to study something is different from living it on the inside.  By living through paintings, you always feel something unexpressed or unrevealed, and it makes you anxious to express that feeling.

Throughout my life, all my fun, enjoyment, relationships--it's all expressed through painting and art.  After I finish a painting, it makes me feel everything that is going on, not just in my life but also in other people’s lives.  This can be viewed as a kind of medicine. With words you can express feelings in some way, but when you finish what you have said it always seems like there is more to say. But painting is a medium capable of infinite expression and speaks more than words.

The reason behind all of the movement and energy in my painting is in large part because I think that now, more than ever, painting should be for and about everyone.  But it's also there for personal reasons. It possesses me. There is the actual, physical act of painting.  Each separate work has an artist and a painting that is specific to this one work.  But in life, I always wonder why these things come to me: a disturbing moment, a beautiful moment, any type of moment. At the same moment in time there is a collision of feelings - like you can paint something disturbing but there is joy from just the expression of it. It's like you are born when you start to paint, and when it's finished, you grow up. With that growing up comes knowledge, but thereafter there is again ignorance because you realize what you don't know and that you are new again at the finish. That makes me strive to create, learn and grow further.

Do you want things to collide and break into pieces? Are they always about to merge, to stop being objects, and become abstract paintings? 

Yes they are. That's why in a figurative way, the compositions are balanced. I don't do any sketching before I paint, rather the images tumble out from within me. It's a raw process, but it doesn't mean it comes easily. What I create comes from appreciation, whether it's disturbing or beautiful, it's all beautiful. It comes from the wonder of life. When you are exposed to a lot in life, you live beyond your senses; and to express that experience, it's difficult to put into words. Each piece represents a million stories inside the balanced chaos of my mind and heart, and so the piece represents that. But it's like asking a poet what is your exercise to write a poem?  It's hard to put the process into words. You just express it and live it. It's different than when you are educated and get an academic training. The academic training allows you to understand what a work of art means and enables you to use professional words to describe it, but it's not a vehicle to fully and truly express yourself when you are painting.

Immediacy is another quality of your work that seems apparent.  Things happen in the moment. How do you achieve this effect? Do you rely on memory, drawing, photography?  Is there a relationship between immediacy and memory in painting and in your painting?

I do not rely on memory, drawing or photography.

When you have been making art for a long time—I cannot yet say I have been for a long, long time, but still, from my experience in art in my life thus far—you think about so many things. Sometimes you enjoy thinking, reflecting, even more than painting. I find that there are so many ideas that your mind is working to process constantly, that I never made a lot of them into paintings. What I think about becomes realized 5, 6, or even 7 years later.

When I have an idea, it's only in time that it can become a physical painting. Sometimes I have an idea and start painting but leave the work unfinished, and it remains unfinished because I don't quite understand it - and maybe it’s a great idea but not a great painting at that point.  Often, these creations are completed years after I thought of them. I see things on the street, at home, on TV, from so many different mediums, and at the moment they can affect me, they make me smile, they are humorous, they touch me, and I may try to paint them in the moment but they remain unfinished, because I'm still processing them subconsciously for years. After I finish a piece for a long time there is comfort.

I think in life it is similar: you don't always process what you see in the moment, you see so many things but you don't see or understand so many things.  All of it gets processed eventually, and in fact, 4 or 5 years later it may shape a person's life. I might be different from 5 or 6 years ago, but I make a painting that comes from an idea that was on the surface back then, and was processed over time.  There is immediacy in every moment of the process, but not necessarily in creating the final piece.

If I make a painting that strives to address an issue in the world, I don't paint it as an issue out there in the world, but make it an individual, personal reflection.  I believe that while anyone can say things, it can be challenging to practice self-expression.  And the more you want to explore yourself, the more it seems dangerous. But once you do it, it just as difficult to go back. It's also addictive because you have trained yourself in this way, and you present your life in this kind of medium, so physically you become addicted to what you paint with, like oils, etc., but emotionally you also become addicted to exploring, expression, and you don't know what the end result is, but you just want to explore. In some ways it's dangerous. The addictive feeling of expression and exploration is dangerous, but it's good too.  So you explore, you can get scared of yourself, and you try to stop yourself from exploring, but you can't contain it or stop it because you have already gone there.  And so as a painter the more you develop your feelings and explore, the more you create with meaning.

So much of your work shows urban life.  But this is not a city like any I have ever seen in Europe or in the States.  Could you please describe your relationship to the city you paint. 

I'm based in Addis Ababa, though my work could be based on any city.  Though for me Addis is special because here you see the same traditional things happening that you would have seen 3000 years ago, and at the same time you see the modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. You don't even have to go very far to see tradition: it's right outside your door, and normally you would go to see this kind of tradition in a festival, but living in Addis is like living in a festival every day.

I don’t exactly see a city as a cityscape.  Cities have their own portraits, their own face, there are a lot of things going on, so I do not concentrate on a silent, still place.  Rather, I choose vibrant, chaotic and dramatic places, which give you a kind of tension.  I never have a silent experience.

And, like any person, I am influenced by my surroundings: their specific color, texture, lines. If you are living in a vibrant place, you get impressed by that, even subconsciously.  You can see, for example, how in Diego Rivera’s work—he lived in Mexico—how his environment influenced him strongly and with such richness, and so it's the same for me here. And so for me, maybe I see a similarity between artists who live in places that are somehow similar.

It's like when you are young and you are learning a new alphabet, and so you use these letters you are taught as shapes to create meaningful words. When you are young, you first learn to write the actual letters and how to shape the letters. In a painting the shapes of the city are my letters.  Over time you learn to create these letters, you build your vocabulary, and ultimately you become fluent about the city.  And in fact you see that this language--the shapes of the city--is a universal language and can be the vocabulary of any city anywhere in the world.

In general, what are some of the places, urban or not, that you love the most in this world? And why?

A place where there is fast change. I like that for my work. Spontaneous places for inspiration. I grew up mostly in this kind of environment. I grew up in a market, so in a market you just never feel like something will stay there for long, rather you grow up to know that there is always change. I'm driven by change, and I can't stop change, so I create from it, and any place has that kind of energy, movement and dynamic nature. There is a lot of dynamism in color, and shape, and texture, so that means when you are in the middle of your studio you may have stillness to sit and think and create, and this contrasts with what's happening outside.

Your paintings always tell a story.  What does narrative mean to you? 

I don't like to stick too much to the story about how my childhood influenced me, because I'm not a child anymore.  It's in the past. I have lived and continue to live since then. But one thing that stays with me is that my mother always bought books and she loved the books with pictures inside them so she would buy those. Instead of reading the words in the book, I would read aloud the images.  I would see the images and I would tell the story of the book out loud, and so when she would hear me read the text she’d think that I was already reading.  Then she would read the text and be surprised by what I illustrated because she heard me say so many things that were similar to the story. And even in later years when I was taught about Ethiopian traditional paintings at school, I was taught to discuss the powerful colors and distortions of the image that communicate the idea of the artwork.  This was how I learned to understand and express what was written in images.

In school I studied a lot of European artists, but I found that after I graduated I just went back to my childhood and to the traditional Ethiopian art and even also to contemporary art to become inspired. For me art is not just about solving abstractly a problem of color or texture. As a person who grew up in the kind of place where I grew up, there is so many things to say and so many things to express, and so I paint those things.  But I don't think all my paintings are necessarily about telling a story, rather, they are a mix of realism and abstract and semi-abstract expression. Storytelling is its own discipline, while paintings are the result of an art process, and in a lot of ways paintings are more expressive than storytelling.  But if you start looking into the details of the painting you will see color, texture, and distortion, and all together they are pieces of a story.  Paintings are like poems. They are a form of expression - and they don't have a beginning and they don't have an end. In the end, the painting has it's own life, and it has a different life for different people.  My paintings have themes, but ultimately I am just giving people my moment, my emotions, my entire life displayed on a canvas.

Where do you stand in relationship to the Ethiopian tradition in the visual art, and how do you relate to the Western painting tradition?

I love to see western art in a book, and even walk around in a museum by myself to look at original paintings. Yet in western or Ethiopian art, both have strong similarities with respect to the artistic process, whether these paintings are cave drawings, or of modern life.  In Ethiopian art I can see the same qualities I see in European art, and the same in traditional as in modern art. They all produce powerful and expressive pieces. And you can see this in eastern art too. There is richness that inspires me in all painting traditions.

If someone were to introduce you as an "African painter", what would you think about such an introduction?  

There is something you derive from experience that then becomes the creative force that depicts your feelings in a painting.  And this means that there is a universal quality to the feelings of any human being.  On a professional level people are comfortable with making labels like this.  In Africa and Ethiopia, art travels within the people because it's a part of their day-to-day living. In Europe, in the Western tradition, art has been well categorized, studied and analyzed on an institutional level for the last 500 years.  But here it's not been studied in the same way.  Here galleries and museums treat art in a kind of traditional way, through a historical approach. At the same time, here in Africa and in Ethiopia, art can happen anywhere: in the home or in the street, it is less formalized and institutionalized, so when someone is introduced as an African painter or an Ethiopian painter, I get this idea of a non-formalized and non-institutionalized environment.  I am born in Ethiopia, so of course I'm an Ethiopian artist and an African artist, but on different level, I have encountered other artists from other countries to whom I relate easily in terms of my artistic process and artistic experiences.

What trends in contemporary Western art do you find interesting?

I especially like the development of conceptual art movement in the west. I enjoy graffiti art of the west, which has become mainstream, it is strong and I really enjoy it.  I like the way someone like Banksy is able to exhibit art in an innovative way, using innovative mediums.  This engages people.  It engages those who wouldn't otherwise choose this kind of art.  It also engages and exposes people who wouldn't be interested in experiencing art at all.

One of my favorite paintings of yours is Composition II.  Is there anything you would want to say about it? 

This painting shows how you can expose yourself too much. When you grasp something without any filters it means that you can be new to the world while actually being physically older. The world tells the story of old age, and we, as individuals, we are babies. So although we might think we are as old as the world, we are not, and we might think that the world began with us, but it did not.  We are ultimately a part of this bigger universe. The world is very old and we are so young compared to it, so as newcomers we can't say we are really exposed to the world.

If you were not born a painter, what profession would you choose for yourself?

A painter's apprentice.

Check out Zerihun on the web and on Facebook

Interview by Maria Doubrovskaia

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

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

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Homeboy Sandman began his professional music career a little more than six years ago. After more than a year as a high-school teacher in New York City and then pursuing law at Hofstra, the Queens native picked up the mic full-time and self-released his debut Actual Factual Pterodactyl in 2008. In the five years since, he released a commercial debut in 2010 with The Good Sun, signed to the off-kilter, indie Stones Throw label the next year, and has consistently released music in the form of one-off tracks and cohesive EP’s. His first release of 2013, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, strikes a chord. It wasn’t just an outlier in Hip Hop, it was an obvious pinnacle for the emcee himself. It was his first full release—albeit a short one—with a single producer behind the boards, and it kicks off what will hopefully be a long run at the format. In September Homeboy Sandman dropped All That I Hold Dear as a follow-up, transferring the production duties from one long-time collaborator in El RTNC to another in M Slago (that later EP also showed off his sister’s painting skills on the cover art tip). This week we linked up with Boy Sand to talk a little about his music, but more so about his life and education, using his music as a tool to connect with children in the classroom, his earliest Hip Hop memories, and the current state of New York City politics and culture. The day we spoke (in the second week of October) more news of recent developments in the battle to preserve the Long Island graffiti destination5 Pointzhad come to light and we ended up circling back on the topic a couple times. If nothing else, the battle for 5 Pointz is a case-study on the ideologies and politics of Homeboy Sandman. He’s not ready to let go, and as he told me more than once, “this is our thing.”

You’ve been adamant about visiting and speaking in schools, what is it you try to bring to the classroom?

It depends. The last school I went to was in Washington Heights, they were working on creative writing. I was there under the auspice of talking about live performance or creative work. There was a lot of poetry and some kids were doing music as well. I really like to get in there and I like to just talk to kids about rap and coming up. I got so much to talk about with regard to the media, and how come the media is pushing this or that. Kids in the city, rappers are their number one role models, just straight up and down. It’s silly, it’s sad—you know rap, the people that determine what Hip Hop culture is, are determining what inner-city culture is, what youth culture is across the world. Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like “wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,” you know what I’m saying? This is unfortunately what a lot of these kids is thinking, so I’m able to get in there, I’m able to have more breakthroughs with the kids in an hour now that I’m rapping than I was able to in a whole year as a teacher—and you know, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, when I was a teacher I would go in a class and say “damn all these kids running around trying to be rappers.” That was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.”

Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like ‘wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,’...that was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.

You’re signed to a record label and the landscape may be a little different for that reason, but your livelihood really comes from you. It always strikes me that there would be a lot of anxiety when someone’s depending on their art as a living, and it just doesn’t seem like you have that holding you back. Can you talk about that a little?

Yeah, I could speak on that. I mean, whose livelihood doesn’t come from them? I’m trying to think about the best way to answer that question. I mean first and foremost I believe in God, people got a bunch of words for God—the Universe, God, different religious names—I use the word God. I believe that I have responsibilities as a human being. I believe that I have a degree of choice and a degree of options, a degree of control, but I believe that the vast majority of control is out of my hands. I believe my responsibility and obligation is to the do the best I can, to try and be the best person I can be [and] make the best art I can make, be as honest as I can be, be a stand-up guy, try to be the things that I believe I’m supposed to be and that my father taught me I was supposed to do. It’s been reinforced to me time and time again that if you do the best you can, you’re gonna be okay. You know what I mean? What’s the sense in worrying, you can’t do any better than the best you can. If you do the best you can then you’ve already done what you’re supposed to do.

...it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.

At the base of all that too is the fact that I know rap. I know music. When I was in [boarding school] I felt very much by myself. And Hip Hop music became, for me, home. I’d be like “these kids aren’t like me, I’m all by myself, I’m just gonna be under these headphones, this is how I’m gonna tap in.” So I spent an exorbitant amount of time just soaking in—I know what makes a fat rap record, I was always up on the cats that was fat. I recognize that I have a one-of-a-kind gift when it comes to rhymes. I recognize that the world is changing and focus changes, but the truth is, people that love to be impressed, that love to be inspired by music, that love one-of-a-kind music, are not going anywhere. Music that’s popularized may not be with them in mind anymore, there are kids out right now as talented as Stevie Wonder that are not getting put on because it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.” If Aretha Franklin is out now, she’s gonna do fine if she puts in the work ‘cause there’s people that really want to hear [her] sing. And just like me—I’m gonna be in every single ear in the world, I see the end of my journey I just don’t see the path. But I know where I’m going. Right now, I’ve always recognized that I’m going to be okay because I have a one-of-a-kind gift, a one-of-a-kind talent.

I came up [and] I couldn’t wait to tell my homeboys, “yo, you hear this new Redman?” I was the first cat putting cats onto Broken Language when Smooth Da Hustler came out. And I was the man for that, and I recognize that that’s still around. There’s still people that wanna be like “yo, you heard this cat Homeboy Sandman? Listen to this.” They get social capital and clout from their friends ‘cause they were the first one to know about Homeboy Sandman. And those people aren’t going anywhere, people who love music and who love art are still here. So I just have to put in the work of getting to them and I’ll always be okay. I’ll always be fed, I’ll always be happy, and I’ll always be in control. I can’t really fail ‘cause my talent is real. The only thing I could do is lay back and get lazy, but I’m not gonna let that happen. So as long as I don’t let that happen and I have a real gift, it doesn’t even seem realistic to me that anything could go wrong.

You talk about your father and credit him with a lot and I know he’s not from this country. I wonder what his relationship with Hip Hop is like? I’m sure he rides for you but is there a disconnect generationally or with language?

My pop is from the Dominican Republic, he got to this country when he was in the fifth grade. And though he didn’t speak a lick of English, he grew up in Jamaica Queens. He was very much a Hip Hop kid, I don’t know how old he is now but he was coming up in New York when Hip Hop was coming up in New York. When Hip Hop was coming out, it was everybody that was in the city, in the hood, in the street, it was Black kids, Puerto Rican kids. It was New York, it was all New York. It wasn’t like he came to this country in his 30’s, he came of age in New York City and is very much a New Yorker. My first exposure to Hip Hop, the first Hip Hop memory I have is my father walking all around the house saying 'don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.' That’s what he would say when I would start bugging out.

How do you reconcile what’s going on currently with Hip Hop? You look at 5 Pointz, there’s a lot of cultural artifacts that are kind of waning. Documenting early Hip Hop culture is not something that has really caught on in the mainstream. You named your record Kool Herc, can you speak a little bit on the importance of early Hip Hop culture?

I think that that removal of the past, which you talked about kids not knowing Kool Herc, I think that it’s purposeful. Hip Hop started off as a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I used to be the dude [that said] “Hip Hop started out with love, it was about peace” and it was actually Crazy Legs who set me straight. Crazy Legs was like “yo, let me hip you to something Boy Sand,” [he] obviously came up in it. And he said, “listen, half the cats that was creating Hip Hop was stick up kids, Hip Hop was never about all love.” There was cats about love that was making Hip Hop, there was cats that was robbing that was making Hip Hop. What it was always about, was talent. That’s what Hip Hop was about. ‘Cause cats didn’t have this, didn’t have that, didn’t have much to be proud of. But he was an athletic kid and he could be a b-boy. If you had the gift of gab you could be an emcee. If you had a little artistic talent you could be a graph writer. The elements of Hip Hop come from, are birthed from just talent and nothing else. You look at the deejays, we’re musicians but we don’t have instruments! We gonna have to take somebody else music and make that our instrument.

Hip Hop is born on talent is what you need. In a lot of ways you come to 2013 and the image of Hip Hop that’s perpetuated by many people is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very empowering thing and it’s a very weakening thing. But you have a child coming up thinking that Hip Hop is their culture, and thinking that their culture is all about you being cool because of what you have instead of realizing that their culture is all about you being cool because of who you are. It is a complete manipulation of all the real foundation and principles of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop music is all over the world. The essence of cool, these kids in the Bronx in the ‘70s, they captured the essence of cool for really what it was. And that’s why it’s been undeniable to people all over the world. And that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I try to utilize it as.

I talk about it all the time, there’s people that are seeking to use Hip Hop to manipulate people, to sell a lot of product. I’ve talked about people filling prisons with Hip Hop, I’ve talked about Hip Hop artists being popularized way more to sell the product placement included in their records than anybody concerned with their talent. I’ve talked about the evil forces looking to kill this culture. And I think it’s very important that they make sure that nobody knows who Kool Herc is, that nobody knows who Crazy Legs is, make sure that nobody knows that when I grew up I heard all different types of rappers, some were killers and murderers, some were players, some were just cool dudes just chillin’, other dudes worked at the Mickey Dees. I think it’s very important for them to make it look like Hip Hop is about a person acting a certain way and is only cool because of the things they have.

An initial idea for this conversation was to talk about some of the books you’ve read recently, you mentioned The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander before we talked, can you speak on that book?

I think everybody should read that book—you know, you bring up 5 Pointz and people really need to stand up for themselves. Stand up for yourself. Everybody determines what sacrifice they’re gonna make. People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life. Out here on the streets of New York people are getting hands put on them. Didn’t we all learn as children that that’s not supposed to happen? That we’re not supposed to let people put hands on you? Here on the streets of New York and all over America people are getting enslaved. That’s what this is. How are you going to be against enslavement and allow yourself to be enslaved? You can’t be—it’s a lot to think about, but people should read that book because it pretty much sets straight what’s going on. I think there’s a good chance that anybody that reads that book will be convinced that Jim Crow is still alive in America in a different form, and that slavery is still alive in America in a different form. And hopefully, after that, they’ll feel like if it’s worth dying to change that, it’s worth dying.

People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life.

Alright, last question. You’re a lifelong New Yorker, how do you feel about New York today? Obviously you grew up in Queens, but how do you see New York today as opposed to the New York you grew up in 20 years ago?

That’s a good question, man. I love New York like crazy and you know, for me, I did have the benefit of being able to leave as a youth. You know so many people never get a chance to leave and are like “yo, New York is driving me crazy” and they think that the grass is greener. I’m lucky that I have the perspective that I get to leave and come back, I think that’s one of the reasons that I love New York so much because I got to miss it so much as a teenager.

There is a battle going on in New York right now. 5 Pointz would be ours, my whole take on 5 Pointz—you know I was at some of the meetings, some of the city meetings, and I got up and said “this is silly because 5 Pointz is ours. Why are we even acting like we even need to come to this meeting?” We need only accept the fact that this is ours, the same that you feel the wallet in your back pocket is yours. If I went to go take it out would you call a meeting? Would you tell me not to do it? This is our thing.

I’m very sad about the 5 Pointz thing, it’s come up a few times today. And I’m really thinking, I was like “yo, I’m gonna be the first one there when the bulldozers come.” And I’m really thinking about if my responsibility is to go there and be there by myself, I don’t know, I haven’t made my decision yet. In New York City there’s a war going on right now between two different sides, there’s the side that thinks that money is everything. The people that think money is everything, they don’t really know what’s important, if they did they wouldn’t think money was everything. But there’s those people that think money is everything and they’re becoming really abundant, they’re all over the place. And there’s the people that don’t think that money is everything. And [those] people really need to answer the call, really need to decide how important some of this stuff is to them. I can’t remember a time where people were so much like “you know what, as long as I’m still alive I’ll let them take everything.” I don’t remember it being like that in New York City. I’ve seen it get worse and worse.

But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.

Things tie together, I think about police brutality. When I was a kid people knew there was police brutality but I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that one day a man would get shot 41 times—41 times, think about that number—and people wouldn’t do anything but yell and scream. I never thought that that could happen, but alas, when I was a teenager, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and that number seems crazy to me. But people said “dag I guess that’s messed up there’s nothing we could do about that.” And at the time I could have thought to myself, “dag, 41 times, at least they didn’t shoot’em 50 times. Fifty times, if someone got shot 50 times then we definitely would’ve done something besides go outside and yell.”

Sean Bell sure enough was shot, I was living on 148th and Hillside, Sean Bell was shot five blocks down the street on the eve of his wedding. Fifty times, [they] shot a human being 50 times, and the day that the verdict came out, there was extra cops on horses all over Jamaica Queens. And 50 is a crazy number, and if I said to you right now that if they’ll shoot a human being 200 times people wouldn’t do nothing, you would say to yourself “no way, no way, they can’t shoot a human being 200 times and us not do nothing,” but that’s where we’re going because [last] time it was 50 and after that it’ll be 70. Ten years from now they’ll shoot somebody 200 times. By then maybe we’ll all just be hiding in our houses because we didn’t go out and save 5 Pointz. Who really knows? But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.

Interview by Jay Balfour

Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter at @jbal4_

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

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

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I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff.  There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.” 

 And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.

 An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?

This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.

When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.”  And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…

You had to choose.

Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.

So is that why you decided to major in theater?

I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?

Yes.

So, I got my BFA in Acting at North Carolina School of the Arts.

And then you come to New York.

Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.

So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.

Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’

I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.

Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?

Yes. I have huge issues with authority.  Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

You are a vessel.

Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry.  Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’

And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.

Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?

But, when I track back I was always producing things...finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that.  We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.

And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.

What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?

I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows.  And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….

It’s like dating.

Exactly.

You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”

Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like.  ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. l literally called her up one day and said, Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.

And then the Farm?

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met.  She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.”  I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.

Was it like, you’re looking at New York Magazine and you wanted to read the Michael Pollan book and you were like, ‘wait, I have a farm?’

Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time.  I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.'  I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.

I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.

It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be.  I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together.  In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.

I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.

I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…

Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me.  But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists.  So we basically did that for a summer and a half.  We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.

Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.

Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.

Was it divine?

Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?

So, like a challenge?

Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.

And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...

I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.

So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?

There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family.  I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family.  We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…

so I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen.

They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.

Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.

Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?

Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.

I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?

Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.

Interview by Tanisha Christie

Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike.  She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie

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Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

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Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.

It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into  just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.

You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?

The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!

I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps...it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people.

Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling? 

Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.

For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?

Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.

As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.

Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?

Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks...I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges? 

Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.

It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.

It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!

How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?

Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.

You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?

Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.

When we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?

I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.

Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?

Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.

The other thing that I have experienced, is that if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well...the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will.

That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.

What legacy are you looking to leave with your work? 

Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.

 

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image by Rachel Main

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

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

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

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

Can you explain your take on the function of music?

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

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

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

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

The drums.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia: Celtic got some Funk.

Dudley: They got a little bit of Funk?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh wow I didn’t know that.

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

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

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

Georgia: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words by Jay Balfour

Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter.

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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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Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

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Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

AG_1

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

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

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

How did Tinderbox start?

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

That must be so gratifying.

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

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

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

How did you get all of these people on board? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you speak about why you felt defeated?

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

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

I think that happens to a lot of people.

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

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

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

There was a sense of attachment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature Image credit: Jasmina Tomic

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