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Meet the Artist
Bryant Terry is an activist, author, mentor, speaker, educator, chef, practicing Buddhist, daddy, hubby and a champion for social justice via the food liberation movement. Inspired by his grandparents' Memphis kitchen, his work with New York City youth, and the Black Panther's Free Breakfast movement, the Oakland, Cali resident is passionate about self-empowerment through healthy eating. He's a stand for folks in the lower economic stratosphere, especially people of color, having access to fresh food. He's also passionate about the benefits of growing, cooking and eating healthfully. Bryant is out to have communities mobilize to better take care of one another without having to rely on Wholefoods to come in and save the day.
Part recipes, part historical narrative - his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan, shares Bryant's love for creating delicious meals drawing from across the African diaspora. I haven't received my copy yet but I imagine I'll be remixing some of my vegetarian recipes soon. I throw coconut milk and curry on everything.
I got to hang with Bryant in his lovely home in beautiful Oakland and we chatted about how he found his path, the politics of food, and his evolving definition of activism.
What made you so interested in food? How did that begin?
The work that I do now as a food activist, chef, and cookbook author - the foundation comes from growing up in Memphis. My family came from rural Mississippi and had farms. For me it was second nature to grow up in community gardens…so when I started doing this work in New York I really thought it was something people were missing. You know, living in the concrete jungle, not having these green spaces, not being really connected to the process of growing food and making food. It was such a treasure for me. I really wanted to ensure that the younger generation were able to connect with our earth and know how to cook food from scratch.
Growing up with my paternal grandfather who cooked a lot as well [was important for me]. My grandmother had a stroke in her 50’s. He cooked the food, cleaned the house because she couldn’t do that on her own. Having a grandfather who really took care of the daily functions of the kitchen and made all the meals and was the nurturer of the home made it really safe for me. Growing up, I loved cooking. I loved baking. I felt very welcome and very safe in the kitchen because my grandfather was such a manly man and he was really buff and also so gentle, loving and caring.
For a lot of folks, cooking from scratch is sorta revolutionary.
And that’s why when I talk about my work I talk about it almost like an act of remembering, revitalizing, and celebrating the traditions of our ancestors. It wasn’t like they were eating local or sustainable. They were just eating the food they grew because that’s what you did. So part of my mission is to help mobilize. To help push back on this perception that eating this way or cooking this way is 'white' or a bourgeois thing.
It sounds like you’re interested in the relationship between culture and food. What are your thoughts on this? I mean, I can buy quinoa in Bedstuy, Brooklyn now. That wouldn’t have been available before.
Well, I think a lot of it is about marketing to a certain demographic. When you think about the food corporations who are producing a lot of healthy or organic products, they’re marketing to people who they can charge a higher price to because that is their goal; to make a profit for their shareholders. I often talk about the way in which we can’t rely on food corporations as the solution for food injustice. We think about communities that have very little access to healthful food and it’s easy to say well, we just need a supermarket there. A Wholefoods or whatever.
If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment. I think about this quote Malcolm X said, about having businesses in your community that are owned by people who don’t live there. He said, when that man leaves at the end of the day he takes that bag of money out of the community. When you think of supermarkets, often times the profits are going to some corporate headquarters that are a long ways from that community. When you think about community gardens or urban food stands or farmers markets set up by people in the community who look like people in the community then those have lasting sustainable solutions. If you have the supermarket there and they leave, then people don’t have any food sources anymore. That’s what happens to a lot of urban areas that are now described as food deserts. I think we have to be careful when we talk about creating solutions. We don’t want to create that same process again.
Let’s talk about the past work you’ve done with youth. Tell us about your experience with Be-Healthy.
Well one of the first steps for me and the reason I write cookbooks and do a lot of speaking at community events and colleges is that I truly believe that one of the most important steps is making people aware of the issue and what’s at stake. I always talk about the three levels of making changes: as consumers, as community members, as citizens. We need to make sure our local elected official or state and our federal officials are creating policies that ensure that food is accessible to everyone. I think to go into a community and even get people to think about why they should be invested you have to make them feel invested about wanting to eat fresh food. I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.
When I started the organization, Be-Healthy, I was like, why are these young people coming in here talking about ‘I don’t eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t drink water.’ So to even get them to a point where they’re like I want to be a food activist, I want to be active in my community, I want to be a peer educator, I want to get people in my community invested in these issues. They need to be invested. They need to feel like this is something they care about.
How long was Be-Healthy around for?
Five years. It was implemented with a group of people I know from cooking school, grad school and the artist and activist community I was working with in New York City. Because of the population of kids we were working for, many of who had very little resources or access to healthful foods, we didn’t just want to have a program where we were talking to them. We wanted to be tactile, practical and engaging. I thought, what’s more engaging then teaching them how to cook as a way to politicize them, as a way to engage them?
I thought what Be-Healthy brought to the movement was the emphasis and importance of cooking as a tool for liberation. We would get the young people and have Thursday and Saturday workshops and go to the community farms or urban gardens and have them learn about these foods. We would get in the kitchen and make a meal. What we found was that young people were so much more invested when they made it! The ones who would be like, ‘I never eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t eat that quinoa stuff.’ When they made it, they would be like ‘well, I wanna try what I made.’ The more they opened up there palate, it just broke down their resistance to trying different things or eating fresh foods.
It must have been gratifying to see some of the changes in the students.
We celebrated the small victories. I think, as an educator, you can’t get too caught up in the immediate outcome because you might not see it immediately. The impact may not manifest for years. I think that was a position we had to hold that we were just planting seeds and hopefully it would stick and make an impact. For a young person to come into the program like, ‘I don’t drink water, only soda’ and by the end of the year, come in with a water bottle or with a bag of dried banana chips they bought with their own money instead of cheetos…those were huge victories for us.
But one of the biggest successes was this young woman who was about 16 or 17 who had a 2 year-old at the time and she wasn’t into eating healthfully but she wanted to eat more healthfully for her son. She wanted to share this with other teen moms. So we did a workshop about prenatal health and postnatal eating and it went phenomenally well. The young moms requested more workshops and out of that we raised money and started this project called The Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies project which was about working with young moms. So for that to come about organically from one of the young woman in our project was a big deal.
What keeps you committed to this? What's your bigger vision?
A large part of the vision is having the communities who are most impacted by food injustice or food insecurity, by the exponential rise in preventable diet related illnesses that we’ve seen over the past several decades, having them be in charge of not only bringing more sources for fresh affordable healthful food into the communities, but take the lead in reversing some of the chronic illnesses that have been rising in the community. It starts with what we’re eating and how we’re thinking and what kind of physical activity we’re engaging in andreally understanding it’s not about popping pills or going to some physician and having them take care of you. It’s having us take care of ourselves. It’s not about the individual but it’s about communities coming together and communally ensuring we’re improving our public health. One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.
That’s insane. I didn’t know that.
This whole idea of us advancing and having all of this technology…I grew up understanding that those things meant we’d live longer and have a healthy and robust life. So, the fact that younger people are at risk for having a shorter life span really bothered me. I mean I have Twitter, Instagram and all that and I have a complicated relationship with it but I do feel like they can be important tools for educating and organizing but I would argue that the most important work happens when we’re in person, face to face and connecting in real time. I think those tools are great in actually bringing people together in real life because I don’t think just sitting behind a screen is going to solve our problems. I think we need to exchange and connect and work through it in real life.
This is your fourth book. Did you always want to be a writer?
Well, it’s my third I have written by myself. I co-authored one. I studied English in college and history in grad school and it’s funny because I think my parents were a little concerned like, ‘ok you studied English in college and history in grad school and then you’re in cooking school, you’re kind of all over the place’ but I feel like the work I do now - and I think they get it – brings all of those things together.
In grad school, some of the research I was doing was about the Black Panthers and their projects in the late 60’s. Many had to do with providing low-income people of color with basic needs. The program that moved me more than anything was their free breakfast for children program. Having learned about that program and also doing work in partnership with communities that were dealing with some of the highest rates of chronic illnesses and seeing that these were “food deserts.” You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit. Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.
Your work seems to encompass so many different elements; writing, teaching speaking etc. do you enjoy working in that way?
I love it. I get bored easily and I like the fact that I can be sitting here doing this interview with you and then I go pick up my daughter and just be a daddy for a while. Later I’ll be editing my book and then on Monday I fly out to Indiana and give a talk to a group of college students. Then, next week, I’m going to be flying to New Orleans and am being honored at this vegan gumbo fest. It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world. I feel like it’s just the ideal situation. I feel like I am blessed to be able to do that and sustain myself and my family. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been doing this work for over a decade.
I mentor a lot of younger chefs, activists, authors and I will tell them, I was doing stuff for years for pro bono and there was a time when I was doing all these talks around NYC and the country for free. I realized that I just wanted to get the message out. It wasn’t even about the money. It was like, this is something I feel needs to be shared and then also, I wanted to be able to sustain myself. You just gotta put that work in. Sometimes it’s just about people seeing your track record and that you’re committed to it and that you have interesting things to say. A lot of time you’re not going to get paid to do that. So for me to be at this point, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel like I have put in years of blood, sweat, and tears to be at a point where people value my work and want to bring me out to speak or pay me to write a book.
Yeah, it sounds like what you’re hitting on is patience, dedication, commitment and actually having something to say. I like that you said you don’t feel guilty.
Well, the material manifestation of my ideas in a book is so rewarding. This is going to be my first hardback, full-color book so just that process is so rewarding. That’s why I love this balance in my life. I truly feel like I am an activist in my heart and re-imaging what activism looks like. I think I grew up with this narrow idea of what it meant to be an activist like, grassroots activism. I think that work is important and my work started as a grassroots activist working with young people but I also understand there is a need for people to have a national platform, there is a need for people who are shifting peoples attitudes and habits and politics in a larger way. I feel like that is a role my work has been playing and I think it’s equally important. I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like, ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.
What are some of the challenges of finding your way?
Well, a lot of times I’m like, ‘I’m not where I want to be’ or, ‘this shouldn’t be my first full-cover hard backed book. I should have had that two books ago. I should have my own TV show on the cooking channel’ or whatever. I think just going back to my Buddhist practice and being present with what is and that it is perfect in this moment. If I’m stuck thinking about the future too much, I’m not being present. If I am present with my work and my family, then I am very happy. That’s what most important to me, that I am happy and comfortable and doing what I love and I have an amazing family. I think that is something we all need to remember: to be present when things are shitty and understand that that is part of the process and not getting stuck in it and sitting with it and letting go so I can move to the next moment.
Short film credit: Barry Jenkins
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Ok, so what is a "boi?" according to Urbandictionary.com (a HIGHLY trusted source), it's a word used in "the lesbian community, a young transgendered/androgynous/masculine person who is biologically female and presents themselves in a young, boyish way." Ryann Holmes, the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, whose mission is defined as "to spread love through community-building events, music and art while sharing our journey as bois of color who believe in safe spaces, accountable action and self-care" has a more interesting way to answer that question.
In addition to providing physical space for bois to commune, chill, talk and party, Bklyn Boihood also produces a yearly calendar that slyly and geniusly pokes playful fun at annual firefighter calendars by using a similar format that instead, promotes beautiful, regal, stylish images of bois of color empowered by their image. Bklyn Boihood also host an annual retreat and conducts workshops at colleges and community organizations on "Un/Doing Masculinity" which champions "healthy masculinity, intersectionality of identities and anti-misogyny for bois of color all over the world."
We spoke with the exceptionally down-to-earth, intelligent, and cool-as-hell Ryann about the origins of Brooklyn Boihood and its journey to becoming an international movement (at the interview, we were told the collective had just been granted a publishing deal for an anthology due out mid 2015), Ryann's own struggles with self-acceptance and the complexity of masculine and feminine identity.
So, you were telling me that you’re a bit tired from hanging out with Nikki Giovanni last night at The Red Rooster in Harlem. That’s some impressive sounding ish.
Ha - yeah, my brother is in college in Virginia and became friendly with Nikki, she's a professor at Virginia Tech, and I met her last night. She is incredible. She said something really great last night. She said that she lives in Southern Virgina and the pollen is so thick that this room would be covered in no time. It comes through the window, and your house is so dusty. Every morning you wake up and there’s this dust. You dust it off, you wake up again, there's more. She really believes in pushing people towards what they can do, because you can only do what you can and if everyone continues to dust, that means someone else can do something. You do what you can, and you make it possible for someone else to do what they can. When I was with her last night, I was like what time does your day start? She's like 5:30am - I don't know how old she is but she has so much energy. We were there till' midnight and I was telling my brother, like, I gotta get out of here. I'm tired! But I think having that outlook is what keeps her going.
That’s a beautiful analogy. Is that what you feel you’re doing with Bkyln Boihood? Making room for the next person?
Yeah, definitely. Bkyln Boihood evolved from me - out of something I was so naturally called to. I’m from Maryland and was born in DC and have lived in NYC for almost a decade. Bkyln Boihood started in 2009 and we started gathering people together. Come January 2010 we had the website going and started openly promoting the calendar. I’ve always been a person who under any circumstance or situation - if I feel injustice or feel like people aren’t being respected - even if it isn’t myself, I feel it the same. So it was only natural that in my identity, I couldn’t actually stand walking through life feeling this way or not loving myself or being in places where I didn’t feel like I could discuss my identity.
What was it like for you growing up?
I was so embarrassed, unclear and confused about what I was supposed to be doing and I wasn’t being affirmed at all. I didn’t disclose a lot…I was outed in high school, I didn’t come out. I didn’t have that many people super close to me to relate to. I didn’t have community. I was searching for myself and didn’t have enough confidence to really do me and not be looking around like, ‘is this weird?’ Just because of the nature of who I am, when I got to NYC, I sort of settled in and got comfortable and made a community hub. I’m that person who is like, ‘wanna come over tomorrow?’ and I met you two days ago. So my space really quickly started to grow...that was my nickname, ‘the hub’ and that’s how my mom was. We were that house on the block that all the kids were at.
Has your family been supportive?
It’s a weird thing. I don’t do the type of work that is easily shared. I don’t know that people get it – get the magnitude of it. My parents are proud of me, but they don’t fully understand what I’m doing but my siblings, they follow me and keep up with me online and they’re so supportive, my sister buys a calendar every year.
Was there a moment where you had this idea or did it happen over time?
It was probably a build up of things. I came to New York to really explore and embrace my identity. I started to present more masculine and I was meeting different people and connecting and sharing my experience. I was thinking ok, I’m not imagining that I feel this way. I really began to connect with people and recognize my power. With an old friend, we started Bkyln Boihood together. We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.
That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images. Other things were coming out but not in the way that I wanted it to be portrayed. If I saw things with boi’s of color, it wasn’t that professional or I wasn’t really diggin’ the fashion. It just didn’t translate. It was so bizarre, us looking in the mirror...we were like, people should see this and we should show them. We were like, why not start a project and take leadership? So that’s what shaped the idea of the calendar.
It sounds like you’re a natural community curator. Who were some of the people you were meeting when you first came to New York?
When I first got here I ended up meeting a woman who I ended up dating for four years. She was from Yonkers and we began exploring Brooklyn. As I met more people, I started wanting to be involved and started asking about an organization I could work with. I started volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project and that was sort of my entry into the activist world. It gave me a little more language to say what I was feeling and to identify who I was. It was an interesting environment but at the same time, it wasn’t quite right. I still felt there were things that were missing. It didn’t fulfill me enough and that led me to want to create another type of space.
I think lots of high school students can relate to feeling isolated or trying to figure themselves out. Yet you’ve created a community where young bois of color have an alternative to that.
It’s so intense. We’ve gotten letters from people in different places. I remember getting a letter from someone in Kenya who had gotten the calendar in a really sneaky way and it meant everything to them to just know that we’re out here doing this...that they can exist in this and that they’re actually a person and affirmed. I get so emotional talking about this. I mean, we have our struggles but we live in New York City, I can walk from here to there. To think about how much we do have...and be able to tell people about that…it’s completely changed my life.
Yeah, it really feels like that.
Within the queer community, I imagine there are a lot of sub-communities. Did you get any push back from other groups?
Yeah, definitely. Neither of us [the co-founders] have activist backgrounds. I remember when I first got to Audre Lorde I was like, I don’t know what these acronyms are. It’s get a little academic. There are parts of that that I love but it wasn’t exactly for me. I felt like it could shut people out and isolate people that were like me and maybe not able to completely connect with it. When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.
That shifted when I went on a leadership retreat for the Brown Boi Project in 2010. I went out to Oakland and that conference shifted the course of my life. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. We stayed in this big mansion and had workshops and were inundated in everything from self-care and financial stability to breaking down gender justice and femininity and masculinity...and it wasn’t just queer and trans folks, there were straight black men who were part of the program. It was really transformative. At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.
What is the greater purpose?
I mean, it sounds super cheesy but it’s to spread love and that starts in the way we care for each other to how we choose to be a platform and to the way that we create space with people and in communities. Even if we have to do something that’s hard or controversial, we always try to come from a place of love.
Can you talk a bit about your work mentoring young people?
I also mentor young people and we talk about sexuality and homophobia and the young girls, a lot of them have no problem saying, I love women but at the same time they say a lot of really negative things about gay men, femininity, and gay feminine men. If a gay man isn’t feminine, there is this disbelief that that can even exist. I tell them all the time, the society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. To me honestly, I feel like all it is energy. I feel like our spirits are ebbing and flowing with one another and we all have different ways that manifest. Some of us choose to express it more than others whether it be through how we present our gender, who we choose to love.
Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified or there to enhance masculinity or serve the more negative aspects. It’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. There’s so many misconceptions. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love. It’s so vast, the ways we can actually connect to ourselves and each other. We limit ourselves and we shun those who don’t...we shame them and make them think that they’re weird but actually they’re doing what comes natural. To me, this is the more incredible thing to do. I’ve always maintained a particular type of energy from when I was a baby and I was lucky enough to have a mom who was like ‘ok, fine, you can wear the baseball hat.'
I think folks who define themselves as heterosexuals have a lot of stereotypes or misconstrued ideas of “boi” relationships. Does the “straight” opinion even matter?
It’s funny because if you look up femininity in the dictionary it will say things like ‘weak’ or ‘nurturing’ ..if you talk to a young black man and ask him who is the strongest black icon in his life he will often answer his mother. To be cliché, I feel that people fear what they don’t understand. They have a hard time with someone threatening what they understand about themselves. It matters to me because it affects my life. If you feel a certain way, your actions may reflect that. That’s what leads to people being in violent situations.
That’s why I work with young people. I’m interested in talking to people who don’t get it - who are like, what? I’m not interested in sitting in a room with people who get it – I mean, it’s important to continue to analyze but I like to push it and talking to 16, 17 or 18 year old men who have been on the block their whole life, that’s what they know. I just feel like something has to happen to people...to have some relatable moment, where they see beyond themselves. If you think you know shit, that’s when you stop letting yourself learn more shit. That’s when you’re in trouble. That’s why I like young people. They don’t mind being told what you think you know may not be the truth.
What are your thoughts on boi relationships in which one or both people are mimicking masculinity in dominant and oppressive ways?
That’s not a foreign experience. That’s the problem with a lack of visibility and a really short list of examples…people latch on to stuff. So if there’s this self hated and it’s internalized when it comes to not wanting to identify with certain parts of womanhood or perceived womanhood plus wanting to be affirmed in how they present and their masculinity...the reason men embody these negative things is the misconception that this is what makes you a man and a lot of that comes from this really false sense of what it means. It actually looks crazy as hell, especially in certain bodies, like how could you treat women this way and look at yourself? I guess that is what we push back on and I think it’s just a part of a lot of people’s process because they don’t have any other framework. I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from...just to provide another framework because if all you have to model is the men in your life or other bois who are mimicking that shit, then that’s what it’s gonna be.
Did you ever expect Bklyn Boihood to have blown up like this?
I always believed it could, somewhere deep down. We always spoke about it really affirmingly but we never expected it to reach overseas and for people to be ordering it from London, Nairobi, South Africa, Brazil…there’s a woman who takes 20 or 30 to Brazil and gives them to bois. We exist all over the world and all over the planet. That to me is amazing, for there to be no mainstream visibility and for people to be at home just like me, in the mirror, getting dressed, figuring myself out and coming to terms with who I am. For the people on that journey, that just makes me want to keep on doing this work, keep affirming each other, it’s just amazing. I think the next part of our journey will be to not only reach but continue to expose these individuals and stories.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature image, photo credit: King Texas
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.
Shira E has this haunting kind of voice, the kind that immediately silences a room full of people in the midst of hearty conversation. There is a palpable quality to the sound that she emits through her lungs, a thick-like-molasses and indulgent vibration, lulling you into some otherworldly experience. This is what I witnessed when I walked into Launchpad during the Women Love the World Conference last month. I entered into the dimly lit room with this small silhouette of a person standing in front of a large projector, playing the Roland 404 synthesizer, and hand drumming. I was in love with whatever was going on and needed to meet this person.
We set up an interview at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and sat on a bench under some trees, and got to chatting. Shira shared with me her beliefs about the practicality of poetry, the challenges that women face when trying to tap into electronic music, the simultaneous significance and insignificance of our existence in this universe, and her exciting new Indiegogo campaign to help her spread her awesome new album all around the country.
You mentioned that you recently relocated to NYC. What brought you here?
I live in Brooklyn, but I swore I would never live here in the past. I was done doing all of these jobs, while writing, and doing music mostly on the side after touring for a bit with poetry. I had fed my artistic life, and eased into a place where I was mostly not doing it anymore. But then, synchronistically, I quit three jobs and then fell in love, and she lives here, and all of that pulled me to the city. I had never felt that way before in terms of a city calling me, but I felt like I wanted to put an intention into art instead of just doing it because I love it. When you make a move like that, you’re putting your pennies in a jar, but you’re actually feeding yourself what you want to be fed.
What are you currently doing in the City?
I’m a teaching artist: I teach gay elders poetry on Wednesdays at a place called SAGE, I’m also in Queens with teenagers teaching writing and theater, I’m a mentor with Urban Word, and I teach online writing classes to individuals all over the country, which is really fun. I’m also making music.
Music-wise, what are you working on?
I’ve been working on a record for probably a year. I’m with a new machine--the sampler. Before that I was all guitar-based and with ukuleles and stuff like that. So I’m percolating and recording and just working with people on art.
What sparked your interest in going electronic?
I just had the desire to do it for so long, and truth be told, I just felt like I didn’t really see women doing it, and it feels kind of funny to say because now I see so many women doing it, but at the time I didn’t. I grew up playing the guitar, so I knew the ins and outs of it; It was something that was safe, that I felt comfortable with. Going electronic, it was exciting and unsafe in a way. I had just dreamt of doing it for so long, and seeing people doing and all of this cool stuff, like someone with six samplers, and one loop pedal...
Part of the intention of moving here was that I was going to buy a sampler. I had never touched one until a year ago. I had asked guy friends to help me, but there were only a few who were willing. You really need to feel a sense of encouragement with that stuff, really with anything, or any art form. Now when I’m playing, a woman will just sneak up to me over my shoulder and say, “can I see?” and I’m like, “come on! Touch it. Look at it. Take out the wires, and do what you want,” because it’s really not our turf.
Why isn’t it our turf?
Stereotypically. I even remember being in high school and being the one female rock player in a circuit of friends. I had to find them, like I made girl bands and things like that, but I guess I more so mean that for me to walk into a guitar center and ask for cables, or something like, a guitar felt way smoother and easier than going in there about gear that I knew nothing about, or felt like were more stereotypically linked to guys. When I thought of that music, I thought of Animal Collective. I couldn’t even think of groups with women before, but now I can probably name five or six.
Can you name some?
I can name Grimes. I can name Tune-yards. I feel like when Tuneyards popped up, I was like, I don’t necessarily want to make that music, but I was so excited just to see the level of intensity of skill that come with those electronics, and I think I also didn’t have an entrance into a scene where that was true. I’m sure there are cities where women are dominating the scene. I just didn’t have the entrance into that.
What was your learning process like?
I felt so compelled that I just sat with the manual. I’m not techy at all, which is why it was so intimidating. You can even take gender out of it—I’m not techy. I just sat with it, and I would try to spend two hours just with the stupid manual to just figure things out, and then my friend Emmanuel, who’s insanely talented and in Many Mansions, I would go over to his place and he would show me stuff that I had totally intuited wrong, and would re-wire and teach me. With his loving help and just a lot of devotion—I think I was just honestly ready for a challenge. Previously, I would bend the guitar with all of these crazy tunings just to make these sounds that I wanted, and I sort of hit a ceiling, and this was definitely so out of my comfort zone. I was so excited about having so many sounds available, not just guitar, but I could put anything into that sampler, and it would just create a forest of different sounds.
What kind of a sampler do you use?
It’s a Roland 404. I’d say, it’s older, but folks still use it.
Do you now have interests in other electronics?
Not really. The truth of it was that I kind of wanted a band. If I think that I absolutely need to have drums, then maybe I would start to synch up the sampler with the live drums or get a drummer, or something like that. Right now, that machine is still so new to me still, that I just want to get more cozy with it before I add a loop pedal to it or anything too naughty. Though I really do want to play electric guitar with it. I miss that fuzzed out, delicious, electric guitar. That’s a secret dream.
How does poetry play into music, and vice versa?
My name [Shira] means both. It means poem and song. People have asked me often, which do I love more? Or how do they affect the other? Because I have grown up doing both, I really feel like they are two arms. It’s not like one is more important, but they are just so vital. Even before coming to meet you, I was kind of in a weird mood space, so I just played for five minutes, and it just cleared me out somehow. I think with music, with both of them, there’s a way that I’m in conversation with myself. Like I know myself better because I have these tools. I can’t imagine not having them. It seems I can sit down and have a conversation with myself and then become a different Shira. That’s actually crazy ya know? They offer me similar things, but they also diverge in what they can give me beyond those similar things.
I went out with my friend Beverly, who is 94. I met her at the class I teach, and we were having drinks, and she was like, “okay, you’re in front of God. Music or poetry? And I don’t want anything bullshitty. This is really happening, which one is it?” I felt like, what am I supposed to say? Even though both are so important to me, I think there is a way that music does something--it almost includes the writing in a way, but writing can’t really include the music. It can leap and have it’s phonetic delight, but music just cuts in a different way. It doesn’t mean that a poem can’t cut the way music can, but music does something that’s not word oriented, even when I think of the sounds that we transmit, part of it is not language oriented, it’s just full body oriented, if that makes sense.
What kind of power does poetry have?
Oh my god. I really think, like how people stand up and salute the flag--I actually don’t really know because I was born in Israel, I came here at six, so I’m kind of confused about what people did at schools. If they still do that, I just wonder what it would be like if they started school and everybody had poetry time. It's like the clam that takes the dirt and makes the pearl--to be able to have that process within ourselves, and to give kids that. It’s such a tool, that refines your understanding of how to communicate with people, it refines how much you appreciate life every second. I just imagine everyone, down to the president being a poet. It actually makes me embarrassed and a little weary at how I used to look at poetry when I had idols at 18, and saw folks like Saul Williams and would freak out. Now I see poetry in a totally practical light.
When did you figure that out?
When I moved here, I was right at the age that I was fluent in Hebrew, but was learning English, and so language wasn’t a given. I heard things a different way than someone who grew up here being told, "book means book", and "cat means cat", and that’s what it is, but when you have something else to think of as a language, and you're learning new words, it just tweaks your brain a little bit to handle words differently. They weren’t just things that you would say to your mom as a kid, it’s also how you maneuver the world as someone in a new world.
I remember being in third grade, we were doing spelling, and my teacher was like, "I don’t know if she’s been in the states long enough to be in this spelling group." They gave us kids words about the season, vocab about flowers, and I remember--it sounds braggy, but it was just a fact--that I made something of the words that my mom and the teacher were both like, “whoa! Oh my god.” I think it’s that ability to really care and have love for these objects that people call words that you can move them around and express something and see what they are. You can’t take them for granted. You can do things with them that are brand new.
Does New York help or hinder your ability to find clarity through art?
I need to make things. It’s my way of being a better Shira, which I didn’t really realize until my friends were like, “yo, you need to make something, because you’re having a hard week.” In that sense, I look at the places that I’ve lived, which are like Brookline and Boston in Massachusetts where I grew up, and I look at Northampton, Amherst, and then I look at here (NYC). I think that I always was making, but the difference here is time. I don’t know if it’s just because I'm getting older, but the constraints and limits of time, but in Western Mass, I worked less, and I could work less because I could pay for things for less, so I had more time to delve into writing. But now that means that my focus is so intense here. When I do sit down, and I’m with my sampler, I’m like, “okay, it’s you and me. We’re stuck in an elevator called tonight, and we’re just going to do this!” So there’s that. I think it’s affected my focus.
In general, the intensity of the city, asks something back, whereas the landscape and colors of Western Mass is just simple ease. It’s the word that I think of when I’m there that allows for a different style of art making, a different response.
How do the people around you influence the way you create?
I kind of understood something early on because I played a lot of team sports and you really rely a lot on each other, and you have to be available and be kind actually, otherwise it doesn’t work. Your team falls apart. There’s a way in which I saw that, if a person, a fellow teammate could affect me so much, I had that power as well. That is ever-present in my mind. I’ve always been able to have community and people around me who challenge me, and inspire me. When I haven’t had that it’s been horrible.
Can you talk about that?
When I was at UMass I was writing from 12-4 am every night, just on my computer--work that now when I look back cannot be seen by anyone! I was trying to connect with people, but I just couldn’t really find it. In high school, I had a lot of access to very different artists, from vegan nutty nuts, to painters, to someone who was a jockey who wrote incredible essays. It was all available. To shift to a huge university where I just couldn’t really find that was overwhelming. I felt more freedom when I transferred to Hampshire College to pursue art more aggressively.
I first went to Hampshire as a UMass student and joined the five college slam team, and transferred while I was on that team. It’s kooky how it happens, when you find those people, you realize that you didn’t have that before. I had something lovely in many ways, but that type of intensive, “I can’t fall asleep until I share this poem with you. And you can’t fall asleep until you hear it.” The intensity and joy in that was different. The teammates were from all five colleges, and that community became very strong for me. The way that I feel about that community was, I’m sure that when people were around James Baldwin, they were like, “this person is a trove, an international treasure,” and there are folks that I’ve met on the team who I felt that way being around them.
What fuels your passion on a day-to-day basis?
Sometimes I'm dry. Always having my mind attuned to the fact that I might write or I might create something, just that simple fact feels exciting. Another thing that I think of is our human connection. How crazy it is that we are here in the first place? It sounds psychedelic, but it's actually crazy. If I have awareness of that fact everyday, that we are on a spinning blue dot, when I think of that, I am filled to the brim with poems. I feel so fundamentally perplexed at the thought of just being here, that I can get caught up with bills and all that stuff, but when I just take a second to just feel the weight of that and the lightness at the same time, it opens everything. I don't have to ask for inspiration. We are made of it. It's everything.
It's weird for me to think that, "I have to pay this medical bill, but I'm on that teeny tiny dot," that they are someway equally as real. I think that's at the heart of my writing, that both of those statements are true.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Original photo essay by Seher Sikandar
The stereotypical music industry executive talks real fast, issue a lot of broken promises and make their money exploiting young naive artists who lack the skill or experience to know when they're being taking advantage of. Artist, entrepreneur, business coach and lawyer, Jo-Ná Williams, has built her business, The Artist Empowerment Firm, based on the exact opposite approach. A bubbly, warm, and no-nonsense type, Jo-Ná has a real mama bear type vibe - she's the kind of woman who expects you to eat your vegetables even if you don't like how they taste and can smell your bullshit excuses a mile away.
Full disclosure: Boyuan and I have recently hired Jo-Ná as our business coach, so we're a little biased - but even before we worked with her, we were wowed by her impressive roster of clients (they include esteemed life + business coach/strategist Marie Forleo and vocalist Celia Faussart of Les Nubians) and had the pleasure of collaborating with her on our March event at the Brooklyn Museum for artist entrepreneurs. We were taken with her approach to genuinely ensuring artists are empowered financially and legally so they can do what they do best - create. We chatted with Jo-Ná about her start as a vocalist, the ever-changing climate of the music industry and how being an artist entrepreneur separates the kids from the adults.
So you used to be an artist?
I’ve always been a vocalist and grew up in choirs. I played the piano at a very early age. I decided I was going to be a vocalist professionally. I never saw myself as being the next Toni Braxton or whatever, I always saw myself as being an amazing back-up singer. So, I met an engineer and he wanted me to work with some artists and I was writing lyrics and contributing vocals on peoples tracks. He told me I was going to get paid, receive credits etc. so I trusted that I would eventually have all of these things.
It never happened. My voice ended up on tracks that ended up on the radio and shows but I was never credited or compensated. It kind of shut me down. I was like ‘I don’t want to do this if this is how it’s going to be.’ So I stopped and I ended up going to college. I still worked with artists but it took different forms. I was a manager for a little while. I started doing my own arts related events, I acted in some plays but I ended up being really good at putting on events. It was a skill-set I didn’t know I had. I ended up being the president of the board that did all of the campus programming for the university. Afterwards, people kept on wanting to hire me. It morphed into my business and I did that for 11 years and stopped at the end of 2010.
I was an artist and I still consider myself to be an artist - I still write – but I think having been an artist makes me better understand the artist mind. I have compassion and empathize with what it’s like for artists on a daily basis but I also hold them accountable to what it is they say they want. It’s different when you have someone who is a lawyer or a business coach and they’ve never had to go out and do what these artists do. Having gone through that myself, I know what it’s like. On the business side, they have someone who is an ally and who is not trying to take advantage of them. I think that’s the reason people feel really safe with me.
Is it ever a challenge for you to manage artists and practice your own art?
I think the way I express my art is different [now]. When I speak or conduct my business I feel like I am being an artist. There is a lot of creativity in being a CEO. I have always been creative and it’s just become expressed in different ways. I didn’t just have a dream of being a vocalist, I always wanted to be a great CEO and writer and speaker. So yes, I still get to be an artist.
I feel like part of my journey was created so I could do what I do now and I feel very fulfilled by what I do. I don’t have the desire to step on the stage in that way. I have the desire to speak on the stage and talk about this stuff and for me, that’s my version of singing. As a vocalist, you have a moment where you get to express yourself and have a platform and the audience gets to hear it and take that in and it means whatever it means to them at that moment. I think that’s what powerful speakers do. They get to express an idea or concept or personal story and you get to hear them on their platform and interpret it for yourself. You define what it means for you and I think that’s why storytelling is so powerful. So, being able to influence people in that way and helping artists express their art and move forward monetarily and in their personal power is to me, extremely powerful.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
I tell stories. I don’t know if I would define myself as a storyteller but I do think my story is weaved into what I do. I think that my story makes people want to listen to me versus me just being another music industry person. There’s an element of compassion that goes into what I do because I’ve been on the side of being an artist.
You often see artists being lambasted when they branch out and try different things – why do you think we’re often trying to put artists in a box?
I think it’s because we, as people, try to understand things. Boxes make us feel comfortable. People can look at you and define you and grasp what you’re about and say ‘I get you now.’ I think that’s the reason art makes people uncomfortable. You can’t jump into the artist brain and pull out what it is that they are trying to express. All you can do is self-interpret. When you are an artist, you’re fighting being put in a box and you can only get out of that by clearly expressing what it is you’re trying to express.
That’s the reason I think branding is so important. You get to decide what you want people to see and how you want the audience to perceive you. You get to curate the experience for them as opposed to people looking at you and defining who you are. Of course, there are going to be people who are going to do that - but it gives you a degree of personal power and control. To me that’s what’s important about the work that I do which is helping artists better understand themselves and what they’re trying to communicate. I think sometimes artists get frustrated when people try to define them but it’s because they haven’t become clear. So you end up kind of reacting instead of being proactive about your stance.
I think a lot of times artists have created a separation between the business side of things and being an artist. Like you can’t integrate the two. One of my friends said that I’m the bridge between these two worlds. A lot of artists don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurial and a lot of business people don’t think of themselves as creative. There’s this divide between both worlds. There’s no doubt that we live in a world where you have to have money to pay for things. You shying away from that or being mad at the man - how is that really serving you? The more you’re able to deal with the essentials in your life, bills etc. the more you can create great things in the world. My mentor says money just makes you more of who you truly are, it just illuminates what’s already there. If you’re already shady, you’re going to continue to be shady. Money is energy, that’s all it is. Of course, I want to make more money but I want to make money so I can create more awesome stuff for artists and help artists and do bigger and better things in the world.
The music industry has turned into this do-it-yourself industry and artists are expected to be entrepreneurs. I have a friend who is a singer and told me 90% of work is taking care of business matters instead of doing what she really loves. What are your thoughts on how the industry has changed?
You have to make a choice. The way the music industry is now is that it forces artists to make a choice. You’re either going to dedicate your life and your everything to your music and getting it out in the way you want to get it out or you’re not. I think that has really forced people to say am I doing this as a hobby? Or, do I want to enter this industry and actually make a living being an artist? Even in my own business a lot of my time is spent helping another people, coaching people, doing legal work…I have to consciously make time to create my work. It may mean late nights, it may mean working on a Saturday. It showed me how committed I truly am to what it is I want to put out into the world.
You want the body you want? You have to go out and work out. You have to put in the work. It’s the same for an entrepreneur. Ok, I really love this part – but I don’t love doing this part. Who can I hire out? Who can I get to help me build this piece so I can spend my genius time here? It’s like Jay-Z said, you put all your creative time into creating this beautiful work then you have to go to the business side. How are you going to market it? How are you putting out your launch schedule?
The issue is that there is a breakdown of guidance in learning how to be an incredible artist and learning how to be an entrepreneur. Even when I was in law school, they teach you how to be a great lawyer; they don’t teach you how to run a law firm. The great thing is that there are business coaches. That’s part of your personal power to say, you know what? I don’t have all of the answers and I need someone to help me. And if you’re not willing to do that you’re not willing to go that route. I think the industry now separates the kids from the adults. You really want to do this? How badly do you want to do this? Step it up. It’s time for you to step outside of your comfort zone. Entrepreneurship is not easy but it’s rewarding. I work a lot to get on stage for one hour. I work for months to have that moment and it’s what we all kind of got to do.
There are a lot of artists who are frustrated and feel like they’ve been victimized. I chose to take my power back. I didn’t choose to live my life as a disempowered artist that had been exploited. The past does not define my future. It’s just a part of my journey.
You’re so clearly passionate about artists being protected and about the power of art. What do you think is the role or the purpose of art?
I heard Will Smith say this and thought it was perfect: 'the entire purpose of art is to uplift humanity.' It’s so simple and it’s not easy to be committed to that all of the time but it’s simple. That’s what it’s meant to do. It means to show us our own unlimited potential, to provoke us, to see who we truly are and be able to interpret our own experiences. To help you relate better to the world or to rebel against it – to become more of who you truly are.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.
James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction.
In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.
You’re from the South right?
Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.
Do you play any instruments?
I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano. Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.
I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.
I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.
MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision. I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.
Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?
MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing. We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite. The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that. A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.
Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?
I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.
You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?
When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.
It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.
It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?
I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.
Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.
Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.
Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.
And then it’s never enough.
Right, it’s never enough.
Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?
I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.
I received an email over a year ago that I was intrigued by, but didn't quite believe was real. Tom Bogaert, a then Cairo-based visual artist, asked to use an article that I had written for Revive Music on Sun Ra for an multimedia installation in Egypt on the iconic jazz composer, bandleader, and musician who had a mysterious and poorly recorded transformation in Egypt, and Tom wanted to uncover it. As I watched the Sun Ra project progress, as Tom was making headway into connecting with music historians and former Sun Ra band members--deepening his research, I also deepened my research of Tom's work. I was fascinated to find out that his original career was in international refugee law, and that he only exhibited his first solo show in NYC at the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center in 2008. I wanted to understand how someone could transition so boldly from law to art, and actually bring his passion for humanitarianism and geopolitics from a legal context into the visual realm. His interview below is a reminder that what propels and fuels you is what you believe in, and the most natural way that your message is communicated from you--even if to onlookers--the connections may seem disparate.
Where are you from, and where did you spend your formative years?
I grew up in a family of cigar makers in a small town near Bruges, Belgium. I had a happy life there but I knew that I needed to do other things, that I had to leave. After high school I halfheartedly toyed with the idea of applying for film school but my mother disapproved and told me to get a 'real' diploma first. I settled with law school: no more mathematics and the university was in a real city. The fact that the cool uncle in the family was a lawyer also played a role. But to be honest I had absolutely no clue.
You were a refugee lawyer for several years for the UN. How did you initially become interested in these issues, and how did you decide to affect change in that way?
When I graduated from law school, Belgium still had mandatory military service for all able-bodied male citizens. I was deemed able-bodied but I really didn't want to go the army. So I applied for the status of consciences objector. I had to write a letter to the mayor of my hometown explaining my objections – the horror. I can't remember the exact words I used but my letter was based on a template given to me by an Anti War organization. My request was approved, and I did two years of Alternative Civilian Service in a center for asylum seekers in Brussels. After that I was employed by the Belgian Government Refugee Agency and later I worked for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cambodia and Thailand. Upon my return to Belgium I was appointed Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International. By then I had become an activist; absolutely dedicated to the struggle against human rights violations across the globe.
How was the transition for you--from the analytical field of law--to the conceptual field of becoming a visual artist?
As far as I can remember I have always made art and after participating in a few exhibitions while still working for Amnesty, the idea of giving up my day job and spending more time making art became stuck in my head. It was time for change. I also wanted to start channeling my experience as a human rights activist more into my practice as an artist and at the same time I felt I needed more distance from the seriousness of my activism and subject matter. So I guess the usual mixture of push- and pull factors. I officially stopped practicing law in 2004 when I was selected to participate in the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center program in New York City. I moved with my family to the US, started working with 'Jack the Pelican Presents' gallery in Brooklyn and since then I've been fortunate enough to be able to work full time as an artist.
When did you decide that you were an artist?
It took a while, but I think that somewhere by the end of 2004 I started writing 'visual artist' as my profession on official documents. So that's maybe when I decided for myself that I was an artist. Almost ten years ago now.
Would you consider what you do, social innovation?
As an artist it's not my intention to try to fix certain things in society by making art or by being innovative in my production process. Maybe I can place this in the context of the art / activism discussion. I don't see my artwork as an extension of my refugee work – even though it directly confronts the intersection of human rights, geopolitics, visual art and propaganda. I realize that given my academic background and professional history, an autobiographical reading of my artwork is unavoidable. People assume that I'm an activist. I operate within the tradition of political art but I try to steer away from one-dimensional didactic socio-politics that is often associated with the activist canon of visual culture. And there's also the issue of preaching to the contemporary art choir.
My work and that of many of my colleagues is inevitably politicized by its rootedness within various geopolitical contexts - but that doesn't make us activists. I don't think artists are per definition activists - it's about choice and intention. An artist becomes a militant when he or she moves beyond the aesthetic, the opportunity, the conceptual, and intentionally and persistently intervenes in the 'real world.' I have huge respect for activists. Being an activist comes with extremely hard work, passion, dedication and sacrifice whether you are an artist, a plumber, a lawyer or indeed a fruit vendor.
How does your passion for geopolitics affect or inform your creative work now?
I have always been a geopolitical news junkie – that is on the academic, theoretical level–and it was through my work with refugees and other victims of human rights abuse that I witnessed first-hand the concrete consequences of geo-politics in Europe, Central Africa and South-East Asia. After five fantastic years at the Elizabeth Foundation in Manhattan it was somehow time to move on. So in 2009 I followed my wife to the Middle East where we lived in Amman, Jordan for more than three years. In Amman, I started working on ‘Impression, proche orient' (IPO), an art project referring to issues relevant to the contemporary Near East society including the changes, politics, artistic identity and the New Arabs. Drawing on my experience as a foreigner living and working in the East, it was and is my intention to interpret understandings of the region - or lack thereof - from the inside out. As an outsider with the privilege of being given access to the inside, my aim is to use irony, gesture and narratives from the region by means of artistic production.
What do you hope for your viewers to gain an understanding of after experiencing your work?
I make art that encourages viewers to interact and participate in serious scenarios. I don't make propaganda aimed to influence the attitude of the public toward a cause or position. I aim to provoke serious reflection but I have always tried to maintain a degree of lightness and humor in my work. The seriousness of the work and subject matter are often masked by this humor and by an intentional lack of high-production values.
What does it mean to you to be a creator? How does that hold you to account in the world? What parts of that enliven you or scare you? Or are those latter two one in the same?
Recently I was invited to participate in the 3rd 'Ghetto Biennale' in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Many things about the Ghetto Biennale seem problematic, from its name to its history, its art, its production, and its general progress. Participating in this type of context is risky on many levels. I don't work in a vacuum; I do feel I have responsibility, artistically, historically and theoretically but at the end of the day you have to make decisions for yourself.
One of the curators asked us: "Is it more politically correct or more ethical to eschew a slum neighborhood rather than to sit down and talk to its residents and hazard the consequences?" I decided to participate in the Ghetto Biennale and it was a fantastic experience – scary and exciting at the same time. Same thing with being an 'accidental orientalist' in the Middle East. I ended up in the Orient by accident – when I followed my wife to Amman. I understand that the issue of Saidian Orientalism – prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East as surveyed by Edward W. Said – that pervades my work is problematic. Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate."
What is your creative process?
I pursue my practice by engaging an idea first, and then developing a plan that usually involves a combination of media, technologies and techniques, some of which are linked to conventional art media, and some of which are not usually associated with artmaking.
I've been told that I work in the tradition of the post-conceptual, the post-studio era. Sounds all very 'post', I would also like to be something 'pre' as in 'avant' - I'll keep you posted.
How do you approach creating an installation, and synthesizing disparate elements (sounds, words, images) into a multimedia piece? Can you use an example from a past exhibition?
For the Ghetto Biennale in December 2013 and after having done some homework I decided I wanted to do something with the local beer ‘Prestige’: a brand of American- style beer produced by the Heineken-owned ‘Brasserie Nationale d’Haiti.’ It is the best-selling beer in Haiti and the promotion campaign for it is based on a blatant nationalistic Haitian identity narrative. Fierce Haitian nationalistic discourse propagated by a Dutch multinational company – in order to sell more beer. So I invited Haitians to comment on the narrative behind the Prestige publicity campaign. In a mini survey, I asked about Haitian identity and possible ways of linking the results to a beer label. While interviewing and having conversations with people, Haitians and foreigners alike, I was acting less as an anthropologist, a sociologist or a visual artist and more merely trying to have a conversation with people about beer, multinationals and national identity. It was playful and a bit provocative and I wanted the project to reflect that attitude.
We gave a short introduction about the project and the interviewees and I were pretty soon on the same wave length and they understood what I was after. We talked about the benefits and dangers of foreign investments, about identity, about the old days and the new, about god and voodoo and death, things predictable and unpredictable - I guess we talked about life in general. After each conversation (we did about 60 – we only had a couple of days) we invited the participants to come up with a slogan that would best convey their thoughts. I then asked a local artist to paint publicity murals with the new slogans in downtown Port-au-Prince and I made 24 new Prestige etiquettes which we glued on empty beer bottles. They were presented in a voodoo temple and we had too many Prestiges at the opening event.
How do you reconcile fact from human experience in your work?
Personal encounters nourish my work; these experiences and memories are inscribed and expressed in the artwork. However, I have always been very reluctant to publicly share these personal elements on their own. I've worked in so many different places with so many great people; I don't feel comfortable blending the personal into the professional.
What does it feel like to finally birth a project? What is that initial feeling of letting go of your work and giving it away to the public and something bigger than yourself?
It feels great, intoxicating and therefore perhaps addictive, and all of the sudden your work is out there, in the open, and the public will see whatever they want to see in it.
A well-known art critic once described one of my Genocide pieces as an "effective, amusing piece, a metaphor for childhood play and angst." To be honest I was stunned. Also because I always provide a purely factual and descriptive text alongside my artwork – not to say that meaning only appears in text but simply to contextualize it; to draw some lines in the sand. What I'm trying to say is that when Gonzalez-Torres declares that "meaning is always shifting in time and space", this only goes for part of the artwork.
Describe a time when you almost gave up finishing a project?
It happens all the time. I have a massive archive of unfinished projects, rejected proposals, rejected grant applications, missed deadlines – now and again when I look over these files, I might recycle an idea or a phrase.
What grounds you to continue waking up each day and commit to making art?
I'm constantly amazed that I've been able to forge a function for myself as an artist in society. And that this new reality coexists with my desire for otherness, for change and difference. And paying my bills and feeding my kids of course.
Describe what you are currently working on:
Very excited to be currently working on '1971, Sun Ra in Egypt' a research- and visual arts project about the life and work of Sun Ra, the legendary American jazz pioneer, bandleader, mystic and philosopher. The project focuses on Sun Ra’s concerts in Egypt in 1971 and after Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq this project is the sixth installment of 'Impression, proche orient.' It will take the form of performances, jazz concerts, a publication, video and an exhibition at Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo in May 2014. Political stability is still far of the horizon in Egypt and when I started working in Cairo the local art scene was having passionate debates about its relationship to the revolution of early 2011 and the perennial issue of the role of an artist in revolutionary times. I think maybe my choice for the 'less serious' Sun Ra as a resource for my project in Egypt should be seen in the context of my desire to further distantiate myself from the artist/activist connotation by means of a self-imposed estrangement from the usual seriousness of my subject matter. Not to say that Sun Ra is not serious, he was actually very serious about his un-seriousness. But that's another story.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
George DuBose got his big break with a studio photo of the then largely unknown New Wave band The B-52’s in the late 1970s. The shot, taken in 1978 and originally in black and white, would end up being used as the cover—with hand-drawn color added to the image after-the-fact—for the band’s breakout debut the next year. Shortly after, DuBose was offered an assignment for Rolling Stone to photograph the same band. In the following years, he developed a portfolio of images that includes shots of a pre-fame Madonna—while still shopping her solo demo as part of the band The Breakfast Club—Tom Waits, album covers for The Ramones, and more.
Before becoming the first photo editor at Spin magazine in the mid 1980s, DuBose began photographing Hip Hop artists like Run-DMC and Soul Sonic Force. Tony Wright, the ubiquitous creative director at Island Records who added color to DuBose’s image of The B-52’s, offered the young photographer a position at Island Records’ art department in New York City. It was in that position that DuBose photographed Biz Markie for the rapper’s first single. Throughout the ‘80s DuBose would photograph some of Hip Hop’s earliest stars for album covers and promotional material.
Recently, DuBose, who now lives in Cologne, Germany, consolidated a career’s worth of his Hip Hop images into The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography. The collection traces the photographer’s work from Afrika Bambaata to Masta Ace to The Notorious B.I.G. The book is also the first time that DuBose’s previous Hip Hop themed I Speak Music series is available in one place. Given the occasion of the release—the book came out in December—Project Inkblot spoke with DuBose about his early days shooting Cold Chillin’ artists, his perspective on the budding Hip Hop scene of the 1980s, and a funny story behind photographing I.U.’s single “Who Got Da Gat.” The Great Big Book of Hip Hop Photography is a look at Hip Hop’s development as much as it is a glimpse behind DuBose’s lens. The book is available on Amazon now, but if you hit George up, he’ll sign a copy to you personally with your purchase (mine is on the way).
You’ve just released The Big Book of Hip Hop Photography, which consolidates work you did throughout your career. Can you talk about how you first began photographing Hip Hop artists after working within new wave and punk initially?
I was photographing bands at various night clubs around Manhattan. Max's Kansas City, The Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Studio 54 and of course CBGB's. In the beginning, the bands that interested me were New Wave, which was a very wide and open genre. Because of my work with the B52s, I became connected with Tony Wright, the creative director for Island Records, NY. Island had signed the B52s for a recording contract and the band wanted to use one of my photos that I had taken on my own to make street posters that advertised their gigs. I paid for the posters and put them up myself.
Tony offered me the chance to start an art department for Island in NYC, previously the only art department was in London. As Senior Art Director, I also was allowed to photograph and design covers for Island and for my clients that I freelanced for. One of my first black music covers was for Alphonso Ribiero aka The Tap Dance Kid. Alphonso was signed to an independent label called Prism Records and Prism was distributed by Island.
A few weeks after I shot Alphonso's cover, I got a call from Lenny Fichtelberg, the president of Prism. He told me he had another artist to shoot and was I available. I went to the Prism offices and met a young guy named Biz Markie. Biz was known as The Human Beatbox and I was impressed by the beats and scratches that he could make just with his voice and throat.
Biz's concept for his first single titled "Make the Music with Your Mouth, Biz" was that he would have his mouth full of little gold musical instruments. The kind you might hang on a Hannukah bush or a Christmas tree. I got the little instruments together and told Biz to meet me at my studio where we would do a shoot. I shot Biz with the instruments, I shot Biz without the instruments, I shot Biz alone, I shot Biz with his pal, TJ Swann and another cat, whose name I can't recall.
When I delivered the massive amount of film and slides to Prism, I asked Dee Garner the product manager for Biz, who was going to do the design for Biz's single. Deetold me that she had no idea. I told her I could do the design as well.
Biz had worn a hat during his first single shoot and I asked Biz where he got the lettering that spelled out "Biz Markie" on his ball cap. Biz told me that there were several shops in Times Square where one could buy hats and t-shirts and have iron-on lettering pressed on to the clothing.
I went to Times Square, found a shop that had this Gothic style of lettering, something similar to Fraktur. I bought all the letters to spell out "BIZ MARKIE, MAKE THE MUSIC WITH YOUR MOUTH, " I used this font for Biz's first single and that Gothic style of fonts became the most popular and recognizable Hip Hop font ever.
In an old interview that appeared in the magazine Chapter 14, you described the process of gaining traction within Hip Hop as first starting with a commission from Cold Chillin’ to shoot album covers for MC Shan and Biz Markie. You tell a great story there about the oddity of being White while photographing in some tough neighborhoods of color throughout New York. Did you ever photograph the emerging street culture of Hip Hop while in those communities, or did your work focus primarily on rappers and artists as subjects?
The late 70s and early 80s were wild times in Manhattan. It was pre-AIDS and some of the scenes at some of the night clubs were pretty wild. People were doing everything else in the bathrooms but going to the bathroom. I documented club scenes as I mentioned earlier, I photographed bands in performance, but I wasn't going around Brooklyn or the Bronx. I wasn't a native New Yorker and didn't have any contacts in those boroughs.
I was a musician's photographer. I did publicity shots for bands and pictures for their demo tapes, 7" single sleeves and 12" vinyl covers.
I heard "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash, "Rhapsody" by Blondie, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop with techno, Soul Sonic Force was copying music from Kraftwerk, the B52s stole the music from Peter Gunn Theme and called it Planet Claire. I thought Hip Hop was just another part of New Wave. It was all mixed up.
I shot Roxanne Shanté in front of a broken down brownstone crack house in Harlem and she was more nervous than I was, I shot Biggie in his 'hood on the corner of Utica and Bedford, but I wasn't there to photograph graffiti or local break dancers and as I told Mr. Cee, Biggie's producer, I wasn't going to go there alone with my cameras. Mr. Cee had to come along...
I’m not sure if there are many examples of photographers that worked so significantly within both Punk and Hip Hop simultaneously in the way you did. Given that some of your most popular early images are of bands like the B52’s and The Ramones, did you see overlap between Punk and Hip Hop in the early ‘80s? The first Ramones cover you did also has obviously staged graffiti all over the place.
As I mentioned, Soul Sonic Force was biting on Kraftwerk, Man Parrish was mixing Hip Hop and techno. I was part of the "downtown" crowd and we would listen to anything new...once at least. My crowd seemed to have eclectic tastes and we didn't feel that we were "locked in" to one style of music.
My favorite club, The Mudd Club, had Frank Zappa and David Bowie as guest DJs. We would hear everything from old Michael Jackson to Plastic Bertrand. If it had a groove, we would groove to it.
I think a lot of young people today are "compartmentalized". They listen to a very narrow range of musical styles and dress in specific brands that mean various things to themselves and their peers.
I am pathologically curious and always want to hear new, new, new. At least once.
Two of your most popular images of Hip Hop artists are portraits of the Soul Sonic Force and Run DMC separately. In an exhibition of your work about a decade ago, the flyer shows both of those photos side-by-side. It’s such a wild juxtaposition, because, even though DMC’s style was very current and aggressive at the time, it seems so conformed in hindsight next to whatever SSF are wearing in the opposing photo. What was your sense of the fashion within Hip Hop throughout the 80’s?
When Hip Hop started, there was no "Hip Hop" fashion. The getups that Soul Sonic Force wore for their first publicity photo shoot clearly illustrate that. Biz Markie wore a referee's shirt and black shorts for his first single and then went to Dapper Dan, Harlem's most famous custom tailor and had a shirt, short pants and a ball cap made from brown leather with Louis Vuitton logos all over.
MTV was still over the horizon, the music and fashion we had was our own. Our lifestyles were still unattractive commercially and that made it ours alone. In those days, no one could sell us “a look” or a sound, ‘cause we were still working on creating them ourselves.
MC Shan was the first artist that I worked with who had an endorsement from a clothing label. I remember one single I worked with him on where he was "pimpin'" Karl Kani. I had never heard of KK and Shan told me that he got the clothes for free if he wore them on a cover...
Generations of teenagers have continually searched for fashion and music that differentiates their generation from that of their parents. The more the fashion and music styles appall and upset their parents, the more the kids know they are on the right track.
I wonder if you’d be willing to share a short extract from your recent book. Is there any particular story behind a cover that is your favorite or the least well-known that you could share here?
The last shoot I did for Cold Chillin’ and I.U. was a cover for a single titled, “We Got Da Gat”. To explain a little.
I.U. meant by “Gat”, a Gatling gun. These are handcranked machine guns with six or more barrels that spin as they shoot their bullets. The Gatling gun was invented by Richard Gatling in 1861. In contemporary times, the Gatling gun has morphed into the minigun that one sees on today’s Apache helicopters. What I.U. was trying to say with the title “We God Da Gat!” is that my gun is bigger than your gun.
I called Centre Firearms in Manhattan, the source for real and replica guns of all eras. I had rented guns for the Ramones “Adios Amigos”, where the Ramones were being executed by the Springfield rifles of a Mexican firing squad. I asked Centre Firearms how much would it cost to rent a Gatling gun. I was told that they didn’t have any Gatling guns available, those were all in museums. A Gatling gun in perfect working order with a 105 shot magazine and a carriage is worth more than $300,000 dollars today. They did offer to rent me a minigun for $10,000 a day.
Well, I wasn’t making a movie and the budget for this single sleeve wasn’t going to cover that kind of expense. Not to mention that this was around the time that Walmart and several large record distributors were refusing to sell any rap album covers where the guys had guns on the covers. Roxanne Shanté got away with a little lady Derringer, but that was about it. So I suggested to I.U. that we scale down the scene. I suggested that we create a “drive-by” scene. For those that don’t know, a “drive-by” is where a gang of drug dealers drives by the street corner where a rival gang is selling drugs. I.U. would be standing in the backseat of a convertible, with his hand inside his coat, as if he was reaching for a pistol in his shoulder holster.
On the sidewalk would be the “rival” gang holding baseball bats and crowbars. The idea was that I.U. had a pistol and the rivals only had bats and crowbars, giving the idea that I.U.’s gun was bigger...
I organized a dozen baseball bats and crowbars, loaded my equipment into my trusty old Volvo station wagon and drove to Hempstead, Long Island to meet I.U. and his crew. I.U. had promised to organize a convertible. When I arrived at the location, I set up a studio light, got electricity from the nearby 7-11 convenience store. I put the studio flash up about 30 feet in the air to simulate a street light.
I.U. arrived with about 20 guys. He had three nice new cars, a Saab convertible, a Corvette and a Firebird. I put my camera on a tripod on the top of my old Volvo for a high point of view.
My idea was that the cover image would look as if it was viewed through a night vision telescope. Like I.U. and the drug gang were under police surveillance. I carefully explained the concept to all the guys, I distributed the baseball bats and crowbars and then climbed up a ladder and got on the roof of my car. I told the gang that I would count 1-2-3 and I.U. would stand up and reach inside his jacket. The guys on the sidewalk would look terrified and run away.
“Does everybody understand the plan?” No smiling or laughing...This is supposed to be serious. Got it.
“Yeah we got it.”
“1-2-3!” I.U. jumped up, the driver and two guys in the back seat jumped up and they all were holding guns! I didn’t even take a shot.
I slowly climbed down from the top of my car. I walked over to the car that I.U. was in.
“Grand Daddy, you know that Dee at Cold Chillin’ had said NO GUNS!”
“Aw, come on, George. Just take a couple of shots for me and then we will do it without the guns.”
I said to I.U., “I.U., I was in the Navy, I know guns. There are two things in life that I don’t do. One, I don’t ride on the backseat of motorcycles and I don’t take pictures of guns unless I know that they are not loaded. Show me that your AK47 isn’t loaded.”
I.U. pulled back the bolt and there was a bullet in the chamber ready to fire. There was a banana clip fixed to the AK47 that was fully loaded with 50 cartridges. I looked at the four guys in the Saab, one was holding a four shot Derringer, one was holding a Glock 9mm, one was holding a “street sweeper” or an automatic shotgun with twelve shells.
Unload all these weapons and I will shoot a roll of y’all with your pieces.
I.U. clearly didn’t know his gun was loaded, he didn’t even know how to unload it. A friend had to do that for him. If I.U. had flipped off the safety and pulled the trigger, that gun would have taken out the whole crew and me along with them.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot he's written for HipHopDX, Applause Africa, OkayAfrica Bonafide,and more. Get in contact with Jay on Twitter @jbal4_ or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liz Maxwell is just one of those people who you'll meet once, and never forget. Her hearty and unselfconscious laugh, and general exuberance and joy, are kind of too contagious to ignore. You won't stand a chance. She's one of those free spirits who has done more in a few years than most people do in a lifetime. After college, she bought an around-the-world ticket, landed in Italy, fell upon a bunch of "hippies" at The Art Monastery Project where she served as the Artistic Director, and stayed for three years. I met her a few months ago at The Feast Social Innovation Conference, where she was one of the core organizers. I wanted to know how she went from a modern monastic lifestyle in an insular community, to being involved in a rapidly growing social innovation scene in one of the biggest cities in the world. This was our conversation:
How did you find out about the Art Monastery?
I found it on Google. I’m pretty good at identifying the thing that I want in the world, and then searching the internet. [laughs]
What was your story before landing there?
I grew up in New Orleans. I went to college and majored in theater. After that I bounced around the country doing some regional theater, and then an internship in Cincinnati. I’m also a performance artist, I acted a lot in college, but I got more interested in directing in this "devised collaborative ensemble thing" around the U.S. I kind of decided that traditional regional theater was bullsh*t. I was seeking something more. As an actor, the traditional track is really laid out where you just audition a ton, and sometimes if you’re really lucky the right person sees you and puts you in a show, or you intern for years and years. It’s so hard. As a female director specifically, the track is to assistant direct enough times, probably for a good decade or two, until you get the chance to do it yourself. It's not like there's a casting call for directors. It’s all very networky.
I always imagined that I would end up in New York. When I was in my early 20s, I considered moving here, but thought, "okay, once I’m in New York, I’m going to settle in there, but before that, I want to see the world!" So I saved up a bunch of money and went on an around-the-world trip. Before I left, I was just looking for different opportunities and alternative ways to travel, and found this great website called Workaway, which I highly recommend to travelers, because you can find work/trade arrangement where you can live and eat for free, or whatever the arrangement is. The Art Monastery was listed on that, and it seemed pretty cool, and we set up that I would go there for a week to volunteer, a few months into my trip. I did, and I never left. I showed up for that week, and I ended up there for three years. I entered the organization at the right time, as they were at this particular stage of growth. They had a really small team, and I quickly became more involved on every level with what they were doing, like programmatic initiatives, and then eventually becoming Artistic Director.
How did you go from being a volunteer to the artistic director?
The Founding Artist Director couldn’t come back to Italy the second year and I was next in line, so I just stepped up. It was exciting and I learned a bunch by just doing, almost immediately. I became so deeply involved in so many ways.
What is the concept behind the Art Monastery?
The Art Monastery Project is dedicated to personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, contemplation, and community. So those are the three really big pillars. We investigated all kinds of questions relating to "art," "monastery," and the idea of a "project." We really examined those three words. It’s a real monastery, and there’s a deep connection with the old world there, looking at what it means to be a monk today, such as what does contemporary monasticism actually mean? We threw out the traditional monastic vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, and created our own: Gratitude, Resourcefulness, and Fidelity as our three Artmonk vows. Those may change in the future, but at the time when someone joined the monastery, we asked them to take those vows with us.
What kinds of people are involved with the monastery?
All kinds of people: travelers, international volunteers who were just passing through,Many professional artists from a variety of disciplines and international backgrounds, and then the core team who happened to be are all Americans. A lot of them were from San Francisco. We had our own network of artists who had heard about Art Monastery, and the word just kind of grew. The project was in Italy for 5 years. Now we shut down all Italian operations and are now back in the U.S. to figure out what the next stages look like. There are some core concepts and values that we’ve identified, but the idea is to spread the Artmonk values in a more decentralized, organic way. That’s the next phase.
What did the programs in Italy look like?
In Italy we ran residency programs, short term and long term. Short term artists would come for one week to do their own thing. For all residents, we all ate together. We had a monastic schedule that we would try to keep together. We sang Gregorian Chant together and would try to keep some of the monastic rituals together and active. The experiment was to see how that would affect the creative process and the products that came out of it. In the shorter programs, the artists would share their work with the Italian village that we lived in, which was often stuff that they had already developed. Residents who stayed three-months would work with the core team and create projects in that setting. That’s when we really got to dig in the monastic stuff. The whole time you’re living with one community, where you have a lot of people, and a lot of opinions. There were between 5 and 25 at any given time. The summer was when we could host the most people because it was pretty outside, and people would camp on the grounds.
Going by the monastic schedule that you created, what results did you see?
For instance, I’m a theater director, but because I lived with a composer, a visual artist, a writer, etc. for years, we would naturally build things collaboratively. The show we did at the end of last summer (Ad Mortem) had this electronic rock score that utilized this live looping, which is not artistically where I would have thought to bring it, but that’s what the composer was experimenting with at the time. That’s just an example of what happens when you are living in a rich community together. Just over breakfast, you would hear, “listen to what I created last night.” And it totally affects you in this cellular way, it affects your deep roots of creativity. And the contemplation: it was something that we struggled with because of religion. We’re not a religious organization, we're secular. There was always a large percentage that kind of self identified in the category of Buddhist, but wasn't ever officially incorporated into our values. The Gregorian Chants are of course from Christianity, and in Latin. They were really beautiful, but when you start to really translate the words, none of us--in that space--really believed that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but it’s still really beautiful. I grew up in the Catholic church, I have love and respect for it, but I don’t consider myself Catholic.
That ends up affecting the content too. We did a lot of chant concerts, and we were in conservative rural Italy, so, we often were asked to sing in church on Easter Sunday. We always thought, "we are a bunch of weird experimental hippies, but sure." They didn’t know how radical or experimental our conversations got, but there was a balance of engaging with the local community there. It was a balancing act and a challenge. We were just so far from any major city that no one spoke English. The core team learned Italian bit by bit, and we had lessons together. It was the only way to survive out there, outside of our little bubble.
How did the Art Monastery start?
It was founded by a two Americans, Betsy McCall who is a visual artist, and a synchronized swimmer, and she’s in San Francisco now. Christopher Fulling is another founding member, he’s the Founding Artistic Director who’s a ritual theater director and a classical tenor, and he now lives in LA. We don’t say this on the website, but it also very much grew out of the Burning Man community as well.
Why did the founders pick Italy, and such a rural obscure part of it, at that?
It’s where it was possible to happen. That wasn’t necessarily the ideal location. It turned into the ideal location. When the founders first started the project, they didn’t know a lot of people in Italy or connections over there. They went over with a friend who ran tours in Italy, that was her job, and she introduced them to a lot of people. For the first two years, they were in a different small Italian village outside of Rome. The deal there, they were always looking at the monastery to be renovated, and asked them to be there and produce events in the town. They were given a place to live nearby. The place never finished getting renovated, and finally that became too much. At that point, we already had an extensive network in Italy, and we put the word out, and a friend of a friend knew of the mayor in Labro.
How did you sustain your programs?
The Art Monastery ran on a remarkably small budget, but continued to work for a really long time because so much of it was built on trade, and sharing. We survived off of that. Where we were in Labro. There's a monastery, called Colle di Costa, it was a monastery for a thousand years, and now has been renovated into a four star hotel, so it’s a funny place. It has a special vibe to it because of it’s ancient roots, but you feel like you have to dress up a little bit to be there. They never really wanted us to live in the monastery. I totally understand. No one wants the experimental hippies to live there all year round. For a while we lived there next door, but they would give us space for residencies. But then they let us stay because we produced cultural events. There’s a European value on culture, where I’m not sure that an exchange like that in the U.S. would work like that.
What were some of the great things that you witnessed while being there?
About two years ago, the Art Monastery got looped into a wonderful partnership with about seven other organizations from around Europe, called the Lifelong Learning Partnership, and we got funding for all of the organizations to go visit all of the other ones, and I got to see a lot more of Europe that way. There’s an organization in Budapest that we got plugged into, and this is how I got connected to the social innovation scene. We produced the first ever ChangeMaker’s Festival in Sweden that July. That partnership of all of the organizations is still living on. It’s now called the International Partnership for Transformative Learning (IPTL) and they are doing the Change Maker festival again next year.
Why did you leave after so long?
I still have very strong ties with everyone there, but I was part of an intentional community for so long, and I now have to step away to find my own identity again a little bit. I’m pretty happy to be a solo artist now, but I definitely want to have a company some day. At this point, I’m in New York seeing a lot of other people’s work, following people, and developing my own style. At the moment, I'm really loving the social innovation scene, and became involved with The Feast--the annual social innovation conference--for the past few months.
How does your newfound interest in social innovation relate to your experience at the Art Monastery?
It's exciting to me because I’m interested in how for-profit companies can do good in the world and have a positive impact on society. I believe in that. The Art Monastery is an American non-profit. We did the "ask for donations thing" for years, we did Kickstarter, we cultivated our patrons and donor database and all of that, and I kind of just got bored of it. I think the model is broken and unsustainable for any organization in the long term. I think it’s very old world, and sets up a system in which some people have a lot of money and they generously give it to those who are less fortunate, who will always be the artist, and we gratefully take it and do some things with it. But I’m more interested in a mutual exchange, such as you should give me money because I’m going to give something back to you and the world that’s really of sustained value. That’s the thing that I’m thinking about before I start my company; I want to have really concrete answers to that, like what is the value that artists produce in the world today, and how do we articulate it in a way that the world is excited and wants to fund? We’re in a capitalist system right now, but how can we create the sharing model of: what can I give you that you need, and you give me that I need so we can both sustain?
What have you learned about that in the social innovation scene so far?
I’ve only been in New York for a few months, and I feel very lucky to have so quickly gotten involved in another amazing and small team of really passionate people who are really doing something very meaningful in the world. Most recently at The Feast, I was helping to develop their Worldwide initiative. What’s really interesting to me is that my life is just all funneling into itself with all of these different projects where it feels like what I was getting paid to do at The Feast, was really the same thing that we were trying to address with the Art Monastery. The ChangeMaker festival is similar: how can a global community centered around these ideas self sustain and create things all year round that really serve these communities? Getting to answer those questions at The Feast, that was really valuable to me after leaving the Art Monastery.
What were those questions specific to The Feast?
To me, it seems like The Feast is all about talking + action, and how do we create a hub to gather a community around specific challenges and shared values and agree that something needs to be done in an area and actually do something about it? It’s about making connections between people and not necessarily managing projects from a top-down perspective, but matching people together who can really collaborate.
What similar processes were present at both?
No one has anything figured out. Everything is a work in progress. You can always change it. A wonderful woman recently said this amazing thing to me, which was: “the word ‘organization’ comes from the same root as ‘organism’ and ‘orgasm.’” Organizations aren’t fixed, static things but have to live, breathe, grow, be alive like anything else.
There are things that I think are so clearly the future: sharing, collaboration, innovation, and all of these things that are buzz words right now, but it’s incredible to me that the old corporate structure doesn’t see that, or even if they do, don’t know how to activate it.
What would you attribute to your ability to finding work that’s completely aligned with your passions, aside from Google?
The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition is a book about the process of acting and theater making that was developed by Anne Bogart, co-founder of the SITI companyin New York. At the most basic level, this company puts forth that the Viewpoints are a way to categorize Space and Time. They say that at any given moment on stage, there are a few different ways you can look at it, and they’ve identified nine. Some examples are: you can break down Time into Tempo (how fast or slow something is moving), Duration (how long things last), Space can be seen through lens of architecture (what else is on stage, props, etc). So all of these things are present all the time, and this is the philosophy for making work for an actor in a play, or for creating new work. I think this philosophy doesn’t just apply in the theater, but in our everyday reality in life--as a performance art piece--these things apply.
From the nine big Viewpoints, the other philosophy is embedded as well, such as: in improvisation something will always happen. Picture a blank room and two actors will enter the stage. This is how a lot of devised collaborative work is built, through putting some people up there to do something, then I, as the director will cut and shape that, rewind, and do it again. When I was training with the SITI company a couple of years ago, they ask you to trust yourself, trust that something will happen, where you make the next motion, and then the next motion. It’s really important that you not think too far ahead, because if you are planning too far ahead, and the other person is planning too far ahead, you’re not actually in the moment and responding live to what’s happening, and the whole work looks like a mess. You can tell when people are present together, or planning a thing at the end of the improv. It’s very apparent when you watch. I think that applies as a philosophy in your life, and it’s totally difficult to put into practice! I love to plan ahead and strategize and map things out, but actually you don’t know. You can make all of the plans in the world, and you have no idea. I mean everyone knows that, but you just do the best that you can.
What are the biggest lessons you learned while at the Art Monastery?
When I was in Italy, we never had any money, and everything was really hard to do, we had a really small team, and we were always trying to push forward. We had a really great core community of friends along the way, but because we were faced with such obstacles and moving mountains together, we got really close. So you learn how to do big things and learn how to do it together, and I think it’s important to remember the struggle & the success - and to hold both equally. I mean I also have this gift now of being new in New York, and I feel like I’ve been reborn in some way, and I can look back and tell the story of Italy like it was so amazing. I have perspective on it now, and some of it is really impressive, and I see areas where we totally could have done better, but we did the best we could. I also think that everyone is doing their best. No one knows what they are doing.
People pretend that they have the answer, but no one really does. Experimentation is totally part of the future--people admitting that they are just f*cking around. I feel hyper aware of how I tell the story now. It’s such a privileged position. We romanticize the past a lot. We should romanticize the present, man! It’s way more important.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
When I met poet and teacher, Safia Elhillo, I immediately thought: here is a woman who looks like my niece but embodies the wisdom of my old, serene, wise grandma. How the hell is she only 23 years old? Safia has occupied more zip codes in her years on the planet - from Egypt to Switzerland - than some do during a lifetime and conveys a level of maturity, humor and intelligence far beyond her years. Despite claims of having an "immigrant girl complex" due to her pick-up-and-leave upbringing, Safia seems to know exactly where she belongs and has shared the stage with iconic artists from ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots to the late Gil Scott-Heron and poet Sonia Sanchez. She's also published a book of poetry via Well & Oftenentitled "The Life and Times of Suzie Knuckles" which she describes in part, as 'a girl-meets-boy story with a colorful supporting cast of deceased rappers and complete strangers.'
I met the lovely and supremely talented Safia to chat about the similarities between Cairo and New York, teaching poetry to kids who don't claim English as their first language, and the bullshit role of the suffering artist.
Tell us a bit about where you’re from and when you began developing a love for poetry.
Where I’m from is the most complicated question. My family is from Sudan and that’s my go to - is that I say I’m from Sudan - but I haven’t actually been there for more than 6 months at a time. I have this immigrant girl complex where I don’t know where I belong, I’m in limbo. When I’m in America, I’m Sudanese. When I’m in Sudan, I’m American. I am trying to exist in that hyphen, Sudanese-American.
My dad worked for the UN with refugees so they would put him in a conflict zone and send my family to whatever country was nearby and safe. So while my parents were together we were kinda chasing [him] around the world. I was born in Maryland and lived in Tanzania, Egypt, England and Switzerland. When I moved to NYC for school, I just stayed.
What made you stay in New York?
I’ve actually been trying to figure that out because I’m not sure if it’s because New York is the only place I’ve ever really lived as an adult. I knew I wanted to go to NYU because of this program they have where you can design your own major. And actually, New York and Cairo have this kind of energy - it’s really charged and it’s what I respond to. I’m quiet and kind of a hermit so if I’m in a quiet place there’s no balance. I don’t feel like I have any external energy to feed off of. New York gives me the energy to get up and get my life. I like that it challenges me to find my own balance, it’s not a peaceful city. You have to make your own peace.
I did an oral history project my senior year where I interviewed a bunch of people from various Diasporas about home and what it means to live in a Diaspora. My mom’s interview was really great. She was saying, ‘I made home’ and I like that idea, that you’re in control of where you feel most at peace and you get to make that for yourself, wherever you choose. I like that New York is loud and chaotic because it shows that I am able to carry home inside of myself and make that peace in myself even in a place like this.
You have such a rich upbringing that I’m sure informs so much of who you are as a writer. Do you only write poetry?
I wrote a lot of papers in school and strangely enjoyed it. Generally, I’m very afraid of prose. I don’t trust myself with it.
What do you mean when you say you don’t trust yourself?
You have to say what you mean in prose and I don’t know how to do that. In poetry you get the luxury of the smoke screen where you can say what you want to say to the best of your ability and it’s up to the people reading it to interpret it. People tend to think we’re [poets] a lot deeper than we are. I loved reading as a kid and I knew I couldn’t speak English but I could read it. When I first got here I had a really thick accent. My introduction to English was through literature so I’m much more comfortable writing than I am talking. When you write you get to write it exactly how you want to before someone else gets to see it. That’s my favorite thing about poetry, the smoke screen.
My grandpa was a poet – he writes poetry in Arabic. He didn’t pursue it as a profession but even to this day, in the middle of a conversation, he’ll just break out into verse. My aunt also writes poetry and she studied playwrighting. She was kind of the artist role model in the family and the first person I saw who actually made a career out of it. Everyone in my family is artistically inclined but tends to go the sensible route. My aunt did really well and it was nice to see that my family always celebrated her work. That made me feel it would be ok for me to go down that route if that’s what I chose to do.
Do you view sensibility and art making as separate things?
I think so. I’m kind of spoiled because this is what I do for my job and it’s also what I do for fun. I’m getting my MFA in poetry and I teach high school students. For some reason, that doesn’t make sense in my head. I grew up thinking that the job wasn’t the fun thing. So I think I’m still holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Art is considered to be this outlet where you go to decompress after a hard day. I have this phrase: ‘if my outlet is my job then what is my outlet?’ If I start to write because it’s what I have to do then how honest is my writing?
Talk to us about teaching. What is that experience like for you being a poet and artist and working with the students?
I teach at two high schools and one is an international high school. One of the high schools is a high school for new immigrant and refugee youth who have been in the US for four years or less. And they are all new English speakers. I love the language and the syntax that comes out of translation-ese English. I think that’s what inspired me to start writing. The way my mom and grandma would say something when they thought it in Arabic first and then translate it would come out sounding like a poem. I get a lot of that in my classroom. The kids will write an expository statement and it will come out sounding like a poem because their sense of syntax – there is a little bit of distance because they don’t know this sentence is supposed to be structured like this. It gives them freedom. One of my students said the other day ‘tired eyes show there is war inside of you’ and we weren’t even talking about poetry. She just said that as a statement. They’re awesome.
I was on the NYU slam team [competitive spoken word poetry] for four years and before that I was on the DC team and then I coached for a year after that. It was probably one of the most humbling things I’ve done because it taught me not to push my aesthetic on people. My job is not to teach a bunch of kids to write how I write or to like the poems that I write. It’s really about getting to know someone so you know their strengths and how to bring that out. It’s not about me, at all. That’s hard to come to terms with in the beginning and it was great for my own writing too. Whenever you’re around other writers who are doing different work from you it introduces new points of views and new ideas that help you as an artist.
Is there a specific routine you have for your own creative process?
I tend to do most of my writing late at night. I keep a little notebook with phrases and words I overhear that I like. So because I have this phrase bank always available, when I sit down I don’t feel like I’m expected to write a poem from scratch. If I still feel stuck, I’ll read a poem by someone I love or just a piece of writing. I’ll refer to one of my books and re-read a passage and it’s get me re-excited about language.
Sometimes when I’m really lucky, I won’t need to go through the notebook. There will already be something there. The book is mostly for the days where I don’t feel I have something ready and I need to go back. It’s like a cheat sheet.
There seems to be this ease to the way you work. What do you think about the notion that artists need to be suffering to produce art. Is that a necessary part of the process?
That’s what worries me. The official title to my major as an undergrad was ‘Poetry as a Tool for Therapy.’ I was worried that I was kinda being a hypocrite about it. It got to the point where I didn’t know how to write if I was in a good place, at all. Writing became something I did when I was sad. But when I’m happy, I’m too busy being happy. It’s not so much like that anymore. I think of it as a discipline and as a craft. I am branching out and doing more research-based poems where I don’t always have to write about how unhappy I am in my relationship or whatever.
You mentioned you were on a slam team. Was that present with the poets? The idea that it was important to channel your pain into compelling poetry?
I think there’s this culture in slam where you get rewarded for being the most wounded. That was worrisome to me. It was my responsibility to be wounded and I wouldn’t get better until I had documented it and gotten something out of the experience. I was capitalizing off of my own fucked-up life which is not healthy and not conducive to healing. I feel like I had to take a step back and be like, I’m not going to pimp my own sadness. Now that I have removed myself from that competitive environment, I don’t feel the need to exploit my own sadness. If I’m feeling bad my first thought is not ‘oh, I should totally write about this.’ Now I just let myself be present and go through it. It actually makes it easier to get through. I don’t feel the need to wallow in this place until I get a product out of it.
How does that play into romantic relationships?
I feel like I don’t write about love when I am in a relationship. When I am in a relationship and it’s good then I’m too busy being in a good relationship to write about it. It’s only when things aren’t good that I feel like I need to use this outlet. Ideally, when I’m in a healthy and happy relationship then I communicate freely with my significant other. When I’m not as happy, I’m not as inclined to express myself and then that builds up and I begin writing. I’m in a very happy relationship so I haven’t been writing many love poems because I don’t want to be the asshole bragging about my great relationship. No one cares. [Laughs]
That also sounds self-fulfilling. If I believe I need to be in a dark place to create good work then subconsciously, I might want to get to that place to produce that work.
Exactly. I studied trauma a lot so I felt like I was being this big hypocrite. The whole idea to heal from trauma is to finally be able to express what you’ve been going through so you can kind of leave it behind and keep it moving. I felt like I was re-triggering myself over and over so I could get back to that place. That was the only place I felt like I could make good work out of. The good news is that it’s not true. The poem doesn’t have to be about something sad or horrible or traumatic. Subconsciously, I thought the poem had to be dramatically bad to be worthy of poetry, which is kinda bullshit.
So now I’m in a pretty happy place in my life and no one wants to hear a poem about how I’m gong to yoga consistently [laughs] but it’s pushing me to look outside of myself for material. I’ve been dong a series of poems on this old Egyptian love singer. I’m doing a Frida Kahlo series – that kind of thing. I can't get behind this idea of talent. I think it's a springboard at most, and means nothing without work and practice. I am more likely to be compelled by someone who practiced enough to reach a certain point than I am by someone whose talent automatically puts them at that point. Basically, work ethic over talent, every time! There is so much interesting stuff out there and I can be ok and also be writing. It’s less of a self-involved process, which is cool.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s like there’s this collective narrative for artists/creatives that implies you must be miserable to produce great work.
In any kind of art there is this myth of the tortured genius and that is who you need to be to create compelling work. I used to mentor this girl who wrote this line I never forgot, ‘honest poets are never happy people.’ And I really believed that for a while but I don’t think it has to be like that. I think it’s more reflective of your creative ability if you’re able to produce good work that isn’t braggy when you’re in a happy place. It doesn’t have to be a happy poem. I don’t need to write about the great banana bread I made. I understand that - but there is a whole world out there I’m allowed to write about. I don’t only have to write about the deepest darkest corners of my soul. I’ve done that already.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
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.
Interview by Maria Doubrovskaia
Yesterday (April 28), Blitz the Ambassador released his second album for the Berlin-based label Jakarta Records. The release, Afropolitan Dreams, quickly feels like the Ghanaian rapper’s most centered piece. Beyond an eclectic mix of mostly African features, the album is built on Ghanaian high-life tendencies more than any boom-bap revisionism. Still, he trades American Hip Hop references with Accra-specific mentions as well as he ever has before and has an endearing way of slipping into and out of either continent’s slang. Now in his early 30’s, Blitz moved to New York City in 2001 as a teenager. Living in Brooklyn—and then Ohio for college before back to the borough—he built a career in the same place that many of his own Hip Hop idols rapped about on record twenty years ago.
He has an unpretentious penchant for interpolation, co-opting a Pete Rock & CL Smooth line for his own back-to-Africa sentiment or flipping a popular Sting lyric and melody into his own immigrant anthem. Speaking with Project Inkblot earlier this month, Blitz detailed the inspiration behind his latest album and broke down his relationship with New York as an African immigrant and Hip Hop artist/fan. He has an obvious humility in having made it this far but reserves a fierce sense of belonging.
“There’s a lot now that makes it possible for global voices to really participate in Hip Hop culture,” he says. “I’m biased to this of course because of my trajectory. As a fan growing up in Ghana and being a participant in the culture and having the opportunity to inform people. But when people try to narrow Hip Hop down to just American culture, I have to remind them that Caribbean immigrant culture is a huge part of Hip Hop. Puerto Rican immigrant culture is a huge part of b-boy and breakdance culture. You can’t ever forget that immigrants are the basis of Hip Hop. Now of course as years have gone by it’s American culture but the foundation of it is Kool Herc who is a Jamaican immigrant. So he’s me in a lot of ways. His experience outside of America shaped this culture.”
Can you talk about the African community that you encountered in New York when you arrived in 2001? When you first arrived, did you feel more alienated or embraced as an immigrant and as an African in New York specifically?
It was a bit of both. When you arrive in a place you want to kind of find your own way. You know that there’s a community here that they’re gonna support you when you need it but you also know that you can easily get kind of lost in that community and not experience anything outside of that community. So what I kind of did was a bit of both. I ended up being in Brooklyn which was out the norm for a Ghanaian because most of the Ghanaian community is in the Bronx. So what I would do every week is I’d go up to the Bronx at least once a week because a lot of people that I went to school with and the best restaurants were up there. So I’d go up there to make sure that I’m in touch and linked up but I stayed in Brooklyn so that I could still have some space to experience life outside just the Ghanaian community. And of course I went away to college as well in Ohio which helped create some of that gap but also kept me connected in a way. When you’re away that’s when the longing [starts].
Another thing I was thinking about is that for anybody interested in Hip Hop, regardless of whether or not you’re from this country or not, New York represents this sort of cultural mecca. It all emanates from the Bronx since we’re talking about that. What’s it like to call a place that you seem to have longed for for so long your home?
Yeah man. You know a lot of New York was lived vicariously before I came to New York. Of course there were certain things that I was a bit familiar with. A lot of it from my connection to Hip Hop and the way Hip Hop painted New York. Then some of it too was just experiential, so when I got here I was like, 'Wow, okay. It’s not like it is in the Wu-Tang record. It’s not like it is in the Biggie record.' There’s certain things that words couldn’t even explain what this place is. But I’ve always appreciated New York because it gave me an opportunity to compete and compete on a very high-level that being in any other metropolitan city—even in America—wouldn’t have never given me. To perform with some legends at such an early part of my career. I had opened for KRS-One. I had opened for Big Daddy Kane. I had opened for Rakim. I had opened for Public Enemy. Some of these were in front of thousands of people at places like Summerstage or Celebrate Brooklyn.
I was still in shock that here I am. A kid who had all these people on his wall in Ghana—the environment, you can’t even compare environments—then to be backstage with these people, to give’em a pound, to say, ‘Hey listen, you changed my life and here I am.’ I think that’s like one of the most powerful things that could ever happen to anybody with a dream. I think that that journey continues to play itself out in amazing ways. I’m still always in awe. I’m in awe at New York. I’m in awe at the culture of Hip Hop. I’m in awe of how full-circle all of this has come. I’m still kind of like pinching myself. Like ‘Wow.’ Like you said, a place that you wanted to call home forever you can call home but not just call it home but be adding to a very rich history of it in a major way. I don’t take that for granted. I’m very privileged.
Being in New York you’re always around Ghanaians and you’re always around Africans, but how has your perspective or emotional attachment to Ghana changed? I guess attached to that, what have you learned about Africa in New York?
Wow. I’ve learned a lot man. It’s very interesting. I’m realizing that there’s a reverse-longing that’s happening now. The longing that I had to come to America and to live in Brooklyn and to participate in Hip Hop culture and blah blah. I’m beginning to find that the reverse is happening. Now that I’ve lived over a decade in America and a majority of it in New York, I’m finding now that the same way that I was super curious about New York and how I wanted to know everything about it—I wanted to know the slang, I wanted to know what Hip Hop artist was coming out next month, I wanted to know what part of the country they were from, what borough they were from, I wanted to know what street they were talking about—I’m finding out that that the reverse is happening. Now that I live in America my curiosity for Africa has grown.
I’m beginning to have that same experience where I want to know what’s happening in Accra. I want to know what’s happening in Abidjan. I want to know who’s the next guy to come out of Nigeria. What street are they talking about? It’s almost a mindfuck when you think about how you long for something you get it, and then you’re like, ‘Oh shit, I’m longing for this other thing now just as equally as the other thing.’ That’s what’s happening to me now and it’s influencing my music greatly. It’s influencing the choices that I’m making. On this record I featured a plethora of artists, none of which were American-born or American Hip Hop artists. I would have never thought about it. Me coming up as an artist that would have been the first thing I would be looking for, ‘How can I get an American artist on my record?’ Specifically a cat from Brooklyn on my record. Now it’s like, I’m here, I’m part of it, I live it. Now I want to feature guys from Brazil, I want to feature singers from Nigeria, I want to feature rappers from Kenya. That’s what I’m curious about now. It’s interesting and I’m enjoying that bit now.
Maybe to them you’re that guy from Brooklyn.
Maybe to them I’m that guy from Brooklyn. It’s kind of crazy. That is fact. It’s a spiral. You don’t even know where you fit in all of that. You just know that it’s happening and you’re apart of it.
You’ve talked a lot about experiencing American Hip Hop as a young person in Ghana. What was it like for you to see groups like A Tribe Called Quest wearing dashikis and Africa pendants?
It was powerful. Having the word Zulu Nation [on] the coolest biggest shows. Seeing the red, black, green. Seeing the red, gold, green. Seeing the big medallions. You knew that they knew that you existed. You know what I mean? And that’s such an important part of existence in itself, when you look up to anything, when that thing acknowledges that you exist and acknowledges that you are an influence in shaping it. It makes you feel good. Of course we would have loved to touch, feel, to see that connection be more tangible, but I think that that’s what’s happening now. Even though we saw those medallions, even though we heard those shout-outs. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was. Matter fact there was a song that Pete Rock and Raekwon on Soul Survival 1 and I remember Raekwon going something random and he was like, “Puffing the marijuana / African gold from Ghana,” I was like, 'Boom, that’s my favorite record.' It made no sense, it wasn’t even like a real shout-out it just rhymed. But what was important to me at the time at least was that he knew Ghana existed. It felt good hearing somebody that you looked up to do that to you.
That’s kind of what I’ve realized that we’re bringing full circle. So we’re not only just like throwing Ghana in there as a rhyme, we’re talking about Accra city. So I’m imagining how people in Accra city feel everytime they hear me say that on a record that is played on whatever level that is big to them...I think the bridge is slowly coming together. It’s gonna take a lot of dialogue musically or [verbally].
Bringing it forward to what your album, what does the word ‘afropolitan’ mean to you?
To me what an Afropolitan represents is an African in a global context. There are many contexts in which an African can exist. You can be an African in an African context where the conversation is limited to your immediate environment. Then there is an African in the context that isn’t necessarily [the same] but you still have to navigate through it and find what still makes you African in that environment. I look at it from metropolises and how a metropolitan affects an African young or old. I’m not an anthropologist but I can examine the changes that have occurred in say African immigration to the West. So our parents immigrated, a lot of them fleeing from catastrophe that was happening post-independence and people had to be in exile and it was very shaky at the time. Then comes another wave that come for education. So their jobs are to figure out ways to fit in these new worlds. So they come, they are the best students ever. They’re doctors, they’re attorneys, they do well in that space but don’t really have goals of returning because they fled.
Then there’s this generation that’s coming up that isn’t really about fleeing, a lot of it is just about access and how can I gain more access so that I can go back? That’s a more urgent conversation that’s happening now. How do I go back? How do I return home? This is merely a path to try to go back with some access. Whether access means financial resource, intellectual resource, whatever resource, but you know that at home it’s challenging to gain that because you don’t have a footing. So a lot of us leave with that goal...I feel like it’s necessary that a lens is shined on this group. That’s why I called the record Afropolitan Dreams. It’s really a journey of arriving and returning and finding your place in that return. And finding what you can contribute in that return. That’s kind of what I feel defines at least my personal Afropolitan Dream.
Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Project Inkblot Jay has written for publications like HipHopDX, Redbull Music Academy, Bonafide Magazine, and more. Get in contact with or follow Jay on Twitter @jbal4_
Homeboy Sandman began his professional music career a little more than six years ago. After more than a year as a high-school teacher in New York City and then pursuing law at Hofstra, the Queens native picked up the mic full-time and self-released his debut Actual Factual Pterodactyl in 2008. In the five years since, he released a commercial debut in 2010 with The Good Sun, signed to the off-kilter, indie Stones Throw label the next year, and has consistently released music in the form of one-off tracks and cohesive EP’s. His first release of 2013, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, strikes a chord. It wasn’t just an outlier in Hip Hop, it was an obvious pinnacle for the emcee himself. It was his first full release—albeit a short one—with a single producer behind the boards, and it kicks off what will hopefully be a long run at the format. In September Homeboy Sandman dropped All That I Hold Dear as a follow-up, transferring the production duties from one long-time collaborator in El RTNC to another in M Slago (that later EP also showed off his sister’s painting skills on the cover art tip). This week we linked up with Boy Sand to talk a little about his music, but more so about his life and education, using his music as a tool to connect with children in the classroom, his earliest Hip Hop memories, and the current state of New York City politics and culture. The day we spoke (in the second week of October) more news of recent developments in the battle to preserve the Long Island graffiti destination5 Pointzhad come to light and we ended up circling back on the topic a couple times. If nothing else, the battle for 5 Pointz is a case-study on the ideologies and politics of Homeboy Sandman. He’s not ready to let go, and as he told me more than once, “this is our thing.”
You’ve been adamant about visiting and speaking in schools, what is it you try to bring to the classroom?
It depends. The last school I went to was in Washington Heights, they were working on creative writing. I was there under the auspice of talking about live performance or creative work. There was a lot of poetry and some kids were doing music as well. I really like to get in there and I like to just talk to kids about rap and coming up. I got so much to talk about with regard to the media, and how come the media is pushing this or that. Kids in the city, rappers are their number one role models, just straight up and down. It’s silly, it’s sad—you know rap, the people that determine what Hip Hop culture is, are determining what inner-city culture is, what youth culture is across the world. Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like “wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,” you know what I’m saying? This is unfortunately what a lot of these kids is thinking, so I’m able to get in there, I’m able to have more breakthroughs with the kids in an hour now that I’m rapping than I was able to in a whole year as a teacher—and you know, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, when I was a teacher I would go in a class and say “damn all these kids running around trying to be rappers.” That was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.”
You’re signed to a record label and the landscape may be a little different for that reason, but your livelihood really comes from you. It always strikes me that there would be a lot of anxiety when someone’s depending on their art as a living, and it just doesn’t seem like you have that holding you back. Can you talk about that a little?
Yeah, I could speak on that. I mean, whose livelihood doesn’t come from them? I’m trying to think about the best way to answer that question. I mean first and foremost I believe in God, people got a bunch of words for God—the Universe, God, different religious names—I use the word God. I believe that I have responsibilities as a human being. I believe that I have a degree of choice and a degree of options, a degree of control, but I believe that the vast majority of control is out of my hands. I believe my responsibility and obligation is to the do the best I can, to try and be the best person I can be [and] make the best art I can make, be as honest as I can be, be a stand-up guy, try to be the things that I believe I’m supposed to be and that my father taught me I was supposed to do. It’s been reinforced to me time and time again that if you do the best you can, you’re gonna be okay. You know what I mean? What’s the sense in worrying, you can’t do any better than the best you can. If you do the best you can then you’ve already done what you’re supposed to do.
At the base of all that too is the fact that I know rap. I know music. When I was in [boarding school] I felt very much by myself. And Hip Hop music became, for me, home. I’d be like “these kids aren’t like me, I’m all by myself, I’m just gonna be under these headphones, this is how I’m gonna tap in.” So I spent an exorbitant amount of time just soaking in—I know what makes a fat rap record, I was always up on the cats that was fat. I recognize that I have a one-of-a-kind gift when it comes to rhymes. I recognize that the world is changing and focus changes, but the truth is, people that love to be impressed, that love to be inspired by music, that love one-of-a-kind music, are not going anywhere. Music that’s popularized may not be with them in mind anymore, there are kids out right now as talented as Stevie Wonder that are not getting put on because it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.” If Aretha Franklin is out now, she’s gonna do fine if she puts in the work ‘cause there’s people that really want to hear [her] sing. And just like me—I’m gonna be in every single ear in the world, I see the end of my journey I just don’t see the path. But I know where I’m going. Right now, I’ve always recognized that I’m going to be okay because I have a one-of-a-kind gift, a one-of-a-kind talent.
I came up [and] I couldn’t wait to tell my homeboys, “yo, you hear this new Redman?” I was the first cat putting cats onto Broken Language when Smooth Da Hustler came out. And I was the man for that, and I recognize that that’s still around. There’s still people that wanna be like “yo, you heard this cat Homeboy Sandman? Listen to this.” They get social capital and clout from their friends ‘cause they were the first one to know about Homeboy Sandman. And those people aren’t going anywhere, people who love music and who love art are still here. So I just have to put in the work of getting to them and I’ll always be okay. I’ll always be fed, I’ll always be happy, and I’ll always be in control. I can’t really fail ‘cause my talent is real. The only thing I could do is lay back and get lazy, but I’m not gonna let that happen. So as long as I don’t let that happen and I have a real gift, it doesn’t even seem realistic to me that anything could go wrong.
You talk about your father and credit him with a lot and I know he’s not from this country. I wonder what his relationship with Hip Hop is like? I’m sure he rides for you but is there a disconnect generationally or with language?
My pop is from the Dominican Republic, he got to this country when he was in the fifth grade. And though he didn’t speak a lick of English, he grew up in Jamaica Queens. He was very much a Hip Hop kid, I don’t know how old he is now but he was coming up in New York when Hip Hop was coming up in New York. When Hip Hop was coming out, it was everybody that was in the city, in the hood, in the street, it was Black kids, Puerto Rican kids. It was New York, it was all New York. It wasn’t like he came to this country in his 30’s, he came of age in New York City and is very much a New Yorker. My first exposure to Hip Hop, the first Hip Hop memory I have is my father walking all around the house saying 'don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.' That’s what he would say when I would start bugging out.
How do you reconcile what’s going on currently with Hip Hop? You look at 5 Pointz, there’s a lot of cultural artifacts that are kind of waning. Documenting early Hip Hop culture is not something that has really caught on in the mainstream. You named your record Kool Herc, can you speak a little bit on the importance of early Hip Hop culture?
I think that that removal of the past, which you talked about kids not knowing Kool Herc, I think that it’s purposeful. Hip Hop started off as a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I used to be the dude [that said] “Hip Hop started out with love, it was about peace” and it was actually Crazy Legs who set me straight. Crazy Legs was like “yo, let me hip you to something Boy Sand,” [he] obviously came up in it. And he said, “listen, half the cats that was creating Hip Hop was stick up kids, Hip Hop was never about all love.” There was cats about love that was making Hip Hop, there was cats that was robbing that was making Hip Hop. What it was always about, was talent. That’s what Hip Hop was about. ‘Cause cats didn’t have this, didn’t have that, didn’t have much to be proud of. But he was an athletic kid and he could be a b-boy. If you had the gift of gab you could be an emcee. If you had a little artistic talent you could be a graph writer. The elements of Hip Hop come from, are birthed from just talent and nothing else. You look at the deejays, we’re musicians but we don’t have instruments! We gonna have to take somebody else music and make that our instrument.
Hip Hop is born on talent is what you need. In a lot of ways you come to 2013 and the image of Hip Hop that’s perpetuated by many people is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very empowering thing and it’s a very weakening thing. But you have a child coming up thinking that Hip Hop is their culture, and thinking that their culture is all about you being cool because of what you have instead of realizing that their culture is all about you being cool because of who you are. It is a complete manipulation of all the real foundation and principles of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop music is all over the world. The essence of cool, these kids in the Bronx in the ‘70s, they captured the essence of cool for really what it was. And that’s why it’s been undeniable to people all over the world. And that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I try to utilize it as.
I talk about it all the time, there’s people that are seeking to use Hip Hop to manipulate people, to sell a lot of product. I’ve talked about people filling prisons with Hip Hop, I’ve talked about Hip Hop artists being popularized way more to sell the product placement included in their records than anybody concerned with their talent. I’ve talked about the evil forces looking to kill this culture. And I think it’s very important that they make sure that nobody knows who Kool Herc is, that nobody knows who Crazy Legs is, make sure that nobody knows that when I grew up I heard all different types of rappers, some were killers and murderers, some were players, some were just cool dudes just chillin’, other dudes worked at the Mickey Dees. I think it’s very important for them to make it look like Hip Hop is about a person acting a certain way and is only cool because of the things they have.
An initial idea for this conversation was to talk about some of the books you’ve read recently, you mentioned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander before we talked, can you speak on that book?
I think everybody should read that book—you know, you bring up 5 Pointz and people really need to stand up for themselves. Stand up for yourself. Everybody determines what sacrifice they’re gonna make. People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life. Out here on the streets of New York people are getting hands put on them. Didn’t we all learn as children that that’s not supposed to happen? That we’re not supposed to let people put hands on you? Here on the streets of New York and all over America people are getting enslaved. That’s what this is. How are you going to be against enslavement and allow yourself to be enslaved? You can’t be—it’s a lot to think about, but people should read that book because it pretty much sets straight what’s going on. I think there’s a good chance that anybody that reads that book will be convinced that Jim Crow is still alive in America in a different form, and that slavery is still alive in America in a different form. And hopefully, after that, they’ll feel like if it’s worth dying to change that, it’s worth dying.
Alright, last question. You’re a lifelong New Yorker, how do you feel about New York today? Obviously you grew up in Queens, but how do you see New York today as opposed to the New York you grew up in 20 years ago?
That’s a good question, man. I love New York like crazy and you know, for me, I did have the benefit of being able to leave as a youth. You know so many people never get a chance to leave and are like “yo, New York is driving me crazy” and they think that the grass is greener. I’m lucky that I have the perspective that I get to leave and come back, I think that’s one of the reasons that I love New York so much because I got to miss it so much as a teenager.
There is a battle going on in New York right now. 5 Pointz would be ours, my whole take on 5 Pointz—you know I was at some of the meetings, some of the city meetings, and I got up and said “this is silly because 5 Pointz is ours. Why are we even acting like we even need to come to this meeting?” We need only accept the fact that this is ours, the same that you feel the wallet in your back pocket is yours. If I went to go take it out would you call a meeting? Would you tell me not to do it? This is our thing.
I’m very sad about the 5 Pointz thing, it’s come up a few times today. And I’m really thinking, I was like “yo, I’m gonna be the first one there when the bulldozers come.” And I’m really thinking about if my responsibility is to go there and be there by myself, I don’t know, I haven’t made my decision yet. In New York City there’s a war going on right now between two different sides, there’s the side that thinks that money is everything. The people that think money is everything, they don’t really know what’s important, if they did they wouldn’t think money was everything. But there’s those people that think money is everything and they’re becoming really abundant, they’re all over the place. And there’s the people that don’t think that money is everything. And [those] people really need to answer the call, really need to decide how important some of this stuff is to them. I can’t remember a time where people were so much like “you know what, as long as I’m still alive I’ll let them take everything.” I don’t remember it being like that in New York City. I’ve seen it get worse and worse.
Things tie together, I think about police brutality. When I was a kid people knew there was police brutality but I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that one day a man would get shot 41 times—41 times, think about that number—and people wouldn’t do anything but yell and scream. I never thought that that could happen, but alas, when I was a teenager, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and that number seems crazy to me. But people said “dag I guess that’s messed up there’s nothing we could do about that.” And at the time I could have thought to myself, “dag, 41 times, at least they didn’t shoot’em 50 times. Fifty times, if someone got shot 50 times then we definitely would’ve done something besides go outside and yell.”
Sean Bell sure enough was shot, I was living on 148th and Hillside, Sean Bell was shot five blocks down the street on the eve of his wedding. Fifty times, [they] shot a human being 50 times, and the day that the verdict came out, there was extra cops on horses all over Jamaica Queens. And 50 is a crazy number, and if I said to you right now that if they’ll shoot a human being 200 times people wouldn’t do nothing, you would say to yourself “no way, no way, they can’t shoot a human being 200 times and us not do nothing,” but that’s where we’re going because [last] time it was 50 and after that it’ll be 70. Ten years from now they’ll shoot somebody 200 times. By then maybe we’ll all just be hiding in our houses because we didn’t go out and save 5 Pointz. Who really knows? But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter at @jbal4_
Years ago, I knew Stephanie Rooker as a ferocious vocalist who headed the soul outfit The Search Engine, but for the past few years, Stephanie has been training extensively in a healing modality involving music/sounds, aptly called sound healing. Just this month Stephanie launched Voice Journey Sound Center, a unique course of vocal training that uses the tenants of exploration and inner work to help students reach new vocal abilities, that in turn increases mental clarity, physical well-being, emotional strength, and other physical, physiological, and emotional benefits.
Stephanie met up with me for a quick meal in Soho, where she taught me simple sound healing techniques, and talked rather candidly about her experience negotiating her solo music career and her community based healing work through music, realizing that they are really not so disparate--in fact--they are both equally valid in her life's work. Stephanie uses her unique experience as a jazz/soul vocalist, her training in West African music and the many traditions of the African Diaspora, as well as her healing work to create something intimately hers, yet hugely accessible to all.
What exactly is sound healing? And how do you teach it to people?
Everything is vibrational. Sound healing, very broadly, is basically using vibration to change the state that you currently are in. It can be something as obvious as your breath rate, your heart rate, physical frequency, or your nervous system, and other vibrational parts of our existence: mental clarity, stress, tiredness. Low frequencies make people tired. High frequencies make people stimulated through their brain. If you are really tired, and you go as high with your voice as you can, your brain will wake up, and you shift in your vibration. You can call that sound healing.
You can open up your listening. You filter out a lot of listening a lot of the time, and you shut a lot out. If you just open up your listening and take in everything that you hear, it’s really an amazing and stimulating practice. It’s like opening your awareness, or like putting on glasses. Suddenly you see things clearer. Basically, sound healing is that in any way that you can think about. There’s sort of a constructed new-age idea of sound healing that it has to be chanting, kirtans, etc, but really it’s very broad.
Your new organization is called the Voice Journey Sound Center. Tell me about the voice.
For me, it’s all about the voice, because the voice is inside of you. Unlike other instruments that you see externally, the voice vibrates within you, so it has a much more direct effect on our physiology, your brain, everything. So, how do you teach that? There are a billion different ways. There are a lot of different traditions.
Indigenous traditions have been doing this forever. Pretty much in every indigenous tradition, there is some element of sound healing, connecting to spiritual or healing practices. There are a lot of places to draw from. And even in just music—if you think about avant-garde improvisational vocal jazz type stuff, it’s about making sounds in creative ways, and breaks all of your perceptions about what it is that you’re supposed to do, or what’s within a paradigm.
For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body. That’s the real crux of it for me. The former part almost comes as a result to the latter part. You can practice scales and techniques and exercise. Sure your voice can get better because you’re practicing, but to get to the other place of where the voice can take you, surrendering to whatever it wants to do, that’s where most people have their issues, because they get in their own way.
The truth is the voice can do so many more things that we could ever imagine if you just let the voice do what it does. So often we feel like we have to do it. It goes back to the whole ownership of work thing. Am I doing this to me, or am I just making sure I’m as out of the way as possible, so that I can fully experience this process.
"For me, Voice Journey is about connecting to your voice in a new way so that you can use your voice in an expanded context, whether that’s singing higher, or improving our tuning or your pitch. It is also, maybe more so, seeing where the voice can take you: How your voice can shift your state of consciousness, how your voice can shift your mood, how your voice can effect your physical body."
What is your process with your students?
It’s different for everyone. It depends on what they want and where they’re coming from. I always start with a humming practice. That sort of puts us in the present moment, vibrationally. Sometimes we work on music. I have some students who want to work on songwriting. Some students think they are not singers and they want to be, so we do more work to help them truly experience their voice.
A lot of my students really want to incorporate their voice within their spiritual path, or their meditation practice, and so we work on that. We work on meditative practices that work for them, and put them in a place of a meditative mind state. Some people have to learn how to just have fun with their voice, and not think it’s a serious. Sometimes I just play with people, and play different games to get people into the creative process of just singing. It’s really fun. It’s the best teaching I’ve ever done. I’ve done traditional voice lessons, which in comparison is very surface level.
Teaching sound healing seems like a very different experience than being a performer.
I believe that I’m supposed to do this work, but the interesting thing about it is that it’s very humbling. It’s not like, “I’m Stephanie Rooker, and I do blah blah blah.” In this work, there’s a sense that I’m not really doing the work—that I’m facilitating the space, and that music is doing the work. There’s an interesting paradigm where—this is my work—but I also feel like I have a respectful distance from identifying too much with it, because I don’t feel like it’s me doing it. Does that make sense?
In you giving credit to "the music" and not yourself in this process, do you think that has to do with gender, and women historically and socially deflecting attention away from themselves?
I think because I connect very spiritually with what I’m doing, it goes in and out of having it be ego. That fluctuates from, “oh, it’s just little me over here doing this work,” to “I’m over here holding this space, using all of the skills and knowledge that I’ve gotten up to this point,” owning that, but not taking it to the next level. The other side of the ego says, “look how awesome I am. I made these people do all of this. I made them use their voice.” I’m not interested in that, but it’s interesting how that pendulum works. My teacher has really helped me a lot with that, Silvia Nakkach from California. I’m now getting certified in her Yoga of the Voice training. She’s a huge force. She has all of these phrases that she uses, silly isms, and one is “I’m innocent.”
I feel like, I am just doing what I’m meant to do. It’s less about Stephanie Rooker, which was me doing everything for me, about me, even though my music wasn’t about that. I was hustling gigs, I was trying to get press, it was all Stephanie Rooker. At a point I just felt like it was whack. There was also the business side that took over the art. I felt like a total poser, like, “I’m the shit, come pay me money to see me play.” Meanwhile I hadn’t practiced in weeks, because I was emailing everyone and freaking out about getting people to my shows.
Does that mean that your solo performing career is being pushed to the side?
I’m putting it aside for now, as far as the energy that I’ve been putting into it. I’m not putting any energy or time into booking gigs. Sometime ago, I was talking to one of my mentors right before the tipping point moving forward with Voice Journey— which wasn’t even Voice Journey at the time—but just this idea. Then I was dealing with this performer identity that I was struggling with, and which just clung to me. I talked to her about it. She said, “It sounds like the light is shining on that voice healing work for you. You’re never going to NOT be a performer. You’re always going to be a performer. When you have children, your newborn child takes priority, because it will not survive without you tending to it.” At that point I had been singing for 8 years or so. She said, “Your 8 year old can take care of itself. It can go make a sandwich. It can do those things. You’re not abandoning it, or kicking it to the curb.” So that was a really huge point for me, and it was very painful. It was super super hard to even pull away that little bit from my performance identity.
What was that like?
It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform. People keep asking me to perform with them, and to do projects or record. It’s just awesome. Every chance someone offers me an opportunity to sing, I’m like, yes! I’m taking this as a sign from the universe that I should never forget about that part of me.
"It was like a breakup with myself. Literally. I went through most of the emotions of a hardcore breakup, with bathtub crying with wine—the whole deal—and listening to my music. But you know what? I know it’s not over. I keep getting asked to perform."
Sometimes we want what we want, when we want it, and we are impatient for success. There is always a gestation period, that we as a society seem to forget.
Yeah. But I have to say, the whole transition with music and performing was a huge process in itself. I released “The Only Way Out Is In”, and was working with a publicist, and doing all of these things, and nothing was popping. Even my publicist was like, “I don’t want you to pay me. I really believe in your music. We’re going to get you something awesome, and then you can pay me.” And I was like “great!” Meanwhile I was enrolled in the Sound Healing Institute, and dealt with that creative bruise, of: I really poured my soul into this project, and it’s not catching. But I feel like if I hadn’t gone through that I process, I would not be where I am right now.
Now I feel like, that had to happen. Like I said, even in my music, I’ve always been about this. Also, awakening to all of the elements of sound healing has changed how I think about performing and how I think about music.
After the release of my record, I played a couple of gigs with my band. It wasn’t like I just said “oh the album sucks.” The album didn’t suck. I loved the album. It’s one of my proudest things, but it didn’t achieve anything externally for me. We did a couple of gigs, but I was realizing that I was shifting to a new place with how I was feeling music, and not everybody in the band could get that. I was feeling very much like I was running new software on an old operating system. You know what I mean? That’s why I was even more about chilling from performing. I was noticing a transformation with music, and I didn’t want to just plug into the old ways, because it wasn’t going to work.
I think when you said “gestation period,” I think that was part of it too. I got through that transition of what I think music is now, and I got an expanding context. It was a really intense period.
You have a blues workshop coming up this week. Can you tell me a bit about that?
If there’s healing music, the blues is it. There’s such a mystery and lineage of it, the healing elements are just so obvious to me, you know what I mean? Having studied West African music and music of the Diaspora, you see all of those elements in it. At Oberlin I took a blues improv class, which was a turning point for me. The teacher, Adenike Sharpley—she was amazing, and I loved her—but she’s not necessarily easy to love. You either love her or hate her, because no one is entitled in her world. You have to work. If you are not doing the work—Just no. I immediately saw her as a teacher, and was willing to do whatever I had to do to study with her, and it wasn’t about having her like me. I just knew she was for real. That class really talked about elements about the cultural evolution of slavery and how that came out in the elements of the blues, and spirituals, field shouts. That’s been something that I’ve been checking out for a long time. I gave a workshop on this at my teacher’s retreat in Santa Cruz, California, and it was amazing. People loved it.
This is my demographic right? People who are so-called new agey and spiritual, who love to sing, but for whom there's somehow a cultural chasm that isn’t being bridged. I offered the blues class, and everyone loved it so much, they demanded that it be offered again the very next day. I think it really helped people to connect with those elements, but also in that context of blues as a lineage leading up to today.
I have also taught hip-hop workshops. For both, it’s just pulling out the elements: What are the elements of the music that work on us? What makes us love it? What about it makes us cry? Why are we crying? Or why are we laughing? And what is the function of these techniques, and the intense sensuality? It’s a release. All of it is a release. It’s bringing the context and lineage to the present day, and allowing people to really understand them and voice them themselves, but also with respect of the culture that it came from, and respect the culture that is still suffering today from the same shit. It’s very emotive. People really need a release more than they would ever know or admit. There are some awesome singers that are going to be there, but it’s not about awesome singers [laughter]. It’s about drawing those tools out so that people can use them, not in an appropriating way, but in a healing way. That was the thing that I was afraid of with a woman who commented on the events page for this upcoming workshop. In essence, she was asking, “who are you, white girl? Yeah, sure, teach us about the blues? What do you know about it?” I got to a place where I realized (with my husband's help) that I didn't need to defend myself, but that I do want to stand for how needed I believe this work to be & replied thusly.
I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’ve been challenged similarly about the whole sound healing thing by music therapists. It’s like, “what are you doing? You’re not a music therapist. You better know that you’re not a music therapist. Be clear that you’re not saying music or therapy in any of your work.” I’m like, I know. I’m just saying that there are elements of this that can be accessible to a whole lot of people, and if a lot of people are using these tools and are aware of where they come from and what they mean, there is huge healing that can happen, and huge transformations can take place.
Check out Voice Journey on Facebook, and check out the blues workshop on the 26th.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Rockin' her signature killer style, a huge grin and natural talent, Kalae Nouveau (formerly Kalae AllDay) is a vocalist, rapper, actress and the creator of Fem'Fatale, an ongoing meet-up initially created to gather women artists in various genres to share, connect, inspire and create real relationships. Tired of what she viewed as the divide among women artists and spurred to create a community after meeting various female mentors and supporters, Fem'Fatale has been running ever since. Kalae has recently recommitted to reinvigorating the community; from spicing up the web presence to thinking up creative ways to bring folks together - be it via film screenings or working with domestic abuse survivors.
I first met Kalae at a Fem'Fatale get together in Brooklyn and was impressed by her warmth, ease, and her genuine desire to bring people together. I also remember the good vibes of the women who attended; graphic designers, vocalists, editors - it was my first introduction to these group of creative ladies; not only did I dig their talent, I dug their willingness to support one another. Project Inkblot chatted with Kalae over hummus and some bomb-ass eggplant dish in Harlem one rainy afternoon on her process as a creative artist and performer, starting Fem'Fatale, the problem with yes men and why getting your ass kicked makes you stronger.
Let’s talk about Fem'Fatale. That’s where we met and I loved the vibe and the experience. Why did you start the group?
Growing up I found it hard to relate to most people. I was always excluded, teased and picked on. I was very different looking, including being very tall. I wasn't really accepted until I got into the art circle. I was meeting women who were so real, nice and creative. I felt like I found my tribe. I thought, how do I get these women together? I have always struggled with- and I am almost sorry for saying this - but ‘normal chicks.’ People who are ok with normalcy. Maybe I am more adjusted, but as a teenager I couldn’t connect.
I really loved the women I met through being a hip hop artist. So I started to get their contacts. At the time I had this two bedroom apartment on the upper west side and a lot of people could come and hang out. I wasn’t savvy yet on getting a venue, that came later.
What was your vision for Fem'Fatale then and is it the same now?
My vision then was to get these talented women together so we could network a bit, share and learn from each other. The vision has changed - before, all the women who came were artists but now it’s more about sisterhood and community so we may have business women etc. Now, the vision is to have a stronger internet presence.
The second year of Fem'Fatale was harder. It was the first winter and people didn’t want to go out as much. I brought it to Brooklyn and had another woman host it, we also went to the Bronx. Because of my childhood and what I considered to be rejection, when I invite a bunch of women who I admire to an event and they don’t come, it’s so heartbreaking on so many levels. I started to get really discouraged and almost started to feel resentful, like why are my sisters not cooperating? One of my friends said, are you really doing this for them or is it for yourself? And I thought about that - what does it mean to do something good for people and what it means to do something good for yourself. And what I realized was you should always do things that are good for yourself and if it benefits others then that’s great. Yes, I am doing it for myself and I am also doing it for them and I am not going to feel bad about wanting that. It feeds me in a really amazing way and what I see in the future is having Fem'Fatale groups that are not always run by me. Perhaps having Fem'Fatale groups in different cities.
Can you talk about some of the work you've done in women's shelters? What was it important for you to integrate this type of outreach into Fem'Fatale?
We went to shelters for women who have been domestically abused and done [creative] work with the women there and have had them bring their children. A lovely friend of mine Gianna Leo Falcon does a lot of social work and put Fem'Fatale in contact with this women's shelter on the upper west side. I felt like the magic that was happening between the artists in Fem'Fatale was so enriching and enlightening that it should be shared through community work with females that normally wouldn't have access to this sort of thing. It's Fem'Fatales community outreach. I want to incorporate it and other work, like youth outreach, more into the Fem'Fatale regular rotation. I feel like I need to give back to my community but it has to be something I am passionate about.
The mission is to create sisterhood. Simple and plain. The members really enjoy the relief of being around powerful opinionated women with out the masculine divine presence. It really liberates the divine feminine out of conditioned entrapment and forces women to recognize the value in their and their sisters' ideas, opinions, etc and through that I hope to inspire connection, self-worth and most importantly SISTERHOOD. As soon as women recognize the importance of being surrounded by other women, the cattiness and the belief that there can only be one spot/one token woman, will subside.
You’re a native New Yorker; how has NYC contributed to who you artistically?
New York is so diverse. It’s hard to not have a global sprit. I was always surrounded by different people, ethnicities, languages. You know, for a lot of people, you don’t get to eat sushi when you’re nine. The urban culture, the diversity, the fact that we’re so densely packed together. There’s this sense of limit and limitlessness a lot of the time.
When did you get into music?
I believe I came out of the womb singing, since I was four I was singing and since I was seven I was writing my own music. In New York, when you grow up, you're exposed to so much art. Sometimes people are only exposed to a certain type of art but I was exposed to a variety of artists: Sined O’ Conner, Dorris Day, Barbara Streisand…I had no idea that I was ever going to bea rapper. People assume that I am a singer but are usually surprised that I’m a rapper. At sixteen, most of the hip-hop I got was from the radio and I didn’t like it.
What didn't you like?
I couldn't relate. The oppression of women, getting money…there was nothing about that that resonated with me as a human being. Not just hip-hop, but pop music, too. I started to get into what would be considered “conscious rap” like Black Thought, Mos Def, Common. My nephew rapped and he was five years older than me. I was sixteen and I wrote a rap because my nephew was recording onto a cassette tape. I went back to him and said, ‘listen to my rap’ and he was like, ‘that was fucking horrible’ [laughs] so I never tried to rap again until some other people started encouraging me, around nineteen.
What are the differences between rapping and singing for you, as a performer?
Rapping is like talking. There’s so much you can do with it that is outside of getting my diaphragm ready…all of the technical aspects of singing I can throw out the door. I can do so much more. So, the performer part of me is more expressed when I rap. I can do a lot of expression and emotion in singing but it’s more subtle. Rapping is more in your face, energetic, crazy. It’s really fun.
Are you currently working on an album right now?
I’m not working on an album right now but I am working on the film score and shooting a movie for a film called Good Funk. It’s been ten years since I have acted but it’s performance, and it’s art. I think performance art is all the same. What makes the movie special is where the paths intertwine. There are four main charters and about six stories and it’s a commentary on what’s happening in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and what’s happening in this neighborhood. It's very touching and I think it’s one of those stories that everyone can relate to. It’s kinda like you’re thrown into this moment of time. I love to perform. What I prefer is not one over the another but the moment in time when I am performing over the moments in time when I’m not. I’m not opposed to those other moments like being in the studio or recording but the moment I hit the stage is like magic, it’s like all of the other moments were for this.
My favorite part is performing but I know for some people their favorite part is writing. There are times I write because I have to, because I am working on a project and there are times when inspiration hits and these are the times where it’s magical and spiritual. And that doesn’t happen all of the time especially when you’re doing this full time. There’s a lot to be inspired by in New York City so I always say with input there’s output. If I am doing a lot of output and no input, it can be tedious. I also find the hours of two to four in the morning to be so inspirational. Almost tike clockwork, inspiration hits.
As an artist what are some of the challenges?
At some point I just had to be ok with not being like everyone else. I remember a promoter once told me, ‘I know you rap but I don’t know where to place you’ and I thought, don’t say that like it’s a negative. Most of my recorded music is my manifestation of myself as a rapper but not as a performer. Even when I try to fit in, I can’t do it. It’s hard for me as a person in development. It’s very easy for me to do lots of different kinds of arts. I draw, paint, sing, rap, act…so trying to contain myself for the benefit of myself is an arduous task. I know in my heart I want to be a singer but I can’t spread myself too thin. I think I did and I broke and I have been trying to put myself back together. I now feel like I have a foundation to stand on.
One of my complexes is the 'yes men' complex. I think it’s important for people to tell the truth and to not always be so impressed with the people you're around who are artists. I’m not that impressed with my own stuff so when I am around people who are, it makes me feel like, ok are you lying to me or are you so consumed with the sparkly aspects that you can’t judge where the dull parts are?
What I learned is that I need to decide that for myself. And that has been a huge part of my process. If someone tells me yes or no, you cannot let your ego be affected but it's challenging, especially as an artist, you want people to like your shit! It feels so good when they do and I am trying to disassociate my ego from that. Every time I feel like I fail, I become more pliable. My jump back is quicker. The first time is tragic, your poor little soul! The second time is like, that hurts. But the third time you’re like I can do this. I came back before twice.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff. There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.”
And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.
An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?
This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.
When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.” And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…
You had to choose.
Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.
So is that why you decided to major in theater?
I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?
So, I got my BFA in Acting at North Carolina School of the Arts.
And then you come to New York.
Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.
So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.
Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’
I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.
Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?
Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.
You are a vessel.
Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry. Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’
And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.
Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?
But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that. We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.
I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.
And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.
What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?
I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows. And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….
It’s like dating.
You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”
Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like. ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)
And then the Farm?
There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met. She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.” I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.
Was it like, you’re looking at New York Magazine and you wanted to read the Michael Pollan book and you were like, ‘wait, I have a farm?’
Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time. I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.' I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.
I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.
It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be. I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together. In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.
I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.
I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…
Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me. But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists. So we basically did that for a summer and a half. We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.
Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.
Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.
Was it divine?
Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?
So, like a challenge?
Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.
And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...
I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.
So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?
There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family. I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family. We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…
They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.
Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.
Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?
Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.
I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?
Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.
Interview by Tanisha Christie
Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike. She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie
Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.
It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.
You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?
The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!
Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling?
Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.
For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?
Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.
As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.
Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?
Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.
The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.
What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges?
Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.
It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.
It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!
How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?
Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.
You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?
Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.
How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?
I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!
Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.
Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?
Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.
That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.
What legacy are you looking to leave with your work?
Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature image by Rachel Main
Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place. A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned.
I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music.
You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?
Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.
What do you think the reward is?
I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.
Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?
It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.
Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.
From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.
Sounds like there’s a science to it.
In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?
For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.
In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.
You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”
Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?
I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.
What do you mean by that?
You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?
When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.
What brought you to Boston?
I went to Berklee College of Music.
You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?
I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.
I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.
Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.
Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--
I don’t think they do either—
--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.
If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.
Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?
The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.
words by Boyuan Gao