Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me


Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me


You know how most documentaries feature a slew of talking heads lamenting about dying whales or something? You know you should be interested but then you doze off and wake up with a crick in your neck and drool on your chin from falling asleep on the couch? Let's be honest - sometimes a really compelling documentary can be hard to pull off. It takes a good story, interesting subjects, great footage and a whole lot of other things I'm completely unaware of to make it enticing. Drawing from a well of creativity coupled with incredible drive and determination, filmmaker Tanisha Christie directed and produced the film Walk With Me along with her co-director and co-producer, Ellie Walton; a process that has taken over five years. Inspired by her mentor and teacher, Rebecca Rice, Walk With Me profiles three women who use theater to inspire and connect with people in overlooked communities e.g. prisons and schools. The result is a compelling, interesting, moving, and inspiring documentary film about giving voice to the people often deemed voiceless and allowing them to access their own sense of power through theater, play, and discovery.

I'm not the only person diggin' the film. Walk With Me has been screened at multiple film festivals and has been used for educational presentations at various national universities; the film also won honorable mention at the 2012 San Francisco Black Film Festival and most recently, Best Documentary Feature at the Our City Film Festival in Washington, DC. Christie beautifully shared her creative process with CultureFphiles as well as the importance of yoga and cocktails to help make it through the challenging times.

Walk With Me is inspired by your relationship with your mentor, Rebecca Rice, who is one of the three women featured in the film. What about your relationship with her inspired you to make the film?

I met Rebecca while I was the Assistant Director at the former Living Stage Theater Company in Washington, DC. Working there was a pivotal time in my development as an artist because that experience not only deepened my craft as a performer and educator; I learned the responsibility of being an artist and while the nurturing of my own voice has value, there is significant value in sharing the creative process with others.

Rebecca brought an amazing amount of integrity to her creative work and taught me that process was just as important as the product. It is rare to find teachers or mentors who are so good at reflecting you back to yourself - for better or worse - she did that for me. She was adamant in giving me tools to figure out the 'whys' of wanting to make art - What stories did I want to tell? What songs did I want to sing and for what purpose? She would often challenge, 'you can sing in the shower, write a poem for yourself, but the minute you desire to share it with the world, what do you want the audience to experience? Why should they pay money to see it or hear it?' She firmly believed in the artist’s role in culture and society; and taught me to take great care in my role by having respect for myself as a theater artist.

In making Walk With Me, we, [Ellie Walton Co-Producer/Co-Director], wanted to share a slice of Rebecca’s story and the stories of our friends and colleagues who are doing similar work inspired by the same passions. When artists and community workers talk about ‘arts activism’ or ‘arts for social change,’ most don’t understand what that means. Instead of theater artists simply “talking” about this kind of creative work, we wanted to show what making theater with people actually looked like. We wanted viewers to witness the process and see how others' were moved by the experience.

What has it been like collaborating on the project with your partner, Ellie? What have you discovered in undertaking a project of this magnitude with another person?

Ellie and I had the rare gift of having the same artistic vision for the film. I enjoy collaboration immensely and both of us respect the concepts connected to having a process around making something – for example,  experimentation, taking-time, critical feedback. We also shared a huge respect for deadlines. You know how it is, we creative-types, we can sit in the nuances of our muse for a long time. At times, one of us would say, 'Let’s just try it this way and leave it!' Don’t get me wrong, we had disagreements and were frustrated by each other. We have very different working styles. But we left our egos at the door, knowing that what we wanted to achieve was greater. We wanted to make the most beautiful film we could make with the resources we had available. Period. I guess we were blessed with ignorance, in some ways. While we knew that making the film was going to be difficult, [Walk With Me is Walton's third feature length and Christie's first feature length film], we didn’t know what challenges were actually going to present themselves and thankfully, we’re both comfortable with being in the unknown.

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time.

You've been working on Walk With Me for the past five years. How do you get through the real and imagined road blocks to manifesting your vision for the film?

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time. Even though the means for filmmaking are getting easier, there are still costs associated with making a film. We raised 20% of what was needed to make the film; this was pre-Kickstarter so it was primarily done through Facebook , email campaigns, fundraising events and grants from Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities which we are extremely grateful to. We decided that we were not going to let money deter us. We capitalized on relationships; we had an amazing co-producer named Cat Mallone who came on to the project, amazing support from friends, family, cut costs where we could, and paid for essentials like licensing rights, animation, sound mastering, etc. Time and distance was a challenge because we both had to earn a living, Ellie was teaching and working on other projects in Washington, DC and I was in New York holding down a demanding corporate job. We essentially ‘stayed the course’ and didn’t focus too much on what we lacked but what we had keeping our vision in our sights.

But really I think we got through the blocks with well-timed cocktails and lots of yoga.

How do you move through any doubts, fears, or uncertainties as you continue to work on the film? Are there ever moments where you feel like giving up? Or where you question your commitment to the project?

We were fueled by the labor of love. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. We also allowed ourselves to take breaks from the project when, either our schedules were too tight or we were getting burnt out. I feel like we managed our uncertainty by becoming very protective of what we were making. The vision of the project changed three or four times, so there was a lot on the editing room floor, so to speak. And for me, they felt like huge losses but I had to quickly accept this as part of the process of filmmaking. I never feared that we weren’t going to make the film, I feared that it wouldn’t be seen which was a whole other part of this process – making the film is one thing…sharing it with the world is another, which is where we are with the film now. This is the aspect of this project that is the most tedious and time consuming in a different way and the least glamorous. I give up once a month. We’ve had some successes and some disappointments in this area, but I’m committed. I can’t see spending years making something and not giving a good go of sharing it with others. I suppose, this is where my tenacity meets my passion.

What keeps you motivated, inspired, and moving forward?

I’m not quite sure beyond a deep understanding that this is what I’m supposed to be doing although, I often go through periods of feeling lost and unsure. So I have to pay attention to each moment.

I just presented an excerpt of the film to 500 Juniors, Seniors and their teachers at the San Diego School of the Creative and Performing Arts, which is an amazing public school. These students were inspired and articulate about their chosen craft be it visual art, dance, music or theater. I was honored to be invited to speak to them about my creative career, which has taken many twists and turns. I had such a great time talking with them and they seemed to enjoy the presentation….so having 500 people clap, cheer and show appreciation…. yeah…that’ll keep me going for a long while.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when you have "finished" creating a piece of art? This question extends to your work as an actor and singer as well. Are you able to be present or feel a sense of finality in your accomplishments?

Ha. I hardly feel satisfied and accomplished! But I suppose, something is "finished" for me, when I decide to share it but at times, even after the audiences’ response, the show/performance/story, I might feel that more work needs to be done. So, I developed a part of my process that is called, 'Tanisha, put the project down' where I just force myself to stop nitpicking the project and myself in order to let my muse breathe.

I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

Even with the film, if we were to watch it together, I can tell you everything that’s "wrong" with it. Or when I perform, even after the applause, I’m critiquing my performance. I’ve accepted these quirks and my perfectionism as a part of my process so I work on being kind to myself in these aspects. But no, I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

What have you learned from this process? What are some of the things you were most surprised by?

I’ve accepted that I’m a whirling dervish when it comes to my creative life. I’ve begun to understand that, for me, content dictates form, meaning I have an idea and then my muse aids me in choosing how or if I will manifest it. And while this poses its ownchallenges around mastery of craft, time, and resources, I’m surprised by how deep of a creative well I have left.

Check out more information on Walk With Me.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: JD Urban


Oddisee Works.

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Oddisee Works.

Oddisee in Sudan

Lounging in his Brooklyn-based home studio, smartly dressed, smoking shisha and rocking some vintage frames, Amir Mohamed (aka Oddisee) looks every bit the dictator that he sometimes jokingly imagines himself being.  Hours away from embarking on an epic, month long journey to Sudan, Oddisee was kind enough to sit down with me, smoke some cardamom shisha, and wax poetic about navigating the industry while still producing the music that matters to him.  Too often, I find that music heads don’t get the opportunity to hear the voices of their favorite producers in regular conversation.  So here he is.  Raw and uncut.  And please, don’t mind the noise from the hookah pipe.  I promise you.  It’s not a bong.

For more about Oddisee, peep his website. Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan

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Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches


Kiky Thomanek's World Through Sketches

Kiky Thomanek has spent years city-hopping--acquiring cultural references through her senses--and fusing them into her art. When I met her through a friend up at The Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side a few years ago, I was enamored with her quirky, strongly accented Austrian humor--and later, after being introduced to her art--her clever and whimsical screen prints and illustrations. Her dark and silly characters, the rich and bold lines, and the ominous anecdotes, reminded me of early day Basquiat. The wonders of Skype chatting allowed us to surpass a few time zones and continents to talk about her globetrotting days, the many iterations of her art life, and how Francis Bacon changed her world. 

How did you get started as an artist?

I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I came to anything graphic design related, I was 20 or 21. I had some time abroad behind me. After high school, I went to London for a year. I just wanted to get away from home and see something new. I London I worked in a night club. I came back to Austria and was totally confused and didn’t know what to do. I started business school for half a year, which was a bad call. I don’t even remember why I enrolled, I never went to class.

Sort of by chance, I was talking to a friend who got interested in this graphic design school, and he brought me a brochure. I went to check it out with him and applied.

What about it locked it in for you to be an artist? 

I took one illustration class. Actually, I think I begged the teacher to take me because there was no more space. I’m still very grateful for that decision. He gave us a lot of valuable information, but I think the most important thing was just the way that he was. He just kind of let us be.

There was one project that we did about typography, which was a real turning point for me. We had eight weeks time to complete it, and I did it all in five days and four nights, just drinking Red Bull.

Because you were so into it? I was so into it. That’s how I really found out what I am capable of, and what circumstances have to be like where I can produce something that is good, valuable, and that I really care for. was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it.

What about that changed the game for you? 

It was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it. It was a big turning point for me that one project, and from then on, I just felt like I want to be an artist. I still like the work that I created then.

What did you do after you finished school? 

I was living in London with my ex-husband Peter and had a waitressing job at a pub. I tried to be creative and I was drawing a lot. That’s when I started printing t-shirts and fabrics and sewing images on t-shirts. I sold them at a market. That was in 2003.

And you lived in a few cities from that point right?

2004 I was in Berlin for a year--pretty much doing the same thing--but a little more extensively. That was the only kind of income that I had--making t-shirts and little dolls and bags. I sold them at this really nice weekly market in Berlin, and then I came to New York.

What was living in New York like for you?

I already started a silkscreening business in Berlin, so I wanted to continue doing that in New York. Right from the beginning, I started taking classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for all of those 6.5 years in New York. I would take those classes, at least one per semester through continuing ed. That’s what kept my creativity going.

I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would never see anybody, and I would think, this is so fucked up!

Did you come to New York for an art career?

Yes, but also--Peter--my husband at the time, was coming for work. Peter was working at Columbia and he told me that since he worked there that they had a deal and relatives could study for free, but the contract that he had didn’t have that privilege. I had no idea what sort of institution Columbia was. I said "okay it sounds good, I’m going to try to do that." But when I went to Columbia with my transcript, they just said no. They also don’t offer continuing education courses, or anything that is sort of available to the general public.

I was living in that neighborhood with Peter, working at a local coffee shop, sometimes I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would think, this is so fucked up! That made me really grateful for the openness of SVA.

Did that experience change your perception of art school?

In general, the whole arts school thing is—from the outside—so scary and elitist to me. In Austria, Germany, and France I hear stories about people who apply 3 times, 5 times, up to 10 times. I just don’t understand why it's made so hard for people to go to school. It's easier to get into medical or law school.

How are artists viewed in Austria?

I think that [there are] probably two major distinctions: an artist who's in the spotlight and who [is] seen as interesting and looked up to, and there are artists that are viewed as crazy, or somebody who will never make it, who will always struggle to make money.

Yet in Austria, we have a big and important artistic culture. It is valued a lot. Vienna has the greatest density of cultural places in relation to the inhabitants; whether it's the museums, or theaters, concerts, music venues, there's really a lot of stuff going on. I feel like it's not just a lot of stuff, but stuff with quality, and I don't think people really recognize that in Europe. Everyone is going to Berlin. Everything is supposedly happening there--but I think there's a lot to explore in Vienna--stuff that I haven't even seen yet.

What are some aspects of Vienna's rich history?

Austria had its heyday around the 1900s through 1920s. Famous artists like Gustav Klimt came from that time. There wasn't just visual art--there was important literature, and science--like Freud. All those people were coming together. They weren't secluded in their paintings or specific mediums. People were meeting in the salons and they inspired each other and I think that was a really important time for Austria and art, and I think it still is.

In Vienna, are artists mostly working within their own creative enclaves now as opposed to that era in your own experience? I don't really hang out in artist circles. My circle of friends is so diverse. There are people who do all sorts of things. I think that's how I was a little bit different than my other friends who are mostly hanging out with artists. They do get together and talk about things that are a little bit interdisciplinary. There's definitely collaboration going on.

What’s next for your work?

Just the other day actually, I had a friend who came over and asked me to show my artwork, and I never really get to do that. It's always funny to pull out this stuff and look at it. I realize that although I am always putting myself down or feeling like I'm not doing enough, I have so much stuff that I discovered that have been lying around for years, and I really want to make an exhibition and see what it looks like up on the walls, and have people look at it.

What materials have you been digging into lately?

I haven't printed anything since New York. What I did the last half a year in Vienna has all been on paper, I also applied to The Academy of Fine Arts this year, and I was maybe thinking too practical, and thought ahead about how I have to put this into a portfolio, and not on a canvas, but that's the wrong way to go about it. People go to the application process with huge canvasses and lots of crazy things. Actually paper is good. You feel less intimidated to ruin anything, so you can just throw it away.

Are there times where you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?

It's more like, how do I find the time and space to actually organize stuff, or get myself to be creative? It's not that I feel lost about my art or anything, I feel pretty good about it, and confident actually. I'm just trying to keep it easy. You can only do as much as you can, and step by step. I have this kind of faith that even if it's going to take another 10 years for me to have my first big exhibition or whatever, I'll do it. I'm not worried about that.

I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what’s happening tomorrow

What's your ultimate goal with your work?

The goal is to have a studio, and just be able to work as much as I can in there. I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what's happening tomorrow, and waking up with a picture that I created and being surprised by it.

What inspired that idea?

I took a trip to Dublin two years ago. I never really knew much about the artist Francis Bacon, but I saw this big retrospective at Metropolitan Museum and I was totally smitten. It was probably the one show that I will always remember based on that feeling it gave me when I looked at those canvases. I just wanted to have that feeling again. Maybe half a year later I thought to myself that I needed to see a Francis Bacon exhibition--I didn’t care where--so I just Googled it. He was Irish so there was this exhibition there to celebrate his 100th birthday if he were still to be alive. They transferred the studio that he had in London to Dublin for the show. They had a whole group of architects and archeologists, and they took every single item in his studio and photographed it and mapped everything out, and put it back together just as it was in that gallery. It’s now a permanent exhibit.

That studio almost brought me to tears. He was known for being very messy. Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady would not be allowed in his studio. She would try to keep his living space very clean because he had asthma, so it was important not to have it too dirty or dusty, but his studio—the dust would collect and collect, and he would actually incorporate it into his paint, which would give a really special structure. One day he didn’t have money for canvas, and he just turned around an old canvas, and used that one. He found out that he liked the backside of the canvas much better, so he did that from then on. It was a really emotional experience for me. That’s what art is really about. I’m not religious, but that’s like going to church for me. If I see a good art show, there’s nothing I can compare that feeling with.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Check out Kiky's website, or reach her at


A Letter to All Musicians--From Meghan Stabile


A Letter to All Musicians--From Meghan Stabile

Meghan Stabile

When I first met Meghan Stabile, I was amazed at how one seemingly reserved (emphasis on the seemingly), petite woman was behind one of the most massively growing, cutting edge, music cultures in NY. Founder of Revive Music Group, Meghan has been responsible for some of the ballsiest music mash-ups on stages all over the world as a show and festival curator. She's known mostly for revisioning traditional Jazz and hip-hop idioms in tandem. In the beginning, her ideas were highly risky concepts with sometimes high stakes involved, but through relentless work, she's one of the most reputable show producers in the city. That's why live musicians flock to her in droves, eager to play truly challenging and exciting music, but also to learn how to survive in an otherwise grueling music industry. With the increased frequency of producing Revive shows, as well as the creative machine behind The Revivalist(Revive Music Group's editorial arm), Meghan's deepest passion remains being an ally to musicians. To her, being a true ally means being pragmatic and honest in the deepest sense of both words.

As evidence of that, I approached her to do this piece because of this post on her Facebook wall that completely blew up and went viral:

In the spirit of the Facebook conversation that impacted hundreds of musicians, Meghan breaks down her advice further:

There are less labels out there, which means that you must fill the void. 

I work with mostly "Jazz" artists. There are only a few jazz labels out there that are alive and signing artists. Traditionally--and still to this day--jazz departments have the lowest budgets, obviously compared to most other genres. Nowadays, budgets are even lower, and what used to entice artists to get signed to a labels, just isn’t happening anymore. If it is, it's extremely rare. More artists are becoming independent, because they have to be.  More artists are putting out their own self-funded projects, just to get their names out there. It's either Indie or DIY. Labels are becoming extinct.

The music industry has changed, and you need to adapt.

The biggest reality check that musicians need is that we are no longer operating under the music industry’s old model, where an artist would get signed to a label, and the label would supply you with artist development, a person working on your promotional campaign, someone on publicity, another handling marketing, an art design department, folks running the studio, an executive producer. That's not the case anymore, so therefore artists need to adapt. The question is how, and what are we adapting too?

The myth of the manager—No, they will not do everything for you!

I get contacted all of the time by musicians asking for assistance and guidance. Some think the solution is getting a manager or agent. They don't need a manager at stage one or even stage five. The thought process that having a manager means that they are going to do everything for you is simply not a reality anymore. Managers and agents opt in when they see a reason too, mostly beyond what they are hearing. Even if you get signed to a label, you still have to handle the majority of the business yourself. Some managers are really great at taking on the majority of the work, however, my point is, it's a partnership that succeeds. Also, labels aren't always the solution to help you handle all of your business. They don’t always have the capacity or resources to develop you every step of the way like they used to. Either way, you must be more involved with the work.

Have realistic expectations when working with a manager.

For some, they have so many steps that they have to do before a manager is even going to want to come in the picture. If a manager is going to start from stage one, That potential manager has got to be in love with you--in love with your music, in love with you from the jump. They have to want to go through that entire process with you, through thick and thin with you. With that being said, as an artist, you have to be prepared to be on the same page with them; if they go hard, you must go hard too. Most managers will not take on a new client from stage one. You have to build yourself up, to where they take notice.

You need to build your work to a certain level before others are going to be able to help you successfully. 

Artists/musicians have to build themselves up to a point where industry professionals are going to take them seriously. As an artist, you have to come already prepared and ready to work. It's very rare that managers or agents will sign an artist without there being some kind of buzz already. The other factor that they look for is whether or not you're going to be making them money at some point. If they love you, they will invest, but they are investing in your success, which is ultimately their success. Many managers are stretched thin in this business. For them to invest their time into you, they are going to want to know what they are going to get back in return--even if it’s eventually. That's how managers and agents work. It is their livelihood to work on your behalf, and they have to see the value in your product. It sucks to even say it like that, but that’s the honest truth in how folks in the business think about it. Not all are machines, but again, when it comes to business, their are few that are in it for the art, the creative aspects, and the passion. For some, this is their JOB. Find the ones that love you first.

Creating the album is not enough.

Many artists think that after they put their work out on itunes, everyone’s going to want to buy it, and that everybody is going to know about you right away. Absolutely not. There is a level of promotion and marketing that artists need to be savvy to. Even artists signed to big labels come up with their own marketing campaigns that's later carried out by the label team. The point is, don't stop at the launch; be a part of the master plan.

Treat your music like it’s your business—because it is.

Many musicians think that all they have to do is create the music, and the audience will come. But to even be relevant in this fast pace, factory-like industry, where product is being pushed every second, treating your music like your own independent label has become more of a necessity.  Musicians have to understand that their music as a business. A lot of musicians don't even want to think about that--they want to worry ONLY about their creativity, and that’s the biggest mistake they can't afford.

Do your research—What business are you in?

You have to think ahead of the game, and not just make decisions because you assume a certain outcome will happen, based on what you think you’ve seen happen for others. You first have to know what business you are in. You have to reflect on the things that you’re doing in that business, and if they are going to make you successful based on YOUR situation, and not anyone elses. There are multiple ways, many scenarios, and more roads than one to achieve success.

Be your own director: Take your work more seriously than everyone else. 

You have to direct your own path. You’re the only one who is going to care 100% about your music and your craft. You may not know 100% how, when, who, or what--but you have to try. If you start at square one, or stage one--whatever you want to call it--then you're already on your way. No one is going to care about you more then you.  That being said, you have to oversee everything on your project. Even if you are on a label and you have a manager, the reality of the industry is that everyone is stretched thin, and every project is important. Unfortunately, your project is not the only project out there that they're going to be dealing with. You have to push some buttons to make sure people are on point, but you also must be on point. The key to that is knowing at every level what is going on. Even if you have a team of people working with you, you have to be at the center of the decisions being made to ensure that the decisions are in your best interest. However, always be open to suggestions.

Get people to flock to you.

Once you have your shit together, other people will start to come in and want to work with you because they will see the value of what you've created. You don't have to chase people down. If you know your music will speak--then let it speak, and they will come to you. If this sounds like a contradiction from everything else I've said, it's not. You still have to do all of the work.

Be open to criticism, but also be aware of who you are dealing with. 

It’s valuable for artists to seek advice and feedback, but more importantly, artists need to be open to the truth of both their limitations, and the realities of their environment. I once brought in a record to a label  years ago. It ended up being a very successful record. At the time, this label didn't think so, then it blew up. Sometimes, that's the name of the game when you work with certain labels. On a label level, there are a few people who are the gatekeepers, and well--if they don’t get it--you may not get put on. Try a different way. Don't rely on a label as your end all and be all.

Find a balance between vouching for yourself and stepping back. 

Musicians sometimes say, "I got the gig, I got the gig." That means they’ve gotten a gig that A) puts them on the road for a while and B) is their intro to the game. Often these gigs pay musicians shit money and for long periods gigging with the same artists. Most of these big gigs underpay musicians. Most musicians just starting out don't know or realize it until they've already signed on for the tour. Part of it is because they didn't know what they should be getting paid. There was nobody they could go to for advice, and they just wanted the gig. I'm not saying that if you are getting offered to play for huge artists, not to play. It's a great opportunity. You can't go in there with unreasonable demands either or you definitely won't get the gig, but at some point, don't feel you need to compromise what you deserve. You are making them sound amazing on stage and on their records. Your artistry is invaluable. They can always hire someone else that will accept the cheap check, but know that you don't have to do that. You must value your art, do the research on what’s fair pay, and negotiate when you can. It’s about finding that balance. The real gigs will demand real cats and you'll be happy in the end for not settling for anything less then what you deserve.

Business brainstorming is creative brainstorming.

I remember when my good friends Raydar, Jared, Lee and I used to sit down and come up with concepts for shows. We were in creative mode--using that other side of our brains. When it came down to business, it was a whole other story. Musicians especially need to be taught that you can do both, and through the act of doing it, you will start to deal with the business side much more comfortably. I think it would benefit musicians if they had more creative brainstorming sessions related to business strategies, like marketing. Musicians are naturally inclined to creatively problem solve, they have all types of crazy good ideas—and that can be applied to businesses. The key is to start seeing business in a creative light, because it is.

Things that you can start doing for yourself.

Musicians shouldlearn how to create strategic partnerships, and how to build a label around themselves. The tactical advice about acting as your own label is what artists need to put forth time and energy in learning. Again, that means understanding all departments, all divisions, all challenges you are dealt with, so you're able to not only understand what each thing is, but that you know how to engage each one separately, and together when needed. The time of becoming an entrepreneurial artist is NOW.

Be honest with yourself. 

I know many musicians who would never take any of this advice. They are left field--creative geniuses who won't do any of this stuff. It's just not part of their thought process. I wish I could say there are many managers, agents, and label people who will be there for you from stage one, from just hearing your demo, and who will want to go hard and fight for you. I hate to say it, but they're not out there. If if they are, there are very few, and they are stretched thin! This is a calling for more people that are willing to take risks, follow their passion, and not just the pay check. Sounds unrealistic, but I've lived it. Be honest with what you want at the end of the day. Who are you? What is your purpose and what do you want? How do you want to effect people with your music? What are you trying to accomplish. Once you have answered that for yourself, then all else falls into place with the work ahead.

To learn more about Meghan's work, visit The Revivalist, and follow Revive Music Group on Facebook and Twitter.

By Meghan Stabile, Compiled by Boyuan Gao

Feature photo by Eric Sandler


Fly on a Wall: Community, Solidarity, and Faygo, With The Insane Clown Posse


Fly on a Wall: Community, Solidarity, and Faygo, With The Insane Clown Posse

I've been a concert photographer for years, and have seen my share of interesting subject matters to document, especially working in New York City. One thing about me is that I like to shoot subgenre/underground things to see what's happening beneath the surface of what we think we know. Sometimes the things you learn on a shoot will really surprise you. The craziest/most bizarre photo job I’ve ever done in my entire photography career was ICP--Insane Clown Posse. Everyone knows something outrageous about Insane Clown Posse. They've been in the media for a few decades now, and usually not for anything positive. I wanted to understand why they had such a rabid following.

A friend of mine is a promoter, and he does the Rocks Off Cruises for about ten years, which are basically rock bands on a boat. He somehow fell in love with the Insane Clown Posse, and decided to host them when they came into the city one year, and planned to promote a show for them at Hammerstein Ballroom. I said, "I have to go and shoot this!" He said, "Sure. Just make sure you wear a rain coat."

We'll come back to this point later.

Upon arrival on my big night, the first thing that I noticed was that everyone was wearing some sort of makeup. Folks were in the line, scantily clad, and dressed in all types of outfits. The thing that struck me as most bizarre was that there were people of all walks of life. Most of them were clearly not from New York. You can usually tell because of their accents and the way that they carry themselves. There were also a lot of hipster-type kids, who I assumed were just there to be ironic.

There were five opening acts that were all part of the ICP crew, and they too were all wearing makeup, with a really horribly cliché barrage of girls dancing around poles on the stage. In my opinion the rap was not very good, but everyone there seemed to be really excited about that.

In anticipation of ICP performing, they brought on stage gallons and gallons of Faygo (a popular root beer from the Midwest) in preparation of spraying the crowd. The initial conversation that I had with the promoter when he told me, “Just make sure that you wear your raincoat, otherwise you're going to get wet," crept back into my head. But I was prepared.

I came equipped with my raincoat. So did all of the security in the photo pit. As the sticky, sugary liquids projectiled into the crowd, we started shooting, and people just started going buckwild and moshing all over the place. A full Faygo bottle flew through the air and hit my friend. I saw it happening, and thought, "Oh no, she's going to get hit," but I didn't move her out of the way from a flying two-litter totally intact bottle of Faygo. She wasn't badly injured, but incurred a bump, and proceeded to hide under the stage for the rest of the set out of fear. She did catch a really cool shot of the front row from underneath the stage, which was good enough of a payoff.

I was mildly afraid for my equipment, but fortunately for me, I had been in other mosh pit experiences before. It was just the surgary aspect of it that would have fucked up my shit. You had to get that shot in the middle of the Faygo fight. That was the money shot, and the sole reason for going at the end of the day.

For all of the photographers out there, here's a tip for mosh pits (should you ever find yourselves in this situation): If there are flying limbs out there, keep the camera as high up as you can, or you just make sure that you're high enough where you're not actually in the mosh pit. There are photographers who do go in the pit and get bounced around, but do it at your own risk.

Side note: "I saw my first moshpit with my mom but we thought it was a riot so we ran the hell out of there. The first actual moshpit that I saw and didn’t run away in fear of was at a Nirvana show. I know I'm dating myself as I say that. That was the first proper moshpit that I had ever seen."

For ICP, I was on the outskirts. Contrary to popular believe, there are rules to a mosh pit. People are generally pretty aware of their bodies. That is of course, until I hit an ICP mosh pit. These people really didn't know what the hell they were doing. Maybe drugs? It definitely wasn’t just alcohol. And as a result, I too sustained an injury, and got punched by mistake. They were actually quite apologetic about it and picked me up because I was hit to the ground. It wasn’t all violence however; lest me not forget to mention that amidst all of this insanity, I got a few marriage proposals.

The interesting thing about that group of audience was that they were probably so ostracized from society that they are totally loyal to each other. There are surely ICP followers with conventional professions, such as doctors and lawyers, but for the most part that's not the case. I really think that these concerts, for the fans, are really gatherings where they can really be themselves. The notable sign of a true ICPer is the adornment of ICP-style make up--but there are many other ways to show your allegiance to the Posse.

I went to the bathroom and a black bathroom attendant lady looked at me and said, "Please tell me you are not here for this show." Granted, their music is incredibly misogynistic and violent, but when she went off on a tirade about how not only was the music terrible, but they were "bastardizing our music that we started." something about that statement just really irked me. The truth is that we often take different things from many different cultures and change them as we see fit. I actually ended up defending ICP. I strongly believe that by their expression of themselves, they are not hurting anybody, and shouldn't be so harshly criticized by anyone, let alone this lady. The interesting thing to note is that despite all of this violent music, not a single fight broke out at the show, or any inkling of violence—except for the accidental ones out of people’s clumsiness more so than from malice. There was, in all actuality, so much love in that room. I didn't feel any type of animosity, or even scared of anything that went on that night. I think it was one of the most comfortable situations, despite getting punched accidentally, that I've ever had at a gig.

I thought it was going to be a bunch of drugged up, angry, violent and aggressive people moshing. There were people getting out their aggression, but it was done in a really communal way. The music was not so great, and the rhyming skills were subpar at best, but it was a positive community. The most unfortunate aspect of the event was not being able to meet the members themselves.

Words by Deneka Peniston as told to Boyuan Gao

Deneka Peniston is a New York based (mostly) music photographer, who has photographed hundreds if not thousands of bands and performers, ranging from Alicia Keys, to The Bouncing Souls. Her work is in high demand and coveted because of her consistently eclectic, energetic, and daring money shots, which were sure she's risked her life for.


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


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


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

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

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

What about the project piqued your interest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must have blew them away. 

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

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

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

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

Something I always say is that I’m Canadian. I was raised in the suburbs in the country. I listened to hip-hop in the 90’s but I was more into reggae and rock. I’m not a super hip-hop head and I don’t purport to be a hip-hop expert. I think it’s actually a benefit in building this program because I’m coming from a youth development perspective and as an educator and I’m really about transformative education. has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not...that’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, ‘oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself’ and so we have to facilitate that process.

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

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

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

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

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

How do you make that transition easier for them?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you envision long-term for the program?

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

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

 Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Trey Wilder


Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer


Feature Interview - El Curandero--Music of the Healer


El Curandero is Minneapolis based producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rico Simon Mendez' newest EP off of his imprint Cultura Love. I loathe saying things like that because this album is so much more than just the hotest new joint that just dropped. El Curandero is timeless, spiritual music that transcends so many cultural/genre constraints. Here are some things rather significant things that this interview + songs will make you question that will make you say "hmmm":

  • Does listening to too many artificial sounds have a negative impact on your psyche?

  • Does the camaraderie in musicians playing together actually give added benefit to the physical body?

  • What do you need to release your work and not hoard it?

Rico's play-by-play of each track will answer some of these questions.  

How did this EP happen?

This EP is kind of an awakening for myself again. It happened because I was re-acquainted with the Aztec dancers that I used to practice with before we moved to New York several years ago.

Tell me about Aztec dancers.

The Aztecs and the Mayans have traditional dances in their cultures. A lot of it is ceremonious.

One of the Aztec dancers was curating a show at the gallery, Dimensions of Indigenous. There was one day at that location to submit something.  I didn't think I would ever put these songs out, but decided to go for it. I got a listening station; a rocking chair that I put gods eyes around. I put these songs on a cd, placed some headphones up, and put up instructions that said "Please sit down. Wrap this blanket around you. Rock in the chair, and listen to my music." I made some cds to sell there, then I said to myself "what the fuck? Put out an album!" It was such a blessing. Those songs would probably still be in my hard drive if that exhibit didn't happen. The whole thing took me 3 days to put together.

Habla Indigena: Track 1

The first song is just all natural indigenous instruments from Mexico. I used to go to Mexico every year with my family, and would always see the natives play their music with clay flutes, and other instruments made of clay and skin. It was fucking dope and beautiful and would always match the environment. There was always something very healing and spiritual about that.

You're an instrumentalist, but also a producer. How did you first get into the more technical aspects of music?

I started out with a 4-track, a drum machine and cassette tape to song write and record my ideas. I got into DJing in ‘99, when this club opened up and they hired me as a DJ and a promoter. The club was based off of multimedia and I didn't even know how to use an email back then. The owner wanted me to report to him through the email, so he gave me a computer and showed me how to work it, and he ended up being my mentor as far as digital production goes.

How on this album do you negotiate between the organic sounds and the technical aspects just mentioned?

For the EP, the digital aspect of working on it was me trying to create soundscapes with lots of feeling to it, but would also match with the melody. That was my attempt to bridge those two worlds and create a balance. It seems like today, people don't really have the patience to go and learn an instrument. They want to go get a computer and have the whole world to them with sounds right there in front of them. It seems like it takes more energy from a person than giving energy to them. All of the electrical aspects of it: your screen killing your eyes, or the power--it zaps your energy, even your posture; the way you're sitting in a chair, and you're not moving. When you play an instrument or sing you're creating your own energy through your bodies, because that’s what our bodies do.

What’s your advice to musicians trying to strike a balance?

If they choose the digital path, I would tell them to just create music that is going to make them feel good, and make other people feel good, because that's what music is supposed to be about. I feel like a lot of music coming from the digital world is very harsh. They can come up with all of these crazy sounds now, but they can be really painful.

Sacred Voice: Track 2

A lot of times when you are trying to find your spirit, it's like you have to go through some shit--you find the light in the dark. This was kind of a transcendent piece--me trying to search for my own spirit where I had to do this chanting and get myself in a zone, and go through this journey to find out where I was. It’s kind of  like if you meditate, and you didn't realize how far away you were from yourself.

I made that song in the past two years, and a lot of that was due to working at The Open Center and taking the sound healing course, because I was never into chanting before. I wanted to take it to a sort of darker place to see how it would make me feel. It's kind of an experimentation, and I also brought in the Nigerian Udu drums on that track. Those are made out of clay, and are supposed to reflect water, to give the song a water balance to it.

What do you think you were you trying to overcome personally?

I don't know what specifically I was trying to overcome in the song. It could have been the chanting and the singing, because I don't sing for shit. This is my first time putting my voice out there.

Soul Luna: Track 3

I actually wrote that song for my older daughter Issa when she was first born. Her original name was Soul Luna, and then we changed it. As far as the influence of them, I really think about how music and frequencies are going to trigger one's spirit and really how it's going to make them feel. For Issa, that song was my interpretation of her coming from the divine and her whole spiritual journey to here to earth, coming through her mother Sarah, and coming out here. If that was a movie it would have been her song score.

What motivates you creatively? What’s your flow like?

It definitely changed after Sarah and I had our first baby. Before we met, it was music all day everyday. I was a full-time DJ and musician and I was always trying to work on music. Once we had the baby, everything kind of slowed down, and eight years later, my productivity kind of comes in spurts. Back in Minneapolis, I’m DJing a lot again, and doing gigs. As far as sitting down and writing, it doesn’t happen as often. When it does happen I feel like I can go a few days and just knock it out.

I love how you said it "changed" and didn't assign a judgment to that. 

My family is really important to me. When I write, a lot of times I think of how is it going to work with Sarah. We try to make our projects so that we can make a living doing it.

Shaman’s Dream: Track 4

Shaman's dream was imagined like a score. The way that I write music is like I'm scoring a movie in my head. Visually, Shaman's Dream is the shaman going on his vision quest. Rhythmically how the track starts off is--he's getting in his trance and slowly, once he is able to let go of his spirit, his spirit just soars. It's like he is flying into the sky, seeing his visions come to him. It ends out with him going back to where he came from.

Does music play a big part in your spirituality?

It's the number one for me. I feel like I actually got taken away and forgot about that, especially when we lived in New York. I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn't too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I'm hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I'm not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.

Canela: Track 5

That song is actually 10 years old.

Well it's new to everyone else. 

That's what I love about music. To me pure music is timeless. I did that song before I even met Sarah. That song was just more about gratitude to the simplest things. I used to wake up and my grandpa would always have coffee on, but it would always smell like cinnamon because Mexicans like to put canela sticks in coffee. The song is just talking about the feelings of those little things, the smell of cinnamon, eating fruit in the morning. Those things were so special to me.

How do you feel now that the EP is out in the universe?

It was really a blessing. It was also great that I was able to just make it happen, because normally I am not able to make shit happen like that.

Why not?

I'm so unorganized, and the biggest procrastinator, and I have mad fear of putting my music out there.

That doesn't sound unfamiliar to me at all, and in fact, it's brave for you to even say that. Now that you found the courage to put this out, what advice would you give to folks about putting their work out there?

I realized that I used to idolize other producers  because of their success of accomplishing and getting work out there. I would say, just do it! Dont think about it too much. Just make sure it's on point, and it ain’t sounding all shitty. Just put the stuff on Soundcloud and call it a day and share it on Facebook. That's where it's at now. Nobody is going to the store and buying a cd. It's all online. It's download nation.

Do you feel like now that you've released this work out there, you are energized to do more?

Definitely. I just don't know how I'm going to do it--like putting a new track up once a week. I noticed it helps a lot of musicians that just keep putting their work out there every week. That's how they build their name. At the same time you think of artists who have albums that you still sit down and speak about, they might have had a year or two years between albums. I think there are two different things. I think you can put your work out there all the time to help you start getting into that mentality of releasing stuff, like releasing your art. I also think there's something in taking your time and taking the patience of putting something that you are going to put all of yourself into.

Maybe it's about striking a balance?


Buy ElCuranderoas a holiday gift to help mellow your family out, or maybe yourself. I've used it for meditation for the past week, and it's really done me wonders. Follow Cultura Love on Facebook, andTwitter. All photos by © Sarah White for Fotosforbarcelona

 Words by Boyuan Gao


Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures


Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao


Nurturing Your Child and Your Creative Career: Some Tips From a Mom to Moms


Nurturing Your Child and Your Creative Career: Some Tips From a Mom to Moms


When I first met my dear friend Salama McGrier, I was struck by two things: her inimitable sense of style and the loving and lively rapport she shared with her then seven year-old son, Kahlil.  In addition to working a day job, I learned Salama was a talented seamstress, specializing in artisan leather goods, having honed her skills at the Fashion Institute of Technology and through numerous internships with reputable designers. We hit it off immediately and effortlessly eased into a close-knit friendship. I soon joined the ranks of Salama’s comrades as another chica in a long line of women to call themselves an auntie to Kahlil, now ten years of age.  I’d always admired the way Salama prioritized her passion for creating beautiful leather clutches, bags, and accessories with the great care, respect, love, and quality time she gives her awesome son. As Kahlil told me, "I think the stuff my mom makes is really nice and that she shouldn’t stop making them. When she does her leather work it makes me want to continue drawing." Recently, Salama and I got into a conversation about the challenges of balancing daily life as a single mom, working to pay the bills, and grinding it out in her studio; creating one beautiful piece after another. As part of our Creative Resources series, Salama offered her guidelines on the ongoing process of balancing your creative aspirations with the joys and challenges of being a mother.

Create a Spiritual Practice

“Regardless of your religion, spirituality, or whether you’re agnostic or an atheist, it’s vital to create a sense of peace that you can return to internally when life is challenging. Be it through making time to run, do yoga, or meditate or whatever it is - it’s essential to have a spiritual core.  As a mother, you’re constantly multi-tasking; much of your energy goes to your child. It can be really difficult to be present. It’s one of the biggest challenges. When I wake up in the morning I feel like I have two brains working simultaneously – one is for my child and one is for my career and me. It’s almost like my brain is a set of Siamese twins - if one is lacking, the other suffers. I’m always thinking of how to make full use of my time. I wake up like, ok, I have to get all of this work done but then I have to think, what’s for dinner? What’s for breakfast? Are his clothes clean? Did I check his homework? Does he have snacks for when he gets home from school? So the challenge and opportunity is to always make sure I’m keeping both sides of my  brain alive and healthy. Fortunately, I'm a member of theSGI Buddhist organization and a leader in my district. I have my Buddhist practice and my Buddhist community, which I can always depend on to rejuvenate me when I’m struggling and reinvigorate my sense of purpose. It’s really important that we moms - and everybody really - have some type of spiritual center. It has nothing to do with religion, it’s about having a place you can turn to to keep you sane and centered.”

Allow Your Children to Teach You What You Need to Learn

“It’s hard to see your child struggling and you definitely see how kids struggle with their peers and studies in school. Like me, my son is very bright and very artistic. At the same time, he sometimes struggles academically. For me, it was the same. I used to have really low self-confidence due to my struggles with academics and so my art suffered. It was really hard for me to complete a project. I knew I could do it - but I was so afraid of not succeeding. Yet, when I would finish something, I would blow my own mind. Since I’ve had my son and have helped him deal with his fears, it’s made me realize I’m still dealing with my own fears.  Helping him has caused me to address and confront those fears, which I’ve only recently been able to conquer. For example, I had a sewing machine for 14 years. I had only used it once and I never sewed a complete garment or bag on the sewing machine. I was afraid of it because it reminded me of academics…it felt alien to me. I always sewed with my hands because my hands were moving with my body…I had full control over it. With the machine, I had to trust it, have patience, and learn it. With Kahlil, I would notice that he didn’t have patience learning new things and then I realized, wait - I don’t have patience learning new things. It’s a simultaneous learning experience when you have a child and it’s a beautiful thing. You can pretend you don’t see that, but if you choose to look past that and only see their flaws, and not how it’s reflecting back to you, then you’re missing out. Children are a new opportunity. Having a child has really pushed me. In the last ten years of my life I’ve become really strong. How can I tell him to pursue his dreams if I don’t? It’s really important to become those role models for our kids. How can we tell them to go to school if we’re not continuing to educate ourselves? Sometimes people can feel like well, I can’t pursue my dreams because I have a child but your kid will eventually leave. You have a 10 year-old kid? Remember when he was in your stomach? That was just a minute ago. In ten years he’ll be gone and then what are you going to do? You don't want to be in a position where you're clinging to your children because you didn’t pursue your dream.”

Sometimes people can feel like well, I can’t pursue my dreams because I have a child but your kid will eventually leave. You have a 10 year-old kid? Remember when he was in your stomach? That was just a minute ago. In ten years he’ll be gone and then what are you going to do? You don’t want to be in a position where you’re clinging to your children because you didn’t pursue your dream.

Introduce Your Children to Activities That You Enjoy and Feed You Creatively

“Ever since Kahlil was as young as four years old, I have been taking him to cultural and art events. We go to art galleries, or to see live music and I think it’s really important for his growth. I don’t just mean going to the Museum of Natural History, which is great – I mean that it’s also important to take children to more intimate creative spaces. They can explore and get a feel for the different kinds of people who are around and for the environment...I’ve often taken him to shows where friends of mine are having openings or performing. It sends him a message that it’s important to show support for people in your community and to support the work of your friends and peers. It’s a win win situation for both of us because it’s something that I enjoy doing and draw from for my own inspiration. I’m bringing him into my world and making him a part of that instead of keeping him separate and I’m allowing him to form his own opinions about that world. It also gives him a respect for what I do. This past weekend I was part of a craft fair at 3rd Ward. Kahlil was a huge help with setting up and preparing. He understood why I was working late into the night to makes sure I had enough product. He's also not afraid to share his passions with me. Kahlil loves anime [Japanese cartoons and computer animation] and he’s gotten me into that. I wouldn’t have known about that world had he not introduced me to it and so we’re both sharing our lives with one another. I started sharing my interests with him early on and that made him more apt to share with me so now that’s a ritual, we’ll watch anime together on the weekends and it really inspires me visually, in terms of my own art."

Use Your Resources

“Don’t wait for your friends to ask, ask for help. It can be very challenging as a mom to ask for help. There’s a stigmatism that people are just dumping their kids on other people. You don’t want to impose or feel like you’re asking for a handout. It can be hard, but you have to ask for help. The thing is, is that people are more prone to want to help people who are helping themselves. If people see you actively working on your art, business, project, or career they’re going to be more willing to support your efforts. Some women will substitute their dream for their child but you have to be careful that you’re not using that child as an excuse. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It can be a natural thing that can happen. I don’t think anyone has to give up their dreams because they have a child. You have to reorganize your life. You have to believe that your life is infinitely expandable. I don’t care how old you are, you can always start a new career but you have to push hard for it. I know that’s not easy. Sometimes I want to just lay in bed and evaporate [laughs] but then I’ll see a women with three kids who is grinding and that puts things in perspective. Don’t be afraid to make requests of the people in your life who love and support you. You don’t have to carry all of the weight alone. People will help, but you have to ask."

Take Small Steps Daily

“If you’re working on a project or feel like you need an artistic outlet, just do one small thing a day. Those little things add up; some days I would feel like I didn’t do anything. Then I look back and I can see how much those small efforts I made paid off. You set the intention and things start coming towards you.  I knew I wanted to work with leather. One day I was walking home and I found a bag of leather remnants, which I took home. It turns out there was a husband and wife who had an upholstery store across the street from me. They saw me one day looking around in their garbage for more leather and they said, ‘you know, we have tons more to give if you’d like some.’ I ended up walking home that day with two industrial garbage bags full of leather which I’m turning into amazing tote and clutch bags. The point is, is to get started. When you have a child, you really start to think about how you’re spending your time. I remember thinking I had no time before I had a child and now I realize all of the time I actually had! You have to cut out all of the things you’re doing that are not serving you. When I started to make more time to do my art, I lost the desire to drink just to get drunk or to spend my time in ways that weren’t beneficial and I was way more happy and satisfied in those moments.  I would say to moms, just start today. Just do a little. In order to be a great parent, you have to be a great person and you have to be happy with yourself. You can’t be your best if you’re not happy with yourself. I think it’s really important to take care of yourself. Do little things that are special for you. Nurturing yourself is very important. If your art is what nurtures you, it has to be a top priority.”

You can check out more of Salama's line, here: LEATHERSHMEATHER on Etsy.

Words by Jahan Mantin

All photos by Tom Tumminello


Feature Interview - Joshua Mays: Meditations on Canvas


Feature Interview - Joshua Mays: Meditations on Canvas

It took me a few months to track down painter/muralist Joshua Mays. As I was cyber sweet-stalking him (as my colleague would say), he was in the middle of transitioning from Philly, where he had been rooted for the past several years, to his new home in The Bay Area--Oakland. 

I was initially drawn to Joshua's work after following him on Facebook for the past year or so, where seemingly like clockwork, he would release a new ridiculously dope painting pretty much everyday. His unyielding production seemed superhuman to say the least, and I wanted to learn more about his process. And so I emailed him incessantly, until he responded and agreed to an interview. 

It takes two seconds of exposure to his work to realize that he's brilliant. Joshua's now ubiquitous psychedelic and otherworldly style have been coveted and sought after by recording artists, such as Jill Scott and Jneiro Jarel for album covers. He's been commissioned to create monstrous sized murals in multiple cities, and exhibited his work worldwide.

Here's a short phone conversation we had, where he shared about his ways of avoiding creative blocks, the concepts behind his work, and how he keeps moving from city to city. 

So you're from Denver originally?

Yes I am.

What brought you from Denver to Philly, and now to The Bay?

I guess it’s pretty much just staying on the move, finding a more mature art scene, an art scene that will progress my career. When I was in Denver, the Denver scene was mostly in galleries, and if you went into a gallery, you'd see mostly Native American art or cowboy art, and not much in the realms of what I'm trying to construct. So I went to Philly and found a lot of like-minded and progressive people, and then it was time to move on...I just got to The Bay a few weeks ago.

You hit the ground running as soon as you touched down in The Bay, with the “Love and Momentum,” show. Can you explain how those two concepts came together for that?

That was a show that I had in February of this year. It refers to the idea of living a balanced life. It was focused on my personal flow--me doing the things that I love and just come naturally for me--and applying the resourcefulness that I've had to build as well as the work ethic. It’s about learning life moving in that direction--flowing, and creating work based upon that. In terms of the type of work that was created for the show, it's pretty much what I said. There wasn’t a theme flowing, that connected everything with each other in terms of everything being done within a certain span of time. There were certain group of pieces that I created specifically for the show while I was out here visiting The Bay.

I would say my spiritual orientation is that of just being open to change, which means not having much attachment to most things.

Your work is very reminiscent of the iconic Bitches Brew artist Mati Klarwein. Were you influenced by him?

I definitely know Mati Klarwein's work, to say the least. He's most certainly an influence when it comes to the way he depicts reality and psychedelia. I definitely know his work and am influenced by him. I go back and refer to his work a lot to see the solutions he utilized for certain problems.

Your work, like Klarwein’s is very ethereal. Where does that come from? Do those concepts come from a specific spiritual orientation?

I would say my spiritual orientation is that of just being open to change, which means not having much attachment to most things.  In general, I like the idea of just being an explorer, flowing in and out of different ideas. I definitely appreciate storytelling, and in general, I think storytelling is what makes art and humanity really worthwhile, and one of the things I really do love in humanity. I think a lot of what makes religion captivating as well, is storytelling--is people relating themselves to somebody else’s story, and their push through struggle. I wouldn't be surprised if a couple Millennia from now, we see religion based upon the stories of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, based upon their stories and how time also enhances and embellishes upon the narration of people's struggles.

Are there times where you feel like you hate what you are working on, or stop enjoying the project, but continue to do it anyways?

In terms of blocks? I don't. I guess I just have moments when my flow, my inspiration, is just lower than other times, and I tend to just scribble circles across a page, and just create whatever I can out of those. But I know there's so many directions that I could go creatively. I just love drawing and painting so much, so I rarely have times when I'm not drawing or painting. 

That seems rare. Most creatives talk about getting blocked or unmotivated every now and then. What seems to be your technique from preventing blockages?

When it comes to creating an exhibit, all I can do is produce within my means. I just keep moving on, keep adding one thing to another thing, which leads to another thing. Being willing to jump from city to city as I have been over the past few years helps out: a new group of people, a new group of conversations, a new place to explore, the ability to take advantage of new opportunities--again just paying attention to myself, being open to what change has to offer.

It's definitely just about getting to a point where I'm not thinking too much about my work--not just not thinking about my work--but how other people think about my work. I can just imagine being blocked based upon thinking about those things that I can't control. That's what I see could cause a block.

I think a big part of creating is just losing yourself and not getting caught up in critiquing yourself too much, and allowing yourself to produce shitty stuff as well as the dope stuff [laughs]. And don't be too hard on yourself, and sincerely do the work because you enjoy it. I have to give myself a lot of room when it comes to that conversation.

I think a big part of creating is just losing yourself and not getting caught up in critiquing yourself too much, and allowing yourself to produce shitty stuff as well as the dope stuff.

Was there ever a time in your life that you didn’t know you were an artist? Or did you have a revelation at birth that you were supposed to be one?

I've been drawing and painting since--I’d say I started drawing I was 3 or 4 years old. and I haven't stopped at all since. But in terms of as a career path, it probably was more like I was 7 or 8 years old when someone said to me that I could be an artist for a living. I thought that would be cool at the time. I think I also thought about being a baseball player and a runner, because I liked doing those things when I was 7 as well. I didn't really play baseball that much, but it seemed like a cool thing to do. Then I eventually gave up on those other things, but kept drawing and painting. I knew my ultimate ability of enjoying myself and my work involved me creating art, and so I knew I had to be an artist. That opened up a door to a building with so many rooms. There was a lot of searching and finding, testing, until I came to the decision to become an artist. I’ve done a lot to get here, but I’m glad to be in the position that I'm in right now. 

What’s your day-to-day like in terms of producing work?

My main work sessions are at night, usually sometime between 12 midnite to 3 o'clock in the morning.

I always listen to music, and I'm almost always caffeinated. I generally try to drink green tea, and occassionally I drink coffee, but usually I get jittery from coffee, but I do love caffeine.

Where can people buy your prints or hit you up for commissioned work?

I have a website in the works. Stay tuned for that.

Words by Boyuan Gao

All original artwork by Joshua Mays (images courtesy of Joshua's Facebook page)


Maya Azucena and Rae Maxwell: The Beauty That Emerged From Violence


Maya Azucena and Rae Maxwell: The Beauty That Emerged From Violence

Singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador, Maya Azucena, and photographer/multi-media artist RaeMaxwellare like those two gals you meet at a friend of friend's around-the-way get-together and immediately feel in the midst of good company. They're sharp, powerful, beautiful and funny; the kind of women you can chat animatedly with about world affairs and then effortlessly switch to deep ponderance over why so many urban menfolk choose to shout out, "God Bless you ma" in lieu of proper come-ons. In short, they're my kind of women.It's easy to see why the duo are a good match; Maya's talkative and open nature is perfectly symbiotic to Rae's subdued and introspective vibe. CultureFphiles spoke with the uber talented ladies about their work on Lines In My Skin (LIMS), an online photo essay, shot by Maxwell, detailing a day in the life of a woman in an abusive relationship. Azucena plays the starring role, pulling from her real-life experience in a former abusive relationship of seven years. I was drawn to LIMS via the juxtaposition of images; Azucena’s initial joyful disposition contrasted sharply with images of her and her abuser in their home. I was also intrigued by Maxwell’s use of color, saturation, and tone.

LIMS premiered as an installation and panel discussion at the Brooklyn arts and event space, Free Candy, in March of 2012 drawing roughly 100 attendees. CultureFphiles spoke with May and Rae to chat about their experience creating LIMS, how they navigate their own process of creation, and the far-reaching effects of the project.

How did Lines in My Skin come to fruition?

Maya: I was introduced to Rae through a common friend and I thought she had an incredible eye. In the course of us meeting, we also had this mutual artistic respect and so we just put it out there, like, let’s do something together. I had this vision of dealing with my domestic violence experience. I was in a very abusive relationship [for seven years] and I thought that she would be able to handle something edgy and dark. I knew it was going to be a very vulnerable experience for me and Rae’s work inspired me to have the courage to approach the idea.

Rae: I didn’t know that.

Maya: Yeah…I was brainstorming and I could see this visual image of me in a fetal position on the floor. I sent the idea to Rae and she responded that she had had a vision of that the night before. I was blown away that she had somehow come up with the same idea without us even consulting one another. The synergy somehow felt divine. I had a specific visual to photograph the interaction between me and a man. Rae had the idea to start with me being very composed, beautiful, free…and then gradually show the descent to me being balled up on the floor.

You’ve mentioned in the written piece of the photo exhibit that you believed you were strong, and that’s why you stayed in the relationship. That alters the image we have of women in abusive relationships as weak or passive.

Maya: And the thing is, is that at the time I had the same persona. My nickname was happy-go-lucky. I’m motivational and inspirational and identifiable and very sunny… people had no idea this guy kept me up all night punching me in the arms or pulling out a knife on me. I didn’t tell anyone. A couple of my best friends knew he was abusive but they didn’t have a clue of the extent.

Did you view the abuse as your own personal battle?

Maya: I didn’t view it as a battle. I viewed it as me trying to help him become the potential I saw in him…he would often say to me, ‘well, you know what I’ve been through.’ But what occurred to me was that your reasons do not constitute an excuse. You have reasons - but you are not excused from your actions and that’s what I got confused in my own reality. The other thing was that I didn’t think I was being abused. I knew I was with an abuser but…it’s just a weird perspective. I was like ‘I’m strong, I’m not one of these girls, I’m not afraid of him’ so I didn’t realize I was suffering the same circumstances of a person who is afraid to leave. It was like an addiction. I stayed because I was obsessed with succeeding. We were going to succeed at this thing. I thought I could believe in love for the both of us, and those were my errors.

Rae, how did that affect the way you came up with the storyline and shot everything?

Rae: I feel like the first time we really spoke about it [the abuse] was when we were about to shoot. We spoke briefly about the visual goal but I didn’t know her actual situation until she was in my home. I’m glad it happened that way because we wouldn’t have the product we had now. We must have about 150 photos from that shoot but we selected 50 to tell the story.

Maya: I wanted it to be really daring. I love Rae’s instincts. She pushes boundaries – she has contrasts in the images…unexpected combinations. I am, personally, wanting to push my fans expectations of me…I wanted them to be able to really get how severe an abusive relationship is.

How did that feel?

Maya: It felt very vulnerable because this is one of the first times I’ve dealt with it in art.  I write about it [and] I sing about it in my songs but it’s sort of peripheral…but this was very literal.

I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.
— Azucena

Were there moments where you thought, I don’t want to do this anymore?

Maya: No. Never. I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.

Rae, you mentioned you had experience with domestic abuse; was that hard for you when shooting? 

Rae: I think I’m really good at locking emotions, sometimes to a fault. I tend to be very visual but feel like there is a madness going on up in my head…I tend to shoot in the dark a lot with no lights - so when I was shooting, I had to ignore my own fantasy of what I think she [Maya] experienced and try to focus on what she experienced at that time. I also was thinking of what others close to me have experienced with domestic violence so I wasn’t even thinking of me, I was thinking of what other people had told me, and trying to focus on the task at hand.

Maya: It was actually very practical and technical. I didn’t feel super emotional during the shoot. It was seeing how the photos manifested once I saw how she captured these moments. I was like, wow - you do get it.

How did you feel when you were choosing the photos?

Rae: The first person who saw the photos were my mother. When my mother saw them, she started bawling…and I thought, maybe we have something here. When I’m looking at my work I just feel like I fucked it up. It takes some time. When you’re looking at an image or video over and over again, I lose perspective. So, sometimes I have this terrible fear.

Maya: When I saw the photos I was like, she nailed it. I felt so good about the decision to do this project with you. I had no idea until we were at the panel for the installation that you had any personal experience with domestic violence until then.

Rae: Because this was about you.

Maya: I know but I had no idea that this was relatable to you. When I saw the images I was blown away.

Can you elaborate a bit more on the fear you were feeling? Do you often question if the work is good or not good?

Maya:  I was entering new ground on this project because my forte is singing. It was very vulnerable for me to write my story [the written element to the photography installation]. I wanted to make sure the writing had literary integrity so that people wouldn’t get distracted by some inadequacy there and lose the actual story.  So, there was a bit of a fear and an anxiety in exposing myself in that way.

Rae: I never look at the photos as I’m shooting because I feel that that is a luxury. We used quite a bit of film that day.

I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created.
— Maxwell

What do you mean when you say it’s a luxury to look at images when you shoot?

Rae: I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created.  Aside from lighting yes – you have to look at the picture to make sure you’ve got the lighting right more or less but once I start, I don’t look- I can’t look. So of course I’m sort of doing it to myself because I don’t really know exactly what I have just created. I just feel like it’s not fair to be able to see that…because it was never like that. No great art was created like that a hundred years ago and I have a bit of a grudge about that.

How did it feel to be at the actual exhibit/installation?

Rae:  I never imagined I would end up at an event like that where there was so much support and unity. It was kind of hard to be in a room where we were the center of the attention and that was kind of strange for me but I felt so happy that I got to do this with you and that I got to help you do this.

Maya: It was groundbreaking for me. This is the furthest I have revealed this particular element of my life. I guess I had to be ready but I was super glad it was with you. It’s also the kind of thing that if it is handled improperly, it wouldn’t be effective. It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value.  This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.

What did you take away from this experience? 

Maya: I went to Tanzania after the exhibit. I was doing a performance as part of a community event to discuss domestic violence in the community of Arusha and the surrounding area.  A male choreographer from Madagascar, who lives in Arusha, saw Lines In My Skin online and was so moved by it that he performed a modern dance piece to it in Tanzania with 8-foot high images from the photo shoot behind him and quotes from my story in rotation. He actually dressed up as a woman in a relationship and danced with a male counterpart and did this intense dance. By having the courage to tell this story… seeing how it can impact people globally and the power of art to do that and how profound it is. It was groundbreaking in their community. One, a man talking about domestic violence in Tanzania is incredibly unusual and the fact that he was so moved he dared to do something that was never before done, dressing up as a woman and performing a modern dance…this is stuff we can imagine in New York. It is unimaginable in their community. That allowed me to see the potential of this project.

It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value. This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.
— Azucena

Rae: The fact that I even got up on a discussion panel was unimaginable for me. I realized that if I didn’t, I would be the thing that gets women into trouble in the first place. Where they hold themselves back from doing what they really should do. I felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I didn’t just get over myself and get up there and talk. Personally, that was fantastic but the thing about me is that I’m shooting a lot for other people and so I felt so happy that I was able to give something to Maya in a way that made her feel like ‘ok, I acknowledged and I dealt with it in the best way possible.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to give her something out of such a shitty experience. That to me is what keeps me going. I want people to look at my work and keep something that I created with and for them.

To hear and learn more about Maya Azucena's music and her humanitarian work, click here:

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View Lines In My Skin in its entirety

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credits: Rae Maxwell