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American artists have often found a particularly welcoming audience throughout Europe. From early Jazz performers in the first half of the 20th century to independent Hip Hop artists in the 1990's, it's often the case that non-charting musicians support their craft on the international circuit. While Hip Hop artist Akua Naru is adamant that Cologne, Germany is just a base for her meandering travels and an incessant tour schedule, there's no doubt she has benefited from that musical base.
In 2011 Naru released her debut album, The Journey Aflame, on German-based Jakarta recordsand followed up with a live-band interpretation of many of its songs the next year with Live & Aflame Sessions. Currently working on her next project, which will feature a special guest in the form of famed drummer Bernard Purdie, Akua took some time to speak with Project Inkblot about her perspective as a writer, a recent confrontation on the road and Hip Hop's global relevance.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is your being an American artist based in Europe, can you talk about how that lends itself to a different perspective or set of opportunities?
Of course it’s a bit different here, there are a lot of opportunities for artists to tour in Europe, I would say on a much larger scale. People here are willing to support artists that are not signed to major record labels, they just gotta like the music, you know? And I think that this is the reason why a lot of artists in the states [that] might have had a record out ten or fifteen years ago know that they can come to Europe and do really well just performing in different cities country to country. And in many ways it’s been great just travelling city to city and performing. I mean in terms of where I’m based, I don’t know if it really matters, I like Cologne a lot but I travel a lot. So it’s just that, it’s a base and because I’m here I’m able to be in other places [as well].
This may be a loaded question, but going to a place like Zimbabwe or going to Amman, what’s it like going to these places where a lot of Hip Hop artists don’t end up touring?
I mean, each place is different. It’s really great, it really continues to bring to my attention how amazing Hip Hop is. Like, I’ve been places where I’ve seen people where you would think there was no point of connection, they might be older or younger or they look totally different or they speak a different language, but they could rap the same song that I love, whatever song it is. Breakers, poppers, lockers, graffiti artists. I was in India a few months ago and I was teaching some Hip Hop workshops and I also gave a few performances, and just to see, you know, just to work with these women on writing their own rhymes and telling their stories. To see how they came into the workshop and the kind of performances they delivered as we were leaving this workshop, it’s just amazing.
Who would have thought that Hip Hop would have become so global? When Erykah Badu said it’s bigger than the government, in many ways she’s right. It’s really great, it’s powerful, it’s amazing to see how this culture has given voice to so many people, and to be able to connect with these people in their space, in their world and to be able to share my gift, it’s a dream-come-true for me. And it’s one that I don’t take lightly. It’s the grace of God, there is no way to describe how it feels. And also I think to represent the women in Hip Hop it makes it even more powerful.
I think it’s kind of a tired topic at this point to think about the lack of female emcee’s and maybe that’s because that’s a conversation that needs to emphasize the exposure of female emcees rather than the lack of them.
You’re right, it’s not about the lack of women but about the kinds of exposure that women Hip Hop artists are given, that’s really a good point.
I read that you and your band were recently confronted by a group of people in Romania, can you explain what happened?
It was in Hungary. Well actually the show was in a city called Cluj in Romania and it was awesome, we sold the place out, I think the maximum capacity was a thousand and they let in an extra 350 people, a lot of them had come a distance to come to the concert. I was really honored, it’s a great feeling to be an artist and to know that people are listening and will go to that extent to see you live. Like what else could you [ask for] as an artist? So I was already on a high from that and we were on our way back and, like I mentioned, we had stopped in Hungary in a rest area and I didn’t realize that we were being confronted by Nazi’s. I mean, these were people that seemed to be aggressive and they were chanting something that I didn’t understand. But I had just thought that they were celebrating a soccer match because you know people over here go crazy over soccer, so I just didn’t think twice about it although when we rolled up the way that they looked at me was kind of strange but my head was somewhere else, I wasn’t thinking about it.
And then as the situation started to unfold—you know I’m from the States, I remember growing up and seeing the Ku Klux Klan assembling outside of a supermarket, but I didn’t grow up where we were familiar with the whole Nazi language, of course they have the same premise that skinheads and the Klan [do], I mean, you know they operate from the same foundation. Some of the gestures [and] some of the language they use to hurt and to threaten and to imitate, it was foreign to me, I didn’t know that that’s what they were doing, I didn’t get it until a few minutes later when the people who I was with had made me aware of what they were trying to do and then it was really clear because they started to come to stand outside of the glass and started staring through the window. It was very clear then of course what their problem was and they wanted to aggress some of the people I was with.
And it was just—you know as much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t be telling the truth and it’s important for me to be honest. Normally I wouldn’t post anything personal online but I thought about it for a few days and thought 'no, let me share this experience that happened to me' because a lot of people are in denial of very explicit and obvious situations like that so of course they’re going to be in denial of racist incidents that are a bit more subtle. Yeah, I was really hurt by that. It’s obvious that we can’t go anywhere that we want to go. And as the situation escalated I wondered if the police would have supported us and to what extent with the story that I’m telling. So I’m grateful that we were able to get out of there without it turning into something more.
I think it speaks to the fact that the work that you and other musicians and academics do is still incredibly important.
Absolutely, whether or not this situation happened or not, you know what I mean? There are definitely instances that happen everyday, some not as extreme as that one, that reveal to us that we have a lot more work to do and that make me grateful to know that there are people in the world—there are musicians and some scholars—who are trying to make changes, that are trying to forge social justice in institutional change and it’s definitely necessary, it’s urgent and it’s important. I wasn’t really shocked unfortunately. We don’t live in a world where we’ve accomplished as much as we would like to think we have, we got a lot of work to do. So I wasn’t really surprised, I was hurt by it to be honest, but I know that there are a lot of fascist movements and there are a lot of people who don’t want progress.
Is that something that motivates your writing?
To be honest, I’m just writing. Of course I’m a Black woman, me being a woman and me being a Black woman has a lot to do with my identity and how I see the world and that comes across in my writing and in my message, my perspective and my ways of thinking [about] and being in the world, absolutely. I don’t know if I’m positioning myself, I’m not sure—I would have to think about it—I’m just writing what’s important to me and addressing issues that are important to me first.
And I guess that in me understanding that these issues are important to me they’re important for me to communicate for myself for other people who identify as I [do] might relate, and people who don’t might relate as well. That’s the beauty of creating art, it reminds us that we’re human, you know? And that we see ourselves in other people’s work. To your question, I’d have to think about how I’m framing myself, I don’t know if I’ve yet built a frame, you know. When I sit down and say iI want to write this,' I’m just interested in writing and communicating something first, I’m not meta-analyzing in the moment that I’m creating.
Hearing you talk about it and in your music it’s obvious that you really love writing.
Absolutely. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. If you let my mother tell you she’d tell you, I don’t know how I learned to read, I’ve always had just a natural love for reading, writing and literature. For as far back as I can recall, having memories, recalling events, they always involve me writing, reciting, recollecting, you know, and just putting it down. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I hope that I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life because it’s something that brings me great joy.
Well leading from there, you’re working on some new material. I guess you were working with Bernard Purdie in the studio, that’s crazy. So can you talk a little about what you’re working on and then just having the opportunity to work with people like Bernard Purdie or Angelique Kidjo or ?uestlove?
To answer that question, it’s very short, it’s a great, great honor. To me as a poet, as a writer, sometimes it’s difficult for me when I have to accept that I don’t have the words to describe something, it hurts, but I don’t have the words to describe that. All I can settle for is to say that it’s an honor and I’m really grateful, I thank God. It’s an honor to be able to create and work with people that are legendary, amazing artists, it’s a great honor.
To answer your question about Purdie, I’m working on my new album and he is a special guest and I’m very happy about that. So that’s what that’s about basically. It’s awesome.
I think some people will see Bernard Purdie and get excited immediately and others may not know him but will be able to appreciate the work that he’ll provide.
And I think that the people that don’t know him, they’re not conscious of it but they do know him, they’ve heard him, you know what I mean? If you listen to “O.P.P.” [by] Naughty By Nature or I could write a list of tracks where his beats, his drums were sampled, if you listen to Hip Hop music, you have heard him. So maybe they’re not conscious of knowing him but they do know. He’s a legend.
Your last album was really centered around the live music and interpolating some of those tracks for a live band, I would guess that the new album is going to feature the band as well?
I can’t tell you too much Jay [laughs]. Well I’ll just say for myself as a writer that you can be sure that the narrative is still going to be progressive, political, honest. Musically, it’s going to be Hip Hop of course. There are going to be some live elements as well, I’ll just say that. It’s definitely not going to be that when you listen to the album you’re going to think 'what?' You know, it’s kind of just like the next logical step. But definitely there will be some live influences on the album.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, I know you’re busy and in a different time-zone, so obviously we’ll be looking forward to the new album, whatever approach you’re taking with it.
Thank you for listening, it really is a great honor to know that people are listening because when I sit down and write I’m not thinking about the people, not to sound selfish, but when I sit down and write I think first about myself and being honest and true to the story that I need to expel and it’s about me first. And to know that when I’m being my most honest I could connect to people and that this could be a story of truth for other people, that’s a great honor. Just to know that people are listening, paying attention and following, that’s the highest compliment for an artist and I really appreciate you for that.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter.
I had the opportunity to meet Daniel Alexander Jones many, many years ago while we were both teaching artists at CenterStage in Baltimore. Daniel was a thoughtful playwright, educator, and activist; we were like-minded spirits and quickly connected. Fast-forward a decade and a half later, he’s now a tenuredProfessor of Theatre at Fordham University.
In addition to his teaching gig, Daniel is also a brilliant performance artist. We reconnected in 2011 while he was in preparation for his cousin's (wink, wink) show, Radiate, in New York City. The creation of his fictional cousin, Jomama Jones, a dynamic stage performer in the likeness of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Nona Hendryx, has resulted in performances heralded by The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Village Voiceto name a few. Jomama’s performances are a combination of poetry, storytelling, song, and political and social commentary. Her rock-pop-folk –soulful music coupled with her reflections on her time abroad, musings on the human condition, elegant humor, and genuine warmth penetrates the hearts of her audiences’ and are akin to attending a spiritual revival.
Yes, I’m a fan. Jomama Jones is real and she will fill your heart with love.
Below is a recent conversation with Daniel and Jomama in Central Park. I encourage you to read thoughtfully as this is a lesson in a holistic view of the creation of character and invites you into the depth of one’s creative process.
Now, I know Daniel and Jomama are related but when did the two of you first meet?
DAJ: In 1995, I was working on what would become my first full-length performance - Blood:Shock:Boogie an autobiographical, comic book piece that looked at my childhood. I referencedSaturday morning Soul Train. While working on that section, this figure came raging into being - Jomama Jones. In the piece, she was receiving a Lifetime Achievement award on Soul Train from Don Cornelius and when she comes out to accept the award it doesn’t go very well because she is adamant that while she’s receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award that it’s not the end of her career. When performing Jomama then, I found that her energy was almost bigger than the world of that piece.
Was this a one-person show?
DAJ: It was, but nothing I ever do is only one person so I ended up having two other people with me. Most of the work I do is performance art.
Define performance art for you?
DAJ: The site of the work is the actual experience of performing it and of witnessing it as an audience member. There is a degree of spontaneity and improvisation in the making and the doing of it. The components of text, image, gesture or choreography, and music are meant to have fullest realization in the moment they come together in the act of performance. Whereas, I would say that it’s slightly different than traditional theater, where many of the things have been locked before they meet an audience.
I’ve known Daniel in many different settings - as a director, an educator, and playwright. He seems more structured in his process and Jomama seems much more improvisational in nature. And when she’s performing, she is fully realized.
DAJ: I observe that there is a ‘twin-ing.’ I don’t want to call it a duality because I don’t think there is an opposition there. It’s not a split of one person, there are two beings. And with that comes a clarity about Jomama’s own power; her ability to choose and also to respond to experiences with curiosity, with real joy and, this word continues to come up - certainty. What I note of myself is that I have experienced a great deal of static in my journey. Whether that is [through] institutional or cultural models of art making and ways of collaborating. She does not seem to care about the limitations that they would suggest.
She gives you, Daniel, a freedom.
DAJ: I don’t know if she gives me freedom. She has her own freedom. I think I’m learning from her and she feels far more actualized than I do to myself.
What always strikes me, is that you, Daniel, have all of this information about divas in music, socio-cultural-economic-political history - that seems to be reinterpreted and transformed through Jomama.
DAJ: What I have to delineate here, is that I am a channel for that to come through. Since I was very little, I’ve been interested in these things. From who played the percussion on the B-side of a certain album to the larger questions about (those divas’) navigating an identity during the civil rights movement. But I am not “doing it” when [Jomama’s] there. That’s the thing that is hard to describe.
Now, that is a trip.
DAJ: It is a trip but it’s the truth. I can’t manufacture things that she would say. I think of the language of jazz that has threaded itself through my career in terms of how I make art. There is a space in jazz called the break, where you go beyond the edge of what is known in the music. When you are out of the bounds of the melody and the extact structure, there is a place where you travel that depends upon, one foot being firmly grounded in what you know [in the music] and the other elsewhere. So what may very well be true is that, if I am vessel, I am also player. So this body (pointing to himself) is the instrument, my aesthetic and sensibility, my historical knowledge; but by golly, I’m not actually the thing that’s being played. She is the entity that is working itself out through me at this given time and I’m honored to be that.
I understand that. While Daniel and Jomama may inhabit the same in body, they are different in spirit and mind. And who’s writing the songs?
DAJ: Jomama with [Musical Director] Bobby Halvorson. I do participate. We made a new record, “Flowering.”
I’m going to ask a simplistic question: Is this drag?
DAJ: My experience with Jomama is that while it’s passing or shifting along the gender performance spectrum, Daniel goes away. There is a physical part that I feel recedes to as a kind of witness to the whole experience. I’m merely, attempting to get out of the way so she can do what she needs to be doing. So, the difficulty sometimes in explaining this is that they see a ‘man’…
They see your body…
DAJ: …my body. They hear mydeep voice. What has been interesting in my experience is that people who come assuming it’s going to be “drag” that by the time we’re in the second song, they’re like ‘oh, that’s not what this is.’ Some people have been disappointed, because they came to see the "sassy, black drag queen” and then they meet Jomama who is not that. But most people are pleasantly surprised…they go past that identity moment…
Well, then they begin to really listen.
DAJ: They listen to what she’s saying.
So, Jomama…what are you doing? At its base, you are a singer and a performer. And you tell stories but I’ve always felt there is more there.
JJ: What I would hope that I am doing, is the same thing the sun is doing right now reminding us of what is possible and is what is already in us waiting to be fed. Waiting to bloom. Sometimes it will be a song. Sometimes it will be a performance. Sometimes it will be, as we are having now, a conversation. Sometimes it may be something simple as a look that I share with a stranger. Or as I would like to think of strangers, friends whose names I do not yet know. But it is a deeper work.
Do you think Daniel tries too hard [to be an artist]?
JJ: Yes. It’s exhausting which is why I keep my contact with him limited. But he’s very near the end of this cycle. It is frustrating to watch … it’s almost as if you’re watching a turtle butting up against a rock and you wish you could just turn it ten degrees so it would go along down the path. Eventually it will turn on its own. And part of what you have to do to understand is by observing and being patient, that we must each make our own way.
How old are you Jomama?
The reason why I ask…I ask for two reasons, one I know that Daniel is in his 40’s and I’m in my 40’s and hitting my own turtle-rock moment.
JJ: How lovely, dear.
Uh, thank you. And you left the country for a while and decided to come back so, the reason why I asked how old you were is, did you do that recently?
JJ: I left in my 20’s. I was away for quite a while. What is that saying, ‘if you don’t pay attention to aging, it won’t pay attention to you.’ (Chuckles.) I left in the 1980’s, so I’ll leave you to do the math. I left for very…very personal and political reasons. Of course, the personal is political. Chief among them, were the sense that I was watching, what I perceived to be, the dangerous part of the evolution of the country which involved a shift of the pursuits of the individual at the expense of others, of community; of the very basic care, welfare that we might invest it in others. And on a more personal level, I was creatively frustrated by my relationship with my, then, record label and to resist as I could the tide shift that I saw toward a further segregation in music. There was less and less opportunity. And frankly, I did not want to be regulated to the segregated label in record bin. My platform was far larger so I decided to leave. And it was the best decision I could have ever made.
And what did you do when you were away?
JJ: I went everywhere. I traveled the world and I continued to sing and I continued to write music. And I had ended up settling most recently in Europe because it fed a certain part of my consciousness by giving me space, to envision something new, while also providing me with a crossroads experience until I was ready to make my comeback.
Which is now?
JJ: Yes! Almost three years.
What has changed in the landscape? Not only in terms of a creative process, but also as a platform?
JJ: Well, it’s much more democratic now. I am tremendously excited by work that is being done by younger artists in music who are not bound stylistically in terms of a marketplace. If their muse leads them to live performance, so be it. If their muse leads them to record an entire album on their iPad or iPod in their living room, so be it. And they are finding means of direct delivery because now their art is going to be speaking to the communities that they wish to reach, freely. And just as I and many of my colleagues, in the day, have broad tastes in music, and in culture, why not be able to spread our light, to follow our interests, other than feel like we need to box ourselves. I don’t like boxes. I hope that’s a good answer.
It’s a complete answer. Your creative process…what is it? What does it comprise of?
JJ: For me, it’s what am I arrested by. I’m awakened by messages in the night by dreams, images. Sometimes it will come through as a color as if as though I was looking at a palette of colors and each one is pregnant with information. I’m following the smallest signs. The appearance of a bird on my windowsill; a spark of conversation passing the window. I’m arrested by moments that are like small packages that one unwraps and that inside those packages are questions. And those questions, they sit with me. They trouble me. They worry me until, all of a sudden, language will appear. A melody will appear. And I take those things and I record them. I’m drawn by a need that I can fill through the work that I make.
Does Daniel share the same process?
JJ: No, no, no.
He seems to have more rigor.
JJ: Dear, this is quite rigorous.
Rigor in the sense of, um…
JJ: He makes things busy for himself. I prefer the Ockham’s razor model of a straight line.
He seems to have more rules.
JJ: He seems to have more doubt. I don’t share that. The rules are contained within the inspiration. The shape is there already. One just simply needs to give it room to demonstrate itself. If you listen keenly enough; if you’re patient and are not worried. Too cerebral, which I fear, he is. Too cerebral. Doesn’t trust.
How did you come to trust? Or do you even care about that anymore and you just do.
JJ: It’s not a question, it is. Again, my dear, turtle against the rock. Take the turn.
Interview by Tanisha Christie
Feature image credit: Amelia Leigh Harris
Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike. She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie.
When I think of my childhood, trees and grass aren't the first thing that come to mind. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my Summertime childhood memories tend to invoke the stuff of urban 80’s movies including, but not limited to: the jingle of the impending arrival of the ice-cream truck, the gorgeous smell of spoiled garbage and hot pavement, Big Daddy Kane blasting out of boom boxes, my brother and I playing exhilarating games of freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, catching fireflies and examining their florescent glow, and of course, mothers yelling out of their windows, “time to come inside"! - their shouts echoing off massively tall buildings.
As Zebi Williams, founder of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica says, “ [in Jamaica] the earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you.” Zebi's childhood involved more of Mother Nature than mine and her desire to return to her beloved hometown spawned by memories of her idyllic childhood, resulted in the creation of a summer youth camp. At only 19 years old, and as a new mother, the Jamaican/Washington DC native started the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp ten years ago as a way to create a space for neighborhood children to learn about the arts and entrepreneurship in a fun, creative, open environment that teaches self-development, self-love, and the power of community. The humble and brilliant Zebi spoke with Project Inkblot about the effect of our environment on our creativity, her incredible volunteers/teaching artists, her vision for the camp, and why following your dreams as a parent is just as important for your children as it is for your soul.
How did the idea for the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp start?
It started because I really wanted to go back to Jamaica. I was born in DC. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is American. I’m multicultural and biracial. When I was in third grade I moved back to Jamaica for a time and that’s the part of my life I remembered I love the most. From 8 to 13 years old I lived in this village up in the Blue Mountains. We had no paved roads, no light…and I lived in a house with 20 of my cousins and most of that time was spent outside. It was a small house, two bedrooms. I loved all of the imaginative play. We’d roast cashews, make our own fires, and I just loved it.
When I came back to America, I felt homesick. I always knew I would go back to Jamaica and that that would be a big part of life. In college, I studied cultural anthropology with a focus on sustainable development for the Caribbean. I decided during my sophomore year that I wanted to go back to Jamaica and volunteer but I couldn’t find any volunteer opportunities. My mom was like, ‘well why don’t you start your own thing’? I always loved summer camps because I had my time in Jamaica where I was always in nature and then I had that time in America where I would be in summer camps. I felt like that was something I could do. I could create this summertime experience for kids in my hometown. I was 19 when I started the camp and I was feeling rebellious and going through my existential crisis - reading Malcolm X and watching Life and Debt. I thought, I need to be out in the world doing something.
What’s Life and Debt?
Oh, you have to see it. It changed my life. It’s a movie about the IMF and the global economy and how the economy in Jamaica is basically owned by the IMF. Tourists come to Jamaica and all they see is this glossy image like, ‘yeah mon, no problem’. There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It's something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.
From that film, I saw all of these big problems that were systematic and big and I thought, I don’t know how to affect those problems but what I can do, is I can offer a break. I can offer a time for the kids to step away and just be kids and have that same enjoyment. That’s basically what the camp is for them, a week vacation. I feel like that will have an affect on their development and their well-being.
How many kids do you accept into the program?
It’s in my hometown, where I grew up. We have 125 children so basically all of the children come. We’re basically raising a whole generation of children. What’s special about this is that everyone is getting the same education.
How did the vision for the camp develop?
The first year I went down, there was no real vision. I took a break and I came back five years later and at that time I had more of a focus. I knew the focus would be the arts because I knew all of these artists in Brooklyn and we really wanted to create a movement but I’m also an entrepreneur so it was like, arts and entrepreneurship. We have children from the age of 5 – 17. When they graduate from the program they become junior counselors and they go through a rite of passage. The oldest kids right now are 19 years old.
We place them in different African named tribes. A lot of Jamaicans don’t love their blackness or their Africaness. They’ll bleach their skin or think black is ugly or that being African is negative so I want them to know more about what African is. They get to know parts of the culture and it’s about loving yourself and all of the different layers of what that is; loving your history and where you came from, loving your flaws, and loving your talents. We have the tribe time when the kids are with counselors who are doing self-development activities with them and also taking them on hikes, going to the river, and having mentor time with them. They also get to go to art classes. The younger ones get to test out different art subjects. Maybe today they’ll do drumming and tomorrow they’ll take dancing. If you’re not exposed you may think well, I only like doing this because you haven’t tried enough things, you don’t know what your talent is. So we give them an opportunity to expand their horizons.
That sounds like such gratifying work. Is there a particular example that sticks out with a student?
There is this area in the community where people are kind of shunned. The community wouldn’t touch the kids from that community, they wouldn’t hold their hands, the kids weren’t really going to school. But with the camp we brought everyone together and we were like, you’re going to treat everyone with respect. There was this one girl who was from that community who was an amazing writer. She was ten years old and during lunch one day she came to me and said, ‘Zebi, I want to show you my poetry’. She was really quiet and the kids were always picking on her and so she felt down about herself.
She read her poems to me. Her poetry was amazing. This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us and we were able to show her that it was an amazing talent, by being her audience. We had a talent show that year and she got up on the stage and the adults got to see her perform. Now she’s our poet laureate. She’s written more books of poetry, she’s writing plays, she's writing songs. All the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. She’s going to a boarding school on a scholarship. And the adults were like ‘whoa’ they never got to see how talented their children are. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.
Why do you think that is?
So many reasons. I’m always having conversations about this. Why are we hiding our lights as adults? Why are we hiding our lights as children? Even this little girl, I see so much of myself in her. She’s at this stage where she knows herself but she’s not able to experience herself and I feel that same way. So sometimes it’s me feeling like I’m not a leader but knowing that I am a leader. You know you have a bright light but you’re not always able to experience your bright light. We have to learn to surround ourselves with people who see us. I’m grateful that as an adult I’m able to be around people who see me and want me to be myself because they believe in themselves.
You have a ten-year old daughter, Zia. How does being a mother affect your work as an entrepreneur and your vision for the camp?
I’m learning the balance of being a mother and following my dreams but also respecting her vision of what she wants in her life. What’s great is that she’s a really bright, communicative, creative child so she loves it. She gets a lot of one-on-one attention from our teachers and volunteers so they’re like her aunts and uncles. She’s always raising her hand in meetings and contributing her viewpoint as a child. I had her so young and I was really career driven and have been since I was young. When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like you need to just focus on her but I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be? That’s a conflict that happens within my family and with the elders around me. Wanting me to be solely present to being her mother.
Being an entrepreneur and creating this program takes a lot of my time. It’s long hours and she has to be at the meetings and it’s a commitment that I’ve made. Maybe she’d rather be at the park playing with her friends or at home and she has to be at this meeting with me. But it’s important that she sees me following my dreams. It’s important for our future relationship because our relationship is going to be very long. When she wants to be her own woman, I don’t want to be there like wait - you’re all I have. I want there to be a respectful and balanced relationship between the both of us. I see that as the long-term vision even though right now it can be challenging. She and I have a great relationship and she sees herself as the person who will be taking over the camp when she gets older and being the future director [laughs]. She looks up to me and that feels really important to me. And I look up to her! She’s around women who are transparent in their own development. She sees our struggles, she sees what we go through, and it’s not perfect. It’s very real. She’s surrounded by so many confident women so I feel good about that.
It sounds like you’ve created many lasting relationships with the volunteers. What it is about Jamaica, and the camp specifically that attracts so many teaching artists?
I think environments speak to who we are. There are environments that we’re made to be in so when you go back, it resonates with who you are. It’s like we’re a tribe of people who are not in our home. And then you gather and you’re like, ‘oh this is where I am supposed to be’. That happens a lot with my volunteers. They find their home in that space. It’s cool because I have a lot of volunteers who are from New York. They have such a desire to be in the county. A lot of my volunteers have been coming for five, six years because it becomes their community. They can really feel like they’re connecting to the environment and the people they want to connect to.
A lot of them are bringing their children and so their children now have a second home. I really enjoy seeing my friends’ children come down and seeing that they can have what I had. I had America but I also had this safe special place in Jamaica that kept me innocent and connected and rooted.
You speak about this sense of connection. What do you think they’re connecting to?
I hear over and over again that people feel like they’ve grown after their trip to Jamaica, like they have had an accelerated growth spurt. There’s an aliveness to the environment. At night, everything is talking and moving. The trees are singing and the stars are bright and you’re in this living organism. The earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you. You really slow down and you’re so observant. The volunteers go back to New York regenerated and able to give.
I imagine that has an impact on them creatively.
Exactly. You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle. It’s not America – there’s a more unpredictable, fluid rhythm. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.
What do you envision for the future with Lil’ Ragamuffin? How big do you see this growing?
We’re building an arts and entrepreneurship center. Right now, we’re a center without walls. We don’t have a structure. Trees and rain affect our classes but we’re committed to the work. But we’ll have this arts center and the center will have year-long programming [instead of just one week] so it will be a space for other arts program in Jamaica. It will be a place for artist residencies. If you have a project you are working on, you can come down and work on that for a month and take that project into a space that encourages that creativity. I am also going to be working as a consultant for people to start camps where they’re from. I’ve had people from places like South Sudan, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic who want to create this camp model in their hometown. My one factor is that I want it to be someone who is from that location, so that it’s a local initiative supported by an international community. So those are the projects we’re looking to create but the Lil Raggamuffin camp is the engine that got that going.
It sounds like there's a part of you truly at peace with the process as opposed to just focusing on the end result.
I recently got the land to build the center and when I got that title, I had this huge feeling of accomplishment like, this mission is going to be accomplished and I will be able to step away at some point from the daily grind. Maybe that’s an illusion, maybe there’s more work that comes with it. It feels like a game. I’m really enjoying this whole process of problem solving and meeting people and having these serendipitous encounters – it’s such a part of my life.
I want to build it so there’s income coming in so I feel financially more at peace. Sometimes I think, sure if I would have chosen another path it would be easier. I would be making a lot more money and I could use my brilliance to make someone else money and have a simple 9- 5 and have weekends off but that’s not my path. I also feel like we have lots of lifetimes in our life. We’re not going to be doing one thing forever, especially now, when things are changing so fast. I see it as right now this is my life. I’m doing this in part of my lifetime and next I’ll be a film director, and next I’ll be a consultant traveling all of the time so it’s like, learn to be patient and play this part out.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Images provided by the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp
Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons. It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.
I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?
Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.
How did that affect you visually?
It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.
It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?
I hated it.
Were you resentful?
Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--
And they wanted you to go into accounting?
I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.
Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?
Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.
Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.
* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area
What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?
I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.
Where did the punk influence come from?
I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.
With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.
You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?
Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.
You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?
I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.
What's the fascination with ET?
I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.
How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?
I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?
When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?
When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.
Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?
It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.
My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.
Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.
You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.
No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.
What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?
I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.
Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?
It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.
I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.
You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent.
I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.
Talk about that a little bit.
You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.
How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?
When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”
What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work?
You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.
For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)
When Projet Inkblot reached our first reader in Brunei Darussalam, we were floored, but first we had to look on a map to see exactly where that was. So imagine our utter amazement when we were first introduced to the work of Chris Guillebeau, a traveling entrepreneur, New York Times' best selling author, and blogger, who as of a few weeks ago, completed his goal to visit every single country in the world that he had the ability to visit. That's 193 countries in total! Chris connects with audiences in far reaching countries daily (that most people can't even pronounce, let alone know how to locate on a map), and offers readers brilliantly simple advice about running a business, living authentically, travel hacking, and the art of non-conformity--which is exactly what his blog is called.It's easy to envy someone with so many enormous accomplishments under his belt, and not see it as being attainable for oneself, but the truly inspiring thing about Chris is how much he cares about helping others achieve similarly bold goals. He does it by being transparent about his process, vulnerable to his loyal readers, and being an optimistic, accessible, and encouraging leader. He also gives pragmatic and action-oriented advice that is easy for even the most fear-ridden person to follow. Reading his blog posts and highly personalized newsletters, it's impossible not to be invigorated by his infectious spirit.
We were lucky to catch Chris right before he took his trip to his last of 193 countries, Norway. We were hoping to uncover his big secret to success, but what we found instead was the story of just a regular Portland dude who stayed persistent, consistent, and focused throughout the years to yield the results that he is able to show for today. Below is a mix of our Q&A, some of our favorite resources from his blog, and opportunities where you can also become a cyber-mentee of Chris' (like us), and join his international community of nonconforming adventurers.
Did you have lots of people around you living unconventionally that you modeled yourself after, or who helped you identify the way that you wanted to live?
Not really, at least not the first part. I think you have to find people who see the world in a similar way as you. Fortunately, once you go looking for them, they’re not usually hard to find.
Was there a website, or websites that inspired you to create an online community for entrepreneurs and travelers?
No website, but I knew there were plenty of independent people out there who wanted something different. I hoped to contribute something positive that didn’t currently exist, at least not in the specific way that AONC became.
How did you know that online was the format that you wanted to reach the world and inspire people?
Well, online is the only scalable way. I used to live in West Africa and had a great experience working individually with people, but if you want to reach people all over the world, you need some kind of platform. That's what I love about blogging—anyone can connect with a wide and disparate audience regardless of geography.
I reached out to you personally and asked for your help in asking for help, and being vulnerable. You basically told me to fear not! Which was both a good and bad answer for me. Bad because I wanted you to tell me a magical answer that would kill my fear, but good because you were absolutely right. Did others give you tough love when you were just figuring out your direction?
I didn't mean it as tough love; I just meant you needn’t be afraid in asking for help. Most people are good and most people will provide whatever help you need, when you need it.
Are there ever periods where you don’t have sustained bursts of ideas and energy, which lead you to question your path?
Yes, and those are frustrating! There's no easy answer to this problem, but it does help to create a certain structure for your work. Knowing what you need to do but needing help getting started is a lot easier than not knowing what to do.
Deadlines help too: if I know I have to post every Monday and Thursday, I'll be sure to do so. If I know my book is due on a certain date and there are numerous people at the publisher who have scheduled time to work on it, I need to honor my commitment to them.
But as mentioned, I too get stuck sometimes.
Everyone has a team. What does yours look like?
I have no employees and my team is pretty small. I do work with a couple of great designers and a genius developer. For the World Domination Summit, our annual event in Portland, we do have a growing group of part-time staff and volunteers that meets bi-monthly throughout the year, and then more often as we get closer to the big weekend in July.
When you first started out, did you have a target demographic that later changed as your work evolved?
No, I’ve never had a demographic at least in the traditional sense. Instead I have more of a psychographic, or people that identify based on shared values and ideals. They are all ages and backgrounds and come from more than 100 countries.
Chris just beta launched "Adventure Capital", a 12-month online teaching program for creative entrepreneurs
It seems like more and more people are taking the plunge and choosing to live ‘unconventionally’ now. What is special about our time where people are mustering up the courage seemingly more than ever before?
People have always been somewhat dissatisfied with traditional paths, but what's changed is that now there are far more alternatives than ever before. At the same time, there are also a lot more role models. Most people won't change their behavior based on something that an author or celebrity says—but when they see their friends, colleagues, or neighbors doing something new, some of them will feel personally inspired to make a change for themselves.
The $100 Startup is like a less cheesy, entrepreneurial Chicken Soup For the Soul, in that it uses so many great examples that anyone can refer to and feel reassured that the dream is possible for them. Was that book a one-shot deal, or will there be more like that to help people get their work off the ground?
I’m glad you liked it. I love writing books and hope to write many more. :)
What is one place in the world (that you traveled to) that you identified the most with, not necessarily culturally, but where you learned the most about yourself?
I like the qualification you included. Of all the places where I learned about myself, I'd certainly put Sierra Leone and Liberia (both in West Africa) at the top of the list. They aren't easy countries to travel in, but I had a great experience as a volunteer on a hospital ship. I continue to think of those places almost every day, even as I'm pursuing very different projects and doing different kinds of work.
Do you plan on setting new travel goals for yourself after you reach 193 countries?
Yes, but they'll be different. I'm not interested in revisiting all 193 countries or going to the moon or anything like that. What I want to do is work much more closely with our community of unconventional people from around the world. I'll keep traveling, in other words, but in a more focused way than before.
What is the single most memorable thing that a fan/supporter has ever expressed to you?
In different ways, people often express that reading AONC or The $100 Startup helps them to see that they are not alone. The first time I heard that statement, I knew I'd be doing this kind of work for a long time.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos courtesy of Chris Guillebeau
If you've ever created any kind of movement, you know the dedication, resolve, humility, confidence, determination, and resourcefulness it can require. And while everyone looking through the sidelines marvels at how effortlessly you pull things off, they often remain unaware of a single truth.That ish takes a lot of hard work.
Alyson Greenfield is one of those people who gets things done. Inspired to create her own music festival after noticing the lack of artistic platforms for women musicians, Alyson created The Tinderbox Music Festivalin 2010. Debuting at Southpaw in Brooklyn and featuring 19 women artists on two stages, Tinderbox continues to expand. Last Fall, they featured their biggest show yet - 37 artists from around the world rocking out on three different stages at NYC's illustrious Webster Hall.
In 2011 I had the opportunity to work with Alyson on Tinderbox's second show, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and was often inspired by her relentless energy, resourcefulness, sharp business sense, honesty, kindness, and creative vision. Almost 5 months after their Webster Hall event, Project Inkblot spoke with Alyson as she and The Tinderbox Team excitedly geared up for 2013. Ever the truth teller, Alyson spoke with me about how important it is to take care of yourself when you're creating something of such magnitude, how success can sometimes feel like failure, and how Tinderbox forced her to come to terms with what really matters.
How did Tinderbox start?
It started in 2010. Lilith Fair had come back on the scene - it was big in the 90’s – it’s a whole festival of women artists. I moved to NY in 2009 and I was thinking, I would really love to play this. I was a women’s studies minor and I was on the Chicago National Organization for Women’s board and it just made sense for me as a musician to do this. I had just moved to New York and I had been talking about starting a blog. A friend of mine said, 'well, your blog has to have a focus.' So, I started a blog pitching myself to Lilith Fair and every entry started with, Dear Lilith Fair. I really like to be creative and it was a big outlet for me. I didn’t get to play Lilith Fair but it was a great experience. I had helped run some unofficial showcases at SXSW that year and I had never done bookings or promotions before but I booked a bunch of acts and I thought oh, I can do this. I thought well, I’m not going to play Lilith Fair but I know a bunch of women who are amazing musicians. It seems like there was a desire for women to have a platform not only in the music scene but to be around other awesome women. I thought, well I have this music and business sense, why don’t I just create my own event instead of trying to be a part of someone else’s? Within a few months, we got ASCAP and Bust Magazine on board and had the event at Southpaw on two stages with 19 different artists. We just kind of pulled it off. We had this awesome community vibe. The venue said they’d never had such well-behaved artists. What was so great was that so many people were coming up to me like ‘wow, we heard so many great artists.’ They hadn’t heard of most of them. Every year the artists fall in love with some of the other artists and collaborations come out of it. I’m really excited about Kalae Nouveau and Charlene Kayewho met at Tinderbox and are collaborating now. I love when that happens.
That must be so gratifying.
Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. In some ways I’ve created something that is bigger than me. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how much of my life this can be because I have other responsibilities. At Webster Hall, so many people kept on coming up to me telling me how inspired they were. That was the word of the day.
We went from a 500 capacity venue at The Knitting Factory to a 2,600 capacity venue with three stages and 37 artists from four different countries. We blew the roof off from where we were before. It was really exciting and challenging and the event itself was amazing. Performing at Webster Hall as an artist was incredible and otherworldly.
How did you get all of these people on board?
There were a few people who came on board last year who, without them, Tinderbox would not have happened. Nasa Hadizadeh, Rebecca An…they were just instrumental. Then I brought on an assistant, Alexandra Martinez. These women were invested in Tinderbox like it was theirs. They came with great ideas and busted their butts and there were tons of other volunteers. They just took it on. I would ask them, why would you do this and work so many hours? And they would tell me what they were getting from it. I would feel bad because I didn’t have the budget to pay people or myself. The way people worked just astounded me. I would have conversations with people and they would share the value of Tinderbox with me. I felt uncomfortable asking people to do things especially when I wasn’t paying them. It was difficult for me to not feel guilty about not giving people paychecks. I had to understand that this was a reciprocal relationship. I’m getting something, they’re getting something and we’re working together to create things. I delegated and these women really took things on. What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.
What are some of the changes you noticed in how you were running Tinderbox?
I felt less alone. I even had people say to me that when I first started Tinderbox I would refer to it as ‘I have to’ etc. That changed to ‘we’ as in, 'we need to' and people were like, that’s a good thing you’re saying ‘we.’ I learned that it’s important to trust people and to identify to people what they’re best at and let them do that. Once they did that, they would come back with results. We had meetings all of the time and I had to learn how to negotiate and deal with different personalities. People have different ideas and they feel strongly about them and this year we were dealing with different sponsors, and so many more people. I also learned how to be more diplomatic and honest. Everyone worked so hard. People were invested with their heart, as well as their time.
But after Tinderbox this year you realized you needed some time off from the project.
Tinderbox kind of took over my life. I had to pay my bills and I didn’t know if this was the thing that could do that. I couldn’t put my life on hold and not be able to take care of my basic needs any longer. We were working with artists and venues that were a lot bigger than what we had dealt with before. I’m good at negotiating, connecting and networking but there was a learning curve. I held it down but we didn’t have the capital at the ground level. We’re still young and we didn’t have the funding, and everyone was volunteering.
I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I am just crazy driven and don’t stop to breathe sometimes. If I have ideas, I will accomplish them but sometimes it comes at the risk of my sanity. I had devoted my life and sacrificed things like a regular income. I was focusing on it all of the time and you know how it is, you can work on it day and night and still never be done. I was still doing little things here and there to provide for myself but at the end, I just felt defeated.
Can you speak about why you felt defeated?
A lot of things came down on me because in these types of circumstances, things come down on the founder. I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe. I don’t know if it’s a do-it-all mentality or what. I’ve always liked to work. Ever since I was a kid, I had projects and would organize and set these structures. I was a perfectionist and I would just do and do and do.
I was like, I don’t know if this is going to happen again. I kind of felt like I had lost myself. I was living in this fantasy land where I thought if I worked my ass off, it would come back to me but it didn’t matter because it didn’t come back. It is coming back now – but at that time, it wasn’t. I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy - and I have a lot of energy – I was just done. It takes a lot for me to be done. I started resenting Tinderbox.
I think that happens to a lot of people.
Of course! Because if you don’t feel like something is giving back to you and you’re putting everything into it then that’s not balanced. There were incredible things that happened but I was almost mad at it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Pretty soon after the event, people were like ‘when’s the next one? I want to apply. What venue will you do it at?’ I was like, I don’t know if there will ever be another Tinderbox again. I cannot talk about it. Then I realized I had to get back to being a human being. I needed to provide for myself. I’m going to be the best at providing for other people when I’m setting an example and providing for myself. This is a key thing with women. Women are so good at providing for others and not always themselves.
Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others. One of the Buddhist teachers says, ‘you know when you talk to yourself in your head and you’re being really mean to yourself, well would you talk to a good friend like that?’ And usually the answer is heck no. You’d rally for your friend instead of throwing punches. Having compassion is so important as well as realizing that things will happen on their own time. I think for me, also, there was a lot of thinking that things have to happen now. I spent so much time and energy on Tinderbox and I thought, things have to happen now! I have to prove this is real. I’m so over that now. In the second year we got press from TheNew York Times but it wasn’t enough. It was like, no – this year it’s going to be at Webster Hall. I had this unrealistic expectation that it had to be a certain way.
There was a sense of attachment?
Yes. It becomes really stressful because you say that it can’t be any other way. I think collectively, over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditation and really looking at myself and being honest. I realized I was being pretty mean to myself when Tinderbox was over. I felt like a failure. From the outside it wasn’t that way but from the inside, it felt that way. I started thinking I have worth because I am here and I’m human. I had gone camping in the summer with some friends and I was by the ocean and I thought: this ocean doesn’t care about Tinderbox. The world is so big. We make everything such a big deal.
After Tinderbox, I took a couple months away from it and I looked at our sponsorship deck, which is a compilation of our press, mission, goals, artists etc. and I thought, whoa - this is really successful. I kind of blew myself away. I had never really thought of that before because I was just working and doing and feeling like it wasn’t enough.
You didn’t realize how successful you had been before?
Sure, I had little glimpses here and there but it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.
I reconnected. I genuinely like people and I finally realized I have something to give that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the music industry or being a musician or having a MFA. How can these gifts manifest? Maybe it’s something I never thought of. I let go of what I thought I should be or had to be to feel worthy. I thought, my priorities are: I need to pay my rent, I need to provide for myself and I haven’t been focusing on that. Now I have a few different jobs and I like them. They bring out different parts of my personality. And that’s nice to know. Things have been coming my way. When you’re open, the world gives you answers. Now I feel like the world is reaching out to me. I am also acknowledging now – I have always had this little thing on my shoulder that’s like ‘you’re not there yet. You better keep working’ but it’s like hey – I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t think I really thought that. I just let go…and it was hard. I opened up space so that things could come in. When you’re not making space for things to come because you’re always trying to get and go somewhere…when you can sit and be still….things can happen. All of these opportunities keep coming to me now. And the thing is, is that nothing seems like such a huge deal. It feels like ok yeah, let’s try that out whereas before everything was such a huge deal. Also, not taking yourself so seriously, that’s really important. Hitting that brick wall – it almost took that to build myself back up. At the time you think it’s the worst thing in the world but it’s really beautiful. Sometimes you have to go to the bottom in order to take those baby steps back up.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Feature Image credit: Jasmina Tomic
Some months ago, I started hearing a lot of buzz about this new web series called East WillyB, and I grew intrigued. The show is set in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where long time Latino residents are having increasing culture clashes with the young hipsters moving in. At the heart of the series is the show’s producer Michael Shawn Cordero, who was born and raised in Bushwick, and contributed a lot of his own experience into the development of the show. As Cordero describes below in our interview, mainstream media has made few attempts to portray the new generation of Latinos in a genuine light. Cordero talks about his involvement with the East WillyB movement flipping the game of how Latino's are portrayed in media, his boutique gallery Fresthetic in Williamsburg, and his work as a youth media educator in the community.
How was East WillyB conceived, and at what part of the development did you join as the producer?
East WillyB was created by my good friend Julia Grob and Yamin Segal. Julia approached me because she wanted to set the series in the community of Bushwick where I was born and raised, and wanted me to take part in the production, design, and artwork for the series. So I jumped onto the opportunity to represent my community and soon ended up as a producer for the show. We shot parts of the pilot season in my grandmother’s backyard and my parent’s house served as a production base.
Being a New York native and Bushwick resident, how have the transitions in the New York that you knew growing up, also translate into the themes of the show?
Well it's pretty much one of the main themes of show. It's set against the ever evolving cultural landscape of Brooklyn. It's about a community facing the change and what it means to the New York culture they grew up with. It deals with gentrification as told through the eyes of a historically latino neighborhood and how to adapt to that and the effects on their relationships, careers and family.
As the producer of East Willy B, what is your role in casting, writing, character development, and the general culture of the show?
For the new season that we raised 50k on kickstarter for, I was a fly in the writer’s room and offered insight on the direction of the characters and the authenticity of how the neighborhood was represented. I designed all the branding/graphics and website for the show and manage all the creative.
Is one of the characters modeled after you?
lol. I tend to see aspects of me in a lot of the characters. Manny and his big dreams aspirations of being a filmmaker, Ceasars’ protective nature towards his neighborhood and Willie’s relationship with the legacy of his father’s bar and the community.
Your personal mission is to effect positive change and leave a lasting positive impact on communities. How much are art, politics, your cultural subjectivity intersected in your artistic/creative work?
It's the foundation of everything I do. I have this affair with legacy and I’m always thinking of what I’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. It's one of the pillars of our history as people. It’s proof we were here. Our politics and culture survive through it. I strive to visually tell our stories and always want my work to be reflective of our times.
Have there been other Latino/Latina focused hyperlocal films or television shows based in New York, even if they only survived a very short blip in time?
I know there has definitely been films like I Like it like That, Hanging with the Homeboys, Raising Victor Vargas, which are like more than 10-15 years old, and more recently Gun Hill Road. When it comes to a series, something episodic, besides the reality show Washington Heights recently, I don’t think there have been any successful attempts. I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably. They have a warped impression of Latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV. Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York Latinos honestly represented on TV. I think we are very inspired by what Spike lee did for NYC African Americans and Latinos in the 90's and I feel we are trying to invoke that spirit for Latinos in this new generation and age of Brooklyn.
Willie is a very emotive or easily affected character. What do you think are the issues that stay most prevalent in his mind? What is he trying to negotiate? How do you relate?
I think Willie’s character is about preservation. I think he is scared of the change just like other members of the neighborhood but as a leader in his community he feels like it rests upon his shoulders to battle the fear openly. He is very protective of the legacy of his father’s bar that he inherited and doesn’t want his generation to be the witnesses of its possible extinction. His younger brother, who is played by Rick Gonazalez this season, got out of the neighborhood and is a big reggaeton artist in Puerto Rico, and Willie is kinda envious of that a little bit because he had his own dreams of being a salsa singer when he was younger. So he is very much trying to hold on to history and part of his development is how or if he embraces change. Even with his relationship with Maggie he is holding onto his past which is why she doesn’t see a future for them.
I can definitely relate with the legacy issue and wanting to keep my culture alive in my community, but I’m not as threatened by change as Willie. I feel more challenged to make sure we plant our roots deep in our communities.
What is the impact of the show East WillyB in your own community?
I feel like a lot of people are very excited that their story is being told by us. Julia and Yamin chose Bushwick because we are right in the middle of this culture clash that Williamsburg witnessed 10 years ago and we all saw what has transpired there and in Los Sures. But at the same time it's also about the characters that exist in a Latino community and give us a more accurate representation that is something other than a drug dealer or maid.
Who do you guys hope the show reaches? I’m sure you want to reach as many people as possible, but who would be your ideal target demographic?
Our demos are pretty broad cuz we feel like the show speaks to so many in different ways. We’re sure it will resonate with 18-34 Latinos who represent that new generation of English and Spanish speaking Latinos in the U.S, people looking for alternatives to what they see on HBO with Girls and actually see real portrayal of Brooklyn and NYC Life. Anybody living in a community affected by gentrification and a collision of cultures.
You’re also a youth educator. What are some of the greatest takeaways that your students leave your instruction with?
I can teach students technical aspects of design and video production like using programs and camera operations but I like to focus my work on content and make sure they are creating with purpose.
What are the most valuable aspects of working with young people in a creative context?
There are not a lot of options for students, especially underprivileged youth in NYC, to take part in creative programs that truly give them a voice and make them feel important. Historically, funding for such programs are always the first to be cut, so I feel like the value of my work with youth is tremendous and will guide our future because they are the leaders of tomorrow.
What are the most validating aspects of being a storyteller?
I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome. One of the most important responsibilitie for you is making people feel--not only feelings, but a place, a time--any type of art to be honest. Thats the most validating for me, the fact that I see people are feeling what I felt or anything close to it.
Were you ever discouraged from being an artist?
Nah never, my older brothers were artists as well, as well as my father. My mom is a teacher, so discouragement didn’t really exist, my parents really provided a great space for me to follow my dreams, even to this day.
What else is on the horizon? What is your big goal for 2013 and beyond?
Hopefully we get East WillyB fully funded or picked up and we can continue the telling our stories through a couple of seasons.
Also I've got a lot great things going down at Fresthetic, my boutique gallery in Williamsburg. We have a great lineup of artists showing this year and more products. As always everyone is looking forward to this summer for our annual Makossa Brooklyn Cookout with DJ Wonway Posibul.
I'm also looking forward to what my students create this year with all the developments I have been guiding them through. Its always exciting to see youth take advantage the great resources we provide them and watching them develop and find their voice.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Documenting human rights violations around the world sounds like a pretty sobering job. While most of us in the "first "world become irate at the mention of a Monday morning conference call, Colombian photographer Andy Vanegas Canosa (Andy VC) has spent the last ten years traveling to places where the working and living conditions are inhumane, at best. Andy VC's images, particularly his close-ups, suck you in - making you feel instantly connected to the people he photographs on an intensely human level. The experience is both unsettling and beautiful. Through his subjects' eyes, he manages to exhibit both human dignity and suffering, often simultaneously.
A recent second place winner of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, Andy VC continues to capture images that speak to the joy, sufferings, and resilience of human beings. Yes, I am a little obsessed. Yes, I could go on and on about his work but it basically means nothing until you actually see his photos. The former lawyer and self-taught photographer spoke with us about the psychological effects of his work, his love for Afghanistan, and the importance of illuminating societal ills.
When did you discover your love for photography?
My family are lawyers and so I studied law and went to Spain. I was very disappointed with the legal environment. I was working for the private and public sector and I found it to be a really corrupt system. I was deeply sad by that. I always liked photography, since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to buy a camera. I was always surrounded by social issues because I grew up in Colombia. Twenty years ago it was a very difficult country, similar to how Mexico is now. I grew up in this kind of environment and this had an impact on me. When I discovered photography, it gave me a really strong tool to raise awareness. I always wanted to be a photographer. I found photography to be a great way to escape this world and to really give something to people.
How does photography brings awareness in a way that writing about something or creating a video doesn’t?
There are many ways to raise awareness. Photography is very fast. You can see a photo and it can raise so many emotions. I think that’s the power of photography.
I try to give some presence to the people who have been forgotten. The impact of this well, I cannot measure this. The main goal is to raise awareness so that people can open their eyes. These problems are there and they need solutions.
You said in another interview that, 'I love what I do and I would not be able to picture myself doing something different. However, everything in life has a price. It is a profession that affects your life in ways nobody could expect.' Can you talk a bit about what you meant by this?
I receive many messages where people say things like, ‘wow what a wonderful life. You travel the world and take photos.’ It is amazing and it’s why I love my job. But the price is that every time you cover these social issues, it leaves scars. It’s a psychological effort. After I finish these projects I cannot believe that this is happening. We are used to living in another type of world. It’s like you go to another planet and you see humans living in extremely bad conditions and no one is doing anything. Psychologically, it’s very hard. Also, your family is worried about you and sometimes I’m sad that my mother is sad or my brother is sad. They understand, but it’s not easy seeing your family worried about these things. It has a big price emotionally and psychologically that you may not have in another job.
Traveling is also good and amazing but it’s very difficult. At least, this is my point of view. You have to learn how to be with yourself and know yourself and know loneliness. It is a process and it takes time. It’s amazing and beautiful but some people are afraid of freedom.
Your photos are so deeply intimate, how do you create a relationship of trust so that people are comfortable with you taking their photo?
This is a process as well, in terms of how to approach people. I find when I go to these conflict areas; people are very nice and friendly. They always invite you to sit and talk with them. I always talk to people if I can; sometimes I can’t so I just interact with my body. Sure. I believe in body language. If you show you are nervous or afraid, people can feel that. Sometimes people say no and you have to respect that even if you know it will be an amazing picture. If people say no, it’s no. I have found that Colombia is the most difficult place I have worked. Some people will kill for nothing. I was working in a poor area of Bogota and it was scary. Even in Afghanistan, the media talks so poorly about how the country is and I think Afghanistan is amazing. I walked and traveled around the country and never felt threatened by anybody. I had a wonderful time in Afghanistan. I love the people. They are beautiful. So friendly, so inviting. They like to ask a lot of questions. Where do you come from? Where have you been? What are you doing here? Most of them have never seen a camera in their life.
Have you ever taken a photo of someone who has never seen their image captured in that way? What is their reaction?
Some people are like, how is it possible that I am inside this box? [laughs]. Most people become more relaxed and enjoy the process. I never force people to take pictures or direct them on how to pose. I just take the photos naturally. There is a moment for everything. I like my work to be natural.
Your photos are so authentic and feel so natural. Do you have a process?
I wouldn’t be able to answer this question 100%. I never studied photography and never took classes. If you want to be a photographer you can just start taking pictures. It’s a process you learn day by day.
For these photos, it’s a mix of risk. Sometimes you have to take risks. And you have to be social. To be social is very important. I know photographers who take very good pictures but they are not social and then maybe your pictures won’t be as good. It’s like, if you are with a girl or a man and you give the first kiss [laughs]. After the first kiss, things go much better. At first you are nervous, but after the first kiss you are more relaxed. So, you have to talk to people and get to know them before they take the photo. I think this is more important than knowing how a camera works. You can take pictures with any camera.
Can you talk some more about taking risks in your work?
If you are working with gangsters, many of them don’t like to take pictures so these people are very difficult to work with. There is a risk in going to them and a risk in asking if you can take a photo. Sometimes you don’t ask because of the situation. I was in Afghanistan and covering drug users. I was under a bridge and 800 people were using drugs, mostly heroin. People got very angry and were yelling and throwing stones so we had to leave.
What made you interested in covering drug use in Afghanistan? That’s not something highly covered in the American media.
I used to work for the United Nations in the office on drugs and crimes and I got to know a lot about drugs there and I got very interested in the topic. There are many drugs that people don’t know about and many ways to take them - it’s crazy, it’s a different world. It’s interesting how it can run a country. Corruption exists a lot of time because of drugs. In Afghanistan there are more than a million people consuming drugs, it’s a social problem. It requires social mechanisms to solve it. Many NGO's try to work with drug users. The UN is involved. There’s a huge debate about whether drugs should be legalized.
The photo you have of the man on heroin is whoa – it’s so powerful. How did you take that photo?
Well, the man was extremely high. We have the responsibility to cover these problems that people are facing. I can write you a paper on what it is like for people to do heroin but if you don’t see it, it’s not the same. I try to allow people to feel some of these emotions. He’s not only high, he’s suffering. Being addicted to heroin is one of the saddest things you can see. This guy was in a center for rehabilitation. He had come that day and he was really high and in a special room waiting for the effects to go away. It is a very powerful image. Every time I see this image, I am like, wow.
Can you talk a bit more about some countries you’ve been to? Is there a place you've traveled to you found particularly eye-opening?
The dumps in Mae Sot. It’s a border town in Thailand, there is a Burmese refugee camp but then there are other people who are illegal immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. So they live in Thailand but they are not refugees so they live in a dump and it’s a community of almost 100 people. They live under some inhumane conditions, you cannot even imagine. They live amongst poisonous snakes, dead animals and they live in mountains of garbage, literally. Imagine when it rains, the smell is absolutely impossible. There are many children playing all around and eating food from the garbage. It’s very sad. You face realities you can’t even imagine. Then you come home and your brother is asking for an iPhone and you’re like, c’mon.
When you return home or to “first world” countries how do you deal with that mentality after you’ve witnessed some of these sufferings?
It’s very difficult. Some people don’t understand. First, because people don’t understand the situation and they don’t understand what I do. After those experiences you just don’t care too much about materialistic things. You lose friends also because people don’t understand you and you don’t understand them or you do - but you don’t want to be a part of those things.
You open your eyes. You see things that people don’t see. You come home and your friends are frustrated about small things and you think, you are so lucky that you have the life you have. You shouldn’t complain. You start to see things in a different way. You’re growing up and everyone grows up. Everyone changes friends…it can be difficult.
What do you love about why you do what you do?
I’m very lucky. I love traveling but I’m lucky because I have a passport that allows me to do that. I have a Spanish and a Colombian passport. If I didn’t have the Spanish passport, I might not be so lucky to travel like I do. Traveling can be very cheap. You can travel in a very cheap way. Many people don’t even know you can spend less money than being at home. Everyday is a new adventure. If you want to move, you move. It makes you more tolerable. When you travel, there is a community that doesn’t exist anywhere. Sometimes you might meet up again with some people you met in Latin America who are now in India and it’s unplanned.
I have a friend I met traveling who once told me “traveling restores your faith in humanity.”
Yes, of course. The thing I really love is meeting people. All around the world you meet great people with great projects and interesting ideas and different ways to see life. I really enjoy hearing these different points of views about life. This is the thing I love most.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Photo credits: Andy VC
Click here to view more of Andy's work and to purchase prints.
Ira and Ayra are a special pair. Not only are they business and creative partners, but they are also twins. Ira is the dreamy and somewhat elusive creative, and Ayra, the smart talking, sharp-minded business woman. Ira is a theater director, and Ayra, a marketing strategist. Ira lives in Brooklyn, Ayra, in Amsterdam--but for some time before that--London and LA. The duo grew up in Amsterdam. Their identities as "Black women"--had a much more pluralistic meaning in The Netherlands, as their family originated from where many people-of-color from Amsterdam emigrate from--the Caribbean. Having spent a short, yet significant part of their formative years in Aruba--where arts education was limited as compared to the abundant access that they had in The Netherlands--inspired them as adults to bring their creative expertise and international art networks to Aruba.This is the story about Art Rules Aruba (ARA), the two-week-long summer arts program in Aruba that Ayra and Ira dreamt, organized, and implemented; despite being told that they couldn't, despite not having any money, despite being criticized for their organization being "too black." Just having officially announced their 4th year (this summer), ARA has brought the best-of-the-best art educators from around the world to teach Aruban youth about performance, dance, visual and multimedia art.
*Interview conducted with Ayra*
You guys are twins. Did you both love the arts equally as kids, or was one more into it than the other growing up?
As far as I can remember--equally, but it wasn't so much a case of loving art or loving dance. We started at the age of three and it has never left us, which means it's all we know. It's part of who we were, and who we are today.
Where are your cultural and ethnic roots?
Aruba and Curacao on our mother's side, and our dad is from Suriname. We were born and raised in Amsterdam, so culturally there is also that aspect, but our South American and Caribbean roots have always been more prevalent in our household.
Did you guys always know since you were kids that you would someday create and run a business together, rooted in the arts?
We always knew we would work together. The business side--The Pancake Gallery--was not actually planned. It just made sense when the time came to make our work official, become professionals in it, and give it a name.
How was Pancake Gallery born, and what was the initial objective?
I had my own company, Taboo Management, which was more an avenue to take on freelance marketing and PR jobs. When it came time for Ira to establish her work, she came up with the company name--Pancake Gallery--and a personal objective for her work. I soon decided, why not do all our work under one umbrella? And decided to combine forces with Ira's company. It just made sense.
After the merge, we started thinking seriously about the overall objective of what we wanted to do. This was some time around 2007. I was living in London and Ira in New York, so we thought about ways to connect the cities where we lived, adding Amsterdam in the mix as the city where we grew up, as well as the Caribbean, our family's roots. As we made our personal connections internationally, we we so many like-minded people with the same idea's and ambitions as ours, which then led to the idea to create something that would link all of these people to each other. The vision to take people with us on our journey, and through our work was born. That is what became the foundation of our work with Art Rules Aruba.
At what point did you come up with the idea to bring a comprehensive teaching artist program to Aruba?
The idea to do something in Aruba started about 20 years ago when we were 12 years-old, living on the island. We were those kids that we created the program for--bored in the summer with not much to do.
Like I said, we grew up in Amsterdam taking dance classes our entire lives. So when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there, involving education and the arts. Honestly, for years I thought about bringing books. I had this very vivid vision to help build a library in Aruba.
When you walk into the local library, even today, it reeks of old books. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to send new books to the schools and library's every year. When we went to school in Aruba in 1993, we were using books that were over 20 years old. Almost 16 years later, something clicked that showed us it was time to return with something to give back. We decided that the best gift was to share our artistic knowledge and experiences. What made it even bigger than we imagined was bringing the people who we ended up enlisting to come with us.
Why was going back to Aruba necessary for you guys personally?
Personally I just wanted the youth on Aruba to have what I had: access to information, an international education, and experiences that could shape the ambitions of these young people beyond what they envision for themselves. Also, there are too many unheard voices and hidden talent across the Caribbean. Aruba will always be our home in a sense, because we spent part of our childhood there. That's where this journey needed to start for us in our careers. Suriname is another home, and it's our next destination for this work.
Did you plan on Art Rules Aruba (ARA) being a one shot deal, or did you want to see it as a staple of the arts education in Aruba?
It was not a one shot deal at all, but we also didn't orchestrate a structured plan for it to be a staple program either. Maybe somewhere I hoped it would become a staple and I knew it would have that potential, but we weren't sure if the 'powers that be' and even the local arts scene would allow the program to have play such an important role on the Island.
To a lot of people on the Island, Art Rules Aruba was initially seen as a threat. As crazy as it may seem--since we had not lived in Aruba for years--there were people who were not comfortable with the idea of "outsiders"-- as they would sometimes call us, coming to the Island and 'taking over the art scene.' Nor were they comfortable with us developing the biggest youth based arts program on the island. There was an aspect of competition that was a challenge for us when we first began.
To take that conversation even further, the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered "too black". The journey came with a lot of strides, but also many set backs, and honestly, in the beginning I had no idea where this ship would dock. In the end, because we had a vision, and mostly because we worked hard (and maybe had a little bit of luck and knew a few amazing people), Art Rules has become a staple program in Aruba, and in hindsight, I am truly thankful for the journey that it took to get us there.
What were parts of the process that were most challenging, in getting the project off the ground the first year?
Money! My mother put €1000 euros in my bank account, of which half was spent on a flight from Amsterdam to Aruba to get myself to the island in December of 2009. When I got to Aruba, all I had left was a little pocket money just enough to rent a car and eat. The rest was smartly spent on some heels, a few sharp outfits from Zara, and my 40 page proposal under my arm. This was truly all I had at the time.
As far as selling the project, I did not see this as a challenge. I knew in my heart the way Ira and I wrote the proposal that it would sell itself!
This was not a dream for us. It was a vision. It already existed. All we needed was to get the people there involved.
Did you guys have any personal challenges as siblings or as business partners? Do your ideas for the organization ever differ?
We have the same vision for the company, yet the execution is a very different thing. As much as we are the same, at the end of the day, I am a fierce business person and Ira is an artist. I cut the deals, Ira edits the videos. I organize the production, Ira mentors the kids. In the beginning I had this crazy idea that my sister and I would have the same work approach. Through experience I have learned that we truly are two different people.
What is your working relationship like? Who runs what?
Our work relationship shifts with time. Whatever we have in hand at the moment, we take a look at the work and decide who is good at what. We select our tasks based off of our strengths. If there is a time we can't handle the pressure, we then ask for each other's help. Since 2010, we've also had an amazing web designer by the name of Justin McKenzie (a.k.a Toprock) who has been able to translate our ideas visually in the most creative ways. Then there is our our Latina sister, Mariaelena, from New York, who accidentally became our project manager. Mari was visiting ARA in its first edition and ended up becoming our stage manager at the closing of the project. She has been with us ever since.
How does Pancake Gallery use Arts Rules Aruba to “Integrate and connect international arts communities” as you suggest in your mission?
Simple. We have 18 teachers from New York, London, Amsterdam, Aruba and in between. All of these people aren't only representative of different places around the world, but they are all connected to a local arts scene, which they represent when they bring their knowledge and expertise to ARA. If you were to zoom in on their personal background, we can add that our team consists of Haitian, French, Bajan, Dutch, Sudanese, Surinamese, British, American, Nigerian, and many more cultures around the world. That in turn, connects us to people from all these places. If we want we can do Art Rules Barbados, or Art Rules Sudan, it can now all be possible. That's what we have accomplished from integrating and connecting with one another.
How do you select the multidisciplinary artists from around the world to teach each year?
We do not have a format. In the beginning we looked at people that we knew personally or who were recommended through personal friends. By the third year, we learned not too work with too many friends and to set higher standards to our criteria of selection, which include: the ability to teach, the experience of working within education, the experience of working with youth, and having the right type of personality. It is very important to work with people who are flexible and can be open to the idea that ARA comes with a certain ethos.
What is the lasting impact that the two-week program has on the participants?
I think this is more of a personal question for them to answer, but from what we have seen and experienced, some of what we've heard from the kids were: they felt like ARA shaped them, opened them up, inspired them, got them to lose weight. There were so many different things that we've heard. The main impact that I believe Art Rules Aruba has had on the participants is that it has given them a sense of identity, and has empowered them to feel that they have the complete right to freedom of expression.
One student said "When Art Rules is not here, we are all like weirdo's, but when you guys come, we can feel normal again".
Do you ever feel a sense of completion?
Business-wise no, I always want to continue to do more and accomplish more as an organization. Personally, there is a sense of completion after every year, but as soon as November hits and we start thinking of the next year, we know our work has just begun, and there is a lot more work to do.
What (if at all) is the end point?
I do not know if there is ever an end point. Education is a way of growing, and art is the purest form of expression to your identity. We definitely bring the two together. I also wonder, when do you ever stop growing or being who you are?
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos courtesy of Art Rules Aruba + Pancake Gallery
For some, classical music is often viewed as a staid and elitist genre, better suited for a symphony hall, the ballet, or curmudgeon university professors. Charly + Margaux, the self-described “metro-classical, cinematic chamber rock” duo kill it on the violin and viola (respectively) and in the process, completely change your perceptions about what classical music is and what it can be. As Margaux says, “classical touches me like no other music. It's such a deliberately composed piece of music. It’s almost a physical experience when I listen. I always hear people say ‘I like classical music to study.’ There's certain classical music you can't study to - it's so explosive. There are so many dimensions.”
We were (still are) pretty clueless about the genre, but Charly + Margaux’s love and passion for classical had us downloading symphonies. With their newest project, The Gallerina Suites, the pair continue to create music which embody a sense of play and boldness but can often transition into dreamy, emotive sequences. Their sound, coupled with their distinctive style, make them the kind of artists that are best seen and heard – their presence is unmistakable, their synergy: palatable. What we dig about C + M’s music is not just that they, are in their own way, challenging the status quo, but that they are natural storytellers. Their songs follows a narrative and it’s up to the listener to interpret the story it speaks.
Through chatting with Charly + Margaux, we discovered two grounded, intelligent, sharp women carving out a niche for themselves. A chance encounter on a Boston street corner in Copley Square, culminated in a move to New York City where the two currently live as roommates, homies, and creative partners. We were led to Charly + Margaux’s music through our own series of serendipitous events and were intrigued by what we saw and heard. Who were these women? What were they up to? The following video touches on their creative process; our audio interview delves deeper into their thoughts on living in NYC, staying true to their artistic integrity, weirdo New Yorkers on the subway, and the type of legacy they want to leave. As Charly says, "no one knows who we are right now, but we understand that what we want to contribute is going to take a lifetime to get across. We're starting small and laying huge bricks in our foundation.”
Word. We hear that. In fact, hear more beautiful insights from the duo in our CFPH audio interview about how they met, their tips on surviving creatively on the East Coast, and their most memorable exchanges with fans:
I met Ben Rojas sometime around 2008 at a little wellness gym called Embora in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where we trained in ninjitsu and combative street fighting. Embora was a default gathering place for boho people-of-color--an alternative fitness joint --where yoga, dance, and other specialized classes were taught. The place naturally attracted artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs from around the way. Ben's vibrant life-sized paintings, incorporating faces of community members, adorned the mustard yellow walls of the space that overlooked us while we trained.
Ben has long employed a multimedia approach to depicting universal themes of warriorhood, resistance, colonialism, through his personal subjectivity of spirituality, ancestry, and Latin American culture. A native of the Bay Area, Ben helped found a street art collective called Trust Your Struggle, which has toured around the country, and throughout parts of Latin America, the U.S. and the Philippines. An art teacher at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, a new husband and father, and a grad student at NYU's Art Education Masters program at the Steinhart school, Ben has integrated his many creative worlds to effect change in his community.
Your family is from El Salvador. What made them come to the U.S. and settle down in the Bay Area?
My father’s mother was already in the Bay Area so my father followed in hope to be reunited with his mother who had left him with his father in El Salvador. My mother had an aunt and uncle already here in the States working so they applied to have my mother join them. I am assuming they both wanted to leave El Salvador to make a better living in the U.S.
The Bay Area seems like a pretty open-minded place for budding artists. How did growing up there help support your creative development?
Artists are everywhere in the Bay Area. Most people you meet are some kind of artist, which is both great and not so great at the same time. I was introduced to that artistic world as a youth writing graffiti and being involved in Hiphop culture. Within that Bay Area culture you quickly meet so many types of artists, MCs, filmmakers, writers, actors, painters, poets, musicians, dancers you name it. So being enveloped in that world so young helped establish a strong love for the arts, not only the arts but also art that meant something, art that fought for something. It was also very DIY. Most of the painters that I learned the most from were not art school graduates, they taught themselves and hung out with other great painters.
Were there people who discouraged you from going in this direction, and to find a more conventional path?
A few, but nothing that held me back from doing the art that I wanted to do. My parents were always supportive of my art. Their biggest concern was how I was going to pay bills as an artist, which any artist could probably relate to.
You are a multimedia artist, but what medium was the one that sparked your passion first?
That’s a tough question to answer. I would have to say illustration; I have always loved to draw. I remember as a child my father stealing tracing paper from his office job to give to me and I would trace all kinds of images from the books we had at home.
How do you think your art communicates who you are?
I believe my art communicates who I am through the stories that are told. I love stories. I was a bookworm from day one and still am. My visual pieces always have stories on top of stories. I am a visual storyteller, a trickster in many ways.
You are an arts educator as well, working mostly with high school aged youth. In a culture where pursuing art is not coveted or encouraged by most people, how do you speak to your students about the value of art in society?
I don’t actually do a lot of talking regarding that subject, the young people already know of the value even if they cannot speak on it. They show me they know by their love for my class, even if they don’t “do well” in an academic sense. They are constantly comparing my class to others and they thirst for the freedom they feel in an art class in other classes. I can on my part show my thrill and love for the art by just being enthusiastic about my work and their art. I also am constantly showing them contemporary artists that are doing fresh work, that isn’t just frozen in a museum or gallery.
A lot of your work speaks on topics of colonialism, indigenous history, spirituality, and your ancestors, etc. Can you talk about how these topics became prevailing themes in your work?
In high school I became part of student empowerment group for Black and Brown youth called ST.E.P. which placed college students of color to mentor high school students. Through that group I learned so much of my people’s history, spirituality and most importantly lit that fire that made me want to educate myself the correct way. From that point on I was basically hooked on learning as much as I could on colonialism, indigenous spirituality, and the brutal and beautiful history of Natives, Europeans, and Africans in the Americas. Ancestors hold a powerful role in my life. I see it as a duty and an honor to place the ancestors in my art as a homage to what they have done to keep us alive.
Being a new parent, how do you pass on to your little one how she can explore her own creativity?
I am currently in NYU’s Art Education Masters program where I am reading and learning a ton on how to cultivate human development through the arts. So I am more aware of what my role should be in letting her explore and learn on her own. Play is also so powerful for children, especially toddlers for development, just letting her play, play with other children, play with different materials, basically touching all the bases for her multiple senses. My wife does a great job at taking her to classes that help with that. Also my wife usually has our daughter in her dance company rehearsals which is great.
Your wife Adia is an Afro-Haitian dance instructor. How does her cultural history— that is so prevalent in her work—intersect with yours in an artistic context, as well as a personal context?
Both of our art forms are clearly understood to be part of lives, not something separate. We are our art, our art is us. We not only share that quality but also a great love for our ancestors, which we work with in our art forms all the time.
What materials do you enjoy creating the most with?
At this moment in my life I am really enjoying working with ink, pencil, charcoal and markers. In regards to my 3D work with altars I love working with a large variety of materials, from animal skulls, knives, machetes, food and textiles.
What’s the difference in experience for you between creating life-size mural pieces in a live environment (like a mural on a wall) compared to a stationary canvas in a contained space?
Huge difference. My murals are usually created with the surrounding communities, folks on the block. There is a very interactive element with other people. It is also a different experience in that while you work on a mural in a public space you are always being asked questions and being given feedback from the average person walking by. A piece on a canvas that ends up in an enclosed space is way more personal, I can meditate and reflect on my process on an individual level.
You love doing portraits. How do you find your subjects?
I used to use other artist’s photography up until a few years ago. Now I take my own photos of friends. For the series that I’ve been working on for the last few years I focus on Brown people of the Americas and the Caribbean.
Your portraits are a bit re-imagined, not literally what you see of the person. They are placed in a different context, like what you see in your warrior series. Do you imagine the character first, or do you first depict the person and then figure out how to adorn them later?
I’ve done both. Sometimes I see the images in my head before and then adorn their bodies. Often I take a portrait of a person then add images onto their person, inspired by their personality or position of their body.
What’s the most difficult part about getting your work out there to the public?
I don’t know. I guess not having an agent or a gallery to endorse you.
What did the name Borish come from?
When I started writing graffiti as a youth my friends and I formed a crew called ISH. My intials are BOR so I just put them together. My other name Mincho is actually a kind of family name, all boys named Benjamin in El Salvador are called Mincho as a nickname. Vega is one of my family last names.
Can you speak a little about Trust Your Struggle and Trust Your Hustle?
Trust Your Struggle (TYS) is an artist collective that was formed in 2004 with myself and two other friends, Robert Trujillo and Scott Hoag. At that time we individually were part of different crews but felt that the three of us together shared a common goal of a visual art based on social justice, so we formed TYS. Trust Your Hustle was the name of two mural tours we did as a group in 2004 and 2006. The tour’s name was changed the other year when part of TYS went to the Philippines. Essentially what the tour was about was creating a network between us and communities we visited and painting as many murals as we could. In 2004 we traveled through Mexico and parts of Central America and in 2006 we crossed the US in a van from New York to San Francisco. You can view videos of our work on Vimeo or Youtube, just search under those names. On a side note our names have been used by others (clothing line named Trust Your Hustle and Urbanoutfitters using Trust Your Struggle) so just to put that out there that that isn’t us. We always thought of the slogan Trust Your Struggle to be of the People, free to use, its a state of mind not really “ours.” We always love seeing people online getting tattooed TYS, it's beautiful.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am still working on the series “Elegy” which are the illustrated portraits on paper. I am working on some new pieces which I hope will be part of a new solo show for September in Philly.
Any words of wisdom to budding young artists who are just finding their passion to pursue art professionally?
Practice people skills, learn how to speak to all kinds of people, learn the art of Code Switching. Practice speaking and writing about your art. Most of the time its how you speak about your art that makes people love your art or give you funding. Pay dues and know your place amongst elders who have been doing art before you were born. Take advantage of any free classes or studio sessions. and last, be humble in your rumble.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos courtesy of Ben's website, Boyuan Gao, and feature photo by Miguel "Bounce" Perez
While it can sometimes feel like we’re standing still, the truth is, is that we are constantly evolving. Sometimes these changes can feel drastic, often they are imperceptible. Born and raised in New Jersey and a former social worker - singer, DJ, producer, family man, and trumpeter Miles Bonny, is in the midst of big changes. When we spoke to Miles, he was gearing up for a move from Kansas City, where he's lived for the past 8 years with his family to New Mexico. Beyond the move, Bonny continues to grow as an artist and play with the boundaries of what it means to be a blues/soul/jazz influenced singer. His songs incorporate a sense of intimacy usually reserved for the grainy sounding records your parents listened to when you were a kid - and his music emits a sense of nostalgia, ease, and vulnerability. When we spoke with Bonny, he was phasing out his work as a Cultural Communications Curator for individuals and non-profits and had recently returned from touring in Europe where he performed much of his latest album, Supa Soul Sh*t, with collaborator and producer, Brenk Sinatra. CultureFphiles chatted with Miles about his latest album, being an artist and a father of two, and waxed poetic on the following questions: how does my identity as an artist evolve? How do I make sure my work aligns with my values? How do I contribute to the greater good? Read on.
Let’s talk about Supa Soul Sh*t and the origins of this album.
Since I never made money from my music, I did it on the side…I jumped around from a lot of different jobs and I realized that I value my life and my potential and if I’m doing music this whole time, why am I not just doing that? When other people started taking my music more seriously, like listeners, I was like wait - they’re taking it more seriously than I am. It’s cool because good things are happening and maybe that has to do with my energy because I’m in that place and people can feel that.
How did creating Supa Soul Sh*t differ from your previous album, Lumberjack Soul?
Supa Soul Sh*t took a lot longer and so my vocal recordings were all over the place...it’s my first album completely with one other producer [Brenk Sinatra]. In the past, I've been the producer. As a cohesive work it definitely feels more powerful and deep than my previous release. When we toured we largely based our shows off of that album and people would come up to us and tell us how the show had impacted them, which was surprising. It’s not easy to perform this material when people are going to a show on a weekend night and they’re hearing slow ass soul music. But I think that because of Brenk’s strength as a spirit and as a person and how much he believes in the music, he would play the entire beat for each song not like, ‘oh we’ll do a verse here or a verse there’ so as a performer, it wasn’t easy but maybe it just made it more real. If it touched people there must be something to it. Music is just social work in that it provides a warmth that people don’t really get from other people or other settings in their life.
Do you feel your music provides that warmth or a sense of connection?
That’s not my intention when I record but I think that is something that happens as a result. I mean, I’m just trying to be genuine. I’m not like, ‘hey, let’s fuck all night. I got a lot of money.’
Well, soul music used to have a real subtlety to it. Even in Marvin’s, “Let’s Get It On” the message is clear - but there’s still a subtlety present that’s missing in a lot of music.
Yeah, and it comes off as being disingenuous. I love old music. I love things about new music. Why can’t we just make something that is honest and true for today without having to feel like that middle ground can’t exist?
If I am trying to describe what my music sounds like, I have to come up with words to do that, and that’s where marketing comes in and that whole, music-meets-non-music-conversation begins. I’ve been struggling for a long time given my understanding of marketing and how helpful it can be when you find those right words. I mean, ‘soulful’ doesn’t mean much. To a bunch of white people, it can mean ‘black’ music or something for ‘black people.’ You can’t say ‘organic’ anymore because it’s just redundant. I feel a connection between the idea of Jazz soul and beats. My history stems from hip-hop beats. There’s a trumpeter named Nicholas Payton who is creating a whole lot of hub hub now because he is saying Jazz is a derogatory term and it’s actually black American music and if you look back historically, all these people like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington were saying we don’t play Jazz, we just make music. All I get sent from producers are slow Jazzy beats which is a great - I really love being that guy who sings over slow Jazzy beats. But I also love crazy shit. I love the genre that is related to the music I make and the music that has historically preceded it, but I also love fast, danceable things and I’m thinking I can do both.
How do you negotiate the desire to try different things so you're being true to your evolution as an artist but also remaining faithful to your fans? Is that even something you consider?
My fans love the music I make. Or have made. Whether they like what I create in the future is up to them. I don't have zombie followers. I have a community of individually minded, free, progressive thinkers. They are evolving themselves in search of self and freedom. We all are, the world is changing before our eyes. Sticking to an easy formula or something that is purely about money is foolish for anyone.
I’m an ambassador for the type of music that I like. Musically, I make the music I want to hear...I'm conscientious about what I do. I'm not into pyrotechnics and choreography. I'm not a lighting designer or stockholder. I’m living a life based on my spiritual path and connection with community in this time. All with an understanding of the history of my musical lineage in my ancestors and with the recorded material that has shaped me.
It’s clear it’s important your values are aligned with your work. It can cause a lot of conflict when we do work that is not aligned with our values. Can you speak on that?
I would say, factually, probably most people don’t have their work aligned with their values. I think that’s why society is collapsing right now. As individuals, people are working purely for money and if the people they’re working for are doing it purely for the money then it’s hard to base an entire society on something that’s fake. We’ve had to choose boxes as jobs for people to fit, but they are essentially created by someone else, as opposed to us developing our own interests.
A lot of it comes down to how I am choosing to be perceived as an artist. And if I am being consistent with what I claim. I want to be someone people can rely on and trust. I’m starting to write things that are more reflective. If I genuinely believe strongly about things going on in the world and the people that listen to me also do, I can do it in a way where the music is enjoyable and not shoved down their throat. I’m growing as a songwriter and finding the balance between creating content that is not too personal that no one can relate to it but also not making it into a lecture. The fact is, is that there are things going on in the world that are ugly - but I don’t want to make ugly music.
That’s the hard part about anyone being adamant about social justice. It’s never ending, as far as the amount of ways you can shift your choices to be aligned with those beliefs. I’m trying to be conscious of not buying things from countries with bad labor laws…I was talking to a friend of mine and he was like, ‘yeah people might have these beliefs but we still don’t follow them when it’s inconvenient for us.’ At what point do I hold myself accountable? It doesn’t mean we have to be hard on ourselves but it’s still something I’m trying to work on.
How do you balance your family life and your career?
How do I not completely sell out and potentially gain greater fans or bigger opportunities while at the same time staying true to my values and make sure I have enough money to be a responsible father? So far it’s not hard, but it requires a lot of hard decisions. You can’t be lazy about it.
How has being a father and having a partner influenced your music and the way you approach your art?
It's increasingly becoming something my collaborators understand is important to me. My love for family and belief isn't "cute" - it's real. Raising children well is important and realer than any fame I could ever obtain. I could not buy what my family provides me and what I can provide them. My first video was based on my family life…at the same time, we give each other great freedoms. My partner and kids and family situation is amazing. I'm thankful. I want the same for others.
I started singing when I met my partner. The balance between touring, recording, and anything I do publically has to fit within my life as a whole. The song "As you sleep on my lap" did real well on my man's Ta-KU Soundcloud. People seemed to respond to the honesty of it. It was a freestyle recorded while she was in my lap, sleeping in the studio. I'm trying to be myself as much as possible. Myself, and my music are always getting realer as I learn more about myself and society.
My grandmother, Helen Bonny, wrote a book called Music Consciousness: the Evolution of Guided Imagery in Music. She wrote that even though she knew how to play violin she never wanted to be the person on stage, she wanted to touch people’s hearts. I was like fuck, I wish she was still alive so I could have a conversation with her. It’s like, I need to do shows because I want to connect with the people who like my music but I don’t really care about being on stage and I don’t really care about being famous. I just want to make good music and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.
On the website, Spook is referred to as a "literary arts mash up" and it is - an amalgamation of various literary styles and voices culminating in quality fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, and social criticism. Spook is much more than just a biannual literary magazine though. Like the video introduction below, the lyrics accompanying the visuals repeat that, "it's a feeling" - and it is. Reading an issue of Spook is an experience - one that pairs well with a cup of coffee and an hour of uninterrupted time. I imediately fell in love with the magazine at first read; it was moving, hilarious, witty, thought-provoking and well curated. Founder and LA native, Jason Parham, an editor and writer at Complex magazine by day, came up with the idea of creating a literary magazine after noticing a lack of outlets for alternative voices, particularly for people-of-color. After shooting the idea around to some friends and colleagues, Parham brought on a team of contributors - both writers and visual artists. The result is something The New Inquiry calls, ""The most called-for print publication in ages" and The Los Angeles Review of Books says is an "invaluable contribution to the cultural conversation." Accolades aside, Spook is just plain dope. It's a haven for literary nerds (like myself) and one of the best print publications I've read in a while (I'm already itching for my fix with Issue Two). Read on for Parham's thoughts on the creation of Spook, how the voice of the publication speaks to the human experience, and his unwillingness to compromise on his vision.
How did the idea for Spook begin and why did you think it was necessary?
I studied journalism in undergrad and in grad school I studied literature, so writing for me has been a natural evolution. In grad school I was immersed in all of these great black authors; Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Gloria Naylor. In talking to my friends, people in my cohort, and meeting other academics, writers plus being in a creative community in UCLA and then moving out to New York - I felt it was necessary...I thought, I can do it myself, publish my own work, put something together. So, I reached out to some friends - half the people in Spook are my friends or I know most of them. I shot the idea around in December 2011 and they were like, this is great. The idea began to snowball in January 2012 and Spook came out in June.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
It’s weird because I know writers at The Times and big name magazines just being within that world, but I wasn’t sure if I could actually, as an artist, break into it. I was already in it as an editor and a writer but I wasn’t sure if putting my own thing out - if people would be receptive to it. This is a very niche idea, a very small specific idea. I know a lot of creative black, Latino, and Asian writers who don’t get a chance to get published elsewhere and if I have an opportunity to let them write for Spook then why not...we’re not traditionally in the huge art shows, in the magazines, in the lit journals. There are other literary journals but [Spook is] very tailored to black voices, Latino voices, Asian voices. Not everybody is receptive to that so I was a little worried. At the same time, I really believe in this and I felt like a lot of other people believed in it. And I think having a few good names; Justin Torres, Patrice Evans, Richard Stevenson Jr. I think that helps as well.
Do you think it’s harder for people of color to have their work published in mainstream publications?
I think there is a system set in place. I don’t work in one of those high literary magazines but I know the staffs are usually very white, liberal, and very monied and they are looking for specific things. Don’t get me wrong - there are usually always one black author or one Latino author but there’s never a whole book or publication where we’re dictating our own rules and that’s also what I wanted Spook to be. I wanted it to create conversation and open a dialogue between the readers and the contributors.
I was really impressed by the quality of writing. Most literary journals are usually really highbrow. I love that Spook combines various literary styles. It’s also hilarious.
I kind of see it as somewhere in the middle. I wanted it to be a mix of Wax Poetics, The New Yorker or the Paris Review. Kind of like this high literary magazine, very cultured, and stylized where people could have fun and experiment. All of the pieces are very smart. There’s a piece by Tavia Nyong'o about Trayvon Martin and he’s coming as a professor at NYU and bringing an academic background. Then you have someone like Patrice Evans who is writing about Madea, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. He has another take on it. I was bringing people on board and seeking out contributors and I was telling people to have fun and to play to their strengths. It says that I’m the editor but I’m not so much editing as I am curating. They’re all very talented and a lot of the writers don’t need editing. It’s been exciting.
But as a writer yourself, you don’t have a piece in Spook.
It’s kind of ironic because one of the reasons I started Spook was because I wanted to publish my own fiction. But it snowballed into something so much greater; it opened up this dialogue with other artists and I think that’s more of the rewarding aspect of it, meeting these other artists and these other writers and the friendships and relationships that have been created...I don’t want it to be just my work. I want to give voice to other artists who are traditionally left out of other journals.
You said you weren’t expecting as many writers to come on board. Were you surprised how it came together?
Toni Morrison is famous for saying, “write the book you want to read.” So Spook comes from that thinking. Create the magazine you want to read and so I reached out to friends, dream contributors, and dream artists. Some got back to me and some didn’t. They believed in it, I believed in it. I was surprised. Justin Torres, who had this huge book in 2011 called We The Animals which was praised in The New Yorker and was one of my favorite books, I reached out just to see what he would say and he said yes. I think it’s a testament to the idea that they came on board and believed in it and made me believe it in a little bit more.
Can you speak to a particular piece in your first issue that really moved you?
This is a tricky question, mostly because I loved all the pieces, and each for different reasons. “Living With Aphrodite” by Karla Rose was especially touching. Her honesty was refreshing, and the piece was successful for two reasons, I think: she sought out answers—who is this woman I call mother?—while affirming her selfhood at the same time. Justin Torres’ short story, “P.S. Girl” was equally moving. In 700 words he rendered a world full of complicated, messy love. One devoid of easy remedies and fairytale endings. Kyla Marshell’s poetry was also a joy to include. The second issue continues in this tradition, with fiction from Aaron Michael Morales, poetry by Sidony O’Neal, art by Kajahl Benes, and much, much more.
Although there is a certainly a focus on black writers, not every piece is about the black experience. Karla’s piece touches on identity and familial relationships, which can be applied to everyone.
Yes, she’s so good. I don’t want to be mistaken though. Spook isn’t only for black folks. Spook, the title, comes from this idea of being “othered” or left out so the flip on that is we’re re-imagining what Spook means with our art and our essays and poetry.
My goal for Spook has never been for it to be exclusive to the black experience. I do want it to be an outlet for alternative voices. The onus, though, is not entirely on me. It’s also up to the reader to look beyond the content and understand that our stories, despite being told through a certain lens, speak to a number of circumstances: our struggle with identity, the need to belong—to a person, place, or idea—one’s capacity to love, so on and so forth. These are universal themes that all people wrestle with. But, to answer your question, I create a perception of Spook being for everyone by publishing content that, above all, aims to deepen our understanding of the human experience. If someone really gets it, they’ll see that it’s not just about black people or black voices. I’m not saying that Spook defies categorization but it’s not as self-defined as people make it out to be.
What were some of the challenges you faced putting Spook together?
I come from a creative and editorial background. I’ve never done the business side of a magazine so putting it together was a big learning experience. I was kind of making it up as I went along. I invested my own money into this so I was making sure the pricing was right so that I would break even or make a profit and on the creative side, I was corralling people and making sure we were on deadline. Also balancing that with my day job and my personal life and wanting to go out and see my friends. It’s a big balancing job. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this going. I’m at least doing a third issue. The reception has been great. It’s kind of a like a passion project at the moment. I always say it’s a lot of work but a lot of fun work.
It must have been so gratifying when you got the first issue.
Yes, when I got the proof it came to my apartment and I was smiling at it all day [laughs]I’m also able to track readers through the publishing platform we use. I’ll see places in Georgia or on the West Coast in the Midwest and even in London. It’s not just New York or LA where I’m from. It’s been exciting and also overwhelming sometimes because it’s just me.
How does your vision for the second issue compare to the first?
The second one has more art. The first one was very wide ranging. I wanted it to be a tapestry of ideas so we had fiction, poetry, essays. The second one, because we had more space and pages, I wanted more art…the third issue will be a lot more specific and will be all fiction. Spook is still changing and still figuring itself out. I’m more excited for the art this time then the writing. It’s still very much changing and adapting and figuring out what it is. I always know I want some dope art on the front. I always know I want to work with artists that are not necessarily huge or super well known…I try to work with people who are trying to figure it out and there are so many out there especially living in New York.
You mentioned in our interview that you "compromise a lot" but you will "not compromise with Spook." Can you speak more on that?
My background is in journalism, and for the five years I’ve been writing professionally, there have been a number of instances where I had to compromise my work for the publication. Of course, I wasn’t in a senior role, and my editor usually had the final say—whether it was simply rewording a few sentences or restructuring the entire piece. With Spook, it’s different—and not just because I’m in charge. I work really hard to tap into each writer’s individual voice. And really, that’s what makes the publication so special. There is a certain essence that I try to capture with each issue—something beyond description—and the day I compromise is the day I hang it up. I have a very good idea of what Spook is, and what it can be. So my refusal to compromise is me actively trying to keep the magazine’s soul intact. Even if Spook stays small I’m extremely proud of it and happy. It’s a lot of work but it’s fun.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Issue One cover art - Stephanie Matthews
Issue Two cover art - Kajahl Benes
I met Bisco Smith (a.k.a. Brad) several years ago after having first been enamored with his visual art as a designer for one of my favorite music labels growing up, Definitive Jux, after my friend put me onto his work. I also admired the aerosol art that he adorned New York City walls with, his thoughtful lyricism as an emcee, his passion as a youth art educator. After just relocating to LA this past summer, Bisco, along with his creative partner (and girlfriend)--cinematographer and photographer Jasmine Hemery--banded together with a few other talented friends to bring their love of hip-hop and youth development to Israel as a vehicle to unify Israeli and Arab Israeli youth. There they used their hip-hop sensibility to teach mural painting, song-writing, and dance. In this joint interview with Bisc and Jasmine, we give you a glimpse into how their fleeting idea became a transcontinental art program, and how this Jack and Jacqueline-of-all-trades pair continuously push each other to the next level.
As U.S.-based multimedia artists, how did you develop an arts enrichment program in Israel?
Bisc:I work with an organization called Arts By the People. They're based out of New Jersey, and I got involved with them via my friend Gus doing street art workshops. Gus connected me to this guy Paul who's got a lot of friends in Israel. We were driving around one day and we were just like, “It would be crazy to run this workshop in Israel,” and two weeks later Gus, Paul and I put together a PDF to get money--just breaking down what we wanted to do--and boom! He got us funding in a week. Okay, maybe not a week. It took a few steps, but he reached out to one person, who reached out to another person, and maybe a few steps later, we got funding and we got a place to go to. It was a very fast process.
We then connected with Project Harmony, a program who works with a great organization in Israel called Hand In Hand. The umbrella that we went to Israel under is Hand In Hand, and inside of it was Arts By The People and Project Harmony. The airfare was privately funded for, and the accommodations were privately funded. We raised money for the materials, which were all donated by friends and family in a really quick matter of time. Between Hand-In-Hand, Arts By The People, and Project Harmony, and donors and friends and family, a lot of people got together to make it work. I went to do the street art workshop. Jasmine came to document everything, Gus planned to do hip-hop song writing, and our friend Renee Floresca came to teach dance.
How many kids did you work with?
Bisc: We worked with about 50-60 youth. It fluctuated especially because Ramadan started around then. It was an English language summer camp that is run out of Hand In Hand, which is an English language school, so they teach in each classroom--they have one teacher who teaches Hebrew, and one teacher that speaks Arabic in each classroom. They use English as the common thread. It’s a mix of Jewish and Arab kids. Some from Palestine and some from Jerusalem. It’s very progressive and political. There are a few of those schools in Israel.
How does religion play a role in the day-to-day life of the Israeli youth that you worked with?
Bisc: In Israel, things are segregated by religion. I don’t know too much about the experiences of Christian and Muslim Arabs, vs. Jews, but pretty much, everyone is separated because religion is the key factor out there. Younger generations and more progressive people are changing stuff. Most of the parents of the kids that we worked with are artists or creative people. They function in not your everyday world.
As Americans, did the actual experience of being there change your initial view of that region of the world?
Jasmine: I feel like our experience was only formed through our actual journey out there. Initially, we went to Palestine, but we also saw The Holocaust Museum in Israel, and so understanding both perspectives changed what we thought. I think we ended the trip realizing that it's just such a complex situation beyond what we thought we knew. Both sides have views that are relatable. I left feeling much more empathetic to both sides. I think being in The States you have such a skewed perception that leans towards one end.
Bisc:Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion. Everyone goes to Israel for religion and politics. People don’t really go there for art, so our political knowledge was only what we hear on the internet and it was very skewed. I wasn’t scared by that. I was more focused on the kids than I was about the political climate.
Was working with the youth there challenging because of language or cultural barriers?
Bisc:I don’t think so. The kids we worked with were very educated. I initially thought that we were going to go to a more underserved area. I think it was actually pretty privileged--not super rich and balling out--but the kids, even to be in a program like that you have to have a family that is doing pretty okay out there.
The kids just loved what we were doing. After the first day, we had their full attention, they were excited about it. I’d say, the age for me was the toughest part. We worked with some kids that were as young as nine, and I’m used to working with kids who are older than that. It was harder to do what I normally do--and I had to on the spot change my approach--but only because of their age, not because they were Israeli or Palestinian.
Jasmine:One of the things that struck us the most was that they had all of the same kid mannerisms as anywhere. Kids are kids no matter where they are from, but sometimes we did experience a language barrier.
Watch Words to the World: The Making of a Mural,a short documentary about the Israel youth project:
How did the Israel project fit into the natural scope of your work?
Jasmine: I feel that this fits into the evolution of our careers that will include more philanthropic causes, including service as part of our common work.
Bisc: I think it’s important to work with young people. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I have definitely been fortunate enough to give back through my work, and I’m sure that’s not going to stop, but I really want to work with all ages sharing these skills and crafts.
I believe that hip-hop is great at breaking boundaries and uniting different ages and cultures, and bring them under one umbrella. Who knows?--Those kids could form an Arab-Jewish collaborative rap group, or slowly make their way to create change through the continuation of hip-hop--which is about unification.
To flip the script and talk about your working relationship, what other major work have you two collaborated on?
Bisc:Jasmine hasbeen working on these shorts, and she’s been letting me help her assist direct, and do a lot of different stuff on that. I started working with her on her films, and I would score her movies. Then we did a project where it was my music, and she shot me a music video. This is the first time that we’ve travelled overseas and created a documentary piece. Definitely it’s just the first one. We’re both kind of hyped on doing more of it, and it’s a great opportunity for dope co-created projects. We’ve been doing that since day one.
How do you guys keep inspired and sustain your rhythm for creating, individually or in a partnership?
Jasmine: I think as an artist, you are inspired daily. It can be something as simple as someone crossing the street, that you just want to explore and dig deeper, whether it's in film or writing, or painting. I think my rhythm is just everyday life, allowing myself to be inspired to make something. And this guy here is super creative and multi-talented, so naturally in conversation, we’ll be listening to the same thing, and talking about it, and then we create something.
Bisc:We think on the same wavelength. I mean, we’ll both look at the same thing and say “that’s dope." For me, because I always work alone, we’ve had some struggles with Jasmine giving me real criticism and feedback, but it’s a lot of growing and a lot of learning. It’s working in a way that it’s only going to be iller. I think we push each other. I think that where I fall short, she steps in and makes it better. I think we really do fill in the space for each other where we aren’t as strong. It’s done very effortlessly. Say I’m writing something for a client--I’m not the best writer--I ask her, and she will change my perspective and make me better. Boom!
Jasmine: And I’m not the best talker [laughs].
Bisc:You’ll see that I like talking a lot, so I’ll talk for her. It works like that. It’s something creative where we both do for each other. Like when we are directing partners in film; I talk for her, I don’t mind talking where I’m telling people what to do or where to fall on set, and she’s the eye, and together we create a really good overall holistic and creative person. One more thing to add to are both of our goals. Right now I don’t have an ultimate goal, or there's absence of an overall goal. That’s something that I am struggling with in the present--not struggling with--but I think creatively, it’s something that I have to work towards because I have to see it in order to get there. She’s been helping me a lot with visualizing that imagery.
Did Israel fulfill any long standing goals that you had for your careers?
Jasmine: In terms of traveling, I’ve always traveled and brought a camera and took to photographs, but now that I’m studying film, it was an opportunity to evolve my skills and try to do film, creating what is going to be a miniature documentary. I was trying to capture moments. It’s very different than just taking a photo. You’re capturing an elongated period of time. It was a really interesting experience.
Bisc: For me, I can’t specifically answer that. I don’t know. It’s weird for me to say it, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t really have a "thing." I just kind of take the art as it comes, and this just came to me. I just feel like I was fortunate to get the opportunity and I mean--I paint walls, and I come from that world for more than half of my life. I’ve been involved in that culture for a long time. It’s definitely a continuation of what I come from--the root to my art and creativity. It was also a continuation of being Jewish and coming from that as a whole. Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, "you can’t connect the dots going forward." Right now, I just don’t know.
On the surface it looks like you guys are living the dream. In your day-to-day reality, are there ever times where being in a creative profession is exhausting or unproductive?
Jasmine: I definitely have creative blocks. For me, I have to force myself to sit there and work through it. Editing for me is really hard. I kind of have to just sit there and force myself to do it. It makes it easier to think in terms of projects. I try to do one project at a time.
Bisc: I don’t know man, for me, I just work. Somedays like today I didn’t do shit. I sat at this desk all day and I organized files. I did bullshit all day. Because I’m in a creative block right now…I don’t know, I guess it comes and goes, at the end I just have faith that everything comes my way, and I’ll make art and I’ll make money. There’s a lot of shit that I want to do. If I write it all out, like I did recently, it becomes overwhelming. I mean, our day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. We don’t stay up until the morning doing art and smoking weed and shit. I feel like I’m getting old, and I’m trying to be healthy. I’m just going to the gym and trying to eat well. It’s a balance between professionalism and artistry, business and personal, love and relationships, and regular life stuff too...
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photography and video by Jasmine Hemery
Check out Bisco's creative agency Daylight Curfew Creative, a creative agency that specializes in design, apparel, identity, instillation, web, video, and audio.
Eating great food and taking in great art while simultaneously making friends around the world sounds like what I want to be when I grow up. A friend of mine introduced me to Slideluck by describing it as "an art show…local photographers present their work on a big slideshow and everyone brings a dish to share...like a potluck dinner. They do it all around the world. Tonight it's in Brooklyn. Want to come?” I agreed, envisioning some store brought hummus laid out on a table next to a few lone photographs in someone's dank apartment. I was wrong. The Brooklyn Bridge provided the perfect backdrop to an open air warehouse in Dumbo filled with people, an abundance of food, and a large screen. In fact, that particular event won a place in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for the largest potluck ever thrown (479 dishes - dayum!).Inspired by his love for food, traveling and art, New York City resident and photographer Casey Kelbaugh, created Slideluck twelve years ago out of the DIY ethos of Seattle, Washington. Shaped out of a desire to build community and provide an artistic outlet for local photographers, Slideshow has evolved into a non-profit organization which produces international events centered around art and food. Kelbaugh and his team have traveled around the world; producing events in cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya, as well as various cities within the US. In addition to producing events, the organization created a youth initiative to empower young people through photography as well as a green initiative, which focuses on making their events as close to zero waste as possible. Project Inkblot spoke with Casey about his love for traveling, the occasional exclusionary world of photography, and why there will probably not be a Slideluck in Dubai anytime soon.
When did you first develop a love for traveling?
Before I was doing Slideluck and before I was even a photographer, I was really into travel. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and I ended up living with two Italian architecture students who were about 6 yrs older than me. I was 19 at the time. They had dinner parties almost every night and they taught me how to cook. I learned the power of bringing people together around food. There was jazz and food and wine and really interesting people coming together on a nightly basis. That started for me the love of travel and the love of cooking, and the idea that food could be this catalyst for bringing people together.
Is that where you became interested in photography, as well?
…I became interested in photography when I was traveling in Tokyo…I heard about a photo workshop; so I went to it and I thought, wow this is amazing. It’s immediate, you’re engaged, you can help create the moment, and it’s interactive...I spent a year there trying to learn the craft. I had plans to continue to travel around the world and then in one week, my camera was stolen, I ran out of money, and I got malaria, and I was like 'ok, time to go home to Seattle and re-group'…around 1999 I was starting my own career and that’s when I started to get frustrated by the lack of outlets to show my work.
Because you felt the photography world was exclusionary?
There are a lot of different photo worlds; the editorial world, shooting for magazines, there’s the commercial world, the fine art world, and there are very steep pyramids where there is no access…especially when you’re starting out. It’s like, ‘ok one day I’ll show at this gallery’ but how do I talk to people now and get feedback and show my work? So I created Slideluck in my tiny backyard in Seattle. About 50 people showed up and everyone was really jazzed and we had an old photo projector and some music. It went really well and people were like, ‘when’s the next one?’
Lots of people, when they are creating something with momentum, speak of that moment where they know they’re on to something big. Did you feel that way?
I felt a little bit of that leading up to it, but I had no idea I’d move to New York. I was thinking of doing something fun that allowed me to take control and do something for the people, not waiting for it to happen. There was a very amazing DIY spirit in the art community in Seattle and I think Slideluck grew out of that. It grew very slowly and organically and in three years we did 20 shows in Seattle. No press, no big nothing. It was all very underground.
I moved to NY for my photo career. Slideluck was a hobby. I got here and I felt that same kind of void but I thought, 'no one in New York is going to want to do a potluck dinner'...but we decided to do the first one in my apartment, and it was packed.
How many people showed up?
About 150 people, which was bigger than the biggest show we had had in Seattle. People were hungry for this kind of authentic engagement and for the opportunity to show their work and get feedback, and the content was very good. We were like, we’re definitely doing it again but we need a bigger place. We found a studio in Soho and it was a really beautiful space that was twice as big and twice as exciting…the energy was electric.
In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.
What do you think people were so excited about?
It all goes back to authenticity for me. You don’t just buy a ticket. You’re actually getting your hands dirty and making something you care about or making a family recipe and that makes you a bit more invested. So everyone is helping to build and create the night. And every night is unique because it’s always in a different location, the people are different, the theme is different, the food is different so every event is bound by this common structure…yet we’ve managed to maintain that backyard potluck vibe. It hasn’t taken on the art world pretension. It’s always been really warm and friendly.
Being able to travel through Slideluck must be a dream.
Yeah, I would say that. It’s different than backpacking. Backpacking is a fantastic way to get out and meet all of these interesting people but often you’re meeting people from all of these other countries and then you’re all on the outside looking in. The difference with this is that all of our growth has been by demand. So if a place like Tel Aviv or Bogota approaches us because they want to do a Slideluck, we build it together…it’s the most exciting way to travel because we go in and we’re building something that is totally new and everyone is so excited and we’re meeting all of these creative people. It’s not a one off - it becomes a part of the community. It’s been amazing. It’s changed my concept of what travel can be.
Have you found that certain cultures are more receptive or less receptive to the idea? Have you faced any obstacles in regards to that?
Well, in terms of reception, after every Slideluck someone will come up and say thank you so much we’ve never had something like this before and I guess you could say, that is the biggest reward. A Potluck is a Native American tradition – it’s called a “Potlatch” and it comes from the Seattle area actually, on the Northwest coast. The first year in Berlin this woman showed up with a head of lettuce and I’m like,' what’s this? And she’s like it’s a salad and I’m like, it’s not a salad, it’s a limp head of lettuce' [laughs]. Amsterdam was very interesting - we had a potluck curator and everyone arrived with dishes and everything was laid out so beautifully…I was talking to people and I was like, ‘do you all do a lot of potlucks?’ and they’re like ‘we’ve never heard of it [until now]' and they totally communicated what it was about but it was a brand new experience for everyone in the room, so that was interesting.
Then there was the Middle East; my dad lived in Dubai for a couple of years and I tried to have a Slideluck there and it’s just not going to happen.
Because, traditionally, [in many Middle Eastern cultures] when you host people you spend your last dime so that there is so much food that no one in a million years would ever be able to finish it, but to ask people to bring something is almost offensive. To say 'ok, come over but you have to bring stuff as well'…it just doesn’t fly.
Is that what you envision? A Slideluck in every city in the world?
I’d love to see it spread that way…we haven’t been able to accommodate it in that way. We’d love for it to be de-centralized so that more people are a part of it. We’re re-launching our website so that each city can have their own page. It will be a lot more accessible and easier to control.
What have you learned from the process of creating this organization?
I think I had a tough time committing to what type of medium I wanted to work in, then what type of photographer I wanted to be, then whether I could stay in one place. This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward. I have made this project a priority for 12 years. Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy. There have been some very tough moments in this process – financially, emotionally, creatively – but throwing in the towel has never been an option. I think the longer I stuck with it, the more crystallized this feeling was.
The other thing I have learned is that people are willing to go to great lengths for something they believe in. At this particular moment, there are teams of individuals volunteering their time and resources to make Slidelucks happen in San Francisco, London, Bogotá, Dallas, Atlanta, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and Washington, DC. All of whom are doing this on their own volition and because they want to make their community a better place. The mere fact that this is happening blows my mind.
What were some of your favorite Slidelucks?
That’s hard. Nairobi was way up there…400 people showed up, beautiful weather. It was a really mixed, interesting crowd…the work was all local and we even had some paintings so we had a really older generation as well as young people. Panama City was also amazing, we were in the ruins of a 400 year-old church and it was in the old part of town and we were bbq’ing and we had a really packed house and great vibe. [Our] second show in Baltimore was phenomenal. We got this funky space and we had a really beautiful photo exhibition. There was a live Delta blues band afterwards, there was a bonfire. The work was great, the food was great. Someone set off 17,000 firecrackers. And then there was the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art also hanging out so it was a good mix.
To view photos from Slideluck Nairobi, click here.
It must be great to attract such a wide range of people who otherwise might not mix.
Oh yeah, totally. War photographers and fashion photographers…these people do not hang out. It’s a very mixed group…it just gets boring when it’s the same people. We did one in Toronto where we had really important curators who picked really important photographers. We didn’t do an open call due to a timing thing and it was the most boring show we’ve ever had. It was so predictable. Everyone had already worked together and it didn’t have that random element of chance and that excitement of opportunity.
Would you say that random aspect is what makes the events so good?
Yeah, I mean we’ll never do that again. There has to be an element of an open call. Sure, the curator can pick some of the artists but there has to be an opportunity for anyone to come out of the woodwork.
What do you want people to walk away with after a Slideluck event?
I want people to feel engaged and inspired and I think that’s a lot of what happens. People are energized. They walk away like, 'holy shit'. The events are very educational. You learn a lot about a lot of little worlds and what’s going on in the world during the show. So I think if people walk away feeling more grounded in their community and more connected, if they feel inspired creatively and intellectually, and if they’ve made new friends, then that’s the goal.
For more information on Casey Kelbaugh, click here.
For more information on Slideluck, click here.
Words by Jahan Mantin
Photo credit: Slideluck Potshow
Have you heard of Nomadness? Well if you haven't, you most definitely will soon. My boy brought Evita Robinson over to my place for a heated game night one evening over a year ago. He insisted adamantly that I talk to this woman, and upon officially meeting her over an impassioned game of Taboo, I totally got it. Evie Robbie, as her friends call her, is a goddess of world travel. In 2010 she created a travel web series, and by 2013 (at press time), she clocks in over 4000 members in her closed international travel group Nomadness Travel Tribe--a Facebook based online community for travel enthusiasts like us--and by "us" I mean the culture-curious, young adventurers who prefer off-the-beaten-path travel over big resorts. The biggest perk of being invited as a member to the Tribe is that you get dibs on the amazing trip packages that Evie organizes for the travel group to amazing destinations around the world. There is a very special bond that Tribe members get to experience when they are journeying together to foreign destinations. If you are about that life, check them out. This is a woman who walks the way she talks. By the time of this interview, she had been featured in Ebony and Clutch Magazine for Nomadness. It's near impossible NOT to believe her because her work is a reflection of her greatest passion, her truest higher self, and satisfies a huge void in the international travel community. All of that in mind, I couldn't bear to dwindle down this awesome interview because of the great take-aways that NEED to be shared. Here I've broken it into two pieces--1) the Feature Interview below and 2) a Creative Resource piece, for budding entrepreneurs who can gain from Evie's dope advice. I promise, you won't want to miss it.
How did you come up with the idea for NomadnessTV, the web series?
I was out in Japan for a year. I had a year teaching contract out there, and ten months into teaching and seeing that no one from home was going to come out and visit me, I was like, "I get it.” It's a hella long flight and extremely expensive place to come visit. I then thought, I need to bring Japan to them, and decided the easiest way to do that was social media. It was cool to be able to share my experiences with friends and family, and let my mom know that I was alive. After a while of cutting little vignettes of my travel experiences, I started to touch into my actual network of people that I knew who worked in TV and media to pick their brains.
I realized when I was out there in Japan, before moving to Thailand for a little bit, there was no travel group or organization that I felt like I wanted to be part of. I thought they were dry and boring, and didn't feel like there were a lot of groups that I could relate to. There was nothing for any type of crowd that I came from, or anybody who looked like me. That was the same paradox that I was finding when I was traveling. As I was backpacking by myself, there weren't that many people of color out there. There were a lot of women traveling by themselves, which was interesting to me, because there are so many stigmas and preconceived fears of what it's like to be a woman out there traveling alone, especially backpacking. I was learning a lot of new dynamic. Travel was something that I was interested in, but I didn't know that my entire career/life/business was going to soon be worked around it.
How did The Travel Tribe form?
I stay coming up with these crazy ideas. One day I was like, I can't find the community that I want to identify with, so I'm going to create it. I graduated in 2006, and when everybody else was looking for a job, I left. I moved to Paris, and I stayed half a summer with one of my best friends from high school. I did a filmmaking workshop with the New York Film Academy. It was really on that trip that I realized that the travel bug was in me. It bit me and lodged itself under my skin. I made a promise to myself to bridge travel with my love for TV, mass media, and my love for talking. I've always had a big mouth and an opinion to follow it. I wanted to bring those things together naturally.
The first NomadnessTV web episode aired online on February 26th 2010. I did not launch the Nomadness Travel Tribe until September 28, 2011. There was a nice buffer of time between the two, for me to think of the idea of creating a community. In the beginning, Nomadness was very me, me, me! It was very Evita oriented, which also stems from the fact of me always wanting my own travel show. Soon after, creating a community for other people became very important because it wasn't just about me, but it was about exploring the a bigger dialogue with people.
You earlier stated that other travel communities represented in the media don’t represent people like you. How would you go about defining who you are?
I was born in Albany. I Left there shortly after my parents split. I grew up in Poughkeepskie, New York, and I went to Iona college in New Rochelle. Right after graduating I dipped to Paris. I've been a Bronx resident for the last five or six years very intermittently between international travel, where I've been gone from a number of months to a year or more in a chunk of time. I've always come back to The Bronx. There's just an urban appeal that I always love. I'm apart of the hip-hop generation. I wanted to create something for people like me. I couldn't find anything that I felt was really gauging or effectively hitting that community and representing it well.
I'm educated. A lot of the people that I roll with are educated people. It's not hip-hop in the sense of your pants sagging, and you have no form of higher education. I want to represent hip-hop in a positive light. I didn't want to create "the black travel group." I tell people that all the time, and I stick by that. If anything, it's about people with an urban appeal, because I lived in Japan for a year, and I can show you urban that is very much not black. For the sake of media and a lot of entities, it all kind of gets clumped together, and I want to show that there is room for it all. There is differentiation, and there is a bigger umbrella, and I never want to pigeonhole myself. I think the demographic that we attract is natural, but I'm not trying to keep anyone out on a diversity realm. I feel like there is stuff that a lot of people from different walks of life can take from it.
Check out all of the episodes of NomadnessTV.
What is the number one factor that makes you interested in exploring different cultures?
It started right after I graduated from college. I am the only person in my family that does what I do. Most of my life I existed in a single parent household—just me, my mother, and my brother. We're not that close with my mother's side of the family, but we forged relationships with them as we got older. My grandmother is white and Western European on that side--I think mostly Irish, Italian, and Dutch. My mother's maiden name is German. My father's side of the family is African American, but there's a lot of Native American on both sides, and I just found out within the last 12 months that my grandma's last name is French, and we also have Indian in us too. I think that breeds a little--at least subconsciously--into why I'm so curious. It's a child-like quality that's never left. That fuels a lot of me wanting to see new places.
How were you bit by the travel bug?
I went to a very affluent, very Caucasian school. I used to go to house parties and my very affluent friends would talk about how they spent the summer in Spain or Italy studying abroad, and things like that. I remember one day, I had had it. I made this silent promise to myself, and I said, "One day I'm going to be able to participate in these conversations. I don't know when. I don't know why, but I feel like I'm missing out on something." It's always funny now, because when I see those same people, they don't even want to talk about travel around me anymore. My stories blow them out of the water [laughter]. It's the little things that become your motivations.
How did your membership spread so fast and far?
I remember having conversations with one of my best friends who's in the Tribe, Stephanie O'Connor, I said, "I started this website, I want to create a social network. It's going to be like Facebook, but it's for travelers. She reminded me that, "It's just you." Again, I think grandiose. She told me, “Maybe you just want to start it as a Facebook group.” I hated Facebook groups. I only really pay attention to about four or five that I'm in. My whole thing was, I don't want just anybody in it. There's got to be some sense of exclusivity to it. That's where the whole idea of our members needing to get at least one passport stamp to even get in the group came about. We want the members to already understand the importance in it once they're invited, so they'll value it.
The Tribe started with a friend telling me that I was getting a little bit ahead of myself and to scale back a little. It ended up being a great resource, especially because my network through the web series was already fostered on Facebook.
How many countries are you represented in now?
At this point, we're approaching three dozen countries with people who are either from there, or are ex-pats and live there now. We have a huge saturation in the United States, which is probably our majority, but we have a number of people in UK, France, South Korea, Japan, and Brazil is one of our biggest hubs.
When I first met you, you invited me to a Tribe Meetup, and it was huge! Is that happening all over the world?
All over the world on a weekly basis. About four or five months ago, I was talking to the High Counsel, and we projected that it was going to get to a point where there's going to be something going on with the Tribe every single week. It's been like that for almost the last two months now. Literally there is something going on somewhere in the world at least once a week. I give them the freedom to create Meetups that are not micromanaged. There is usually a person in the region who wants to be the organizer. I think giving them that freedom, they cherish it and they really respect the movement, so they represent well.
What is it that you hope for Nomadness in 5 years?
I want Nomadness--this is going to happen this year actually--we have to get off of Facebook. The investor money and what I’m going for right now is twofold for 2013: to get us off of Facebook and into our own online entity that we are building right now, and for myself and high counsel and anyone else that comes on staff to be able to get paid for it so we’re living off of it, and it’s turning a profit. Another goal is to have the Nomadness merchandise in stores. I would love an H&M or Uniqlo placement. That’s a big thing for me, as well as television. Like I said, the Tribe is for everyone. The TV thing is a very personal goal for me, and something that I have been fighting for longer than any other aspect of Nomadness, and we’ve made some amazing headway in these first eight weeks of this year. I think we are going to have all of it by next year. I feel that 2013 is the year that Nomadness is going to blow up. I don’t want anybody ever to be able to think of travel and not think of Nomadness. Literally, we are going to flip this travel industry on its head. That’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s young and innovative. When I say young--I don’t even mean solely age. I mean energy. There’s just a youthfulness to these people regardless of age. It's the appeal of this location independent lifestyle, and people really taking back their lives.
I signed up for a lot of things with Nomadness, but what I didn’t sign up for was how many people in the course of a year put posts up talking about how inspired they are with the story that they’ve quit their 9-5 jobs and moved abroad. I’m like, I didn’t sign up for that. It’s one of those really cool side effects and I think it’s only going to get bigger, and it’s only going to get more inspiring and more powerful. I think going into 2013, we’re going to have more control, and we’re going to be in more places. That’s the goal well before 2015.
Wow. I totally believe you.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Photos courtesy of Evita Robinson
Check out Part II, The Unyielding Pursuit of a Travel Entrepreneur--Lessons From Evie Robie in Creative Resources.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
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
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?