Well, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. As I write this BIBA blog post, I have come to the end of my term as the 2022-2023 Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence. This last year has been amazing in so many ways, and working alongside Castle of Our Skins on poetry, music, Black history, and arts programming has been incredibly rewarding.
I had the opportunity to close out my time as Creative-in-Residence in the best way possible: with a Harlem Renaissance-inspired rent party fundraiser on Friday June 30th. In my previous BIBA blog, I talked about my research on Harlem Renaissance literature and culture and how I have specifically focused on the underground culture of house-rent parties in the 1920s for the last six years. Rent parties were Black Harlem dwellers’ response to exorbitantly high rents and low wages during the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century. They’d host strangers and friends in their apartments, charging each person a small entry fee to enjoy music, food, and dancing for the night. The money raised would go towards the host or hosts living expenses for the month. In that same spirit of community economics and joy, Castle of Our Skins and I had the idea to host an event to raise funds for a Boston-based organization, and that organization was the League of Women for Community Service. The League has been around since 1920 hosting Black women boarders affected by segregation and prominent Black women such as Marian Anderson and Coretta Scott (eventually -King) on their visits to Boston. Their headquarters at 558 Massachusetts Avenue is currently undergoing renovations, and we wanted to support their efforts to preserve this historic space that houses a treasure trove of archival materials from photos to correspondences to art.
Last Friday night at Black Market Nubian in Roxbury, Castle of Our Skins and I brought together a two-piece band featuring musicians Kevin Harris (piano) and Ivana Cuesta Gonzalez (drummer) of the Kevin Harris Project, dancer Aysha Upchurch, VLA Dance, orator Regie O’Hare Gibson, and yours truly sharing poetry. It was a beautiful night of community, food, mocktails, music, dancing, and raising funds for a wonderful cause. What I felt in that space had to have been similar to what those 1920s Harlemites felt within the walls of their small apartments and rooms—sociality, joy, inhibition, freedom, and pride. I saw people laughing and moving their feet and hips and enjoying the improvisational vibes offered by the band and the dancers. I saw them savoring delicious food and drinks. I saw them being moved by the words shared onstage, and I saw them having carefree fun with our step-and-repeat photobooth. We captured the essence of the rent party tradition in those few hours by simply honoring history and honoring one another, and we were able to put our resources together to aid the League in its ongoing work.
I’d like to end by saying that I couldn’t have imagined when I was selected as the Creative-in-Residence last summer I would help make something as magical and beautiful as this rent party was manifest in this way. I have to give a sincere thanks to Ashe Gordon, Kelley Hollis, Anthony Green, and the entire Castle of Our Skins crew for their care and attention to every idea I offered to them and to every part of me as an artist and researcher. This year with COOS has been an absolute dream. I am walking away from this residency with so much joy for what we accomplished together and with abundant hope for the future of COOS, for all of the artists I have connected with in Boston, and for my own continued research and meditation on Harlem and black life.
--Angel C. Dye
Chevalier the Film in Review by JeanCaleb Belizaire & Ashleigh Gordon
(Achtung! Spoiler alerts ahead…)
What was the vibe of the room? - JeanCaleb
On Wednesday April 19th, I had the pleasure to see Chevalier at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The Theatre had a very old-timey, vintage vibe to it which I enjoyed. There was a string quartet playing Chevalier’s music as people were walking in, this sort of set the tone for what we were about to watch. Someone behind me even mentioned that this is most likely how the music would have been received back then, musicians playing while the audience mingled. I saw people from all walks of life in the audience, the majority being a mix of older white people and adult black people.
Was the movie historically accurate? - Ashleigh
Not entirely (which is understandable as it’s not billed as a documentary). Did I mind? Not really as I could understand the narrative reasons for the historical revisioning. While an epic musical sparring battle between Mozart and Chevalier didn’t really happen, Chevalier did champion the sinfonia concertante, a concerto featuring two soloists and orchestra. (Fun fact: Chevalier wrote eight of these kinds of works between 1775 and 1778 to Mozart’s one composed in 1779. They were so notable that Mozart copied a musical passage from one of Chevalier’s scores, hiding his thievery only through a half-step transposition). The prelude scene also gave a nod to the diminutive historical narrative placed on Chevalier as being a Black “second fiddle” to Mozart’s dominance. In the end, Chevalier’s skills speak for themselves and place him defiantly in a category all his own.
Another revisionist element that became a central aspect of the plot was his relationship with his mother Nanon. A Senegalese woman enslaved by the white plantation owner George Bolonge, Nanon was brought to France in 1753 along with Chevalier (and George’s wife and legitimate child). While the movie chose to dramatize their separation, I could fully understand the narrative reasons for doing so. As Nanon ultimately represented the African cultural roots, language, and traditions that we (the audience) could tangibly see, it made sense to represent Chevalier’s removal from those roots with an actual forced, physical separation. Nanon became a voice of reason - an ancestral reminder - that grew louder in Chevalier’s mind, helping him to see the dichotomy in which he exists: a Black dot in a white space.
So whatcha think? - JeanCaleb
Overall, I loved the movie. It explores many themes that I can personally relate to; for example, the movie touches on W.E.B. Dubois’ double consciousness, the idea of being Black in a white dominated world or space, having to constantly code switch and feel like you can never really be your authentic self is something that me and so many other black people in America can relate to. One interesting example of this is when Chevalier’s mother and friends were speaking their language in Chevalier’s house, you can tell how uncomfortable he is by this and tell them that French is the preferred language. To me, I feel like his reaction comes from a place of insecurity, he doesn't really feel connected to his mother who represents his roots and his people. Showing how isolated he might’ve felt throughout his life. Feeling like he doesnt belong with his own people, or French people.
Another aspect I enjoyed was this nursery song Chevalier’s mother sang to him as a child. She brings it up again later on when she moves back in with him, asking him to play it for her and how it would be a great addition to his opera. He denies this idea, he denies his past, his heritage. Later on in the movie towards the end in the Last scene, we hear that same melody incorporated into Chevalier’s composition. Symbolizing how he has come to terms with his heritage and background and learns to embrace it in everything he does.
Any takeaways? - Ashleigh
I was elated in the final moments before the credits when they relayed Chevalier’s legacy. How racism and the power struggle that drives slave systems overshadowed his lasting impact. While France would abolish slavery in 1794 (five years before Chevalier died), Napoleon would reinstate the harsh system of Code Noir in French Colonies in 1802 (three years after Chevalier died and during the Haitian Revolution, which was fought between 1791 and 1804). Napoleon would intentionally ban his music, effectively wiping his pioneering sinfonia concertantes, violin concerti, symphonies, sonatas, operas, etc from stages and history books for centuries. It would be about 130 years after his death before a string quartet by a Black composer - the late 19th century born African American composer and violinist Clarence Cameron White - would have a string quartet performed in Paris (one that ironically was unabashedly inspired by Negro melodies). What drives this point home even further was that Chevalier was pivotal in bringing the medium of string quartet writing to France during his lifetime. Its popularity to French audiences was a result of his work. Through power, intentional erasure, and racism, Chevalier’s prolific voice and fullest potential were stunted. With optimism, we have the ability to ensure that history will not repeat (or rhyme) and let a similar fate of forced amnesia befall yet another Black mind.
When I was named this year’s Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence, I thought seriously about how I could bring my creative work as a poet together with my research in African American literature and culture. Thankfully, it has been a very organic pairing as I’ve spent the last almost six years researching and archiving on the house-rent party tradition of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. In 2017, I began a deep dive into rent parties after coming across a Slate article on Twitter about Langston Hughes’ collection of rent party invitations, which are a part of his papers in the special collections at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library. I was amused by the cheeky, rhyming phrases on the cards like, “Hop Mr. Bunny, Skip Mr. Bear, / If you don’t dig this party you ain’t no where!” When I eventually got to the Beinecke to see the collection for myself, I discovered that it is large. The invitations, which for the most part are the size of business cards, have dates printed on them from 1927 to 1960. Hughes was an archivist, and he realized the cultural import of the rent party phenomenon so much that he saved a ton of invites in his papers. For his meticulous archival practice, I am grateful.
House-rent parties, also called social whist parties, breakdowns, struggles, and a host of other colloquial names, were the turn-of-the-century iteration of southern jook joints and church socials. In the south, black people created spaces for dance, music, enjoyment, and pooling their resources when they had leisure time from their sharecropping labor. When black people migrated en masse from the south to the industrial north during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, they took with them the jook joint and church social ways of knowing. They were faced with a housing crisis in New York specifically: limited housing options, dilapidated buildings, and disproportionately low wages and high rents compared to white families. And so the rent party—hosting people in one’s apartment and providing music, southern food, and good vibes for a small cover charge—became not just a means to an end but a way of continuously cultivating joy and centering pleasure in a time of serious economic, social, racial, and environmental disparities. Rent parties were so ubiquitous and so much a part of the fabric of 1920s Harlem because they were semiprivate and semipublic, they were safe spaces for nonbinary and nonheteronormative gender and sexual expression, and they were the places where jazz music had its origins alongside numbers running and other “underground economies,” as LaShawn Harris terms them.
Langston Hughes’ extensive collection of rent party invitations gives insight into just how longstanding a tradition rent parties are. Katrina Hazzard-Gordon says that, like many things still present in our culture, rent parties can be traced back to plantations of the antebellum south where enslaved people were resigned to organizing covert recreational and social gatherings from church services to celebrations to avoid the watchful eyes of their masters and overseers. Hazzard-Gordon argues that this secrecy, or at least the practice of gathering without white presence or control, carried over into the post-Reconstruction period. My fascination with this understudied tradition of rent parties and community economics comes from both the insistence on black joy that they represent and the longevity of their presence in the real world and in media.
In the 2002 quadrilogy film Friday After Next starring rapper Ice Cube, he and his cousin throw a Christmas rent party to avoid being evicted after their apartment is burglarized and their rent money stolen. In season two of the Hulu original series Woke, character Ayana throws a 1920s-inspired rent party to save her indie magazine’s office, which has been doubling as her apartment while she’s low on cash. There are numerous other popular culture remnants of the original rent party tradition. And there are black communities, like The Salt Eaters Book Shop (aptly named after Black Feminist author Toni Cade Bambara’s powerful novel) and its followers in Inglewood, California, who recently hosted a Beyoncé RENAISSANCE-themed rent party that went over so well, they’ve come back with a Sade-themed party and have plans to keep the gatherings going. The rent party’s legacy continues to uphold and uplift black folks over 100 years later, and I see it as a model for how we might all approach community care, subsistence, and joy.
This is all to say that I’ve truly fallen in love with the history and culture of rent parties the more I have researched and learned about them. Black people’s innovative ways of being in a very antiblack world never cease to amaze and inspire me. We have working-class black folks of the Great Migration to thank for what we now know as jazz, and how beautiful is that? People working the most backbreaking and low-paying jobs as domestics, shoe shiners, and porters found the strength and energy to create the spaces that allowed improvisation and musical genius to flourish. Their contributions of living and being changed the world, and my hope is that the research I do and the upcoming Harlem Renaissance (and yes, rent party!) collaborations I am curating with Castle of Our Skins will honor these brilliant people and carry on their spirit of togetherness and uninhibited enjoyment.
-Angel C. Dye
My name is JeanCaleb. Some of you may know this already but I’m doing an internship at Castle of our Skins through June. I’ve been working with COOS for a little under a month now designing social media posts, researching, and performing.
On February 12, I had the opportunity to be a teaching artist along with COOS’ founder and Artistic Director Ashleigh Gordon presenting “A Little History” for an audience of tiny humans at Boston's Children's Museum. A Little History tells the simplified stories of nine legendary figures in Black History: Phillis Wheatley Peters, Garrett Morgan, Madam C. J. Walker, George Washington Carver, Margaret Bonds, Ed Bland, Angela Davis, Bayard Rustin, & Barack Obama. Through original music, poetry and interaction, students are encouraged to get up and move, sing, clap, invent, and play make-believe as they learn about these historic individuals. I learned recently that this was COOS’ signature piece; premiered back in their first season; written by Associate Artistic Director Anthony R. Green for Ashe to perform for school groups. It’s been performed for hundreds of students in their past 10 seasons.
In preparation for our performance Ashe and I rehearsed together. First looking at the music it didn't seem hard. I was immediately humbled, however, by Ashe who put a tuning app on for me to play with. It made me realize my intonation needed some help, to say the least. After this, I downloaded that same app and drilled the pieces with the tuner to get more confident.
When I arrived at the BCM I got my name tag and met up with Ashe who was a short walk away from the door. We talked a bit then she introduced me to our contact at the museum. My mom met up with us eventually after she found parking.
It was about 25-30 minutes until the show. We were shown to the green room which was just a side room near the stage. As I unpacked and tuned, Ashe got situated with her mic and slides. Once she was done she also unpacked and tuned.
We went through the show for an audience of my mom,Vaughan Bradley-Willemann , and another lady (that I learned later was museum president Carole Charnow). The run-through went well, though it was a bit awkward for me just because it was a new space and I didn't really know how my sound should adapt to it. However after a few minutes of playing I was fine.
As the clock was counting down until doors opened, my hands started to feel cold, which was normal for me before I performed. Ashe gave me a little pep talk about how her hands also get cold and we warmed our hands together for a while as people started to come in. As we walk on stage I start to feel less nervous. It wasn’t a huge venue and the crowd wasn’t crazy large.
We got through the first piece and it was okay. Some of the younger kids were making noise and just being kids so that was kinda distracting. At some point during the transition between one of the historical figures and the next, I had to set my instrument down off stage. When I went back to grab it, I plucked the strings just to check and of course my instrument somehow got out of tune while it was sitting there. The show was still happening next to me, and I didnt want to make a lot of noise. I desperately tried to get my viola in tune but it was just not working. I went on stage, viola still not tuned, when Ashe saw me struggling. She offered to switch roles, with her playing my part and me helping with the children. We got through it and the rest of the show went smoothly (thank god).
To be honest, I was a little hesitant to accept this performance offer only because I have trouble connecting with small children. They're so unpredictable and squirmy; it makes me all weird and awkward and it’s hard to interact. But, I think this performance was a stepping stone for me in a way, even though I still feel the same way about kids as I did before. Now that I have this experience working with them, I feel like my next experience will be so much better.
It was an honor to perform with Ashe and I'm so grateful to her and everyone at Castle of our Skins for giving me these amazing opportunities. I look forward to the next few months working with them
UPDATE: The submission deadline has passed. Thank you to everyone for submitting! If you'd like to receive updates about our next call, please subscribe to our mailing list.
Castle of our Skins announces part three of its #BCMC – Black Composer Miniature Challenge! Composers who identify as Black and part of the African diaspora are challenged to compose pieces for soprano and cello! Each piece must be 30 seconds (give or take) or less. For #BCMC 3.0, composers who plan on setting text are asked to use a haiku and/or tanka from the Castle of our Skins' Black Poet Miniature Challenge (#BPMC) project!
Details for this year’s #BCMC 3.0 are below!
Welcome back to BIBA! Today I have the pleasure of sharing a recent interview with our 2022-2023 Shirley Graham DuBois Creative-in-Residence, Angel C. Dye! Angel is a poet, a publishd author, an HBCU grad, PhD candidate, and lover of all things purple! Get to know Angel and enjoy!
BIBA: Can you talk about your journey to becoming a writer; how you got started and/or if you had a particularly encouraging mentor that set you on the path?
Angel: I remember picking up a pencil to try my hand at creative writing at about 10-years-old. I was a voracious reader as a pre-teen and teenager (this has carried over into adulthood in more ways than one), and I did my best to imitate the novels I was reading at that time. As I approached middle school, I somehow found my way to slam poetry. I've never considered myself a slam poet, but I would spend hours on YouTube watching Def Poetry Jam and Brave New Voices competitions, and the young poets on there were close in age to me. I thought, 'These are my people. I want to do what they do, make something impactful out of words.' A lot of life transitions happened for me as a pre-teen and teen--moving states and starting new schools, experiencing eviction and homelessness--and all of those scary and difficult things led me to writing. I wrote and entered contests at school and won some of them and realized that poetry was something I both needed and enjoyed. In college, my amazing mentor, Dr. Shauna Morgan, encouraged me to go all the way with poetry. She saw potential in my writing and my academic performance and really inducted me into a community of writers and scholars that I am still very much a part of. I have her to thank for so much of who I am."
BIBA: Can you share a bit about your creative process? What's your ideal creative environment?
Angel: One thing that my friends and colleagues can attest to is my seriousness about the color purple. I have purple items around me at all times because the color inspires me so much, and I have taken some subconscious vow to only write in purple ink. It has become a personality trait at this point! Ha! Aside from that, I am a night owl and I often write and journal and pray late at night. It is quiet and still then and all of the day's events are present with me, and somehow that often brings forth new ideas. I have never had a strict writing schedule because poems do not flow to me that way; they come when they are ready, usually without warning. My iPhone is always near and so is a pen because sometimes a poem or a fragment will nudge me when I am waking up or showering. I try to listen in those moments and allow whatever words are beckoning me to just come without forcing them or trying to make them neat and perfect."
BIBA: You wrote a book! I just ordered (Order Breathe from Central Square Press). It seems like Breathe was an outlet to work through some difficult things and attempt to heal. Can you talk about how that came about and maybe any surprising discoveries along the way?
Angel: Thank you so much for supporting my work! That always means so much to me. Breathe was certainly a very raw and unfiltered offering in a lot of ways. What many people don't know is that that collection is not a set of poems I wrote and published in 2021. It was released in fall 2021, but the poems are pieces I've written over the last five years or so. My wonderful publisher at Central Square Press, Enzo Surin, reached out to me after I finished my MFA in 2019 and just encouraged me to gather up the poems I had been working on over time and see if they fit together in an organic way, and they did. I shared poems about my experiences with sexual violence and poverty and an incarcerated father in Breathe, and I was afraid. Afraid that I was exposing too much, afraid that there would be backlash, afraid that people would look at me differently if they knew how many scars I'd been hiding. What I learned is that people appreciate, and even admire, honesty more than anything. The collection was not met with judgment at all. It was met with care and affirmation and love. Folks relate to the experiences I shared, and for me that makes my vulnerability worthwhile. To know that the meaning-making I am attempting to do as a poet is resonating with people is very rewarding and it motivates me to keep digging deep.
BIBA: How did your experience at Howard, an historically Black university, inform your artistry?
Angel: This is such a fitting question just after our first in-person Howard Homecoming in two years! My love for Howard can't even fully be put into words. I struggled a lot there. It was an uphill battle financially to finish my English degree. And yet, I had the time of my life there. I was "nurtured in love," as one of my former professors says of my experience at Howard. Howard is where I first began to identify myself as a poet. I was writing before I got there, but it was there that I read and learned about this long legacy of black artistry and creativity that defines people of the African diaspora, and I began to see myself as part of that. I was reading Robert Hayden and Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez in my classes, and I was performing my own poems at open mics and hosting a monthly open mic at my local coffee shop job. Howard is called "The Mecca" for a reason. There you are surrounded by intelligent, beautiful black people from every corner of the world and you realize that you are being prepared to live in a world that doesn't always look like that, but you leave Howard with enough self-confidence and knowledge and community to know that you'll be alright even when you are the only person who looks like you in the room.
BIBA: How did you hear about COOS?
Angel: Like so many things in my life, COOS came to me in a very full-circle way. I met opera singer, composer, and musician Dr. Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa in fall 2018 while we were both in graduate programs at the University of Kentucky. Our sisterly, scholarly, and creative connection was immediate. We have since collaborated on performances and art and really built a network of artists and friends around us. In 2020, Tanyaradzwa became the inaugural Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence with COOS, and she brought her unique musicianship and style and grace to the role as she does with all things. It was she who strongly encouraged me to apply for this year's residency. I actually told her that I didn't think I was qualified. She literally scoffed! Thank goodness for her encouragement and faith in me and in my art. I would not have the honor of serving in this capacity if not for her and the pathway that she has forged. I am beyond grateful and excited to be collaborating with COOS over this next year, and I look forward to all of the art we will make and all of the fun we will have doing it!
Hello BIBA fans! Today there are three major causes for celebration! Firstly, it is officially Father’s Day, and we want to salute all the fathers and father figures today, as well as acknowledge those who have lost their fathers and/or father figures and are grieving and celebrating in a different way. We see you.
Secondly, it is Juneteenth! There are plenty of resources to read about Juneteenth – a holiday that Black people have been celebrating for a while, and has recently been named a Federal Holiday (for better or for worse). We urge Black people everywhere, especially in the US, to consider that Juneteenth is a more real Black Independence Day. Celebrate in your own way!
Thirdly and lastly, we here at Castle of our Skins celebrate our new Shirley Graham Du Bois Creative-in-Residence: Angel C. Dye! Currently pursuing doctoral studies at Rutgers University, Angel holds degrees from Howard University and the University of Kentucky. Her two chapbooks – Rhyme Or Reason and urban is the new n@&!% (…and other names we answer to) have garnered critical acclaim for their depth and insight. With the aim of bringing together diverse women’s voices to inspire and uplift other budding, blossoming women, Angel recently compiled and edited an anthology titled Love Letters to Our Daughters: A Collection of Womanly Affirmations. Please follow Angel on Instagram or Twitter using the handle @blkgrlpoet, and read her full bio HERE. To read one of her beautiful poems, please click HERE.
Please join us in celebrating fathers, Black freedom, and Angel C. Dye!
by Anthony R. Green
Before today's Castle of our Skins collaboration concert in Oxford, UK, I got a chance to visit Dr. Samantha Ege in Oxford. It was my second time in this quaint, charming town, with such a rich history. Dr. Ege showed me parts of Oxford I had not before seen, and coming across the posters with the Castle of our Skins logo and Dr. Ege's beautiful picture on them filled me with so much joy! Dr. Ege's work as a musicologist and piano performer speaks volumes in this interview, and I hope you learn from her mind and soul as much as I did on that beautiful, British spring day!
AG : Thank you so much for everything! I would love for you to discuss this project, your role in it, and anything else!
DSE : A Castle of our Skins collaboration has been in the works for a couple of years now, and it wasn’t really until I got this post as the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at the University of Oxford that I felt that the stars had fully aligned to realize this project. There’s an entity here called the Oxford Research Center for the Humanities, and they immediately reached out to me in 2020 when I started this position to let me know what was available to me not just as a musicologist but also as a performer – someone who brings history to life through performance. It was immediately clear to me that we needed to do something with Castle of our Skins. So, this residency really brings together our two worlds: with me as a musicologist and pianist amplifying composers of African descent and Castle of our Skins as an educational series and chamber group. And how, obviously being based in different geographies, we have different approaches but we also have a lot in common. So the stars aligned to be able to bring Castle of our Skins to Oxford, and to really show this place what it is that we do!
AG : Awesome! And Castle of our Skins is eternally grateful for this collaboration! Earlier in the lovely tour you gave me around Oxford, you mentioned that the spaces where the performances and events are happening have been occupied earlier by people (and now spirits) who may not have been amenable to Blackness. I would love for you to comment more about bringing Blackness to these spaces and what this means not only to you professionally but also in your role at Oxford in your wonderful fellowship.
DSE : We recently had this discussion about how it has been so propagandized for “classical music” to be understood as a “European” art form. Even in non-European places, like the US or North America, it has still been absorbed into ideas about what constitutes whiteness. It just further propagandizes a means to exclude Black people from accessing a history that, as we’ve discussed, is as much ours as it is anyone else’s. Especially in a place like Oxford which has so much to do with that history of exclusion – there is a more recent history of trying to remedy that, but music has a way of initiating conversations and changing mindsets in a way that words and other kinds of actions aren’t always able to achieve. So for us – as people who play this repertoire not as a gimmick, not to tick a diversity box, but because we believe in this music and we believe in ourselves as well and our ability to do this – it means a lot to have then found the support to be able to bring this to fruition, and to play a kind of music where people have this idea that that’s not what Black people do – we’re not only playing it, but we’re playing it in one of the most important centers for performance in this city.
AG : Excellent. AMEN! And excellent! This program has a representation of Black composers from across cultures, diasporas, geographies. A South African composers, a US American Black woman composer – Undine Smith Moore, a US American Black male composer – Frederick Tillis … and this amalgamation of not only different realizations of Blackness but also different representations of cultures, geographies, languages, mindsets, time periods as well – for me, it implies that this project is also an amalgamation of snapshots from history, geography, and from philosophy as well. Your research has centered Florence Price and also European women. I would love for you to talk about the way your research is in dialogue with the composers represented on this program.
DSE : Interestingly Price is on this program and I’m not playing her music! (Laughs!) And that has made me expand my horizons both as a musician and a historian. Learning about South African culture through Dr. Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s music has been really eye-opening for me in that when he describes the different movements in his dissertation (which I’ve spent a lot of time with now) and he describes experiences of oppression and forced migration, and then I’m playing the musical sound words that evoke those experiences, I feel as though I’m gaining a learning experience that you can’t attain from simply reading a book. So I feel a lot of growth as a musician, also because there are a lot of indigenous ideas in Bongani’s music with which I’m not familiar. So again I’m really being pushed to think about Blackness in more expansive ways as well. With Undine Smith Moore: I feel like I can relate to her piece a lot – her piece is called Soweto – because what she’s doing is not absorbing South African musical languages but she is finding a sense of connection and solidarity through her experiences as a Black woman being able to convey rage towards apartheid South Africa. I feel that, when I see injustices in the US towards Black Americans, I feel that sense of, yes while that’s not my experience, there is a sense of solidarity and anger and rage that I feel. So when she experiences that and puts that into music, I think that’s such a powerful thing. It shows, as well, that, to have that sense of commentary or solidarity, you don’t have to appropriate. If you don’t know the language, you don’t have to pretend that you do. You can find other ways of connection and access. My background is Nigerian and Jamaican. That’s not reflected in this program, but I feel such a connection to these composers and I feel that through my performances I’m able to express a solidarity and a connection.
AG : That’s such a beautiful observation, and I haven’t come across this concept as clearly as you’ve just articulated it – this concept of not only learning culture through music practice, but also, along with learning culture, learning empathy. Over the past 5 years, empathy has been quite a focus in my practice. It has helped me define who I want to be as a social justice artist, but it also has molded or clarified paths for me to avoid appropriation, as you’ve mentioned, and really to find commonality through a cultural understanding and with a cultural practice that you’re not belittling or simplifying. With that, I want to take it back to the second question: in bringing this music to Oxford, to these very specific spaces, as well as the empathy you’re experience by playing Undine Smith Moore and observing how your cultural background is in conversation with the music on this program, what would you like the audience to empathize with during this performance and after?
DSE : Well, there’s a strong sense of narrative in all of the music on the program, and that narrative stems from a sense of cultural memory. The thing is, all of these histories belong to everyone. And I don’t mean that in a sort of “hold hands” kind of way, what I mean is that the history within Bongani’s work and within Undine Smith Moore’s work is a history of South Africa [that’s being presented through music] in a place where there’s a statue of Cecil Rhodes. His legacy is everywhere here. So this is not just a Black history, this is a history of this place, Oxford, as well. We have these institutions that are very much entwined with and built off the cultural creatives behind these works that we’re listening to. For example, The Spiritual Suite : each movement is based on a spiritual, on a song of the enslaved. Now look at the opulence around us in this place and there’s a direct tie. That’s what I mean when I say this history belongs to all of us. It’s not meant to make everyone feel good, you know, but that’s the truth of it, and I hope that people experience that connection and that sense of empathy as well, realizing this through music. Music has a way of explaining and articulating things in different ways, so often times difficult conversations are met with defensiveness. Perhaps through music we can find another way to experience these discomforts and have these conversations.
AG : Amazing. Thank you so much!!
DSE : Thank you!
by Anthony R. Green
This season, Castle of our Skins launched a new initiative for collegiate music students belonging to Black Student Unions (BSU) in the Boston area. The COOS BSU Intercollegiate Fellowship gives its participants a chance to speak candidly in a safe space about issues concerning their respective post-secondary experiences, gain access to professionals who can advise and provide invaluable career tidbits and reality pills, form a community that transcends Boston's seemingly separate institutions, and more. This season's fellowship will culminate in an upcoming concert titled What is Black Creativity?, which is curated (with guidance) by the 8-member cohort of the inaugural fellowship.
While Black Student Unions did not exist when Ashleigh and I were attending New England Conservatory (nor while I was a student at Boston University before meeting Ashleigh), they have been thriving since their relatively recent inception. BSUs that focus on music-related issues have enacted positive, important change amongst Boston institutions, including more open discussions and policy changes relating to curriculum, mental health, representation, and more. However it really was not until the development of the BSU Intercollegiate Fellowship that members from various BSUs across Boston worked together on a massive project. I had the pleasure of speaking to the cohort in the fall of 2021, and I immediately recognized the need for such a fellowship, along with feeling the incredible energy and urgency from the students. Castle of our Skins is excited about continuing this fellowship in the future and building upon what was started, experienced, and learned.
This upcoming concert promises to be a creative exploration not to be missed. This concert will take place Saturday, 12 February 2022, at 8PM. The venue is the Calderwood Pavilion (at the Boston Center for the Arts): 527 Tremont Street Boston, MA 02116. The event is free but a reservation is required! Make your reservation today, and bring a friend ... or two ... or three ... or four or more!! And keep an eye out for the next fellowship to start during out tenth season!
by Anthony R. Green
February 2022 is coming up, and this month in this particular year marks the 121st birthday of Langston Hughes (born 1 February 1901) and the 19th anniversary of an incredible CD celebrating his poetry with spoken word and music. This CD is called Rhapsody in Hughes 101, and it was released in February 2003. You can purchase this album via Apple Music, and it is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms! Who created this celebratory album? None other than a true heroine of our times: Val Gray Ward, who, in August this year, will celebrate her 90th birthday! Age has not slowed her down; Val Gray Ward is still creating, teaching, and inspiring the many generations of Black artists she has come to witness and mother, having recently given virtual performances for students at Wellesley College and also lecturing at the Black Arts Movement School Modality at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The legendary Val Gray Ward was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi - an all-Black town founded in 1887 by former enslaved Black Americans. Throughout her life, she has achieved incredible accomplishments. She founded the Kuumba Theater Company in Chicago, which - among many other things - placed a strong focus on community. In this vein, Kuumba sponsored book parties, poetry readings, exhibits, writing workshops, and also broadcasted films. One unique aspect about their theater practice is that they developed a ritual theater style that induced audience reactions and interactions, another element that strengthened community. Through Kuumba, Val Gray Ward worked with James Baldwin when they staged his profound, semi-autobiographical play The Amen Corner. Kuumba toured with this play, with Val Gray Ward in one of the leading roles, and their tour also included a performance in Lincoln Center's Black Festival USA in 1979.
Outside of Kuumba, Val Gray Ward has received acclaim for her solo show titled My Soul is a Witness. In a 2015 interview, she states: "[This show] is my dramatic interpretation of the works of various black writers, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. I also perform a segment from The Life of Harriet Tubman which Francis [Ward, my husband] wrote for me many years ago." Her "multiple hats" style of working has resulted in her being the recipient of over 200 awards, including 21 Emmys for her "docutainment" film Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street. She is known as "The Voice of the Black Writer" and her work has been significantly instrumental to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Moreover, her lifelong friendships are near and dear to her, and she cherishes the friendships she has (and has had) with Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni (with whom she shared an hours long phone conversation recently!). It is impossible to even scratch the surface when it comes to paying tribute to such a phenomenal woman, but it is our strong desire here at Castle of our Skins for you all to read more about her, listen to her interviews, watch and share any related content online, and be enriched and enthusiastic about sharing her legacy! You can start with the following:
An appearance on Windy City Live with a short article: CLICK HERE!
A fantastic interview archived in the Library of Congress: CLICK HERE!
An article about her work with James Baldwin: CLICK HERE!
Note: this blog post would not be possible without the help of Dr. Liseli Fitzpatrick, and we thank you for your contribution and generous sharing of such a legend!
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties!
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