Freedom Lab Event Report on “Art Equals Politics: Vignettes of Culture, Decolonization, and Black and Brown Liberation”

By Huang Bihui (Honey)

Class of 2022

On the 20th of July 2020, the Freedom Lab invited the famous Afro Yaqui Music Collective—an award-winning group of Jazz musicians based in Pittsburgh, for a live music performance and a conversation. There were five artists present for the occasion: Ben Barson, Charlotte Hill O’Neal (also known as “Mama C”), Gizelxanath Rodriguez, Nejma Nefertiti, and Peggy Myo-Young Choy. They are experts in different fields of art, and it was a pleasure seeing and hearing about their work on liberation and fights against global injustices. Professor Jesse Olsavsky and Professor Selina Lai-Henderson, co-directors of the Freedom Lab, hosted this event. We had a diverse group of approximately 65 attendees scattered around different parts of the world to share the love and knowledge that the Afro Yaqui artists gave.

Before the event started, Mama C lit up a bundle of sage to prepare for the event. This was done so to honor our ancestors and those who fought hard for the future that we now have. Even though we could not smell it from our Zoom screens, we could see it. Just as how it might be hard to live through our ancestors’ lives vicariously, we can see and live through what they have sacrificed for us.

Professor Lai-Henderson started the event by welcoming all the guests. As she introduced the Black Lives Matter (BLM) initiative taken up by the Freedom Lab, she highlighted a reading list that the Lab has compiled on the topic that can be found on the Humanities Research Lab website, where students and faculty also have access to courses offered at DKU that address race and racism in the US and global context. Before passing the event on to Denise Simpson, Director of Academic Initiative, on behalf of the Lab, Professor Lai-Henderson thanked Marcia France, Dean of Undergraduate Studies; Professor Kolleen Guy, Chair of the Arts and Humanities Division; Raphael Moffett, Dean of Student Affairs; Tourgee Simpson, Associate Dean for Academic Advising; James Miller, Co-director of the HRC and Associate Dean for Interdisciplinary Strategy; and Denise Simpson for their support and insights on the BLM initiative.

Denise Simpson began her opening remarks by acknowledging and thanking the universe and the sky world for bringing the Afro Yaqui Music Collective to us at the event. She paid homage to the Congressman, John Lewis, who passed away on the 17th of July, and all those who fought against racism and injustices. She asked the audience a thought-provoking question, “How can we contribute to this cause as an individual young person?”  To which she replied that first, we need to acknowledge the differences among people in terms of values and beliefs. Whether we agree with one another or not, every story is valuable. We need to practice inclusion by recognizing our differences and providing a safe space for everybody. She then mentioned that we also need to acknowledge that we have biases. Based on a wide range of different factors, such as cultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, ethnicities, and other forms of upbringings, we all have our own right to judgments. We need to actively learn and listen to others, as this will allow us to look at the world with different perspectives. Even if we do not partake in activism, we can still contribute to the cause by reading, and speaking to people with different backgrounds about their stories. We can also donate time, money, and resources. She ended her motivational speech with, “Remaining silent is no longer an option.”

Following Denise Simpson’s insightful remarks, Professor Olsavsky mentioned reasons that initiated this event, including the current protests on BLM in the United States and Covid-19. The pandemic has amplified, exacerbated, and amped up many of the global inequalities. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective is one band that has been working endlessly to address these issues. They are a diverse group of artists and activists who fuse together different genres of music and visual arts to produce impactful works. The Afro Yaqui is not a set band. They have people joining from different regions across the world as they perform. Professor Olsavsky then introduced the artists who were present at the event. Charlotte Hill O’Neal, aka Mama C, is a renowned writer, poet, visual artist, musician, performance artist, and filmmaker. She was born in Kansas City who now lives in Tanzania. Not only has she contributed to the field of art, but she is also a longtime community activist, a former member of the Kansas City Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Director of the United African Alliance Community Centre (UAACC) located in Tanzania. Furthermore, she is also a Cultural Warrior and Egungun Priest.

Next was Peggy Myo-Young Choy, a dancer, and choreographer who is a master of Korean and Japanese dance forms. She is also the creator of the Ki-Flow™ dance technique, and is certified in Chinese Dayan Qigong. Currently, she is Associate Professor of Dance and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she brings to life Afro-Asian dance fusion in her classes. Then we had Nejma Nefertiti, who is a Hip Hop artist, sound designer, streetwear architect, and creator of natural perfumes. Nejma is a core member of the Collective. We also have with us Gizelxanath Rodriguez (Gizel), who is a singer, cellist, urban farmer, and activist at the intersection of Indigenous rights, eco-socialism, and migrant justice. Last but not the least, Ben Barson is an ASCAP award-winning composer and protégé of the late baritone saxophonist and composer, Fred Ho. Currently, he is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, and his dissertation focuses on the rewriting and rethinking of the history of the origins of Jazz in New Orleans from the era of the Haitian Revolution to the dawn of the 20th century.

Ben was the moderator for the event. Before passing it on to Mama C, he briefly shared the current events around the world and how the Afro Yaqui Music Collective is working together to fight off the various phobias that people have towards specific groups of people. Mama C was then invited to lead the initiation ceremony. The most captivating line during this tribute to me was when Mama C remarked, “We’re all a part of the revolution and know that love is a huge part of being a revolutionary.” After a motivating speech, she dedicated a song to all attendees while playing her kamale ngoni. While listening to the strings being strummed, one line from the entire song struck out to me most was, “We walk the way of a new world.”

Next, Nejma shared with us a song named, Mother Africa. Even though there was no background music to it, we still could feel the rhythm and strong emotion through the lyrics. As she repeated, “Some hearts possess a fire which pulsates for justice,” one could feel the passion that Nejma was exuberating. After her performance, we got to hear a beautiful rendition of a famous Chilean composer and singer-songwriter, Violeta Parra’s Maldigo del alto cielo. Gizel was playing an electric cello while singing. To accompany her music, Ben played a baritone saxophone. This was a homage to the legendary Violeta who fought her way through dictatorship and brought awareness to various sufferings through her poetry. The Spanish lyrics were beautifully sung in a strong emotional voice accompanied by the cello and sax, two instruments that amplified the mood.

Following the empowering musical performances, Peggy Choy introduced to us her dance, Wild Rice, which is a tribute to the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In their language, as Choy told us, Ojibwe, wild rice is known as manoomin. This is symbolic because manoomin is not only a staple food item, but it was also central to the bad river tribe’s cultural and spiritual life and economy. In 2014, one of Peggy’s friends told her that an iron mine was planned to be built near the bad river and this was going to negatively affect the maneuver and crops growing in that location. Even though this plan was paused, a year later, an oil pipeline was to be built to bring oil from Canada. Peggy was inspired by the first issue, and alongside the recording of a poem by Ruth Margraff and music by G.W. Rodriguez, she choreographed Wild Rice. She remarked, “My dance wild rice honors the bad river tribes continuing strong fight for autonomy against the companies that prop up global warming capitalist and justice and racism.” After watching Choy’s performance, I would use one Chinese idiom to describe the dance, and that is 柔中带刚 (literal translation – soft with rigid) because I think that there was strength as well as grace in each move.

After seeing an overview of how the Afro Yaqui group integrates art and activism at the performance level, I was amazed by how motivating and empowering each piece of their works is. Ben and Gizel gave us more details regarding what the entire Collective has been working on concerning “the Black Liberation Movement in the United States, and also in terms of international spaces and gatherings for environmental justice, for anti-imperialism, for water rights, for indigenous rights, things of this nature.” He also showed us a couple of videos where we saw one of the protests at Pittsburgh, where we learned more about the music by African Americans, and most importantly, we should remember those who lived to uplift oppression, racism, and injustices. One sentence from the first video that stood out to me was, “this music is the antidote to that existential crisis.” The role of music is extremely significant, especially in social movements as it can reverberate among many people.

Next, Nejma shared with us her trip to Venezuela with Gizel and Mama C for the First Ecosocialist International event. Accompanying them was approximately a hundred more delegates from nineteen countries and twelve indigenous nations. This platform allowed activists to create a plan of action to save Mother Earth. Even though this event took place in Venezuela, their efforts have spread all around the world. Nejma said that it was a beautiful intergenerational experience and a blessing, as people of all ages came together for one goal—to help our planet recover from past and current damages. We saw a glimpse of their work through the video, Cry of Mother Earth, in which there were young and old people celebrating art and using it to spread awareness about how our planet is slowly deteriorating.

Peggy exclaimed that she was being inspired at the event, and I felt the same way. She stated, “Imprisonment and solitary confinement are one of the means the US government systematically uses to try to break the revolutionary spirit of black and brown Americans.” This leads us to another of Peggy’s works which shines light on the Cuban Five. The Cuban Five is a group of revolutionary national heroes who were disguised as an intelligence team and went to the US to counter terrorist attacks against Cuba. She created the dance, Prison Walls and Beyond: Dances About Incarceration, based on the Cuban Five’s experiences in solitary confinement.

Mama C also shared more of her stories and experiences. She exclaimed that most of the things that we learn about the Black Panther Party, especially their violent impressions, were not true. She then called out to Chairman Mao Ze Dong for being one of their heroes. She told us one of the lines that she still remembered from the red book that was given to her and Peggy—”never steal a needle or a piece of thread from the community.” Many people had to face a lot of hardships and dangers to fight for what they truly deserve: equality and human rights. The COINTELPRO, for example, was formed in 1956 to destroy revolutionary movements by use of intimidation, threats, and other forms of dangerous acts. The passion that Mama C still has to help the young generation overcome fear and obstacles is truly inspiring, and I think much is needed during the current tumultuous times.

Before the Q & A, Ben showed us some of the newest works in collaboration with the present artists, his students at the University of Wisconsin, and other international and national artists who practiced activism. It is known as the Contested Homes: a Migrant Liberation Movement Suite. It includes many topics that were talked about in this event and beyond, for example, the new Underground Railroad environmental extraction, the war on black and brown and indigenous people, resistance, and women leadership. We were very fortunate to get to see three excerpts from the project.

As we approached the end of the event, a few of the attendees asked very intellectual and interesting questions. Yue Qiu, a student from the Class of 2022 asked Mama C about what she thought of violence and to what extent was violence utilized in revolutionary movements. To this Mama C replied that violence was not just limited to killings. It was needed at times when one needed to get the attention of whoever they were revolting against. However, she believed that love is a strong and powerful force, and “you can’t be a revolutionary, an effective revolutionary without a strong element of love.” Next, the Dean of Student Affairs, Raphael Moffett, asked how people should experience all this without having ever been exposed to these types of art forms. Peggy responded that a strong and spiritual story of any performing art can always gravitate people towards it as long as we all stay true to ourselves. Then we had another student from the Class of 2022, Krista McJarrow-Keller, who asked about the inspiration behind the style of the videos. We came to know about Adam, a skilled animator who draws from sampling culture. He mixes different types of art, remixes existing footage, and so on to create his own masterpiece. Last but not the least, Professor Titas Chakraborty asked Mama C how she brought together her experiences in Kansas and Tanzania despite their cultural and social differences. Mama C replied that art should not be for art’s sake. It should have a purpose, and that is to educate, uplift, and enlighten people. I myself believe that once art has a purpose, it can translate through differences and people can echo with it. Professor Chakraborty had a follow-up question which was also the last question for the event: what lesson does the Afro Yaqui hope to show through their art? Ben said that their collaborations and works show that different disciplines can come together despite their different identities. People should find those who they like to work with, and it is important to think outside the box.

As the event drew to a close, to summarize the energy and message that the Afro Yaqui Music Collective presented was peace and love. Art and culture can bring people together, and as long as we all fight collectively for the same purpose, we are bound to make history. I would like to end my piece here by quoting Mama C, “All Power to the people!”