Music Revolution 2012: Revelation at Eastern Parkway
I moved to Brooklyn, NY in October, 2004. Almost exactly eight years later, I took my first trip to the Brooklyn Museum. In a way, I don’t know what took me so long. For more than three of those years, I lived so close to the building, the only thing that separated me from it was a 10 minute uphill walk. However, due to my overtly hectic schedule in the past, I’ve been unable to go to the building at 200 Eastern Parkway until now, despite, as I mentioned before, my close proximity.When I ventured inside, it was to attend a musical performance, but what transpired was a wave of inspiration that I did not expect.
I was attending the Target First Saturday, an event that invites many to come to the museum to partake in a miriad of activities, performances and to experience the exhibits at the museum for free on the first Saturday of each month. I was there strictly to see a tribute concert to singer/songwriter Betty Davis, a pioneering musician from the 1970s. I arrived very early to claim my RSVP, but, like most events in my life, I was too early. And so, what better way to pass the time than to take in the artwork – after all, isn’t that that point of First Saturdays? I can count on one hand how many museums I’d been to in my 30 years on this planet: The Everson, in my hometown of Syracuse, and the Guggenheim on 86th Street in Manhattan. Both times were for school related reasons, but I never harbored any resentment or ill will toward museums; I’d just never gotten around to going to one on my own accord. So, I was looking around, hoping something would catch my eye the way it does for people in the movies and on TV. I know that sounds hokie, but why else would museums exists other than to educate and inspire? My non-naive side knows the answer to that question, but I was blessed when I stumbled into the Art Between Worlds exhibit and I stumbled upon this:
An EraminhÕ; A small, stout figure of a human head on a base under a case of glass. The body was tan, noticeably withered but it was his eyes that called to me; those white, piercing, illuminating eyes looking right at me as if it was only me it was supposed to look at. A late 19th century artifact from Bijago, Guinea, an EraminhÕ translates to “Soul Container.” The figure was used as a repository for souls of the dead. Whenever someone would pass away, a family member would keep the EraminhÕ with them. To most, this may remind them of keeping an urn of loved one’s ashes after cremation, but to me, it was something else. Since this is a music blog, and I’m a music fanatic anyway, that’s where my mind went. All my life, I’ve been listening to albums, cassettes and CDs of artists who have all transitioned to the great unknown. Every time I listened to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and so many others, I think to myself, “These people were here once; here on this earth with the rest of us ordinary people, creating this transcendent magic that’s enriched us all.” There’s a great quote by Michaelangelo: “I know the creator will go, but his work survives. That is why, to escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work.” These beautiful people were gifted in ways beyond any sense of comprehension, but they were frail and flawed like us, and their bodies are no more. However, they left a piece of themselves behind for us all to share, to learn from and to absorb. I thought to myself, I have hundreds of soul containers back home – each and every vinyl LP and compact disc, all of them hold the souls of their creators inside of them, and as long as they continue to be heard, those people will continue to remain on this earth. This voices talk to me everyday; Teddy Pendergrass’ growls, the human hails of Miles Davis’ trumpet, it all teaches me a new lesson each time I listen. Could I ever leave behind something so profound, something that, in essence, makes me immortal? It got me thinking: are they REALLY still here with us? When Luther Vandross is cooing in my iPod, is he REALLY standing right behind me?
Further down the building, I moved on to the African Innovations exhibit. For the past two years, I’ve been frantically trying to acquire more knowledge about my heritage in order to forge ahead with my journey. The term “African Innovations” is a curious one. As the nerve center for all human civilization, everything that Africa produced was an innovation of everything we use everyday of our lives. As I pondered at that interesting juxtaposition of words, my sight found this:
An Elvis Mask for the Nyau Society. An African Elvis Presley mask??? It was an utterly befuddling site. As I stared at it, all I kept thinking over and over was “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me,” Chuck D’s emphatic statement of defiance in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” For many Black Americans, the so-called King of Rock and Roll was a symbol of the on going white exploitation of Black music. Elvis, Pat Boone and a host of others had reaped the the fiscal benefits of pioneering Black artists like Little Richard and Big Mama Thorton. When I looked at the description of the piece, my feelings were confirmed. It is a Malawi masquerade mask that represents spirits of the deceased. Often the masks are made to represent caricature personalities, an intentional mockery of anti-social traits and undesirable values that undermined the community. Such caricatures include Swahili slave traders, British officials, the Virgin Mary and, Elvis Presley. Our brothers and sisters across the ocean shared in our sentiments despite the thousands of miles between us, thus bringing me back to my aforementioned thirst for African knowledge. Our dominance of innovation on the planet is staggering, yet we are marginalized and persecuted every single step of the way. In my line of work, I see this exploitation and disregard of contribution and it’s made me more determined everyday to fight for what I’ve earned. Seeing this mask rose my need to break the chain(s).
So, wow! Just when I’m marveling in the wonderment of inspiration from these two pieces, I reminded myself that these were artifacts, items that people made for specific purposes on display for learning…and that’s when, not even five steps away from the Elvis mask, I beheld a piece of original artwork:
It’s called Blossom, made by artist Sandford Biggers in 2007. This huge tree was sitting right in the middle of the museum floor, growing right through a grand piano, appropriately enough a part of the Connecting Cultures: A World in Brooklyn exhibit. I was mesmorized! I just circled it and circled it and circled it, my eyes widening with every cycle. It made me feel, well, I don’t know, like myself. What I mean by that is, I’ve learned a lot of things through my passion for music, and it plays a major role in my life as an evolving man. This tree reminded me of Michael Jackson, and how he once said that music originated from Africa, when the tribes were trying to imitate the sounds of nature. The tree, fused with the piano, spoke to that ideal, that genesis; no matter how advanced we may get in terms of technology and how much more humanity gets removed from the music-making process (represented by the piano bench knocked on the floor) there’s nothing that can diminish nature’s role in music, and nature and music are the great common denomonators among human beings. All my life, I’ve felt detached from other people; too white for Black people, too Black for white people, too weird for both. Music has been the factor that’s helped me to not only connect with others on a common ground but to increase my sense of intuition – raising my awareness of self.
As it turned out, Blossom is partly inspired by Buddha finding enlightenment under a tree, and partly inspired by the Jena 6 incident. Sure, my intepretation was nowhere near Biggers’, but that’s the beauty of art. If 10 people see that tree, you’d get 10 explanations of what it means. Just like if 10 people listen to “Human Nature,” you’ll get 10 versions of what the lyrics really mean. Individualism is what makes living in this world so wonderful. I’ve learned over time to embrace my individualism, what hasn’t always been easy when you feel lonely all the time. This experience at the Brooklyn Museum reaffirmed my faith in my journey, my intuition, my ambition to learn, grow and make my mark on my own terms. If you haven’t noticed, the two elements that connected these three different pieces together were music and Africa. These are two parts of my identity that bring out the best in me, which made me realize why I’ve been working so hard the past year or so to reconcile these two elements together in the context of my career as a writer and broadcaster. What it will lead to remains to be seen, but my eyes are wide open now. If I never go back to that museum again, I can revel in the fact that I got more out of that one afternoon than I would have if I’d gone thee everyday for eight years leading up to that day.