Review of FREE/PHASE exhibit at Stony Island Arts Bank

Ends Saturday, June 18!

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In 2015, the Center for Black Music Research commissioned a suite of sound-based public artworks by New York-based artists Mendi and Keith Obadike called FREE/PHASE in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the fiftieth anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The exhibition opened at Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago on June 4, 2016, and this weekend I got a chance to go check it out. I’ve always been interested in black freedom songs and in the intersection of black music, black radical thought, and black action, so this was a chance for me to dig in deep and put some of my ideas in conversation with those of the artists and others involved. The exhibition is divided into three parts: each part responds to one way in which freedom songs have been used historically and reflects the artists’ research on African-American freedom songs that was conducted here at the CBMR.

The first part of the project, “Beacon,” is a sound installation in which melodies from freedom songs ring from the building’s terrace three times a day “like a beam from a lighthouse or a call to prayer.” As I was arriving around noon, I could hear pieces of the song “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Set on Freedom.” I had heard the song before, but what I found so moving and wondrous was the way that it seemed to transform the space around the Stony Island Arts Bank. The neighborhood around the Arts Bank is “underinvested” and underserved, with many unused buildings and empty dirt lots where something used to be, like so many black communities across the country. Hearing that freedom song carried through the wind all around the block changed the feeling of the space from one of a certain kind of defeat to one of pulsing determination, from questions about how we get free under all this weight to an assuredness in our capacities to build ourselves and each other up, an urgency that still takes enough time to tend to our hopes and dreams. It reminded me not only of the importance of music as a way to frame our struggle for freedom, but also as a way to pay attention to the smaller, more intimate parts of our lives that inform and shape our movements for liberation.

The second part of the exhibition, “Overcome,” is a video and surround sound work that uses sounds recorded from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to reimagine the song “We Shall Overcome,” a site and song which are closely linked to key moments in the Civil Rights Movement. What struck me immediately were the sounds of the bridge, at once random yet used systematically throughout the piece in combination with human voices. I thought of old African-American work songs, which often used the sounds of daily life (chopping a tree down, for example) to provide the rhythmic accompaniment to the singers’ or shouters’ voices. They are disjointed sounds, dissonant, yet still in conversation with the human voices that break through and harmonize. The sounds recorded from the bridge are reminiscent of the type of musical moves employed in free jazz, individual and with a life and direction of their own, yet they are brought together with harmonies that recall the cohesion of something more like a gospel choir. I wondered if their pairing had to do with the importance of the individual to the collective whole. I wondered what it means to put the sounds of daily life in conversation with the history of such an important movement. What are the sounds that accompany our contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter? How would we translate today’s activism into a soundscape? Not only is the Edmund Pettus Bridge significant in the Civil Rights Movement as the site of Bloody Sunday, but, as a bridge, it works symbolically as the connecting piece from one time to another. A bridge goes both ways, and so this work calls us back to the spirit of that movement in order to think about what “overcoming” means for us in 2016 and beyond.

The last portion of the project, “Dialogue With DJs,” provides the public with opportunities to engage in private listening sessions and conversation about music and freedom with renowned Chicago DJs. I had the chance to speak with Chicago DJ Ayana Contreras, who is currently host/producer of “Reclaimed Soul,” a weekly radio program on  91.1fm. She also serves as the executive producer of two other weekly programs on Vocalo, “The Barber Shop Show,” hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele and “Practically Speaking,” hosted by Audra Wilson. I was presented with a list of a number of freedom songs to listen to and discuss with Ayana, and I chose one of my all-time favorites, “Freedom Day” by phenomenal drummer and activist Max Roach and vocalist and activist Abbey Lincoln from Roach’s 1960 album We Insist: Freedom Now Suite. Following our listening session, Ayana and I discussed what the song meant to us. It is a song in which the speaker hears “whispers” that freedom has come, that it is time to “throw those shackle n’ chains away.” This immediately made me think of the historical strategies that black Americans have employed to gain what freedoms we have now. Although the mainstream narrative of Emancipation suggests that black Americans became free through Congress’s passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which legally abolished slavery, this period was one in which black people pushed for citizenship precisely through their performances of what they thought that citizenship should look like, taking up arms against the Confederate army, acting as soldiers, nurses, and even spies for the Union army. Freedom for black people in America came from their assertions that they were indeed free and the actions and responsibilities that they associated with their ideas of freedom. Thus, the declaration in the song that it is “Freedom Day” seems to acknowledge that historical process, which is still going on today. Ayana engaged my thinking around this with the observation that Roach and Lincoln’s song is very much about “looking forward,” that we haven’t yet arrived but that we must now act as free as we want to be tomorrow. Perhaps one way that manifests in the song is through what Ayana observed to be Roach’s way of playing drums with a tonality which opens up a new dimension, a tomorrow we are still looking for.

If you have a chance to go over to the Stony Island Arts Bank before the FREE/PHASE exhibition closes June 18, I highly recommend spending some time with this incredibly compelling project by Mendi and Keith Obadike now at the Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank.


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