Spotlight on 2020 Johnson Fellowship Nominees: Women Musicians Elevating Black Culture, History, & Contemporary Music for Change

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Jun 16, 2020 0 comments

Americans for the Arts’ annual Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities recognizes artists whose art and creative strategies, along with compassion and commitment, are making real change. In April, we featured in both Arts Link (our member magazine) and ARTSblog the extraordinary musician and composer Hannibal Lokumbe, who received this year’s Johnson Fellowship. This ARTSblog series continues to celebrate the 11 music artists who were the exemplary  2020 Johnson Fellowship nominees. Vastly different in their artistry—from classical orchestral work to blues, gospel and American roots traditions to punk rock, improvisational, and genre stretching forms—each artist, in their own right, is advancing community, civic, and social goals. Read all blogs in the Johnson Fellowship nominee series here.

In this blog, we feature Courtney Bryan and Ashleigh Gordon. As consummate musicians in contemporary genres, each thrives on the stimulation of artistic collaboration with fellow musicians, poets, writers, and dancers, but also drives the collective work that builds strength as socially engaged artists. These artists advance self-representation and advocate for cultural equity in the music field, creating music and curating programs that showcase and elevate Black culture and excellence. Importantly, themes of racial justice serve as sources of inspiration and a reservoir of strength in their ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Courtney Bryan, New Orleans, Louisiana

Photo by Alex SmithComposer and pianist Courtney Bryan ventures boldly into jazz and experimental music, traditional gospel, spirituals, and hymns. Whether solos, orchestral works, choral music, or sound installations, what unifies is a desire to “communicate the sounds of rebellion and healing.” Committed to spirit and always to beauty, Bryan’s music responds to the present, confronting contemporary social injustices.

In 2016, her piece called Yet Unheard paid tribute to Sandra Bland, the young African American woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on July 13, 2015, only days after being arrested during a traffic stop; her death was ruled a suicide. Created in collaboration with the poet Sharan Strange and the vocalist Helga Davis for chorus, orchestra, and vocalist, Yet Unheard was commissioned by The Dream Unfinished: An Activist Orchestra to raise awareness for the women involved in Black Lives Matter and to raise funds for related advocacy organizations. Performed in cities across the country with different conductors, choruses, and orchestras, Yet Unheard created space for conversation among fellow musicians about the issue of police brutality.

Bryan describes herself as “a minister of music, with a ministry that involves sharing a sense of freedom, unconditional love, and a spirituality that promotes healing. Creating music with and in various communities is an important part of my process.” As the Mary Carr Patton Composer-in-residence with the Jacksonville Symphony (2018-present), where she was commissioned to write a piece for the city, Bryan invited school-aged youth to collect sounds that captured the essence of Jacksonville. Over several visits, students created their own musical improvisations which Bryan incorporated into her piece for the city and Symphony titled Bridges.

Above: Video postcard of ‘saved’ at the 145th Street Bridge in Harlem, NY, September 2013, a living memorial reenacting an original documentary photograph that captured the townspeople of Okemah, OK witnessing the aftermath of a lynching. A collaboration with artist kara lynch, performed with three local choirs and Harlem’s IMPACT Repertory Theatre. Original score by Courtney Bryan. This living memorial links past and present resistance to racial and sexual violence.

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated rapidly in Italy, Bryan was in the midst of developing a “dream project” during her year as awardee of the prestigious Samuel Barber Rome Prize. The opera-in-progress, titled Awakening, imagines the female protagonist helped by the spirits of Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rebecca Cox Jackson from oppression to freedom, love, and sanctuary.

The COVID crisis necessitated a move from Rome back to her home in New Orleans, where Bryan found herself gravitating to her musical origins in church music. “Every Sunday I added songs to a playlist of different spiritual music and traditions. They were uplifting songs and it turns out others needed them, too. I don’t typically talk about Christianity. More generally I focus on spirituality,” Bryan reflected. “But I felt that we should hear from progressive Christian clergy.” She reached out to her former pastor—Reverend Dr. M. William Howard, emeritus pastor of Bethany Baptist Church of Newark, NJ—and fellow musicians to put together a virtual Easter service series with music, sermon, readings, as well as a resource list of organizations to help artists and people in need.

Now, Bryan is making her way back to Awakening. Supported by Larry and Arlene Dunn, FringeArts, and Opera Philadelphia, she is contemplating community engagement strategies and a nontraditional setting for the concert that blurs lines between audience and musicians.

Still, COVID and current events are front of mind. “Being in a city like New Orleans, so based on tourism and in the midst of fears of hunger, homelessness, I have questions about what we’ll be doing as performers and until when. … I can only imagine how Harriet Tubman had such courage and conviction. She stood for something and wasn’t afraid to fight for it. As difficult as this time is politically, I have to go into my work and keep creating.”

Ashleigh Gordon, Boston, Massachusetts

Photo by www.RobertTorresPhotography.comAshleigh Gordon is a 21st-century entrepreneur, musician, and social advocate. As a violist, she has performed throughout North America, Europe, and Hong Kong, in settings ranging from chamber and orchestral to off-Broadway and new music productions.

In her home community of Boston, Gordon is a musical force whose goal is to foster cultural curiosity about, and celebrate the music of, Black composers. Keenly aware of the gross omission of Black voices from history and the world of Western Classical music, she co-founded Castle of our Skins, a concert and educational series dedicated to amplifying these forgotten narratives through performance, education, and engaging communities. Intergenerational concerts seamlessly mix the Classical chamber works of composers from the African diaspora with Black history, spoken word, visual arts, dance, multimedia, and other artforms. Themes ranging from Black love, African American quilting, and Black Feminism to freedom, civil rights, and Black excellence aim to counter historical negativity centered around Blackness and Black culture. Gordon’s vision and co-leadership of Castle of Our Skins brings Black culture, music, and artistry from the margins to the spotlight and rebalances the elitist and alienating dominance of Classical music by a white, Euro-centric, male presence.

“Our efforts aren’t fleeting. We have to continue advocating, creating, building, and reaching and changing minds. As soon as we’ve stopped that work, we’ve lost.” —Ashleigh Gordon

As a cultural organizer, Gordon has mounted musical performances for Black Lives Matter in response to race crimes and police brutality, the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, and other social and racial injustices. With fellow co-founders of Play for Justice, a Boston-based artist social justice collective, she helped organize a tri-city performance for racial justice involving over 100 singers, instrumentalists, and youth activists. “With each performance, educational workshop, concert program, and social justice arts event I organize, I encourage people to challenge normalcies, listen, and ask questions,” Gordon reflects.

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COVID-19 hit Boston hard, but Gordon has not missed a beat: “It’s an odd challenge; you have to adapt and embrace as opposed to being defeated by it.” So, on April 1—after participating in a performance of Julius Eastman’s “Stay On It,” dedicated to essential workers of color and presented on Lincoln Center AT HOME—Gordon announced the Black Composer Miniature Challenge, inviting composers to create 30-second pieces for solo piano, solo viola, or viola-piano duo in short order time. The weekly digital musical series, now in progress, features and compensates 18 composers who identify as Black or part of the African Diaspora. Presenting this work in the digital space was a huge learning curve, but Gordon declares, “I’m now an amateur videographer!”

The effects of the pandemic on the cultural community has only underscored the importance of collective self-determination for artists who have experienced systemic inequities within the arts. In Boston, Gordon has been active in a peer network of artists of color who lead small to midsized grassroots arts organizations. The leaders of these artist-driven organizations, says Gordon, “want to craft an ecosystem that we all can thrive in, in which we create a holistic structure, sharing space, resources, and administrative duties. And, we want to make sure the philosophical and political lens is cast on the work we do.”

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