Spotlight on 2020 Johnson Fellowship Nominees: The Power of Cultural Roots to Ground & Enlighten
Posted by Jul 14, 2020 0 comments
Musical traditions hold a unique power in cultural belonging and identity for the communities and cultures from which they grow. Preservation and performance can be a political act of cultural self-determination, expression, and continuity. The stories, meaning, and sounds embodied by traditional music can gain new power for new audiences and broader communities, when linked to contemporary issues and concerns.
The four extraordinary musicians featured in this installment of our blog series celebrating nominees for the 2020 Americans for the Arts Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities draw upon cultural traditions and sometimes stretch and merge them with other forms to embrace a broader holistic view of culture and humanity. These musicians are: Dom Flemons, American roots ambassador; the Reverend John Wilkins, a bearer of blues-influenced gospel of Mississippi hill country; Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, a Black Indian and jazz-rooted genre-blind innovator; and Tiokasin Ghosthorse, master player of the ancient red cedar Lakota flute.
Read all blogs in the Johnson Fellowship nominee series here.
Dom Flemons, Silver Spring, Maryland
Known as “The American Songster,” Dom Flemons unleashes his voice and his fingers on banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, and rhythm bones to bring to light to over 100 years of American folklore, ballads, and tunes. Since venturing solo in 2014 from the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded, he has been integrating music scholarship into performance, recording, curatorial, and community projects to build awareness of popular roots music and to delve into the decolonized story of this country.
His Grammy-nominated collection “Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys” (2018) is perhaps Flemons’ most significant endeavor. “As a person of Black- and Mexican-American heritage, I felt empowered to share some of my family’s history and present the forgotten stories of the Great Westward Migration,” said Flemons. Through Black cowboy music and culture (detailed in an accompanying booklet that Flemons authored replete with historical and recreated tintype photographs), he pays tribute to the African American pioneers as an important part of our American identity. Flemons says his approach is to “let the music be normalized so listeners can understand the ways these Black pioneers had to navigate racial oppression.” Flemons partnered with the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to help curate its January 2020 festival featuring Black Cowboys as its main theme in music, exhibitions, and presentations, extending the reach and dialogue around this history. Check out his performance of the “Steel Pony Blues.”
Flemons spreads awareness of local and ethnic history through extensive engagement in schools, prisons, and other community contexts. No project speaks to this better than his work with the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Joseph, Oregon. This rural community of 7,000—with fewer than a dozen African American residents—has a history of Black loggers who defied exclusion laws and migrated from the South in the early 1920s to Oregon. According to Center director Gwendolyn Trice, whose own father was one of them, Flemons has been a valued coach and partner. Through engaging townspeople and youth in collecting oral histories and studying and creating their own roots music, Flemons’ work deeply influenced the center’s plans for transforming the site of a once segregated town for Black loggers to an active heritage site, especially for youth of color to learn through arts-based curriculum and historic Black colleges to draw from forestry practices.
Annually clocking 75,000 miles on the road, Flemons says the COVID-19 shutdown has been a time to “put down my instruments, relax my fingers, and assess the last 15 years.” He is guided by the idea of Sankofa, a Ghanaian word that expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress; and so has been reflecting on the question: “How can I bridge the gap in cultural equity?” Recently, Flemons was asked to contribute to several conversations surrounding Lil Nas X’s country rap single “Old Town Road,” which represents Black Western culture. “Using my research, I have been able to link the disparate communities … by refocusing the conversation into one of communal representations instead of divisiveness.” Making connections across musical genres and between past and present in and through music—what Flemons terms “historical equity”—is a way to understand humanity.
Reverend John Wilkins, Como, Mississippi
Rev. John Wilkins has been performing since the age of five, early on earning his chops playing blues at the jukes and country picnics and doing some session work at the famed Stax Records. He straddled the chasm between secular and religious music like his father, legendary blues and gospel musician Rev. Robert Wilkins. On Sundays, you’d always find him in church playing gospel; at a certain point, Wilkins joined M & N Singers and charted his course more firmly on gospel ground, but never altogether forsaking the blues.
Traditional songs make up much of Rev. Wilkins’s musical canon. Nominators Alice Pierotti and Jennifer Joy Jameson describe what makes his renditions so potent: “What Wilkins masterfully weaves into his execution is hundreds of years of charismatic vocal tradition that may have originated in slavery. It is not a stretch of the imagination to argue that, attached to every note Wilkins sings, there clings a tiny exoskeleton of every note ever sung, a little bit of every attempt to use song as a reflection of what it means to endure being alive and human.” Recognition of his blues-influenced gospel that defines the Mississippi hill country sound has taken him around the globe to many a jazz and blues festival, and has been documented in numerous writings and on film.
Wilkins spent the tumultuous civil rights and post-integration years working for the City of Memphis maintaining Memphis’s parks and public spaces, including the famed Levitt Shell where, as a young man, he saw legendary Memphis acts perform. But what Wilkins aimed for was social transformation using gospel’s message of faith and salvation to help heal. In 1985, he became the preacher at Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church 45 miles south in Como, Mississippi, a town still feeling the impact of the battle of integration and generational poverty. Scott Barretta, a specialist on Mississippi’s musical culture, knows Rev. Wilkins well, having written about and featured him on radio and in documentary films. He said: “Rev. Wilkins’ approach to pastoring tends to emphasize his commonality with his congregation, acknowledging secular desires as a natural element of being human, rather than presenting life as simply a battle between good and evil.” About Wilkins’ music making, Barretta goes on:
“In performance the Reverend radiates joy, spreading a message of love that often moves to tears both Christians and non-believers. The presence of his three daughters only amplifies the power of his message and music, which invigorate a sense of community. The fact that he’s willing to play his music in non-religious contexts—at locations including bars, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and, most recently, Paris—effectively brings the spirit of Hunter’s Chapel to the rest of the world.”
Rev. Wilkins is making a slow but steady recovery from COVID-19 and looks forward to the release of a new CD, “Trouble,” featuring the Reverend and his daughters Tangela, Joyce, and Tawana. “Trouble” was recorded at legendary Royal Studios in Memphis and will be coming out in early Fall 2020 on the Memphis-based Goner Records Label.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, New Orleans, Louisiana
At its core, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s music is about breaking and blurring boundaries. His first cultural influences came from his home city of New Orleans. “The first musical experiences I recall are rooted in Black Indian (an integral community-based African/New Orleanian cultural expression music) and creative improvised music, i.e. Jazz,” he wrote. “My grandfather [Donald Harrison Sr.], a notable Big Chief in the Black Indian tradition, exposed me to both.” Christian began “masking” with his grandfather in 1989 and has maintained the tradition having been coronated a Chief of The Xodokan Nation [formerly the Brave].
Adjuah’s work is grounded in the global creative community as well as New Orleans. Of his music, Giovanni Russonello wrote in The New York Times on March 20, 2019:
“He rarely used vocals, but Mr. Scott wrote directly from his experiences growing up in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and from his investigations into the history of race in America. His music combined musical legacies and pushed well beyond the standard approaches to contemporary jazz; on songs like K.K.P.D. and Dred Scott, he was projecting something like a new vision for American society.”
Adjuah’s music is his activism. The three albums comprising The Centennial Trilogy (2017) commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Jazz recordings. But the series offers a sobering re-evaluation of the social political realities of the world through sound, speaking to issues of slavery in America via the Prison Industrial Complex, food insecurity, xenophobia, fascism, and other contemporary issues.
Adjuah views musical genres as hyper-racialized. His music challenges misconceptions around some cultures of music, “seeking to dismantle historical value systems that prioritize harmony and melody as more nuanced and sophisticated than music that prioritizes rhythm.” The resulting hallmark of his creative drive is what he calls Stretch Music. It is a jazz-rooted, genre-blind musical form that stretches jazz’s rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic conventions to encompass diverse musical forms and cultures. His most recent project, Ancestral Recall, is a great example. Rhythms from West Africa, the Caribbean, and New Orleans—from the pre-Columbian era, 19th century, and today—seamlessly intertwine.
As an international performer, he teaches Stretch Music masterclasses to developing artists, from high schools and colleges to Juilliard to the Academy of the Montreaux Jazz Festival. When home, he works with numerous local service organizations including Girls First and Each One Save One. Grounding him is his ongoing role with Guardians Institute of New Orleans, founded by his grandmother Herreast J. Harrison, which is dedicated to reading, fiscal literacy, cultural retention of New Orleans’ indigenous cultural arts and African diaspora traditions, and participation of community elders and artists in uplifting and supporting youths in underserved areas of New Orleans.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Stone Ridge, New York
Tiokasin Ghosthorse is a master player of the ancient red cedar Lakota flute and has been a major figure in preserving and reviving the cedar flute tradition. He has long been interested in the relationship of music and language and combines insightful “spoken word” with the transcendence of the flute. He is also part of a movement of contemporary Native American improv-fusion jazz and Lakota flute.
In his nomination, Reuben Roqueñi wrote, “In Tiokasin’s music practice, the activism is the music, the music is the activism” and quoted the culture bearer: “I want listeners to feel the part of themselves that may be calling to them through the most natural of all instruments, the flute. … The flute is found in every culture and expresses that longing for life—ancient or the future—but always consciously bringing the relational to the present.”
A member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota, Ghosthorse is a survivor of the 1972 to 1976 “reign of terror” on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud Lakota reservations (SD) and of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding and Church Missionary schools designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” These experiences drive Ghosthorse’s commitment to youth (with Native youth suicide as a priority focus) and to ensuring that the next generation of young people are culturally grounded and prepared to be leaders.
Ghosthorse remains passionately involved with the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation as an active board member of Simply Smiles, an organization providing services and supporting self-determination for children and families. There, Ghosthorse regularly works with Lakota children to promote cultural values and continuity, sharing his music and traditional creation stories. His traditional name meaning is Oyate Tokaheya Wicakiye (He Places The People First).
Ghosthorse’s long history of indigenous and natural rights activism not only aims to “stem the tide of cultural loss” but to challenge the public to reconsider a deeply ingrained anthropocentrism at the root of the West’s continued destruction of the planet. He has been sharing indigenous understanding internationally since age 15, when he was invited to speak to the United Nations in Switzerland, to his current guest faculty status at Yale University’s School of Divinity, Ecology, and Forestry and as long-time host and producer of the internationally syndicated First Voices Radio. In 2016, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy.
In early spring, before COVID-19 forced him home, Ghosthorse was on an international speaking tour and collaborating on a film project about Indigenous peoples, which took him to Costa Rica, Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Australia. About the pandemic, Ghosthorse was neither surprised nor alarmed: “I wasn’t in panic and fear because I’ve been studying this all my life. I took [the pandemic] more in a respectful way. It’s part of nature. The Lakota interpretation is that if we are in fear, we are exhibiting the same symptoms of this virus. Fear is more contagious than the virus. … People have to pay attention now and return to the earth that grows us. And we pay attention with culture.” At home, he has created ceremonial fires as way to deal with the threat of fear. He has also been growing a garden. “When I play flute in front of the garden, I remember my mother and my grandmother singing these songs. This is what COVID has made possible.”
Special thanks to Aengus Finnan, Alice Pierotti and Jennifer Joy Jameson, Simone Eccleston, and Reuben Roqueñi whose nominations of these artists for the Johnson Fellowship provided insights and text for this blog.