Author: Benjamin Barson

Answering the Call: Antiphony Between the Music and Social Movements

A live music concert

When baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho organized sixteen musicians to tour New York City and Vermont in 2014, NPR reported that the “16-piece band wants to introduce a new audience to the voice of Fred Ho.” The tour, dubbed the “Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour!,” however, did not focus on his own compositions, but on the work of the Black Panther-affiliated trumpet player and composer Cal Massey. Massey, active in the 1950s and ‘60s, was an overlooked iconoclast with close links to the core of the post-bop New York scene. Musicians of the post-bop scene included McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, both of whom collaborated with Massey. Coltrane recorded one of Massey’s songs, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” during his 1961 Africa Brass sessions, and (according to Fred Ho) McCoy Tyner’s first professional date was with Cal Massey. Ho’s ensemble performed Massey’s 1969 opus, The Black Liberation Movement Suite, which was interspersed with spoken word performances, rousing discourses from veterans of the Black Panther Party, and visual art that celebrated long-held prisoner and Black Liberation Army member Russell Maroon Shoatz. On this, Ho’s final tour before his passing—Ho transitioned after a grueling cancer battle just two months later—he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On Fred Ho’s final tour before his passing, he gave his platform and his voice, once again, to the Black Liberation Movement.

On the fourth day of the tour, in the middle of a concert at the University of Vermont before more than 300 students, the tour organizers received a joyous phone call: a major objective had been achieved. Former Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, held in solitary confinement for twenty-three years, had been released from his cell (7 feet wide and 12 feet long) into the general prison population. It was widely speculated that Shoatz received this cruel treatment and exceedingly long sentence because of his provocative and inspirational political beliefs, which included full-thronged advocacy for matriarchy and urban homesteading, ideals expounded upon in texts he shared with other prisoners and outside writers while serving his life sentence.[1] Ho decided to publish these writings, which ranged from a historical analysis of maroons in Haiti to appeals for women’s leadership in social movements within an ideological framework that Shoatz termed revolutionary matriarchy. The resulting volume, Maroon the Implacable, was discussed during our performances, and its ideas (and its author) generated intense interest amongst the university and community audiences for whom the band performed. Many not only purchased the book but also participated in a letter-writing campaign challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections which had administered Shoatz’s solitary confinement. Ho and the musicians employed the power of cultural activism to engage youth and elders alike in a political process, teaching them both about the history of the Black Power movement, its ongoing relevance, and motivating audiences to challenge Pennsylvania’s attempt to silence and virtually erase this revolutionary.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson.

Iyanna Jones, Fred Ho, and Ben Barson. (Photo by Ana Perero)

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes.

These inspirational experiences showed us the “call and response” that exist between revolutionary art and meaningful political outcomes. Salim Washington referred to this phenomenon as the “macro-antiphonal” aspect of jazz: the call and response between the freedom dreams of Black Americans and this “fundamental, pervasive and catalytic” that underlay the aesthetics of jazz.[2] Fred Ho, channeling Washington, wrote on the subject in an article “Why Music Must Be Revolutionary — and How It Can Be”:

Antiphony is the musical term for “call and response.” …“[J]azz,” everything about it, if is practiced with vital authenticity, is macro-antiphonal, that it calls and the artist, the audience and the music, everything in the universe, must respond.  That is The Magic of Juju.  Shaman-istic, transcendent, evocative, provocative, catalytic, procreative, creative, experimental, perpetually avant-garde, restless and bold, adventurous, exploratory, creatively irrepressible, futuristic, imaginative, and innovative.  Every performance prefigures, anticipates, and is a musical vision-quest for what is next, and discontent with the past and present meanderings and status quo, demanding.

The lessons of the macro-antiphonal were intensely apparent in the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, to which we both contributed. This force was extremely formative to us as artist-organizers. In fact, in many ways Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite (and how Ho was able to mobilize this work in service of the actual Black Liberation Movement activists) became the impetus for our jazz opera, Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite. Mirror Butterfly, as noted in earlier articles, built its libretto and sonic imaginary from the lifework of women eco-activists in the global south. As in the work of Cal Massey and Fred Ho, our own work foregrounds social movement leaders as wells of compositional and aural inspiration. In addition to the subject matter, the piece built a solidarity economy through its distribution model. These decisions led to meaningful political outcomes, such as connections between indigenous social movements in Mexico and Kurdish organizers in Mesopotamia, as well as the ongoing construction of a Yaqui radio station to resist the fracking and destruction of the uniquely biodiverse Yaqui river. The music aimed to capture the same sense of an ever demanding and ever-pushing forward-ness—exemplified in constantly shifting time-irregular signatures that retain a sense of groove, overlapping harmonic systems that still support melodic sensibilities, and an intensely intercultural orchestra that fused pipa, batá, jazz big band, and operatic/gospel choral music.

Marina Calender on stage holding a book with other cast members in the background

Marina Calender performing in Mirror Butterfly. Photo by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtsey of the New Hazlett Theater.

Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed.

All of these spoke to elements of the macro-antiphonal in both the structure of the music and the political outcomes of the work. Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed, which bore witness to the horrors of capitalism, with its building blocks of genocide, slavery, and ecocide. These memories generate multiplicities of meanings when their call for justice summons the activists of ongoing liberation movements. Such figures animate and re-animate the call for a revolution of values, a revolution of the self and community, and ultimately, a revolution against global capitalism. As with Russell Maroon Shoatz’s victory during a tour of Cal Massey’s music, we hope that this piece will animate concrete political outcomes that help us move beyond the necrocene—the age of mass extinction—into a human society with a seven generations consciousness that is looking beyond itself and considers all life as interconnected. Again, we were reminded of the Red, Black, and Green Revolutionary Eco-Music Tour, when Master of Ceremonies Colia Clark, a committed pan-Africanist and organizer who cut her teeth with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sang in her prophetic voice:

“Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain
Ecosocialism is born.”

Notes:


1. Herb Boyd, “Political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz out of solitary confinement,” Amsterdam News, March 20, 2014 (http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2014/mar/20/political-prisoner-russell-maroon-shoatz-out-solit/).


2. Melissa Mungroo, “Renowned Jazz Musician Gives Inaugural Lecture at UKZN,” ndabaonline, September 12, 2013 (http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/StoryPrinter.aspx?id=24).

Building a Solidarity Economy through Revolutionary Music: the Making of Mirror Butterfly

Over 50 people gathered in a room in front of a banner for the Mesopotamian Water Forum

Bertolt Brecht famously proselytized that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” But how can art be that hammer, and not simply representational? One solution is to work in dialogue with actual social movements and create spaces where activists are at the center of the creative and economic processes behind the creation of new work. Our play Mirror Butterfly is the outgrowth of our collaboration with three women activists fighting at the intersection of ecology, anti-imperialism, and women’s liberation. Its purpose is to work with both their ideas and the living movements they were a part of to imagine and create a new world. We interviewed Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania).

How do we engage beyond cultural appropriation?

How do we engage in this dialogue beyond cultural appropriation? A turn to saxophonist-composer Fred Ho guided our own work in this respect. Ho held as a specific antidote to the exploitive appropriations of Third World cultures by Western artists that Ho called the “three Cs” of intercultural respect: “Credit, Compensation [and] Committed anti-imperialist solidarity.” He also argued that, in order to achieve true multicultural expression, it was necessary to “liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-hero-genius of simply using ‘sounds’ for self-expression (self-gain)” and to take every opportunity of “giving back in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration, and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).” (“Fred Ho: Artist Comments.” 29 Oct. 2006, quoted in David Kastin, “Fred Ho and the Evolution of Afro-Asian New American Multicultural Music.” Popular Music and Society 33, no. 1 (February 1, 2010): pp. 1–8; also available online.) In the paragraphs below, we will show how Fred’s three Cs guided our work at every step in our process to create a piece that had both creative and economic solidarities guiding its creation and dissemination.

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez.

Travels to Mexico

We wanted to create a work that truly crossed borders and built international solidarity, so, in 2018, we traveled to Obregon, Mexico, to develop the plot and language with Yaqui activists. The Yaqui nation is one that we have had relationships with for years. (I, Gizelxanath, am of Yaqui descent.)

The Yaqui people inhabit the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Arizona. They are notable for their successful resistance to the Spanish conquest—they were one of the few First Nations to retain their autonomy and were even celebrated by United States General William Sherman as the “Spartans of the Americas.” The majority of the Yaqui nation still lives in Sonora despite more than a century of forced relocation intensified under Porfirio Díaz and current attacks on their ancestral water source, the Yaqui River. The ironically named “Independence Aqueduct Pipeline” has diverted so much water from their territory that today thousands of Yaqui people suffer from gastrointestinal problems due to water scarcity and pollution.

We were aware of the intensity of oppression the Yaqui people had been enduring, but when we visited, its scale and immediacy eclipsed what we had imagined. A leading Yaqui activist and spokesperson, Mario Luna, has been fighting the water extraction of the Yaqui river for decades. When we visited, we learned that the threats on his family’s life, both verbal and physical, had increased to the point that he was forced to install barbed wire and cameras.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists. We were inspired by artists such as the Mexican/Chinese-American performance and multimedia artist Richard Lou, who has been committed to the practice of border art for over twenty years. Our artivism was fueled by a “commitment to a transformation of the self and the world through creative expression” in which arts can help us imagine and construct a world beyond borders, exploitation, and racial, gendered, and environmental oppression. It took on an existential intensity that was difficult to be prepared for. We encountered conditions that were truly challenging for the Yaqui people, as well as a warmth and hospitality that felt revolutionary. We asked ourselves many questions: What would a collaborative work look like in this context? Would it be documentary-based, dramatizing the struggle against water usurpation? Should the piece foreground the formation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an anti-capitalist council of 68 different indigenous nations? In terms of story, how concrete or surrealist would it be? Did it need to follow the logic of linear plot and linear time—or linear music, for that matter?

We decided we could and should not make these decisions alone. We met the director of the Yaquis Museum, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea, also a Yaqui lawyer and cultural guardian, and asked her what a meaningful staged work would look like that spoke to the Yaqui struggle and the alternative proposed by the CNI. She gave us the idea for how we should shape our jazz opera. It would revolve around the cry of a sacred endangered insect, the Kautesamai, otherwise known as the four-mirrored butterfly. This insect is in danger of going extinct due to the prevalent use of pesticides in the area and the vanishing of the Yaqui river ecosystem. Inspired, we were also immediately concerned: we did not want to profit off her ideas. Following Ho’s principles of “Three Cs” we agreed that the proceeds of the album—all of them—would fund the Yaqui radio station Namakasía Radio, which coordinates the efforts of social movement activists. Thus our audience was able to participate in a solidarity economy across borders, supporting indigenous activists and water defenders they never would have had contact with otherwise. The project would be named Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, and the piece’s main character would be the Kautesamai. In this way, we created both a creative process and an economic process which connected Yaquis and our base in North America in a way that could lay the foundation for alliances in years to come.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

In someways, however, the work had only begun. In dialogue with our United States-based collaborators, Ruth Margaff, Nejma Neferiti, and Peggy Myo-Young Choy, and in conversations, study sessions, and interviews with our Yaqui collaborators, we began to create our story. We were encouraged by Reyna and others to think globally, considering other experiences of communities on the front lines of environmental struggle. With that in mind, we decided we would also tell the stories and freedom dreams of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Like the National Indigenous Congress and the Yaqui River Defense Group, this movement offered a different form of governance that came from democractic traditions outside of Western liberalism: rotating non-hierarchical leadership, communal economics, the prevalence of women in leadership roles, and the defense of water and ecosystems as paramount.

Nejma Nefertiti holding a microphone.

EmCee Nejma Nefertiti of Afro Yaqui Music Collective performing at the MWF.

The Kurdish people, based in Syria, have witnessed an historic exodus of their people—over five million refugees have left the nation in a conflict several analysts have linked to climate change and ecological catastrophe. Given that our work aims to raise up the voices of environmental protectors who are building solutions that reverse the destruction wrought by capitalist economics and climate change, this felt like a natural step.

Travels to Iraq

Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world.

As part of the development of Mirror Butterfly, we spent a lot of time “building” politically, emotionally, and artistically in order to create something organic. Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world—alternatives that, if embraced, could create stable and life-generating communities rooted in social justice. With that in mind, we connected with Azize Aslan, a revolutionary economist and member of the Kurdish Freedom movement. Overlooked in the Western press, this remarkable revolutionary movement has liberated huge sections of Rojava and implemented “democratic confederalism,” which converges with ecosocialism through decentralization, gender equality, and local governance through direct democracy coordinated through communal councils. This is a big break from their lives under the Baath regime, where for several decades it was forbidden to plant trees and vegetables, and the population was encouraged by repressive politics and deliberate underdevelopment of the region to migrate as cheap labour to nearby cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs.

Azize, like our Yaqui comrades, shared with us a philosophy of nature, which greatly influenced Mirror Butterfly. We interviewed her about her violently mobile life in which the Turkish state, as with the Baath regime, consistently disrupted the social bonds and entire communities of the Kurdish people. On the move, her family was forced to perform wage labor in hazelnut fields when their subsistence farming basis was destroyed. Eventually her community was forced to move to the megalopolis of Antalya, where nature was “othered.” The story of the sacred Kautesamai, on the brink of extinction, spoke to her, and her stories helped us created another character in the jazz opera, the stoneflower.

Through Azize and her comrades, we were able to travel to Kurdistan, Iraq, in 2019 to present Mirror Butterfly at the Mesopotamian Water Forum (MWF), where the jazz opera resonated with attendees. (We still have not had the chance to perform it in Mexico.) The MWF was organized and attended by over 180 water activists from the Mesopotamia region and other countries in order to provide a civil society-led plan to restore disrupted hydrological cycles, which have created conditions of severe water scarcity in the region. One of the outcomes of this conference was internationalizing the campaign to prevent the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, whose population is predominantly Kurdish. Much of the city and its archeological sites are at risk of being flooded upon the completion of the Ilisu Dam, which Turkey is rushing to construct despite mounting pressure, as part of its indirect war against Kurdistan. There is currently a campaign underway to pressure Turkey to stop the construction of this weapon, which we support.

We were deeply moved by the Kurdish organizers’ commitment to feminism and ecological justice, but more generally it was clear that we were in the middle of a broader Middle Eastern environmental movement with cross-class, cross-national, and cross-ethnic linkages. We learned about widespread protests against dam construction by farmers in Iran, which was connected to the labor movement, and that young Iraqi environmentalists had petitioned on behalf of an Iranian environmental-labor activist while he was in solitary confinement. We told those we met about the Yaqui struggles, which they were interested in, and we were treated to food, hookah, and even invited to return to canoe down the Euphrates river as part of revitalizing ancestral Iraqi boat-making traditions. In April in northern Iraq, this is what our solidarity looked like: smoking hookah, working on the ground with the people, getting to know them, making music with them. These connections at the intuitive level are part of what being an artivist is about.

Travels to Venezuela

Two years ago, before we had begun Mirror Butterfly, we had travelled to an Afro-descent Maroon community in Veroes, Venezuela, to attend the First Ecosocialist International. The International was attended by more than 100 social movement leaders from across the world. There, these leaders developed a 500-year plan of action for the survival of the planet and the human species. The participants included representatives of Indigenous social movements and ecological radical movements from five continents.

As we were building our jazz opera, we reached out to an inspiring woman and activist who had been present at the International; her words and spirit, in turn, further helped shape Mirror Butterfly. When we met Mama C, a former Black Panther now living in Tanzania, we did not know we would someday work with her on Mirror Butterfly—we had not even conceptualized this work yet.

Mama C standing the middle of the floor with seated onlookers, many children surrounding her.

Mama C during the International.

Then, last year, after a collaborative concert in New York City between Mama C and Afro Yaqui Music Collective, which we are a part of, we asked her if she would like to be one of the participants in the construction of our jazz opera about climate change, matriarchal women warriors, and the revolution of all of our relations—with Earth, the climate, the very concept of gender. She agreed, creating a character for the show based on the mulberry tree, her favorite. At one point, she told us about her love for music. It is the music of Kansas City, the historical continuum of blues, jazz, and gospel, which contains rhythms of resistance that have animated struggle and self-determination for generations. We composed an aria in her honor with these influences in mind.

Artivism as Decolonization

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality.

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality. Mirror Butterfly is both a piece of experimental theatre and a standalone album that brings audiences into dialogue with the radical solutions that have been devised by regions experiencing environmental crises sparked by industry and international capital: water protection, ecological transformation, community-based economics, and depatriarchalization. There are multiple levels to the work, but colonization took five hundred years to bring us here, and we will need at least five hundred years to build out of it. To get there, we feel the practice of artivism offers the potential for holistic transformation.

Our experiences developing the piece showed us one path of what artivism looks like. An artivist is someone who can put aside ego, comfort, privilege, and even language difficulties to break bread and truly learn from those on the other side of empire. An artivist might travel across the world without a gig in mind or even a clear objective only to learn and possibly build international awareness of a struggle. As artivists, we look for ways we can change the consciousness of members of the collective and audience members, as well as build connections. One of the ways we did this was to organize a speaking tour with Mario Luna alongside our album release, where he educated audiences about the Yaqui struggle and its interconnection with the defense of life and water across the world.

Mario Luna at a podium with Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Mario Luna speaking to an audience with Gizelxanath Rodriguez at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, New York. The speaking tour was coordinated with performances of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective celebrating the album release of Mirror Butterfly.

Our own artivism took the form of creative and collaborative interaction on the basis of “the work”: talking about issues with the locals, learning from them, and creating work together—all with the intention of facilitating and strengthening international coalitions that articulate and construct an alternative future. These organizations, which go beyond governments and NGOs, built from civil society and the knowledge of the people on the ground, can help bridge social movements and forge organic resistance to the neofascisms of today in order to build the Maroon communities of tomorrow.

[Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in Howlround Theater Commons and have been reprinted here with permission.]

Fighting for Our Senses: Ears, Bodies and Hearts in the struggle to redefine Reality

Women walking outdoors

In our day-to-day lives, we may concede subconsciously that idea called reality to be “what is”—the realm of the material. But of course on further examination, we see that what we consider real—and possible—is wrapped up in the intersection of our senses and politics. How we convert our environment, through the sensory mediums of our ears, tongues, fingers, eyes, and nostrils into reality is as political and contested as net neutrality versus corporate control of the internet. That is because, as Marx reminds us, “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.”[1] The Nazis banned ‘degenerate’ jazz; the House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklisted the great African American film actor and singer Paul Robeson for his communist politics. In the 1920 and ‘30s, a conservative government in Haiti banned Vodou and ritual music associated with it; musicians snuck it back in to a hybrid form called “Vodou Jazz” and critiqued their neocolonial government.  Indeed, musicians, especially from populations terrorized by the state,  have always been fighting to expand, contest, or even overthrow state-sponsored reality, which has denied their humanity and right to exist. The great free-jazz bandleader Sun Ra explained: “I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth, because that’s what black people are, myths. I come to you from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.” (Quoted in Szwed, Space is the Place, 269)

The great baritone saxophonist Fred Ho, inspired by Sun Ra, also fought the colonial occupation of reality and the senses. “Everything that is possible has been tried and failed. We must do the impossible.” In his essay, “How Does Music Free Us? ‘Jazz’ as Resistance to Commodification and the Embrace of the Eco-Logic Aesthetic,” Fred Ho suggests that the way music is produced and consumed today effects the overall health of our society and body politic:

Musical malnourishment, with increasing mono-diets and over-consumption of processed, chemically treated/created culture, entails an over-reliance upon intake from manufactured commodities such as loudspeakers, machines, and computers. Thus greater passivity is generated whereby people no longer look to themselves to make music, but simply purchase it via a concert ticket or through a new electronic home entertainment toy. With declining participation in creative activity comes the musical and artistic deskilling of the populace along with its monopolization by “experts” or marketers (often, with the complicity of academia and corporations, these are one and the same). So we get a listening population which, like the general population, is obese, out-of-shape, unhealthy, and addicted to all the wrong stuff.

What is Ho’s answer? “Prioritize acoustic live performance over electricity-dependent situations. Live performance is a social act in which all people participate and interact and have mutual influence.”

“Live performance is a social act.”

Ho and Ra are not alone in their assessment that a connection between music, sound, history, and representation intersect to create sensorial interpretations of reality that are built for and by the status quo. The French philosopher-activist Jacques Rancière conceived of aesthetics as more than the style or the form an artistic medium takes. Rather, aesthetics are the multiple ways in which any social order establishes, manages, privileges or marginalizes different modes of perception. And this organization of perception—of sense itself—is the site of a centuries-long, world-historical battle for the senses. Rancière calls this the “distribution of the sensible” and suggests that communal forms of perception can challenge and create alternatives to what is allowed to be “visible or audible, as well as what can be said, made or done” within a particular social order (Rancière, J. 2004b. The Politics of Aesthetics , G. Rockhill (trans.). London: Continuum, p. 95.)

In the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, we and a collective of activist artists strive to create music that challenges the matrix of consumerism, racism, and egocentrism that is killing the planet and giving rise to a new generation of fascists. We do this in a variety of ways: we emphasize communal music making but we do not want to “dumb things down.” Indeed, oftentimes our audiences are as musical and cutting edge as us. Rather, we compose music and create rhythmic environments which move beyond the matrix of four beats per measure—that is, the 4/4 time signature. This way of rhythming and dancing, while home to many polyrhythms, is so dominant now it almost presents itself as “what has always been.” Traditional Middle Eastern rhythms covered a wide array of odd time signatures, such as 5 and 7. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarian folk music happens to be in odd meters–typically 5, 7, 9, and 11, with occasional combinations of those creating 13, 15, 17, and larger. Indian classical music uses a system of metrical divisions named talas, with various lengths. One of them is a 29-beat cycle.

We strive to create music that challenges the matrix of consumerism, racism, and egocentrism.

These experiences of time are very political. They distribute our bodies in social ways that have meanings from the dance floor to political rallies to how we subconsciously structure space, time, and architecture. The flattening of the grand majority of Western popular music to a 4/4 time signature represents a kind of genocide that has destroyed or at least marginalized alternative modernities, other ways of seeing and experiencing the world. If we take Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seriously that “music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music,” then what does homogenizing life into four sides (a box!) say about our architecture of reality? Prisons, plantations, and factory farms all have square shapes at the center of their organizational geography. Unconicdentally, the hegemony of 4/4 rose in harmony with what scholars at the University of Wisconsin are called the “plantationoscene” in which the rise of the plantation became “a transformational moment in human and natural history on a global scale that is at the same time attentive to structures of power embedded in imperial and capitalist formations.” This led to “the erasure of certain forms of life and relationships in such formations,” as well as “the enduring layers of history and legacies of plantation capitalism that persist, manifested in acts of racialized violence, growing land alienation, and accelerated species loss.” These institutions of discipline and punishment are rigorously reproduced in the music we consume. And thus we must decolonize our rhythmic scape as much as our models of making food, energy, and community.

Institutions of discipline and punishment are rigorously reproduced in the music we consume. And thus we must decolonize our rhythmic scape.

We were deeply moved by this model of a decolonized musical practice and sought to connect ecological solidarity with musical creation and practice. Alongside our collaborative team of Peggy Myo-Young Choy (choreographer), Ruth Margraff (librettist), and Nejma Nefertiti (EmCee), we decided to create a devised work that integrated the political vision, sacred insects, sacred plants, and values of three revolutionary women based in national liberation and environmental struggles: Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui Nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania). These three remarkable women became our friends, allies, and comrades as we conducted interviews, workshopped the script, and set the piece to music. Having their voices at the center, rather than as subjects we hoped to represent, made this opera an organic expression of social movements as opposed to a study of artistic colonial anthropology.

Photo of the entire Mirror Butterfly cast and ensemble.

The entire Mirror Butterfly cast and ensemble. Photo taken by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtsey of the New Hazlett Theater.

The music we created did not conform to a rubric of what these places “should” sound like. Honestly, the work held almost no disciplinary consistency. Its opening gesture took the form of a saxophone quartet collectively improvising the creation of both a mushroom network—representing the dynamism and vulnerability of ecosystems—and the Sword, the piece’s antagonist that expressed the ethos and death culture of capitalist patriarchy. The composed sections of the music similarly were unpredictable and iconoclastic: a four-part chorus sang quartal harmony over a pan-African rhythm section including batás, the Ghanaian kpanlogo drum, and Brazillian cowbells, accompanied by pipa and electric guitar. These musicians’ parts asked them to play hemiolas of 4/4 against 15/8, or 4/4 against 5/5, as ways of exploring unity in difference, of shared goals in a common struggle unfolding in different rhythms in different parts of the world. Harmonically multiple key centers flowed in and out of each other constantly, but always with a sense of rhythm, drive, and execution.

Silenced and repressed epistemologies have been often represented in the Western art music tradition, but their practitioners were often not consulted.

In these sonic depictions of liberation against colonial ecocide, we were influenced by the spirit of the emerging global revolution against climate change. This revolution has had historical antecedents of centuries of resistance to colonialism, slavery, and indigenous genocide. These silenced and repressed epistemologies—ways of seeing the world, experiencing difference and identity, understanding the complex dialectic between humanity and nature—have been often represented in the Western art music tradition (by white men), but their practitioners were often not consulted. Therefore we did not seek to employ a “representation” model, and looked instead to a prefigurative one. What energy would evoke a world in which Kurdish, Yaqui, Black liberation activists, and their allies across the globe made poetry, music, and resistance together? Could we create a piece that contributed to the unfolding of that reality? These were the questions that guided our compositional and collaborative process. We will discuss what anticolonial, ecosocialist collaboration looked like in the subsequent posts, and how this project became a tool for connecting dispersed movements with a common goal.

[1] Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

Artivism and Decolonization: A brief Theory, History and Practice of Cultural Production as Political Activism

Performance of a Kurdish Freedom Movement piece

Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a loose knit ensemble of musician-activists—self-called “artivists”—based in the United States. This essay will discuss what being an artivist entails, as we see it, as well as the “how” and “why.” We do not claim that our definitions are monopolistic. There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food. We share our experiences after years of an activist-infused practice, such as performances at the U.S.- Mexican border outside of migrant detention centers, at an environmental conference in Northern Iraq, and at the founding of an Ecosocialist International in Venezuela. In 2018 we sought to create a collaborative work: we composed and performed a jazz opera rooted in the defense of nature and Indigenous social movements in dialogue with women activists on the front lines of environmental struggle in Mexico, Turkey/Syria, and Tanzania.

There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food.

We were certainly inspired by the recent dramatic downturns in global health and upticks in global fascism and unhinged capitalism. Confucius’s dictum—“May you live in interesting times”—seems to have been written with the Necrocene, the age of mass extinction, in mind. We live in a revolutionary moment with an emerging mass revolutionary movement, but one that is not immediately apparent to many of us. Indeed, global decolonization and de-patriarchalization remains as elusive as ever. The battle of Standing Rock reminded us that human rights violations against people of color and ecocide grow up together. Its mirror image flips across the equator, where Bolsonaro’s war shows us that a deforested and Indigenous-less Amazon would almost immediately spell a global climate tipping point, reversing the rainforest’s role as net-remover of carbon and accelerating the greenhouse gas effect exponentially. Globally, Indigenous territories caretake 22 percent of the world’s land surface, an area that contains 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Amid threats of mass extinction, Indigenous communities from Standing Rock to the Yaqui nation to Bolivia are committed to continuing their centuries-long work against environmental destruction by vowing to battle gas companies—and succeeding—as well as loggers, governments, and cartels. We feel these communities are the key focal points to build buffer zones during climate chaos and, hopefully, lay the seeds for a post-capitalist future.

The inside of a bus crowded full of people.

On a bus to the Mesopotamian Water Forum center with Iraqi enviornmental activists.

How can musicians and composers influence the historical moment which we have inherited? The late saxophonist-composer Fred Ho insisted in his essay “How Does Music Free Us?” that “music and music creators can play [important roles] in challenging—and even daring to overthrow and replace—capitalist-imperialist hegemony…[.]The onslaught of cultural and ecological degradation, and the exponentially growing subordination to imperialist aggression (whether it be military conquest or socio-economic, the double effect of McPentagon and McWorld) is the imminent danger to both human society and to the planet.” Ho grounded his creative practice explicitly in ecological terms, and drew direct analogies between repressive cultural norms and the “the advancing desert.” “Ecologically, soil erosion, increased land salinity, deforestation, monocrop horticulture and agriculture have led to a devastating desertification. So, too, has cultural desertification been a product of the homogeneity of commercial music.” Ho did not see getting out of this matrix as a product of a composer or performer’s individual brilliance and innovation. Rather, he advocated for musical creators to connect to an ecological aesthetic rooted in the “build[ing of] movements of musical and political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania.”

The Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born.

But how does one “be” an Artivist? Is the end objective to address social issues and challenge oppression from the microphone, the stage, or the notated score? We do not profess to have all the answers. But we feel the Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born. The great Italian communist Antonio Gramsci wrote, while in solitary confinement at the hands of Mussolini, that “to try to deal with the question just by describing what the two represent or express socially, that is, by summarizing more or less thoroughly the characteristics of a specific socio-historical moment, hardly touches at all upon the artistic problem.” Gramsci instead suggests our object is “the struggle to destroy and to overcome certain feelings and beliefs, certain attitudes towards life and the world.” (Antonio Gramsci, “Art and the Struggle for a New Civilization.”)

Mario Luna and Gizelxanath Rodriguez inside an automobile

Mario Luna driving Gizelxanath Rodriguez through Yaqui territory in Sonora, Mexico, and pointing out sites where the river no longer runs due to aquedcut construction and other forms of diversion.

We agree with Gramsci and Ho in this sense. It is not enough to denounce current conditions with their cynical and overpowering nihilism that disregards the dignity of black, brown, and working people, perpetuates colonialism, and wages war on the conditions for life on Earth. Artivists should be strengthened by their mirror echoes across time, which resound like baleen whales singing under labyrinthine waters in our dystopian ocean built upon the extracted capital of billions of women, indigenous and migrant laborers, and Afro-descended enslaved workers. These artists responded to conditions that frighteningly parallel current ones. Arguments that planter-slaveowners made against reconstruction sound like right-wing politicians today arguing against all forms of redistributive justice. Zora Neale Hurston called Jim Crow a “social smallpox” (Husrton, “Crazy for this Democracy,’ in I Love Myself, 167) whose logic extended from the American south to the British colonies in India; and that smallpox has not withered. So we found as the vaccination, almost in suspended animation, ever returning, artivist heroes like Daniel Desdunes, the Afro-Creole jazz trumpet player who was arrested and probably worse for sitting on segregated train cars in 1892 to protest Louisiana’s new black codes. We hear the piano playing and signing of Mamie Desdunes, his half-sister, writing blues songs protesting the treatment of women of color and the violence meted out to sex workers. We find the great and greatly erased Mary Lou Williams playing at Cafe Society for a fundraiser for the Black communist New York City Council Member Benjamin Davis (Farah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II). We hear Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, memorializing Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, and playing the piece at a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party with a band that included McCoy Tyner and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

“Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos,” explained James Baldwin.

Not only do we see the ever-present tide of artists fighting racism, oppression, and physical and artistic colonialism, but we see them self-consciously drawing from the wells of their pasts, deploying and redeploying the examples of their adopted ancestors. We find the 1960s Mexican-American-Chicano muralist movement drawing inspiration from the great Mexican muralists of the 1920s and 1930s: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. Los tres grandes (the three greats) were a collective archival memory in which 1960s Chicano muralists such as Antonio Bernal, Wayne Alaniz-Healy, and David Rivas Botello found a model. These artistic political activists found life in its unconditional support for the struggles of the poorest, most exploited members of their communities. Artivists see these waves of resistance, and we recognize, as Amiri Baraka did in “the changing same,” that the more things change, the more they change the same (change in the same way). Augusto César Sandino, the great Nicaraguan revolutionary who defended his country against the U.S. Marine invasion in the 1930s, claimed that revolutionaries were reincarnated. They certainly are, and the works of artivists are important ways that the social memory and values of the oppressed continue to resonate across time and disturb the Imperial occupation of dignity. “Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos,” explained James Baldwin. If we don’t want chaos, we must create disturbance!

Barbed wire fencing surrounding the home of Mario Luna in Mexico.

Mario Luna’s house is protected by barbed wire fencing and multiple security cameras due to the multiple attempts on his life for his activism against fracking and aqueduct construction. Political assassinations of environmental activists in Mexico has skyrocketed in recent years.

Thus we encounter the words of Burmese multimedia artist Chaw Ei Thein with a special intensity:

Artists work as historians.
They are telling about the time they are living.
They were telling about the time they were living.
They will tell about the time they will live.

As Thein shows us, historical summoning is not the entirety of artivism. But it is also central to the work. It is pointing to a new world where we will live, where we will struggle, sacrifice our comfort, our careers, and maybe more, if need be. We do not strive to be archivists of popular culture and anti-imperialist memory or ethnomusicologists of protest music. Artivism is about creating a new culture rooted in the struggles against patriarchal capitalism from time-immemorial. It is where the interconnection between the rejection of the oppressors’ mores meets with the quest to construct a new being and a new way of being. “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” (Robin Kelly, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 11.) Indeed, to pivot back to Gramsci, it is not even a new art we are fighting for. It is a whole culture:

It seems evident that, to be precise, one should speak of a struggle for a ‘new culture’ and not for a ‘new art’ (in the immediate sense)…To fight for a new art would mean to fight to create new individual artists, which is absurd, since artists cannot be created artificially. One must speak of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art’. (p. 395)

As cultural workers, we have unique abilities to generate audiences, congregate community, and transmit values…

How can one create a new culture without being connected to activists living in the world, fighting, sometimes sacrificing privilege, other times their lives, to build that world? For these reasons Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a collective not just in the sense of its musicians but also of its responsibility to the movement. Revolutionaries and activists make up a part of the ensemble, and make decisions, as much as the artists. The transition from an artist to an artivist happens when we encounter activists on an equal playing field, recognize we share objectives, and offer our labor as a means to achieving those goals. As cultural workers, we have unique abilities to generate audiences, congregate community, and transmit values and revolutionary hope through aesthetics and performance. Now is the time to activate that intentionality and make creative and challenging decisions that force us to grow, as artists, as artivists, as human beings.

The authors would like to thank Dr. Wilson Valentín-Escobar for his legacy as a radical educator who has deeply impacted our lives, and for sharing crucial information to help create this piece.

Afro Yaqui Music Collective performing at a club

The Afro Yaqui Music Collective in performance at the Red Rooster in Harlem, New York City in August 2017. (Pictured from left to right: Ben Barson, Emily Cook, Aaron J. Johnson, Colter Harper, Julian Powell, and Beni Rossman.) Photo by Youn Jung Kim.