Monday, November 15, 2010

Author Jam Donaldson's book "Conversate is Not a Word"

Jam Donaldson is an attorney and author of the book Conversate is Not a Word. She is also creator of the website and the TV show “We’ve Got to Do Better.” She’s based in Washington D.C.

YLW: What made you want to write Conversate is Not a Word?

JD: I did not plan on doing this book. My goal was not to do a book, but people around me encouraged me to put it together. I never wanted to be an author.  I started writing and soon it looked like I had a book. 

YLW: Why did friends want you to write a book?

JD: At the time I had my website, The TV show was coming out. That was really controversial. People responded to my editorial pieces and blog pieces, and said we need someone in your generation saying these things. And there’s no women talking about this. Some people thought it was controversial or mean spirited, but there was nothing out there. People said no one is crazy enough to say it.

YLW: Some could argue that your criticism of ghettoisms are class based and that you’re critical of people with limited incomes, exposure and education. How do you respond to that?

JD: That's not true. My book is not about the ghetto as a place but as a mentality. I think it’s almost insulting to say [ghettoisms] are just lower class problems. To me that insults the lower class. I know plenty of my peers who are well educated and solidly middle class who are a hot ghetto mess sometimes. Just because you don’t have a high income doesn’t give you the right to act a fool, and just because you have a high income doesn’t mean you’re immune to being a fool. I focus on behavior no matter who is doing it?

YLW: What's so called "ghetto" and issues of class are interwoven. Can they be separated?

JD: Are there some issues that disproportionately impact low income people?  Sure. But Washington D.C has the highest number of upper and middle class black people and yet you see the same behaviors.  Self esteem and relationship issues cross all boundaries.

YLW: Today it seems as if the behaviors you target in Conversate is Not a Word are discussed more frequently. Do you think it’s more exceptable to “air dirty laundry” today than it was when you started your website?

JD: Yes.  I started my site in 2004. It’s six years later and with the explosion of the internet and lots of different voices we can showcase one another’s opinions in a thoughtful kind of way. When you have very limited media covering black people, anything that’s critical is seen as overly one-sided. But as the opportunities for media have expanded recently, it allows us to have more back and forth dialogue. It just promotes more opportunity for understanding now. 

YLW: Why did you start the website?

JD: As for the website, it was one black person telling another black person saying we have to do better. There is a thing in our community where we don’t like to be critical of one another publicly. The thought is that we don’t want to give people more ammunition by showing people at their worst. At some point we have to acknowledge that some of our problems we can address. I do it in a tongue and cheek way. People say I’m mean or I use curse words. But I have a “we have to get our own stuff together first” attitude about things. When Bill Cosby came out with his rants, it was almost the same thing. People said we agree with what you’re saying  but you can’t say it publicly. When I started it was very traumatic to have these conversations. Now people are very into having these talks in public.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Color in Comics: Interview with Comic Book Creator John Jennings

John Jennings is the coauthor and illustrator of the new book Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture.

YLW: How did you become interested in comics?

JJ: My mom introduced them to me. She’s a former English literature major. I actually started reading Norse and Greek mythology first. One day she brought home a Thor comic and from then on I wanted to read more. Then I segued into Spider-Man, Hulk, Marvel Comics. I wanted to read anything - Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost. There was something about the images that attracted me.

YLW: When did you start drawing?

JJ: I started drawing or trying to draw stuff at four or five. I’ve been drawing since I was really young. At ten or 11, I was trying to make comic books.

YLW: Where did you grow up?

JJ: I grew up in Flora, MS. It’s 15 min north of Jackson, a small farming community. We grew soy beans and cotton out there.

YLW: How did growing up in the rural South contribute to your approach to comics?

JJ: It made me practice a lot more. We didn’t have access to much. We didn’t have cable. I used my imagination more. I was so segregated from people. I lived way out in the country. It was so far the school bus wouldn’t come out there. My grandmother had to take me to the bus.

YLW: Growing up, did you realize how few black images existed in comics?

JJ: When I first started drawing comics, it didn’t faze me that there weren’t a lot of black comics. There were only a few: Luke Cage, Black Panther. I really liked those images, but it didn’t occur to me that there weren’t a lot of images until much later. As a professor, I studied media and images. There are so many negative images. Kids have to see themselves as creators of cultural capital, and create with meaning.

YLW: Why do feel that the lack of images of color in comics didn’t have the same impact on you as it did for others?

JJ: That’s an interesting question. I think as a kid you’re kind of oblivious to stuff until you have to deal with it. You stumble across problems and you solve them as you get to them. I didn’t think about it until college or grad school. People become aware of things at different times. If my mom had taken time to explain it to me, maybe I would have thought about it more . The guy who created Brotherman [Dawud Anyabwile] ,his father told him that there weren’t a lot of images and he rebelled and didn’t want to read comics anymore. People deal with information when they get to it.

YLW: Why did you create Black Comix?

JJ: It stems from some of the research that me and Damian (Damian Duffy, co author) have been doing for the last five years on independent black comics. We wanted to look at these types of books done by African American creators and the diversity of things that were offered. Also, if you’re not white and you’re in this country you’re starving for images of yourself. So with this book, kids get to see people who look like them who are creating this work. We also wanted to look at the culture.

YLW: What culture? Comic culture? African American culture?

JJ: The Black Age of Comics. It’s a movement that’s been going on since the late 90s. I don’t know if you collect comics, but there are various “ages” just like in art. Comics have a golden age, for example. However, Turtel Onli who teaches at Kenwood Academy said, 'well what about our age?'. So there’s a Black Age of Comics Convention at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. The next one is in October. There’s the East Coast Black Age of Comics in Philidelphia. There’s the Motor City version. There’s the Onyx Comics which I just came from in Atlanta. There’s this subculture that supports the work.

YLW: How have people responded to Black Comix?

JJ: So far pretty favorably. We were interviewed by GQ magazine. The library scene has been picking it up.

YLW: What are some of the indie classics?

JJ: Brotherman. In fact it’s ready to launch a graphic novel based on it. It was done in the 90s. Totally self produced. Tribe by Larry Stroman [and Todd Johnson], it was an alternative English comic. Tribe is the best selling black book of all time. We have some previously unpublished pages of Tribe in our book.

YLW: What are some of the new comic creators to look out for?

JJ: Millenium Wars by Ashley Woods, she’s out of Chicago. She released her first trade paperback and she produced it. Trimekka Studios out of North Carolina is another. They are a group who work on comics. They did Abraham: The Young Lion, Blackbird, Deadly Artisans. I think they’re about to do a crime comic, too. Jaycen Wise created by Richard Tyler. Wise is a cool character. He’s immortal and has lived for thousands of years so he can be in any kind of adventure. They’ve done him in Ancient Rome. I think they’re doing a western. There are a lot of ideas out there that I think people would be excited about if they knew about them.

YLW: Do you see any similarities in theme or illustration style in black comics?

JJ: One thing we see is that black kids, like most kids are influenced by manga from Japan but they also like to infuse it with graffiti and hip hop. There’s Shana Mills. Her work looks like graffiti meets Japanese manga. I also see these afrocentric vibes where people use the comics as a political standpoint. Instead of basing characters after these Greco Roman images, they pull from other non western imagery. For example, Jiba Molei Anderson has these characters called the Horsemen, but he uses the Orishas as the mythology to fuel the narrative. He lives in Chicago, too.

You can see an aesthetic, however as far as story arcs, they are as varied as we are. You’ll have stuff in there that’s funny, political satire, fantasy. You have fantasy that doesn’t represent blackness. Like Millenium Wars, you probably wouldn’t know that a black woman created the work. Whereas with Brotherman, it’s a political satire. It just depends on what the intention of the artist is. You can’t pin it down. But there are so many modes of what blackness can be. I showed this book to my director and he said, 'wow, they’re so varied'. But they would be. It’s a Post Black kind of thing. What is a post black comic book? Whatever it is you need it to be.

YLW: What do you hope people will take away from Black Comix?

JJ: As a comic creator, I want people to know that you can do anything with comics. American comics are dominated by superheroes in the mainstream. But in the independent, they can tell any story they want. People get comics mixed up. They think it’s a genre, but it’s a medium. I also want people to know they can create a comic whenever they want to. It’s possible for people to do that. I want people to leave with inspiration and empowerment. Especially younger people who feel, 'gee, I didn’t know I could do this'.

For more information go to

Monday, August 30, 2010

Award-Winning Playwright Ayanna Maia talks her New Play, the 'N' Word and Hip Hop

Ayanna Maia is a New York based playwright. She is the 2010 Kennedy Center MFA Workshop recipient and won the 2010 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for her play King N---.

YLW: What is King N—about?

AM: It’s a play about a personification of the last 25 years of hip hop culture. The character goes from boyhood to manhood and he’s holding on to a childhood dream to be a rapper. The play starts in 1987. You see the effects of crack, the effects of capitalism and it all gets filtered through his life. Not to give away too much, but he basically takes on that name as his stage name, and that word as an expression of himself. In modern America, people acculturate and take on different things, and he takes on the word.

YLW: Did you wrestle with using the N word as the title?

AM: I did. I said this is going to be a sore thumb.  It came from a reference in another play I wrote.  I had to ask ‘what does my play want to be named?’ versus ‘what do I want to call it?’ I remember entering contests and my mom was like, ‘please change the title’. One of my professors, Suzan-Lori Parks, helped me workshop the play. I told her my reservation, but she said if this is your character’s journey and what your character wants then you can’t act out of fear.  The play is about his duality and the fact that he thinks he’s a king and a n--- at the same time. I said I have to let go.

YLW: When were you introduced to playwriting?

AM: I got into Gallery 37 in Chicago when I was 13 or 14. I wanted to be in the poetry program but it was full. They called me a few weeks later and said, ‘would you like to write a play?’ My first play won awards. I was the youngest winner ever to win in the Young Playwrights Festival.

YLW: How do you enjoy NYU’s Tisch Dramatic Writing Program?

AM: I was getting another masters, and I left to go to NYU because it was a dream to be in their dramatic writing program.  I had Suzan-Lori Parks as my professor, Spike Lee as my professor and advisor. Richard Wesley was my professor, too.  And I had Donald Boggle as my professor. Do you know him?

YLW: Yes. He wrote the book on black stereotypes in film.

AM: Right. He wrote Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films.  I had the all-star team in terms of research and media. It was just great to be in their company. They have really lived and expressed themselves in the African Diaspora and universally. I had a wonderful time. I didn’t want to graduate. I just graduated in May.

YLW: Tell me about the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Did they stage your play?

AM: I got two awards. One was the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. They also have the MFA workshop, so they pick six playwrights in grad programs. They did a full scale workshop of the play and they had a staged reading. They brought in professional actors, directors. It wasn’t a full scale production. It was a workshop, but it introduces participants to the theater community. One of the women who participated has a theater in Washington D.C and within weeks she said that she wants to put my play up for the next season. If all goes well, it will have a month long run in D.C in May 2011.

YLW: Exciting!

AM: I‘ve had plays staged, but I’ve never had a full length play with a full scale production.

YLW: Do you hang out with a lot of playwrights?

AM: I know different playwrights, but I find that playwrights are really to themselves. I find playwriting to be very lonely.

YLW: How so?

AM: When you’re sitting there writing 120 pages of another world, you just have to go in and write from what you know, your research and what comes to you. For me, it hasn’t been a collective process. It’s such a deep world when you’re writing different personalities. It’s like doing a research project. Even if you write on your own life, you have to step away. It takes a lot of inner work, and inner work hatches alone.

YLW: Your plays have very strong themes involving black life in the U.S. What do you attribute that to?

AM: Being raised on the Southside of Chicago with parents who were very into the African Diaspora and different cultures, but especially the African Diaspora, coming out of the black arts and black power movement, it makes me very excited about carrying on the traditions of the African diaspora.  I worked with the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. I write diverse characters, but my plays are centered on the Diaspora even if all my characters aren’t from there. I love to write comedy. But when it comes to high drama, l like writing about the African Diaspora.

YLW: You also seem to be heavily influenced by hip hop.

AM: It’s funny, for my character, I wrote his rhymes. I grew up in hip hop culture. I mc’d, I recorded. I deejayed. I grew up as a practitioner; I found that when I write plays, I get to have a better experience with hip hop than I’ve ever had in my whole life.

YLW: What do you mean?

AM: I had a lot of misogynistic experiences in hip hop. I’ve had a lot of experiences where I feel the culture is becoming more ignorant. My dad was a DJ, so I remember when hip hop was on vinyl. It was never separate from us. But as females, the older you got there was more of a line. There were fewer female acts, and you have men presenting females, writing their rhymes and it became more sexualized. I’ve written plays about rappers before, but King N--   is the first that got major exposure.

YLW: Many women who grew up with hip hop as a major influence have an awkward relationship with the culture as they mature?

AM: Honestly, when I was younger. I experienced a lot of positive experiences with it in Chicago. There weren’t a lot of female rappers and the guys wanted it to be balanced. The guys I was around wanted to support you. As it came into the 2000s, it was less about the culture and more about the rap game. It was sexualized. I was in an all-female group. I’ve had that duality, I’ve been at a concert where a guy had the whole audience call me a bitch. It’s funny to me, I don’t write as much as I used to. But I still have so much love for the culture itself and the things that comprise it.

YLW: You don’t write as many rap songs as you used to?

AM: I’ll record a song a year.

YLW: Tell me about your new play, 510 Murders.

AM: There’s a play that I just finished writing in May that’s based in Chicago about the chronic street violence among young men.  I’ve really been exploring a culture that either encourages or is apathetic to using violence. The murder rate in Chicago and the demographic it’s specific to really bothers me. I’ve had two students in my short teaching career who were murdered. I don’t want children to grow up in a culture where violence is acceptable or where gang culture is the norm, even for those who don’t want to participate in it. The other thing I’ve been exploring is African spirituality and I have a couple of other plays with some magical realism.

For more information of Ayanna Maia go to

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Poetic Justice: Interview with Renaissance Writer Robert Bledsoe

Robert Bledsoe is a poet, playwright and travel writer. His book “Centennial” is currently available on Amazon.

YLW: When were you introduced to poetry? How did you become a poet?

RB: Growing up I was entered into the Academic Olympics. I was pushed into that by one of my teachers. I grew up reading. Sometimes I really wonder where I was and where were the other kids in my class. We were taught the same things, sat in the same seat, the same material was presented to us. The point I'm making is that I was a big reader especially with content that dealt with black America. So this love of literature carried with me throughout school. We read poetry, a lot from the Harlem Renaissance Era in elementary school. Poetry and reading was fun. I'd go to the library, sift through books. Looking back, I'm amazed at how much freedom I had to do this. This carried on through college where I learned more about Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.. I have degrees in journalism, English writing and poetry.  

YLW: People are always surprised to find out that you grew up in Englewood. Does the stigma placed on certain black communities bother you?

RB: Let's put it this way. If I tell people that I'm from the South Side of Chicago, specifically Englewood, people who know those areas, you can see the look in their faces. It's like “huh?” Those are areas that aren't necessarily associated with proper speech, college education, firm handshakes, wearing shirts and ties. It's an area that unfortunately is associated with what people think is black life: drugs, crime, violence, the black malaise. So when people find out that I'm from there, it takes a while for them to process. And it's not necessarily white people but black people who have this incredulous thinking process.

YLW: Why do you think people from the same neighborhoods can take very different paths? Why did you take a different path?

RB: I can't really say that there were people on the street saying "you're going to grow up to be a drug dealer", or "work hard to drop out". No one was saying that. The parents want their kids to go to school.  Most of my friends growing up are doing well. I don't know if it was my block or what but most of my friends are upstanding citizens.

But in the neighborhood in general, everyone knew the family that wasn't doing anything. It would seem like it was just one or two houses per block. Everyone else was doing what they were supposed to do. But no one could really do anything about that one house. And somehow that one house really has an effect of damaging an entire community.

It was only when I got older that I realized these super burdens that we have to carry for that one house on the street. I didn't really learn the significance of that one house until later. Because that one house would come to define whole communities and that's not fair. The perception is that all these black communities are blighted and failing but that's not my experience where I grew up.

YLW: You're a poet but you're not a fan of spoken word.

RB: No. I'm more of a traditionalist. I'm a poetry snob.

YLW: Why?

RB: I think the subject matter is limited and there's too much emphasis on performance. Traditional poetry isn't always performed, it's read. [Spoken Word poets] think if you speak in a certain cadence and inflect on a certain word at the end of a sentence and almost sing, that they are saying something. To me poetry is about reaching the heart and reaching the mind and it's something that's pleasing and pleasant. It's not something jarring.

YLW: Do you think you're being a little harsh?

RB: I'm just afraid that many of our youngsters, when they think of poetry, [spoken word] is what they think about. How many of them are really learning about Maya Angelou? I wish I could say it's an education thing, but it's not. Many spoken word people are college degreed, I just don't think it's poetry. They're putting on a show. How about we remove the word poetry and call it spoken word creativity?

YLW: You have an issue with spoken word being called poetry?

RB: I think it has usurped the word poetry. Poetry is about more than 'roses are red, violets are blue'. It's a craft. I don't want to say that spoken word isn't creative, I just think there's too much emphasis on the performance part.

YLW: At the expense of the writing?

RB: Right. You're not focusing on what's being said. When you see spoken word, you're using your eyes more than your ears. I went to a Def Poetry Jam audition and I read a poem I wrote when Gwendolyn Brooks died. Here I am reading what I think is a poem, and everyone else is doing spoken word, and I said I'm so out of place here. But definitely, there was some confusion on my part on how poetry was being defined. People liked it but it wasn't the write venue.

YLW: You're a globe hopper. You're out of the country three or four times a month. Do you think travelers share a kindred spirit?

RB: It's a longing. Why does one travel anyway? If you have what you need at home, why travel? For me, the whole travel experience began with me wanting to know what more out there is there. I know that there has to be some place in the world where I feel free to be me. There's a song about that. Because the constraints that I felt being who I was on the Southside of Chicago or being one of the few blacks at a small school in rural Minnesota, the constraints on me were tight. They were suffocating.

YLW: How so?

RB: Because you couldn't be a black intellectual. That's an anomaly. It's like somehow or another, if you are not a black guy who enjoys hip hop, if you don't play basketball every weekend . . . and don't get me wrong, I like watching basketball, but I was never good at it. Somehow or another, some things were equated with black and some things were not. As a collective, I think that black people have bought into it. Travel for me was great. It's a sense of pride for me that people can see we're not this monolithic community. We don't all like hip hop, not all hip hop anyway. Some of these images are damaging. We actually speak more than just Ebonics.

We can't have our kids continue to aspire to speak bad language. And that's what they identify as being black. Maybe I'm old school, elitist, but I think the stakes are too high for us to uphold that alone as the black experience.

YLW: Why do you travel?

RB: One travels because one is seeking to discover something. One is not getting something. One wanted tea and spices so they set sail. And I set sail to just learn that there was more to life than America, and getting away from the expectations that are laid out for me. It's nice to just lay on the beach or read a book on the beach, but these things aren' t considered black if you enjoy this stuff. I don't know if you read the John Mayer stuff. (Referring to the John Mayer controversy where he mentioned having a hood pass and not dating black women).

YLW: I did.

RB: Why are there elements of our community who feel they need to have a pass and if so, why give it out? And why call it a hood pass? We need a discussion. Do we want to hold on to negative images that go out? We have to have a serious discussion on whether or not we want to move forward. I think President Obama's candidacy put a lot of this front and center. When people think black American,what do we want them to think first?

We can't discount the power of imagery and who has access to media. You can be as individual as you want, but if the collective imagery is of the hood then that individual who doesn't match the image is going to have a problem. When you step out you are combating the images of people who look like you that are thrown across TV sets across the world.

YLW: When you travel you don't deal with it?

RB: Not as much. Here it's just so entrenched. Take Eminem. How is it that Eminem can be blacker than me? Some black people would see him as blacker than me. Why? Because he doesn't speak proper English? He could put on a suit and tie and go mainstream. Do I have that option?

It's deflating and defeating to talk about because you realize how entrenched it is. If our youngsters do well in English, they're marginalized. There's no reason why in 2010 we should still be having these discussions.

Robert Bledsoe can be reached at

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sci Fi Author Nnedi Okorafor talks Literature and Afrofuturism

Nnedi Okorafor is a fantasy/science fiction writer and English professor. Her latest book is Who Fears Death about Onye, a woman with a magical destiny in post apocalyptic Africa.

YLW: How did you become a science fiction writer?

NO: When I was a kid I read a lot of books. I read far and wide and not just science fiction. I was attracted to these stories with magical things in them. I started writing my own stories when I was 20. I wrote magical realist stuff. I started off writing fantasy. It was very natural for me. It wasn't like I was trying to write it. However, people tried to turn me away from that because it’s not academic. I started getting things published. Then I realized I wasn't seeing Africa written about in the future so my fantasy writing became part science fiction.

YLW: What's the difference between fantasy and science fiction?

NO: Fantasy involves stories where strange things happen that are due to magic, the mystical, or the unexplained. Science fiction is when the strange things that happened are explained through science, even if those things aren’t possible yet. I tend to mix the two. In my first book Zahrah the Windseeker, you have plant technology and there are technology producing plants. But you also have a girl who has the ability to fly.

YLW: Your book includes a wide range of elements from shamanism to female circumcision.

NO: There's shamanism, there's Juju in it, there's magic, genocide, female circumcision. It deals with issues of African men and women. I based my Juju on actual Ebo traditional beliefs. It pulls on the fantastical.

YLW: Afro futurism is a new term to explain science fiction involving the African Diaspora. Is your work afro futurist? .

NO: People have asked me if I consider it to be afro futurism. By that definition, certainly. But I tend to resist a lot of the labels because labels can be very confining.

YLW: How so?

NO: People who usually don't read science fiction won't read it if it’s labeled. Octavia Butler wrote Kindred, a time travel story. It falls in the line of black literature, but if you put sci fi on it, some people won't read it.

Some reviewers have called Who Fears Death uncharacterizable. Unless people know what something is they freak out or if they can't name it they ignore it.  The novel before Zara, my first novel was an adult novel, but when my agent shopped it around it got past the acquisitions editor, but when it got to the money part the reps didn't know what to call it. It's fantasy, but it's too literary. Is the main character African or African American? They couldn't label it properly and because of that it got rejected and I dealt with that for three years. And then I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker.

YLW: I'm sure people compare you to legendary sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. What are your similarities and how do you differ?

NO: I'm a huge Octavia Butler fan. She blew my mind. I was writing these things and I didn't realize that what I was writing could be published until after I read her work. First and foremost, she writes in a sparse format, almost journalistic. There's no mincing of words. I always liked how she could draw you into the story to the point where you forget that you're reading. We both deal with gender and race. We write complex characters.

We differ when it comes to setting. What I write takes place in Africa or a place like Africa. And Octavia's books tend to be in the U.S or she starts in Africa and goes elsewhere. So our settings are a little different. I pull from a lot of Nigerian folklore and Nigerian myth. She pulls from that, too, but not so much.

I feel like every science fiction and fantasy writer, we are all compared to Octavia and that's because she is one of the only black fantasy and science fiction writers, so I guess these reviewers can't compare us to anyone else unless their black.

YLW: How have people responded to your work?

NO: Mostly, really positive. I've had some hate mail from people who feel I'm airing African's dirty laundry.

YLW: Hate mail?

NO: I get emails calling me a witch. In Zahrah the Windseeker,  the main character is Dada, which means a baby that's born with locked hair. Before colonialism that was very special. But after colonialism it was considered evil. And this character realizes she has the ability to fly.  With my book Who Fears Death, I have opinions about female circumcision and I deal with that in the book. At my first book signing for Who Fears Death, in Michigan, these African academics came to attack me. There's a female circumcision scene in the book, it's pretty brutal. I read it and one of the professors said in a real circumcision there's no lights. Well, this is science fiction. They feel I had no right to speak on this because I hadn't been at an actual circumcision.

YLW: Do you feel some of the criticism has to do with you being a child of Nigerian immigrants born in America and not Africa?

NO: Definitely, my fourth was titled Akata Witch. It's a derogatory term for African Americans, or American born Nigerians. Akata means bush animal. It's not a very nice term. The book deals with some of those issues.

YLW: In Post Black, I write about African immigrants and one American born Nigerian said she felt she had to defend Africans to African Americans and African Americans to Africans.

NO: That's exactly what I had to deal with.  It's like you belong but you don't belong. The thing is, it's positioned that we can bridge a lot of those gaps. I understand both sides. But sometimes you don't really want to be on the defense. I can see a non fantasy book in me on this one.

For more information go to

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Publicist Yolonda Brinkley Talks Film in Cannes

Yolonda Brinkley is the founder of YRB International Exposure which presented Beyond Borders, a cross cultural panel and networking forum for filmmakers, at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival last May. YRB is a marketing and public relations firm.

YLW: Why did you start the Beyond Borders at Cannes?

YB: I started it because when I attended the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 I felt like an outsider, although it was a great experience. You have to belong to a certain company to get to a lot of the functions. I saw a lot of minorities there and I could only assume they felt the way I felt. I felt there was something I could do to make it participatory so that we're not just festival goers but major players in the world festival market. Everyone thought it was a great idea. When I told them I was spending my own money . . .

YLW: You funded it yourself?

YB: Yeah. I just wanted to see if I could give it some legs. It was at the Majestic Hotel, which was only about $1,900 euro, which is about $2,500 dollars to rent the space, and have equipment. My airfare was $1,100, as was my hotel. Then I made flyers and t-shirts, so I spent about $5,000. I got about $750 in sponsorship. But it was all worth it. I got a call from the Australian press after one of the filmmakers on the panel won. I'm an up and coming entertainment publicist and people are calling me saying I heard you did this event at Cannes. That's priceless.

YLW: Who participated?

YB: The participants were film directors who took part in the Quinzaine Des Realisateurs. It's almost like the independent film leg of the festival. They find up and coming filmmakers and directors. I had two of those directors. One was Michael Rowe, he's an Australian filmmaker who lives in Mexico. Director Philippe Braganca, from Brazil, also participated. Then Michael Rowe won the Camera D'or, the golden camera award for the first time filmmaker in that section. Although there weren't a lot of people, it was a great panel. They are the crème de la crème of the elite filmmakers.

YLW: Do you speak French?

YB: Yes.

YLW: Initially, you wanted to do a panel focusing on people of color. How did that evolve?

YB: It went from a multicultural discussion to a cross cultural discussion, because I couldn't confirm ethnicity, but only nationality. I couldn't get enough blacks, Latinos and Asians from the U.S to participate. It was an interesting transition before my eyes.

YLW: What happened? Why was it difficult to get participation?

YB: It was going to be built around one of the executive producers with Tyler Perry Studios. Then he wasn't able to come out, due to scheduling. I called alI kinds of studios, production companies, organizations, but either schedules conflicted or people simply weren't coming to Cannes. Cannes is an expensive festival in terms of accommodations and travel. People aren't just going just to go. Black filmmakers, even celebrity black filmmakers aren't just going. There were a small number of emerging filmmakers of color from the U. S trying to go. To my knowledge, there wasn't a large number of established filmmakers of color there, either.

YLW: Are you familiar with the Blackhouse Foundation? They've hosted festival events in the past to address these issues.

YB: Blackhouse foundation travels to festivals, but they decided that Cannes was too expensive to attack. They go to Sundance. A lot of people feel it's too expensive. There was no black programming except Afrique 360, and the founder is a friend of mine. My goal wasn't to reinvent the wheel.

YLW: What concerns did the filmmakers on the Beyond Borders panel share?

YB: The discussion was about diversity in thought and efforts. Michael Rowe shared that when he did his film, his investors wanted to have...and this is common in Mexico in general, they wanted blond haired, blue eyed Mexicans whereas he wanted a person who looked Mexican. He had a conflict with the producers because of that. Ultimately he won out. Braganca talked about financing issues and control over your project. Each filmmaker said they would like to see more coproductions between indie filmmakers in different countries.

YLW: African American films have a history of not doing well internationally. What do you attribute that to?

YB: I'm not a filmmaker, but there are so many people at Cannes selling so many things. Often times the urban message does not transcend boundaries. With Tyler Perry or the Madea character, it doesn't transcend cultural barriers. After translation, in other parts of the world, it's not funny. If you have a broad message that's more drama or action, perhaps. But my thought process is, hey you have a film you're trying to sell, go expand the network and discuss the filmmaking opportunities.

YLW: You didn't start your career working in film.

YB: I was in a public relations and corporate communications function, for Jaguar/Landrover. I quit two years ago to pursue my dream, so this is what I'm doing.

YLW: What advice would you give to people who want to go to Cannes?

YB: I say just do it. It's definitely an experience. If we wait for people for people to give us the permission to do it, then we'll never do it. When you go, network with people outside of your traditional circle. We want to expand our multicultural, cross cultural network. Go outside of your traditional network to meet people.

For more information on Beyond Borders contact Yolonda Brinkley at

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rare Coin Investments: Interview with entrepreneur Kenneth Smaltz

Kenneth Smaltz is CEO and President of K. Smaltz, Inc., the first African American owned rare coin company in the United States.  Smaltz buys and sales rare coins to private investors and collectors. He's based in Freeport, New York.

YLW: I'm sure you get some puzzled looks when you tell people you're in the rare coin business.

KS: People expect you to sell stocks or real estate. When you say you sell rare coins and precious metals, they say “how do you do that?”

YLW: What's the scope of your business?

KS: It's more synonymous with an individual selling antiques or art. It's not something you get dividends from. It's not a security. It's a collectible. I deal with all U.S coins. Some people collect because of the history of it. They buy coins from the Civil War, WWII, etc. People sometimes collect because they're interested in the investment aspect of the coin. They realize that if it's held on to, they can make money. They say sell me a coin you think in time will appreciate. People buy for beauty, history or the investment.

YLW: What factors determine the value of a coin?

KS: Rarity, meaning how old is the coin. Rarity can determine the value of a coin. The condition of a coin, what it looks like and the degree of preservation are factors, too. Sometimes the time period can give it value, too, like if it's a coin from the Civil War, WWI, or WW2.

YLW: What coins should investors or collectors look for?

KS: The coins you would want to collect and invest in, in the U.S should be pre 1933. Any coin can be collected, but the one's I recommend were made before 1933.

YLW: Why?

KS: After that point they started making larger quantities of them, which means there are a lot around. In 1933, a lot of coins were melted for several reasons . .. to raise money for war preparation, etc. Anytime a coin is taken off the market it causes it to be more rare. If you have ten of something and someone destroys eight of them, it makes those two more rare.

YLW: When people think investments, rare coins don't come to mind? Why not?

KS: I'll just say that it's not something that we as African Americans are familiar with, but it's something that other ethnicities have been aware of for quite some time and have been doing for many, many years. It's a part of their portfolio, stocks, bonds, art, real estate and rare coins. It's just something our ancestors weren't aware of.

YLW: How did you get involved in the rare coin market?

KS: It was 1984, I was hired to work in the shipping department in a company that sold rare coins and precious metals. The company was a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. In shipping, I would ship the coins that sales people would sell to clients.

KS: When I first got there, I was only 21 years old. There was a gentleman who worked in the company, a senior vp. He was very hands on. He came down into shipping every day, to see what we were doing down there. He would explain to us on different occasions that he liked to hire within .. .that way you know how it works from top to bottom. He said you have to work hard and show initiative. That's all I needed to hear. I put in a lot of hours.

KS: The shipping department was like a vault that housed coins that could go for $100,000 per coin. It also housed gold and silver bars. You're looking at millions of dollars worth of metals in this area. It had to be picked up by Brinks very early in the morning. Sometimes they would ask people to stay over into the morning and meet Brinks. After a year, they trusted me enough to do it. I was there in the morning, at night. When they needed me, I was there. His name was Luis Vigdor. I still know him. One day he said to me' I think its time for you to move up.' After a year, he sent me up to the retail division. It was like a bank. The retail division was where people would come in and out and buy foreign currency and buy coins off the street. It was one floor up off the vault. I worked there another year. I worked very hard. Then he said, I think it's time we bring you up into sales. That's when I started selling rare coins to private people.

YLW: How does it work?

KS: A good part is cold calling. The company advertised in the Wall Street Journal, NY Times. We would take those calls and try to create a base of customers. That's how I started.

YLW: Why did you start your own business?

KS: I had been doing it off and on since 1984. I was with that company for 7 tears. Then there was a downturn in the rare coin industry and they laid us all off. Then I moved to Atlanta, and the company was referred to me by Luis Victor. He's a good man. I worked for them for two years. I wasn't making as much money as I would have liked. Then I was referred to a rare coin company in Minnesota. But there are rare coin companies all over the world, I just chose to stay in the U.S. I worked there for 3 years, and then I wanted to come back home. I missed New York.

KS: I called the same guy said I want to come back and he suggested a company way out on Long Island. I worked out a deal with them and came back. That's when I said, I've been doing this for some time. I know what to do, I have my own clients, I know how to generate clients, but I still wasn't ready to go on my own. I said I'll start a company, and I'll work a deal out with the company I work for to get a larger percentage of the commissions. We partnered off and got a larger percentage of the pie. If anything were to happen, I'd be covered by the company. After a while, I got tired of sharing the profits with people and said I can do this on my own. If you have your own customers and you know how to generate customers, it's simple you have to take the initial leap.

YLW: You also do custom coin minting. What does that entail?

KS: That started in 2004. I joined the Friars Club in NYC. It's a group of retired executives as well as some people in music and entertainment. Most of my industry consist of elderly people believe it or not. People from 50-70 years of age. If you look at the Friars Club, that's what they consist of. I decided to join. I knew two people who were members. You have to be sponsored, so they got me in. I joined to get clients, but then when I saw they were doing their 100th Anniversary, I said I've never done this before but I wonder if you would like a coin to commemorate your anniversary. A gentleman their pushed the idea through. So I created the coin. . The Friar's Club are known for their roasts so the slogan on the coin was “100 years, 1 million laughs.” It's a club of comedians.

YLW: How long has this industry been around?

KS: It's been around as long as there have been stocks and bonds. People have been collecting coins since before Christ. There are coins from B.C.

YLW: Do you know any black rare coin investors?

KS: I know of one person who is a collector. I've never met any black investors. There are some who have bought in the industry, but I haven't had any as customers. There aren't many of them. Although my industry isn't as big as the stock market, there are several thousand sellers in the U.S. And the number is even bigger in Europe. Out of the hundreds of thousands of dealers out there, I'm sure just one half of one percent of those hundreds of thousands of dealers are African Americans.

YLW: What's the largest purchase you've ever seen?

KS: I've had a customer of mine who is a multi billionaire. I have by myself put together for him probably the largest collection of Walking Liberty Halves ever assembled. He has assembled the largest known collection of Walking Liberty Halves in the U.S. I've been helping him do that since 1997. I can't even tell you how many coins he has. But dollar wise, I can't even put a price tag on it. It's priceless. Think of someone buying from you every month for the past 12 years, purchases, anywhere from $30,000 to $800,000 a month of the same type of coin, several different types and grades. I would bank on it that no one has this type of collection. When he decides to put this on the market, it will be a seminal even.

For more information on Kenneth Smaltz and coin collecting go to

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rock On: Interview with rockstar Jameel Lawson

Jameel Lawson is the lead singer of the rock band Nothing Forgotten. Their music is featured in the film Forgotten Souls by Salvador Barcena,

YLW: How did you become a rock musician?

JL: I didn't choose to do it. It chose me. It was therapeutic. I networked and found the right people, people I could combine with musically and spiritually. I found people who weren't afraid to cross boundaries or be pidgeon holed into a certain style. I liked being with people of like consciousness where we could do a hip hop beat and turn around and do metal. I'm always growing.

YLW: Did you grow up listening to rock?

JL: I listened to ZZ Top in the 80s, Pantera, Metalica, Bob Marley, Van Halen. I grew up listening to it. It planted the seed.

YLW: But you started off doing r&b and hip hop.

JL: When I was in Good Vibes with Ben Vereen, I started off rapping and doing r&b. I still have those elements that I use. I still rap and sing but it's more aggressive. At one point I wanted to be the rapper and the r&b singer, but there was something within me that was a little more animated. I wanted to scream a little bit. The primal scream as they say.

YLW: Being African American, did people ever question your musical aspirations in rock? Did you question your ambitions?

JL: When you make a choice to embark on a new journey that most people of color don't go, it's like what am I doing? Then when you listen to the still small voice you say this could be something different. Being one of the few black rockers and one of the few notable ones is pretty flattering. It was a little frightening but anything that you do when you step out on faith, like your book, it just works out. Someone said that's a mark of a genius when you do something that the masses can't do. I thought about that. It's a blessing. It's powerful. There was a little bit of fear but I just rock on.

YLW: The term black rock is used to describe rock artists of African ancestry. What does the term black rock mean to you?

JL: In a nut shell, rock is a music of African ancestry that is now predominantly white. When I think of black rock, I think of the origin. Chuck Berry is the god father of rock and roll. Jimi Hendrix was an innovator. Living Colour pressed forward. I am a front man of a rock band with four individuals who are caucausian. I think of all those predecessors who paved the way. I look at black rock in that sense, but not where the music itself is color oriented. I don't see color in music. I don't know if other people do.

YLW: Is rock music a freer expression of music than rap?

JL: Definately. There are no boundaries at all. Your soul is free to express itself. We're not worried about what's going to get us signed. People are open minded when it comes to a rock song. People listen to the music first. Not to talk down on rap, but there's more freedom because rock is not caught up in what's hot at the time. Music needs to resonate with people. Rock music tends to have people who write music that resonates with the soul instead of with what's the hot sound. In rock and roll and even soul, certain songs don't die. Common, for example, is a hip hop artist who has a lot of songs that still resonate. It depends on the artist, it's not just the style of music. There are a lot of r&b artists and rap artists whose songs resonate.

YLW: What's your day like?

JL: I say a prayer, go to work, write a little. I practice two or three times a week. Spend time with my family. I still have a day job right now.

YLW: How do people respond when you say you sing in a rock band?

JL: Depends on who I say it to. If I'm talking to African American people, it's 'oh, that's tight, I like rock music.' Or sometimes, when I tell caucausion people, it's like “oh, really” or 'I never thought that.' Unless it's a person who really listens to that music then they know about Cody Chestnut,etc. But the one's that don't and aren't open minded are surprised that there are black rockers out there. I rarely come across someone who says “why do you do that?” We have a black president today. Being a black rock musician isn't as shocking.

YLW: Why did you join a band?

JL: I've always wanted my own band. I had an experience when I was doing my R&B rap stuff and the cd started skipping and it was so embarressing. I started rapping after the skip but at that point I had already lost the crowd. This was 2002 and I said I want a live band. There is a huge freedom because there are no boundaries. I think about Alanis Morrisette. She was a pop/r&b singer and now she's a rock artist. I still use those gifts and talents of being an r&b singer, I just do it to different music. It's louder. For people who aren't used to going to shows, I say bring your ear plugs.

YLW: Who do you admire?

JL: Chuck Berry, Living Colour, Cody Chestnut, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, Michael. It's all across the board as far as singers that I admire. James Brown, he was one of the first artists to do that primal scream and he wasn't a rock artist. Little Richard, he screamed. Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley. Jim Morrison, the Doors. Stevie Wonder, he's a genius. I can go on. But it's all a reflection . My drummers favorite band is Kiss. We all have our own influences that make up who we are.

YLW: What's it like to be a lead singer of a rock band. You're the front man. What responsibility comes with that?

JL: A caucasion guy told me once that there's something about a black rocker, where you can stand on that stage and people will look just to see. And they'll come because they know it will be really good or really bad.

YLW: Wow.

JL: Sometimes I feel my back is against the wall. It's like they're looking at me hard. I'm the only one on the bill who's the African American front man of a band. So I want to be better than everyone else. It's always a battle of the bands. You want the bands to do a good job, but I don't want to suck. No show is too small to put on a performance that is worthwhile to see again.

YLW: How did Nothing Forgotten meet?

JL: It's not like we knew one another in high school. We assembled over the Internet. We were on myspace, Craigslist. Two individuals got together and started jamming together. I saw an ad looking for a singer and I just joined. We've grown to know one another's quirks. We don't allow that creativeness to be stifled. We don't' say 'oh we can't rap because we're a rock band.' We even have a rock version of a jazz song. We don't set any boundaries. But that comes with trust and to trust the music and what's best for the particular song.

YLW: Why is it important to know about the role of African Americans in rock?

JL: It's important because I can draw upon those inspirations to continue to write great music. Some people feel we created rock and roll and abandoned it. I think it's important because it shows it's not new or alien. It's out there. It's us going back to our roots. A lot of people would disagree with that. Any form of music can have soul in it. It's all about the artist themselves.

Nothing Forgotten's music is available on Itunes.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What is Afro-Futurism?: An Interview with artist/educator D. Denenge Akpem

D. Denenge Akpem is a performance artist, designer and educator. In addition to Black Arts Movement, she is teaching a new course entitled "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation" at Columbia College Chicago. (Photo: D. Denenge Akpem "Super Space Riff: An Ode to Mae Jemison and Octavia Butler in VIII Stanzas" Still from performance/installation)

YLW: I think it's really interesting that you're teaching Afro-Futurism. The first time I was introduced to the concept I was in college. It wasn't called Afro-Futurism, but you had people linking liberation and art with with outer space/inner space and analyzing pop culture references in WuTang or Erykah Badu songs with Egyptology and Ayn Rand novels and Star Wars after class and in workshops. It was very intense. To know that someone is teaching it formally as an art form or way of thinking is amazing to me. What is Afro-Futurism?

DA: There are many different definitions out there, and we consider as many definitions as possible in this class. The full title of the course is "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation." Afro-Futurism as a topic has to do primarily with blacks in the Diaspora but also the whole of African consciousness. Afro-Futurism considers what "Blackness" and "liberation" could look like in the future, real or imagined. It is rooted in history and African cosmologies, using pieces of the past, both technological and analog, to build the future. The basic premise of this course is that the creative ability to manifest action and transformation has been essential to the survival of Blacks in the Diaspora. There are many different ways people approach the topic.

YLW: Like what?

DA: Some are very technological about the approach. Others are a lot more holistic. Mark Rockeymoore, for example, talks about the afro itself as a metaphor for Afro-Futurism, as if its very form is futuristic, reaching for new dimensions and uncontained. Alondra Nelson is one of the key theorists on the subject, and we've been looking at DJ Spooky and his Rebirth of a Nation remix, Sun Ra's music and philosophy, Octavia Butler's science fiction. We've been focused on the last century and beyond.

The approach I take is to ask: how is the envisioning of the future an act of artistic revolutionary action? We’re looking at artists who consider blackness as it might exist in the future, but also looking at artists themselves--beyond the art works--and how the actual creation of the work, the methodology is an act of or path to liberation for the artist, by the artist on behalf of the artist, communities, black people, the universe.

YLW: Can you give examples of artists who reference Afro-Futurism?

DA: We are looking at a wide range of writers and artists in music, film, visual and performing arts as well as theorists. Everyone from Labelle to Fatimah Tuggar...Pamela Z...Kodwo Eshun, so many writers and practitioners. I try to make note of the distinctions in terms of whether artists are working in ways or creating works that might be considered "Afro-Futurist" and whether the artists themselves would classify their work or themes as "Afro-Futurist." We had a similar conversation in our discussion of what is an alien, what is a human. We considered internal and external perceptions of the self and the other.

Lil Wayne talks about being an E.T. You have Outkast, ATLiens, the godfathers Afrika Bambaataa and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Sun Ra is the foundation. Parliament/Funkadelic and looking at George Clinton and the Detroit techno sound... Hattie Gossett's The Immigrant Suite: Hey, Xenophobe: Who You Callin' a Foreigner? beautifully addresses concepts of foreigner, immigrant, and contemporary xenophobia. The artistic creation of the cyborg and creating identity through these forms is an act of resistance to limitation. Afro-Futurists are saying we’re going to believe in the power of a positive future for blackness. So blackness is not limited by stereotypes of blackness. I saw a lot of parallels with the intentions of your book Post Black.

YLW: How is Futurism different from Afro-Futurism?

DA: Futurism when it developed in the early 1900s was about disavowing anything of the past. I feel that it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms to talk about "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation" if you're into Futurism and are defining "blackness" by the past. But that's what makes it an excellent topic for Black World Studies--that's the departmental division that this course falls under--because Afro-Futurism is absolutely rooted in the past, in race, in the use of Futurist thought and process to transcend and manipulate the facts of race in a "trickster" way, the art of dissembling and coding, and that has been part of the African Diaspora since the first abduction. It references the past in futuristic ways.

YLW: Can you give me an example?

DA: For example, key theorists and artists have discussed the concept that black people are aliens in the African Diaspora, literally. Abducted from their land, plucked up, tortured. How do you deal with that? So it’s an investigation of the alien, of hybridity. We look at the Three-Fifths Compromise, and we consider what has defined and does define "human" and what has defined human as far as black people are concerned.

The film District 9 came out last year. It’s science fiction but it’s a direct reflection of South African apartheid and draws from that history for the film's narrative, the visuals, and the concepts that are being addressed even as it provides little concrete information in the actual film or the website for the viewing public on the actual history that it references such as District 6. Perhaps the filmmaker's goal is to get people to research it further after having seen the film but the absence of some crucial links in the actual film itself might pose a problem that might take it from being progressive to another case of appropriation. I'm still thinking a lot about that film.

The question is: how do you make work that speaks to a new future? I’ve been researching Rev. A.W Nix who was a preacher who recorded gospel sermons in the 1900s. The titles themselves were interesting. "Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift.” He’s trying to push the believer to wake up. There is this "wake up people, snap out of it" conversation.

YLW: This “wake up” concept is one that we see in a lot of science fiction movies. The Matrix or Avatar come to mind, but so does Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, too.

DA: Rev. Nix has one sermon where he references Jesus or believers meeting Jesus on a spaceship. There’s this history. It’s a fine line to straddle and people have been ostracized. Ray Charles straddled it and was ostracized until society caught up with him. Sister Rosetta Tharpe went through similar experiences with the Blues and around gender. You always run the risk of being called a cult--or occult--if you talk about aliens or other ways of understanding. The view that I take on it is that the black experience especially in the Diaspora contains within it many spiritual and scientific belief systems. It references indigenous African cosmologies that have a lot to do with other worlds and ways of knowing.

YLW: It seems as if a lot of Afro-Futurism's logic is based around the science or mythology of ancient Egypt.

DA: Sure. Sun Ra, Earth Wind and Fire, many artists were looking to Egypt. Sun Ra believed he was from Saturn, not from Earth, and that he had been picked by these other worldly beings to speak to the black folks and to minister. He was reluctant about it. He didn’t want to be the messenger even as he loved to teach and had studied to become a teacher in addition to his work as a musician in college.

Gil Scott Heron's song "Whitey on the Moon" asks why, if we can go to the moon, we can't take care of the problems and poor living conditions we have down here on Earth. "A rat done bit my sister Nell but whitey's on the moon." So I consider the subject not only from a sci-fi point of view but also look at cultural, political and social references. But there's also this concept of using technology as a basis for creative process. Wendy Walters writes about how even Motown used the auto industry as a model for their music production system.

In the end, it all provides a way to look beyond the here and now. I really credit the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department at Columbia College for working with me on this and for seeing the connections and supporting this area of study.

YLW: How have people responded?

DA: The response has been very positive from current students in the course, from faculty with whom I get into wonderful debates about the course topics, to students who have just heard about the genre itself and are curious. "What's Afro-Futurism?" My question is: what is the history and who are the new media makers? It’s my job to guide the critical thinking process. It’s like what Amiri Baraka said, we don’t need any more of the status quo.

We've got five senses but that's just the beginning. It’s a practice that can change your life. But then again, I grew up reading Dr. Seuss. His work is not about the afro, but this books stretch the imagination into new worlds, new possibilities, very anti-xenophobia. How can the practice of creating liberate? I believe it was Maya Angelou who said if you can envision a new world, you can create it. I'm sure that's been said in other ways before, but my hope is that Afro-Futurism will help people envision a future with the goal of creative transformation for self and planet.

YLW: One issue that continues to pop up in my discussions is this notion of what exactly is blackness and does it exist. Because the notion of blackness as its usually discussed comes from a very American black liberation theory view point.

DA: I’m really interested in the idea of race, in notions of beauty and expression in culture. Obviously, the subtitle of the course is "Pathways to Black Liberation" so I am addressing Afro-Futurist works and practitioners specifically under that lens but it is not only about Black liberation. It's about liberation for all no matter what race, and liberation as it relates first and foremost to the work of the artist. No matter what the artist's intention may be, the act of being an artist, of answering that call--I take it very, very seriously. So my question is how to assist in the development of artists who are not afraid to answer that call, who are looking beyond the "norm" and who are able to enter that creative realm and come out changed but intact on the other side.

The creators have to begin to conceptualize things ahead of the society. What is race? What is post race? I feel like there’s a use for race. I feel very positively about race. I don’t hear that view a lot and this is the first time I've ever actually said that or felt that. As someone who was born and raised in Nigeria, my mother's family were Dutch immigrants to Chile and then California. She moved to Nigeria at age 25 as a nurse. My dad is a Tiv pastor whose work is rooted in service. I grew up internationally with this different perspective on race. It's not that there weren't issues but they were different in some crucial ways from the conceptions of race in this country.

Race in the U.S is immediately negative, but I feel positively about it. I don't see my duality as a struggle; it is other people that seem to have the struggle with it. But the same can be said for being black. One may love being black but when one is confronted with racism, someone else's problem become yours in the sense that it's in your sphere now and you must address it even if it's to ignore it. But the study of race is a big topic and one that I am still chewing on, still discovering... I feel that part of my study of Afro-Futurism is a way of taking back my power to define myself in a futuristic trajectory. But how is this translating into the general populace? The last story I read about race or bi-race was so negative and offensive but it was fairly recent. I think also that in terms of race we are talking about perspectives by different generations in this country. I’m interested to see how the Afro-Futurist discourse relates to all of that.

YLW: How did you get into Afro-Futurism in art?

DA: Well, first, I was raised on the books of Dr. Seuss. And I specifically mention the books rather than film or animation--which I don't watch, by the way--because they shaped the foundation of my philosophy about life and art. Andrea Harrison was my professor at Smith College. She was writing plays about Einstein, producing innovative plays, climbing mountains, literally. She was my role model. She shaped my views on being a black woman and how one operates as an artist. You have to locate your thoughts and ideas within your physical body and be responsible for them. A collector I know in Chicago once said something that stays with me, that he tends to go toward the art that disturbs him or that he can't get out of his mind, that he wrestles with. In a sense, he’s saying he’s going towards the fear. That affected me profoundly, and I always find a way to share that with my students. And that’s one of the things I’m thinking about with this course. We know it’s new territory. There’s a lot of experimentation which is a big part of Afro-Futurism.

YLW: What do you say to those who argue that Afro-Futurism is just some far-out ideas by a group of oddball artists and thinkers?

DA: We need to respect the oddballs and those who are operating outside of what we call the norm. Baraka said that in his "Revolutionary Theatre" manifesto. Not that everyone has to be this freak or think George Clinton is God. It’s just about learning a methodology to go beyond the norm. I used to teach ritual performance, and the fact is that the path of the artist is one in which you’re signing up to go through a transformation. You want to teach people how to go through that process and get to the other side. Folks can get lost in that process. That's how you lose someone like a Jimi Hendrix. They’re going through that alchemic process on behalf themselves but also on behalf of us. Being an artist is a continual going through that cauldron and coming through the other side. You have to learn that process. If you don’t, you can get trapped, and you may not make it literally. I’m interested in the health of my students. I want them to thrive and tap into their greatest potential. We’re on a voyage.

YLW: You mentioned that you taught ritual performance art. Does shamanism have links to Afro-Futurism?

DA: We read text from Malidoma Patrice Somé who is Dagara from Burkina Faso. He's a shaman initiated in the ways of Dagara and also has multiple degrees from Western universities. His book Of Water and the Spirit details his initiation experience initiation. Later, he wanted to do an experiment, so he brought a videotape of Star Trek to the Dagara elders. They understood the story immediately but saw Star Trek as an example of the day to day lives of people somewhere else in the world. They saw Spock as kontomblé, one of the mystical beings part of Dagara cosmological landscape, except that he was too tall. Light speed and teleportation were completely familiar to them but they wondered why are these people wasting so much energy? We can do these things much more discretely. His point is that the West sees Africa as being so backwards but the "archaic" ways that are part of the elders' present are what the West sees as futuristic.

YLW: Afro-Futurism is a foray to explore identity as well.

DA: I want to define myself. I like categories but only as far as I can shape-shift between them. It always comes back to analog. At the end of the day you still have to connect that wire to that wire. You can get as hi-tech as you want, but it’s about the basic things. In 2002 all of my personal relationships were web based. All of my family was scattered across the planet. I was thinking about these rituals we have and how can you connect through a ritual that cares for the community, like cleansing etc. when the community is not there. This was pre-facebook. If you leave human babies alone they die or do not develop.

Biologically, we still need touch, stimulation, breathing. We haven’t evolved biologically. We’re not cyborgs yet. I worked on an interactive media piece called "Virtual Exorcism" which asked the question: in the absence of community, is there a way to sustain those rituals online? Granted you can’t do a Sunday dinner online, but perhaps the web will catch up in terms of the taste and smell options that are being developed, we’ll get close. Though even if you could have Sunday dinner online and even eat it like how food appears on the Jetsons, would it be "Sunday dinner" in the truest sense of the meaning of that ritual? Could it be? There are still some things that define us on a very intrinsic and cellular level. Will we evolve to the point where we’re not human and what exactly does it mean to be human? Will we ever be post human?

I want to live in Marina City--which looks just like something out of the Jetsons--and have a flying car. I thought we would have been there by now. Marina City is the perfect Jetsons-esque setting for flying cars. I want to travel outer space and not just be in a suit, go to Mars, go to the moon. That's one of my goals. This is 2010; we’re supposed to be much further along. The information age is great, but I want the trappings of futurism. I am interested in artists who are working in fashion with new technologies to produce garments that are futuristic in their interaction with the wearer.

YLW: We're all raised with the Jetsons and Star Wars. I'm sure there's something futuristic that we've seen in films only that we all want to do. Then again, that's the basis for innovation. What about green living and futurism?

DA: My view of Afro-Futurism also includes this idea of holistic living and how we are responsible. You can’t eat fast food if you’re trying to go through the process of being initiated in Dagara. You have to be rooted in the earth, and that kind of holistic approach is part of many indigenous cultures. I believe that futurism should be rooted in an awareness of our planet and a sense of care for it, a sense of recreating ourselves as a community on the planet. There has to be something responsible and honorable and not just about commodity. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid, but if you’re talking about blackness and liberation that’s when you have to get into something a little broader than the quest for the benjamins.

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