Culture is a Glue
On "Black Male Re-Imagined"
Russell Simmons, Nick Cannon and Lupe Fiasco are famous faces who are pretty used to the perennial limelight—and if Simmons’s new reality show Running Russell Simmons is any indication, that limelight has only shifted to a consistently 24/7 level. On the evening of December 6th, the three celebrities sat down on a stage of perhaps a different sort than they’re accustomed to, in the gymnasium of our neighbor down the street, the Harlem Children’s Zone. They were participating in a community town hall meeting and discussion called Black Male Re-Imagined, along with John O’Neal of theater company Junebug Productions; Ann Beeson, Executive Director of U.S. Programs, Open Society Foundations; Alexis McGill Johnson, Executive Director of American Values Institute; and Jordan Coleman, teenage director of the documentary “Say It Loud.”In the wake of evidence that brings new urgency to the troubling proficiency gaps between young male students of color and white male students, the panel strove to discuss how art and culture can advance social justice.
The evening began with a performance by Chicago spoken word artist and performance poet FM Supreme to warm up the crowd, which included not only the packed gym, but an online audience (the event was being streamed live on the web). John O’Neal, who is known for founding two nationally-acclaimed, New Orleans-based theater companies, kicked off the conversation by remarking on the “insidious” nature of art, in that its power lies in hitting us “in the gut rather than the head.” It seemed that what he was alluding to was the power of affect—that some of art’s activist powers lie in making us care and feel first, then think later. Alexis McGill-Johnson picked up on this point, defining the power of cultural activism as either within the content of art, or rooted in the artists’ own activism. She came the closest to discussing how and why art can be a powerful strategy for social change—“culture is a glue” binding all of us, she remarked, and so is an effective way to reveal urgency and relevancy not simply through their medium or content, but through community and context.
There were insightful comments from the celebs as well: actor and comedian Nick Cannon spoke of reality and honesty as the backbone of humor, and what he draws upon as an effective means of reaching audiences. He and Russell Simmons also brought up the power and influence of social media, and its potential for calling attention to social issues. I was most excited by Lupe Fiasco’s comments throughout the evening (his current book of choice, he informed us, is Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton). He voiced the words I had been waiting for someone to say all night, despite the star-studded presence—that Hollywood and media are, as Lupe put it bluntly, about “falsehoods and lies.” Ironic that we needed a celebrity to tell us that, but it seemed necessary to point out. The emphasis on this panel was of course media culture, but coming from a visual art background, I wondered what it would have been like if visual artists had participated. My thoughts weren’t so much about the presence of visual artists on the panel—but more so, what can we do to make visual art more accessible and more compelling for young black men?
Black Male Re-Imagined was helpful in generating a more public dialogue about the influence of black cultural producers on young people of color. Judging by the night’s turn-out, it was clear that this influence is only growing along with the Internet and social media, and we must keep pondering these intersecting spheres of art, culture and social issues.