The Long Song
Sunday June 26, 2016
4 - 6pm
- In Spring 2016, I wrote 30 verses of song lyrics and called it 'The Long Song'. I asked over 20 local performers to interpret it as they wished for the upcoming public performance in June. These included singers, percussionists, hip hop artists, folk bands, performance artists, saxophonists, opera singers, etc. Ages ranged from 20 - 60.
- On June 26, 2016 The Long Song debuted for the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music and in partnership with Boom Concepts.
- It stretched over 1.5 miles along Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh from Highland Avenue to Main Street and took take place over 2 hours. On roughly every corner for 20+ blocks there was a performer or group of performers interpreting a section of the song as they so desired.
- The audience was invited to walk, stroll, jog, ride a bike, etc, the length of the route to experience the song. You could move in any direction along the route, as there was no correct "beginning" or "end".
- The work was filmed as the last shoot for Wild Clarity. Sean Beauford starred as the silent protagonist/witness. The camera followed him as he walked the entire route and encountered the performers, giving each a flower from his basket.
- Awesome Pittsburgh provided additional support for this work through their monthly grant award.
Magicorgans - DS Kinsel and Julie Mallis
LIVEFROMTHECITY from 1Hood
V U D U L U C from 1Hood
Tyhir Frost from 1Hood
David Bennett & KJ Norris
Ben Barson & Gizelxanath Rodriguez
Roberta Guido & Anthony Williams
Jil Stifel & Jean-Paul Weaver
Bitter Whiskers - Tessa Barber, Emily Fear, James Todd
Anna Elder and her band!
Joy KMT & Michael David Battle
Caleb Gamble & His Friends
In making this work, I made some mistakes. They ended up hurting my community in ways that I never intended. The short version of the story goes like this:
I wrote lyrics to a Long Song and it was a political song - heavily inspired by the environmental justice movement and the black lives matter movement, both of which I identified with as an ally. I included verses that specifically mention the injustice of racism in Amerikkka - and how our white hands are stained with red blood and can't be clean until we respond to this history in a real way. How black bodies are still hanging from trees but we call it mass incarceration. I knew it was risky to touch this - as a white ally - because white allies are usually the ones who mess up the worst. But the point was to include these ideas in the song, give it to performers, let them do whatever they want with it.
What ended up happening during the performance was that almost all the performers - black and white - ignored the verses I had written that explicitly dealt with race. Or they interpreted them more abstractly, in their own ways and languages and sounds and movements. The exception to this were two musicians who were white, and had actually let me know ahead of time what their plans were for their part. They identify as white allies and wanted to perform spirituals from the African American tradition that would be intermixed with some of my own verses. I remember saying I thought that would be fine. It was not in my interest to curate the peformer's ideas, and so I didn't spend long thinking about how harmful this action would prove to be.
Their performance was engaging to some, and repelling to others. Seeing white bodies on a corner singing spirituals in a neighborhood quickly gentrifying, but still mostly black, was confusing and hurtful to some members of the community, and I could only see that after it hurt them. To make matters worse, a certain word was used to describe the songs - the academic term of "negro spiritual" - which was the response given when members of the community asked what the performers were doing.
We shut down their performance as quickly as we could, and I took full responsibility of the whole thing. Those who had been hurt found me on the street and we spoke about it openly, and I heard them clearly. Their basic message was: White people cannot tell black people's stories. Period. Or, in other words, Black pain is not white art. No further dialogue was desired by them. I apologized in an email to the entire group of performers who had been part of this work, and had a meeting directly with the two performers. I considered the whole thing a failure.
The lesson is that I cannot use the very living thing of racism as a material in my work without checking my Privilege, Purpose, and Positioning. Without checking in with my black friends, artists, mothers and asking them what they think. How does this make them feel? Because as white allies we can go wrong, so very wrong, and it is important if we want to be part of this movement to be mindful, and extremely cautious, when moving in this direction if we use this in our work.
I will continue to look at white supremacy from every angle so I can try to dismantle it on every level. But to highlight black pain is immature and careless, and I made that mistake as a misguided ally.
I also think, very certainly, that when white people, white artists, look at racism and the legacy of slavery in Amerikkka, which is still so active and alive, and we go to touch it and make work with it and speak on it - it is going to be messy. That's just the way it is going to be, and that should not be the reason not to do it. But you must take mindful steps when approaching it - and do it with the needs of your entire community always as the top priority for your actions. Look at it from all sides. And if you are in doubt, ask a black femme.