Saturday, November 9, 2013

In good voice: Black women speak up, sing out

Melissa Harris-Perry
(photo: MSNBC/Heidi Gutman)
Yesterday, the stars aligned. And how!

In mid-afternoon, scholar, author and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry sat down at The New School for a provocative conversation with scholar and author bell hooks. In the evening, singer-musician Toshi Reagon took to the stage at the Rubin Museum of Art with violinist/fiddler Juliette Jones for an acoustic concert of songs organized around images from the Rubin's collection of Himalayan art. Without question, November 8, 2013 was a Power Day in New York City.

bell hooks
If you missed the (poorly announced) free ticket distribution for the New School event, you could watch via Livestream (complicated sign-up, especially at the last minute, but not impossible). Social media exploded right before, during and after with expressions of frustration (What??? I didn't know you needed TICKETS to get in!!!) and increasing awe as hooks and Harris-Perry addressed, all too briefly, numerous issues, each of which could have launched a thick dissertation. From divergent perspectives on recent Black-themed films (12 Years A Slave, Django, The Butler) to sexual violence against Black women to the relative privilege of having light skin when working in corporate media, hooks and Harris-Perry showed a willingness to take space, give voice and honestly grapple with difficult questions. And difficult people: Ironically, perhaps inevitably, one man chose to waste limited Q&A time by delivering a lecture then shouting over hooks' attempt at a reply. It's useful, though--isn't it?-- whenever a fool helps you prove your point about the arrogance of patriarchy.

Both women invoked the late congresswoman/presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm of Bajan heritage (her slogan: "Unbought and Unbossed") as a role model and, accordingly, spent the ninety-minute session breaking every possible code of silence. I was most amazed by--and even concerned for--Harris-Perry who displayed an outspokenness about her role at MSNBC and a degree of personal vulnerability that I would not have anticipated. I felt hooks--twenty years the broadcaster's senior, as she made sure to note at the beginning of their talk--prodding and then leading Harris-Perry into deep waters but making sure to surround her with loving support. Just breathtaking.

Watch the archived conversation
 on Livestream here.
Toshi Reagon
(photo: Erica Beckman)

Introducing Toshi Reagon at the Rubin, Tim McHenry (Director of Public Programs and Performance) wondered aloud what had taken him so long to invite her. So now that that oversight has been rectified, I'm sure it won't take long to bring her back. McHenry's sold-out audience was not only appreciative but clearly smitten.

The Rubin challenges singer-songwriters in their Naked Soul acoustic concert series to peruse the collection and select three images to build a set list around. Reagon--who looks much like a delighted Buddha herself--clearly enjoyed her opportunity to learn about the legends of Himalayan deities and demons and recognized, in them, a way to talk about her ongoing concerns around social and environmental justice. The connection of her specific song lyrics to the sacred themes wasn't always obvious, but the delicate interplay of her high-flying voice, her bluesy guitar and Juliette Jones's sinuous fiddle work made their own sense and had grounded, and grounding, spirituality--always welcome. Her ease with the audience and her sense of humor were winning. Someday ask Reagon to tell you the story of the warrior goddess, Durga--one of her image choices. The Rubin really ought to hire her as a docent.


Future Naked Soul evenings will include appearances by Mary Gauthier (January 3), Susan Werner (Febuary 14), David Wilcox (March 14) and Shelby Lynne (May 30). For information and ticketing, click here.

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