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The role of art and music during a pandemic: Q&A with Grammy-nominated artist Nana Kwabena

Patrisse Cullors & Autumn Breon Williams April 29th, 2020
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by Autumn Breon Williams and Patrisse Cullors

Art is not immune to the effects of plagues. The bubonic plague of the 14th century transformed how people perceived and interpreted death artistically. While before the plague, artistic depictions of death envisioned it as a transition from earthly life to a sought after, heavenly illumination, rapid and (at the time) unexplained deaths due to pestilence led many to shift toward the belief that death was a condemnation of earthly sins. Centuries later, we can now examine this augmented representation of realism in tomb sculptures and portraits from the era of the plague.

In relatively more recent history, the Spanish flu ripped through the entire world in 1918. The Spanish Flu’s impact on the art world is unique to examine in juxtaposition with the bubonic plague’s impact. The Spanish flu killed millions globally and well-known artists of the era even succumbed to the disease. But curiously, the impact of the pandemic is not explicitly reflected in artworks that were produced after the outbreak by the Lost Generation, the cohort of creatives that worked immediately after the Spanish flu and came of age during World War I. The absence of the disease as an explicit theme for writers and artists of the era may appear to be an act of collective forgetfulness; however, the production of works that centered themes like disenchantment and criticisms of decadence may instead be an example of the creative community’s coping.  

Today, the novel coronavirus is sweeping through the world, causing upheaval unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. People are sheltering in place, small businesses are trying to figure out how to survive, and artists are struggling even as they generate work that could only be created during a global crisis. Our world will never be the same, and neither will the art that is produced in this time.

As art producers, lovers, and collectors, we wanted to begin the process of figuring out the impact of this time on art and the people who create it. Because we have the advantage of technology that didn’t exist in prior pandemics, physical distancing does not have to limit us from learning from each other.

We interviewed artists who are multidisciplinary in their approaches to work that centers movement-building. This was particularly important because COVID-19 is holding up a magnifying glass to the imperfect realities of our society. The inadequacies of our healthcare system, socioeconomic disparities, and specific communities’ abundance of preexisting conditions are contributing to disproportionate mortality rates among marginalized people. Nina Simone said it best when she said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” This series is a collection of interviews with various artists who are leading the charge to reflect these times. It is our hope that these artists’ words and ideas contribute to an intellectual marketplace that we can use to address our world’s imperfect realities more quickly and effectively.    

The first piece in this series is a conversation with Nana Kwabena, a Grammy-nominated producer and filmmaker. Using music as a tool to unify the African continent and its diaspora, Kwabena is most noted for co-producing platinum singles by artists like Janelle Monae, Jidenna, and John Legend. Recently at the Dallas Museum of Art, Kwabena performed an experimental piece with performance artist Nana Yaa in which he played music through light and sound for the installation Speechless. Kwabena’s music has reached the corners of the diaspora and has contributed to his mission to improve the quality of life for Black people around the world.

“Artivism” has become a commonly used portmanteau to describe the sometimes saccharine attempt to address the public demand for socially responsible celebrities. The organic and symbiotic relationship between Kwabena’s art and activism is reminiscent of that of Fela Kuti and James Baldwin. We witness the resulting flames of their songs and written word, but the fuel and kindling are their unadulterated yearning for paradigm shift. In our interview, Kwabena talked with us about the need he sees for an African-centered response to the pandemic and how quarantine has changed his own creative practice. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you hear about COVID-19 and what were your initial thoughts?

It was the first or second week of February and I was in South Africa. It was super early for us and I think none of us knew how real it was or the magnitude and the scale that we're witnessing today. As we started seeing the effect, there was language going around about it being the great equalizer. The interesting thing about that is that when you delve a little bit deeper and look a little further behind the veil, you realize it definitely affects different communities very, very differently. If you're living in an apartment building or a [housing] project that is completely packed, that's a very different thing than living in a gated community in the suburbs and doing social isolation. Even taking it to the continent, [it’s] a very different thing to be in the village or in a rural area where your livelihood on an everyday basis is determined by how much of a product you sell in the shops or in the marketplaces, or just selling water on the street. We've realized it definitely affects different communities in very, very different ways. Because of that, people of color have to navigate these times in a very different kind of way.

What are you feeling most inspired by in this moment? Is it possible to be inspired during a global pandemic?

As an artist, I think I'm least inspired by art right now. I think the thing that actually has inspired me the most is real life. Just seeing what this chapter is doing for people. Even within my life, it's allowed me to be present in a way that is necessary. Spending time not worrying about writing the next record or working on the next film idea or whatever it is. It's been about how I engage … and be a complete human. Spending time with people that I haven't been able to talk to as much or connect with as much. On that micro level, I think we're all kind of being called to just be present in our relationships as human beings, as opposed to “human doings.” I think on a macro level, I'm also inspired. We're living in radical times in the sense that there's no room for complacency. We're going to be rewarded for being very, very clear about who we are and why we're here and living completely in the fullest version of that. I'm inspired by when I see people doing that and when I see organizations doing that or when I see people that are coming up with creative solutions and ways to deal with COVID. I was listening to a friend of mine, Seun Kuti, the son of Fela Kuti. He was talking about COVID and the need for an African-centered response. Even the idea of social distancing is a Eurocentric way of approaching an idea. In African communities, we are very communal. We're in close quarters with each other. In our daily life, we come in contact with so many people. It's a very different thing when you're living in another country where you can live in plenty of places here in the States or in Europe and have very little interaction with your neighbors. That's just not a reality in many parts of the continent. 

It’s a common and casual thing back in the continent to have your clothes made. You bring your fabric to a local seamstress or they present you with fabric and you get your outfit made to your measurements. I’ve worked with a few tailors on the continent and in the States to maintain that part of my culture. It’s been dope to see all of these designers and seamstresses come together and just start making masks—banding together to mass produce masks for their neighborhoods and their parts of town. I think things like that are so dope. Here's the thing, it's actually okay to not be inspired too. I think people have this notion that this is a time that we all have to sit and reflect and that if we can't go outside, we go inside. There's a lot of truth to that, but I think there's an implied idea that we are supposed to be completely on fire and completely inspired. I think that's to each his own. I think there's something to be said for accepting when you're not not actually inspired, as long as you're actually committed to searching for inspiration. As artists, our responsibility is to always make sure that we are in the pursuit of these things. That's our only commitment—always being in pursuit of inspiration, creativity, purpose, mission, and passion.

How have you reimagined how people consume art?

I think right now people are obviously embracing art in virtual, online, and digital spaces. That's going to become normalized in the states in a way that it has already been normalized in other countries. Look at Second Life, a game that’s almost 20 years old where people log into a virtual world where they're actually spending real currency on virtual things. Or in Indonesia there are artists that are not actual humans; instead, they’re virtual artists, but they do shows where real people attend and pay real money to show up. The most popular Indonesian artist in that space is Hatsune Miku and it was literally doing world tours where people were showing up to see a virtual character on stage performing. We all remember when that Tupac hologram performed at Coachella. These virtual examples of artistry have existed, but now they’re going to be widely embraced. I think the next shift is going to be around making art that resonates with people. Whether it’s an IG live or a virtual concert, whatever it is, there's going to be such a proliferation of content that what will become most important is discovery. 

Amidst this proliferation of ideas, consumers will want to find what moves their soul and what feeds their spirit. People are going to be looking for something that cuts through. That’s what I predict as the second wave. I think that good art can reach someone in their soul no matter how it’s delivered. This type of art and message over time is going to become more and more important. It’s like when people started complaining about music. People were like, “Man, all of these programs exist and now anybody can make beats and anybody can make music!” People complained, but I laughed because I love when creatives talk like that. Folks don't always see the silver lining in situations like this because those can be the best circumstances. It's actually better for there to be a proliferation of mediocrity, because when there's so much mediocrity in the world, the only things that resonate are the things that are excellent, the things that are exceptional. The commitment to being exceptional in your craft now gets to be the thing that actually allows your art to be discovered.

Why is art important now?

Art has always played a unique role in shifting culture, shifting society, and even shifting politics and economics. I'm not an art for art's sake person. Art must be a mechanism for something. I can spend my whole life learning chord progressions, melodies, and song structure. I can learn to play these two chords to make a listener feel sadness, anticipation, joy. I can become such a master of my craft that I know how to evoke any emotion out of the human spirit that I want. As that master, I can compel you to feel whatever it is that I want, but why not go one extra step and compel you to do something? I think that there are two sides of this. Black people sometimes don't have the liberty to just be artists without being Black artists. There is something to be said about the opposite of what I'm saying. I think the opposite is true. I think that the freedom to create, regardless of who you are within society, is a freedom that artists should always have a right to. However, the responsibility of what we do with our art as people of color is also a part of the conversation. When it comes to our power, I don't think there's anything else in the world that competes with art, in terms of its ability to penetrate the hearts and minds of people. When I look at Bob Marley's method of making music, he was a virologist. Bob believed with conviction in his heart that music could be a virus that could infect humanity to cure itself of racism. I think that art has the same ability that a virus has to shake up the entire world. 

It is the artist’s job to transform things that are intangible to human consciousness into that which is visible. How can we sit here and talk about freedom if I can’t even paint a picture of freedom. How can we have a conversation about freedom if I can't even imagine or envision it?

Ideas can then move from art to culture and then into technology. Before you know it, ideas become something that we embrace as a part of society. That’s how an idea can evolve into a reality. Art can birth new realities. I think art has become even more important now because people are looking for direction. Everyone has questions. Everyone has anxiety. We are all in survival mode, and it's actually a beautiful thing because we're not distracted right now in the attention economy. I think art can play a role in giving people a sense of direction, a sense of comfort, an opportunity for self realization, and a chance for self-actualization.

How does your art practice inform your activism?

I think they have become one and the same. When I was younger, I used to bifurcate the two. The way I was raised and the way most first generation Africans are raised, I grew up thinking I had to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So half of my life was about medicine and being pre-med. The other half of my life was my artistry and love for music, film, and photography. These two parts of my life became more and more serious, especially as I got to college. I was taking organic chemistry during the day and at night I had 30 rappers from Southwest Philly in my dorm room recording tracks until five the morning. At some point you realize you can't fit these two lives and something’s got to give. I graduated and I remember my whole goal was buying time to figure it out. So I applied to public health school.

Once I got in, I was like, “Great. I’ll defer for a year.” I figured I would use that time for music and if the music didn’t work out, then I’d go back to medicine. During that year, my brother passed from sickle cell disease, the same disease that I have. My brother was a musician and he was a rapper. He was super passionate about music and putting his journey with sickle cell in his music.

I’m nerdy, so I feel like death puts life in a crucible. You apply some heat and in the crucible, this heat extracts all the impurities from this compound called life. The impurities are the things that distract us. At the end of this process, all of the impurities are burned away and the only thing that's left is your purpose and your passion. So when my brother passed, that’s exactly what happened. I realized, instead of me fighting for these two halves to have space, they could actually be one in the same. The music is the medicine and the medicine is the music. Ever since then, I've never separated them.

That is my approach to how I look at art and activism. They are completely one for me. That's why I'm here. My mission on Earth is not to just be one or the other. I know myself enough to know that if I was just only working in ”activism,” I would be missing something. I also know that if I was only working in art, there would be something missing. I’ve learned that there is balance in knowing that my journey to mastery is going to be an everlasting path. There's no moment of arrival when it comes to this pursuit. Knowing that and realizing that mastery of my art is always a work in progress has helped me remember to  make myself available to the people that I've inherited as my community. I think in this pandemic, we're all being pushed to be less of the human doings we were and to be human beings. My art and activism are yin and yang. They are one and the same.


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