In his seminal history book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, Amiri Baraka argues that it was not slavery itself that brought the most traumatic blow to the first African slaves, but the shock of suddenly living in a culture hugely different from their own. Unlike in South America and the Caribbean, slaves in the colonies faced "constant association" with whites, alienating them from their own roots. Prohibited from singing and chanting in their own languages, they combined cadences of traditional African work songs with references to slave culture. And with that, American music as we know it was born. Baraka weaves this thread through America's musical history, forcing the reader to consider the artistic debt owed to the African diaspora. And still, Iggy Azalea sits atop Billboard's Hot Rap Songs chart.
Nashville's first Culture Fest began this week, and founder Leatrice Ellzy wants it to provide a stage for black artists, musicians and storytellers of all stripes. "I want to build a world-class festival here in Nashville," she says, "where people fly into BNA from all over the place to see what's going on in this culture." Conversations and workshops will pose questions about appropriation and commodification of black art and culture, and expertly designed art events will raise the bar for programming around the African diasporic aesthetic. The five-day festival aims to both celebrate and educate, inviting participants to engage with the far-reaching creative influence of the African Diaspora through music, film, literature, visual art, theater and dance.
For years, Tennessee Tribune founder and civil rights activist Rosetta Perry envisioned a celebration in Nashville that mirrored the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, and when Ellzy resigned from her position as that festival's creative director, Perry proposed that she take on Music City. Ellzy is a true believer in the power of festivals like these to enrich communities and make us better humans.
Among a host of factors, she had to consider her audience and the aesthetics they find important. Nashville has a very different racial demographic than Atlanta, for example; the 2010 census put Nashville's African-American population at 28 percent, while Atlanta's is 54 percent. "I knew that what we presented had to embrace the entire culture here," she said. After a year of research and planning, she came back to Perry with a plan and a price tag. They began work by creating the nonprofit The Artspiration Group, whose sole purpose is to produce Culture Fest and other year-round activities around this aesthetic.
Ellzy stresses that Culture Fest is meant to broaden the perspectives of participants. She intentionally avoided big names in her programming because in her experience, programming around the black aesthetic relies on a recycled roster of celebrities. "They don't need one more stage," she said resolutely. In her experience with Atlanta's NBAF, unknown artists often find their audience at festivals and build a profile, while "getting fed" from those around them. In fact, festivals may be the answer to an artistic crisis, especially one in the black community, where funding for the arts is scarce. To Ellzy, supporting fledgling artists is critical. "They're suffering," says Ellzy. "They're dying on the vine. There are pockets around the country where things are happening, but there is not enough of this. My work is to continue curating this kind of work, but to do it in mid-sized markets where it doesn't exist."
Today at the TSU Performing Arts Center, Ellzy will lead "Black Music and Blues People," a panel discussion with filmmaker Jason Orr, members of Lovenoise, Shannon Sanders, and a representative from the National Museum of African-American Music. Using Amiri Baraka's text as their base, the group will trace the legacy of the literal and figurative "blues" in contemporary music, and discuss the fine line between enjoyment and appropriation of African-American music. The talk will follow with a screening of FunkJazz Cafe: Diary of a Decade, which takes a look at soul music through the impressions of a cast of popular scholars, activists and artists.
On Saturday, Culture Fest will present Fahamu Pecou: Artist and Scholar at the Arts Company with an afternoon talk. Pecou, who is fast becoming the authority on artistic representations of black masculinity on the international stage, got his start designing the first logo for NBAF with Ellzy. He's one example of the door that opens when festivals provide space for new artists. (See the story on Pecou's exhibition here.)
Also Saturday, Culture in the Community will launch at various locations. At the 50-Cent Tabernacle at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, participants can move with the city's finest dance instructors in four different classes, all for 50 cents. Over at Fisk University, writer-director-producer-actor jeff obafemi carr will host a playwriting workshop. Later, attendees can deepen their understanding and appreciation of music during a jazz workshop. It's billed for novices and casual listeners — not aficionados — so those a bit intimidated by the form should feel welcome. Also at Fisk, Culture Fest will host another workshop, "Appreciating African-American Visual Art." Down in Wedgewood-Houston at Chestnut Square, artist Michael McBride will open his studio for children to explore the work of painter Romare Bearden. And literati can delight in a poetry workshop with Detroit's jessica care moore, the powerful slam poet, publisher and activist, at Nashville Public Library Downtown.
More is being added to the Culture Fest calendar every day, like a partnership with the ReWind BarBQ Fest at Riverfront Park downtown on Sunday, as well as live music. As of press time, an event that examines the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has been added on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m., although a location has not yet been determined.
Perhaps the crowning event in the festival is Saturday's Coretta Scott King Book Awards Film and Literary Experience. The downtown library will welcome young-adult author Sharon Draper, illustrator R. Gregory Christie and resident storyteller Mama Koku. Among writing and illustrating workshops, storytime sessions and film adaptations, children and teens of all ages will fill hours with the multidisciplinary experience. "We can't have cultural literacy without basic literacy," Ellzy said. Kids will use their library cards as currency to get a free signed Sharon Draper book.
The power of the local festival is perhaps best shown through the headlining musician himself, trumpeter Russell Gunn. Gunn is a two-time Grammy-nominated musician who has worked with Ellzy for many years. He will perform at Fisk University's Memorial Chapel Friday night in "Russell Gunn Plays Miles." Gunn's nontraditional jazz speaks to another thread of Baraka's thesis: As black music became commodified by whites, African-Americans, ever-resilient and adaptable, altered what they were doing.
All Culture Fest events are affordable — with the highest price tag set at $25 for Gunn's concert — and most are free. Ellzy explained, "I like to keep the ticket prices low so it's accessible to everyone, no matter where you lay on the economic structure. When you walk out of a room and feel something different than when you came in, that's when we know we've done our job.
"Let's go ahead and build bridges across communities instead of everyone being in their own space," Ellzy proposes. "The best kind of livable cities have cultural equity in how people live together, how people play together, and how they understand one another.
"Through art and culture, we are able to understand one another better."