As a creator (someone who conjures up innovative ideas and finds a way to produce them for an audience outside of myself) and a communicator (someone who can absorb and deliver a message and relay the subject matter in a way that resonates with others), I know how easy it is to get lost in the love of expression. There were those instances, where I'd find my voice lost and my spirit needy, so I'd speak louder, be more extreme, do whatever it took to get your attention. In my most passionate state, I could not see or hear anything beyond my own thoughts and wants. I was spoiled, so drunk off my own fumes, thirsty to get my points across that I didn't even notice that my big ideas were getting lost in translation.
Add to this the fact that I have often found myself being one among a few, if not the only, creative person of color in the room, expressing myself regardless of who's watching. Whether it was in AP chemistry class in high school or some stodgy boardroom with suits wanting to know what was the next big thing, there is something to be said about being a representative, an ambassador of culture, if you will, to those who don't look like you, have the access that you do or have the life experiences that you have, especially when so many "yous" don't have the opportunity to speak for themselves. And here you are, doing your best to stand out, to mean something, to be heard, when already the understanding between two diametrically opposing trains of thought is hard enough... Mindfuck Central.
In 2003, I had this big epiphany. An art junkie, I was reading on rebellion and anarchy, and what it means to be an artist, when the realization came to me that "artists" are the true catalysts toward social change within any society. To me, they are the dreamers at the front-lines of society's boundaries. When done right they push us to think deeper and more critically, asking us if we are satisfied with where we are in the here and now -- individually and collectively. When done wrong, it only serves one master: the self.
So I went on about my business exploring this notion further. As a result, I started documenting my artist friends (here in the states and abroad) who I believed stood for something, anything from gender to self-image, race and politics to sex and religion. I called the project FUCKED, because at the time, that's where I believed human culture was heading. I saw the early signs of "me-isms" choking out positive community-building efforts, and the dash for cash, often by way of being extreme for the sake of it, taking precedence over the arts and integrity. And I was angry!
Amiri Baraka said, "Right on!" when I told him about the project. Jamel Shabazz asked me to explain why I chose the title. Kevin Powell asked me about my message and what I was really trying to convey.
Had i been bitten by the same bug i was trying to heal?
Hardly, I thought.
All About Me:
While I have never been one for censorship, their verbal and not so verbal nudges left me pondering. How could my fellow creatives question me? My aesthetic. My vision. My intent. How dare my elders question my artistry?
I had something to say, and this is it. I was a rebel, so extreme in my want to get my point across that needless to say, I kept the title and added: Be The Change You Wish To See. I humbly thought that adding the infamous quote from Gandhi (who shares my birthday), I was now showing where we were and where we could be, appealing to the duplicity of our nature and our free will. Oh, and I added the asterisk to the four-letter word to soften the blow. (I couldn't get rid of the word altogether because that's what made my project more powerful, I thought.) I was fighting to keep the word, so I could retain a certain sensibility that only my audience would understand.
In the interviews that followed I would ask the various artists their thoughts on this. But after some bit of time working on this behemoth of a project, my time grew more limited and I needed cash to support my lifestyle. Heart-based, passion projects like this one became casualties of my inner conflict, put aside so that I could focus on getting ahead, getting paper. Change would have to wait.
Years later, Dream Hampton, another contributor, said to me when I was at The Source, "What ever happened to your book project?"
As I struggled to find the words -- to lie about the fact that I had chosen to get paid over my spirit, props over purpose, my new lifestyle over my message, I realized something had broken in me. Where had I gone? At first I wanted to blame hip-hop and corporate media for sucking me dry and for pushing gossip and rachetness ahead of news and culture for sake of hits and impressions. "To be on" meant I was free to do me, when the truth of the matter was I was part of a machine that was doing more damage to us than I cared to admit, because doing so meant that I had let the circle of industry influence (read: materialism and desire to be cool and first over delivering real art) get the best of me. (Mind you, art doesn't need to be cool or first. It just is...) The packaging in which I put all of my dope talents and laced my skills was causing my art to rot. And this was solely my choice.
To Build or Destroy?
I quit my job a few months later, only to stop and look back on all of my experiences up until then. Had I been a voice of change and force for good? I had gone in during my 20s, but now, post 30, I couldn't look at my past decisions the same. In hindsight, I had done some things well, and other things were just so damaging to not only me, but to all of the communities I represented simultaneously. I had apparently reasoned with nonsense, and made sense of how I could pull it off for bullshit. So with spare time on my hands, I went back to F*cked.
I started updating interviews, going through my archives and speaking to old friends about their new work. This project needed to see the light of day, and I was still angry and disappointed by the limitations imposed on our lives by various aspects of society. But something was different this time around. More mature, it seemed silly now to keep sitting in that old box of a title. And one question I asked myself made all the difference: Am I in this to build or to destroy?
I was beginning to understand that each of the artists I spoke to understood their responsibility to themselves and the greater world at large, that their words, movements, actions had impact, whether they wanted them to or not. And getting trapped in an old way of doing things unconsciously with little regard for this fact was not helping anyone, except the one percent -- the institutions who continued to profit off of the rest of us getting caught up in the nostalgia of that old record on repeat.
The Power to Create Harmony:
So onto a new name. Anarchy: In Search of a New World Order. I had to kindly thank my elders who got me there, pushing every so slightly to get me back on course, while giving me enough space to grow up in my own time. I had to be awake enough to see it, hear it, embrace it. Seeing the forest instead of the trees -- the big picture -- meant that as a true representative of blackness, womanhood, hip-hop, Caribbean-America, teachers, revolutionaries and creatives, my immediate family (and everything else I rep), I had to respect the fact that I could never be "first."
Someone told me once that we are the sacrificial generation, the ones with the power to change everything, and that a slew of people came before me (and many to come after) who needed me to do justice by them via the work that I do. And the people in the worlds that I touch now, their eyes were watching me, learning how to move, how to be, how to relate, via my actions. (Yes, we all have that power...) And while I'm far from perfect or righteous, I'm still searching for meaning, for the art in things, for the message that needs to be delivered. The conversation has now evolved into one of legacy and legitimacy over nowness for me. It may be a longer road and the one less traveled, but it offers something that street cred and social likes could never afford to give or take away.
What I learned: There are artists, new ones like Kathreen Khavari, Morley and Dr. Yaba Blay who spread art that is less about them (and more for the understanding of all), like education is for the teacher. They totally get that they're conduits for massive change and that with any grand idea, however brilliant in our own minds, however pure the intent, however flawless the execution, we have to question ourselves and our motives every step of the way. The best of them don't require attention and adoring fans to do their work well, just the opportunity to convey a message for the collective succinctly, to move about a community who cares for them -- not religiously, but with unadulterated love, unafraid to be checked when they go too far. Like water, these artists are flexible and yet undisturbed in their mission. For them it is about standing with their audience and leading them out to a better place, and having fun doing it. I could learn a thing or two....
For Minaj, DMX, Hova, Yonce, Rihanna, Kanye and all of the other artists I'm currently thinking about.
This story appears as part of a collection of stories, entitled Saturn's Return by Amy Andrieux, Editorial Director at TheStarkLife.com. The series sees Amy documenting her 35th year, while reflecting on moments past and how to move forward. Each piece is inspired by real life happenings, few with exaggeration and embellishment, and/or change of name to protect the innocent.