July 18, 2021—In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a coalition of artists, curators, culture producers, and organizers has been forged, committed to using the arts to support racial justice movements. The coalition is called The Blacksmiths.
I recently had the honor of speaking with one of the founders—Michelle Taylor of the multi-faceted, artist management company Passion Music Group—who shared some background about the organization and its mission.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: What role do you feel the arts can play in the movements for racial and social justice? Protests?
Michelle Taylor: The music and art bring energy and fuel to the movements. As illustrated in our origination, The Blacksmiths were launched when two musicians expressed the desire to create an artist-led march to support the racial justice movement in early June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of racial justice marches and protests. NYC-based jazz musicians Russell Hall and Michela Marino Lerman envisioned responding with an artist-led march through Harlem on Juneteenth.
A call was put out to convene a meeting with like-minded fellow artists, curators, producers and cultural leaders—primarily comprised of people of color and women—with the initial purpose to raise awareness of Juneteenth and its deserved recognition as a national holiday. In a nearly three-hour long, impactful conversation with more than 60 participants, the group dove deep into discussions about racial sensitivity and equity in the arts community and advocated for a “Freedom Summer” of continuous artist-led events supporting the racial justice movement.
Donna: How do you engage the community—in the creation of the work and/or the performance of the work?
Michelle: In our most recent activation, Juneteenth 2021, we engaged with nine Black women visual artists to showcase their work. We also commissioned the creation of an all-woman, 9-piece jazz band, the “Blacksmiths We Insist Band,” who performed a full set of protest music held down with an Afro-beat rhythm. The entire day was intentionally curated and created to engage openly with the local community and celebrating Black joy and resilience.
Donna: Please share a few examples of the impact on the events and protests your members have supported, and some of the outcomes you feel are important for people to understand.
Michelle: We realize that the work we do is ongoing and that no single event or action can offer a panacea or create change. We do aim to inspire ongoing engagement and using art and music helps this cause. Events where we have seen the greatest engagement of joy in protest include each of the 2020 and 2021 Juneteenth events; we produced a day celebrating Eric Garner; a city-wide march in observance of Wide Awakes Day; a tribute to the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and more.
Donna: How do you recruit or inspire other artists beyond your members to participate?
Michelle: We intentionally model our work to attract and engage artists, cultural curators, presenters, producers, and arts service organizational leaders to all do their part towards racial equity in their own communities. To further this goal, we created a pledge and toolkit resource on our website to provide paths towards knowledge of justice, equity and accountability in programming, hiring, community outreach, and personal growth. The Blacksmiths’ Racial Equity Resources consist of individual and institutional pledges; resources for social justice readings and trainings; a guide for implementing and developing anti-racism action plans, and more.
Donna: In what way are you inspiring and /or involving younger artists to engage this process ?
Michelle: The Blacksmiths are building an opportunities page on the website for grants and job openings that will provide opportunities for young Black artists and arts professionals.
Donna: Please share how this quote on your website from Toni Cade Bambara inspires your organization and informs your mission: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”
Michelle: Especially in these times we hope to use every opportunity possible to inspire positive change. Often it takes the unspoken and unwritten emotional energy that an artist sparks to motivate this timely and necessary change. It takes a collective effort to make revolutionary change.
We have witnessed first-hand how art, music and poetry have energized this moment. And we would like to think that Toni Cade Bambara was influenced by Nina Simone’s remarks in the documentary, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story. In that documentary, Ms. Simone discussed the role of an artist, which we also echo in our work:
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.
“And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So, I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That, to me, is the definition of an artist.”
Donna: Thank you, Michelle, for sharing the exciting and important work of The Blacksmiths! I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to check out the website at this link to learn more.
As always, I’d like to know what you think. Please share your comments below.