A2SF's "The Future of the Arts Must Be Antiracist" explores the pitfalls P.O.C. face in creative communities
As a finale to its virtual Top of the Park series, the Ann Arbor Summer Fest (A2SF) had a vital discussion called "The Future of the Arts Must Be Antiracist" on July 7 about racism in the arts, streamed live on YouTube and other platforms.
While we’ve seen many discussions on race as of late, this one was particularly interesting because it addresses an issue that has been looming for a long time in Washtenaw County: the lack of racial diversity inside the local arts scene.
As a Black classically trained musician, I’ve had my fair share of feeling like an outsider in musical circles so I was delighted by this discussion. Lack of diversity is not unique to Washtenaw County, of course; it plagues all of society. But it was refreshing to hear the topic addressed in a city like Ann Arbor where there is such an influential arts festival like A2SF.
A2SF Programming and Operations Manager James Carter invited several prominent Washtenaw County Black artists and executives to describe their experiences working in the arts here. The panel consisted of Jamall Bufford, Omari Rush, Jenny Jones, and facilitator Yodit Mesfin Johnson, who talked about their backgrounds and described why it’s important to create a more inclusive environment for African-Americans in the arts.
The discussion focused on how to dismantle systemic racism instead of tokenizing change. In Carter’s opening remarks, he mentioned a few important facets of racism throughout the history of entertainment such as blackface in minstrel shows in the 19th and early 20th centuries to implicit bias in award selections today. He reported that Black actors account for only 9% of roles on Broadway and 85% of writers who work for American stages are white. In 2017, a change in leadership came to A2SF and the festival has actively changed its programming to reflect Ann Arbor’s citizens. Carter reported that only 9% of performers were artists of color in past A2SFs; this year, 45% of performers were people of color. Sadly, many performances were canceled this year because of Covid-19.
Carter apologized for A2SF's lack of diversity in leadership and programming in the past. In light of the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and others, the A2SF performance committee was galvanized to return to the work they started in fall 2019 and Carter promised more changes to come.
Yodit Mesfin Johnson, an activist and executive director of The NEW Center nonprofit, said we must face uncomfortable situations and open the door for conversations about race even if we discover that some of our white counterparts are possibly racist. She encouraged discussion to discover opportunities for moving forward toward more inclusion in thoughts and action instead of continuing to exacerbate racism through silence. I couldn’t agree more.
Jenny Jones is a singer/songwriter who also sits on the planning advisory committee for A2SF. She spoke of being more comfortable around white people when growing up because that’s who she was around since the first grade. In a powerful moment, she spoke of being in the lunch line at school as a child. She looked around and noticed that she was without her friends and was the only black child in the room. She told herself, “Don’t worry, you’ll turn into a white person later and you won’t have to stick out so much soon."
Jones talked of feeling uncomfortable with other black children because of her surroundings growing up in Ann Arbor. But she found a home in music and it helped her "express herself in a way that nothing else clicked” as she learned various instruments. While Jones is a classical music lover, she’s also an avid '90s hip-hop fan. Even though she respects all the white individuals who gave her opportunities, Jones feels some cultural aspects were missing in her youth while growing up in Ann Arbor, though she ultimately appreciates her experience here in its complexity.
Omari Rush is executive director of CultureSource, an arts and culture nonprofit based in Detroit. CultureSource, he said, has “a responsibility to elevate voices historically oppressed by privilege” while “embracing contemporary culture at its core and edges.” He encouraged people to go out and meet members of other communities to gain a better appreciation for diversity and learning while fighting implicit bias. One of the recurring themes in this discussion was just talking about race, which I believe is necessary for the growth of race relations.
Jamall Bufford, a project specialist with Washtenaw County My Brother’s Keeper, works on helping young Black men succeed despite racial obstacles, and he uses his experience as a hip-hop artist to fuel this journey. As a member of The Black Opera, Bufford felt it necessary to elevate hip-hop from “being just a marginalized field” to being respectable art. The Black Opera prides itself on performance-art shows where they change an aspect of their outfits with each song they perform. The group also feels the need to educate white listeners on the Black experience in Ann Arbor.
Bufford also said The Black Opera's performances in Ann Arbor have often been to majority-white audiences, notably at A2SF in 2018. Moving from Atlanta to Ann Arbor at 5, Bufford noticed many differences in the two towns as it came to racial and socioeconomic demographics, but he ultimately appreciated his upbringing in Washtenaw County. He stressed the importance of paying attention to our workplaces and monitoring the values that are displayed; Johnson added that it's important to allow people of color to share their experiences at their own pace, with emotional and psychological safety, in workplaces and other groups.
Arts organizations must recognize the racial disparities in their staffing, programming, and funding to help ensure POC have equal access to explore opportunities in music, theater, film, or whatever medium they desire. Plus, the people in charge of hiring, programming, and grants must be educated about implicit bias since they might not even be aware of how race is influencing their decisions.
Racism, of course, won’t be an easy fix. It is a result of centuries of systemic oppression of POC and the privilege given to the white community. But discussions like this one are a start. Thank you to A2SF for not only your willingness to change but taking the necessary steps to do so.
Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.