Generosity as a guiding principle of life as an artist

By Yaw Agyeman

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In the summer of 2007, I had a phone conversation that changed my life.

“You shouldn’t have to compete with the clamor of beer bottles and the noise of the day. You’ve been given a gift, and your gift should be shared in settings where it is appreciated. I want to help you with that.”

Since that conversation with Theaster Gates, I’ve performed with his group The Black Monks of Mississippi at many major art exhibitions and institutions including documenta 13, Whitney Biennial, Art Basel, the Serralves Foundation, the Menil Collection and the Venice Biennale, to name a few.

For the first time, I also have the opportunity to show my work in a public forum as a solo “visual artist” at the American University Museum. A few years ago, I would have never believed these were possible ticks on my timeline. Theaster made good on his almost ten year promise and in the process has shifted how I think about generosity and its place in my artistic practice.

Years ago, when I was still singing in music clubs and bars, DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson played a song of mine on his BBC1 radio show and later placed it on his 2008 compilation Brownswood Bubblers 3.The song Where Will You Be was masterfully conceived by my brother and partner in crime Khari Lemuel and recorded in his hot and creaky bedroom. Gilles gave the song some beautiful legs in the commercial music industry, but I couldn’t capitalize on the momentum because, I later realized, I am not ultimately a recording artist. I am a sound artist. I create moments. I work to affect the spirit and conjure the ancestors. Manufacturing and reproduction for mass consumption are not my specialties nor my calling. Many years of reworking and rearranging, forcing and frustration brought me to this epiphany. Theaster’s work and his invitation offered me the vocabulary to articulate my heart’s inclinations and the environment in which to practice them, a space where I could reimagine and play. It has been crucial to my development as an artist and a human being.

My first performance as a member of the Black Monks of Mississippi took place at The Little Black Pearl in 2009, an educational institution that builds their programs at the intersection of art, culture and entrepreneurship.

The show was weird and funky, and it started and stopped like a fly car that needed work, but it was so beautiful, and liberating.

We were practicing the art of singing, playing with words and melodies out of and in time. It was through this rigor that I developed the idea of a practice. Theaster called us to remember what it meant to utter as opposed to sing, and how it felt to wait and then to lose yourself when waiting was enough. And we did it in real time, with an audience. It changed me forever. I had never performed with such fervor and restraint and possibility. I had never been asked to be as big and as small as I was. I had not been asked to share like that. Prior to this performance and encounter, I was not thinking about my voice as an instrument. I was thinking about it as a product, as a means to a profit. Now, important questions were being asked of me, and my spirit was moving to answer them. At the Black Pearl, on that evening and for the first time, I was being asked to use my gifts to expose my heart. This was a lesson that has shifted how I think about performance and breathing and loving.

Two years ago, through a residency with the Rebuild Foundation, another of Theaster’s projects, I had the opportunity to further investigate my voice and my practice. The residency evolved out of an interest with my father’s musical tastes and how that might inform my present and future musical occupations. The work took place in the Listening House, originally a local candy store, now renovated to accommodate the Dr. Wax record collection (a local record store that had been a staple in Chicago for 30 years), portions of the Johnson Publishing Library and remaining stock from the now-closed Prairie Avenue Books. During the week, I listened to my father’s albums and some vinyl from the Dr. Wax collection. On Sunday, the response to my listening culminated in a public service called Work on the Sabbath, where I collaborated with a number of artists across disciplines. We practiced sharing — space, music, conversations, and food — with each other and the community. And we still do so on a monthly basis. What the residency revealed to me is that as an artist I am more interested in sharing than entertaining. Entertainment requires a “me” and a “you,” while sharing focuses on an “us.” Perhaps my conversation with Theaster and his follow-through made the notion of generosity a bit sexier, or maybe he unearthed some ideas that were already present in my body.

During the residency, one day out of the week I opened the door of the Listening House so that the music might waft into the street. A passerby might walk in or maybe a congregation or two might form itself on the sidewalk on such an occasion. One magical day, five children stood at the opening and one boldly asked, “Can we come in?” Happily, I said “Yes!” At the time, Peace Pipe by B. T. Express was in mid-groove and the kids slid right into it. The joy with which they danced and the comfort that accompanied their rhythms filled me so. That open door was an invitation to be free.

I just started reading the book The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and he says something that has stuck with me: “I want to convince people that personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing.”

I’m a common man with perhaps an uncommon gift, but I’m not the baddest in the land. I know vocalists that confound, but they’ll probably never perform at the Eldorado Ballroom or process the grounds of the Serralves Museum. And perhaps they don’t care to. But my singing ability itself does not justify these fuller and more special possibilities I’ve enjoyed as an artist.

I have merely been a recipient of a beautiful generosity. I have moved in the art world by the reaching of hands and the warmth of hearts. A seed planted and watered bore fruit. I bear witness.

Now that I sit and sup at tables of artists that I could have only imagined previously, I’ve come to understand how expensive those seats are and how rare an invitation. When I review the tape of my journey thus far, I’m sure that it was catalyzed by an invitation. The invitation to join Theaster in his artistic endeavors also was an invitation to uncover my own practice and to investigate my own passions. I believe these invitations, from those that are farther along the path to those that are just finding their way, should be less rare and more frequent. There are babies that just need to go right at a fork, and the words and hands and hearts of more experienced artists might steer them in a proper direction. And those people and institutions that have no idea that we exist can profit so much from our questions and answers, our courage and our presence and our love.

Each one of us has the power to unlock and to set free the potential of others. I challenge you all, especially those who are in possession of keys to rooms seldom seen.

I challenge you to be generous. I challenge you to make invitations.

I challenge you to share. And I challenge you to do it again.

Yaw Agyeman has performed on both the theatrical and musical stage and is a member of the artistic collaboration Black Monks of Mississippi.
Follow him on Instagram @thursdayboy and Twitter @yawsmusic.

Photo: “Boogie on – The day the babies blessed me in the Listening House.” by Yaw Agyeman. Used with permission.

Published March 17, 2016

  • Liz Lerman

    wonderful to hear all the connections held within these stories. thanks for sharing this journey of yours.

Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons