Almost thirty years ago I heard an administrator with Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino say "The art leads." How true that's been to me. When I didn't know what happened to my mother, my play told me she'd been in jail for five years. My mother later confirmed this. When I needed to switch careers, my character Jemima said "Stop hiding behind that podium." Art leads. It circumvents the determinism and tiny self-focus of the mind, and goes straight to the wisdom of the heart. Nothing creates community like art. Just this morning my violinist husband said he plays chamber music to break down walls, so that he can be with other people without their walls being up. Even religion relies on art to access divinity, God/Spirit within.
Nonetheless, I was caught by surprise this weekend by Jon Jang's Can't Stop Cryin' for America." There I was on a stage at SF Jazz, listening to the Jon Jangtet go all in on one of his original compositions and it just hit me how much I really liked his music. Jon had invited me to collaborate on his new piece "Can't Stop Cryin' for America; Black Lives Matter." I was sitting on a high stool waiting for my entrance.
I decided to let the music work on me.
I watched as people's heads moved in time to the music. I watched Black people look delighted and surprised as they heard the depth of Jang's Black music engagement. Funk, Mingus, gospel, jazz and his own Chinese heritage... it's all there.
I let the music work in me.
This particular number set to my "Ferguson Diaries" made a chorus out of the phrase "Hands up. Don't shoot. I want to live." I felt the command and affirmation in the music. When I jumped back in to the song, the ensemble grew louder and and the phrase shortened to "hands up." But by then, it had become a call to action, to get involved. Yet the richness of Jon's roux, of his rhythm section, kept it grounded in the musical experience. It was not a rally; this was not a speech. Jang's music was artful energy work that was infusing us with a will to "upset the set up."
I surrendered to the music, and felt some of the heaviness leave me.
Just two days earlier, the officer who had killed Philando Castille had been acquitted. My social media feeds were burning with Black people's outrage at the decision. One Black musician had urged his face book friends to "Burn. It. Down." if he was killed. He didn't want a rally or a hashtag. He expressed what a lot of us are feeling. Inside our black pumps, pressed slacks, summer dressed and dyed tresses. Rage. And not far below that--grief.
As Jang's master work progressed, we went to grief. Using "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" Jang musically called in the spiritual to express the sorrow after the massacre in the Black church in Charleston, SC. Titling his piece "More Motherless Children," Jang had asked me to write a poem on the massacre. "Sixty Minutes of Bible Study/ Six minutes of shooting/ Nine people dead" was my refrain. Words and music invited people to imagine the scenario and feel the grief personally, and to connect the recent killings to our history of enslavement, whippings, torture, and powerlessness. Yet, the music also evoked our resilience and creativity.
As I write this, I'm realizing that the Jangtet gave us a safe place to feel and a pathway to face this present moment. From my own experience, I've learned that allowing myself to feel, without judgement, is the quickest route to strength, restored balance. "Can' Stop Crying for America" created an energetic container for rage, grief and ultimately love.
For example, the two final pieces "Why did they have to shoot him so many times? (For Mario Woods and Jocelyn)" and "Yemaya" brought comfort and companionship from those who had passed on. The first piece began with a cacophony of sound symbolizing the twenty bullets hitting the unarmed Mario Wood's body. Listening and feeling the blows, I surrendered again.
I let myself trust the music.
After the spraying of the bullets, I asked the audience four times "Why did they have to shoot him so many times?" in various tones and moods. The response came via the music. A beautiful gentle melody that pointed us away from the suffering to love. I got over my fear of singing wrong, and just let myself hum along. As a Black mother, I sang love to my child, as a mother I let my child who had died comfort me. The music reminded me that underneath it all, our love can't be taken by a bullet and it can't be stopped by death. As I said at the concert, it was as if the ancestors dropped this little melody into Jon to pass on to us.
Once the music had taken us to love, how perfect then that we could call on Spirit.
We concluded with "Yemaya" a duet between the only female member of the Jangtet and me. A call to the West African Goddess of the Seas and Oceans, my poem asked Yemaya to clear us and to take back the water and heal it. Hitomi Obi, a slight Japanese American woman, wielded that saxophone like an ax as she cut through the debris, the pollutants, and the sick ideologies that poison us via everyday life, like the water the fish cannot see. They say that our spiritual resources, helpers, ancestors, G/gods can't help us without a call. This final piece made that call. Now all we have to do is listen.
For more on Jon Jang and the Asian American jazz movement see asianimprovarts.org and jonjang.com