The members of the Art Ensemble represented “five different articulations of Africanity.”
“The musicians organized themselves as a cooperative.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Paul Steinbeck. Steinbeck is Associate Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis.His book is Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Paul Steinbeck:My book Message to Our Folks tells the story of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a group of five experimental musicians affiliated with the AACM, a Chicago-based collective of African American composers and performers. The Art Ensemble was formed in the late 1960s, a period of great political and social upheaval—in Chicago, across the United States, and around the world. Like their AACM colleagues and other 1960s musicians, the members of the Art Ensemble developed a creative practice that consciously responded to the political and social conditions they encountered in their daily lives. At the time, the biggest challenge facing the Art Ensemble was sociocultural in nature: a society that valued black music (and other forms of black cultural production) while devaluing black musicians and indeed black humanity. This peculiar dynamic is still with us today, as contemporary black artists can attest.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The paradoxical social position of black culture workers affected the Art Ensemble in many ways, most spectacularly in France. The group left Chicago in 1969 and relocated to Europe, settling initially in Paris. In 1970, after the musicians performed at a Paris concert benefiting the Black Panther Party, local authorities forced them to abandon their home and eventually chased them out of France. This incident, as well as other difficulties with record labels, concert venues, etc., convinced the members of the Art Ensemble to take charge of their destiny by establishing a set of social and business practices that would insulate the band from the political, social, and economic pressures of the culture industry. The musicians organized themselves as a cooperative, managing their expenditures and saving as much as 50% of the income that they earned from recording sessions, concerts, and merchandise sales. This strategy enabled the Art Ensemble to survive and even thrive while making experimental music and performance art, a truly extraordinary accomplishment. The Art Ensemble shows us how individuals can work cooperatively to achieve great things, even in fields usually regarded as culturally and economically marginal.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The members of the Art Ensemble were unwavering in their commitment to living and working as a cooperative, but for them cooperation did not mean giving up their individual identities. Each musician brought something unique to the group, from experiences playing different styles of music to explorations of poetry, theater, and other art forms. They even dressed differently on stage, some members favoring street clothes and others preferring to wear face paint, masks, and African or Asian attire. As the AACM composer and historian George Lewis observed, the members of the Art Ensemble represented “five different articulations of Africanity.”In other words, the Art Ensemble consistently demonstrated that black artists need not conform to anyone else’s image of blackness—a rather radical notion that can only become reality with the support of a fiercely loyal community.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I have learned something from everyone I studied with and every book I’ve read. But after spending several years researching and writing Message to Our Folks, I consider the members of the Art Ensemble to be my most enduring intellectual and personal heroes. All five group members came from working-class families, and they started, but did not finish, college. Some people tend to assume that individuals from seemingly unremarkable backgrounds have little hope of succeeding, let along changing a world riven by inequity and structural racism. But the five members of the Art Ensemble beat the odds and became essential figures in experimental music and performance art. They also earned a number of individual distinctions: Roscoe Mitchell was an award-winning composer and professor of music composition, Malachi Favors Maghostut was a respected community leader on Chicago’s South Side, Lester Bowie was a tireless advocate for musicians in his adopted hometown of Brooklyn, Shaku Joseph Jarman was a martial artist and Buddhist priest, and Famoudou Don Moye was a polyglot who conducted the Art Ensemble’s business in four languages. If Mitchell, Favors, Bowie, Jarman, and Moye had never met, they might have been able to accomplish some of these things on their own—but I’m convinced that they arrived at their full potential, as musicians and as human beings, because of their shared experiences in the Art Ensemble.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Message to Our Folks shows us that progress is within reach if we follow the Art Ensemble’s example: find a few friends who share your dream, work together with diligence, and never give up. The members of the Art Ensemble stayed together for decades, transforming the fields of experimental music and performance art—and, in the process, transforming themselves.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]