Happy Black History Month and welcome back to the EXCEL Log! This month we’ve been celebrating Black history by featuring student artists and talking about the contributions of Black artists to music, theatre, and dance. In this vein, it’s also important that we take a moment to focus on anti-racism, which is why today’s post focuses on how Black art forms can be used to decolonize the arts. Ideas for these concepts came from conversations with School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) students and faculty, and I enjoyed spending time broadening my knowledge on these topics. Read on to learn more!
In addition to celebrating Black lives, and emphasizing Black joy, I believe that Black history month can also be used as a catalyst for change, especially in the arts world. Before we can even begin to think about what decolonizing the arts looks like, we must first discuss colonization. As defined by Decolonizing the Music Room, “Colonization, in the term’s most simplified use, is a system in which a central power dominates and controls another land, its people, and its resources – with land taken over being established as a colony.” When you map this term onto the arts world, this looks like hyper-focusing on western classical music, European ballet, or white-dominated theatre and deeming it superior to other forms. It looks like suppressing performance forms originating in Black, indigenous, Asian, latine, and other marginalized cultures and assigning them superficial functions within performing arts education. It can involve limiting Black artists to certain genres (e.g) hip hop or rap and then exhibiting resistance when those artists try to break free of molds assigned to them. To decolonize performing arts education, we must push back against these norms. We must amplify performing arts methods of marginalized identities that are often overlooked and understudied in our society.
Decolonization is important because it makes space for people who do not see themselves reflected in the performing arts industry as it stands now. I cannot speak enough about how isolating it is to be preached to about “the greats” in classical music making and rarely, almost never, see people who look like me on that list. My colleagues in the dance department have expressed frustration with the lack of classes focusing on dances of the African diaspora. Students in the theatre department and musical theatre departments have called for the performance of more works created by Black artists. Nationwide, there is a call among Black artists to be given the space in performing arts that they deserve. Decolonization is a path toward that aim.
To try and break down decolonization within the arts would take several blog posts, but to celebrate Black artists doing the work, here are four Black performance concepts that work to decolonize the arts by nature, and, if they are studied in arts education and more widely, can be used as a catalyst to decolonize the performing arts industry:
Yusef Lateef and Autophysiopsychic music
I first heard of Yusef Lateef, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, when I was searching for jazz pieces for oboe. There aren’t that many out there, as the oboe is not traditionally used in jazz. However, I finally came across a piece titled Oboe Blues that Yusef Lateef performed and composed. I quickly became very interested in Lateef and his music, particularly autophysiopsychic music. He described autophysiopsychic music as “music from the “physical, mental and spiritual self.” Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education allows students to learn the fundamentals of music and the spiritual aspects essential to expression and style.
Lateef published a book titled “Method on How to Perform Autophysiopsychic Music” which entails ways for musicians to practice the art form. The book includes 12 lesson plans that articulate his musical and compositional style and give students ways to develop their memory and creativity. For example, there is a chapter on using different scales for innovative musical phrasing techniques. He also includes methods on Blues and song forms, along with various iterations of introducing different creative concepts, and providing exercises to learn those concepts. In general, some may say that autophysiopsychic music is similar to improvisation because it involves creating music on the spot without notation. However, Lateef maintains that “the word ‘improvisation’ as it relates to music means: to present music resulting from prior practice and study; and ‘autophysiopsychic’ means: music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”
Incorporating Lateef’s music into music education works toward decolonization because it not only exposes students to teachings by non-white musicians, thus welcoming those of marginalized identities more thoroughly into the music-making process, but it also goes beyond western notions of classical music teaching. It asks musicians to think of music in a spiritual way, opening the door for musicians to expand their musicianship beyond the technical. There are many instances where musicians, who may not have access to private teachers, arts intensives, or professional training learn music by ear. I’ve seen this done at the church I grew up in and some of my favorite artists learned music this way – by learning to feel music in their bodies without strictly adhering to notes or words on a page. Autophysiopsychic music is similar to this practice. Though musicians learning the genre are still encouraged to study scales, it goes beyond the methodical and brings about a language that suggests the intangible aspects of music, the ones having to do with emotions and our relationship with sound.
Many non-western music forms, such as drumming in Congolese dance, ask musicians to feel the music, not the page, to learn the form. I experienced this in a Congolese dance class at UM, where we were asked to learn the sounds of different cues that the drums made. Drum rhythms were taught by one person mimicking another, changing rhythm without following sheet music. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music into music education emphasizes the validity of learning music in non-traditional ways, thus pushing back against the notion of a homogenous and colonial way of learning.
Katherine Dunham and Dunham Technique
I asked some of my colleagues in the dance department about ways to work toward decolonization in dance. In that conversation, we talked about the work of Katherine Dunham. She was an anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and founder of the first Black dance company. She developed the Dunham technique, which is a fusion of African and Caribbean dance styles with European Style Ballet. Dunham’s approach to dance is polyrhythmic in that it is often done to the beat of multiple drummers. In Dunham, you work with turnout, and barre as you would in European Ballet, but you also work with counter rhythms in your body – one body part doing a different rhythm than another. Dunham also utilizes a strong and articulate torso, unlike other dance forms.
Check out this video of some dancers doing the Dunham technique, and see what elements you can identify:
Katherine Dunham decolonizes the arts through technique, positioning non-western European forms as equal to European dance forms. Dunham’s extensive research in “Haiti, Martinique, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Mexico, and Brazil to better understand the cultural significance of movement” allowed her to center these cultures and apply their frameworks in her teaching. Though I haven’t taken a Dunham dance class, I’ve seen the style in performance. It’s a beautiful art form, and I felt the energy and collaborative spirit among the dancers. Dr. Albirda Rose, Director of the Dunham Technique Certification Board says, the three most important things to bring to a Dunham class are an open mind, body and spirit,” and you can feel this openness in the audience as well.
Dunham’s work decolonizes by promoting intercultural communication, not cultural destruction, as seen in many colonized histories. By incorporating Dunham and other dance forms that exist both within and outside of the African diaspora we can give space to multiple cultures, and push back against a colonial framework.
Black Theatre; Black Performance
I reached out to Andrew Otchere, a fellow EXCEL program assistant, looking for ways decolonization can manifest in theatre. He mentioned taking a class on Black theatre and its history and sent me the syllabus. I began exploring. At a basic level, Black theatre involves “the presence of black artists on the scene; a dramaturgy that addresses issues related to blackness and the social issues experienced by the black population; a black production; or the presence of a Black director” However, these characteristics alone do not make Black theatre. Black theatre is a broad concept that cannot be limited to a single definition.
In a poem titled “New Black Math” by Suzan Lori Parks, she writes “A Black play is angry, double-voiced but rarely confused, intellectual and deep. A Black play got a mission. A black play dreams the impossible dream.” I think this could be said about a lot of Black artists in various disciplines. Whether we are specifically creating things based on our experience as Black people, or not, our existence in the performing arts is as Audre Lorde says, “political warfare” because we are choosing to carve space for ourselves in a tradition that did not originally welcome us.
Though there are likely many instances of Black Theatre that were not recorded in history, the first known Black theatre group in the US was the African Company – founded in 1820 by William Alexander Brown, a free Black man from the West Indies. The company performed in a lower Manhattan theater called The African Grove. Though they performed Shakespearean dramas, what is more notable is their production of King Shotaway, written by Brown himself, which was probably the first play written and performed by Black people. The African Company closed in 1823 and the reason for its ending is unclear. This NY Times article shares more of the African theatre’s history including potential reasons for disbanding. The article says that one reason could be due to an attack on the theatre because Brown dared to present a Shakespearean drama on the same night as a white theatre presenting a rival Shakespearean production. There was also a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1822 which wiped out Brown’s audience, and the last playbill for the African Theatre is dated June 1823.
When the company closed, most of the opportunities left for Black actors were those involving Blackface minstrelsy, a practice that perpetuated white supremacy and thus colonization by diminishing Black existence to racial caricatures. However, by the 1900s Black people began to make space for themselves within the theatre. Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel became a success by 1916, and many Black Theatre companies emerged during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1930s in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C the tradition continued to grow from there, with works by Garland Anderson (creator of Appearances, the first play by a Black author to hit broadway), and Langston Hughes. After world war II, Black theatre grew more progressive. Councils were also created to try to abolish racial stereotypes in theatre, and further integrate Black artists into the American theatre industry and works began to portray the difficulties of being Black in America. Parts of Black theatre grew revolutionary, with the emergence of the Black Arts movement. It is said to be established by Amiri Baraka but artists such as Sonia Sanchez, Askia Touré, and Ntozake Shange also contributed significantly to its growth. Artists of the Black Arts movement are often seen as working in tandem with the Black Power movement. They wanted to create works that exposed the struggles of Black people in America, emphasizing Black economic and cultural autonomy.
Black theatre continued to thrive with widely acclaimed playwrights August Wilson and Suzan Lori Parks. August Wilson is the creator of the widely acclaimed plays “Fences” and “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom” – both award-winning productions that eventually obtained movie adaptations. Suzan Lori Parks was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and like Wilson illustrates the complexities of the Black American experience in her work.
Black theatre continues to flourish with more recent creatives like Tarell Alvin McClaney, whose unpublished play was adapted into the acclaimed film Moonlight Also, with Michael R. Jackson, creator of the Tony award-winning “A Strange Loop,” a musical illustrating the unique experience of Black queerness, and Jeremy O. Harris, who confronts the complexity that the legacy of racism in America can have on interracial relationships in “Slave play.” Black theatre traverses the stage and screen, it relates to audiences familiar with the theatre world and those outside of it, and its existence decolonizes the arts by putting the Black experience – in all of its complex forms – at the forefront.
Black theatre is not a monolith. Each element of Black theatre in each performance is distinct and should be regarded as such. However, Black theatre in every form “encompasses the soul and spirit of Black people, and represents our whole experience of being here in this oppressive land”. While the United States is multicultural, aesthetic value is shaped by the dominant European culture. So, to further decolonization within the arts, Black theatre, like Black music, should be extensively studied, performed, and considered equal to European and white-dominant theatre.
Afrofuturism is a genre that centers Black history and culture and incorporates science-fiction, technology, and futuristic elements into literature, music, and the visual arts. In a conversation with Prof. Antonio Cuyler, he mentioned the ways Afrofuturism works toward decolonizing the arts. The genre imagines impossible futures like science fiction but creates an aesthetic invested in the beauty of Blackness, and can also involve spirituality, an escape from reality, or an examination of real-world problems.
Afrofuturism is prolific in music, with artists such as Sun Ra and Janelle Monae offering plenty of examples. Sun Ra, a prominent musician of Afrofuturism from the 1930s-1990s, created futuristic sounds that incorporated Egyptian mythology. He literally described himself as “a musical astronaut, sailing through galaxies through the medium of sound.” Janelle Monae is an artist I am particularly passionate about, due to her genre-bending music – which is both imaginative and socially conscious. She takes an intersectional approach to Afrofuturism by incorporating her experience as a Black queer woman into her music. For example, her album The ArchAndroid, uses androids to represent the marginalized and oppressed and tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, who is on the run for her crime of falling in love with a human.
Check out Janelle Monae’s “emotion picture” Dirty Computer where she tells the story of another android in her Afrofuturist universe, Jane. Monae also celebrates Blackness and queerness by incorporating what seems to be her own experience in the song “Django Jane” and emphasizes the fluidity of sexuality and gender in the songs “Pynk” and “Make me feel.”
In dance, Raissa Simpson incorporated Afrofuturism in her project Mothership, a trilogy of performances that examines race and gender, speculative fiction, anti-colonialism, current events and social movements.
Check out this clip of highlights from Mother ship 3 to get a glimpse of the performance:
The Last Blues Song of a Lost Afronaut illustrates Afrofuturism by embodying a world in which Black people were not affected by European colonialism. The theatrical experience is set millennia into the future where Afronaut Femi travels through space in search of life on other planets. She then recreates the last survivor of a desolate world Maya, who is a white girl, a being Femi has never seen before.
The study of Afrofuturism can be used to decolonize the arts because it not only pushes back against a eurocentric way of thinking, but it has an investment in Black history and culture. It imagines worlds without the effects of colonization while taking into account the current experiences of Black people. Afrofuturism transcends genre. It embodies a space where Black people can be unapologetically themselves, without conforming to white-centric notions.
Overall, by studying these Black art concepts and others, we can give a voice to the unheard. Incorporating autophysiopsychic music, Dunham technique, Black Theatre, and Afrofuturism into arts education and our own individual learning can broaden horizons and amplify Black voices. These art forms make space for Black people in a world that often excludes them. As a Black artist in the performing arts industry, I have spent a lot of time searching for art forms that I see myself in, because I do not see myself in the traditional canon. There are so many Black art forms flourishing and it’s great to know that I am not alone in working toward decolonization. Even if we cannot fully erase the impact of white supremacy and colonialism on the arts and within society as a whole, we can take the time to learn more and celebrate Black artists and amplify their voices. I hope by reading this post you found new Black arts techniques to learn from and to influence your own artistry, which can further the effort to decolonize the arts and pave the way for a new future within the arts and beyond.
Learn about Afro Pessimism, another concept evident in hip hop that if studied can work toward decolonizing the arts
Read some of Sonia Sanchez’s poetry
Learn more about Michael R. Jackson’s musical, A Strange Loop