Category Archives: Uncategorized


Welcome back to the EXCEL Log! I hope your semester is going well. I know mine is crazy right now, with rehearsals, performing at concert after concert, working for EXCEL and the DEI office, and applying for grants for future projects. This means that I’m TIRED, so, it’s the perfect time to talk about burnout. Read on to learn more about burnout, potentially relate to my story, and consider ways to overcome it.

I initially wrote this article over the summer (in July 2022) when I was recovering from an intense wave of burnout from November 2021-June 2022. I then put it away for a while and came back to it in November 2022. I then put it away again, and after having some conversations with Paola Savvidou, program manager for the SMTD Wellness Initiative, decided to finish this piece. I write things to process. Most of the time I don’t write about topics I know everything about or problems I solved. I typically end up writing about something I’m still trying to figure out, and I try to find solutions in the process of creating. That is exactly what this article does, and the topic of burnout fits into the processing category perfectly. When I was fresh from burnout myself, I didn’t think there was any clear way to overcome or prevent it from happening. After having the opportunity to talk to Paola and read more about it my thoughts on burnout started to change. 

My therapist asked me once, “When did I start feeling (what I called) ‘The Big Sad’ or ‘Burnout’?” I had a hard time pinpointing the exact moment I felt this way because there were happy moments mixed in. But somewhere in between the COVID-19 pandemic, working 40+ hours a week, and the nagging of the future calling, I started to feel it – burnout. 

Burnout is defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”  Freudenberger says burnout has 3 components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion- the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
  2. Depersonalization- the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment- the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

If you’re not sure if you’re burnt out, you can pay for the Maslach Burnout Inventory which is “recognized as the leading measure of Burnout” or you can take this free Burnout self-test. The Maslach Burnout inventory has tests for a variety of career disciplines including educators and students. It measures levels of cynicism, exhaustion, professional efficacy, and depersonalization to identify burnout. The burnout self-test offers questions for people to assess how they feel about their profession to assess their risk of burnout. 

Whether you take a test or define it for yourself, burnout can be debilitating, especially for performing artists. You may sit there practicing your instrument agonizing over each minute. Maybe, the thought of singing a song, or reading a monologue, brings immediate fatigue. It’s possible you’d rather sit in your apartment and watch tv than go to the studio to dance. 

I wasn’t sure where my burnout came from. Maybe I was burnt out because I also had (and still have) other non-creative jobs on top of my creative work, which pays my rent. Being lower or middle class, as I am, can mean that pursuing a career in the arts is especially difficult. You often must keep working at a job that pays while also working at a job that is not (not yet hopefully) paying you at all. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Are there people out there who enjoy this? Working tirelessly so you can have a roof over your head and then only coming home to do more work that isn’t currently providing for you?

Maybe the burnout I felt came from my creative profession itself and not just the hours of working. According to “An Investigation of Burnout Assessment and Potential Job-Related Variables Among Public School Music Educators,” burnout is often associated with people in “helping professions” such as teaching, consulting, or nursing. I would argue that the performing arts can also be considered a “helping profession” given that in most cases we are expected to put on a performance that elicits some kind of emotion from others. I feel that as artists we perform for ourselves as well, we have a passion for performance that fulfills us. However, I think performing for others and the expectation to please them is a big part of it. Perhaps it’s the emotional toll of people’s expectations and opinions that can cause burnout. Maybe, the pressure to perform – and perform well – is why we get exhausted to the point where we don’t want to perform at all. After all, a study by Benjamin Hyun Stocking from the University of Kentucky found that “performance anxiety was a strong predictor of burnout” (nice to know that something as hard to control as that can cause burnout too!) 

Regardless of where the burnout came from, I deeply felt the different components of it. From November 2021- June 2022, I experienced extreme emotional exhaustion from caring so much about music and performing well for over 12 years. I felt a decreased sense of accomplishment because I could not be financially stable with music alone, and I then felt a deep sense of depersonalization due to the frustration caused by pouring so much energy into my artistic craft, only to yield what felt like little rewards. 

I didn’t feel ok in this state. It’s not that I wanted to quit playing my instrument or composing, I just wished it came easier. I saw others joyfully documenting their progress on social media and wondered why I didn’t feel the same. I decided to start looking for solutions.

After Google searching for answers on how to cure burnout among artists, I found some suggestions. For actors, blogger “upward failing actor” says to try theatre if you’re more of a film actor or join an acting class that is more interesting to you, make your own stuff, and most importantly rest. For musicians, Kate Glassman’s fiddle school suggests being gentle with yourself, playing things you enjoy, listening to music you love, and remembering that you won’t always want to practice, and guess what? Rest! Dancers: focus on the quality of training and not quantity, try other methods of movement like yoga, and most importantly Rest! All of this seemed like a good idea, but at the time it felt like no matter what I tried, the burnout wouldn’t go away.  I played the music I loved but then didn’t want to go back to practicing orchestral excerpts. I tried to compose music but wanted to just sit and watch tv instead. I rested, but then didn’t want to get out of bed. I kept judging the little work I did, despite trying to remind myself to be kind.

As I stated above, one of the things that helped me finish this article was a meeting with Paola Savvidou, where she shared information about a book on burnout that really changed my outlook on the topic. 

Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of “Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle” offer tips that can be used to both overcome burnout and potentially prevent it from happening. In a podcast interview with Brené Brown, Anna, and Emily describe emotions as a tunnel. Burnout happens when we get stuck in that tunnel, instead of doing what we need to do to get to the light on the other side. One reason why we get stuck in this emotional tunnel is that we do not complete the stress cycle. The stress cycle includes all the emotions we are feeling in a stressful situation. Emotions have a beginning, middle, and end, and just because we remove stressors from our lives, that does not mean the stress cycle is complete. That does not mean we processed those emotions. When you remove stressors, you still must “deal with the stress itself separately,” stress that may still reside in your body even after the stressors are gone. For example, if you have a big project due, and this work has the potential to cause burnout, there are different methods you can use to complete the stress cycle to process the tension that remains once you finish that project, and you have to find the one that works for you.

Anna and Emily say that one of the most efficient ways to complete the stress cycle is physical activity, whether that be running, yoga, or just taking a walk. Another method is breathing. Anna Nagoski says: 

“Breathing…regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and a slow, long breath out, all the way to the ends of your abdominal muscles. That’s how you know you’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to regulate the central nervous system. It is the gentlest way to complete the stress cycle.” 

She also points out that it’s ok if your thoughts are racing while you do this, saying the point of this is that you notice your mind racing, and you “return your attention to the breath coming into your body and the breath leaving your body. When you don’t have time to do anything else, it can also just siphon off the very worst of it, so that you’re well enough to continue through the situation.” Other methods to complete the stress cycle include positive social interaction, which could be as small as a quick compliment from someone, deep true laughter, a long hug with a loved one, or a good cry. All of these are ways to deal with stress so that it does not get stuck in your body, allowing you to overcome, or even prevent burnout. When I was dealing with burnout, I did a lot of deep breathing anytime I felt stressed. I also did a lot of yoga, it helped me relax and was a way to move my body without over-exerting myself.

I believe burnout is different for everyone. There is no “one size fits all” fix, and frankly, it’s probably not going to go away that easily. For me, burnout is like the pandemic at this moment, we must figure out how to cope, and how to live with it as it comes up. Living with COVID looks like getting vaccinated or wearing a mask and attending to your comfort levels. Hopefully, COVID will completely go away at some point, and I now know burnout eventually subsides. However, both situations require you to find what works for you. Living with burnout can look like figuring out what you want to accomplish and the deadlines you need, the rewards you need to provide yourself, and carving out the rest you specifically need to achieve your goals. 

For me, to live with burnout, I just had to accept it was happening. I spent the summer sleeping a lot, I spent too much money on a trip to New York. I carved out 3 hours a day for work (for my part-time job that paid rent – Thank God for flexible hours), one hour for practicing the oboe, one hour a day to compose, 30 min a day for physical activity, and nothing more – because that was all I could manage. This forced some sense of progress, while also giving me space to stare blankly at a wall, sleep, and feel and process the burnout.  When the semester started, I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t burnt out anymore. I’m still not sure what exactly caused it to subside. Maybe it was the time I gave myself to rest or the fact that I stopped fighting it and just lived with it. It also could have subsided because I gave myself time to breathe, exercise a little, spend time with family, and address the stress I was feeling for so long. Perhaps through this, I was able to complete the stress cycle.

If you are dealing with burnout now, and you feel hopeless, hold on to any glimmer of hope you can find. Check out the Nagoski’s burnout book mentioned above, take advantage of some of the many resources offered by the Wellness Initiative, talk to friends and family, and rest. Don’t be afraid to take small steps and celebrate the small victories, and know that even though burnout sucks, you’re not alone and will eventually get through it.

Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log! I hope you find time to rest and check out the EXCEL Log for more resources and blog posts on navigating life in the performing arts! 

Resources on Burnout from Wellness Initiative Program Manager Paola Savvidou: 

Campus Mind Works “coping with stress and burnout” asynchronous presentation (you can also access it from this website if the link is not working:

Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle (book by Emily & Amelia Nagoski)

Brené Brown podcast episode with Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski 

Burnout self-test 

Burning Brightly Without Burning Out by Brenda Wristen


Additional resources on mental health and the Black Experience: 

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience

Image source:

4 Black Arts Concepts for Decolonization

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. 

Additional Resources: 

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

Image Sources:

Happy Hispanic/Latine Heritage Month!

Image description: The words Celebrating Hispanic/Latina/o/x heritage month September 15th-October 15th are written in multiple colors.

Happy Hispanic/Latine heritage month! In case you didn’t know Hispanic/Latine heritage month takes place from September 15th through October 15th each year. Since this year’s blog just launched with an intro post, I thought now would be a great time to celebrate! 

First, a little history. 

Hispanic Heritage” month was originally “Hispanic Heritage” week, and it was created by then-president Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The celebration was soon expanded from one week to one month, in 1988, by then-president Ronald Reagan. On August 17, 1988, the recognition of the “Hispanic Heritage month” we know today, which lasts from September 15th through October 15th was enacted into law. 

I put “Hispanic Heritage month” in quotations above because the term Hispanic does not emphasize all of the groups that are included in the month. Though many people use “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Latinx” interchangeably, there is a difference between the terms. “Hispanic” now refers to anyone who speaks Spanish, though this excludes Brazil, whose primary language is Portuguese. Some people take issue with the term Hispanic because it originally referred to Spain, a country that at one point colonized many countries (including Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Philippines among many others) that have since gained their independence. For this reason, many people identify with the term “Latino or Latina” which refers to any person from Latin America or of Latin American descent that is currently living in the United States. However, Latino/a is not the same as the term “Latin American” which refers to any person living in Latin America. 

Since Spanish is a gendered language with masculine and feminine spellings for words, the term,  Latinx, was coined as a gender-neutral alternative. Some people are against this term as well though, because “Latinx” is harder to pronounce according to the Real Academia Española (the group that maintains the consistency of the Spanish language). Others argue that the word latinx was imposed by non-Latino whites, but some say that the term was created by queer latinx people. Finally, there is the term Latine which is used as another gender-neutral alternative. It was created by feminist and nonbinary communities. According to El Centro at Colorado State University “The objective of the term is also to remove gender from Spanish, by replacing it with the gender-neutral Spanish letter E, which can already be found in words like Estudiante.” In addition, some people just like to be referred to by their specific country of origin, instead of using a term that unites all Latin American countries. 

Terminology is important. The words we use can be powerful in understanding one another and learning about varying perspectives. Further, broadening your horizons, beyond terminology and history can be one way to celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage month. 

With that effort in mind, I thought I would gain the perspective of two Latine students at SMTD to see how they feel about the month and the ways they celebrate. 

When talking to 4th-year BA dance student Annabella Vidrio, she says that she “doesn’t like Latine Heritage month events that are just lectures that educate others outside the community.”  

However, she does think that the Office for Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) took that into consideration when planning their events this year.  “I went to the Latinx Heritage Month Opening Ceremony and I plan on attending more of the other events too. I just enjoyed seeing my community and going to an event that celebrates us,” says Vidrio. She believes “Hispanic/Latine programs should be celebratory events for those who share a Hispanic/Latine identity and allies.” 

MM in Violin Performance and Chamber performance student Javier Torres believes that it’s important to celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage and that celebrating the month looks different to each person.  “I think because I haven’t been in the US for that long, celebrating my culture is different for me. I still feel connected to Puerto Rico and when I go home, that’s where I celebrate. I think Hispanic/Latine heritage month is especially for people who have been in the US longer, it’s a time that they can remember their roots, celebrate their families, abuelos, and abuelas,” says Javier Torres.

“I am so honored to have a month that is dedicated to honoring my culture which is a melding of so many cultures.  Particularly where I am from, Puerto Rico, we have a beautiful mix of African, Taíno (Indigenous Caribbeans), Spanish, Arabic, and many other cultures.” -Javier Torres

Just because people have different backgrounds, does not mean they can’t find ways to relate to one another. Javier believes that Hispanic/Latine heritage month should be about all Hispanic/Latine cultures coming together and being in community with one another, while allies support them in that effort. 

SMTD still has an opportunity for growth in supporting Hispanic/Latine students.

So far, SMTD has advertised MESA Hispanic/Latine heritage month events on social media. The SMTD Office for DEI also did Instagram takeovers sharing resources on Hispanic/Latine heritage month. However, many feel that SMTD as an institution still needs to create more tangible initiatives to support Hispanic/Latine communities. Javier says that “if [SMTD is] doing Hispanic/Latine heritage month we have to go all out, with Bomba events, Salsa events, El Jarabe Tapatío, and more. We need to incorporate Hispanic/Latine culture into the music, theatre, and dance.” Offering internal programs to both support Hispanic/Latine students and properly celebrate Hispanic/Latine heritage month could establish a stronger sense of belonging among Latine students. An effort that is especially needed, since the white-dominated fine arts world is often one that excludes them. 

Annabella also believes that SMTD needs to do more to support Hispanic/Latine students. She thinks that “presence is the most important thing. Supporting Hispanic/Latine people and DEI in the arts should be about an emphasis on bringing our school and its resources to people of diverse backgrounds, not just advantaged ones.”

In addition to planning for the future, SMTD as a school needs to extend its reach to marginalized communities and work internally to support the marginalized students that are here now. All performers, composers, artists, students, and faculty members both within SMTD and outside of it need to be more intentional about the ways we uplift marginalized voices. Working together, we can create tangible strategies to facilitate systemic change. Yes, performers/conductors can program more works by BIPOC composers, but this needs to be more than just tokenism on a few choice concerts. Representation is important; it fosters a sense of belonging among marginalized artists and encourages more marginalized people to take up performing arts disciplines. Yes, professors can offer classes on “Hispanic/Latine music forms,” but they need to be more specific about accurately representing the wealth of cultures and styles that exist so students can broaden their horizons beyond western classical music, and thus enhance their creativity. Yes, everyone can read a quick article or watch a video on Hispanic/Latine heritage month, but we need to continually celebrate Hispanic and Latine people, listen to their perspectives and learn to dismantle any unconscious bias or stereotypes. These actions, if applied in relation to both Hispanic/Latine and all BIPOC communities, will allow students of these marginalized identities to feel seen and valued in the performing arts, redefining the meaning of the performing arts canon and who has a place within it.

Hispanic/Latine heritage month should be about making space for Hispanic/Latine identities within the arts and beyond. SMTD and EXCEL have plenty of funding, performance, and collaboration opportunities, and all students, faculty, and staff can use these resources to make room for identities that are often silenced. Through this, and by continuing to broaden our perspectives, we can learn more from one another, and create art that is by and for everyone. 

Thanks for tuning into this post! If you’re curious about what our guest contributors Annabella and Javier are doing, you can look forward to seeing Annabella Vidrio in the Annual Dance concert at Power Center for the Performing Arts in February. She is also performing in her sister Ariel Vidrio’s BFA concert in April. Javier Torres will be performing Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Violin Concerto Op. 80 in the Sphinx Competition in January. More information about the dance concerts can be found here. To learn more about Sphinx visit

Additional Sources Consulted:


Image description: People of all ages sit outside, some looking at the camera some not. The words the invention of Hispanics is written on the bottom, and the beginning lines of an article are written beneath that text. Click the image to learn more.

Image from Florida Atlantic University:

Introducing the New EXCEL Log Writer, Mattie Levy!

Image description: Mattie Levy, the person writing for this blog stands in a clearing with green trees and a pond blurred in the background. She is smiling and happily waving her arms. The words Introducing the new Excel Log writer Mattie Levy are written at the bottom of the image.

Hi, I’m Mattie! I’m a first-year master’s student pursuing an MM in oboe performance AND an MA in music composition and I’m so excited to be here writing on the EXCEL Log!  I went to UM for undergrad, so I came into my master’s having already been a part of many organizations within the campus community. You can also find me working as a (now Graduate) student coordinator for the SMTD office for DEI, a poet on the arts, ink. column “Mannerisms,” and leading events as a Black Leaders in Art Collective executive committee member.  

Aside from my other activities, EXCEL has been critical to my success as a musician here at SMTD. I think the reason I was able to pursue graduate school here is that I had coachings with EXCEL staff to help bolster my career.  My resume and CV were both improved with the help of the wonderful EXCEL Program Assistant Gala Flagello, and I even was able to utilize the EXCEL Enterprise fund, to create a project last year titled No Dead White Guys that was a performance series celebrating BIPOC composers. 

In case you’re new to SMTD or did not know, this lovely website you stumbled upon is called the EXCEL Log and is an extension of the EXCEL Lab which works to provide resources for entrepreneurship, leadership, and career services in the arts.  We have A LOT of exciting things planned for the EXCEL Log this year, including posts discussing burnout, social media, the legal side of performing arts, and so much more. Through these topics, I’m hoping to showcase many resources to students on this platform that will help us navigate the challenges and roadblocks we face as performing artists. We are also expanding the reach of the EXCEL Log to include the voices of SMTD students, highlight intersectionality in the arts, and celebrate the diverse world that is the SMTD community. 

Tune in once a month as we uncover the world of resources that the EXCEL team and artists both within and outside of SMTD have to offer. By engaging with the EXCEL Log, we can broaden our mindset and think critically about innovative ways to expand the reach and impact of our artistry. We can learn new skills we need to succeed and be in community with one another as we embark on our journeys as performing artists. That said, I hope you continue to check out the EXCEL Log and I can’t wait to engage with you virtually!

Birth of a Nation: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 4)

Today we’re going to talk about the Birth of a Nation, not the 2016 version about Nat Turner, the 1915 OG in all of its black and white. For those who aren’t familiar, Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, is a silent film from 1915 that is seen as the first example of a feature motion picture.1 Prior to this film, movies were 15-30 minutes long and much closer to what we would consider “shorts.” This 3-hour long epic forever changed the world of American Cinema and used countless innovative film techniques that we take for granted today. 

As someone who is obsessed with shades of gray, who thinks that things rarely fit into absolutes, who is a massive proponent for radical empathy (unless, of course, someone ate the last of my Swedish Fish), I can unequivocally say that Birth of a Nation is the most harmful and the most racist movie ever made.2 It is a picture-perfect example of what should be avoided at all costs. A small production team of three racist white men told a racist story filled with propaganda and fear tactics and helped to usher in a new era of hatred and violence against Black Americans.

It tells the history* of the American South from the Civil War through Reconstruction from a southern sympathetic perspective and is largely credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (I think I’ve been saying this wrong my whole life, I could have SWORN it was klu). It uses white actors and actresses in blackface to portray black characters in the story who are all immoral, criminals, sexual deviants, animalistic, and power-hungry.

*Please note that the word history is used here VERY loosely.

Why am I talking about Birth of a Nation in this series on nuanced representation of marginalized identities? Because it’s an epic example of the power of representation in a horrifying way. This is an example of why this conversation matters and a basic guide in what NOT to do. Spoiler alert Birth of a Nation fails the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™(pending) (I know, I know, you’re shocked). While there are countless examples of problematic marginalized representation in the arts throughout history, the treatment of marginalized identities in this movie and its long-term effects on our society today sets the stakes. It sets the stakes for how important it is for all of us, art creators and art consumers alike, to be EXTRA vigilant for nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized identities in film. And also it gives me a perfect opportunity to wax poetically about Bertolt Brecht and Art as propaganda, so there’s that. Let’s dive in.

  1. Does it have a diverse production team

Umm no. The writer, director, and producer were all southern white men. Thomas Dixon Jr, the author of the book and play, “The Clansmen,” the text Birth of A Nation is based on, wrote this story with the intent to “set the record straight” when it came to the portrayal of Reconstruction.3 And by “set the record straight,” he meant to deliberately use propaganda as history to “win sympathy to the southern cause.4” Cool, cool, cool, cool, we love to see it.

A disgruntled white man, born in 1864, Dixon was committed to finding a historical backing to support his own prejudices and social attitudes (A healthy dose of “righteous” indignation is the catalyst for the best and worst parts of humanity). To create social change, Dixon sought to use the power of story to write a narrative moving enough to shape public opinion on a national scale. Frustrated by the limitations in reaching a national audience through books and plays, he decided to turn his epic story into a motion picture. Dixon teamed up with D.W. Griffith’s startup movie company, and H.E. Aitken served as the producer.5

Williams Intentionality Rating: Unacceptable
  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

No…. In fact, there was an incredible amount of outrage and feedback from the Black community at the time. Other than the Mammy and faithful servant character, all other Black characters in the movie are depicted as “impudent, vengeful, or malicious in their conduct toward whites.6” Furthermore, Black Americans were NEVER in control of state government in South Carolina, though that’s the driving plot of the movie’s second half and the reasoning for the need for the Ku Klux Klan.7 Countless Black cultural leaders pointed out how harmful the fictitious and malicious portrayals of Black people in this story were. My favorite quote came from Kelly Miller, the Negro Dean of Howard University, who wrote to Dixon, “Your teachings subvert the foundations of law and established order. You are the high priest of lawlessness, the prophet of anarchy.8” (tell ’em sis).

But just like a colonizer, Dixon’s response was,” My books are hard reading for a Negro, and yet the Negroes, in denouncing them, are unwittingly denouncing one of their greatest friends…9” Essentially I know you and the needs of your community better than you do… Yikes.

Rating:  Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.
  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
Pop Tv Truth GIF by Schitt's Creek - Find & Share on GIPHY

Birth of a Nation chose to use white actors in blackface to portray the roles of each Black character with a major role (some Black people were used as extras in certain scenes). To be fair, Griffith did have a public statement on the issue. Griffith “defended” his decision to use black face by saying, “on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principles…10” I guess technically, this is an intentional, transparent, and accessible explanation. Though, to be fair, I just assumed that morality and a baseline desire to not be racist was a give in… I won’t do that again.

Williams Intentionality Rating: Steaming pile of trash
  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely NOT. Every representation of a black person is done in terms of a racist and harmful stereotype that portrays Black people as animalistic and evil.11 We see the Mandingo in Gus– the renegade negro, the Jezebel in Lydia Brown– Stoneman’s lascivious mulatto housekeeper and mistress, the Mammy in the character of the Mammy (’nuff said that’s literally what they named her), the Uncle Tom in the unnamed male faithful servant to the Cameron’s; and the Black Brute in Silas Lynch– the conniving politician.12

The very first representation of black people in the movie portrays the caricature of the pickaninny. Two Black children fall off the back of a wagon and lay there in the ground until they are picked up comically like sacks of potatoes and thrown back onto the wagon. The pickaninny caricature, like all of the others, was used to dehumanize Black people and make their lives and safety seem inconsequential.

Rating:  F with a note to see the professor after class

But Wait There’s More:

I have to make one more point before I give the final rating for Birth of a Nation. Film, and its ability to impact culture, is fundamentally different from other performing art mediums. Music videos, visual art, live theater, musicals, concerts are all mediums that lend themselves to critical analysis. They have aspects built into their very structure that serve to remind the audience that this is not reality; this is an artist’s interpretation of reality. It’s fantasy, it’s creation. Whether that comes in the form of a curtain opening and closing around a performance, an intermission, a set being moved, or performers bursting into song (I realize this is a normal facet of life for my roommates, but from what I’ve heard from others people randomly singing their inner thoughts is not a normal occurrence in day to day life), all other forms of performing arts remind us that we are entering into a space of suspended disbelief to experience art. 

Bertolt Brecht talked about the importance of these reminders, these invitations, to think critically in his writings about the “alienation effect.” As someone who was uber concerned with art as propaganda and how it could subconsciously influence masses, he was particularly critical of film as a medium. Film’s more realistic immersion increases the potential for influence on public opinion without the normal level of critical analysis. Dixon used all of this to his advantage as he purposefully told a fictitious narrative through film that he hoped would be viewed and shared as fact.

While Dixon may not have invented the Southern sympathist view of Reconstruction, he perfected it and accelerated its spread. Birth of a Nation tells a story where Blacks and Whites in the South were content with their lot before the war. It claims that Southern white women were left at the mercy of rogue bands of Black Northern regiments during the war, who invaded cities and pillaged and raped the southern belle’s left behind. It paints Reconstruction as a time of lawlessness where Black Americans vengefully repressed their White Southern neighbors. This fictitious retelling of American History began displacing the truth. And while this version of events is about as real as Kylie Jenner’s lips, the film’s use of “facsimile’s” like the one below was used to blur the line of truth and propaganda.

President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of Dixon and a supporter of the KKK, was quoted sharing his Southern Sympathetic views throughout the film.

Many people who saw this film, the first feature motion picture, thought of it as a documentary. “… using a new and increasingly influential medium of communication, and as an instrument that deliberately and successfully undertook to use propaganda as history, the influence of Birth of a Nation on the current view of Reconstruction has been greater than any other single force..13

Because of film’s unique ability to portray fiction as truth and the far-reaching effects of such, harmful and untrue representations of marginalized identities in film should receive even more scrutiny than in other art forms.

Bonus Rating for Film: Minus 50 additional points


No. No. No. Birth of a Nation does NOT pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending). But, if you’re ever super bored and looking to learn about your country at it’s worst… if you like to lightly trigger yourself… and if you want another reason to feel deeply uncomfortable whenever you listen to Wagner… by all means check it out.

If you’re new to the series, make sure to check out my previous posts on Fires in the Mirror and Hamilton as well! Stay tuned for new content this Fall!

Fires in The Mirror: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 3)

When I was 8, I spent two months trying to convince my mother I was allergic to water. That has nothing to do with anything, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to open today’s blog post. Welcome back! I hope everyone is having a great summer! I know I, for one, have spent my summer pondering deep existential questions like how many cats can I get before I’m officially labeled a crazy cat lady, and why are the Backyardigans TikToks so darn catchy??? If you have answers to either of these questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments section. Or of course, if you read this post and want to tell me your thoughts, you can comment as well! Today I’m looking at Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror. We’ll have to start with a brief history lesson before jumping–

In the summer of 1991, long-simmering racial tensions between the Hasidic Jewish Chabad community and the Black community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, came to a head and resulted in a 3-day race riot that decimated the community. When a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish driver ran a red light and hit two Black children on the sidewalk– killing one and seriously injuring the other– many Black residents of Crown Heights were infuriated to find that the police at the scene seemed more concerned with the safety of the Jewish driver than the lives of the two Black children.1 Communal frustrations with a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to the Jews in Crown Heights through double standards in law enforcement, government funding, and housing opportunities exploded into a particularly violent riot that left 152 police officers injured, numerous homes and stores looted, 122 Black Americans arrested, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish graduate student, stabbed to death by a group of Black rioters.2 

In turn, many Hasidic Jewish residents of Crown Heights were enraged at law enforcement’s response to alarming anti-semitism in response to the accident. Signs saying “Death to Jews” were carried at protests, Jewish stores and homes were targeted for looting, an Israeli flag was burned, and the suspect in the Yankel Rosenbaum killing was acquitted at trial.3 They perceived the murder and the riots as anti-semitic hate crimes and felt that the government didn’t go far enough to protect them simply because the perpetrators of this anti-semitism were Black.4 

Enter Anna Deavere Smith. My new role model (Sorry Audra McDonald, we had a great run, but you’ve been replaced). Smith saw everything on the news and, like any of us, immediately wondered how she could turn this crisis into great art. Healing the world through art and making a literal difference, metaphorically.

Bo Burnham’s Inside Netflix Special is an entire mood if you haven’t peeped it yet.

Smith traveled to Crown Heights right after the riots and spent 8 days interviewing over 100 community members and civil rights leaders on both sides, from Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother to Angela Davis. Smith then created the play Fires in the Mirror, about the incident, in which she curated monologues out of the transcripts of 20 interviews. In each monologue, Smith “becomes” the interviewee speaking to an invisible interviewer.

Fires in the Mirror is hands down the most profound and inspirational piece of art that I’ve ever seen. Smith is masterfully gifted at embodying each character and staying true to each unique perspective in a way that feels more vulnerable/intimate than a documentary. The dialectical curation of diverse perspectives creates a patchwork storytelling of the event and the community’s feelings about it. But it is rife with complex questions about marginalized representation and casting. The play is performed as a one-woman show, meaning Smith portrays every person she interviewed, man and woman, Jewish and Black. Anna Deavere Smith is a Black woman (did I forget to mention that?).

This is Anna Deavere Smith. Extremely light-skinned and racially ambiguous to my eye, I assumed she must be half Jewish and half Black when I first watched the play. I was able to simply focus on her storytelling and didn’t initially grapple with any existential questions about her credibility to tell these stories. 

Luckily, these were precisely the questions that Smith was interested in tackling in her work. Smith implemented a rather groundbreaking approach to verbatim theater that had rippling effects on the genre for long after. In each monologue, Smith chose a section from the original interview transcript where she felt that a person “revealed” their character. She made no alterations to the transcript outside of choosing which segment to use.5 She kept every umm, like, and err, no cutting, no pasting, no paraphrasing, no omissions, as she felt that that was integral to the integrity of each person’s perspective.

Character, or identity, lies not in a pre-existing essence but in the process of self-authorship: …everyone, in a given amount of time, will say something that is like poetry. The process of getting to that poetic moment is where “character” lives…. The pursuit is frequently filled with uhs and ums and, in fact, the wrong words.6

-Anna Deavere Smith

A version of Fires in the Mirror was produced for Television and aired on PBS. This version is accessible on Youtube in 4 parts, feel free to watch the play. There are significant changes to the way this production was staged and produced from the original screenplay but it is a good way to get the essence of Smith’s work. Watch the clip below and see Anna “become” the “Anonymous Lubavitch Woman” interviewee by masterfully mimicking the unique speech pattern, gait, bodily posture, and accent.

All four parts of the PBS special of Fires in The Mirror are on Youtube. Check it out for yourself!!

“With my own work, I’m just trying to create possibilities for dialogue, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don’t get heard. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it–not about it–and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.7

-Anna Deavere Smith

This show was a wild success! She was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She expanded her methodology for Fires in the Mirror and went on to cover the Rodney King Riots in her play Twilight, which was also an award-winning success. She is kind of a big deal. But will she pass the Samantha Williams Marginalized Representation in Casting Test (™ pending)? Let’s find out! 

Series Overview

Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post [link] where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. Last time I wrote about  how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” 

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Fires in the Mirror Fares! Let’s Dive in!

  1. Does it have a diverse production(Creative) team?

Ultimately no. As a one-woman show, there’s a singular lens in terms of whose vision is realized. In its premiere with the New York Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith was the producer, director, interviewer, transcriber, curator, actor, and costume designer for Fires in the Mirror.  And while the libretto is “authored” by a diverse group of individuals from various marginalized identities, Smith served as the arranger, curator, interviewer, and editor, giving her the power to frame, guide, and contextualize each character’s story. Anyone who’s taken a stats course knows interviews are RIFE with opportunities to bias and shape results. Furthermore, while the words within sections are kept verbatim, the act of curation in selecting which interviews and which segment of interviews to use in the production creates space for bias. 

Her focus on allowing each character to “reveal themself,” to not judge any character, to represent but not criticize the perspectives she shares is a noble one. It’s inarguable that Smith worked hard to center an equitable representation of the perspectives of both sides in her work, but is that enough to mitigate her own biases? I don’t know! This is a hard one. I’m open to everyone’s suggestions.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 🧐😕🤷🏿‍♀️

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized communities in question?

 “I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience.”-Marginalized Representation in Casting Pt 1

Yes Ma’am!  Anna literally sat down with hundreds of Crown Heights community members, asked them for their thoughts, perspectives, and stories, and then shared them as truthfully as she could. I asked for creators to show me their works cited pages, and Anna delivered.

 Her commitment to dialogue and collaboration also came through in her practice of post-show talkbacks that she often paired with her performances. Talkbacks are a theater practice in which the creators and performers of a show have an open discussion with the audience who just watched it. This is an incredible way to show a commitment to continued collaboration and feedback. This practice gives audiences more agency in the art-making process and allows for an even deeper level of communal engagement. This is particularly noteworthy in the current climate of DEI and community outreach in arts administration that often views the community as a group to be “cultured” instead of as an influential part of the art-making and season curation process.

In one such post-show talkback, Smith was asked by an audience member whether a white male could do what she was doing?

“That’s a fabulous question!” Smith enthuses. “I would like to see somebody else do my show, somebody from a different race, maybe a Jewish woman or Jewish man. Would it be considered a stereotype? A caricature? Which one of us could get away with more? Is there in fact a kind of license that I have, a kind of permission that I have, because I’m black? This question about who can say what, who can enact which culture, is like ‘The Question.8’”

-Anna Deavere Smith

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Exceeds Expectations

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?

YES! Anna Deavere Smith gets a Shiny Golden Star for having many accessible, transparent, and intentional explanations for her choice to cast herself as every character in the show across gender and racial discrepancies. This non-traditional casting choice was integral to the project’s vision; this was not an example of a casting director not wanting to deal with any extra work to find actors from marginalized identities. 

From the get go Smith described her intention to “capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person-myself.9“In an interview with the New York Times, she described her disappointment when a Black man came up to her and said that he wished a male actor had been cast.

“I thought, ‘Oh, for him, if he doesn’t see the black male body, he’s not seeing himself.’ And so I don’t count either. There is this feeling that only a black man could be a black man. That’s not philosophically where I live.10

-Anna Deavere Smith

Excuse me while I fangirl for a moment, but part of why I’m so obsessed with this work is that Smith is flirting with the very question of authentic representation in her work. What is the yardstick for authentic representation? Smith’s performance uses her individual black female body to show the human connectedness between us all while portraying that boundaries of difference such as race and ethnicity are “active negotiations,” not static immutable characteristics. Just as race is more of a social construct than a phenotype, Anna wants to bring attention to how our differences are socially constructed and performed.11 And that’s so flipping cool!  

Furthermore, Smith goes on to press against the assumption that simply putting a body of color onstage is a political statement. She was criticized by a white reviewer who wrote that shewas doing a critique of white women. She said that the presence of my blackness, my black body, was evidence of my criticism. I thought if I was fully dutiful to speech rhythms, the color of my skin wouldn’t matter. I was wrong… It was very hurtful, and I feel I’m living it out to this day.12

It seems reductive and short-sighted to say that the “presence of her blackness” makes her performance a criticism of an alternate identity. Smith’s work embodies the line in the sand that mimicking/representing an identity other than one’s own is not inherently mocking or disrespectful. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life.” This brings us to our next question.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: The Shiniest Golden Star

  1. Does it present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

There is undoubtedly great intentionality and nuance put into the performance and text of each character who speaks in Fires in the Mirror. Anna’s process for learning each monologue involved listening to the recording of the interview repeatedly, for hours, memorizing the unique speech patterns, effects, and characteristics, and then doing her best to present them accurately. That being said, the most common critique of her work that I came across was a concern that some of her representations bordered on caricature. 

“At certain moments your portrayal was close enough to caricature to make spectators uncomfortable- close to but not really caricature. In displaying ethnicity in a slightly magnified way you underscored the humanity of the people you interviewed. Instead of trying to make a cohesive picture, you revealed different landscapes of emotions and histories. I connect this approach to feminist ideas about open-ended narratives, about the refusal of ultimate authority- even though there’s an authority operating.13

– Debby Thompson “Is Race a Trope” an interview with Anna Deavere Smith defines caricature as a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Due to Anna’s Verbatim theater methodology, it seems that any exaggeration to comic or grotesque effect would be a question of a viewer’s individual interpretation of her intent and/or acting skills. I personally am willing to believe Anna had the best of intentions because she revolutionized an entire art form to be as accurate in her representations as possible (and as high maintenance as I am, that’s enough for me). I mean she put her time, energy, and resources where her mouth was. But even with the best of intentions, who can say the effect that art will have on someone? 

We all know that intention and impact don’t always align. But I personally think that this is an example where the amount of effort that accompanied the good intent deserves acknowledgement even from the most staunch critic.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Snaps


When delving into this type of art, it seems inevitable that there will be moments where the line between caricature and realistic representation(intent vs. impact) is thinner and thornier than others. What does it mean to represent a real person with aspects of their personality that overlap with harmful stereotypes made about their ethnicity? What does it mean to assume an accent, a race, a history other than our own? 

I think that this method of verbatim theater, paired with sustained input from the marginalized identities whose stories are being told, is a compelling formula/rubric for artists interested in marginalized representation. Ask the people whose stories you’d like to tell, have a good reason as to why you want to tell this story, make sure you have a clear answer as to why you feel that you need to tell it instead of supporting someone in telling their own story, and then be as transparent, intentional, and committed to seeking feedback as possible. 

For me, this is a prime example of an intentional art creator who seeks accountability for the choices they make in telling marginalized stories and also has earned the space to acknowledge differences in opinion and intent vs. impact. After careful conversions and tabulations, it appears that Fires in the Mirror does pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (Pending).

Marginalized Representation in Casting (Part One)

Last weekend my friends and I held a presentation party. For any of you who aren’t familiar with them, presentation parties are arguably the worst thing to come out of the pandemic, after Covid-19 of course. Presentation parties are marketed as cool, fun, hip, social events where creative and clever millennials gather over zoom and each present a PowerPoint on a topic that they find interesting. If this sounds suspiciously like an additional homework assignment to you, then you are in good company. And anyone who disagrees with us is unfortunately in the sunken place. As someone whose bullet journal was telling them in color-coded bubble letters “do not pass go, do not collect $200, sit down and write for the rest of your foreseeable future,” it was the last thing I had time for. So why was I there you might ask? Because I’d realized that this was the perfect opportunity to have a captive audience, sorry, engaged focus group to help me flesh out my latest blog post. 

My last blog post was all about the current practices and conversations about casting race in productions. The more I researched the pros and cons of color-blind casting, color-conscious casting, and as written/ for us by us casting the more I became concerned about a cultural obsession with “authenticity” in casting that is rife with contradiction. I came across one particularly compelling Los Angeles Times Article Authenticity in casting: from ‘colorblind’ to ‘color conscious’ new rules are anything but black and white, that I used as the basis for my presentation. After my friends gave well researched presentations on the true zodiac signs of all the characters in Avatar, whether Cardi B, Megan the Stallion, or Rico Nasty would be the best addition to our friend group, and why Star Wars The Last Jedi was objectively the best of the new trilogy, I presented “I Swear I’m not Advocating for Blackface: A Plea for Intentional Rather Than Authentic Casting.”

I explained how current casting scandals from a Jewish voice actress portraying a biracial cartoon character in Netflix’s Big Mouth to Scarlet Johansen portraying a Japanese cyber-enhanced woman in Ghost in the Shell, to the Hamilton casting notice public outrage shows that our society is trying to hold creative teams responsible for the choices they make in who gets to tell certain stories. And this, as a concept, is amazing! I mean it took us long enough…

AAPAC charts representing the 2016-2017 season Broadway and non-profit actors, playwrights and directors, broken out by ethnicity.

There is a robust history of excluding BIPOC actors, writers, producers, and directors from opportunities in theater, film, and dance.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby is one of the Uncle Remus books. Uncle Remus books are a series of books written in 1881 by, Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who collected the stories of black slaves and published them as his own, to great commercial success.

There is a ROBUST history of the appropriation of BIPOC stories and cultures in theater, film, and dance.

Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi, a caricature of an Asian American, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And America CONTINUES to perpetrate harmful caricatures and representations of BIPOC individuals.

So it’s AMAZING that people in our society are now using public opinion to pressure creative teams to address a lack of diversity in stories and performances! But using the “authenticity” of the actors cast, as the yardstick to measure their success is problematic and antithetical to the foundation of acting itself. This belief that “certain types of characters should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences,1” is a noble idea. But, as it has spread in the public consciousness, the intent has been warped into an indiscriminate crusade for authentic casting. These well-meaning attempts to reach this ambiguously defined ideal, have led to concerning practices, and flawed but rarely contested schools of thought.

Campaigns for all BIPOC characters to be played by an actor of the aligning race, campaigns for all disabled characters to be portrayed by disabled actors, campaigns for all trans characters to be played by trans actors in the name of authenticity boil people of marginalized identities down to that one factor. It’s essentialist and reductive. It assumes that race, or disability, or gender is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is not universally true. Intersectionality (check out my post on that), social identity salience theory, and my own life experience as a woman of color show that that’s a simplistic perspective. Race, disability, sexuality, gender, size are each one of many aspects of a person’s identity. 

Who’s to say which identity is the most “essential” to the integrity of a character who is a conglomeration of many different identities? Should the last word on that go to the creative teams (writers, directors, actors) who supposedly know these characters intimately? 

We can call for an increase in diverse stories in theater, film, and dance, as well as more nuanced representation without all joining the cult of authenticity. Particularly when we are inconsistently applying authenticity as a paradigm. What about identities that aren’t visible? There are no campaigns for authenticity in casting socio-economic class status, mental illness, or age? Sexuality is another invisible identity that doesn’t fit into the current authenticity paradigm as it is illegal to ask actors about their sexuality in regards to hiring (here’s a really interesting article on this). These are all aspects of identity that have the potential to be ‘essential experiences’ in the portrayal of a character and yet, they aren’t included in the sweeping “authenticity in casting” movement. Which begs the question: is authenticity really what we’re searching for or are we looking for nuanced and intentional representation?

Furthermore, “isn’t the point of acting: to suspend audience disbelief to the point of personal reinvention?2” These are fictitious works of art, not documentaries; they are interpretations, not facts. I am a 26 year old black female performer and I don’t want to be pigeonholed into roles that were expressly written for 26 year old black women. Not only would that be frustrating and limiting for my own artistic development, but I probably wouldn’t be able to have much of a career.

So how can conversations around handling representation in casting change to encompass that too? How can we create more room for creative teams to acknowledge that race is simply one aspect of a person’s identity without contributing to the inevitable next wave of Hollywood whitewashed movie productions? Cause a white-washed version of the live-action Mulan is NOT IT.

After pitching that to my friends, I asked them to help me come up with a more nuanced set of protocols to evaluate how well a performance handled marginalized representation in performance. After lots of hilarious and heated discussion I condensed our concerns into this list. Henceforth and forever after, all productions that want our (and hopefully your) stamp of approval in handling marginalized representation in the performing arts should:

1. Have a diverse production team.

Putting bodies of color on stage and on screen is a political act, and thus requires a deep level of intentionality and sensitivity in casting choices. Diverse production teams: writers, directors, and producers, are better equipped to create responsible and nuanced portrayals of marginalized characters. 

2. Engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question.

SHOW US YOUR WORKS CITED PAGE! We expect writers, scholars, and any other type of authority on a topic to make their sources freely available, why should we expect any less from creative teams? The question of who has the right to tell certain stories is increasingly important as our society becomes increasingly diverse. The line between exploitation and partnership can be ambiguous, particularly when the process of creating and casting a show is often kept behind closed doors. But responsible audiences have a right to know if creative teams did their research? I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience. 

Engaged collaboration with a community is the best way to gain cultural ethos and a nuanced perspective of a story that is not your own. Thus I think it is important for creative teams to “show us their works cited page” in the form of sharing their creative and collaborative processes that they feel give them the ethos to portray this story. Not only will this make the breadth of an intentional creative team’s engagement transparent, but it also will serve to bring attention to the community that they are in partnership with! 

If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, if you value your social responsibility as a storyteller of historically marginalized perspectives, and if you feel confident in your creative choices then this shouldn’t be a problem…  And if you aren’t comfortable doing that, then maybe this practice could serve as a reminder that you need to do a little more work behind the scenes.

3. Have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices.

When there’s tension around the aspects of an actors identity and that of the character they’re portraying, was the creative team prepared to handle it? How did they handle it? Did they lean in or did they run away? If there’s a huge controversy is there any proof that they had thought about it prior to the public scrutiny? There are examples of very engaging shows that intentionally and responsibly made highly controversial casting choices. Having transparency around the reasoning is critical. Cause if the reasoning is that you simply couldn’t find a marginalized actor to play the part… then odds are high you shouldn’t be doing that production. 

4. Present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures.

Not all performance of an identity other than one’s own is inherently mocking. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life. The impacts of minstrelsy, yellow face, and portrayals of the “noble savage” in performances have had lasting impacts on BIPOC communities in the real world. Thus irresponsible caricatures of marginalized identities is gonna be a no from me dawg. 

Times are changing. The Office is no longer on Netflix, Brandy’s Cinderella is streaming on Disney +, and we need a paradigm shift for casting marginalized identities in the performing arts industry. Just as color-blind casting gave way to color-conscious casting, authentic casting needs to give way to intentional casting. Our world is only getting more diverse, more intersectional, and more connected, and thus questions as to how and who gets to tell which stories will become increasingly prominent. It is my hope art creators and art consumers alike who read this post will begin to have more nuanced expectations for marginalized representation in the art they inhabit, which will eventually lead to a shift in the type of representation we see!


What are your thoughts on my new protocols? Do you still believe authenticity is king? Whether you think I’m full of it or that I stumbled upon greatness, please drop any comments or critiques in the comments below because….. Drum roll please…  I will be launching a new mini-series on Marginalized Representation in Casting!!! Using these protocols as a guide I will evaluate how various productions have dealt with race in casting, disability in casting, and gender in casting. So if you think I’ve completely overlooked something, speak now or forever hold your peace. 

Stay tuned for the next installment of the series where I’ll apply our new set of protocols to some pertinent examples of race in casting such as Hamilton, Miss Saigon, Birth of a Nation, and more to see how well they fare! If you have other suggestions for plays, films, or dances that attempt to handle the representation of race and casting that you’d like me to evaluate, drop them in the comments below! 

Nine Non-Profits for Non-Profit November

Good Morning all you cool cats and kittens! Did you think Tiger King references were overused and outdated? Did you think my humor got more sophisticated with my week off? Think again. In the midst of the absolute hot mess that is November 2020, I thought we could all use some light cat therapy. I just got a kitten and as a proud cat mom just beware that one of my clever hyperlinks may or may not be an unrequested picture of M’Baku, the cutest kitten that ever lived. You’re welcome. Ok ok back to the post.


You may have heard of No Shave November, you may have even heard of No Decided President November, but today I’m here to talk about Non-Profit November [pew pew pew]!!  This post is dedicated to uplifting non-profit arts organizations that are DOING THE THING when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. 

1. First up, an exemplary example of the Michigan Difference (I have to be honest I still don’t really know what that is, please someone, anyone, explain it to me). Recent UM grad, Jaimie Sharp is the CEO of this outright original, outstanding opera non-profit focused on inclusion and diversity:


“Opera NexGen’s mission is to provide unparalleled operatic performances with a diverse artistic community. We seek to discover the next generation of talent with our company founded on equality, equity, inclusivity, and excellence. It is our aim to cast solely on vocal ability above all other credentials. Our goal is to ensure that opera will continue to thrive for generations to come by pioneering the scope of live virtual performance.”

Check out their Benefit Gala What Did I Miss November 21st at 5pm EST 

Wanna get involved? Audition for their Virtual Cosi fan tutte Concert by December 4th. Get more information about it here.

Check out their insta @operanexgen

2. Dance classes may currently be on hold cause Ms. Rona isn’t here to make friends, but that hasn’t stopped this dazzling, dedicated dance non- profit from making a difference:

Brown Girls Do Ballet

“We seek to increase participation of underrepresented populations in ballet programs through organizing and arranging ballet performances, photo exhibitions, and providing resources and scholarships to assist young girls in their ballet development and training.”

Looking to get involved? Are you a dancer desperate for an internship to get your parents off your back about what you’re doing with your life in the midst of the pandemic-filled, politically charged, hot mess of a world we’re currently living in? Apply for one of their internships, they’re looking for interns with dance experience!

Check out their insta @browngirlsdoballet

3. BIPOC wouldn’t be pronounceable without our integral Indigenous communities. Check out this insanely innovative, impactful, and inimitable indigenous arts non-profit:

Native Arts and Culture Foundation

“The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation advances equity and cultural knowledge, focusing on the power of arts and collaboration to strengthen Native communities and promote positive social change with American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native peoples in the United States. They provide fellowships, community engagement programs, and education resources for Native communities.

Looking to get involved check out these volunteer opportunities

Check out their insta @native_art_culure

4. If you’re looking for a quintessentially, quanitfiably queer arts non-profit then look no further:

Queer | Arts

QUEER|ART was launched in 2009 to support a generation of LGBTQ+ artists that lost mentors to the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. By fostering the confident expression of LGBTQ+ artists’ perspectives, stories, and identities, Queer|Art amplifies the voice of a population that has been historically suppressed, disenfranchised, and often overlooked by traditional institutional and economic support systems.

Looking to get involved? Look at their really cool mentorship program here, next round of applications are open Summer of 2021. Also look into the Eva Yaa Asantewaa Grant for Queer Women(+) Dance Artists- Dance artist funding opportunity here.

Check out there insta @queerinsta

5. The conscientious, compassionate, and chic Center for Arts Activism is Clearly the non-profit for you if you’re interested in connecting arts activist research with art organizations:

 The Center for Arts Activism

The Center for Artistic Activism trains and advises organizations, artists and activists to help them increase the efficacy and affecacy of their artistic activism. We conduct innovative research to figure out what exactly efficacy and affecacy mean when it comes to artistic activist projects. And we share our trainings and research findings broadly, to provide the broadest possible access.

Check out their podcast here and stay up to date!

6. Does social injustice make you want to grab your upright double bass and RAGE all over those unruly strings? Understandably, the upbeat Urban Playground non-profit may be calling your name:

Urban Playground

Urban Playground was formed out of the urge to develop a distinctively 21st century orchestra: Collaboration amongst artists from disparate backgrounds and experiences with respect to genre, and working in non-traditional venues. That changed when Eric Garner was killed by New York City police on July 17, 2014. The orchestra felt that there had to be a musical response to the broader national conversations regarding police brutality and systems of oppression. The orchestra shifted to prioritizing the works of composers of color and female composers, in order to expand and enliven the classical canon. The thriving cultural institutions of New York City will always offer outstanding performances of music from the predominately white, male European tradition; Urban Playground’s mission is to broadcast that which has not been heard, and to give opportunity to new and dormant voices.

Follow them on insta @upchamberorchestra

7. To any of my Music Education friends who’ve felt woefully neglected by the focus of my previous posts, I’m sorry I forgot about you  I didn’t forget about you. This amazing, activist arts education non- profit is lit:

The Black School

We are an experimental art school teaching Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs. With socially engaged artists, designers, and educators working at the intersections of K-12/university teaching, art, design, and activism, all TBS programming is structured around our core principles of Black Love, self-determination, and wellness.” 

Based in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, The Black School has really cool merch to rival Beyonce’s latest Ivy Park release. Check it out here!

8. Do phrases like “disruption”, “intersectional storytelling”, and “investing in cultural power” get you all hot and bothered? Then I have just the wonderfully women led won-profit for you (don’t judge me alliteration is hard. Pitbull rhymed Kodak with Kodak, just remember that.):

The Center For Cultural Power

The Center for Cultural Power is a women of color, artist-led organization, inspiring artists and culture makers to imagine a world where power is distributed equitably and where we live in harmony with nature. We support artists through fellowships, training and opportunities for activation. We create intersectional stories and content addressing issues of migration, climate, gender and racial justice. We engage groups in cultural strategy and organize artists in issues that inspire them. Together with allies, we are co-creating a field of cultural strategy with organizations and practitioners through convenings, design teams and strategy tables.

Looking to get involved? Apply for their Disrupters Fellowship. It has a disability cohort, undocumented/ formerly undocumented cohort, and trans and nonbinary cohort

Follow them on instagram @culturestrike

9. Did I read three articles on why I’m bad at finishing things instead of coming up with a decent alliteration for this last non-profit? Yes yes I did. Is it because I’m a Sagittarius? Is it because my moon rising is in transition and my slight tendency for scorpiatic psychosis means that I know nothing about astrology but am willing to search anywhere for a decent excuse? Is it because my cat keeps running across my laptop? Unclear, but what is clear is that this next non-profit is changing the world one play at a time:

Theater of the Oppressed (NYC)

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partners with community members at local organizations to form theatre troupes. These troupes devise and perform plays based on their challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, and other social, health and human rights injustices. After each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming – called Forum Theatre – with the aim of catalyzing creative change on the individual, community, and political levels.

You can see videos of their work here.

Check out their insta @forumtheatrenyc

Are you that rare unicorn of an arts student who’s drowning in extra funds and don’t know where to spend them? Well lucky for you all of these Non Profits are accepting donations so feel free to send some coins their way Brown Girls Do Ballet, Opera NexGen, Center for Cultural Power, Queer Art, Urban Playground, The Black School, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, Center for Artistic Activism, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

Honorable Mentions

Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue– SOO COOL, I legitimately cold emailed this founder to see if she needed an intern. Check them out! 

The power of performing artsby Johanna Kepler (Not technically a non-profit but a UM grad and an up and coming arts leader to keep your eye on!)

Guerilla Girls inc– Are they a non profit? I don’t know but they’re really really cool! I mean who doesn’t want to dress up in a gorilla mask and dismantle the patriarchy?

M’Baku the cutest kitten that ever lived.

If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet, what are you doing?

Did I miss your favorite arts non-profit? Do you want more photos of my cat? Let me know in the comments section!

Thanks for reading, tune in next time when I write a list of the top 100 reasons I should be hired by Buzzfeed. 

It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled Pt. 2

Welcome to It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled part 2! If you read part 1 skip this section, if you missed it I talked about the history of canceling and how it has the potential to create a more inclusive society and elevate the voices of marginalized identities, but it also has the power to be incredibly punitive and dangerous if used frivolously. We looked at the 7 tropes of toxic canceling and I hypothesized that through intention and awareness of our actions, it might be possible to maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.

Part 2

Because I’m unimpressed with hypothetical musings that can’t be clearly disseminated to real life and actionable items, this post is dedicated to wrestling with the real life canceling cases of R Kelly, Kanye West, and Wagner. What does intentional and responsible canceling look like? Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act? And what about artists who live somewhere in the nebulous gray area of morality? Artists who allegedly did truly atrocious things, but are 6 feet under– is it simply virtue-signaling to boycott their art today (Wagner, Michael Jackson…)? What about artists who haven’t directly harmed anyone but say things that conflict with my moral and ethical code? How does mental health factor into the equation? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?

I have questions and I need answers because if it turns out that I have to stop listening to the Jackson 5, then I’m going to need to schedule some extra therapy sessions yesterday. So let’s begin (cause therapy is expensive y’all and I’m trying to save my coins)!

R Kelly- Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? 

Spoiler alert. YES!!! The #MuteRKelly Campaign was founded by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye to expose and halt R Kelly’s abuse and exploitation of young black girls.1 It was quickly folded into the #metoo movement and became a public reference for cancel culture, as a social media campaign focused on deplatforming, defunding, and ending a famous artist’s career.2 The intent of the #MuteRKelly movement and his subsequent canceling was definitely not about rehabilitation. It sought to condemn a man – not just his actions or his art – something that was heavily criticized by ContraPoints in my last post. And yet it seems morally sound? Why is that? Let’s explore– where is the line that demarcates when it is morally right to condemn a person?

The 3 reasons why I believe that the #MuteRKelly movement was morally sound. 

1.Clear and Transparent Organizers

It was fleshed out, organized, the leaders were known, they had a website, and were established organizers.3 This way people could check out who the organizers were and see if they had any ulterior motives.

2. They had a clear goal/ desired outcome and mission statement. 

They called for a financial boycott of R Kelly’s music because they wanted him to have a fair trial and his fortune was circumventing that. R Kelly was repeatedly using his fortune to bribe, silence, and intimidate potential witnesses and their families in an effort to keep them from testifying against him.4

“R Kelly dragged out one case for 6 years, until the victim ran out of resources and dropped the case. He is able, time and time again, to use his money to get him out of a conviction. It’s not for lack of court cases against him. When families discover what’s happened, they do what they’re supposed to do. They call the police. It is the court system that is failing them and we the people that are failing them.”5

They wanted to spread awareness to how people were unknowingly supporting R Kelly’s ability to flout justice for crimes against the black community, by continuing to listen to his music. 

“by financially supporting the career of a known sexual predator, they help maintain and perpetuate a system of sexual abuse against young black women.  Every radio spin of his record helps him to continue to book shows, to make new music, and to amass a wealth that has insulated him from the consequences of his crimes.  It’s time to take a stand on the side of justice and end any and all associations that the radio station has with him, his music and his brand.”6 

Clear and specific ask from participants with rationale as to how that contributes to the cause!

3. Their ultimate goal was a fair trial in the legal sphere– not just condemning him in the court of public opinion.

They weren’t seeking judgement and execution in the public sector, but rather sought sharing the concerning pile of evidence and allegations against R Kelly with the public.7 If people were similarly concerned, they were welcome to join this movement calling for a fair trial.

They consistently provided a terrifying amount of EVIDENCE (not screenshots from people’s twitter feed), videos, witness testimonies, marriage documents, indictments, NDA’s that show that R Kelly was systematically preying on minors! This is completely different then an argument about intention from a phrase pulled out of context from a twitter thread.

The legal system failed to protect black girls (not exactly shocking), 2 black women organized to find solutions to circumvent R Kelly’s privilege and get him a fair trial, with indicting information a marginalized community who had exhausted every other option for legal recourse, made an intentional decision to boycott R Kelly’s music so that they weren’t actively aiding R Kelly evade justice by funding his career. This is restorative justice, this is seeking accountability, this is canceling at its best. I can’t say the same about the cancel Kanye movement.

Why are we canceling Kanye?

Now before I begin, I would like to note that I think it is negligent to discuss canceling Kanye without giving proper due to how Bipolar Disorder plays into this equation, but that being said it’s 2020 and we have the collective attention span of a gnat so unfortunately I don’t have the space to go into that as much as I would like. But I encourage anyone who’s interested to look at some of the resources linked at the end about Bipolar Disorder.

While R Kelly strikes me as an example of seeking restorative justice and accountability, I genuinely have so many questions about the purpose of canceling Kanye. Now part of my confusion can easily be attributed to the fact that Kanye is a known Provocateur and as such there have been numerous overlapping cancel Kanye campaigns. The most recent and arguably visible8 canceling of Kanye happened after the infamous TMZ interview where he said “when you hear about slavery for 400 years, 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” 

Words do have consequences as Van Lathan the TMZ worker so eloquently put it

Let’s be clear Kanye isn’t the only person to say egregious things about slavery, and he isn’t even the worst offender. Remember when McGraw-Hill Education, one of the biggest publishing companies, printed in Texas Textbooks that the Atlantic slave trade was a “pattern of immigration” that “brought millions of [immigrant] workers to work on agricultural plantations”9?!?! Unlike Kanye, McGraw is actually charged with educating the masses, and we didn’t cancel that whole company. We simply asked them to fix their mistake.10 So why wasn’t an apology enough for Kanye? 

What’s the focus of the movement? Why are we actually canceling Kanye? Is it for the slavery comment? He apologized for that. And while his comment was wild, completely unfounded, and hurtful to many– that’s been Kanye’s brand since day one. People cheered when he blurted out that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” People cackled and made memes when he told Taylor Swift she could never rival Beyonce (WHERE IS THE LIE??? And don’t @ me T Swift fans, I said what I said). It’s hard for me to believe that the movement to cancel Kanye is because he’s a loose cannon– that’s old news. 

So is it because he recently started wearing MAGA hats and championing conservative politicians?11 Unpopular opinion: He is actually allowed to like Trump if he wants. I’m not comfortable saying I only want to listen to artists whose politics I agree with. Are you? Am I canceling him simply because I don’t agree with him and pretending it’s about something else? In Part 1 I called that Pseudo-Moralism and discussed the dangers of “disguising unflattering motivations between the guise of righteous indignation.”12

That being said, Kanye is not an example of the under resourced, marginalized identity who ContraPoints was concerned with, who will become vulnerable if they lose their internet community from cancelation. Yes the cancel Kanye twitter storm and the media’s continual mocking and denouncement of him must weigh on his mental and emotional health (to what degree I can only imagine)… but… Kanye is A BILLIONAIRE. As such, he’s insulated from losing the physical, financial, and community safety nets that might occur if he wasn’t a celebrity. If the goal is to defund, deplatform, or end Kanye’s career, his career can weather this cancelation and the fiftyleven times he says something foolish in the future. If the goal is to rehabilitate him, to ask him to repent– he already apologized.13 So what do we want? What’s the point? What has to happen for us to feel appeased?

What am I trying to say about Kanye?

Mental health aside, which again I do think should be a part of the conversation here, I think there’s something fundamentally disturbing in the canceling Kanye movement. If I don’t know what canceling Kanye even means, or why I’m doing it, how can I possibly know if I agree with it? What does it mean if we’re comfortable with canceling Kanye for the wrong reasons? What does it mean if we normalize publicly throwing our support behind ideals we can’t explain, nebulous concepts we don’t fully understand, and organizers we can’t name? What type of societal norms are we creating?

Have y’all seen this Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation”??? I’m just saying Black Mirror has nothing on the current events of 2020 so maybe we should be paying attention.

The reason matters. Publicly canceling someone because you’re trying to fit in with everyone else is irresponsible. Posting a black square on your instagram story without reading a single article from a news source outside of your social media feed about BLM protests is irresponsible. Becoming a mindless cog in the machine is irresponsible! Make the decision for yourself! Make sure your decisions align with your moral code, hold yourself accountable. Do it because you have thought it through and decided to, not because it’s easy to click share and get some more likes.In an example like Kanye’s, canceling’s negative effects may be limited but maybe what’s more concerning is the way in which we contribute to it without taking responsibility for our actions.

Point of Clarification

I’m not saying you have to like Kanye and I’m not saying you have to listen to his music. I don’t even know how I feel about Kanye at the moment. If you enjoyed listening to Kanye’s music because it made you feel relaxed and understood, and now his recent actions make it a negative experience for you, then by all means stop listening to that music. BUT There’s something different in choosing to stop listening to Kanye because it personally distresses you, and publicly adding to this canceling movement because it’s the in thing to do, particularly if you’re not clear on if you agree that he deserves to be canceled.

Which brings me to my last example -Wagner. 

Should we be canceling Wagner and what could it look like?

Ok so for those who don’t know– Wagner in a nutshell. Wickedly talented composer in Germany in the 1800’s.14 Was really inspired by mythology15, popularized the term Gesamtkunstwerk, “a total art experience,” in opera, and innovated many of the elements that are foundational to current performance practice.16 He wanted to create a transportational, immersive, theater experience. Really cool right? 

Yeah but…

He was also an anti-semite and published the article Judaism in Music in 1850 where he explained how Jews only option for redemption was what some argue translates as “assimilate” and others translate as “destruction”17 (Yikes). Wagner was anti-semitic, AND his music (which may or may not have had racist undertones) was co-opted by the Nazi movement,18 AND he made incredible innovations to theater and performance practice,19 AND he wrote some of the best operas of the classical canon. So what do we do with that?

Do we cancel Wagner and his art? Do we cancel him but save the art? Do we forgive him for being a product of his time and try to salvage the man alongside his art?

While I do think it is possible to condemn the artist and salvage the art, I think there is a responsible and intentional approach that can be taken and an irresponsible one. It seems negligent to close our eyes to the historical and modern impact of his music on our society at large. How can we actively address the change we want to see? What might intentional canceling look like?

He’s dead and I’m not worried that listening to his music now will encourage a swell in Aryan German Nazi propaganda and a new Hitler rising to power (no that might happen from xenophobia much closer to home…) but regardless, unlike with R Kelly, boycotting Wagner’s music isn’t helping fight anti-semitism in any tangible way. But what if we sought to recontextualize or reclaim his music?

What if the Met decided to donate a percentage of all proceeds from Wagner performances to the Holocaust Museum or Anti-Xenophobic non-profits? That way we’re acknowledging the impact of these works and also making positive societal change!

Final Thoughts and Musings

I’m personally past cancelling artists who are dead. I’m not actively contributing to immoral behaviors, but I don’t think that means I shouldn’t think about their impact or legacy. I’m interested in exploring how we can reallocate proceeds to address issues of restorative justice. What if all the royalties for listening to Michael Jackson’s music go towards survivors of sexual assault non profits? Then I could feel ok listening to ABC and knowing I was subverting the negative aspects of Michael Jackson’s legacy. Let’s pressure arts organizations and artists’ estates to adopt these types of policies!

It’s hard to be an artist. There’s a demand for artists to always be authentic but then to also be ideal role models, and responsible wielders of their platforms. Inherently we should realize that means artists are going to fall short, they’re going to make mistakes, because all humans do, just maybe less publicly. We as a society could afford to lend more grace and understanding. If we’re seeking rehabilitation, and growth I think it’s important to allow for the time it would take all of us to lower our defenses, listen, learn, grow, and seriously reflect on what we may have done. That can take days, or weeks, months, or even generations (I’m still waiting for my 40 acres and a mule)…

So now for the final question

is it possible to separate the artist from the art?

I don’t know.

The End

R Kelly

Definitions and Terminology and Random asides made



Bipolar Disorder

EXCEL Prize Winning Project Resumes This Month

The SMTD & Our Own Thing Piano Partnership Program (EXCEL Prize ‘18) provides free weekly piano lessons to Ypsilanti students and was created to address the lack of diversity and representation in the field of classical piano. The EXCEL Prize allowed the program to supply students with keyboards for practice, give additional training for instructors, and support guest artist workshops.

Dr. Leah Claiborne (MM ‘15, DMA ‘18), was our 2018 EXCEL Prize Winner for her project, Our Own Thing Piano Partnership. In addition to the EXCEL Prize, Leah was also awarded the University of Michigan’s MLK Spirit Award for creating OOTPP. 

Leah said the most important aspect when forming the program was communicating that the reason for doing it was genuine. She did this by speaking to parents and the community and showing them that she was sincere, as well as making sure that all of the team facilitating the program was on the same page. Students were recruited for the program through her church in Ypsilanti, where she served as Music Director, and other affiliated churches in the area.

Leah is now the Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of the District of Columbia, where she teaches piano, coordinates Keyboard Studies, and teaches African American Music History. She is in the process of forming a new piano studies program with the same model as OOTPP at U of D.C.

Our Own Thing Piano Partnership continues to thrive at SMTD, with a new group of students beginning this month.