Dahlak Brathwaite (OneBeat 2014) is a hip hop artist using his abilities as a musician, actor, poet and educator within the transformational space of the theater. Kyla-Rose Smith (OneBeat 2014) is a Brooklyn/Cape Town-based violinist and organizer and a long-time member of legendary South African band Freshly Ground. Fellow-to-Fellow is an ongoing interview series featuring in-depth discussions between OneBeat alumni.
*This interview was transcribed from audio.
Kyla-Rose Smith: Hi Dahlak!
Dahlak Brathwaite: Are we on?
KRS: We’re on! So why do you think it is important for people from different cultures to share an experience through music?
DB: I think music gives us the opportunity to communicate sonically without it having to be quite understood. It leaves the potential for interpretation — in the way we are communicating, the gap between interpretation and expression is a little bit smaller. The potential of this process without the limitations of common language I think can be even more powerful. And again I can only speak from experience. I felt a certain closeness to all these people whose music I listened to and was invited to participate in, who heard my music. This kind of cultural and artistic exchange takes us beyond a place of definite and rigid meanings, and allows for a container of possibility and expression.
KRS: What drives your own music making, and why or how is collaboration important for your art?
DB: Mmmmmm – good question! I guess I have just been distilling what it is I do. I have resolved myself to being a sonic artist. That sound can come in the form of words, and sometimes it comes in the form of different tones, melodies and rhythms. I believe that we are all blessed with a certain sensitivity to different things in this world. Visual artists may have sensitivity to what they can see, and I don’t think I have that sensitivity, but I have a certain sensitivity to what I can hear. I find myself still understanding the language of sound – to know that if I hit a certain progression, it is going to convey a certain emotion or provoke a certain reaction. And as I grow into my artistry, language becomes more defined and refined.
For a long time I worked very independently, even though what got me into music were the communal aspects of it — with someone beatboxing or beating on a table, and me putting words over it — through that exchange grew a love and a passion for music. But as I was trying to hone it and refine it, I resorted to a more individual or solo mode of creating. Now, as I get more clear about who I am, I am less interested in what I can make or what I can create – I know I have certain skills and ways of thinking, and I have honed these things, so now I can bring them back to the table to co-create and generate music. I think for me, I had to process myself before I felt good enough and ready enough. It’s like improv — you practice so much and become so honed and versatile at your instrument that it is flexible, it can change up or move with somebody else or interpret what somebody is saying to you, and give them something back.
KRS: Can you tell me about your recent collaboration with producer Jonathan Reyes and what inspired it?
DB: Yeah, he’s kind of a kindred music spirit. We have collaborated a few times – he’s been one of the best people to collaborate with, particularly because we don’t need to be in the same room to do it. Talk about the ideal of OneBeat – we don’t have to be separated by geography anymore, we have this digital platform where we can continue to build and grow, and Jonathan Reyes has been one of the best people to use and utilize that platform.
Here in the States there was just a wave of — again! — police shootings that highlights and captures a larger ongoing problem. After the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the week of July 4th, I felt like I had to have a response – not only to the murders, but also to the public reaction and divisiveness it always seems to cause when an authority figure, hired and paid by the government, is once again being justified in killing people. I came up with this line, ‘Oh God If I am gunned down let it be ISIS and not the police,” because two weeks before, there was a mass shooting in Orlando, and everybody could agree that it was bad and we should pray for these people — no matter who they were or what they did in their lives. We could all agree that these are fellow Americans and it is a tragedy. And to have that happen so close to another form of murder, it consistently proves to be the same format, in terms of a “minority” and a government authority. And to know not everybody looks at those involved as Americans – that we choose one American over the other. At least when it is ISIS or someone who is seen as a threat to America — if Alton Sterling had been killed by ISIS, then all of a sudden Alton is an American. We select our Americans and place them on a hierarchy. And to see how both of those murders could potentially be random… If it could happen at any time, then let me be the upper American, let me be the American they mourn for. Out of those thoughts came this poem.
I released the acappella I wrote, and Jonathan created a backdrop that I really appreciated and loved, because it was reminiscent of a Gil Scott-Heron track in its rawness. My delivery had a trap rap aesthetic, but his music brought me back to a Beat Poets / Last Poets era, and it was beautiful to combine those forms – not only aesthetically but also symbolically, in that the rights that we are fighting for are the same rights they were fighting for in the 60s. To conjure up that sound once again brings the link a bit closer and makes you realize that people are living in history while it is happening. And I think with my words and Reyes’s production, it really brought that history to the fore and made the statement that history is still living today – and we have an opportunity to choose what side of history we want to be on.
KRS: You have been touring the USA with your show Spiritrials – what has that experience been like, particularly given the current social and political climate in the US, the recent spate of police killings, and the particular content of that show?
DB: It has actually been really great. Unfortunately, the current national conversation has made my job a lot easier. I feel like I have been doing this kind of work for a long time, I have been speaking on these issues for a longtime. I began working on this play the summer after Trayvon Martin was killed. Talk about history unfolding. At the time I was reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography, learning about the Black Panthers and their struggle, and then Trayvon Martin was killed. That brought me into the first thing I ever wrote for this play. I think with Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and with all the attention that the documentation of police killings have brought about, now I am not so radical anymore. I am less of the Malcolm X voice and more of the Martin Luther King voice, and a voice that I feel like the American public can accept without getting defensive, without feeling I am too extreme. It actually feels like a justified, understandable, well-put, well-thought out response and contextualization of the truth that is now becoming so apparent to us. With that, I feel very blessed and fortunate that I can use my story and the things that once made me ashamed or embarrassed. I use a process that was meant to silence me, and the result has been very rewarding. Not that I would have wanted any of these things to happen to me — but at the same time they were already happening, and it is very fortunate that my experience and my subsequent play and story is evidence of many African American’s experience in this country. And the fact that I appear as a more reasonable voice allows people to accept this as a way to critically start analyzing the situation, and to contextualize how they feel about race and policing in this country.
KRS: Do you think that because you approach it with a certain humor and light heartedness, with a conciliatory tone, that people allow it into their space and are able to start having the conversation?
DB: Yeah, I think definitely! All of these things were ways to coax an audience, if you will, and maybe coax a resistant audience into letting guards down and removing the barriers that restrict them from fully hearing the humanity of it. Just because I am in the system, and not only am I talking against the system, I am also part of the system! So I do understand the resistance to it, I do understand why people feel worried, scared and defensive. I have grown up with these ideas, but then the ideas have been used against people who look like me. So with that knowledge, I have a certain understanding of how some more human qualities or aesthetics, such as humor or music, allow folks to open up a bit more. All these things work and have always worked. When I say it makes my job easier — there was a certain point in performing this piece where, if I didn’t make them laugh, or they couldn’t hear the music, I knew I was screwed! Now that the conversation is really in the public discourse, there is something extra that is making this conversation not only more human or relatable, but actually very relevant and present.
KRS: What is your favorite or most memorable moment from OneBeat?
DB: I was just thinking about this the other day! The most meaningful was the time we were forced to perform in front of kids (laughs) — the fear that came with it! I had to step back and say, “What do I do here, how do I make this for kids?” I had to ask myself how to welcome this new audience, because even though I have been working with youth for a while, I had never worked with kids that young or performed in front of kids that young. The reaction and the response, the openness and the excitement of those youth, and also working with you, Sanaya and Peni and everyone to create that, and see the joy that it brought out of all of us — it was a great moment at OneBeat! It was probably the most meaningful for me because it led to a shift in my range and opened up new potentials and possibilities in me. Now I am actively creating material for youth. I am working on a kids show with Montalvo (Arts Center) – using my skills to teach music and music history to kids. It brought a new light and energy in me because I realized how impactful an experience like that can be, especially if it’s your first time. And after having that responsibility of giving someone their first experience of live performance and music – I think I am more careful with it, and I want it to be the best it can be, because there is a different type of preciousness when it is for children so young. And of the many incredible moments at OneBeat, that’s the most meaningful in terms of my life right now.
KRS: You recently collaborated with and performed in Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s public performance piece, Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos – can you tell me about that and about your perspective on the power of art and performance as a force for social change and a vehicle for discourse and engagement?
DB: I think with Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos, the cyclical nature of the piece played a big role in the actual performance. We were performing in Central Park, and the way the piece worked, we were on for 20 minutes, and then we’d take a 5-minute break. And during the breaks, we would talk and interact with the audience about their ideas of black joy and what that means to them, and we would use those conversations, bring them back into our performance. That actually captures everything I do in my work, and what I look for in other people’s work, in terms of using conversation and engaging community to bring about a context for a performance piece or a piece of music.
The true art in most of the things I am doing is making an audience member comfortable enough to hear the observations and revelations as I have received them, and make them comfortable enough to not put up a fight as soon as you hear trigger words or trigger topics. It is almost like the art of hosting, and the art of welcoming – similar to what we were doing in Black Joy – we are not only serving as performers, we are also serving as facilitators and friends – things that other humans do to introduce themselves, to welcome one another and make people feel a part of something.
I look at art less in the sense of museum art or art history, but more in the sense of the art of something, where it is a craft to make an audience feel comfortable, it is a craft to make an audience member laugh in service of true engagement of a relevant conversation. And so, at least for me, the art leading to social change is beyond the art of being able to stand up there or being able to plié or rap fast. It is beyond the technical abilities — there is a technique to performance, there’s a technique to music theory, but for me the art is truly understanding and being aware of the language and the terms that you are putting out there. Being aware of the emotions you are conjuring up, and to some extent manipulating them, turning them and shifting them in order to facilitate a conversation that I and others deem necessary and want to deem necessary. When I am talking about art, I am really talking about it in the same sense one would talk about the “art of teaching” — it’s the human qualities, it’s the same qualities you use when you want to get someone to like you or go on a date with you, that for me is the true art.
KRS: I heard you identify yourself as a black American in an interview. Given what America looks like in 2016, what does that mean to you?
DB: I hope it means the beginning of the end of having to separate myself in that manner. I think that for me it happens for multiple reasons, because my Dad is from Trinidad and my mom is from East Africa, and they are first generation in this country but they are completely American. I have all these qualifications of an African American or a black American, but I am not quite African. If this was any other situation, if my mom was from Ireland and my Dad was from Australia and I was born in Houston, Texas, I could just say I am an American. That hasn’t been the case in this era or this generation. And I think moving forward the real struggle and the real fight is to be truly seen as an American. Truly look at myself and look at American history as a history that included people who look like me, or who have similar stories as mine, who were maybe born in this country or came here and created America – truly!
And for so long we have been robbed of this fact. We know what the oppressor has done and we don’t label them as the oppressor, we just label them as the only ones who were actively building America – but that’s not real, that’s false. The way that black people, especially in this country, have demanded that America live up to its constitution and its principles, live up to its ideals, the fight for justice, the fight to hold America accountable – just that alone grants us a contribution of a sort of moral consciousness to this country, and I think that is profoundly significant. And if there is going to be any division between races or ethnicities, it should be these specific contributions that are held equally valuable. And so if I call myself a black American, that is how I have grown up to separate myself, but as I move forward I am aware that I am truly an American, as part of the legacy of accountability and justice and moral consciousness that so many others have been a part of and died for, and though we may not have written the constitution we have enforced it, and will continue to enforce it. And I believe that change is happening, and if nothing else it’s a change I’ll be moving towards, and using my art to facilitate!