Kera M. Washington is an applied ethnomusicologist and the founder of Zili-fy/Zili Misik, formerly Zili Roots (www.zilimisik.com), founded in 2000: an all female, multi-ethnic, Boston-based world music ensemble that retraces routes of forced exile and cultural resistance through African diasporic rhythm and song. Zili performs roots music of the African Diaspora, or self-described "New World Soul."
Letta Neely, originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, is a Black lesbian playwright, performer, poet, mother, teacher and community activist who has been involved in progressive, anti-racist and queer liberation movements all of her adult life. Her work focuses on the connections and intersections of queerness, Blackness, and awareness. She is a former Garderev Fellow. As a member of the Traces/ Remain Ensemble with Deen Rawlins-Harris, she collaborated with Toshi Reagon's Emerson College residency: Parable Path Boston to develop the Seed to Harvest Book Project. Letta is also a co-artistic director for Fort Point Theatre Channel. She is the editor and scriptwriter of Ife Franklin's "The Slave Narratives of Willie Mae" (book and film). Letta hosts FireWater Poetics (a hybrid open mic w/ feature) at Emerson College each month. She directed Renita Martin's play, "Unmasked" for Revolution of Values, produced by Greg Allen. She is NEFA grant recipient of both Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice and Public Art for Spatial Justice funding. Letta recently took on the role as Makayla in Lyralyn Kaye's AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) an award-winning web series. Finally, Letta is the Associate Director of Programs at Apprentice Learning.
Artist Statement:Project Misik: Unleashing Freedom will be led by artists Kera Washington and Letta Neely, whose artist statements follow:
I am an African American female, queer, musician, artist, educator, ethnomusicologist, and mother, whose creative practice has focused, over the past two decades, on connecting sibling folkloric arts throughout the African diaspora. As percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, I teach and produce interactive performances, classes and workshops. I emphasize connections through music and through our common heartbeats, to build knowledge, community, and respect, particularly for marginalized people of African descent. Through my all-female multi-ethnic band, Zili Misik, another of my intentions is to counter stereotypes of female musicians as "minor." I enjoy ensemble music-making and am driven to collaborate and create with artists who share a view of art as healing.
I am Black Dyke, Earthling, Artist, Writer, Educator, Instigator, Drapetomaniac, and Lover of life. I write to draw connections between seemingly finite categories. I write because I am afraid if I do not speak the complexity more of us will die. I write because I am called to be an intimate witness to the voices and experiences of ancestral memory—mine or more; recent history and current times. Writing for me, is a communicative power which unleashes freedom, allows it to run barefoot on broken glass; to dance naked or costumed in front of assassins; to be seen in mirrors. Writing is a communicative power that converses internally, externally, ethereally, that recalibrates heart beats and foot pace, that reshapes the misshapen identities and undresses bullshit wrapped in Prada or smelling like dessert and changes it / channels it into truth which is essential sustenance. And for me, “Collaborative Creativity” (the process and practice of working authentically, intimately, and earnestly with other like-minded artists) is also essential. The stuff made within those partnerships is as pure and as unfiltered as the very best part of family reunions.
Our preliminary concept for the Ujima Project Cultural Assembly Grant is to produce “Project Misik: Unleashing Freedom” (Project Freedom), which intertwines music and poetry, and is inspired by the activism of 19th century Black abolitionists in Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Tulsa, and Newport. Project Freedom, combining word and song, seeks to uncover and voice the historical contributions and reverberations of 19th Century African American residents and activists; and to teach this largely still unsung history -- about our community’s ancestors -- to those of us living and working now. Importantly, as Project Freedom explores how Black communities thrived during other times of racial injustice, we strive to inspire contemporary BIPOC communities and our co-conspirators, focusing on the successes of ancestors that are still relevant to our continuing fights against sustained systemic racism.
Project Freedom will bring together 12 artists (8 of them folkx of African descent), including 2 collaborating composers, 8 other musicians, and one audio engineer and one videographer, to perform our compositions in Roxbury, either in Hibernian Hall or in the Black Market lot -- depending on availability and on the constraints of the ongoing pandemic -- a performance that will be livestreamed and audio recorded. One of Project Freedom’s goals is to invite (safe) audience participation in an interactive workshop and performance, led by Letta Neely and Kera Washington, and accompanied by members of Zili Misik and DJ Lady Ly, who will perform and will encourage, through word and music, all in attendance to become co-conspirators in our continued struggle for increased justice for Black folkx in our country. This need continues to be in stark focus for us to better our entire community, not just those of us who identify as BIPOC. The music from our live performance will be recorded and will serve as the soundtrack to the next phase of this Project; a recording to be shared on BNN and possibly other platforms in order to reach an ever widening and expanding audience.
Project Freedom will begin with Kera Washington and Letta Neely researching known members of 19th century Black communities in Cambridge, Beacon Hill, Tulsa, and Newport. With public safety and the latest Coronavirus precaution guidelines from the City and State in mind, we will conduct this research in cemeteries and Burial Grounds (e.g. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, one of the oldest burial sites for African Americans), at Historical Societies (e.g. Cambridge Historical Society), museums, and African American Heritage Trails in all of these communities. From this research, and building upon the efforts of historians and scholars amongst us, we will choose a few (potentially 10) black abolitionists, upon whom we will focus in our compositions. Letta and Kera will meet for 3 sessions to discuss our research and to begin our collaborative composition. Then, in two outdoor, socially distanced, in-person rehearsals, we will gather members of Zili Misik and DJ Lady Ly, to “add fuel to this fire,” adding their own musical ideas to those we’ve introduced. For inspiration, we will build our compositions upon the traditional Ghanaian “Kadodo” rhythm of freedom, which 5 of us will perform, and which will serve as an opening libation and invocation, during our workshop and performance. We will invite George Trksak of Bop Stop Studios and Kenny Loubeau of IPMediaGroup, both POC, to record our rehearsals and to document our subsequent live public performance.
Potentially on August First, 2022, once known as an “Emancipation Day” throughout the former British Colonies (including parts of the U.S.), we will present this stage of our musical collaboration in a workshop and performance at Hibernian or at Black Market. At the workshop and performance, we will invite audience participation (on synthetic percussion instruments that can safely be shared and cleaned), personal stories, and commentary. After our workshop and live performance, we will work with videographer Kenny Loubeau to create a short musical documentary (20 min) that will include contemporary and historical images that tell the story of our featured abolitionists’ work and the resonances of this work today. We will post this documentary on our Vimeo/Youtube channels so that the impact of this work will be ongoing and longlasting for the Boston community and beyond. Project Freedom will assert the ways in which Black Lives Matter today, the ways in which black lives mattered in the 19th century, and, in the folkx/stories that we are making, the ways in which black lives will continue to matter in the future.
Project Freedom will resonate with all intersectional BIPOC communities in Boston because we are all hungering for answers to the current state of systemic dismantilization of our beings in the United States right now. There is non-debatable data documenting the compounding and lingering traumas on BIPOC people; there are numerous books, documentaries, and scholarly articles amplifying (and oftentimes glorifying) the struggles we, BIPOC people, have endured and found some real and some glittery measures of success--from civil rights movements, etc...Often what we see is us fighting or dead. We become what we see. There is film footage of our bloodied heads; missing limbs; arsoned cars, churches, and houses; our bodies, our necks hanging like limp noodles over rope from trees. These stories are important; however, the reflections of us to us need to be more fully realized. We become what we see. It is true that we have been vibrant, connected and thriving. It is true that for bouts of time, we have not had to act in opposition to anyone--Black Wall Street, for example). It is true that some BIPOC people have known what freedom looks like, tastes like, smells like and moves like on a day to day basis. We (the collaborators in this proposal) believe that we, (BIPOC folkx and co-conspirators) need these images as well. We need them in order to fully realize our potential, to know that there are whole chunks of our stories that have been left out of the frame. We intend to tell a fuller picture--widening the gaze for what was and for what can be.