Taking a Bow 

Local extravaganza highlights African Americans in the arts

Local extravaganza highlights African Americans in the arts

I’ll Make Me a World in Tennessee: Honoring Our Ancestors

8 p.m. Jan. 29 at Ryman Auditorium

Tickets available at the N4Art office, 1718 Charlotte Ave.

For info, call 320-1107

African Americans’ contributions to this nation’s cultural heritage are vast. Yet the fact remains that many people still don’t grasp the magnitude or breadth of the black influence—which infuses everything from visual art, theater, and dance to literature, poetry, and music.

On Feb. 1-3, I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Arts, Artists, and Communities, produced by Blackside Inc., debuts nationwide on public television. In what producers say is the most comprehensive documentary of its kind, the program will chronicle, celebrate, and acknowledge the cultural impact of blacks in America.

In advance of that landmark broadcast, there’ll be another historic event—one taking place right here in Nashville. Friday night, the Nashville African American Arts Association (N4Art) hosts ”I’ll Make Me a World in Tennessee: Honoring Our Ancestors.“ The multimedia show, which takes place at the Ryman Auditorium, will spotlight the many contributions of African Americans to our local arts and culture while also serving as a celebration of the forthcoming PBS documentary.

”This is an incredible event in many ways,“ says Jackie Jones, spokesperson for N4Art. ”It’s the first time a local African American arts association has ever rented out the Ryman for an event.“ Featured performers at ”I’ll Make Me a World in Tennessee“ include Grammy award-winning gospel group The Fairfield Four, poet James Floyd, theatrical group The Princely Players, musician Aashid Himons, and several others. The evening’s headliner is actor, vocalist, and activist Oscar Brown Jr., who’ll also give a free master class 3-5 p.m. Friday in the Marie Strange Building on Tennessee State University’s campus.

Nashville was one of 11 cities chosen by Blackside to stage a local program in tandem with the upcoming documentary. N4Art has been the guiding force behind the Ryman event, but a host of other local entities have provided support, among them the Tennessee Arts Commission, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, Saturn Corporation, The Frist Foundation, A.M.E. Church Review, BellSouth, The Tennessean, Tennessee State University, and Fisk’s Race Relations Institute.

I’ll Make Me a World is being produced by the same company that presented the acclaimed civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. Sadly, it’s also the final production of the legendary producer and filmmaker Henry Hampton, who died late last year as the documentary was nearing completion. Narrated by singer/actor Vanessa Williams, the show airs in three two-hour broadcasts. Participants include musicians Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis, poets Gwendolyn Brooks and June Jordan, filmmakers Spike Lee and Julie Dash, and author Alice Walker. For more information, consult the show’s Web site at http://www.blackside.com.

For Brown, both the Ryman event and the PBS documentary serve a common goal: to educate and uplift the public, to inform African Americans about their history and culture, and to inspire blacks to improve their lives and communities.

”I want to see more events that help African Americans assess where they are in terms of this country and also events that do more to encourage artists to take responsibility for the direction of the culture,“ Brown says, speaking by phone from California, where he serves as a professor at the University of California in Riverside. ”The contributions of African Americans to everything in this country’s culture is so great; yet too often we don’t take any initiative when it comes to the direction of that music or art.“

Oscar Brown Jr.’s arts advocacy dates back to the late ’50s, when he was a news anchor on the nationally syndicated radio program Negro Newsfront. During that time, he also began writing songs and appearing in local theatrical productions. At the opening of A Raisin in the Sun in Chicago, he met the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and her husband, Robert Neimiroff, who worked for a New York music publisher. Neimiroff helped Brown land a deal at Columbia Records, which launched him nationally with the 1960 LP Sin and Soul (recently reissued by Sony/Legacy).

Ever since, Brown has combined acting, directing, and recording in a multifaceted career that has earned him numerous critical plaudits. While he has never stopped working, these days Brown is more concerned about the state of the arts in this country, particularly as it affects African Americans.

”I used to tell young blacks in the ’60s that if they wanted to change things they should go into television,“ he says. ”Now when I see what’s on television, I think I made a huge mistake.“ Aside from a few worthwhile programs, he adds, ”I’m appalled at what I see when I bother to watch it.

”In theater there’s still a lot of opposition to African Americans [attempting] to organize and present productions that truly tell people what’s happening in the culture. It’s very clear and present whenever anyone tries to do something that’s in the least bit challenging.

”Music has been a wonderful contributing force in this society, but when you look at the music industry, you see very little that’s positive. They’re taking music education out of the schools, and the establishment has never been open to the black contribution in music; they were initially opposed to ragtime, to jazz, to blues, to rhythm and blues, to hip-hop, you name it. But the popularity of the music among the people is so strong, they can’t stop it, so they try to control the distribution and the profits.

”There are still so many fights ahead, and so many battles.“

For his own part, Brown is taking steps to change things where he thinks he can. ”I think the Internet is a wonderful tool for helping educate people about African American culture and its impact. I’m working on creating a Web site now. I’m also doing some television here in California and also continuing to perform.“

Nashville audiences can hear for themselves what Brown has to say, both Friday afternoon at TSU and Friday night at the Ryman. His voice is among America’s more distinguished, but it will be one among many celebrating African American excellence during ”I’ll Make Me a World in Tennessee: Honoring Our Ancestors“ and I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African American Arts, Artists, and Communities.


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