Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s red, black and GREEN: a blues is the recipient of the 2011 America Project Commission, a MAPP International Productions program that supports the creation of new performing arts work that engages diverse citizens in an exploration of an important civic issue, and (and this is crucial) incorporates their voices into the creation of an artistic work. The America Project aims to keep alive the vision of powerful performance poet Sekou Sundiata, who passed away in 2007 and was a great influence on many artists, activists, and educators who are working today. Marc Bamuthi Joseph is, in many ways, a natural inheritor of Sekou’s mantle. Even before the commission, Bamuthi’s work lived and breathed ideas coming up from those communities that so often struggle to see the light of day in mainstream media.
A key tenet of Sekou’s work was the idea of “dialogue across difference”—both across discipline and departments in educational, artistic, or organizational settings, but also across differences of race, class, age, and opinion. Sekou used what he called “framing questions” to help instigate dialogue—central questions that become starting points for the larger investigation, and which demanded answers from a place of personal reflection, not dug in political stance (a revelation in these polarized times!). Sekou said “I knew I had a good question when it led to other questions . . . when it implicated me on a personal level.”
For Bamuthi, the framing question of red, black and GREEN: a blues became “what sustains life in your community?” As he freely acknowledges, he didn’t start there. He started just by wanting to make a piece about “black people and the environment” but quickly realized that even his own understanding of that issue was necessarily narrow and in order to address it fully, he needed to open up the process and listen to how others defined sustainability in their own words and worlds. And that process—of creating environments for people to dialogue across difference through a broad question that everyone has access to—was in itself LIFE sustaining.
Life is Living—the daylong eco-festivals that took place in Oakland, New York, Houston, and Chicago and became the inspiration for rbGb—functioned in the same way. It was a safe space for people to come together and offer answers to what sustains life in their community—whether that be healthy food, footwork, and hip-hop or memory, respect, and collaboration. By placing my answer next to yours, next to hers, each of ours is amplified and together we build something larger. Largely because of the fact that we each offer something different (and we choose to engage with each other across that divide), the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Watch Bamuthi at work in “Community,” the second video in a series documenting the creative process behind red, black and GREEN: a blues.