I was always attracted to Black art.
Poetry. Music. Dance. Theatre. I love how Black people can make a statement out of any medium. My own admiration was nurtured by my dad, who filed our home with his art.
We had mahogany angels made from clay. His large, colorful landscapes of both earth and heaven hung high on our walls.
His art showed me the limitless nature of our creativity. And to this day, when I go to a festival, I always hunt down Black artists and awe at their work. Whether it was visual art or a performance, I cheered the loudest for everybody Black. So I chatted with a few folks who find happiness by fusing their art with activism.
Armond Vance makes beauty with his fingertips. A master of the violin and viola, Vance first picked up the violin at 12 after listening to a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” performed by DSharp, an Atlanta-based violinist, singer and producer.
Vance, a 24-year-old Ohio native, is now passing down his skills to his students as an orchestra director at a Fort Worth, Texas, middle school. He uses Instagram and TikTok to showcase his classical musical blends with current bops, like “Up” by Cardi B, and uses social media to teach thousands of followers about Black and brown composers who have been whitewashed from the curriculum.
You can read more about why Vance calls himself an artistic activist and how he tries to decolonize the music curriculum for his students and adults on our website. But for now let’s just get into how he got into music.
So you have been playing the violin for more than ten years now. Did you come from a family with deep musical roots?
My first experience musically was dancing with my three sisters who were a lot older to me, but they were into dance, hip and other dance styles like contemporary and they were on dance teams. So that was kind of like my first musical education, I would say just listening to 90s – early 2000s hip hop and R&B.
Then, of course, the music that my mom listened to was more like Motown and she was very good at drawing. There was definitely a lot of creative energy in our home.
So, your mom had creative energy from drawing, your sisters’ creative energy came from dancing and your creative energy came from the violin?
Well, violin at first. I started in middle school and I had a very cool art director who really gave me the space to explore the possibilities of what my instrument could do, which were kind of limitless. I was always trying to play hip hop songs and pop tunes on my instrument at an early age and he endorsed that.
He encouraged me to compose my own pieces of music and arrange pop tunes for orchestras. When I was 15, through his support and motivation, I actually wrote an arrangement for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. They not only performed it. I got to conduct it, too. That was kind of the turning point for me, like, “Oh, this is what I can see myself doing this for a living.”
I was introduced to skating when I was around 7. My mom and I would roller blade together and my elementary school would have skate nights at the rink starting when I was 10. I loved it.
I would go every blue moon after that point. But once the pandemic hit, I devoted more time to it, bought my own skates, watched a lot of YouTube and fell in love with it again! I love skating because it feels very liberating. Like, I’m invincible. This especially feels good as a Black man living in a world that often views you as a threat.
During the pandemic, you became known for your front porch concerts. What inspired you to those events and what do you hope people get out of them?
I started front porch concerts in May 2020 after a guy who heard me practicing in my apartment complex lobby if I could play for his girlfriend’s birthday.
The idea grew out of both a need to provide musical healing for those at a time when we were all very much locked down and the want to share my art with others and tap more into my authentic artistic self. My front porch concerts were safe because of I could be outside and socially distance. The intimate, up close and personal nature of these concerts was a unique experience for the listeners and it enable led me, a non native of the area, to really get to know the community.
Viola Ratcliffe, a 35-year-old Montgomery, Ala., native was also raised to appreciate art. Trips to the country’s largest museums were frequent during her childhood. Her grade-school art classes were more than just finger painting. She also played with pottery and weaving.
Sis literally studied the storytelling power of art during her college career. She devoured art history at the University of Alabama and in grad school studied Black quilting artists through a social justice lens. She is now the program manager of the Birmingham, Ala.,-based Bib & Tucker Sew-Op, an art nonprofit that uses sewing as a means to promote empowerment, education and economic opportunities through a variety of programs.
Ratcliffe gave us a past and present examples of art intersecting with activism:
- James Van Der Zee was one of America’s most prominent portrait photographers who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. Through his portraits of Black families and even Black celebrities, he captured the vibrancy and the opulence of Harlem. His photographs provided the world with an image of Black America that countered the narrative that America often tried to tell about Black people.”
- Kenya Buchanan is an Alabama designer, whose creations are a celebration of Black life through fashion. Kenya incorporates African Ankara prints and vibrant colors in her collections. Some of my favorite designs are her custom prom dresses. Most of her prom clientele, if not all, are young Black women and her designs are a visualization of Black Girl Magic. You can see more of Kenya’s work at kenyabuchanan.com and on Instagram.”
- Erin Mitchell is a native and resident of Birmingham. “Her work is celebratory. It is memorial. And it is us. I also follow Erin on social media, and I appreciate how she will sometimes feature works of art on her platform that speak to injustice. You can see more of Erin’s work at erinleannworks.com and on Instagram.”
Can’t get enough art talk? Here’s some recommended reading.
- Tony Award winning, Emmy nominated actress Phylicia Rashad has been chosen to become the dean of Howard University’s college of fine arts.
- You have to read about William Garfield Walker’s journey from playing in string programs in Mississippi to becoming a “Modern Day Maestro” who works with orchestras in Europe and the United States as a conductor.
- Kat Files, who I previously profiled, endured racist comments about her body in the ballet industry and anti-Southern stigmas, now is diversifying the dance field through her nonprofit for Black and brown youth.
Now go forth and find your Black joy!
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Until next time! ✨