Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Gift Giver!

"It's Never Ending!" 
Michele Turner on the fabric of love.
Check out her interview and tap into that well spring!
Light for the journey,
Designing Sistas, Winter 2014 Featuring Michele Turner of Michele's Moments - Crocheted Blankets and Clothes for Baby

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lois Fernandez, Cultural Icon
ODUNDE (Translation - "Happy New Year"), as an "idea", started around halfway around the world in the early 70s as it was carried — by Lois Fernandez— a woman who is big in spirit — from Oshogbo, Nigeria to South Philadelphia. Each year it comes back full circle. Similar to processions that take place in Oshogbo, there is a large gathering of people processing to the river to make a special offering. ODUNDE!!! They shout before it begins to get the crowd moving along. The shouts turn into songs from Nigeria. Excitement brews as the music plays, masqueraders dance and the huge crowd of processors move higher on South Street to the South Street Bridge to temporarily transform the Schulykill into a sacred body of water that is receptive to sweets, fruits and cakes. The songs that carried the procession the rest of the way to the river turns into quiet prayers. Exciting? Definitely! It is also called "Beautiful." That is part of the essence of ODUNDE as well. It has grown along this way for quite some time now and it still continues to grow and expand. On June 9th ODUNDE celebrated it’s 38th year! The celebration that began almost 4 decades ago is quickly moving towards a landmark 40-year celebration in less than 2 short years. I had the priveledge and honor of speaking with founder, Lois Fernandez about the celebration. She shared the beginings of ODUNDE. Read along to find out how the celebration traveled with her from Oshogbo, Nigeria to South Philadelphia and has long impacted the city and communities and how it is continuing to grown - daily!

Light for the Journey!


Chekejai: ODUNDE just celebrated the 38th year and quickly it’s moving towards year 39.

L. Fernandez: Yes
Chekejai: That is fabulous and very exciting! Congratulations! I read somewhere that you got the idea for ODUNDE from other festivals that you had attended on the continent (Africa).

L. Fernandez: Actually, I got the idea for ODUNDE when I went to Nigeria in 1971 and I was told about a festival that they have there. Every year, around August, they had a festival there for Osun (a force of love, beauty and creativity). I had met the artist [Prince] Twins Seven Seven when I first got to Nigeria — into where he lived — called Oshogbo. I had been on a bus. As I got off the bus he was there. He had brought somebody in to catch another bus. We exchanged niceties and he asked me about myself. When I told him that I was trying to find a place to live — I told him, ‘I came there to learn and to see Nigeria because I had heard about the Osun Festival’ – He said, "oh really? Well let me take you some place where you can find a place to stay." I have a sister who was living in Uganda. (Sidebar: I left Tanzania, went to Uganda just as a layover). Twins said, "I’ll show you Nigeria, Oshogbo." I first went into Lagos and then I took the bus to Oshogbo, which is a small town. I attached to Twins Seven Seven and he ended up being one of Nigeria’s very famous artists. He became pretty well-known, I would guess worldwide. In Europe, what-have-you, he ended up traveling. Twins had a good sense for communication. He could talk. He has since transitioned (died). But there I am in Nigeria — not knowing anybody anyhow. I stayed there in Oshogbo, Twins got me a place to stay. I ended up going to different events and meeting some people, not knowing any people. I must have stayed in Oshogbo for at least about a week and a half or two weeks. I didn’t stay in Lagos that long. I stayed in Oshogbo. Oshogbo was a little town and it had a lot of culture in it. That’s why I was glad that I had heard about Oshogbo and Oshogbo artist.
Chekejai: The Oshogbo Artist?
L. Fernandez: There was a white woman named, Susanne Wenger. She had a stable of African artist, Nigerian artist. She used to be married a German guy named to Ulli Beier and together they came and had a hold on the artist, as I saw it, in Nigeria. They had a whole staple of Nigerian artist. They were controlling all of the art — in my view — that was coming out of Nigeria. I think they were artist too, though I’m not sure but for a Nigerian artist to do anything they had to go see Susan or Ulli Beier. I know they were married at one time but by the time I got there she had married a Nigerian and he had married another European but they were both very involved in the African art in Lagos, in Oshogbo, in Nigeria period.
Chekejai: How did you come to think of bringing the idea of the festival from Oshogbo to Philadelphia?

L. Fernandez: Twins and I had a conversation; He was telling me about the Osun Festival. He gave me a photo of him at the Osun Festival. I said, ‘Wow! This is wonderful! It looks like something that we can do in Philadelphia.’ I remember saying that to him. My neighbor and I used to often talk about that as well as my sister and brother-in-law. We need to have something down here on this corner at Grays Ferry and South Street. Particularly my neighbor Ruth and I. We used to say we need to have something here. I said, that would be wonderful to bring an Osun Festival to our South Philadelphia neighborhood. That was 1971 — beginning of 1972.
Chekejai: The first ODUNDE Festival occured in 1975. How did it actually come to be?

L. Fernandez: In 1975, working for the city — Department of Welfare at the time they changed it to Department of Human Services — they had this thing called ‘The Renaissance’ or something they were going to do — maybe the Art Department was going to do it...the city (of Philadelphia) was doing it. Young white women were directing it and I said, let me go talk to them to see if we can get that for our neighborhood here. I went and met with them, talked to them. I told them that we wanted to do something on the street - a little street festival just 1 block – that’s what I was thinking, that’s all we did at that time. We didn’t call it ODUNDE - it was The Osun Festival. I told them, the thing is, we want to go to the river. They said, "the river?" ‘Yeah, we want to go across the bridge to the river.’ They thought that was strange. I said, ‘we want to do something like what I saw in Nigeria,’ even though I wasn’t with them when they had made the offering — I just knew about it.
Chekejai: Did you know any other Yoruba people?

L. Fernandez: There were Yorubas in NY who I first met. I’m going to back to 1963 there was a Temple at 116th Street in New York City — that’s when I first l learned about the Yorubas. Subsequently my sister married one of the men, my brother-in-law. He was part of the founding. The man who had the Temple was Nana Oseijeman — a well known priest. He was the first person that I ever saw in full African attire — this is back in the 60s. My first knowledge of the Yoruba religion and the Temple were through the people out of NYC. They came to Philly In 1963 and had a program at the Y [MCA] on Christian Street. They took my head when I saw them all dressed in African clothing and they were singing these different songs. I’ll never forget that it moved me so deeply. Somehow we stayed in contact. My sister ended up marring in 1965 and they had a Yoruba wedding. [I] just kept being involved with them, just becoming aware of the culture and I just thought it was so key and important. So when this thing came up with the city — ‘The Renaissance’ I said we should be able to have something!
When I first went to get the permits - the women laughed at me. I left that office and I spoke to two women in my office (Department of Welfare). I told them about what we wanted to do. I told the women that we wanted to go across the bridge and that we want to make an offering to the river. They were impressed. They said, "We think that would be wonderful and different!" They thought that I had a big brainy idea and they were so gung-ho to help and they did! They got everything! They got the permits! I was going to have a hard time. They were right on it! They said, we’ll take care of this. I had it made! We got permits. I said who got the last laugh because we sure went across that bridge and went to the river! It was April that year (1975). My Boo (referring to her daughter Oshunbumi, the CFO of ODUNDE and ODUNDE365) was just 1-years-old. So here we go on a cool April day. Our first poster in 1976 was of us walking down South Street. April of 1975. Everyone had on coats.
Chekejai: When did you change the time to June?

L. Fernandez: We decided to change it to the 2nd Sunday in June the next year - that is more of our weather. Good weather. We had children from community group - school aged groups. We told the parents and women in our group that we would like for the children to go in traditional African attire and that what we can do so that there is no expense - we can wrap them in fabric. We taught them the song ODUNDE by Olotunji and as they left the house. We left from my house. I was living on Madison Square at the time. As we got to South Street - across the bridge, they sang that song. We made our offering and came back. At that time ODUNDE was only 1 block. 2300 block of South Street.
Chekejai: How did you come up with the decorations for the event?

L. Fernandez: Arthur Hall was very key. He came to help us decorate. He put up banners he brought his dance troupe. We had drummers - Baba Crowder, Wilkie (respected drummers in the city of Philadelphia) was there.
Chekejai: You had a lot of creative and cultural giants and input from such giants from the start - such as earlier mentioned Prince Twins Seven Seven, Melvin Deal and Arthur Hall.

L. Fernandez: Every year Melvin Deal would come and bring his whole company. He would come from Washington, D.C. and bring like 2 or 3 vans!We didn’t have any money then! They would volunteer! Authur Hall! Everyone just came.
My brother-in law got Melvin Deal - he left us dancing in the street! I will never forget.
Chekejai: When was the turning point? When did it become such a large event?

L. Fernandez: 1977 - it exploded!!! By then there were more vendors and more space.
Chekejai: A lot of this you initaited but did you have a partner?

L. Fernandez: My neighbor Ruth Arthur was a partner, my sister Laura, my brother-in-law - Oba. We are all a part of it in the beginning. None of them went to Africa. I went to all of them. They had no idea but they were all in agreement. Especially when I saw the opportunity posted in my office. That’s how we had the first one in 1975 under the Renaissance. SO when the opportunity presented itself I thought that we could do it right here in the triangle at 23rd and South. We pulled it off - it was wondeful. It wasn’t big but it was thrilling.
Chekejai: Vending is huge at ODUNDE. There are all kinds of vendors - food, clothes, music, art and so much more. Did it begin with a lot of vending?

L. Fernandez:  We had the school kids, the neighbors came out and they were selling things. A lady from our community group called the Southwest Center City Community Center - the women of that organization supported it. We had our own children and we were able to dress them up. The women put money in so that we could buy some hot dogs to sell. We ended up selling to ourselves (she says with a light chuckle). We had a table out there - wasn’t really nobody out there. We didn’t know anything about big time vending back in those days and vending wasn’t big back in those days so it was limited in term of vendors. Vending wasn’t big back in those days.
Chekejai: What inspired you to go to Africa?

L. Fernandez:  I’ve always wanted to go. I borrowed! They said that I was obsessed. I said, ‘I got to go to Africa!’ I borrowed money. I got my mother to take care of my son. I ended up going for three weeks. My sister was living in Tanzania at the time. She had married a Namibian. I got there and it was unreal! In the 70s there were a lot of freedom fighters that were based in Tanzanian at the time. A lot of them from Mozambique. Julius Nyerere was the president. mhe would allow them to be there - like SWAPO. In the evening - you could go downtown where they would gather. An exciting time to be in Tanzania! Any night you could go out and all you saw were freedom fighters and gatherings for freedom fighters - an exciting time to be in Tanzania! A lot of women were there just traveling. Particularly in Tanzania.
Chekejai: Bumi is doing a phenominal job with continuing with your legacy and expanding on what you’ve done so many years ago with community programming centered around ODUNDE. How do you feel about how the work is being carried forth?

L. Fernandez: I am just so blessed and honored that she has taken the helm. a lot of times you start an organization and there is no one to pass it on to. I can’t think of how many things have died, especially in our community. So this is just a blessing. And to add her own touch such as the I Am B.U.M.I. (Beautiful Unique Magnificent Individual) program for girls and ODUNDE365 is so key. It makes the statement that ODUNDE is more than just a festival.
Chekejai: You have also —in the past — reached out to schools and musuems, developed relationships with those schools and museums and you’ve sent in dance teachers to teach dance classes for children in the 90s.

L. Fernandez:We had outreach programs so it’s good to have Bumi operate all year around. If it’s reaching out, it’s key to the future of ODUNDE so I am grateful that she has taken it to the next level and beyond.
Chekejai: She is propelling things forward and working on the next generation.

L. Fernandez:A young mind with stirring creativity keeps ODUNDE alive.
Chekejai: Yes it does! Thank you so much for giving me some of your time and thanks for all that you have done for the community and for keeping the culture.

L. Fernandez:Oh Sure!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Rasheeda Bey on Craft and Style
Note: I would like to apologize for editing mishaps in this issue. They have been corrected on the blog. However, if you should see any additional errors please feel free to call it to my attention. Mistakes are in no way a reflection of any artist featured. 

Thank you for your input and understanding. Enjoy!


In the land of our ancestors, they tell this old story.  They teach that when you have troubles share them with your doll.  

Ra’Sheeda: Just born to do! I was raised in South Philly. Across the street from us was a post World War II factory and we used to go in there and play. It was huuuuge!  I can still see it in my mind’s eyes. [There were] piles and piles and piles of what they call, “horse blankets.” This is World War II – I mean tons of cotton. I remember how the women would go in there and take those horse blankets and they would go inside of a quilt – that would be the batting. It was wool and it would just itch you.  And they would cover it. I remember them taking the cotton and just pressing it on and, you know, the big stitches. They would sew the cotton down and they would put a backing on and a top. I mean a lot of women use to just go in there and get those blankets. I can just remember making the quilts. I was 3 or 4 years old. I started real young. 

My first cousins… that’s all we did. It was just something you did. It wasn’t mandatory, it was just something that you did. If you were at my grandmother’s house you learned how to crochet.  I had an aunt who was a master crocheter.  You [also] learned how to knit.

At Christmas time we would get a new quilt.  It was one of the things that you just got.  In June, when my grandmother’s sisters would come up [from the south], everyone would participate.  I remember cutting squares out cutting shapes out.  At that time they were rag quilts – Grandpop’s shirt, Uncle Mo’s long johns,  Aunt Sally’s apron, grandma’s whatever! They were just pieces and they would put them together.

Chekejai:  You’ve been commissioned to do a great deal or work.  You made quilts, dolls, clothes. What inspired you to make dolls?

Ra’sheeda: A lot of the dolls I make for friends – birthdays and that sort of thing.

There were dolls called “shelf-sitters”. I was looking through some old National Geographics magazines and there are several nations of women who have these long necks and they put the jewelry around their necks and rings and it would elongate their necks. And right before Imhotep (a charter school in Philadelphia where she teaches intergenerational quilt making), I think someone had brought in a pattern of them.  They were little dolls but I made them bigger.

Chekejai: You patterned dolls after the women of nations?

Ra’Sheeda: Some in Borneo and some in Africa. I love how they can elongate their necks.  I loved that from birth almost they could elongate their necks. I said, Wow! Look at what humanity can do. 

Chekejai: You found great beauty in that.

Ra’Sheeda: I did! I really did! So I made them and everybody starting loving them.  I made several dozen of them. They are so feminine. So womanly. I did one in the likeness of Oprah Winfrey and Gale - Best friends.  Friendship and sisterly-friendship is very important to me. I did one of our magnificent first lady, Michele. 
Chekejai: How long ago did you begin?

Ra’Sheeda:  Every since I can remember I was making dolls but since the early 70’s. All kinds of dolls. I do them for Valentine’s Day - stuffed, Loveable dolls.  There is one I call a healing doll. I make them for all occasions.  They’re huggable. You put them on your bed. There is a worry doll.  What you do is you write your worry down…and you stick them in this pocket. This is an old African tradition - folklore. While you sleep the doll will somehow help you to solve your problem. 

Ra’Sheeda:   There is a collection that I started called “The Grassroots Collection”.  Each one also has a pocket in their belly.  I stuff them with things that they say we brought through the middle passage. So I put rice, corn, beans, seeds, a little dirt, a couple of twigs.  I put it into a little bag and zip it. The hair of the doll is locked. Now, about that, there is a story of the cornrow. In the story of the cornrow – was, during captivity and passage our ancestors would hide foodstuff in the braids and grow it here. Corn stuff and peas and actually hide it in the braid. Enslavers didn’t catch on.  Hairstyles were so purposeful.

We (my family) used to make dolls out of socks and I still do. When I go into the schools, I tell the children, “C’mon bring an old pair of socks.  If they have holes in them I’ll show you how to darn them up.  Just make sure that they are clean and I show you how to make dolls out of socks.”

Make a little dress (for the girls) and the boys (she laughs lightly), you know the boys don’t want to make a doll.  But I tell them, “you have action figures, it’s the same thing. A doll is a doll is a doll! An inanimate object! If you can play with an action figure you can make a doll.” They would come in there [Imhotep] and make them dolls.  
They would put G.I. Joe (camouflage) fabric on them and they would really enjoy making a doll and I did that for years in the school system.

Chekejai: Yes, boys energize dolls very differently.

Ra’Sheeda: Yes they do. They want them to be muscle men! Wrestlers or something. And they would challenge each other, make them to fight each other (she laughs).

Chekejai: Kids don’t get home economics any more – sewing, is it a lost art?

Ra’Sheeda:  A woman from Gee’s bend even said it, “there are only a couple of kids… for us.”  For other cultures it’s a multi-mega-million dollor industry.

Chekejai: What are the benefits of sewing or any of these art forms?

Ra’Sheeda:  Food, shelter and clothing.

Chekejai: Is there a spiritual component?

Ra’Sheeda: Survival, if you can do any of those things…growing your own food.  It is a livelihood… it’s the genius inside of us that keeps us alive.

Chekejai: It also gives s since of empowerment and a source of pride. If you can create a way to make yourself look good. Your work is wonderful! Thank you so much!

Ra’Sheeda: You are welcome! 


Monday, February 25, 2013

Check Out My Music

Renee McBride-Williams
Art for Life's Sake

Chekejai: Some folks know Renee McBride-Williams as being the host of Shed Kitchen on WPEB 88.1 FM, community radio station in  West Philadelpia.  She is also the manager of that very station as well as a site organizer for the Media Mobilizing Project. Renee McBride-Williams has a long history in the media as well as in education.  She has worked for National Public Radio (NPR) and has helped produce for LaSalle University television station. She worked as an educator for the School District of Philadelphia and she is the recent recipient of a Community Leadership Award which was presented to her by the Moorish Unification Council of the World, inc.  She is also in the artistic realm on various levels.  Mrs. Williams has performed in the George C. Wolfe Play, “The Colored Museum.” She is on the board of Center Stage at the Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Clef Club, National Jazz Museum in Harlem and for the John Coltrane Society.

She has been in artist management and has studied and worked with well-know artist and performers such as Christian McBride, Paul Perillo, ?uest Love of Da Roots and Brian Anthony Wilson of The Wire.

She is currently merging her broadcast background and talents with her acting and perfomance background to create a radio theater show aimed at creatively educating youth. It is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce Renee McBride Williams . Welcome to the Designing Sistas.

Renee: Thank you

Chekejai: So let’s talk about your artistry.  You’ve done stage work and you do so much in the arts – how did you get your start?
Renee: I was a natural born entertainer. I was one of those kids who, if you can imagine, came downstairs to entertain my mother’s friends with the Twist.  I did the Twist and the Slide or whatever was popular at the time. It was to keep myself from being bored. I loved to read and I watched television and I would repeat the words that I heard the artist say. I thought that their dialogue was great. Some of the old films that I used to watch – my favorites – like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and even some of the old Elvis movies where you found out that the artist became an actor as well. That was before I realized that I was Black and some of the stuff I wasn’t invited into (she says with a smile and light laughter).  I say that lovingly. I’m not angry with the past and the history that I came through. 

I came to a point where I realized that I wasn’t necessarily just going to be a cook or a wife or have the most traditional lifetimes, lifestyles, I guess. It wasn’t for me.  

Growing up I played the violin for a while. The teacher would say “ah, Renee you need to [lead] this group and, you go up front into the 1st chair.”   I went from there to other instruments to wanting to be a drummer and a singer.

Chekejai: A drummer?! Hearing that, especially from women is very rare.

Renee: Yeah! I was taught how to hold drum sticks and carry a beat by some of the world’s most famous artist and musicians.  One was (Ramon) Tiki Fulwood of Parliament when they first started and Jerry Brown who is now working with Diana Ross.  He was out there with Stanley Clarke.  A lot of these guys and  Mary Barbara Washington were MFSB [Mother, Father, Sister, Brother]. All these guys taught me how to play. So believe it or not I could carry a beat for a while.  On the other side of that, they said to me “you can sing too so let’s try to get you to do some of that stuff.” But needless to say, when you get involved with the entertainment industry some other things become more important.  My son was born before I got old enough to really enjoy the arts as a young person.  I was a teenager when I had him. I went into my early 20s with a child so he became my focus.  He became my “star” so-to-speak. I used to put “star” t-shirts on him not knowing that one day he would become just that. I would to sing, “I Want to Take You Higher” to him. To answer your question – In order to bring food to the table – in an order to keep from going crazy – I had to work and then I had to find some sort of hobby that I enjoyed more than anything that kept me alive. Raising a child was the most important job that I ever had. I knew that my dedication was to him and only him at the time and then I had to be true to myself and make Renee happy. So besides working I wound up doing some stage stuff. When I wasn’t doing that I became a personal manager for some artist because I could make those phone calls and do some of those bookings. I knew exactly who to talk to to get the lessons. The people to talk to to get the movement going as far as the entertainment industry was concerned.  I drifted into a lot of these jobs haphazardly and to be honest it was nothing planned. It was just one of those things where the doors opened and it said, ”walk in” and I did.  That’s how that actually happened.

Chekejai: so the doors to the arts opened to you almost immediately? 

Renee: My brother was working in radio for a lot of years. And he was well respected.  I grew up with Jack Jones as well and Ed Bradley, and all those guys, and Frankie Beverly.  All of us had a take -- and there are so many names that I could throw on and on and on— the music industry as well as theater. In theater you had community theater.  You had a lot of different things going on.  You could be creative and love it. People cheered for you. Even if you were lousy they clapped for you. You didn’t have the gong show — it changed everything — but for the most part the doors opened. So that’s how I wound up in the field that I’m in now.

Chekejai: It sounds like you derived a lot of inspiration from almost anywhere.

Renee: Yes, you had to. Honestly speaking, in the era that I came up in there wasn’t too much for women— much less encouragement. And if you were a woman of color — I would say because my birth certificate was checked off as “Negro” When or then we started calling each other “Black.” Until James Brown came with, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” there was a fight that was going to happen if someone called you “Black.”  We didn’t have quite the identity that we have today. At that time we really didn’t know how we were going to do what we did. Because we were still marching.  We were still going into the back door in some places and still afraid to go down Route 13.  Some people know what I am talking about.  There was a place outside of Philadelphia where I had an ashtray thrown on me and they told me to “get out of the neighborhood!” this was in Havertown [Pa]. Today Havertown is truly intergrated but you knew that there was a segregation in entertainment.  You knew that right here at home we had the Nixon , the Uptown and all these venues where they would welcome the African American artist or the Black artist or the Negro artist. You had role models – Angela Davis who taught you how to be outspoken about your beliefs right or wrong, you had a right to be wrong. Then we had many of the writers and poets.  It changed. The revolution was really a revolution within the culture itself where women began to identify with the fact that they were a part of the culture too. Prior to that – you were going to pretty much wind up getting married, having kids, maybe graduating from high school. College was for the elite African American. It wasn’t grants out there until after the Vietnam war was over. By that time many women had started going into college. It changed our whole society and culture. As far as the arts are concerned we were welcome there.  It wasn’t the same for African American women – it was a greater fight. So the fight was on! I had a child at the same time.  I was determined (in reference to her son) at the time that as a black male he was going to be confident in what he did and he was going to be good at what he did. I had to try to kick open doors, open doors do whatever it was that was necessary to help create the person that he is today. I knew that there would be maybe no reward for it.  I knew at the time there would be a lot of punishment, maybe some hardship prices that I had to pay myself.  At times I had to say, “I can’t do that any more.” I had to take a secular job. I had to work somewhere to make sure that he had money for his lessons and basses and so forth and so on.  But it was a good call. It made it easier to be able to express myself because it was a fight. It was a battle. Sometimes your angry, sometimes you hurt, sometimes your disappointed, so you have to come out victorious and at the same time make sure that you don’t wind up dying in the process. Or wind up losing your mind. It’s a difficult road to take but one that I am ready now to share because it really wasn’t that hard. Sometimes the doors did open at the right time if I met the right people at the right time,  In the right places at the right time. God’s gifts – I utilized and He gave them back as blessings. So I’m thankful for those things today. So that’s how I wound up in arts and music to express how I felt cause I was there!
Chekejai: Now I don’t know if you are old enough to remember the Black Arts Movement but maybe there are some people who have been in your circle who may have shared some stories that have impacted your life. Do you have any stories from that time? 
Renee: One friend in particular is Ed Smith, that I want to talk about.  I talk about him. He just finished doing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” down in Texas.  He’s done a lot of work in directorships in many community theaters here (in Philly) and in NY and in Texas.  He and I talk quite a bit. We say that it’s not all that people imagine that it is.  When you support one another and we can look at each other as the characters that we are, the people that we are.  When I look at you I don’t see a Black woman, I see a woman who is a part of the human race.  You have those rights and those emotions and those feelings that you have because you are a woman is just because it’s who you are.

We talk about things that go on in society.  For example we protest today.  We had those same protest, different prices. At the time people hollered and screamed because the price of potato chips went from a nickel to twenty-five cent (she says with light laughter).  So we laugh at some of that stuff. We have greater sums of money and I would like to say that we became accustomed to a better lifestyle that’s being taken away from us little-by-little.  We’re hollering and screaming.  The same thing we did 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago. So, for the most part the inspiration is that people can share my pain, or share my laughter.

Chekejai: I can’t thank you enough for being our special guest today on Designing Sistas.  It was trul a wonderful honor to have you.  Thanks for sharing so much of yourself with us.

Renee: It was wonderful to be here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

And Adrienne on Dance

 “I ate, slept and breathed dance... When I tell you it was my life – it was my life!”

Chekejai: Adrienne is a mother of two and a newlywed! You should see her beaming.

Parliment Funkadelic has a song called “Flash Light’!  In it they say, “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun” Dance is her light. This sista has touched the whole city.  The world even. There has been a reverberation as well since she hit the city. She has been in so many companies, groups, societies, West African dance societies, Brasilian-inspired dance societies.  She has done it all!  

We want to hear the story of how you got started in dance.

Adrienne: Wow, well that was a long time ago. I am originally from Atlanta. I started dancing when I was four.  I was going to a public school called L.P. Miles in an area of town called Adamsville – which is in the SWATS  (Southwest Atlanta) – in the hood! We actually had an artist-in-residence program called Bal-Ethnic.  They fused the ballet (pointe) and African movement. We had artist come to my school, they performed and I fell in love with them.  They were offering workshops during the day – for free.  It was an outreach program. I begged my mom to let me take the class. I took the class and I have been dancing since.

I was fortunate enough to go to a studio (Total Dance) and the director, Terrie Ajilie Axam, was wonderful. I call her my dance mom. I couldn’t always afford to pay for dance class so she actually allowed me to teach on Saturdays to the babies to pay for classes.  What I didn’t know is that she was actually training me to teach dance.  By the time I became a teacher – in my own right – I already knew everything from working with her.

And  I was working with the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble (of Atlanta) outside of school, which is a musical theater company. With them is where I did the bulk of my training and traveling as a young person.

I went to a high school called Tri-Cities High School., a magnet school for the visual and performing arts and that’s when it became apparent, this is what I am going to do with my life.

Then, we I graduated from High School I came to Philadelphia to go to the University of the Arts at the age of 17 and I have just been working, non-stop, every since.

Chekejai:  Your life in dance is exceptional. You’ve done so much. I am going to say that you have been “blessed” for some and “fortunate’ for others.

Adrienne: No, Blessed! Blessed!

Chekejai: It is definitely a blessing to have been able to do what you have done. It seems like a lot of things fell into place.

Adrienne: It did! God had His hand on my life.  I had so many friends who started out with me who are not doing it any more.  [I] could have been on a corner, what-have-you and I was just swept right out of that.  My mother was a single mother of 2 children.  She worked two jobs and went to school. She is now a psychologist and she owns her own practice and she’s amazing.  And I think that it was a blessing that she put me in that dance studio.  I was swept into a family.  That was a family dance studio.  They were like, “oh, your mom isn’t here? We’re your mom.” If I couldn’t make it to dance class, they would pick me up. They would spank me. You know, whatever a mother would do. This was a true since of community and it really takes a village.  When I went to high school – and this is the interesting thing – the sister of the director, Dawn Axom, was head of the dance department at Tri-Cities so I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t look sideways, It wasn’t happening.  My “mom” was in that school. So I think that having strong women and having that strong since of community around me was my blessing. They were my angels and I don’t forget them or where I come from.

Chekejai: I often speak of the spirit of “Sankofa” and reaching back to pull forward. And it was payed forward but there is a certain level of interest that I think that someone has to have.

Adrienne: Oh yeah!

Chekejai: Wonderfully enough you had support that locked in right away to keep you going but you obviously had the talent, the interest, the desire, the flexibility, the motivation, the openness, the humility, the presence, and you had the personality. There are a lot of things that go into this.  There are so many people – and I am going to make this specific to Black girls worldwide or even to anyone who might be interested in dance, who may not know how to get there and maybe they don’t have the resources that you were blessed to have, but it takes something strong on the inside as well.  So let’s set aside (for a second) that you had a wonderful group of people that took you in. You made the move to Philadelphia and they didn’t come along with you. You had energy, strength and training. You had made a decision at a certain point where you said that it was clear that this what you were going to do for the rest of your life. What is that inner part that drove you and kept you going? 

Adrienne: I ate, slept and breathed dance.  I didn’t go to my prom. I didn’t have a boyfriend when I was in high school. My friends were the other girls in the dance program or in the company. I went to one football game my entire high school life. When I tell you it was my life – it was my life.  I loved it and every single one of my teachers, I am still in contact with them to this day. I think that that drive, that motivating factor made me come here. I remember in high school, one of my teachers – Diane Sales – she used to dance with Alvin Ailey in New York – said, “you have to find your niche.” She said, “[you] …are a wonderful modern dancer but you are also a very good ethnic dancer. You put that together and you will be unstoppable.” And I ran after that.  So when I came to Philadelphia – at 17-years-old I had this thought in my head,  I am going to seek out everywhere where Africans live, everywhere touched by the African Diaspora. So I began to look for opportunites.  

So I am this modern major at the university of the arts, which is predominantly white, and I don’t know anyone there except for one other person but I find this African dance class and it was being taught by Jeannine Osayande. And she was my link to the African dance community. And, I am telling you, if it was Cuban, if it was Cache Ivey’s African dance class, if it was Yusef coming from New York [and teaching] at the CEC, I was there.  I was the groupie!  And I didn’t know what I was doing because I was predominantly trained in modern and ballet so I’m in there pulled up, arms in *5th, *2nd - really looking like I had two left feet but I’m loving it. I have been dancing all of these years but I am like a baby in this genre. But I had to do it.  I had to have it and when you have that kind of fight and that kind of drive inside of you and you’re hungry, you will attract people who will help you. And that’s what happen to me and it’s not just my “good fortune”, it can happen to anyone. If you seek it out.  You can’t wait for people to come to you. That’s never going to happen. You have to ... almost be a stalker (she says with light laughter) like, “Oh Jeannine what’s happening? Qwesi, what’s happening?” I want to be there.  Oh there’s a trip to Cuba? Okay. There’s something called Afro-Cuban dance? Oh really? Orisha? I don’t know what it is but I’m going.  And that’s what you do and that’s what I did so I attracted this community of people who wanted to help me. You can teach anyone technique. You go to dance class long enough you will get it. You can’t teach passion. You either have it or you don’t.

Chekejai: You made it your life. You immersed yourself and nothing else matter and it all came together. You gave time, energy and attention. So that makes perfect sense.

Adrienne: Dance is very selfish.  They say that a lot of artists are very narcissistic.  I guess we are to a certain degree because honestly you have to be. If you are going to be a good artist and you are going to be successful, to a certain degree it requires all of you – especially in those formative years. You don’t have time to play. One of my directors, Freddie Hendricks used to say, you all are not regular kids! You’re going skating? What if you break your ankle?Then you can’t perform!  Your body, that’s your tool and you have to treat it as such. 

Chekejai: Earlier you mentioned Jeannine Osayande and it’s so incredible and interesting that you mentioned her in the context of African dance, and as your connection to dance in Philadelphia. I took a few classes with her also way, way, way back in-the-day. She’s always been an incredible as well as an awesome resource and a powerful dancer.  She’s a wonderful company director and now she’s a fabulous professor doing her thing.  She really grew from community to university to universal and actually she was universal before she hit the university because she was performing all over and doing so many productions.

Adrienne: She is my Philadelphia dance mom.  I actually introduce her as my Philly mom. She was my window into it.

Chekejai: What are some of your challenges? 

Adrienne: I am going to go back to finding my niche.  The University of the Arts is a liberal college but it functions like a conservatory so you dance, you dance, you dance, you dance,…you dance. So we’re taking ballet 4 days a week, modern 3 [days], jazz 2, and either African or hip hop 1. So I’m in this world where girls are rail thin and this is what a dancer is supposed to be.  I’m not the biggest person in the world but I am definitely not a stick. So I had a lot of challenges with body image and I’m wondering, am I going to be able to be in a concert dance company? Because that is what I really wanted to do.  I wanted to be in an Ailey or something of that magnitude. And then when I realized that I had this love for things that were African-derived, and I could put these things together – that’s when Ron Brown and Jawole Zollar – who is over Urban Bush Woman came into my mind – that’s when I said, okay, that’s really for me.  That’s my place. But finding that niche and being able to find myself and understanding my body and finding out that I can be just as effective – if not more – in the skin that I’m in – that was a challenge for me. 

As a woman, growing up in the south – and I’m a 80’s baby – in that time, “bright was right.” Everybody wanted to be light-skinned with long hair. Obviously, I am not that. I remember the first moment of thinking, oh my god, I am so happy to be a dark-skinned woman, was when I went to Cuba.  Everybody [Cubans] was telling me how beautiful I was. I was traveling with a summer institute from New York University and everyone who I went with was white. They [Cubans] took me right into the fold. Wherever they were going to class they took me.  Whatever was happening, they took me.  I felt like I was part of a secret society. It was the first time in my life when my color really worked for me. That was the first time in life when I really embraced my color and myself, Like I am a black woman and I’m happy about it.

When I became a mom that was a huge struggle for me in terms of dance. I was at the height of my career. I found out that I was pregnant with my son right when I started working with Urban Bush Woman. We are speaking of a major dance company, This had been a dream of mine. I’m fresh out of college and I get this job.  How fortunate am I? my family, and certain friends, really felt like, you know, you really need to just focus on your career right now this is really not the time for a baby. Maybe you should make a different decision. And I chose life. That was my choice. It was very hard.  I danced my entire pregnancy.  People would look at me like I was crazy, like what are you doing? I started my master’s program when I was 6 months pregnant and I’m rolling around on the floor and people are like “Oh my God she’s psycho!” but my idea was that my life would go on. And honestly I did it for my sanity. I had to do it, to keep going. But that was one of the most challenging parts of my life – when I had him.  As I spoke before – dance is very selfish. It requires every once of your time.  Well now this person is requiring a mass amount of time and you can’t say “no.” I got “lucky.” He had a wonderful temperment so he could go everywhere I went. But it was hard and I had to learn. We got to a point wher got to be 3, 4 and we’re transitioning to where he’s going to school and my mentor, Jeannine, came to me and said, okay, you’re the mom… so I have to speak to you. I know you love dance and I had the same struggle when I was your age and I was having my children and my mentor had to come to me.  You’re a mother so you gotta change your life now. He needs some consistency. It’s time for a bedtime. He has to be in the house.  He can’t be on the side of a stage or in a studio and I was angry.  I’m not gonna lie. I felt very resentful. So I had to work through all of that. And then I had to negotiate how to do this.  How do I be the mother that I want to be and still be this dance anthropologist that I want to be? Still perform? Still be an educator? Still use dance as my ministry and as my sanity?  How do I do all those things? And do them right because in my psyche, of course I do realize that being a mother is the most important thing, I do understand that. But it was hard and it was one of the most difficult times in my life.

It was a lot of prayer. I even got depressed about it for a little while. There were a lot of people praying for me and over me to be able to come into it and opportunities just began to open up. I had to realize, yes, you can still love modern dance – and that’s your base but it’s okay to really embrace these other things too. What happens with modern dance – and in some of the more westernized dance forms – [is that] people don’t have children until they are finished dancing.  So you can’t bring your baby to rehearsal so it was either I’m not going to be with my child or I’m not going to dance. That’s what made me gravitate more to the Brazilian, to the Cuban, to the African.

Chekejai: Yes, African dance is community and family.  That’s the root of it and I am kind of glad that it stayed in that realm of family. 2 points that I want to make. 1) On your image and how you overcame that and how you felt so embraced in Cuba that it brought you to a whole ’nother place of self-acceptance, self-love and self-awareness or a heightened sense of all of those things, especially self-acceptance because all of the flying around that you do on stage, I am sure that you went up a little higher in Cuba.  That was powerful. 

Adrienne:  I tapped into something. 

Chekejai: 2) The next thing – in terms of West African or dance in the Diaspora, it’s always about family. Getting pregnant is not a reason to stop. That’s a reason to keep going.

Adrienne: Having a child is not a reason to not come to rehearsal or to stop performing or to not be invited to certain projects.  You don’t have to rack your brain to figure out, how am I going to do this?  Thank God for people like Mama Dottie of Kule Mele, I worked with them for a while and Mama Dottie. That is a family-based dance company. Everybody’s children are there. They are on the side eating and you are on the floor. Your baby is fine. You don’t have to worry about them being in the way.  If it hadn’t of been for Kulu Mele, Dunya – with Jeannine and Has Su Ballet with Quesi and even Kariamu and Company – out of Temple (University) really embracing family and saying, bring your children, we will work it out, I don’t know how I would have made it. There was a point where I felt like I was losing my mind.  I had to chose between being a mother and this part of me that is “Me.”

Chekejai: Dance is in your blood and this is what you know as life. It would be a complete change of course to do anything else.  I mean how would you suddenly become a mathematician? But you are also a dance teacher?

Adrienne: Yes, I work full time for the School District of Philadelphia. There are days when I question, what in the world did I do? On a regular I have to turn down other things because I have this job. But there is something that won’t let me leave. There is a kid in just about every class that I have where I know that I am making a difference. I wasn’t a kid from the most affluent backgrounds so I would not have had the privilege of being exposed to this. So had it not been for outreach organizations and for the wonderful experiences that I had, I wouldn’t of been privy to this art form. So thank God for the School District of Philadelphia.   They value the art enough to put professionally-trained professionals in a position where they can educate our kids. These are things that cost thousand and thousands of dollars and they are getting it for free. I’m not teaching in the cafeteria, I have a dance studio. A lot of people don’t know that.  There are a lot of good things that happen too.  

Chekejai: The piece about you giving back. You didn’t say it, in so many words, that you are giving back but that is essentially what you are doing.

Adrienne: I am giving back. I am definitely not there for the money.  I took a pay cut but the fulfillment that I get, it feeds me in a different way. I will always be a performer first. There is no high like the high of being on stage and in front of an audience. However, when you see that spark, in a child’s eyes, when they have that “ah ha!” moment, and you know that you gave them that – that is priceless.  When I come into communication with our youth – and I am really concerned about them – they face some things that as a grown woman I have never had to deal with. My heart bleeds for them. I want to help them. I have had some bad women, trailblazers in my life. How dare I not do that for someone else? Some of them don’t have parents who graduated from high school so they don’t see how to become successful … as an attainable goal. We as a people have standards and you need to bring it up.

Chekejai: Dance is a tool for healing.   

Adrienne: Dance is healing. It restores the community. It helps you to find your voice and find who you are. In high school I wasn’t popular, didn’t always have my hair done but I could dance and that was my identity.

Chekejai: That is truly a powerful way of being.  It transcends! Thank you Adrienne for joining us on The Designing Sistas portion of our program.  

Adrienne: You are quite welcome and thank you.