An essay on the state of folk arts in Philadelphia, by Debora Kodish. Originally published in The Pew Fellowships in the Arts Magazine (Fall/Winter 2004).
"If we don't do it, it stops here. . ."
This year (2004), Baba Robert Crowder received a Pew Fellowship in folk and traditional arts. This is true cause for celebration. Baba, 74, is the founder of Kulu Mele - the longest-lived African dance group in our city. Baba numbers among the first generation of African Americans here to dedicate themselves to reclaiming African culture; he was one of the first to study a particular African music intensively - initially immersing himself in Ga percussion, then other West African and Afro-Cuban traditions. Ask anyone who has spent any time among those who shape and share legacies of African American dance and drum here in Philadelphia and he or she will know Baba Crowder. Most of the African dance groups in Philadelphia, in one way or another, trace themselves back to Kulu Mele. In the vanguard of a cultural movement, Baba and Kulu Mele dancers and drummers have fought through many barriers; there were those outside the community who accused them of "playing African," of not being authentic enough, of not being good enough. Generally, those levying these judgments measured Kulu Mele with measuring sticks inappropriate for this art form and this cultural tradition. Unwavering commitment and considerable courage have enabled Kulu Mele to hold to a sense of who they are and what they are doing. Kulu Mele has been sustained, too, by support from other African Americans, also dedicated to "following the culture." Deep community has grown around these common values and through this shared struggle for respect, equity, and understanding, waged over decades. Performing in the community has been spiritually nourishing but has never provided Baba or other Kulu Mele members with anything approaching financial security. Nor, for many years, were there main-stage opportunities.
Baba Crowder's story should be celebrated, but there are too many tales of other talented pioneers whose groundbreaking achievements have gone unrecognized and unrewarded. Too many stories of artists who are told they aren't trained properly, when they have been trained by recognized masters in particular traditions. Too many stories of disrespect, of doors slammed (intentionally or not) in people's faces. Too many stories of artists valued outside Philadelphia, yet unappreciated at home. So as news spread around town about this award for Baba Crowder, there has been appreciation of a very good thing, long overdue. Some also asked, "Why has it taken so long?" "What about the many others in this and other folk art forms? Will they ever get their due, their chances?" "Will one award, now and then, change anything?"
Baba Crowder is one among the many hundreds of traditional artists - from dozens of cultures and traditions, working in wildly diverse mediums and genres - with whom we work, here at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. We are inspired on a daily basis, and daunted as well, by the task of working alongside artists and other grassroots cultural activists to gain a more equal playing field for folk arts.
First: the part that is daunting. These are tough times, and local folk and traditional artists are feeling it. Many had experienced what seemed like a modest rise in outside opportunities and interest over the last few years. Artists credit marginally improving situations to persistence, collective efforts, increased exposure, increased openness on the part of some local funders and programmers, and a general rise of interest in folk and world culture (although not necessarily a rise in understanding - this boomlet comes with its own problems). Of course, there is also the sheer power of people's work. But many artists' newfound optimism is dimming. Lacking adequate support structures and chronically under-resourced, many folk and traditional artists are struggling even harder these days.
We live in a time and place characterized by intense economic inequality; increased disparities in wealth and income make poorer people's situations even more precarious, and more invisible to those on the other side of social and economic divides. Here in Philadelphia, too many exceptional internationally-known traditional artists work poor-paying, backbreaking, or dangerous jobs. Immigrant artists from families expert in particular traditions developed over generations, or who formerly danced in the premier companies of their homelands, now support themselves and their families as dishwashers, waiters and waitresses, construction workers, manicurists, masseurs, cab drivers, domestics, supermarket clerks, and parking lot attendants. Shuyuan Li, a skilled fourth generation Beijing Opera artist has been working making dentures, using chemicals to which she is allergic. For five years, musician Tito Rubio has worked as a stonemason, a job that poses a daily threat to his hands and to his future as a flamenco guitarist. He says, "Every day was a risk and I accepted that danger and challenge. It was the only way that the family could feed itself. The Pew grant gives me a reprieve for a year." Artists here by choice or chance or circumstance are too often forced to set aside their traditions. When this happens, we all lose: we have a stake in keeping artistic and cultural diversity alive.
Few folk and traditional artists have health insurance or financial safety nets. Families, parents, children living in precarious situations here and in war-torn homelands are a constant worry. Racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are rising; artists tell stories of harassment, silencing, and fear. The situation is worse for artists of color, immigrants, artists whose first language is not English, artists whose skills and decades of study with the masters in their art cannot be communicated through the shorthand of formal credentials or degrees, artists whose labors and commitment have earned them credibility and respect in communities rarely visited by curators, arts critics, funders, or mainstream arts world decision-makers.
Certainly, not all folk and traditional artists are poor. Not all face such huge impediments. But making things more possible for those who are is an important aim for us here at the Folklore Project. Over the last 18 years, we have come to know more than 1,500 folk and traditional artists in our region (only a fraction of the folk artists here, we are sure). About 250 folk and traditional artists and grassroots cultural workers have participated in our free technical assistance programs, successfully raising more than $2,000,000 from 14 different grants programs over the course of these years. In many cases these were the first outside dollars to go to culturally grounded artists and local organizations of color for cultural heritage projects. These grants include 13 Pew Fellowships, but many more have been grants of $500 to $5,000. Awarding grants to folk and traditional arts is especially important because the marketplace offers its own perils for those traditions which are priceless in peoples' lives, not ordinarily turned into commodities for sale to others. And unfortunately, folk artists receive many questionably helpful opportunities ("perform for free for the exposure") that bring little money and that exoticize, stereotype and demean. The problem, of course, is that available funds can only begin to address the real needs of tremendously under-resourced communities, leaving many deserving artists and projects unsupported.
"Ask us what we want to do, and give us fair funds for it," says Beijing Opera student Juan Xu, echoing what many traditional artists feel, trying to twist themselves into the shapes that seem to be required by people holding various kinds of purse-strings, potential employers and funders. Locally, funders and programmers often find that being more accessible to and supportive of folk arts starts by listening to people like Juan Xu. Grant programs give people hope, especially when traditional artists begin to be supported. Hope isn't enough, but it helps, and it can be contagious.
This is the part that is inspiring: artists know what they want to do - and many, despite inadequate resources, are miraculously moving forward. Listen to traditional artists talk: people have such compelling ideas about what their art forms and communities require. They imagine (and are working to create) places to rehearse and perform. Some artists are able to keep their arts accessible in their own communities, where they matter most, without being required to explain or re-contextualize their work for others: youth dance ensembles and vibrant community festivals are resulting. Others are getting chances to perform on wonderful stages before diverse audiences: the willingness of a single curator is sometimes all that it takes to make this possible. Although ours is a relatively large city, many artists work in isolation and long for the company of their peers. Some artists are finding opportunities to learn, to teach, to reconnect with the home traditions. Some have been able to travel to study with master artists. Others are managing slowly and surely to purchase needed musical instruments or materials, produce performances and CDs, honor elders, and develop community festivals for seasonal holidays and traditional observances. Artists are working to do all of the above in very particular ways that are suitable both for their individual situations and inclinations, and appropriate within their culturally significant traditions. Often this particularity can trip them up in realizing their dreams: the details of what is the right way for them are somehow trampled in collaborations, or by the requirement of presenters, galleries or funding programs. But remarkably, many artists persevere. Openness, real communication, fairness (including honest conversations about who really benefits, and why particular ways of doing things matter) could go a long way toward making things better. Counting would help, too: it would be great if those who put together seasons, gallery shows, peer panels, grant and award lists simply counted to see how many community-trained folk and traditional artists are included. A first step forward for all of us would be coming to grips with the extent of the exclusion of folk artists from many sectors of what is often called "the arts community." (A next step would be committing to doubling the number of folk artists supported in all of these contexts).
Like most people, traditional artists want decent paying jobs. They want to use their gifts. They want respect. They want to be judged by high standards, but in terms that are fair. In fact, many Philadelphia-area traditional artists have direct personal experience of exactly such circumstances: of times and places where folk and traditional arts were deeply respected, where artists were identified when young and given long-term formal or informal training in folk and traditional arts, mentored by elders with generations of experience. Where there were special artists' villages: centers for the study of culturally grounded arts and traditions, with housing and stipends for artists recruited to work there. Where artists' knowledge of heritage, their talents, and their place in carrying these traditions forward earned them special status; they were widely respected and able to work together with many others equally gifted and committed to these arts. Many enjoyed opportunities to tour regionally, even internationally. Formerly some of these artists were members of the national dance companies of Liberia and Congo, of the University of Fine Arts in Cambodia, of important regional companies in China, a major arts center in Nigeria. We have a lot to learn from such peoples' experiences.
Why do artists continue, when things are so different and difficult here in Philadelphia? Juan Xu says, "For professional artists, they don't really have a choice: it has been their whole life pursuit. For us, as students, it is a passion and a love for our traditional arts. For the younger generation. If we don't do it, it stops here. But besides, there is nothing else for us. We don't have any cultural life. This is something we love and we enjoy, and if we don't do it, our cultural life would be like a wasteland." Ba Pedi (South African) musician Mogauwane Mahloele says, "I can't give up the folk arts. If I were to give that up I would be giving myself up, I would be giving up my life. If I have to live my life again, I wouldn't choose differently." Dorothy Wilkie is the artistic director of Kulu Mele, with whom she has danced for more than 30 years. She says, "I do it because I love what I do and this is just how it is. I do this because of the love that I have for the culture. I know that there are very few of us and we need to keep going. Kulu Mele means 'voice of our ancestors' and we are the chosen ones. We are chosen because there are not that many people who are into cultural things. Everything has its place. But for traditional culture there is hardly a place at all. There is hardly a place for it. I guess people think it is boring. You know - they think it is old-fashioned or in the past. But it isn't. It has meaning for us today. So we've got to keep the torch going. We can't let it die."
Many of these traditional artists have their eye on a bigger picture, a longer view. As Anna Rubio, flamenco dancer, says, "These are people who, thankfully, are not going away."
As I write this, preparations are underway for the ninth celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Philadelphia's Chinatown. For the past year, Sifu Shu Pui Cheung has been teaching lion dance to students in his Hung Gar Kung Fu academy. Moving to the compelling beat of drums and cymbals, his students will be transformed into lions leading the procession of parents and children who carry lanterns, winding their way together through the streets of Chinatown. This is an embattled neighborhood, one of the last surviving communities of color in our town's center city. Served by no public school or recreation center, chipped away by decades of urban "development" - shopping centers, a convention center, an expressway - Chinatown now fights gentrification. But on this holiday, people from this community own the streets, comfortable and free, at home in their own place. There are extended families, elders, new immigrants, American-born Chinese, scores of energetic and hip young volunteers, many kinds of people who have made this "their" event. Reclaimed by immigrants and activists, Mid-Autumn Festival is knit into peoples' lives again, eagerly anticipated now each year, and a chief context for the performance of a wide range of Chinese folk and traditional arts.
In the way that many-dimensioned traditional arts can allow, this Mid-Autumn Festival creates a magical time in which memory and possibility come alive. Wonderful Beijing Opera artists enact well-loved stories. People watch with shining eyes. Chinese folk dance is performed by a youth ensemble, taught by dancer Oliver Nie. Peter Tang's Chinese Music Ensemble fills the night air with the soul-satisfying sounds of familiar tunes on erhu and guzheng. Peoples' whole-hearted appreciation, the magic of the evening, the real community that is brought into being, the fact that all of this is priceless: these are among the reasons why artists like Sifu Cheung, Shuyuan Li, Peter Tang, Oliver Nie and many others can't give up.
The last words go to South African musician Mogauwane Mahloele. "There is a proverb we say, in BaPedi, 'Lehuga se le legonyana, le ya beyelwa,' meaning that even in the darkest times, we always have to remember to provide for the children. This is a reminder to always think ahead because everything that we do is going to effect those who are coming. We are doing this for tomorrow - and we know about yesterday. How are we bringing the wisdom forward? This is to say that the future of folk arts is in all of our hands. It is a job for all of us."Debora Kodish