I had the amazing opportunity to interview Leslie Smith, a board member of the Urbana–Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC) and the founder of Black Voices Theater Production. As someone who grew up in a household with a father who is a gifted and trained jazz pianist and a sister who has been singing since I understood the concept of my own existence, I decided to dip my toes into the waters of music and the arts. And because Smith was also immersed in the arts at a young age, our conversation was more than fruitful. We delved into Smith’s dreams and aspirations and why she decided to join the IMC, discussed the politics of Black art and shared our hopes for preserving and reinvigorating Black art as a political force and critical message in today’s social climate.
Smith returned to Urbana from Springfield, IL to redefine herself. She went to the post office and found the IMC. A light bulb went off in Smith’s mind as she toured the IMC and saw the stage. Yes, she realized, she had found a location to showcase Black art and artists. Since joining the IMC, she has orchestrated multiple shows, including a gospel explosion showcase and a poetry slam club for high school students. Smith not only wants to showcase Black art and local Black artists, she wants to encourage getting the arts back into public schools.
This is a real fight. My father used to tell me that, when he was younger, you would not find many people without some knowledge of how to play an instrument. Smith stated the same. There has been increased defunding of the arts in education nationwide at all levels of education—the wrong defunding. Colleges and universities are not immune to this defunding, as there has been an increased emphasis on math, science and engineering with less emphasis on the arts. This could be a reason individuals like Ben Carson, who are gifted with scientific knowledge, lack understanding of the social sciences, philosophy and the arts. And although this a joke, it is sort of rooted in truth. It is very neoliberal to neglect the social sciences but emphasize the sciences which have been used to further the US empire through military and surveillance technologies. People confuse technological advancements with the advancement of humanity, and this could not be further from the truth. It is the humanities and arts that advance humanity.
Smith says that when we talk about the arts, we are not simply talking about the action of painting, drawing and singing. We are discussing history and how history has been communicated: storytelling. From prehistoric times to now, art has been used to tell the stories of a people and of a society. Art has been the cultural expression of a people and of a society. A neglect of the arts, specifically Black art, is a neglect of the revolutionary and cultural spirit of our people. Everything is political and Black art is no different. When Blackness is demonized and anti-Blackness is perpetuated, any embrace of Blackness in the form of art is always political. They sought to destroy our culture, our humanity and our spirit, but we survived. Our culture survived. Our art survived. Yes, it changed, but it survived nonetheless.
While taking a course on the African Diaspora, we were required to read the book Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson. The book describes and details the evolution of African customs during enslavement and how Black people survived through cultural art forms and theology. White supremacy sought to erase the advancements and contributions to society from Black people. They sought to interfere with the storytelling of our people through miseducation and creating the pseudoscientific fictitious mess that is racism. They even sought to divide our ancestors through enslavement, breaking apart families and grouping Africans that spoke different languages onto the same plantation. But they did not prevail. The African drum allowed my people to still communicate, especially at the call for revolution. The arts saved us, and if we are to continue to fight and help Black people, we must allow our stories to be told. We must allow our art to thrive in its purest form.
Drake Materre is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Community Health, and is currently a venue project intern for the IMC.