“I remember the day
I let go of the idea
and held on to people
I really wanna’
– We Levitate, “Take Care”, How I Feel EP (2016)
I am a lover/bandbae/dreamer/Black girl artist/DJ/and so much more with Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT), a collective started and co-organized here in C-U by Ruth Nicole Brown, whose intention is to use Black girlhood celebration and freedom as an organizing, imaginative, fully human, “the rule is love,” (Wynter, 1972) construct and as SOLHOT homegirl Porshe’ Garner (2011) reminds us, “…[to] do [SOLHOT] as a way of life.”
In SOLHOT we dream up worlds together. To know and do this means showing up and being reliable over and over again, and making it right when you are not. It means showing up and being ready to DJ, being ready to lead a cipher, being ready to batty dance, being ready to check in, being ready with the snack (because we need good food to dream and you will get checked by the girls), being ready to tell your truth, being ready to write, being ready to listen to Black girls, being ready to be wrong, being ready to forgive, and being ready to love. In SOLHOT, being reliable means being ready to imagine worlds, together.
The foundation of SOLHOT organizing happens with youth at a local middle school after school. One of the recent and more public ways SOLHOT has organized our dreaming of worlds and collective imagination is through Black Girl Genius Week (BGGW), a weeklong campaign of Black girlhood and voyage to Champaign-Urbana for a series of organized rituals, performances, concerts, teach-ins, dance and writing workshops, studio sessions, skill shares, homegirl kickbacks, private sessions at the local middle school and much more. To date, there have been a total of 3 BGGW’s (November 3-8, 2014; February 22-27, 2016; October 21-28, 2016). BGGW is a space and time for Black girl artists and SOLHOT home girls from around the world and the local community to use creative practice based in the everyday experience of Black girls to intently reimagine, celebrate, create culture and ideas and be free to express racialized, gendered articulations of genius as fully human, complex, beyond state violence and static biological identity categories.
During the October 2016 BGGW, we intimately discussed what it meant to be reliable and keep reliable people around. Poet Nikky Finney shared a story of a conversation she had with poet Lucille Clifton. Finney asked Clifton if she had ever been called a nigger before and if this had made her want to fight. I know in that moment, I was thinking (and hoping) Clifton’s answer would be “yes, I wanted to fight (and sometimes I did)”. Clifton responded to Finney’s question with a no; she found those people (that would try to harm her) unreliable. Through this story, Clifton urged Finney to “keep reliable people around.” Finney learned a lesson about showing up whole, being seen, and knowing and keeping those who are reliable to show up with you.
As a follow-up, Finney asked us, “Once you know who is reliable, then what? When you know someone is reliable you show up in a certain way.” Following BGGW this fall and in continuation of our private sessions at a local middle school, I have been meditating on and thinking a lot about what it means to be reliable with SOLHOT. As I write with SOLHOT (music, songwriting, poetry, love letters, conference papers, publications, etc.) through my work as a graduate student, I am learning about writing (and creating) as a way to be reliable in SOLHOT and ultimately the world. I’ve always considered myself to be a writer (artist) but it wasn’t until I began to write and create closely with SOLHOT that it made sense why, what and with whom I need to write.
In particular, examples of writing with SOLHOT prepared me for a specific way of being reliable. Homegirl and bandmate Porshe Garner (2011) reminded us in her Public i piece (2011) of the complexities involved with “saving yourself first” in SOLHOT. As a longtime organizer and homegirl with SOLHOT, Porshe has laid groundwork for how we come to know and do reflection in SOLHOT. As a SOLHOT homegirl, who has not always physically lived in Champaign (where SOLHOT meets face-to-face and heart-to-heart), I remember how reliable Porshe’s words in the Public i on SOLHOT were to me as a first-year graduate student claiming to work with Black girls and I lived half way across the country. Through critical reflection, Porshe reminded us, “When you address your own issues without trying to save others from theirs, then and only then will you be able to help others.” This was one of my first SOLHOT lessons on being reliable and still serves as a guide to being fully human.
For one, “saving yourself first,” taught me a kind of being reliable that is reflective and brings your whole self (contradictions and all), especially to spaces where Black girls are present and Black girlhood is a topic of conversation. One of the ways that SOLHOT has required me to be reliable and bring my whole self is with sound and music. Out of SOLHOT time, we reflect on our interpretations of hearing Black girls and one of the ways we do this is through music and music making and writing. I am a DJ/sound-beat maker. The sense that doing SOLHOT as a reliable way of life as central to my DJ practice is a way I intend to show up whole and reliable. Our (my) DJ archive of music and sounds are originally co-created music, sonic memories of home, requests for dance ciphers with homegirls (because Black girls know what they want to hear and dance to, together), It is a way that I am seen in/by SOLHOT. I am made reliable through deejaying and do it for and with my homegirls.
One of my first experiences meeting with SOLHOT face-to-face before and during BGGW 2014, I was asked to bring the music and whatever we needed for the music (our music) to be recorded, played and heard. During one of our sessions/kick backs, I didn’t have our music and my home girls reminded me of the importance of bringing the songs we need to hear each other and reflect, over and over again. Why didn’t I have the songs ready? Whatever the reason, I knew in the moment who was reliable and whom I needed to be reliable to.
It is not (only) about the song files or music equipment in the literal sense. SOLHOT is more than the equipment and technology (song mp3s) it takes to be heard in the speakers. I am learning what happens when I forget to bring my whole self, which includes bringing our songs and having them ready when we need to hear and listen to each other and Black girls. The songs we make for each other, to be our own audience, are essential to how we express ourselves together, create knowledge and love fearlessly while doing it.
Black girls make and move to music, together, whether it is recorded and consumed, played back in speakers or not. In SOLHOT, we privilege being with each other, as we are our most valuable and reliable audience. We will hear our songs and truths when we are together. Funding and sound equipment, or not, we are determined to be with each other, creating worlds, complex, whole and reliable; and we will.
Blair Ebony Smith is an artist and Doctoral Candidate at Syracuse University and Visiting Scholar of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.