Media pioneer and Harlem legend, Vy Higginsen has created change on many platforms including being the first Black female radio personality in the prime time New York City market and the first Black woman to produce a drama on Broadway with August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Still that doesn’t mean that she welcomes all change, especially when it comes to the current state of radio and music. Higginsen notes that trends in consolidating radio stations and the emphasis on general-audience formats do not provide enough large-scale opportunities for communities of color to musically express themselves.
“I am aware that everything must change but I believe the success or failure of people depends on communication,” she says. “So when we don’t have enough vehicles or tools that allow us to connect with each other to provide information and inspiration I have real concerns.” To address those matters, Higginsen’s latest production “Sing, Harlem, Sing!” at 54 Below, is a revue of Harlem’s musical history in an attempt to remind viewers of the rich legacy that must be sustained.
Another individual doing his part to keep the music alive is singer-songwriter and guitarist, King Aswad. Aswad brought his eclectic fusion of genres to Paris Blues for a tribute to influential poet and musician, Gil Scott-Heron. While there he reflected on the significance of Scott-Heron. “I remember as a child hearing the words ‘The revolution will not be televised’ and thinking to myself this is about real deal change that needs to happen.” Aswad takes inspiration from those memories to spread his own message of self-love through music. “When we love ourselves, we can love others. That’s the part of the world war that is happening that we can actually win,” he says. “Thus allowing us to eventually triumph over all this other nonsense the media continues to distract us with.”
If you follow the media concerning the city of Newark, New Jersey then you’re familiar with their high poverty and crime statistics, but you’re probably not aware of their art scene. This year Art Crawl Harlem headed across the pond to Newark for what co-founder, Jacqueline Orange hoped would be an enlightening experience. “Newark is a community that people don’t explore or think about for art,” she says. “Harlem was once a downtrodden depressed community and Newark is, but you see a little bit of growth happening. So it is a great time to showcase Newark.” And showcase it she did with highlights including; Newark Museum for their exhibition “Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections” and contemporary African-American art installation; Arlington Arts which is a home garage converted into an intimate and creative gallery; Iandor Fine Arts gallery, the new home for the estate of legendary painter, Norman Lewis; and “Art Reach XX” at City Without Walls which highlighted a promising collection by emerging artists. Each stop along the way revealed a fascinating piece of the artistic community that exists within Newark.
The topic of community development was one major focal point of the “Art and Social Activism” exhibition curated by Nicholas Cohn. In partnership with chashma, Cohn transformed an industrial building in Long Island City into a visually and intellectually stimulating presentation on relevant social and political themes such as the environment, discrimination, self-identity and more. Standouts included artist, Lawrence Lek for his skillful ability to intertwine wood and tap into our interconnectedness with nature’s resources, and Parastou Forouhar’s searing political statement using butterfly wings to present images of men and women killed by Iran’s tyrannical government. As Cohn notes, the work speaks to the need for artists to engage the public in topics that should not be ignored. “So many artists are interested in how arts can be a venue of change and there needs to be exhibitions that look at these issues to promote awareness and future change,” he says.
We have a feeling that with arts and culture advocates such as Higginsen, Aswad, Orange and Cohn, a change is gonna come soon enough.
The Harlem Arts Alliance is a not-for-profit arts service organization celebrating 10 years of service to a prestigious list of members such as the Apollo Theater, the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, Columbia University, Harlem Stage (Aaron Davis Hall) and over 850 more cultural/arts institutions and individuals. The weekly column, Harlem Arts Alliance Presents: On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture and entertainment scene in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.