Space Is the Place: Durham Gets a Hub for Afrofuturist Thought with Blackspace | Music
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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Space Is the Place: Durham Gets a Hub for Afrofuturist Thought with Blackspace

Posted by on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 12:23 PM

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Last Thursday, Durham musician and activist Pierce Freelon and Chapel Hill puppet master Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins were armed with five hundred handbills and a few string puppets as they crashed Runaway Clothing’s “DURM Night” afterparty at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

They distributed the handbills to boost backing for Freelon’s $22,000 Kickstarter campaign for Blackspace Durham, a “Pan-African-centered social entrepreneurship and digital media” hub in downtown Durham. In somewhat of a guerilla dance performance, the puppets became the stars of the night’s celebration of new Durham pride and optimism.

The Blackspace-sponsored surprise puppet appearance, however, could have been interpreted as a reminder that Durham’s fancy future of hip clothing stores, high-rises, and revitalization can only go as far as its willingness to help sustain and replenish the city’s black legacy. It perfectly aligns with Blackspace’s Afrofuturist platform of art meeting upward mobility.

That following Saturday, Freelon and Pipkins packed up the puppets and traveled to Atlanta for the State of Black Science Fiction Convention, where they offered their 5P1N0K10 puppet hip-hopera for the first time outside of Durham. Before they left, Freelon spoke with the INDY about Blackspace Durham.

INDY: What is the relationship between the new Blackspace Durham and the Beat Making Lab in Chapel Hill?

Pierce Freelon: The space [Beat Making Lab] that you’re referring to is now called Blackspace Chapel Hill. We changed the name and restructured our agreement with the Town of Chapel Hill. This new one is called Blackspace Durham. It’s the headquarters, or the hub; Blackspace Chapel Hill will be the satellite or secondary studio space.

There’s a very obvious and intentional racial aspect to naming these places “Blackspace.” What is the importance of doing so?
Prior to evolving into Blackspace, the partnership in Chapel Hill was one of convenience. We had structured an arrangement with the Town of Chapel Hill, where, for a couple of days a week, we would teach electronic music production workshops to the community. There wasn’t really a strategy for community development beyond the workshop. The YMCA, Urban Ministries and Kidzotes all have different kinds of programs that move toward a goal or a set of values that are articulated by the host institution. They meet broader goals. Beat Making Lab wasn’t a part of any larger community initiative.

Was that because Chapel Hill didn’t invest enough effort or interest in Beat Making Lab?

It was the other way around. Initially, Beat Making Lab started as a class at UNC-Chapel Hill. Three credit hours was the end. It worked toward the larger goal of getting out of college with some skills that you could take into the workforce. It was “art for art’s sake” and devoid of a broader mission.

So, slapping the “Black” on it gave it purpose?
We were traveling quite a bit. We had one of our former students holding down the Beat Making Lab and doing trainings. It was just about making music. So, when we were in the Dominican Republic, I had an epiphany or an intervention or a calling. It was almost like an ancestral reckoning. It was a couple of days after Maya Angelou passed away. Maya Angelou was really good homies with my grandmother. I had a dream that included a bunch of black women telling me what I needed to be doing. They were basically like, “Bloom where you’re planted.” It simply meant that it’s great to be traveling around the world and putting in work, but the place where you live—were born and raised—is where you need to plant seeds and build.

The community that we serve is largely people of African descent. My passion and interest as a scholar comes from my African and African-American studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. The very first community program that I ever did was called “Blackademics,” because, in high school, I attended Durham School of the Arts, and I didn’t learn shit about anything black, of significance, outside of a very arbitrary black history month. When I was a junior at UNC, I started going back to my alma mater, DSA, to teach this hip-hop curriculum.

Prior to Beat Making Lab, I was involved with a program called Bebop to Hip Hop. It was similar to Blackademics in that it pulled from the treasure troves of culture, from spirituals to Thelonius Monk to A Tribe Called Quest to Nas. It wasn’t just about the music. It shed light on the movements, communities, and narratives. Beat Making Lab was just the music side of it. The cultural side of it was absent.. When I came back from the Dominican Republic, I was like, "How do I infuse everything I’ve learned from this amazing international experience and apply it to any vital part of a social justice, black liberation movement?” Education, culture, and community building needed to be infused into an artistic curriculum. That’s where Blackspace emerged from. The goal is artivism and black liberation.
Pierce Freelon, left, teaching in 2012 - FILE PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • File Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Pierce Freelon, left, teaching in 2012

When we think about “spaces” in terms of physical rooms in downtown Durham where black folks feel at home and in tune with the city’s revitalization, could an unapologetic project like Blackspace come off as alienating?
I’m not worried about it. My obligation is not to the people who find it objectionable. My obligation is to my people—black people and black liberation. If that means that I’ve alienated a few people who might have given money, then good. I don’t want their money anyway. I’d rather raise the money from the people who I intend to liberate myself with.

But I can’t say that this issue hasn’t crossed my mind. This idea isn’t obvious to everyone. Just because we’re centering blackness doesn’t mean that white folks are excluded from the space. It just means that when they’re in the space, they better know, appreciate, and understand that we’re centering blackness. It’s just like walking into a LGBTQ space. There’s not a sign on the door that says, “No straight people allowed.” All allies are welcome.

So, does a Kickstarter campaign like this one gauge how many allies Durham's anti-gentrification and black preservation fight has? 
I’ve heard some of that, and I think that it’s a factor. The Goodmons are footing the bill. Blackspace is in an American Tobacco building. I think that one of the reasons why we are an attractive partnership for them is because there have been critiques of American Underground as a force of gentrification in the city. But they’re providing space, pro bono, for organizations like SpiritHouse and Blackspace. They’re finding ways to provide access to some of this privileged tech sphere for community organizers who are putting in work for social justice in Durham. I gotta give them props for doing that while also holding them and everyone else accountable for the things that might not align. I’m not speaking of anything specifically with A.U., but SpiritHouse is still going [hard as a motherfucker]. Just because they have an A.U. office doesn’t mean that they’re not out there protesting.

Prime example: Moogfest really put us on. They donated a bunch of equipment to Blackspace. We’re eternally grateful. Fuck yeah. It was good. Yet, when “Say Her Name” called me to say they made a decision to disrupt Moogfest on the corner of Foster and Morgan streets, they were in the street, holding up traffic, shouting, “Sandra Bland,” and “Assata Shakur,” and names of other women victims of anti-black violence. They asked us to participate, and we had just finished our Moogfest session. But that didn’t stop us from going out there and supporting the action of the “Say Her Name” collective in solidarity with black women everywhere. Just because you have allies and partnerships doesn’t mean that you can’t also continue to participate in actions that are about our collective liberation. It was completely appropriate. It was a beautiful moment.

Janelle Monáe was just a few buildings away. I was thinking about her catalogue and her song “Hell You Talmbout.” They were almost literally doing her song in the street. Moogfest and A.U. are not above reproach in terms of a critique that could be levied by community organizers who also partner with those institutions. It’s unique. I think that a stone-cold capitalist, bottom-line, by-any-means-necessary developer is gonna say, “Fuck SpiritHouse. Why? I could have a Wendy’s right there?”

Your Moogfest session and the “Say Her Name” protest were happening at the same time that Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland crew members were deep in a panel discussion at The Armory about the term “Afrofuturism.” Some of them thought it was flattering and useful, and others thought that it was divisive and a way to typecast a certain black experience. Being that Blackspace is grounded in Afrofuturism, where do you stand on this argument?
Generally speaking, I think that we are infinite and without genre. As it relates to our cultural product, we are boundless and limitless. Capitalism likes to box things and package them in finite terms so that it’s more palatable and easier to sell. Like, when you can walk into a Walmart and find an “Afrofuturism” section and find all of your Octavia Butler books. But in reality, Octavia Butler is a radical black feminist. She’s an Afrofuturist. She’s a Pan-Africanist. She’s science-fiction. She’s all of these things and none of these things. So, I get it. 

Do you see Blackspace as a model for what traditional community centers in Durham could be?
I think it could be modeled. On one hand, Blackspace is about breaking models. On the other hand, places like the Lyon Park Community Center, Boys & Girls Club, and YMCA have formulas that work for them, and they’re sticking to it. They’ve got their programs and their prophecies. We need those. They’ve done some great work. But we also need other organizations doing other work like youth development and community development. Blackspace is just a new strategy, vision, and model for education, social entrepreneurship, community organizing, decolonizing the mind, creative exchange, and the application of technology for social justice.

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