Writer, poet and spoken word artist
Hip-hop artist, teacher and arts advocate
Ebony Iman Dallas
Local visual artist with family originating from Somalia; founder of Afrikanation Artists Organization
W. Jerome Stevenson
Artistic director for Pollard Theatre Company in Guthrie
In observance of Black History Month and as a quest to better understand the experiences of black artists locally, Oklahoma Gazette recently invited local artists to participate in a Q&A to share their perspectives. Each was asked the same questions. Here are some of their replies.
How does your upbringing, background or culture inspire or inform your art or creative process?
Ebony Iman Dallas: A lot of my work deals with political issues here and in Somalia. I remember spending the summer in Hargeisa [in Somalia] and struggling with perfectionism. This hindered my ability to create without stress. It was there that I realized the beauty in imperfection.
If your radio breaks, you don’t just replace it with one that’s brand-new; you call someone to fix it. In an attempt to break through my perfectionist tendencies, I developed a freestyle drawing technique where I would begin with an image in mind, then freestyle draw without erasing.
In turn, I created images that I couldn’t have imagined by continuing in the direction of so-called “mistakes” and watching where they would lead. I learned to work with what I have organically, and this has forever altered my work.
Jabee: My black culture has been in my music since I started. I didn’t just recently start with it.
My first album sampled Malcolm X. I had a song about James Earl Jones and [another about] Stokely Carmichael. My album had Che Guevara on the cover, and the intro was Gil Scott Heron.
All of those things are my culture and make me the artist I am.
Do black or other minority youths have enough art or music opportunities available to them? Do you think arts education is important?
Jabee: These things are so important. I teach a music class in an Oklahoma City high school. My students get excited and motivated by art and music. It’s a big part of our culture. I know they need more, but over time, you look around [and realize] it’s being taken away from them.
Black kids are some of the most creative and trendsetting people in the world. When you take those things away, it’s like taking away the language. It shows kids we don’t care and they aren’t important — holding on to your comfy salary or job title is more important than giving these kids a fighting chance at a real future.
Don Eisenberg: The passion to create was given to me from my education through the arts program at Classen School of Advanced Studies and teachers who made you believe that what you were performing in that moment was bigger than one person, that the music had a life all its own and you were given the chance to experience that.
I fear that without the opportunities to explore one’s creative nature, black and other students of color will succumb to the lackadaisical world of underfunded public schools.
W. Jerome Stevenson: I’d say that such experiences are integral to the development of students of every background and particularly to the goal of developing artists and arts patrons within the African-American community.
I want students of color to see themselves and their stories onstage.
When they do, they will no longer inherently connect this art form to someone other than themselves.
What challenges have you faced as a black artist in Oklahoma?
Eisenberg: Being a black artist and attempting to break down the walls of the generic white boys club.
Also being pulled over prior to a performance; the anxiety of being followed by the police from a highway, to a frontage road, to the public streets and then as you come to that last turn before you pull up to the venue, the lights come on.
To leave your own home en route to an event and to drive only two blocks from your home before a squad pulls you over to ask, “Where ya headed, pal?”
To have to perform in that trembling state; to have to entertain and not sulk in the thick air of systemic racism — it’s tough.
Deanne Brodie-Mends: Well, I see that as a people, we do need to come together and support one another. I believe as a black woman, it’s incredible that I can inspire people to be strong and to live for God and that doesn’t make you any less of who you are.
I come to defy the stereotypes that are placed on African-Americans with the way I choose to live my life as well as the things I post and say.
There are limitations, but I choose not to let that stop me from doing what God has called me to do.
How does art and music play a role in bringing Oklahomans from different backgrounds or cultures together? What could artists or the state do to increase or strengthen those connections?
Miillie Mesh: I think the food and the way people live and the type of scenery here brings different cultures together. It’s a very “feel at-home” type of vibe with Oklahomans.
As far as art goes, I don’t think we do anything out of the norm or above and beyond belief that would make someone come here specifically for that. It would be nice if state or city magazines and news platforms pulled together to shed light on more hip-hop and rap events going on in the city. There are quite a few things that go on here that I don’t think too many know about. … In all honesty though, I dig the fact that I was raised in Oklahoma. As an artist, I have to push myself twice as hard and find other ways to inspire myself or be motivated living here.
That’s not easy.
Stevenson: In theater, the audience is connected in a conversation that is initiated from the stage and allows the audience to share.
Much of our work in the theater deals in universal themes: love, loss, growth, fear, etc. The beauty of the theater is that we find ourselves sitting in the dark, sharing emotional experiences with complete strangers.
The Pollard [Theatre Company’s] mission is to showcase that “shared human experience,” and we feel it has been a critical component to our success and growth. Artists must continue to have faith in and seek to cultivate that audience and bring them together for more diverse works and artists.
Dallas: I definitely believe the opportunity for cultural exchange exists through the arts, but I do not believe we are exploiting it enough.
As artists and organizers, we have to be willing to step outside of our own comfort zones and be very intentional about working with diverse groups in meaningful ways.
What was it about the arts or music that first drew you in? Was it a person in your life or a feeling you had? What made you want to be creative?
Mesh: When I was younger, I was always musically inclined. I started piano lessons at age 6 when I lived in California. I moved away to Oklahoma and picked up violin at 8 years old and played up until sophomore year in high school. I didn’t get into rap music or writing raps until I was 13. At the time, I was a super big fan of young rap artist Lil’ Bow Wow. I wanted to be the female version of him. …
I’ve always been a writer as well, and English was the subject I excelled in at school. For me, it was a way to use my thoughts and words in a positive way while venting and releasing bottled-up emotions.
Definitely seeing people who looked like me on television made me want to be in that kind of world.
Brodie-Mends: Before I began poetry, I always had a love for writing. I used to have so many notebooks. I would write stories for my friends and tell them what their lives would look like in the future.
As I grew up, I wrote out of frustration and it wasn’t anything positive. My sophomore year in college, I met a man named Willis Lusk, and he did poetry, videos, etc. … He opened up my mind to this new world of poetry.
I loved the connectivity of the art. I loved how words could bring people together.
Print headline: Future history, Oklahoma City artists discuss how and why they create and the importance of culture and education in our communities.