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Arts Issue - ‘If You Know the Words, Feel Free’

Atlanta’s new wave black arts scene defines itself on its own terms

Thursday November 5, 2015 04:00 am EST

In a dashiki and a Braves “A” hat, saxophonist Jaye Price blows his soul into a bluesy sidewalk rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The camera slowly pans, capturing the Royal Peacock marquis overhead as Sweet Auburn fills with the sounds of the “Negro National Anthem.” It’s a poetic opening for a documentary that unfolds like a haiku more than a history lesson.


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Once known as “the richest Negro street in the world,” Auburn Avenue is a promising place to begin If You Know the Words, Feel Free. A similarly themed creative renaissance serves as the centerpiece for the 50-minute documentary. Directed by Artemus Jenkins and produced in conjunction with Afropunk, it offers an existential look at the latest incarnation of Atlanta’s black arts scene and the young artists, photographers, designers, writers, filmmakers, and curators behind it. Like the cast of creators it spotlights, the vibe of the wide-reaching scene is conscious but lit; indie yet enterprising with a sense of communalism that still breeds room for individualists. In a city where the phrase black culture has become uninformed shorthand for one-dimensional rap and reality TV, IYKTWFF pays homage to a creative scene largely unseen by outsiders. Instead of subjecting itself to that gaze, it turns one art scene’s story of shared struggle and burgeoning success into something universal.

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“Everybody’s looking to define and create their own legacy and chasing success,” says Jenkins, who co-produced IYKTWFF with his Christmas in July 1982 filmmaking partner KarynRose Bruyning and the film’s featured protagonist and narrator Sean Fahie.

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Far from a typical talking-head doc, Jenkins mixes the stylistics of cinema verité with an unscripted narrative storytelling approach that elevates the community into its own work of art. Well-known visual and graphic artist Fahie plays a true-to-life version of himself as the journeyman in search of a bit of inspiration from his creative peers. This is the same community he’s spent the past few years cultivating and celebrating as co-host of AB+L Radio’s “The Influencers” and Pretty Sweet day party emcee.

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Through his solo quest, viewers get to meet and hear from such scene stalwarts as photographer Vek Neal, lowbrow eccentric Freako Rico, aka FRKO, established visual arts vet Michi Meko, designer and vintage brand maven Quianah Upton, and several of the visual artists — Miya Bailey, Corey Davis, and Kevin “Mr. Soul” Harp — who helped lay the groundwork for the current wave by establishing City of Ink and the new Notch 8 Gallery.

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That’s hardly the half. But if there’s one thread that weaves all these creative types together, it’s that they consistently defy stereotype. In fact, part of Fahie’s motivation for co-producing the film was his desire to offer an anti-Noisey contrast to the fetishistic Atlanta trap-rap documentary that debuted earlier this year.

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“The Noisey project about Atlanta sucked. The dude who hosted was riding around Edgewood right past Sound Table in a bullet-proof vest in the back of a cop car,” he says. “They just make it look like it’s nothing but trap houses and fucking drugs everywhere.” So when Atlanta-based independent film producer and PR professional Glynn Murph expressed interest in executive-producing a doc about the city’s art scene after receiving the greenlight from Afropunk, “We all collectively said, ‘Let’s do a better version, or at least our version,’ and show some of the heart and soul of this city — because it has so much of it, so many talented people out here,” Fahie says.

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Murph agrees. “We, as black creatives living in this city, don’t always realize that this scene is still considered underground for those who don’t live here. They just don’t know that it exists,” she says. “I wanted this film to be the catalyst that inspired Atlanta creatives to really be ambassadors for the city and tell their stories.”

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A founding member of such standard-bearing groups as Jaspects and Hollyweerd, Price’s opening sax solo also represents the transference of energy in recent years from the music scene to the visual arts. Writer and CL contributor Maurice Garland made the same observation on his blog two years ago in a post titled, “The Arts is the New ‘Rap’ in Atlanta.” In it, he describes the galvanizing energy behind the visual arts community: People were finally “paying attention to what they’ve been doing over the last 10 years as they fought for attention in a city that has pretty much been known for it’s music and now it’s terrible reality television shows.”

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In order to distinguish the documentary from that “reality,” Jenkins chose to shoot in black-and-white to convey something “a bit more surreal,” he says. Like a lot of creatives, the Baltimore native was inspired by the music that came out of Atlanta and eventually moved here after graduating from Tuskegee University in ‘04.

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“When I got here it was way different,” Jenkins says. “We were trapped out in 2004. BMF Black Mafia Family and Jeezy were catching steam. And snap music was becoming a thing, and Gucci and all that.” He started working as a street promoter for Ludacris’ label Disturbing Tha Peace and began teaching himself video production as promo shifted to the Web. When Jenkins got laid off during the music industry downturn, he became an independent contractor of sorts, shooting music videos for a while, and anything else that required him to be behind the camera. Meanwhile, another scene began to bubble, giving rise to such new wave Atlanta rap, jazz, and R&B acts as Hollyweerd, Yelawolf, GripPlyaz, Janelle Monae, Jaspects, and more. From this “primordial ooze,” as Jenkins calls it, a visual arts-driven scene started to emerge. City of Ink became an incubator upon opening in 2007. In the same fashion that the former Yin Yang Café harbored an urban alternative scene where musicians such as India.Arie, Donnie, and Anthony David flourished a decade earlier, the Castleberry Hill tattoo and arts gallery became a hub for a new generation of creative cool kids.

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“The common thread in all of that is music,” says Jenkins, who directed the documentary Color Outside the Lines on black tattoo artists with Miya Bailey in 2013. “A lot of things that drive black culture are centered around music. You go back to the Harlem Renaissance, that was centered around music and entertainment. This isn’t any different.”

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The film is actually Fahie and Jenkins’ second project documenting the scene in the last few months. The first was a huge open-invitation group photo shoot that included many within the creative scene. The idea for it came the way ideas often emerge — from a well-lubricated late-night brainstorming session.

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“I was up late, probably like 2:30 in the morning, too many drinks of whiskey and, to be honest, it was kinda like a lightning in the bottle thing,” Fahie says. “I was like, well, I really wanna do something.” It turned into something bigger than he expected after he quickly made a flier, posted it on Facebook at 3:30 a.m., went to sleep and forgot about it. “I wake up the next day and my inbox is full of a bunch of emails, and I was like, ‘Aww, dammit. What did I just do?’” he says, laughing his classic Sean Fahie laugh. “Now I have to do it.”

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Now a scene that has been defined largely by what it isn’t is defining itself on its own terms. A similar precedent is being set internationally. The Guardian calls it, “the latest reimagining of black youth culture happening globally,” in a recent article about London’s new wave of young black creative types known as the Black Romantics.

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While Fahie is less interested in putting a label on the local variant, the similarities are undeniable. Just as London artists in the neighborhood of Brixton point to Brooklyn, N.Y., as an example of the kind of gentrification they’re starting to suffer, Fahie, who resides in Cabbagetown, was equally motivated in both instances by the cultural erosion.

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“I’m fully aware of how gentrification affects black and brown way more, but I was also thinking about how creatives really get affected by this,” he says, regarding the intown cycle of development that is threatening to push artists and institutions out due to rising costs. “We live in these areas that nobody else wants to live, we help build that stuff up, then it gets torn down or changed and we have to move again.”

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It’s a familiar refrain with a universal theme best summed up by the title. Jenkins explains IYKTWFF as a subtle nod to the invitation church soloists traditionally extend to those sitting in the pews to join in if they know the words. It’s the kind of invite that turns solo testimonials into rousing sing-alongs.

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More than anything, it’s about banding together, and paying tribute to the here and now.

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“The recording of history is something that’s controlled by man. And there are details that can easily be left out,” Jenkins says. “It’s possible that this scene has become something so progressive that it won’t be easy to forget. But if nobody was here to say anything, it would be very possible that it could come and go and nobody would know.”