In April 2017, Harlem Arts Festival (HAF) will be launching an exhibition series in partnership with Freda Knowles, #realmusicrebels and saltjam. Freda Knowles is an incredible person living in our community doing fantastic work, and we thought an introduction to who she is, how she arrived to Harlem, and her work would be a great way to kick everything off. Below is her story.
Chapter 1: #RealMusicRebels
I am new to Harlem. I am an implant.
But Harlem is my horizon. So this is my story: about how and why it has become so, my community and my conflicts living in this complex and significant place.
Freda Knowles, Spring 2016, in Harlem. Tony Tixier.
My name is Freda. I grew up in Wales in the UK and now live at 143rd and Lenox, Harlem, New York. In this, and in other ways, my life has straddled worlds. In the course of my 33 years I have existed as part of multiple communities and transgressed borders of identity and experience. I have been part of the nihilistic traveler and punk scenes of Wales and South West England; the privileged institutional environments of higher education; the transatlantic international diasporic musical family of jazz. Whilst diverse in many ways, these worlds are connected by an immersion in music: its sounds, its feelings and its politics. And so I have always felt at home in places which value and celebrate protest and art. Harlem is one of these places.
But whilst Harlem is a horizon for me I realise that my arrival signifies a very different type of horizon for many other, more longstanding residents. I am a British implant – and although myself often struggling to earn enough to pay my rent and survive in one of the most expensive and costly cities on earth, I am still wealthy enough to travel in taxis too frequently, drink indulgent takeout coffee almost every day and, perhaps most significantly, to choose to live transatlantically to where I grew up. This kind of economic freedom is not something afforded to everyone, and perhaps still less to many of the people I now live amongst.
“I have always felt at home in places which value and celebrate protest and art.”
My Whiteness, and my socio-economic demographic, means that I signify a shift that is sweeping the city – and indeed many cities globally. It is an uncomfortable truth for me that my presence here not only signifies, but also facilitates gentrification. I am arriving in an area as part of the artist class: the low income creative wave that is attracted to places where rents are cheap (at least comparatively) and whose presence tends to signal the beginning of an influx of wealthier (and in many instances Whiter) residents. This is something I’m constantly aware of, and always uncomfortable with. So I am writing (now – and always) to pay homage to Harlem and to the people that made it possible for me to feel at home here. I am working to find ways in which to contribute and to remain conscious of what it means to live here, to be here.
Saltjam X Stretch Music after-party for Christian Scott. Harlem, October 2016.
Almost four years ago (is it really that long already?!) I started a company with one of my greatest friends and collaborators, Steph Thom. We set out to support the work of the group of musicians who had become our friends – and our family – with a particular remit to promote and develop art and artists committed to social change. We wanted to articulate and draw attention to what we saw as a musical diaspora of artists and audiences professionally and geographically dispersed, yet inherently connected by a shared creative and societal sensibility. The musicians we work with are some of the most skilled in the world, and are spearheading a revival of jazz as contemporary protest music We call them #realmusicrebels.
Our professional connections drew us both to America as we began to work primarily with American-based artists; in particular Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway. The move was underpinned by the sense of urgency and impetus of a country confronting its continuing injustices. After attending a particularly well organised and passionate protest for Mike Brown I felt acutely aware that my community was here, and the best contribution I could make was to be in New York and work to support them. It is, then, an irony that my arrival is part of something that inherently connects to and feeds gentrification; the incarnation of America’s contemporary crisis of inequality.
“Whilst I am new to Harlem, Harlem is an old friend to me.”
But Harlem was an obvious landing point for me. I have spent my life immersed in jazz: it is my father’s work and his passion, and so I have very literally grown up in it. As a baby I was on a stage in a carry-cot. As an 8 year old I was helping my dad at his shows. As a teenager I was volunteering at jazz festivals, and as an adult I have been a festival producer, consultant, road manager, friend and more to more jazz artists than I can readily count. So Harlem’s long heritage of jazz means that it has special relevance to me. Its streets literally ring with the voices of people I grew up listening to, as well as their teachers, inspirations and leaders. From Malcom X to James Baldwin, from Ted Joans to Billie, the streets here quite literally pay homage to a tradition of creativity and social radicalism that has informed so much of my life. Whilst I am new to Harlem, Harlem is an old friend to me.
Backstage with Freda and Christian Scott at the Jazz Sous Les Pommiers Festival. Tony Tixier.
Living in Harlem not only brings me closer to the figures that I already know, but also to a wider context. Being here has meant I have learned more about the people who constituted the community of a movement, often across time and space. In this way Harlem is itself a character in the story. It not only housed generations of seminal artists and activists, it also shaped them. The character of this place flows into and from the sound and sentiment emanating from it. The story of how and why Harlem came to be what it is today is in many ways a story of America, and Black America within that: the pressures, the oppressions, the movements, hopes, resiliences, resistances, celebrations, tragedies and triumphs. To live in Harlem is to find art and protest on street corners. It is alive with a struggle that is still unfolding. This tangle of present and past continues to attract new generations, new communities of musicians. It is a natural meeting point for a group of people who live and love jazz. Jazz demands that you must know it, study it, immerse yourself in it. It is as much a philosophy as it is a style. On my first visit to New York, then, I found familiar faces in the cafes, jam sessions and bars of Harlem; making their own way in the footsteps of late night inspiration. Taking the A train.
“They engage with themselves and with others in ways that are honest, unique, and powerful.”
And so Harlem became new friends to me, as well as old. A family united by place, purpose and music. These musicians, producers, programmers – and the events and energy that their presence gives rise to – meant Harlem was my home too. Over the last two years, I have been welcomed into a world of love and light; and I am eternally grateful to everyone who has made space for me in it. Midnight conversations after shows, dinner, drinks, in dressing rooms, at train stations and in taxis home at 4am act as constant reminders of the beauty and power of my friends – and what they have to offer. There is a level of consciousness, analysis and insight that seems innate to our community which is, I think, something that feeds from and into the musical sensibilities. As artists in a field that is intrinsically exploratory, inherently subversive, I think those that are drawn to it tend to have some sense of rebellion in their soul – and some sense of adventure in their sights. They are thinkers, advocates, orators and pioneers. They strive for insight and innovation. They engage with themselves and with others in ways that are honest and unique and powerful. And in the current moment of crisis that we find ourselves in, I feel that they are needed more than ever.
Jazz exists at an intersection between privilege and oppression: it can be the voice of the disenfranchised yet also the entertainment of the elite. It is complex and conflicted, and this allows it multiple perspectives and multiple opportunities to be heard. A new generation are reclaiming jazz for the youth, and for the underprivileged. The frontline of the music now is where it meets hip hop, neosoul, trap. This is a trend which challenges traditional assumptions of what kind of music – and people – are good or bad, high or low. By combining these worlds, jazz speaks to the multiplicity of a (Black) identity that may be simultaneously ‘hood’ and ‘highbrow’, and throws into question the legitimacy of either in isolation. Jazz musicians traverse worlds, and this makes them, and their work, a pertinent kind of potent now.
“A family united by place, purpose, and music.”
Lenox Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, Central Harlem. Shuttershock.
Similarly, I feel that in some ways I too live across boundaries. At once White and surrounded by Blackness; loved by and loving of a community which suffers under White supremacy, I witness in close quarters the insults and injuries they experience. I also witness their light and strength, beauty and brilliance. The path I navigate is one of how to be an ally in action as well as intent. How to speak without my voice silencing theirs, how to empathise with solidarity instead of sympathy. And how to best deploy my privilege for their – our – benefit. Right now, what that means is to devote my time and energy to those who have made it possible for me to feel at home in a world that in many ways might not be considered mine. It is to highlight what they are doing, why and how it is – they are – important. In answer to the many uncertainties and insecurities of our time, I reply with realmusicrebels.
I have always felt at home in places which value and celebrate protest and art. Harlem is one of these places. And I hope (I intend) to live up to it. My journey is one that, I am sure, is only just beginning. But for sure, for now, it begins in Harlem. Harlem is my horizon.