By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article appeared in The Providence American Newspaper)
PROVIDENCE, RI- On Friday July 22, the first Dominican-American State Representative Grace Diaz acted on one of her campaign promises—to support her Providence and district  supporters and neighborhood organizations. That’s because Diaz joined Representative Tom Slater in presenting their co-requested grant to the African-American Festival Committee (AAFC) head, Ben Odiase.
This year’s festival ran on June 9 and 10, and included an awards ceremony honoring spiritual community leaders, a parade with participants like the acclaimed Providence mask and puppet makers, Big Nazo, and a fashion show. The diverse events presented in this year’s festival did not come cheap, a reality Odiase revealed to Representative Diaz. Diaz ran on a campaign enunciated by strong commitment to help neighborhood organizations, she reminds a handful of witnesses and supporters on hand for the exchange.
The check will go directly to the fees that exceeded the AAFC committee’s sponsorship in areas like “operating costs and advertising” explains Diaz.
Representative Slater has become like a “godfather” to the Afro-Dominican sophomore politician, a status federal hill observers are becoming more familiar with. This relationship is sure to benefit, if it has not already, Rhode Island’s communities of colors and women for whom Diaz relentless advocates—demonstrated by Friday’s check presentation.
In this case, Slater and Diaz co-applied for a “House grant,” which is “different from the community [service] grants which are bigger” and adhere to more specific guidelines clarifies Slater. This joint request is a strategy, Diaz and Slater explain, to increase the likelihood that a request will be approved when the budget is finalized. The month of July is the selected month in which the budget is announced; therefore, July also marked the broadcast of the consenting and provision of the grant.
The check was presented by Diaz and Slater at about 12:30 on Friday in the district 11 office. As reported on the May-June cusp, the neighborhood office opened on Friday May 27 amidst a multitude of Diaz’s celebrant constituents and supportive political colleagues. It was another effort led by Diaz, who was elected almost nine months ago in a powerful—and victorious—demonstration of grassroots electoral will.
Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on the Providence High School Redesign project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in “The [weekly] Minority Family Perspective,” the Providence American Newspaper and at rezaritesri.com
By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article appeared in The Providence American Newspaper)
PROVIDENCE, RI- Saturday, July twenty-third marked the date of the momentous conclusion of a New England-based “genre-defying”—so dubbed the organizers—music festival. Sound Session ’05 was a six-day confluence of artists and musicians sharing art representing different cultures precipitated by The Providence Black Repertory Company and the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism (CPDACT).
From Monday July eighteen through Saturday July twenty-third, more than twenty bands and ensembles, and several diverse performers gathered “downcity”—as the RI capital’s downtown has been rechristened: in the headquarters of the “Black Rep”, and the centrally-located, Providence river-bordering Waterplace Park.
Last year’s Sound Session 04 was successful as a four-day festival, which in its inaugural year, “exceeded all expectations…” this year’s program extols. Yet inspired by the overwhelmingly positive results from last year, Black Rep director Donald King rejoined CPDACT Director Cliff Wood to expand the event.
The results multiplied. On each night, with a shift from four to six nights, the organizers provided a multitude of solo artists or at least two ensembles, like the RI-residing, Haitian-born Emeline Michele, godfathers and mainstays of jazz Roy Ayers and Ron Carter, and female “hardcore [hip hop] emcee”—as she was called by a band member of Tuesday’s reggae group Noble Society—and pioneer Bahamadia.
The similarities demonstrated by each performer lived in his or her stage maturity and craft development. Whether it was acclaimed female Black poet, Ursula Rucker’s journey down what felt like a soothing yet occasionally bumpy lazy river of poetry, or the mix-tape mimicry of the break-less song switching distinctive in innovative house band Tortured Soul, each individual and ensemble exuded a mastery rarely seen from beginning to end in a multi-day music festival. And this fell not on deaf ears.
From the poetry and spoken word on Monday, the reggae on Tuesday, and the Afro-Caribbean-soaked Latin rhythms on Wednesday—and in the course of all the genre switches through Saturday night—the audience celebrated and reveled in the performers’ skills and excellences. Cheers and applaud often erupted, though these were not as demonstrative of the crowd’s pleasure as the jammed dance floor characteristic of each evening; further noteworthy were the crops of fresh faces that emerged each night alongside Black Rep and festival regulars.
Besides providing quantifiable evidence of the Black Rep-CPDACT partnership, the crowds sent another message, at least to directors King and Wood and Providence mayor David Cicilline: we are many peoples in RI and we want celebrations and official occasions for our music and the music of our fellow community members.
While certainly not as large or expansive a city as NYC, Providence and her immediate surrounding cities like Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Cranston are developing programs and responses to their growing diversity. With large pockets of Latinos, a well-established native and transplanted Black-American population, and the assemblage of immigrants from conflict-inflicted regions like Haiti and Liberia, the convergence of multicultural art forms and expressions should not come as a shock, unless this is new information.
No better demonstrable of this appreciated convergence was during Sound Session’s grand finale: a four block, multi-thousand estimated (according to Providence observer and patron, US Attorney Richard Rose), Afro-Latino-Caribbean Carnivale-influenced parade that emptied onto a massive three-stage indoor and outdoor block party. Following the energy-revving performance by up and coming internationally recognized Latin explosion, Yerba Buena, the parade eased into a peaceful gathering of vendors, patrons, and various staff and volunteers enjoying Cape Verdean, Caribbean, and African-influenced percussion whose only shortcoming appeared to be the maelstrom of debris like trash and beverage puddles exposed after everyone’s departure.
Organizations and city officials in urban centers may want to take note of what is the second example exhibited last week in what is becoming New England’s leading arts and culture havens; a music festival may see its best results when, rather than committing to a single genre, it speaks to the heritage and openness of all its residents by opening the door to multicultural arts diplomacy.
By Reza C. Clifton
(This article appeared in The Providence American Newspaper)
If you have been to the Providence Black Repertory Company’s Xxodus Cafe on a Monday night, then you have met or observed Christopher Johnson. Johnson is the part host-part teacher-part performer of the Monday night open mic series, Virtuosity.
Every week is different, as is the nature of this poetry-soaked, live music, improvisation-inspiring series, but yesterday, Monday July 18 was extraordinarily special. That is due to the fact that yesterday was the opening event for the Black Rep’s 6 day, second annual music festival—Sound Session ‘05. Breaking past the confines of one or two musical genres, Sound Session ‘05 convenes artists to share everything from poetry to jazz to salsa and more.
With at least 2 or more fresh performers or bands each night, a partnership with Providence’s Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, and a bevy of sponsors—that include Hot 106 FM, Foxwoods Resort and Casino, and Verizon—the Black Rep has had to make only a few minor adjustments. Less familiar faces serving drinks, a subtle addition to the décor, and a trace of anxiety nestled in questions and responses mark observable changes to the staff and location of the Black Rep this week. Yet Johnson remains stable and almost unaffected. Why?
For one, Monday night saw no real departure from his weekly hosting duties: drawing in guest poets and connecting with the audience to introduce each artist or to share pieces of his own mastery. One of the guests, though, was Ursula Rucker, acclaimed poet best known or recognized as the female author of the poetry performed on several cd’s of the Philadelphia, hip hop-live band ensemble The Roots; Ove of the current NYC-based Nuyorican Slam poets team, regional favorites Iyeoka and Iyaba Mandingo, and local, poetry-soul-funk band Zawadi also performed at Monday’s Sound Session 05 opening.
But Monday, prior to and during the event, Johnson remained grounded and focused also because of his history and experience in poetry. Born and raised in New Jersey, Johnson moved from Newark to Trenton all the while developing a spoken word style meant to express the urban reality in which he found himself, “in all of its ugly glory, with a sense of a hope for a better future.”
Aided by New Jersey’s centrality to New York and Philadelphia, Johnson developed into a strong presence, under pseudonyms like Mad Antix and Transit Thought and known for his “raspy voice and dynamic approach to controversy.” In 2001, he made that year’s Trenton Slam team; yet the same centrality that probably made him a more familiar presence also brought him to a point when the three cities seemed to join into one scene, and he started yearning to “grow as an artist.” Johnson’s escape arrived, though, when esteemed poet, “Godfather of Slam,” and professor, Michael Brown handpicked him—as Brown does for all the students—to attend his poetry workshop series in Boston.
Boston proved to be the right place. Before he even started the class, he met and launched a mentorship under Reggie Gibson, the inspiration for the male lead Darius Lovehall of the Black contemporary romantic classic Love Jones, and writer of the protagonist’s poem, “Brother to the Night.”
Johnson earned impressive accolades living in and performing in Massachusetts and Boston too. In 2002, he was awarded that year’s Cambridge poetry Award for best Male Slam Poet, while in 2004 he won the right to represent Boston’s Lizard Lounge at the first ever World Individual Poetry Slam; he also obtained a spot on the Boston L.L. Slam team.
Around this same time frame, Johnson started a family—his original reason for moving to RI. Starting off in Taunton, Johnson spent a decidedly intent year honing in on the writing part of his craft, the “foundation” he calls it, as opposed to the performing part of it; he then moved to Providence, first to South Providence, then to AS220 as a poet in residence in this Downcity art hub.
Feeding off of the strength and concentration he has developed publicly and privately, Johnson has become a powerhouse in the local arts and especially poetry scene. Last May, in 2004, he débuted Virtuosity at Black Rep as “an alternative to the competition poetry found in Slams or [hip hop influenced,] emcee-dominated open mics. It’s where anyone—singers, musicians, storytellers—anyone can come in…a virtual open forum where we nurture those who want to get better at their craft and appreciate those who have mastered their craft and want to share it with us.” Plus, at last year’s Sound Session ‘04, Johnson performed.
Poets invited by Johnson to Virtuosity include Byronn Bain—the founder of the Blackout Arts Collective, an all artist-encompassing group started in NY and Boston simultaneously that his since spread to a number of other cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and New Haven—and most of the feature poets at Monday’s Sound Session premiere.
His efforts in Providence have extended beyond the Black Rep, though. Johnson has also taken part in the Straight Mix Culture series; developed and operated by a committee of several Providence community artists, the events consist of performances and presentations of different mediums including poetry, paintings, singing, and other musicianship. The last show was this past June at the Ron Wexler studio, while the committee is currently planning another.
Johnson can also be found frequently in scholastic settings, such as Providence’s Met School and CVS Highlander School, where he teaches poetry. Additionally, he periodically performs at colleges and universities, like Rhode Island School of Design’s July 15 Summerfest.
His work in educational and community settings outside of and within Providence abound, but I would be remorse not to mention one of his latest accomplishments: overcoming fierce competition and a number of qualifying heats, Johnson emerged as one of 4 poets—alongside Jarred Paul, Corrina Bain and Trevor Byron-Smith—to represent Providence in the National Poetry Slam (competition). Johnson stands in additional glory for the bonus distinction of being the only representative of color.
Johnson describes his distinction as more than skin deep, though. While among his team members there seems to be a dominant left-leaning position especially against recent US invasions, Johnson sees his work spiritually grounded and culturally influenced, a consideration, or what appears to be more of a priceless gift to his daughters.
Back at Sound Session ‘05, there is no question as to why Chris Johnson remains calm: he’ll be back at Black Rep next Monday—and subsequent Mondays—hosting another Virtuosity open mic night, introducing a new guest performer, and teaching Providence the ins and outs of poetry and art. He’ll be on tour soon with his other Providence team members sending listeners down a journey of realized and ignored realities, he’ll be teaching a class at your son, daughter, cousin, or neighbor’s school, or he’ll be organizing another venue for other artists like and unlike himself to introduce themselves to Providence and the world of performance.
To meet and catch a glimpse of Christopher Johnson visit the Xxodus Café any and every Monday at the Providence Black Repertory Company at 276 Westminster Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02903. Or call 351-0353.
By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article appeared in The Providence American Newspaper)
PROVIDENCE, RI–On July 7, the Indiana Black Expo Incorporated (IBE) kicked off if its annual Summer Celebration in Indianapolis. Summer Celebration is one of several business related programming offered by IBE throughout the year, but, significantly, it was their founding event.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of IBE and their Summer Celebration. To honor their longevity and success, IBE has extended its week-long event to 10 days, July 7 to the 17th, to offer more than 25 events, ranging from arts and culture to health and business opportunities. Guest appearances and performances are slated by a number of recognizable Black figures, including author Bebe Moore Campbell, and entertainers like Mint Condition and Ashford and Simpson.
For Providence resident and three-time Johnson and Wales graduate, Fredrick Monroe, the address of the Indiana Convention Center is probably the most important detail to know of the 10 days. Why? Because there on Friday July 15, Monroe will be among more than 700 other exhibits selling everything, like music, clothing, African artifacts and more.
Monroe started a company, U DON’T WANT, LLC, which specializes in tee-shirts and other fashion apparel targeting Black and Urban populations. More than just another attempt to cash in on the powerful Black consumer market, Monroe is looking to combine positive self-images with fashion for positive community contributions, best illustrated in his trademark and logo, Give Back=Buy Black. Intrigued by a young Black man making a name for himself with positivism, and proud to have a RI representative at the Expo, I sat down with Monroe to demystify what was sounding like the great myth of a caring, community-oriented fashion designer.
I want to start with the basics. How old are you? Where are you from? Tell me a little about your schooling and what kinds of work you’ve done previously.
I’m 30 years old. I’m from Chicago. I came to RI in 1992 for college at J&W. After getting my Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts and Bachelors of Science degree in Entrepreneurship, I returned to Chicago. I Returned to RI in August 2001 to pursue and complete my Masters of Arts in teaching from J&W.
Until recently, I had been catering, mostly at universities like Brown University and Loyola University in Chicago, where I was catering director.
Are you still catering?
What made you jump in? How did you switch? How did you go from 10 years of prestigious catering jobs to dressing people in U Don’t Want It?
I left my last catering job with Brown University in late January of this year, 05, and I had been sitting on the idea of making tee-shirts since April. Then, I started putting it in action.
I started after deciding to run with a dream, literally. One day I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream, and in the dream, all these different phases just came to me. Afterward, I woke up and wrote them all down.
I write all the time. I think fast and I talk fast, so I have to write it all down, which I do at night. Generally, the majority of writing is done during the late night. During the day, I write, but that’s when ideas and images start coming together.
So I came up with the idea of the shirts and tossed it around with a friend who said “you have to get it in motion.” I sat on it for a while, even thought about developing my own catering company, but then I decided ok, you have to follow your dreams and I’m literally following my dream.
The first move was to talk to a lawyer, because I didn’t know the rules and I wanted to follow through the right way. So I contacted a lawyer and he told me what I needed to do, so I did it. The second thing I did was find out how to get the tee-shirts made. The third thing was finding a designer.
I started by using Microsoft PowerPoint, but that wasn’t sufficient software. So I tried learning and using Adobe Photoshop, but it was too complicated for the tight timeframe I wanted to work with, so I hired a recent RISD grad to interpret my ideas and work with the proper software.
So now, I’ll have some kind of vision or some kind of phrase will pop up, then I’ll put together the ideas and concepts which I then pass on to the designer.
I’m trying to create outside the box to provide a positive affirmation for Black people. I personally see what clothing or the way people wear some clothing, and I don’t think it even looks good on them. I figure if I offer a nice (quality) shirt with nice graphics and nice wording, they’ll wear it. And the main focus isn’t necessarily women, but Black people.
How did you come to meet your designer and how easy or difficult has it been having a designer translate your ideas?
His name is Eric Telfort. I met him in an office at RISD while visiting a friend; he is a student. When we were introduced, it was amazing because I knew that he was the one from my very first dream, so I knew I had to work with him. He does a great job of interpreting my ideas. It’s funny, though, because I always tell people working with me, you’re about to get a lesson in real customer service. I mean, I worked in catering for 10 years, so I know. I don’t like anything late. As a matter of fact, I won’t accept work if it’s late. And if I need something, I usually need it now, or 10 minutes ago sometimes I say. If I’ve emailed you a question and you haven’t responded, I’m sending you ten more. It’s the same approach I take with my web designer at Kaliche Designs. But they both work very well with me, and Eric especially really seems to be taking it all in and learning.
How did you come up with the name of your company and logo?
At one meeting with my lawyer, he asked “What are you going to name the shirts? What is the Trademark?” My original idea for a logo was Some Things in Life You Just Can’t Pay for, referring to being Black. I decided not to use it, though, because I wanted to use it for a specific shirt, not as the message on each tag. So, I’ve always believed that you should give back to Black businesses. Then I thought, well I want to give back to the Black community, not necessarily just businesses. So I shortened it to look better, sound better, and be more broad, so the Trademark became Give Back=Buy Black. This message is or will be located either on tags, the backs of shirts, or both.
And part of my giving back is giving back some of my proceeds. I’m still investigating places to send proceeds, but part of the proceeds from the Give Back Buy Black bracelets will go to a book scholarship at J&W, the James & Kanston Book Scholarship created by Karriem Kanston and Kevin James, other J&W graduates. This scholarship was created to assist students with financial needs to purchase their academic books and supplies.
U Don’t Want IT, is the name of my company. There are many different interpretations of what this means including one someone told me: Some folks definitely don’t want it, the it being strength in the black community, because if you give back and buy black, then you’re strengthening the black community.
But you’re personal interpretation, is it that if someone asks you for something, they’re not going to want it because they won’t realize that whatever you give is going to be not just good, but great?
That’s exactly right.
When we met the other day, you had just come back from a conference, and you’re on your way to Indiana. How long have you been doing this?
Since May. I developed the idea before that, but it was in May that I made it serious and visited the lawyer. Then one day I was looking at a magazine at the eye doctor’s, and I saw information for The International Festival of Life, an African-Caribbean Festival in Washington Park, Chicago. I looked at that and said, “hey I want to do that.” So I found out about the details, said okay I’m going to do this, then I signed up. Then I rented an SUV, and went. It was a four day festival falling around the first weekend in July and I displayed for 3. It wasn’t about financial gain, but recognition. This was my first major outdoor event. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t do any research. It was an Essence [magazine] event, and I said, hey if you don’t do it now, you will never do it.
Then, the [Indiana] Black Expo came about after a friend mentioned it to me. When I followed up, though, the space was already booked. But, that same friend knew someone else who had reserved a booth but had to back out. So I paid the necessary fees, and now I have a booth.
How do you prepare for such a large conference, mentally and physically I mean you are talking about 2 full days of direct selling, right?
First thing I had to do was purchase a credit card machine, a wireless credit card machine. I also had to get flyers made, so that people know to visit the table. I had to do a coupon code for people who end up purchasing merchandise online who find out about it at the Expo. I had to rent a van, and basically I’ve been running around, picking up lots of tee-shirts and double checking everything.
Plus, my family will be meeting me in Indianapolis to help, by passing out flyers and stuff like that. My sisters, cousin, aunt, they’re all helping for a total of 5 on hand at the expo. My family has been very supportive, and I’m excited that I can bring them on to help. I will primarily be at the booth selling stuff. Plus, I’ll have to write up announcements for the program to be aired on loudspeaker.
In terms of mental preparation, I’m just excited! A lot of people have been positive, and I get excited when other people are excited about the product. Even constructive criticism gets me excited, because really just any sign of interest is welcoming. In Chicago [at The International Festival of Life], which was my first time really out, people were very encouraging, very positive. I even received offers to sell my Buy Black Give Black bracelets wholesale. The person working on my website is very excited…
At the expo, as long I have water, I’ll be fine. I don’t even need food.
Have you been featured in any other newspaper? Magazine, etc.?
No, this will be my first one. I have sent emails to different websites, I plan to send it to Black Enterprise magazine, and I plan to send products to Oprah, like the shirt that honors Black women. I’m focusing on one thing at a time, though.
What general advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs or small business owners?
Well, I’m 30 years old, I worked at really prestigious companies, and I left a good name for myself. I have a Masters in Education, and people ask, why aren’t you teaching? But I don’t want to be confined within the walls, I don’t want to be told what to do, and I had a dream. I told myself, you can take that energy from the catering, transfer it to a tee-shirt business and make it happen. You can’t be afraid to follow your dreams. And if you fail, oh well at least you tried. Those were just challenges, and they’re something to work on. “The only unchangeable thing is change itself”—that was from a poster on my wall growing up, and I’ve never forgotten it. Who cares what people think; you want to do something, just do it
Would these tips change if you addressed Black or other historically disadvantaged peoples?
I would probably add that, just because you’re from the hood doesn’t mean that you need to be in the hood to make a difference. That said, you can’t forget where you came from. You can’t just leave, you’ve got to go back.
Also, you’ve got to save something [money]; not a lot, just some. You’ve got be able to respond to urgencies. Right now, everything is paid for with personal money; credit once—for the credit card machine—just cash otherwise. I’m using all of my savings. But, I’m just so confident in my abilities. Sometimes people say, “maybe you shouldn’t buy all those shirts before you sell some of those.” But I say, why, I am selling them and will sell them.
I come from a family of people who always hustled to make a living. So I’ll always be a survivor. I came to RI with nothing as a freshman, I left RI and returned to Chicago with nothing, then, I left Chicago again and returned to RI—with nothing. But I’m using my own money now; I’ve come back three times.
Where can people see your merchandise? Where can people buy your merchandise? Are there any other exhibitions or fairs coming up?
First let me say, be on the look out for hats, for a new magnet, bracelets, and new tee-shirts. All my shirts are individually packaged and folded. Orders can be done online, and on the phone. Future festival and expo activities, locally and nationally, are being planned, as well as strategizing wholesale to local clothing stores. Things are moving so fast, though, so it’s difficult pinpointing and publicizing it all, but this information will be available on line.
And that website is?
Well thank you so much for your time, Fredrick. I know that you are busy getting ready for the expo, but I and we appreciate you giving us such an in-depth interview.
Thanks so much for interviewing me, I really enjoyed our conversation, and I look forward to sending out the article alongside product mailings and introductions to my clothing line.
For more information on Fredrick Monroe and U DON”T WANT IT, LLC, visit www.udontwant.com For more information on the Indiana Black Expo, visit www.indianablackexpo.com For more articles by Reza Clifton, visit www.rezaritesri.com