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ARTIST FEATURE: Owning Who I Am Through The Discomfort – An Interview with Staceyann Chin

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The Phoenix Rising Collective’s Artist Feature, curated by Traci Currie, highlights and focuses on women artists using their talents and creativity to fully express self-love, build self-esteem, and nurture their own authenticity while inspiring others. Creative expressions may range from performing to painting to writing to travel and everything in between. Our goal is to share how these empowered women cultivate agency, healing, and happiness through fulfilling their passion.

This Artist Feature is Staceyann Chin.

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I have learned most recently that some life-changing interviews occur during the silent moments, when no one is speaking. They occur when one person is having internal dialogues with oneself while the other…well, I can’t speak for the other.

I begin this article with the following questions: How do I tell the story of the passing silence between an artist who observes poignantly without hesitation and an artist who discovers an introverted side of herself? Why am I so focused on the airport drive and not the featured artist’s FIRE BALL spoken word performance I witnessed earlier that particular day?

I recall very clearly in fall 2014 when a small group of us talked about bringing Jamaican social activist and performing poet Staceyann Chin to the University of Michigan-Flint. My first thought was “She’s Jamaican. I can finally be in the presence of another fellow Jamaican, although I am not quite that.” But I would claim this name in the same way poet Audre Lorde proudly claims her Caribbean American identity. I have a right, right? My next thought was “Let’s shake things up around the campus and bring Fire and Brim Stone.” After all, Angela Davis had just spoken at the university February 19th. What she shared was in alignment with what I knew about Staceyann Chin, and indeed Chin brought the poetic energy of Davis’ public lecture to the UM-Flint stage.

Let’s backtrack. Through the advice of a mutual friend, I wrote Staceyann an email that she responded to within 24 hours. She agreed to come, and on March 26th she flew into Flint, Michigan in the early afternoon and flew out of Detroit, Michigan that night. Her purpose on paper was to perform on stage for roughly 45 minutes and then have a 15-minute ‘Question-and-Answer’ session. However, given my own spiritual walk and the fact that I believe in starlit cosmos, galaxies-one-grasp-away, flying invisible angels, the blue & red pill, and having in-depth conversations with ancestors using my 6th sense, I believe her purpose in coming to Flint was divine and probably on par with the questions I have been pondering about my life both professionally and personally.

So, if you are wondering if this is about Staceyann Chin, well…I am not sure, but read on.

After the performance I asked her how she thought the event was. She said, “Fine.” But then she turned the question on me and said, “How do you think it went?” Being the stickler I am, who has a tough time seeing anything as perfect if I am the one organizing or performing, I mumbled something that felt inconsequential. Interestingly enough, that moment was quite significant, because I sensed she heard something else in my question. Honestly, when I ask artists their opinion on an event they’ve been apart of, many of them respond with a short declaration and then the conversation is over. However, she asked me what I thought. This example confirms what I learned about her earlier that day – she observes. From the time I picked her up from the airport that afternoon to the moment she exited my vehicle to return to the east coast, her senses were present. For example, when I walked into the airport to meet her (thinking I was early) she had been standing near the exit door. An important note, there were barely any people in the airport. I had walked right by her. However, she seemed to know who I was. She called my name. Mind you, I told her I was short and brown with glasses. But beyond the matching description, there was an assuredness in her voice and in her being. During times I thought she was NOT present (an assumption that came from noticing her on her cell phone often), she was very much so observant. She was cognizant of her surroundings and even my mishap in being confused as to which way to go when leaving the airport, although I have been driving these roads for over a decade. She was alert and mindful, the very thing I attempt to practice in my life. And yes, I was in the moment – moment of confusion; moment of weariness; moment of anxiety and a bit of elation. The next hour, she spent talking with my colleague from Jamaica. I offered a few comments, but I essentially listened to the back-and-forth heated dialogue about raising children and Jamaica’s changing identity.

It was time for her performance, which was at 4pm. I had a tough time navigating her to the theatre because someone cornered her with comments and questions. And in my absentmindedness I abandoned her to talk to a student. I knew I shouldn’t have, but for a moment I lost control of what to do. Oddly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the people who were clearly there to see Staceyann. How silly of me, right? After all, I wasn’t the one performing – she was! When we entered the theatre, I almost rushed her onto the stage and she said (slightly paraphrased), “Slow down, let’s talk about the order.” I had to take a breath and remember my role. “This is what you do, TC. You organize. Get it together. Focus. Most importantly, take care of your guest.” Heck, for one moment, it felt like she was taking care of me.

The introduction by my colleague was phenomenal. I felt as if it set the stage for everything that occurred – FIRE. Or rather FIYAH! (a little patois for your ears/eyes). It was everything I had hoped, even in my own discomfort. Yes, I am a bold performer, but even I hold back in my own performances. But Staceyann brought FIYAH!

staceyann_chin[self-acceptance]the phoenix rising collective

The event ended and we were on our way to the Detroit airport (1 hour and 15 minutes). During the drive is where I got to know a slightly shy TC who couldn’t come up with much to say because it felt too forced. A matter of fact, I had asked her earlier that day if I could interview her after the performance on the drive to the airport. She said, “Yes.” She pressed the record button while I was driving. A few minutes into the conversation, it just didn’t feel right. The interview felt odd, inauthentic and full of information I had already known. Truth be told, I had reviewed her memoir. I had watched numerous videos and the movie she had featured in. Most of all, I had just seen her perform live. I already had the necessary information for this article, so I thought. I told her to turn the recorder off, and I drove in silence. I was in this weird space. I felt as if I should say something but had nothing in my head besides random thoughts. Then she turned to me and asked me about my life. She wanted to know about me. And it felt odd that she wanted to know about me personally and professionally. I spend my time listening to others – that is my job. My job is to communicate effectively with people across cultures and to listen critically so I can respond to the words not spoken and the body language that seemingly says nothing and everything simultaneously. That’s what I do!

So when she asked me questions I was uncomfortable because it was odd to be the center of attention for a moment. As far as I was concerned, she was supposed to remain the central focus until she left my car (although there really was no focus since I barely spoke). But Staceyann would not allow that to happen. She asked me about my family, my job, my lifestyle, and my travels. Given my disposition and responses, she asked me if I had ever been to therapy. Who wants to admit going to therapy? I know I don’t, at least not to a world that seems to make assumptions about what therapy is and who it is for. But guess what? I did admit it. I admitted quite a few things that led her to say, “Mamacita, you need to break free and address some things.”

My first thought, “I need to break free?!?! You don’t even know me like that!” My second thought, “You’re right. I’m stuck. And I don’t know how to get un-stuck.”

In closing, Staceyann’s interview was about ME. It was about figuring out how to OWN this journey I am on. I learned that there is no finite moment to these life questions. I must take deep breaths; I must use my voice; I must ask the questions I ponder daily; I must break free both privately and then publicly…maybe unapologetically with poetry at the helm.

So, given my words and body language, I suspect Staceyann Chin the storyteller, the poet, the activist, and the observer made me the center of attention for a short moment. And I performed my ‘crossroads’ identity in the car, on the way to the airport. Yes, I am at a crossroads in my life and that’s what this interview revealed. I was reminded to use my tools to break free. Poetry. As my Caribbean American mentor-in-spirit, Audre Lorde says, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Yes, Staceyann Chin is right. I must break free. So today I claim Poetry.

Read Staceyann Chin’s memoir: The Other Side of Paradise.

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About the Contributing Writer:

traci_currie[contributor]the phoenix rising collectiveTraci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help young women reach their highest potential.  “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts.

Staceyann Chin @ UM-Flint – A Short Film created and contributed by Shekinah Shazaam


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Operating in Your Gift and Creating Happiness

happy_black_woman[phoenixrisingcollective]

When I was growing up my father’s motto was, “READ! I don’t care what you read, as long as you read something.” I can’t recall the age, but I was sure to be wet behind the ears when I noticed a Playboy magazine in this basket of assorted reading material in our home. At first I was appalled because from what I was told, Playboy was the premiere ‘Scantily Clad Showcase’ magazine for men – basically a book full of naked women. My thought was, “Someone must’ve mistakenly left this magazine behind in our humble pious domicile. This couldn’t possibly belong to the Currie Family!” If you don’t know me, please know that my previous statement is part sarcasm and part naiveté. I remember asking my dad about the magazine and he said, “Have you ever read any of the articles in there? It’s pretty interesting reading.” As questionable as that statement sounded to me, what do you think I did? I tested his theory, maybe to prove him wrong or to simply see for myself if there was any merit to his statement. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I dived into this magazine and ecstatically found my dad to be right.  I did, however, consider words he repeatedly stated to me as I was developing into the woman I am today, “I brought you up to be independent and to think.” So, in my very womanist state of mind, I had problems with perusing Playboy. But, my dad WAS right. There are interesting articles in the magazine, from the interview with Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman and Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei to Reader’s Choice Best in Film 2011. That was the year Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for The Help. Let me also note, I am fully aware that what’s interesting to one person may very well be ‘not’ interesting to someone else.

Zelda_Wynn_ValdesWith that being said, I move forward. From the time my dad asked the simple question, “Have you ever read any of the articles…” I started to read different magazines and explore their histories – for example Playboy. In my research I learned about the artist of this month:  Zelda Wynn Valdes, a fashion costume designer. She is the designer Hugh Hefner commissioned to create the first playboy bunny costumes which were debuted at the first Playboy Club in 1960. Now, I don’t know about you, but my first reaction was “Really, Zelda? How’d you get that gig?” There are many articles that respond to my question, but she states repeatedly that she was fortunate to have “God given talent” to create and design gowns for Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Gladys Knight, Jessye Norman and other renowned women. She continued in her quest for perfection in the fashion world until her death in September 2001. Though our talents differ in scope (I create hats and scarves on a small scale), I felt akin to this woman, especially since her passing was on the date of my birth (September 26).

So the obvious truth is Hefner, like so many others, noticed her talent. Every article I have read attests to this and repeatedly says the same thing. For this reason I felt no need to rewrite what’s already been said about Zelda Wynn Valdes. However, my most immediate thought when reading about this woman was, “When you have talent that you cultivate, it begins to work for you. All you have to do is BECOME YOUR TALENT.” This is assuming you know what your talent is or know what you like to do. Zelda knew from a young age what sparked her interest, and it helped that she had a grandmother and uncle in the business from whom she could watch and learn.

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How does balance play out in this scenario? I believe our gifts can be the balance we need to create happiness. And happiness is connected to one’s equilibrium, right? I’m not interested in being miserable, downtrodden, and simply surviving for the sake of repeating a very routine, monotonous life. I need more. I want to be HAPPY. Joyful, in fact. I want to do what I love and love what I do! Think about it. I can do the basics that will provide me the necessities to survive (i.e. work, eat, sleep). I can also shape my existence so that my basics are more than just routine activities that usher me into the next day. In other words, I can operate in my gift as a teacher and as an artist. This, in essence, IS my work; and if my work is my God-given talent that I cultivate regularly, then shouldn’t I be happy?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from personal experience, it is when you figure out what you’re good at and develop that skill/talent/gift, you start operating on another plane. You are fulfilled by what moves you. And I suspect that if what you’re good at is similar to what you absolutely love, then you’ve probably hit the mark!

In the final analysis, being balanced is operating in what you’re passionate about and hopefully what you would like to get paid doing (whether payment is financial or otherwise). What a way to live!

So here’s to Zelda Wynn Valdes for operating in her gift. If I had an opportunity to sit with her at this moment and ask her how she defines ‘balance’ I have no idea what she would say. It very well may be different from what I am offering, but I do believe that part of the joy in living, even in all of one’s hard work and sleepless nights, is offering a bit of gratitude, knowing you are good at something in this world.

And what a pleasure it is that this gift or talent has been given to you, of all people! Most of all, you get to shape it, flip it, and do what you will with it to create the absolute balance you yearn.

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About the Contributing Writer:

traci_currie_profile[photo]Traci Currie is the Art + Creativity contributor for The Phoenix Rising Collective. She is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet.  Read her latest posts here.