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 Mama Sol. __________________________
Mama Sol – Photo courtesy of Rynelle Walker
This is a story about Wisdom with a capital “W.” Wisdom is not to be taken lightly. She comes in various forms – sometimes entangled or even cloaked in struggle and risk-prone decisions. But she takes chances. She leaps off high cliffs and transforms in mid-air. It is then that she begins to sprout wings and fully operate in her gifts. Her wings do not sprout overnight, but indeed they begin developing the minute she steps off the cliff. Yes, Wisdom is gifted; Gifted with experiences that some may call impossibly possible. She is, for the sake of this article, a Mother, a Motivator, a Lyricist, an Artist. She is Mama Sol. Let’s begin with her name. This musical performance artist and writer has maternally taught hundreds of children, thus she was divinely named Mama Sol. She explained when she taught in Detroit at the Afrocentric school, Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology, the children were learning Swahili. All the classrooms included both female and male teachers, Mama and Baba (Swahili for mother and father). Her family and friends started calling her Sol when she started studying Right Knowledge. When she shared that Sol means sun in Spanish, I immediately thought of her influences. She said, “I am influenced by other people’s struggles. When I see other people struggle I can help them see light, especially given my own experience. Darkness inspires me to bring light, which is probably why I am still in Flint…I am from Flint. I’ve lived all over. People have suggested I move to other places where other people are…I think you should bloom wherever you are planted. And Flint needs light.”
I asked her what was one of the greatest challenges in her life and she said, “The toughest thing was the most beautiful thing – quitting my job at Timbuktu.” She was at the pinnacle of her career as a Lead Teacher and the Director of Special Education. Many told her she was crazy when she made the decision to leave, but Sol knew it was time. She explained that although it was important to be with her students, leaving school later than she desired to be at home with her son wasn’t justifying the spiritual means. She said, “I had to do what God intended me to do – WRITE. Write music.” What was running through my mind was my own journey as a teacher. I was thinking, “We compromise all the time. And like a sacred responsibility, we owe our students and their parents the entire package – to support, teach and inspire at all costs.” And it was as if she had read my mind. Sol said without hesitation, “The world is my classroom.” I felt a sudden knock on the inside of my chest. “The world is my classroom.” What an empowering phrase. I’ve often thought that a teacher should teach in a specific space during a specific time. After all, that is what we are taught as we develop into adults – go to school, attend regularly scheduled classes, come home, do homework, go to bed, get up again and start all over. You repeat the process until you meet the requirements and follow the rules that lead to gainful employment, right? Wrong. Let’s consider her statement. If the world is her classroom, she can teach anywhere. Not only that, she can also learn from everything in every possible space. Her highest degree is LIFE itself. Permit me to transition abruptly. It’s important to share why I wanted to interview Mama Sol. Namely, I was familiar with her lyrics. I had seen her on stage perform in packed crowds. What was most piercing was the way her body language matched her words. There was symmetry in her whole being. I observed a whole package that couldn’t be compartmentalized. Thursday, February 19, 2015 I saw Mama Sol sitting in an audience listening to Angela Davis speak. Yes, I should’ve been listening to this iconic being but what caught my eye more than anything was a humble sort of reverence and love that embodied Sol. And I thought of her lyrics from her song Exercise, “I’m just aware that my gift is guided by freedom fighters.” I saw her listening intently to what this regal 70-year old Davis passionately espoused about community activism and reforming education. When I asked Sol about Angela Davis she talked about her connection and interest to the Black Panthers. She mentioned that one of her heroes is Assata Shakur and her mentor was Mama Gloria Aneb House, Human Rights Activist also connected to the Black Panthers. “To hear her [Angela] still speaking and fighting for justice…I can’t be that close [to Angela] and not hear her speak…when I think of Angela I see courage.” It humbled me to watch this artist, who has performed in front of crowds as large as the one on February 19th, quietly listen to Angela share her experiences.
I asked Sol why she creates music and poetry. Basically, “Why are you an artist?” Her response speaks to her being a Motivator, one of the chief identifiers she shared above: “My purpose is to break the destructive cycle of mainstream hip hop. Children need options right now. And they are relying on reality TV and radio and BET. So many parents are doing the same thing. And the music I am doing is giving them options.” This response led me to other questions. She explained that her core audience does not connect with a particular age, gender, or ethnicity. “They are people who understand the necessity for positive change right now!” This dialogue conveyed more than her artistic gifts. She has a spiritual calling that manifests through her desire to empower others and create change. And again I stress, this was not an overnight success. Her lyrical journey actually started in college. Following college she wrote commercial ads in New York for the FUBU clothing brand. This career path was interrupted by a 3-year bout with breast cancer, which she defeated. During her healing she was offered the opportunity to teach in Detroit, allowing her to shift her focus to children. Upon having her own child, she recognized the difficulties she faced with remaining in the classroom setting. “This led to my transition back to what God intended for me; which was writing things that could transform darkness to light – G.I.F.T. God Intended For This.” Her journey has taken years – “practically a lifetime,” she explains. Yes, Sol has great success stories – outputting musical cds, performing internationally, and sharing the microphone with other Hip Hop geniuses like Rakim and Talib Kweli, just to name a few. But she is far from being done. The final point I wish to make about Mama Sol and her continued journey is the importance she places on seeking an inward stillness that comes from meditation. She talked about spending time alone – something she knows well because she requires it in her life. She emphasized the need for quiet. Being in tune with herself, she stated, allows her to go into a big crowd and bring the stillness with her. And being in crowds is as precious as being alone. One of the greatest moments she says is traveling. Now, this may look like I am jumping around, but both her shared space and alone space intersect. Just follow me – one of her best moments was being in the Amsterdam Airport. She saw different people speaking dissimilar languages from various parts of the world. “This is life. This makes you accept every single person,” she says. Realizing that the world is grand yet miniscule is what makes her not only adaptable to situations but also open to the great possibilities her stillness provides. Thus, as an artist she is able to give of herself to a variety of audiences. And she gives 200%! Now that’s a lot of love to give on stage – in massive crowds – among people from all over the world. But remember, Mama Sol acknowledges that this is a journey that takes time. And she has shown us that God willing, she will ride this journey to the very end and continue to give light unto the world with her whole heart. Learn more about Mama Sol here. ________________________________
About the Contributing Writer:
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. She believes The PRC will help 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.
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.
With 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.
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.
About the Contributing Writer:
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.