Our Brave Soul featured artist for April, Red Summer, is a self proclaimed "Jane-of-all-trades". Her background in Musical Theater, Interdisciplinary Art, Song-Writing, Spoken Word Poetry, Film Production and both Secondary and Post-Secondary Education, makes her a force to be reckoned with. She is a performance artist, activist, educator, motivational speaker and published writer, originally from Chicago, and currently residing in the Atlanta area. She has a B.A. degree in Speech, Theatre and Communications Education from Grambling State University in Louisiana and an M.A. degree in Interdisciplinary Art from Columbia College in Chicago.
I first met Red Summer when I attended Grambling State University (from 1993-1995). Although I don't remember a LOT about that time, I remember being captivated by her spirit & personality.
Being away from home (Racine, Wisconsin) for the first time during that period, it was refreshing to connect with another artist who was also from the midwest (Chicago, IL).
What I would learn years later when we re-connected through the performing arts/spoken word scene was just how much of a powerhouse she was in terms of "owning" her gift(s). In 2006, as BSC was just getting up off the ground, I got a chance to witness her perform. Before even making the connection that this was the same person I'd met some 13 years earlier, I was instantly drawn to her through the words, the delivery, & (again...) the ownership of the gift. About a year later, when I produced our first BSC performance (away from home in DC), I knew I had to have Red Summer join us for what was to become "Brave Souls Unplugged" which was presented during Chicago's Windy City Pride weekend that year at Chicago's [LGBT] Center on Halsted. Since then, she's performed with us on stage & at events across the country whenever we're able to make it happen.
Last month, as she celebrated the release of her latest work, "Raw Sugar", I had the opportunity to get an interview with her to discuss her new book, how she deals with the challenges of artistry & parenting, & her thoughts about the significance of Women's History Month (& much more).
I'm honored to present our candid interview with a true, one of a kind woman, artist, & beautiful spirit...Red Summer. Read on, & prepare to be inspired! Enjoy...
When you are in those times of grief, write. When you are the saddest, paint. When something has been taken from you, give something else. It is the most freeing act you can muster from those times.
Can you explain the inspiration/meaning behind the title of your latest project "Raw Sugar"?
Raw Sugar is actually my writing style. It's confrontational and deals with issues that may be difficult to discuss or hard to hear, but it's always done with love and compassion. Like if people heard that I wrote a piece about the man that raped me or the boys that gay-bashed the young brother here in Atlanta recently, they would immediately assume that I was male-bashing or writing hateful words. But, my pieces about them actually are about looking deeper into their psyche and trying to uncover how they lost their humanity. Trying to figure out where they were broken and how that made them want to go out in the world and break others. Still holding them responsible, but understanding their place in a series of events and not just in a vacuum.
Some of the topics addressed in "Raw Sugar" include spirituality/religion, love, racism, artistry, physical/emotional abuse, & parenting. How did you go about compiling the selections for this work?
It was a 4 year process to write Raw Sugar and it's a piece that I wrote, rewrote, edited, revised, put on the shelf, came back to, started over and edited again and again. I had a lot of anxiety around this book because none of the topics were easy. But, in a way, writing a book of love poems may have been a lot harder for me than to write about all those other things. In the end, I had a body of work that I felt represented the gamut of topics that are important to me. Ultimately, it's about the treatment of the least powerful of our community.
How do you find balance between being a parent & being an artist?
I don't. Honestly, It's a constant struggle. I'm a parent of teenagers now. They have much different needs these days. And being a single mother of a black male child, I am constantly worried that I am ill-equipped to arm him with what he will really need to survive. If I raise him to be loving, will they kill him? If I raise him to be articulate, will they kill him? If I raise him to be militant, will they kill him? And those are just the issues of raising a boy... they are supposed to be the easiest. So, now I get to go and worry about my daughter and that's a whole other set of fears and insecurities. But, they are wonderful children and I really think that they mirror the very best and the very worst of me in so many ways. So, we delight and frustrate each other all the time. However, we are also patient with each other. They let me go be a performer. They don't give me grief about it or complain when they have to spend the majority of their time with the "village". In turn, they have found the arts as a way to connect with me. So, we are working towards our balance that way.
Do you have a "process" in terms of how you generally create or do you just allow the work to dictate how it comes to life for you?
I am a very informal artist. I will have a lot of ideas, but they can only come together in their own time. Like the cd I produced Shades of Red. I was tired of doing spoken word. I needed to expand in some way and I started asking the musicians I know "How do you write a song?" Nobody took me seriously and really helped for at least a year, then, all of a sudden... I started to hear music, feel it, write it. Just like that, musicians showed back up and instant collaborations were made. Especially with Lover of the Keys who ended up doing all of the final versions of the music and Cayex Illah who offered us studio time just to get a break from recording rap music all the time. As much as I stressed myself out the year before, when it was time... it was just time.
What is the significance of Women's History Month for you?
I think Women's History Month reminds me to be in touch with the best of myself. Like with Black History Month, I am reminded of the greatness of my ancestors, in March, I am reminded that all kinds of women made an impact on this world. I get to reconnect with women across racial lines, cultural lines, religious lines and all the other imaginary issues that are used to trip us up and keep us from using our collective strength to better ourselves. We only need one excuse to see each other beyond all of that junk. This gives us that excuse. This year has been especially powerful with it coming just after the Republican's attack on women's bodies in the media. We were able to have some really necessary conversations.
Can you speak about Two Fingers Press Publishing Company & Verbal Remedies? How and why did you feel the need to create these two entities?
Verbal Remedies was the poetry club that I started when I was teaching High School in Chicago. The Scholars ended up doing all kinds of writing in that group. When I left Chicago, I combined that curriculum with the College Preparatory and Career Education courses I developed and took the show on the road to other schools around the country.
Two Fingers Press came about as a project that I did for my Entrepreneurship Class. My students wanted to publish an anthology of their poems from Verbal Remedies and the short stories and essays they wrote for their other classes. They did a call for submissions, gathered and selected the work, typed and edited the manuscript, created a cover and then they fell apart. In that class, I allowed their businesses to succeed or fail according to their involvement. So, unfortunately, that class didn't finish their project by the deadline, but I had this publishing company there for them in case they did. Since I had everything in line to go into business, I started with my first book, First Person. Now, that I am more confident in the process, I am expanding to include other artists. The focus of TFP is the same, to provide avenues of expression for members of underserved communities. Also, many publishing houses don't publish plays or poetry, so I am able to offer that to artists who need merchandise to survive on their craft. I'm also publishing other artists like Queen Sheba and Camil.Williams this year.
As an artist, is there one specific medium that you enjoy working, creating, performing in the most? If so, what is it & why?
One year, I wanted to intern with Vibe Magazine and one of my advisors (Scoop Jackson) had a relationship with them from his time there. I asked Scoop to give me the "hook up" on an internship. He asked what did I do. I rattled off a list about a mile long. I was into everything. Writing, film, theater, television, music... you name it. He asked me what one thing would I want to do that I thought would make a way for me to be able to do the other things. I got off the phone with him upset. He clearly was not listening. I was a Renaissance Black Woman. I do All Things All the TIme! The next summer, it hit me. Poetry and Spoken Word gave me a way to combine many of the skills I was developing. I decided to focus on that and it really established me as an artist. It also gave me a chance to get back into my original love (and use these degrees) by returning me to the theater world. I think the reason I was most successful as a poet is because of my background in theater.
This month's BSC discussion topic is "Dealing with Loss & Grief". What does this topic mean to/for you personally & as an artist?
Oh goodness. We Poets are the most productive going into or coming out of our losses and our times of grief. It's a horrible paradigm, but so true for me. But, then that goes back to the meaning of Red Summer. That name was originally attributed to the race riots of 1919. A horrible time for our people and for America in general. What came out of that... is the artistic boom of the 20's. So, the concept of using those times that would normally cripple us as a motive for creativity is key. When you are in those times of grief, write. When you are the saddest, paint. When something has been taken from you, give something else. It is the most freeing act you can muster from those times.
How important is transparency for you as a woman, a parent, & (particularly) in your work as an artist?
I think that the only thing that allows people to connect with me as an artist is that they believe me. They trust me. I used to have an impact that was okay, at best. Mainly because I was holding back and being timid. I didn't make the same kind of connections as I have recently. People respond to me with their lives. They trust me with their stories, their tragedies and their secrets. It is a big responsibility, because I often have to carry people's weight with them (or for them). But, it's one that I take to heart because it means that I did good work and it affects people.
Who and from what do you draw inspiration?
I draw inspiration from absolutely everywhere. I am inspired by life experiences. News stories. Homeless people I pass on the street (or the one who lives in the gazebo across the street). How people treat each other. Stretch marks. Crooked teeth. Pretty eyes. Elders. Oh, I really could go on an on. I fancy myself as a historian of some kind. That I am recording all of this so our generation and all of it's complexities are not lost to the sand of time. I'm inspired by some of the powerful women who have shaped me. I am motivated by my children to make sure that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Do you plan to tour/perform in support of "Raw Sugar" in the near future? What can supporters, fans, (& newcomers) expect next from Red Summer?
You know... I have no idea today. I really wish I was joking. My concept of the release for Raw Sugar keeps growing on me. I could have taken the easy route and just set up some appearance at book stores and coffee houses, found a stool, read out loud, sold some books and been done with it. But I swear, if I had to travel by myself for another year reading from the same book... I would have to end it all. So, the release at this point, is an interactive/ multimedia event. There's video, art installations, games and a poem that I call String of Consciousness that is a group poem that will grow with me throughout the entire tour with lines added from the patrons of every city I visit. The release date has been pushed back three times. I say it's because all the elements are not in place yet... but I really am nervous. This is the biggest project I've ever done of my own. So, audiences will see me in all of that. My glory and my insecurity. Outside of Raw Sugar, I'm doing a lot of community theater in Atlanta. I shot my first music video last month with Carlos Saqiid who shot the Chasing Summer Project from my last tour. I've been working on a web series called Between Women and I have another show coming up called Guppies. I've partnered with M.PoWeR and Redfern Collective to do Arts Programming in Atlanta. So, I'm really working on living my art, expanding my business and creating more avenues to give back to the community.
For more on Red Summer, please visit her official website here:
The Red Summer Experience