Last night’s Pecha Kucha event at the Charleston Music Hall was one for the books. I was inspired by jack of all trades himself, Manny Houston — a.k.a. emcee Alan Fame, leader of funk-hip-hop group the Howling Moon Pimps, soul-pop-R&B singer in Emerald Empire, actor, director (catch his musical direction in Fun Home at Pure Theatre beginning Jan. 19), and the list goes on — and his assurance that it’s OK to be a “creative,” a perfectly great job description for the multi-faceted ones out there who aren’t just hustling but excelling by doing what they love. I laughed hard throughout Hanna Raskin’s fantastic lesson on speaking your truth, no matter who hates you for it. I even cried a little over the sheer beauty of Dance Lab’s Jenny Broe and her words on how all bodies have the ability to move beautifully, though I was slightly ashamed to learn that the song that brought my emotions to the surface was by Aaron Carter.
But the words that shook me, and I do believe the entire room, the most came from local hip-hop artist Benjamin Starr. It’s impossible to do his talk, that hits on race in the Holy City, justice with a summary — and these words can’t be taken out of context. Each one is worth contemplation. And though we’ve transcribed the six minutes and 40 seconds for you here, we recommend listening to the audio version, too — the volume of Starr’s voice, the pauses, and inflections are all important in this talk’s powerful impact. [content-5] And as you absorb the hard truths he presents to us, white Charleston, put your ego aside. Let yourself be vulnerable. Allow true self-reflection. Invite the discomfort. And then ask yourself what you plan to do about the reality of a, still (sigh), socially, economically segregated Charleston. Ladies and gentlemen, Benny Starr:
“To be honest with you guys, I had a whole other presentation planned but, you know, in the 13th hour I decided to change it up a little bit. I wanted to do something a little more authentic, a little more genuine, and something worthy of this moment right now. So I reached out to a good friend of mine, a great friend who is also a dynamic young creative [CONCEPT RXCH], and I asked him to be able to use his illustrations as the backdrop to my presentation.
So as you open your minds to receive what I’m saying, I want you to just let his imagery wash over you. We are artists, so we are blessed with the gift of being able to convey our experiences to people, to make you feel a little bit.
While you are letting this wash over you, I want you think about a question: Do you really want this? By this, I mean, do you really want a Charleston for black people? Do you want a Charleston for black men and women? By that, I mean, do you want accessibility to efficient transportation? Do you want accessibility to adequate education for black people? Do you want economic opportunity for black people? Do you want black people to feel welcome downtown? Is that something that you want? Do you want black people downtown?
When you think about that, and I think about my friend who allowed me to use these illustrations, one thing we do have in common is that we are both young, black men and black creatives in Charleston, and that experience goes a long way. I understand that this city is still permeating with the spirit of Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins, and the systems that they rallied against and the people that they worked to empower. So when we talk about Charleston, we have to talk about it honestly. We have to talk about the beautiful things here, we have to talk about the culture, the culinary innovations, and the spirit that people who look like me spent centuries pouring into this city.
Also some more true things about Charleston: the fact that Charleston was once the slave capital of the United States. At least 40 percent of all enslaved Africans came through this port. We have to talk about Charleston as a city, rife with segregation, that even manifests itself today in the form of social segregation, racial, economic segregation, lack of affordable housing. We have to talk about Charleston in a way in which we can say honestly, today, that it is the home to 20 of the poorest schools in the tri-county area, 15 of which are predominately black — simultaneously being home to 11 of 13 of the wealthiest schools, most of which are predominately white. We have to talk about Charleston in a way where the leading publication in Charleston still actively litigates the causes of the Civil War. We have to talk about Charleston in a way where it is sprinkled with the vestiges and the monuments by the daughters of the Confederacy honoring treasonous soldiers. Racist soldiers, white supremacists — this is the Charleston that we have right now.
So I have to ask you, as a black artist here in Charleston, and I have been blessed to, in the last couple of years, perform on many stages, including this stage right here. But interestingly enough, I had to be exceptional every time I stepped on any stage, because I wasn’t just thinking about me and my ability to perform on that stage again — but I was also thinking about other artists who also are hip-hop. That hip-hop, that culture, that music, that generation, who, if I bombed one time, they would never even get a chance to perform there. Many of these same venues that closed their doors on me until I became the front man of a five-piece band consisting of some of my closest friends, who have become family, but three of whom … are white.
So I ask you, is this what you want? And when I say is this what you want, do you want a Charleston for black people? Do you want a Charleston for black men. Black women. Black children. Because if you do, don’t underestimate the power that lies in your answer, because in America, white people get what they want, when they want it.
What I mean by that is the power of white political will. White political will is never halted by the how. White political will is often the answer to the how. White political will doesn’t ask, it decides. White political will, the collective effort, energy, and decision-making of collective white people in America: it decides, it doesn’t ask. It decided to put a man on the moon before it knew how it would put a man on the moon, and white political will put a man on the moon. White political will landed on Plymouth Rock and decided to forge this county of complex laws and systems before it knew how to put together a constitution. That’s what white political will did. White political will turned a nation built on the back of slavery into a beacon of freedom around the world. It turned and made the capital, what was previously the slave capital of that slave nation, a top tourist attraction in America.
This sort of Confederate Disneyland pulls everybody in. That simultaneously contributes to and upholds a system of social and economic segregation. Also, gentrifies neighborhoods at a rapid rate. And also, seizes the property of many black people through eminent domain. How could it do that? How could it be that creative? We don’t know! White political will doesn’t ask, it decides and then it figures it out. I wish it would be that creative when it came to freedom and equality for all people.
So again, I ask you: Is this what you want? Do you want a Charleston for black men? Do you want a Charleston for black children? Do you want a Charleston for black women, who are not even, as diverse as this lineup was, there were not even any black women here tonight.
So I am asking you, everyone in this room. I wanted to be able to come here and look at everyone here in Charleston, the well meaning, good will of people who want to make a change. I want to tell you, black people and non-black people of color are very disillusioned with the belief that white political will do any of this. That the white political will, will do any of this.
But it wouldn’t hurt for y’all to prove us wrong. You’re welcome.” [embed-1]
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