Image provided.

A June 8 Piccolo Spoleto performance at the James Island Arts and Cultural Center  aims to give  readers a new knowledge of history through poetry, music and illustration. “Black Music Is,” a book by local poet Marcus Amaker, challenges young audiences to think outside the categories of R&B and hip hop. He wants to remind audiences  that Black people were the pioneers for some instruments they rarely play. 

“The banjo was actually invented by enslaved Africans,” said Amaker. “I didn’t know that, it was not history taught to me in school. So I thought, ‘let me write a book about the fact that bluegrass music and country music comes from Black folk.’”

Amaker. Image provided.

Amaker is a well-known Charleston poet, graphic designer, musician and, recently, an opera librettist. He’s always been a huge music fan, especially when it comes to indie music, and said he enjoys music above any other art form. But of course, he can’t deny his passion for poetry.  “Black Music Is” was published June 2021. 

“I wrote a poem about the history of music through the lens of its Black creators, and then I realized that it would make a good book, so I decided to reach out to a friend of mine, Nathan Durfee to do a concept around it,” he said. “And it turned out really well. I ended up publishing that book and giving it free to 250 schools.” 

Younger children were his first target audience, especially young Black and brown children who weren’t learning about this part of their roots on a day-to-day basis. 

“They’re always going to say Elvis was the ‘king of rock and roll,’ [but] they aren’t going to give the backstory of country music or rock ‘n’ roll,” said Amaker.“So I just think it’s super-important for us to know our history.”

One of his biggest goals is to represent that history and have fun in a poetic, colorful way. His expectation for Piccolo Spoleto is to do a full reading of the book while adding musical elements as well. He’ll stop in the middle of each passage and play music accompanied by visuals from his slideshow, making it an overall interactive experience. 

When it came down to choosing visuals for this project, Amaker thought again of his close friend Durfee, who he has known for what he described as “300 years.” From conversations over drinks at a bar between two close friends to a children’s book created by two proud fathers, they both describe it as an overall unique experience they would be open to doing again. From his fine artwork galleries to working with publishers like Scholastic and Charlesbridge publishing, Durfee said he was on board with Amaker’s concept the moment he heard it. 

“Two creative people in Charleston trying to make a name for ourselves,” said Durfee. “We shared a lot of camaraderie.” He had never done illustrations for a children’s book prior to this, so it was a new challenge. 

“It is essentially a love poem slash introduction to Black music in America,” he said. “And trying to carve a story out of that was certainly an undertaking in its own right. What we kind of settled upon was this black cat just throwing some records on and going through a musical odyssey.” 

Meanwhile, Amaker was converting a poem to the now interactive children’s book, making sure the verbage was understandable to all. Durfee then took that vision and made it come to life on the page. 

Ultimately, they said, the book shows something readers have never seen or heard before. 

“You are creating a universe, poetry isn’t just what’s on the page,” said Amaker. “It’s also how it sounds. Poetry is also the music behind that poetry.” 

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  Free.  11 a.m. June 8, James Island Arts and Cultural Center, 1248 Camp Road.

Aiyana Hardy is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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