Artist As Activist, Healer, Witness

“Music can heal the wounds which medicine cannot touch.”

– Debasish Mridha

Artist As Activist, Healer, Witness

Sherine Onukwuwe

Most of my summer days enduring the COVID-19 pandemic were spent indulging in music. Music got me through.

My daughter in the yard with me on the porch sanding, staining, or painting some unfinished, up-cycled furniture project of mine. All-the-while sipping on ginger beer and listening to Alice Coltrane on my half-working, very sometime-y, bluetooth speaker. Waving occasionally to a neighbor or two and keeping keen eye on the dog walkers to ensure they guide their furry pals toward the boulevard rather than the yard proper. The 25th of May wasn’t much different, just finding a way forward in our new normal.

Unbeknownst to me, just 9.9 miles away from my stoop of secured serenity, Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr. would walk into a convenience store in South Minneapolis, where a store clerk would allege that he intentionally tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. The police were called, Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the asphalt by his neck, expiring under the weight of officer Derek Chauvin’s knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. His last breath would come in less time than it takes to listen to Miles Davis’ 1959 Columbia Records recording of, “So What”.

After the video captured by a young woman, who witnessed the murder went viral, the Twin Cities was ablaze with protests for justice. Igniting a dormant rage over the many straws that lay upon the camel’s back. Many cities throughout the country would join while grappling with the unjust murders of their own George Floyds at the hands of police. As an artist, I began to think about what the soundtrack of this moment would sound like. I thought back to the days on my porch in summer. I remembered the ginger beer, and the music that made my porch a healing, restorative space. How could we as artists witness this moment, how could we speak to the pain, the frustration and normalcy of police brutality on Black Bodies and Black Lives?

In the wake of this unrest, local artists began responding with ink, paint, sculpture, and music. One artist in particular created a multimedia video meditation inspired by the tragedy that took place on Memorial Day. World renowned violinist and Co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, Ariana Kim premiered her, “How Many Breaths?- In Memory of George Floyd and Countless Others,” here at Walker|West Music Academy virtually. This piece featured original music, spoken word, images and video of moving street art and demonstration footage from the Twin Cities.

Collaborators Lou Bellamy and Sara Bellamy of Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, Composer Steve Heitzeg along with over 300 audience members dove into a discussion about injustice and harnessing pain and healing through the expression of music. I was the moderator for that discussion as a part of my new role here at Walker|West. One thing that came out of the dialogue with Ariana was the suggestion to take her performance piece to the ground level of location murals. Specifically visiting the mural in George Floyd Square marking where George Floyd took his last breath to fully experience the weight of what occurred.

As the country and world continue to confront problematic systemic racism, the soundtrack must continue to be recreated moving us to feel, to think, to engage, to act, and above all not to be silenced.

View the emotive piece original piece, “How Many Breaths?…” by Ariana Kim here: https://youtu.be/W_6jQQGX9uw

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