Moving Toward a Vibrant Black Arts and Culture Ecosystem

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 

Toni Morrison, 1981 speech to the Ohio Arts Council

At Club Ebony, Indianola, MS
With ILI visiting Club Ebony in Indianola, MS

My first arts gig after college began in 2011 when I debuted as a company member with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC). Founded in 1968 by Jeraldyne Blunden, DCDC emerged after the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, providing a platform for dancers of color in an art form dominated by a Eurocentric, Western aesthetic. In launching DCDC, Blunden joined a cohort of Black artists creating culturally specific organizations during and after the height of the Civil Rights Movement. By the time I joined the company, it was an internationally-recognized force in the dance field and a beloved pillar in Dayton, OH’s arts community. Starting my career in a space centering Black creativity was grounding and transformative, leaving a lasting impression on my subsequent trajectory.

Blunden and the many Black artists who use creativity as the tool for social change inspire me. Their examples fueled my transition from performing to administration as I envisioned using my knack for logistics and project management in service to Black artists and communities. With each opportunity I received, I developed my administrative acumen with the aim of making a difference in the arts sector for Black artists and communities. Despite experiencing a bit of success, I, like many Black creatives, found myself questioning the scale of my impact following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd.

In addition to highlighting the urgent need to rectify police brutality on Black and Brown bodies, calls for social justice following Floyd’s murder illuminated practices and policies in the public, private, and third sectors and their role in perpetuating racial inequality. Like their counterparts in other sectors, arts and culture organizations issued statements of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to address public concern and, at times, appease their growing number of critics. Many institutions received additional criticism after releasing board-approved proclamations as claims about organizational culture and practices perpetuating racialized harm within their own operations surfaced. The statements last significance in the eye of public opinion for being performative and reactive. Culture workers, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), called on arts organizations to take substantive action and accountability to demonstrate commitment to equity, healing, and change.

With ILI Year 5 Fellows Lehuanani Ah Nee, James Pakootas, Nada Odeh, and Tonya Williams

With ILI Year 5 Fellows Lehuanani Ah Nee, James Pakootas, Nada Odeh, and Tonya Williams

Interculturality in the Culture Sector

The collective activism and demonstrations of solidarity throughout the world was one of the first examples of interculturality I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. As defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), interculturality is “the existence and equitable interaction of diverse cultures and the possibility of generating shared cultural expressions through dialogue and mutual respect.” The Black Lives Matter and correlating movements for racial equity modeled a strategic grassroots paradigm for activating intercultural networks toward movement building for justice. Bagelle Chilisa underscores this critical practice in her seminal book, Indigenous Research Methodologies. She notes that colonized people groups, across ethnicities, must form bonds of resistance in order to eradicate the harms enacted by dominant culture. One of the best examples of such in the culture sector is none other than the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI).

Dinner with Lehuanani Ah Nee, Tonya Williams, and Nada Odeh
Dinner with Lehuanani Ah Nee, Tonya Williams, and Nada Odeh

Looking to the wisdom of a multitude of justice advocates like Fannie Lou Hamer, ILI embodies Hamer’s charge that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The annual leadership development fellowship offered through a collaboration between  Alternate ROOTS, First Peoples Fund, National Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC) , PA’I Foundation, Sipp Culture, First Alaskans Institute, and The International Association of Blacks in Dance brings together a racially diverse cohort culture workers to ask and explore four core questions: 1) Who we are, 2) How we work, 3) Where we are, and 4) Why this matters. As a Year 5 Fellow, I am one of 27 artists and culture bearers committed to deepening our understanding of the communities that incubate and inspire our work while immersing ourselves in each other’s unique cultural practices to become better co-conspirators and accomplices of liberation. 

To say my time in the ILI cohort has been transformative is an understatement. I have been moved tremendously by the creative brilliance, commitment to equity, and rootedness in identity that my colleagues from around the country exhibit. Being in such company has also deepened my love and appreciation for the beauty, strength, grace, and innovation of Black culture, especially the ways in which it shows up in American life. Feeling the support of my newfound network, I was empowered to launch an applied research project and arts enterprise to identify, better understand, and inevitably support the Black arts and culture ecosystem. 

Traditional Arts and Culture Ecosystem Modeling

Although the term ecosystem is used often when referring to the many systems and entities present within the arts, National Center for Art Research’s 2014 model is one of the only examples of a fairly comprehensive overview. In the model, they define four components of an arts ecosystem: 

  • Individual Artists: art makers in a given geographic area who may or may not create work in association with an arts organization
  • Arts Organizations: the producers of art and often places where audiences consume art; inclusive of an organization’s activities, practices, decision-making, and outcomes
  • Community: the places where artists and organizations inhabit and the overall arts and entertainment; including activities that either supplement or substitute an arts organization’s offerings and the people within a radius unique to each organization
  • Cultural Policy: public funding and its impact on the production and consumption of art at a local, state, regional, and national level
Courtesy of the National Center for Arts Research
Courtesy of the National Center for Arts Research

NCAR’s model was created as a means to codify the entities that contribute to an arts sector in a given geographic area. The primary purpose of the model is to measure the organizational performance of an arts organization within their sector. While the model provides a great overview of an arts sector’s components, it does, however, fall short of encompassing the historical, social, and political contexts unique to culturally specific arts organizations. For instance, the role in which the Black Church has played in developing many of our most celebrated Black singers and musicians is unlikely to be captured in the traditional arts ecosystem modeling. The same could be said of the juke joints along the Chitlin’ Circuit, one of which –Club Ebony– the ILI Year 5 cohort visited recently. Although incomplete, NCAR’s model provides a solid foundation for arts and culture ecosystem modeling for communities of the global majority.

Toward a Black Arts and Culture Ecosystem Model

In their seminal book Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson underscore the important role the arts and culture play in Black American life. While borrowing the term chocolate city from Parliament’s 1975 hit song of the same title, the authors posit that clusters of Black populations all over the United States share core similarities due to multidirectional migration following Emancipation. These three parts of the Chocolate City theory are: 

  • The Village: the social, geographic, and philosophical nucleus of Black communities
  • The Soul: the cultural and collective creative expression 
  • The Power: the political strdength strategies aimed at building collective power for Black people both rooted in and fueled by culture.

Connecting the Chocolate City theory with NCAR’s model for the arts and culture ecosystem, I recognize an immediate synergy for what can be a model for conceptualizing the Black arts and culture ecosystem. I call it the Kuumbuntu Model as it builds on two African principles present in many community arts initiatives. Kuumba is the Swahili word and sixth principle of Kwanzaa, meaning Creativity. It also encompasses the ideology of “leaving our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.” The second principle, ubuntu, was popularized by renowned Bishop Desmond Tutu; It is a Bantu concept that roughly translates to mean “I am because we are.” Together, these principles capture the essence of what I believe a thriving Black arts and culture ecosystem emanates and aspires to become.

Kuumba + Ubuntu = Kuumbuntu

The Kuumbuntu Model for Black Arts and Culture Ecosystem
The Kuumbuntu Model for Black Arts and Culture Ecosystem

Although cultivating and sustaining the many parts of a Black arts and culture ecosystem is clearly not the work of a singular entity, there remains an absence in the arts landscape as it pertains to ensuring the viability of Black artists, cultural organizations, creative communities, local creative economies, and cultural policies that benefit Black communities at the national and regional scale. Kuumbuntu, LLC is the vehicle by which I hope to mobilize research in service to Black communities: their culture bearers, cultural organizations, and creative initiatives. Stay connected with me as I build this concept to fruition.

Yours in building the dream,

DeMarcus Akeem Suggs

Founder & Framework Culturist

Kuumbuntu, LLC | IG: @kuumbuntu