Using Art as a Platform: Giving a Stage to Ideas and Passion

Lu Highsmith is a writer and poet who's used her work to influence social discourse.

Lu Highsmith is a writer and poet who’s used her work to influence social discourse.

A growing number of celebrities, artists and musicians are using their platforms to speak frankly about racism, poverty, inequality, and many other issues. And here in Rochester, it’s no different.

Artists have long used their mediums to vocalize opinions on society but it seems even more so, artists are influenced by their pain and social passions.

Flowetic Rhythms has been giving these artists a literal platform for the past 9 years.

“Nine years ago I put on a show with my husband Jimmie, it was at Clarissa’s,” said Lu Highsmith, a local poet, writer and organizer of Flowetic Rhythms. “There were visual arts, spoken word and live music. David Haygood Jr. happened to be at the show at that time, he had already established his gallery downtown, Gallery One. He had built a stage, pretty much with the vision of what we did at Clarissa’s. After that show he connected with me and we decided to collaborate and bring all three artistic expressions together on a regular basis. That’s how Flowetic Rhythms started 9 years ago at David’s Art Gallery in the Executive Building downtown.”

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The show continued every month, taking place every fourth Thursday. When Haygood moved his gallery to Henrietta, the show was briefly paused.

“But once he moved out here, we resumed and it was packed,” said Highsmith. “People were hungry for it.”

Lu Highsmith, also known as Mama Lu, has worked closely with some of Rochester’s most well-known artists. Mother of The ROC Bottom SLAM Team, she’s been able to see the fruits of her labor blossom as her students have grown up to teach students of their own. Many have expanded from the stage she provided them with to stages across the country.

Toby Butler performed at the 9th anniversary of Flowetic Rhythms. Credit: Michele Ashlee.

Toby Butler performed at the 9th anniversary of Flowetic Rhythms. Credit: Michele Ashlee.

“I always say, if you are blessed enough to have an artistic ability, the natural progression is for your art to reflect what’s going on in the world, in life,” said Highsmith. “You don’t always have to entertain people, sometimes your purpose is to push the envelope and bring things to mind that others aren’t thinking about or to articulate what other people are feeling. It’s about bringing up that level of consciousness so that we can make changes.”

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Back in September for Fringe Festival, Anatomy of a Black Man made it back to the MUCC for the second time around. Anderson Allen and Shaq Payne, both prior members of ROC Bottom SLAM Team, came back with a shorter show, new spoken word pieces and a mission to spark conversation on what it means to be a black man navigating through life in 2017.

Their two-man show touched on topics like spirituality, love, racism, poverty, and much more. Most of the show is spoken word poetry voicing the internal and external struggles of two black men, while simultaneously showcasing their synergistic relationship.

“Were you playing two aspects of the same person? Or two aspects of your whole race, rather than individual people?” asked an audience member during the Q&A after the show.

“Both,” Payne responded.

“Think of it as like, each poem is a line in a bigger poem, uniting us,” added Allen, on the structure of the show.

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The show was a safe space to bring up social/political issues and express their authentic selves while having the freedom of playing generalized characters, making it easy for someone to relate to their experiences. While in some aspects the two characters related to one another and had extremely similar experiences, they also mirrored one another and played off of their different experiences.

A year before, both had traumatic experiences at Rochester’s Black Lives Matter rally. The July 2016 rally lasted for hours and resulted in the East End being shut down. Over 70 people were arrested.

“A lot of the pieces that we wrote for Anatomy of a Black Man came after the rally happened,” said Allen.

“Without that night this wouldn’t be here. That night, everything became real,” said Payne. “I was there, I was in it and an active part of it. I kicked off the rally with a poem. We were moving the masses. We maintained a completely peaceful rally with hundreds of people. It lasted for well over eight hours. So, for it to end the way that it ended knowing what it actually was, it was just a “wow” moment for me. I learned what I was made of and realized that no matter what I did, everything would still be against me.”

Local artists aren't only talented they're woke, using their platforms to speak about social issues. Credit: Michele Ashlee.

Local artists aren’t only talented they’re woke, using their platforms to speak about social issues. Credit: Michele Ashlee.

“We drew a lot from our own experiences and no we aren’t ‘all black men’ but we still go through similar experiences. We wanted to show you what it means to a black man, so try to think globally,” said Payne.

Both artists expressed that the first time they performed the show, they didn’t realize how much it would take for them, emotionally. After it was over they felt like they could collapse but this time around, especially being asked to share it again for Fringe, they felt extremely light and liberated.

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“The feeling you get from standing in your truth, no one can touch that,” said Allen.

This concept of transparency in their art and standing in their truth is something all of these prominent local artists seem to have in common, aside from a mentorship from Mama Lu.

Afi Be, another well known senior poet on the Flowetic Rhythms stage and local teaching artist says, “If I take a look at the youth I’ve worked with over the years, what they told me meant the most to them was being authentic. I’ve kind of left that imprint on them to love yourself, to be completely yourself and to not be afraid to express whatever your truth is. You can’t go wrong as long as you’re honoring your truth. As an artist, as a person period, I don’t know how to do anything else.”


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