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“We’ve been dealing with the issue of race on one level – police brutality, the criminal justice system and all these other things, but everybody wants to stop right there,” said attorney and stand up comedian Robert Jenkins.
“Those things are obviously important, but black people are three dimensional. We’re artists, we’re entertainers, dancers, musicians and all these other things too.”
Enter Black Arts Matter, an event that will carry that same political weight, albeit within a different medium, than outright protest. Black Arts Matter uses — well — art as its sole conduit for communication.
Several artists, musicians and performers will take over the Robin Theatre Friday for the second annual Black Arts Matter Celebration. The lineup includes host Jahshua Smith, Horn & Holland, Hakeem the People’s Poet, Jared Autrey, Robert Jenkins and Mikeyy Austin & the Happy Medium.
Black Arts Matter’s organizer, Michael Austin, a self-described “arts activist,” says he’s for new ways to reach people with deeper political messages.
“There’s a lot of people you won’t see at a Black Lives Matter rally, but you’ll see them at a concert, or a poetry jam,” Austin said. “I want to bring both types together. It’s not just for black people, but for those who want to see what we’re doing and make that statement with us.”
Austin said Black Arts Matter is a crucial cultural celebration that provides a well deserved platform for Lansing’s talented black artists.
“This is a time for us to celebrate local black artists and those who advocate for black art,” Austin said. “And it’s not just about music. We’re trying to incorporate all forms of art and put it together for the community.”
Austin wants to reverse a trend of black artists failing to receive recognition for their work. He cited historical examples like the Harlem Rennassaince, where the art was appreciated but not the people behind it.
“The art is there, but the people are not,” Austin said.
This attitude puts Black Arts Matter squarely in line with a larger national movement for black representation and visibility in media.
Among the local artists Austin holds in high regard is Hakeem Witherspoon, who will perform under his stage name, Hakeem the People’s Poet.
Witherspoon carries his own brand of positive spiritualism wherever he goes, and for an event like Black Arts Matter, his ideologies are right at home.
“Black Arts Matter is multicultural and for the youth, which is one of the main reasons why I’m excited to perform,” Witherspoon said. “We need more events, such as this one, in order to bring not only artistic people, but communities together.”
By your standard definitions, Witherspoon could be deemed a slam poet. Yet he packs so much urgency into his prose that it feels misguided to lump him in with a genre where the emotions often come across as forced. Witherspoon avoids that trap with sheer electricity.
“My poetry is something that flows through me, and it’s more than just an art, poetry is the written embodiment of the soul,” Witherspoon said.
Jenkins is unafraid to touch on uncomfortable racial subjects.
“I’m not necessarily a storyteller. I talk about politics a lot, but all of those things are filtered through my experience as a 35-year-old black person from Detroit,” Jenkins said. “I use what I’ve seen in the jokes that I write.”
Black Arts Matter is making it tradition to donate its proceeds to young talented Lansing students. Last year’s incarnation raised $4,000, which was split between four high schoolers, who were each surprised with a $1,000 check of their own.
“That was all done in the spirit of the arts matter,” Austin said. “To be able to shine a bright light on the positives art brings, especially in the black community, was really important for me.”
And the night’s artists are more than willing to help with Austin’s cause.
“Helping children extend their education is one of the greatest things in the world, and I’m glad I’m being a part of something life changing,” Witherspoon said.
Second Annual Black Arts Matter Celebration
$10 Friday, Feb. 16, 6:30 p.m. The Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing