Spoken word artists with roots in metro Detroit participated in a panel on the role of art in community activism on Wednesday at the Arab American National Museum. The estimated 185 diverse attendees reflected the solidarity that the panelists discussed, as people of all races, ages and religions joined the discussion.
The forum is part of the 23rd Annual Concert of Colors, a five-day event aiming to “unite metro Detroit’s diverse communities and ethnic groups by presenting musical acts from around the world.” “The theme of the forum is art and activism and more specifically how art has been utilized by community members towards empowering their communities,” said Zena Ozeir, the forum’s coordinator, in a statement.
Although not an artist herself, Ozeir said art is a powerful tool. “The role that art plays in activism, especially in the city of Detroit is really central." Panelist Alise Alousi, an Iraqi-American poet and associate director of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, told the audience about Al-Mutanabbi Street, a Baghdad road that nestled booksellers; it was bombed in 2007.
Alousi started a museum exhibit eulogizing the street, with the help of other artists and poets-- Al-Mutanabi Street Starts Here. Alousi said at that time in her life, it was easy for her to feel overwhelmed and disconnected from her own community. “I felt like this incredible tragedy was happening in another part of the world and the response seemed extremely disconnected,” she said.
“There wasn’t a connection between our own history and our relationship with what was happening there.” Panelist Jessica Care Moore, an African American poet and executive producer of “Black WOMEN Rock!”, grew up on Warren and Tireman. She described an encounter with Muslim women in an elevator.
Moore was wearing an “Allah” pendant around her neck and noticed the women were confused about why she was wearing it. She wrote a poem about her story, highlighting the bias many experience from within their own communities. “Have they ever thrown a snowball on the other side of Tireman?” Moore asks, quoting from her poem, referring to the demarcation line that separates the Arab and Black communities in Dearborn and Detroit.
Bryce Detroit, an executive of the arts initiative ONE Mile Project, said a major part of the project is to “reconnect our community with these positive points of self-identity." “We have a community that is drenched in history and legacy,” he said. “That legacy is very valuable, especially in a landscape where in that community most of its members are told on a regular basis from mainstream media that they have no value."
Piper M. Carter, founder of the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop, said she doesn’t think that art alone can combat bigotry, although it has a role to play. "I think that art can inspire things that are in people already," Carter said. For Carter, hip hop is a tool to empower those who feel powerless and discriminated against. “My fight is for the hearts and minds of the people,” said Carter, who sees hip hop as a way to capture those hearts and minds.
"Art is an easy way to talk about messages,” said moderator Ozzie Rivera, an artist and historian. “Sometimes, if you hear someone make a speech, there might be a natural resistance. [Art] tends to hit more in the soul and it's a way of building bridges. And maybe you can communicate a message and get people to talk about things, because of the vehicle of art and culture."
He added that art is powerful and that dictatorial societies or groups like ISIS destroy art is to control the expression of ideas. “Some of the first people that go are the artists, because they're the ones that tend to be very creative and want to express their ideas," Rivera added. On the flip side, Rivera explained that some autocratic societies take advantage of art, instead of destroying it.
He said Hitler took control of the art structure in Germany, promoting a dynamic film industry used for effective propaganda. After the forum, the panelists and attendees participated in a round table discussion during an iftar dinner. Conversations at each table were lively as participants discussed diverse ideas.
Layali Alsadah, 21, president of the Middle Eastern Student Association at Eastern Michigan University, said she thinks one of the largest issues the Arab Americans face is engaging with people outside their community. She added that she "was taught to see color, but appreciate their differences."
Lina Moukalled, 55, a Dearborn Public Schools teacher, said the only forms of art in political activism she is familiar with are the graffiti on the walls and the posters she saw as a child in the Middle East. She added that the forms of art in activism presented at the forum were more effective. “You see the effect that art has on the community,” Ozeir said.
“you see that it is a positive thing that you’re bringing to sometimes very dark, ugly issues.”
By Hassan Khalifeh