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Live performance event invites storytellers to engage with Black history, futures

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A University of Kansas student’s hip-hop anthology and art installation have inspired another creative outlet for makers. Pass Me the Mic is the third iteration of Naomi Madu’s ode to the birthplace of hip-hop and a reminder of the power in telling one’s own story.

Complete with a Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx street sign, mesh mic, graffiti, flyers and scannable QR codes for audio, the scene in tree-filled Marvin Grove last fall depicting Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc’s first “breakbeat” turntable experiments has since been taken down, but its influence continues.

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Pass Me the Mic is an extension event Thursday co-sponsored by the Black Literature & Arts Collective of Kansas (B.L.A.C.K.) Lawrence, the Spencer Museum of Art and other partners. The experience will bridge “genres and generations” and feature B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence artists Barry Barnes, Tai Amri Spann-Ryan, Alex Kimball Williams and Madu.

Pass Me the Mic
Featured performers kick off the free two-hour event at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, in the galleries of the Spencer Art Museum, 1301 Mississippi St.

At 6:30, the open mic session begins. A sign-up sheet will be available on site at 5 p.m.

During the first hour, the featured artists will share poetry, spoken word, music and manifestos exploring Black liberation and creative expression, according to an email from Adina Duke, a spokesperson for the museum. An open mic session for attendees who’d like to share their own works will follow.

A Black woman, Madu said life in a predominantly white institution such as KU can feel isolating. Collaborating on a creative experience where people who are different from one another can engage is necessary and valuable, said Madu, a senior majoring in strategic communications and minoring in German studies. “An event like this, I think it stands out for that reason, especially because there’s not very many programs that are catered towards us, even small things, that minority communities enjoy.”

Barnes, a published poet, performance artist and activist, will share music and poetry Thursday, according to an email. Also a musician in Ernest James Zydeco and Zydeco Tougeau, soloist, professional washboard player, procussionist and loop artist, Barnes aims to promote the importance of self-expression, creativity and fun. “My motivation is to get people to think outside their boxes and promote tolerance, peace, love and health. If you’re not healthy, you can’t save yourself. And if you can’t save yourself, you can’t help to make (the) world a better place.”

Kimball Williams, who’s known Barnes and Spann-Ryan for more than a decade, looks forward to the trio collaborating Thursday. Inspired by many of the same poets and musicians, their artistic styles complement each other well, Kimball Williams said. 

“It’s special whenever me, Tai Amri and Barry play together. We’ve been doing a lot of creative projects together, including books, putting together community events, a lot of showcases, and open mics like what this event’s going to be … We’ve been playing together for so long, we’re able to vibe off each other.”

Kimball Williams plans a synthesizer set with her original works for Thursday in a narrative, storytelling format. “A lot of our music and poetry has to do with identity, family lineages, ancestry, things like that, that overlap into that category with Black histories. And also it being February, Black History Month, is part of that inspiration. In Black futures, essentially, we all embody the most recent descendants of a lot of the stories that we tell, and looking forward it’s been a very transformational time since 2020 in a lot of ways for Black communities.”

About 40 artists comprise the B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence arts collective, of which Kimball Williams and Spann-Ryan, an award-winning poet, helped co-found. The collective welcomes new members throughout the year.

Pass Me the Mic’s featured performers kick off the two-hour event at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, in the galleries of the Spencer Art Museum, 1301 Mississippi St. At 6:30, the open mic session begins. A sign-up sheet will be available on site at 5 p.m.

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Curated by Madu and Spencer intern and museum studies student Maggie Brown-Peoples, a projection of works in the collection by Black artists also will be running, Duke said, and the exhibition “Debut” will serve as the backdrop. “The museum offers a dynamic non-traditional performance space where attendees are encouraged to explore the galleries freely for a multi-sensory experience.”

Duke said final plans were still being formulated, but the museum would either livestream the performances or post a video after the event, which is free. Free parking also will be available after 5 p.m. in lot 91 north of the museum and on Mississippi Street, Duke said.

Duke invites those interested in exploring how the museum can deepen support for local artists and communities while facilitating connections between students and artists to submit their  ideas to her via email at aduke@ku.edu.

Additional KU cosponsors of Pass Me the Mic are: Student Senate, Museum Studies Program, Project on the History of Black Writing, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity, KU Art History DEAI Committee, the Kress Foundation Department of Art History, and Departments of African and African-American Studies, English, Visual Art, and Theatre and Dance.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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