Making a Scene

Five African-American artists pick up where the Black Arts Movement left off.

By PW Staff
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 11 | Posted Feb. 16, 2010

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As the fashion ambassador, Reynolds produces videos highlighting local boutiques and designers in Philadelphia.

“Fashion never sleeps in Philadelphia,” says Reynolds. “We’re not Milan. We’re not New York but we can be the mecca of indie and unique fashion.” According to Reynolds, Philadelphia is well on its way to achieving that goal.

“In the past five years the number of boutiques, designers, stylists and those working in and around the industry has probably tripled,” says Reynolds. “Philadelphia fashion is rising and climbing as we speak.”

In addition to her own firm and the Philly 360° campaign, Reynolds is currently producing an online show and blog about celebrity fashion for the cable network TV One and she recently accepted an offer to be the editor of the Philadelphia edition of Uptown Magazine , an African-American luxury and lifestyle publication which launches in spring 2011.

“I feel like Philadelphia fashion hasn’t hit its peak yet,” says Reynolds. “All of these magazines, videos, designers and stylists ... I’d like to be one of the facilitators, be able to say I have had a hand in it.”

Jeri Lynne Johnson: Music

At an age when most girls are finding out about Barbie, Jeri Lynne Johnson found her calling.

“I started piano at four, I saw my first orchestra concert at seven, and I was hooked,” she says. “I just thought it was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. From that point, I wanted to be a conductor and never anything else.”

Johnson pursued her dream, studying music at Wellesley College, pursuing a Ph.D in music theory at the University of Chicago, and eventually becoming the Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra. Though this was an accomplishment, it wasn’t until 2005 when Johnson became the first African-American woman to win an international conducting award, the Taki Concordia Fellowship, that she hit a turning point.

“That was really instrumental for me in believing I could make a career out of this,” Johnson says. “Winning that was really a nice confirmation for me personally.”

Sadly, after her fellowship ended she stumbled across another confirmation: Despite all of her accomplishments, orchestras were still wary of hiring her. One search committee chair even admitted that, while everyone enjoyed her audition, “You just don’t look like what our constituents would understand as a conductor.”

“The conductor is the face of the orchestra to the general public,” Johnson says. “They don’t know the principal flutes; they don’t know the tuba player. But they know the conductor. So, to a certain extent, an orchestra’s marketing and ability to draw an audience relies on the strength of that persona. And what has been really really hard for organizations, up until Obama was elected, was trusting their survival to a young black woman.”

Most orchestras, predominantly made up of old white men, only venture beyond their usual demographics on token occasions.

“Now, it’s great for black history month and Martin Luther King Day,” says Johnson, “They go, ‘Here’s a black conductor, here’s a black soloist, here’s a black composer for one day.’ But a whole year is a different story.”

Determined to create inclusion in classical music, Johnson formed the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in 2008. Under Johnson’s leadership as conductor, black Julliard and Curtis Institute-trained musicians and black composers such as Francis Johnson and Ellis Marsalis are not one-time gimmicks, but year-round staples. Besides serving as a model of diversity, the orchestra is also a model of success—all of its shows have been sold out, and even in this economic climate, it’s operating in the black.

When not conducting or handling business, Johnson enjoys doing outreach—she recently showed Philadelphia public school students, who has never played an instrument or read sheet music, to conduct the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—thereby giving young people the same opportunity to find their callings that she had at age seven.

“Classical music is not just for one socio-economic or cultural group to enjoy, or to own, or to dispense to the community as they see fit,” she says. “Martin Luther King died so that my dreams and possibilities, and what I can enjoy, are not determined by the color of my skin. I guess I grew up with that assumption, not realizing that some people didn’t.”

Michael Dennis: Film

From 2000 to 2005, in an intimate nightclub three blocks away from Independence Hall, Philadelphia sat at the forefront of yet another revolution—one in which women of color were in charge. Every Tuesday night, rising stars like Jill Scott, Floetry, Jaguar Wright and the Jazzyfatnastees declared their independence from the black music patriarchy with jam sessions that made Black Lily legendary.

A stone’s throw from the stage, Michael Dennis’ video camera was rolling. While the struggling filmmaker was commissioned to document the musical movement for the Jazzyfatnastees, he found himself in admiration—even envy—of this springboard for soul artists. “It was interesting to see the successive wave of really talented black people really breaking through and getting signed to record deals, and yet still coming back in a communal way,” he said.

A question haunted Dennis, who held degrees from New York University and the American Film Institute but still called Mount Airy home: How do I create a scene like Black Lily, but for film?

Motivated by the Jazzyfatnastees and other Black Lily organizers—and the emergence of technology such as Final Cut Pro and MiniDV—Dennis left his mundane editing job at KYW in 1999 and founded ReelBlack to produce, promote and provide access to African-American film in Philadelphia.

In the sixth largest city in the country, one without an African-American film festival, he’s filling a void. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, even as he watches fellow Tisch classmates like Todd Phillips and Brett Ratner enjoy the lavish trappings of Hollywood.

“If you have the privilege of getting knowledge, it’s your obligation to share it,” says Dennis. “That is one burden I have that the average white filmmaker does not.”

Dennis’ projects include his own films—the most popular are documentaries of around the way artists such as M.C. Breeze, Lady Alma, Ursula Rucker and Kindred the Family Soul. Last Night at the Five Spot , a feature-length concert film of the last Black Lily reunion show, is set to debut this year.

Dennis also launched a ReelBlackTV YouTube Channel, as well as a screening series. Held at International House, the monthly NextUP Short Film Showcase gives audiences access to black independent films, like February’s showing of Still Bill. He’s excited about the documentary profiling Bill Withers, the prolific hitmaker (“Just the Two of Us”) who vanished into reclusion.

“People will be singing along when they see it,” says Dennis, whose screenings chase the revolutionary spirit of the Black Lily shows that his camera once captured. “And that’s one thing you don’t get at a YouTube or a Netflix—the communal experience of watching a movie unfold on the big screen. And that’s definitely the motivation behind keeping the screening series going. Certain movies, even if there are only 10 people in a room, deserve to be seen on a big screen in a darkened theater, as opposed to how things are now—on DVD or some bootleg.”

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1. Joe Ovelman said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 01:02AM

“i heart jacolby satterwhite!”

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2. Dr Musa said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 01:40AM

“Great Story, especially the piece on Jerri Lynne Johnson!!”

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3. Antonio said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 10:17AM

“I Love Jacolby as well and I'm overly joyed he's getting attention. From the motherland, Ant”

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4. Eric - Philadelphia tourism said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 01:25PM

“Philly is a city with creativity just waiting to be sought out. We (GPTMC) are glad to be able to market this exciting campaign. And today we are launching the 2010 creative ambassadors!”

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5. Celia C. Peters said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 03:34PM

“Good look, Jacolby Satterwhite!”

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6. Sophia said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 03:47PM

“YAY Rakia and Carl.”

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7. Katie said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 04:10PM

“Hooray for Rakia!!!!”

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8. jools said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 11:04PM

“JACOLBY ♡”

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9. Marlyn said... on Feb 19, 2010 at 01:59PM

“Rakia, We are all so proud of you.”

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10. bloomingimage said... on Feb 24, 2010 at 09:28AM

“Great article on each individual and I fully support all the arts in Phila regardless of race . I have worked with Reelblack and applaud Michaels tireless efforts so If I can share with my friends and database I am happy to. Congratulations Michael Dennis.”

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11. Raushanah said... on Jul 19, 2010 at 03:08AM

“I want to be just like you when I grow up Rakia...absolutely fabulous! I am so very proud of and elated for you!”

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