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‘A call to imagine the change we want to see’

Composer, musician, bandleader and futurist Nicole Mitchell Gantt is the guest on the second installment of a Matthew 25 webinar series

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Nicole Mitchell Gantt

LOUISVILLE — Flautist, futurist, bandleader and composer Nicole Mitchell Gantt joined the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam Wednesday for the second installment of the Matthew 25 series, “Imagining a Future Beyond Systemic Poverty and Structural Racism.” The 75-minute webinar included a time of improvised music and, in the style of Sankofa, a look at the past to help build a hopeful, more joyous and inclusive future.

Read about the first webinar in the “Imagining a Future” series here.

Ross-Allam directs the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms. Mitchell teaches composition and computer technologies at the University of Virginia. For more than 20 years, Mitchell’s critically acclaimed Chicago-based Black Earth Ensemble has been her primary compositional laboratory with which she has performed at festivals and art venues throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.

Ross-Allam said his interest in Mitchell’s music began while he was still in graduate school. “I love these great musicians,” he said, mentioning legends including Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. “But who is living, working and thinking right now at that level of transformational capabilities?” For him, Mitchell fit the bill.

“Thanks for tying all those parts of myself into one expression,” she told Ross-Allam. “I know a challenge we’re facing is, how do we dream in a world like this?”

“I know art sometimes feels like a privilege that is not for everyone. Maybe it’s something people can’t afford, or the time it takes to develop an idea to share with others,” Mitchell said. But “it’s the small things, like being together in this moment, that are powerful. When we make the connection art helps us to make, it does have an impact on our hearts and what’s happening around the world.”

“What is progress? I ask this question a lot,” she said. “I feel this question is key to the kind of change we want.” To Mitchell, progress is connected to collective well-being. “It matters if people have enough to eat and safe places to be and to thrive … We know what we need, but there’s this belief that we can’t get there. That’s what imagination is for, and that’s why I love music.”

Whether it’s the process of writing her acclaimed memo/manifesto “The Mandorla Letters,” published in 2022, or helping create songs such as “Dance of Many Hands,” Mitchell said she embraces the ideal of “together/not together.”

“In unity, we need to have space to be ourselves,” she said. “It’s about leaning into the uncomfortable. There’s space for everyone to do their thing.”

“I try,” she told Ross-Allam, “to connect my philosophical ideas with what I make sonically.”

Asked about themes like Afrofuturism present in works including “The Mandorla Letters,” Mitchell called it “centering the Black imagination in futuristic ideals.”

“A lot of our energy as Black folks has focused on reframing our history in our own voice” and “reclaiming our narratives, which have been misconstrued,” she said. “It embraces the past with a lens toward the future” so that “we can have optimism while we’re going through the dystopic challenges we’re going through.”

“It can be inspiring for all of us, no matter our background,” she said, naming jazz as “an African American freedom vehicle that has become a global vehicle to share stories through music. Afrofuturism is a call to imagine the change we want to see.”

Mitchell draws inspiration from the work of such notables as Octavia E. Butler, the science fiction author, who once noted, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” Butler completed that quote with, “The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”

“We tend to avoid change, because we want to be comfortable in our space,” Mitchell said. “But that’s where transformation is possible — in the uncomfortability.”

She said music “has challenged me to do things I am not comfortable with.” After Mitchell attended all-Black schools in grades 1 and 2, her family moved to California, where the schools were, at the time, mostly white. “I was met with hostility, racism and sometimes violence. I endured it all day long,” she said of her school years in the mid-1970s. “The laws had changed, but the people hadn’t.”

“In a sense, it gave me a head start expressing my own voice,” she told Ross-Allam. “It made music a space where I had a feeling of love and acceptance.”

“I did music because it was in my heart,” she said. “For whatever reason, this is who God made me to be.”

“I never dreamed of becoming a bandleader or a composer,” she said. “As a flute player, I was forced to become a bandleader because not too many jazz bands hire flute players.”

A number of gifted musicians and songwriters — including Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder — have been social activists as well, Mitchell pointed out. “You can bring music to activist spaces, and you can bring activism to music spaces. There is a role for both,” she said. “People make art that reflects who they are and what they believe.”

She called making space for joy “one of the best things you can do. It makes you stronger and more resilient” and “more able to balance when hard things come your way. Have some fizz,” she suggested to those gathered, “and don’t just be flat.”

The Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam (photo by Rich Copley)

“You once wrote you wanted your music to be a bridge between the familiar and the unknown,” Ross-Allam told her. Listening to her music, one hears familiar melodies and rhythms “and some of the most frightening sounds you’ve ever heard,” he said, asking Mitchell, “What do you say in the spirit of creativity we should lean into and embrace?”

“The most important thing is faith, to be true to your principles and your heart and trust there may be some chaos and difficulties, but the outcome will be much better than where you started,” Mitchell replied. “But you have to go through some rough terrain to get there.”

When her husband died a few years ago, Mitchell painted the bedroom walls “with all these patterns and designs to change the energy of the room.” After that, “I took the bigger step of doing repairs on the house. I had to knock down some of the walls I’d painted. I had to let go of the way the house was when we were together to let the house become what it would become.”

“It was definitely worth it. It was an emotional transformation,” she said, suggesting that those participating in the webinar “come up with a project that will bring people to you to help you build this world you’re trying to build in the church.”

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