Talk: Nick Cave and Friends

Listen to a discussion on Black creativity in fashion, contemporary art, dance, and popular culture with artist Nick Cave in dialogue with dancer Damita Jo Freeman, musician Nona Hendryx, and publisher Linda Johnson Rice. The panel discusses Cave’s art and influences as well as pivotal cultural phenomena from Soul Train to Ebony magazine.

Transcript

[SINGING] FEMALE SINGERS: Sha la la la la la la, la, the party is is electric live with luck.

GROUP SINGING: Sha la la la la la la, the party is electric live with luck.

JANUARY PARKOS ARNALL: Hello, and welcome. My name is January Parkos Arnall, and I’m Interim Senior Curator at the MCA Chicago. We’re so delighted that you could join us today for our talk with Nick Cave, Damita Jo Freeman, Nona Hendryx, and Linda Johnson Rice. It is going to be epic, honestly.

In a moment, I will bring on my colleague, Naomi Beckwith, who is the Manilow Senior Curator here at the MCA, to introduce the conversation and our incredible panelists. Before I do that, though, I just wanted to make sure that you know how to interact with us. So please see at the bottom, at the bottom of your Zoom window, the Q&A function. You can comment or send questions, and we’ll share those with our panelists. If you’re watching on Facebook, we are checking that chat, too. So go ahead and put your thoughts and questions into the chat that’s just to the right of the video on Facebook.

Today’s conversation is supported as part of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Lectures, made possible through a generous gift to the Chicago Contemporary Campaign. So a special thank you to those folks who have been longtime supporters of us, as well as to those of you who helped support this conversation with your pay-what-you-can contribution when you RSVPed through our site.

We are enormously grateful to be a part of this community in Chicago. We really appreciate your presence, all of you, whether you’re joining us from Facebook or on Zoom with us. We appreciate your presence. And whether you’re here in Chicago with us or farther away, we’re glad that we could gather together. And now, here is Naomi Beckwith, Manilow Senior Curator at the MCA.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Thank you so much, January. And welcome, everyone, to this talk that January rightly said is going to be epic. Epic. I am basically here not only as the Manilow Senior Curator today, but also as a fangirl, because I cannot believe that I am going to be sharing this Zoom afternoon with these incredible ladies, and of course, the amazing artist, Nick Cave.

A little bit about the ladies that we are going to be speaking with today. When I was a child, my mother severely limited my TV access. But there was an exception. Every Saturday, I could watch and dance along to Soul Train. And by dancing, I basically mean I copied the moves of Damita Jo Freeman.

Damita Jo Freeman is a classically trained dancer and actress. And in 1973, she became a feature dancer on Soul Train only after her second appearance on the show when Joe Tex invited her onto the stage, without her knowing, and she broke out into a now legendary unchoreographed and impromptu performance to the song "I Gotcha."

After Soul Train, Freeman brought her moves, her style, and that famous smile to American Bandstand. And she brought her gifts to many dance contests where she won the hearts of viewers. After Bandstand, Freeman worked as a choreographer for many of Dick Clark’s projects, too.

And because of one song, just one, many people around the world know just one line of French, "Voulez-vous coucher avac moi ce soir." I’m sure you all know it, too. That line comes from the incredible glam, rock, funk, pop, soul trio, Labelle.

Nona Hendryx was a founding member and songwriter for the group. This is the first Black vocal group to ever make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, as well as the first Black pop act to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. A New Jersey native, Hendryx began her career as a member of girl groups such as the Del-Capris, and later, the Blue Belles, singing classics and standards. But she moved on, joining the genre-defying Labelle. And after her stint with that group, Hendryx embarked on an amazing solo career, where she continues to be a performing icon, a songwriting icon, and of course, a style icon.

I also remember as a child the ritual of getting dressed for the annual Ebony Fashion Fair when it was in Chicago, when it came to Chicago on its national tour. Founded by the legendary Eunice Johnson, the fashion fair was, of course, a fashion show. But it was also a fundraiser. And really, it was a chance for a community to get together and basically try to outdo the looks that they saw on the runway.

Linda Johnson Rice is the CEO of Johnson Publishing Company LLC, which is formerly the parent company of Ebony and Jet magazines and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. But for many years, Linda Johnson Rice oversaw the Fashion Fair. And she did all that running a company as basically a national business leader and a national civic leader, but especially for us here at Chicago.

She is a member of the board of directors of Grubhub, and the Omnicom group. She is also a trustee at the Art Institute of Chicago, a member of the board of directors of Northwestern Memorial Corporation, and she’s president of the Chicago Public Library Board of Directors. And, in addition to her business acumen, she is the epitome of elegance and grace. Thank you all, ladies, for joining us.

But equally, as with these ladies, I’m also here as a fangirl of the amazing, award winning artist, Nick Cave. And though Nick was born in Fulton, Missouri, we Chicagoans claim him as our own because he moved here after receiving his MFA in fiber arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Art right outside Detroit.

We know Nick Cave’s work and performances because they’ve been featured in major exhibitions, both solo and group shows, biennials from around the globe, most recently at the Yokohama Triennial. And he has a major project currently on view at the New Momentary, the Performance and Contemporary Art Center at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

It’s also the case, happily, that Nick is participating in The Long Dream, the major exhibition up now at the MCA and also online. And he has works housed in major permanent collections around the country, including the Hirshorm Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Modern Art, and, of course, our own collection here in Chicago at the MCA.

And while he’s doing all this incredible work around art and performance, Nick also is the Stephanie and Bill Sick Professor of Fashion, Body, and Garment at the School of the Art Institute. An incredibly accomplished, well-rounded, and really generous, creative person.

I’ve had the real blessing of knowing Nick for many years and have shared the privilege of discussing many of his interests, his passions, his projects. And lately, Nick has confided that he’s been thinking about the musical The Wiz, The Wiz being that star-studded extravaganza of Black talent from 1978 as a film. And in particular, Nick is focusing on the scene that we’re getting a glimpse of now, a scene known as "The Color Is." This is, basically, an incredible promenade, procession, and party choreographed by Lewis Johnson.

And you see these figures here. What you can’t hear is that they’re dancing over an amazing samba beat with these horn interludes. It is dance. It is movement. It is fashion. It is joy. It is Black excellent, all together. And of course, it’s a fashion show. And Nick has been really interested in pulling all these elements together in what is to be a future creative practice.

So, first of all, welcome to all. Especially welcome to Nick. And Nick, I would love to start off the conversation with you, today, and just basically ask, what really brought you to thinking about both The Wiz right now, and also what brought you to bring these incredible powerhouse women together in conversation today?

NICK CAVE: Hello, everyone. I’m so excited to be here. I am so excited to be here with these amazing women that have really influenced my thinking, the way that I’m currently thinking.

But what’s been interesting, in the last three years, I’ve been thinking about fashion. I’ve been thinking about somehow reimagining that as a response to my exhibition. So going forward with, based around the solo exhibitions or major installations, I’m going to do a response, a capsule collection of sorts in response to that project.

And so, this particular moment, right now, is here because I’m in the midst of doing an amazing project with the MCA. And this performance sequence, spectacle, fashion extravaganza is going to be in response to that sort of project. So it was important that I really sort of looked back as I was doing research and to think about these sort of critical moments that shaped my existence today.

What’s so important when I think about, as a family, and the role of dance, and the role of music, and the sort of role of Soul Train. And the impact that that had on me, and my brothers, and my cousins, and my aunts, and uncles. And just that moment where we all collectively came together and was really very much committed to that moment, to see ourselves in that moment, to be present, and aware of the latest movements, and dance, and dress, and style. You know, it was all part of this liberating kind of expression that I didn’t see around me in this sort of global context.

And so that was important. And then the importance of Ebony. You know, when it launched in 1945, Ebony fashion magazine, that was, again, another pivotal moment in the Black culture. To be able to see yourselves on the cover and to have these stories and a viewpoint that we could connect with.

But the most important thing about that was when I was going through it, and I would come to the fashion editorial section. And I saw these amazing Black models on the runway in Paris, which, again, we didn’t see in Vogue, we didn’t see in Cosmopolitan. But we saw it here.

And then that just sort of led from that, the magazine, into 1958, when Ebony Fashion Fair Fashion Show took off. And just what that did in terms of, again this sort of moment in history where it brought families together. It allowed you to pull out your Sunday best dress to go to this event that was not a fashion show, it was a spectacle. That was life changing for me, because I was just imagining myself in that sort of setting, and really, again, being liberated by this independence of expression that was everything. It just was magical.

And then, when I think about the female groups, you know, I think about the Supremes. I think about the Marvelettes, I think about LaBelle. But LaBelle was different. They were funky. They were going against the dress code. They were out of the box and fashion-forward.

And as a kid growing up, being a radical, red hair, pink hair, blue hair, whatever, dressing crazy, mother, like, freaking out. Like, what is going on with this kid? But it was me trying to connect to a particular space, a particular sort of identity. And Labelle allowed me to see what that looked like.

And so all of these amazing women gave me permission to be the authentic person that I am today. And through these—

NAOMI BECKWITH: That is so beautiful, I’m hearing.

NICK CAVE: And through these sort of moments, it’s my way of paying gratitude to the impact that it has had on my life.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Thank you for that. There’s a way in which I do believe people know you so much as a sculptor, so much as an object and installation maker, that people forget how deep choreography and fashion have played— those roles, those things have played in your life and your career.

But I’m also hearing you say that you found in the work of each of these women, something that felt like a hybrid. So that the Fashion Fair Show wasn’t just about fashion, that Damita Jo wasn’t just about dance. And Nona wasn’t just about music.

And so I’d love, now, to hear from the ladies a little bit more about the core of what they were doing. But also what it meant for them to cross genres, what it meant for their audiences to see something more than just that typical thing. And maybe we’ll start with you, Linda, because I can see you first in my window.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Thank you. First of all, I am absolutely thrilled to be invited to be on this panel. This is incredible. And Nick, thank you for reaching out. I love you, and love your work, and the MCA. And Naomi, everything that you’re doing is just terrific.

But, you know, really, the beginning of the Ebony Fashion Fair, as Nick stated, it started in 1958. It really was started as a charity. And it was to raise money for African-American charities. And it originally was for Dillard University.

And so that was the basic premise. And then from there, my mother, who I think was the epitome of style, and grace, and sophistication, and all those wonderful things, wrapped up in a Steel Magnolia from Selma, Alabama. She went to Europe with a non-budget budget, which means John Johnson said, just do it. I know you can do this.

And she really broke down a lot of barriers in a lot of very, very difficult places to try to buy clothes for the fashion show, for the Ebony Fashion Fair, to bring them back. And really, what she wanted to do was to show our audience, a Black audience, how beautiful you are. And how much you deserve to wear Pierre Cardin. You deserve to wear Ungaro. You deserve to wear Dior.

And so that, I think, was really the initial piece of it was to put together a charitable fashion show like nothing that had been done before. And it really showed the audience, it showed us, authentically, what we could be and who we could be. And just because you were brown-skinned, you could wear red. You can wear canary yellow. You can do whatever you want. Because this is all about how you feel, and how this makes you feel.

And we wanted to present— my mother always wanted to show that a Black audience was as sophisticated as any audience could be. And you deserved it. You absolutely deserved it. And at the same time, this was also a business. I mean, it was also a charitable endeavor.

So it really ended up being a sort of a full package roadshow. We had 11 models. They traveled by Greyhound bus. Nona will understand this, it was a different city every night. Damita will get this. You know, it was on tour. And so when that show rolled in, it was a theatrical spectacle. It was a spectacle.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Amazing. Nona, speaking of spectacles, you know, we are all interested in your songwriting chops, your musical performance chops. But I am looking at a vision right now. And it is so clear that fashion is a deep part of what you are as a performer. Talk to us a little bit about what you think, well, what’s happening with LaBelle, musically, but also what was happening in terms of the image you were putting in the world.

NONA HENDRYX: Well, thank you. I am thrilled to be here, and to be here with Damita, and with Linda, and specifically with Nick. And it’s very hot in this, but I feel that I’d wear it anyway to begin with.

So LaBelle, really, in terms of what we grew into, coming from being a cookie-cutter girl group, dressing alike in the same clothes, and shoes, and almost same hair, slightly different. And music being created for us that we would then record, and touring— as Linda was describing— in a station wagon, and then a motorhome, station wagon.

And being on shows with lots of other artists, which is where we sort of cut our teeth, and— it was our musical education— to working with people who saw us more like the bands that came out of England during the British invasion, and working with them, and Kit Lambert, and Chris Stamp. They said they felt that artists should have their own voice, that music should come from them. They should put forth who they are. And they encouraged us to do that. And LaBelle was born out of that.

Part of the hybrid that you talking about of music, art, dance, fashion, is really what LaBelle became. And it was more— some of it was our own expression of what we wanted to do individually. We wanted to have individual personas on stage but come together as one, as a unit. But also to be able to share about what was going on in our lives as women and as Black women culturally, in the world, and in our neighborhoods to our families.

And so our music, although we had this sort of fantastical image and put on these many operas, basically, we were talking about what can I do for you? Are you lonely? You know, songs that talked about inner city issues and problems, but dressed in silver and feathers, and hopping around the stage like some sort of strange birds.

But we were trying to not overload people, but share with our audience the moment that we were in. And that’s what happened. That’s what LaBelle, breaking that mold, breaking that fourth wall of the artists on stage and the audience, sort of looking there, admiring them. We went into the audience. We brought the audience on stage, you know. And that was the difference. And they began to dress like us. So there was like, almost seamless between us on stage and the audience.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s incredible. I mean, I’ve got some follow-up questions, too, about that, but I’m going to let Damita Jo come in for a moment.

NONA HENDRYX: I’m going to take this off for a moment.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Yes, thank you. Damita, you, too, were famous for your moves. You, were an incredible, lithe, athletic dancer. But there was a look to what you were doing. And why was it, again, fashion so important to you and even to Soul Train?

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Well, to me, in the beginning when I was on Soul Train, of course, all of a sudden, I did not think of fashion. But I thought of poverty, in a way, because we didn’t have any money. The places that I had to go to are, like Newberry’s, Lil’ Schultz, shops.

But they got me clothes that was comfortable to dance in. But yet, I can also have my own style. I didn’t have to look like a cookie-cutter. I can always mix different outfits together.

And so, therefore, that’s a theme on Soul Train. And watching how everybody, all the kids— because that’s what we were, we were kids— we were really functioning. So what you see is the comfortability of our clothes, our styles, the way create a movement. I created— I love dance, that’s number one. I was fascinated when I—

[AUDIO OUT]

There wasn’t a lot of Black people in the ballerina world. But it was incredibly— the way the legs are, the design of the body. The clothes that they wore, the tutus. You know, I felt like I was a princess in the outfits.

And then, to be a street dancer, in a way. That’s what we were called at that time, in 1971, of course. But you got a chance to create, out of my style, my tools of being a ballerina, I was able to bring that and flourish in a way of being original, you know.

And of course, every child, when they grow up, they want to be accepted. And that’s what I want. I want to be— so little things, you know, the twist. Everybody was doing the twist. But nobody was doing the movements, you know. So therefore, I’m adding. But I’m not throwing away, because I still respect what we had in the past to the day, what we have today. So therefore, I’m always, even today, as old as I am, even the movements, I still add on different kind of styles of movements.

People were— I was proud, a little bit, of it, especially of Soul Train because it was a Black show. It was the first Black show that I was really on. It was an idea that people, when men or boys used to walk down the street, and the white women used to grab their [INAUDIBLE]. Well, now, we’re teenagers.

And they’re beginning to see a show where we’re not all evil. We’re not after you. We are very creative, talented, young kids that has aspirations. And of course, we use body. Our body expressed what we felt.

And so that was my love for dance, and being on the show, and letting people like Nona— thank you very much— she gave me freedom. Patty LaBelle, everybody, they gave freedom that we did not have to be a certain, uh, would you said, a cookie-cutter. We could break the cookie-cutters. And that’s what I loved about dance.

NAOMI BECKWITH: I love that. You broke the mold, but you said it was a very practical decision. I just needed to put something comfortable on the dance. Now there is some real flair here. And Damita Jo, you also spoke very eloquently, too, about borrowing liberally from your Black life—

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Yes.

NAOMI BECKWITH: And Black culture. And I think that’s another really important component that I’m hearing here, too, that you all kind of broke the mold but you thought very, very deeply about Black culture and your Black audiences.

Nick, maybe, I want to start with you, because I know that you are thinking very deeply, too, about who’s your audience? And what you want to do for them? Can you walk us through why it is so important to do things like processions, performances, things that involve other people and audiences? And what is it that you want to do with them?

NICK CAVE: You know, I think, for me it’s this sort of connection and bringing, folding people into my project. That’s always been part of my practice. I’ve always been, since I was teen, my first parade was when I was in undergrad school where I made, like, 30 garments. And we then processioned down on the Plaza in Kansas City.

Why? I don’t know, why not? But for me, it’s really sort of— you know, I have a platform. And this platform allows me to work with these young people and to basically give them this sort of foundation, let’s say this residency, and to see in that sort of process of building something. The conclusion being this event, this spectacle.

So for me, it’s sort of using it as this educational moment. It’s also creating this sort of moment of what’s possible. And that’s the most amazing thing, to know that anything is possible really changes how you choose to navigate and move about and design your life.

And so I’ve always been interested in what I have been sort of gifted with. And how do I use it and yet have a sense of planned structure idea, but also being able, in that moment, to build and to create this sort of special moment.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Mm-hmm.

NICK CAVE: And so that has always been part of my practice. I’m interested in that sort of unknown territory. That space that allows me to question what I’m doing in the moment.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Mm.

NICK CAVE: But yet, at the same time, having the confidence to know that stepping up to fear is the beginning of something new.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s amazing. Who do you think of as your primary audience?

NICK CAVE: My audience is everyone. It’s not a primary audience. I’m interested in this universal sort of audience, that this work can be transported anywhere in the world.

We all understand movement. We all understand dance in some capacity. We all have to dress. We all understand identity. And so to be able to bring this kind of work to an audience that really allows me to talk about liberation, to talk about independence, for me to talk about freedom of expression. You know, we all understand that.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That is so true.

NICK CAVE: If we don’t— this will give you that permission to do so.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s right. A space of freedom and liberation, as you said before. Nona, who was the primary audience for LaBelle, especially as you went through this amazing transformation?

NONA HENDRYX: Oh, people like Nick, I would say, could be our primary audience. And, as Nick said, everyone, as it turned out. Prior to becoming LaBelle, we were the Bluebelles, and Patty LaBelle and the Bluebelles.

And our primary audience had gone from the audience who went to the Apollo Theater, the Royal Theater, the Regal Theater, the Black theaters around the country, the Do Drop Inn clubs that we played over time. Tiny little clubs where you didn’t know whether you were going to get paid or not or shot or something.

But then we we would play white colleges in the South. We would tour from Florida all the way up to Canada. And we would play all of these sort of Italian dinner clubs where we’d sing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," "Oh Danny Boy," you know, all these standards. But then we also played sock hops in the very beginning in high schools. So our audience was really wide ranging, and they all came under the umbrella of LaBelle.

When we reemerged as LaBelle, all of these people who had grown up, in a way, with us, came with us. They were a little, you know, not so sure in the beginning. Like, what are you becoming? And then we also had another group of people discover us, which is more sort of your post-rock ‘70s audience finding us as well from the people who line in the the family stone, the rockers.

And had we traveled to Europe from the very beginning. So we had a European audience. And that became bigger because of being on the show Ready Steady Go! And Vickie Wickham produced that show.

So we had a really wide audience that sort of congealed or coalesced under LaBelle. Because the time was right, and people had more access. And there were things like more television access, and then the internet.

So I think our audience, really, at the core, were people who, as Nick said, was looking for this sense of freedom to be who they wanted to be. And LaBelle, from what we were presenting, was like, OK. I’m going to dress like I just came off of a spaceship.

And that gives you the right to dress however you would like to dress. Pat would spray her hair silver. I would have feathers coming out of wherever, rhinestone face, all these different things. So I think our audience was people who were breaking out of the constraint of the ‘50s, who’d been liberated somewhat in the ‘60s. The ‘70s had given more freedom and agency to, specifically, communities of color. It was post-Civil Rights Movement.

And so I think that’s what it was, was people who were now sort of like— this taste of freedom. And what Nick was saying about being able to design your life.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Right.

NONA HENDRYX: People were beginning to design their lives.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Mm-hmm. That’s beautiful. And I love these kind of beautiful, alien Black women leading the way for everyone becoming designers of their own life.

Linda, the Fashion Fair ran for decades. And I, too, am interested in the ways in which your audience may have changed or responded. Did you have to kind of, maybe, morph the show over the years? Or was the core the same over all that time?

LINDA JONSON RICE: Well, you know, I think the thread of the show was about performance, of course, was about spectacle. But it really was about fashion. And so the way the show morphed was the way fashion morphed. And so whatever was hot or on trend during the collections, whether they were in Europe or whether they were in New York, you know, that’s what we showed. So that really was the morph of it.

And interestingly enough, the audience for the Ebony Fashion Fair, obviously, it was Ebony and Jet audience of course, but also LBGTQ audience, a younger audience, young people. Anybody who was, I think, inspired, and who wanted to have a certain level of achievement in their life. And they saw this as an aspiration.

That, really, was the audience. And so I think, over time, it morphed, actually, into a younger audience. Which was great. That was great for us. Because they really started to understand and love the fashion.

And the other thing that I think was really key here was not only did my mother buy haute couture, of course, but what she really did is she launched a lot of very young Black designers. Because that was really key for her was she had a degree in sewing and tailoring.

And young designers would send in their sketches. She would look at everybody’s sketch and decide who she wanted to have come in to her office, bring in the garment. And she would take that garment and turn it inside out and see do your seams line up? How have you matched this?

Because she wanted whoever came to her to do their very best and to be their very best. And so I think really having those young designers, those young Black designers, really was tremendous. And I think that gave them an opportunity and a springboard.

The other thing is, you have all these young Black models that have never had the chance to walk a runway. Never! I mean, Pat Cleveland, my mother discovered her when she was 16 years old. We had to take her mother on the road as a chaperone! I mean, so those opportunities that you’re giving people is, I think, was really so significant and so tremendous.

And then the audience, also, I think what they saw is they— people are realists. You realize you can’t buy all those fashions. But there’s nothing that says you can’t go home and get your sewing machine out and sew it yourself.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: That’s right!

LINDA JONSON RICE: And so that, I think, was incredibly inspirational. Hello, Nick, I know that’s what you did.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s what Damita Jo did, too. I mean, she just confessed to that as well.

LINDA JONSON RICE: You know, we are a very innovative group here. OK?

NAOMI BECKWITH: Oh, yeah.

LINDA JONSON RICE: And that’s how we are as people. And so any amount of inspiration that the Ebony Fashion Fair could give, whether it was young designers, Black models, just seeing the clothes. And then also, remember, this was all for charity. So we’ve raised $55 million for African-American charities.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Right! All right!

LINDA JONSON RICE: It becomes one big package. I mean, I tell people I look at Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, and I’m like, Lord, we did that 40 years ago.

NONA HENDRYX: Yes, you did, you did. Yes.

LINDA JONSON RICE: And inspired by Nona, inspired by Damita. I mean all of these things come together. All of this comes together on the Ebony Fashion Fair. No question.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Yeah, absolutely. [INTERPOSING VOICES]

NAOMI BECKWITH: No question.

NONA HENDRYX: I got my patterns out from Ebony Fashion Fair and made my own clothes. Made my costumes, made customers with Pat and Sarah. Yes, I did.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Yes. Ebony was the bomb in my family.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

NICK CAVE: —at the beginning.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: We had to watch that 24— every book that came out, everybody [INAUDIBLE] book. And honey, we were the models. Excuse me.

LINDA JONSON RICE: I love it.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: The clothes, we were the clothes. But it was dignity that my mother loved fashion. That whole, the Ebony— everything that was in the magazine, every fashion. I mean, my aunt was—

[AUDIO OUT]

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: I love it.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Yeah, and this is real. This is true. And I think so many families, especially Black families around the country, can talk about this idea, as Nick said at the beginning, that you wanted to see yourself reflected in excellence. And we needed those kind of mirrors as a community.

And I just want to underscore the fact, in my opinion, that this isn’t just about a way to think of oneself, a self-evaluator, it’s not just a way to boost your own ego. This is also a very political thing. We’re talking about the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and primarily the ‘70s now.

And so I would just love to maybe get into that project of what does it actually mean to instill within folks, no matter how broad or narrow your audience may be, what does it mean to instill dignity? What does that mean socially? What does that mean politically? How important was that for you to be able to model something for people? Damita, I’d love to start with you there.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: OK. For me, when I was young in the ‘50s, I loved dance. In dance I watched television 24 hours. I loved Shirley Temple. But I loved Bill Robinson more because the creativity as [AUDIO OUT] year, as Black people, to me, just grew. And it got bigger. I could never forget this, never!

So this caused me to dance the way I wanted to. Because they did. It was something about the [AUDIO OUT] me freedom. And in me, I wanted to show other kids that we don’t have to be always [AUDIO OUT] high school. You see the shy ones on the side wishing I can be that popular girl over there, wishing that.

But as we grew older, it’s having more confidence because history gave us confidence. The way we look. And also like Ebony, like Nona, like Nick, they showed their fashion. They showed their creativity.

And creativity in me just grew. And that’s what kept me abreast of being on Soul Train. I felt very honored. But I also was very honored when I get on to Shirley MacLaine. She wants to know about me. Cher wants to know about me. What do you call— Mick Jagger! Get out of here! Those people wanted to talk to me and to know my creativity, to watch it grow. They wanted to also grab a part of it.

So it was in— I was just, I mean, for me, the best thing was when I got to chance to choreograph the Olympics, the closing ceremony with Lionel Richie, 1984. I sat there, and they actually wanted me to try to get people who were the breakers, the poppers, the lockers, modern dancers, put them all together. And I got a chance to create and choreograph that?

And little kids— Now most of the kids, believe it or not, they were from gangs. There were the Crips, there were the Bloods. And they didn’t like each other at the [AUDIO OUT].

Doing this whole event, I said we are one. We’re going to show the world that we’re all one. And everybody agreed. Everybody put down their weapons. And they used dance to influence, to grab each other. And we all held on.

The best part was going in the— I guess you would call the cave— going out before. And usually you have a lot of mouth going, ba-da-da-da-da-da. Everybody was quiet. For that one second, it was silence. Everybody grabbed on each other. Everybody prayed.

When we went out, I was so proud, I could not even stop smiling. I don’t think I smiled— when I got through, my jaws were sore. But anyway.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Damita, you’re giving me the chills. I mean, you modeled creativity, you modeled unity. I love that. Nona, similar question for you.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: I just wanted to thank everybody on the panel. Thank you for creating—

NAOMI BECKWITH: Oh, it’s not, it’s not— oh, please. And the panel’s not over. You’re going to get to thank them some more.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: I know that, but I just wanted to throw that out.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Thank you.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Thank you, you’re welcome.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Nona, I also am really interested in what it meant for you to model these clothes, that vision, this sort of alien spectacle at that moment. There had to have been a message in that presentation. What was that for you and LaBelle?

NONA HENDRYX: So, thank you. As a group, three adult women, creating performance, music, presenting ourselves, we had gone through and lived through the civil rights movement, and traveled in the South, and not been allowed to go into use certain bathrooms, not allowed to stay in certain hotels. We lived the Green Book.

And so, that of course, had an impression upon all of us, as it would. But we also, as I said, we traveled to Europe. And we didn’t have that restriction of you couldn’t go in this bathroom. You couldn’t eat in this restaurant. You couldn’t stay in that hotel, you know.

So that understanding that there was this other, as Nick said, possibility, those possibilities in the world. But when, we would come home, we were back in this restricted, limited sense of being. And that, of course, influenced my songwriting, which became the primary voice of LaBelle.

And that we could perform these, as I said, many operas, expressing lots of different points of view as a woman, as a Black woman, Black people, our history. Doing songs like, for instance, "Four Women," that’s Nina Simone. And describing these four types of Black women, which also influenced, further my writing.

Curtis Mayfield and his writing, you know, and just other people were beginning to own the voices and take on what they saw a lot of the English and European artists being able to do in their music, like the Beatles. They weren’t just singing about "I love you, yeah, yeah." They had graduated to "Revolultion," right?

So, you know— and I was friends with Angela Davis. And we did things with the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Marley was singing about very different— about social ills and political strife. And that had a huge influence on me, and therefore, the group LaBelle.

So what Damita is saying about people being able to— when you’re dancing, it’s hard to shoot somebody and kill somebody when you’re in the music, and dancing, and enjoying, and feeling good about yourself, you know. You’re not hating on anybody else. And that was a very powerful thing that you did, Damita, that was really— we need more of that in the world.

NAOMI BECKWITH: We need you all to carry us to the revolution. We’re going to open it up to the Q&A in just a moment. But maybe before we do that, a quick question for Nick.

Nick, this is a hard thing, maybe, to encapsulate, but if there is one thing that you could say, what was the most important thing you could say that you took away from these influences, what would that be?

NICK CAVE: No, I was thinking about that. And I was thinking that that moment is this moment. And so I was thinking about just how you need that one moment as the kickstarter.

And this moment has solidified, this performance piece titled "The Color Is." I needed this moment to verify what it is that I’m about to create. And so it’s on, 120%. Get—

NAOMI BECKWITH: I love it.

NICK CAVE: The fuck ready.

NAOMI BECKWITH: All right. We’re going to have to get dressed first.

NICK CAVE: [INAUDIBLE]. Don’t worry about that.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: I’ll do that.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Get in his colors.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Yes.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Thank you.

NAOMI BECKWITH: The revolution may not be televised, but it will look stylish.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Yes!

NAOMI BECKWITH: Nick, we have a question that seems primarily for you. But I’d love the ladies to chime in as they like it. And someone in the audience is seeing a lot of influence on and from queer ballroom culture, in The Wiz, and what we’ve been discussing today.

And so Nick, I’d love to know from you how consciously you’re referencing that, where you see those connections. And also, ladies, I would love to hear from you all about where you see a connection between your work and queer ballroom culture now, and especially starting around the ‘70s.

NICK CAVE: Well, I don’t know if I just sort of— Yes, I’m a queer, Black, fabulous man. That is what I am. And so that’s just part of how I express myself.

But I don’t see that it comes from any particular sort of place, as opposed to this is just part of my full being. And to be in this sort of space right now within myself, and to know that I can fully imagine, fully express my thoughts, my ideas through this space of Black excellence as a queer man is everything.

NAOMI BECKWITH: It is. Though I also do very much see a show like Pose taking the category is directly from The Wiz when—

NICK CAVE: Or directly from Soul Train.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s exactly it.

NICK CAVE: Going down that line. I mean, so it’s all sort of part of that whole idea of procession and showcasing and showing off oneself. But we’ve always been doing that.

NONA HENDRYX: I told you the other day, and I’ve had several conversations with Nick about LaBelle and that we were going through our transition from the ‘60s into the ‘70s. And we’d gone into some sort of dashiki torn jean, jean-type thing, like flower power, peace, love, afro.

And Tony, Richard, and— Oh God, the name just went from my head, Larry Lagasse and the group of gay guys would come to all of our shows. And basically, as I said, they looked at us and they probably went to Vickie and said can we make some outfits with them? Because I think we were looking at just the little like we weren’t sure whether [INAUDIBLE] come out of this. We weren’t sure what we were going to be, yet, when we grew up.

And our whole silver tablespace, futuristic look came from Larry Lagasse’s design and Richard’s jewelry design, and Larry, Tony, and the other guys who helped fuel our change, our metamorphosis into LaBelle. And that was definitely from the gay community. And also we had such a huge gay following for so many years that a lot of our energy and the support for the group came from that community.

And therefore, a lot of how we— that energy is a very, very intense energy. It can be very, like, you’re not wearing that, are you? Really? I thought you were going to wear the— No. You’re not going— you’re looking like that? No.

And it’s important. It’s important in the arts. It’s important in entertainment, because having a pulse of what’s going on, that’s where the pulse comes from—

NAOMI BECKWITH: Mm-hmm.

NONA HENDRYX: For, I don’t know how long I am. As far as I can remember.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s right. I want to make sure I get another amazing question in from an audience member who’s asking all of you to reflect on the current moment of Black representation now. What we’re seeing in the visual arts, what we’re seeing in fashion, and music, do you see this generation of creators and activists as transgressive, commodified? What do you see as the hopes? What do you see as the vision of this generation?

LINDA JONSON RICE: Well, I don’t mind jumping in here because I see this generation of creatives as inspiring.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Mm-hmm.

LINDA JONSON RICE: And that’s the way I— that’s through my lens. And a commodity, I guess, that’s sort of the business term. Well, that is great if the business works for them. If it helps to elevate them and what they are trying to achieve, then that’s great.

But a commodity for commodity’s sake for someone else’s use is not— doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t work for me. It’s got to be for the person that’s the creative. So I see so many young artist, designers, actors that are so— music. Oh my goodness, so inspiring. And it keeps me engaged. And it keeps me on my toes.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Yes.

LINDA JONSON RICE: And it keeps me informed, and knowledgeable, and educated. And so I see them as an inspiration, absolutely, 100%. And I say, go for it. Keep pushing that envelope. Keep going, keep going, keep going.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Agreed. Because number one, whatever Linda was saying, that was the best to say it as— inspiration. Because I am in awe to see that keep growing. It doesn’t stop.

And it’s not in one field, it’s in many fields. I mean, it’s down to the cartoon artist. It’s down to— even the garbage man. He does it with charisma, with a smile. Come on. This is something he wanted to do! That’s his creativity.

And that’s what I enjoy today of the young people, their inspirations, their willingness, their strength and willingness to endeavor in things that says no, you’re not allowed to go through. They will go through it. And that’s what— I crave for that. I wish that was in me deeply to just go forward. I don’t care what the— guns blazing or whatever. They will go in butt naked. But they will just go through.

NONA HENDRYX: I second Damita and Linda on that. Constantly, I engage with young people all the time at Berklee College of Music as an ambassador. So I’m around 19, 20, 20-something-year-olds who are just creative, creating, living in New York.

There’s so many people come here from all over to— you know, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. That is true. And they bring with them their own individual ideas and pace. And then they see what’s here, and they turn it into something else.

And it’s just great. I mean, on every level, I look at something like Lovecraft. I look at Watchmen [INAUDIBLE].

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Yes.

NONA HENDRYX: You know, even going to something like Empire was like, for some people, like, Oh my God. What are they— the art that they had on the walls, and the music, and the fashion, and the whole sort of style.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: And the choreography!

NONA HENDRYX: Yeah!

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: The choreography.

NONA HENDRYX: The choreography as well, yes. And there are people who are that. Like, this is just a television show. Or Empire wasn’t just TV, that comes from reality.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Mm-hmm.

NONA HENDRYX: Donald Glover, "This Is America." You know, all these things are hitting, like, the truth of who we are, what we have to offer given the chance, the possibility of showing and doing.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Yes.

NONA HENDRYX: And will you open the door and keep the door open for others to come behind you, with you, these possibilities become true. They become history as opposed to possibilities.

NAOMI BECKWITH: That’s amazing.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: I agree.

NAOMI BECKWITH: You all have set up spectacle. You have set up fantasy. But I love this idea that wasn’t a fiction, that was our reality that you were thing in the world.

We are coming to the close of the conversation today, and I have to say I am really awe-inspired. But I just wanted to leave the floor for Nick before we closed out and basically ask Nick if there’s anything that you want to say to these ladies today?

NICK CAVE: You know, I want to respond to the last question before I respond to the ladies. And I wrote down the level, the outcries, the levels of injust. We will not conquer our ability to express.

NAOMI BECKWITH: I like that.

NICK CAVE: And so, for me, that’s really what right now is about is that we still will continue to fight. We will still use this space to express and to move ourselves forward.

For the ladies, I mean, you know, do you— look. It’s like this. You know I have these ideas in my head, these dream ideas of you know, I need to meet so-and-so. I need connect to so-and-so. And when I put it out into the universe, that shit happens.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: That right. That’s what I said.

NICK CAVE: So here we are in this sort of moment that is life changing, for me, in this way in which I dream. And so I can’t thank you enough for taking out the time and sharing with the world, and being as fabulous as I always knew you were, and for our friendship.

NONA HENDRYX: Love you, Nick.

LINDA JONSON RICE: We love you back.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Love you, love you, love you!

NAOMI BECKWITH: I can’t believe I had a chance to not only witness this, but participate in it. I can’t thank you all enough. Again, thank you, Nick, for the vision to bring us all together.

Thank you Damita, thank you Linda, thank you Nona, for being the incredible icons that you are. And not just icons, but really active women in shaping the world that we’re in today. I bless you. Again, I’m— you know, I’m getting emotional. But I can’t help it. I, too, like Nick, am awe-inspired.

NONA HENDRYX: I’d like to say one more thing.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Sure.

NONA HENDRYX: This is a shameless promotion for Nick that I have to let Patty Labelle know that we’re coming to her house. She’s going to fry some chicken and make [INAUDIBLE].

NICK CAVE: Girl, let’s eat!

LINDA JONSON RICE: I love it.

NONA HENDRYX: And we’re going to have some Patty Pies.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Yum.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Yum, yum, yum.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Yum. Can you Facetime me, please?

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: Me, too!

NAOMI BECKWITH: You heard it here, folks. I also thank you all for joining us today. Thank you for my incredible set of colleagues. Thank you to my incredible set of colleagues at the MCA for pulling us all together on Zoom, on Facebook, January Parkos Arnall for coordinating this talk, and all of her team, and on our public practice and performance team, our AV team that’s keeping the MCA live and alive online. Thank you all.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: And I just wanted say one thing. Be sure to wear— everybody, please wear a mask.

NAOMI BECKWITH: Everyone be safe.

DAMITA JO FREEMAN: For my life, thank you.

NAOMI BECKWITH: And [INAUDIBLE] wear a mask. Thank you, we wish you well.

LINDA JONSON RICE: Bye, everybody.

NAOMI BECKWITH: And goodbye.

NONA HENDRYX: Bye!

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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Listen to a discussion on Black creativity in fashion, contemporary art, dance, and popular culture with artist Nick Cave in dialogue with dancer Damita Jo Freeman, musician Nona Hendryx, and publisher Linda Johnson Rice. The panel discusses Cave’s art and influences as well as pivotal cultural phenomena from Soul Train to Ebony magazine.

MCA Talks highlight cutting-edge thinking and contemporary art practices across disciplines. This presentation is organized by January Parkos Arnall, Curator, with the Performance and Public Practice team.