creative social power: on theaster gates’ black monks

November 25, 2019
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The Black Monks of Mississippi are less a band, and more like a fellowship. They’re a loosely affiliated, always changing group of musicians, the cream of improvisational players with deep knowledge of Black American musical traditions, occasionally convened by the Chicago-based visual and conceptual artist Theaster Gates, who is the Monks’ choir-master and conductor. (Though his preferred, monastic term is “abbot”). When the Black Monks do gather for their purposeful, all-too rare performances, the occasions are less concerts than spiritual events — extended meditations on sound and spirit, on history and community, on centering and honoring whatever collective sacred spaces (and dark realities) the musicians and the audience happen to be experiencing together at any given time.

Theaster Gates performs at Black Monastic, part of Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2019

Mostly these are at art institutions Gates is invited to, or community centers he chooses to congregate in. But last Tuesday night, a Black Monks performance took place as part of the Red Bull Music Festival Chicago, in one of the grand rooms of the Garfield Park Conservatory, a 110-year-old greenhouse on the city’s west side, which is referred to as “landscape art under glass” and is one of the great botanical conservatories in the U.S. It has the environmental capacity to welcome the Monks’ reflective take on the human and the divine, the great plants and trees that surrounded the congregation pushing the focus towards a non-denominational naturalism and daring the attendees to aid the musicians in cultivating the introspection of the shared moment. 

Yaw Agyeman (at the podium) and Kiara Lanier performing as part of Black Monastic Ensemble at Red Bull Music Festival at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, IL on November 19, 2019

Gates and the Monks do not plan the program ahead of time. The point is in accentuating the variables of the occasion — its feel, its reflection on place and time, and the purpose that the skillful interactions of the gathered musicians bring to it. Though it always focuses on honoring Blackness at the all-too contemporary intersection of mournfulness and celebration. One variable in this performance — by what was for the evening entitled The Black Monastic Ensemble — was that, in a rare turn, Gates did not lead. Instead, he gave the role of abbott and arranger to one of the Monks’ other mainstays, the vocal presence Yaw Agyeman. Yaw, in turn, was flanked by the other constant presence in the Monks the last few years, Ben Lamar Gay, a vocalist, composer and cornet/synth player who over the past decade has been among the brightest lights in Chicago’s latest creative music generation.   

Yaw Agyeman performs at Black Monastic, part of Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2019

Gates did read the opening invocation, setting the tone for the sounds to come: “We wanted to think about how music and sound not only makes you want to juke,” he said, invoking Chicago’s footworkers, “but how it makes you want to be reflective, and be quiet. How it makes you want to be a better person. If we could take these vibrations and this energy and direct that energy, we have the potential to disrupt some of the crazy shit that’s happening in our country.” Then Gates, once a teenage choir director at New Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church, broke into an acapella, a Jamaican-accented, rasta-revolutionary phrasing of “freedom” spilling from his lips and soul. And with that, they were off.

Ben LaMar Gay performs at Black Monastic, part of Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2019

The octet built its music slowly, tenuously from behind the hiss and pop audio of a record that, in a nod to the Monks’ artful origins, was left to play its long end-groove at the lip of a stage — the engineer (or someone on-stage) continually bringing it back up in the mix to emphasize narrative. Situated at the center lectern, there was Yaw, first invoking thoughts of his brother and of Botham Jean, as Ben Lamar Gay’s electronics, Joshua Abrams’ bass and percussionist Chris Paquette’s chimes and bells set us down a sonically familiar, hazy road illuminated by wide sound and Buddhist-like chants. (Alice Coltrane’s presence was inescapable.) Later, Yaw would break into emotional, wordless bursts of singing that sounded like no one so much as Nina Simone when she cries on “Sinnerman,” and the players would coalesce into something laser-pointed and lacerating, though that too would subside. The feelings mutated organically. 

Corey Wilkes performs at Black Monastic, part of Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2019

For relief, there was Kiara Lanier to Yaw’s left, bringing an earthier, more direct soul music to give a crucial light upon the heavy moments — or to counter them though a voice of a different kind of love — with Corey Wilkes’ trumpet and Michael Drayton’s electric piano presenting trust and support, or, simply, a blindingly played solo beauty that helped lead the music out. The ensemble was never less than gorgeous and powerful, even when the music pushed and pulled almost unwittingly, painting a mystery of where it might go next. (These were, in fact, the evening’s greatest, most transcendent flashes.)  On a few occasions, the rapper ADaD came onto the stage to deliver rhymes that tried to put into the conversation between the physical and the spiritual into words: “The light linger in every line/ The manuscripts a monument/ For deeper though in darker times.” 

ADaD performs at Black Monastic, at Red Bull Music Festival at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, IL on November 19, 2019

Like all Monks performances, it was commentary, invocation, and hope, simultaneously expressed. And while the familiar tropes of gospel and blues and jazz and funk were readily present — invoking a spectrum of feelings between the ecstasies and tragedies of mortal existence — these words seemed far too limiting to describe the force and story that was at play. What appeared to be unfolding was the artistic version of a virtue that the 20th-century Trinidadian scholar C.L.R. James once described as “creative social power,” a product of Black American collective life, unfolding before us in its finest spiritual threads. The fellowship that Theaster Gates and the Black Monks (or, on this night, The Black Monastic Ensemble) have graced the world with isn’t just a revelation of sound, it’s a potential ballast to this our individualist sins. May their chant continue, and may we all join in, how we can.