“Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” -Octavia Butler
The rain lets up just as a long line of cars forms on the road to HIPICO Santa Fe. The sprawling equestrian center on the outskirts of town has become the de facto location for responsible, socially distant shows as the pandemic roils on, and local promotions outfit AMP Concerts has overtaken its massive polo field numerous times throughout the summer.
Tonight's offering comes courtesy of MC, DJ and new Vital Spaces co-director Raashan Ahmad. Love & Happiness represents not only the culmination of a rough few months for Ahmad, it's one of the first times he's been able to assemble DJs like Sol, D-Monic and Ride for a performance. Not so long ago, Love & Happiness would have packed Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery's cavernous Agua Fria location with funk, soul, hip-hop, dance jams and more; before that, its crowds outgrew the Honeymoon Brewery taproom in the Solana Center in a matter of months. Tonight, it takes upwards of 20 minutes to drive onto the field—though given AMP's hard work to create a live concert venue/drive-in experience for culture-hungry Santa Feans, no one is angry about it—and a sea of cars reveals itself beyond the Jambo Hapa and Gracias Madre food trucks.
The rain brought respite at the end of a hot day, and though clouds loom ominously overhead, the downpour is seemingly over. Everything is cool and calm and the grass smells like a dream; the energy is palpable as Ahmad notices me and makes his way across the field from the backstage area.
"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is," I shout to him with a laugh.
"Yeah," he responds. "And Sol's been following the Doppler on his phone, too. He says it's not gonna rain again."
"Is everyone here?" I ask, referring to Ahmad's new partners in the fledgling Earthseed Black Arts Alliance. This will be the first night Ahmad, Nikesha Breeze and Tigre Bailando will be in the same place at the same time.
"They're on their way," Ahmad answers, emitting the sort of nervous energy that never seems to leave some performers no matter how seasoned they become. The breeze blows and the music plays and the people dance.
If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.
“There seem to be solid biological reasons why we are the way we are. If there weren’t, the cycles wouldn’t keep replaying.”
Nikesha Breeze winding up in New Mexico seems an inevitability now.
When the multi-disciplinary artist moved to New Mexico more than a decade ago, it was that similar siren call that tends to cast a tractor beam on artists—the light and the land, the people and the pace. Leaving Portland, Oregon, and a world of theater and film performance behind, Breeze raised a family near Taos. She rode her bike and photographed the area, she embraced sculpture and painting; and she eventually learned about her ancestors.
"Unconsciously I just felt I needed to be here," she explains, "but the most interesting thing is that after living here for close to 15 years and raising two children here, I started to look quite deeply into my family history and genealogy, a lot of which I'd never known, and my family were some of the first Black settlers in New Mexico."
Breeze says her ancestors traveled by foot from North Carolina, through Texas and into New Mexico at some point in the late 1800s. They eventually settled in Blackdom, a one-time town founded down south near Roswell in the early 1900s by Francis Marion Boyer, a homesteader who fled the Ku Klux Klan. According to the Smithsonian, Blackdom remains a ghost town since its rapid 1920 depopulation, but remnants of its history survive (though you'd never know it, as I didn't hear a single word about it in any New Mexico history class I ever took in school).
For Breeze, New Mexico's allure suddenly made a deeper kind of sense, and for a time, she set aside personal artistic pursuits. Instead, she worked with circus/activism nonprofit Wise Fool New Mexico, becoming a director and teacher and what she laughingly refers to as "a circus clown." But following Trump's election in 2016, she says, "something switched radically in me—something profound flipped in my psyche."
Whether it was an ingrained punk rock response to one of the most vile white supremacists taking the nation's highest office or an altered reverberation to the lifelong marginalization of Black Americans spurred to ferocity by the shameless racism of the MAGA set, Breeze returned to the arts in a major way.
"My very first paintings were…I got some old doors from the ReStore and someone gifted me oil paints, old tubes, and I just started painting these images of these Black bodies who I felt were historical ancestors and who were sort of a part of me and a part of this larger story of Blackness," she says. "They were political, but they were very personal. One was of a lynched man, another was of small children being forced onto a boat. They all ended up being shown at the Harwood Museum in Taos."
This became a turning point for Breeze. Arts and culture had always been pivotal in her life, but suddenly, painting and sculpture, performance and installation merged into one all-encompassing practice culminating in a sense of political outrage, thirst for justice and the belief that art can unify, educate and codify a mass movement across a region, a state, a nation.
"I caught something bigger than me," Breeze recalls. "All of a sudden, this visual pulse began to flow out of me from a deeper need to somehow be a voice of ancestry and history."
Now, as Breeze joins Ahmad and Bailando to form the Earthseed Black Arts Alliance, named for the late, great Black science fiction writer Octavia Butler, the opportunities to expand and amplify that voice and mission have grown exponentially. With a vision of community building and fundraising for Northern New Mexico's Black artists, dancers, musicians, academics, et al, its actionable goals—emotional support, resource pooling, signal boosting and the sharing of arts—are thrilling to consider.
"And there's recognition," Breeze points out. "There are a lot of people who think that there aren't really Black people here—and that's a lie. There' s a really distinct and incredible cultural contribution that Black folk have been making—and Black Indigenous folk and Brown folk…this is an incredibly rich part of our Northern New Mexico."
“What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.”
Eventually Breeze and Bailando do arrive at Love & Happiness. They already know each other, they've even worked together in the movement realm before, as recently as a Juneteenth ritual performance in Taos, but for Ahmad, this is the first time he's ever met Bailando in real life. It's quiet, but emotional, it's joyous but tempered. The pandemic continues; support for the Black Lives Matter movement has already dwindled in the streets. Tonight, there will be music, dancing, the pursuit of joy. Tomorrow? Who knows.
But celebration is paramount to the Earthseed mission. In fact, it's one of its three core tenets alongside visibility and representation. Back when the collective was little more than the kernel of an idea, Ahmad, Bailando and Breeze merely hoped to start by providing a support platform, a means to check in with each other and their fellow Black New Mexicans during times of stress and emotional turmoil. As the concept grew, however, the trio zeroed in on the ways in which they might still achieve support for a larger swath of Black New Mexicans.
Ideally, this would include a Black presence on boards and organizations calling the political and cultural shots around here. The Earthseed website specifically identifies Santa Fe's Arts and Culture Department as well as potential city-sponsored art projects. As Breeze says, of course there are Black New Mexicans—why aren't more of them in these positions? The answer, of course, is systemic racism, and if Earthseed's call for artists and expanded networking opportunities comes to fruition, we should be excited to discover how its growing number of members can have a greater role in the future of Santa Fe. In other words, the city and state have done a shit job inviting Black New Mexicans to the table, and it's time for change.
“Sometimes I wrote things because I couldn’t say them, couldn’t sort out my feelings about them, couldn’t keep them bottled inside me.”
"In terms of the how-did-I-get-to-the-type-of-work-I-do-now? My creative impulses have always expressed themselves through different forms," Bailando tells SFR. "So I was drawing and I was always dancing and just creating and…a lot of my lifelong struggle has been how do you balance these things and feel like there's a kind of progress and movement, but also not get stifled and limited into just one idea?"
Bailando is the very model of the multi-disciplinary artist. From small scale illustration and line work to massive murals, improvisational dance pieces, ethereal large scale sculpture and innumerable visual experiences at festivals like Burning Man, Electric Forest and Lightning in a Bottle, it's almost like they can't sit still long enough to choose one path—so they may as well be great at all of them. It's almost more like a reflex, like something Bailando must do or they'll suffer.
Such pursuits have included stints on the East Coast, in Pennsylvania and in California cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Bailando made their way to the UK for work and to Southeast Asia. Now, Santa Fe is home.
"I moved out here exactly a year ago," Bailando says by phone, perhaps realizing that fact in the moment. "But when I came out here, I wasn't explicitly coming to move here. I did have an openness to that, though, and after spending nearly a decade in the Bay watching the creative culture collapse through the tech boom, it had gotten to a point where it wasn't sustainable. A lot of my friends and community had already dispersed."
Luckily, arts were considered important at home when they were growing up. Bailando says their mother probably wouldn't consider herself an artist, but she continues to create to this day. They attended an arts-based high school and went to Bennington for college. That school helped lay the foundation for Bailando's multi-disciplinary interests, but they also self-taught in a number of arenas like carpentry, 3D modeling, casting and personal methodology.
"I find it's easier to learn as you're going if you have a foundational interest in learning," they explain, "but you can't really make up for [lack of ideas]. Something really helpful about the places where I went to school was that they were less focused on development itself and more focused on developing a mode of engagement and curiosity."
That curiosity led them to meet Breeze in New Mexico through mutual artist friends.
"Oh, just immediately we had a rapport and really loved each other's work," Bailando recalls. "And I'd been to Raashan's Love & Happiness events, and these things were amazing, especially for me because I grew up in these vibrant, diverse cities surrounded by all these different cultures; finding the other side of this small, quaint town that's quiet, that's beautiful, but that maybe doesn't have that same culture I was used to in the Bay. [Love & Happiness] was like, here's some culture, here's some other Black folks, some music I can get down with—an intersectional community; Raashan and I didn't know each other personally, but I admired from afar what he was putting out into the world."
Following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, however, Bailando says they began to feel particularly isolated.
"Not having any Black community, not having anybody locally I could connect with and talk to—I reached out to Raashan looking for anybody, and we started checking in on each other."
Those conversations bled into and aligned with similar talks between Ahmad and Breeze.
"I'd been speaking to them both separately as we were processing," Bailando tells SFR, "and this outpouring of all this energy and feeling disconnected…that all moved toward this Earthseed project. That all moved to being proactive about community."
“Shyness is shit. It isn’t cute or…appealing. It’s torment, and it’s shit.”
As the sun sinks beyond the horizon, offering up those last few moments of perfect light, Ahmad, Bailando and Breeze line up to be photographed for the first time ever as a group. It's nobody's favorite thing and I'm trying to poke fun at the absurdity of posing to lighten the mood, but there's no ignoring the energy shift that began the moment they entered each other's presence.
"What if we just, like, change poses after every shot?" Bailando asks.
"That's a great idea," I say. "Do that."
And so they do. It's fun and silly, but doesn't undercut the feeling that each creator in my viewfinder has a powerful body of independent work, and the possibilities that might come from their union are endless. Eventually I leave them be, knowing that if they put their minds together, they'll achieve whatever they want. How often can that be said?
“I have seen that people must be their own gods and make their own good fortune. The bad will come or not come anyway.”
"For a while, for months, it was like, 'I don't want anyone to feel good. I don't want anybody to escape. This is what we've been dealing with for way too long,'" Ahmad says of his mindset following Floyd's death. "And while everyone is in this moment, this isn't just a moment for me, or for my folks…I don't get a release from it ever, my father never had a release from it."
Strong words from a musician who seems to carry around the pressure of perceived optimism. See, Ahmad is often labeled as a positive rapper, a joyful artist with the feel-good tunes. Maybe it's because he's an absurdly kind man, but for those who'd listen to his lyrics on songs like "Cancer," literally about the death of his mother; or "Pain on Black," a self-exploratory look at -fatherhood and poverty—he's really more of a vulnerable lyricist who brings tough emotions to bear throughout his music. It's not saccharine positivity—it's pain.
"Depending on the day and time, I'm really OK with people not getting relief," Ahmad adds. "I'm OK with them not feeling good or just processing some of the discomfort that may be new to them."
As such, Earthseed became both a means to an end, and a sanctuary for Ahmad at a time when performances are few and far between. We've discussed his life in previous SFR reporting (The King, Feb. 11), but looking to the future, he says, "Whatever I can do to be active and joyful in these times is something my ancestors have been teaching me for years."
Most recently, Ahmad was named the co-director of Vital Spaces alongside his fellow longtime employee at the nonprofit, Hannah Yohalem. In a nutshell, the organization rents vacant buildings and offers studio space within them to artists at reduced rent. Ahmad has maintained an office at the Otero Street location for some time, as has teen arts center Warehouse 21 after losing its Railyard building last October. For Ahmad to take the job, founder and former Director Jonathan Boyd, a white man, stepped into a different role within the organization, perhaps one of the stronger examples of putting one's money where their mouth is in recent memory…anyplace.
And though it might seem like taking on a leadership role with a nonprofit would split Ahmad's time too finely when it comes to his Earthseed contributions, working hand-in-hand with local artists can only strengthen his position as a maker of moves.
"There was a decision point," he says. "When we were first talking about Earthseed, the conversation was maybe we shouldn't do anything except to gather sometimes and see and talk to each other—our value shouldn't be placed because she paints, they dance, I rap—we're valuable because we're human beings, and that's enough. But this is something we actually want to do because we're artists and because we're together."
Ahmad similarly describes Earthseed's earliest days as emotional support correspondence, but with Breeze long wishing to start a collective to make a voice for Black artists and the importance of community building ringing in their ears, they forged ahead.
"Being someone who thinks kind of politically, but through a cultural and artistic lens, I wonder what's going on in Santa Fe and what I can add," Ahmad says. "I'm not an organizer like my activist friends in Oakland, that's a very real thing, but I'm looking to arts and culture like, is there any representation in Santa Fe for Black folks? What does that board look like? Are we in any of these conversations? Should we be? Could we be? Can my sons? Can my friend's daughters see themselves in teachers and in books? Can we just be out here? Is that OK? We want that for ourselves and for future generations—a crew to collectively say 'We'd like to be represented.'"
“All that you touch, You change. All that you change, changes You. The only lasting truth is change.”
So where does it all start? Ahmad, Bailando and Breeze launched a website, enacted a call for Black artists and settled on the first action they hope to accomplish—the O'Gah Po'geh Altar Project (O'Gah Po'geh being the original Tewa name for Santa Fe), a piece on which they're working with a number of New Mexico artist-activists and one they hope will be placed in Railyard Park.
"It's coming out of the social justice work and the struggles and the trauma that have been going on this year that are part of a much stronger, deeper struggle," Bailando says. "It creates a focal point to access the softer emotions that can be harder to keep present when it feels like we have to fight all the time."
Ideally, the altar could become a place for Santa Feans to sit with, leave tributes at or just observe. A crowdfunding campaign has begun at gofundme.com/coming-together-our-altar-project.
"And we think we're going to have performances." Bailando adds. "Since most of the gatherings these days have to be put online, we're trying to find a way to hybridize that."
Breeze, meanwhile, plans to collaborate with Bailando and other Black artists for a durational movement performance in Taos, while Ahmad is working on a series of vignette style films with Black Santa Feans who'll explain what their version of Santa Fe is like. With an ultimate goal of intersectional understanding that centers and focuses Black voices, the Earthseed Black Artists Collective can become anything its founders dream up.
"Blackness is on trend right now, so how might people show up around that when they haven't in the past?" Breeze asks. "A capitalist system benefits from our separation, and the more each and every individual has to work to make it, the more the people at the top benefit. So it makes sense to push this idea of individualism as success building, but if we were to all work together to share in the arts and the resources and the foods and community structures and all the ways we humans know how to survive as humans…"
She trails off, but her point speaks for itself.