Seven members of Elementz, the Cincinnati youth center for hip hop, respect, and community, spoke this summer with editor Barbara Lyghtel Rohrer about the art of generosity and the generosity of art.


LR: How would you define generosity beyond giving from one’s financial means?

Anaya: Generosity is selflessness.

Nathan: Generosity can be sharing knowledge, sharing wisdom.

Lejuan: Generosity is basically the better nature of us. It is a part of us that is kind, loving, and warm. It is wanting to help people in any way that we feel possible. Sometimes that is through music, poetry, or dance.

 

LR: How specifically is using one’s talent, sharing one’s art, an act of generosity?

Journey: I am an artist, and I tell my stories through my paintings. But I find that people often bring their own stories to my paintings. My art then becomes a way for me to tell my stories and for others to tell theirs.

Trinity: My sisters and I have a singing group. We call ourselves REA—our middle initials. When we perform, people will often get up and start to dance. Sometimes they start singing with us. Our performance gives them the freedom to enjoy themselves.

Destiny: I think because we are just ourselves onstage, our audiences are comfortable. They feel at home. And because they relate to the music, they can be themselves too.

 

LR: So being oneself, being open, can be both an act of generosity and a way to forge deeper connections?

Lejuan: When you are yourself, when you are authentic, you show others it is okay to be themselves—not fake. People are more likely to connect with you both personally and as an artist when you are authentic. When you are yourself and you share your own wisdom, you allow others to be true to who they really are. When people are authentic, connections are formed more easily.

Anaya: I feel like you can’t really connect with someone if you feel they are being phony, even if their actions are generous. It won’t feel right. You may say, “uh … thank you,” but you won’t feel a real connection.

Nathan: Sometimes when people are acting phony, it’s because they don’t know how another person is going to react to them. Some people may be generous at heart but don’t always act on it because they feel they may be taken advantage of.

Anaya: I work at the YMCA. My dance troupe and I try to reach out to kids that don’t have as many privileges as most. We go up and down the street and talk to the parents. We get them to bring their kids to class. We dance, but we also break the kids out of their shells. We make them feel comfortable by talking to them and letting them know that we are there for them. Sometimes the kids are upset—I see so much stuff going in their lives. So I say, come to dance class. You can talk to me. And when they do that, they open up. They begin to feel connected to you, and they reach out to you more.

Nathan: To me, it’s all about connection. If you are working on a piece of music, and share what you have, someone may give you an idea to make it better. Or, they may be inspired to do something themselves. Your music may make them feel better. It’s as if your music can be someone’s medicine.

Destiny: Journey and I wrote a song called “Open Up.” The song is for anyone who is struggling with being themselves. For example, if someone is gay and they don’t know how to open up, they will keep who they are inside. The song tells people that if they open up, there will be people to support them, that it is okay to reach out to others. All of us have problems. All of us have secrets. If you find the right people to tell what is inside of you, you will feel much better.

Trinity: Everyone wants to feel like they can be themselves.

 

LR: How does art allow you to be more open, more yourself, less fearful?

Anaya: It’s hard for me to explain, but it is easier for me to dance something than to say it. It’s a way for me to show who I am–whether I’m on stage performing, taking a class, or teaching. Dancing is my passion, my life, my everything. Everyone who knows me knows that. Dance is my outlet.

Journey: Music gives me life. When I sing, I am expressing my feelings in music. When I am not on stage, I am just living a normal life. But when I am on stage, I feel I can truly express what is inside.

Trinity: When we sing, we sing directly to our audiences. It’s as if our songs express what the audience is feeling about their problems, about their lives, about what they are going through. We try to build upon the opportunities that our songs provide to reach our audience.

 

LR: How does openness fit into the creative process?

Anaya: In dance, I talk to my teammates to get their input on a routine I am working on. I ask where I should put certain steps. They will give me suggestions, say maybe hold off here. Then they will come up and join me, and it will be perfect. It’s all about the movement and how you feel about the movement–and that is what you dance.

Nathan: I want to help people write. I want to help people produce. Sometimes that means giving them my all. Someone may be struggling with a piece they are working on, and there is something not quite right. They can feel it. And you may have an idea that you thought you would use to produce something later. Then you see this person trying to create something but having trouble, so you give your idea away. It’s all about creation. When I am with others, I say we’re all in this session together. We each bring what we can.

 

LR: How is collaboration similar to connection?

Anaya: I think collaborating is when you have two people with two different perspectives come together. You each give your input and make something great.

Nathan: It’s just generous to show your talent. If you have a talent, I believe you should use it. Some people don’t believe this, and you need to stay away from those people. You want to be around people that are going to be for you and for you sharing your talents.

Lejuan: The best thing you can do for anybody or even yourself is to use your talent and share it anyway that you can. Normally, doing something just for yourself is not going to benefit you in the long run. But if you share and make connections, those connections will help you better hone your work. Then you just need to keep practicing to get better at what you do. But I think the main thing you have to do is never do anything without having the heart for it. Without that heart, it’s just not going to have that … oomph, that, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just a feeling that goes with it that’s not going to be there without heart. You want to create something because you have the heart for it. You want to do it because it’s fun for you. It’s what makes you happy.

Anaya: Sharing your talents is a way to inspire others to show their talents, to find an outlet for their creativity. Using your talents is not like a job where you are saying begrudgingly, now I got to go to this. No. It’s “I got to go dance!”

 

LR: How does one’s personal practice fit into the creative process with others?

Trinity: Practice makes perfect and perfect makes practice.

Adanya: When you practice, you need to do it in a way so you are actually working on what you need to work on. I just came from dance camp where I had an experience that relates to this. There is a drummer there who cannot consistently play a swing pattern. It is very frustrating. Here are the rest of us being generous in sharing our talents, collaborating, coming to the camp prepared. Then there is one person not prepared and that creates dysfunction across the board.

 

LR: Is part of being generous making sure that you have first done your own work?

Adnaya: A drummer needs to have, at the very least, a basic pattern down, needs to be able to play a swing pattern while maintaining a consistent tempo. I feel bad for the drummer at the camp because I am sure he is self-conscious about what he obviously can’t do, but at the time, that isn’t an excuse. If you are going to play jazz drums, then play jazz drums, which means going home and practicing until you get it right. Everybody fails at some point, but when you are playing with musicians who can read a chart and play through most of a piece the first time and you can’t keep a swing pattern, then that is not a good pairing. You are just going to feel bad about yourself and frustrate the others. I feel like the drummer should be paired with people at his same level so he can grow. I think it is good to challenge yourself, but you don’t want to jump in the deep end if you don’t know how to swim.

Nathan: I think it is important to observe people and ask questions. Maybe, if it is drumming, they can keep a beat when practicing at home, but then they get to a studio or camp, something is just off. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives, or their heads, unless you ask them.

Lejuan: Sometimes it’s just the pressure. Your first time performing on stage, you may just kill it or you may crack. For some people there is not a middle ground. You are going to crack under pressure and do horribly or you are going to go out there and blow everybody away. You may know what you need to be doing, but still be messing up. You just have to go back to practice.

Adnaya: I think the drummer I am talking about is just nervous. He seems to be able to play patterns, but when he thinks he’s off, he just stops instead of playing through and figuring it out. It drains the energy from everybody because a jazz band is like a community conversation with the different players complementing each other, responding to each other. They accompany each other to support each other––it’s called comping. For example, the bass player in comping may improvise and add a new flavor. The other musicians can do a comp response, but when the drummer is off, it doesn’t work. It feels like an ice cream cone melting in the sun. The ice cream slides off the cone and just falls on the ground.

 

LR: Is an artistic conversation a generous act?

Adnaya: I think in things called battles or freestyle circles, where one person goes in and dances and shows everybody their moves, that is an act of generosity. Watching, you can see the generosity. The person is saying this is me. I am going to show you me. And the others think, he can do that? Well, let us show you what we can do. It becomes a conversation through dance. Later, you can talk to each other, tell each other what you particularly liked, ask to be shown particular moves, ask someone to try what you do.

Nathan: When performing, I think it is important to actually talk to your audience. It is a way of connecting so that people don’t feel you are just there for the money. It’s communication, a conversation. It’s key.

Trinity: We communicate, have conversations with our audience, through our singing.

Lejuan: Generosity includes inspiration, communication, and engagement. Inspiration: Each of us has been inspirational. We may not know it, but we have all inspired somebody to do something or make something of themselves in some way, via a song, a dance, a painting. That is generous. Communication: There are people you know who have helped you perform and produce through the act of communication. That is generous. Engagement: We always need to somehow engage with our audience. Then people will feel that you say for them what they cannot say for themselves. That is generous. The inspiration, communication, and engagement inherent in generosity is found in the sharing and the re-assuring that it is okay to come out and be who you are.

Elementz Artists:

Destiny Cuthbertson,
singer/songwriter

 

Journey Cuthbertson,
artist/singer/songwriter

 

Trinity Cuthbertson,
singer

 

Nathan Kendricks, musician/
composer/music producer

 

Anaya McNair,
dancer

 

Adanya Stephens,
poet/jazz musician

photo courtesy of spicefire

 

Lejuan Young,
poet

photo courtesy of spicefire

 

Open Up

Song lyrics by
Journey and Destiny Cuthbertson

verse one

It’s okay to feel the way
you do,
just open up and be real
and true,
because you’re not alone,
someone’s there for you,

just be yourself
and forget about
everything else.
Just know that you made
it through
all the things they said
to you,
it’s okay to cry, just
remember you’ve tried,
remember all the dreams
you’ve dreamed,
all the things you
wanna be.
Pick your head up high,
things will be alright.

chorus

It’s okay to feel the way
you do,
just open up and be real
and true.

hook

Open up your heart and
you’ll be okay,
you can make it if you try,
you’ll find a way. Open up
your mind–
today’s the day,
let your fears and doubts
fly away.
Fly away, fly away,
fly away. (2x)

verse two

If your heart is true,
there’s nothing you
can’t do
because the color of love

(color of love)
has many shades
to choose,
but yours alone shows
strength, in all you do.
Just open up, there’s so
much in store for you.
Just know that you made
it through
all the things, the things
they said to you,
just remember you tried,
remember all the dreams
you’ve dreamed,
all the things you
wanna be.
Pick your head up high,
things will be alright.

repeat chorus

 

RETURN TO FRONT PAGE