NYC’s Motown to Def Jam art exhibit celebrates the legacy of black music

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Curator and art afficiando Souleo has put together a multi-destination art exhibition called “Motown to Def Jam” in collaboration with ArtCrawl Harlem in New York City.

The meticulously planned, four-gallery, 49-artist exhibition takes visitors from the early days of Chess Records in the mid 20th century, all the way through to the contemporary offerings of rap and R&B label Def Jam in a series of visionary visual works.  Also referenced in the show are the legendary Stax and Philadelphia International labels that helped pave the way in bringing new African-American sounds to the mainstream.

For pieces in the show, participating artists created or contributed works that described their interpretations of specific songs from singers and rappers at these record labels. Each piece, inspired by a beloved song, or songwriter, from black and American pop music history, brings black music history to life in a new way.

“A lot of people don’t know that June is African-American Music Appreciation Month,” said Souleo. “I wanted to share our struggles and triumphs and the unique ways that we express ourselves. For example, instead of the usual pop hits from Motown, I wanted to use more of the later socio-political music that came out of Motown.”

A lively Black Music Month kickoff

Souleo kicked off the five-weeks exhibit with gallery tours and a series of parties. An exhibition this grand required not one, but four different galleries, and these ancillary events connected them all.

The guides for a special preview tour were celebrity columnist and author Flo Anthony, pop culture critic Patrick Riley, historian John T. Reddick and renaissance media man Walter Rutledge. “I chose these people as the tour guides because they are the experts and they have been in the same room with some of these musical artists. They can give those extra tidbits that you would not get anywhere else,” said Souleo.

Indeed, when Flo Anthony headed up her tour group for the preview of the exhibition, she was full of colorful stories about several people.

Bo Diddley (Chess Records artist) once told Anthony that she looked like Little Richard. Her face must have showed her discontent with that comparison, because he tried to clean it up by saying, “But he’s a pretty man.” Laughs like that were the added perks of having industry insiders as tour guides.

The artists who were selected for the Motown to Def Jam exhibitions range from seasoned artists to newbies like singer Macy Gray’s 18-year-old daughter Aanisah Hinds. Her piece entitled “But I’m Golden” is a painting of her younger sister.  Hinds created the piece when she was in high school (she has just finished her first year of college), and she submitted the painting as her tribute to Phyllis Hyman’s song “The Kids.”

“This is about nurturing the future. She’s wearing a crown so that she’s basically saying ‘Hey, I’m a kid, but my thoughts and opinions still matter,’” said Hinds about her art exhibit debut. Her mother, grandmother and two siblings were there to support her.

Macy Gray offers advice for artists

In an exclusive interview with the Grio, Macy Gray shared the advice she gave her daughter about diving into a creative profession. “I told her that the most important thing is to put in the work and get really good. Get so good that people will come and seek you out,” said Gray. The singer also noted that she is not surprised that her all of her children have shown interest in the arts. “They have grown up surrounded by art and creativity. It was kind of inevitable that they would get into it.”

Hinds’ work is on display at the Striver’s Row Gallery, one of the four galleries participating in Motown to Def Jam.

Another artist, Dianne Smith, also found inspiration from her family. Smith’s installation piece “Afro Puff” features a ball of tightly wound coils with a black, afro-fisted pick sticking out of it. The inspiration song was Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

“The pick is actually my mother’s pick from the 1970’s,” said Smith. “What’s funny is that when I was little my mother had an afro, but she made me keep my hair pressed and straightened.  It’s interesting how different creative expressions, even hair choices, make a statement. For some,the afro was and is about empowerment and black pride.”

Smith’s piece is on display at the Sol Studio, a new art and event space owned by style expert Sydne Bolden Long.

Motown to Def Jam runs through July 26th

If a visitor is doing a self-guided tour of Motown to Def Jam, he or she will still be able to learn more about each piece thanks to QR codes that are next to each piece of art. When scanned with a bar code application on a smartphone, the visitor is taken to the song that inspired the piece and biographical information on the music artist.

Even though the preview tours are over, you still have every reason to attend Motown to Def Jam if you are in the New York City region in the coming weeks.

The Motown to Def Jam exhibit will be on display until July 26, and contains an impressive, beautiful array of arts works — which are for sale, by the way — that give a fresh perspective on black music and America’s musical history. Situated in art galleries throughout Harlem, Mowtown to Def Jam is a perfect way to honor the history of great black achievements, within the context of the thrilling changes of this historically black neighborhood.

For more information, including details on the additional galleries, visit ArtCrawl Harlem.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook