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Saxist Matana Roberts discusses this week's Michael Brown memorial benefit

Hank Shteamer

When we rounded up NYC's 25 essential living jazz icons in 2011, Matana Roberts was a no-brainer inclusion. The local saxophonist-composer-conceptualist behind the ongoing Coin Coin series is known for work that's as sonically intense as it is socially and historically engaged, so we weren't too surprised to hear that she was marshaling various compatriots—including avant-jazz luminaries such as Connie Crothers and Henry Grimes, and alt-soul mainstay Meshell Ndegeocello—for a benefit show in honor of Michael Brown, the African-American teen whose August shooting at the hands of a white Ferguson, Missouri, policeman sparked nationwide outrage. News of the show—happening this Thursday, September 4 at Union Pool, with all proceeds going to Brown's memorial fund—arrived after press time, but we reached out to Roberts via e-mail to learn more about what inspired her to spring into action.

Was there a specific point in the news cycle re: Ferguson when you knew you wanted to organize a benefit?
From the jump, really. I was in Chicago preparing to perform Coin Coin, chapter 2 at Millennium Park when news of what had happened in Ferguson started trickling out, and I was just so livid. Could barely sleep because it just felt so obvious how this was going to play out. I was in downtown Oakland on tour the day the Oscar Grant verdict was read, and so to see that wave of violence against young black men and women continue since then, it has been hard to watch. And then to deal with being stopped and almost frisked myself a few summers back just made the Ferguson thing really sit on my brain in ways that incensed me further.

Anyway, while in Chicago, I tried to change my travel plans so that I could just go to Ferguson, because the news reports were really confusing and I just wasn't sure what to think and it sounded like more outside witness was needed. But I couldn't make it work and started thinking about other ways I could help. I bounced the idea of a musicians' benefit around in my head but almost threw that out the window because about six or seven years ago, I tried to do a Brooklyn fund-raising concert for the homeless that was an utter failure. But things have changed a bit for fringe artists and activists with the power of social media, so I figured I had a better chance this time of getting the word out somehow. I also knew that Union Pool would immediately welcome my idea, as they are such lovely people who are deeply community minded and truly operate from the heart.

I use Twitter as an archive for retweets of social issues that inform my work and my person. I was retweeting so many Ferguson links, it started to feel aimless and unsatisfying. I knew I could/should try to do more.

Beyond raising money, what are your goals for the event, from a creative or activist standpoint?
From what I've seen over the years, the act of building awareness even in small corners can make tremendous impact if enough people can push the train repeatedly. Sometimes, that impact takes years, but it happens. I look at the election of a black man in that big White House as a prime example of this. I remember my grandparents talking about Obama's importance when he was still just trying to push his way into Washington circles, and urging their friends to get out there and spread the word about him, support him. It's the same with this issue. If enough people can become incensed and speak up continuously, it will drive the wave that creates change, a wave that carries further generations up and over to the next hurdle.

Did the nature of the event inform how you went about curating it?
Not really. I just knew that there were other musicians just as incensed as me, and instead of bitching about it online, we could maybe participate in another way using real live bodies in a public loving space.

What were your reasons for choosing the musicians you chose, as well as the all-improv format?
I put out an open call in all my social-media networks, and sent out a mass e-mail. The musicians that stepped forward did so out of their own kindness. More folks wanted to participate but I and the Union Pool folk literally planned this in three days, so there wasn't a lot of time. If it goes well, I may do a few more.

Improvisation is a birthright, a true human freedom to me. What happened to Mike Brown was a distinct cut-down of his birthright, so I feel that responding with this music is a way to come together to speak, heal and spread the message that we as citizens will not stand for blatant misuse of force against unarmed kids.

This is a pretty broad question, but do you consider activism to be part of your mission as an artist?
Not so broad! Def a part of my mission as creative person. To me, the act of making is political—it's pretty much what I'm trying to do in a nutshell. As an artist, I feel I lead a very privileged life. I stand on the backs of many people who never got a chance to express themselves. So I take that very seriously, and I feel that my work is supposed to carry a very clear message about the freedom in expression, again an inherent human birthright. My interests revolve around American history, and what fascinates me most is the history of the rights of its people, the stories of people persevering, lifting others up so that they too can stand tall. This is my dream for what I wish at some point my own work to do.

What's the best way for an artist to address a situation like the Mike Brown shooting and its aftermath?
I think doing whatever you can to build awareness. The rise of the militarization of local police forces is a real thing—most real in poor urban communities. This is problem that needs way more notice. Alerting your supporters and comrades, creating in small pockets mass "group think"—positivity that is informative for mass good and spreads like wildfire, I am convinced. Wildfires create change so that new life can grow and prosper.

Are there other political- or activism-minded artists that you've looked to as role models?
Yes, so many alive and gone: Ai Weiwei, Bansky, Susan Crile, Johnny Cash, Mos Def, Willie Bester, Joan Baez, Swoon, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Vijay Iyer, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, the Yams Collective, Kara Walker, Molly Crabapple, LaTasha Diggs, Fred Moten, Charles Mingus. There was so much new art that sprung out of Occupy. The list is endless, and there is so much going on with artists speaking up in the Ukraine, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Istanbul, Brazil, Greece, the Congo right now. I feel very privileged to be an American artist and make the work I do and know that at the end of the day I will probably still be alive. Therefore, I have a responsibility to speak up a bit louder here—there is someone making art right now who can't, so I speak for them as well. That's how I feel, I guess. Thanks for listening. Hope this made sense.


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