Arts & Culture

'Art Born from the Battleground' puts Iowa in artistic spotlight right before election

State's segment for Kennedy Center, Facebook's 'Arts Across America' debuts Monday

Kevin BF Burt rehearses during sound check for a virtual performance at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. A
Kevin BF Burt rehearses during sound check for a virtual performance at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Akwi Nji of The Hook and other Eastern Iowa artists have put together an hourlong presentation debuting Monday as part of Arts Across America, an online programming partnership between Facebook and the Kennedy Center. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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The Hook spoken word project has been on hiatus during the pandemic. But founder Akwi Nji of Cedar Rapids still has plenty to say and plenty of art to create.

So when the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was looking for an artist to represent Iowa in its free, 20-week virtual Arts Across America collaboration with Facebook, organizers contacted Arts Midwest for a recommendation. The request then traveled to the Iowa Arts Council, which recommended Nji, a former Iowa Arts Council Fellow.

Nji, 41, of Cedar Rapids, received word Aug. 5, and thought she had plenty of time to put together the hourlong program that debuts at 3 p.m. today. Titled “Art Born from the Battleground,” it will livestream from the CSPS stage on the Kennedy Center’s website — where it will remain available for subsequent viewing — as well as on Facebook Live and YouTube.

Then the derecho hit Aug. 10, grinding Nji’s plans to a halt as she shifted from creative mode to storm recovery mode.

“I didn’t have power for 10 days,” she said. “Looking at the calendar, I know I lost all together about five weeks of productivity across the board. ... Productivity was just nonexistent. Trying to dig my property out of the devastation was the focus for a good three of those weeks.

“It felt like there was a ton of time at the beginning of all this, then suddenly, after derecho hit, it felt like there were some decisions that needed to be made pretty quickly.”

Performers

One of the easiest decisions was turning to her regular collaborator and friend, Kevin Burt of Coralville, winner of the 2018 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn.

“From the very beginning, I knew that Kevin Burt was exactly who I wanted to represent Iowa as far as a musician, so that was a no-brainer to me,” Nji said. Even as she looked at the program “from all angles” for a couple of days, Burt remained at the “very very top” of her list for the musician to incorporate into the presentation.

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“For me, part of it was trying to emulate the kind of programming The Hook has strived to produce,” she said, adding that “Drop the Mic,” The Hook’s most popular series, always includes a band or musician.

She’s especially thrilled that viewers, as well as Burt’s followers, will get to hear music from his new “Stone Crazy” album.

“I, personally, cannot wait to hear his new music in person,” Nji said. “The timing of this Kennedy show just happens to be a perfect opportunity for him to perform his new music ‘live’ for all of us.”

Also in the spotlight is the Youth Rising project initiated by Leslie Nolte, featuring dancers from her Nolte Academy in Coralville, incorporating words from The Hook’s young writers. Guest musician is singer/songwriter Deb Talan, co-founder of The Weepies, a folk-pop duo based in Iowa City.

The impetus for the non-partisan Youth Rising grew from the last presidential election, in which adults were voicing their opinions one way or another, Nji said. Missing were the youth voices.

“What matters to them? How do we get them involved in just thinking about their role in the political process? What policies matter to them? How do we create an opportunity for youth, in an artistic model, to engage with policies, engage with the political process?

“With this event, knowing it’s the day before the election, knowing that for The Hook, it’s always about trying to create space and opportunities for voices that are often underrepresented in our communities, but also in the art scene,” Nji said. “In my mind, they’re a component of that — wanting to invite them to this opportunity as an example of youth in Iowa exploring their relationship with politics and policy through the arts — and trying to keep it bipartisan.”

In the first iteration of Youth Rising, she said she and Nolte were “taken by how much of the writing was about human equity, human rights, compassion and understanding of others, over and over and over again.”

Nji also will present her own spoken word material, focusing on parenthood and parenting young women of color, with an additional political component.

“Women have outnumbered men in every presidential election since 1964,” she said. “Recognizing the power of girls and women. We wield a lot of power.”

She invites viewers “to consider the role of women and girls in the process through politics and through art — and one that’s important and through which we do have the right to feel empowered and be empowered, and to empower each other.”

Part of her segment also will feature the rhythms and movements of Robyn Watson, tap director at the Nolte Academy.

From the battleground

The program’s title, “Art Born from the Battleground,” reflects Nji’s desire to showcase not only Iowa performers, but the “outliers” whose voices are not what others might expect from Iowa artists.

She’s heard Burt say that people outside of this area don’t expect to find a blues artist living and performing out of Iowa instead of the South. And while she writes for the stage, Nji isn’t a slam poet, so her work doesn’t fit with the male-dominated scenes on the east and west coasts. She is heartened, however, to see that in the past decade, spoken word is becoming more inclusive of women.

“I wanted to amplify or create an opportunity for people like Kevin and me, who are in some ways outliers through type of work that we do,” she said.

The title also has subtle and more overt meanings.

“The concept of ‘Art Born’ (is) a very subtle play off ‘air born.’ When something is air born, the air is carrying that thing, and art carries me. Art carries Kevin. Art carries us through life sometimes,” she said. “When life is profoundly complicated, it seems sometimes that art is the thing that carries us through.”

The “battleground” concept acknowledges Iowa as a political battleground state, she added.

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“It’s the day before the election, and while some of our content does focus on voting rights and politics and being engaged with both, it also gives a nod to that sense of art for some of us who represent a traditionally marginalized population, especially in a state and city with a relatively low ethnic minority population. Iowa can feel like a battleground, it can feel like we’re constantly having to fight in some way for our voice to be heard, to be represented, to get a seat at the table.”

She also wants to replicate the intimacy through art that happens when she and Burt put their words and music together onstage.

“It feels like you’re in somebody’s living room, and I want that to come across,” she said, “to be like we’re just friends hanging out, having a good time.

“We’ve been invited into the living rooms of people across the country, and we want to just give people the opportunity to relax and enjoy some amazing music, some thoughtful words and some beautiful dance.”

At a glance

• What: The Hook presents: “Art Born from the Battleground,” part of the Facebook/Kennedy Center “Arts Across America” virtual series

• When: Debuts at 3 p.m. today and remains online

• Where: Links, information at Kennedy-center.org/digitalstage/arts-across-america/

• Cost: Free

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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