Composer Dameun Strange is one of six 2017 Cedar Commissions artists. His project Helianthus, debuting on February 3rd (get tickets here), is an afrofuturistic conceptual operetta that will tell the story of Strange as a composer and time traveler visiting his matriarchal ancestors at points in time when they learned valuable lessons that were then passed down to him. The operetta will be a series of 5 musical vignettes, each from a different era reaching back as far as the 1890’s and ending 50 years into the future.
Black2thePast, Present and Future
To me, music is one of the most magical forces in the universe. Its power to transcend language, identity, time and space is undeniable. With this in mind, you won’t be surprise to hear that I feel the Force is with me. And these days, I find myself repeating the mantra over and over again:
“I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.”
This thing called music, this Force; is why I am still here. This Force has sustained me through difficult periods of my life. It is how I celebrate. It brings me so much BLACK JOY. And although, I am pretty sure that I would have found my way to music on my own. My relationship to music has so much to do with my relationship to not only the 4 generations of Black women who raised me but to my siblings, as well. When thinking about my relationship to the women who raised me, each of them was responsible for introducing me to styles and genres of music that you can here in my own art as a player and as a composers and each of those styles is represented in my short operetta, Helianthus that I will present as my Cedar Commission piece.
Mildred was my great great grandmother who I was fortunate enough to have known for most of my developing years. She would sit back in her chair, big arms folded and either hum or sing old spirituals. I imagine as she bore the weight of being the matriarch of a multigenerational family that this must have given her some solace or connected her to her own pantheon of ancestors. Alma, her daughter, introduced me to classical music, and it was her connection to jazz, the Ellington’s of Washington, DC in particular, that fascinated me and eventually led me down that path of study. Ty is my grandmother and at one point was a teen dancing on a show similar to Philadephia’s American Bandstand, music was a huge part of her life–doo wop groups, Motown and rock and roll that is the music she introduced me to. My mom, Wendy, she loved music, she lived music. Her music was horn powered funk and soul of Parliament, Tower of Power and believe it or not, Chicago. I have been trying for years to find the best way to honor these women, to give in my own way something back when they have given so much to me. Only my grandmother remains with us on this plane of existence. But I firmly believe that when family goes to be with the ancestors, as long as you speak their name, they are still here with us. Which is how I got to Helianthus. Paying tribute to these women through the music they gave me.
I am and have been fascinated with time travel and quantum physics for most of my life. But, have been stumped when it comes to the role sound would play in quantum physics. I understand the existence of phonons and that long-wavelength phonons give rise to sound but how does that relate to time travel. So, in the afrofuturism of Helianthus, I am adding a little bit of science fantasy with my science fiction to travel and meet these amazing women. I am using sound, music, this Force to manipulate the space time continuum and in each of the vignettes representing them, I take the music they gave me, manipulate its sound to get to the next period, bringing the lessons they have for me back through time.
I’ve heard it said that Black folks shouldn’t be interested in traveling back in time. In that, I hear assumption that there was never a good time to be Black, a somewhat ridiculous and ill-informed notion to me. In as much as afrofuturism imagines a future where Blackness triumphs, we must acknowledge that Blackness has already been triumphant in the past. It is triumphant in the present. It seems easy today for folks to forget foundations, to forget origins, the roots of many things. We don’t study or draw inspiration from the past in an intentionally informative way; we often borrow superficially. There are indeed lessons from the past that have informed the present and will inform the future. Howard Zinn said, “The future is an infinite succession of presents.” And in my mind, the present exists as vibrations or shock waves from the past. So, what is the future without the past. Currently, We find ourselves in a present in which some of us have, of course, a lot of anxiety about the future. Perhaps I am a little less anxious about the future because I have on my tool belt, like a real life David Zavimbe (Batwing, or Black Batman for those of you who aren’t blessed with deep nerd power), the lessons of the past. In Helianthus, the time traveler is going back to fill his tool belt for a long fight for future where we all, no matter our identity, have a chance at prosperity. Helianthus is the story of me gearing up for the resistance. It is a story of Black triumph.