For Your Consideration (Grammy’s 2016)

Here are the Lilli Lewis entries for the 59th Grammys Ballot. Thank you for your consideration!

One Crazy Summer – pt. 1

10325383_10152665584917518_2608737620932867792_nJust got back from the final leg of this marathon of a summer. I guess it wouldn’t be called that by everyone, but when it involves three Girls Rock Camps and driving several thousand miles in a noble vehicle whose pushing 300k, well it ends up feeling quite epic.

The most recent stint was Girls Rock Camp Houston. What a week! Probably my most talented and cooperative two bands I’ve coached in the 5 years I’ve been doing these things, although I feel like I short-changed my keyboard class this year. Amazing showcase, and we even had friends and fam travel an hour plus (shout out to the Lufkin contingency) to make it to the showcase. GRC is such a powerful movement and container for so much I believe in, and well worth another week of exhaustion.

While Liz and I were out in Houston, we did manage to squeeze in a couple of Shiz gigs with the fellas. Hidden Village at the Standpipe on Friday night (QUI QUI!!) and the ever so majestic Vinal Edge Saturday, attended by two of the three magnificent Mydolls (good lord I am moved by those women!) Trish said she would’ve made it but she can’t stand the “Whites in the Heights” people. LOL! Can’t say I’m hatin’ over here. But I did get in some quality time with Linda and Dianna, including some blues at the Boom Boom Room complete with a fantastic pesto turkey and avocado pannini!

So that was Houston. Think I’ll have to offer up another entry for what came before that……

to be continued….


Strange Fruit: Distraction or Inspiration?

This is a response to an interview I recently read given by my University piano professor Richard Zimdars, for Fanfare Magazine. The last question posed is a worthy one:

Q: I am very concerned about the role that classical music will play in America’s future, what with the dwindling of music classes in public schools, and the evident aging of audiences at classical music events. As someone who has enjoyed direct contact with young people for many years, what is your perspective on the future of this art form? What kinds of changes have you witnessed over the years?

A: I share your concern with developing a future audience for classical music in America. Growing up attending the Chicago Symphony’s 10-concert season in Milwaukee was my prime formative classical-music experience, along with my piano and horn lessons. Attendance at those concerts was by no means restricted to the upper classes or elderly in those days, although much German was spoken among the older crowd during intermissions. A Central European ambience was surely in evidence. At home, the music played on our record player was the standard repertoire from Bach to Debussy. This music, and also the sounds of singers like Björling, Milanov, Warren, Albanese, Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, John Charles Thomas, and Risë Stevens were—fortunately!— the sounds locked into my brain at an early age. Musical memories are involuntary and reflexive. My tastes were formed early by my parents’ choices in recorded music: rock and roll was excluded, but not jazz or American musicals. Alvin and the Chipmunks crept in, too!

The distributors of broadcast and mechanically reproduced music exert tremendous power to form taste, their goal being financial profit. The huge economic organization of music distributors is predatory in the extreme. The vast majority of the distributed product is utterly unimaginative, fostering a worldwide appetite for generic styles directed toward the youth market. This product, marketed to appeal to the concerns of its audience, actually suppresses expression while sending a dumbed-down message of identity to listeners and potential purchasers. The infliction of this narrow musical choice on the public is masked by its seemingly limitless sources of distribution.

How to break the cycle? It cannot be broken, but now and again people do escape from its orbit. I’ve seen this happen often during my academic career. Recently I taught a one-day-a-week one-credit class to about a dozen freshmen at the University of Georgia who were not music majors. I had graduate piano students play Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt for the class. They were entranced by the skills of the young pianists, and peppered them with questions. After one class, a student I’ll call Elberta told me that despite the value that her metropolitan area high school placed on her athletic skills, she had longed to participate in music as well. Shortly thereafter my class was assigned to attend a University of Georgia Symphony Orchestra concert, and I saw Elberta with an athlete friend at intermission. Our orchestra is capable of performing works like the Mahler Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and since Elberta and friend had never been to a live symphony concert, they could not believe how good their fellow university students sounded. They asked, with innocent sincerity, what the purpose of the conductor in front of the orchestra was. This was enough to get us talking for the whole intermission, after which they enthusiastically returned to their seats!

It is never too late for people to expand their interests, and I think live concerts are the best way to do it. The earlier children are exposed to live music of quality, the better. Opportunities to sing or learn an instrument should be available in every U.S. school system, public or private. Until the stupidity of the mantra “No new taxes!” is recognized, I see little hope on the horizon.

Disregarding my experience as a student of Dr. Zimdars, I could not agree more.

Even though the “pop” music of the 80’s is relatively sophisticated compared to what is in heavy rotation on the radio these days, I still managed to find some pretty abysmal music to be obsessed with as a child, including a particular boy-band that shall remain nameless. I thought it was the end of the world when my mother told me I couldn’t attend one of their concerts on the grounds that we couldn’t afford it (single parent, 3 kids, you get the picture). What she could afford was the free concert being offered at UGA by the ASO. NOT the same thing. SO MUCH MORE!! That concert changed my life forever. Opened doors to history, languages, and an entire WORLD of humanity that informs my sense of purpose and compassion even to this day.

How many communities still offer access to these types of experiences for young people? And why are said opportunities for such experiences so often watered down? I am well aware of the arguments in favor of accessibility, but if we continually under-estimate our young audiences, do we not in turn run the risk of devaluating/deflating their inherent sense of what is possible?

It simply is *not possible* to facilitate this experience of wonder, intrigue, and ultimately discipline! without the grants that allow musicians to continue to earn a healthy living while exercising their craft to the fullest of their capability. After all, is not mastery a great deal more inspiring than mediocrity. And are not the principles of ensemble a great deal more useful than the cult of personality? For me the issue lies in the differences between distraction and inspiration, and the quality of fruit born of those seeds.

Just Singing a Song Won’t Change the World (An Open Letter to Neil Young)

Dear Neil,

It’s been weighing heavily on my soul. I am a musician in my heart and in my blood, but I don’t make enough money to build new communities or rid the world of malaria and I’m too far off the radar to be asked to sing for America or sing to solve world hunger or even sing for the 99%. Furthermore, regardless of my intention as an artist to add value to people’s lives through music, and maybe even challenge them from time to time to awaken from the urgent complacency that seems to arise from being overworked (or underworked) underpaid, mis-employed, displaced, squeezed, de-valued, and otherwise under appreciated.

See, I believe we have work to do, and it must be done despite our condition. It seems like we used to have griots, teachers, troubadours, journey-men who used to remind us of this, keep us close to the source so we could ride out the storms with dignity, integrity, and sometimes, dare I say it, ingenuity? But in these times when all this sounds like too much to ask, the griots and the poets are hard to come by, and musicians are finding it harder and harder to keep a roof over head.

I’m one of those. I’m one who chooses art because it feels like a responsibility, but I desperately want to do it in a responsible way.

For example, I believe the power of music is best experienced in a room where the music is happening, where the people-ness of it all connects the dots between the ether, the real, and the ethereal. The extra-sensory information, the vibrating intercourse, the quantum coherence of it all seems to take place most directly in the context of a shared experience of live music. And yet, how do I get from city to city without destroying the environment and exhausting natural resources? Especially with an incredibly limited budget?

Moreover, I live in the great city of New Orleans where most venues for burgeoning bands are struggling to get by themselves and have chosen to compensate the musicians only by offering a small percentage of bar sales on any given night. That means my value to my “client” (the venue) and the financial viability of my endeavor ends up directly related to how much alcohol the audience is able to imbibe while my band busy trying to heal the hole inside of them that took them to the bar in the first place.  It just doesn’t seem to add up.

Obviously I don’t know you Neil, but I’m sharing this because you seem to me to be so true. Your music, your heart, your person-ness feeds me in ways true things do.  So please Neil, be my Rilke. Isn’t the first principle of healing “do no harm?” Tell me, what’s a girl to do?

LIGHTBULB MOMENTS – Hypothesis

Hypothesis by Kemi Bennings
Kemi Bennings is a poet/griot, actress, healer and vegan/vegetarian chef based in Atlanta, GA. Her life's work is "inspiring a generation of artistic change..." Learn more at www.soulsistasjukejoint.com or myspace.com/kemibennings

this moment’s thought:

You = U
U = Universe
“uni” + “verse” = One Journey
One Journey – U = OM

Tavis Smiley Takes Me To Task, Part II

Yesterday Kenito asked for specifics that support my position on the “responsible citizen” remaining critical of his own propensity for criticism, and I woke up thinking about when I first got exposed to the value of digging deeper and not just pointing the finger.

I went to a New England boarding school for high school where we had students from all over the world. The school tried to be as socially progressive and responsible as it could, and fairly extensive sensitivity training was built in to our orientation upon arrival. The school’s motto was “Non Sibi,” not for one’s self, and they made an effort to drive that point home through almost every aspect of the curriculum. As a result, we were some fairly socially conscious teenagers.

I was in high school in the years right before the fall of apartheid, and en masse, we naive little progressive intellectuals were simply outraged that a socio-economic system like apartheid could still exist. We wanted to blame someone and we wanted to make a difference, so we started accusing our school administrators of being hypocrites for not having divested in South Africa. We had a list of 30-40 products being imported from South Africa, and we wanted to know exactly where were our granny smith apples coming from! (To this day I get a little sick to my stomach when I see diamonds, even though they’re my birthstone.)

So we urged our school to divest and we urged our families to divest. When we went home, we took our lists to the grocery stores with our parents and were quite effective product police. When we got back to school, we were incensed enough to hold a demonstration on the steps of our library. We’re talking kids from every socio-economic background. Everybody seemed to care, and we thought the only way to make a difference was to keep pointing fingers until someone felt compelled to own up to their hypocrisy.

Then one day, one of the South African exchange students asked me why we were making such a big deal about divesting. Did we not understand that world-wide divesting was squeezing their economy dry and the poor were bearing the brunt of the burden? Our hearts were in the right place, but perhaps our tactics were misguided.

That was 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and apartheid finally ended as the functioning socio-economic structure in South Africa in 1993. The struggle to end apartheid was by no means simple, nor was the effort to begin the work of rebuilding the nation. And even though the evil nature of apartheid was an obvious no brainer, (I swear I had dreams that Pieter Botha was the devil himself), that obvious reality didn’t make ending it or rebuilding in the context of a new paradigm any simpler.

One of the first things done under Mandela’s presidency was the assembly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – TRUTH *and* RECONCILIATION – both were required and all sides were held accountable for their actions, but not without the option of amnesty if requested. I remember thinking this was the most revolutionary act I’d ever witnessed, an oppressed body expressing the difference between “blame” and “accountability,” meeting pain, despair and injustice with humanity – WHAT?!! Moreover, the TRC ended up being the first of nineteen public hearings for Truth and Reconciliation held internationally. I think it quite possible that apartheid would not have ended when it did, nor would this important work have occurred, if Nelson Mandela had come out of prison spitting hate and pointing fingers.

According to Hunter S. Thompson, “at the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.” Human beings have so much more power than we sometimes realize. No matter what our intentions, we all have the ability to feed the flames of our crazy world or to help something else emerge. Even when we, the responsible citizens who still give a damn think we know what is “right,” we can’t always know the right thing to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act, just that we should continue to do our best, but remain curious about the results of our actions, and do what we can to try to grow into more effective forces for productive change.

Tavis Smiley Takes Me To Task

This week I was honored with a chance to talk to two of my living heroes Mr. Tavis Smiley and the venerable Dr. Cornel West for their weekly Radio Broadcast “Smiley and West” from Public Radio International.

Although I expect my next conversation with these two fine gentlemen to be about my work, this week I was asked to elaborate on a comment left on their “Speak Out Hotline” regarding what I heard as their challenge to mainstream media and public officials to comment more on the long-standing hypocritical relationships our government has sustained with the now crumbling regimes in North Africa. I don’t know how our talk will be edited, but I’m posting this for anyone interested in my notes on my position.

The episode should air Friday morning and can be downloaded from their official website www.smileyandwest.com.

A Criticism of Unilateral Criticism
1. There is a difference between criticism and critical analysis, and our current climate of reductionist criticism creates an environment where something that might be subtle and complicated can easily be painted or construed as unilaterally hypocritical.

TWO DANGERS OF CRITICISM OVER CRITICAL ANALYSIS:
1. DISCOURAGES transparency
2. ENCOURAGES imperialist arrogance. Takes away leadership’s incentive to learn how not to disrespect and ultimately underestimate other world leaders, whether or not we agree with them.

***We don’t want to be complacent, but we have to project the sense that we are open to more multi-dimensional and sometimes very difficult truths.***

SO:
A. Yes! ENCOURAGE TRANSPARENCY. That’s what I think you’re aiming for hoping that transparency can yield more responsible decisions. But ‘m not convinced that we encourage transparency with criticism. I think we have to be more creative in our approach.

B. I would hope we could DISCOURAGE our current “SELECTIVE” IMPERIALIST ARROGANCE and ENCOURAGE UNILATERAL RESPECT, especially among leaders we don’t agree with. (For example, maybe if we had “respected” Hitler and his power among his people we wouldn’t have underestimated him…) We must be mindful about how to approach that. Acknowledge that now we’re doing it only with countries we need something from. How can we, the people, propel that into broader policy? Again, I think we have to be more creative.

For those of us who believe in the vision and peaceful warriorship of Dr. King the truths we pursue and reveal have nothing to do with being right. Now as far as I’m concerned, it’s fine for Mr. Smiley and Dr. West to go on about it because you try to speak from love and, from what I can tell of your listenership, you’re preaching to an already glorious choir. But It doesn’t make sense for us to get mad when our elected officials prove that they’ve never seen the promised land. We share this planet with them so it’s up to us to get them there. We have to show them the way, cause if we don’t, we’re all going down together.

A FRUITLESS SCENARIO
Politicians are like crazy teenagers who think they know everything and will say whatever they think we want to hear in order to get us off their backs. Always trying to get one over on us and don’t even know it when they’re in over their heads until it’s too late. The “responsible world citizen” meaning one who still feels some degree of responsibility for creating a better human experience, can seem like the well-meaning, nagging parent that criticizes everything the child does. If we want the child to tell us the truth, we have to let them know we’re open to hearing it. Some times our anger and disdain does the opposite. So we don’t want to be complacent, but we have to project the sense that we are open to more multi-dimensional and sometimes very difficult truths.

How Can You Keep From Singing?

Jazz singer and fierce, self-made woman René Marie was featured on NPR’s homepage today, along with a clip from her controversial rendering of the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” from her folk/jazz/blues/gospel/freedom suite “Voice of My Beautiful Country.”

Read the full story here.

I’m glad the conversation is still open about this. Incidentally, Liz and I went by personal invitation to see Ms. Marie perform this piece when her ensemble debuted it in Denver back in 2008. By the end of the piece, Liz was in tears and Ms. Marie’s audience was on its feet. They had all been “taken to church” in a way I rarely experience in the best of Jazz clubs these days.

Incidentally, Ms. Marie had also asked me to attend the fated event that led to this amazing controversy. I didn’t get to go due to a debilitating spider bite of all things. She had said she wanted me there “for support,” but to be quite honest, I really didn’t get what she meant.

Call me naïve, but I never could have imagined the rage and controversy that bringing these two beautiful, resonant and hopeful songs together would stimulate. I guess growing up Black American, I had never had the disadvantage of learning to fear this song known as the “Black National Anthem.” Furthermore, I never imagined that any song, much less one so fundamentally peaceful and humanist in nature, could inspire such vitriol, regardless of the context in which it was delivered.

I think it can sometimes be an act of compassion not to threaten the fearful at every turn, and because of that at times as musicians and artists, the many roles we play can show up as duplicitous. But as much as I appreciate the calming effect of pleasantries as it were, I fear for a culture whose art appreciators can no longer accommodate challenge. I mean, in what context can you reveal a song like “Dixie” as the strange-fruit-terror it is for some of us, if not in jazz?

The jazz language is plenty rich and nuanced enough to do the work of revelation and reconciliation in a context where angst and anger aren’t even relevant. It can point to fuller truths, dark and light, in ways that can do so much as to point to new possibilities for the evolution of the species, and yet its “appreciators” are driving a market where opportunities for these challenges and revelations are less and less likely to occur.

This being said, the seemingly conservative audience in Denver LOVED the challenges posed by Ms. Marie at those Dazzle performances in Denver – all of which were sold out, including a last minute added matinee. Perhaps it was because the artist had the opportunity to build a bridge for the listener – place her journey with each song in a broader context and help repel quick assumptions.

I just feel like there must have been a time when the artist was granted a little more autonomy – a little more authority – like a medicine man, poet or preacher… and that seat made the tough truths they delivered go down more like a much needed asofoetida tonic, never mind how unpleasant the taste. But nowadays it seems, and this is certainly not to discredit the very real virtues of the placebo affect, that otherwise fertile minds have become slaves to a market that in large part only distributes sugar pills.

I wish you all could have been there at those first Dazzle performances. At the show Liz & I attended, the audience applause was so enthusiastic, it could only be hushed by Ms. René’s humble encore: an a cappella rendering of “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Oh, you should’a seen me cryin’ like a baby during this one! I guess my tears could be a function of the fact that as an artist and a singer, I’ve been very much a “tree in the forest” for as long as I’ve been making music. I’m sure you can imagine that despite all the voices and the endless beauty present in any internal landscape, it can quite lonely out here in the forest, and I sometimes find it difficult to persist. But in the two and a half minutes it took for Ms. René to sing this ageless tune, I was reminded of just how penetrating our simple, quiet honesty can be. How could I keep from singing?

From what I know of her, René Marie is an artist who does her best to remain true to the still small voice of her inner experience, and for that reason alone, I hope you all go out and get her new recording, “My Beautiful Country.”