Poet and 'Holler' curator enlists Counterfeit Madison, Paisha Thomas, Mark Lomax and others to perform a live mixtape
Before any of the music had been written, before any of the musicians had even signed on, Scott Woods had the project title — “The New Black Eastside Songbook” — and six song titles:
1. Welcome to Bronzeville
2. Blight Privilege
3. Rahsaan Rollin' in the Dirt
4. Olde Town Beast
5. Things to Do in Black Columbus
6. Bulldozing the Ave
When the Johnstone Fund for New Music commissioned Woods to put on a show with brand-new music, the foundation gave him free rein. So Woods, a poet and writer, decided the six-song suite should center around the issue of gentrification and its effect on people living in Columbus, and he squeezed as many musicians as he could into the format.
“My default is community. If you ask me to do something, I'm probably gonna show up with two other people,” Woods said. “I pitched [The New Black Eastside Songbook] to some of the best musicians I could think of, and I let them wreak havoc on those concepts.”
Within two hours of sending an email with the song titles, Woods had his lineup confirmed: the Ogun Meji Duo (Mark Lomax on drums and Eddie Bayard on sax), Counterfeit Madison, Krate Digga, Paisha Thomas and Jordan Sandidge.
“The styles of the music in this event are gonna range from jazz to hip-hop to soul to whatever Counterfeit Madison is gonna do. I don't know what that's gonna be, and I can't wait to see,” Woods said. “All of that stuff is present in the black arts community, and it's cool to start bringing in some of the genres that people are not generally associating with black issues. It's important to bear in mind that Counterfeit Madison is a black artist. It's important to note that Paisha is a black artist. It's important for them to remember that that's true, even if the audience is predominantly white.”
“It doesn't do a disservice to see our color,” he continued. “It's a disservice to treat that a certain way, but it's not a disservice to see it. It's important for you to see it. There's a lot that comes with that.”
Through the New Black Eastside Songbook, Woods is also examining the idea of Columbus culture. “Columbus doesn't have an audience deficit or a resource deficit. It has an idea deficit — a cultural deficit,” Woods said. “So my job, as someone who cares about culture and who cares about Columbus, is to constantly be presenting original ideas — things that help define the city. … Columbus knows it has a need. It's trying, it just doesn't know what it's doing yet. That's why I'm here. I have no problem telling it what it needs to do.”
Woods asked similar questions about Columbus culture during “Holler,” a month-long series he held a year ago that highlighted nearly 100 black artists at various music, dance, visual arts and spoken-word events across the city. Though Woods has been writing and performing his poetry and putting on events in Columbus for more than two decades, “Holler” opened doors in a new way.
“‘Holler' is the only reason I'm getting all the meetings that I'm getting now,” he said. “‘Holler' just took things to the next level. That event did a lot of things at the same time. It had a lot of missions, and it hit those missions.”
After “Holler,” Woods created a nonprofit called Streetlight Guild. “It's basically ‘Holler' on steroids,” he said. “It's all the event ideas I've ever wanted to do under one umbrella.” Soon, Streetlight Guild will see those ideas come to fruition under one roof in a Main Street space Woods recently took over on the East Side.
Woods' goal is for the people who attend the New Black Eastside Songbook performance, or any Streetlight Guild event, to walk away changed. “We're in a time and place where your art needs to be more than art sometimes,” he said. “My art isn't just art. It's statements. … People come to my shows knowing they're gonna hear things they've never heard before. They want to be surprised. If you're doing culture right, it will surprise you. That's kind of its job.”
Mark Lomax and Eddie Bayard of the Ogun Meji Duo were tasked with providing music for the New Black Eastside Songbook's first piece (“Welcome to Bronzeville,” a reference to the King-Lincoln District's former name) and the finale (“Bulldozing the Ave”).
“We know what Bronzeville is, and for us that brought back a Harlem Renaissance-esque vibe, so we wanted to create a theme that has that bounce — the early Ellington thing,” Lomax said. “We all know what ‘Bulldozing the Ave' refers to, so we wanted to keep that same thing, but then expand it in a way that's deconstructing that concept of gentrification, where there's a breakdown of the neighborhood, then it's rebuilt and it's not the same, because that's what gentrification does.”
To Lomax, gentrification is not inevitable. It's entirely avoidable. “If you build the capacity of the people as you're building the economic infrastructure of the area, then maybe the people don't have to be pushed out because now they have the means to stay,” he said. “This whole concept of gentrification is a lack of our collective ability to really address the human side of things. Why do we think that, in order to rebuild a neighborhood, we have to get rid of the people who are there? Because we've never, ever invested in people. And what is art if not an investment in people.”