Art & Activism Lessons with André Cymone

0003777389_10Last week, I had a chance to talk about the intersections of music and activism with André Cymone. André is Prince’s childhood friend and original bass player. He later went on to build a musical career as a songwriter and producer. In his recent work, André is working to revive a rich American tradition of socially conscious music. We discussed ways we could all could use our creativity and talents to improve our communities and country.

Start with your own story

When I asked André why he does what he does as an artist and activist, he turned to his life history and that of his family. Talking about “art and activism” in the context of civil rights and social justice can be a big and abstract topic, but André grounded things in his own lived experience. He grew up in Minneapolis in a family of six children at a time when the black community was mobilizing for equal civil rights. His brother fought in Vietnam. His mother was a housekeeper who put herself through school, became a social worker, and was able to move the family to a better neighborhood. For André, music became a way of finding a voice and strengthening social connection.

I learned from our conversation that biographical details matter. As artists or activists trying inspire action and incite action, our own personal stories explains the “why” behind what we do. It helps to situate the abstractly political into the concretely personal. It helps us relate with others in our communities, and others that we are trying to reach. A movement starts with a personal story.

Be an ‘Artist’ that challenges people (rather than just an ‘Entertainer’)

“Maybe it started with Elvis. He started out as being Elvis the artist and being kind of daring and risky, but when he put on that rhinestone suit, he became Elvis entertainer. That changed the way people looked at music, artist, and all of that. People started just going after the entertainment factor. People don’t want to hear songs about trouble and strife, they just want to drive to work and be happy.”

But some people want to be challenged. They want to hear the truth. They want to hear ‘art’ as opposed to ‘entertainment.’

We also talked about artists like John Lennon, who started out an entertainer (a good one at that) in the original boyband, the Beatles, and later transformed himself into an “artist” and an activist to speak out for peace and against the Vietnam War. The world still needs artists to step up to the plate, now more than ever.

Use your gift and be a conduit

“The hope is in people like you. We all have a role in making the world we want to pass on to the next generation. My gift is storytelling and songwriting. It’s up to people like me to step up and do what you were put here for. Music is a healing thing. Music is a spiritual thing.”

Sometimes, realizing one’s role in the world means being a conduit for something greater than ourselves. It means surrendering to some higher force and inspiration, reinterpreting somebody else’s story and struggle, and just letting go of the ego.

“If you are an artist and you have a gift, you will write songs that you didn’t really write, because you are just the conduit. This happens to me and to other artists that I know all the time. You will write a song and then say, ‘I never meant to write that song, but before I noticed it was done, music, words, everything. Take the pain and suffering from the world and turn it into music or art. Take other people’s stories and struggles and elevate those stories.”

We all have an individual gift that we can put forth. What is yours?


“Vote. Make a difference. If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Cymone has been devoting his time to encouraging eligible voters to register and vote. I got to preview his upbeat new track called “Vote,” which sounds like a cross between early Prince and School House Rock.

While art and technology has opened up many new channels to organize, to participate, and to make change, there are still some old-school forms of political power that we must not forget about. So if you are eligible, register to vote, and show up on election day.

Here are some online resources to help you register and vote:

Also check out André Cymone’s interview with Mike Ragogna on HuffPost Entertainment (just after Barry Manilow)

Originally published at the Huffington Post

Redesigning Museums for Good


A museum is more than a collection of interesting objects.

A memorial is more than a heap or marble or stone.

Each of these types of institutions exist to serve a greater purpose. Whether it’s the British Museum or a local historical society, these organizations create an experience that is meant to inspire some action on the part of those who visit them.

For many years, museums did not take direct responsibility for the conversion point between experience and action — what visitors did after they left the gift shop was their business. But today, some institutions are thinking differently about this key component of their missions, asking tough questions about how the conversion happens and seeking new tools to make sure that it does.


Earlier this year, we went to work on behalf of an institution with an undoubtable moral mandate for action: the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, final resting place for more than 250,000 people killed in the 1994 genocide. Aegis Trust, the organization that built and operates the memorial, wanted to make sure that visitors were offered not just a strong emotional experience at the memorial site and museum, but opportunities to help stop genocide today and in the future. So we sent a team of user experience designers to Rwanda to figure it out.

With the help of the Rwandan people, they did it. In their work the team made use of an array of resources, from experts on museum design to their own personal observations at the memorial site. But they were most inspired by the young people who visited and worked at the Kigali site. In workshops and curricula, portable posters and personal stories, the next generation of Rwandans are figuring out how to convert the story of one of history’s worst genocides into hopeful action in their own lives.

Carefully observing these young people, the designers developed a model the Kigali museum — and all museums — can use to convert profound emotional experiences into action. They nicknamed it “the Inzovu Curve” after the Kinyarwanda word for “elephant,” because the arc users travel resembles an elephant’s trunk. Visitors to a memorial or museum first descend into a state of (often painful) empathy with the victims of violence whose stories they encounter.

Many institutions simply abandon them there; the Inzovu Curve instead advises them to provide additional experiences that lift visitors into a state of compassionate action. The model also identifies specific moments of reflection and transformation that will help equip all visitors to make a difference in the world.

Eventbrite: Redesigning Museums for Good

Music Credits: “Rasputin” by HEPNOVA

Gutai: Splendid Playground Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum

Gutai: Splendid Playground presents the creative spectrum of Japan’s most influential avant-garde collective of the postwar era. Founded by the visionary artist Yoshihara Jirō in 1954, the Gutai group was legendary in its own time. Its young members explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an “international common ground” of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities. Against the backdrop of wartime totalitarianism, Gutai forged an ethics of creative freedom, breaking through myriad boundaries to create some of the most exuberant works and events in the history of Japanese and international avant-garde art.

The Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibition runs from February 15–May 8, 2013 at the Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition includes a free interactive mobile app, featuring voiceover narration by ME!

JETAANY is organizing an informal group outing to see the exhibition on Saturday, March 16 during “pay as you wish” admission hours from 5:45 pm-7:45 pm. Feel free to arrive anytime and explore the museum at your own pace. I will be at the museum at 5:45 pm on the 16th if you would like to meet up.

RSVP on Facebook (Optional)


Danny Rozin’s Mirrors at the Exploratorium

I went to check out my ITP prof and Wooden Mirror creator Danny Rozin’s works at the Exploratorium’s Reflections exhibit today. Reflections is running until September 20, 2009.

Looking at myself in the Self-Centered Mirror

Broken Red Mirror: pieces of a portrait of Red Burns

Broken Red Mirror viewed from the front

Snow Mirror

Mirror No. 5 (Pac Man Mirror)

Mirrors Mirror

More photos on Flickr