Celebrating women of the African diaspora / A talk with Kathryn Buford on growing "Live Unchained"

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

Kathryn Buford on "Live Unchained"
by Robert Bland {Hyattsville, MD: USA}

As much as we sometimes wish otherwise, community does not simply fall into our hands from the heavens fully formed or ready to use. Whether it is a virtual space like our onlineJournal, physical spaces like The Liberator Magazine and Live From Planet Earth, or a Washington institution like 1920DC, communal spaces are the products of specific individuals doing hard and often unrecognized work to bring folks together. One organization that has been doing this sort of work for over four years in the DC area is Live Unchained. Recently, I got a chance to catch up with the organization's chief visionary officer Kathryn Buford to discuss the organization's mission, how it fit into the greater "black creative class," and how the work of Warsan Shire has led to a creative partnership between the two creatives on an awards ceremony for women artists of color.

Kathryn, could you talk a little bit about the genesis of Live Unchained?

I started Live Unchained with my college roommate, Miriam Moore. She majored in Graphic Design and I studied Sociology and African American studies. A lot of our classes overlapped and led us to discuss topics like art, social justice and black identity. In our eyes we had pretty radical ideologies. Negative and limited representations of black women in popular culture really upset us and learning more about the history behind those images added fuel to the fire.

So what was the response to these negative images?

At the start, we wanted to create a cultural project that would critique the misrepresentation and under-representation of black women, by satirizing the absurdity of it all. The idea started out as a newsletter. But, as we grew -– putting others first and developing a global conscience –- the project changed. I didn't want it to only be about what was wrong, but also celebrating what black female artists were creating. We grew to see it as a platform and community to unite black women across the diaspora.

Live Unchained has done a lot of work in the DC area with regards to bringing awareness to filmmakers of color. What have you learned in your work organizing events around films like Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere on behalf of Live Unchained and and Storm Saulter's Better Mus' Come as DC Maverick Captain?

Making a career commitment to art should not be taken lightly because nothing and no one can guarantee your success -- it shouldn't just be a decision, it should be an obsession (in the healthiest possible way, I mean), something you do because you can't not do it: that's absolutely how I feel about Live Unchained. What both Ava DuVernay and Storm Saulter have taught me is that the passion and commitment I have to my vision is important, but it also has to be matched with patience and a period of refinement and apprenticeship.

Both Ava and Storm had professional careers in entertainment industries around film, but not as directors, before they developed their own films and movements (Ava with AFFRM and Storm as a co-founder of New Caribbean Cinema). They both worked with and observed some talented people in the industry and didn't get recognition or success overnight. For example, AFFRM's earlier films played at art-house film venues like West End in D.C. before Middle of Nowhere and Better Mus' Come showed in AMC. It took a lot of work for AFFRM to get to show in that mainstream venue and then go on to out-sell Argo per screen. "Better Mus' Come" is an instant classic, but it wasn't an instant success, a lot of folks said no to distribution before AFFRM said yes.

What I like about following Ava DuVernay and AFFRM on all their social media outlets is that they don't just promote what their doing, they give you a glimpse into how hard the crew is working behind the scenes. The national Maverick captain, Nina Ball was telling me how late they all work. It's validating because Live Unchained takes up a lot of my time. It's not always easy for me to accept that graphics won't end up looking exactly the way I want, and, God help me if I find a typo in one of our newsletters. So, when I see an organization I really admire like AFFRM grinding so hard, I'm like, OK, this is the hard work everyone has to put in for their dreams.

You've also said that you think there should be more collaboration among arts organization in the D.C. area and that they shouldn't feel like they're in competition. What has Live Unchained's partnerships with Howard Film Culture shown you about creative collaboration?

Let me just say Howard Film Culture is awesome! Their monthly mixer at Marvin in D.C. is full of good energy by down to earth folks that take film seriously. I know this probably isn't the answer that you'd expect working with them has taught me that you're supposed to work hard to grow your vision, not hard to get the outcome you want when you want. You know what I'm saying? I mean, my favorite opportunities with Live Unchained have come when I didn't try to make them happen. And, that's how Live Unchained connected with Howard Film Culture. Kim Gaines of Sondai Expressions was an artist that I reached out too a couple years before AFFRM's restless city came out. She recommended that her friend, Montré Missouri, the founder of Howard Film Culture contact me about helping to promote given the complex images of women of African descent in the film. And, I loved working with both of them so much that we've partnered more sense then.

Montré has taught me the importance of not just being a hard worker, but being someone that people enjoy working with. Montré has not only been able to work with some very accomplished artists on some very big projects, she also calls those people her friends. I think Montré is so respected because of her humility and sincere commitment to the art. She is not easily impressed with pomp and circumstance, but the quality of content. I think that's why Howard Film Culture is winning, they keep the art first and they have a very grounded leader. Howard Film Culture has exemplified for me the type of organizations I want Live Unchained to partner with going forward -- those that live their mission from the inside out.

And, that's why I'm so excited to join brands and individuals like MTV, ARC Magazine and Kwame Dawes as a Media Sponsor for the International Reggae Poster Contest. I saw the dedication that founders Michael Thompson and Maria Papaefstathiou had early on and I think that's why it continues to get positive feedback. The contest will help establish a Reggae Hall of Fame and support the Alpha Boys' School and HELP Jamaica!, initiatives I know Michael and Maria truly care about.

When you fast forward four years, what does it mean to be at the center of DC's black creative class?

It has been really important to connect with folks in real time. Having been in the area for four years, I had initially seen Live Unchained as a online organization but after four years in DC, it became clear that we had to interact and build with the creatives in the area. The anniversary party in particular was really symbolic of the work we are trying to do. It really felt interactive and connected with artists and intellectuals without feeling exclusive.

Can you talk a bit about "Terrifying, Strange and Beautiful" awards show campaign and how it was inspired by the work of Warsan Shire?

The "Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful" title comes from a line from the poem, "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love" by London-based, Somali poet Warsan Shire: You are terrifying and strange and beautiful something, not everyone knows how to love. Personally, "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love" was a very validating poem. Even the title read like an invitation to me, as if a wise soul was saying: "You who thinks you are so difficult to love, let me explain to you how special you are and why I want you to stop being so harsh with yourself." After hearing the poem, I spread it like gospel because I knew so many people that could relate. Later, I had a vision for an awards ceremony titled, "Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful" to recognize Live Unchained featured artists in honor of what I believe these words reflect about the many women we've featured over the last 4 years: the layers, fire and vulnerability we posses as women individually, and as part of an international community, are qualities to be celebrated. And, now, with Warsan's blessing, that's what "Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful" will be: a celebration.

How was the concept of the award campaign inspired by the work of Warsan Shire?

When I heard Warsan Shire say: "You are terrifying and strange and beautiful; something, not everyone, knows how to love" I couldn't stop thinking about those words and what they meant to me. Personally, "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love" was a very validating poem. Even the title was like an invitation to me; it's like a wise soul was saying: "You who think you are so difficult to love, let me explain to you how special you are and why I want you to stop being so harsh with yourself." When I heard it, I spread it like gospel because I knew so many people that could relate. As an artist, Warsan is really in line with the Live Unchained brand, in terms of honoring women of African descent. Her heritage means a lot to her, as does her femininity and womanhood.

Can you speak a bit more on why you saw the need for an award show specifically for women of color?

I think an awards ceremony created to honor women of African descent, by an organization led by women of African descent is a powerful statement. "Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful" says that when we recognize and celebrate ourselves, and that honor that comes from our own community is just as valid as any other recognition.

And, the ceremony is definitely about more than just giving out prizes to people we like. We're honoring and celebrating the creative journey, and all the energy, labor and risk that goes that these women passionately put into their art. Every woman we feature has her fans, but she also has her critics. And, most of us still have to contend with our own personal fears about how our work will be received before we're ready to share. I think that whole process, of not just presenting great art (which I know is a loaded term, by the way), but the internal hard work and commitment it takes to get there should be celebrated.

And, when it comes to celebrating, this ceremony will be like no other. We're really going to show what makes Live Unchained excellent at hosting arts events with the "Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful" ceremony. Just as we do online, we'll be highlighting all different types of artistic expression from painting, to photography, to Afro-punk to new dance movements and sounds coming from across the continent and much more. I'm personally looking forward to some awesome collaborative music performances with artists people have never seen together yet. We'll also be showcasing some of the women's visual art we've featured and provide limited edition merchandise you won't find anywhere else. It's the type of ceremony people will want to come back too. It's an awards ceremony with an unchained twist.

If people want to support the Live Unchained, where should they go?

To support Live Unchained, we encourage people to share the indiegogo fundraising link (indiegogo.com/liveunchained) and think creatively about how others can support you in giving. For example, you and a group of friends could decide that you'll collectively contribute $100 by bringing your own lunch to work instead of eating out for a couple of days. You could also exchange your skills for donations that people can contribute to Live Unchained. If you're a photographer, you can offer someone a discounted rate for a photo-session and, instead of having them pay you, ask them to pay it forward to Live Unchained so they'll get another perk for their contribution. Every contribution means a lot to me; I don't take anything for granted.

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