“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Angela Davis is a woman of her generation. Having found notoriety in the 1970s, her work as an intellectual, writer and civil rights activist came to the fore of the American consciousness before her famous imprisonment that showed a brighter light on the prison industrial complex that she worked so hard against. She sat down with Bryonn Bain, another intellectual, prison activist, and author to talk about the role of art and creativity in social change, as an indicator, a reflection, and a driver of that change.

Davis and Bain began their exchange with care. Bain, somewhat nervously ventured into the topic at hand while Davis, in an almost maternal way, dispelled his nerves and made him laugh. The spell of notoriety was broken and the conversation could start. Artists and abolitionists, their conversation began, share the trait of being able to see a future that doesn’t exist yet. And in fact, that future drives the work that people like David and Bain have done throughout their entire lives, as well as the artists who speak to that work.

Art, especially writing and music, has always played a seminal role in Davis’ life. During Davis’ most tumultuous period in the early 1970s, her exchange with George Jackson, a wrongly and overly convicted prisoner at San Quentin, drove the work of both of them, both artistic and activists. In the documentary, “Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners,” she spoke of Jackson’s intellect, writing, poetry, and kindness. His artistic soul also stoked the fires of a tragic love affair between the two that ultimately found Jackson dead and Davis on trial for arms trafficking, a charge of which she was ultimately found not guilty of.

Yet, despite the tumult, art was active in every part of Davis’ life in the 70s. She recalled sneaking into a benefit concert that had been held for her in 1972 while she was out on bail so that she could hear Herbie Handcock (the current Creative Chair for Jazz at the LA Phil), Taj Mahal, Malo, and Maya Angelou perform. “I put a wig on and snuck in even though they told me not to,” she remembered, “I got recognized eventually and had to leave, but it was a good concert!”

Musicians like Nina Simone also showed their support for her during this time and visited her while she was imprisoned. Simon herself broke boundaries both musically and as an activist with her songs like, “Mississippi God Damn,” her version of “Strange Fruit” (written and composed by Lewis Allan and originally sung by Billie Holiday), and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (with lyrics by Weldon Irvine).

Davis’ love of the music and art of her generation was bridged with Bain’s more contemporary sensibilities and soon the conversation developed into how older artforms have led the way in contemporary hip-hop and R&B. It made me think of some of the great hip-hop albums like “Black Star,” by Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli, or the work of “Michael Franti and Spearhead” (who will be at the LA Phil on July 30). These works have often driven Bain’s own work as well. And so the cycle continues. Ever forward, ever revolutionary.

There was a moment when Davis mentioned the endless cycle of civil rights work and art. It was a conviction that the work would never really be completed. There is always more to do, more progress to be had, and more music to write. There will always be another painting, photo, or sculpture to make that will speak to the ineffability of existing while fighting the question W.E.B. Du Bois poses so long ago, “How does it feel to be a problem?” But unlike Du Bois’ answer, “seldom a word,” the art of black communities across the US continues to ring out with beautiful, defiant strength in rounds across the land, speaking of a horizon when reached, only presents yet another horizon ripe for the crossing.

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Angela Davis. Photo courtesy of L.A. Phil. Used with permission.
Angela Davis. Photo courtesy of L.A. Phil. Used with permission.