Category Archives: Creativity

Ye

I recently started the documentary “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.” I’ve been into “Love Death + Robots” lately, but I was in the mood for something different and the trailer drew me in immediately. I hadn’t heard anything about the documentary so I didn’t have any expectations. I’ve been an off-and-on fan of Kanye for so long I was interested to learn more about his story.

It goes without saying that in recent years, Kanye has taken his reputation in some surprising directions. Starting with his interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs and culminating with his association with Trump and that bizarre conversation in the Oval Office. Many people have cancelled him or they forgive his actions and are mostly concerned for his mental health. I was ready to let him go. I loved “The College Dropout,” but hadn’t really spent time with much of his more recent work.

While I and many were moving on from Kanye, two things happened. First, a friend of mine posted a video about Kanye’s extensive contributions to hip-hop and I was moved to respect and appreciate his work. A year or so later another friend told me about his song “Waves” from The Life of Pablo album and how much it means to him, especially when he’s missing family members he’s lost, especially these lines:

“That’s just a wave / waves don’t die”
“Even when someone go away, the feelings don’t really go away”

I listened to the song that night for the first time and have returned to it on occasion ever since. I had gotten caught up in the cancel Kanye sentiment, albeit with more ambivalence than outrage, but I started to wonder if I was complicit in something more insidious than I had realized. Kanye had overcome so much to earn his legacy and “Twitter America” was ready to throw him out. It suddenly felt more haute bourgeoisie, not progressive, to snub someone like Kanye over a faux pas, associating himself with a social pariah and being generally uncouth. Similarly, when he interrupted Taylor Swift he was disrupting the gentility and respectability of the night. While everyone else in the room politely accepted the results, Kanye (likely under the influence) couldn’t hold back.

Even still, I didn’t know how to feel about the Sunday Church album and Kanye’s acceptance by the evangelical church. I was caught off guard by his connection to folks like Joel Osteen who I generally try to imagine don’t exist. Kanye’s membership in this new club became more personal for me when, while attending my grandfather’s funeral at First Baptist Dallas, the senior pastor and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress mentioned Kanye West by name in his eulogy. He said that Kanye and my grandad were similar because they were both going to heaven when they died. I wasn’t offended by the theology of what he was saying, but I was offended by what appeared to be a name drop of a celebrity friend during a sacred moment for my family. It’s not Kanye’s fault his name was mentioned, but he did make the choice to be associated with that world.

I remember watching Kanye perform “Ultralight Beam” on SNL and thinking that he had completely lost his mind. At the end of the performance he lays down on the ground and is sort of preached over, but then he jumps up and starts talking in an incoherent way that even made the preacher furrow his brow. Eventually though, “Ultralight Beam” became one of my favorite of his songs. I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but the music is beautiful. Earlier this spring, I listened to the entire Donda album on a long drive to Philadelphia. That album is a work of art. There were a few moments that stood out to me while I listened, especially from the songs “God Breathed,” “Hurricane,” “Remote Control,” and “Moon.”

Having just acquainted myself with his latest album, I was primed for a documentary that would reveal more of his story. The footage featured in the film is incredible in terms of the intimate access it provides. You feel like you are in the room for every significant moment in the early career of Kanye, a musical genius demanding to be respected for his art and consistently dismissed for his persona — the industry didn’t see him as a star. He obviously has talent, but is only appreciated once his music is heard. He is constantly correcting people who refer to him as a producer and reminding them that he is a rapper. Without an album, he was claiming something that others couldn’t see. Probably the most beautiful moments in the trilogy are between Kanye and his mother, Donda. In the first episode the group visits Kanye’s mom, Donda, in her Chicago apartment. She is incredibly encouraging to Kanye and clearly a source of love and confidence. She seems to be an incredible, beautiful influence in his life and specifically, as an English professor, a source of his lyrical strength. She’s a college professor, chair of the English Department, and she has nothing but support for his first album “The College Dropout.” In another moment, she leaves with Kanye after a performance laughing and repeating specific lyrics to him as they walk.

I don’t condone his lyrics or his behavior, but I also don’t feel that he has caused great harm. During the years between the VMA scandal and the White House visit, an estimated 315,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose. The Sackler Family, after lawsuits, was worth an estimated a combined $10.8B at the end of the 2010s. In 2019, Netflix produced “Surviving R. Kelly” which led to his eventual conviction of crimes that had been hidden in plain sight. I have to put Kanye in perspective. When I do, from what we know today, he is sometimes embarrassing and often vulgar, but not in a dangerous and exploitative way.

I’m glad to have come back around to Kanye. He is unpredictable, philosophically confusing, and often unrefined, while also incredibly talented and hard-working. The documentary, filmed and directed by Coodie, was a reminder to me that the antidote to cancel culture is intimacy, friendship, and appreciation. Coodie carried his camera from city to city, record label to record label, because he believed in Kanye. I would imagine that he made this documentary because he still appreciates him and wanted others to know his story. It reminds me of the lyrics of “We don’t care” in the sense that Kanye continues to reinvent and reclaim himself. “We wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five / Joke’s on you, we still alive.”

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

Old_map_1807_plan

In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

Perspective

As I flew out of Richmond last week, I got a rare glimpse of the city at dusk:

River city

I just stared at that settlement on the banks of the James River and wondered what the next 400 years might bring. In the city of Richmond, there is the past, the present and the future. That makes us fortunate and it makes us complicated.

To move forward, we will have to make some sense of ourselves and our story.

In the past few months I’ve travelled all over the country: from Philadelphia to Dallas, to San Francisco. With each trip I’ve found new perspective on this current phase of the development of the city of Richmond. I’ve also found some clarity for myself and settled into four areas of focus for my writing:

1. Current events in context: If I ever write about current events, it will be to analyze and contextualize the story. I spent three years studying the debates in Richmond regarding the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That work left me particularly interested in economic development strategies and plans for improving the American city.

2. Drawings for the future: Like many of us, I’m constantly imagining new uses for old spaces and I’ve decided I’m finally going to get these on paper. I’m actually planning to draw them out. It will probably be pretty ugly at first, but I’m hoping to read a little on technique and improve over time.

3. The psychology of the city: I’ve been noticing for years that the city of Richmond has a certain personality. This personality comes out in furious debates as well as mundane daily life. Since college I’ve also entered the world of cognitive psychology, therapy, management, and organizational behavior. I’ve read books, met with academics, and watched every video I find. Insight from these fields will be my lens for understanding what’s going on in this crazy place.

4. The history of the history: There are so many stories being told about Richmond. I want to take those stories and study them to understand the different ways that we describe ourselves. I’m obsessed with historiography and excited to dive back into that field for a series of posts about the different ways we talk about our past. This is connected to the psychological perspective as well: how we talk about Richmond says a lot about how we think of ourselves.

I want a future for this city that is unique and authentic. I want Richmond to develop a maturity as a place that takes all of it’s qualities and integrates them into a coherent whole. As with personal development, this will require a lot of work. In a way, collective therapy. And all because we believe there is a best possible future for this city and that future must include a coherent, honest, and accepting understanding of the past and present.

As always, more to come.

The Detroit Institute of Arts

When people ask me why I planned a vacation to Detroit, I think about my night at the DIA:

A Bonjour concert

I do my best to talk about my experience, but it’s hard to describe this setting in words: 1920s Beaux-Arts building, 1930s Diego Rivera murals, and an experimental stringed ensemble from New York led by French expat Florent Ghys. It was everything I’d imagined Detroit could be: cultured and complicated.

Built in 1927, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a fine example of Detroit’s grand past and it’s one of the few world-class institutions in this city that has maintained its status. The building itself is a beautiful example of twentieth century beaux-arts and the American City Beautiful movement. It’s a symbol of a time when wealthy residents and cities boldly invested in their culture and their future. In the spring,  you might find tulip trees  blooming and the sun shining on manicured lawns.

This is not how most people picture Detroit:

Of course, I immediately fell in love. When we first walked in, my dad and I ate dinner at CaféDIA then settled into our seats in Rivera Court just past the main entrance to the museum. Every Friday night, the DIA exhibits a musical guest for a free live performance. For us, the museum hosted the modern stringed music of Bonjour. In this old stone hall of Diego Rivera murals, the New York chamber music ensemble played Thursday Afternoon and other innovative stringed arrangements.

The museum, in large part funded by the wealth of the automobile industry, has also fiercely defended the Rivera murals which depict faceless humans and infinite assembly lines.

The infinite assembly line and anonymous worker

It’s one of the artist’s greatest surviving works in America and it’s ironic to be associated with the family and fortune of Henry Ford. Ford, the icon of the American automobile revolution and Rivera, a Mexican artist associated with communism and the revolutions from below. The murals are both grand and subversive. In Detroit, they’re perfect.

Today, the future of the DIA is in question. When the filed for bankruptcy, creditors began eyeing the art at the DIA and scheming its potential sale. Everything that is great about this museum also makes it one of the city’s most valuable assets. If all the art were seized and sold, it would certainly be a chilling moment in museum history. What’s incredible about the current spirit of Detroit is a “nothing to lose–nothing to hide” attitude. Unfortunately, in the case of the DIA, the city does have something to lose. The question is whether to hold onto an institution from the past or fully embrace a new and more innovative future.

The future of the DIA is the future of Detroit.

For more, check out my “Places” tab for Detroit.

The work

There are some verses in the Bible I could read every morning. This one struck me a week ago because I never really realized how much work there is implied between the lines. In a world where everything I experience with my senses is earthly, this verse is a challenge. I believe the word “set” is an active process. This is the work of faith.

20131119-082731.jpg

The Netherlands: A Map of Time and Space

This map is beautiful: a black field with every building in The Netherlands color coded based on the year it was built. Take a look at Amsterdam:

Amsterdam

And Haarlem:

Haarlem

The Hague:

The Hague

Apeldoorn:

Apeldoorn

Aaaaaand the whole kit and caboodle:

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 10.09.44 AM

Crying Over Spilt Rilke

I’m thankful for the Adam Lauver sharing his thoughts on this Rilke letter and the rest of the collection which I own, but have still not finished. Maybe this is the encouragement I’ve been needing 🙂 I’ve reblogged his post here for anyone else who is interested in a little encouragement today. It’s not an answer to your questions, it’s a new metaphor for your life.

During my first year of college, I struggled a good bit. On the outside, I was effortless: taking upper-level seminars, making friends with the president. But on the inside, I was asking big, fundamental questions about myself and about life. And I was, for the first time, on my own. During this time (as with much of my life since then) I began to reach out for life preservers—little bits that I could cling to for hope and assurance in the “goodness” of the future.

One such bit of wisdom was “Letter 4” from Ranier Maria Rilka written to a young poet. The interim chaplain at the time emailed the piece to me and I will never forget reading it one night while “studying” in the library. I read the words “Live the questions now” and my eyes began to open to a new perspective on life and a new peace I had never previously comprehended. Rilke continues, “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The Narratician

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was…

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Highways & Hallowed Halls

HHH

Down the highway

No two inventions more significantly facilitated the transformation of American cities than the A/C grid and the mass-produced automobile: Highway in the Ozarks

Watercolor Richmond

I just stumbled upon an article in Good about a program that produces interesting maps of your favorite places all over the world. Considering how much I love maps and cities, this site made my day.

Here’s a watercolor of Richmond:

Richmond Watercolor

While I was at it, I also made one of Detroit:

Detroit watercolor

Here’s Tyler:

Tyler

And just for fun … Istanbul:

Istanbul

And Copenhagen:

Copenhagen