Esperanza Spalding won her fifth Grammy this year for best jazz vocal album for Songwrights Apothecary Lab. But since Spalding moved back to her hometown of Portland during the pandemic, she’s been working on a different kind of project: establishing what she calls a sanctuary for BIPOC artists to gather and create. She’s now raised $300,000 to purchase a space in North Portland. We talk with Spalding about her creative vision for this BIPOC artist sanctuary.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy award-winning bassist and singer and composer and educator, and Portlander, wants to put down even deeper roots in her home city. She plans to create what she calls a sanctuary for Black, Indigenous and other artists of color. She’s raised $300,000 to purchase a space in North Portland and she joins us now to talk about her vision. Welcome to the show.
Esperanza Spalding: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Miller: It’s great to have you on. Can you describe overall your vision for this land?
Spalding: Well, I wanted an inviting space where people in my community will feel welcome to complete a relationship to land, and in relationship to each other through their artworks. I was longing for a place like that and I didn’t see a place like that explicitly in Portland. So I decided I could continue cultivating the practice that I had started in 2020.
Miller: What happened in 2020? What did you start then, two years ago?
Spalding: Well, I started recovering from what would be this ongoing thing called the pandemic. But when I came back to Oregon after campus shut down, Harvard campus shut down, I was noticing this longing amongst me and my friends in the artist community to just gather together without an agenda, and be in our creative practices together, and share our prayers, and share our visions together. So, out in Wasco County, Oregon, I invited 10 artists to come do a month-long residency/retreat. And I basically used the funds for my record advance to facilitate that, to fund that residency. And it really was an experiment, in a larger continuum of questions that I’m holding and we’re holding, around how do we create space for each other? How do we create nourishing, generative space and relationship to land, to do our works? And from that month-long residency was like a crash course and everything, mostly NOT what to do, and an affirmation that this is something TO do.
Miller: I’m curious about both of those lessons: it seems like mainly it was the negative lessons which can be really helpful, ‘don’t do this again’. So what were some of the things that you learned not to do?
Spalding: Well, A) not have too much of an agenda or an expected outcome, that we know what we need. We may not have the language for it, it may not be up on our vision board, but I noticed that when artists and community are — and sometimes not even yet in community — get together and encounter each other with enough spaciousness and support around them to really feel free, and versatile, and how they want to spend the time, we figure out what we need to do, and what we’re there for.
Miller: As opposed to saying, ‘let’s do this particular collaboration’. ‘Let’s get together and make this thing.’ Spalding: That part, yes. Or I want you to give me a work in exchange for your time here. Sometimes the most productive thing for a cultural worker, which is a term I like to use to describe artists, is to rest. And dreaming, and being listening. That is really highly necessary. And I’m going to use the word ‘productive’ because I feel that we’re familiar with it, but that’s sometimes the most needed activity for a person who’s doing cultural work. Also to get out of this cycle and habituation, that we have to earn the right to spend time well somewhere. So kind of releasing that ask of people who have gathered. And then one of the other big big big learns was, it takes a lot of infrastructure and support for a person to feel really held, and spacious, and be able to relax. Let their guard down. Just kind of settle into place and start to think about how they want to use that time. So that was another carry over from that time in the development of the sanctuary here: I need to go really slow, really slow, and just make sure that, as my friend Brontë Velez would say, have 10 times more support than I think we need to do anything that we’re intending to do. And of course, countless more that are just experiential learning day by day, hour by hour. But those are two that I feel I can articulate well for this context.
Miller: I’m curious to go back to your initial ideas. You had access to this place in Wasco County, and you had some money from this advance, when you chose to spend that money, which is your money, to bring a bunch of other people to spend time there with you. How much of that was for you, because you wanted to be in community with other artists in this place, and how much of it was as a pure gift to those other artists?
Spalding: First, it was a gift to myself. I’m clear about that and happy to articulate that. Most of this is emerging from my understanding that that’s where I’m healthiest. I’m healthiest surrounded by love and company, particularly creative folks and family who feel well, who feel supported, and feel like they can relax and be in their spaciousness as creatives. So this was the environment that I wanted to be in for a month. I needed to be in that environment, and it was growing out of this conversation, conversations and zoom calls, and much more phone calls than normal, because we were missing each other, and wanting to be together. And then, I was learning about how many artists were also longing to be in community, so it’s like it’s a prayer for myself that only works when other beings are involved in it, because they want it too, right? So it’s a gift to . . . it doesn’t feel like a ratio, like how much is this a gift for myself and for others. We’re implicated in the same longing. The prayer encompasses all of us. So when I’m responding to the prayer for myself, it encompasses my community. And if I’m showing up to provide that space for community, it has to also encompass the prayer for myself. So it didn’t seem like a very complex decision. And just about what IS a record advance? I mean, is it REALLY my money? At this point in the continuum of labels, like how much of that money [are] royalties that probably from some decades ago, probably belonged to somebody else, some other artists, and I have the privilege at this point in my career to be able to receive them as a lump sum, because the company projects that I’ll earn them a profit. You know what I mean? But to me, it’s like we’re in such a long continuum of artists inspiring each other and supporting each other that, yes, it’s my quote-unquote money for my record advance, but also there’s no way to measure and budget what I have received that’s benefited my art, and my ability to make a living from being in proximity and community with people who inspire me.
Miller: It’s so fascinating to me and moving, to imagine that when you look at that check or thought about that money, even at that time, you couldn’t escape the idea that the artists who came before, especially say Black musicians, they didn’t get those checks.
Spalding: Well, hello! Square one. And I’m still in that continuum. I’m still benefiting from, I don’t know who all of the artists in the pantheon of musicians [are] who have nourished my development as an artist, did and didn’t have great publishing deals with their labels. That would be a research beyond the time I want to give to it in this lifetime. But I do know that there’s enough, I can sort of generally assume and assess, that this money is being drawn from a pool that was filled by sweat and labor that wasn’t properly compensated. You know? So yes, there’s that strand is always there when I’m receiving funds from Harvard, or from a label, or from venues or from a lot of places in the United States. Which isn’t to say that I still want the check to be in my name and all that jazz, like I’m still caught up in using capital to do things I wanna do. But I guess I feel myself in a continuum. And I feel that the artists that I love the most, were often modeling how their accumulated capital could be extended to support the health of the community that they thrived within. And I guess it’s exciting as a young person, as an artist, to get into that practice myself. It seems really obvious, and really natural, considering the lineage that I identify myself within.
Miller: Well, while we’re talking about capital, let’s talk about real estate. What has the process been like for you? You had this idea, you had this experience in Washington County and broader experience of needing and wanting to create community and thrive in community, and so you had this idea for getting land and creating something in Portland, and then you actually, you had to raise money to have that happen. What has that process been like?
Spalding: I will speak to that. But first, I just want to clarify, I’m not making community or intending to make community. Nobody has the power to do that. We can lend our energy towards curating space, or supporting space, or participating in space that lends itself to community gathering, and expressing itself as community, but just to be clear, I can’t make [community], nobody has that power. I’m within community, and I see a way that working with this space, I can make it available for the needs that I can recognize. So far, amidst the people, the artists, people that I’m in community with, but they they and we and I and you, we make the community when we gather in space and show up for each other. So just to clarify . . .
Miller: I appreciate it’s more like a garden. You can set the stage for it. You can tend it, you can help it to happen, but it is an organic thing and you are not creating it yourself out of whole cloth.
Spalding: That part. That part. That part. And it requires every part, every part in it. Even the parts that you might think are unpleasant or uncomfortable or unsavory. Just like any healthy ecosystem. You might think, ‘well, I want to grow these five things here.’ And the ecosystem’s ‘Like baby, we already had a thing going on here and it’s gonna keep doing this thing no matter how much you try to weed us or assert your vision on the space.’ And I feel part of the beauty of being a fledgling community . . . artists within community, I’ll say that. Really learning how to really show up in community, and really learn what those words even mean, artists and community. It’s really beautiful to get all my edges acknowledged, heightened, highlighted, held accountable and showing me the ways that actually like the rubbing and the differences and the quote-unquote “weeding” and the weeds: all of these real phenomena that emerged from human beings, being in intimacy with each other – I don’t mean obviously romantic or sexual intimacy, just interpersonal intimacy – that is community. [name is inaudible] says that it’s not community until it gets messy. And just allowing grace and space around the elements that maybe don’t fit neatly into these clean fantasies of what quote-unquote community is. Anyway, to answer the question about land in Portland, Oregon. I thought I had enough in my bank account to get a mortgage. And maybe I would have if this property wasn’t so particular, but essentially where I was at as a human financially because I never was in debt. So all I had was cash in my savings account and a job at Harvard, and I guess my reputation, that wasn’t enough for me to get a mortgage on this house, which was really interesting. And I am a member of a credit union, and they weren’t willing to be flexible, to figure out a way to make it work. And it was about four months of a lot of strain and a lot of stress, and a lot of just ridiculous, if it’s all about this code of like who can and can’t get credit, which is the story that I was being told again and again and again. And all these roadblocks and obstacles at one point my agent, the person who’s working with the credit was, ‘what about your Netflix bill?’ And I’m thinking ‘Hold up! So the fact that I work at Harvard, I have the down payment in cash, I have enough savings that I can show that I can pay for this house with a mortgage, that doesn’t matter? But my Netflix bill is what’s gonna make or break this agreement?’
Miller: It’s like talking about avocado toast, or shaming people about that, when we’re talking about gigantic economic issues of millennials, and changes in the way society is built.
Spalding: That part. It was shocking. And I think part of what it did was turned me towards community, and turned me towards like this larger constellation of people who would care and offer support. So that was really beautiful. But it also turned on this kind of righteous anger of who in the world is getting mortgages out here? If I can’t get a mortgage for this property, which clearly is valuable, who was out here getting these mortgages? Because I seemed like a fully worthy candidate, and it just highlighted all of these fault lines and intentional fault lines in the landscape, and the terrain of navigating your way towards the quote-unquote security of owning a home, that has to do with if you’ve been able to have credit, like who can be your co-signer, like what kind of inherited wealth are you carrying that can be measured, and in the absence of all three of those things, it was just like basically I was getting ‘sorry’ again and again and again. And my cousin Lakisha Elliott was seeing me in the death throes of this process, and I was about to throw in the towel because it was just exhausting. And then I’m thinking, ‘wow, what if I had a kid? Wow, what if I worked 9 to 5, or what if I had two jobs? What if I couldn’t make these hours and hours of time of battling with these institutions available for myself?’ So that like limits even further. Who’s getting these damn mortgages?’ Anyways. Finally, my cousin was, ‘why don’t you just ask community to help you?’ And that was the turning point. So then I said, okay I guess I’ll do a Go Fund Me. And I was able to raise most of the additional outstanding funding, in addition to my savings. And then this fairy angel donor showed up and paid the difference and I was able to, well the LLC that is the sanctuary entity, was able to purchase this place.
Miller: Physically, can you describe what you have in mind for this space?
Spalding: Yes. Currently, and it’s very similar to what was on all of the kind of the deck about this project that was in the fundraiser. I’m envisioning a food growing space, so about a half-acre farm for food [or] forest, combination of the two. A rehearsal space, studio space, music-based work space, a space for salons, small gatherings, small workshops, classes, dinners and some small artist studio spaces where artists can come be in their space and work and spend time with each other and with the land or just in privacy. That’s what’s needed. And part of why that is so luminous to me or like vibrant to me as the offering of the space or as a practice of the space, is because most residencies have a super long turnaround time between when you can apply, when they approve you, that when you can go they’re often out of town. And I think that makes them really inaccessible to people where and when they actually need the space and know they need the time of space. So part of the hope is that it can greatly reduce that time between when you recognize that you just need respite, or you just need some time to write or compose or whatever. And when you can access space that supports you in that way.
Miller: Are you thinking that artists of all kinds are going to have to apply then, to spend time there. Are you going to have to be a kind of gatekeeper?
Spalding: I won’t be. I don’t know what that process is gonna be like yet. I’m really excited to start by the practice of showing up for community and I know many of these people’s names, I know who they are, I know that they’re in community, and I feel by word of mouth and community, that’s a place where we can start. And then what happened in 2020 with that month-long residency, a lot of it will be looking to how people have done it before. That seemed to work well, and trial and error. So I don’t know yet exactly what that process will be. But I know we are a growing team of staff for the sanctuary. So my goal is to take myself all the way out of it eventually. So it can really evolve and respond to the shape of what’s needed. I call myself a curator. I call myself an inaugural curator. I plan to be that curator for the next 5.5 years. So it’s the shape that in five years from now, it’s like ‘that’s what Esperanza saw!’ That’s my curational offering of what artist sanctuary in this space could look like. And then I pray by then I can remove myself, and the staff and the directors and the beings who are surrounding this work with structure and love and presence, can help usher it towards what other shapes are needed through the lens of other curators.
Miller: What does it mean to you to be doing this in Portland?
Spalding: There’s no way to fully answer that question, because that’s such a multifaceted sensation. What does it mean? I don’t think I ever thought I would live permanently in Portland again. So part of it is noticing what home actually means to me. That is really different than what it meant when I had a little apartment with roommates in New York. That here, when there’s like land to be experienced so intimately, it’s about wanting to be with the people I love and know, with the land making are good things that we’re trying to make. And it also means reckoning with occupying stolen land. It means reckoning with my identity and privilege and access, as a quote-unquote US citizen, as a person born here. And it’s stated in the original materials about the sanctuary. I’ll say it here with the full caveat that this is a process. That in addition to this space being a practice of how do we learn to make our art and our working good relationship with the community and land, it’s also how can our work really show up and be a de-colonial practice: but NOT a metaphor for de-colonial practice as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would say. Not a metaphor for colonialism, for de-colonizing – or hopefully not a metaphor for colonialism either – but not a metaphor for de-colonizing but an ACTUAL de-colonial practice. And I know that beings in my community, artists of color, Black folks are starting to orient around this question of like ‘wow, what does our liberation look like in conversation with, in collaboration with, an allie-ship with native community, with peoples of Turtle Island, people of this land, communities of this land, motives and dreams and visions and liberation struggles on this land. And so for me, as a Portland quote-unquote “native”, we use that word so as a person who is born here, it’s also an invitation for me personally, and it’s my community, to reckon with what a de-colonial arts practice could actually look like.
Miller: Esperanza Spalding, it was a pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with this project and I hope we can talk again.
Spalding: Thank you.
Miller: That is the world-renowned musician and educator and Portlander, Esperanza Spalding.
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