New festival challenges Madison’s ideas about black artists

The inaugural Black Arts Matter Festival will take place March 3 through 9.

The inaugural Black Arts Matter Festival will take place March 3 through 9.

It’s no secret that Madison’s various creative communities need to do a better job of providing a platform for black artists and other artists of color. But Shasparay Lightheard, founder of the new Black Arts Matter Festival, taking place March 3 through 9 in several venues across downtown Madison, also wants to push Madisonians to question just how black voices are represented here, and through what mediums.

“In Madison the art form I see black folks represented in most is hip-hop or rap,” says Lightheard, a poet who is currently a UW-Madison junior pursuing degrees in African American Studies and theater and is a member of UW’s First Wave hip-hop arts program. “And in terms of who they bring to Madison for concerts, they bring the rappers.”


As a result, Lightheard has spent the past year putting together a festival that focuses on black artists working in other fields, specifically theater, dance, film, and spoken word, though there’s still a place in the festival for music. Black Arts Matter’s first year will include panel discussions, a poetry-meets-choreography performance by Porsha Olayiwola at Edgewood College, a poetry slam at the Central Library, a performance of Alice Childress’ play Trouble In Mind at the Bartell, and a screening of Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, at the Central Library.

Shasparay Lightheard.

Shasparay Lightheard.

The event also addresses what Lightheard feels is a need for Madison to have a stronger sense of community among black artists, something she misses from her native Austin, Texas area. A few other new festivals have sprung up in Madison that try to serve specific constituencies and art forms and bring more youthful energy to the city’s arts scene—like the LunArt Festival, which focuses on work by contemporary female composers, and the Madison New Music Festival—but don’t necessarily target the specific need Lightheard is talking about.

“One thing I want to center the conversation around is the climate here in Madison, the representation of black art in Madison, and how artists feel in this space and how working and professional artists feel in Madison,” Lightheard says. “Can they survive in Madison, et cetera? And how do we prioritize making black art and other people of color’s art prevalent in the community?”

This interdisciplinary approach has a lot in common with that of First Wave and its Line Breaks festival, which is set to return April 3 through 7 and rolling out its own lineup soon. But Line Breaks, while offering a very good cross-section of performances that I absolutely recommend catching, just features performers who are First Wave students and reaches largely a campus-centered audience (even though it often takes place at the Overture Center). Lightheard wanted the Black Arts Matter fest to bridge divides between campus and the rest of the Madison community, so while planning it she deliberately set out to catch more off-campus events and build up relationships with a variety of venues and event organizers in town. Sarah Marty, a UW-Madison professor and a longtime member of the local theater community, currently serves as an adviser to Black Arts Matter. Madison MC and spoken-word artist Rob Dz is helping to organize the “BAM Slam.” The Bamboozled screening—at a tragically fitting time to revisit a film about blackface—is a partnership with the Madison Public Library’s Cinesthesia film series. (Full disclosure: Cinesthesia organizer Jason Fuhrman is a Tone Madison contributor.)

The whole festival comes down to five main events. While Lightheard says she’s still reaching out to musicians and other artists to take part, and plans to have a gallery of visual art up for the panel-discussion event, she’s mostly resisted the temptation to book too many acts and events. Keeping the first year super-focused, Lightheard hopes, will make it more likely that the festival can keep going after she graduates.

“What we really have to gauge is how much support the Madison community and the campus community are willing to put into this project to make it sustainable,” Lightheard says.

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