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The second Black Arts Matter Festival adapts and centers queer artists

Poetry and music combine in this year’s live-streamed event.

Poetry and music combine in this year’s live-streamed event.

Photo: Shasparay Irvin. Photo by Erin Plummer.

Madison-based slam poet Shasparay Irvin’s Black Arts Matter Festival has entered its second iteration in a drastically different landscape, and Irvin is adapting the structure of the already ambitious event. 

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The inaugural Black Arts Matter Festival took place in February 2019 at venues across the city, including the Bartell Theatre, Edgewood College and, the Central Library. Its goal: to introduce Madison audiences to aspects of Black art they might not have considered or been exposed to in the past.  

“I think that definitely worked,” says Irvin, who noted the most engaged demographic for last year’s festival was white people in their 30s through 60s. In 2018, Irvin was named the 10th ranking slam poet in the world at the Individual World Poetry Slam. Her travels for national performances combined with knowledge from arts administration and theatre production classes at UW-Madison prepared her to envision the festival and make it a reality. 

“I was traveling almost every weekend and I realized there was a lack of that opportunity in Madison,” Irvin says. “I have always believed that you should create the space you wish existed. So I decided, ‘Why not me?’ and went from there and decided to create a platform for artists.”

This year, with the arts at a near standstill as venues remain closed and artists are unable to tour due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, Irvin re-thought the Black Arts Matter Festival’s mission and presentation. 

“My goal was to safely present artists and to support artists. Believing ‘Black arts matter’ means paying Black artists,” Irvin says. “My goal this year was to definitely give a platform for them. It’s an opportunity to feel community from wherever you are.” 

The festival, co-presented with the Wisconsin Union Theater, consists of three online events, November 5, 12 and 19. On November 12, jazz saxophonist, vocalist, and songwriter Braxton Cook will stream a live performance and give a tutorial on the looping techniques he uses in his smooth fusion of R&B and jazz. All the latter events will livestream and be available for later viewing on the Wisconsin Union’s YouTube and the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Facebook page.

The final event on November 19 is a slam poetry competition. Last year’s in-person slam at Black Arts Matter was a standing-room only hit, Irvin says—25 poets competed in a preliminary round, followed by a final slam. Due to the pandemic, this year’s event is invitational, a change from last year’s open registration. The lineup is stocked with well-known poets who have “accolades upon accolades,” Irvin says: Julissa Emile, Akeem Rollins, Tony McPherson, Justice Ameer, Gabriel Rameriez, RADI, Natasha Hooper, and Janae Johnson

“I made sure that I prioritized queer, trans and nonbinary voices this year,” Irvin says. “So I reached out specifically not only to people who have high respect or accolades within the fields but also represent and bring diversity.” The eight slam poets will compete for the title of the Black Arts Matter Slam Champion and cash prizes. 

The 2020 Black Arts Matter Festival kicked off November 5 with spoken word artist Ebony Stewart’s one-woman show, “Ocean.” Stewart conveniently had a pre-recorded performance of the multimedia story of her journey from girlhood to womanhood, dedicated to Yemayá, the Yorúbá Orìṣà, or Goddess of the living ocean. 

Streaming the festival will likely lower viewership from older locals, Irvin says. Yet the festival may have a larger reach as fans of the well-known artists on the ticket tune in from across the country. 

Though a similar event wouldn’t likely stand out as much in a larger city, Madison seems to appreciate and celebrate the Black Arts Matter Festival, Irvin says. 

“One of the purposes of this event is to present Black arts in predominantly white spaces because art challenges people and helps them reflect. For me, that is important work as an art activist, and I think that the festival is successful because of the lack of diversity in the [Madison] area. Presenting it in Madison was definitely a disruption—something that was surprising and exciting,” Irvin says.

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