Welcome back to Cultures of Care, a special new miniseries from Who Belongs? hosted by Evan Bissell and Giovanna Fischer. This series celebrates people that practice collective care in unconventional and insurgent ways. Visit the project and read more about our interviewees at belonging.berkeley.edu/cultures-of-care.
In this episode, we hear from photographer Naima Green and DJ Rich Medina.
Naima is an artist, photographer and educator from New York. Her work is an invitation to participate, observe and consider safety, utopia and intimacy. You can view her work here at www.naimagreen.com/, and follow her on social media on Twitter @naimapatrice, and on Instagram @naimagreen.
Rich is a world-renowned, Philadelphia-based DJ, producer, poet, journalist, and lecturer on hip hop and music theory. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rich has been cultivating a vibrant online space for a globe-spanning community to gather, listen, dance, meditate, and tap into collective joy and release during a time of social isolation. You can see visit his website at richmedina.com and follow him on Instagram @richmedina.
These interviews were edited by Majo Calderon and adapted for podcast by Erfan Moradi, with original music created by Alex Lemire Pasternak. Additional music in this episode is by Mini Vandals, Bad Snacks, Emily Sprague, and Silent Partner.
Thanks for listening!
Rich: We all got different ways of moving, but we come back to these spaces and these containers that all give us this positivity and put gas in our tank to move on and move forward and get through whatever you're going through.
Naima: Being able to visualize and document and celebrate through artistic practices that future so that it's not erased or written out or so that it's not possible — in maintaining and creating these archives — it's not possible for people to say that we didn't exist in the ways that we did and that the ways that we are. To be in the archives is also about the future.
Gio: Welcome back to Cultures of Care. We have some beautiful people, practices and ideas to introduce you to in this episode. If this is your first time listening, we’re happy to have you here. Cultures of Care is where we amplify the work — and the people and practices driving the work — that is reshaping our future by centering care.
The pandemic, the uprisings of 2020 and constant stressors of the climate crisis are vivid reminders that care is an essential practice of creating belonging. At times over the last two years, care sprang up in unexpected and new ways. At other times we relied on the continuation and wisdom of long-standing practices. What we’ve seen is that care — especially collective forms of care — can connect, restore, build power and expand the possibilities of radical social transformation.
I’m Giovanna Fischer, an educator and strategist working at the intersection of creative industry and education.
Evan: And I’m Evan Bissell. I’m the Arts & Cultural Strategy coordinator at the Othering & Belonging Institute. I’m an artist, a researcher, an organizer, and a parent. I rarely include writing in how I describe myself, but in honor of this episode’s theme of expanding the archive, I’m gonna say I’m a writer too. Any dimensions about yourself you want to add to the archive Gio?
Gio: Yes, I will add that I'm a runner!
Evan: That is definitely true.
So this episode, we’re thinking a lot about the idea of archives as care. Traditionally, archives are pretty uncaring things. I think about the ways that they're used to reinforce a dominant form of power or erase history. These are your marble-staircase-and-column archives that only allow a single story. Apparently, the word archive comes from the ancient Greek, arkheion, which means “the house of the ruler.” So there’s a lot of baggage to the term archive.
But I also think of archive — and the process of creating an archive for oneself or one’s community — as a process of self-knowledge and consciousness. One of my all time favorite quotes is from Antonio Gramsci. It goes like this, it's a little bit wordy so just bear with me:
“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.”
I love this quote. When I first read it, it was really in Edward Said's Orientalism. The first time I read it, it made me think about the way that we have this infinity of invisible threads that are kind of connected to my body or coming off my body: some of them stretch back multiple generations and some of them stretch back to when I was a kid; some of them happened yesterday; some of them are pulling me forward and some of them are dragging me down and some of them are lifting me up. And it's really only through starting to sort through all of those threads — those infinity of traces — and starting to understand them and put them into an inventory that I start to understand myself and start to understand my own place in history.
That's the type of archives that I think we're leaning into today.
Gio: Yes. Let this episode be a call for us to look at our own archives but also get into the archives that so many people are building in this moment in time.
Rich Medina, a DJ and music scholar, and Naima Green, a photographer and educator, are deeply involved in compiling inventories in ways that people can access, find themselves, and celebrate life. In this way, they are cultivating and expanding the archives by which we come to know ourselves today and for future generations. Their practices expand belonging by using their mediums to shape and reshape what is the archive.
And we’ll start this conversation with Naima Green.
Naima: How can I make work that centers the experiences of Black and Brown people, that centers the experiences of queer people, that centers the experiences of women and do that in a way that feels abundant and emerging and adaptive so that people don't feel fixed within their understanding of who they are and what the possibilities can be?
Evan: Naima Green is an artist, photographer and educator from New York. Her work is an invitation to participate, observe, and consider safety, utopia and intimacy.
Naima: Through the act of portraiture, you are able to look closely and observe people. I had never really centered my own figure or my own body in my work until a few years ago for multiple reasons. I just didn't want to, but I think I also didn't want to do the type of intentional looking that I do with other people on myself.
So I think one of the ways that I feel freed by the act of portraiture is starting to work in self-portraiture in 2017, and then also really starting to concretely think about power and power dynamics and control within photography and thinking about ways to loosen that.
I feel like this work allows me to be expansive and allows me to challenge my own understandings of who I thought I needed to be versus who I am. I think that's what photography requires and portraiture requires: vulnerability, and the ability to establish and a desire to establish intimacy.
In 2017, I began a project called Attraction Experiment. And I invited people who I'm attracted to — which ranges from friends to exes to people that I didn't really know well but I was drawn to them in some capacity — to make a portrait alongside them. To participate they had to provide me instructions. So with Attraction Experiment, I was able to completely submit to whatever the kind of written text was, of what they wanted me to do, and then also know that that experience and experiment was short. Because it was short, I felt really safe to be a big and bold actor as well and have a lot of fun with it.
That work and that series — I actually don't show it except for when I'm giving artist talks — but it really opened up so much for me and like what I'm able to do and how I'm able to see myself. And so I was really able to see myself completely outside of my own understanding of self. And that, at the time, was such a such a gift for me.
I don't think that I would make the work that I make, or I'm interested in making, if it weren't coming from a place of care. I see it as integral: I see it as integral as a teacher, I see it as integral as an artist. And for me, those things are absolutely interconnected and intertwined.
The care and desire to see the communities around me and to honor the people around me is what motivates me to continue making the work. Because I see areas where there are gaps or there are absences or holes of information. And usually around the communities that I am a part of because I think that I'm always in conversation with the historical in some way or the other — whether I'm looking at it and wanting to add to what already exists or I'm wanting to challenge what those representations look like.
And then in terms of art making, being able to visualize and document and celebrate through artistic practices that future so that it's not erased or written out, or so that it's not possible — in maintaining and in creating these archives — that it's not possible for people to say that we didn't exist in the way that we did and that the ways that we are right now.
To be in the archives is also about the future.
One message that I got that really just like cut to my heart-center was a DM [direct message] from a young person who said, “you know, I live in a place where it's not okay to be queer, and I don't feel affirmed in my identity in any way. Someone sent me the deck and I feel less alone.” And that was such a powerful message to receive because I'm one of those people who is really hard on themselves, and that message came on a day when I was feeling really down. I just remember being like, “oh shit, like this is having a whole life outside of me,” and that's so beautiful — that there are so many people that this might touch that I'll never know about.
I have a friend who has sat now three times for a photoshoot. She said to me, “This work has been helping me get closer to who I am and who I wanna be and how I see myself and how I wanna see myself. Allowing you to look at me has been so challenging.”
For this to take up — in some way, in some circles, in some communities — a prominent space, of being able to see your community or see your girlfriend or your ex or your friend, and then see them in this deck of cards that you can keep in your pocket and keep with you at all times, and then also see them large on a museum wall in a space where most of the people I know have never even dreamt of seeing themselves inside a museum. It really opens up a lot of ways of thinking about the way that we can take up space.
“Jewels from the Hinterland” specifically, that work is about picturing people of the African diaspora in lush urban green spaces to challenge notions of who belongs in these spaces, how we belong, how we can be situated in them, and to prioritize visualizing leisure and rest and gentleness and play. So when I'm in a new green space or environment, I'm most frequently drawn towards the things that are like all-consuming green, that are overgrown, you know, magnolias in full bloom, and thinking about the delicateness of nature and pairing that in relationship with Black people and Black figures.
“& Full of Dreams Too” is a project that I made at the end of 2020 with the Northeast Sculpture Center. They have a billboard project that they started in response to George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis. Initially I said no. My work does not directly work with death; in fact, I'm actively trying to think about and celebrate life. I am just such a sensitive person. I feel like ever since I saw — I'm gonna say — earlier murders in 2016 when so many children were being killed, I was so deeply depressed after not even searching for those things, but stumbling upon them, so I had to basically change all of my internet settings.
When William [at Northeast Sculpture Center] asked me again, I remember that I was in control of what the visual would be. And so I didn't want the figure, any figure, any body to be forced to do any work basically in the billboard. So I started thinking about images that I have just of green space and pairing it with a textural element rather than a portrait.
And so just thinking about that moment that leads us somewhere but we don't know where we are, we don't know where we're being led to, it feels like some sort of opening. My hope is that people can see themselves within that environment.
And then the text, you know, across the billboard says “& full of dreams too.” We never hear about what they dreamed about, what they wanted to be, what the possibilities were for their life. So it felt really important to center that: that yes, we can be daughters and partners and students and grocery clerks and whatever. But we also have dreams and those identities of my job or my role or who I'm in relationship with cannot tell you what my life was about.
Evan: One of the things that I keep reflecting on after our conversation with Naima is the way that specificity is really important to expanding belonging because it gets into who we really are. And I think that what I see in Naima’s work is that who we are is many things all at once and if we can’t honor those, it's not really belonging. As a photographer, I think that's a really hard thing to do. But Naima does it through creating this intimacy and trust and care for the people she photographs. She was describing her uses of color, her uses of texture, and the types of settings she creates that allow people to bring different parts of themselves out. No matter what the landscape is or what the background is, they always feel lush in their feeling. It's such a beautiful thing because you see all of these different dimensions of people showing up in the way that she photographs.
Gio: Yes! And I think about Attraction Experiment specifically — she speaks a little bit to the discomfort of like looking at herself with all of the details, and looking at herself with the specificity. I think it's something that I can relate to, like what if you were to give yourself that much attention. And I think when you're attracted to someone or something, you do notice all of those details, you see those. And it's an invitation of sorts to pay attention to those details in ourselves and push beyond the discomfort if we can.
Evan: Yeah. She can bring people there because she creates that container for them to show up and I think it's a container where people feel like they do belong — whether it's to the process that they're engaged in or they belong to themselves or whatever it is, and that really comes through that care she's doing that allows those many dimensions to come out.
Gio: Speaking of dimensions, one thing that I’ve really missed in this pandemic is dancing in a club, in a party. Just that shared feeling of joy and release. It's been such an important community and social space for me. I mean New York, Rich's parties. When the objective is simply to move, to feel, no pretense — I'm longing for all of those feelings at once.
Evan: That space — just dancing, no pretense, no pretentiousness — it's a really hard thing to create, and Rich does it in a pretty amazing way. When lockdown first set in, I didn’t realize how long it would be until I could return to that space. And I think of all the people that would be there dancing around us and I would have recognized at different parties or out dancing or whatever for over a decade, right, and I'm like what are you all doing? Where are you right now? Are you still finding some of that joy?
Gio: Yeah, you've been thinking about when it starts up again. If. When. How. Who knows?
Gio: One of the things that we’ve been thinking about a lot with Cultures of Care are the ways people create opportunities — like the club — for these micro-connections, for these interactions with one another. In public health, we call these ‘weak-tie’ relationships, and it turns out they’re a really important protective health factor — potentially even more so than our deep relationships. A lot of these micro-connections and weak ties have been cut off during Covid and so we have been looking at ways that people are cultivating these in the absence of shared physical spaces.
Evan: Yeah, one of the ones that was really a unique offering in 2020 and 2021 was broadcast online multiple times a week from Rich Medina’s basement in Philadelphia. I would tune in frequently to this community of dancers and listeners who would chat and hop on the video to dance “with each other” across this online platform. It was this way to be seen and see each other from our homes. One of the things that was really wonderful was that in every show there were these spark-like moments where all of a sudden the chat would light up with all of these emojis because Rich had played this one record. Somehow he had sensed where the hundred or so, few hundred people scattered all over the world and tuned in, Rich had sensed where they needed to go sonically, and he took everyone there. This was like across genres or time periods or geographies of sound. There were these beautiful moments where people felt connected somehow across all this space in the middle of all this isolation.
Gio: Rich Medina is a world-renowned, Philadelphia-based DJ, producer, poet, journalist, and lecturer on hip hop and music history. He talked to us about the role of care in the spaces he convenes, his cultivation of the archive and much more. Stay with us.
Rich: A record that has soothed me in 2020? Man, every record that I bought and put on a machine in front of a group of people is the record that soothes me in 2020. But if I had to pick something, I would go back to old faithful, which is my favorite song ever, and that is "Sunday and Sister Jones" by Roberta Flack.
Music has always been a safety net, a roof, insulation, muscle, savior, physical healing, mental healing, spiritual healing, you name it.
I grew up in a Baptist church. If you know anything about the Baptist Church: without music, there is no worship. But in a Baptist church, without melody, harmony, and rejoicing, we have nothing to talk about. That's what we're there for.
The Black church is rooted in the clandestine congregation, which is where we went to pray to the gods and the beliefs that were denied to us in our service as slaves. So there is a musical and celebratory element to it, because the rest of our lives at one point was all labor, all work for free. So you go hearing the swing of Black music and the sideways bounce of gospel music versus military music, and all of those things is rooted in celebration and rooted in finding solace in things that are free of solace by design, you know?
People spend six days a week being a heathen, and then get dressed on a Sunday in their Sunday best and go stand in a building and testify to justify all the bullshit they did all week. Sunday, they are indeed in a clean tether to whatever it is that they believe that's above them. The way that I've experienced that is through music. My grandmother was the choir director of our church. My grandfather was the deacon of that church, and my grandfather built nine churches in New Jersey in the thirties and forties.
When they kept writing and arithmetic away from us, what did we have except labor and creativity to pass the time? It's almost like the behavior of someone who was on a prison yard — is it not? Ain't no instruments in there but you gonna find a way to get some rhythm in your life. You're gonna find a way to get to something that's gonna give you something that can help you see over that wall.
I was born in '69, I was the first person in my family, first generation out of the third Civil Rights Era. So we was doing a lot of fucking celebrating. You know what I mean? And it came through that route, so it's always been a piece of my fabric.
A club kid finds god in every mix that makes them do a more difficult move than they did the last time they got to step in the circle. The cool guy pulling his back off the wall five songs into ice grilling everybody within ten feet of him for those first five songs is dealing with something divine. It's above him, he is now compelled. He gets touched by that cadence or by that girl who — she might not be the best dancer in the room, but she don't give a shit what you think about how she looks — she's in the spirit, she's speaking in tongues. She's in a whole other place, and she makes the cool guy realize that he ain't got all the answers.
So it is a congregation, it is an ecosystem. We do feed off of each other, it's tribal, it's call-and-response. It's a secular congregation, though, it is a congregation, we're just not speaking directly to a higher power verbally or calling on a higher power to provide us with what we feel we're not being provided or to speak to them about our understanding that if we just toil through this in the everlasting on, we will be with Him.
It's because of that congregation, it's because of that church, and that space is rooted in care: self-care, care for others, piety, nobility, right and wrong, up and down, the fact that your savior was a hustler — a Brown one at that — and that's where we have these beautiful spaces that let us know how the world is really working.
To lose the institution of the party is gonna put the people that really thrive on the existence of the party in a position to pirate that party, you know? It's pirate radio at that point. We're gonna squat it. You don't want to give us the space to get busy? We're gonna squat it. While we're squatting it, if you don't approach us with a certain vocabulary, we're gonna confront you, because you're bringing confrontation. We don't want no smoke, but we got a couple smoke machines, if you wanna play like that.
Just let us be, and let us have our space. We're over here minding our own business, and actually, adding to the social and emotional GNP of your life, and you don't even know it. So, leave me alone. Let me do what I'm doing, 'cause what I'm doing is good for the world. Just because it doesn't fit in a construct and you can't monetize it, and you can't see the value in it because it doesn't touch you emotionally in the same way, doesn't mean them frequencies ain't enhancing your life. So you should be glad that we're here.
Even when the world opens back up, the tentativeness of the human nature and the nastiness of the systems that we function under, the old world that you think you're going back to is actually going to be the working definition of the new world order, and part of that begs of us to embrace technology and embrace methods that we can reach audiences without physically being in the same place. And to monetize that, if you can, and to try to make that virtual space as human as possible, because that's the whole quest for fire with social networks anyway — a social space that's not social.
We're gonna double backwards on that theory and actually make it truly social where it's not just, I'm not just social with my thumbs or with my index fingers, but I'm social with my presence. And when you go to one of my parties on my Twitch page, if you're paying attention to the chat, you can get on a Zoom and put your camera where you want it, and if you're dancing and you're enjoying yourself and I see it in the gallery view, you become the person who is now inside the party with me, showing the world that I can be tethered to this person without being in the same place and get touched by all those frequencies and all of those vibrations, and all those... that translative stuff, and all that fire and brimstone, and all that secular preaching, and all that hustler talk that comes into making people come together.
So we have to redefine what together is.
We all got different ways of moving, but we come back to these spaces and these containers that all give us this positivity and give us this, put gas in our tank to move on and move forward and get through whatever you're going through. For all the reasons that you guys are bringing out in this conversation — the bulk of my world is rooted in gatherings and meetings and congregations of folks that are like-minded or they're bringing folks that they want to turn their minds to what this thing is and why it's so good for them. You bring your friends that have never been to turn them on.
People died so that I can utilize the education that I've been given and the life experience that the people before me fortified me with, to speak to revisionist history with gusto. That's my job. Everything else is tertiary to having the wherewithal to speak to revisionist history and cognitive dissonance with gusto — with the gusto of an executive, with the gusto of a man that has a PhD in being Black, and how women's plight and Brown people's plight has been parallel in the eyes of the white man, because both Brown people and women are still playing from behind on the aggregate.
So I feel obligated, I feel extremely obligated to that task of presenting that point as best I can, as often as I can, because I have the information and if I take it with me, I wasted everybody's fucking time.
I mean, I'm an archivist, I'm sitting in my archive of the things that have carried me through my life, some of those things. The archiving of performance, at this point, that's the only money you have to put in the bank, is proof that you were there, proof that you did it. That's why you go to the library, to get a book on some shit that you don't have direct access to.
We as makers, we as educators have the ability now with technology set up the way it is to document every single thing that we do, and so those of us in job capacities that are, by default, contributory to the notion of care and the notion of uplifting and helping people, that documentation is the thing that would bear well for us in a figurative court, with a judge of a jury of our peers, if we had to prove that our point is correct or not. It's the only thing we have next to money, to put us in a position to prove our point.
Evan: So I just have to say that one of the most thoughtful and caring gifts I got in 2021 was actually that Roberta Flack album on vinyl for my birthday that Rich mentions.
Rich: "...old faithful, 'Sunday and Sister Jones' by Roberta Flack..."
Evan: So, Giovanna, I just have to say thank you for that. It's such a beautiful album. What has stuck with you since our conversation with Rich other than that Roberta Flack album and track?
Gio: There's one line that I think about all the time specifically when I'm just yearning for a party: he talks about how the club kid finds god every time he steps into the circle, and it just speaks to the energy, to the spirit! And while I'm not a club kid — I haven't heard those stripes yet — I connect with that feeling. I connect with the feeling of the club being a spiritual space, being a church of sorts, and that being created by everybody coming together and the specific energy that's formed when you have a lot of people there who are devoted to the same thing — and in that space that's music.
Evan: Totally. I mean, that was one of the things that really stuck with me was the way that Rich draws that lineage between the clandestine congregation and the pirated party — or just the party itself — without conflating the different contexts of those things, but really just speaking to the way that those collective spaces provide spaces for joy and celebration and connection — really as sustenance in the oftentimes difficult and violent realities of life.
The other thing I've been thinking about with Rich's interview was just the way that his parties are this educational space. So they become kind of this living archive of a tradition of Black music rooted in self-determination and cultural sovereignty. So it's kind of like going to a Rich party is in some of ways kind of like going to a library and asking the librarian, "What should I be reading?" or "What should I be looking at?" and he'll put out a couple records and put them on and you find yourself down this other little rabbit hole.
Gio: Yeah, and the pleasure of being put on — put on to something new, not knowing what it is, being curious about it. Yeah, I miss the moments where many people at the party went there because they wanted to be put on, they wanted to learn.
Evan: Yeah, it's like a portal into a whole [other world]. it's like "let me start researching that music, or that time period," or whatever it is, and it takes you on a whole different path.
Gio: Naima Green and Rich Medina remind us of the power in creating inventories of the past and present, and how these become ways to care for ourselves and for those who will come after us. Celebration, joy, intimacy, the party… these are all important parts of the archive and they’re essential to caring for our whole selves. So maybe play a bit. What selfie would you take just to see a new part of yourself? What part of yourself goes good with a velvety forest green? When was the last time you had a dance party with a few friends you haven’t seen in months? These are just a few more elements of cultures of care.
We will be back soon. However, in the meantime if you want to deepen into this conversation, you can find all the profiles, essays, learning guides, videos and more at the Cultures of Care website.
Evan: You can also just go to the Othering & Belonging Institute website, just search it on Google and you'll find it. Or drop us a line if you want to connect with Giovanna or myself, or tag us on Instagram @otheringandbelonging or twitter at @oandbinstitute and shout out your own cultures of care activities with the hashtag #culturesofcare. We only talked to nine people in this round — there's a lot more out there.
Cultures of Care is produced by myself, Evan Bissell —
Gio: and me, Giovanna Fischer.
Evan: Erfan Moradi on podcast edits, Majo Calderon on interview edits. Alex Lemire Pasternak on music. Additional music credits can be found in the show notes. Many thanks to the Hewlett Foundation for their support in making this possible. Cultures of Care is a project of the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Thanks for being with us. I hope you get out there and dance, take some photos, notice some textures. We'll see you next episode!