My Introduction to Nina Simone

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Back in 2009, my girlfriend and I met each other in Atlanta, Georgia for a weekend of fun and to get fitted for bridesmaid dresses. One afternoon, we stumbled upon the art district, Little Five Points and wandered into an attractive shop called Moods Music. I got really excited. This was the first music store I had ever gone to, that catered to my personal tastes. It was amazing! I wanted to buy the entire store, but settled for a really wonderful CD by Quadron and a copy of Wax Poetics Magazine that I cherish to this day with Gil Scott- Heron on the cover. Since I liked this magazine so much, a friend of mine, who has always gotten me the best and most thoughtful gifts, decided to buy me a subscription to Wax Poetics for my birthday. On the cover of the 1st issue I received was Ms. Nina Simone. Reading the article, I fell in love with her spirit. They dubbed her “the Black poetess of protest.” I learned that she was a child piano prodigy, was great friends with Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Pryor, and Lorraine Hansberry, and that most people who came into contact with her thought she was fearless and revolutionary. They say, Nina Simone didn’t give a fuck, meaning, she was going to do her thing no matter what. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do on this woman who had an attitude that I could relate to. I wrote and performed a tribute to Nina Simone soon after I read this, and I have listened to her music since, mostly adoring the unconventional sound of her voice and her unapologetic lyrics. We are forever connected, Ms. Simone.

Peace & love.

Thank you for reading,

Shila Iris

My Introduction to David Banner

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black-history_feb-19_copyright-shila-iris-2017Transformation is possible. He used to be vulgar, ruled by his lower self- arrogant, over-sexed, chasing money, starved for attention, allowing Black life to be dictated to him by non-Black people at his record company. He did this until he knew better. “When you know better, you do better.”  In 2017, he is taking a different approach to African consciousness and to Black life.

David Banner is using his charm to resuscitate Black History, and he is striving to help Black people wake up. Willing to meet people where they are, he uses his own life as an example to inspire change. When you have knowledge of self, small distractions like technology, sex, and material possessions fade. Banner doesn’t hide from his past. He acknowledges his own humanity, and takes responsibility for his actions, reminding people to be humble and honest. When you bring up any of his mistakes, he smiles, laughs, and continues on in his evolution. This level of maturity is necessary on the path to transcendence. I have not known about this man for very long, but I am happy to see him boldly taking action. It’s so easy to get caught up in worldliness that weakens the spirit, but at some point we all have to lay our egos to rest so that we can survive. Always in search of good music, I listened to his latest album, The God Box. I love it. I am sending him good vibrations on his journey to push Black people into consciousness.

“I don’t care what you think of me, I just want you to think!”

Thank you for reading,

2015

Shila Iris

My Introduction to the Wu-Tang Clan

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black-history_feb-17_copyright-shila-iris-2017The year was 1997, and online music was no where to be found. Most of the world experienced solid, art-based hip-hop through Rap City, Video Vibrations or through either the Vibe, Source, Right On! or Word Up! magazines. My older brother was a hip-hop nut! He introduced our family to this raunchy, fun, yet highly political style of beat-based poetry. When I saw my first Wu-Tang video, Triumph, I was so intoxicated that I wanted to be a rapper. The intensity of the lyrics made my heart percolate! The fast-paced imagery tugged at my youth, urging me to be free. The 10 men I saw on the screen were raw and oddly intellectual.

They seemed to be well-read, open, and real. They were from another world, far away from where I was from. The beats were right up my alley. I was intrigued. The music of Wu-Tang has taught me that we can’t sanitize Black life, making it appear to be easy, and we cannot not alter our stories to please others. Life is what it is. Give it to them raw. I feel blessed to have seen them perform live. It was a fun experience. I also saw the solo performances of Ghostface Killah, and last year I saw GZA perform in Akron, Ohio. RZA had a book talk at the public library, where he shared parts of his personal life story, talked about the business side of Wu-Tang and explained his book, The Tao of Wu. These men are such heart throbs! Their ability to be honest makes them all the more attractive. Whenever Wu-Tang is in town, I will be there, no doubt. The Clan is an ultimate example of the Nguzo Saba aka 7 Principles of Kwanzaa. If you ever see me in the gym, nearly falling off the elliptical, it’s because I’m listening to Triumph, and I have gotten so lifted, that I’m in another world! Be careful when you listen to the Wu. Peace.

Thank you for reading,

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ShiLA IRiS

My Introduction to Imhotep

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black-history_feb-16_copyright-shila-iris-2017A few years ago when one of my good friends was a med student, he changed his online alias to Imhotep. I didn’t inquire about it, but in my heart, I acknowledged the change. Then, I realized that instead of taking the Hippocratic oath that students of medicine are required to recite, perhaps he decided to invoke the spirit of the true Father of Medicine. If you’d like to know about him, I encourage you to research the greatness of Imhotep, the world’s first physician, who laid the foundation for the healing arts. I’ll say this: we are forever connected to the past and to our ancestors, each and every one of us. We value their traditions because it makes us stronger. We stand on their graves and ask for guidance and offer our devotion. Imhotep, I honor You, for I am You. My heart told me to dig deeper, and I found jewels, gold, stories, hidden colors. I went above and beyond mainstream education, to find out who I really am, and now I know my worth. I value history. In this age of information, we can uncover truths faster than ever before. This is necessary, because being Black is tough. This is not rhetoric, it really is. That double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois taught, that invisible man that Ralph Ellison described, is a part of our everyday realities. It can be exhausting, and it can drive you crazy. But, I learned, through a Master Teacher, not to give up, and settle, and make excuses for my ignorance. I need to be healed. We need healing. My ancestors look over me. I swear by Imhotep. That is my oath. Peace.

Thank you for reading,

Shila Iris

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My Introduction to Kara Walker

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Back in 2011, I spent a lot more time than I am willing to admit, in an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine. We were consistently conversing, texting, emailing, Skyping, and meeting up to share our worlds with one another. One day, this wonderful companion of mine sent me an email with a link to Kara Walker’s website. I took a look. It was pretty amazing. Her style of storytelling is appealing to the eye in its simplicity, and culturally relevant, urging humanity to reach inside themselves and find out who they really are. With that same friend who I spent most of 2011 talking with, I was honored, this past Fall, to see the Kara Walker exhibit: “The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” which reflects upon the complex history of Christianity and the myths surrounding slavery- worldwide and in the lives of Black people. Kara’s work supports mental growth and spiritual evolution. It makes me think about where I was, where I am, and where I want to be. I am grateful to have experienced Kara’s ecstasy.

… a little behind, celebrated my birthday on February 13, and been under the weather, but now I’m on top! Peace and love! Gonna continue to celebrate the African Diaspora. You should too.

Peace and blessings manifest with every lesson learned.

Thank you for reading,

2015

Love,

Shila

My Introduction to Anthony Browder

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black-history_feb-14_copyright-shila-iris-2017I didn’t know much about Anthony Browder, but I knew that I didn’t want to miss the presentation that he was giving at Kent State University. So, I drove the hour it took to get there, and sat in the packed audience. He shared his research findings about things he’d discovered during his travels to the motherland. It was the first time I’d heard a man speak so confidently about Egypt, it’s history, and it’s indigenous people. My heart beat fast. I was excited. Browder has traveled to Egypt over 60 times and is doing excavation to discover the true history of our ancestors. In the states, he shares this information in carefully orchestrated presentations that teach and inspire. I bought a copy of his book Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization and had him autograph it and sign it over to me and my dear friend who really wanted to be there, but coudn’t make it. I wanted to share the wealth! I got to see Browder present again, 4 years later at the public library, with that same friend! We had a great time sitting round table, talking with Browder after he gave yet another wonderful and historical speech. He is a beautiful man and I love his spirit. One thing that I noticed about Browder, and I believe it is helping to sustain him, is the fact that he had great mentors- Asa Hilliard, John Henrik Clarke, and John G. Jackson, to name a few. I am seeing more and more that good leadership comes with great mentorship. These scholars influenced Browder’s work and he mentions them often, giving power to the their research. I admire Anthony T. Browder for the work he is doing in Egypt, with his daughter and with all the people who want to be a part of this history-making journey of adventure.

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Shila Iris

My Introduction to Nikki Giovanni

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black-history_feb-12_copyright-shila-iris-2017Storytelling has been an African tradition for a very long time. Our ancestors used stories to record history and to communicate important messages through generations. Poetry is the method I use to tell stories, and this is the woman who made me believe that it could be done. Poetry can change minds, change hearts, lead to soul revivals; it has a place on the streets, in politics, in music, up high, down low, poetry is a tool we use to transcend. Back in 2005, I heard Nikki speak in the wonderful Jubilee Hall on the campus of her and my Alma Mater, Fisk University. She was amazing, with her candid interpretations of life, or should I say, thug life! Check out the tattoo on her left forearm. I can’t believe that Nikki Giovanni is 73 years old. Her name sounds like she is fashion designer, but she is indeed a game changer who has tried to help us recover from having our culture stolen. With her pages of accolades, she has been a fighter and a major voice. With her words of wisdom and ability to communicate with people from all walks of life, she has helped us fight against the deeply-rooted injustices targeted at people of African descent. She is more than a writer, she uplifted the Black Experience and taught it to many generations of young minds. My favorite piece from her is an essay named Gemini, in a book also named Gemini. She speaks about her first 25 years as a Black poet, and in this particular essay, she talks about the relationship between Black men and women. Looking back on it, I can see things a bit clearer. I am grateful. Prophetic poetry is a part of our Black history. Thanks Nikki, for paving a way. Peace.

I really adore you,

Shila Iris

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My Introduction to Spike Lee

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black-history_feb-11_copyright-shila-iris-2017“The cultural relevance of his films puts him ahead of the pack.”

I’ve never understood why critics compare Spike Lee’s work to other directors. There is no one like him. His artistic vision is exclusive and recognizable worldwide. As a child, I was happy when the family flick of the week was a Spike Lee Joint. Crooklyn and When the Levees Broke have become my favorites. The provocative issues that Spike addresses in his films, appeal to me. I value realistic art with powerful and transformational stories- not unnecessary, mind-numbing drama. I’d rather learn how to solve a problem, then how to create one. That’s what Spike brings to the table. I will watch mostly anything that he writes and directs just because he has a wonderfully cultivated mind and because his art direction has brought many Black actors to life including: Denzel, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipes. He has also brought Black History and the Black Experience to the stage like no other. The words, a “Spike Lee Joint” are a part our vernacular and his creations are a part of our history. I am on his team! Go Spike!

Thank you for visiting African Essence by Shila Iris

2015

My Introduction to Shirley Chisholm

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black-history_feb-10_copyright-shila-iris-2017To be the person to act against the odds with no precedent is honorable. It means you are a builder, helping to establish a blueprint towards positive change. Every lucrative society needs architects. On the road to freedom, we have had many great minds that fought, tooth and nail, to help people of African descent living in America breakthrough the pain that would impact every aspect of their lives for generations. There were leaders, who wanted Black people to become active members of the society that they in fact built. The innovative Shirley Chisholm, was a woman to admire. My mother talked a lot about her and Fannie Lou Hamer. These were women that she grew up watching in action, and they are two women that I uphold. I know what discrimination feels like- to walk into a room, store, or an organization seeking employment, and have people look at you, like you’re out of place. I’ve heard those derogatory names and comments used to describe me. I’ve done all the hard work and watched other people receive the benefits. It changes you, so, we must go against the odds! The disillusioned will become afraid of you, claiming that you are combative. When you seek your humanity, resistance will knock at the door with guns. You must remember that you are a fighter, and you have to keep pushing, because like Chisholm said, “racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” Be unbought, and stay unbossed. Be happy, embrace the all, and never be complacent.

Thank you,

Shila Iris

My Introduction to Miriam Makeba

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black-history_feb-8_copyright-shila-iris-2017When I started to entertain the idea of learning Swahili and visiting Tanzania, I turned to Miriam Makeba’s song “Malaika” to help me get a feel for what the culture was like. However, I remember Miriam being on an episode of the Cosby Show. She was having a conversation with Raven Simone’s character. When asked if she was “from around here,” meaning New York, Miriam replied “I’m from the continent of Africa.” Her voice was soothing and kind. I thought she was a beautiful woman. I wondered what it would be like to go to the place where she was from. Miriam is from Johannesburg, South Africa. She worked as a servant during her teens under the harsh conditions of apartheid. Starring in a film called, “Come Back Africa” made her famous throughout the world, but made her a threat to the rulers of her native country, since the film was anti-apartheid. She then moved to America and became an immediate success. Her 1965 album with Harry Belafonte won her a Grammy. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and married Black Activist, Stokely Carmichael who became Kwame Ture. Miriam Makeba is affectionately known as “Mother Africa” because she was one of the first artists to bring the sound of her homeland to the Western world. She is the first artist I heard, singing spiritual and rhythmic music. I adore the sound of her.

Thank you for reading,

Shila Iris

Tiger

My Introduction to Judith Jamison

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The first time I saw my sister, Judith, perform a classical dance routine with the Cleveland School of the Arts at Parade the Circle, may have been one of the first times I ever saw such dancing. These teenage girls showed real promise. It wasn’t a talent I possessed, but it was definitely one that I admired. I felt a strong connection to the music and to the movement of the dancers. She was really good at it. My sister did not go on to pursue dancing, but I have always wished she would have. Later, I was in the John Hope & Aurelia Franklin Library on the campus of Fisk University doing research for a paper, and I came across a book with Judith Jamison’s picture. She was standing on one foot, with the other pointed up in the air. Her poise was unforgettable. I have paid close attention to her ever since. She spent time studying dance at my Alma Mater, Fisk, and then went to the Philadelphia Dance Academy. Jamison has danced since the age of six studying ballet, tap, acrobatics, jazz, and primitive dance. She was accepted into the American Dance Theater and soon after became the protégé of Alvin Ailey touring the world with his dance company for fifteen years. She branched out and created her own ballet company, but when Alvin Ailey died in 1989, she merged with his company to keep the legacy alive. Her work fuses African motifs with modern dance. I’ve been blessed to see the Alvin Alvin Ailey Dance Theater perform several times, and each time, I always think about Jamison’s picture in that book in the library. I am pleased to say that the two of them together, are my favorite dancers and are definitely part of my Black History.

Thank you for reading,

In remembrance of Robert Nesta aka Bob Marley, Happy Birthday!

2015

My Introduction to Olayami Dabls

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I like to take weekend trips to get away. So, a close friend and I got in the car and drove to Detroit, which is about two hours away from where we lived. As we approached the city from the highway, we saw an unusual house. It was brightly decorated with color and what appeared to be jewels. We hit the exit ramp to explore. As we got closer, we became more excited. It looked like rogue, graffiti painted on two abandoned houses. However, we quickly realized that it was much too sophisticated and elaborate to be guerilla art. There were symbols and what I knew as African rock art, carefully arranged as if they were communicating a message. These messages were punctuated with broken mirrors. We parked the car, and walked through the yard. There were gigantic human forms made out of recycled metals and scraps. It was beautiful! As we walked further into this maze, Olayami Dabls came to greet us. By this time, we were high! He was happy to share his story. Afterwards, we hugged and took pictures like we were long lost relatives. He took us inside of the museum. It was a treasure chest of beads and jewelry from all over the continent of Africa. He was well- versed and in tune with our history and he told us stories about how he acquired his talent, and how he created this project. He also talked about our ancestors and explained the messages in his work. We were reluctant to leave, but thanked our Creator for bringing us upon this thirst-quenching experience. The knowledge this elder gave, was priceless. If you ever get a chance, you must visit this wonderful place and speak to this wonderful man. It’s called Dabls African Bead Gallery and MBAD Museum. He is African History.

Thanks for reading,

Shila Iris

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My Introduction to Gordon Parks

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Back in 2007, when I rented my first apartment in a cozy little art district west of Cleveland, a neighborhood called Tremont, I was excited to decorate! I had a vision: I wanted my apartment to be filled with warm colors and African art! I had a growing obsession for African textiles, statues, books- anything that had to do with the culture. Visiting the houses of mentors and professors had sparked this desire. In Nashville, I had gone to my roommates mentor’s house that was filled with things I had never before seen. In Washington, D.C., I once visited a professor’s house that had large pieces of art on any wall that was available. I wanted to try something like this. One day, I was browsing through a book about Gordon Parks, and in his New York apartment, he had large mixed-media paintings splattered with African symbols. There were stacks of books in corners and on window seals, artifacts, photos, plants- there was beauty everywhere. It was indeed a sanctuary adorned with mini altars. It truly felt like I lived there with him. He inspired me to decorate any place that I have ever lived since. I gaze at his photos of Black humanity, then I close my eyes, and travel to the places he has been. He has taken me on wonderful journeys. I am humble. Gordon Parks has some of the most beautiful photos I have ever seen. The stories in the eyes of his subjects resonate in my ears. I love his work for it embodies me.

Thank you for reading,

Shila Iris

2015

My Introduction to Esperanza Spalding

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My thoughts, my dreams,

by Shila Iris

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My Introduction to Malcolm X

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