Building beauty from darkness: Black Monument Ensemble to bring hope in upcoming showcase
It’s not yet the holiday season but Damon Locks thought Chicago deserved a gift. On Nov. 15, Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble will present “Where Future Unfolds – Flowers for Chicago,” a sprawling 80-minute music-and-dance performance hosted at the Garfield Park Conservatory as part of the month-long Red Bull Music Festival.
The performance touches on some of today’s most pressing civil rights issues, but Locks, the mastermind behind the ensemble, says the Black Monument Ensemble can’t be pigeonholed into any one emotional corner.
“The works and the lyrics of the content is difficult,” Locks said. “It's hard to talk about race, racism, the constant struggle, right? But it's also important to make beautiful things happen. So, I think that Black Monument is not devoid of the struggle and issues but it's not only that. It's also creation and birth and rejuvenation and hopefulness.”
The Black Monument Ensemble is borne out of Locks love for the black music of the 1960s and 70s civil rights movement, inspired by groups like The Freedom Singers and The Voices of East Harlem. Comprised of a dance troupe, a choir, and various instrumental musicians, Locks has reached out all over Chicago to pull together the elements necessary to see out his vision.
The dancing will be covered by Move Me Soul, a dance company from the Austin neighborhood with which Locks has collaborated in this past. As for the choir, the group is comprised of singers formerly enrolled in the Chicago Children’s Choir who have been singing together their whole lives, according to Locks. His instrumentalists include percussionists that he has connected with over the past decades in Chicago, as well as a clarinetist that Locks describes as adding “a reedy tone which….brings a kind of Sun Ra quality to [the piece].”
For Locks, the Black Monument Ensemble is the latest step in an artistic career that spans genres and disciplines. He credits comic books as sparking his love of drawing as a kid in Silver Spring, Maryland and the legendary D.C. punk scene of the early 1980s as inspiring his foray into music, completely self-taught in true punk fashion.
He moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute a few years later and has been here ever since. In addition to his visual work, Locks has been active in Chicago’s music scene, holding roles in Trenchmouth, a post-punk band featuring none other than Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen, and The Eternals, a band he formed with Trenchmouth bandmate Wayne Montana.
Today, in addition to his work with The Eternals and the Black Monument Ensemble, Locks helps develop civic arts curricula for high school students at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, as well as teaching arts to inmates at the Stateville Correctional Facility in Joliet as part of the Prison Neighborhood Arts Program.
It was after he began working in a prison that Locks started to explore sound art, eventually leading to what would become the Black Monument Ensemble.
“It was an intense job, seeing how the prison system operates, how people are treated in the system. It created a scenario in my brain where I wondered what the use of making art was,” Locks said. “I stopped doing visual work for awhile and focused on teaching, and then I started doing sound pieces that were solo sound pieces that were kind of like me trying to work through the time that we're living in and address the issues through sampling and drum machines.”
After Locks began working with the dancers from Move Me Soul, those sound pieces evolved into material for a five-piece choir. “Working with the singers and working with the dancers made me feel hopeful about something, you know,” Locks said. “And there's not that much positive vibes out in the world, you know?”
Therein lies the crux of the Black Monument Ensemble, creating hopefulness out of difficulty.
“I know what it’s like to work with Move Me Soul, I know what it’s like to work with these musicians, and I know what it’s like to work with the singers, and each one of those experiences is really fantastic to me, makes me feel great,” Locks said. “What's gonna happen when all three of those groups come together? I'm gonna love it [laughs].”
For more information on Black Monument Ensemble or catch the details of its Nov. 15 show, visit www.redbull.com.