Where activism meets art — the power of ‘Rhythms for George’ (Our Montclair)
This article reflects just part of the conversation in the first episode of “Our Montclair,” a new video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair.
"Our Montclair's" premiere video debuts Wednesday, April 28 at 7 p.m. at Facebook.com/MontclairLocal
Find Our Montclair:
- Find "Our Montclair" on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.
By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local
It has been 11 months since the world saw Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kill George Floyd — 11 months of angst awaiting the guilty verdicts finally delivered earlier this month. That angst found expression in civil unrest, political action and artistic expression.
One notable example: The video “Rhythms for George,” filmed earlier this month and published by Montclair visual artist Armando “OUTthere” Diaz on Youtube this week. It features acclaimed tap-dancer and New Jersey native Maurice Chestnut dancing in front of an Elm Street fence adorned with images of people killed in encounters with police. Among them: Floyd, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery. The home is owned by Melina Macall and Martin Slon of Montclair, and images are created by Minneapolis artist Adam Johnson.
The video is a flurry of dance and cinematic energy, with Chestnut accompanied by the drum, and bass-heavy track “Whatever You Said” by Edlan. Diaz swirls around, getting every angle of the performance.
The two began collaborating after working on a project for the City of Newark. After recording at another location, Chestnut dropped Diaz home and happened upon the video’s location.
“I drove up the street, and I saw this fence,” Chestnut said. “This fence just jumped out at me … It lit up to me at nighttime. I didn’t know how it was going to work. I didn’t know where we were going to put everything. I waited for Armando to figure that out. But I knew that this gate meant something to me. This gate spoke to me.”
Both the dance and the videography were completely improvised — it’s a raw, organic performance. The video captures what’s happening naturally in the environment — pedestrians and cars passing — “these little elements, things that are moving right along,” Diaz said.
There’s a long tradition of art as protest. Chestnut and Diaz hope they can move conversation along with their work. But how can tap be so communicative?
“Rhythm is a language,” Chestnut said.
He said he’d been into drum and bass lately — and “Whatever You Said” had stuck with him.
“I felt like the way we put it, how eloquently we put it, with no words, said everything. I felt like the title, ‘Rhythms for George’ — it was exactly that,” Chestnut said. “I didn’t want to cloud that. I think putting too much over it would have clouded it. So it actually came out perfectly as it was.”
Chestnut said he knew he wanted his performance to be heavy, rhythmically — and for him, it spoke to “things that I felt were ancestral.”
There’s something eternal, essential, universal about rhythm, he said — “beyond music, beyond melodies, at the end of the day you’ve got rhythms.”
Tap is believed by many historians to have started among enslaved people, as a way to communicate and retain their cultural identities. As Chestnut described it, owners would separate enslaved people into groups from different areas of origin, so they couldn’t communicate verbally. They instead used rhythm. When the owners took away the drums, they used their feet.
“When the masters saw them, they were still entertained by it — so entertained by it that they didn’t understand what they were really doing,” Chestnut said. “Kind of like hip-hop is today.”
Chestnut has been dancing since the age of 5 and has an impressive resume that includes performances in Savion Glover’s “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” as well as at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and several European venues. His work now includes teaching tap to a new generation of dancers, who themselves have produced their own videos.
Diaz is a documentary photographer and videographer whose most recent work is “Women of the Fourth Ward,” spotlighting six Montclair woamen with powerful stories of their own. He concurs with the power of protest through art.
“I do what I do with style, which makes me an artist, but the work is all about messaging. It’s all reporting,” Diaz said. “I’m really just trying to capture everything that is going on to the best of my ability. That’s why I was out there when the protests were happening.”
He has long been a staple in the Montclair art scene. His photography has been featured at venues including Montclair’s own Gallery L and Clerestory Fine Art, as well as the Newark Arts Festival. He has several video projects to his credit.
The pandemic had made artistic expression difficult for just about all creatives — especially performers. But Chestnut is keeping a positive outlook and finding ways to be expressive.
“Through the pandemic there have been struggles, but there have also been beautiful outlets created because of these struggles,” he said.
Diaz and Chestnut expect “Rhythms for George” to be the first in a series of collaborations. The series will be published on YouTube and other platforms.