The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed in an act of terrorism by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) before a Sunday morning service on September 15, 1963. The homemade bomb exploded under the steps of the church and bricks and debris were splattered across the sanctuary causing the front of the church’s interior walls to cave in. As the church filled with smoke and the congregants fled for safety, in the basement four young girls, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 14 year old Carole Robertson, 14 year old Denise McNair, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley, were killed and Addie’s 12 year old sister was permanently blinded loosing her right eye. The bodies of the girls were found beneath the rubble in the basement restroom. More than 20 other people were injured during the terrorist attack.
With her core value for the “wellness of humanity”, along with “self-love”, “the preservation of curiosity” and first and foremost “God”; singer, songwriter and poet, Amy León continuously makes work that embodies her beliefs and values. Her political and beautifully executed music video Burning In Birmingham is a representation of her outrage for this nation’s intensifying racial climate.
How are your core values reflected in your work?
My work consistently focuses on my beliefs. I am incredibly self-aware and I celebrate that in every poem and every melody. My work insists on self- love and unapologetically displays my journey through life in all of its intricacies.
What is it like working with Amy León? (In the studio, in rehearsal for a show, in pre-production for a video, on set for a video.)
I work with an incredible urgency that most people have to learn to adapt to. I am very improvisational and am rarely seeking perfection, so I find myself content very quickly. I love the way my collaborators and I have been challenged this year. We make magic in an incredibly short amount of time and I have never been left dissatisfied with our accomplishments. Other than that I am pretty chill, have tons of energy and laughter, get migraines that my collaborators ever so kindly handle and tend to buy bagels and coffee.
Burning in Birmingham addresses such a dark and prominent moment in U.S history, what sparked your interest in covering this topic in your music?
My work has always been incredibly political. The song was written after watching What Happened Miss Simone?, Nina exclaimed with an urgency – “We’re burning in Birmingham, we’re burning everywhere.” The phrase stuck with me and led to the song which became the foundation for the poem that followed a few months later. It has always been very clear to me that history is cyclical, the violence is manifested in different ways but there is no denying that we have been here before. My hope in shedding light on our history and our current state is to see a day where this violence is eradicated. That cannot happen until everyone is educated, you’d be shocked by how little most people know about black history. I am here to be the mouthpiece for such events.
How closely does your initial vision for a project resemble the final outcome? Do you prefer it that way?
Honestly most of my ideas are birthed and executed exactly the way I want them, if not better. I have an insanely talented group of collaborators who excel in their respective mediums. We work together with an ease because we know what we are doing is important, worth the time, the grit, and the sacrifice. We excite one another and as long as that is true, I will always consider the outcome a supreme success.
Tell me about the creative direction that you took with your video for Burning in Birmingham.
Burning in Birmingham feels like a dream most days. In looking at the duality of the piece which was intentionally written to focus on the history and the present, it was very clear that we needed to focus on black women. I did a lot of research and collaborated with choreographer and dear friend Mark Travis Rivera to come up with movements that would reimagine the 1963 bombings and transition into the vision of strength and cyclical violence black women have consistently had to reckon with. The dancers – Dominique Fishback, Anise Hines, Zuri Ford, Kirsten Gianna Webb and I engaged in several conversations about our relationship to the Birmingham Bombings, our feelings about the continued exploitation and violence against black bodies and how this history has infiltrated our daily lives. Those conversations cultivated a safe space for us to really lend ourselves to the story and the work. It all came together with such shocking ease. It was a very quick process but what we managed to make is more than I could have ever imagined.
Talk about the stand out moments of growth that you have noticed in your life.
I grew up in excruciatingly violent environments and have thrived despite. I was a shy heart who wrote everything down and blossomed the second I realized the impact of sharing my story out loud. I grew up in the foster care system and have experienced every kind of abuse – it is wild to see the life I have created for myself. The confidence I have allowed myself to thrive in, the career I discovered and said yes to, the scholarships that I received for the talent I stumbled upon and the degree that followed. I am so proud of myself. I have to be. Everyone and everything told me I would not succeed, but here we are and this is just the beginning. I look forward to surprising myself and everyone else for the rest of my life.
What are the challenges that you have faced within your industry?
Since this industry is still so new to me, I find myself running around a lot. I perform and teach and write and travel excessively, so it gets a bit exhausting. Even moreso when people are constantly asking you to do everything for free. I am still trying to understand why artists, the foundation of any society, have to strive to be respected as professionals. This is my job and I am tired of explaining that to people.
Biggest lessons learned on your musical journey?
My journey with music has just begun, I have only been singing for three years and have already learned so much. With every performance I learn something new about my instrument and those I am collaborating with. I no longer strive for perfection, I have no interest in it. I think training is beautiful and craft necessary but I am far more interested in what my body is capable of doing in the moment. I have found an openness in music that I have felt in no other medium and I very much look forward to learning more.
How do you define craft and why is it important to you?
Craft = the capability to analyze your ability and continuously challenge/ expand it. I spend a lot of time analyzing my work. To know what I need to say requires a significant understanding of what has been said by me, my peers, my heroes etc. Since a lot of my work stems from improvisation or purged writings, it is necessary that I acknowledge the energy that went into translating my work from thought to tangible matter.
Interviewed By: Julian Hollinger