Art is a vehicle for change: Power of Truths Festival returns to Florence to illuminate history of injustice, April 5-6

Writer and sociologist Tricia Rose is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival in Florence.

Writer and sociologist Tricia Rose is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival in Florence. Photo courtesy Michael Lawrence-Riddell

Hip hop artists, The Perceptionists — Akrobatik, left, and Mr. Lif — perform at the Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival. 

Hip hop artists, The Perceptionists — Akrobatik, left, and Mr. Lif — perform at the Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival.  Photo by Dom Savini/courtesy Michael Lawrence-Riddell

Michael Lawrence-Riddell, left, and Ousmane Power-Greene at last year’s Power of Truths Festival. They are co-founders of Self-Evident Education, the primary organizers of the festival.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell, left, and Ousmane Power-Greene at last year’s Power of Truths Festival. They are co-founders of Self-Evident Education, the primary organizers of the festival. Image courtesy Michael Lawrence-Riddell

Rapper Dutch Rebelle, a past performer at the Power of Truths Festival, returns for the 2024 version.

Rapper Dutch Rebelle, a past performer at the Power of Truths Festival, returns for the 2024 version. Image courtesy Michael Lawrence-Riddell

DEI consultant and businesswoman Malia Lazu is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival in Florence.

DEI consultant and businesswoman Malia Lazu is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival in Florence. Photo courtesy Michael Lawrence-Riddell

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-28-2024 3:43 PM

Modified: 03-29-2024 8:25 AM


Can the arts help us reexamine our past and come to terms with injustice? Can music, film and other mediums become instruments for social change by helping us look differently at our history and our beliefs?

Those are questions the Power of Truths Arts & Education Festival, held the last two years in Florence, has worked to address. And now the festival, at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity, is returning April 5-6 for another go around, with the theme of “Building Community in the Midst of Chaos.”

Combining a number of workshops, presentations, and music/multimedia performances, the festival is a partnership between Self-Evident Education, an independent education company in Florence, and the Northampton Arts Council, with support from several sponsors such as the National Endowment for the Arts and Mass Humanities.

The goal, says Michael Lawrence-Riddell, a principal of Self-Evident Education, remains the same: “We want to find new ways to talk about and examine critical social issues such as systemic racism, and a good way to do that is combining arts and education.”

To that end, one of the keynote speakers this year is Tricia Rose, a writer, sociologist and educator — she currently teaches at Brown University — who’s written widely about rap, hip hop, African American culture, and inequality.

In her most recent book, “Metaracism,” Rose argues that systemic racism is essentially the result of “an array of policies and practices [that] connect and interact to produce a devastating ‘metaracism’ far worse than the sum of its parts,” as publisher’s notes put it.

“We’re really excited to have Tricia coming here,” said Florence resident Ousmane Power-Greene, a writer and a professor of history at Clark University in Worcester; he’s a co-founder with Riddell of Self-Evident Education.

“She’s a fantastic speaker,” Power-Greene added. “I think bringing her here is an indication of how [the festival is] continuing to grow.”

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Another keynote speaker, Malia Lazu, has a varied background as a community organizer, a businesswoman, and now as a consultant for organizations looking to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). She’ll talk about what’s been holding organizations back on these efforts and how they can do better.

Lawrence-Riddell says he met Lazu some years back and that he’s long been impressed with her work. “We think she’ll be a great addition” to the festival, he said.

Hip hop and history

There will be more than talk at the Power of Truths. On April 6, beginning at 7:30 p.m., varied performers will present “Know the Ledge: Hiphop History Live,” a multimedia show of music, dance, and video in which individual artists narrate the stories of notable historical African American figures such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells.

Among the performers are Valley keyboardist and composer Khalif Neville, area singer-songwriter Marcia Gomes, and The Perceptionists, the Boston hip hop group featuring Afrobatik (Jared Bridgeman) and Mr. Lif (Jeffrey Haynes).

“We wanted each artist to come up with their own way of interpreting the lives of these different people,” said Lawrence-Riddell.

Another historical exploration looks at a series of violent attacks by white mobs on several Black communities between 1917 and 1921 — the worst were in East St. Louis, Chicago, rural Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma — and the presenter, Bayeté Ross Smith, uses virtual reality as part of the storytelling process.

Ross Smith and Khalif Neville, who also uses virtual reality as part of his own filmmaking process, will talk about their projects; headsets will be available to festival attendees for viewing them, Lawrence-Riddell said.

His organization, Self-Evident Education, creates short documentaries and other multimedia presentations for schools and community centers that look at the history of slavery and racism in the U.S., and how those issues continue to reverberate today.

As such, he and Power-Greene will also unveil their newest film, a study of how free Black residents and white abolitionists in the tiny town of Christiana, Pennsylvania, resisted the efforts of a Maryland slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, and federal marshals in 1851 to capture enslaved people who had escaped from Gorsuch.

That film, “Freedom’s Battle at Christiana,” has been produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and will be seen on the museum’s website, Lawrence-Riddell said.

Other workshops and activities include an exploration of hip hop history; a walking tour of Black historical sites in Florence; a screening of short films by Northampton High School students; and a performance by the Northampton High School wind ensemble of compositions by Black composers.

The festival has added another element this year: offering fellowships to 15 educators, primarily at the high school level, to attend the April festival and to work with Self-Evident Education on how to use primary sources and other materials for looking at lesser-known stories from U.S. history, such as the 1851 fight at Christiana.

Though some of the educators are local, most come from out of state, including Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee. The fellowship program is funded in part by the Library of Congress/Teaching with Primary Sources Grant Program, Lawrence-Riddell noted.

He and Power-Greene say they plan on adding more events and performances by high school students in future Power of Truths festivals.

More information on hours, activities, and ticket prices at this year’s 2024 festival is available at bombyx.live.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.