The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute kicked off the Elijah E. Cummings Democracy and Freedom Festival with a “Pop the Vote” Baltimore Butterfly Session on Feb. 7. Baltimore Center Stage, the state theater of Maryland and Baltimore's largest active professional theater company, teamed up with SNF Agora to bring a night of art and civic engagement to Hopkins.
Baltimore Center Stage has been hosting “Baltimore Butterfly Sessions” every month. The free events are open to all members of the community to educate them about civic engagement through the work of local artists.
The goal of “Pop the Vote” was to highlight social justice activism and civic engagement efforts through the lens of popular culture and the arts. The event was complete with a macaroni bar catered by 1876.
In an interview with The News-Letter, SNF Agora’s Deputy Director Stephen Ruckman explained that the event was the perfect way to begin the Elijah E. Cummings Democracy and Freedom Festival this week.
“Many of our students don't get a chance to go off campus to enjoy the culture of the city, and we wanted to bring it here since the theme of this night is the intersection of culture and democracy,” he said.
Annalisa Dias, director of artistic partnerships and innovation at Baltimore Center Stage, welcomed everyone to the event and introduced the artist line-up for the night: 22-year-old artist John Tyler, jazz and soul musician Scott Patterson and world-renowned spoken words artist Lady Brion.
John Tyler and Scott Patterson opened the event with a joint song titled “Africa” that highlighted the roots of Africans and their culture in Baltimore. The song touched upon the struggles of displaced peoples and their cultural influence in cities across America.
Patterson is currently a co-founder and artistic director at Afro House, a Baltimore-based art house committed to creating music that disrupts normative ideas.
At the event, Dias described Afro House’s mission in more detail, outlining its commitment to creating live performances. Their work includes the opera house concert series, theatrical productions and an astronaut symphony — a contemporary ensemble that creates symphonic and Afrofuturistic pieces for the public to enjoy.
Lady Brion, a 2016 National Poetry Slam champion and the 2017 Southern Fried Regional Slam champion, followed the jazz duo’s performance with an untitled piece about her experience as a Black woman in America.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Lady Brion spoke about how she tells her struggles in society through her poetry.
“I insist on existing despite the disruption of oppression that taught me one world view on laptops, or [that] life or liberty alone will not dissipate like smoke in the fire of it,” she said.
When asked about communicating her message to a young audience, Lady Brion emphasized the importance of engagement and information.
“Ultimately, I see myself as an ‘artivist’ — at the intersection of art and activism. All of my poems are trying to communicate to folks that we should be engaged, that we should be informed and that we should be better connected,“ she said. “There are multiple ways that I'm trying to express that, but I think overall, that my ultimate aim is to get people more activated with my work.”
Lady Brion’s second piece titled “Fraternal Twins” examined the systemic issues behind the history of Baltimore and how it has historically been divided into rich and poor areas based on racial lines.
Prior to performing, she prefaced her poem with context regarding Baltimore’s relationship with Hopkins as an institution.
“[Despite] Hopkins being one of the largest employers in the city of Baltimore, it has also had a past of gentrifying communities and displacing people out on their own right,“ she said. “So there's a real problem, a contentious relationship that Baltimore has.”
Lady Brion used her poetry to emphasize socioeconomic differences in Baltimore's various neighborhoods.
“Mansions in Guilford but vacants in Gilmore... the tale of two Baltimores is not a secret, there were just some who were too privileged to see it,“ she said.
The event was open to all students and faculty. Students in the audience were also asked to read excerpts from Amanda Gorman, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde.
Freshman Alex Paolucci reflected on the event in an interview with The News-Letter.
“I especially really like Lady Brion and her slam poetry. That was really amazing!” they said.
In an interview with The News-Letter, junior Cherise Kim discussed the importance of organizing these events at Hopkins.
“I thought it was very thought-provoking, and I thought the artists were amazing. They're [all] very talented,“ she said.
Towards the end of the event, Emily White, author, podcaster and partner at Collective Entertainment and founder of #IVoted Festival, spoke about her journey as a production manager to civic engagement mobilizer through her organization.
The #IVoted Festival is an initiative aimed at increasing voter turnout among youth by encouraging people to vote in exchange for access to music performances.
“We activated over 150 concert venues in 37 states, including Rams Head Live! here in Baltimore, to let fans in on election night who showed a selfie from outside their polling place,” White said.
During her closing remarks, White urged students to find their passion and use it for change, just as she did with her passion for music management.
“Think about your backgrounds, your skill sets, your knowledge that is unique to you,“ she said. “Then ask yourself how you can apply it to support civic engagement.”