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Classical 101

How Corinne Bailey Rae and Theaster Gates are preserving Black culture

After we wrapped the shoot on this episode of Amplify, I called an Uber to take me from the Stony Island Arts Bank on Chicago's South Side back to my downtown hotel. The 30-minute ride along Lakeshore Drive was beautiful, with Lake Michigan shining a bright and hopeful blue.

I started chatting with my driver, and it was one of those conversations between strangers that quickly goes deep. We talked about life in her city and in mine, how people are getting along, or not, and how these are far from the best of times for many Americans. This led to a reflection about inherited trauma, the passing down of troubles from one generation to the next, and how, within the Black community especially, so much damage is caused by a legacy of buried truths and untold stories, the wounds we bear from not knowing the fullness of our history.

And so I told her about the Arts Bank.

This 100-year-old building, once slated for demolition and now restored thanks to the imagination, vision and tireless efforts of Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation, is a shelter for our history. Gates has housed an immense archive – thousands of books, periodicals, images and objects that provide a multi-faceted documentation of Black life spanning centuries. It's a place to find our stories, to understand our past and then to dream our future.

Singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae is one of many artists and scholars who have found revelation and inspiration in this space. An entire album has come from her experience at the Arts Bank – an initial visit in 2017 that she calls life-changing, and then her engagement as an inaugural Mellon Archives Innovation Fellow. The narratives and images she explored in the archives informed the songs on her bold and emotionally charged new release, Black Rainbows.

This conversation with Corinne and Theaster centers on the necessity of knowing the stories of our people so we can celebrate their triumphs and mourn their tragedies, so we can heal the scars we've inherited, make ourselves strong and healthy, and feel the freedom to write our own stories, in the fullness of our own truth.

Copyright 2023 Classical California

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Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, a trailblazer both on and off the stage, whose musical roadmap seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family and collective memory. As a chart-topping recording artist, a powerfully charismatic performer, a curator and tastemaker, Downes is recognized as a cultural visionary on the national arts scene.