Yo-Yo Ma's cultural showcase highlights what Flint has — and what is possible

FLINT, Michigan — The words from renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma were both an invitation and a profound summary of a full day of music, inspiration, thoughtfulness, and togetherness he hosted as part of a Day of Action in Flint.

“Let’s do something,” Ma said. 

Without skipping a beat, suddenly Flint’s Baba Kevin Collins, director of the Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company, found himself jamming with the Grammy winner, who fame found as a child  protege and who has leveraged that fame to carry a powerful message of community throughout the world. 

The jembe and cello impromptu jam session became the epic finale of “Flint Voices: Culture, Community, and Resilience,” the last the events hosted by Ma in Flint on Thursday, Feb. 28. 

In true artistic fashion, Collins was unfazed by Ma’s invitation.

“Musicians, they always have to be ready, you never know what could happen,” Collins said. “It comes from working and studying, but also being true to yourself and the artform. It was beautiful.”

The impromptu performance required fast coordination between two artists who’d just met. It was beautiful. It was also yet another example of Ma’s message that art can and should be used pave connections. 

“How much discipline does it take to tap dance, to do that steel drum band?” Ma said. “The coordination to feel each other’s pulses takes not only analytical discipline but a body-intuitive discipline for that to come together. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m gonna practice and do it.’ It’s more like there’s a common will, common focus. Wow, it’s fantastic. We can learn from it. The talent is absolutely here, and the will is here at Berston Field House.”

Related story: Yo-Yo Ma up close and personal in Flint — including lots of selfies

That theme -- the power of the arts -- was showcased throughout the day. In the morning, Ma and 50 Flint-based cultural leaders had a working session focused on cultural collaboration as an engine for social change. The Day of Action culminated at Berston with a free, public showcase that included performances by dozens of artists of all ages and genres, food, and a celebration of the profound impact the arts have on a community.

“People in Flint really want to amplify a message to the outside world to say wait a minute, this isn’t just about water,” Ma said. “Water is a huge issue. But what we have here, people have gone through many different iterations of life challenges, but they’ve stayed resilient throughout. Part of the resiliency comes from the cultural sector, people making things and doing things.”

Ma stressed the important role that artists and creators often play in leading the rest of society toward meaningful change.

“Artists, scientists, engineers, are all doing two things: making experiences and creating experiences, and learning from both,” Ma said. 

Iyanna Webb, a dual-enrolled student at Genesee Early College and the University of Michigan-Flint who is also a member of Tapology, a tap dancing program in Flint, performed after Ma and Collins were on stage.

“It was surreal to be up there,” she said. “It felt like being in the legacy of performers from Flint.”

Webb is also an example of Ma’s point about the intersections of the arts and sciences providing profound opportunities to initiate positive change in a community. In addition to her artistic pursuits with Tapology, Webb is a biology and pre-med student at UM-Flint. She and other members of Tapology work with young people in Flint who have cognitive impairments, using dance as a mechanism to teach. She sees artistic expression as a powerful tool to helping improve health and wellness.

“We’ve seen students we work with have their grades improve,” Webb said. “It’s using art as a way to heal a health issue.”

Ma’s “Day of Action” events occur in cities worldwide. Although the format differs in each city, a powerful theme in each location is how the arts and culture have the ability to unite cultural differences. A diverse crowd and group of performers totaling more than 200 people embodied that ideal.

“Look at the culture together — families, people of all walks of life, that’s what it’s about — the art form, doing things that Flint needs to do,” Collins said. “People are always trying to give Flint a bad name, but this is beautiful.”

Hundreds packed into the large gymnasium at Berston Field House, with dozens more spilling over into the small gym where monitors were set up to watch the performance. It also featured food samples from venders in the Flint Farmers’ Market as well as Angie’s Bikes with a bicycle-powered blender making smoothies and an exhibit on the importance of community journalism featuring Flint Beat and Flintside. 

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver greeted the crowd, watched performers, and interacted with exhibitors throughout the event.

“This crowd shows how excited we are to show off our resilience and our culture here in Flint,” Weaver said.

After the performance, Ma worked his way through both gymnasiums, posing for every selfie requested, making jokes, going out of his way to shake the hands of other performers and artist mentors, and praising the power of community alive at Berston Field House.

Berston itself is a proud monument to Flint’s past cultural achievements and is serving present and future populations as well. Many famous Flint actors, musicians, and athletes once participated in youth programs at Berston. Recently, the community center has been undergoing renovations, adding programs, and has future plans that will accommodate a wide range of activities for kids in the city.

“It’s an honor to have Yo-Yo Ma here at historic Berston Field House,” said Bryant Nolden, executive director of the Friends of Berston. “And this is great to have this crowd here to see what is happening in North Flint.”

Ma’s appearance in Flint was only one day, but the goal is to create a dialogue and actions that have a lasting impact.

“In a world where there’s unbelievable, unrelenting change, it’s so hard for a school system to shift, government to shift,” Ma said. “I think artists are mediators between what’s happening on climate, what’s happening on the edges of society, to say, ‘Hey watch out, this is happening.’ They can actually communicate and show possibilities so that the larger, more hefty, weightier structures can consider them and say, ‘Oh that’s possible.’”

The performances and events combined a creative element to the trademark pride and bootstraps mentality Flint has long been known for. 

“We are fighters in Flint,” Collins said. “I hope people see the love that this community is about. This is a historical event at a historical place, right here at Berston.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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