Hear us now: Local artists speak up for 'Flint Voices'

FLINT, Michigan — As the crowd streams into Berston Field House on Thursday hoping for a glimpse of the cellist of all cellists, they will be presented first with a piece of art, a piece of history, a piece of Flint. 

If they happen to glance up. 

There, above the central stairway within the storied walls of Berston is a mural, one of many throughout Flint by acclaimed Lavarne Rosspainter Lavarne Ross, born and raised in Flint and famous for his portrayal of life for African-Americans past and present. 

You can see an old Flint community pool and the bulldozers that did away with it. You can see Flint history and you can see Flint’s scars and fortitude. 

“I am a messenger of the time period I live in,” Ross explains in a new video created through a collaboration between independent community news outlets Flint Beat and Flintside as part of an exhibit in “Flint Voices: Culture, Community, and Resilience.”

Produced by local photographer and videographer Mike Naddeo, the video will be shown during the “Flint Voices” event from  4-6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at Berston Field House, hosted by Yo-Yo Ma as part of his Day of Action in Flint.

The artists' words are profound. Their demand for authentic voice is relentless. Their love, criticism, and pride in Flint is raw. Their vision is for more. Their vision is to be heard.

Lavarne Ross is a famed painter whose murals are on display at Berston Field House and throughout the Flint community.

“My son calls me a historian. I like painting people and stories. My paintings are about the people I meet and the area where I grew up in Flint. … That’s what’s important to me that the north side of Flint is not relegated to a state of nothingness. My Flint consisted of an area, as an African-American, between north Saginaw Street and the Flint River, Carpenter road and Fifth Avenue. We were a city within a city. We had our own businesses, restaurants, barbershops. We had everything we needed within that city. 

“Over the years watching it disappear … I felt I was obligated to log it in a way that it wouldn’t be forgotten. … I love Flint. I just don’t like what it has become. … What I want is a dream, an impossible dream. Flint will never be what it used to be.”

Ira DorseyIra Dorsey is a founding member of the rap group the Dayton Family who continues to organize community events and mentor Flint youth. 

“Music actually saved my life in a lot of ways. I mean, Growing up in Flint I was involved in a lot of negative activity as a young man. Once I found music it gave me something to devote my energy into and it gave me something where I could make some money. I didn’t have to be on the streets trying to struggle to come up with money selling drugs and doing those things. Music literally saved my life. That’s what my art did for me.”

How would he describe Flint people? “Relentless, strong, resilient, confident. Flint people, we don’t quit. We chase a dream. Everywhere I’ve been I ain’t ever met people really with the character of Flint people.”

Sandra Branch is a painter and muralist, founder of Gallery on the Go and artist in residence for the Flint Public Art Project. 
Sandra Branch
“We’re not stuck with being a victim in Flint anymore. We’re showing and showcasing our talents. … We can introduce a lot of culture through art, and that, in and of itself, empowers these children to know they come from something other than blight and what people would tag as being a victim. 

“We’re not victims. We’re rich with culture. Rich with possibilities.”

Amber Hasan is a spoken word and hip-hop artist also known as Loud Mouth Ghetto Girl. She is also an author and co-owner of The Oil Shop on Flint’s northside.Amber Hasan

“Spoken word is a tool for empowerment. The worst thing anyone can have happen to them is to not have their story, or their truth, be told. … That’s one of the most amazing gifts I’ve been given, is to be able to be a voice. … I’m just as hood as I am educated. I have those dualities. I’m not just one thing that you can put into a box.”

“I don’t have to change my voice to be a pleaser. I don’t have to quiet my opinions. I don’t have to do anything to make other people comfortable. … Artists, no matter if we want to or not, we are always community activists. We are always organizers, even if we don’t try to be, just by the nature of what we do. If you are being authentic within your art, you are in some way going to be an activist.” 

Charles WinfreyCharles Winfrey is executive director of The NEW McCree Theatre and a playwright. 

 “We can speak truth to power. We can use theatre to really embrace our own culture and our own identity. … If we don’t tell our story we can’t really trust no one else to do it. We’ve got to learn when we allow other people to tell our story, the stories doesn’t always come out to be true and factual and honest.”

“I think we’ve demonstrated that the arts are for everyone and unlike in the past when it was sort of like an elitist kind of endeavor. Over the years that has changed, so that everyone now feels that they can embrace the arts and the arts can become a significant part of their lives.”

Maryum Rasool is executive director of the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, a place where arts and arts education are used to empower children. 

Maryum Rasool“Flint and its resilience. That’s a term we hear a lot: ‘Flint is so resilient.’ We conquered that water crisis. We conquered GM leaving us. We conquered this. We conquered that. Flint is resilient. I’m not going to take that word away, but we’re so much more. 

“We’re not just about overcoming the negative things that happen in Flint. We’re about community. We’re proud. We’re strong. We’re smart. … Yes there are challenges in Flint, and yes we are resilient, but there is more to us than just overcoming our challenges. Inherently I think we are a community that really pulls together and supports one another. There’s a lot to flint that I feel needs to be shared.” 
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