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Boston has soul. Let me show you

Editor’s Note: Catherine T. Morris has prepared her entire life for the work she does now. A child of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, she remembers art and music always being part of the conversation at home: She can remember her mother putting together the family stereo system, blaring funk, disco and soul; her father (who did painting and wallpapering in homes) taught her about color theory. At Lincoln-Sudbury High School, which she attended as a student METCO program — Catherine started Universal Rhythm, an event that grew into a regular showcase of black METCO students’ experiences through the arts. Her friends joke that it was the precursor to BAMSPartythe Boston Art and Music Soul Festival.

This year marks the sixth year that the festival has brought together Afro-centric multidisciplinary artists for two days of art, music, dance and food. About 10,000 people are expected to attend the festivities in Franklin Park. But the annual event in June is just part of what BAMSFest does as a nonprofit organization that aims to break down racial and social barriers to art, music and culture.

Catherine is also the director of arts and culture at The Boston Foundation, where she has made it her mission to challenge us all to think differently about Boston and how the city defines itself. “I have never heard the word soul associated with our city, and that frustrates me. We have a lack of creative civic pride,” she says. “If we want to define ourselves with these big words – world class, champions, innovators – we must remember that the arts are the grandparents of all that excellence.”

This piece is an excerpt from a conversation and edited for length and clarity. – Cloe Axelson and Kate Neale Cooper


“I don’t want people to just look at art. I want them to live in it”

We live in a world where we are judged based on our accolades and preferences – and that sometimes hinders our creativity and imagination. Too many of us think of art as something we did as children. But we were all born into this world as creative beings. And we have the opportunity to be creative every day. Creativity is in the choices we make: which phone we buy, which pen we use, which clothes we wear. It is the way we express our feelings and emotions. We literally live in art.

And when we recognize that, the urgency of supporting and embracing the arts, of demanding more art, of requiring art, becomes much more intense and a responsibility. I don’t want people to just look at art. I want them to live in it.

Audiences enjoy music at the 2022 Boston Art and Music Soul Festival (Courtesy of Yohansy Garcia)
Audiences enjoy music at the 2022 Boston Art and Music Soul Festival (Courtesy of Yohansy Garcia)

When the art is music, that means getting up from your chair and dancing. It’s okay to romp in the grass. It’s okay to roll around. It’s okay to dance in a historic space where you’ve never been invited. People need to be given permission to be themselves. And in Boston, that’s dictated by the institutions that have historically influenced where we go and what we do to have fun.

What I want to see is more creative freedom. The freedom to be yourself, the freedom to express yourself, the freedom to connect with people in a way that is not limited by your title or preferences. But just to be human – with all the amazing possibilities of humanity – especially in a city like Boston.


“Art doesn’t hurt our city. It transforms our city.”

I am an arts official. But the work I do is about systemic change, because the system we work with is broken. The permitting process is a good example. When it comes to allowing, accepting and encouraging creative pursuits that would truly make our city look and feel different, we block that process and representation. We pride ourselves on being a world-class, innovative city, but then we put up barriers, like this grueling process of getting a permit for an art project.

We treat art as a construction project. People must be willing not only to come to the table, but also to sit in another chair at that table. We need a new perspective: art does not hurt our city. It transforms our city.

Look at Rob Gibbs’ mural on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. That was a huge victory. But it took years to get there. We need more large-scale murals that cover our city like a blanket. Public art actually gives more people a reason to visit, the centers are part of it, it drives foot traffic for small businesses and maybe even gets people to move here. But if there is no desire for radical public representation and discourse about art, then we are just a transit city that embellishes who we are. And I’m not going to stand for that.

High atop a knuckle lift, Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together” on the facade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
High atop a knuckle lift, Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together” on the facade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“Each iteration of the festival is a new generation of artists”

I would definitely say I’m a hype woman – I’m the hype woman of Boston. I grew up on Skippy White’s, Nubian Ocean, Funky Fresh Records, Mattapan Records, Tower Records and Cheapo Records. Those places were our Starbucks. We saw movies at the theater at Copley Center and hanging out at Downtown Crossing was a big thing.

That’s the Boston I remember and I’m working very hard to pay tribute to it by incorporating the sense of belonging I grew up with into BAMS Fest.

At least once a summer as a kid, I would get up at 6 a.m. with my family and go to the American Legion Highway where the outdoor grills were. When the cookout started around noon or 1 p.m., people came from different parts of the neighborhood. I saw old friends and made new ones. I discovered people I didn’t even know I was related to. That commitment to holding space to break bread with friends and family – and even strangers – is something I wanted to bring to the festival experience.

When I was a kid, community centers hosted a lot of talent shows. You wanted to see the best from every neighborhood so you could go home and work hard to be better than those guys for the next show. People validated your creativity through these shows: if you got the loudest applause, you had bragging rights for the whole year. I wanted to bring that excitement, that inspiration to BAMSFest. Every edition of the festival there is a new generation of artists, and there is someone in the audience – young, established or mid-career – who gets inspired and thinks: “I want to be on that stage.”

When I was growing up, there was a store at Blue Hill Avenue and Moreland Street, a bodega on the corner. It had everything you needed, but also the owners were people you knew and they knew you. They cared for the children and helped families through difficult times. Small businesses are an integral part of our growth and development as a community and city, and that is another element I wanted to bring to this festival.


“We have artist collectives, jam sessions, circus arts, a street dance community and street art”

I have never heard the word soul associated with our city and that frustrates me. We lack creative civic pride. In Boston, art is a nice thing; it is not a mandatory must-have. We are a city of champions, but the idea of ​​champions needs to expand beyond the Red Sox and the Celtics. If we want to define ourselves with these big words – world class, champions, innovators – we must remember that the arts are the grandparents of all that excellence.

When I talked about a festival ten years ago, no one believed I could make it happen. No one believed this was possible because it’s Boston. People have such a limited view of Boston, and that’s so hard to fight, but we do it.

We need to turn up the volume on the megaphone and shine more light on the urgency and impact of (art).

I think of people like Tim Hall, a great musician, entrepreneur and educator. Ife Franklin, who does amazing work with African rituals and art making. People like Valerie Stephens, who takes blues, hip-hop and jazz to the next level in a very revolutionary way in a city that historically has not welcomed blues and jazz. Chanel Thompson and Shaumba-Yandje Dibinga, who ensure that Caribbean roots and dance are not forgotten by teaching them to young people, helping them understand their history and how movement allows us to connect. I think it’s people like D. Ruff, an amazing spoken word artist who tells stories from the perspective of a father raising black boys in Boston, and people like Amanda Shea, who curates spaces for the next generation to tell. their story.

We must continue to weave art and culture into the story of our city, but we must also expand this story and ideology beyond the traditional arts and culture institutions we always hear about. We have artist collectives, jam sessions, circus arts, a street dance community and street art. We need to turn up the volume on the megaphone and shine more light on its urgency and impact. We need to make it easier to buy local art.

We are at a critical moment and want to challenge Boston’s identity. To show people that Boston has a soul.

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