by The People’s Minister of Information JR
With the U.S. economy turning a blind eye to unemployment in the Black community, it is on us to create business and employment opportunities for our community, and Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu and her collective of dedicated women, known as the Lyric Dance and Vocal Ensemble, have answered the call by opening the Lyric Performing Arts Academy in downtown Oakland.
I am happy to say that these women, who have leased their talents out for the benefit of other business owners for years, are now building to secure their own entrepreneurial destinies as well as educating future generations in the arts. This is a major accomplishment and I hope that we as a community stand behind them in this daring venture.
Here is co-founder Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu giving us a brief glimpse into the new world of what is to come in the near future to the Lyric Performing Arts Academy.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us the history of Lyric Dance Ensemble?
Taiwo: Lyric Dance Ensemble was founded in 2005 by myself, my twin sister Pastor Kehinde Kujichagulia-Seitu, Ms. Juhandryn Dessames and Ms. Juakila McConnell. We met teaching dance for the Stanford GEMS program.
After repeatedly being asked to dance for several events – often church related – and knowing how well we all worked together, we decided to start a faith based dance company. Since then, we have evolved into Lyric Dance and Vocal Ensemble (LDVE), and all of our endeavors are guided by the three principles: inspiration, education and service.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell me why and when this collective decided that it was time to acquire the Lyric Performing Arts Academy?
Taiwo: We have wanted to open a school for the arts since our founding for several reasons. Our primary reason was that we wanted children in the communities that we grew up in to have access to performing arts classes that would prepare them for careers in the arts. Collectively, all of the founding LDVE members grew up in East Palo Alto, East Oakland and West Oakland. Specifically, Pastor Kehinde and I grew up dancing at the East Oakland Youth Development Center with Linda Johnson. We all have a strong passion to give talented kids greater access to performing arts training.
In addition to dance, my sister and I are classically trained vocalists thanks to six years of training from Norma Levister, David Tigner and other wonderful staff of the Young Musician’s Program at U.C. Berkeley. We were very blessed to have trained in both dance AND music. That is a very rare occurrence for most students.
Unfortunately, many talented students are almost forced to choose which God given talent and ability they wish to develop. Because my mother, Phavia Kujichagulia, taught us the very African centered philosophy of doing both/and, rather than utilizing the Euro-centric concept of either/or, I have always rebelled against choosing between my talents. I believe it is wrong to have to make that kind of choice.
Thus, we do not force our students to do so. In fact, with the wide array of classes we offer, we encourage creative exploration across artistic disciplines.
M.O.I. JR: What kind of classes and events will you offer? Starting when?
Taiwo: Our classes start on Sept. 3. The music classes we offer include musical theater, class voice, music fundamentals and show choir. Our musical theater class includes a writing component, in which students will write and perform a short production in addition to performing a pre-written show.
Beginning in January, we will also offer beginning and intermediate keyboard classes as well as an intro to poetry and spoken word class. Our dance classes include parent and me, ballet, jazz, contemporary, praise, hip-hop, performance team and competition team.
With the wide array of classes we offer, we encourage creative exploration across artistic disciplines.
The class that I am most excited about is one that I teach called “Business Cents 101.” This class breaks the mold. This is our professional development course that, over the course of nine months, teaches students how to build a business around their God-given talents and abilities.
It is my firm belief that every artist, at some point of their career, is an entrepreneur. While creating beautiful works of art, they are also constantly creating performance and teaching opportunities for themselves. Thus as an educational institution for the arts, I believe it is our duty to teach students how to do so.
Offered to students age 15 through adult, topics covered include entrepreneurship, personal branding, basic accounting and budgeting and personal financial planning. Students will learn how to open, legally structure and operate a small business; how to write a business plan and how to write winning grant proposals.
The class that I am most excited about is one that I teach called “Business Cents 101.” This is our professional development course that teaches students how to build a business around their God-given talents and abilities.
I obtained my MBA because I believe that entrepreneurship is the way to economic self-sufficiency and because I wanted to teach people in my community the skills needed to be successful entrepreneurs. Now that I have the opportunity to do just that – in a business that my performing arts company is starting – I am elated.
We will have three main events each year. Every December, the weekend before Christmas, LDVE and LPAA will produce “Go Tell It.” This is an original musical theater production that tells the story of Harriet Tubman’s escape with her three brothers along the Underground Railroad on Christmas day in 1854. The story is told through spirituals.
Every April we produce “Stopping Our Silence (SOS).” In the tradition of gospel stage plays, this production is specifically for all of those who have been touched by domestic violence, child sexual assault and rape. “SOS” encourages survivors to speak out in order to let go of the trauma they have suffered and heal.
Finally, every June will be our Lyric Performing Arts Academy annual recital. Taken totally out of the context of a traditional studio recital and re-framed in the completely African centered concept of functional art, our “recital” is actually a full scale production with a social-justice theme. Passionate and thought provoking, we take the audience on a journey of self-reflection that challenges the way we’ve been socialized to pre-judge one another.
M.O.I. JR: What ages are you targeting?
Taiwo: Our classes are for ages 18 months through adulthood. They are for any and everybody who has a passion for the performing arts.
M.O.I. JR: What is the importance of dance in African culture? American culture?
Taiwo: If we are looking at traditional African culture, or any traditional non-Western culture for that matter, dance and other art forms have a functional use. They are used to tell the history of the people, teach children important lessons and values, heal sickness and disease in the body and in the outside world. In other words, the arts traditionally serve a purpose.
In American culture, much of the arts, or I should say mainstream arts, have been completely taken out of that context. The only purpose it serves is to sell sex, drugs and products that keep people too distracted to care or do anything to serve and uplift their families and communities.
M.O.I. JR: Besides dance, what other events will be taking place here?
Taiwo: On Sept. 7, from 2 to 6 p.m., we are having auditions for our show choir, performance teams and competition team. These teams will perform locally and compete – show choir included – throughout the state. Anyone ages 8 to 18 can audition for our performance and competition teams. Junior high and high school students can audition for our show choir.
This same day, we will also have our second round of auditions for both “Go Tell It” and “Stopping Our Silence.” Any singers, dancers and actors interested in auditioning should email a head shot and bio to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com. Once we receive an email, we will reply to schedule an audition time.
Finally, we are housed at Studio 1924 in downtown Oakland. Located at 1924 Franklin St., Studio 1924 has a wonderful schedule as well that includes classes such as West Coast Swing, Zumba, Samba and Tango, to name a few. Their schedule can be found online at www.studio1924.com.
M.O.I. JR: How do people stay in touch with you?
Taiwo: The best way to stay in touch with us is through our website, www.lyricperformingartsacademy.com. There, they can register for classes, stay updated on our upcoming events and new class offerings, and read all about our classes and wonderful teachers. For more information on “Go Tell It” and “Stopping Our Silence,” visit us online at www.gotellit2012.wix.com/gotellit and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/stoppingoursilence.
The People’s Minister of Information JR is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, atwww.blockreportradio.com. He also hosts two weekly shows on KPFA 94.1 FM and kpfa.org: The Morning Mix every Wednesday, 8-9 a.m., and The Block Report every other Friday night-Saturday morning, midnight-2 a.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.