Click image to view Nina Simone’s performance,
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (Montreux 1976)

Continuing Voices in Continuing Times

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times,” said Nina Simone in 1976.

Even though I was born in that very same year, I know Nina Simone to be a musician and civil rights activist who used her own voice and experiences to echo those of her ancestors’ violent oppression.

I see and hear, as we all do, the fight for Black civil rights continues on our streets across the nation and abounding the world today, yesterday and tomorrow. Protests are voices of Black lives echoing their own painful pasts and present, that somehow continue to be attempted to be silenced.

Say their names: George Floyd… Breonna Taylor… Ahmaud Arbery… Tamir Rice… Trayvon Martin… Oscar Grant… Eric Garner… Philando Castile… Samuel Debose… Sandra Bland… Walter Scott… Terrence Crutcher…

The New York Times reports that curators from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the National Museum of American History are among those surveying the recently-erected fences surrounding the White House, and are collecting pieces that are likely to become future historical artifacts.” – (photo credit: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post Via Getty Images)

Voices of protest speak for those who have been silenced forever – murdered by our system to give a face, a name and a humanity to those lost, who went unnamed stemming from centuries-old American genocides.

Along with this vocalization, art arises upon the streets, from murals of commemoration to the defacing of memorials and removal of such historic emblems. In Charlotte, North Carolina, streets were painted by artists to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement: “…as we continue to gain momentum as a collective, we have some policies being changed to support what our desires are as a people,” artist and organizer for the project, Georgie Nakima proclaimed.

Likewise, yet substantively different, Black Lives Matter Plaza, painted on 16th Street near the White House is artwork seeking to pacify the movement. District of Columbia Mayor, Muriel Bowser authorized this response to the Federal Government’s violence against peaceful displays of people expressing their 1st Amendment rights. This act of public art is rightfully criticized because funding for Washington Metro policing has been budgeted an increase for the next year while community anti-violence organizations are to receive cuts of support.

Muralist, Georgie Nakima, whose colorful geometrical creations are featured across the city, said it’s important to have art that represents the current political climate. (photo credit:

DC Mayor Bowser authorized the project for the city’s Department of Public Works, to address Trump’s escalating response to national protests. (photo credit:

From the highest echelons of fine art, with roots embedded in street art, Banksy has responded: “People of colour are being failed by the system… The faulty system is making their life a misery…”

New work posted online: Banksy/Instagram

We all must actively participate.

In other ongoing instances, artwork is being redefined in another way. It is simply naive to look at the current defamation of monuments and property as graffiti – instead, these are examples of the highest forms of expression being created (remember what Nina said about the artist’s obligation?)

Faulty memories of an American history entrenched in the misgivings of black lives lost and other strange fruit are being repositioned. Repositioned so that the other side is being told. Some monuments are being covered over with these echoing voices in protest while others are being completely dismantled. Complete removal of such statuary for a community holds power in purely ceasing to exist any longer. The empty space, which once held captivation and landscape, will maintain the ghostly spirit of its past. A similar example of this has been embraced universally by leaving the empty footprint of Ground Zero as a memorial for what once was of the Trade Towers, and yet, in this case, in an emblazoned effort to voice intolerance for canonized symbols of hatred.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been attempting to remove confederate monuments, such as that of Robert E. Lee (above), with backlash at the Judicial level. (photo credit:

This movement demands that voices of protest be listened to with a response of restructuring, not simple reformation, into tangible and systemic rebuilding. I determine, in my entirety, both personally and professionally, to do my part to listen to these voices, foster these voices, amplify these voices, and be active participant in our courageous new dawn.

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart… I wish I could  break all things that bind us apart… if you could know what it means to be me… then you’d see… you’d agree… everybody should be free… (cuz if we ain’t, we’re murderers…)

– Nina Simone, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Aaron Sheppard, Curator