Philadelphia DJs are a wise bunch. They're not just here to amuse you, but to educate and illuminate. Along with Old City's newly opened Scratch Academy Philadelphia, run by local spinner Cosmo Baker and teaching tricks of the DJ trade along with cultural and musical life lessons, comes "Dust + Dignity" at the Painted Bride Art Center. The new show uses 100 album covers and their music to promote dialogue about social justice - and to shake rumps.
Curated by Angie Asombrosa, Sarah Mueller, and Bruce "Junior" Campbell Jr., featuring hand-selected covers by Philadelphia spinners suc as Junior, Baker, King Britt, Rich Medina, and Skeme Richards, "Dust + Dignity" enters the current dialogue of racial ignorance, police brutality, and overall injustice with feet firmly balanced between the dance floor and an art museum.
"This exhibit highlights something all of us care deeply about: accurate, expansive, rich representation of black/brown communities," says Mueller, creator of cineSPEAK, an emerging film programming organization in North Philadelphia. She got involved with "Dust + Dignity" as a proponent of arts activities positioned at the intersection of art and justice.
"What King, Rich, Skeme, Cosmo, and Junior, along with myself and Angie, are trying to showcase is the critical need for communities - often overlooked and grossly misrepresented - to speak for themselves, as opposed to being spoken about by larger media outlets. Many of the covers in our exhibit feature the musical artist. They're saying, 'This is me, and I don't give a s- whether you like it or not. I got something to say - and you're going to hear me out.'"
As an Arcadia University professor, Campbell was inspired to do "Dust + Dignity" by his course "Exploring the Opportunity Gap Through the Lens of HBO's 'The Wire,' " and its hard look at the realities of mass incarceration of African American males. Another inspiration was his work as a DJ and co-owner of recordbreakin.com - an online radio station, curated playlist, record label, and historical black-music information center.
Sarah and Angie, of Cuurlzzz.com, an audio/visual website, "were thinking along the same curatorial lines, so we joined forces on the importance of album covers that triggered notions of social justice, protest, and change," Campbell said. From there, he went to his most thought-provoking Philly DJ pals and asked them to dig through their crates, find 20 important covers within that framework, and work stories about those choices for "Dust + Dignity"'s video segments.
A March 18 pop-up panel discussion and dance party will find all the participants - save Skeme, who is touring Japan - talking about and spinning "Dust + Dignity"'s curated selections.
Campbell declined to provide many details about the albums in the exhibit - "I love the element of surprise." He did reveal his exhibition's welcome-sign first entries: Kendrick Lamar's 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly ("the primary visual for the #BlackLivesMatter movement"), and Gil Scott-Heron's 1982 Moving Target, the latter featuring the poet-rapper running on its front cover and in close-up on the back with a marksman's target on his head.
Cosmo Baker also chose a Scott-Heron album sleeve (he won't say which one), as well as 1979's Uncle Jam Wants You from Funkadelic, with its depiction of bandleader George Clinton in tribute to Black Panthers' leader Huey Newton. "These are crucial aspects of black music culture and the culture of injustice, the struggles," Baker said of his choices.
With his Scratch Academy Philadelphia - the newest of six classroom settings throughout the U.S. since its 2001 start - Baker is looking to lend the art and culture of the DJ the historicity it deserves. Philly DJ/instructors Medina, Sat-One, and others take Baker's lead and expound upon the role of the DJ in a larger cultural context - along with teaching group and private students how to mix and other skills.
A video posted by Cosmo Baker (@cosmobaker) on Feb 20, 2016 at 5:58pm PST
"Many 16-year-olds' only exposure to DJ culture is watching YouTube videos of the Ultra Festival," Baker said. "Though DJing is a young art, it has roots in the gay bathhouses of New York City's East Village, the basements of the Bronx, and the grassy knolls of Jamaica. There is a changing culture at work - as well as the skill sets - and my mission is to show that there is more to DJing than Skrillex."
Not that there's anything wrong with Skrillex or any of EDM's lions. Baker is simply interested is presenting old-school, new-school, and newer-school DJ work in a broader conceit.
"It's all valid," he said. "My idea for Scratch Academy is to show all of our art forms' correlating lines and how they blur. You can't be exclusionary, but, rather, you must be inclusionary, so that kids - anyone - can continue to define their own reality, their connection to the culture, and the larger narrative."