When I wrote my open letter to Quvenzhané Wallis, I began with a quote from Warsan Shire, a brilliant poet and writer who spoke the truth of giving your daughters difficult names. The equally amazing Jessica Solomon, a part of the Live Unchained organization, reached out with their intent to celebrate Warsan and other Black women creatives through an event in DC. I am excited to share my interview with Kathryn Buford, one of the many magical folks behind Live Unchained. Enjoy!
1. What is Live Unchained?
We’re an arts media and events organization that features works by and showcasing women across the African diaspora. Live Unchained media includes our online magazine, where we’ve interviewed over 100 women artists from over 16 countries. Live Unchained events include art festivals, exhibits, concerts, film screenings, lectures and workshops. We also sponsor events relevant to diaspora communities. We recently joined MTV, ARC Magazine and many other brands as an International Reggae Poster Contest media sponsor and previously hosted the sold-out film screening of Middle of Nowhere, the groundbreaking film by Ava DuVernay, the first African-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance Film Festival.
2. How did the project start?
My friend Miriam and I launched the website in 2009. But, I had the idea for a while before then. Initially, it was just going to be a newsletter and then an anthology that would satirize the mis-representation and under-representation of black women in dominant media outlets. Since then, the vision change to celebrate art by and featuring black women we truly appreciate.
3. What makes this project so necessary right now?
Across the world, I see that African American women media consumers and artists want to see themselves reflected more in media and the art world. Too often dominant depictions don’t reflect the diversity of our perspectives, experiences, nations we come from and languages we speak.
Live Unchained is filling a void by bridging the art and media worlds to honor black women that defy the boxes, expectation and limitations others would impose on us and have us conform to.
4. Who is a part of the live unchained community?
We have a transnational following of women as well as men of African descent and various backgrounds. I didn’t realize how much and far this project would resonate, but men and women from various countries and backgrounds who appreciate black culture and great art support us.
5. How did you all connect with Warsan Shire?
Honestly, I can’t remember how I first heard the poem, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” but I remember getting a special feeling when I did. Even the title read like an invitation to me, as if a wise soul was saying: “You who thinks you are so difficult to love, let me explain to you how special you are and why I want you to stop being so harsh with yourself.” After hearing the poem, I spread it like gospel because I knew so many people who could relate.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I went to our Connectivity Director, Jess Solomon, with the idea for an awards ceremony named “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful.” She and I spent a lot of time crafting the e-mail to Warsan to ask her for her blessing to call the ceremony that lol. I basically told her how much the poem meant to me, what Live Unchained was about and why we thought “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful” would be the perfect name for a ceremony honoring the women we featured.
All that is to say, I think the reason we were able to partner with her is the same reason we were able to feature the 100+ women from over 16 countries on www.liveunchained.com - we approached her because we were sincerely moved by her art.
6. What inspired you all to create the live unchained event?
I chose the title, “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful,” because it reflects the qualities I continue to see in the women we’ve featured on Live Unchained—artists who are not easily categorized, with creative work neither safe, nor cliché. We have interviewed a diverse group of creatives from various backgrounds and artistic disciplines including Afro-German musician, Noah Sow; Nigerian writer, Nnedi Okorafor; Jamaican painter, Oneika Russell; Kenyan graphic designer and curator, Jepchumba; Sierra Leonean photographer, Delphine Fawundu; and African American artists of various disciplines including Nina Chanel Abney, Kenya Robinson, Sam Vernon, and more. Across all these women’s work I’ve come to see that the layers, fire, and vulnerability we possess as women individually, and as members of an international community, are qualities to be celebrated. Now, with Warsan’s blessing and support, “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful” will truly be a celebration.
I think an awards ceremony created to honor women of African descent, by an organization led by women of African descent, is a powerful statement. “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful” says that when we recognize and celebrate ourselves, and that honor that comes from our own community is just as valid as any other recognition.
The ceremony is definitely about more than just giving out prizes to people will like. We’re honoring and celebrating the creative journey, and all the energy, labor and risk that goes that these women passionately put into their art. Every woman we feature has her fans, but she also has her critics. And, most of us still have to contend with our own personal fears about how our work will be received before we’re ready to share. I think that whole process, of not just presenting great art (which I know is a loaded term, by the way), but the internal hard work and commitment it takes to get there should be celebrated.
We’re really going to show what makes Live Unchained excellent at hosting arts events with the “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful” ceremony. Just as we do on www.liveunchained.com, we’ll be highlighting all different types of artistic expression from painting, to photography, to Afro-punk to new dance movements and sounds coming from across the continent and much more. I’m personally looking forward to some awesome collaborative music performances with artists people have never seen together yet. We’ll also be showcasing some of the women’s visual art we’ve featured and provide limited edition merchandise you won’t find anywhere else. It’s the type of ceremony people will want to come back too. It’s an awards ceremony with an unchained twist.
7. What is your wildest dream for live unchained?
Well, I’m proud to say after repeatedly revisiting our business plan, taking entrepreneurship classes and regularly speaking with my awesome mentors about Live Unchained my greatest vision doesn’t feel like a “wild dream” anymore – it feels like a plan that we’re building towards.
One thing that I’ve learned as a social entrepreneur is that no matter how brilliant your idea is or how helpful your organization actually is, funding is something you have to work extremely hard to attract and sustain. There are so many other organizations that I really respect with a hard-working staff committed to securing opportunities and justice for black communities locally and internationally. And, there are so many artists that do things like mortgage their homes and work 60 hours work to fund their own creative projects. I want Live Unchained to not only provide great artistic content and events, but fund organizations and artists whose work aligns with our mission. It’s really frustrating to see sincere and talented folks struggling
8. How can people get involved?
In addition to contributing to our fundraising campaign at www.indiegogo.com/liveunchained, folks can keep up with us via our newsletter at www.liveunchained.com/newsletter. It’s also great to connect with us through our social media outlets:
We’ll be sharing volunteer opportunities and events through these outlets.
We love partnering with small businesses and have opportunities to sponsor upcoming events. If anyone is interested in an opportunity like that, they can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. What’s next for Live Unchained?
We’ll have a series of events leading up to the series of events for “Terrifying, Strange & Beautiful!” I’m really excited to share what we’ve got cooking soon on www.liveunchained.com and our social media outlets.
10. What does living unchained mean to you personally?
Personally, I let Live Unchained be the light that pulls me forward because so much of my life revolves around it – if there are certain opportunitities or individuals that aren’t in line with the values and mission of what my brand stands for, I’ll let them go.
I’m not just making Live Unchained, it’s making me – it’s helping me confront my insecurities, build sisterhood, define and re-define what things like feminism, my African heritage and the diaspora mean to me and it has most definitely help me step up my business acumen.
Live Unchained is also a personal philosophy that I re-commit myself to everyday. Living unchained means putting the love for myself, my community and my creative life first, without needing, or expecting, anyone else’s approval, applause or understanding.
To me, to truly “live unchained” also means not being committed to having things turn out the way I want when I want. When I feel detached from my desired outcomes, I feel unchained…and, things will usually unfold just as I had imagined or better when I don’t feel so “graspy.”