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Making lemonade with Do Lab, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, and Julien Baker.

Segments

09:32
  • Art & Design
The “Can Do” Lab
Do Lab's engineers design events that realize the outer reaches of their imagination.
Season 3, Episode 5
The “Can Do” Lab
09:13
  • Literature
Cheryl Boyce Taylor: The Mother Tongue
Poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor found her place in America by connecting to her native culture.
Season 3, Episode 5
Cheryl Boyce Taylor: The Mother Tongue
07:26
  • Music
Julien Baker: An Old Head On Young Shoulders
Singer-songwriter Julien Baker lives and reflects deeply.
Season 3, Episode 5
Julien Baker: An Old Head On Young Shoulders

Transcript

Coming up on Articulate, everything is impossible until you’ve tried it. The events architects of DoLaB are constantly trying to realize the outer reaches of their imaginations.

Jesse Flemming: It’s pretty interesting to see the evolution. We’ve come pretty far.

Finding your place in a new society is always jarring. For the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, staying connected to her native culture kept her grounded.

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I was looking for the comfort of my Caribbean people because I love that dialect, I love that history. Coming to New York and lookin’ at television and not seeing myself represented, I began to love the Calypso and appreciate it. It was something I took for granted.

And sometimes great wisdom comes from the mouths of babes. 20-something singer-songwriter Julien Baker lives, creates, and reflects deeply.

Julien Baker: Joy is learning how to apply optimism to despair and being able to identify positive things where there seem to be only negatives.

That’s all ahead on Articulate.

Behind every unforgettable party is a great host. At Do LaB, the Los Angeles-based production studio responsible for the Lightning in a Bottle Festival and Coachella’s most beloved stage, there are twin pillars of creativity. Jesse Flemming is the curator. His twin brother Josh, the sculptor. But they started small—really small.

Josh Flemming: We were always building forts. We were always getting into our dad’s tools, and whatever lumber he had under the deck, and building stuff. It’s just what we did.

The brothers planned parties, often professionally, throughout their youth, but they never expected to end up with an annual festival of their own.

Jesse Flemming: When it first started, I think in 2000, it was 150 people and we printed up these little card invitations with a nice little story like, “Hey, we’d like to invite you.” We would just give them out to our friends or mail them to people. Then word of mouth started to pick up. But back then, it was just “If you knew, you knew.”

AJC: And the end game for that was what? Just have a good time? Were you hoping to make money? Were you hoping to build business?

Jesse: No, I mean, the first four years, it was completely free. We paid for it out of pocket, because it started as our birthday party. So it was kind of like a gift from us to all of our friends. It cost us about a thousand bucks to put it on. We’d get a generator, and some fuel, and a couple lights, and pay a couple DJs, and a little sound system, and that was it.

AJC: How many people show up to your birthday now?

Jesse Flemming: Somewhere around 30,000.

These days, festival planners all over the world look to the Flemmings for cues on how to establish a culture that will last. The brothers themselves learned, at least in part, through observation. Philadelphia Folk Fest, the oldest continually-run outdoor music festival in North America, was just part of the wallpaper of their childhood.

Jesse: We got to run around in all the little camps backstage where all the crew and the volunteers were camping in, and it really left an impression on us. It really inspired us and, at the time, we had no idea that that’s the direction our lives would go. But it definitely always was imprinted on our brains about the festival culture, and how people come together, and build a community, and live together, camping for weeks at a time to create an event.

AJC: Is that, at the core, what you do? Because it really is that, it’s almost… Many festivals—I would suggest probably all festivals—are kind of, “If you show up there, and you want to be there, you have almost joined a tribe by default. And then you’re creating a temporary community, a temporary encampment, for that tribe to exercise its culture.” Is that what it feels like to you?

Jesse: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of what festivals are about, and it’s certainly a big part of what we do. A lot of events and festivals throw the word “community” around. And some of them are legitimately building communities that come together year after year, like a Burning Man, for instance. That community has spread all over the world, has all kinds of off-shoot festivals, and events, and it’s really become this huge network of people—creative people. We’ve been a part of it for almost 20 years now. Yeah, I think Lightning in a Bottle is a big community of people that love to come together every year to celebrate.

And for all their triumphs, these past 20 years have offered Josh and Jesse plenty of trial and error. Indeed, all the architecture, structural engineering, and set design skills that go into their giant creations was self-taught.

Josh: Once I realized that this is what I’m passionate about, it’s just “structure,” I kind of set out to just study as much as I could. I got every book that I could afford to and I would just study. I would study the details. I would walk through the streets and I would look at how lampposts are built, or how buildings are done, or bridges, or anything, really. You can pretty much find any connection for anything that you want to create. It’s already been done. Nothing is really that new. So I would just pay attention, just study on my own. It’s been fun, actually, ’cause I’m not, you know, not classically-trained in a school, so I think outside of a box.

AJC: When you look back at the earlier work, what do you think of it now? Do you know the guys who made that?

Jesse: I mean, I remember the guys that made that early work. They were young, renegade, crazy attitude. We didn’t care. We were just having fun with our friends. And the fact that we were getting to do what we love to do, for us, was just mind-blowing. Every day it was just, like, we get to live the best lives. When I look at the work, it’s kind of interesting because you can see… I know what we were thinking back then, and I know how we put all these little pieces together. We didn’t really understand how to build things. We would take a couple materials and try and put them together in ways that, now, it’s laughable to us. We’re just like, “Why would… I can’t believe we never even thought of a better way to do that.” But it’s pretty interesting to see the evolution. We’ve come pretty far.

AJC: And that’s experience plus technology. Because the technology is a very big piece of this, right?

Jesse: I mean, it’s been pretty important. In the beginning, it was pencil sketches and cardboard models. We’d be cutting out little pieces and gluing it together, not even to scale. Then we would just try to figure it out on site. But now, everything’s modeled and rendered down to the nuts and the bolts. It used to be, we’d get together to build a project, and everything would go wrong. Nothing would ever fit, and it was constantly trying to fix things and rework it. But now we make all these pieces, we have it all fabricated. We bring it together and it just fits together like IKEA sets. And it blows our minds sometimes, how… I don’t want to say easy, but relatively easy these things just go together, all because of the technology.

AJC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve built?

Josh: Currently, the largest structure that we’ve built is for Boom Festival in Portugal. That’s 2016. I believe that was 280-foot diameter by 45-feet tall.

AJC: Wow.

Josh: And that was a clear-span space, which means that there’s no columns or anything inside of it. So that was, like, an awesome accomplishment.

AJC: How many bodies can go in that?

Josh: You know, it’s…

AJC: Several thousand?

Josh: Yeah, several thousand. Everybody has a different calculation for that, but I’ll say at least five plus.

AJC: And did you get to be in that space with other people?

Josh: Oh, yeah. I mean, we build it. We don’t just design and send them off. We’re a design-build company. We love building more than anything. I can only spend so much time on a computer, you know. Jesse and I love to get out there and just… We spent two months in Portugal, camping in tents, 100-degree weather, building this structure with an international team. And it was epic. And then we spent nine days at the festival, celebrating inside of it. It’s cool. We build these massive projects in a short amount of time, which is not like traditional architecture. And then we celebrate the existence of it for a short amount of time. Then we break it down, and sometimes they never see the light of day again. Like, that one will never get set up again.

AJC: Really?

Josh: Yeah.

AJC: Does that not hurt?

Josh: Yeah, to be honest, I’m a little bit tired of spending six months of a year for three days, and then that’s it. And that’s kind of the model that we’ve set up. It’s very temporary.

And the Flemming Brothers are now looking for ways to make what they do more enduring.

Jesse: I think a dream project for us would be to design a permanent amphitheater space built into some sort of natural hill or cove. And design an amphitheater event experience space that’s unlike anything that exists. That’s what we’d really like to do. We talk about it all the time.

A long white space

with blue dots and orange lines

a wide winter space

 for hummingbird sounds

and steel pan pounds.

a wide space turned out

with yearning.

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor has been a pillar of the New York poetry scene since the 1970s, when, as an ambitious twenty-something, she first took the stage at legendary venues such as The Nuyorican Poets Café. In the half-century since, she’s carried the torch for dialectic poetry in four books and countless workshops. And despite being oft overlooked in the mainstream, Boyce Taylor has had a truly profound impact on poetry.

But when a 13-year-old Cheryl Boyce-Taylor arrived at her aunt’s house in Queens, New York from the island of Trinidad, it was not as the powerful writer she is today, but as a child with a lot of changes to adapt to all at once.

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I’m seeing this sunshine outside and I’m saying, “That’s not true. I don’t have to wear a coat.” And I get outside without a coat, and it is very cold. So that’s the first physical shock to my body. And I realize I’m without my mother—this woman who kept me so close and cuddled me. Although my aunt was the most wonderful person, she didn’t know that cuddling. She didn’t know what to do with a young teenaged daughter. In the meantime, right before I left Trinidad, two boys had kissed me, the night before I was leaving, as to say goodbye. They were 14. And so here was all of this new transformation happening, and I didn’t know how to process those things. Being a Caribbean family, they really don’t talk to you about anything sexual to prepare you. And here I am, budding. I had just gotten this new bra. I had just gotten these new heels and stockings to come to New York. Literally, my life was transforming, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to. So I wrote my mother letters every day, wanting to come back home, and I couldn’t tell my aunt. I believed that, in my 13-year-old mind, that she was doing us a big favor. I knew that she was. She was buying clothing, and she was doing us a big favor and how ungrateful I would be to be telling her, “I don’t want to be here. I want to go back to my mother.” So I had to hold all those things inside. So it was a physical transformation, as well as emotional—and spiritual, too.

AJC: The fact that you had to go through that, do you think that is what gave you your power? Gave you your energy?

Boyce-Taylor: I think that that is what gave me my power, knowing that I did not want to let my mother down. I did not want to hurt my aunt’s feelings. I had to paddle through this somehow.

Boyce-Taylor put everything she couldn’t say at home into writing, first finding a place in the flourishing New York poetry scene, and then reconnecting with home.

Boyce-Taylor: My poetry was really welcomed in the New York community, with the Nuyorican Poets Café, and all of those things. Now, I’m in my early twenties and I’m doing this reading here, giving this workshop there. But what I’m missing is the Caribbean voice. And I’m saying to myself, “I’m loving this, but where’s my Caribbean people?” And so I form an organization called Calypso Muse, in search of Caribbean voices, because that was so missing in my life. And I think that that was the thing that drove me to create family, and I was always looking for the comfort of my Caribbean people.

AJC: Why?

Boyce-Taylor: Because I love that dialect. I love that history. Being taken away… When I was in Trinidad, I took so much for granted. Coming to New York, and looking at television, and not seeing myself represented, I began to love the Calypso and appreciate it. It was something I took for granted. The Carnival and the costumes, my grandmother cooking on a coal stove, you know, on rocks outside. All of those things became important to me, and I knew I had to document that for my survival.

ah say ah have a yearning

for nite tepid breeze

big fat moon dat eh fraid yu

big moon shining

like meh neighbor Merle face

oh god ah yearning

for mango dou douce

sticky and sweet

for melongen curry cabbage

and blue dasheen

AJC: Have you thought about legacy at all? Is it important to you? Do you ever think about how people will regard you when you’re no longer here? Or does it matter to you?

Boyce-Taylor: Yes, I mean, a lot of times when I write, I think about legacy. I don’t know if we will have poets reading in Trinidadian dialect in 20 years, but you will have my work.

AJC: Will Trinidadians care about your work, even, in 20 years?

Boyce-Taylor: (nods) But not a lot of poets are doing work in dialect. Now, one of the things that made me want that so much is because there’s a whole Canadian group of poets that write in dialect. In England, too.

AJC: Yes.

Boyce-Taylor: The Black-British or the Caribbean-British poets. It’s very common, but it’s not as common here in the U.S. and that’s what made me start Calypso Muse. Because I felt that that was something we could not lose. And so I’ve spent the last 20 years talking to poets about keeping their dialect in their work. So my legacy is to keep that culture and that language alive. And those family stories. I’m a narrative poet, and so I write those narratives of my childhood. And my son has grown up to do the same thing.

Her son, Malik Izaak Taylor, was Phife Dawg of the genre-defining hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. He passed away in March of 2016 from diabetes-related complications. Through the heartache of grieving, Boyce-Taylor has continued moving forward, creating beautiful work for the future while never being afraid to examine the past.

AJC: Give your 20-year-old self the best piece of life advice you can.

Boyce-Taylor: Keep writing. Don’t be ashamed of some of the experiences that you’ve had. Put them out there. It may be embarrassing. It may cause people to move away from you. But that is your life. You cannot stay away from it. You cannot steer away from it. There’s so many gifts in being who you are and speaking your truth.

A yearning for voices ringing shrill, from B-flat to High C.

Bam! C roll in.

One hand on left hip,

The other flying, leaping in my face.

Oh gosh, a yearning.

Yearning, yearning, yearning.

Hungry, for my people.

For my people.

Hungry, for my people. For my people, for my people.

For Julien Baker, joy is a skill, not a temperament.

Julien Baker: Joy is learning how to apply optimism to despair, and being able to identify positive things where there seem to be only negatives. Not tricking yourself to believe that there are no negatives, but learning how to feel and come to terms with your own feelings, and inhabit both joy and sadness at the same time.

The preternatural wisdom of this young and already cherished singer-songwriter came at a psychic cost. An only child born in the South and raised in a conservative, religious home, Baker hid her understanding of herself and her sexuality from the family she loved. The angst and despair were crippling, precipitating acts of self-sabotage and thoughts of suicide. Baker’s slide towards darkness later emerged in songs like “Sprained Ankle,” the title track from her first, self-produced album.

When Baker did at last come out to her father, his response was neither nuanced nor partial. It was, instead, a saving grace—a message of acceptance that shifted Baker’s view of how she might be loved for precisely who she is, and how she might keep on living.

Baker: When I tell that story, sometimes I worry that people misunderstand and think that my dad grabs this Bible off the shelf and tells me why it’s gonna be okay, because God loves me anyway. But the important operative phrase is, it’s not that God loved me anyway, even though I did this abominable thing by being who I was. It’s that God loved me in the first place. Which are two very different things.

Baker was a teen when she began to sing with a band called The Star Killers, who would later become Forrister. She traveled to what she’s called “pockets of progressive mindsets.” Today, she’s known in the U.S. and beyond for her self-exorcizing lyrics and haunting, fragile voice. In her music, she is no one but herself.

Baker: Slipping into the medium of music, and using that as a mode of communication, I think allows us a loss of inhibition that we don’t find many other places. We’re allowed to have the liberty and freedom and comfort to talk about things and express them as art without fear of, you know, any kind of recourse.

Baker’s second album, last year’s Turn Out the Lights, continued the story of her search for hope within the context of uncertainty, but in new ways.

Baker: I wanted to be more deliberate about the way I was presenting those stories and give them more than one facet—give them multiple alternative outcomes. Because, while it was therapeutic and cathartic to sing about hopelessness and very bleak emotions on Sprained Ankle, when I had to sing them over and over again and really analyze them, I realized that I didn’t give myself much room for it to be a “process.” It was just a documentation of a feeling, which is valid. But I wanted this record to be just a point along a constantly-growing idea of who a person is.

Indeed, Baker has become adept at describing a state of mind that cannot be easily summoned or defined.

Baker: When I say “doing better,” it’s not as if I have had some grand epiphany and now I no longer experience anxiety and depression, or sadness or loss. But I think what’s different now is that I’m more deliberate and able to grapple with those things in a healthy and productive way. I think more importantly than saying, “I have less anxiety attacks,” or “I am sad less frequently,” is saying that it is not a failure when I am sad. It is not a bad thing when I am sad. And that, in itself, I feel like is a tool of coping that’s very valuable to me.

Three years ago, Julien Baker admits, she might not have allowed herself to dream of being older than she is right now. But that perspective, too, has shifted.

AJC: Do you now think of 35, 40?

Baker: Oh yeah.

AJC: 50, 70?

Baker: Yeah.

AJC: And does that excite you?

Baker: Yeah.

AJC: Does that scare you?

Baker: It scares me a little bit, more because I don’t know what the world will look like. And as terrifying as it is, I’m also excited to find out because I realize that I have a role in shaping that.