Power Dynamics, Dynamic Powers: Arts Organizer Kaisha S. Johnson Gives Insights into Creating Equity and Empowering Arts Leaders of Color
Kaisha S. Johnson has serious world music credentials, from working with a pioneering presenter in New York City to joining WOMEX’s “Samurai,” its conference curation crew. She’s also created a platform for women of color and those who support them in the arts, Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA). She’s part of a new generation of world music professionals, working to create a more ethical, aware, and just music scene in America and internationally.
We asked her a few questions about her past career, her current organization, and the state of the field regarding equity.
What sparked your interest in world music and ethnomusicology?
I’ve worked in almost every genre of music, except for maybe techno. Prior to moving into world and folk music, I was working in jazz. It was a great segue. I was working with artists who were exploring mixing jazz with other global styles. It led me to to the study of ethnomusicology. I went on to pursue studies at Hunter College at the City University of New York. I had already received degrees in music performances and music business administration at Hampton University and NYU, respectively.
While I was studying for my degree, I got tired of the theory. I wanted to learn more practical things. I got really interested in the hybrid phenomenon of new tango. So I moved to Argentina.
I was very interested in continuing my research into the black roots of tango, which weren’t well explored at the time. I went there and did a lot of digging. I got to know the music and dance scenes really well. At that time, there were a lot of people coming into the country from other places, from Brazil, from other parts of Latin America, as well as West Africa and China. It was an interesting time.
I got to know a lot of different cultures that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I got to observe how they used their cultural resources to be a part of a larger community, to access larger Argentine culture.
My time in Buenos Aires was an entry point for me for learning about the Latin American arts market. At that time, around 2004 or so, everything was so separate. You’d go into some cities and they had their own thing going. The scenes weren’t as connected as they are now, between countries or major cities where artists are exploring art. I made friends in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, arts professionals and artists. I learned about their processes and how they moved through the world.
I came to a crossroads after a year, thinking what my next step would be. I hadn’t cut my ties to the field’s public sector completely. Someone told me about an organization in New York City called the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and said, “You’d be really great for, they are doing some work that would really interest you.” It was the first time I’d heard about them. While in Argentina, I was doing some consulting work back in the States and I thought I was qualified for the work. I was really interested in connecting to communities, diverse communities that I hadn’t worked with. I had worked in a bunch of genres, classical, jazz, hip hop, but this was completely new, and to start formally working intimately with artists from around the world was really appealing to me.
You spent several successful years at CTMD, but you’ve gone in a new direction lately and founded WOCA. What was the genesis?
The idea of WOCA actually started during my work with CTMD. I was working with communities of artists and activists and educators, to help them promote and present their own cultural traditions. In that dynamic, I saw people who were only remotely connected to these communities who were pushing their own agendas - agendas that didn’t necessarily align with the agendas of those communities. All over the city and country, I saw this replicated everywhere: arts organizations were doing in-depth work with communities of color, but there were few people of color leading these organizations. Next to no one in positions of authority, in decision-making positions. Senior organizational leadership wasn’t representative of the communities in which they were trying to serve.
I wanted to rectify that, to begin a conversation.
It all boils down to oppression and systemic racism, bias over a long period of time. And you can’t simply bring in a person of color to work with a community of color and think that you’ve solved the issue. We have to dismantle processes and mentalities and rethink where power should rest first.
Representation counts not just in staff, but at the table, in the boardroom, where decisions are made and things happen. That’s just one tool of many, to create space that is equitable. Leadership is really critical. If you don’t have people who are at the helm with diverse voices and perspectives, you’re playing into the same systems.
What are some elements or issues related to performing arts presenting you’d like to shine more light on? How can we address power imbalances and deepen our commitment to ethics and equity?
What do we need to be ethical? We need shared guiding principles or values. If we don’t have those shared values, how do we ever become equitable?
What I’ve seen in the world music scene is no different from any scene I’ve worked in. The dynamics may even be worse. When you see “big stars,” or artists who have been cultivated to become big stars, especially from Africa or Latin America, there’s usually a white man behind them. One of the things that I’ve engaged in conversation at WOMEX is that we should have real conversations about the power dynamics that exist between artists of color and those that profit from them.
When you see a deserving artist who’s mastered their craft and put in the work, and who’s successful, there’s almost always a white person behind them. What kind of message are we sending to the world, if it always looks the same? We’re basically saying that you need a white agent or manager or promoter in order to be successful. We need to shift both the dialogue and the mentality.
We’re really trying to think critically and do things that can critically change the way the field is run. WOCA initiated this program called Continental Co-op. Arts administrators of color from North America can interface with administrators from Africa, to focus on getting away from always looking at African artists through a purely white European lens. We want to help cultivate leadership on the continent and figure out how to create the mentality that you don’t need to go to Europe to promote your music. You can use this (WOCA) network of people who share a heritage with you, who look like you.
We’re still in the nascent stages, but two critical things happened. Continental Co-op is expanding on Africa Exchange, which started in 1990. It was started by members of WOCA before WOCA existed. We’re expanding that, looking at the needs and desire of both continents, looking at both artists and cultural workers. Our first foray was when we went to MASA, one of the largest conference/festivals on the continent in Cote D’Ivoire. Artists showcased from across the continent. We were invited there by a woman who attended WOCA’s annual meeting in NYC, during APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference.) That’s where our ties were cemented.
We then had our first exchange through a woman launching a festival for the first time in Morocco, dedicated to the Sub-Saharan musical influences. At the festival, we (WOCA) presented some talks, that were pretty radical, about cultural equity, about how organizations can support artists and the field via culturally democratic practices. Good things were said in response to the talks, and some things that were shared showed how some people in the room couldn’t understand where we were coming from. It ignited a dialogue.
What are some of the approaches and ideas you’re deploying as part of WOCA’s work in the U.S.?
We’re working towards creating a more equitable field. My mentors have been having these conversations about equity and inclusion for decades. How all cultures and races must be represented, on the stage and backstage. We’re really looking to move toward more actionable items for the field, beyond the discourse.
I was recently at the APASO (Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations) Conference, which brings together arts service organizations that are really holding the field down, in terms of services they provide for the field. I gave a keynote, alongside a WOCA colleague, on racial equity. We can’t have a conversation without naming the problem - racism. These organizations were looking for specific things they could do to create more equitable organizations and be more inclusive in their work. But we can’t talk about these things until we talk about how you and your organization perpetuate racism. We had some engaging and uncomfortable conversations about how the field at large can do things that play into that.
What are some opportunities for people to get involved with WOCA?
The first step is joining our movement! For those that are eligible for membership, become a member! For those allies not eligible for membership, but want to support our work, you can support us financially and find ways to bring WOCA’s programs to your community.
We’re planning several initiatives, including an extension of the women’s leadership forum launched this year during APAP. We hope to make these programs accessible to all cultural workers, from all backgrounds and disciplines. We know conferences are where a large number of professionals gather, but we recognize that professional conferences are not always accessible to all. We want to take this program on the road.
What we’re hoping to do is to engage women in their role in the arts, talking specifically about how women can support one another, how white woman can become allies to women of color. This topic came up a lot during the women’s marches earlier this year. Women often want to empower and advocate for other women, but how can you do that without looking at the systemic inequities, without looking at the intersectionality of gender and race. We’re planning a forum that includes intimate conversations with senior leaders about their experiences with workplace bias, a workshop on how to unpack bias, and an open dialogue to talk about how to move forward, how people of all backgrounds can work together to create a more equitable field. This can’t be a one-sided operation.
WOCA activities involve leading conversations and workshops on racial and cultural equity - first steps in making sure that our leadership is diverse and inclusive, representative of the communities we serve. We give very specific tools that help make people accountable, as they go back to their organizations. It’s not easy to do. The person receiving the training may be on board and may want to see that change. But his or her institution may resist, for a variety of reasons. To that I say, be the change you want to see.