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Artist Q & A: Artist-in-Residence Michael Mwenso

A man with dreadlocks in a ponytail wears a red suit, sitting on a chair in front of a red background. He looks at the camera.


Artist, educator and activist Michael Mwenso returns this week for the second year of his residency with Chandler Center for the Arts. He will be in Chandler for five days of engaging with members of the community at a number of events at locations around the city.

CCA staff talked to Michael about what he is looking forward to this year in his residency, who he is listening to and what people can expect when they come to the public events at the end of the week.

Q: What do you want to achieve in the second year of your residency?

A: It has been a wonderful two years; it feels like it has been longer. I look forward to meeting more people in the community and doing more of that. Engaging with people through music. Mwenso and the Shakes and Electric Root music, we want to bring Black music to people, healing to people and connecting. Music can be used as a tool within communities to bring better understanding, through the music, about the culture.

Q: What are you looking forward to most next week?

A: Based on last year, I am looking forward to meeting more people in the community. I am also looking forward to reconnecting with people, deepening relationships. The impact is more wholesome and gives us a better idea of what we can do next year.

Q: You are leading an Ancestral Communal Listening Experience on Friday night, February 24. Talk about what people can expect.

A: It is a way to build community, listening to music. I play artists who really created a way, through music, ancestrally. They aren’t here physically but are here spiritually. We use it as a format in a way to create a safe space, which allows people to really say maybe what they have felt they couldn’t say at times. But, using this ancestral music, people really feel the ability to speak and express things they maybe wouldn’t have before. The music is guiding people to express themselves. It has become quite an amazing way for us to open ourselves up and using it as a tool.

Q: On Saturday night, February 25, Mwenso and the Shakes will be performing. Talk about the band, how they came about and the music you play.

A: Mwenso and the Shakes is Afro-futuristic, a reflection of Black music, African music, funk, soul. There is a theatrical aspect to it, some dramatic vibrations. There are also a lot of spiritual vibrations to the music. A lot of original music has anthems in them that help you to guide your life in a certain way, knowing the power within you, having no regrets, being resolute in who you are. It really has kind of a way of talking to the audience about healing; and, using Black music as a whole spectrum to use it in a way that you do hear soul, gospel, blues and theatre. It is an experience prism of who I am – Africa, London and now the U.S. It is a journey of my life within the music. This is really where we are trying to get to. It was amazing how we came together. It really happened when Wynton Marsalis brought me to The Lincoln Center for a curator and musician. It came out of connecting with the New York City community, long wonderful nights, working and hearing musicians play. The group develops through a lot of different people playing, late night jam sessions, going to people’s houses. The band was developed out of that.

Q: What does Afro-futuristic mean to you?

A: Afro-futuristic is a way of seeing the world through the lens of the African ideology, African imagination. Black Panther is Afro-futuristic. George Clinton is Afro-futuristic. Using things that may never have been seen without Black imagination.

Q: What do you say to someone who might be reading this and they think these experiences may not speak to them because they are not Black? Who may think that they won’t be able to relate to it because they are not a person of color?

A: Everything Black is for everybody. Black is inclusive. Black is fluidity. Black is welcoming. So, it is not about you not being Black, it is about you having the open-heartedness to embrace it and also have the humility to allow yourself to come into the spirit of Blackness.

Q: Who are you listening to right now?

A: I listen to so many different things. Buddy Guy, musicals, Patrice Rushen, Steve Lacy, Tank and the Bangas.

Q: If you weren’t an artist, what profession do you think you would have?

A: I would be a teacher. I love to share information with others.