The passing of D.Blair (September 19, 1967 – July 23, 2011), is a tremendous loss for the Allied Media Projects network. Blair was an award winning poet, urban folk singer/songwriter, afro-punk, educator and activist. The Allied Media Conference would not have become what it is without Blair's contributions year after year, since 2007. We mourn his loss with our whole hearts.
Read a message from his family and friends here, and make a contribution to the David Blair Memorial Fund, which will help cover the costs of his funeral arrangements. Any funds raised beyond the costs of his memorial services will go towards a fund for artists without health insurance.
If you are anywhere near the Detroit area, please join us at the community memorial service, this Sunday 7/31 at 1pm. More information here. Allied Media Projects will be livestreaming the memorial service at dblair.org.
At the close of the 2011 Allied Media Conference, a friend asked me, "Did you all cast a spell on this building five years ago to ensure this magical experience for everyone, every year into eternity?"
I realize now that we did, but it was an emergent spell, cast by many hundreds of people over time. Blair has been an essential part of the magic that defines people's experience of the AMC, beginning with the poems he read during the "Welcome to Detroit" Opening Ceremony in 2007, continuing through to his last AMC performance, "Detroit (While I was Away)" at the AMC2011 Opening Ceremony.
Between those book-ends, Blair contributed to the AMC as a performer, workshop presenter and host of tours of the city. In an AMC tour highlighting Detroit's musical legacy in 2008, he stopped the bus in front of the Motown Museum, and performed Stevie Wonder songs on the lawn. Another year, he led a workshop on the "History of Black America as Told Through Music" which was a collaboration with elders from Detroit's Hannan House. People told us that that workshop changed their approach to teaching, expanded their definition of "media," and inspired them to build intergenerational relationships in their own communities. Through his many Allied Media Conference performances he rooted the conference in the culture of Detroit, teaching people how to love the city, whether they were visitors or lifelong residents.
Blair would always make a point to tell us that he wanted to be a part of the AMC, and would plan his tours so he wouldn't miss it. I remember feeling surprised and honored the first time he said that, thinking "how lucky are we? Blair thinks this thing that we do is important."
AMC2009 fell just three weeks after the death of Michael Jackson. We struggled with how to celebrate Michael at the AMC, without simplifying him. We asked Blair to do a tribute performance during the Opening Ceremony. At the time he was completing a book of poems about Michael Jackson, called Moonwalking.
Fitting with the theme of the Opening Ceremony, "Media and Creativity to Transform Ourselves and Our World," we decided to ask Blair to sing "Man in the Mirror." When I asked Blair if he would perform the song, he said he didn't know if he could do it. It's a hard song with lots of complicated ad libs and high notes, and it was also just a hard time, and he was daunted by the task of being a conduit for such a massive collective mourning process. Thinking about that conversation now, it seems remarkable, because his performance comes across as absolutely fearless.
Blair opened with his poem, "Into Darkness," which climaxes in the line "I want to be MICHAEL JACKSON BLACK!" It is a masterpiece that frames the Jackson family story within the context of the American story of racism, generational violence, fame, fantasy and transcendence. Blair then asked us all to snap a beat as he began his a cappella version of "Man int the Mirror."
For me, and I think for many of the hundreds who were in the auditorium that year, Blair's performance was a spiritual experience. It's awkward to say that because I know Blair would resist any identification of himself as a "spiritual leader" as much as many people in that audience would resist being identified as participants in a "spiritual experience." But with that song he created space for spirituality to mean something honest and un-cheesy and real.
Blair sang the song in a way that made people gasp and then want to sing along with him. The lyrics were definitely part of it – the theme of changing oneself to change the world resonates deeply with the AMC community. There was also the longing among this audience of radicals and outsiders to reconcile the mainstream pop icon of Michael with their love for him and his place within so many of our childhoods, and the subtext of everything his life spoke to: race, gender, sexual violence, the globalization of American culture, fundamental truths about humanity. Blair could see all of that and sing it.
Blair was a shapeshifter, who could access truths about humanity that others couldn't necessarily see or understand. He had the talent to translate that truth into art and the generosity to share it with people constantly. That's what made him such an incredible performer, but also teacher, and organizer. I never knew how much of an organizer Blair was until this past year when he co-coordinated the Poetry and Music as Transformative Media Track of the 2011 AMC.
He worked with Isaac Miller and a crew of other amazing artist-organizers to convene a series of workshops around expansive topics like "Collaboration and Competition in Artistic Communities," "The Pedagogy of the Open Mic" and "Building Movements through Touring." Through his work on that track, and through his daily life, Blair helped define what the role of an artist within a community should be: a facilitator of other people's brilliance and liberation as much as their own; and a bridge-builder and seam-weaver between disparate ideas, identities and communities. In the last conversation I had with him, we talked briefly about the momentum coming out of the track and all of the ways it could grow. I told him I thought it was one of the best-organized tracks of AMC2011.
The week before the AMC, as a fundraiser for the track, he organized a special version of "A Crowded House" – an epic cross-genre, curated open mic night that he used to do regularly, but hadn't done in a long time. It was a spectacular, 35-person line-up of many of my dearest friends, some of them performing for the first time or the nearly-first-time, or just the first time in a long time. Their anxieties were put to ease by the supportive atmosphere he cultivated so gracefully. The show went on for 9 hours or something, and it stayed super-crowded. A lot of people there didn't even know about the AMC – they crowded in out of love for Blair.
The poem Blair did at the AMC2011 Opening Ceremony rings in my ears because it's a poem about missing Detroit, and now we are the ones left missing him so terribly. In that poem, "Detroit (While I Was Away)" he asks "Do you ever think of me this way? / Do you even know I've gone? / Say my name, Detroit, / I pray you claim me / A small town boy, born in New Jersey, but made / in Detroit" ... "The year I was born you blew up / I came when I could / I've never left / I stay even when I go."
Thank you, Blair, for loving us so hard, and giving us so much. We owe you symphonies of voices, saying your name, claiming you. We owe you better ways of loving and taking care of each other. You stay with us.
Written by Jenny Lee. Mike Medow contributed to this writing.