The Black Box Conversation Series (BBCS) is a podcast and radio project launched in 2020 in response to the pandemic. BBCS aims to create a safe space where people of color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. My practice often uses conversations and storytelling as primary tools to connect us. I’m interested in co-authoring work that centers the need for reparations to address the injuries inflicted on the African American community. For SoFa journal, I’m sharing a conversation about healing with PSU jazz professor and composer, Darrell Grant. This interview originally aired on Portland State University’s radio station, KPSU, on November 11, 2021.
Kiara Walls: Hello everyone, my name is Kiara Walls and this is the Black Box Conversation Series. The Black Box Conversation Series aims to create a safe space where people of color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. Today, I will be speaking with professor Darrell Grant, and we will be talking about healing. So to kick things off, I will let Darryl introduce himself and then we’ll go into some of the questions.
Darrell Grant: I’m Darrell Grant. I’m a jazz pianist, composer, and a professor of music at Portland State University where I’m entering my 25th year of teaching. I’m also associate director of the School of Music and Theater at PSU. I direct a new program in the College of the Arts, it’s called the Artist as Citizen Initiative, which is an interdisciplinary pathway/intersection between the arts and social justice.
Kiara: Awesome. I’m super excited to be talking with you today. We’ll just jump right in. The first question is, what does healing feel and look like to you?
Darrell Wow, well, let’s start with the easy question. The first thing that I think of is self-knowledge, because I think without that, it’s really difficult to approach the idea of healing. Self-knowledge, for me, has meant coming to understand myself as a Black person, coming to appreciate the unique experiences that I have had, and both the challenges and the successes. I think then coming to see that it’s okay for me to be uniquely myself, both, you know, as an individual, but especially as a Black person in America. That has been a big part of the healing is, you know, self knowledge and then self acceptance. After that comes the process of sort of working through all the things that come up, trying to find contentment and satisfaction. I mean, happiness is kind of a big ask. It’s something that comes and goes, but I’m feeling like this way of feeling content, you know, sort of content with my lot in life, with my path in life. So those are the kinds of things I think about when I think about healing.
Kiara: Thank you for that. I just want to touch back on how you’re talking about being content versus being happy, because happiness is fleeting. There’s this idea that the main goal is just to be happy, and happiness is an emotion that comes and goes. What I think about is joy, and being able to cultivate joy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to anything that you’re working towards, but something like a framework that you create every single day. You find joy in the little specialties of life, you add value to that, versus something that’s external and also something that takes a certain amount of work to get towards. Then the idea is that you’ll be rewarded with feeling. In my opinion, healing is also tied to happiness. Before I had a better understanding of what healing was for me, I used to think that it was more about when you get to a certain point in your journey that you no longer deal with any bad things.
Darrell: Right! Like nothing goes wrong, it’s all good. You have finally crossed over!
Kiara: I’m just like, WOW, that’s a really tall order. I think it’s also not sustainable. I mean, to be human is to make mistakes.
Darrell: Yeah. It’s to be imperfect. I mean, that’s nature, you know, it’s really funny. I was just watching Oprah’s interview with Will Smith, and he has just written a new memoir where he talks a lot about this idea of joy. I know a lot of African Americans, especially artists in my field who are always aspiring, always reaching, always stretching, and always trying to get to someplace. On the outside, a lot of that looks like success. Some of it looks like security. I think about joy being something that doesn’t come from the outside and joy is not something that we assume is permanent. It’s something that we are trying to be aware of. I think that recognizing that the possibility for joy exists within me changes my focus. Because I’m looking less directly at how I can succeed, how can I win? I think that’s a really useful way to think about it.
Kiara: Right. It’s about giving yourself that agency to experience that feeling, you know, giving yourself that power versus always having external validation, because I feel like external validation is nice, but what happens when you don’t always have that type of energy around you? Not to say it doesn’t feel good when you get the external validation, but it’s not going to be a situation where it’s around you all the time.
Darrell: Or you wear yourself out constantly seeking it. That’s what I think is interesting hearing Will Smith talk about it in reflecting on that myself, that there’s this really interesting and insidious way where you keep chasing accomplishment. It’s never quite enough, you get it, but it’s not. It’s just, Oh, but if I could just get that, oh, this is nice, but if I could just get that one thing. I always thought I’m not really chasing money or I’m not chasing things that are considered vain. It looks like I’m really trying to do good things, right? But if I’m still seeking that validation, then I’m ignoring the times when I really need to be stopping and doing nothing, just sitting, just restoring myself for the thing that I’m really supposed to be doing, rather than doing this one other little thing to try and get the validation. I’ve noticed this act of chasing your tail a bit.
Kiara: That also makes me think about the energy that one puts into their work. When you aren’t chasing external validation, you’re truly creating the work because it’s coming from your heart and your soul. There’s a level of transparency and an organic element to it that is seen within the work.
Darrell: I don’t know though. I mean I hear what you’re saying, but I also feel like it won’t necessarily be perceived outside of yourself. Do you know what I mean? Because I think that one of the things that we get good at when we are seeking validation is, we get good at doing things that get the kind of recognition that we’re looking for. Right? And if you desire to be validated for being selfless, you get really good at doing work that is admired for being selfless. The problem is if you’re really supposed to be doing something else, like if your own path to joy or fulfillment involves something else, other people may not recognize that because you’re not hitting those buttons that they’re used to seeing. I think that as an artist, I find that especially true. It’s like, sometimes you really do have to go inside and when people ask you what you’re doing, you got nothing to show you can’t say to them I’m trying to figure some stuff out. I’m just working on some stuff. Because they’re like, “When are you going to play a show? What are you going to do?” And then I say, “I’m not sure because I’m really trying to work some stuff out.” This kind of dialogue does not get a lot of validation. So I think it can be lonely. So that’s when I think what you said about the joy, finding the joy and doing it for those reasons, is really necessary because it can be a dark lonely place sometimes.
Kiara: I totally understand. It’s funny because people can’t always see the work that you’re doing or the work that you’ve been up to and all of the things that you’re processing. So it just boils down to giving yourself that validation, and allowing yourself that space to process things and not be worried about what anyone else is saying or their expectations. With that said, what are the expectations that you have for yourself? Can you meet those expectations and call it a day? Can you describe any day-to-day rituals you practice that contribute to your self-care?
Darrell: Wow. I wish I could. To be absolutely honest with you, I need to embrace more of that. I am a jazz improviser, and my dream for myself has always been to have a life that was completely absent of routine. It’s interesting because there’s a certain number of things that you can get done in one big gesture. But oftentimes if you’re trying to do something that’s really large, you have to break it up into pieces, which means you have to go at it for many days at a time. I just premiered an opera in September (Sanctuaries) that I’ve been working on for four years. It took four years from start to finish, from the conception of the idea to acquiring the commission. Then it was delayed a year and a half by COVID, which I just took as an opportunity to rewrite it. I thought, I can make it better, and in that there was a need for this regularity. I’ve worked a lot over the course of my life trying to become a person who can embrace doing things incrementally, and more so now, iteratively. I’m realizing now this is just the first draft, get it done, throw it away and then start on the second. Once I get to the second, good; fix it and get to the third. I’ve become more of that person, but I still, in my heart of hearts, I just love surprises. I love not doing the same thing or at least feeling like I’m not doing the same thing. It’s been hard to cultivate rituals because rituals by their very nature are things that you repeat that you do on a regular basis and that you focus on.
I think one of the things that I’m doing now, actually that’s fairly recent, or at least my sort of returning to, is just breathing. Really taking the time to notice my breathing. My wife is reading this really cool book called “Breath,” which talks about the science of breathing. I just realized, Oh, that’s something that I can just do. What’s useful about it is that it counteracts knowing exactly when I have to do it. For example, I turn on NPR and then the radio comes on and I start to get this tightness on my chest as they start talking about how terrible the world is. It’s like, Okay, let’s breathe. Now. This is good. I recognize this is the time. That’s something that I’m looking at cultivating. I think the next thing I probably need to cultivate is a ritual around sleep and rest because all my life I have resented the need to sleep. If I didn’t have to sleep, I would never ever sleep. You can’t do anything when you’re sleeping. Needless to say, I’m missing the whole fact that your unconscious is processing, your brain is resting and your body is recuperating. There’s a lot that’s happening when you’re sleeping. But in my impatience I’m like, Nah, I want to do something. I want to do stuff. I don’t want to retreat to bed. I’ve gotten to this age now, 59, where it’s like there is such a thing as the end of your energy. There’s such a thing as wearing it out entirely. The machine starts to break it down and it ain’t going to recover like it did when I was 30 or 40. So now I think it’s time to cultivate some rituals around rest.
Kiara: Right. I’m just curious, how many hours of sleep would you say you get at night?
Darrell: To be honest?
Kiara: Yeah, to be honest.
Darrell: I would say mostly around six, sometimes less than five. If I do a couple of days of less than six hours of sleep, like I have been the past few days, I start talking to myself and getting a little loopy. I’ve also noticed that I’ll get brain fog and I can’t remember names. The conflict I’ve always had is that I thought that to be an artist it required those kinds of sacrifices. For example, artists can’t sleep or artists don’t eat…they just do the work. They do the work all the time and, you know, that’s romantic. I think it can be true but what they don’t actually talk about is the consequences of that. It’s like: yes, that is true and sometimes if artists do that for too long they get sick and they die just like everybody else who does that. I didn’t really think about that part. I’ve got to change this attitude towards sleep. I’ve actually got to change because I can’t just make myself go to sleep. I always found that when you want to change a habit, you have to care about something else more, and have to find something else to care about more. So I need to find something else to care about more than staying awake.
Kiara: That definitely makes sense. What would be your definition of self-care? If you could form your own definition using the practices that you’re already doing, do you feel aligned with self-care?
Darrell: Oh, man. Now we’re moving into therapy. Okay, Doctor, I’d love to talk to you about this.
Kiara: [Laughs]Sorry, just trying to ask the right questions!
Darrell: That’s a good question. I feel like you got a little Oprah on here. [Laughs]Well actually Kiara, what I really need to do is… My definition of self-care…well… it’s a big question. I feel like self-care can start anywhere. I think the first place I would have to start for myself is being honest with myself. Right. Your body changes as you age and you have different needs. I keep feeling like when I was 20, I could live on ice cream sandwiches and ginger snaps for weeks. I didn’t have to eat food. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t gain weight. When I was 30, I was totally skinny and didn’t have to do anything. As you get older, I think this idea of being honest with yourself about what you need [is] the first thing. Then once I come to terms with that, then I’m faced with the fact about being honest about who I am. That’s the first step to me in self-care, is honesty. It’s funny… I mean, it seems strange to think about the idea of being honest with oneself, because you think, well, if you can’t be honest with yourself, who’s making you lie to yourself, but in some ways that’s the hardest thing, right?
I noticed this in two things in the Will Smith interview. And I also watched a film about Magic Johnson and how he would talk about Magic like it was a third person, His name is Irvin Johnson. So in the film he would say “Irvin was this, but Magic required this.” I just thought to myself, This is so strange. He’s living this external persona. He is a prisoner of this persona that he created. What he thinks the world expects of him and inside him, there’s this kid, that’s Irvin, that was before all the fame happened. It’s funny, Will Smith said the same thing. So I thought, okay…so being honest with oneself in part is like, what am I doing? Because the world thinks that’s who I am, and what am I doing? Because that’s who I think I am and who I really want to be. And I think to myself, that’s the root of self-care because once I can come to terms with that, then I can say, well, what does that person need? What does Darrell need that’s separate from what the world expects me to be doing?
Kiara: That’s a very powerful way to look at it. It makes me think of this concept of the “inner child”, we all have our inner child that we’re trying to nurture and heal. I think that’s also a part of self-care is recognizing your inner child.
Darrell: I’ve heard that idea; t’s been around for a long time. Our parents are always trying to get us to grow up and we’re just trying to be adults or act like an adult, grow up, be mature. Right? How is it that we’re supposed to be paying attention to our inner child when they keep on trying to get us to not be that person and to be a grownup person, you know? I have an appreciation for the authenticity, the individuality, and the joy and all of those things that were inherent in that. I might not call it my inner child. I might call it my real self, you know what I mean? I was closer to that real self in many ways earlier on when I was younger.
Kiara: I think about the action of unlearning and getting back to that essence, like who you are at your core. How do you cultivate sacredness in the spaces you inhabit?
Darrell: Hmm. Another fantastic question. Dr. Walls. Wow. So I’m in the process of activating this space in Northeast Killingsworth that used to be the Albina Arts Center(1) way back in the 1960s. I didn’t know [ the history of the space,] when I walked into the space, but I felt something that was so amazing. I’m not a person who just skips down the street, but I’m telling you when I closed the door and I had the key to that place, I was skipping around inside it. I was thinking to myself, This is not like me. I was talking to somebody about it and they said, “You were feeling the spirits of all the children that had gone through that place in this year.” I would say an element of sacredness is history… knowing and honoring the history of who came before. That is something that I feel, I mean I’m not going to start a religion around it or anything, but it’s so important to me that I would say that it’s a core principle. You have to honor and recognize the history of what came before and those who came before. A lot of the work that I’ve done in my time here at PSU has been this sort of discovery of and uncovering and then trying to represent past history, whether it was the jazz scene on Williams Avenue or the the Black jazz musicians who were, you know, the old cats in the scene way back in the 1950s and 1960s and sort of trying to find a way to see them honored. That’s one of the ways that I try to honor spaces is to know about them and represent their history.
Kiara: That makes me think about Sankofa(2) and looking at your past to inform your future. Learning your own history or learning the history of your ancestors or whatever spaces you’re inhabiting. That’s definitely a way to activate the space and you’re also paying homage and giving them their flowers, you’re recognizing them. I’m super excited about that project too.
Darrell: Thanks. It keeps on growing. I’ll have to send you the list of things that are happening. I didn’t bring my Kwanzaa on Killingsworth postcards.
Kiara: It’s all good. I’ll give you a shout out next week. Where do you see yourself on your healing journey?
Darrell: Hmm. Wow. Where do I see myself on my healing journey? I think I have some degree of self-awareness. I think that I’ve learned some things. I think that I’m fortunate in that I’ve inherited a lot from my parents and my family. My father was the youngest of 12 children. My grandfather was a sharecropper in Arkansas and he worked his whole life to get his family out of the South and move them up North. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. I have a master’s degree and a teaching job. I started with a strong foundation in thinking and a strong moral background. I also believed that I was and could be okay and that I was worthy. There’s a lot that I brought to the table. There’s still a lot for me to learn. I have this idea of being my true self and not being so susceptible to the patterns from my past or from the outside culture sort of running me in a particular direction,that aren’t necessarily in my longterm best interest or that don’t feel authentic to me. I’m happy with that. I’ve done many years of therapy and counseling. I’ve had the privilege of having access to that and taking advantage of those. I’ve also been around some really amazing people who’ve taught me a lot and have been good friends. So in a way I feel like I’m pretty evolved, but I still see all the ways in which I’m like, I’m clueless. I thought I had that together, clearly I’ve got a long way to go, even in terms of attitudes and perceptions. I feel lucky. I feel very fortunate and blessed in my life. But I also feel that I’ve got a lot of work to do. Some days I feel optimistic about doing that work and other days I feel like I’m never going to get it.
Kiara: Thank you for the transparency. There’s this idea that I’ve been thinking about, the yin and yang symbol. You can be on your healing journey feeling really good and at the same time, still have this other stuff that you’re dealing with. Those two experiences can happen at the same time. That doesn’t mean that you’re not evolved or like you’re behind or anything, it just means you have momentum and are moving in the right direction. But realistically you still have these things going on at the same time, which is normal and human. I think a lot about grace.We want things to be all good, all the time, but that’s not how life is, right? In life there’s a balance. There’s definitely a balance. It’s also about the perspective that you have and choosing to focus on the good that you have in your life and not necessarily let the bad outweigh that, you know?
Darrell: Also I think gratitude, you know, being grateful to be…I’m grateful to be on the path. That’s what makes me feel good. I still have the opportunity to learn. And you reminded me that I have this habit of setting an alarm for things that I want to remember on my phone. Most of them don’t go off anymore, but when I’m setting new alarms, I’m scrolling through and seeing them. Some of these have actually been on my phone for many years. I started this habit when I was trying to be a better parent to my son and remind me of stuff that I wanted to stop doing. And so I was just looking at my 8:20AM alarm and it said, “Shut up and listen, stop pushing half faith every day”. My 8:34 alarm says, “Increase my willingness to accept suffering.” And that’s on every day. 8:35 is, “Consider the possibility of not worrying about the future.” 8:45 is, “it’s okay, Darrell, there are others who are well-equipped and well-prepared to do this task. You can focus on your own activities.” 9:45 says, “Can I embrace self-care with intentionality as an act of resistance?” That’s been going on for a good year. 3:00PM: “How do I eliminate the guilt and anxiety of not having things done?” 8:00: “Seek out and delight in opportunities to learn every day.” It’s just reminders to keep staying on the path and checking in.
Kiara: You’re checking in with yourself and I think that’s amazing. I might actually start using that because I love it. I have a coworker that has an alarm set for something, I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something very optimistic, like “Keep going,” or “Things aren’t that bad,” or something like that.
Darrell: I mean, if you’re going to have a phone, it’s a good use of your phone.
Kiara: Yeah. I feel like that’s an appropriate use. That’s healthy. We’re onto our last question. What advice would you give to someone who is seeking to heal their past traumas?
Darrell: Well, I think you already said it. I think grace is the thing that you have to keep. You can always come back to it. It’s not like it’s not a continuous linear thing. Just to be able to forgive yourself and give grace to yourself, I think that’s probably the most important thing because you know, it’s an ongoing journey. So I think that’s the thing I would say mostly.
Kiara: Thank you so much, Darrell, I appreciate your voice and your perspective around this topic.
Darrell: Thanks for asking such great questions.
(1) Albina Arts Center was a “historic art and culture hub that was a touchstone of Portland’s African American history.” It is now a resource center called the Center for Advocacy and Community Involvement, run by the police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland to assist community members with social equity-related causes. (Portland Tribune, 2020)
(2) Sankofa is a word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates to “go back, look for, and gain wisdom, power and hope.” It implores for Africans to reach back into ancient history for traditions and customs that have been left behind.” (Wikipedia)
Kiara Walls (she/her) is an arts education administrator, originally from LA but now stationed in Portland, Oregon. Her work is centered around increasing awareness of the need and demand for reparations to repair the injuries inflicted on the African American community. This interpretation is seen through many forms, including story-telling, site specific audiovisual installations, and the Black Box Conversation Series, a monthly interview series on Portland State University Radio. http://psusocialpractice.org/kiara-walls/
Darrell Grant (he/him) Since the release of his debut album Black Art, one of the New York Times’s Top Ten Jazz CDs of 1994, Darrell Grant has built an international reputation as a pianist, composer, and educator who channels the power of music to make change. He has performed throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe in venues ranging from Paris’s La Villa jazz club to the Havana Jazz Festival. Dedicated to themes of hope, community, and place, Grant’s compositions include his 2012, Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite, honoring civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, and The Territory, which explores Oregon’s landscape and history. Since moving to Portland, Oregon he has been named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalist Association, awarded a Northwest Regional Emmy and MAP Fund grant, and bestowed the Governor’s Arts Award. He is a Professor of Music at Portland State University where he directs the Artist as Citizen Initiative. https://www.darrellgrant.com/
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
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