February 27, 2017

Courtney Cintron: "Blackbox: An Afrofuturist Opus"

Second-year Arts Administration and Policy student, Courtney Cintron (MA 2017) has been actively involved in the performing arts since she was in grade school. She has held roles in operas, plays, musical theatre, jazz ensembles and funk & soul bands. She studied voice and classical opera at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music. After college Courtney returned to her hometown of Oak Park, Ill. to plan her next moves. Eventually she decided to get her first graduate degree in Classical Voice and Opera at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Post grad school, Courtney Cintron worked and performed nationally and internationally with various opera collectives and organizations. She enjoyed the growth opportunities and DIY spirit within these smaller opera organizations, which led her to apply to SAICs Arts Administration & Policy program. In this interview, Cintron spoke to the Grad Journal about the intersections of the performing arts, visual art and her thesis topic, Afro-futurism — which she defines in her own word, “a methodology of liberation that emphasizes the power of the imagination in creating alternative futures and realities for people of color, which can be expressed through literature, music, and visual art.”


Salim Solomon Moore (SSM): Did you have a thesis idea in mind before arriving at SAIC?

Courtney Cintron (CC): Before I came to SAIC, I had a project idea in mind, but I wasn’t thinking of it as a potential thesis. I didn’t think I would necessarily be able to work on music related projects at SAIC, but the emphasis on interdisciplinary practices really opened my mind up to the possibility. So, the development of my thesis was really more of an organic process. I came to realize that I could merge my idea to produce a contemporary opera with important conversations taking place in contemporary visual art. My desire to return to grad school and attend SAIC, was in part, deliberately intended to initiate a dialogue that would explore new equitable approaches and practices in opera, allowing for an expansion of the critical conversations needed in the genre.

My first year Management Studio class, with Kate Dumbleton, was particularly useful in helping me navigate the early stages of this idea. As part of an in class workshop, we proposed arts administration projects that we were interested in thinking through, in order to practice grant writing. I proposed to produce an opera inspired by Afro-futurism. My interest in this topic developed over time. As a woman of Puerto Rican descent, it was often difficult for me to understand my place as a student in music conservatories and within the operatic tradition itself. Although singers and performers of African and Caribbean descent have long been practitioners of opera, they have largely been excluded from the canon. I thought about Afro-futurism as a methodology of liberation that could help transform the way opera was conceived, creating a more equitable platform for people of color in the field. My class provided a low stakes opportunity to think about the project. I received a lot of great feedback from my professor and my classmates. That experience really encouraged me to think about how the project might actually come to fruition. Those were the seeds of the project. Over the summer, I ruminated on the idea a little bit more and it expanded into a larger project.

SSM: How did it expand?

CC: My understanding of Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism started to expand. In thinking about the current political climate, my thesis became a way to prefigure not only an operatic stage that would be inclusive, but also a way to access inclusivity and equity in the present through the imagination and intuition. In Afrofuturism, there is often a lot of world building because it is a fast way to activate the imagination and consider reality from a completely new perspective. In Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism, as opposed to black science fiction, there are essential strategies of liberation. It is really more of a methodology than anything else, and some of those strategies include: reconceptualizing time to think of it less linearly, race as a technology-to consider how it is not static- but constantly morphing, imagining alternative futures, ancestral memory, African cosmologies and folklore, and themes of metaphysics and consciousness. There are many different strategies in Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism and they can be expressed through music, literature, visual art, film, and more.

The project itself started to expand when I began to think about how an exhibition might function in shaping the development of an opera. Through the help of my critique panel and project collaborators, I came to the conclusion that the working format for the exhibition would be a temporary think tank - a discursive and process based space that would include artist gatherings and workshops. A key feature of the think tank process will be the creative exchange between artists, writers, and musicians leading up to the exhibition. This exchange will serve to further initiate dialogue amongst artists working with strategies present in Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism. The hope is to connect like-minded individuals and expand visibility for artists working with these strategies in the current political climate. Another objective will be discussion that centers around potential collaborations and potentialities for the development of an original Afro-futurist opera.

SSM: Are there any particular thinkers’ work you are using as resources?

CC: My first teachers of Afrofuturism were musicians. The avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra is considered to be the main pioneer of Afrofuturism, and his songs and films definitely left an impression on me. George Clinton, the funk legend, was also essential. I sang in a Parliament Funkadelic cover band, which was a portal to embodying the sound. The metaphysical harpist Alice Coltrane was also a large influence, and a list of contemporary musicians and DJs producing electronic music and hip hop such as Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monet, Laura Mvula, and Aja Bonet. 

The music led me towards Afro-futurist literature. I familiarized myself with Samuel Delaney, Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, and of course, Octavia Butler. I’ve also been largely influenced by the writings and interviews of thinkers and artists in the movement such as: Ytasha Womack, Rasheedah Phillips, Krista Franklin, Ingrid LaFleur, and D. Denenge Akpem.

SSM: How do you envision moving forward with your thesis?

CC: This project is happening in a few different phases. The primary focus for my thesis is the exhibition, Blackbox: An Afrofuturist Opus, which will take place on campus in the Student Union Galleries. I am co-curating the exhibition with Sabrina Greig, who was a graduate of the Art History, Theory, and Criticism department last year.

In March we have two dates reserved to have think tank sessions/workshops with the exhibition’s artists. Participating artists include: Kamau Patton, D. Denenge Akpem, Darryl Terrel, Amanda McLin, Sadie Woods, Viktor le. Givens, Renluka Maharaj, and Nick Mahshie. Basically, we’re going to start off with some activities including a meditation and exchange ideas on Afro-futurism and Afro-Surrealism. We’ll also talk about potential collaborations and ideas for the opera. So, if you’re doing video installation for the show, how might that translate onto an operatic stage? Would we have video projections on the stage? RJ Eldridge is the librettist for the opera and he’ll also be present to exchange ideas with the visual artists.

SSM: Have you, as a second-year student in Arts Administration and Policy, found that SAIC has provided you with enough resources to develop this project?

CC: Absolutely. I feel like this project is a culmination of many of the administrative tools that I was provided during my time at SAIC. This year, we have been given a lot of individual attention through thesis advising and project workshopping in Management Studio.

SSM: How does having a music background influence the way you approach your graduate school studies at SAIC?

CC:There are really so many ways that music has influenced my approach. I have been involved in musical ensembles since I was in grade school, which has helped me develop the ability to solo, listen, and support other voices when necessary. In many of our classes and conversations in the Arts Administration department, I find that it is important to know how to collaborate and work as part of a team, which requires a similar balance of skills.

I also think that my training as an opera singer instilled both a professional presence and a far-reaching imagination in me. On stage, I have to commit fully to whatever character I portray and whatever actions that character takes. Otherwise, the character stops being believable and the magic is gone. I approach life similarly-doing my best to fully commit to the role I have taken.