Expression Session: How I found a Scenius
There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as a “scenius”. Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals – artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers – who make up an “ecology of talent.” If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
Ons bou ‘n army uit mense wat jy niks van dink nie. – HemelBesem
Standing on the shoulders of Giants, we will roar like a lion in the heart of the night – Fruit Vendor, Giants
Yesterday I was walking on Gordon’s Bay beach when out of the throng of people’s voices, I heard someone shout “Giant! Hey, Giant!” Stopping dead in my tracks, I saw a family I’d met only twice before greeting me from not far away. The first time I met the Bryan family was at Expression Session Kuila, an arts showcase event that happens at the end of each month in Kuilsriver that is curated by hip hop artist Jerome Rex (with whom I now share a hip hop collective called Gemengde Oorsprong). The second time I met them was in their hometown of Worcester where alongside Jerome, I also shared the stage with other Expression Session Kuila regulars NaMa Xam (its host), Recruit, Reinhart Rymhard (also of Gemengde Oorsprong) and a bunch of local Worcester artists. The “Giant” the Bryan family used was in a reference to a song I wrote called Giants, which I debuted at Expression Session Kuila sometime last year and later performed at Expression Session Worcester (watch that performance here). After exchanging a few pleasantries and hugs, I learned that the family travelled all the way from their home nearly two hours away to enjoy the summery afternoon at the beach (Worcester is inland). In no way inflating my own self importance, what was more mystifying was the fact that I was recognised amongst this large crowd of people from afar by people I’d met only twice, called over in reference to a rather personal piece of art and furthermore encouraged in the most emphatic and loving way, “We wish you all the best for 2015 and can’t wait for your Fruit Vendor EP!” In my experience, most acquaintances or fellow artists just casually greet by way of waving or – ignore you flat-out! So wow, I was gobsmacked. All of this simply because of an event called Expression Session that found its roots in Worcester (big love to the Bryan family by the way – the EP is nearly there!).
Expression Session encourages artists to perform their OWN material (which is ironic since nowadays I’ve found myself playing a lot of COVER gigs where I’m expected to play “upbeat” music – which is really just a clever synonym for “a song that everyone knows”). Because of the frequency of the events and the large interval between sessions, artists are able to write new material in the interim – which is then performed to a live, non-judgemental audience that absolutely loves local, authentic South African content (something that the local media for some reason seems to loathe). What’s better, if those at Expression Session love you, they REALLY love you! And if they don’t, they won’t crucify you for trying – and in that, there is beauty, because the act of creativity is a process and it’s one that you can’t go at alone. Furthermore, offshoots of regular attendance create an intrinsic value proposition for both artist and supporter – on a metaphysical level, the payoff is simple: being part of something greater than yourself is insatiable. On the physical, artists are able to push their product (CDs, T-shirts, stickers, books etc) and supporters get to go away from the event with a piece of finely crafted, local magic.
In 2013 I curated my own event called the Soapbox Jam Session & Open Mic every Sunday afternoon at a venue called Café Art in Stellenbosch, where artists of all disciplines could bring their pieces and perform them with or without the in-house jazz band. Many of the participants were newcomers to a live experiment of this nature and so it gave me great pleasure to see many of them walk away with an unprecedented zeal for their craft. Although I learnt a lot over the course of the 11 weeks that the event ran, what it lacked was the local drive and willpower that makes a scenius like Expression Session tick – both from that of the participating artists and the event supporters (who most times are comprised of the artists themselves anyway). Stellenbosch for me had long been a place of perpetual comfort and it can easily become a space where artists fall into apathy, do a lot of talking and talking – with nothing actually being done! It was only until I saw the aforementioned in the flesh at the Soapbox Jam Session & Open Mic that my assumption about the Stellenbosch bubble was confirmed. Read more about that here. Around this time I picked up How Music Works, the semi-autobiographical/music industry guidebook written by lead singer and songwriter of the Talking Heads David Byrne and I further learnt what it would take to be part of a local, thriving arts ecosystem in the chapter called “How to Make a Scene”. I believe Expression Session has most of these qualities and here’s why:
– The artists should be allowed to play their own material (as above)
– There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene (most of what is presented is not “pop”)
– Social transparency must be encouraged (artist and supporter are in open dialogue, the veil is lifted – so to speak)
– Performing musicians must get in for free (everyone at the sessions get in at no charge)
After the Soapbox Jam Session & Open Mic, I felt really disheartened at the way it fizzled out, especially since I put so much effort into making it work and not seeing the fruit I wanted to see in the short time it ran (external factors also influenced its demise, but I won’t talk about that now). In my search for a scenius, I really found what was missing thanks to Jerome Rex who invited me with open arms to perform at his event – in a sense it changed everything and I haven’t looked back since.
Before Expression Session I seldom got out of the house to present new material to the public (unless of course with my rock band Brother & Brother), but once I started playing at the sessions – man, it was like things just started taking off. It was like I had my own little fanbase, who actually valued my work and not only because some radio or media personality told them to – it was like I had my own market, my own scenius and they even came through for me when I really needed a rent-a-crowd. Not many local artists can say that – given the fickleness of our human nature. I’ll even be using the platform to select which track of two will make it onto the final cut of my EP.
Thank you to Jerome & Adele Rex, NaMa Xam, Ashleigh Davids, Rene van Niekerk, Brendon Bosch and all involved at ESK as well as the team in Worcester for putting this whole thing together, let’s push hard this year!
PS: The first Expression Session Kuila of 2015 happens on the 25th of January and Gemengde Oorsprong off the heels of our performance in Beaufort West in November, will be making our Kuilsriver debut in full effect. Get involved and share your fruit! Doenit, man.