Deconstructing The National Anthem With Conceptual Wonder Ekene Ijeoma

Social justice warriors come in various spirits. There are those who use their voices on the street and others who move through creative spaces to challenge the system. The latter is what interdisciplinary artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma sought out to do at Houston’s Day for Night Festival last month with his light installation, “Deconstructed Anthems.”

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With lights dimmed but gleaming in the installation, a jazz trio composed of award-winning black artists Kris Bowers (Emmy-winner and Dear White People composer), Ambrose Akinmusire (winner of the Doris Duke Artist Award, Paul Acket Award, and Thelonious Monk Trumpet), and Burniss Earl Travis (Grammy–nominated bassist) turn the “Star-Spangled Banner” into a social barometer, giving the audience a unique and informative take on the song.

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CREDIT: Roger Ho

Paired with the Vera Institute of Justice’s data on mass incarceration, notes were taken out to reflect information about inmates of color. Much like the heavy keys played over the jazz melodies, the information ranges from 91,000 inmates in 1925 to 1,400,000 in 2015. As each note is removed to include all races, but most were black men and women, per data by the pew Research Center. The sounds are more and more deeper, haunting and carry the truths about America’s problem with mass incarceration.

“In deconstructing the anthem, I’m sorta using it for a social barometer for how our society is doing,” Ekene tells VIBE. “If the United States is five percent of the world’s population but has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, is that what the American dream is? And that’s what I’m sort of questioning with the work.”

Played a total of 15 times, the project held more weight than any other piece of art at the festival. Watch our interview with Ekene above, as well as the full version below.

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VIBE: I want to know what inspired “Deconstructed Anthems.” In my opinion, it’s haunting. But it’s ironically haunting since it hits at a lot of themes.

Ijeoma: Haunting?

Yeah, but in a good way.

Tell me about the good haunting.

You have these artists playing the national anthem but in a weird way. I feel like they’re playing it the way a lot of people of color hear it. It’s just ominous, dark and heavy. But then you have a lot of other people here that are checking it out and they’re singing it, and putting their hand on their chest, and they’re happy that they know the lyrics. Then you have other folks that are like, Whoo. This is heavy. Tell me a little bit about how it came about.

Theo Civitello
CREDIT: Theo Civitello

Well, you know, it came in what the American anthem represents, the American dream. But then when you look at all the racial injustice and inequality and you look at mass incarceration — it’s the opposite of the American dream.

Right.

So in deconstructing the anthem, I’m sorta using it as a social barometer for how our society is doing. If the United States is five percent of the world’s population but has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, is that what the American dream is? And that’s what I’m sort of questioning with the work.

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CREDIT: Theo Civitello

A lot of people may have heard it and thought that the deconstruction was random, but it’s just as system-based as the mass incarceration is. It’s not abstract — mass incarceration is not abstract. It’s based on rules. We created our own rules working in collaboration with Kris Bowers who is a composer and pianist based in L.A. We came up with 15 rules. We repeat the “Star Spangled Banner” 15 times, each time removing notes at the rate of mass incarceration. There are 37 measures in the “Star Spangled Banner” minus the part that we don’t sing.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bc50Cr4jgOU/

So 37 measures; we take each measure, map it to a year and the number of incarcerated people that year. So we do that 15 times. Starting from 1925 when, somehow, they had 91,000 people incarcerated and I researched in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice. It shows that in 1925, there were 91,000… already. So we took it from there and we remove more and more notes.

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CREDIT: Ekene Ijeoma

The more people there are incarcerated, the more probability there is of one of the notes being removed. So one of the rules is that we remove the first note of every measure to create the same instability and the composition that’s created in a family when a member is incarcerated. Thinking about the rules like that and not just saying, “We wanna remove notes here,” and “We wanna remove notes there,” randomly. No, we’re breaking it into steps and sort of chapters.

And chapters that are really telling and retelling the history of the black experience in America, from slavery to mass incarceration. To now, we have one called “The Trump Era.” We have another called “The Assassination of Great Leaders”

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That’s interesting. It’s important to see how mass incarceration doesn’t only affect those who are behind bars, but also the families; the children, the women behind bars, etc.

Yeah, and it’s taking that experience and putting it into the “Star Spangled Banner”— putting it into the American anthem to reflect the state that we’re in.

Katrina Barber
CREDIT: Katrina Barber

That’s powerful.

Thank you.

So tell me a little bit about your path and your art. When did you —

My path? There is no path.

Your creative path. How did you get started?

I’m medium agnostic. I’m concept-driven, which is how I got to thinking about constructing this first music-based project. In the past, I’ve done art work in the form of websites, apps, large-scale light installations, mixing light installations, and now with music and jazz performance. But my work is data driven, especially with this work. I’m taking data and trying to say something but trying to say it through poetry. I’m using data, I’m using decades of research that you would usually see in a spreadsheet or report and translating that into something that’s more visceral, beautiful and meaningful. So far, I’m doing that across design, architecture, art and technology. In every project I do, everything is socio-political. So I wanna put these socio-political issues in all these verticals. So every project I do, I try and speak to a publication that’s in art, design, architecture, national news, international news and then use the work as a platform to talk about these issues. And then [I] try and reframe issues.

That’s deep. You have to make people think… As far as we know, you are the first black artist to be profiled here at Day for Night. What do you think that means for fellow artists like yourself?

I don’t know a lot black artists that work with light and large-scale installation or interactive installation like I’m doing, but hopefully it inspires a new generation of artists. But maybe the artists are around and they just haven’t had the opportunity like me. This is my second opportunity to create a large-scale installation. Hopefully there are more.

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