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Panorama And The Power Of Context

by Augustin Hinkson

A steelband panorama special to When Steel Talks

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New York, USA - In the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum, WIADCA’s red, white and blue corporate logo featuring a humming bird and an eagle, loomed large at the center of the back wall of the stage. Surrounding WIADCA’s logo was a myriad of corporate posters such as Heineken Beer, McDonalds, Healthfirst, Hennessy, National Grid, The Daily News, Kings County Hospital, Caribbean Life, American Airlines, and others. Curiously, there was no prominent banner to signal the spectacular event of the night -- New York’s 2K10 Panorama Competition.

Posters from corporate business associates of the 2010 WIADCA Steelband Panorama

In the absence of a Panorama Competition banner, the commanding background of corporate images created a space in which the magical musical performances of the steel bands served to enhance the image and advance the agendas of WIADCA and supporting corporations. This point of view is not a criticism of WIADCA and the corporations; nor is it an appeal for change. However, the contrast of symbolic representation and non-representation puts a spotlight what can be called “the power of context” to shape experience and to define outcomes.

Context here is simply a space in which something shows up or the space that makes it possible for something to show up. As human beings in our personal lives and in our group experiences such as in family and in organizations, we create context through language and the presentation of images. Thus it is through language or a set of conversations that we create a particular space in which the events of our lives occur. Nothing gets created without a conversation.

The context of our lives, however, operates in the background. We are usually not aware of this context but it runs the show on the stage. In our personal lives many of us may have a background context for our lives that says, “I’m not good enough,” “There’s something wrong with me,” “I can’t do this.” This kind of background conversation and the context it creates limits what shows up in our lives and how we express ourselves. Until we become aware of this background conversation and become responsible for creating context (a space) that serves our interests, there will be no obvious explanation of why things happen in our lives that are destructive and we do not have the ability to live freely and powerfully.

While Panorama competitions in New York are invariably joyful, what is consistently missing is the expression of powerful representation of the competing steel bands that is reflected in capturing the entire space of the competition with the aim of strengthening the steel orchestras (as the individual music organizations they themselves are). The steel bands show up; they play their hearts out; they are judged; the audience endures the cold and waits for the results. One band wins the competition and bragging rights until the next year. Again, there is nothing wrong with that experience but it does not leave the players, the audience and their respective communities in a space of honor and power.

Now imagine a Panorama Competition where instead of the pervasive presence of corporate logos, what was present was the banners of each steel band and their governing statement. For example, this year members of CASYM Steel Band organization sported tee shirts with the statement “Education A Must.” Education A Must establishes a clear context that focuses attention on the band and points to what really matters to them and their communities. This is a compelling issue when it is considered that only 28% of Black males entering New York City high schools graduate and there is a direct relationship between dropping out of high school and being incarcerated.

According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan only 2% of teachers are Black males. The Daily News reported on February 14, 2010 that the number of Black students attending the city’s most elite public schools dropped by 10% since Mayor Bloomberg took over the school system. At Brooklyn Technical High School the percentages dropped from 18% in 2002-2003 to 12% in 2009-2010. In that same time period the percentage of Black students at Bronx Science dropped from 7% to 3%.  These are profound facts that have a direct impact on the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

In the light of these facts it would have been great public relations activity for a member of CASYM Steel Band to bring their presumably progressive educational agenda to the Panorama audience. At the Panorama competition there is at least twenty minutes between performances. There is precious airtime available to move CASYM’s message from a tee shirt to the eight thousand people in attendance and further to a world-wide audience via internet streaming video. The question here is what was CASYM’s organizational context such that it’s important message was not carried wide and loud? To the extent that steel bands attract many young people with parents in the public school system, steel bands are well positioned to have an enormous impact on educational policy and practices.

During the transition period between bands it would have been fascinating to view video presentations of preparation leading up to this year’s Panorama competition. What were the challenges? How were they overcome? A recap of the previous year’s competition would have provided excitement for what’s to come. But nothing gets accomplished in the world of “should” or “would” or even blame and fault.

What’s at stake in the Panorama competition beyond winning first place is an opportunity to have a progressive voice for the empowerment of Black communities. But empowerment does not happen without conversations and actions that are consistent with the will to power. A will to power necessarily involves a shift in the context or the space in which the Panorama competition occurs. The choice is to keep that space small and in the service of other entities or to create a large space where the indestructible voice of Pan is heard and its impact felt.

There is an often-heard mantra, “When Steel Talks, Everybody Listens.” Well the digital revolution makes that a reality. Live streaming the Panorama competition or any other performances such as steel band “launches” opens up a whole new world of possibility. “Education” in this realm is certainly “A Must.” The opportunity here is for the Steel Bands to create and participate in a conference that addresses the legal, technical, social and economic issues related to streaming performances. Indeed, the digital revolution offers the chance to create a context that ushers steel bands out of the obscurity of a musical subculture to a powerful cultural front for fashioning transformation of the world. The choice is available – choose.  

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