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Calvin Arsenia

Uncommon Voices 2020

Calvin Arsenia
In the studio with Calvin Arsenia

Kansas Citian Calvin Arsenia says that in spite of all this year has taken away, he says he’s still a musician, healer, and entertainer. Arsenia thrives on live entertainment and loves working with a stage full of people.

Q: Performance energy is integral to your work. Have you found ways to generate that kind of energy or project that kind of energy when you’re not performing live? 

There really is not a substitute for [live performance]. It’s like trying to make tofu taste like meat; it’s just not a thing you should even attempt. I think that it is the job of the artist to come up with nonlinear plans of action and ways to navigate difficult things and difficult subjects. So, I’ve spent a lot more time this year working on my own music in the studio and recording music and going back to the basics with my instruments.  

I’ve also taken this opportunity to look at my family history and the origins of America. There was a lot of soul work and educational work and things like that that had to happen this summer in the wake of [the death of] George Floyd. What has emerged from the ashes is this new awakening in myself and in who I am in the context of the world at this time.  

Q:  Can you give me an example of that awakening? How is that finding its way into your life and your work? 

I did write some new music this year. It touches on and expounds upon the racial injustice of our country and a reaction to the bizarre nature of where our country is right now, which is so divided.

As someone who gets to navigate this world quite freely, I wasn’t aware that so many people were still experiencing daily oppression and really hatred toward other people who don’t look like them.

I wasn’t completely ignorant of the fact that people do have their judgements and things like that, but I didn’t understand the gravity of the violence and social structures that affect so many people in America today.  

I had to come to terms with the fact that because I was not actively engaged in dismantling white supremacy in this country, I was somebody who was also perpetuating it. If you’re not actively against it, you’re passively for it. I have written songs about racial justice in America, in particular a song called “Scars and Stripes,” that was part of a project I did for the West 18th Street Fashion Show.  

Q: In a more general way, how do you think pandemic is affecting the music industry? 

In some way, people have focused more on their regional artists and supporting people who share their experiences. I know that originally there were so many people streaming and whatnot, so many people doing online concerts and supporting the person you’d normally go see at a bar, and maybe not spending all of your time looking only at celebrity musicians. You live in your home and the whole world is smaller and you’re focusing on artists who are in your region and in your area and who are basically making the soundtrack of your life. 

Q: What are potential long-term effects of this on your music? 

One very practical thing that is rearing its ugly head is that I love to play with lots of musicians and always different bands and collaborating with different groups of people and various sizes. But how do you get 50 or 100 people in a room to perform for 50 or 100 or 200 or 1,000 people? I have seen and heard predictions that even in light of a vaccine, we won’t be seeing “normal” festivals for a decade, but on top of that, the social anxiety of being in a crowd now. In my concerts and things, I like to have taste elements and smell elements, so I’m thinking about creating a line of scents or a line of candles or incense or a book of recipes to accompany songs. We have to break the mold and decide: how do we want to engage with our audience and how to we want them to engage with us?

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