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Q&A: 'Artivist' says creative expression makes communities healthier

Martha Gonzalez — Grammy winner, activist and ASU Gammage guest resident — discusses whirlwind tour through Arizona

Martha Gonzalez
September 27, 2016

For Martha Gonzalez, this is the eye of the hurricane. 

The Grammy winner, activist, scholar, community builder and mentor has been working to inspire creative growth and imaginative expression around the Phoenix area as the 2016-2017 ASU Gammage guest residency artist. She’s on a short break, but starting next month her whirlwind tour of Arizona will resume.  

Since Sept. 12, Gonzalez has been involved in a series of events that included a youth workshop, a jam session, songwriting workshops, MFA-level grad student discussions and the kickoff of the current “Performance in the Borderlands” series. Next month, she’ll discuss art in the context of women in U.S. history, pop music and race, Chicana activism, and immigration and ethnicity.

The tour will take her all over the state, but the current calm provides an opportunity for Gonzalez — "the artivist" — to discuss, in a Q&A with ASU Now, the role of women in art, the connection between arts and activism, and the scope of her work.

Question: Have women always been a vital part of performing arts and activism?

Answer: Women have always been at the front of social movement, social justice, the arts and beyond.

I’m not in any way attributing this to feminism or Western feminism when we think about the empowerment of women. Before the enterprise of feminism, there were always women in our families — in Mexico, other part of Latin America, Africa — who have resisted in particular ways in history.

We’ve always been resisting. We’ve always been building. We care for our families. We care for our communities. And we find different ways to accomplish things.

We’ve been using music, art, dance and other forms of creative expression to do this as a way of communicating with others, raising concerns and bringing communities together in different ways.

It’s great when an institution like ASU is paying attention. It’s a good thing for the students. It’s a good thing for the community. And it’s a good thing to get us all together so that we can all build the future in a collaborative manner.

Q: Is the idea of artists bringing attention to social injustice a relatively new phenomenon? Or is it now just getting traction? 

A: Art has always been meant to document and instigate critical thought and bring communities together.

It was always, I believe, more participatory.

With the advent and creation of the industrialization of music, with hyper-capitalism as the way we understand it, we always think of art as something separate from community: something we buy or we sell.

That was really never the case before capitalism took a hold of all of our minds and our creativity and imagination.

Art has always been a way of bringing the community together to instigate critical thought.

Capitalism has led us to believe that it’s something we have to major in and has been Westernized how we think about art — that it’s a product. But music isn’t a product.

A lot of artists are coming back to the idea that participation in art and music is a way of being in communication with the community. My work personally revolves around bringing people back to this idea.

Performance art is also an important way to impart knowledge and inspire people.

How many times have you been to a concert that just blew your mind? That’s really important.

I can speak to both. I love to perform. I’ve worked on my craft for many years, but I’ve also spent a great deal of time and energy in participatory music and dance practices, which I feel are important ways of using our skills as artists to reconnect communities.

Participation in art and music is a human right, and we need to reconnect to those ways. They lead to our greater consciousness. It makes communities healthier.

Q: The 1960s was a time of great social activism, and it seems like we’re getting back to that. What are the issues we as a society need to focus on and address today?

A: The result of the 1960s social era movement is that the biggest strides were made in terms of representation.

Having people that politically represent you that look like you in terms of race, gender, at times, sexuality. Also the implementation of the institutionalization of the movement, those are important things.

It’s important to study these movements to see where the new critical thought is coming from and to keep that as a way of deconstructing power.

In addition to that institutionalization comes pacification as well.

We need to look at the change in what’s happening on the ground and find ways to keep it alive on the ground. Not rely on federal money because along with these things come those parameters. With the non-profits come these ways of how you can and can’t spend money, and the efforts become institutionalized.

When that happens, it shuts down and doesn’t allow for new ways of exploring. Keeping it grassroots as much as possible is the way to instill the purest way of doing things.

We originally wanted to be a part of the system, and now we realize the system is corrupt in general. It doesn’t matter who you have in the White House, sometimes they just have to play by the rules. So for me, it’s more about what happens on the ground and with people who are there on a daily basis.

There’s less trust in the system now than ever before. The thought before was, “If we could just get in there we could change things,” and now we’re slowing finding that’s not the case. We need to stay close to the grassroots because many people are thinking upward mobility.

Q: I’ve heard that your music has brought about social change in your community. Can you give me an example?

A: In our music, we really try and instigate critical thought as they listen to our lyrics, and have discussions around it.

On an academic level, there is discussion on our music, lyrics and methods as a way of writing about it. Often they teach about our music.

But in terms of grassroots, we do a lot of community work around Fandango, which is a participatory dance and music practice that we’ve helped disseminate here in the U.S.

There are Fandango communities everywhere.

They aren’t performances but music and community dance practices. There’s a whole bunch of protocols, and they’re quite extensive.

This is work we’ve been doing for the past 12 years, and what’s come out of this is a lot of critical thought that extends into other communities. It’s a way of building community with others.

We’ve also done collective songwriting workshops where we engage communities around whatever issues, and we write songs together. But we do it in a way where there’s a real discussion, and we collectively write a song.

We’ve done this to discuss propositions all over, and that’s how we utilize our artist skills to instigate dialogue so we can do other things. We don’t predict what those other things will be, but ultimately it’s about promoting community and what’s important to them.

Q: What are you hoping community members will get out of your visits to some of the smaller towns in Arizona?

A: I feel like we’re going there to share what we do as artists.

There will be a lot of Phoenix-based artists on these trips, and when we leave, the goal is: If it makes sense, to keep it going, and it outlives my presence and stays relevant to their lives and the issues in their communities.

The issues in my community could be very different than the issues in the communities we’ll visit.

My goal is not to tell them what to do as much as to have a dialogue with them so they can figure it out for themselves, but in these very fun ways.

Through art, through music, through lyrics, these creative ways communities should engage in.

It’s also about tapping into the resources that are already there and having us look at our communities not from the deficits they have. It’s how we look at it and how we harness the energy that’s really important.

The arts are a way of talking about these issues and looking at the beauty that’s already there. Highlighting these things, building on that strength and extending into other things.

About Martha Gonzalez

Performances: Gonzalez has performed at the Kennedy Center for the Arts as well as the Smithsonian and worked with musical artists Jackson Browne, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Susana Baca and many more.

Community work: Through her Mexican folk band, Quetzal, Gonzalez has engaged communities in critical thought through music. At the same time, she has increased access to health care and educational programs for underserved populations in the Los Angeles area.

Academic work: Gonzalez is an assistant professor in Chicano and Latino studies at Scripps College, a liberal arts school for women in Claremont, California.

Next event: ASU West Campus will host “An Evening with Martha Gonzalez” at 6 p.m. Oct. 20 in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Go here to RSVP

Top photo: Singer and "artivist" Martha Gonzalez talks about community in her work during the opening event of "Performance in the Borderlands" on Sept. 13 at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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