Students Celebrate POC Art and Community in "The Revolution Must Go On"
On Saturday night, March 3rd, Swarthmore students filed into a transformed Olde Club. Twinkling lights around large prints of student artwork, a mural upon which artists and attendees alike were encouraged to paint, and a twenty-one page short story lined its stone walls. The venue became packed fairly quickly; soon after the doors opened, a long line of Swatties formed outside while the building filled to capacity.
“The Revolution Must Go On” Arts Festival, affectionately nicknamed Rev Fest, consisted of five different performances and speeches given by visual artists about their displayed work. Performances included songs, dances, an original play, and a spoken word piece. The goal of the showcase was to create a celebratory space for artists of color to express themselves. After the showcase ended, the space was cleared out and turned into a lively party. The event was made possible by the hard work of its creator and producer Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20, a member of Swarthmore’s drama board.
“The Revolution Must Go On Festival originated and exists as a demand for better representation in the arts community at Swarthmore and the world at large,” said Morgan-Bennett. “Diversity in the art world means equity, affirmation of lived experiences, empowerment, and at the end of the day a more vibrant and colorful collection of art and performances.”
David Holmgren ‘20 helped Morgan-Bennett in the production and execution of the festival. He explains, “Although I have worked really hard on this production, the visible side of the Rev Fest is not, has not been, and should not be about me, but is rather about the performers and stories told—and about the contradiction between the lack of representation of artists of color and the clear talent/skill of those same artists.” He speaks to his hopes for the festival’s achievements, “It's been truly amazing to see what everyone can bring, and work to give them a stage. I hope that we/I have been able to give everyone a stage without distorting their vision and that in the future this can continue to be a shining point at Swarthmore, bringing out and showcasing artists of color and producing something for the community to celebrate and feel at home in.”
Participants began preparing their pieces for the festival midway through fall semester, and many continued working over winter break. Spring semester was spent finalizing art pieces and rehearsing performances. Yi Wei ‘21, whose poetry was framed and displayed during the showcase, spoke to her experience with this process. She says, “The process of preparing for the art fest was in itself empowering—rather than writing to demonstrate or explain a narrative, I was writing to present my own. The festival was as much a celebration of us as it was a celebration of the strength and struggles of all people of color. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to participate and share my poetry. The space, exhibits, and people the event pulled all came together in solidarity with one another. We celebrated the fight and continued to drive it—what more can you ask from a showcase of wonderful POC culture, talent, and identity?”
In addition to creating an uplifting and empowering space, Rev Fest allowed artists who often don’t get the chance to focus on their art to be creative in ways that are not always encouraged or emphasized at Swarthmore. Ibrahim Tamale ‘20, who performed a hip-hop dance, expresses, “Rev Fest has been one of the few opportunities I have had at Swat to explore my creativity with dance. Since joining Swat, there have not been many avenues for me to explore my style of dance at an individual level so as to keep developing my skill. Events such as Rev Fest need to happen more on campus so that we can have more alternatives for spending our free-time and more avenues for expressive art. Seeing all the performance pieces and showcases on display at Rev Fest reminded me of how vibrant of an artist community we have but which we don’t get to see often.”
Shelby Billups ‘20, who was the emcee for the event, sang what she calls “A Black Girl Magic Medley” for an enthusiastic audience. It consisted of songs by a range of artists including Alicia Keys and Nina Simone. “What struck me the most about the festival was how unapologetically POC it was. I had never felt more comfortable in my own skin. The fact that I had a chance to mention 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' and sing Jill Scott to such a wide audience was life changing. For many years, I felt as though I had to hide parts of me out of a need to fit in to the white mold that I so wished to fit. This festival is something that I was so proud to be a part of.”
While for some, the process of preparing for and performing at Rev Fest was empowering and celebratory, for others, it was representative of struggle and pain as well. Amy Kim ‘19, whose short story was featured in several frames snaking around the walls of the building, reflects on her creative process, “I remember my fingers sooted from pencil and cracked with superglue at 5 A.M. from handcrafting 21 paper frames for the 21 page short story. I remember working bent forward all night long so that when I had to bow in front of the audience, my whole body lurched from soreness. I remember the tremble in my calves with every step, the tremble in my hair from the lack of sleep.”
While Kim remembers the labor that went into her art, and the struggle it reflected, she notes, “I also remember from that night the sheer power of the performances and the enthrallment we found ourselves in...I don't think I'll ever forget that kind of giddy calm you feel when everything you imagined is reified before your eyes. There is little choice but to bask in it, realizing its ephemerality and appreciating it all the more for it.” Remembering the happiness she felt at the festival, she says, “I gaped at everyone’s talent and laughed in the dressing room and felt blessed to take part.”
Rev Fest also included art from people who had never before performed for an audience, like Jennifer Beltrán ‘18, who was a co-writer of “Testimonies to Our Hoops,” a piece detailing the experiences of three Latina women with their hoop earrings in white institutions. She reflects on her experience gaining confidence in her performance abilities, though she was unable to make it to the performance itself. She says, “When I first agreed to join Lali on her project, I had my doubts about my ability to express and perform my words. Looking back at my time at Swat, I always viewed events like the Rev Fest as things I admired, appreciated, and was moved by, but never participated in. However, there was something about a spoken word piece called ‘Testimonies to Our Hoops’ that I thought to myself, ‘I actually have a lot to say about this that I want to share.’ Despite not having been there the day of the festival, I feel grateful to have participated in a beautiful, giant work of art with dope individuals.”
Rev Fest participants learned much about themselves, their communities, and the power of art. Coleman Powell ‘20, who starred in Alexis Riddick ‘20 and Maya Henry ‘20’s original all black, Hamlet-inspired play, Ham(lit), enjoyed exploring themes relevant to his life experiences through art. He wrote to Voices, “After participating in Rev Fest I can't help but think about that old cliché, ‘life imitates art.’ The themes that I got to explore by being a part of Alexis Riddick and Maya Henry's play hit very close to home. I played a character that I easily could have become. In going to an institution that was not originally made for me I think it was very easy to have perception of what blackness was skewed and warped.” He further explains, “The ‘woke olympics’ become a favorite pass time of many, but in reality everyone must define their blackness for themselves. I had a lot of fun exploring this idea on the stage and becoming a character that I easily could have become if not for the emotional labor and patience of people that care about me, which was mostly Black womxn, but what else is new? Art is SO powerful in pushing the boundaries of our imagination and asking us to envision a truly just way to see the world.”
The festival, importantly, created a space for artists of color to feel valued, celebrated, and above all else, powerful—a space that had not explicitly existed on Swarthmore’s campus before Saturday night.
Morgan-Bennett speaks to the need for spaces like these for artists of color. “Sometimes I feel that in our limited representation, the art world further confines our experiences to the dramatic moments of brown and black trauma. When you look at the Oscars or the Tonys, so many ‘successful’ productions are those that feature POC in times of slavery, Jim Crow, and other moments of painful oppression.” She continues, “Those moments are part of our story, but we also exist in a spectrum of emotions, one that ranges from rage to sheer joy and I think Rev Fest performers and visual/literary artists did a beautiful job encapsulating that range. I'm excited for what we accomplished and can't wait to see how this project continues to grow.”
Many students also hope Rev Fest continues and grows for years to come, gaining more support from the College. Billups emphasizes, “I really hope that this is something that we could make even bigger for next year. The college should definitely get on board with this festival and aid in its growth. Everyone needs to be reminded of how important our voices are and know all of the amazing things that we as POC can offer.” Kim, lamenting the fact that, due to the small nature of the venue, many people who wanted to attend didn’t get in, says, “Next year, we demand a bigger venue! The revolution must go on without lines, without any wait outside!”
In the words of Taty Hernandez ‘18, “The Rev Fest is important because it offers up a space specifically for POC. You don’t have to try to fight for space there—it's a celebration specifically for you. That's the thing about institution building, you make your own rules, give your own awards, reaffirm your own existence. It's truly beautiful.”
If you’re interested in being involved in Rev Fest next year, please contact Morgan-Bennett at email@example.com.