Vibrant Communities

Celebrating the Art & Culture of Kentucky: Some of the Bluegrass is Black

About the Series

The Kentucky Arts Council presents a celebration of Black and African American artists through a monthly interview series that explores and showcases the lives, works and voices of several artists who call the Bluegrass home. Part artist talk, part personal interview, the series combines personal perspectives of the artist's work, and meaningful conversations with both professional and emerging Black artists in the commonwealth.

The series is hosted by Lexington-based poet-scholar and professor Dr. Shauna M. Morgan, Director of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives at the Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor of creative writing and Africana literature at the University of Kentucky. This series is supported by a grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.

Join Dr. Morgan each month, June through November, to hear stories from the artists, their personal thoughts on art and artistry in today's America, and their connections to working in Kentucky and beyond throughout their careers and at this point in time. You'll also have the opportunity to get in on the conversation by submitting questions during the interview.

Don't miss this one-of-a-kind series featuring some of Kentucky's most accomplished artists.

The event is free and registration is required. Register here for the Nov. 17 event.

About our sixth guest: Crystal Wilkinson

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Crystal Wilkinson portrait

Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky's Poet Laureate, is the award-winning author of Perfect Black, a collection of poems, and three works of fiction — The Birds of Opulence , Water Street and Blackberries, Blackberries. She is the recipient of a 2021 O. Henry Prize, a 2020 USA Artists Fellowship, and a 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. Nominated for the John Dos Passos Award, the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts and others.

Her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in The Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni Literary Journal, Emergence, Oxford American and Southern Cultures. Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts, a culinary memoir, is forthcoming from Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House in August 2023. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is Associate Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program. Read more about Crystal on the Kentucky Poet Laureate website page.

About our fifth guests: Everett McCorvey and Alicia Helm McCorvey

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Dr. Everett McCorvey and Alicia Helm McCorvey have been married more than 30 years and have together spent their lives - home, family and musical careers - in Kentucky. The McCorveys have played important roles in promoting opera, voice and the performing arts throughout the Commonwealth and around the globe.

A native of the Bronx, NY, Alicia Helm McCorvey has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University in Music and German, and a master's degree in Music from New York University. She completed the coursework for a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Kentucky. After graduating from college, Alicia, a soprano, sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera of New York where she met Everett McCorvey during a production of “Porgy and Bess.” She performs in Kentucky with UK Opera Theater, Woodford Theater, and the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. Alicia is a founding member of Women and Philanthropy, a group of women who raise scholarship funds for University of Kentucky students in need. She has served on the advisory board of The International Book Group and the board of Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra. Alicia supports several non-profit organizations and has endowed a vocal studio at the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center at the University of Kentucky. She is a major contributor to a board room at the Northside Branch of the Lexington Public Library, in honor of her librarian father.

Everett McCorvey is endowed professor of voice and the holder of the Lexington Opera Society endowed chair in opera studies at the University of Kentucky. He received his degrees, including a Doctor of Musical Arts, from the University of Alabama. McCorvey has given concerts, master classes and workshops throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia as a soloist and with his wife. McCorvey is founder and music director of the American Spiritual Ensemble, a group of professional singers from across the U.S. and Canada. The group has toured the U.S. and Europe, including nine tours of Spain, performing concerts of spirituals and other works by African American composers. McCorvey's career has been distinguished by many awards. He has received the Acorn Award from the Kentucky Advocates for Higher Education, the Outstanding Faculty Award from the University of Kentucky Lyman T. Johnson Alumni Association and the Outstanding Alumni Award in the Arts from the Society for Fine Arts at the University of Alabama. McCorvey is a former board member of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), a service organization that empowers state arts agencies by offering strategic assistance that fosters leadership, enhances planning and decision-making and increases resources. He is vice chair of the Kentucky Arts Council Board of Directors.

The McCorveys have three children and live in Lexington.

About our fourth guest: Hannah L Drake

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Hannah Drake

Hannah L Drake is a blogger, activist, public speaker, poet, and author of 11 books. She writes commentary on politics, feminism, and race, and her work has been featured online at Cosmopolitan, The Bitter Southerner, Harper's Bazaar and Revolt TV. In 2019 during Super Bowl Sunday, Hannah's poem, "All You Had To Do Was Play The Game, Boy," which addresses the protest by Colin Kaepernick, was shared by film writer, producer and director Ava DuVernay, and then shared by Kaepernick. The poem has been viewed more than two million times.

Hannah's commentary on life and challenging others to dream bigger have been recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama. Hannah Drake was featured on the Tom Joyner Morning Show with Jacque Reid to discuss her international movement, Do Not Move Off the Sidewalk, which addresses the power of holding your space. Hannah was selected by the Muhammad Ali Center to be a Daughter of Greatness which features prominent women engaged in social philanthropy, activism, and pursuits of justice. Hannah was selected as one of the Best of the Best in Louisville, Ky., for her poem “Spaces” and recently was honored as a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Kentucky Governor recognizing an individual's noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to community, state and nation. Labeled as a change agent, Hannah's message is thought-provoking and at times challenging, but Hannah believes that it is in the uncomfortable spaces that change can take place. “My sole purpose in writing and speaking is not that I entertain you. I am trying to shake a nation.”

About our third guest: Martha Redbone

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Martha Redbone

Martha Redbone is a Native and African-American vocalist, songwriter, composer and educator. She is known for her unique gumbo of folk, blues and gospel from her childhood in Harlan County, infused with the eclectic grit of pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Inheriting the powerful vocal range of her gospel-singing African-American father and the resilient spirit of her mother's Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw culture, Redbone broadens the boundaries of American Roots music. With songs and storytelling that share her life experience as a Native and Black woman and mother in the new millennium, Redbone gives voice to issues of social justice, bridging traditions from past to present, connecting cultures, and celebrating the human spirit.

Her album “The Garden of Love - Songs of William Blake,” produced by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder and Grammy Winner John McEuen, is an unexpected twist described in The New Yorker as “a brilliant collision of cultures,” features Redbone's magnificent voice, Blake's immortal words and a masterful cornucopia of roots music (blues, gospel, bluegrass, soul and traditional Southeastern Woodlands). Featured on All Things Considered, the album released on her own imprint, Blackfeet Productions, rose to the Top Ten on Amazon Folk Charts for many weeks and has become the bedrock of her live shows bringing audiences to their feet with her fiery old time mountain gospel singing and foot-stomping energy.

Redbone and her long-term collaborator/husband, composer/pianist/producer Aaron Whitby are called “the little engine that could” by their “band of NYC's finest blues and jazz musicians,” as written by the Wall Street Journal's Larry Blumenthal. From grassroots beginnings at powwows across Indian Country and in the underground clubs of New York City, Redbone has built a passionate fan base with her mesmerizing presence and explosive live shows. Her debut “Home of the Brave” was called a “stunning album,” and the publication described Redbone as “the kind of woman who sets trends.” “Home of the Brave” garnered extremely positive critical attention while her sophomore album “Skintalk,” described by J Poet of Native Peoples Magazine, as the soulful sound of “Earth, Wind and Fire on the Rez.” “Skintalk” took Redbone's music to Europe and the Far East. Albums “Skintalk” and “The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake” are recognized in the Library Collection and “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture” exhibits in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Redbone is Composer for the Public Theater's 2019 production of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuff”, a revival/reimagining of the 1976 classic choreopoem by the late Ntozake Shange. Redbone joined the all women-of-color Creative Team to celebrate the author's historical work and legacy, enjoyed a four-week extended run through December and received rave reviews with notable mentions for Redbone's (“supreme music...brilliant”- NY Daily News) original compositions and score, called “supreme music…brilliant” by the New York Daily News

Redbone and Whitby's newest work is “Bone Hill - The Concert,” an interdisciplinary musical theater work that brings to light an important piece of American history that has never been told. The work is inspired by the lives of Redbone's family in the hills of coal mining Appalachia. A multi-racial Cherokee/Shawnee and African American family, they are permanently bonded to their culture, identity and the mountain despite its violent past and the ever-changing laws of the land that attempt to extinguish them. Commissioned by Joe's Pub/National Endowment for the Arts and Lincoln Center for the Arts, “Bone Hill - The Concert” is touring extensively nationwide and is a recipient of the NEFA National Theater Project Creation and Touring Grant and National Performance Network Creation Fund.

Over the years Redbone has performed and recorded with many great artists including Bonnie Raitt, George Clinton, Judy Collins, Joan Osborne, Steven Van Zandt, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Nona Hendryx, Lisa Fischer, Steve Martin, David Amram, Tony Trischka, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Carter Cash, Ben Sollee and Tom Chapin amongst many others.

Martha guest lectures on subjects ranging from Indigenous rights to the role of the arts in politics and Native American Identity at many institutions including New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Redbone includes workshops and motivational talks with students as part of her touring schedule on numerous reservations including Red Lake, Minn., Cherokee, N.C., Yuma, Ariz., and Menominee, Wis. An exemplary ambassador for both Native and African-American Youth for the National HIV/AIDS Partnership, she was awarded the Red Ribbon Award for Outstanding Leadership presented on World AIDS Day at the United Nations in 2005. Currently Martha advocates for Why Hunger's Artists Against Hunger and Poverty program which raises and awareness of poverty and hunger in the United States and abroad. Redbone is an Advisory Board member of the ManUp Campaign, the global youth movement to eradicate violence against women and girls, for which she served as the indigenous affairs consultant and creative advisor. She is particularly proud of her accomplishment in having the Campaign's Board of Directors include an Indigenous North American contingent (independent of the United States) to the roll call of 50 countries taking part in their Youth Leadership Summit held at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Redbone is an Advisory Board member of The Carlisle Indian School Project, a 2016 Fellow of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and is the 2018 MAPfund and 2018 Creative Capital awardee.

About our second guest: Mark Lenn Johnson

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Mark Lenn Johnson

Mark Lenn Johnson is currently the President of Art Inc. Kentucky, a non-profit business and marketing incubator serving Kentucky artists and operated through Community Ventures. Johnson was born and raised in Lexington, Ky., and spent a number of his formative years growing up in the city's historic East Side.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a minor in Economics in 1989, Johnson began a very rewarding career in the field of banking. After becoming one of the youngest vice presidents at his bank, and having a desire to be of more service to his hometown and later to his home state, Johnson left the banking industry and became involved in the non-profit small and micro business development field, eventually coming to oversee the Commonwealth of Kentucky's Small Business Services Division within the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. It was also during this time that he started pursuing his artistic endeavors in glassmaking.

After spending almost 10 years in state government, Johnson returned to Community Ventures, his first job in economic development, to oversee its business and mortgage lending activities, all the while pursuing his artistic pathway.

After expanding his artistic body of work to include not only glassmaking but abstract painting and creative photography as well, Johnson was invited to show a collection of his work at one of New York City's largest art shows - ArtExpo. As a result of that event, Johnson was offered an opportunity to show his work at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, and shortly thereafter was recognized by Art Tour International Magazine as one of the world's Top 60 Contemporary Artists of the Year. He participated in a group show in Florence, Italy, where he received his award.

His work is part of the permanent collection of Eastern Kentucky University's John Grant Crabbe Main Library. In 2019, he was invited to show his work in Eastern Kentucky University's “My Kentucky State of Mind”, an exhibition of contemporary African-American artists. In 2020, in celebration of Black History Month, he was invited to show his work at the NAACP's Evening of Elegance, an event celebrating African-American artistic expression.

His most proud accomplishments, however, are being a dad to his two sons - Matthew and MacKenzie - as well as to Picasso, their rescue Chihuahua.

About our first guest: Frank X Walker

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Frank X Walker

A native of Danville, Ky., Frank X Walker is the first African American writer to be named Kentucky Poet Laureate. Walker has published 11 collections of poetry, including “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” which was awarded the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Poetry and the Black Caucus American Library Association Honor Award for Poetry. He is also the author of “Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York,” winner of the 2004 Lillian Smith Book Award, and “Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride,” which he adapted for stage, earning him the Paul Green Foundation Playwrights Fellowship Award. His poetry was also dramatized for the 2016 Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and staged by Message Theater for the 2015 Breeders Cup Festival. A lover of comics, Walker curated “We Wear the Mask: Black Superheroes through the Ages,” an exhibit of his personal collection of action figures, comics and related memorabilia at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in 2015; he reprised the exhibit in 2018 at Purdue University and Western Carolina University. Walker recently returned to the world of visual art with a collection of new and early multimedia works, “Black Star Seed: When Mi Cyaan Find Di Words” which was on exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington.

Voted one of the most creative professors in the south, Walker coined the term “Affrilachia” and co-founded the Affrilachian Poets, subsequently publishing the much-celebrated eponymous collection. His honors also include a 2004 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry, the 2008 and 2009 Denny C. Plattner Award for Outstanding Poetry in Appalachian Heritage, the 2013 West Virginia Humanities Council's Appalachian Heritage Award, as well as fellowships and residences with Cave Canem, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Kentucky Arts Council. In 2020 Walker received the Donald Justice Award for Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. The recipient of honorary doctorates from University of Kentucky, Transylvania University, Spalding University and Centre College, Walker is the founding editor of pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture and serves as Professor of English and African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. His most recent collection is “Masked Man, Black: Pandemic & Protest Poems.”

About Shauna M. Morgan, Ph.D.

Dr. Shauna Morgan

The author of “Fear of Dogs & Other Animals” (Central Square Press), Dr. Shauna M. Morgan is a poet-scholar and Associate Professor of creative writing and Africana literature at Howard University. Both her scholarly work and her poetry are deeply engaged with global Black art and culture. Her critical work has been published in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, South Atlantic Review, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, College Language Association Journal, and elsewhere. Her poetry has appeared in A Gathering Together, Interviewing the Caribbean, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, among other periodicals and anthologies. Shauna tends to a hopeful garden at her home at the Artists' Village in the historic East End of Lexington and works at the University of Kentucky's Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching where she is the Director of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives in Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation.