Talking Drum' puts social justice on blast

Fahamu Pecou's Center for Civil and Human Rights exhibit speaks, sings, shouts

What is an artist's responsibility with respect to social change?

Fahamu Pecou poses the question from inside his cozy Inman Park art studio. It's a question that seems inevitable given the world's current political and social climate. Pecou, who is wearing a college sweatshirt bearing American author/activist James Baldwin's name, smiles when the inquiry is lobbed back at him.

"I don't have an answer," he admits. "That's part of the beauty of it. What's that saying — the best destination is the journey? To ask the question is to begin to answer it. If we're thinking about it, then we can begin to act on it."

The query is implicit in his new exhibition, Talking Drum, which opened at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on Jan. 23. It focuses on the music that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement from 1965 to 1975 and keys in on three distinct locations — the street corner, the pulpit, and the stage. Pecou created mini replicas of each space, incorporating sound. Specifically, he wanted to explore how pop culture informed the movement at the time, partly because the Center primarily focuses on the political and social aspects of the struggle for equality, not the culture that helped define or, to some degree, propel it.

"I was thinking about those spaces — the street corner, the pulpit, and the stage as locations where these dialogues between black popular culture and political thought come together or are born," says Pecou, who previously presented interSessions, a dialogue about the intersection of art and music with director Nzingha Stewart and producer Bryan-Michael Cox, at the Center. "I may say 'music' but maybe even more than music I mean 'the word.' How was the word disseminated?"

David Mandel, director of exhibition and design at the Center, says Pecou is an "important artist" working on subjects that resonate. "Talking Drum is visually bold, smart, provocative, and demonstrates how art can engage diverse audiences on a high level," he says.

It's easy to draw parallels between today's social justice movements and those of the '60s and '70s. But rather than beating folks over the head with ideas, Pecou is passionate about putting work out there for people to engage with and interpret. In this way, he's answering his own ongoing question about artist responsibility, particularly as the lines between pop culture and social commentary become more blurred.

Kendrick Lamar's Grammy-nominated "Alright" became a protest anthem in Philly. Sean Penn finagled an "interview" with Mexican drug lord El Chapo. Campaign Zero founder and Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." The lines between pop culture and social commentary are intersecting perhaps more than ever, and Pecou's work is playing a part in that, not only in Atlanta, but nationally.

Last year, television had two breakout hits — Fox's "Empire" and ABC's "Blackish." While raking in a large, devoted audience and a Golden Globe win for its lead, the former was criticized in some circles as exploitive of black folks. The latter was praised in those same circles for offering a nuanced look at what it means to be black in present-day America. One of the most visible threads between both hit shows, no matter what side you land on? Pecou's artwork. It hangs boldly as a set piece in both, a silent but powerful testament to his ability to dip in an out of either conversation.

He's also been tapped to create four installations for MARTA, including one at King Memorial Transit Station, and his work is showcased at the High Museum. In late 2015, he curated Atlanta's public art series, Elevate, focusing on the creative legacy of the Dungeon Family, but his work also hangs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Pecou, art isn't only about the message delivered but the space it occupies.

He'll dive further into the rabbit hole when he heads to South Carolina's Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art this fall to display a new exhibition that he describes as an observation on the spectacle of black male death.

"I've really been thinking about the ways the constant bombardment of black males being killed is a form of psychological terrorism," he says. "How can we combat that onslaught of images in a way that doesn't render us immobile from the fear of what could happen to us?"

So while the question of an artist's role and any perceived responsibility that comes with it is up for debate, Pecou, for his part, is bearing down on an answer.

"I want to engage people, to present them with a different set of questions or give them a different frame of vocabulary to interpret what they're experiencing," he says of his exhibition at the Center. "That's richer to me. Maybe more than anything, I want them to ask the open-ended question that I have about the role and responsibility of artists in today's landscape. I just really want to consider the role of popular culture on the Civil Rights movement because it made the struggle even more visible."

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly noted "Empire" star Taraji P. Henson's 2016 accolade. She won a Golden Globe for best TV drama actress.

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