Art in all its forms can entertain, inspire, captivate, and enlighten. Lexington hip hop performer Devine Carama and visual artist Marjorie Guyon hope art can also be a catalyst for change.
Carama started writing rhymes as a teenager in the early 1990s, when hip hop artists like Common, Tupac Shakur, and Lauryn Hill started to find commercial success. Carama says that was a golden era for the genre.
“Hip hop was designed to be a voice for the voiceless,” he says. “So I’m always thinking how can I create music that inspires community, brings people together, but also speaks for those who may not have a voice in the mainstream.”
In his music, Carama explores a range of topics from social issues to spirituality. He’s also paid tribute to the local Black men who inspired him. He says Black males are too often vilified, unless they are musicians or athletes. But Carama says he wanted to honor the unsung heroes upon whose shoulders he stands.
From that inspiration, Carama has branched out from his music into a range of community service projects, including coat collection drives, mentoring programs, tutoring initiatives, and even a campaign to send bottled water to the residents of Flint, Mich. He also is the director of a Lexington non-profit called Believing in Forever, which empowers youth to take on leadership roles in their communities. Carama says he wants to create opportunities that will unify young people and awaken them to the realities of the world today.
“They know they’re struggling, they know their parents are struggling, but do they know why?” he asks. “Do they know the systems that are in place? So I think that’s where I’ve found my comfort zone and playing my part.”
Earlier this year, in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality, Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton named Carama to a 70-member commission on racial justice and equality, which is charged with finding ways to eradicate systemic racism in Fayette County. Carama says the group is devoting hours to exploring issues around education, housing, law enforcement, equity, and inclusion.
“I think it’s going to be fruitful,” Carama says. “The recommendations we’re going to bring to the mayor and the [city] council are going to be some things that could have lasting impacts on Lexington moving forward.”
Beyond the formal goals of the commission, Carama says he wants to serve as a bridge between young people and community elders. He says the older generation has valuable wisdom to share, while the younger generations supply needed energy.
“With the advent of social media, they have a platform for their voice. They want to be involved, they want to be engaged,” he says. “Our generation has to stop speaking for young people and create platforms for them to speak for themselves.”
Carama’s activism has taken on additional meaning after the death of his 18-year-old daughter in a car accident earlier this year. He describes Kamaria Spaulding as a bright, intelligent, strong-willed young woman who would have been a future leader.
“I take it upon me to continue her legacy in the work that I do,” Carama says. “I know she is with me.”
Public Art Project Encourages Reflection on the Legacy of Slavery
In 2019 visual artist Marjorie Guyon applied her talents to creating a public art project called I Was Here, which featured ethereal images of men, women, and children printed on translucent window shades that were hung in downtown Lexington businesses. Guyon called the images “ancestor spirit portraits” and says they memorialized the thousands of Black Americans who were sold at a 19th-century slave auction block called Cheapside.
“What art really does in the end is shift the spirit… So really, what I’m trying to do is shift the spirit of the country,” says Guyon. “We’re trying to say this is how to see a people: powerful, beautiful, dignified, holy, and to make that so indigenous to your sight…. that our sense of who we are to each other begins to shift.”
I Was Here debuted in Lexington in October 2018 and has since expanded to downtown Winchester. In 2019, the project won an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. That recognition has fostered collaborations with historians to create similar exhibits in other cities across the nation and around the world where crimes against humanity occurred.
“Many, many historians are interested in creating a new future out of what is really a very broken past,” says Guyon.
The project continues to grow locally as well. Guyana says the Lexington Public Library, Lexington Children’s Theatre, and the local Junior League are collaborating to create a historic walking tour for school students based around 21 spirit portraits.
“This is a humanities lesson on the street,” says Guyon.
Barry Darnell Burton served as one of the models for the portraits. He says it’s time for Americans to examine the festering wounds left by slavery.
“I Was Here is a way to soften the blow of the racial tension in America,” says Burton. “I Was Here is a way to make Black people realize that every white person is not out to get them, and to make white people realize that every Black person is not a criminal. We are one people.”
Through I Was Here, Burton hopes people can stop seeing one another as a threat. Otherwise, he says the nation will explode from unresolved racial tensions. But that kind of reconciliation won’t be easy, according to Burton. He argues that those in power try to keep lower-class people divided against each another. As long as Americans are divided, the nation will be divided, he says.
Even as the project expands, Guyon hopes it will continue to inspire people to consider age-old problems like racism and slavery in new ways.
“How can we bring this kind of layered, synthesized thinking into the regular public realm? That’s what’s most interesting to me,” she says. “We have to find a way to bring the most magical kind of thinking to our regular population.”