Author, activist, and cultural touchstone James Baldwin was born in New York in 1924 and died in France in 1987 — but his life and words continue to inspire new generations in America and around the world to this day. In Baldwin’s visionary, almost prophetic, prose, and in his emphatic demands for racial justice, all who search for the truth presented with flourishing energy and unflinching honesty find a home again, still and anew.
The touchstone for a wave of literary and visual-art tributes in recent years by artists such as Glenn Ligon, Hank Willis Thomas and Harmony Holiday, in some ways, Baldwin’s work is more urgent than ever. When Meshell Ndegeocello was commissioned to create a musical tribute to Baldwin, she was prepared; she’d already been carrying around a copy of The Fire Next Time for her own reasons.
Now four years later, the related and expanded interdisciplinary project Chapter and Verse: The Gospel of James Baldwin goes even deeper into Ndegeocello’s personal resonance with Baldwin’s legacy, in tandem with a reckoning with his visions in the context of the volatile present. Drawing on a team of collaborators from an array of disciplines, Chapter and Verse is a three-tined, web-based project that from September to December has offered monthly readings and audio/visual meditations the artist likens to church services.
“This is my offering to you. I wanted to pay homage to [Baldwin] and to the time and effort it took to sit, to physically and emotionally fill the page with a truth that made my own sorrow feel less lonely,” writes Ndegeocello, in full consciousness that at the time of its creation, the world was being wracked by both racism and contagion — but also giving rise to undeniable waves of political activism and cultural awakening. The new piece captures all these intersections in a moving, exciting, empathetic and accessible work that is part spoken word, part engrossing music/video art hybrid, and part call to activism.
Audiences can call 833-4-BALDWIN or visit the site’s call page for international and internet dialing, 24 hours a day. There you’ll find short, prayer-like messages, in English, Spanish and French, mixing Baldwin quotes on life, death, nature, and love with a bit of praiseful song. Call whenever you need a quick shot of the energy of a warm embrace on a cold winter’s night.
There are also a total of four monthly broadsheets, which can be read or downloaded for free (printed copies were available but were limited in supply). At about 24 x 30 inches, these two-sided prints are designed in black and white and tipped with gold, each with a portrait of Baldwin in beatific stance, highlighting his unmistakable, amazing face. Each contains salient passages from Baldwin paired with responses from writers Amiri Baraka and indigenous poets, resources for action like Justice for Breonna Taylor, the Free Black Women’s Library, and the Loveland Foundation.
Finally, gorgeously, unflinchingly and with radiant feeling, the site hosts a series of four short video-based works they’re calling “testimonies” which interweave more of Baldwin’s text with original music by Meshell with key collaborators Suné Woods, Nicholas Galanin, Adebukola Bodunrin, and Charlotte Brathwaite, and a dozen more gifted artistic players in music, spoken word, movement, animation, cinematography, and production.
Offering deeper meditations on life and death, love, justice, and the nature of change, these video works speak to the past and the present, the interwoven injustices of racism and land-theft, the wisdom available from our ancestors. As was also a special gift of Baldwin’s imagery, soulful beauty splices with images of death and decay, and bits of magic coexist with cruel blight. This creates flickering friction in prose, and haunting, impactful experiences in visual art and sound. The final video work is Meshell’s most personal. It is psychedelic, meditative, and transcendent, using abstraction, sacred math, flowers in bloom, and sound waves to achieve a state of balance and hopefulness despite the obstacles that still need blasting.
Find everything you need at thegospelofjamesbaldwin.com.