One of the great things about doing an interview for Brooklyn’s Finest is the chance for me chat for awhile with a colleague whose path I may not generally cross on a day-to-day basis. For December, I was curious to get to know Masauko Chipembere better when I learned that he is not only one of our talented A/V Technicians but is also a musician whose work appears on a CD in our very own gift shop. We started out talking about his career, but I welcomed the opportunity to hear his knowledgeable take on Egyptian Art, politics, and family as well.
Where are you originally from?
My family is from Malawi in Southern Africa but I was born in Los Angeles. So, questions of origin are part of my artistic search.
What do you do here at the Museum?
I am an audio-visual technician. My real specialty is sound which comes from being a musician.
How long have been at the Brooklyn Museum?
About 6 years, 3 part time and about 3 full time.
Do you have a favorite piece or collection here and why?
Right now I’m really interested in Sara Van DerBeek’s, A Composition for Detroit. It is a series of four images on the fourth floor. She has managed to capture the severity of this moment in America in terms of urban decay and poverty without leaving the viewer hopeless. The images tell a story. You see Detroit and the crumbling of industry but in every image there is a human face. The faces are black even though the artist is white. I love it when any artist is sensitive enough to move beyond the idea that race, gender or class must dictate who you can represent in art. Human suffering is human suffering.
In the first image you see a profile as though the subject is unwilling to engage. In the second image you see can see a pair of eyes through a rear view mirror as if you were in the back seat making eye contact with the driver who again is not ready to engage. In the third image you see the full profile of an elderly black woman who looks firm even in the midst of the decay. In the final image you see a half face that may be staring directly at you from the shadows. This seems to represent a reversal , it as if the portrait is now looking at you and asking you what you are going to do about all of this. There is a newspaper clipping that says “Tragedy” right in the middle of image four. So, the artist was not willing to let you miss the point which is that there are people catching hell right here in our country right now and we must become participants instead of just viewers of reality.
What has been your most interesting experience here?
That is a hard one! Just yesterday I met Randy Weston who did a concert for Black Brooklyn Rennaissance in the Auditorium. He is my favorite living jazz musician. He was a protégé of Thelonius Monk. He was explaining that the ancient Egyptians made musical scales from studying the sound vibrations that planets give off.
In the last month, I’ve gotten to do sound for Kara Walker, Women of SNCC and work with Osaro Hemez our other AV tech on the Jay-Z and Charlie Rose episode that was filmed for TV. The Women of SNCC panel was really powerful. I think SNCC was the most important organization in the history of America because they were young people who decided that they could shape the direction of the country through vision and collective work.
I guess what I’m saying is that there is a lot of amazing stuff that happens in the museum these days.
What were you doing before you came to the Museum?
I had been doing music in South Africa where things have been going pretty well since 1999. I have a group called Blk Sonshine. Here is a video clip from back then:
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a musician or the president of the United States. I decided to give Obama a shot though because he was definitely going to lose to a black man who could sing…
What is your commute like?
I live a couple stops away, so I often ride my bike which is an adventure in a city where everyone is trying to get everywhere as fast as they can.
Tell me more about being a musician?
For me, music is a vehicle to move people into the world of their emotions. I am a songwriter with a deep love of poetry. I read up a little on Sara Van DerBeek and found out that she is into Walt Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass. I think that is why her work moved me. She understands that there is always a story to be told with art and that the telling of that story should be poetic in nature. Good art in my opinion is an attempt to show the world that everything is intrinsically connected and interdependent. That is what I attempt to do with music. This is a video that was filmed by my nephew Opiyo Okeyo and includes my children Jabulani and Aminata:
Are you performing anytime soon?
I will be at a new bookstore called Daddy’s Basement on the 30th of December. It is bookstore started by two of my wife’s students from Medgar Evers University. I like to support them because they are attempting to move the community towards literature in a time when folks are too busy paying the bills to read. I think that when we subvert the intellect in an attempt to pay the bills we begin the process of spiritual death which creates the automatons we see taking the train to Manhattan in the mornings. The one thing I love about working in the museum is that I’m always surrounded by creativity which makes it impossible for me to become a machine.
How did you end up on the Putumayo South Africa CD, for sale in the Museum’s very own gift shop?
My group Blk Sonshine was nominated for a South African music award in 2010 for our CD, “Good Life.” The nomination led to us performing at the Fifa Fanparks during world cup and performing at the biggest international arts festival in South Africa. One of the scouts from Putumayo came out to a gig and next thing you know we were got a request to have one of our songs on their 2010 South Africa CD. That has been really good for me too because Putumayo is well respected and they have pulled me in for interviews with stations all over America which has given our music a greater audience. Pick up the CD in the gift shop – it makes a great Christmas present in the year of the world cup.