Embracing the Truth
Mikel Prester’s Residency at the Meadville Council of the Arts
“I was raised in Crawford County. I know how they get down in Crawford County, I grew up here.”
Mikel Prester is a teaching artist and musician, who recently completed a residency at the Meadville Council of the Arts (MCA) in rural Crawford County. The residency engaged half a dozen Meadville residents in a six-day workshop that not only taught the musical and technical foundations of jazz and the blues, but, more importantly, the cultural roots and history of Black American music. That history–inextricable from the legacies of chattel slavery and the oppression of Black people in the United States–can make for challenging subject matter.
“The residency was about the establishment–right and wrong, good and bad–of Black culture here in the United States–what took place, how that took place–and how that created the quintessential American culture. I’m talking about blues, rock and roll, R&B, rockabilly, country western, and jazz, to name some. It’s about letting America know where the music, culture, and slang we love actually comes from, and how we are always entwined in that history.”
Mikel discussed these topics with clarity and directness, and was impressed with how it was received. “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, but these are uncomfortable things to talk about. My residency explored these concepts boldly, freely, unflinchingly, and without fear; and the people who participated did so with… tremendous fear, with tremendous trepidation; but they came and they did it anyway–because they had the heart, the daring, the will, and the bravery to learn and to embrace the truth.”
This collective boldness paid off for the participants not just in facing the darker aspects of American history, but in laying a foundation for musical expression in a language they may not have felt capable of communicating in authentically. Mikel explains, “Because of this, they were able to do that which they did not think they could do–play the blues. Not just play the blues, but write lyrics that were relevant to what had been shared with them in the residency. They were able to take what was foreign to them and make something out of it creatively, spontaneously, and with full validity.” The experience was inspiring to Mikel. “Some of the participants came specifically to learn about blues and jazz. I don’t think they were ready for everything else, but they stayed and participated, which was, frankly, quite beautiful.”
The residency culminated in a Sunday evening performance at the MCA’s Gardner Theatre, which featured poems, songs, and improvised solos by each of the participants. The event took place at a monthly jam session that the MCA has been hosting for decades. “I grew up rehearsing in the MCA as a child for boys choir, and I used to come to the jazz jam sessions back when I was in college” Mikel offered. The residency was therefore an opportunity for the artist to come full circle, returning to the county in which he first learned to be a musician, and sharing those skills with his neighbors.
As the name of Erie Arts & Culture’s “Arts in Lifelong Learning” program suggests, arts education doesn’t stop when one graduates from high school. It is therefore part of our mission to cultivate learning opportunities through the arts for people of all ages. Such arts programming helps develop our emotional competencies and consciousness so that we have a deeper understanding of the human experience, and has the ability to build bridges by bringing people together regardless of their perceived differences. Mikel’s residency at the MCA achieved this and so much more, and those who participated were grateful. "This was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience,” Jim Hoople, the MCA’s president, expressed.
For Mikel, the residency was ultimately an exercise in creating connection and telling truths. “In African and Indigenous cultures, this music is not just entertainment–it has social and emotional significance, and there’s a higher order to it–we sometimes forget that. But I’m on a mission, I have been for decades, and this residency was designed to show what could be, once the truth is embraced. When the truth is embraced, great things can be accomplished.”