Part 1 of 3
The skills I have picked up over my 30 years of working as a graphic facilitator, scribe, and knowledge worker, which includes my foundation working with MG Taylor Corporation, have played a large part in even my non-Griot's Eye endeavors. That basic knowledge of collaboration, servant leadership, and using graphics such as visual modeling and drawing to help problem-solve helps guide my work even today. And I continue using all those skills in service to my unique passions to fuel my most ambitious work yet, The Black Music Project.
Last December, I shared the story of The Black Music Project and how its origins were affected by my time with MG Taylor with the leaders of the innovative strategy consulting firm, Coeuraj, at their annual strategic planning session in Victoria, BC, Canada. The following is a synthesis of that presentation.
What is The Black Music Project?
The Black Music Project is a storytelling initiative I created that outlines Black genres, artists, and the eras that shaped them — integral to forming America's identity. The Black Music Project is more than just dates, facts, and artist playlists; it is a tapestry of visual information that tells America's story through the prism of Black music. Along with many iconic names that even casual music fans are aware of, such as Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin, the BMP showcases largely unsung figures, like country music's Lesley Riddle and Elizabeth Cotten. And it explores under-reported stories that reflect the African-American musical experience and its impact on US culture and the world.
For instance, the BMP exhibit on the West African origins of the banjo is an example of using the skills I learned as a visual practitioner and graphic facilitator to examine a vital component of American music history that most people overlook.
The Hidden History of the Banjo uses graphic recording techniques to tell its visual story.
A quick note about my background
In 1992 I began working with MG Taylor Corporation. Named after its founders, Matt Taylor, an architect, and Gail Taylor, an educator, MG Taylor helped change how businesses and organizations around the world conducted meetings, collaborative strategy, and brainstorming sessions. A central part of MG Taylor's DesignShop meeting process was its use of graphic recorders (known as "scribes" in MGT parlance) to visually document the significant ideas and critical takeaways discussed during their collaborative design sessions. One of the big reasons you might have seen someone drawing at your workshop or conference today is because MG Taylor (along with David Sibbet's The Grove) helped to popularize the use of graphic recorders at meetings during this period. You can read a more detailed history of MG Taylor and my time there as a scribe in this blog insight: A Brief History of Modern Scribing/Graphic Recording.
One of the guiding principles of MG Taylor and its distinctive brand of design thinking was the use of graphical strategic models to help give context, language, and visual understanding to thoughts (both individually and collectively) and paradigms that sometimes constrain us. The models are a tool that enables the user to communicate ideas, build on them, and examine and test features before making them a part of reality. At MG Taylor, we introduced strategic modeling to organizations to assist them in designing new ways of structuring, understanding, and managing themselves. As you will learn from this blog post, MG Taylor's Creative Process Model has been an asset in shaping the Black Music Project — even when I was not always consciously aware of it.
The Black Music Project seen through the lens of MG Taylor's Creative Process Model
MG Taylor's Creative Process is a model that outlines seven different activities of creativity that go into generating ideas from conception to action. The seven steps of the process are 1) Identity, 2) Vision, 3) Intent, 4) Insight, 5) Engineering, 6) Building, and 7) Using.
Before I start, I should note that though I will discuss the model's components linearly, the creative process rarely plays out that way in reality. In the real world, you often jump from one aspect of the model to a previous step or work in phases simultaneously, depending on the circumstances. You must also consider the other six activities and cycle through the whole process within each stage. Finally, like all MG Taylor models, this is an iterative process that requires feedback — the end is only the beginning.
Identity — The Discovery process
The Creative Process Model "starts" with Identity — discovering the problem by exploring an idea, situation, or system from multiple vantage points to uncover new possibilities and opportunities. Collecting different viewpoints and opinions when collaborating on a project is how MG Taylor's Creative Process can help lead to innovative breakthroughs. In the case of the Black Music Project, I trace its initial sparks to two incidents that occurred because of my career as a graphic facilitator. The first happened in Berlin around 2013.
"I should be thanking you for this music!" I asked him why, and he added, "well, you know, house music comes from America. It comes from Chicago. From Black people in America." — German DJ in Berlin
Discovery #1) A conversation in Berlin, Germany
While working on a graphic facilitation project in Berlin around 2013, I visited a house party with a friend during our time off. The party was at a club featuring three floors of German DJs spinning pulsating house music. After stepping from behind the turntables, one of the DJs and I got into a conversation (well, as close to a conversation as you can have when the bass is literally shaking the walls and floorboards), and after learning that I was American, he said, "I should be thanking you for this music!" I asked him why, and he added, "well, you know, house music comes from America. It comes from Chicago. From Black people in America." At first, I was a bit taken aback because I thought an old stereotype was about to be leveled. But it did not take long to realize that this was coming (albeit awkwardly) from a sincere place of appreciation. This man knew his music history. More importantly, this German guy seemed to know Black-American music history better than most people in the United States. And that got me thinking, why is that? Why are Black people's cultural contributions sometimes appreciated more overseas than in America? It was a question I would think about for some time after that meeting.
Discovery #2) A trip to Africa's "Door of No Return."
The second and most significant moment that helped lead to the creation of The Black Music Project is also due in part because of my career as a graphic facilitator. And that is a graphic recording assignment I did while working with my friends and colleagues with the world-class consulting firm, theDifference, in Ghana, Africa. We were supporting the World Bank's 2017 Development Finance Forum in Accra, Ghana. The event took place during my birthday week, so there was an added significance for me while visiting "the motherland." After the meeting ended, a few team members visited Ghana's coastline. The tour culminated in a visit to Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, aka the "Slave Castle."
This European fortress, built in 1652 as a trading center for timber and gold, became known as the "grand emporium" of the British slave trade throughout the 18th century. Our group learned of the atrocities and inhumanity experienced by the people imprisoned there as they awaited their forced exile and enslavement in the Americas. Even though my colleagues that day were Caucasian, I could see that this visit affected them profoundly and emotionally. At one point, we all shed tears and shook our heads in disbelief at this system meant to strip humanity from one group of people but ultimately destroyed the humanity of everyone involved, regardless of race. One of my colleagues turned to me and tearily stumbled to find the right words to express his sadness, revulsion, and shame. I nodded to acknowledge him but remained silent. As a Black man, that experience tore me apart emotionally because I had already known through DNA testing that a large portion of my ancestry traced back to this region of West Africa. There was a real possibility that this former prison, now a tourist destination, where I stood that day was the last place in Africa my direct ancestors saw before being sold as enslaved people in America.
I had already known through DNA testing that a large portion of my ancestry traced back to this region of West Africa. There was a real possibility that this former prison, now a tourist destination, where I stood that day was the last place in Africa my direct ancestors saw before being sold as enslaved people in America.
The experience would have wrecked me entirely except for the fact that at the site, there is a small art installation dedicated to some of the prominent descendants of the African diaspora. The exhibit features noteworthy Black people from across the Americas, the Caribbean, and all walks of life throughout history, such as civil rights leaders, political figures, writers, scientists, athletes, and artists. But because I am an artist who loves music, I was drawn to the musicians on the wall. Knowing that Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday most likely also had their ancestors come through this horrible place or one like it strangely gave me a little bit of something I cannot quite call solace — but at least it provided some meaning to this unprecedented historical tragedy.
My experience at Cape Coast Castle changed me. I left its "Door of No Return" with a purpose. And that was to try and use my skills as a visual storyteller and graphic facilitator to show that despite all this pain and misery meant to crush Black people's spirits, it revealed our creativity, innovation, and resilience. Once back home, I thought about creating another video similar to my Harriett Tubman work, but I struggled with what I wanted to convey. I remembered my conversation with the German DJ in Berlin, where he seemed to know Black music history better than many Americans. I knew then I wanted to tell the story of how the descendants of enslaved Africans contributed to the most dominant cultural influence on the planet by creating its musical identity. The story of African-American music history was what I needed to tell. At that moment, I had identified a problem I wanted to try and solve and, therefore, an opportunity I could fill with my unique visual talents. But that's a story for another day — very soon.
Please return soon and follow Griot's Eye on social media to know as soon as part two drops! Follow Griot's Eye on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Spoutible for more information, inspiration, and examples utilizing the power of graphic reporting, graphic facilitation, and visual storytelling techniques.
And be sure to follow The Black Music Project on Spoutible (we're most active there nowadays), Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube (this is our new YouTube address), and Twitter to learn more about how we show that the history of Black music is the story of America.
Please consider donating if you like The Black Music Project and support its mission. The Black Music Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Black Music Project must be made payable to "Fractured Atlas" only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. You can also make one-time or recurring donations on our fundraising page.
I recommend this short video series by my esteemed colleague and fellow partner-in-scribe, Peter Durand, if you're interested in learning more about MG Taylor and visual modeling.