It was a cultural explosion that still reverberates today. The 1920's Harlem Renaissance was a period of legendary creative output. A group of poets, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians that sprouted the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois. According to Alain Locke, a writer, critic and teacher who became known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement was a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.” Now a team of organizers and artists are bringing the Harlem Renaissance to Dallas.
With organizer and artist Niecee X at the helm, the QTPOC-focused pop-up Revolution Cafe & Bookstore will host Velvet: Nights in Harlem on Saturday, June 22 at The Speakeasy. The event is part of an effort to launch a summer series of Afro-centric and Afro-futuristic programming. Niecee X decided to launch the series with a Harlem Renaissance-inspired event after realizing parallels between our time and the Renaissance.
“A lot of artists are being seen because we’re looking deep into the margins of society,” Niecee X says. “”Folks like Lizzo and Frank Ocean are more popular and more accessible when they would have used to be on the margins. Things are becoming more eclectic, more inclusive.
But that inclusivity is not prevalent in Dallas. As with Revolution Cafe & Bookstore’s other arts events, Niecee X hopes to provide a platform to others who often lack the local spotlight.
“A 1920s party is not what I want; I want something artsy, creative and mysterious,” they say (Niecee X is non-binary and uses the pronoun "they.") “I wanted to curate a group that was intentionally queer, but not just sexually. Queer as in different, outside of what we usually get.”
The organizer used their network to cultivate a group of artists that includes veterans and newcomers. Princess McDowell, a poet who has been writing and performing for 12 years, has missed events like Queerly Speaking, a poetry event previously held at the South Dallas Cultural Center. The event highlighted queer artists and artists of color, something McDowell believes Dallas sorely needs.
“I’m pretty selective about the performances I do, but when Niecee called, I knew I had to be a part of it,” McDowell says. “It’s the kind of thing we need.”
Autumn McClain, a vocalist specializing in what she callas “trap jazz,” concurs. The Greenwood, Mississippi, native has been searching for spaces to collaborate with other artists of color, but had yet to find anything until she learned about Velvet.
“Artists of color aren’t getting love on the Dallas scene,” she says. “That’s why what Niecee is doing is so important.”
McClain values the space Niecee and Revolution Cafe are giving artists of color, in part because she believes there are important stories that are not being told.
“Our stories are human stories,” McClain says. “We need to talk about childhood trauma, and the PTSD people of color deal with every day. It’s easy to get discouraged as an artist, but if your story can touch at least one person, you’ve made a difference.”
Singer-songwriter Kerry D is excited about the opportunity to take the stage with fellow performers of color.
“The music scene has its moments where it’s open, but it is also dominated by straight performers,” he says. “This event brings queer people of color to the front, and it’s not like other shows, where there’s just music or just art. You can expect to see multiple art forms.”
That includes poetry, spoken word, voguing, jazz, comedy and live painting. At some point, Niecee X hopes to have a jam session with everyone present. Their friend, singer Eye Moon The Experience, knows that Niecee’s involvement means the event will be about so much more than art.
“Niecee is an activist focused on community,” Eye Moon says. “So when Niecee selects someone, it's about more than art. Niecee is always thinking about the impact they can make.”
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Niecee X hopes Velvet can become an ongoing series and help create the kind of community where artists can pool resources, attain venues and host recurring programming that spotlights people of color.
“Back then, art was supported and sustained,” Niecee says, referring to the Harlem Renaissance. “Now, people are kinda out on their own in a way.”
But for now, they are focused on Saturday’s event, and the magic they hope happens when a diverse slate of performers unite for a night of creating.
“If you have a roomful of talented creators, something amazing is bound to happen.”