More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series returns with Benny Starr

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The Columbia Museum of Art presents More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series with Benny Starr, the third program of More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series, on Friday, June 3, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. with galleries and bar open at 6:00 p.m. The evening features guest artist Benny Starr, S.C. Lowcountry native, consciousness-raising hip-hop artist, and recent US Water Alliance Artist-in-Residence. After a sit-down with Dr. Birgitta Johnson, ethnomusicologist and series host, Starr performs with full band The Four20s on Boyd Plaza to help celebrate Black Music Month. Thanks to a recently awarded Connected Communities grant from Central Carolina Community Foundation, admission is free.

“By the time it surpassed rock and pop music to become America’s number-one musical genre in 2018, hip-hop had had come a long way from its Bronx roots, disproved industry insiders that said it was merely a passing fad, and faced social and political backlash that hadn’t been seen against a music genre since the jazz era of the early 20th century,” says Dr. Johnson. “Hip-hop has survived because of its raw storytelling, infectious beats, DIY attitude, and community-uniting spirit. Its diversity of voices and sounds are a key secret to its success. Hip-hop music and culture are now a global phenomenon that not only gives voice to marginalized groups but has also become a multimillion-dollar industry that influences art, fashion, lifestyle trends, and even political movements. For our next installment of More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series, we will be celebrating Black Music Month with two events that honor hip-hop’s roots in block parties, activism, and representin’ your roots with Lowcountry hip-hop artist Benny Starr. Starr and his band represent the Southern soul of hip-hop music today, and as a filmmaker, he is an example of the enduring power of hip-hop to raise awareness about social issues and effect change.”

Contemporary topics, lyrical imagery, and live instrumentation have long been hallmarks of popular music, and that is especially true for hip-hop, a genre with a global influence that connects communities around the world beyond boundaries of race, class, and even language. Like the blues, jazz, soul, and disco that form its roots, hip-hop continues the tradition of music reflecting the joys and pains of the world around us over raw beats and rhythms.

Black music and Southern culture intersect with deep roots in hip-hop, gospel, jazz, blues, and rock. They are interwoven with rich history, resiliency, and storytelling that elicit a quest for a higher calling in those who connect with them. The same rings true in the music created by Lowcountry artist Benny Starr. His solo project A Water Album, recorded live with his fellow bandmates The Four20s at Charleston Music Hall and released on Juneteenth 2019, was named “South Carolina’s Best Album” of the year by the Free Times. Following its release, Starr was featured in The Oxford American’s yearly Southern music issue and made history by becoming the first hip-hop artist to perform at Spoleto Festival USA.

In October 2020, the US Water Alliance welcomed Starr as their inaugural One Water Artist-in-Residence. Through his one-year residency with the alliance, Starr worked with staff and the alliance network to infuse arts and cultural strategies into thinking, problem-solving, and programming. On March 23, 2021, Starr was named one of Grist’s 50 Fixers of 2021, which spotlights emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity who are creating change across the nation.

On Thursday, June 2, the night prior to the More Than Rhythm program, the CMA will screen Starr’s newest film project, Restoration: A Concert Film, created by Lowcountry hip-hop duo Native Son (consisting of Starr and singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Rodrick Cliche) in collaboration with Acres of Ancestry Initiative / Black Agrarian Fund. Restoration: A Concert Film explores Southern Black agrarian stories of self-determination, land ownership, and folkwit; amplifies ongoing struggles for restorative land justice in this country including the Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign; and weaves together live musical performances from Native Son and the personal narratives of Black legacy farmers and land stewards throughout the film. The film screening will be free to the public as part of Free First Thursday on Main at the CMA.

Series host Birgitta J. Johnson, Ph.D, is a jointly appointed associate professor of ethnomusicology in the School of Music and African American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. Her research interests include music in African American churches, musical change and identity in Black popular music, and community archiving. She has published articles in the Black Music Research Journal, Ethnomusicology Forum, Liturgy, Oxford Bibliographies in African American Studies, and the Grove Dictionary of American Music.

Dr. Johnson’s most recent publications include a chapter about 21st-century gospel archiving in The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation, a chapter about gospel remixes of Beyoncé songs in Beyoncé in the World: Making Meaning with Queen Bey in Troubled Times, and sacred themes in the music of OutKast in An OutKast Reader: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Postmodern South. She has been quoted or featured in media and news outlets such as Rolling Stone Magazine, NPR, Vox, Public Radio International, and South Carolina ETV.

A multi-instrumentalist and singer, Dr. Johnson has performed professionally and/or recorded with artists and ensembles from a variety of genres including the Southeast Symphony Orchestra of Metropolitan Los Angeles, the Gospel Music Workshop of America, Francisco Aguabella’s AfroCuban Folkloric Group, and the ESPY Awards with Justin Timberlake, The O’Jays, Yolanda Adams, Talib Kweli, and BeBe Winans. At UofSC she teaches courses on world music, hip-hop, the blues, African music, Black sacred music, Beyoncé, and the history of ethnomusicology.

More Than Rhythm: A Black Music Series with Benny Starr
Friday, June 3 | 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Program 7:00 p.m. | Concert 8:00 p.m.
Galleries and bar open at 6:00 p.m.
Free admission

Restoration: A Concert Film
Thursday, June 2 | 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Free admission

Presented by the Baker & Baker Foundation. This program has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. This program is supported by Richland County Government and a Connected Communities grant from Central Carolina Community Foundation.

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