Don’t look now, but The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, fondly known as LACMA, is Los Angeles’ most diverse cultural mecca. Bursting with enough material to keep even the most zealous art enthusiast fully occupied, LACMA is this town’s one-stop arts and culture equivalent of IKEA where patrons can indulge in captivating modern architecture, visit the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits’ public park, see world-class art installations (recently the Mexican and American female surrealists In Wonderland exhibit), watch ongoing film series (Tuesday matinees and an upcoming Japanese film retrospective), and listen to distinguished guest speakers and an eclectic mix of music (including Through the Mic hip-hop series, which will see a live performance every third Thursday throughout the summer).
Suddenly, LACMA which in my mind had been associated with dusty archives, crusty fogeys, and esoteric collections, is where it’s at. And no more was the museum’s embrace of its eclecticism on starker display than during its May slate, when the on-the-down-low appearance of Archbishop Desmond Tutu preceded a widely-attended, loudly-broadcast al fresco performance by the hip-hop group 3MG and Murs… As disparate as these two seem, they had more in common than you might think.
The occasion for the Archbishop’s May 16 appearance was to promote a new book by Robert V. Taylor, Tutu’s protégé. The book, A New Way To Be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways to Becoming Fully Alive, and its author—interestingly the highest-ranking openly gay clergy in the Episcopal Church—have been highly influenced by the teachings of Tutu and his fusion of a liberal, Christian, and universal love theology. Tutu is somewhat of a living legend now, and rightfully so. A man who radiates effortless and ineffable joy, he gained international prominence in the anti-apartheid crusades of the turbulent and riotous 1980s South Africa. At the time, it was Tutu’s defiant visage, more so even than Mandela’s (who was still under lock and bolt on Robben Island) which became synonymous with the fighting spirit and rebellion of black South Africans. And as with Mandela, Tutu’s saintly reputation stemmed from his immense courage under fire (often literally), a quality equaled by his grace in victory. Indeed both men evoke the maxim of Winston Churchill, the very archetype of unflinching leadership: “in war: resolution; in defeat: defiance; in victory: magnanimity; in peace: goodwill.”
Tutu is certainly not lacking in presence or good humor. His effervescent smile, cheery demeanor, and small stature convey more a hobbit than a toppler of regimes. He gives the impression that he is always in on a little joke, uttered at a frequency that only he can hear. He rarely abandons this Bacchus-like levity—I doubt he is capable of doing so—even when discussing topics that would seem to demand a more serious tenor. During his talk, he touched on topics ranging from nuclear weaponry and poverty (“It is an outrage,” Tutu tells us, his voice ringing with unstudied conviction, “that we spend billions on weapons that can destroy us a thousand times over when a fraction of that could be used to feed the world.”), to belief in God. He addressed every issue and question, including a Mexican woman’s about the role of religious faith in internecine war-ravaged Mexico, with humility, thoughtfulness, and what appeared to be genuine sincerity.
What makes Tutu truly impressive is that he seems to lack any self-serving agenda, political, religious, or otherwise. He is a devout Christian, whose real allegiance lies not to dogma or a policy of exclusion, but to inclusivity and inter-dependence. Rather than try to evade tendentious issues, Tutu eagerly took them on, deftly deferring to Taylor when his mentee’s insight was applicable or when he himself simply did not feel like talking. His most important message — human connectivity — constitutes a rebuttal to a human history that has ignored or denied this fundamental truth.
Beyond hearing his words, just sitting in the presence of this man of virtue had a subtle and profound effect on my consciousness. He has no doubt peered into the abyss of our darker nature, seen the worst and best of humanity and, in spite of or because of it all, has chosen love. Amen.
The next day was a somewhat lighter, but no less novel affair, as the festivities moved outdoors for hip-hop, otherwise confused for rap, or, in more stuffy and disparaging circles, as “urban music” — this at a fine arts museum, no less! Somewhere, an aesthete (think Frasier Crane) sits unmoving, an untouched glass of sherry in hand, a dead, hollow look upon his countenance, muttering “the horror, the horror.”
Yes, the music of N.W.A. now has a place, literally, next to the likes of Kahlo, Homer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and other venerable artistic figures at LACMA. This is in large part thanks to the efforts of the rapper Murs (a quick Wikipedia consult tells us that this is an acronym with multiple meanings, ranging from “Making the Universe Recognize and Submit” to the more eloquent “Making Underground Raw Shit”), a Los Angeles native and former member of the group 3MG (The Three Melancholy Gypsies), which he reunited for Thursday’s Through the Mic launch. Along with 3MG compatriots Scarub and Eligh, who could shame any auctioneer in vocal velocity, Murs entertained a lively, (mostly) young demographic of twenty-somethings nursing beers and the occasional cigarette in LACMA’s Grand Entrance, against the backdrop of Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation (a matrix of cast-iron street lamps along Wilshire). With impressive solo renditions by each 3MGer and Eazy-E covers, Murs and Co. deftly navigated between accessibility and authenticity—appealing to a crowd with presumably a lower threshold for more avante-garde selections, while maintaining the integrity of the spirit of his music.
On LACMA’s website, you can find this quote from Murs, outlining the existential inspiration for Through The Mic:
For too long, Los Angeles hip hop has been seen as one dimensional ‘gangsta rap.’ With this new series, we’re giving our city’s hip hop artists an amazing platform to show not only our community, but the world, that we have so much more to offer.
Murs fondly recalled skipping school and retreating to LACMA, where he found inspiration for his later writing and a second home of sorts. Murs’ sentiment, perhaps not surprisingly, was rearticulated by Michael Govan, LACMA Director, and moderator of the Tutu/Taylor event, who spoke on LACMA’s aim “to create mutual understanding.”
I bring this up because I do wonder whether a genre (hip hop) whose historical foundation is so predicated on social rebellion and a rejection of the status quo can withstand adoption (co-optation?) by the establishment. Maybe it is not just the cynic in me, but the conspiracy theorist, who wants to fit hip-hop and LACMA into a neat binary, with the latter Big Brother to the former’s Winston Smith. But I’d like to believe that cultural exchange is possible, that places like LACMA act as sanctuaries for art and artists who have stood the test of unequal societies, government oppression, and mainstream rejection. Such was the fate, for many years, of Desmond Tutu, now a darling of the very societies he tried to incite to action against apartheid. Tutu proves that mutual understanding is achievable and not just imaginary. Tutu and Murs, under the umbrella of LACMA, together remind me to listen to my better angels.
Yesterday, Thursday, June 21st, the second Through the Mic performance, featured Dumbfounded, Medusa, and Gizzle (clear winner for best, if not most audacious, nom de guerre).
Do not deprive yourself the opportunity to see a legend in the flesh—Jimmy Cliff at Hollywood Park at 10:30pm this Friday, June 22 (you can even enjoy the races beforehand).