Seven Hills of Separation

If you are a creative individual and have found yourself taking up residence in Lynchburg, VA after being born and raised in a metropolitan city, you’ll soon come to experience abundant feelings of culture-shock mated with severe homesickness. That is, of course, if you are anything like me. Additionally, if you are anything like me, you begin to wonder how that is possible and what can be done about it. I’ve written before about my general feelings about Lynchburg and the journey from singing the chorus of “ain’t-nothin’-to-do-here” to actively deciding to find and create something to do and be done. It seems that this sentiment was familiar to a lot of people, but I wanted to dive beyond the pale and look at the crossroads of Lynchburg’s creative and cultural identity.

Once again, I have to remind myself that this is NOT where I’m from.

Also, once again, I should repeat that I'm not attempting to show any shade. Cool? Cool.

I’ll say it loud and proud, I am a native of Newark, NJ, home to Lauryn Hill, Frank Sinatra, and regrettably, Jersey Shore (the tv show, not the tourist-attraction).

There’s a lot to be said about the current stigma of violence and crime currently taking place in my hometown. It aches my heart to constantly hear about the senseless murders and deaths that fill my newsfeed from peers who still reside back home. There’s domestic abuse, police brutality, gang-related homicides and too much more for me to write without actually feeling angry, which conflicts directly with my homesickness. I hurt for my home and for my family who still live in the 973 area code.

At the same time, this is the place that I first discovered passion and art. This is where I learned about spoken word and began to perform. My grandmother and godmother would take my sister and I to countless shows and concerts. My mother loved the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Newark was where I fell in love with hip-hop, despite my parents' efforts to divert the affair. I participated in my first civil protest in high school, where my fellow peers and I tried to stop the Archdiocese from closing our school, Bishop Francis Essex Catholic. Broad and Market was the street junction at which I tried my hand at freestyling (NSFW-Language). I learned how to play the piano in Newark. There was so much culture, so much energy, so much life in Hoodaville, and I loved it.

Getting to Lynchburg, however, I learned that this was not the story.

I haven’t been here that long, but in my time in the Hill City, I’ve observed that things are drastically different. That energy that I grew up in did not seem to exist here. The multiculturalism that framed so much of my worldview and experiences was absent. There seemed to only be one kind of art, one kind of music, one kind of expression. My family is West Indian, Trinidadian to be exact, and in Lynchburg, there didn’t really seem to be much of a West Indian culture. At the time, to my senses, it was overwhelmingly resistant to anything relevant or non-white/American. There was this feeling of being strictly “vintage” or safe. 

At first, I thought that my alma mater, Liberty University, was to blame, but I soon learned that even that was too convenient. I moved off campus and learned that while there was much more to be offered within the city of Lynchburg, the town as a whole didn’t seem know what to do with it.

I’m curious as to what that means. To get specific, I want to know what that means for Lynchburg’s future. To get even more specific, I’m curious to know what Lynchburg youth thinks about their city.

I have a theory, and I invite insight and input from actual sociologists and Lynchburg natives alike. I believe that one’s investment in their own city comes from multiple places, one of which being them feeling like their voices are heard or perspectives are valued. In Newark, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunities to express myself in a variety of ways, and the city gave it back to me. For every open mic I attended or performed at, there were more poets and singers and activists and movers that did the same, and then some. It was home to me because there was a space for my voice to matter. The music and poems and songs that were created back home at those open mics I frequented were not safe, not appropriate for radio-play. It sounded like anger and frustration and exhilaration and passion. It wasn't neat, it wasn't polite, it wasn't politically correct.

It got dirty.

It didn't always sound black or young or straight. Sometimes, the energy you felt through the microphone came from a petite Latina from Irvington, or a heavy-set Jewish teen from South Orange. Sometimes, the more beautiful or passionate the art, the least predictable of sources it came from. This was the Newark I knew.

You know what? The words and thoughts and feelings I heard, in all honesty, probably didn't go much further than the platform they were shared on. It probably didn’t change any legislation, not even slightly, but I think that it reflected people's tendency to care about their home because they’re invested in its potential. The diversity of the atmosphere promised more. Their identities, perspectives, interests and more are validated and reciprocated.

I don’t know that the same can be said for Lynchburg.

It feels like there are only a few predominant voices in the fields of creativity, passion, and the performing arts. There is the monolith of Liberty University, the site of the country’s most evangelical university, which attracts artists like Third Day and Lecrae and has jump-started the careers of amazing artists like dcTalk and Meredith Andrews. When people come to Lynchburg to go to a concert, Liberty is a safe bet of where they’re headed to.

Other than Liberty, there is the Academy Center of the Arts, the local arts center, which is currently going through an amazing season of transition. In the past, the Academy has been regarded in these streets as “stuffy” or “close-minded”. These days, they have been increasing in their effort to actually serve all of Lynchburg and reflect the interests of this town, crossing cultural and generational lines. They were recently granted support from the city council to enter the final stages of their behemoth project of rebuilding the historic Academy Theater on Main Street, building new walls of inclusive community while attempting to erase past structures of racial inequality. 

There's definitely a creative, artisan soul that lives and exists here. From Lynchstock, the growing music festival that showcases amazing local talent to TOOLRY, the local community of working artists, there is something alive and active on the horizon. My question is, can it survive? What separates these little pockets of passion from impacting this city? Can it grow and mature into something stellar, surpassing the expectations and meeting the hopes of its inhabitants?

I think so. I'm just not sure how.

What say ye?