Q&A: Mark Lomax

Ebony Bailey

Jan 23, 2019

Musician, composer, educator, and activist Mark Lomax II plays his drums

January 2019 is not only the beginning of a new year. It is, as Columbus-based musician Dr. Mark Lomax II illustrates, a moment that requires reflection on Black ancestors and future Black leaders. Four centuries earlier, Africans were forcibly taken to Virginia; their journey is part of an important narrative, a story about what it means to be Black in America. Dr. Lomax, Wexner Center Artist Residency Award recipient and founding Shumate Council member, recognizes this significant history by composing 400: An Afrikan Epic.

A 12-album cycle that chronicles a legacy of Black people in America, 400 is narrated in 3 parts: Alkebulan (precolonial Africa), Ma’afa (the "Great Tragedy" of slavery to the present), and Afrofuturism (the future of Black Americans). Moving between improvisational jazz and modern classical forms, Dr. Lomax and his fellow musicians build a narrative that flows with and across an African diaspora. 

Lomax’s albums will be released on January 23. On January 26 at 8 PM, Lomax will perform selections from the album cycle live at Lincoln Theatre. Moreover, 400: An Afrikan Epic includes a website with information on 400 artists. 

In advance of Lomax’s live performance, Shumate Council intern Ebony Bailey asked the artist about the origins of 400: An Afrikan Epic, its various meanings, and its present and future impact on the Wexner and Columbus community. You can read more about Wex programs from Shumate Council members on its blog.

What led you to start 400: An Afrikan Epic
So, a bit of historical context. My first commission as a composer was for a Juneteenth celebration in Columbus. I wrote Tales of the Black Experience, the ninth album in the cycle, then, when I was eighteen. And, I come to find out that that kind of storytelling has become my life’s work.

In 2016, I had just started my job here at the Columbus Foundation and had been pretty active because we had just premiered Song of the Dogon at the Wex. But, I felt like there was nothing next. So, I didn’t feel like I was consistently active and that engagement with the Wexner Center felt really substantive. And I didn’t feel like I had anything coming up that matched or exceeded it, and I always like to challenge myself. 

And so…I sat down at my desk in the studio, and I took a deep breath. And, the number 400 just came to mind. It just resonated with every fiber of my being. And, I realized that in composing Song of the Dogon, I had started what could be some kind of commemorative project to recognize and elevate this story [of Africans in America] in a different way … And so, it wasn’t inspiration as much as it was a directive; I was compelled by the ancestral energy, the ancestral spirit to tell the story … I had always told our stories but never in this kind of way, with this kind of historical energy behind the project. So, I honestly set out to compose a symphony, not a 12-album cycle. 

There were going to be three movements which reflected past, present, and future. So, the past was going to have to start in Africa. Because if we start with slavery, as Stokely Carmichael reminds us, we will never go beyond slavery. You can’t start with the trauma. You have to start when you were whole. And so, I was thinking about that and sketching out some ideas, and I ended up with four elements that made up that first movement. The way I compose is really visual, and the narrative has to be intact. And so, I was framing the narrative, and by the time I was done sketching out the narrative idea for the three symphonic movements, I realized I had 12 [albums].

I find it really interesting that this project began as a directive. That the stories you have been telling led you to this, if I understand what you are saying. 
Yes, well, what is the traditional function of the griot or jali in Mali? It wasn’t until European invasion and disruption of African lives in the late 15th century ... that we, as a general culture, across Africa, through colonization, imperialism, began to have this observer-performer kind of aesthetic with respect to art and music. That never existed because if you look at traditional practice, what we in the West would call music, dance, and a life, it was always communal. So, everybody participated. Yes, it may have been led by a master drummer or a master musician…these men and women who were the jali held the whole culture in their bodies, in their DNA. They had been trained, from the time that they were one or two years old, in what those songs meant and the dance that went with them. And the melodies, and the stories, and the history. And so, there really was, in a sense, no such thing as music because everything they did was functional. It was not entertainment for the sake of entertainment, or art for the sake of art. 

And because we have been socialized in this Western construct, we have basically taken on a lot of those practices with respect to our art. So, you have a lot of Black composers, who come through the lineage of slavery, who make music for the sake of making music. And that’s cool. Or, you know, popular musicians. They create music for people to dance to. And, that’s fine; that’s a form of a function. But, it’s not the deeper, cultural, historical function that we once occupied. So, that whole aspect of narrative and healing, all of that, comes from my research, learning, discussion with elders … And, literally sitting down with the music itself … [and thinking about] what my role as a Black composer and drummer could be. And that’s where all of this came from. And some of it was osmosis. I didn’t know that I was on this journey until I knew I was on the journey. But, I’ve always drawn inspiration from the history of Black America, and Africa, and the diaspora in general. So, every album I have ever done in some way has been connected to notions of Blackness, identity, authenticity, and power. 

Yes. In fact, your work narrates different stories of Blackness. For example, 400: An Afrikan Epic participates in how we trace the story of Black Americans through time and space in different ways—for instance, the spatial and temporal journey of Africans and African Americans has been detailed in history books, museum exhibits, poems, essays, survey classes, and paintings. Do you feel that your music speaks to both the spatial and temporal elements of African American history? 
Yeah, so there is a definite sense of chronology … But, it’s more of a framework for the narrative. A narrative device. Because I believe that if we do this work authentically, then we exist outside of time and space—in a more atemporal, spiritual kind of realm. What do I mean by that? Well, John Coltrane released A Love Supreme in 1965. But, it’s still relevant today. And, I would argue that that vibration existed prior to the release of that record. So, the fact that he was able to conceptualize and capture that energy on that album—it was new to us, but it wasn’t new. You know what I mean? The words of James Baldwin. Or pick anybody that we are still reading, looking to, or talking about now. That work, because the spirit from which it derives, exists outside of time and space. 

And so, I was really more focused on that than the geopolitical aspects, which is very real—you are moving people forcefully from one place to another, and then when they are in that place, there is a disconnect culturally and spiritually from their place of origin. And, the place that they find themselves in is not home. That’s very physical, you know? In terms of identity, with respect to being connected to land. And, as you mentioned in your question, a lot of folks have addressed that already, which is why I wanted, not necessarily to stay away from it, but to find a different angle…So, yes, time, place, and space are tools for the narrative to move it forward, but that’s not [the project’s] focus…

So, your cells have perfect memories. You can remember what it feels like to be happy and your body will have a different energy immediately … We don’t remember what it feels like to be whole. But, our cells do. And so, there are aspects of us that exist beyond time and space—I wanted to really key in more on that. So, yes, there is a narrative or a kind of teleological device where time and space happen. But, it’s that thing that exists beyond [time and space] that still connects us to the ancestors, that keeps us going, I think. So, each album is more of an abstraction, rather than a kind of a solid snapshot of a time and space. 

Like in “Four Women,” there are very real women that that piece was written about. Those women could be considered templates for all women in an African context because there is an energy that was exhibited through their exploits, or the way they engaged the world. I’ve seen [that] today, throughout history. And so, I really could have chosen any woman from the continent, to here, to Haiti, to wherever, who had that same energy. But, those women resonated in a way that brought out certain characteristics that I thought, as a man, was interesting to write about. So, I am honoring them, but they are really are abstractions or representations of energy that I see women engaging in today. 

Listen to the "Four Women" segment, "Portrait of Angela Davis"

Head shot of Columbus, Ohio-based drummer, composer, educator, and activist Mark Lomax II

Thinking across time and space engages in different communities—this makes me think of the Shumate Council’s focus on community. As a founding Shumate Council member, you have worked on sustaining relationships between communities and impacting programming. What kind of impact do you hope it will have?
We are intending to take [400: An Afrikan Epic] to over 100 colleges in the next 18 months specifically because we want to have conversations. We are hoping to build the capacity of young people to use their voices for social change. But, not just young people. Most of the time our concerts are open to the public. So, we want to facilitate conversations … where we use the story of Black America, Africa, the past, to show how the human spirit is resilient. And if we just tap into that, I think we will find that we are more alike than we are different. And that’s not just about ethnic and cultural differences. That’s also within ethnic groups and cultures. For Black folk, there is colorism, classism, genderism, all of these “isms” that spew from the same “ism” that gave birth to racism. If we could just see ourselves as each other—the whole philosophy of ubuntu, “I am because you are”—then I think we can accomplish much more in the current divisive zeitgeist that we find ourselves in. 

Yes, it is so important that we see each other as human beings. In fact, working together brings me to another question I wanted to ask you—your experiences working in communities. How did you create communities (and trust among these communities) while composing 400: An Afrikan Epic
I don’t believe that you create a community while composing because, often, [composing] is something that you do by yourself. You engage with a lot of inanimate objects, like utensils, paper, a laptop, a computer, and a piano. It’s a solitary duty, so to speak. The communal part comes as soon as you start rehearsal, and you are engaging other people, and then, those musicians are often the first to hear and experience the music, get excited about it. Then, that excitement carries over into the art…

Like when a choir meets before they sing on Sunday morning. They know what’s about to happen because they prepared. And then, that preparedness allows them to bring that excitement and that level of spirit to the wider community. And it kind of ignites this spirit of community in a religious or sacred context. And every performance creates that. It’s a form of synchronicity. So, if you are in a club, and there is house music and the beat is going um-um-um-um, right, everybody starts moving to that same pulse. That’s community, that’s synchronicity. And when the energy is moving in the same direction, then it’s up to somebody to catalyze that and use it for whatever they feel, based on the intent. And so, our purpose is to build community through performances and conversations. To get everybody vibrating on the same frequency, which will optimize that community moving forward together. 

This communal intention is exciting, especially in thinking about the impact that your work will have in different spaces. What we can do at the Wexner Center to sustain the community we built? How do you feel we can continue to foster a community at the Wex? 
I think that one major role that institutions can play is providing space and context for these kinds of conversations. What a place like the Wexner Center can do in particular, given that it is a contemporary art museum, is to continue to use its curatorial power, so to speak, to bring art to our community that elevates people and challenges them to think differently. Or involve their interests, if not radically shift [them], about themselves and their community. I think honestly in the last decade or so, the Wex has done a good job of that. It would be great to see as an organization, the Wex, cast its net wider so that more people can come and experience the benefit of art. [Art] is a privilege, don’t get me wrong. You need time and access; [art] is not always free. But, continuing to involve ways in which the Wex can engage, or be that hub for those critical conversations. By using art to facilitate [discussion], to break the ice. I think that is important. It’s actually critical. 

"Our purpose is to build community through performances and conversations. To get everybody vibrating on the same frequency, which will optimize that community moving forward together."