Activist artist, minus the rant
Rik Leaf doesn’t talk like you’d expect. For a self-described “cultural activist” he’s unusually reserved. He doesn’t cite disturbing statistics or quote Chomsky, and his tone is inviting, open and generous, a far cry from the kind of shrill rants I’ve often heard from activists. In the course of our conversation he talks about his kids, his neighbourhood, being on the road playing shows. Where’s the activist cause?
“Art is a conversation,” he tells me, “and if one side is constantly steering the conversation a particular way, it’s a pitch; it’s propaganda. I’m not interested in telling people what to think; I just want to encourage them to think, period.”
Leaf is a seasoned songwriter and performer, just back from another Canadian tour where he played in pubs, clubs, churches and schools, hosted performance workshops, and met with other artists. He’s lived in Winnipeg for 10 years, but tours steadily, playing solo and with Tribe of One, a performance collaboration where musicians share the stage with visual artists and dancers. Leaf walked away from a thriving but ultimately stifling Christian music career to try to open up conversations between otherwise exclusive or antagonistic identity groups.
“Subculture art is about identity,” says Leaf. “The primary role of subculture art is to reinforce the views and opinions of the subculture, which is why it rarely, if ever, breaks out of the subculture and impacts mainstream. It has all kinds of rules and restrictions, and that applies whether you’re part of a lesbian folk group or a Christian rock band. I want to be more inclusive, build bridges between cultures, backgrounds, ages, disciplines, beliefs.”
Tribe of One was a good way to start building bridges, combining a wide range of artists and artistic disciplines, the result being performances that are always surprising. Now Leaf has started JUST Artists, an affiliation of socially conscious writers, artists, musicians, performers and producers committed to improving the world through artistic contributions.
When I ask Leaf what JUST Artists does he’s vague. “It didn’t start with an agenda,” he says. “I want to champion the voices in our midst whose work truly engages our imagination. Some artists want to be the next big thing, but most of the artists I know want to make art with all they’ve got. But it can be a pretty solitary experience, even for established artists. Pop culture is so overwhelming that it makes being an artist seem like a competition, like some other artist’s success comes at my expense. Sometimes artists are afraid to share ideas because someone else might use them.”
With JUST Artists, Leaf wants to connect artists with one another and bring others into the picture including politicians, community activists and church leaders. Last fall, JUST Artists organized a night of music, poetry, and photos by John Paskievich from his new book, The North End, hosted by the local member of parliament.
Maybe Leaf doesn’t push an agenda because before he’s an activist, he’s an artist. “Artists and prophets both work on the canvas of the imagination,” says Leaf, echoing themes from Walter’s Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. “It should challenge the dominant narrative.” He wants to foster art rather than champion a cause and he believes it’s possible for art to be political without being partisan. “I saw clips from Rock the Vote before the election in the States in 2004. These artists go on stage and say, ‘Vote for Kerry, not for Bush. Vote for this, not for that.’ Art should give us new eyes to see ourselves and the world around us, not tell us what to think.”
Leaf wants to foster art that tackles problems that run deeper than who happens to be in office. “We’re bombarded with consumer culture’s version of art. I was in Kosovo in 1999 with Tribe of One and we met these Albanian university students who spoke perfect English and dressed like the kids on 90210. These are people who were banned from speaking their native language, but they can watch the same TV programs we do. Or up north in the most isolated Manitoba communities, the kids dress like they’re on MuchMusic, they listen to Limp Bizkit and Korn. Does pop culture give these kids a voice of their own? Is it empowering them at all?” It’s the closest Leaf comes to an activist rant.
Leaf is humble about his role as a bridge builder, modest and realistic about what he hopes will happen when art challenges the imagination. He speaks of his role in just Artists as a calling. “This is it,” he says, “this is what I do, this is who I am, this is what I’m capable of.” An activist with a vision, not an agenda.
Kurt Armstrong lives outside of Kola, Manitoba. For information on upcoming events with JUST Artists, see www.rikleaf.com.