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Courtesy of DonChristian

Love is the message: DonChristian’s homage to 1990s Philadelphia

A love letter to his mother and four aunts who raised him, the artist presents an hour-long album and immersive sculptural installation that situates hip hop firmly within the canon of fine art

Decades before Will Smith immortalised his hometown in the opening bars of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the sound of Philadelphia has helped to shape the sonic landscape of global pop culture. Half a century ago, the iconic dance/music television show Soul Train kicked off its 35-year run, which feature MFSB’s “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” as its theme song. “People all over the world, let’s get it on, it’s time to get down,” The Three Degrees crooned over a disco-inflected beat, letting folks know it was time to get up off the sofa and move your feet.

Over the next decade Philly Soul, as it was popularly known, would redefine R&B, disco, and funk as luminaries like the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, and Patti LaBelle released classic records that would soon become the backbone of the newly emerging art form known as hip hop. By the time the 90s came around, the 70s was back in vogue as Gen Xers reveled in the sweet nostalgia of youth, bringing back bellbottoms, platform shoes, and “Lady Marmalade” with equal aplomb.

At the same time, a new generation of millennials were creating memories of their very own, absorbing the smells, textures, colours, and sounds of 90s culture into the foundation of their very selves. “One’s period is when one is very young,” fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland sagely observed in her 1984 memoir D.V., going on to note how each period casts a long shadow in its wake. Shaped by the people, places, and times in which we live, our aesthetic sensibilities often reflect the profound impressions were received as youth.

“For me, the 90s in Philadelphia felt very much a Chocolate City,” says African-American musician and artist DonChristian Jones, who will present Volvo Truck, on June 17 and 18 as part of The Shed’s Open Call commission series in New York. A love letter to his mother and four aunts who raised him, the original hour-long album and immersive sculptural installation brings together Jones’ genre blending gifts that situate hip hop firmly within the canon of fine art.

Growing up in Germantown in North Philly, Jones recalls, “So much of my childhood taking place inside a car with the windows down, listening to soul music, R&B, and hip hop. My mom was working two to three jobs, so if she couldn’t pick me up one of my aunts would. I literally spent so much time up under their arms as an infant and toddler in their cars, at their homes, after school, on vacation, and during the summertime. There’s an inextricable connection between car sound systems and the experience of listening to music that I can’t undo.”

When the 90s started off, CDs were considered an overpriced fad orchestrated by the music industry to lower the quality of the music while turning the highest profits. Long before streaming, folks relied on radio and tapes for tunes, transforming the sound system into a status symbol as the ride itself. “The trunk full of amps, there ain’t no room for a spare,” LL Cool J famously rapped when he dropped “The Boomin’ System”, his first single off Momma Said Knock You Out, on August 7, 1990. While LL had folks everywhere spelling out “coolin” and “frontin”, Jones was being exposed to the transformative power of listening to music in cars.

“For the past decade, I’ve been trying to figure out a project that would encompass video, movement, dance, and music to create an immersive installation and experience” – DonChristian

“I remember being in one of my mom’s coups, listening to bossa nova all the time,” he says. “There’s so much like Stan Getz and Carlos Jobim passed on from my grandmother because she loved like she loved Brazilian jazz, Frank Sinatra, and show tunes. One of my aunts played Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Harold Melvin, and the Blue Notes, a lot of Philly Soul. I borrowed my aunt Karen’s Range Rover to drive to school and would listening to Kanye West’s Late Registration on repeat, Jay-Z, DMC. I’m reminded of DMX every day since his passing of like how formative and life changing his music was for so many of us.”

At a time when we are still developing in every sense of the word, music holds tremendous power and allure. It gives us a sense of being, belonging, and identity – a place in which to ground ourselves as we mature and age. It becomes the soundtrack to our lives, intimately entangled in our emotions and thoughts, articulating feelings and understandings, and becoming one with our voice. It become part of our memory and therefore identity, allowing us to travel back to the past to a more innocent time. In 1993, Wu-Tang famously asked, “Can it be that it was all so simple then?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

“It made me think of a carefreeness that existed,” Jones recalls. “Maybe it was because I was so much younger or it was the sociopolitical climate of the time but it seemed like there was less of a care for the world around me. My family instilled in us a belief in the American Dream, that we could be whatever we wanted. It’s been a hard awakening in the past decade for my generation to reconcile a lot of what we were told – with good intention – is not actually the case and there are more insidious things at play that were yet to be revealed.”

But in the soft, misty coloured window of memory, there exists a profound sense of beauty and joy, of pure pleasure that comes from reveling in the thrilled of being alive. It is here in Volvo Truck that Jones has returned. “For the past decade, I’ve been trying to figure out a project that would encompass video, movement, dance, and music to create an immersive installation and experience,” he says.

“My family instilled in us a belief in the American Dream, that we could be whatever we wanted. It’s been a hard awakening in the past decade for my generation to reconcile a lot of what we were told – with good intention – is not actually the case and there are more insidious things at play that were yet to be revealed” – DonChristian

“When I started thinking that big, a project that would require resources, sweat equity, and involvement of large cash, I realised it had to be something that’s very spiritual. I’ve been thinking about how my mother and four aunts raised me, and how infused in me they are. I started to look back in my childhood and they were filled with drawings of women of colour. Sometimes they were wearing gowns, but they were always next to a car, a convertible, or a truck. I realised I’ve been thinking about this since I was five years old!”

The COVID-19 pandemic shaped the project in ways Jones could have never foreseen, creating a sense of urgency that went far beyond the work of art itself. “It made me prioritise my family,” says Jones, who got his first car this year at age 30. “This past summer, they were all on the East Coast at the first time in years so I was able to see them, borrow from their wardrobes, and look through their archives. They’ve all been dispersed for nearly a decade so on a cosmic level it was like, wow this is supposed to be happening.”

In opening this portal to the past, Jones was able to do shadow work into his family and their relationships, breaking through the projections he unconsciously imposed. “It‘s brought me so much closer to them, but not always in the most comfortable or easy sense,” he says. “Sitting down, interviewing them, and going through the personal papers has been really intense. Embarking on this project required me to take these women off the pedestals I’ve put them and look at them as people who make mistakes, as people who can demonstrate greatness, and have those things exist at once. I know their profound and immense resilience, creativity, strength, humour, style, and grace. It makes me want to be more like them each day.”

Thinking about the greater collective consciousness and ancestry, Volvo Truck has deepened Jones’ understanding of the ways in which, “on an energetic, cellular level, we are part of one another. I feel like a makeup of these five women and it makes me think of Sailor Moon. Each of them represented one of the Sailor Scouts – a symbol of good, and when they put their fists together it became a combined power that cannot be defeated,” he says.

Jones brings this power to every aspect of his work, most recently releasing his second album, Don, this April. On his Instagram, art world heavyweights like James Turrell and Ross Bleckner chimed in to show their support, illustrating just how far hip hop has come over the past 50 years. “From the beginning, it has been a priority to see hip hop regarded as highly as every other art form,” Jones says. “Understanding of the complexity of the musicality, the genius, and philosophy that is hip hop, it grinds my gears to see how it falls outside the cannon of art. The language and the sonics of hip hop is global pop music, those are the drum kicks, the melodies, the synth sounds – but we have been gaslit to believe it comes from out of the sky.”

Determined to integrate hip hop into institutional, educational, and gallery spaces, Jones understands that music holds the power to “undo respectability politics and racist genre structures across most mediums. I’ve performed in so many white wall spaces where I know for a fact when the music comes on or the imagery projected it’s a little antagonistic for some people and I want to be that. It has to make people a little uncomfortable because they’re not used to hearing the word n**** or hearing bass that rattles the room. That’s what the rest of us grew up in, so leveling the playing field is a goal of mine.”

On June 28 at 6pm EST, The Shed presents a behind the scenes conversation with DonChristian Jones. Tickets are now available at Eventbrite.