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Social Justice and the Power of Art at Lawrence Free State Festival 2016

Last week, Free State Festival brought visiting artists, great live music, compelling films, and important conversations to the Lawrence community. The Free State Festival is a week long celebration of art, music, ideas and films, which started as a film festival and grew into what it is today–a culmination of creativity and community.

Throughout the six days of the festival I attended a conversation about toxic masculinity, a panel about local art activism, an intimate performance from Blind Boy Paxton, a screening of a beautiful film from the 1990s, a Q & A with Jad Abumrad as well as his presentation and finally the much anticipated free Public Enemy show. While this may seem like a lot, it only scratches the surface of what Free State Fest had to offer.


The first event I was able to attend was the first Art of Conversation on Monday. The theme was Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice, which was explored through analyzing current events and thinking about ways to improve.

The conversation was well led by Katie Batza who started the talk with an article about toxic masculinity and mass shootings. The people in attendance represented a range of ages and experiences, but as pointed out, there was still unfortunately a lack of diversity in categories of race and ethnicity.

The most productive part of the talk came when Batza encouraged everyone who attended to think about solutions to the obvious problems our society is currently facing. It opened the talk up to creativity and optimism that is typically lost in conversations about serious issues of oppression and underrepresentation. If the other Art of Conversations had the same types of discussions as Monday’s edition, then it was a productive and inspiring week for all.


The next event I was able to attend was the A(R/C)T: Art and Activism panel, which featured four local artists explaining how their art and their study of art is rooted in activism. We explored topics of immigration, indigenous appropriation and erasure, and gentrification.

Joshua Miner, an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at KU, explored new media representations of indigenous populations. Miner showed examples of social media activism and video games that make a statement about the current problems of representation and erasure.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, an Assistant Professor of English at KU, went through current literary representations of latino immigration.

Julia Cole, a public artist and educator, talked about beautifying spaces in communities without causing gentrification. Cole made connections with community involvement in art interventions and the growth and well-being of the community.

Last but not least, Sydney Pursel, an artist and MFA student at KU, displayed her work with art and activism. Pursel focuses her work on Native American identity and appropriation and has had several projects focus on educating others about native cultures.


blindboy paxton

Photo courtesy of Lonnie Webster

On Thursday, I was fortunate to see a live performance of the up and coming blues and folk musician, Blind Boy Paxton. This performance for me was the highlight of the week. Not only was it an amazing display of talent and wit, but it was in the historical St. Luke AME church in East Lawrence.

The beautiful church paired well with the talented singer

and multi-instrumentalist. Paxton started his set on the church’s piano. Throughout the evening, Paxton picked up the guitar, the fiddle, the banjo and the harmonica. He used humor during and between songs to keep the crowd engaged. The packed pews were filled with enthralled community members of all ages.

During different songs, the audience would join in on tapping their feet. There were moments of audience participation where Paxton would  jokingly banter with various individuals. His style of playing all of his instruments resembles a sound that isn’t heard too often in present day but rather represents an older tradition of blues and folk.

As the sun began to set behind the stained glass, Paxton played a few slower tunes creating an absolutely mesmerizing scene. If you ever have a chance to see this talented musician live, don’t miss out–he may just be one of the greats.


On Saturday morning, I finally attended one of the 19 films showed that week.Only yesterday Only Yesterday is an animated film from the Japanese animated studio, Studio Ghibli.

This film was originally released in 1991 but Saturday was the first time it was shown on the big screen in Lawrence, Kansas. It was one of the first feature length anime films that appealed to older audiences even though the kids at attendance laughed and cried just as much as their parents.

This film was beautifully animated and the story was compelling. Watching this film was a great way to spend a Saturday morning.


After viewing Only Yesterday, I was able to attend a Q & A with Jad Abumrad. The Q & A was with various people in the community who are involved with podcasts, radio and audio production. The informal nature of the event allowed for a variety of questions and random conversations. Abumrad gave us insight into his work and processes while also giving us advice on modern day podcasting and audio reporting. For a more in depth review of Jad Abumrad’s lecture click here.


Public_Enemy_@_Sir_Stewart_Bovell_Park_(2_1_2011)_(5356059713)Free State Fest came to an end with the most anticipated event, Public Enemy. The best parts of this headlining event were the level of diversity and enthusiasm from the audiences and the political messaging from various performers. It was refreshing to be at a show that had people from various cultural backgrounds, ages, and abilities enjoying a night together. Everyone remained positive even when the heat and number of people in attendance grew.

Various local acts keep the energy up in anticipation for the main act including the Hearts of Darkness set, which was so high in energy, the crowd couldn’t help but dance. Right before Public Enemy came on, there were various performers from opening acts freestyling together.

Once Public Enemy hit the stage, the crowd became tighter and even more attentive. After the hour and a half set, Flavor Flav took the time to speak about right and wrong and social justice by having the crowd recite f*** racism, f*** separatism, and scream “peace!”  This end speech was a great way to end the social justice themed festival that tried to be as open to everyone’s views and experiences.