Providence, R.I., November 7, 2022 — WNYC Studios and Brown Arts Institute at Brown University announce the November 15 launch of the fifth season of HELGA, a podcast hosted by critically-acclaimed performing artist Helga Davis. Guests on the upcoming series include an array of prolific artists, writers, and scholars working across disciplines, including Glenn Ligon, Claudia Rankine, Carrie Mae Weems, Tricia Rose, Macarena Gomez-Barris, and Arthur Jafa, in discussion on topics such as childhood, identity, race, democracy, and self-investigation. Dubbed “conversations with extraordinary people,” new episodes drop on Tuesdays from November 15 through February 7 and are available at wnycstudios.org/Helga or wherever podcasts are available.
A New York City-based multidisciplinary actress, singer, writer, and composer, Davis speaks artist-to-artist with her guests as they share stories of struggle and resilience, challenges and victories along their creative journeys, providing inspiration and hope to listeners. Davis’ HELGA offers thoughtful and thought-provoking conversations to expand our collective perspective on the human condition and the daily stressors of the world today. Her collaboration with the Brown Arts Institute grew out of longtime work with BAI Artistic Director Avery Willis Hoffman, who, while Program Director at Park Avenue Armory in New York City, also executive-produced season four of HELGA. Season five extends the podcast’s range of topics and guests to include Brown University scholars and distinguished professors Tricia Rose and Macarena Gomez-Barris, and alumnus Kevin Young (MFA ’96).
“HELGA is a vehicle to hold, examine, and appreciate poignant and nuanced discoveries on culture, race, visual arts, and music,” said Helga Davis, Host. “It's fueled by a passion to interrogate and redefine how and to whom grace, opportunity, and fairness are afforded in our world. Season five’s exciting collaboration with Brown Arts Institute at Brown University brings vibrant voices from academia – including Tricia Rose and my new friend, Macarena Gomez-Barris – along with so many others who expand our understanding of how we can be in this world at this time.”
“Working with Helga to launch another season of this truly inspiring podcast exemplifies my commitment to the arts as a catalytic space for relevant and urgent inquiry, debate, and interrogation. I bring this commitment to Brown Arts Institute, where we are always looking for ways to broaden perspectives and uplift creative and innovative thinking. Through HELGA we can offer incredible conversations with leading changemakers and thinkers and inspire audiences to think a bit differently about their world,” said Avery Wills Hoffman, Artistic Director of Brown Arts Institute.
“We are excited to co-produce the fifth season of HELGA with Brown Arts Institute,” said Ed Yim, Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President of WQXR. “Our partnership is forged from our commitment to shared values. Helga is an extraordinary artist, thinker and convener who—through conversations with fellow artists—provides a transformative space for the way we think about our world.”
Since its debut in 2016, HELGA has featured guests including Solange, Peter Sellars, Krista Tippett, Elizabeth Alexander, Bethann Hardison, Esperanza Spalding, Judy Collins, Sarah Jones, and Hilton Als.
Episode 1: Michael R. Jackson (November 15)
Michael R. Jackson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Strange Loop, a play into which he poured almost 20 years of self-investigation. He’s also fresh from a Tony Award for Best New Musical as well as being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2022. In this episode, Jackson talks about what it means to be fearless as an artist, the lies of our “if this, then that” culture, and how the illusion of identity is a powerful means to foster understanding.
Episode 2: Claudia Rankine (November 22)
Claudia Rankine is a professor of poetry at Yale University, a recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur, Guggenheim, and National Endowment of the Arts, and one of the most celebrated writers of our time. In this episode, Rankine talks about who holds the power in our democracy and what it means to earn a mother’s understanding of your work. She also reveals her superpower and the advice she would offer for everyone who looks to find fresh inspiration.
Episode 3: Glenn Ligon (November 29)
American painter Glenn Ligon is one of the most recognizable figures in the modern art scene. His distinctive, political work uses repetition and transformation to abstract the texts of 20th-century writers. In this episode, Ligon talks about childhood and what it means to have a parent who fiercely and playfully supports you. He also discusses the essential lesson that there’s value in the things you do differently, and why he won’t take an afternoon nap in his own studio.
Episode 4: Bartees Strange (December 6)
Even with his surging popularity in indie and rock scenes, Bartees Strange strives to bring his music to unexpected audiences and to tease apart the racial boundaries between them. He reckons with the concept of what it means to write music also for the kids who are not seen, heard, or cared about. In this episode, Strange talks about growing up on a military base in England, working in the labor and climate movements in DC, and how seeing an appearance by TV on the Radio on The Late Show With David Letterman was the cheat code for writing his own music.
Episode 5: Somi (December 13)
The dynamic, ascendant jazz singer Somi has been celebrated for her artistry as much as her activism. In 2021, she became the first African woman ever nominated in any of the Grammy’s Jazz categories for her album Holy Room - Live at Alte Oper with Frankfurt Radio Big Band. She has also performed at the United Nations’ General Assembly by invitation from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Somi describes herself as an “East African Midwestern girl who loves family, poetry, and freedom,” and yet hers is a story of survival, adversity, and transformation. In this episode, she discusses what happens when a teacher steals your joy, the power of a meditative practice that connects her to her ancestors, and how she is still finding her voice.
Episode 6: Bill T. Jones (December 20)
Legendary dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones has made a career of engaging his audience with brutal, unapologetic honesty. His powerfully seductive work has grappled with provocative political issues ranging from sexuality, race, and censorship, to power and the AIDS epidemic, while also innovating in the expressive possibilities of movement itself. In this episode, Jones talks about what it meant to grow up a “Black Yankee” in the ‘50-60s in upstate New York as the 10th of 12 children, the adjacency of violence to the power of seduction, and how after decades as a performing artist, the body may retire but the mind never will.
Episode 7: Carrie Mae Weems (December 27)
Carrie Mae Weems is one of today’s most influential and generous contemporary American artists, as devoted to her own craft as she is to introducing other artists into the world. Her photography and diverse visual media have won her numerous awards including the Rome Prize, a MacArthur genius grant, and four honorary doctorates, and she was even named one of the 100 most influential women of all time by Ebony magazine. In this episode, Weems explores the struggles artists must maintain to find balance and reach an audience, how the field cannot advance without the deep and profound inclusion of Black artists, and what the concept of “grace” means to her and her mother.
Episode 8: Tricia Rose (January 3)
Tricia Rose is a pioneering scholar in the field of hip-hop, Chancellor's Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, co-host with Cornel West of The Tight Rope podcast, and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. In this episode, Rose discusses how she balances her love of the early days of hip-hop with the global profit powerhouse it has become, the beauty of chaos, and how essential it is to build safe, stable communities at a time when everything is being done to isolate and separate.
Episode 9: Kevin Young (January 10)
“Gatekeepers” hold an essential role in our culture, as those in positions of power who determine what we see and hear, and therefore how we understand our world. The poet Kevin Young holds dual gatekeeping roles as both Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the Poetry Editor for The New Yorker magazine. In this episode, Young talks about how he holds these responsibilities and likens reading a poem to entering a museum. He also shares his belief in the power of unexpected transformations, songs that have brought him comfort, and how it’s always easiest to write about the place you’ve just left.
Episode 10: Kara Walker (January 17)
American painter and silhouettist Kara Walker rose to international acclaim at the age of 28 as one of the youngest-ever recipients of a MacArthur Genius grant. Appearing in exhibitions, museums, and public collections worldwide, Walker’s work wrestles with the ongoing psychological injury caused by the legacy of slavery. In this episode, Walker shares how she navigates her own inner conflicts, how a curiosity for history led her to the silhouette, and what happens when making use of symbols of Black servitude brings one acclaim.
Episode 11: Macarena Gomez-Barris (January 24)
Macarena Gomez-Barris is Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and founder of the Global South Center at Pratt Institute, an organization which supports artists, activists, and scholars in their efforts to decolonialize local and global communities. In this episode, Gomez-Barris talks about how one can and must find beauty in the most ambiguous of places and how she uses the word “femme” to escape the embattled histories of the word “female,” and how she has—and hasn’t—moved on from a traumatic early swimming lesson with her father.
Episodes 12 and 13: Arthur Jafa (Part 1: January 31; Part 2: February 7)
For over 30 years, visual artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa has captured the histories and experiences of Black Americans with projects that exemplify both the universal and particular facets of Black life. In this masterclass in Black thought, Jafa shares a free -from improvisation through his breadth of knowledge and understanding of visual culture—embedded with all the references, rhetorics, and personal reflections of someone who has spent a lifetime dedicated to centralizing the varied experiences of Black being.
About Helga Davis
Helga Davis is a vocalist and performance artist whose work draws out insights that illuminate how artistic leaps for an individual can offer connection among audiences. Davis was principal actor in the 25th-anniversary international revival of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s seminal opera Einstein on the Beach. She also starred in Wilson’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, with libretto and score by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Among the collaborations and works written for her are Oceanic Verses by Paola Prestini, You Us We All by Shara Nova and Andrew Ondrejcak, and Yet Unheard, a tribute to Sandra Bland by Courtney Bryan, based on the poem by Sharan Strange. She has conceived and performed First Responder and Wanna as responses to Until and The Let Go by multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave. In addition to hosting HELGA, she is artist in residence at National Sawdust and Joe’s Pub, winner of the 2019 Greenfield Prize in composition, a 2019 Alpert Award finalist, and the 2018-21 visiting curator for the performing arts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
About The Brown Arts Institute (BAI)
The Brown Arts Institute is a university-wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies, and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown’s arts departments, faculty, students, and community. Through year-round programming, research-focused courses, initiatives, collaborations, and partnerships, along with rigorous artistic and academic programs, the BAI commissions and presents new work on campus across Providence, Rhode Island, and beyond, from students, faculty, and on-campus arts groups, as well as in collaboration with forward-focused visiting artists and other performing arts organizations.
About WNYC Studios
WNYC Studios is the premier producer of on-demand and broadcast audio, and home to some of the industry’s most critically acclaimed and popular podcasts, including Radiolab, On the Media, The Takeaway, The New Yorker Radio Hour, Death, Sex & Money, La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience and Dolly Parton’s America. WNYC Studios is leading the new golden age in audio with podcasts and national radio programs that inform, inspire, and delight millions of curious and highly engaged listeners across digital, mobile, and broadcast platforms. Programs include personal narratives, deep journalism, revealing interviews, and smart entertainment as varied and intimate as the human voice itself. For more information, visit wnycstudios.org.