At first mention, Divine Souls Coalition sounds like a cool group of paranormal pals. And founder Jamil Jasey says experiencing their performance art — spoken word, music, dance — can feel spiritual. But exactly what is it?
Founded in March, Jasey’s vision for Divine Souls Coalition is bigger than mere performance. His aim is to bring families together and heal the city through art.
“Divine Souls Coalition is a group of like-minded artists coming together to share their talents, and to make a positive impact in our community. Our art is how we do that.”
Chameika Darden, Divine Souls Coalition co-founder and Jasey’s friend, describes their group as “a bridge,” connecting people from a diverse range of ethnicities and lifestyles. “We’ve got gay people, straight people, single moms … we’ve got black, white, all kinds of people.”
Divine Souls Coalition founder Jamil Jasey (left) and co-founder Chameika Darden. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
About a month ago, Jasey, Darden and the Divine Souls Coalition team organized a unity march in Monroe Park – an event that mirrored their commitment to community-based art and advocacy. The march featured performances and also served as a collection for donated clothes, shoes and toiletries for the homeless people who frequented the park. “We knew people were going to be displaced because the park was closing,” Jasey says. “So, we did this to help them. All of us performed, and a homeless lady came up and sang. It was beautiful.”
In October, the group launched a family creative writing program, ART IS. Jasey explains its premise as we sit tucked away at a table in a quiet corner in a busy bookstore: “Most artist programs are focused on either adults or children. We focus on families; we have about three or four separate families now. Everybody comes, everybody writes and everybody shares – kids, moms, dads, everybody.”
Held the first and third Wednesdays of the month from 3 to 4:45 p.m. at Richmond Public Library’s Hull Street location, ART IS focuses on creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry. Sessions usually start slow but build momentum quickly.
“I ask everyone how their day went, get everyone comfortable, and maybe we’ll write about that for a bit,” says Jasey in his easygoing manner. Then comes what he calls a “community building project,” a type of creative writing collaboration. “We mix up the families,” he says. “Kids from one family sit with another, parents trade tables, you know – and we have them vote on a topic.” There’s one catch — it has to be something that can be performed.
If you’ve never seen poetry performed, I’ll share my first experience a decade ago. In a dark auditorium on Virginia Tech’s campus, I listened closely to a string of poets who were ahead of my boyfriend’s amateur dance troupe. This was not the poetry I learned about in school; there wasn’t a whole lot of rhyming, and certainly no “thees” or “thous.” Eyes closed or staring straight ahead, the lyricists recited their lines with the abandon of thespians. A dreadlocked, pecan-skinned man tapped a small drum in rhythm with his words, and I hung on every one. A young woman broke into song halfway through her poem, flinging her head back as the mighty sound rushed from her throat. A respectful silence pervaded the hall as these emotional performances continued. ART IS members (the grown-up ones, at least) get a chance to flex their performance muscles publicly at Thursday open mic sessions that Divine Souls Coalition hosts at Union Bistro & Jazz.
A passel of poets: (Left to right) Divine Souls Coalition members Mark Kinnard, Rosie Lanfranco, Taj Thomas, Charles Hawthorne, Chameka Darken Chris Matthews, Tasha Thomas, Curtis Charity and Jamil Jasey. (provided photo)
Before founding his own group Jasey was part of Tuesday Verses, with its well-established following. Founded by Lorna Pinckney 14 years ago, it’s the longest-running poetry series in the city, and is now held Tuesdays, 8 to 11:30 p.m. at Addis Ethiopian restaurant.
Pinckney believes that for humans to be happy, they need to be creative. “When you're working every day, and you get into the fabric of your life — whether you're a parent or a student or whoever — there are constraints that don't allow you to be creative.” The most important thing, what she feels is her purpose, is ensuring creative Richmonders have a place to “share their poetry or songs or whatever it is that they created from the depth of their hearts.”
Word of Tuesday Verses' open mic spread up and down Interstate 95. When Pinckney realized that folks were driving from the nation’s capital to Richmond every week to attend, she added a second event in 2010, Wednesday Verses, held weekly at Firehouse Restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Other local live poetry events, such as The Writer’s Den Poetry Slam, held monthly, and Shockoe Bottom-born Lyric Ave, offer poets and spoken-word artists opportunities to strengthen their talents and even compete for prizes.
There’s also the healing environment that groups such as Tuesday Verses and Divine Souls Coalition provide; writing poems or music and then baring that creation to others is cathartic, Pinckney says.
“A few people have told me they were planning to commit suicide, until they started coming [to Verses]. People with PTSD, people with depression — the intimacy of our community and the love in the room when we host these events, people say it helps them push forward, emotionally.”
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