Mendi & Keith Obadike
Mendi Obadike and Keith Obadike are a married Igbo Nigerian American couple who create music and art. They were both born in 1973. Their music, live art and conceptual Internet artworks have been exhibited internationally. Mendi is a poet and Keith is a composer and sound designer.
Mendi Lewis Obadike was born in Palo Alto, California while her parents were completing graduate work at Stanford. Mendi grew up writing poems, singing in bands and acting in theater as a child. Early on she experimented making songs with cassette overdubs of her Casio keyboard and computer graphics on a Commodore computer. Her mother's research in linguistics and father's stint as the founding director of Black Studies at the University of California at Berkeley sparked her interest in language and culture. Later Mendi studied Latin, became fluent in Spanish and lived and studied in Venezuela and later the Dominican Republic.
Mendi wrote her first play and edited Focus literary journal while living in Atlanta and studying at Spelman College. She graduated with highest honors in English and was awarded a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature and Sound Theory at Duke University and joined the Cave Canem Poetry Collective. She is an associate professor in Writing and Media Studies at Pratt Institute.
Keith Obadike was born in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother worked as an administrator at the Post Office and his father (who studied briefly with inventor Buckminster Fuller) was an electrical engineer from Nigeria. While growing up in Nashville, Keith studied classical piano, woodwinds and began programming BASIC on a TRS-80 computer. As a teenager he became a sought after sound designer and producer on the local hip-hop scene. He later joined the experimental, New York based Modern Hip-Hop Quartet as guitarist and producer. He was subsequently discovered by Kedar Massenburg (Motown Records president) and was signed to MCA records where he worked with R&B artists such as D'Angelo and Angie Stone and Hip-Hop as well as performed in concert with Lauryn Hill/ the Fugees and P-Funk. He later met and was influenced by electronic music composers like Paul Lansky and Olly Wilson while working at Duke University. Keith went on to study painting and digital art at North Carolina Central University and later became the first African-American to earn an MFA in Sound Design from Yale University. He currently teaches in the College of Arts and Communication at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.
In 1996 Mendi and Keith started making conceptual Internet art and sound art works together with the goal of creating Internet operas. Since then their writing and art projects have been featured in many publications including Art Journal, Artthrob, Meridians, Black Arts Quarterly, El País and Tema Celeste, and in new media texts such as Internet Art (Thames and Hudson, Rachel Greene), Sound Unbound: Writings on Contemporary Multimedia and Music Culture (MIT Press, edited by Paul D. Miller). In 1998 they studied art and conducted interviews with artists in Ghana on electronic media. After requesting sound submissions from friends by email created the Uli Suite a sound art piece based on the Igbo abstract art form.
In 2000 they created "My Hands/Wishful Thinking", an Internet art memorial for Amadou Diallo. This work was exhibited the MIT List Visual Art Center. Their work generated much discussion online and offline when they offered Keith's blackness for sale on eBay in 2001 as an Internet performance. Mendi also created the minimalist hypertext piece Keeping Up Appearances, the first Black feminist net.art work.
In 2002 Mendi+Keith premiered their Internet opera The Sour Thunder (Bridge Records, Inc.) which featured hypertext writings by literary critic Houston Baker, performance artist Coco Fusco and musician DJ Spooky among others. This was the first new media work commissioned by the Yale Cabaret and they launched The Interaction of Coloreds (commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art).
In 2003 Keith worked with playwright Anna Deavere Smith as sound designer and composer for play her play Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 at the Lincoln Center Institute, and Mendi's poetry was featured at the Studio Museum in Harlem in response to an exhibition of visual artist Gary Simmons’ work. Also in 2003 they launched "The Pink of Stealth", an Internet/ DVD surround sound work commissioned by the New York African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix and The Sour Thunder was broadcast internationally from 104.1 fm in Berlin and was released on CD from Bridge Records in 2004.
They received a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship to develop an installation and album entitled TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves. Their Internet opera, entitled Four Electric Ghosts, was developed for Toni Morrison's Atelier at Princeton University in 2005 and the Kitchen in New York in 2009.They've curated the sound art exhibition Ya Heard: Sounds from the Artbase for Rhizome.org and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Most recently, Keith was awarded a Connecticut Critics’ Circle Award for his sound design work at the Yale Repertory Theater and Mendi's book Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press) won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award.
They recently contributed a chapter to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (The MIT Press, 2008) edited by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky. In 2008 they produced a compilation CD entitled Crosstalk: American Speech Music on Bridge Records. The album features music by Vijay Iyer, Guillermo E. Brown, Shelley Hirsch, George E. Lewis, Pamela Z, John Link, Paul Lansky, Tracie Morris, DJ Spooky, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Peter Gordon/Lawrence Weiner.
Black.Net.Art Actions is a suite of new media works the Obadikes produced between 2001 and 2003. The works include Blackness for Sale (2001), Keeping Up Appearances (2001), The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), and The Pink of Stealth (2003).
Blackness For Sale
Created in 2001, Keith Obadike's Blackness for Sale was an eBay page advertising the sale of his blackness. The general format of eBay includes only the basic information about the product necessary to make it desirable for purchase. An item for sale typically includes a title or name of the product, a description of its uses, a starting price, and a photograph. In the case of Blackness for Sale, Obadike abided by this same format but replaces the description with a litany of pros and cons of blackness. Obadike focused on the selling points of blackness but then juxtaposed it with “warnings” of the drawbacks of owning a black identity. Although Obadike's warnings were legitimate aspects of blackness, they were only issues of concern when inhabiting black flesh. Blackness for Sale Blackness for Sale furthered the notion that black people have been homogenized to the point where their experiences have become indistinguishable; to the outside world and the buyer, there is one black experience. Part of a person is advertised and valued much higher while systematically omitting the other elements that define their personhood. The most profitable aspect of black people is no longer their physical body but rather everything that encompasses their existence. Black culture becomes a new form of capital and the internet is where it is exchanged. Black culture can be taken from the internet without having to interact with or acknowledge the black body, thus erasing black people. Whereas before black people were only valued in capitalist societies for their physical abilities, they are now more so valued for their cultural capital.
Mendi + Keith's works for the stage are called opera masquerade. The first work was The Sour Thunder (1996-2002). It was staged at and commissioned by the Yale Cabaret with additional support and staging at the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center.
Their second opera masquerade was Four Electric Ghosts (2005-2009).
Praise Songs and Installations
The Praise Songs and Installations are a series of Mendi + Keith's works dedicated to other artists.
If the Heavens Don't Hear/The Earth Will Hear (2008) This two song project was originally created for a benefit for the arts center Denniston Hill, founded by Paul Pfeiffer, Julie Mehretu, Lawrence Chua, Beth Stryker, Robin Vachal and kara lynch. For this event Mendi + Keith created their first two praise songs. If the Heavens Don't Hear (A Roller Skating Jam for Marian Anderson) is an R&B song created in honor of the opera singer Marian Anderson. The song was remixed by Gordon Voidwell/WILLS. The Earth Will Hear (for Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs) was created in honor of the poet Audre Lorde and filmmaker Marlon Riggs.
The Good Hand (for Toni Morrison) (2010) The Good Hand is a song written and performed in the style of a folk ballad. In this work the Obadike's set writer Toni Morrison's historic Nobel Prize Lecture to music. The work was included in the book Toni Morrison: Forty Years in The Clearing.
Albedo (for Angela Davis) (2014) Albedo is a four channel sound installation. In the audio recording a fable is told by a lone voice about an ogre and his battle with the moon. The story is underscored with a droning bassline, the chirping of nocturnal insects and the distant cry of loons. The central wall of the installation is printed with a quote from philosopher and activist Angela Davis on freedom.
Blues Speaker (for James Baldwin) (2015) Blues Speaker is a large-scale 24 channel, 12 hour sound work installed in The New School in New York. The piece wraps around the building turning the glass facade of the University Center into a speaker. The artists used their own field recordings from Harlem mixed with original music and excerpts of their performance of James Baldwin's short story Sony's Blues .
Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler) (2016) Ring Shout is a four channel work made for a gallery context. It uses text from a unpublished story by science fiction writer Octavia Butler combined with swirling atmospheric recordings made by the Obadike's to create a circular sound reminiscent of the African-American folk dance named the ring shout.
In Big House/Disclosure (2007) Mendi + Keith created an 8-channel sound-installation in Northwestern's Kresge Hall. The installation featured an original house song interwoven with oral interviews with Chicago-area citizens about family history, architecture, slavery and house music. The music in the installation was driven by the real-time changing stock prices of contemporary American companies with historical ties to the transatlantic slave trade.
In American Cypher the Obadikes use a small bell that belonged to Sally Hemings as a sound source. They recorded Hemings’ bell and used to create an immersive sound and video installation. The exhibition included a series of letter press prints and a book of poems and a live performance.
Free/Phase (2014–15) has three components. Part 1: Beacon is a sound installation that played from the rooftop of the Chicago Cultural Center and Stony Island Arts Bank. The piece used a large parabolic speaker to project a narrow beam of sound like a spotlight into the streets of Chicago. It played phrases of freedom songs morning, noon and evening like a church bell or call to prayer. Part 2: Overcome is a video and four-channel sound work. This piece uses sounds from the Edmund Pettus Bridge (the site of 1965's Bloody Sunday) in Selma, Alabama to create a haunting version of the civil right anthem We Shall Overcome. Part 3: In Dialogue with DJs Mendi + Keith invited the public to sit with popular Chicago DJs and have a guided conversation and private listening session using a playlist of freedom songs.
Sonic Migration (2015–16) Part 1: Homes is a video and four-channel sound work. The video shows slow moving imagery of the internal architecture of Tindley Temple, a historic Black Philadelphia Church against ambient recording of the structure and Mendi + Keith's remix of the Tindley composition A Better Home.
Utopias: Seeking For A City (2018-2019) was inspired by free African-American towns created from the early 1800s to the late 1960s in America. Mendi + Keith researched and visited a few of these historic towns across the U.S. making audio and video recordings. This material became the basis for an installation in an mid 19th century house in at Weekville Heritage Center in Crown Heights Brooklyn. The installation featured Mendi + Keith's rendition of the Africa-American spiritual I am Seeking for A City playing through the walls, floors and ceiling of the house against a series of Mendi + Keith's framed hand drawn maps of African-American towns and a video landscapes the towns.
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