MINNEAPOLIS – Mankwe Ndosi believes that performance is powerful, sound is transformative, and that music lives everywhere. “Everyone has a daily soundtrack,” says the Minneapolis-based artist. “Music is in people’s daily lives.”
Today the Harvard graduate works to gather the musical soundtracks in city dwellers’ everyday lives, whether those are the echoes and vibrations off a freeway underpass or residents singing in a community band. Her goals for her work are manifold: she hopes her sound projects will bring people together, spark important conversations, and attract community members “to things that seemed scary before.”
But these loftier ambitions don’t preclude a more straightforward artistic goal: that the sounds she creates or helps facilitate are a delight for the ear and a portal to seeing the treasures all around us every day. “I hope my projects remind people of the beauty of everyday life.”
Ndosi, who grew up singing, studied economics and social sciences in college but decided to pursue performing. When she launched her career in the Twin Cities she appeared in works all over town, including at the Guthrie and Penumbra theaters. Eventually she became involved in the spoken word movement, and today much of her work is a blend of rhythm, words, melody, and improvisation.
A 2014 Forecast Public Art grantee, Ndosi has been at work for several years on Soundtrack of Phillips, an ongoing participatory and installation work that engages the community by building partnerships, sponsoring events, and establishing residencies in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. Phillips is a diverse ethnic community with a large Native American population and Ndosi hopes her work helps build cross-cultural understanding.
As part of the project, she has recorded natural sounds in the community environment, gathered residents at events during which they are encouraged to tell stories about their culture and spiritual practices, identified places in the neighborhood that “sing back”—including underpasses, water being drained from a park, and the natural sounds in a local medicine garden—and performed and recorded her own music.
Eventually she aspires to form a neighborhood band, as well as release an audio recording, create a podcast, and contribute to a forthcoming neighborhood radio station. She hopes that all the ongoing creative endeavors that compose Soundtrack of Phillips will help residents explore new connections in the community and question existing assumptions about their neighbors and neighborhood.
“It’s about creative practice and teasing out points of creative tension that lead to misunderstanding,” says the Twin Cities–area resident.
Ndosi describes herself as a “culture worker—an artist using creative practice to nurture and be useful to my community, my ancestors, and my planet”—and has been making her own music and performing since the fourth grade, when she was cast in a class play (though she didn’t get the lead part because she “didn’t have long hair,” she laughs). She soon realized that she could use music and performance to question authority, and that she liked “pointing out things that weren’t working.”
Soundtrack of Phillips got its start at Hope Community, a neighborhood revitalization and housing organization that focuses on strengthening community ties, building community leaders, and establishing and caring for community spaces. Ndosi began working with the group several years ago and felt energized by the conversations she had there about social and political power. She began to realize the different “ways people can be powerful.”
Eventually she felt the desire to move those conversations beyond Hope Community and into the larger neighborhood to find ways to foster conversations between residents who might not normally talk to each other. She also wanted to bring music and sound into the project. Soundtrack of Phillips was born.
She believes the Phillips neighborhood is an ideal community in which to base the project because it is a microcosm of an increasingly diverse world. “Many of the challenges that happen in the world—such as questions of Native sovereignty, cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, and concentrated poverty—happen here,” she says.
One of the challenges she has encountered with the project is finding a natural stopping point. In such a diverse neighborhood, new inspirations seem to always pop up, new tensions and dynamics seem to be around every corner—and she wants to explore them all. “There is an abundance of music here,” she adds.
Even when the official boundaries of the project come to an end, says Ndosi, the work will never be done. “I will never finish,” she says. “This work is going on all the time.”