Stoking the flame of Cincinnati’s ‘Black renaissance’

Interviews by Byron McCauley with dancer David Choate, artist Gee Horton and musician Kick Lee

David Choate, Gee Horton and Kick Lee. Photo: Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers, 2022
David Choate, Gee Horton and Kick Lee. Photo: Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers, 2022

“You don’t paint what you see, you paint what you feel.”
– Romare Bearden, 20th century American artist

“I believe dance came from the people, and it should be delivered back to the people.”
– Alvin Ailey, founder of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

“Music is music, ultimately. If it makes you feel good, cool.” 
– Prince, musician, composer, entertainer

You probably recognize those artists – Black American trailblazers in arts and culture. 

While Cincinnati’s muscular arts infrastructure rivals bigger cities with bigger budgets, the city has struggled to cultivate, retain and elevate Black and Brown performers. Movers & Makers wanted to address the disparity. Meet David Choate, dancer; Gee Horton, visual artist; and Kick Lee, musician and music entrepreneur.

Choate, a self-trained dancer, is the founding director of Revolution Dance Theatre, a Cincinnati nonprofit organization building cultural diversity in dance and leveling the playing field for minority dance students. He is also house manager for the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts. Horton is a Cincinnati self-trained visual artist whose work can be found in the Mercantile Library and the Cincinnati Art Museum, among others. Lee is executive director of the Cincinnati Music Accelerator, making Cincinnati a music city through advocacy, job placement and education.

I spoke with Choate and Horton together, and Lee separately. Content has been edited for clarity and brevity.

David Choate and Gee Horton with Byron McCauley

McCauley: Thank you again for joining me and allowing me to participate in interviewing you guys. The arts in Cincinnati have always been a treasure for us because it’s a core value entrenched in our city. But I want to talk about being an African American man doing art in Cincinnati.

Choate: I am the founding producing artistic director for Revolution Dance Theater. We get to create art that employs, promotes and attracts African Americans. This is quite interesting when you think about my background because I had zero, I guess, direct connection to dance or the arts in general. I actually thought I was not a fan of plays, musicals, but ballet in particular.

McCauley: Wow.

Choate: I remember seeing one as a kid and it never being explained to me. And thinking “There’s no words to this, what is going on here?” But obviously, fast forward through working, through stage management, through lighting and design and kind of being in that world, I took a ballet class to get an understanding of the terminology. And someone said that they saw something in me and they gave me a chance to train and I became a professional dancer from there. Starting Revolution Dance Theater has given me the tools and the opportunities to change other people’s lives as well. 

There’s a stigma, particularly around ballet, as it relates to Black people. More than a stigma, there’s a history, a documented history, of discrimination against African Americans when it comes to ballet. So, to be a part of doing the same exact thing, corporately, as individuals did for me is so special. To bring performances they can relate to gives kids an opportunity to try something new and see if they like. If my life and my story changed like that, then I just wonder how much more impact we can have if we scale that up to so many more.

McCauley: That’s often the case. You find somebody, you light a fire in someone and then they burn for themselves. Gee, tell us your story.

Horton: I don’t come from the traditional disciplinary practice of being formally trained. I too had that non-traditional route into my artistry. And also, what I heard from David’s talk, is that I found a sense of identity through that which has been directly tied to my mission as an artist. And really that is to create works of art that highlight the Black experience in a way that promotes beauty, complexity, and also a form of resistance. 

I was in the corporate space and trying to navigate that world. Since I’ve made that transition, it’s been a lot of unraveling of … the best way I can say is … learned behaviors and roles in which I’ve played and had to play in work environments. And so there’s this ability to unravel and break away from all those different forms of conditioning. And my art has given me the perfect platform to work through, as well as tell stories and narratives really rooted in showing the world how beautiful Black people are. 

McCauley: When you can move people with the thing that you love to do – especially being Black males in this country – the way you express yourself in dance and art really is kind of transcendent. So, talk to me about how those experiences sort of shaped your lives, but also the lives of others. 

Cincinnati's 'Black renaissance' – David-Choate-by-Tina-Gutierrez-for-Movers-and-Makers-2022
David Choate
(Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Choate: It’s affirming for me. So another part of my history is growing up in the Black church. I’m actually a licensed minister still – well I guess my license never got taken away [laughs].

So, I have this entire point of my life where I got to stand up pretty much every Sunday behind a microphone with the goal of trying to inspire change or to create, impact or inspire hope. But it was in some ways very limiting because it was always tied to “but you have to believe in this thing” or “we have to first make an agreement here.” What is so great to see, particularly in the African American space, is that I can still communicate those messages of hope. I can still try to inspire change. I can still try to have this excellent impact but instead of “preaching” from a stage, using art to do it.

Horton: I appreciate every bit of that. I think in relationship to me and my art, when you take the source of my inspiration and how tapping into that and creating it and what that can do to impact and inspire others … It’s really wild when I think about it because all of my subjects are real people and real people who are directly connected to me. I tend to focus on relatives who are adolescents, teenagers, and at this very moment within my practice my subjects are teenage adolescents because I’m really into exploring that transformation into adulthood, because we don’t talk about that enough. 

McCauley: Neither one of you are classically trained. David, you did lighting work and Gee, you were a social worker and a basketball coach. That’s really a diverse background from which to emerge into your calling. Was there a moment when you thought, “I have to do this thing,” regardless of, say, the promise of monetary gain?

Choate: I can tell you that I was not motivated by money for sure. Being in retail was my background, and I like business and I like things that make sense – structures and processes. They sold me on trying to go far in the corporate space. There’s a guy that I was kind of pacing along with for the longest time and right now he’s one of [the] senior vice presidents of Walgreens. It’s really nice, and so I think “Oh, I could be making his salary …” [All laugh.]

Choate: It was literally not about just dance. I was challenged at a very young age that you don’t start a business [because] it’s something you wanted to do or even because it’s your hobby. There needs to be a need that you are solving, a gap you’re filling. When I learned about the disparities as a professional dancer, I was kind of looking around and I’m the only one in the room all the time. Hearing about dance legends like Raven Wilkinson being threatened by the KKK trying to get off her tour bus. Just to perform ballet? Really? Having to lighten her skin just so she could be on stage with her white counterparts. Arthur Mitchell, legendary guy, handpicked by George Balanchine himself, but he can’t perform his work on national TV because it’s asinine for a Black man to dance with a white woman. That motivated me. So everything that I just talked about now contributes to the fact that before my organization, it had been 16 years before any single Black woman had been employed to dance ballet in Cincinnati and we have a major national ballet company right here in our city. That’s a problem. 

McCauley: That’s very powerful. Changing the world through art. There’s an aspect of social justice here. Gee, you were commissioned by the Mercantile Library, and you had an installation at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Talk about that journey.

Cincinnati's 'Black renaissance' – Gee-Horton-by-Tina-Gutierrez-for-Movers-and-Makers-2022
Gee Horton
(Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Horton: I felt like at the time when I took the leap to become a full-time artist, I had just accepted the commission at the Mercantile. I felt like the walls were caving in and I had this dual identity. I would consider myself Gary Horton who worked in the corporate space during the day, but a visual artist at night. The start of 2020, I consider that was the death of Gary Horton and Gee Horton was born. I say that because it relates to my process of creating this portrait of Peter H. Clark, who was the first African American member at the Mercantile, but beyond that, he was a pioneer in CIncinnati. He was an advocate, an abolitionist, and did a lot to really support teachers … Black folks who were navigating and migrating from the South up North looking for a better way of life. And he saw that Black teachers needed to be in Black schools teaching Black students. In the process of creating Peter H. Clark, I was kind of creating who I was as well. 

McCauley: Do you have hope for the future of your occupations, of your gifts in Cincinnati? How do you continue to manifest that?

Horton: Honestly, I think the future is really bright within the creative collective in our city. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think, in relation to Black artists and Black creatives in CIncinnati, there’s truly a renaissance happening. I don’t know if a lot of people really understand that. I think for folks like David, myself and Kick, we’re in the thick of it and we’re just so focused on our own individual lanes. But I do feel like we are an extension of a legacy that was already created before we got here. I think the work that we’re doing now is really rooted in optimism and I think that the future is bright for this young demographic of creatives that are coming up. 

Choate: I am cautiously optimistic when I think about the future because of two things, and not to go too deep, but If we’ve learned anything from history is that mankind learns nothing from history [laughs], so seeing how things have happened over time you would think, “This is it. Things are finally going to change.” But then as time passes … disappointment. So when I look at the instances, sort of the beginning of this really big wave, particularly across the country, but really here in Cincinnati as well … when I’m looking at George Floyd and the riots and … a lot of organizations changing their funding focus to align and corporations changing their philanthropy to align with supporting Black organizations, I think it is beautiful to see so many people rally around us at this moment, but I pray that it is what Gee said, that it is a true renaissance. And the word that we shamefully plug is not renaissance, but revolution. 

Kick Lee with McCauley

McCauley: Kick, talk about your journey in music and music education in Cincinnati. 

Lee: Our community in Cincinnati was never built for Black and Brown individuals in arts and culture. Primarily because there weren’t enough Black and Brown people in arts and culture to help really develop interest or give people the opportunity to truly understand our creative genius. But due to the pandemic, I feel like all of that has changed, because now people of all backgrounds do value and now do understand what we bring to the overall field of arts and culture.

McCauley: Why just during the pandemic? What do you think spurred that?

Lee: I think what spurred that is people had nothing else to do but be at home, sit, watch and listen. They literally had nothing to do but pay attention, and because of that they became more focused and aware of the problems going on overall in the world, but as well in arts and culture. And as I’ve always told many people – still to this day – I feel like arts and culture is what helped all of us survive the pandemic. No matter where you looked, no matter where you went, no matter what you saw, it was art that interpreted the issues of what’s going on in our world and our society, especially with Black and Brown people.

McCauley: You founded the Cincinnati Music Accelerator and I think one of your core values is to “put an end to starving artists.” Talk about the importance of that.

Cincinnati's 'Black renaissance' –Kick-Lee-by-Tina-Gutierrez-for-Movers-and-Makers-2022
Kick Lee
(Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Lee: So the meaning behind “putting an end to the cycle of starving artists” is pretty much in what it says. Really working to end that term that’s saying “the starving artist” because art is more than just a person being creative, it is a career option. It is an opportunity for someone to not just make a living, but a life and sustainable one. And with where we are now, I am pretty much focused primarily on bringing more and better awareness to that through the art of music, but of course as a whole in the arts and culture world.

McCauley: You’re a young man but you’re a veteran in the music industry and you’ve been blessed that your talent has apparently allowed you to shift the paradigm around the concept of “the starving artist.” How have you done that and how are you teaching others to do that?

Lee: Well, one way we have done that is we found innovative and creative ways to bring better awareness as well as better focus on music creatives and our music ecosystem as a whole. And various ways we do that is we partner with 3CDC and have been funded by ArtsWave for the past four years to pretty much put street musicians out in various corners around downtown and Over-the-Rhine to – as we call in a technical term – busk [perform on the street]. And we have a program where we take our stage tourers around to different communities and our clients also hire us through our talent agency to book local acts and musicians to perform on our stages, as well as broader events such as singing the National Anthem at FC Cincinnati or Cincinnati Reds’ games.

McCauley: Anytime you look back to pre-civil rights, it always left Black people behind. But now, that seems to be changing.

Lee: We’re in the middle of a Black renaissance, specifically here in Cincinnati. And with that happening I feel like our arts and culture community and ecosystem will be bigger, broader, brighter, and more inviting and welcoming to those who don’t feel like they are welcome or those who don’t even know that they are welcome. Because folks like myself and my peers are paving the way for it to be more inclusive, to be more inviting, to bring better awareness, to bring broader opportunities, and to truly show that we are a people, individuals who are Black who absolutely came from, as we say, the dirt. We came from the mud. We came from nothing and we built ourselves into something.

Byron McCauley is an author, communications executive and veteran journalist. He is the co-author of “Hope Interrupted: America Lost and Found in Letters,” with Jennifer Mooney.

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