5 Questions to Damian Norfleet (vocalist, writer, actor)

Damian Norfleet is a gifted improvisational singer, performance artist, actor, and social justice activist who has occupied a rare multi-dimensional space in the performing arts: calling attention to the clarion call of Black Lives Matter through the vehicle of new music projects. With Ensemble Pi and Opera Philadelphia, Norfleet has embarked on a series of remarkable commissioned works that give voice to and validate the dilemma of what it means to be Black and male in a white America. The mantra of “Do you see me? Will you hear me?” resonates.

Masterful improvisational singing and performance art informs and defines your signature work. What is your approach to improvisational voicing decisions?

Masterful, you say? I’ll take it! The thing that fascinates me most about the voice is its unique ability to wield both empathy and lucidity synchronously. My approach to vocal improvisation (I usually refer to it as vocal creation) takes advantage of said ability and centers on the generation and shaping of narrative. I manipulate narrative for the dual purpose of communicating specific ideas and, perhaps more importantly, eliciting emotional responses.

My current process (which seems to be ever evolving) begins with a cosmogonic exercise of sorts–inwardly, I create a world of stimuli, limitations, and consequences; which outwardly, creates musical and dramatic parameters. Then, as suggested in Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting, I “get out of my head” and instinctually react to the environment that I’ve created. This approach allows me to organically manipulate sound and language, while keeping the affected narrative “in the moment.” Similar to how a pianist uses a keyboard to produce and change chords, I use narrative to produce and change emotion-filled moments. My singing is very reflective of my speech; I often find parallels betwixt my spoken word (inflection and cadence) and my melodies (pitch and rhythm). Meisner techniques have not only benefited my improvisational and creative processes, they’ve enhanced my collaborative skills, as well. I am very, very fond of collaboration, and I think that it is important to “socialize” the artist that dwells within.

When creating, I heavily lean on my lived experiences and the sights and sounds that I’ve encountered. (I’ve visited over twenty five countries.) It is a time where I can float above the distractions of prescribed performance practices and the restraints that often accompany “disciplined” art forms; nonetheless, I do not disregard learned techniques, nor do I deliberately set out to make “unique” sounds. I actually enjoy using sounds that are familiar and common. I like for my output to be accessible and to take the audience on a journey…like watching a film. Succinctly put, my approach to improvisation/creation relies upon my acting acumen inasmuch as my musical expertise. In addition to interesting sounds, I aim to create characters, moments, and worlds.

Damian Norfleet--Photo by Tiona Nekkia McClodden

Damian Norfleet–Photo by Tiona Nekkia McClodden

The tragedy of George Floyd is a through line connecting the lived male experiences of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, and Nate Turner, extinguished by a fear of Black male defiance in an America preoccupied by white fragility. How does your work aide the call for police reform and restorative justice?

There are individuals and organizations that are purposefully concealing, obscuring, and rationalizing the flaws (the word flaws is a gross euphemism) in our police and justice system. Right now, our system allows for public servants to bully and harass citizens without consequence. Right now, our system allows for public servants to kill unarmed citizens without consequence. Right now, our system allows for public servants to kill children without consequence.

It is difficult for some folks to see through the smoke screen that surrounds the aforementioned institutions. I hope that my work aids the effort to pinpoint and unmask the injustices that are soiling and staining the status quo. I hope that my work restores the personhood that has been stripped from the victims of police brutality. I find that most people become outraged and demand change when they “discover” these crimes against the citizenry. I hope that my work continues to illuminate the darkest corners of our country and encourages my fellow citizens to make improvements. A fully stocked toolbox is required to keep our country in tip-top condition, and I hope for my work to be a flashlight in that toolbox.

Your performance in Ensemble Pi’s Reparations Now! defined for me a man who dares to speak truth to power, and in Courtney Bryan’s blessed, the text of Matthew 5 speaks to a transformative redemption for those who are persecuted. What role does faith play for your transformation as a messenger for Black lives?

Defending yourself is exhausting. Having your words fall upon deaf ears is exhausting. Turning the other cheek is exhausting. Suffering fools gladly is exhausting. Anger is exhausting. Frustration is exhausting. Fear is exhausting.

Respite, for me, is found in my belief that people will be better. I desperately cling to my belief that people will be better. Hell…I’m better than I used to be. It’s difficult and extremely uncomfortable for one to recognize their wrongdoings and/or sit with their shortcomings; but, it is oh-so-necessary. Change requires time, time requires endurance, endurance requires rest, but we cannot rest until we have change. It may not be a popular sentiment, but I have faith in people. I really do. If I am to live with people, work with people, represent people…I have to have faith in people. I just have to.

The message of Matthew 5 is profound. The idea of redemption for the peace makers, the pure at heart. ….that the meek and the poor shall inherit the earth and see God is also the message of Black liberation theology representing decades of progressive Black clergical thought including Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Reverend Rafael Warnock. Black liberation theology also informs the foundation of Black Lives Matter, which is a mantra for the progressive performing arts projects you are engaged in. Is it possible for these converging voices to prevail in our toxic era of disinformation?

Black lives matter. Full stop. Certain populations have been trying to silence Black people in America since the 17th century. They can’t silence us and they know it. The amount of disinformation and “alternative facts” floating about our atmosphere is dizzying and often eclipses veracity; however, those in darkness will see the light. Art has been described as a means to the acquisition of truth, and I feel confident that my fellow artists and I will never be distracted nor deterred from that sacred duty.

Damian Norfleet--Photo courtesy of the artist

Damian Norfleet–Photo courtesy of the artist

What role can you play to improve the perception of Black male lived experience?

My immediate reaction is, “Whose perception of Black male lived experience”? I am most concerned with Black boys’ perception of the Black male lived experience, so I will address that.

I feel that I can positively affect Black boys’ perception of Black male lived experience by creating and performing in a way that celebrates and utilizes the full range and scope of my gifts–unapologetically. I feel that I can positively affect Black boys’ perception of Black male lived experience by keeping my craft rooted in truth and vulnerability. I hope that my art helps our boys to understand that they get to live, not just survive. I hope that my art helps our boys to understand that they get to experience and display the full range of human emotion; they should be allowed to feel and express joy, sadness, pride, frustration, anger, happiness, and fear without fatal consequences. I hope that my art helps our boys to understand that they get to define themselves; they are five fifths of a person and their respect and compliance are to be earned like everyone else’s. I hope that my art helps our boys to understand that they can determine what has value and what is beautiful. I hope that my art helps our boys to understand that they are valuable and beautiful.


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