The Soapbox Presents: Claiming Space for Black Joy

On July 3, 2021, all four corners of a busy Harlem intersection overflowed with funk. New York City buses slowed down to avoid concertgoers. Neighbors stood on the median to catch a glimpse of the musicians and stayed through a rainburst for sounds of Parliament and George Clinton. The show finished with a communal Electric Slide that lasted three full songs.

The Soapbox Presents’ “Stoop Sessions” is a series of outdoor musical concerts that originated on the stoops of Harlem’s classic brownstone buildings. The Soapbox Presents began as a local celebration of Harlem and has grown into an organization funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and featured in UN’s first International Day of People of African Descent. It was launched in the summer of 2020, during lockdown, when a devastating number of Black men were being killed by cops. “It was a leap,” says The Soapbox Presents founder Marija Abney, “but I felt an urgent call to do something.”

Initially, that call to action meant collaborating with her creative partner, Mike See, when he was commissioned to build a Black Lives Matter artwork for a local restaurant. Kids from Harlem helped to paint the base piece and added their descriptions of what being Black meant to them. Then Abney suggested expanding that collaborative momentum further into the community using performance arts. So they built a plywood “soapbox” platform, reached out to fellow artists, and planned the first The Soapbox Presents three-stop walking tour through Harlem.

“We had one P.A., one microphone, and the soapbox on skateboard trucks. We pushed it from Harlem down to Central Park. It was literally five of us, and our first performance was in Central Park for about five people,” says Abney. “We had a trumpet player, we had a singer, we had an actress who said a monologue from her own work, we had a tapper, and a ventriloquist.” From there, they marched north in Harlem to 125th Street, and then to a third spot on Lenox Avenue.

At one point during the Lenox Avenue performance, a loud group of bikers rode by; to Abney, they were a metaphor for taking up space and expressing resilience in a time when Black people are so often silenced. “Yes, we mourn. Yes, we protest. Yes, we vote. And yes, we celebrate our cultural contribution. What makes us unique and what makes us great needs to be celebrated. So The Soapbox Presents is really about making room for us to do that collectively.”

Each event is called an “activation,” because The Soapbox Presents prides itself on energizing atypical street spaces with community. Following the first iteration in Harlem, the next 2020 activation was in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. Each event by The Soapbox Presents features artists that are local to that New York City borough, and celebrates the culture of that area. In Brooklyn, the concert was presented on the new Black Lives Matter mural to highlight the artists involved and to honor the names of those taken. “Everybody came out,” Abney remembers. “People who would usually be kind of pushed off to the side and ignored as a ‘neighborhood character’ … all those things disappear. The things that usually keep us apart — age, capability, economics — we were just one community there supporting each other and being joyful and remembering. And remembering that you live in the first place – this was kind of at the height of Covid.”

The Soapbox Presents "Freedom Song"--Photo courtesy The Soapbox Presents

The Soapbox Presents “Freedom Song”–Photo courtesy The Soapbox Presents

The Bronx activation celebrated Afro-Latino culture during Hispanic Heritage Month. There were two local hosts to represent, one who was bilingual and one Black-American. Tats Cru, the legendary graffiti crew, spray painted a wall throughout the event. Bombazo Dance Company performed Puerto Rican bomba. One of the event leaders, Endia Owens, led the community in a moving call-and-response chant of “I Love Myself” that rang out through the neighborhood.

“Community” is one of the words The Soapbox Presents uses frequently, and the organization builds and strengthens many overlapping communities. A mantra of Soapbox activations and social media is “Community is not a place you go, it is something you do.” There is the community of artists to nourish for their works of generosity and imagination. There’s the Harlem community on the street, where neighbors set up with lawn chairs an hour before the concert. There is the wider NYC Black community. And although The Soapbox Presents speaks directly to and for Black and brown listeners, there is love left over for anyone to participate.

It was this very emphasis on the local community that attracted financial support. First NiLu, a Harlem boutique located near the Stoop Sessions corner, offered to sponsor the event. The local Sadowsky Guitars joined in (helping to repair instruments ruined in the July 3rd rainburst). Then a program manager from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who lives in Harlem and happened upon the Stoop Sessions, suggested The Soapbox Presents apply for a Humanities in Place grant. The program is dedicated to changing the landscape of the arts and funding organizations that don’t traditionally have access to resources.

The Soapbox Presents "Funk of July"--Photo courtesy The Soapbox Presents

The Soapbox Presents “Funk of July”–Photo courtesy The Soapbox Presents

Since its inception in 2020, The Soapbox Presents has featured and paid over seventy Black artists including musicians, photographers, dancers, and spoken word poets who are Broadway performers, Juilliard students, or emerging artists alike. And now, the Mellon funding is enabling The Soapbox Presents to expand its work into multiple formats. After presenting a live outdoor music season from May – September 2021, they will move to winter 2022 virtual programming in collaboration with the City University of New York, and produce a short film in spring 2022. But the challenge facing The Soapbox Presents is growing only as much as it can while retaining its values. The organization is determined to pay its artists as generously as possible, and any expansion to other urban centers would have to embody the same local leadership and street culture that has characterized their New York events.

There is nothing in American culture that Black people haven’t touched and transformed, and as the Harlem Stoop Sessions continued throughout the summer of 2021, “The Funk of July” insisted that American culture is also Black culture. The Soapbox Presents began on the streets during a devastating summer, but “being able to make something positive out of those emotions, and out of that space in that time, has been transformative in a lot of ways,” says Abney. “I hope that what The Soapbox Presents has done for me, it also does for the community.”


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