Title: Learning to Be Auntie’s Baby
Draft May 20, 2022
Artists Simone John (Poetry Fellow ’20) (aka Simone Ivory) and Flowerthief (one half of the music duo Optic Bloom) collaborated to create the audio poetry project, Auntie’s Baby.
Auntie’s Baby draws on the artists’ multidisciplinary background, using family phone calls, poetry, music, and sound to “open a portal into Black storytelling.”
Recently, Simone and Flowerthief spoke to Kamaria Weemz, a fellow artist in the UnBound Bodies Collective, about the project’s origins, meanings, and impacts. The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity.
Kamaria: Tell me about the origin story of auntie’s baby.
Simone Ivory: There’s a sort of logistical origin story and a spiritual origin story. And actually, those are not even two discrete things. But I’m working on a poetry manuscript as part of an archival storytelling project that I’m dancing with, learning from. And as part of that work, I’ve been having phone calls with different family members, recording those phone calls, knowing that I was just interested in not only the poems, but generating creative work around the poems and through the poems and broadening how I think about poems.
Encountering [Flowerthief’s] work, seeing what you were up to, what you were working on in the studio, your practice of playing and sort of drafting things was really inspiring to me and stimulating. And also some of the music that you were listening to was really inspiring and just making different sound types, and synapses connect. And I knew that if I were to get you and me in this audio together, it was going to be lit.
I was like: whatever comes out of that, I’m going to enjoy, regardless of what happens, it’s going to be meaningful and it’s going to be of this larger project. And that’s definitely the case. What about you?
Flowerthief: Yeah, well, auntie’s baby started way, way back when aunties started to be. And I feel for me, the way this project has developed is that I was able to come into contact with [Simone’s] altar practices and your creative practice. And I was able to observe Simone opening these portals and channels for Black auntie archetypes from so many different places. And some of them were archetypes that I knew well from those stories, like Anyanwu right? Others I was less familiar with, like Aunt Esther, and oftentimes you’d get up in the morning, you’d start doing your altar practice and I’d just be like, whoa, there’s a spirit here. And I had a really different relationship, I think to my family and to auntie-dom if that makes sense.
I felt like I was learning how to be an auntie’s baby. I was learning what that means through your invitation into space. And so I was just sitting there and I had my own kind of creative stuff that started coming up just from interacting with Simone’s project, little musical snippets, and scenes that I would see in my head.
And then Simone was like: what if all of us and the aunties got into one space and-aunties, my dad, my mom, the instruments, let’s go to a place–
Simone Ivory: And we went to a place!
Flowerthief: We went to a place.
Kamaria: Tell me about that place.
Flowerthief: Or places.
Simone Ivory: Yeah, legit. When I listened to auntie’s baby [before starting this interview], I heard some of the spaciousness that was present in the creative process.
And part of that spaciousness was made possible by the place that we were in when we were making it– being really connected to nature, being by a lake in Maine, in the woods basically, with nobody knowing where to find us and having this be the whole point, that is place.
I also think about Boston and my relationship to this place, this city, which I’m always working through in my creative practice and interrogating through this project, specifically. And that gets invoked when my family members [in the project] reference different addresses. When I think about the average conversation with my parents or anybody in my family, there’s always going to be a moment where we’re locating the story. Oh, do you know the gas station off of such and such? Or like, remember the old house by so and so? And so that’s definitely a way place shows up as well. Thinking about Franklin Park, Dale Park, you know, Washington Street, all of these locales.
Beneath and beyond that, I can’t think about place and the work that I do without acknowledging the fact that I’m working on unseeded stolen Massachusett land. And that’s something that I’m always thinking about. You know what I mean? When we talk about outside, there are communities and individuals who embody ways of thinking about and being in relationship to the world that have made what we do possible. [These beliefs] also interacted with other kinds of Black and Indigenous ways of being to create this beautiful hybridity and again, dynamism.
Flowerthief: You know when family members tell you a story about you when you’re really little and you form your own memory of that story, even though you don’t actually remember it?
Flowerthief: I feel I visited places that way in this project. I haven’t necessarily been to all of those places that Simone’s family talked about. And even if I have been to those places, it’s not the same place, cause I wasn’t in Boston during the times that they’re talking about right? Sometimes maybe I wasn’t even alive (yet), but there’s a way that I’m able to visit that particular place in that particular moment in time through memory. So I feel a place that we go is actually memory.
There is a way that the project allows for being in many spaces at once, in a similar way to how being on the phone allows you to be in multiple places at once. You’re on the phone and you can hear someone doing the dishes in the background, right?
Part of you is located where that other person is located, as well as wherever you’re physically situated. And I think that that ability to be multi planted feels really Black and really queer –a queer time, and it feels like something that’s been essential to not even just survival, but the joy of what it means to be a people with imagination and with connection to Spirit, to place and all of those things existing across time and the way that it layers your experience.
Simone Ivory: When I think about the house phone specifically, a house phone is in the house. If I’m picking up this phone, I’m in the house. I’m in a specific environment.
I appreciate that element of place as well. It’s clear and specific, but it also allows for lots of other experiences of place.
Kamaria: Yeah. And you’re giving us a lot of timescaping in here too. I feel the house phone gives me a very specific time, vibe, and generation. I’m going to ask y’all both something a bit more personal now.
I understand the origins [and] I think this project is such a generous offering, right? Generous in such a tight window of time.
All the space you allowed for, like you said, the altar-building practices, the invitation of the aunties to be with you. And we know they all have their own paces. They all reveal what they want to reveal when they want to reveal it. They have an autonomy that I’m so compelled by.
Simone Ivory: Yes.
Kamaria: Flowerthief, you talked about seeing audio, visuals, and opening yourself up to receiving the visions. And taking up space in this spot in Maine and letting instruments be there, letting all your people join you, letting the sounds like the birds come into the project, letting the environments coming in.
I just want to know how this changed you? How did it move you?
Flowerthief: How am I now, post auntie’s baby? When we were in moments of channeling, there was a type of ease that isn’t there when I collapsed into a narrow part of my experience. And in a process sense, my approach to making music changed and was solidified for me. I recognized that when I’m making music, I’m trying to actually translate a vision or a dream that I’ve had.
Simone Ivory: You know, we were talking before we pressed record about how listening to auntie’s baby can have a soft softening effect. And I definitely feel that it can be a shortcut to softness.
It can be a way to hack my way to a feeling of belonging, a sense of belonging to somebody and being somebody’s baby. And also a sense of myself. Hearing “Do the things you want to do, you know what I’m saying?” Or “knowing yourself as a beautiful thing,” just putting that back into my mental space in the middle of a day, feels like an intervention. It feels like a reprogramming intervention and that’s been really powerful.
Kamaria: We often are on the edge and we don’t know what’s on the other side, but we feel that gravity towards it, you know? Who was at the end that was telling us, we all have curses that we need to break?
Simone Ivory: My mom actually, PJ. Shout out PJ.
Kamaria: Thank you for that blessing and reminder. I was just [keeping the album] on repeat. Just keep it on the loop because I just need to be in an echo chamber of something that is not capitalism, is not white supremacy, that is not the abuse of the planet, not this sensory takeover. I’m just wondering, what does auntie’s baby long for in the world?
Flowerthief: There’s a way that the spell of aunties baby, just, I listened to it and I hear family. And even if it’s not my family, it’s my spirit family and that is just a really powerful and special thing. And I think that there are people, especially Black queer and trans people who can’t necessarily access these conversations with the bio aunties in their lives, with their bio parents. And that can be really hard and it can kind of drive that stake of unbelonging right into your heart.
And I think that part of the amazing, grounding thing for me is that these are real phone calls that people are making to a Black queer person. The person on the other side of the line, those are phone calls that Black people had to their Black niece, their Black queer niece/ daughter, who is out to them.
And to have access to those conversations, to be able to put myself into the space of being on the other end of that line, even if it’s not necessarily from my own bio family, has felt really healing. Simone’s dad talking about being way up in the trees– all of the bird sounds, the wind, the vision of the pine trees – that has been my family. That has been my belonging.
Simone Ivory: Not to be a word nerd, but I even zoom out to the title of auntie’s baby. It’s possessive on purpose.
There’s a way that colloquially, we say “auntie baby,” the “s” isn’t even always there when we say it, but for posterity and for clarity and for that message to come through crystal clear– it’s a possessive. You belong to somebody. You are claimed by somebody. And that is again to your point, Terrin, what you were saying [is] there are ways that sometimes that’s an embodied entity and there are ways that sometimes it’s the trees, you know?
The parallel track is also connection, longing to be connected to people, to pick up the phone. There is a way that this project is aspirational. Yes, these are real phone calls, but it’s not the entire picture. There’s a way that it’s curated into a type of myth that is specific and accessible.
And again, to have the product be one in which belonging is the sort of resonating vibe and connectivity. Connectivity and belonging are definitely the through lines.
Kamaria: Yeah. Thank you. For here and now, if you want to shout out any lineages that went into this, I welcome that.
Simone Ivory: My family’s definitely all up and through that. All of the people that spoke, whose voices we heard, the people who were referenced in terms of people living on old streets and having moved to new streets. That is certainly part of the lineage of this work. There’s also a creative lineage of this work.
My aunties, Terrin referenced some of these at the top. Aunt Esther from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, that’s my auntie. Minnie Ransom from Salt Eaters, that’s my auntie. Anyanwu from the Patternmaster series, that’s my auntie. They’re definitely part of the lineage. I think about musicians also and just, wow.
Melo-zed is an artist whose work is just crucial, you know, to getting our juices flowing about what our work could sound like and just being inspired. I get inspired by people behind the scenes making film scores. And I feel like there are a lot of Black weirdos out there making really cool music that defies categorization. And I’m grateful for that.
Flowerthief: My uncle was a gay man during the AIDS crisis in Philly. He died when I was in high school before I got to come out to him but I just, I have this little pin Simone got me for our anniversary sitting on an altar in front of me. It’s like an AIDS Walk Boston pin, from 1997.
Flowerthief: And so just shout out queer ancestors that were taken from us. There’s a way that, there’s a generation of queer people, literally just above us who were taken too soon. And I want to shout them out and say that they’re here. Oh, Arthur Russell.
Simone Ivory: Oh, absolutely.
Arthur Russell, shout out Arthur Russell. I appreciate you bringing your uncle into the conversation. And it makes me think too about, I don’t know how I possibly had this conversation without mentioning my Auntie Jay, but literally the seed of the entire archival storytelling project that I’m working on is about my godmother, who I learned was queer after she had already passed.
And so really similarly, I feel like she is all up and through this project and is coming through this work, for sure.
Flowerthief: Yeah. We’re continuing to have conversations with my uncle, but also he was a drag queen so like my auntie, you know?
Simone Ivory: There you go. There you go.
Flowerthief: We’re continuing to have those conversations with them that we didn’t necessarily get to have.
Simone Ivory: All right. Can I read a quick poem to close this out? It’ll be quiet.
Simone Ivory: The title refers to a song that I have to name drop, Garvey’s Ghost by Max Roach. It’s incredible. And it’s also part of the lineage of this work.
Portal Playlist (Garvey’s Ghost)
Loud haunted jazz comes scratching through the kitchen radio
You are hip high, small hands tugging apron ties, weaving
through a forest of legs, pairs of tree trunks
Trying not to step on auntie’s rose-colored house shoes
Can’t track how the song moves. No hook, words to hold onto
All ahhhhs cymbals crashing
Woven with grown folk’s talk overhead
All girrrrllll and pot lids clanging
This feeling finds you again inside Garvey’s Ghost
A summoning song, signaling the dead
8-minute ritual portal transportation performed daily
Body spinning reaching for symbols beyond the clanging
Tryna follow conversations between cowbell and bongo
Swinging the hips aunts bequeathed you
Offer them high hats and low moans
Trumpets tug the tether between y’all
Call you like a voice floating down the hall, asking
Is that auntie’s baby? Honey come
to the center of the room, show everyone
your dance. The one that starts like this —
Simone Ivory: Thanks y’all.
Flowerthief: I’m literally standing in the room of that poem.
Kamaria: This room is a very pleasurable place to be in.
Simone Ivory: Come on back. Anytime. It’s my personal meeting room, you know what I mean. It’s pretty exclusive, only the blacks. Only the gays.
Experience the project, read artists’ bios, and listen to audio excerpts from the conversation shared above, on auntiesbabyaudio.com.