Sun Ra, a pianist, composer, poet, and mystic - one of the great visionary musical figures of the 20th century- was asked 50 years ago in Helsinki if he had any intended messages/advice in his music. He, in this interview, said: “Yes, there is a message in all of my music. It’s all about people doing something else than what they have done. Because what they have done is possible, and the world the way it is today is the results of the possible that they did. It’s a result of the absolute day. So now, there is something else. There is always something else in a universe as big as this.”
At the risk of disappointing the reader, let me start with saying I do not wish to join the chorus of people who are dedicated to exploring Sun Ra’s ideas. He is an authentic lighthouse whose influence on culture has only been growing over time. My humble intention here is to try to imagine what Sun Ra might have thought about us today. I would like to find my inspiration in the lines quoted from this great visionist, an architect of what is now referred to as Afrofuturism. With that inspiration in mind, I think about the world today; and I think about what he was talking about all those years ago, when he said, “there is always something else in a universe as big as this.” It’s obviously still relevant.
Ra’s aphorisms and poetry - according to him “equations” - still help explain the current world for some of us. We’re living in extremely harsh conditions of a pandemic, after all. Let’s suppose we have finally put the biological, economic, sociological, and mental impact of the virus behind us. When that happens, we will recall experiencing fear and grief, but also experiencing kindness and generosity.
What about the problem of inequality in the arts and culture sector that has come to light as we witnessed the precarious work conditions of many within? Yet, there is no revolution in sight. Since this intervention occupies the digital space of Jazz Finland, I want to open up a space for consideration where we approach the topic from a jazz perspective.
World-renowned pianist and composer Herbie Hancock defines jazz music as a movement in which people of all ages, nations, backgrounds, identities, and ethnicities can agree that our similarities are stronger than our differences. If we are going to be true to ourselves and to the spirit of jazz, then we must dare to have a reflective discussion on inclusion. There, also, appears to be a contradiction between the values of jazz and the current practices. When Black Lives Matter protests gathered people around the world, valuable discussions were held about the realities of the jazz industry rarely offering generosity or justice to Black people. Plus, the lack of solid women signature in jazz can perhaps be listed as a problem that persists across Europe. I believe that it is time to make an organized, dynamic effort at fundamentally reshaping the existing structure and rebuilding the future by taking actions today.
The timing is crucial not only because of the weight of the issues but also because the music industry has been among the most heavily impacted by Covid-19, and it may as well be the slowest to recover. Many musicians have had to develop agile skill sets. Professional organizations have been very vocal about arts being critical in our local economy and it being a multifaceted component of long-term post-pandemic recovery.
Inevitably, the already hard-hit, arts and culture sector is also facing a significant brain drain. Many musicians, artists, producers, technicians, and cultural workers are forced to leave the field. How long can one wait for a job or gig that may never happen? The Finnish art scene is not immune to this unfortunate creative brain drain. What has been missing from the public discussions regarding the creative sector's post-pandemic normal, is the more in-depth debate around the lack of equity and inclusion in the Finnish art scene. I had expected more empathy and compassion driven discourse; since so many within the sector have now been marginalised by the same institutional thinking and structure regardless of their background and artistic practice, surely, they would better understand how it feels to be a marginalised artist or cultural worker.
Plus, we all have been disappointed by statements of the political domain; they were mostly empty words about the importance of arts and culture without any substantial action to back these statements. There is another harsh reality; since the sector has felt neglected due to the lack of efficiency within the available financial aid structures, the arts and culture scene has turned its back on discussions of inclusivity. While the pandemic has provided clear visibility of the vulnerabilities faced by arts professionals, wouldn’t it be only natural to also dismantle the conditions of the ‘mainstream’ arts scene? An art scene that is operating without proper representation of people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and skills. Precisely, now, while we are all feeling like cast-outs without the equitable means to go on.
Perhaps we don't all agree that the current structure is malfunctioning. Or do we just lack the language for an open dialogue on diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice? Do we find the topic impossible to contemplate and profoundly uncomfortable? If jazz has been initially a means of asserting relevance to the marginalized, underprivileged, underrepresented, and providing freedom to the oppressed; isn't it ironic that jazz in Finland is created, performed, distributed, and presented by mainly native gatekeepers?
As a foreign-born art professional with 5 years of intensive experience in the Finnish art scene, witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing the effects of the cult-like networks that manifest themselves in the insistence of “business as usual”, I have allowed myself to see the local art scene from a critical perspective. I believe that after we have made the decision to examine the uncomfortable question of who is excluded by ‘being critical’ - the only way I know being -, we will need to investigate the power dynamics and identify the existing structures of the Finnish art scene, jazz field and the related social relationships. Supposing that our lives’ work as art-makers aims for creating more value than just professional value; when we look closely, what we see will be our reflections staring back at us.
Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid of discussing the politics of music. Music has long played an essential role in the political fabric of societies. Why connect arts and culture to diversity, equity, and inclusion? Why care about social justice? Do we have equal opportunities for growth, development and making the best out of our professional capacities? Who chooses the next artistic director or chief executive of a festival? While addressing complex problems of inclusion and equity, are we critically examining our own privileges? Do we genuinely engage with others and listen to them; do we make the effort to understand the social, political, and historical construction of identity and the differences in regard to sex, gender, race, class, age, and ability?
Naturally, regardless of our answers to the abovementioned inquiries, the complex question of how to remain loyal to the genesis of jazz is the right one to pose in the current context; and I, too, alongside many others, believe that it has only one answer: We must promote radical inclusion in order to redefine the Finnish music scene and base it on mutual respect, solidarity and encouragement where all are welcome to belong and contribute.
Only then we can challenge some long-held norms and old-school practices to truly diversify the field; as Sun Ra wisely phrased and I repeat once again, “there is always something else in a universe as big as this”. We need to be critical; we need to keep asking questions.
Ceyda Berk-Söderblom, based in Helsinki, is an independent cultural entrepreneur, manager, curator, and festival programmer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of MiklagårdArts, a facilitator and connector for promoting transnational collaborations between Finland and the dynamic art scenes worldwide. With more than 20 years of experience in the field of arts, she has previously served as the festival coordinator and main programmer at the International Izmir Festival (a board member of European Festivals Association), as well as programmer at the Izmir European Jazz Festival (a member of European Jazz Network) for 14 years before settling in Helsinki. Her non-profit work (Globe Art Point 2017- 2021) has centred on public advocacy focusing on policies, practices, norms, and institutions. In 2020, she worked as a member of a working group on cultural policy, immigration and cultural diversity appointed by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture to prepare policy guidelines: Art, Culture and Diverse Finland Report. Ceyda holds a "Bene Merito" honorary distinction from the Ministry of International Affairs of the Republic of Poland in recognition of her merits in promoting the Polish artistic scene abroad.
 Helsinki 1971 - The Complete Concert and Interview by Transparency. A complete 2 1/2-hour concert + a short interview with Sun Ra. The concert and interview from YLE - The Finnish Broadcasting Company. https://www.soundohm.com/product/helsinki-1971-the-complet
 Reflections on 10 Years of International Jazz Day by Herbie Hancock on 30 April 2021 https://www.un.org/en/un-chronicle/reflections-10-years-international-jazz-day
 Five Black Jazz World Figures Detail How Racism Impacts the Industry by Alexa Peters on 3 July 2020