Facing Race Spotlight: Detroit Artist Collective Complex Movements

By Jamilah King Nov 12, 2014

After nearly two decades of rapping around the world, Detroit MC invincible ill weaver* had grown bored with the standard format of hip-hop shows where there’s a rapper who is backed by a DJ or a band and separated from the audience by the steel curtain of a stage. Other members of the Detroit-based artist collective invincible belongs to, Complex Movements, felt the same way. "We were really just sick and tired of the old ways we were doing things," invincible says of their* co-members, music producer/filmmaker Waajeed, technologist Carlos "L05" Garcia and visual artist Wesley Taylor. 

Out of that restlessness came "Beware of the Dandelions," Complex Movements’ traveling installation that fuses interactive hip-hop performance, visual arts and video projection mapping with community organizing. In each city "Beware of the Dandelions" visits, invincible ill weaver and their crew make connections with local activists and students. The premise, according to its web site, is that "change occurs through critical connections rather than critical mass." The work of Grace Lee Boggs is a major influence for the project.

Colorlines caught up with the Complex Movements as they were gearing up for a Nov. 14 event in Dallas at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Colorlines publisher Race Forward. Complex Movements members and "Beware of the Dandelions" producer Sage talked about connecting people, self-expression and art with a purpose. 

When did this idea come together?

Wesley Taylor: "Beware of the Dandelions" expresses this vision that we’ve had for the past two to four to six years, depending on who you’re talking to. It’s this vision of how to create artistic pieces that think about social building and imagine that with metaphors for how we get together to make change. We’re resilient within our communities. This is a big piece, so it takes many skill sets and a lot of resources and minds and different insights.

How does this work as an organizing model?

invincible ill weaver: We think of this work as an arts- and media-based organizing model. The way that we’re touring this piece in collaboration with our producer, Sage, is that we are working deeply to connect with and build relationships with local organizers, activists and community members in each city [we visit].

Talk about the work you’ve been doing in Dallas where you’ll have a month-long residency in February.

invincible ill weaver: We’ve attended several community gatherings organized by people in the Dallas community. Last Friday we attended a public hearing organized by Mothers Against Police Brutality to talk about police murders in Dallas. The stories we heard were incredibly powerful and people [were] speaking against state violence. [We’ve also] attended a youth social justice conference organized by members of the local community and we’ll be convening a group to learn more about their work and to share what we’re up to in Detroit.

How do you build relationships with other cities to host the performance?

Sage: I had been working been working at the intersection of arts and social justice for a while. I’d never run across a group of artists who were so clearly able to articulate a community organizing vision within their artistic discipline to support social justice movements locally with really amazing artistic work. It has also created an opportunity for other cities to connect with each other and raise the visibility of the people on the ground. So "Beware of the Dandelions" [as] an organizing platform both supports what happens locally but also, because it tours, it supports people making connections with each other across geography.

How did visual media become such an important aspect of this performance piece?

L05: My entrance into working with Complex Movements stems from the fact that I’m a little bit younger than everyone else, so I already kinda’ looked up to the folks I’m working with. I was doing a lot of music and visual and interactive work separately and in doing some of that in the Southeast Detroit area, we found that there was a lot of intersection with not only the content of the work, but also some philosophies regarding aesthetics and communities.

How is music still a central component of this project?

What brings me together with everybody is that me and ill are high school friends and business partners–we run our label, Emergence, together and put out music. "Beware of the Dandelions" has been a project to kind of break out of the standard way of making music and distributing music and performing.

How did Grace Lee Boggs help inspire you to do this?

invincible ill weaver: Some of us have been working together for a long time, and I think that this was a necessary evolution for our creative growth. It was also an opportunity to address some of the injustices in our community in a more visionary resistance form. Around 2006 or so, my mentor, Grace Lee Boggs, had given a speech about this idea that she was speaking frequently about, an idea that connected quantum physics and social movements. She was really thinking about how we get away from a form of movement that prioritizes singular strategies and masses of people. Instead, she wanted to move toward investing in small and deeply rooted localized strategies that were, in essence, subatomic particles connected through this web. That brought us toward a more holistic paradigm-shift versus these more incremental changes that often we feel like we’re stuck in in our social justice organizing work.

Going off of that concept, we all started looking into these different science metaphors and ways to be more radically imaginative to address the different challenges we’re facing in Detroit in particular. We also wanted to uplift the different ways that people are organizing. 

invincible, how has that challenged paid off for you as an artist?

invincible ill weaver: Through this project, I’m also personally able to express myself not just as a lyricist, but as an organizer. It doesn’t just become a separate part of who I am. Complex Movements allows for both the organizing and the lyricism play a role. There’s Sage with organizing the curriculum-building, we’ve got Wes and Carlos on the visual and digital components. And with Waajeed, we’re taking our years of performing to the next level by performing inside of this art installation that’s very different from anything we’ve done in the past.

Why is the piece interactive?

invincible ill weaver: We were really just sick and tired and bored of the old ways we were doing things. The format of hip-hop shows [is often] a DJ or a band and a rapper on a stage. We really wanted to break that separation between the audience and performer and make it something really immersive–something that reflected how creative we’re going to need to be in this new period to transform our communities and our lives.

*Post has been updated to reflect that invincible ill weaver uses lowercase letters for their name.
**Post has been updated to reflect that invincible ill weaver uses the pronoun "they," not "she."