Best of MN 2020: Arts & Culture

Graffiti artist Peyton Scott Russell, rapper Nur-D, drummer JT Bates, musician/actor Dua Saleh, and more
Nur-D always brings the energy with his R&B and gospel-informed style
Nur-D always brings the energy with his R&B and gospel-informed style

Photo by Marrie Weigel of Maressence Photography

Musician: Nur-D

Up-and-coming hip-hop artist Nur-D always brings the energy with his R&B and gospel-informed style. His latest release, Trapped in My Room, is packed with lyrics reflecting on the current predicament, with humorous skits mixed in. An outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Nur-D also volunteered as a medic aiding protesters during the Minneapolis uprising.

JT Bates was no stranger to working with high-powered artists by the time he appeared on Taylor Swift's latest album
JT Bates was no stranger to working with high-powered artists by the time he appeared on Taylor Swift’s latest album


Pop Music Cameo: JT Bates

Minnesota-based drummer JT Bates is no stranger to working with high-powered artists. His latest drumming contribution, which he recorded remotely and in secret, arrived on three tracks from Taylor Swift’s rootsy 2020 album, Folklore. Before quarantine, Bates was drumming in person with Big Red Machine (a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and Bradley Cook) and played tour dates around the country for Bon Iver’s collaboration with local experimental dance company TU Dance.

Theater Mu went into overdrive this spring, producing weekly virtual events
Theater Mu went into overdrive this spring, producing weekly virtual events


Pandemic Programs: Theater Mu

When theaters closed this spring, Theater Mu went into overdrive, producing weekly virtual events for families, artists, and anyone who wanted to sip a cocktail and hear shop talk with Asian American artists from around the country—including George Takei. After hosting a virtual variety show and cabaret, as well, Theater Mu is being just as bold with its 2020-2021 season: It’s set to include a virtual TwentyPho Hour Playfest, three (hopefully) mainstage plays about revolution, and the annual New Eyes Festival.

L.A. Buckner
L.A. Buckner

Photo by Jayne Johnson

Album: BiG HOMiE

L.A. Buckner gained acclaim far beyond his hometown of Minneapolis when his album BiG HOMiE reached the top of the iTunes jazz chart this August. Buckner’s genius is in flawlessly melding genres, from jazz and gospel to hip-hop and funk. When the musician and producer isn’t shredding on the drums, he’s teaching at the MacPhail Center for Music and the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. Buckner also co-hosts the PBS show Sound Field, where music teachers explore the culture behind songs and different musical styles.

Cultural Community: Black Table Arts

Founded by poet Keno Evol, Black Table Arts has amplified the voices of Black artists and activists since 2015. This nonprofit’s portfolio includes the Live Yo Best Black Life podcast and the Because Black Life Conference, plus writing workshops, poetry readings, panel discussions, and open mic nights. What these diverse offerings have in common is radical intentionality in their centering of Black narratives.

"Icon of a Revolution" by Peyton Scott Russell
“Icon of a Revolution” by Peyton Scott Russell

Photo by Terra Sura Photography

Visual Artist: Peyton Scott Russell

North Minneapolis graffiti artist and educator Peyton Scott Russell has created some of the most moving public art pieces of 2020. Titled “Icon of a Revolution,” the giant black-and-white mural of George Floyd’s face at the corner of 38th and Chicago has become an enduring symbol of the movement that rose up this past summer. (Another near-identical one was installed at the City of Lakes Community Land Trust building in the Harrison neighborhood.) As the founder of Sprayfinger, Russell also teaches Twin Cities youth to express themselves with graffiti.

Ai Wei Wei's "Safe Passage," installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the exhibition "When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration"
Ai Wei Wei’s “Safe Passage,” installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration” in spring

Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Art Exhibit: Safe Passage

When the exhibit When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration first opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in February, it made headlines. As part of the exhibit, artist Ai Weiwei installed the poignant Safe Passage, featuring thousands of discarded lifejackets, worn by refugees traveling from Turkey to Greece, on the exterior columns of the museum. This was a sight to behold even while the doors to Mia remained locked due to the statewide shutdown. The exhibit, which also included an installation by Minneapolis-based collective CarryOn Homes, focused on the artistic interpretations of migration.

Music Video: Dua Saleh

Twin Cities artist Dua Saleh’s video for the track “body cast” doesn’t use jaw-dropping cinematic techniques or special effects. Still, it’s compelling. The song is about police brutality and injustice, and in the video, shot entirely vertically, shots of a burning Minneapolis are interwoven with Saleh walking alone on a train track. The performance—how obviously Saleh feels the lyrics inside—is what makes it so powerful. You can easily see more of Saleh’s dynamism: They play a nonbinary student on the third season of the Netflix series Sex Education.

Illustration by Lissette Lopez

Helping Hands: When the Arts Give Back

Despite the pandemic, North Minneapolis nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts leaned into its mission to help youth and artists tap into creative pursuits. Classes moved to virtual and outdoor settings, and protocols have kept its spaces safe as the city hit some tumultuous times.

There’s a lesser-known side to Penumbra Theatre. For more than 40 years, the nationally acclaimed St. Paul theater company has fanned the ’60s spark of the Black Arts Movement. But artistic director Sarah Bellamy, who took over from her father, founder Lou Bellamy, in 2017, recalls growing up backstage, watching “powerful artists not take very good care of themselves.” Racism caved in on them offstage, she says, and healthcare was never a given. So, within the next three years, the expanded Penumbra Center for Racial Healing will offer holistic health services—including massage, acupuncture, and meditation. Racial-equity programming will dovetail with new plays, too. Bellamy was in a meeting, talking plans for the center, when news broke of George Floyd’s killing. Her goal: “to detoxify bodies from the stresses of living in a racially stratified society.”

We’re in a world of lost gigs. With music-industry folks struggling to get by, the First Avenue nightclub’s nonprofit, the Twin Cities Music Community Trust, has set up information resources and dispersed hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency funds to out-of-work entertainment professionals.

While its venues sat dark, Hennepin Theatre Trust launched a billboard campaign called “Art Connects Us” featuring the work of a diverse collection of local artists. Topics ranged from social justice to COVID-19 and reflected a vibrant array of styles, like artist Ta-coumba T. Aiken’s psychedelically emphatic “You Are Not Alone!!!” billboard—a rainbow-bright memory jog during any ghostly downtown drive.

Through June, Mixed Blood Theatre commissioned local musicians, actors, and performance artists to create activist responses to George Floyd’s killing.