Arts, Connect, Culture, Enjoy
CATALYST Previews TEDxSaltLakeCity 2020: (Un)Conventional Wisdom
2020 has been an exceptionally unconventional year, so it makes sense for TEDxSLC to focus on “unconventional wisdom” for this year’s theme.
TEDxSLC 2020, happening on September 19th, will feature “ideas worth spreading” from speakers and performers who will share how unconventional thinking, leading and organizing drives change that encourages diversity, promotes understanding and disrupts outdated social norms.
On September 19th, audience will live stream into Kingsbury Hall and witness an array of passionate, diverse and creative local voices. Below, CATALYST called up three of the upcoming speakers for a quick preview into the conversations to come.
Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo
TEDxSLC Uncommon Thinking Performer and Presenter
Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo is a Dominican-born, Salt Lake City local actress, performer and musical artist. She moved to Salt Lake City at the age of 17 before touring the country and moving to Mexico City to debut on Broadway. Since returning to Utah in 2017, she has performed with the Utah Symphony and different local bands including her own jazz fusion band, The Mix. Jazzy is currently finishing a bilingual solo EP, set to release later this year.
In preview of her upcoming presentation at the September 19 TedxSLC, Jazzy spoke with me in excitement and pride about being selected as a Latina of color to express her unique idea, share her story and perform her music in Kingsbury Hall. During her upcoming presentation, she’ll talk about the value of silence as a transformative power for her as a musician and artist. In our talk below, Jazzy discusses the music scene in Salt Lake City, the importance of being vulnerable, and how racial injustices remind us of how getting real with one another about our experiences is necessary as a form of self and community healing.
The theme for TEDxSLC 2020 is “(un)conventional wisdom.” Let’s start out with this: What is unconventional about the wisdom you will bring to the Kingsbury Hall stage in a few weeks?
I don’t feel like I’m unconventional. The other day we speakers were divided into different blocks and I was able to see what my block refers to—uncommon thinking—and it spoke more to me. I’m speaking about how silence brought rhythm to my life. I’ve been a singer my entire life—since I was three years old—and [this journey] brought me to find a special moment in silence, you know, and to find my rhythm from that silence. That will be an unconventional storye. I’m speaking on how important and necessary the silence is for me and my craft.
Would you describe yourself as fundamentally a jazz singer? Which genres most inspire you?
I started my career as a vocalist interpreter and then I got the opportunity to be with Broadway. I moved to Mexico City to work for Broadway Mexico and I did Hairspray, Chicago, Aladdin. And I did commercial TV and stuff like that. But it got to a point where I needed to find my own rhythm and my own voice and my own style.
If you ask me, I’m probably not going to identify myself as a jazz singer, but jazz is a big part of my life. It’s part of my Latin roots. In the root of the music is this Afrobeat that I’ve always been fascinated by. Sarah Vaughan is one of my favorite singers, so is Etta James. Jazz has always been part of my life, but I can say I’m a “jazzy” singer more than a jazz singer.
You’re originally from the Dominican Republic, you’ve also lived and toured in Mexico, been on a TV show. What brought you back to Utah?
I moved to Utah when I was 17 then at 21, I moved to Mexico City because of this awesome opportunity. But home… because I’ve been in Utah for so long, Utah is home. While I was reaching success, doing amazing things, working for Broadway and portraying all of their personalities, I needed to come back to a neutral ground to be able to create. At the moment I didn’t know what I wanted to create or what I wanted to do, but I definitely wanted to create something on my own. So, coming back home was exactly what I needed.
As a creator you take your steps, but you don’t know for sure where they’re going to take you. Now that I look back, I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, this was the perfect thing. This is what I actually needed.’ That’s how the Jazzy Olivo project came to life. At the beginning, of course I wasn’t sure. It was something inside of me that was looking for a change to take back to my center, but I didn’t know that in searching for my center this would actually help give me back my individuality as an artist. I came back home and I started writing music and I was able to be vocal and vulnerable about my own experiences and putting them into melodies and words to create my album.
Your songs, your lyrics are often very directly related to your life experiences. What themes might come up in your upcoming album?
I will call my first album a little version of my autobiography. It’s on things that definitely hit my life or made me vulnerable and that I wasn’t able to think about before. I have a lot of relationship-breakish situations. Relationships that took a toll on me and turned everything upside down. But I also go back to my roots. I’m Dominican so I’m mixed with ancestors, you know, I don’t have a pure straight ethnicity. And that’s something that has bothered me for a long time thinking about colonization and stuff like that. I do make sure I give them, my ancestors, my voice to express what they went through now. So, I do touch bases with my ethnicity and finding strength from it. I’ve put my heart and soul into this music and, yes, it is an autobiography in a way.
When a lot of people hear “Afro-fusion” or “Latin Jazz,” they might not think Salt Lake City. But you seem to have found success developing a supportive local fanbase. What is the scene like here in the city and what do you think you, a Dominican woman, Spanish-speaking, singer-songwriter, most contribute to that scene?
First of all, I think Utah is a state full of talented humans. The talent you find in this town is amazing. I do understand that in terms of the music scene the city is becoming more dynamic. We still have a long way to go but at the same time, when I came here 20 years ago, it was not like this. I’m very proud of that. Utah is so diverse. Look at me, a Dominican woman doing Spanglish music in Salt Lake City. We are right here, we’re showing music and we’re producing music and we’re producing amazing, amazing art for the city.
But there are insecurities about being different. This fear and the insecurities are always there and always going to be roaming around your head, but if you do things even with fear and you just present your music and let yourself fill with pride, you can transfer that feeling to other people. I think that’s what we need to be doing. This city has turned very diverse and very full of music and I can’t wait for what is to come for Utah because it’s like a lot is just coming to the surface and you’re encountering so many amazing artists and musicians. If I could say anything to anyone, it’s just don’t be afraid and show your art in people’s faces. Don’t worry. Just keep on doing it.
I want to acknowledge recent events, specifically the police brutality and killings of Black people and people of color throughout this country, and also how it has brought light to these issues locally, and how it might affect you, as a woman of color here in a predominantly white region. I wonder how recent times have changed the pressures of your platform.
It is a hard question because it is my life, you know, and it’s my everyday life since the moment I was exposed socially. Not even just here in America, but in my country, colorism is something real that we struggle with. In my country it is connected with economic issues and becomes very complicated. Then, coming to America as an immigrant of color… I can say that it’s something that is so ingrained within us, this struggle we are born into. It becomes a struggle when we leave our houses every single day. And there is always a pressure of how we need to adapt. I think people of color in this world, we’re always working on the max, you know, we can never really rest. We always have to do double the work because our skin color is the first thing that people see. It is something that I can’t hide, and I wouldn’t want to hide anyway, you know. I was born this way.
Here’s an example in my experience: I moved to Mexico City to work for Broadway to do Hair Spray. I was Motormouth Mabel, this African American woman back in the 60s who was the entertainment leader of the African American music TV show. And it’s a really big story—Black people only had 30 minutes a month to show their music on TV. Now, there I am in Mexico putting makeup on my skin to become a lot darker because I wasn’t dark enough. We had all these lighter skinned people painting their skin so they can be dancing or be part of the Black group of the show. You think about it and you’re like, ‘Okay, [the light skinned performers] needed a job,’ but then you think about it more and realize that there are all these darker skinned people that have the talent to do the job very well, but because of their skin they couldn’t get in a show that is for Black people. So, it is mind blowing, you know. In this case they’d rather paint people than actually hire the correct people.
This is something we go through, not only on the entertainment. It happens everywhere. So, we must educate ourselves. We need to start conversations, to understand other people’s points of views. We need to be vulnerable. I think it’s about being vocal and it’s something that has been happening in the last month—it’s been happening forever, but through social media and through what’s going on now it’s a lot easier to get a hold of what is going on. We need to look each other in the eyes and then we will see that we are all damaged and if we’re all damaged then the only way we can fix this is actually to be united. It sounds so romantic, but it is something that probably we’re not going to be able to do tomorrow or within a year. But if we start collecting and sharing this emotion, I think we can start making changes.
As a musician, it is important to me to not only educate people on what’s happening, but also entertain people. To bring light and bring truth and bring love with my gift.
TEDxSLC Unconventional Action Speaker
JeanneLauree (French, pronounced Jeen) is a non-denominational chaplain at Symbii Home Health & Hospice. She has spent the last 15 years serving patients and families faced with terminal diagnoses as they navigate their end of life situations. “I am a mid-wife for souls,” she says of her work.
In preview for her TEDxSLC talk this month, we spoke recently about why our society must re-imagine its conventional attitude towards death, and how personal emotional and spiritual care creates not only a rich and joyous end of life, but life itself.
You’re here in the TEDx lineup to talk about death. That might not be something everyone is comfortable hearing about, especially now. Why do we need to hear from a hospice chaplain right now?
Well, first of all, yes, I’m a hospice chaplain. I support the medical team and the entire hospice medical team is designed to allow patients and their families to have the lovely experience of letting a loved one pass away at home. There’s this: Asking people if they’d rather die at home or in the hospital, 80% have replied, “I would like to die at home.” But the sad reality is only 20% actually do manage their lives so that they are able to die at home.
In these times… there is something happening to us now that I see occurring in a variety of ways. For example: A family member’s mother and father were living in a care facility until, six weeks ago, her father tested positive for Covid. He was actually kicked out of the facility, leaving his wife, who had Alzheimer’s, behind without him as her primary caretaker.
My family member moved heaven and earth to move her mother out too, so that both of them could live outside of the facility and still see each other. Living in her home, they had hospice taking care of both of them. And just yesterday, I got a phone call that the father had passed away at seven o’clock yesterday morning. They were so pleased that he had been able to get the care that he needed away from the facility where no one would have been able to visit him, with the family in the home, and his wife there with him, almost near her end, too. The mother passed away next day.
This story is what I call the perfect hospice. A happy ending. A husband and wife who had been married over 50 years. She had Alzheimer’s for maybe a decade, and he had been valiantly by her side. They kicked him out of the facility, and he was separated from her, but then we got both of them in the same place getting the care that they needed and when the time was right, they stepped over hand in hand.
It does sound like a happy ending, but it’s interesting to use that language. We generally don’t consider death a happy ending by any means.
That’s so true. Western cultures, modern Western cultures do not. In Buddhism, death is talked about all the time and it’s a way to give life and breathe awareness into every moment so that we live our lives right now more intentionally and richly and beautifully. The more we talk about death and dying with fear and anguish, the less we’re able to enjoy our lives. One patient, when she was terminal, was asked by a neighbor, “How does it feel to wake up every morning knowing that you’re dying?” She’s going, “How does it feel to you to wake up every morning pretending you’re not?” It’s happening to all of us and a remarkable death is one of the most practical and rational decisions that we will make in our lifetimes.
A significant part of your role is to help people find some sense of spiritual healing or spiritual closure. Why is that so important during the end of life?
Modern medicine has made it possible for us to have the technology so that a hospice team can manage the medical needs. Pain is almost never an issue during the end-of-life treatment because we have that ability to manage pain. Comfort care is very sophisticated. What’s not addressed is how important the emotional and spiritual aspects of this process are. When I began looking for the positive parts of death and dying, I saw the similarities between birth and death. It was only a generation ago that mothers were sedated, and doctors were in charge of the birthing process, fathers were left out in a waiting room and family was excluded. My daughters had their babies in these beautiful birthing suites with family in attendance. Now we have birthing plans that can be as elegant and sophisticated as a Sweet 16 party. So, wouldn’t it make sense that if we see the similarities between coming into this life and leaving this life, we could apply some of the same techniques? Even when a young mother makes a beautiful birth plan, it might not go exactly as she’s planned. But her well-being is enhanced because she’s planned, and the ritual is still delightful. The same is true for leaving this Earth. If we plan, even those times that are the most surprising can become enhanced with a consciousness that allows us to leave a story behind that is inspiring that filled with joy. An ending that is designed with a way of resolving regret, restoring relationships, repairing broken hearts.
What advice do you have for those of us who may have a bit more time to get our own spiritual affairs in order?
So, the questions that I begin to ask are often very much the same. I’ll start by asking, “What are your regrets?”
“If you found out tomorrow that you had a year to live, how would you spend that year?” It allows us to, again, reconnect with the people that we may have distanced ourselves from and allows them to repent—if that’s the word that we use in our own journey—or to repair so that we are able to leave without regret.
What is the reward for you? What do you get out of this work personally?
For almost 20 years I was a corporate trainer and I traveled all over the world. I rode elephants in Thailand, did scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, shopped for pearls in Hong Kong, and then, 9/11 happened and my perspective shifted. I shifted from a focus on the geography of the world to the geography of the soul, and it became so much more meaningful in my life to sit next to the bedside of one. I found that the satisfaction of that intimate personal conversation is such a privilege. That it was no sacrifice at all for me to leave the other stuff behind in order to hold hands with my patient, hold hands with my God, and bring those two hands together and become the bridge to that connection. Then, recognizing what sacred ground that is just the same way Wordsworth describe babies come into the world “not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory.”
TEDxSLC Uncommon Thinking Presenter
Cornelius Valenta is a local rapper and recording artist whose first exposures to music came in early life as tunes played from the dashboard of his mother’s van. This van often served as his family’s only home. The adversity Cornelius faced growing up was a birthmark that has stuck with him throughout his journey. He’ll join TEDxSLC to tell his story and how he built for himself a new direction as C. Valenta, “creating a mouthpiece for silenced adversities.”
Valenta couldn’t give away too much before his TEDx debut, but I spoke with him over the phone as he took a drive around his community, explaining just why this moment means so much.
I want to start out by pointing to a caption on Instagram you posted a few days ago. You said, “If you could see my smile you would’ve sworn I won a Grammy.” Can you elaborate on why this moment, this opportunity to present on the Kingsbury Hall stage might provoke some real pride?
Basically, I finally have an opportunity to explain the effects of a deadly birthmark. This birthmark affects not only me but a small population in America. While our experiences may differ, we still share the same pain, depression and anxiety. I’m proud to be given this platform to explain the importance and show the urgency of this birthmark. That’s why I compared this to a Grammy. Because just having the platform is so huge, it’s just so much more powerful.
I’ve seen you describe yourself using three identities: A recording artist, a father, and a son. How have each of these identities come together to shape who you are and how you see yourself?
I agree that these are a big part of my identity. I see myself as a Black man before anything. A Black recording artist, Black father and a Black son. So, I would say being Black and being a Black man has developed me more than anything else ever could. Those descriptors shaped me.
There’s not a lot of Black individuals out here [in Salt Lake City]. And my mother’s white, so sometimes she won’t even feel or understand the pain that I’ve felt or experienced or seen. Having a white mom, you know, in a white populated state while being a Black man… it definitely affected me.
You’ve been active in SLC protests and community engagement, from protests to taking the stage at the Juneteenth celebration and reciting some really powerful poetry. I want to acknowledge the police brutality and killings of Black people and people of color throughout this country and here in SLC locally, and how it might affect you, as a Black man, as a father. Despite the pain and frustration, what has kept you going, marching, writing, recording?
It’s very painful to see this across America. You kind of see how the whole world reacts to it. You know, I’ve spent time crying when I don’t even know why I’m crying because I’ve never met the human that passed. It’s just the fact that his passing or her passing wasn’t just, which causes the pain. Knowing it was because the color of their skin.
You’ve said your voice is your most powerful weapon.
I feel that my voice became powerful with the passing of George Floyd. The exhaustion had finally driven me to use my voice for more than just music. I realized the power of my voice when I had hundreds of individuals listening to my every breath, following my every movement and repeating every word at a peaceful protest. Before any of this, I’d only been doing music for about a year and a half, but it was at that point when I realized the power behind everything I have to offer.
Which protest or moment was the realization?
During one of the protests in Salt Lake City happening right after the passing of George Floyd. I took to a megaphone and I kind of just blacked out. Ten minutes later, I was conscious again, but during that blackout I was screaming “George Floyd!” “I can’t breathe!” I also did some poetry, I asked for moments of silence. I had hundreds of individuals kneel with me. It was just very liberating in that moment.
The theme for TEDxSaltLakeCity 2020 is “(Un)Conventional Wisdom.” What makes the wisdom you will share with your city in a few weeks on that stage unconventional?
I feel like you’re just going to have to wait.
Fair enough. Who are your musical inspirations?
Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Gil Scott-Heron and myself—a better version of myself. I’m inspired by my own growth. I’m always excited to see what I can come up with next. I’m going to grow into the kind of artist that inspires me and keeps me pushing musically.
I know you have sons and I’m wondering about how having children might shape your work and the things you want to rap about, sing about, write about.
It definitely opens my eyes to a sort of consciousness that a lot of other artists don’t have the ability of tapping into. I would like to teach my sons how to be humble, not to be good with the bare minimum, but to be grateful with the bare minimum. So, I don’t talk about money or chains or cars, clothes, because we should already have enough of that type of stuff. I’d like to talk about feelings. The world looks at us, especially at Black men, like we have always got to be strong. It’s not okay for us to cry. [Being a father] has really helped me turn my craft into a diary and hopefully it’ll help my sons be more open to sharing their feelings too, whether it’s music, through sports, through dance, however they express their emotions.
Saturday, September 19, 2020
The $15 ticket price includes access to the full day of talks and performances that will be live streamed from Kingsbury Hall.