The Harmonious Connection Between Music and Urban Farming
By Shayna Lewis
Many people are surprised to find out that I am both an urban farmer and a musician, but I don’t really see the two things as entirely separate endeavors. The place where they meet is sort of hard to describe, but I will try to explain what that space means to me and why I can’t imagine giving up one or the other.
First of all, they are both creative forms above all else. They are both about using your hands to manifest things that were previously nonexistent. Daily, I am overwhelmed at the sheer potential and limitlessness of human creativity, and from a young age I felt that I ought to strive to use my own creative potential in the best way that I could to make the world a little better. As a young adult, I saw food production/distribution and land use issues as pretty important aspects of human society that seemed to be on a dreadfully wrong path. The fact that most of the food that we eat travels thousands of miles to get to our plate and is grown using petroleum-based chemicals that are poisoning the air, water, earth and that very same food saddens me deeply. The reality that this same system creates vast inequalities among people who eat food and people who work (i.e. everybody) also saddens me deeply. Our current system is hurtful to the earth and hurtful to ourselves (we are physically part of the earth, after all). So, I decided that I should dedicate what meager creative reserves as I am lucky enough to possess towards whatever rectification of that system that I might be lucky enough to achieve.
I began learning how to farm and started my “career” in that direction. Music, however, was not something I was prepared to stop doing. I’ve been playing guitar since I asked my dad to teach me some of his finger-picking blues and folk songs when I was 11 years old (I didn’t pick up an electric bass until much later, but the style he plays - think Mississippi John Hurt - is really just playing a simple alternating bass line with the melody, so I guess I’ve been playing bass since the beginning). I have never been a great musician and I get kind of self-conscious in spotlights, so I never thought to pursue music seriously, but I also have never been able to put it down. Recently, I’ve started to notice that my passions for music and for farming, rather than clashing with each other and vying for my attention, seem to be feeding and supporting each other in somewhat surprising ways.
First of all, they both encourage the creative spirit in general, which is one of those things that seems to grow in stock as you use more of it, like love or muscles. This works on
a group level as well as a personal level. Playing with Guess & Check has been very inspiring creatively. I am a big fan of Jay and Maya’s songwriting because it is very unique and unbound by musical convention or ideas about what you are or are not supposed to do with melody, rhythm and harmony. They are also very down-to-earth people, who are fun to work with in a way that feels like we all (Barry included) are participating in the creative process together. That experience is very nurturing for the spirit, and playing with Guess & Check has inspired me greatly.
It has also encouraged my creative passion for farming, especially urban farming, which is arguably more socially-oriented than rural farming. I feel very blessed to have found my current job with Project Eats, which is part of the Active Citizen’s Project. Working at Project Eats feels similar to playing with Guess & Check insofar as it is also a group creative endeavor. Linda Goode-Bryant, our Executive Director, is also an artist and sees urban farming and community development work as creative, artistic work. Most of my coworkers are also artists (I’ve just started working on another musical project with one of my co-workers, Kadeesha Williams, who also plays a number of instruments, sings and composes music. Also, the former drummer of Guess and Check, Sami Arthur, in the new band. Everything’s connected!). We work with youth, homeless people and many others on our mission to increase accessibility to healthy, affordable, sustainable food to those who may not have such access while creating alternative economic structures that could potentially provide livelihoods to many people through work that is regenerative to the earth.
Besides ‘creative’, a word that expresses the essential connection between farming and music is ‘culture’. I think it is a powerful thing to see ‘culture’ as a word with one, multi-faceted meaning rather than a word with multiple meanings. The roots of the word refer to “a place that is tilled” (according to some internet dictionary). I would venture to infer that it came to be applied to “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (internet dictionary #2) because in ancient times people didn’t necessarily distinguish between the farming practices of a group of people and the artistic expressions of that group of people. In other words, culture refers to what people do together habitually, whether it be for food, shelter, or for fun. As anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows, habits are incredibly powerful. As an oil-addicted society, we can see how vastly powerful habits become when expressed on a societal level.
Thus, I think it’s really important to try to cultivate a healthy culture. I see both farming and music as important aspects of that. In spite of frequently feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of what is possible, I feel very grateful to be blessed with these two passions and even more so to be working with people who share them. I say work, but really it’s about the fun. To be super honest, I’m probably just doing all of this because it’s fun.