In the second of a three part series on the challenges of being an artist Chris Massenburg, bka Dasan Ahanu, a Distinguished Writing Fellow with the Center for Community Change, as well as a poet, emcee, writer, playwright, performance artist, lecturer, and educator, digs into life in our era as an artist.
Quentin Talley aka Q let’s Dasan (pictured above) and us intimately within his story.
The Clarion Content is honored to host this work.
by: Dasan Ahanu
In the midst of the stage stands a man of average stature, but booming presence. He waits in front of the microphone as the crowd’s applause starts to fade. The entire room is filled with energy, and everyone is on the edge of their seats, poised to receive a word from the artist in front of them. The man on stage smiles and then begins to sing.
The melody is a mix of southern drawl and Harlem Cotton Club. He seamlessly moves from song to poem and within moments has the crowd in the palm of his hands.
His name is Quentin Talley, also known as Q, and this small club in Charlotte, North Carolina’s NoDa district is home. NoDa, short for North Davidson, has become a haven for the arts. Q is one of its favorite sons. A performing artist and poet with an extensive theater background, Q manages a stage like none other. It’s his calling, his purpose. It is also how he chooses to live his life. This is his career.
After years of touring, networking, learning and hustling to sustain himself as a professional artist, Q started On Q Performing Arts in 2006. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit theater company and Charlotte’s only theater dedicated to educating and producing classic, contemporary and original performance works that reflect the black experience.
Even though he has founded a respected organization that has featured works at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte and the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Q still faces the hardship of making ends meet. This is the challenge for many artists; they provide us with their amazing creative outputs, but still find it difficult to sustain themselves. They are responsible for the art we love, the books we read, the songs we adore and the plays that touch our hearts, yet they often struggle to be able to make their craft their livelihood.
When asked about his financial status as an artist, Q says, “The struggle is real… We are still building our infrastructure [at the nonprofit], and my monthly stipend from the company only makes up 40% of my income. The rest is made up from my gigs as a solo artist and a part-time job, though the theater company is truly a full-time job.”
“Everyone values the arts,” Q continues, “but not the actual artist doing the work.”
Regardless, Q continues to push on. He understands that following what he sees as his calling means having to incur and manage debt, but he also feels that his work is too important. What keeps him going no matter the challenges is a belief in the impact of his work.
He says, “I absolutely love it. And I’m a hopeless optimistic and believe art can change lives. And that’s because it changed mine.”
In 2012, the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Q a coveted fellowship for exceptionally talented theatre professionals. He was one of only six leaders selected for the national program intended to strengthen the field by developing people who are the core and future of theatre. He spent 18 months being mentored in the areas of programming, education and directing by the legendary Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, MN.
Q considered this an amazing and life-changing experience. Still, when it was over, he had to transition back into the hard work needed to build On Q Performing Arts.
“I’m fresh off an 18-month fellowship that spoiled me. I had a real salary—like above the poverty line. $35,000, to be exact. All while working with masters in the field of theater on a national scale. It was great. Now I’m back to square one with my nonprofit company here at home.”
Still, Q is undeterred in his dedication to his career as an artists and the company he has started. When asked what it means to be an artist and share his work with people, he replies, “Everything. I’m a creative. I read a play or poem, listen to a piece of music, and I always envision how it would play on stage. It’s a must. To see it grow out of my head, onto a stage and have an audience react is a spiritual moment for me and hopefully for those watching too.”
Chris Massenburg, bka Dasan Ahanu, is a public speaker, organizer, workshop facilitator, poet, spoken word performer, songwriter, writer, and emcee born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a proud member of the Black Jedi Chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation and loyal Hip Hop head. He is currently a resident artist at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, NC and an Assistant Professor at Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC. He is also a 2015 Distinguished Writing Fellow with the Center for Community Change.