Member Spotlight: Robbi Kumalo
Robbi Hall Kumalo resists easy description as an artist. She identifies as a creator, a healer, and an educator. She has a decades-long history as a performer for audiences of all ages, but primarily for audiences of young people. Her work combines song, dance, storytelling, poetry, and more. For years, she has toured to different cities, towns, and schools and performed for millions of people. She has worked as a solo artist and in collaboration with others.
But when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), her whole creative practice had to change. She has had to pivot her focus to be more attuned to healing herself and to bringing healing to her audience. Now, in addition to her work as a performer and a musician, she is hoping to help others along their healing journeys through creative modalities.
Robbi discusses the ways that performing for children has encouraged her to be a flexible, interdisciplinary artist and the relationship between disability, art, and healing.
So the first thing that I want to just ask you is for an overview of your current work. What you've been doing, what you are doing, lay it on me!
Well, what I've been doing mostly is healing because multiple sclerosis is very disturbing. My lifestyle, my art making, everything is interrupted with an illness. I was really surprised when checking my web site because I'm not that performer that's on my website anymore.
I have been in the young audience world performing for 40 years, since the 80s when I was in high school. There was a school teacher and she said, "I see what you're going to do the rest of your life. You have a gift.”
I had started a children's theater company in doing that show and I never stopped the show. And as I have matured, I've adjusted that show, my performance.
My show is all things that I am. I love theater. I love storytelling. I love music. I love writing. I love composing. I love poetry. All of those things I've been able to combine in a performance for young audiences, mostly because kids will get bored very quickly. If they can't resonate with anything that they're watching, they just go, "What? Who cares!" And turn away. So I learned how to float in and out of different art forms to maintain the audience's attention.
And then over the years, I started to build a project with artists that were just as flexible as I was. They were either a musician who acted or a singer who acted or sometimes a percussionist that built his own instruments and took photographs. And I've just been able to tour with that.
With each different age group, you have to capture attention in a different way. You know, kindergartners, need to see a physical flow, like they like TV, like watching to learn. By the time you get to fifth grade, sixth grade, they're a little more self-conscious of themselves. They don't really want to sit there and have too much fun clapping along because then they're not cool to their peers. So you got to give the presentation a way that fascinates yet imparts the wisdom still in a way that they can receive it.
And high schoolers are just trying to get out of high school.
What do you see as the impact of exposing kids or young people of all ages to this kind of interdisciplinary, very flexible art? What is the effect that you hope to have on especially your young audiences?
Well, you know, because of my grant writing, I was able to count how many young people that I've reached when I do these performances.
And at this point, eight million children that have now grown up into parents and grandparents.
So that's an interesting audience that I'm reaching out to now [living in Oregon], of pretty much white people. This is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. It's an interesting demographic. And I always feel like God is guiding my steps as an artist.
Most artists have a spiritual nature because we know that this music that we're doing is absolutely divine. You know, we are healers. We are people that make a difference in somebody's life, no matter if it's a musician, an actor, a storyteller.
In what ways have you had to change your creative practice since you got the MS diagnosis? And how it informed your work and your life as an artist?
Well, first of all, I didn't know what MS was. And when I was diagnosed.
As I started to try to figure out what MS was, nobody had an answer. Everybody had different explanations of what it was for them or what their experience and memory of their relatives that had M.S. was. And most of the stories that I was hearing were very bleak.
And the more research that I did, the more I realized that it had everything to do with what I was eating, how I was treating myself, how I was treating the parts of myself. So when I started to take yoga, I became very body-aware of myself and I noticed that I was having a hard time to walk. So I thought, “Okay, what can I do to help my body walk? So it was a lot of physical therapy and then it was diet and it was sleep. Then it was being able to stay joyful during my day because otherwise I could get easily depressed because MS affects the brain. It attacks the synapses, the nerves, the myelin sheaths.
And then it just starts with the brain and it goes all the way down the spine, all the way to your sacral chakra to your right to your coccyx all the way down the spinal column. And so when you take in an MRI of my body, I'll have scars and scars all in my brain and all the way down my back.
I was able to see my picture and that made me want to start to paint because I wanted to paint a healthy spine without spots and scars.
The physical therapists would say, “Well, what do you like to do?” I was like, “I like to play music.” [And they said,] “Well, do that as often as you can.” And I was like, “Funny you should say that, because that's what I do all the time.”
She says, “Great keep that up because that's a great physical therapy for you. It's a great mental cognitive therapy for you because you got to move your fingers.”
It's not easy to maintain optimism. So my work is still going on.
So I saw on your website that you offer to teach students some of the hacks that you use for living with M.S. And I'm wondering if there are any that you could share that is applicable to people who have different chronic health conditions or don't have chronic health conditions. Do they have a wider resonance?
They do have wider resonance because they're all in the same body. You know, the human body needs a lot of attention. And most of the time, as we get older and older and older, we give the body less and less attention and we keep the habits that we like that make us happy so we don't change a habit that might actually be really unhealthy for our body.
So being able to talk to people about diet, for example, I can talk to you about your diet.
If you're drinking water, that's really great for your body. [You could] add some breath work in there as you're drinking the water, you could do something very simple, like two deep breaths, like you're blowing up a balloon, first breath and then the second breath, just a little bit more air.
You just put a lot of air into your brain and then you let it out.
You exhale, release a sigh, a sound, and you do that a few times when you're sipping your water and you'll oxygenate your brain instantly. You might actually even get a little dizzy. If you get a little dizzy, that's good, because that means your brain just got the oxygen. And when you can oxygenate your brain, your brain controls everything in your body.
That's what artists do. Artists draw attention to [our bodies].
Where has Fractured Atlas, grants, and fiscal sponsorship fit in with your work over the years?
Well, Fractured Atlas has taught me about arts presenters.
As a performer, most people think of arts presenters as the person that's going to buy your CD or book your show. For me, [I was] working with schools. Schools mostly were able to afford a vendor [or performer] because of a grant that they would write.
And then I learned about grant writing.
I remember the first grant I applied for was an NEA grant, and I had no idea how to write a grant and I have no idea why I was writing the grant. But I knew that it would be a way for school to hire me if I had money from the NEA. Doing the application was really hard.
I did have a friend that was very involved in the community that I had met when our children were in school. I said to her, “Hey, have you ever written a grant?”
And she's like, “That's what I do for my job.”. I said, “Would you be able to help me with my grant?”
She says, “I can't write a grant for you, but because it takes a lot of time. But I'll be glad to look over your grant and give you suggestions on where I see you can make some improvements.” And she just cut up the whole grant! And I got the grant.
And then I learned that when I spoke to presenters in schools, they were mostly PTA people who didn't know anything much about grant writing. And most PTA’s would do very lucrative fundraisers. So most PTAs had great funds. They weren't trying to write grants, but for poor school districts that did not have a PTA that could raise funds because the community was very poor, they needed to write grants.
And when they heard that I was aware of how to write a grant and that I was positioning myself with the materials that they would need to submit a grant, like a study guide, I just gave them the tools that they would need. Then they were very motivated to get that grant.
It sounds like you were both able to start getting grants for yourself, which supported your work. And then by learning more about the grants process, you're able to get yourself hired because people are able to apply for grants because they could then use them to hire you.
Yes, because like I said, my audience was mostly a young audience, a school-age audience.
I wasn't playing in clubs, I wasn't playing in bars, and when I found out about the arts presenters world, the APAP world, that really opened me up because I learned that there were conferences with presenters who were in the grant writing world or not or both worlds because their community had enough money that they were able to have a budget for young audience performances. And if they knew how to write a grant, they could get additional money for the young audience performers.
So that changed the way that I priced myself. So I went from having a five hundred dollar show to knowing that the people were going to write a grant so could that elevate my price.
And then when I met other artists who knew nothing about that world, I was educating other artists.
It's amazing. It's culturally, you know, I'm an African-American and I'm a Choctaw Cherokee American. So I had those cultures of my home life growing up, which was very normative, very fractured, coming out of the south, coming out of racism, coming out of segregation. My parents, they lived through the depression. So they were not feeling me being an artist. They were like, “No, no, no, no, girl. You need a job with a pension plan. You need benefits.”
But they didn't know I was an entrepreneur like they were. They didn't see me because that generation had a hard time seeing the future because they were walking with so much fear in the past.
What should we know about what you've got in the works and how can we stay in touch with it?
I have evolved into an aesthetic life coach.
Which is great because people say to me, “What kind of coach is that?” And I'm like, “Look up the word ‘aesthetic’ and that's your first coaching.” And then when people see what the word means, they're like, “Oh, so you’re a life coach about things that are beautiful in life.” It's like, “Yeah, like starting with you! You're beautiful, you're beautiful in life.”
I'm going to be an excellent coach that can really help people either with a song or just a conversation that opens up their ability to see themselves differently because most people are stuck.
Most people are not creative artists. Creative artists are completely out of the box all the time.
Some people are just without a friend but need somebody to talk to so they might be tempted to find a coach. Especially if a coach has something so uniquely wonderful about themselves that they're so different.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I'm excited to be an elder for this next generation that's coming through with all their knowledge of technology and inclusivity because this next generation is so multicultural.
It's just meant to be celebrated.
My Fractured Atlas page does say ability over disability, which is what I'm talking about. We have the ability, no matter our disability, our abilities, always over whatever we feel is disabling.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.