In this summer of Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin and controversial Supreme Court decisions on voting rights and affirmative action, people seem to be struggling -- again -- with the issue of race.
And J.G. Boccella wants us to talk about it.
Thursday night, Mr. Boccella, a 46-year-old recording artist, painter and civil rights advocate, is organizing "Conversation We" -- an unusual concert at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside that will not only include music by a diverse group of artists, but also an open-ended discussion about the thorniest, most delicate and most ineradicable subject in America today.
The conversation will actually begin tonight at the Brillobox in Lawrenceville, as part of that venue's "Ignite Pittsburgh" series of forums, where Mr. Boccella will talk about his upcoming book and lecture series, "The Conversation We COULD Be Having," which lays out his core concepts for talking about race.
Then Thursday he breaks out the music, "which fosters community, and out of community can come relationships ... and we need relationships to make social change," said Mr. Boccella. "Relationships take the other person from being a "concept" to being a friend, someone whose destiny you care about."
Besides a performance by Mr. Boccella's band Modo Mio, others on the concert's list include Nigerian-American singer Joy Ike, and singer-songwriters Heather Kropf and Preach Freedom, artists who blend all sorts of musical traditions, from jazz to spirituals to folk, in their work.
This isn't the first "Conversation We" event hosted by Mr. Boccella, who lives in the East End with his wife, Demeatria, and their daughter. He has spent much of his career as an educator, lecturing and organizing workshops at schools, universities, educational organizations, foundations and churches from Oklahoma to South Carolina to Boston.
"I am a human being -- and a white man," he says. "I am not either a human being OR a white man; I am both. If I act like my 'white-man-ness' doesn't affect my life and afford me certain advantages, then that's the denial; if I act like I should somehow feel bad just for being white, that's the guilt."
Over the years, he began to notice what he calls "a hidden demographic" of people who really want to connect across lines of race, socially, professionally and intellectually, but who didn't have a way in, in part because they were "jammed up with guilt and denial."
It's not just white guilt, either.
Too often, he adds, people of color "feel they can't share their whole reality, and that they are often cast in the role of representing their entire racial group."
So, then, Mr. Boccella opens up the conversation with a set of questions: What kind of language could we use when talking about race? How do we engage a person's whole humanity -- not just their skin color -- in the context of this conversation? What does it mean to be an ally?
"I've been watching J.G. develop this idea over a long period of time," said Ms. Kropf. "He's a really good facilitator who knows how to create a safe space for people to express what they're talking and thinking and feeling without being ugly. It works."
Ms. Ike, whose family moved from Nigeria to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, says this is the first time she's participated, but people "have been making assumptions about me based on cultural stereotypes for a long time. They come up to me and say you don't sound black," when, in fact she is -- just not an African-American whose ancestors were slaves.
Armed with a B.A. from Brown University and a master's degree in education from Harvard University, Mr. Boccella does what so many artists must do to survive: He multitasks. Not only is he developing a book but also playing with his band, just releasing a new single, "Unstoppable," that has the same playful jazzy beat -- along with clever social commentary -- of his other music.
"I'm an Old-School-Hip-Hop-Rock & Roll-Gospel-Music-loving-Bob-Marley-Fanatic," he says on his website, jgboccella.com.
He's also painting: His latest series of works, "Fierce Women," with be exhibited at Tula Organic in Squirrel Hill in September, and he has eight commissioned portraits in the works.
Mr. Boccella was born into a family of artists concerned with social justice, from the plight of Native Americans to the treatment of animals: While his 80-year-old father, John, a dentist, still has a full-time practice in East Liberty, his mother, Gerry Rosella Boccella, is a poet, part of Carlow University's "Madwomen in the Attic" creative writing workshop, as well as a pianist and a designer. His sister Mia Boccella Hartle is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and his younger sister, Amata, is a poet who runs an animal sanctuary in New Mexico.
His wife, former director of grants programs at the Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative, is managing director of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and the Bill Nunn Theater Outreach Project. Each year, she organizes Fashion Africana, a global celebration of design, dance and music.
Mr. Boccella is quite straightforward about his own ambitions -- He'd love to be a musician full time. On the other hand, he hopes that one day, he won't need to organize a concert as a "safe space" to talk about racial differences.
"This isn't designed to be another conversation about race," he said. "It's not same-old same-old. If we begin to change social norms regarding race, then the actual 'best places' to have these conversations start to become the same place we currently have less-charged conversations."
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com; 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG. First Published July 10, 2013 4:00 AM