For Aymar Jèan Christian, Chicago is Full of Honest Storytellers (2018)
Written by Vocalo Radio on February 2, 2023
In celebration of Vocalo’s 15th anniversary, we’re looking back on some of our favorite archived segments of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like.”
Back in February 2018, founder of OTV – Open Television and Northwestern University associate professor Dr. Aymar Jèan Christian sat down with Vocalo. He broke down his impression of Chicago’s creative diversity, the city’s strength in artistic support and how he hopes his work will be remembered going forward.
“I hope that they see that, in Chicago at this time, people were really striving for free expression, and to represent the culture and all its diversity and complexity.”– Aymar Jèan Christian
When he arrived to the city in 2013 for his associate professor role at Northwestern University, Dr. Aymar Jèan Christian felt he would be a Chicagoan for the rest of his life.
“It just seemed like everything was here,” he recalled. “And that I would be able to build lots of different kinds of communities.”
Noting the city’s diverse range of artists — both in their disciplines and demographics — Christian saw an opportunity to support underrepresented voices.
In 2015, this opportunity manifested itself as OTV – Open Television. Started initially as a Northwestern-sponsored research project supporting local BIPOC creators, OTV has since transformed into a Black-run, Emmy-nominated nonprofit platform uplifting intersectional television programming in hopes to drive investment into marginalized creative communities.
“I draw from the city of Chicago, from what people send me and come to me, it’s just really what’s being made here,” Christian described. “I’m just presenting it to the people… I’m inspired by Chicago, because Chicago gives me everything.”
Through his work as both a professor and community leader, Christian hopes to contribute to the amplification of diverse, free expression.
“I hope many years from now, people look back and they say that, around this time, when white supremacy and hate were so prevalent and on the rise, that there were a group of artists who are trying to show America that there was a way to embrace our differences, and that that would actually make us stronger and make our art more beautiful,” he said.
For this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Dr. Aymar Jèan Christian discusses the early days of OTV and how Chicago’s creative diversity fuels his inspiration to amplify underserved voices.
Introduce yourself and describe your work in a few words
Hello, my name is Aymar Jèan Christian and I am an assistant professor at Northwestern University, and I run a research project called OTV – Open Television. I develop local Chicago artists and help them produce and distribute their works online and throughout the city. And this is what Chicago sounds like.
When did you move to Chicago? What drew you to the city?
I moved to Chicago five years ago for the job at Northwestern. And I was really attracted by the diversity of Chicago. Not only diversity in terms of racial identity, but also in terms of the different arts represented here, the vibrant communities of poets and writers, performance artists, dancers, theaters, film, it just seemed like everything was here. And that I would be able to build lots of different kinds of communities, which I think is what it’s borne out to be. It’s been a really great place to grow and build.
Where in the city do you live now?
I live in Lakeview, East Lakeview, which allows me to be commutable to Evanston, where I work, so it’s within an hour, but still far south enough that I’m able to get to the south and west sides. Lakeview is a very peculiar neighborhood. By day, it’s a lot of families, a lot of strollers and moms. By night, it can get quite queer, though I’m one of very few Black people who actually live in the neighborhood. It’s been mostly good, though, there have been some moments where I didn’t quite feel safe. Like, I felt like if some things went wrong, I might… my life might be in danger, frankly. So I’m definitely not going to be staying in that neighborhood forever. And I’ll probably be moving most likely south in the next couple of years after I get tenure. And I know I’m gonna be here for life.
What do you love about Chicago?
I’ve been blown away by the art that I’ve seen here in Chicago, particularly live performing arts. Seeing avery r. young, was one of the first people I saw here. Saw him at the Arts Incubator many years ago, when I was sort of new to the city, and just blown away by walking into a gallery in this really intimate space and there’s… maybe 50 to 100 people in the room, and this incredibly powerful singer — Avery sings sort of soul, blues, R&B — just belt it out and bring everyone to church immediately. And I’ve had so many experiences like that in Chicago, where I go to a place, and it’s an intimate setting. And I just feel like I’m in a different kind of church, getting a different kind of devotion, if you will.
How has the city shaped you?
I am really led by the people here. And, in developing local television, we release a lot of pilots and series, we’ve released almost 30 hours of content so far. And the one thing I always tell people is: I don’t curate it that heavily. I draw from the city of Chicago, from what people send me and come to me, it’s just really what’s being made here. I’m just presenting it to the people. So I’m inspired by Chicago, because Chicago gives me everything. The artists here are just so driven. There’s such a collaborative spirit that really enhances the depth and complexities of the stories that we can tell here. I just think that the storytelling that happens here is so much more honest than what happens in LA, New York. And it’s just because people are driven to tell those stories, and there’s people here who can support them. So we’ve released dance films, music videos, sitcoms, dramas, they draw from theater artists, poets, musicians, performers, visual artists, the DIY community, everyone is sort of on deck and supporting one another, in a way that I just think is unparalleled, frankly, in the United States. So I’m so inspired by this city and so honored that people trust me with their stories, and our platform and trust each other, right? To show their work with each other. That kind of trust is very difficult to come by. And I think people should really honor it while they’re here.
What are the challenges and the triumphs you associate with Chicago?
Black history is American history, and Black history is innovation. We have always been on the forefront of cultural production when we are given investment and access to distribution. And I just see myself as continuing that legacy. We’ve had a lot of success, Black people, historically, in music, perhaps because it’s something that we can produce from our own bodies, right? And so we’ve just used our own bodies to create these new ways of expressing, and we created American music, right? The foundations of American music. Our gospel spirituals extends to blues, which extends to rock and roll. We have rhythm and blues and, of course, in the latter half of the 20th Century, we invented hip-hop, in solidarity with Brown people, as well. And so I’m hoping to do that for television… I think television has had high barriers to entry in its history. It started as this very big corporate medium that you needed millions of dollars to make and participate in. And now, with the internet, with digital technologies, we have access to make television on a smaller scale. And I hope that we reinvent television, that we invent new ways to do it and express it. I think we can do that, I think we can do that in solidarity with other people of color, and with other marginalized folks, and change media history.
What is OTV?
OTV Open Television is a Black-run network, actually, all the core staff are Black, queer and femme people. So we are a distribution and development platform run by the Black community for all people who are marginalized. This is something that I think people don’t recognize, Black people have had to fight for representation so hard, we actually have a lot to teach other people and to support, in terms of how to represent better. So I give back to the Black community by giving folks a little bit of investment and free consultation to help get their shows off the ground. And then we present those projects to the world, so that people know, sort of, what Black excellence is doing in Chicago. And hopefully that will lead to greater investment in these communities.
Your legacy in one sentence?
I hope many years from now, people look back and they say that, around this time, when white supremacy and hate were so prevalent and on the rise, that there were a group of artists who are trying to show America that there was a way to embrace our differences, and that that would actually make us stronger and make our art more beautiful. I hope that they see that, in Chicago at this time, people were really striving for free expression, and to represent the culture and all its diversity and complexity. I look back on projects from decades ago, like Soul! and Black public affairs television programs across the country from the 1970s. And I watch those programs, and I’m just so inspired by people being honest about their political circumstances, being honest about the dynamics of power and also representing our artistry as best they could. And I hope that people look back and say that we did that too, and that we’ve been doing this forever, and that we should continue to do this forever.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Produced and edited by Fyodor Sakhnovski, 2018
Written introduction, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
Photos courtesy of Aymar Jèan Christian, by Felton Kizer
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