Teaching Artist Spotlight: André de Quadros

By Clare Walker, JAC Intern

Recently JAC had the chance to speak with Dr André de Quadros, human rights activist, music educator, artist, and ethnomusicologist, who has conducted and undertaken research in over forty countries. His professional work has taken him to the most diverse settings, spanning professional ensembles, and projects with prisons, psychosocial rehabilitation, refugees and asylum-seekers, poverty locations, and victims of torture and trauma. 

For nearly a decade, André de Quadros has worked in Massachusetts prisons, jails, and detention centers with a focus on empowering people in incarcerated settings to tell their stories through improvised music, song-creation, poetry, movement, and theater. The approach co-created by him is called Empowering Song.

Read more about him on his website https://www.andredequadros.com. 

JAC: How did you come to be involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

AdQ: Well, I am not American. I came to the United States about 20 years ago and it occurred to me that there were some places where my profession of music education, musicians, and artists generally speaking, had neglected to engage. And one of the most neglected, darkest spaces really are prisons. Everywhere else you can get into, but prisons are hard to get into, unless of course you’re black and poor; then that’s different. But given that we have millions of people there who should have access to the arts as a human right and have been persistently neglected, I started to work in prisons. I’d already had some experience with prisons in Thailand and other places. So that’s why I started working there. I’ve been an activist for decades, but I’m now more connected to activism on the question of mass incarceration and race.

JAC: I didn’t know that you’d worked with prisons elsewhere. Would you mind talking a little bit about that work and globally how these systems relate?

AdQ: Oh, sure. So I’ve been in prisons and engaging differently in Indonesia, Thailand, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and Sri Lanka. I think the United States is a particularly brutal system of incarceration. Some of the other prisons I’ve seen and visited have more of a flexible approach to the ways in which prisoners are allowed to engage with the outside world. I’ll give you one example, it’s perhaps the most striking example: I was directing a big festival in Bali and this prison music group from Papua said they wanted to work with me. I thought, “How are they going to come work with me from Papua?” Well it turns out they took a plane and came, and were working with me in the local  arts center, and walking around freely. I was so surprised by their relative freedom that I said to them, “Why don’t you escape?” They have special freedom which is unthinkable here. But they said “Where would we escape to? We would lose contact with our families.” I mean it’s a totally different mindset. I think that what has happened in the US is that the brutality has so diminished the humanity of people who are in prison and their families. In other countries it’s completely different. 

JAC: So you work primarily with music?

AdQ: Well, yes and no. We think of the arts broadly. Even the concept of music as a separate genre is a very much white Eurocentric view. So we think about music as connected to storytelling and poetry and the body and visual art and theater and a broad range of expressive activity. So it’s not just music in a very narrow way. 

JAC: Yes. Then broadening my next question: how did you come to the intersection of the arts & creative expression and healing & interpersonal connection?

AdQ: I don’t want to make too much of a claim about healing. Of course the men and women I work with say that the activities are very healing, but I don’t want to make that case because healing implies that I have to decide what constitutes healing for somebody else. That positions me in a kind of power relationship and it also positions me as almost diagnosing that certain people need healing and other people don’t. So my point is very simple, it’s a rights-based issue. People should have access to the arts. And I don’t think that when you go to prison you lose that right of access to the arts any more than you lose the right of access to clean water. And then if people experience healing, community mobilization, consolation, love, and hope, then I think that’s powerful. And I would hope that everything we do leads to some positive transformation. That’s part of the work, right? That’s what it should be. Fundamentally transformative. 

JAC: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Then talking a little bit more about the Boston University Race, Prison, Justice Arts Project, what do you feel is unique about the programming you’ve been a part of?

AdQ: Well, I don’t want to make the case that it’s special and unique because there’s a lot of really fantastic work happening in the country. And every program is different, but what we’re doing with Race, Prison, Justice Arts is about how we can create collaborative arts. We have a group of people on campus, people from sociology, medicine, American history, and law, for example, and students, faculty members, and community members. So on the one hand, we have people on the outside, if you like. And then we have people who are system impacted by race and mass incarceration, people who are currently in prison and people who are formerly incarcerated. So we have people in prison and formerly incarcerated persons engaging with people on the outside and collaborating artistically, creating joint works of art. We see the work as a connection between arts and activism, through arts and activism shining a light on race and mass incarceration.

“And Neither Have I Wings to Fly,” Wayland “X” Coleman.

JAC: And do you feel like your students, participants, and experience with the program has affected your teaching practices and your own art?

AdQ: That’s such a good question. Yes. It’s affected me as a human being. I get a call virtually every day from folks in prison. They are people who have hope, and they talk about life, and it’s really powerful for me to be engaging with these people and seeing the world through their eyes and not just through my own. So to say I’m completely transformed as a human being is the right thing to say. In other words I’m transformed as a teacher, as an artist, as a citizen, as a parent. That’s what this does for me. 

“My Eyes,” Jessica Tovey, Grace Wodarcyk, Daniela Perez-Retes, and Cheryl Freeze

"My Eyes" is a piece of PhotoPoetry by Halim Flowers. This version of "My Eyes" is a reading of Halim Flower's poem, supported by music, movement, and visuals by the artists listed above.

JAC: That’s really powerful. And where do you hope that the program can go? What are some of your goals for the future of this work and your involvement in it?

AdQ: Well, at the moment it’s a digital program because we can’t visit folks in prison. So, for one, we need much more in-person work between participants and people who are currently incarcerated, creating more public performances, gallery work, and storytelling. There are so many activities that could be done publicly in terms of in-person work. So I hope going forward, we can have both the digital, because that allows us to be collaborating with people anywhere in the world, and have the in-person work. 

“99 Days,” Paul Nielsen 

“This music was in response to a phone conversation we experienced with Wayland Coleman. He spent 99 days in solitary confinement, and the phone conversation was abruptly ended mid sentence, leaving us all in silence” 

One of the dimensions that I think about a lot is who is being impacted by the work and what that means. How is this changing and transforming the people who are in prison or are formerly incarcerated? What does it do for them? Or is it just what it’s doing for us? So understanding the work more deeply, understanding what we are doing more critically will help us to have a more sharply focused vision going forward. 

JAC: What inspires you?

AdQ: For me, it’s probably who inspires me. I’m inspired by the people I work with. I’m inspired by the love and dedication and hope that people bring into this work whether they are system-impacted by incarceration, race, and poverty, or whether they’re people on the outside. All of that is what inspires me and gives me the energy to do different work and to continue doing the work that I’ve been doing. But also, as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou talked about, being angry, having righteous anger at a system that is unjust, is important. We shouldn’t be anything less than that. We can be loving and angry at the same time. Angry with the system and loving in the work we do, which is an appropriate pedagogy after all. 

“I Am No Angel,” Grace Shaver, Sunny-Moxin Chen, and Tara Parazuelos

After listening to the sermon we were collectively inspired by the humanity within the phrase I am no angel. This piece was an effort in visual animation, spoken word, and a soundscape. We took away the importance of the statement I am no angel, but I am human.

JAC: Yeah, that gets back to the false dichotomies you were talking about earlier when it comes to music and other art forms. And there’s another one of those false dichotomies between love and anger. Reminds me a lot of the concept of revolutionary love. In your view, in terms of JAC and relationships to teaching artists, what does a supportive network include? How can JAC better support teaching artists?

AdQ: I think there are two major strategies that JAC and similar coalitions should be pursuing. First, it is celebrating the work that people are doing, because there’s a lot of work that’s very wonderful happening and it should be illuminated. And the other is that we should be talking about tools, processes, and pedagogies. I don’t go into incarcerated spaces  to tell people what to do; that’s not the kind of empowering pedagogy that we use. We create spaces and conditions in which they can express themselves. De-centering the teacher and the leader in this kind of personal-meaning-work involves a re-consideration of what pedagogy is going to look like. That’s something that JAC could certainly address. 

Race, Prison, Justice Arts is part of Boston University’s Prison Arts Project led by Judy Braha, André de Quadros, and Krystal Morin. The Prison Arts Project of the College of Fine Arts is in collaboration with Boston University’s Arts Initiative, the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, Initiative on Cities, and the African American Studies Program. The project’s organizers gratefully acknowledge the work of currently and formerly incarcerated artists whose generous participation and inspiration work make the project possible.

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