by Demetrius “Imagine Joy” McClendon

As a young, Black, Queer male growing up on the Southside of Chicago, the playground didn’t always feel like a safe or welcoming place to me. I can’t recall ever feeling like I could truly be self around others without punishment or penalty. I was brutally teased for many aspects of my existence at the time, namely for liking things that were classified as “girl” activities, like playing double dutch, hopscotch, or hand games; many kids also made fun of the fact that I was strictly raised as a Jehovah Witness which often made me come across as socially awkward, to say the least, because I didn’t talk or act like other young kids nor could I participate in a plethora of different social activities. Frankly, the playground was quite a dreadful place for me, particularly during my prepubescent and adolescent years. I suppose I could go back farther in my memories to times as a young child where I would swing so high on the swings and imagine I was flying. I remember feeling so free. But those moments were often short-lived when I would hop off the swing and get called a sissy or punk by classmates or other kids in my neighborhood. Perhaps my memories are now tainted, even distorted, because of such interactions. I recall thinking about the playground with some level of excitement but it was always coupled with varying degrees of fear: I was constantly on guard, struggling to protect myself in so many ways–I didn’t dare ever cry or show any signs of visible weakness, nor did I publicly pursue acting on any of my so-called “sinful” desires. At a very young age, I learned to repress and dismiss my right to pleasure.

 “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.” –Audre Lorde

I hadn’t thought about these childhood memories in years and was quite surprised when they popped up while sitting in conversation with my dear friend, Vie Boheme, about her latest project for Bohemian Way (an entertainment, wellness and lifestyle company). Co-produced with Public Functionary, “The Playground Experience” is a two-week craft refinement and creative business management residency for musicians centered around the spirit of play. 

Mindfully cultivated by the creative genius and care of Vie Boheme and Mike Bishop (the director of operations and lead producer at Public Functionary), the residency culminated with a community sharing followed by a talkback–I use the word sharing in lieu of performance because it feels like a more truthful way to describe the sincere and generous sharing of heART from an incredible cohort of artists which included MMYYKK, Ricki Monique, and Vie Boheme herself. It was a deeply felt and profoundly moving experience that received a great deal of positive feedback. 

Both nights ended with groups of folks lingering around in the beautifully designed, intentional space to further process what they had just witnessed; in many ways, it felt like we had all been taken through a portal. Perhaps it was the various ways that Ricki Monique’s gifted articulation of fierce, thought-provoking language ignited the space, grounding the energy; or the cosmic soundscape within MMYYKK’s set whose voice and strategic arrangement felt like a guided meditation, taking us higher; or the complexity of thought and feeling that is so deeply apart of Vie Boheme’s soulful voice and sound, helping us to listen at a cellular level: inviting us to travel further BEYOND. 

“Beyond was not an enemy to be avoided / but a challenge / against which my neck grew strong / against which my metal struck / and I rang like fire in the sun.” –Audre Lorde

In many ways, it was a truly transcending experience (especially inspired by the brilliant use of multimedia which allowed us to watch the artists perform at real-time on large screens). Each artist contributed to anchoring us more deeply into the co-creation of Vie’s vision: a revolutionary movement (a wave of culture) guided by the spirit of play which Vie defines as “a giving of permission to yourself.” Vie shared that she has always been deeply inspired by the Black church musical experience where she saw people thrive by living wholeheartedly; she felt there was much to learn witnessing how deeply embodied folks became by being actively immersed and engaged within the spontaneity of the moment. But where does self-permission derive from if we’ve been raised to fear the yes within ourselves? Knowing the possibility of playground bullies (including the ones in our own minds), how does one learn to be so radically Present and engaged in the unknown?

I find myself still reflecting on these critical questions prompted by being a part of the Playground Experience, both as an observer/witness as well as someone who asked to write an editorial piece for the project. Frustratingly, there are no simple answers or magical solutions. But listening to my dear friend, Vie Boheme, and watching how brightly she comes alive as she speaks about the new worlds she envisions (and ways of Being within those worlds), I’m reminded about the importance of practice and being committed to trying/exploring/becoming. I more intimately realize the power and necessity of play: engaging possibilities beyond with a sense of childlike joy and wonder. Through the Playground Experience, I feel like I was given something meaningful to share with my younger self that never really got to play the way they wanted or needed. I can’t necessarily name what that is in this moment but I know it was a gift that will play a role in opening new doors in my future. I am so thankful!