We all shine on.
Growing up in Southwest Detroit, Sacramento Knoxx often found himself wishing to be somewhere else.
"When I was younger, Detroit was a really undesirable place to live. We were living in the ghetto with little to no resources or support. If there were resources, they were barely enough to help the majority of the neighborhoods beyond basic needs or services. So, like any other kid in the ghetto, I was struggling with violence and poverty and the hurdles or blocks that existed in my family and the community."
But living in those circumstances didn't discourage him — it inspired him.
"It helped me understand the power of creativity in creating a new vision of Detroit. At the time, everything was in decay as a result of the racial segregation in the city and the problems it caused. But going through that was crucial for me because I learned how to make something out of nothing. It's turning shit into sugar — well maybe not sugar because sugar is bad for you — but just making the best out of a situation… Turning shit into compost; that's a better analogy."
For Knoxx, music has always been a way of not only bringing that vision to life but also finding place, purpose, and solace in the world.
"Whether it's painting, pottery, or whatever else, everyone has their own way of releasing creativity and experiencing the world. For me, music is an ongoing process of healing and a way of accessing that creative energy inside myself. It's like piecing together a puzzle — you add the rhythm, then some tones, change the tempo… All of that is intriguing and beautiful to me. But it creates a shared experience too. I mean, we all jam on our headphones or in the car when we're driving alone, but it's always a good vibe when you're bobbing your head, and there's someone next to you bobbing their head too… That universal language is amazing to me."
Today, much of Knoxx's energy is focused around engaging others in that shared experience through his workshops.
"It's a chance to create a shared space in the community where everybody can learn and grow by using our hands and our minds to work together cooperatively. Much of the content is focused on music, but it's always evolving to meet different community needs. So, some might focus on leadership development, whereas others are about learning new techniques or skill sharing. But whatever the focus, I just want to give people the chance to grow and learn something new, as well as show how art can be used in community organizing. Because when we're not making music and being creative, we're finding ways to help people advocate for themselves and work with collective community power to be the change we all want to see."
Though building up his own community is important to him, Knoxx also recognizes the importance of connecting people and communities that are divided by race, income, or other factors.
"The longer I do this work, I get a deeper understanding of the value of relationship building. It's not always easy, but relationship building is the key to connecting with each other. Without it, our connections become disposable. My native ancestors from this area have a process called ‘Mawadisidwag’ [mah-wah-dih-city-wahg], which translates to ‘they visit each other.’ It's a process of spending intentional time with each other, and the word comes from the Anishinaabe language of this area, Waawiiyatanong, also known as Detroit. That's how I think of this relationship building concept — the time we spend together helps us create things of value that benefit everyone."
But he also understands what happens when those relationships are damaged or broken.
"Oppression begins when you form a relationship that isn't about benefiting or advocating for each other. So, I think an important way to look at this concept is to explore our personal relationships to racism, classism and the patriarchy, and ask ourselves, ‘How am I indirectly or directly perpetuating those things?' And, ‘How can I help break those cycles?' That's the first step to building strong relationships across communities. Then you look at your family and close friends and talk about how you can all build healthy and holistic relationships that spread through your community, then Detroit, then Michigan, then the Midwest, and so on… Circumstances might not always allow for you to build those relationships with everyone, but if you have a few that are a mile deep and an inch wide, that's just as important."
For now, Knoxx is doing his part to help foster that community spirit in Detroit through his art.
"I work with an amazing group of musicians, artists and media makers called The Aadizookaan [ah-dih-zoh-khan], which translates to ‘the sacred spirit of the story’ in the Anishinaabe language of this area. Together, we’re using our skills and talents to not only create art but also to help encourage relationship building in the community. I think art helps do that through a combination of presentation, performance, and participation. For example, performers can be the catalyst for conversation; then from there, maybe the artists try to connect with people after the show. Or, even though an artist may not be a trained facilitator, they can try to help an audience become a maker or a musician at that moment. Because performances and presentations are great on their own, but if the people on stage or in the crowd can participate in an experience together, you can really start building connections."
In recent years, Knoxx has had the opportunity to spend extended periods in both New York City and Oakland, California. And though he values his time in both cities, it seems that absence has only made his heart grow fonder of the city he calls home.
"I love New York and Oakland but having the chance to live somewhere else for a bit really made me appreciate Detroit. Things have been rough here, but that's what makes diamonds shine — that roughness and that pressure — and that's how I see myself in Detroit. Instead of abandoning the city, I’ve been able to shine and help others shine as well, so we can transform our oppressive circumstances and create beauty out of disaster. The city is in a historic moment right now and being able to use art to advocate with people or organize programs that help the community thrive and transform their circumstances is amazing. I feel lucky to be a part of a legacy of people — specifically in southwest Detroit — that have always been looking out for the hood. The vibrancy I've seen in the community has shown me what's possible when we believe in the power of working together to make Detroit a place where we can all coexist in a loving way."