American Masters

FULL EPISODE

Amyra León: Strange Grace

Filmmaker Malika Zouhali-Worrall provides a portrait of Amyra León, the musician, poet, author and activist who channels deeply personal experiences of pain and healing into raw, majestic, and often cathartic performances that celebrate love, Blackness and womanhood.

AIRED: October 14, 2020 | 0:15:18
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TRANSCRIPT

(drum beat)

(smooth electronic music)

- The reason why I'm alive is because I didn't forget

the song my heart planned on singing.

Ahhhhhh!

(audience screaming)

♪ Don't deny you're from Abraham ♪

(traffic driving by)

(birds chirping) (children talking)

- [Amyra] I am a Harlem native, a poet, musician,

an educator, and a black woman who loves being black.

♪ Say you're a dreamer

♪ Have you been sleepin?

♪ Missing all the good things dreaming and and and ♪

♪ Say you been thinking

♪ Don't be there forsaken enveloped in dreams ♪

(Amyra vocalizing)

♪ Ohhh, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey ♪

♪ Wanna be better, I just wanna be better! ♪

♪ Do you know honey I wanna be better ♪

♪ I just wanna be a child of the sun ♪

♪ I just wanna be a child of the sun ♪

(Amyra sighs)

(music fades out)

- When I was a child, writing poetry

was where I really found myself and allowed myself

to feel safe in all of these

incredibly dangerous situations.

(eerie music)

Me, black girl, born to white woman and ghost man,

some kind of sinful combination.

They lost me to the hands of the state, she exchanged

her language for vodka slurring, borrowed intimacy,

he simply a bedtime story.

I tried 13 times to belong

at homes that weren't mine, adopted into poverty.

♪ Body oh baby, body oh baby

Learning to walk with no feet.

♪ Body oh baby, body oh baby

Sacred limbs, twisted literacy

(soft vocalizing)

I was taken from my birth mum when I was a baby.

I moved 13 times by the time I was seven,

and was adopted when I was 13,

and in all of these home I experienced excruciating amounts

of violence, verbal, physical, sexual,

so it was a madness growing up with such awareness,

of what my body meant to different people,

to the government, to this family, to this man.

One of my first pieces that I performed live,

was about the molestation that happened in the foster

homes that I was in. And I was 14 and I performed this,

and then two women came up to me and they were like,

"You said things in that poem that I've wanted to say

my whole life and I've never told anyone."

And I was here like 14, still going back home

to the abuse, me, I just trying to survive was an invitation

to other people to do the same. And I will never forget

that moment because without that, I don't know

if I would've ever done that again.

(piano music)

My work is about reconciliation between me

and my blackness, me and my skin, me and the language

that I use, me and my name. All of my work has been

a reflection of this healing that I've been doing

for 25 years.

♪ Maybe we can talk for a minute ♪

That's just like a little rough sketch,

it doesn't need to be exact, and then I wanna get to the

(singing) I wanted to love, wanted to be loved

Maybe we can talk for a minute, 'cause we're old enough

(band vocalizing)

(strumming bassline)

[Voiceover] My joyous place is improvisation. It's like

everyone's going off of instincts, and we're all saying

that everyone's instincts are correct.

I'm freest when I'm around people who know how to do that.

(electronic music)

♪ Everybody wanna know what she sayin, ♪

♪ Everybody wanna know what she sayin ♪

♪ Everybody wanna know if she'll be the one ♪

♪ Who kills the revolutionary, revolutionary ♪

♪ Oh my god hashtag revolutionary ♪

(Amyra vocalizing)

[Voiceover] The three things I pay most attention to are

words, breath and silence.

I have so much power as a performer,

I realize that with music I could heal others.

(onscreen) No matter what it was that you had to leave

at the door to be here tonight, I'm just so grateful

that you're in this room, I just want us

to breathe together,

you know the work is heavy, so whatever you feelin,

take that deep breath, this shit is free, okay?

Take it all, all right? Society thrives on us being small,

we need to take up as much as space as possible

and I'm already thick and I'm taking up more space today,

all right?

(audience cheering)

So let's do that together, okay? You ready?

We gonna breathe, we gon' breathe, we gon' breathe,

one, two, three!

If they were made up! (sighs)

(keyboard typing)

Okay, this is what came first. Okay, and story began.

[Voiceover] I wrote a theater piece

about being a black woman.

And then can I see the, so this is good.

[Voiceover] I realized like, okay,

if I'm gonna talk about the intricacies of black womanhood,

I can't just talk about myself,

I gotta start talking to more black women.

So, brown girl believes she is devil, brown girl is devil,

brown girl waits forgotten, we can have that little light.

[Voiceover] You know it's like, what happens

when black women are in a room together and they just speak,

the dinners would go for three to seven hours,

the longest one I think was 11.

And then we'll drop, when we drop, we'll have a blackout.

Brown girl begs for life, in the morning,

'cause mama no black.

[Voiceover] And the conversations I had were heavy.

And the peace that therefore resulted was excruciating.

- I wanted to scream until my voice broke,

and then, and then, I wanted to bleed.

- I wanted to call my mother, I wanted her to answer.

- I wanted her to tell me that none of this was real.

I wanted her to tell me about heaven. I wanted her

to tell me it was worth dying for.

They run, they safe place, they danger.

- [Amyra Voiceover] We did it five times,

and every single time it felt like I died and came back

to life.

- They forgiveness, They weakness, they beginning, they end.

(audience clapping)

(electric guitar strumming)

(loud rumbling)

- [Narrator] They died in Birmingham, dynamite exploded

on Sunday morning, killed four little girls,

injured 20 other Negroes.

- It was one of more than 40 bombings.

- [James Baldwin] Kids were murdered in Sunday school,

in a presentation, and nobody cares!

- [Amyra] Burning in Birmingham is a song I wrote inspired

by the 1963 church bombings, and Nina Simone.

- And when these kids got bombed,

I just sat down and wrote this song.

♪ We're burning in Birmingham, we are ♪

(band performing Burning in Birmingham)

[Voiceover] When I looked it up, I found out

that they were five little girls in the church,

and one of them is still alive, and Sarah Collins

still lives in Alabama, and still has to get reconstructive

surgeries and is still paying medical bills.

That is what being a black woman in America is.

Everything will happen and even when they acknowledge it,

they'll leave you to deal with it yourself,

the same with Trayvon Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton.

I was invited to perform at an event where Sybrina Fulton

was speaking. I didn't know what to say

and because I've never lost a child. And then I was like,

'Well where do we meet, where do we meet? Where do we meet?'

♪ I've been here before. This place is the opposite ♪

♪ of light, to love in a world like this is to love ♪

♪ without breathing, sometimes I love without breathing. ♪

Burning in Birmingham was a form of bridging the history

between something that happened 60 years ago but also 400,

and then something that happened yesterday.

It's about cyclical genocide that's been going

for centuries, about how we just forget the black women

who've been carrying it all.

♪ You know, I heard somewhere

♪ That black women are impossible to love, and I get that ♪

♪ 'cause once we start to love you ♪

♪ Your days are numbered.

(car honk)

(vocalizing)

- This draft was great, I guess the last thing to do

is sign the contract.

- Oh my goodness, it's happening, it's happening,

the book is happening.

[Voiceover] Concrete Kids is a book of poetry

and prose, it's looking at my life in Harlem,

my life in foster care.

Yes, there was bloodshed, yes there was laughter.

I'm writing it for the child that I was, for my nieces

and my nephews, and for all the people I was raised with,

and for the educators who didn't know how to educate me.

If anybody was asking me the right questions as a child,

my life would've been very different.

I had to work without the adults in my life to make sure

I was safe. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, they made sure

that I would know that my life was true.

♪ Holy, holy, I'd be holy, holy, ♪

My intent with my work is really to reflect authentically

on my perspective, I have changed my life,

but I didn't change it by disappearing who I was,

I changed it by allowing myself to be who I was.

Yaas, harmony, come here! Come here, come, come, come!

(singing) Hold me, yeah!

- (singing) Yeah, you're welcome anytime, let me tell you

what's on my mind, we got the!

- (singing together) Hold me!

- [Amyra Voiceover] That I have to see myself reflecting

in the future, you know, and create that future

with the people that are in my communities.

(onscreen) Thank you for liking.

[Voiceover] This is for the concrete kids.

The kids with the melanin kiss.

The kids drenched in poverty, the kids who are told

to cut their hair, to tame their tone, the kids who are told

to shorten their names and disappear their tongues,

the kids who are told they will amount to nothing,

the smart kids who are told they are problematic,

the problematic kids who are told they are stupid,

the kids who are taking care of their families

in between extracurriculars, the kids who cannot go

to extracurriculars because they are taking care

of their families, the stupid kids, the hungry kids,

the thirsty kids, the foster kids, the kids who aged

out of the system, the missing kids, the homeless kids,

the kids in jail, the kids awaiting trial,

the innocent kids, the kids who never got to be kids,

the kids navigating the violence of hands,

the kids who are being taught to fear themselves,

the kids who refuse, the kids in gangs,

the kids thinking about joining gangs,

the kids who started them, the adults they became,

the adults who wait for the blood to dry out in the sun

with the laundry, the kids who bury the adults,

the adults who bury the kids, the angels they became,

the angels they will become.

(deep sighs)

♪ Don't tell me how to be, just let me live in my body ♪

♪ Have you seen the news? They're all talking about me ♪

♪ Don't take my heart to the graveyard ♪

♪ I still got breath in me

♪ I don't take that lightly

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