The challenges of the pandemic have not stopped Munachimso “Muna” Mbaezue, a sophomore majoring in musical theatre, from creating new inspirational works of art. He has continued to find new ways to collaborate with other artists, express his creativity and use his art as a medium for advocacy.
This is shown in his latest film that he directed, “The Principles of Progeny,” which is part of “THE MOVEMENT: It Continues…” a larger project spearheaded by Mbaezue. According to the USC Musical Theatre program, the film “explores the two-dimensional legacy of the enslavement and colonization of Black and non-black peoples. The student-produced production showcases the contemporary and historic lenses of Black excellence through song, storytelling and dance.”
It premiered live through Zoom on Feb. 26 and was done in collaboration with two other sophomore artists in Mbaezue’s cohort, Talha Barberousse and Nia Otchere-Sarfo, and under the faculty advisement of professor Karen Parks, the head of music in musical theatre. In honor of Black History Month, Mbaezue wanted to showcase the resilience of the movement for Black lives.
“Professor Karen Parks, she was our faculty adviser, a woman who grew up in the movement, which motivated us to name the piece and would also be a title for our coming pieces, ‘THE MOVEMENT: It Continues,’” Mbaezue said. “Because we seek to make art that showcases the resilience of the movement. And that is the movement for Black joy, liberation, and everything that comes with that.”
The meaning of “The Principles of Progeny”
Parks was born in South Carolina with a mother active in the civil rights movement.
“I was raised very much understanding who I was,” Parks said. “Coming from that background, to hear that Muna and the other students were interested in continuing this movement that I grew up in … to me personally, [it] just means everything because we’re still struggling with this, we’re still talking about this.”
Parks further talked about the continuum of the movement after the murder of George Floyd, the injustice of Breonna Taylor and, in general, the horrible cycle of injustice that persists.
“The cycle keeps going,” Parks said. “And if we don’t continue this fight, and continue speaking out, then what will happen? We must, but it’s your generation who has to continue to speak out against this.”
Committed to this cause, Mbaezue created “The Principles of Progeny” to not only explore Black excellence but also the continuum of Blackness throughout time. The film opens with a piece called “The Drums of the African Progenies” with a performance by Mbaezue.
“And so with that piece, I was trying to channel the whole of Blackness, the motherland and Blackness before the contact of whiteness, Blackness before it was Blackness,” Mbaezue said.
Mbaezue recognizes there is a new sense of urgency that’s arisen in discussing the oppression of Blackness on a global scale. Systemic racism has always been an issue globally but the coronavirus pandemic had further spotlighted the need to address this issue. While the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement this past summer was most prominent in the United States, the struggle for racial equity is a global issue.
“It’s the oppression of Blackness on a global scale,” Mbaezue said. “And just this sense of an impending need for people to, for a lack of better words, get it together.”
With this in mind, Mbaezue wanted to further dissect Black resilience and its relationship with Black joy as it is an act of resilience in itself.
“The world is headed in a way that we really do have to come together because people are still dying, and not as much has changed from the inception of anti-Black racism, as we would like to believe. So that was my personal message through my pieces in the film,” Mbaezue said.
For Barberousse personally, the film was a celebration of her culture and her history but it also allowed her to fully mourn the events of the past year.
“It just was kind of a full immersion in my culture for me,” Barberousse said.
The entire film took nearly two and a half weeks and with such a tight deadline, Mbaezue poured all his energy into this project. His main goal for the film was to truly portray the movement and Black excellence. To do so, Mbaezue focused on getting to know his cast and where their intentions lied for the movement. From this he wanted to create a film that encapsulated all the different layers of Blackness that his cast brought and the different layers within the Black community. Most importantly he wanted to create something that was real for the movement and was not just performative.
“We asked questions like, how are you an ally in your life? What does allyship mean to you? What does Black History Month mean to you? How do you support the Black people in your life? Do you have Black people in your life?” Barberousse said. “We wanted it to be a very authentic show. And we wanted the product to be something real, and not something performative just so people can put on the Black Lives Matter patch and go about their day.”
Despite the short amount of time Mbaezue and his team had to complete the film, they were all committed to the cause. Both Mbaezue and Barberousse stated that the tight turnaround was one of the biggest challenges in creating “The Principles of Progeny.” As Parks said, “The movement has no timeline.”
The film featured several genres and concepts all of which tied back to Blackness and the progeny of those enslaved in comparison with the reality of the progeny of the enslavers.
“We had the spiritual, we had the hymn, which I did, we had even our African roots, which Muna did because he’s Nigerian. We had jazz, soul, R&B… And we just wanted to cover the Black experience in terms of art for Black History Month,” Barberousse said. “We wanted to discuss from the beginning in Africa, and then upon coming into America, how have the progeny of people who were enslaved, how have they developed in America versus how have the realities of the progeny of the enslavers developed?”
“The Principles of Progeny” also features one of Mbaezue’s very first choral composition pieces. He hopes that he can reperform his pieces from the film with a bigger choir in the future.
In working closely with Mbaezue with the film and in class, Barberousse became close friends with Mbaezue and truly respects him as an artist and as a director.
“His dedication and attention to detail is unmatched is the first thing that I have to say. His ability to just think of ideas, they just come to his head out of nowhere, and he can just see things in such a cinematic way and make it come to life. He’s just so multitalented. I don’t know how he’s a singer, actor, dancer and now director, choreographer, composer as well. He is literally the entire package, and he won’t let you slack,” Barberousse said.
As Mbaezue’s professor, Parks also acknowledges his talent and commends him for his enthusiasm for the arts.
“Here’s a young man that has a plan, and I’m a teacher who always has a plan,” Parks said. “I knew then, okay I got a student who really wants to learn.”
Parks’ method of teaching is centered around truth, both in yourself and your craft.
“His dedication and attention to detail is unmatched is the first thing that I have to say. His ability to just think of ideas, they just come to his head out of nowhere, and he can just see things in such a cinematic way and make it come to life. He’s just so multitalented. I don’t know how he’s a singer, actor, dancer and now director, choreographer, composer as well. He is literally the entire package, and he won’t let you slack.”Talha Barberousse
“I teach truth. Find the truth in it and then figure out the why. Because the truth is going to be yours. The why can be anybody’s… [Muna] was immediately like ‘yeah, OK I see’ and I said, whoa okay I have a student who understands my language,” Parks said.
She additionally described Muna’s discontent with some of the University’s silence after Floyd’s death.
“I said, never wait for an opportunity, create one,” Parks said. “And Muna really showed his directorial skills in that he just took it and said, here’s the idea [for ‘The Principles of Progeny’].”
The vision of Mbaezue’s art
It is evident that Mbaezue puts all of who he is as an artist into all the pieces he creates. From larger projects like “The Principles of Progeny” to smaller choreographies, covers, and songs on his Instagram account, his main goal as an artist is to create art that is both relevant and accessible. In his art, Mbaezue balances his own drive and motivation with what he can give back to his audience and community.
“I think there’s a real beauty in just going to your Instagram and seeing a nice two or three-minute video that you can just watch, and it just takes you somewhere for three minutes,” Mbaezue said.
Whether it is three minutes of joy, peace, rage or sadness that you did not know you had or did not know how to negotiate, he hopes to create art that brings these emotions out of you. Furthermore, he hopes to create art that you simply cannot turn away from.
This vision he has for his art comes from inspiration from three main artists, the first being Fela Kuti, a Nigerian composer and political activist, who is referred to as a pioneer of Afrobeat, which combines traditional Yoruba and Afro-Cuban music with funk and jazz.
“He was just so much for the resistance and for Black strength in the Black Power movement in Africa, in Nigeria specifically, during the ’70s, the ’80s,” Mbaezue said. “While [his music] did, of course, point a finger at the oppressive government and rally the people, it also created such a community and such a cult following of people who were just so enamored [by him].”
The next artist Mbaezue obtains his inspiration from is Janelle Monáe, an American singer-songwriter, who he says is an artist that inspires him every day. He explains that it is the way she tells her stories through music and film, the way she uses her platform to showcase other advocates and activists and how she is always out lending a hand when she can that truly moves him. Mbaezue admires her constant advocacy and activism to tangibly bring justice for others and bring a better day.
The third artist Mbaezue brings up as a core source of inspiration is Rebecca Sugar. Sugar is an American animator, singer-songwriter and director/producer for many animated shows such as Steven Universe.
“She really showed me the importance, and also the negligence, of the power of children’s television. And I think it is something that is really, really underrated, really underrated [is] the ability to instill something in a child, regardless of what kind of home or community they might be raised in,” he said.
Mbaezue’s past and present self
Art has always been a part of Mbaezue’s life as he painted and drew as a young child and has played the alto saxophone since the fourth grade.
“I did that for a while, and I was like, ‘Oh, I definitely want to be a jazz musician when I grow up,’” Muna said.
Mbaezue got into musical theatre much later than most of his peers, doing his first play in the seventh grade when he still lived in Nigeria and his first musical in the fall of his junior year of high school in Texas. He never considered himself a singer, and his roommate at boarding school convinced him his freshman year that he couldn’t sing. Additionally, as a kid, he had terrible stage fright.
“I had crippling stage fright,” Mbaezue said. “As a child, I once weaseled out of doing a debate that I prepared very well for just because of the concept of getting on stage.”
It wasn’t until his first play in the seventh grade that his stage fright began to dissipate. From there, he continued exploring theatre all the way through high school where he landed both smaller roles and leading roles. But for Mbaezue, there was no defining moment in his life that led him to pursue higher education in musical theatre: He did not take any dance or singing classes, and his seventh-grade experience was just part of his journey.
“I don’t know if I had a defining moment in as much as just the general aura of it all. I had known that for a while that I did want to, in some way, pursue acting and higher education, and then I found that you could also do musical theater, and I think just the general atmosphere of being in that space — I just felt pulled to it,” Mbaezue said.
Part of who Mbaezue is as an artist and as a person is his constant advocacy for his community and for what he believes is right. With this, Mbaezue believes USC can do better for students of color on campus, specifically in the arts.
“In a school with so few Black artists, this is really going to have, I think, a disproportionate effect on the amount of Black art that USC can say is of their students. And I think that there needs to be greater support and greater structural root, systemic or radical change needed to support and enable Black students,” he said.
Mbaezue explains that tangible support needs to be given to the Black community on campus and in this nation as a whole.
“I think we all can acknowledge that Black art does not nearly receive the amount of support that it deserves in this nation,” Mbaezue said. “We know that because we see pop culture and we know that pop culture was birthed in minstrelsy, in blackface, and that pop culture in this country was born out of appropriating from Black bodies and Black people. And that cycle hasn’t stopped.”
With this, Mbaezue explains how USC not only has to make deep-rooted and radical changes, but the University also has to change the way they handle Black art and learn how to tangibly give Black student artists access and the backing to create the art. In elaborating on this topic, Mbaezue demonstrates that by the walk of life and the privilege one has, more opportunities arise — opportunities that most Black artists have to fight to obtain.
“Because of the nature of what we have to go through to get into these spaces, the Black artists you find here will not disappoint you,” Mbaezue said. “And I say that confidently because of what it takes for us to get here. This isn’t something we stumble on. People from other backgrounds can stumble on this.”
While USC has supported the Black community on campus, Mbaezue feels as though it is mainly for show.
“It’s the things that turn heads and raise eyebrows in the executive boardroom meetings that USC needs to be doing,” Mbaezue said. “I feel that the issue we see so often is symbolic support, symbolic reparation, symbolic activism, performative activism. I need the University to give us tangible elevation in their means of supporting Black artists, especially because we are such a small community here at USC.”
To see more of Mbaezue’s works visit his Instagram @bae_zue and the BFA website for his upcoming performance in April for the Spring Inaugural Musical Theater Production. There will also be a second screening for “The Principles of Progeny” on Sunday, April 11 for those interested: Second Screening of “The Principles of Progeny.”