Jen Delos Reyes: The Power of Love

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Image: “Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self,” 2011. Courtesy The Estate of Susan O’Malley


“All the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.”

– bell hooks

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP) Open Engagement finds itself in the city that gave birth to this powerful revolutionary movement. When one thinks of the BPP one of the first things that likely comes to mind is that undeniably strong look—leather jackets, berets, button downs, turtlenecks, natural hair, shades, and the most important accessory—bearing arms. Originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the image of police patrols, armed protests, and training formations come to mind before we can conjure images of their free breakfast programs for school children, people’s health clinics, liberation schools, or community housing. All of these initiatives fell under the BPP’s Survival Programs, all of which were intended to help support individuals and communities meet the basic rights and necessities outlined in their Ten Point Platform, as well as provide the tools and resources for empowerment. Former BPP member Jamal Joseph has said that the guiding principal of the party that drove them forward was “an undying love for the people” (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution 2015). All of their gestures, whether rooted in protection, defense, or care, was about showing love for one another. The BPP was treated as a serious threat as acknowledged by the reactions of the US Government, police enforcement, and the FBI. I believe the most dangerous aspect of the BPP was not their power as a radical armed faction, but in their ability to harness the power of collectivity and love. Many of the people who convene at Open Engagement continue to work toward the equality and justice that they were fighting for, and do so with the same commitment to care and desire to serve the people.

Jeremy Deller said, “If pop art is about liking things, as Andy Warhol once said, then folk art is about loving things.” Given that the last Open Engagement took place in Warhol’s birthplace, I want to say instead that if pop art is about liking things, then socially engaged art is about loving things. One of the projects at the 2015 conference was a tour of Pittsburgh centered on the life and work of Mr. Rogers organized by Michelle Illuminato and Emily Blair. In 1969, Fred Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In his senate statement I was struck by how clearly he defined the purpose of the work he was doing in creating his children’s program, “This is what I give, an expression of care each and everyday to each and every child. … for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.” It made me realize that we could clearly articulate that the work of Open Engagement is about creating a space of care for the field of socially engaged art.

René de Guzman began this reader with a quote from Che Guevera, “… at the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” I truly believe that the artists, activists, administrators, educators, and cultural workers who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination do so fundamentally from a position of love. What follows is a playlist of songs about love and my thoughts on these songs that connect power and love in relation to the individual, the collective, and their role in movement building.

Track 1: Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to do With It

Her hair is strong — a shield of peroxide, standing defiantly against gravity, it is a glorious, full and spiky crown that mimics the way an animal might puff up in size to assert its dominance. She is armored in slick black pointy stilettos, sheer hose, a leather dress swallowed by an oversized jacket. Her outfit takes a cue from Bruce Springsteen’s repertoire of American denim and says, I am the real BOSS. This is the image we get of Tina Turner in her 1984 hit “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

Tina Turner is a complicated note to start off this reflection on love and power. This song comes six years after her divorce from Ike Turner, and on the crest of her incredible comeback. In Ike Turner’s notorious interview with Edward Kiersh in the August 1985 issue of SPIN that ran with the exclusive on the cover: “IKE TURNER What he had to do with it: The flip side to Tina’s Story”, Ike reflects on the song, as well as the abuse:

“When I saw Tina do ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ I picked up the phone and called her. ‘Hey, Bo [short for Bullock, her maiden name], that’s a cute song. I really like it.’ … But it’s years ago that I had a temper. I don’t regret nothing I’ve ever done, absolutely nothing, man, because it took all of that to make me what I am today—and I love me today, I really do.”

As the SPIN cover promised, Ike indeed delivered the flip side to Tina’s story. While her song puts love at arms length, discounts love as a second rate emotion, and identifies love as vulnerability, Ike illustrates the dark side of self-love, individualism, and egotism. This might seem an unlikely starting place, but this song and these figures setup the foundation with which to grapple with some of the issues and struggles around power dynamics, collaboration, and the inevitable, necessary emotional investment.

Tina Turner’s body language in the music video for this song reads loud and clear — she is powerful. One of the most viewed TED Talks is about power poses. Amy Cuddy’s talk titled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” has been viewed 8,755,987 times.  Cuddy describes the simple act of striking a power pose (think a gorilla with fists clenched raised high in the air arms out spread) as a life hack that can ultimately help you feel more powerful and increase your individual success, maybe get gainful employment over someone who hasn’t yet mastered the art of the power pose. Similarly, I recently heard a piece on NPR about online dating platforms and how more people respond positively to pictures of people with open poses, like power poses, arms outstretched, human flight clearly imminent. Not only can posturing your body in a certain way help you get the job, it could also help you be a more desirable mate. Cuddy’s talk is clearly a resource on power that has potentially helped millions of individuals, but what about power and the collective body? How does power play into movement building?

Track 2: Kathy Heideman, Move With Love

Deborah Fisher’s contribution to this reader considers Aikido. She wrote, “The purpose of Aikido training is to transform conflict into cooperation, even love for one’s opponent.” Her piece is an important reflection on collective power and the various means and methods with which to achieve it. While Cuddy’s Ted talk emphasizes the potential of a powerful individual and leader, one of my favorite YouTube videos is “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.” The video clearly shows that being a charismatic leader is overrated, and that it is really the first follower and ultimately collective energy that makes a movement. The video shows that while it is risky to be at the helm of a movement, the courage of the first follower is needed to make space for the collective. Collective movements need to be based on bravery, love, support, and understanding.

We need to move with love and risk ridicule by being the first one to stand up, or to be the courageous one that follows. To love and be loved is a often to put oneself in a vulnerable position that could be seen as compromising one’s strength, but I want to propose that there is no position greater than love.

Track 3: Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love

“I do not need to be powerful if my message is powerful.” Ernesto Pujol

Celine Dion has dozen of songs that remind us the power of love is an undeniable force. The lyrics of Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love,” in her signature schmaltzy style, pontificates on love. But unlike many of her love songs, such as the “Power of Love” which speak to a romantic love between two people, “Let’s Talk About Love” sees love as a powerful unifier and common language. From the “laugh of a child” to the “tears of a man”, love is there. While this song might not be to everyone’s taste, who amongst us would want to deny her message that love is the one emotion that can help lead to understanding? Dion reminds us that it is through love that we can work together and towards trust.

Track 4: The Brother Love, I Can Be

Open Engagement 2016 keynote speaker Angela Davis has said that our society does everything it can to foster individualism because it wants us to forget about the immense collective power we have for change together. The track “I Can Be”, by The Brother Love appears on the Free Angela LP that was released by Golden Triangle Records in 1971. This deep soul song describes a man coming up against potential criticism for his choice of who to love. He says that wrong or right, love is worth the sacrifice. Similar to Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” love is described in the track as a great equalizer.

Track 5: Rihanna, Close to You

“I love in your direction hoping that the message goes somewhere close to you.”


Rihanna is tough. Bad gal Riri’s latest offering Anti is full of tracks that demonstrate that the classic love ballad, and even the classic storybook romance, is not what she is after: “I was good on my own… Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage? Fuck your white horse and a carriage.” Songs like “Needed Me” and “Consideration” disparages relationships and champions the ability to deflect connection. It is for this reason that a song like “Close to You” stands out on the album. It is stripped down, the absence of complex musical compositions and booming beats leaving little room for emotional camouflage. It is a love song that cannot hide behind the retro pastiche of a track like “Love On the Brain” that alludes in form to love being an old fashioned notion, or a song like “Higher” that feels the need to have expressing love be accompanied by excuses and apologies. The first time I heard “Close To You” I have no problem admitting that I got teary eyed. I loved how vulnerable how she was willing to be, how she would chose to put love in someone else’s direction, even if they were either not willing to receive it, she still hoped the message of love would reach them. To connect this idea to movements and social change, in Martin Luther King Jr’s August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here” speech he reflected on why he continued to love even his enemies:

“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate.”

I know that love is not all we need (just one reason that no Beatles track appeared on this playlist), but I do believe love can help us get closer to equity, social justice, and a compassionate world.

Love is Worth Fighting For

On April 24th I attended a Fight Night at Soho House in Chicago. As part of the night artist and educator Cheryl Pope included poets from JUST YELL / POETRY as SELF DEFENSE. Founded by Pope in 2013, Just Yell is committed to confronting issues of inequality, abuse of power, and causes of gun violence and works with teens and young authors throughout Chicago to develop writing, installation, and performance. Interspersed between boxing matches young poets took to the ring to share their writing. The power of the work was palpable. As each poet entered the spotlight the frenetic crowd came into focus. Taking center stage in the dramatically lit ring, the power of their words exceeded the force of the fights that had just been contained within the ropes. The stories held the beauty, pain, and joy of their lives—they showed with full force the power of their experiences, and the transformative potential of art. At one point in the evening a small table was brought into the ring, and a microphone was set in front of a chair. Del Marie Nelson sat down, her gaze looking out at the crowd. She began to sing, “true love doesn’t die unless you crush it like clover.” Her song was punctuated with spoken word. With each return to her chorus it gained more weight and meaning as her words rolled over her own relationships, drawing in our own connections. The resilience of love felt galvanized with each syllable. Its ability to rise us up and bring us together rang clear. As the last of her prose echoed through the crowd, all of the lovers, and the fighters, assembled in the room rose to their feet and collectively cheered the power of being able to share love with one another.


About the contributor: Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.