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Karim Lateef discusses Brass, Skins and Strings with

Spotlight by Deesha Dyer

Like everyone else, I get massive email forwards about various projects people are doing and stuff they are selling. Usually, I delete and keep it moving, but when I saw the subject line about a documentary tracking the plight and telling the diverse stories of the street musicians in Philadelphia, I couldn't let it go. It is the vision of Karim Lateef, a transplant Philadelphian since 2005.


Aptly titled, Brass, Skins and Strings, Lateef explores the personal, professional and legal struggle that comes with the beautiful art of street musicians and their need to express their artistry. He sat down with  me to give us the blueprint behind his creative work due out this fall.  


GeoClan: First, when will the documentary be released? I believe it says 'upcoming' in the email I received .


Karim Lateef: The documentary will be released the first week of September 2008. 

GeoClan: Tell me , why this project is so personal to you?


Lateef: This project was inspired by my passion and thirst for music and art. I have always viewed myself as a student of "the arts" and have made a personal commitment to use my business knowledge and creative resources to bring exposure and long-term value to the contributions of disadvantaged and independent artists.


My interest in street musicians was sparked during my residence in New Orleans where I was submerged in the local culture through friendships with various musicians. New Orleans and Philly are alike in that music and art is woven in the fabric of the culture.


I have met many musicians over the years with phenomenal talent that are struggling financially, yet they find peace and reward in the music. In a sense, it is much greater for many of these musicians to give than receive.


In the film you will see many musicians bring the same energy and dynamic performance to the streets as they would to a paid inside venue gig. So in a nutshell, the journey of the street musician is very personal to me because their stories represent freedom, independence, personal sacrifice, honesty, and many other values that are less exposed or disseminated in mainstream media. This is very important for the younger generation because they are not being exposed to live music and music historians like Byard Lancaster, Elliott Levin, & Anthony Mohamed.

GeoClan: How did you go about seeking out these specific musicians to write about or highlight?

Picturing a trio of music

Lateef: When I first moved to Philly in 2005, I began to submerge myself in the local culture. I frequented a lot of coffee shops, live music venues, art shows, First Fridays in Old City, subways, and any space where I could find creative inspiration.


I met the first two street musicians featured in the film, percussionist Anthony Mohamed & cornetist Jafar Barron playing on North 3rd Street. Since that date, Anthony has played an instrumental role in guiding me to the right places and introductions to dozens of musicians. In addition to the musicians introduced by  Anthony, I met other musicians such as guitarist Cassendre Xavier, cellist Monica McIntyre and Byard Lancaster during my individual quest for talent on the streets and subways. In the early stages of the project I was an MBA student at LaSalle so I spent all of my free time seeking and filming musicians for the project.
GeoClan: In making the documentary, what was the most shocking thing or bit of information you came across in terms of individual stories (something you are comfy sharing of course)?
Lateef: Many of the things that I found shocking I don't have the liberty of sharing at this moment due to legal constraints. Three of the musicians featured in the film have recently won lawsuits against the city of Philadelphia that were result of confrontations while playing in the streets. I found it quite interesting that the same lawyer represented two of the musicians.   

I foresee this confrontation increasing as the commercial development of the city increases. There are also dozens of more restaurants opening with a lack of interest in live music. Simultaneously there are more condos and commercial projects opening with a volatile level of patience for the street musicians. Many musicians will eventually have to choose between playing outside of Philly or on the streets.


With no legitimate legal structure in place to handle this transition, the confrontation between the musicians and law enforcement may become commonplace.


Another interesting bit of information that I discovered was that one of the musicians was believed to have been arrested in Philly not for playing in the streets but for staging one of the largest protests for Mumia Abu Jamal in France.
GeoClan: How is the comparison of how the city government or law enforcement sees the musicians vs. how the public and citizens sees the citizens?
Lateef: I can only speak for Philadelphia. There is a diverse range of views on both sides. I don't think that any of the law enforcement officers have an extremely negative view of the street musicians. There is no legal compass to guide their actions against the street musicians. In the past there have been city officials such as Frank Rizzo Jr. that have empathized with the plight of the street musicians.

There have been rumored conversations of the introduction of laws to protect and regulate live street music in New York City and San Francisco. This idea is explored further in the film. It is my observation that much of the public finds many of the musicians delightful and relevant. There is no homogenous public perspective however; in general, it appears that the public has a moderate to highly favorable opinion of the street musicians.
GeoClan: What are you hoping people observe and absorb from watching the documentary?

Lateef: I'm hoping to impact the value that the public and city government place s on street musicians. I would like the film to inspire the city to rally in full support of the arts as a whole. We are living in a time of increased violence, an economic recession, and an embarrassing void of arts in public education. It is very disappointing that a city with such artistic talent is lacking an Office of Arts & Culture.

Editor's Note: although the office of arts and culture is closed, there are movements to have it re-opened under Nutter's administration.

In New York City , organizations such as the M etropolitan Transportation Authority and the South Street Seaport organization have been in full support of the street musicians. In 2005, the South Street Seaport organization initiated the Buskers Hall of Fame in Manhattan at Pier 17 to recognize street performers. The first inductee was Josh Weiner who had been performing in the area since the early 90's and served as an advocate for local street performers. On another note, the MTA has historical held events in the subways that featured and highlighted many of the street performers of New York City. Similarly, I can recall a ubiquitous appreciation and celebration of live street musicians in New Orleans, particularly during the festival season. I am hoping to work with other local supporters, to bring the arts, including live street music, back to the forefront of Philadelphia.
GeoClan: Do you have any more live dates or events to commemorate the documentary release or celebrate the musicians included?
Lateef: I am working on dates for a regional tour for the featured musicians. I don't have final dates yet, however, please continue to visit to find up-to-date info about the project.



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Street musicians performing at Warmdaddy's in Philadelphia.


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