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The Raider Voice

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“We are the Record Keepers”: How Marlon Johnson Preserves Cultural Histories

Marlon+Johnson+speaks+at+the+end+of+The+Retrofit%2C+a+series+of+performances+consisting+of+spoken+word%2C+song%2C+dance%2C+film%2C+and+theater.+In+this+multidisciplinary+show%2C+the+environment+and+social+equity+take+center+stage.+The+show+is+in+collaboration+with+other+local+artists.
Sara Gelrud
Marlon Johnson speaks at the end of “The Retrofit”, a series of performances consisting of spoken word, song, dance, film, and theater. In this multidisciplinary show, the environment and social equity take center stage. The show is in collaboration with other local artists.

Neo Soul music plays on the turntable in the art studio at Deering Estate as Marlon Johnson, a Deering McCormick Fellow and artist-in-residence,  starts his day. He clears the administrative work – emails, phone calls, scheduling – first, so he can spend the rest of the day immersed in his upcoming projects – cinematic documentaries and mixed art theater – all of which focus on telling cultural stories. 

“I remember my own experiences in my community and the different facets of it, and bringing other communities to life through the power of film has always interested me,” Johnson told me in our hour-long conversation over Zoom.

It’s no doubt that community is important to Johnson; “Deep City: the Birth of Miami Sound”, one of his first major documentaries, tells the story of the beginnings of soul music in Miami and the record label that brought out community voices. His most recent documentary, “River City Drumbeat”, was presented at SXSW and tells the uplifting story of the drum-centered creative community in West Lousisville, Kentucky, that brought its African culture and traditions to America.

“I’m so curious about the world and so curious about community, curious about music,” Johnson continued, with palpable excitement.

Johnson graduated high school from Miami’s New World School of the Arts and attended the University of Miami afterwards, immersing himself first in theater and then in filmmaking.

“Through the arts, the transformative power of the arts, I was finally able to reimagine the world and my place in it,” Johnson explained, adding that while he liked theater and fiction filmmaking, documentary filmmaking is where he truly found his passion. “I wanted to work with real people.”

The first film Johnson ever created was about gentrification of the West Grove. CocoWalk wasn’t always as commercial and trendy as it is now: before Fireman Derek’s and Mister 01 moved in, a whole other community called it home.  Johnson is committed to telling the stories of the people who were displaced as rents increased and the neighborhood makeup evolved.  

“You need people to create the records because [the community] is changing and the work we do is important. We are record keepers. We are truth tellers,” he said. 

One of Johnson’s missions through his films is to foster empathy. Through his work, he’s able to give audiences an entry into another world, rich with its own diversity.

“It’s important to keep these communities alive because it’s the quickest way to realize that we all have so many things in common. [W]e all have the same fears, the same wants, the same desires, and when we find little points of similarity, then you can put yourself in the side of someone you may have never met,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s current work-in-progress tells the story of the slaves that created a “Saltwater Railroad” as they migrated from the north, through Florida and Miami, to the Bahamas. Generations later, they returned to help build Miami. 

“We’re trying to tell those stories in a way that is compelling and hasn’t been touched or told before,” Johnson said. 

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About the Contributor
Sara Gelrud, Editor-in-Chief
Sara Gelrud is a senior and the editor-in-chief for "The Raider Voice." This is her second year as a full staff member but has been a contributing writer since her sophomore year. Along with the newspaper, Sara is the editor-in-chief of "Reflections", the literary and arts magazine. Sara leads the Book Club and the Jewish Student Union and is excited to grow as a leader for "The Raider Voice."

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