By Stephanie Harp
To Jerry Edwards – also known as Genius Black – Black history is about both the past and the future. “It’s all around you. It’s not 100 years ago,” he said. “It’s that, but it’s also what I did yesterday.” He has been reading about Maine’s Black history and talking with scholars and archeologists about the Black people who lived in the state during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to prepare for a July launch of his new “Maine’s Black Future” podcast..
“There were captains of ships, merchants, people who owned businesses. I’ve been compiling some of these stories and will retell them, hopefully in engaging ways, to humanize these people,” said Edwards. He knows that students in the state don’t usually learn about this angle of Maine history, and has been told their stories were “accidentally” overlooked. “But I know it’s erasure, a result of racism,” he said.
“I want to be a storyteller. I want those stories to be engaging and look to the future,” he said. A 15-year-old recently told him, “You should interview teenagers like me.” So he plans to do that, too. “The 15- to 25-year-old crowd is the literal fabric of Maine’s Black future, maybe 15 to 30. I’m going to be interviewing some teens and 20-somethings – activists, scholars, students, moms, dads. I’m looking both back and forward.”
A previous co-venture, Black Owned Maine (BOM), also started with the intent to bring little-known information to a wider area of the state. He and his friend Rose Barboza started BOM in 2020, in the midst of the police brutality uprisings, as a way to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The popular online directory of businesses and organizations that are at least 50% Black-owned began with 60 listings and now includes over 350 (see www.blackownedmaine.com).
Edwards has stepped away from active work with BOM, but said its mission of supporting and promoting Black placemaking in Maine also applies to his new podcast. “I believe there’s an opportunity for this podcast to really matter to Maine,” he said. “I think it’s going to inspire some young people. I think it’s going to inspire Black people, Maine people.” He believes it will deepen understanding of the state’s relationship to the ocean and to timber. He thinks people will be excited to understand connections they have never made. His friend Kate McMahon is a Museum Specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Scholarly Advisor to the Atlantic Black Box Project, which is focused on researching and reckoning with New England’s role in the global economy of enslavement. She has promised him stories. “She knows some cool stuff,” he said. “There’s hundreds of years of historical facts of Black people being in Maine, from Maine, and affecting Maine.”
He has lived in Maine since leaving his home state of Texas in 2000 to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in Africana studies and minored in English. In the college archives, he explored writings about an alumnus who was one of the first African Americans to graduate from an accredited college or university in the U.S. “I definitely want to celebrate the story of John Brown Russworm. It’s such an amazing story,” he said.
Along with planning his podcast and previously working with Black Owned Maine, Edwards is a musician, artist, and lead curator of an arts collective and music platform called Gem City, which was also seeded in the summer of 2020. “A small group of us would get together and make music with masks on. We would increase our quarantine circle by one person [at a time]. It was scary, but we continued to create,” he said. Gem City’s first album appeared in November 2021, and another is due this summer.
Now 40, Edwards grew up singing and has been playing music since he was 15, primarily keyboards and drum machine. “I can fiddle and create with a couple of other instruments,” he said. “I’m a music producer, so I use my keyboard skills and drum sampling skills to make a lot of the tracks we record. When I need other instruments, I can send a call out for them.”
Gem City’s founder would like to see its name stick as a nickname for Portland. “The greater Portland area has a high density of musical talent in all genres. To me, with that density of talent, I want the nickname of Portland to be Gem City,” he said. “Instead of calling Portland ‘the other Portland,’ Gem City has a ring to it! It represents our amazing cultural artists, musical artists, creative artists. That’s what I mean by Gem City.”
A logo designed by artist KevCoast hints at an anchor, scepter, antenna, and street lamp – images that Edwards likes to focus on to ground himself and his work. He pointed out that very few visitors go directly to Mt. Katahdin or Bar Harbor when they first arrive. “I consider Portland to be a gateway to the rest of Maine,” he said. “I’m also thinking strategically like that. I’m placing us for tourism.” He calls his push a grassroots campaign to establish Portland as Gem City: “If it generates pride in people, that’s how you generate a groundswell of support. I’m ready for the day when me and my crew [are heading] to a show and we see a Gem City flag … hanging on a first-floor apartment on Congress Street.”
And he’s also a dad to two teens, ages 15 and 18, both of whom have grown up in Southern Maine. “Being teenagers is hard for anyone,” their dad said. “But layered on top of some of the things that all kids go through, having me as a dad – I’m an intellect, I’m always engaging – they have been aware of racial issues since they were young. Not preoccupied, but aware.” He knows the stakes are high or can get high very fast. “I think my kids are kind of ready for the gusto,” he said. They even helped him plan a protest and are activists in their own rights. “It was me and my daughter at my first protest ever, 1,100 people running around Portland. My daughter was 100% the person who wanted to go and be in the front of it.” She was 13 or 14 at the time. “My kids are also super intelligent and thoughtful. They represent themselves well.”
When he was at Bowdoin, people said he was a very good music producer and asked if he planned to take that talent to Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles. “I just never rode the boat. Everyone with talent doesn’t have to leave Maine to make it,” he said, “if someone can stand the microaggressions they run into, if they are able to withstand it and stay here, and not let it beat you down – be the change you want to see.”
Two new songs were released July 8: “Lonely Stoney” by Genius Black featuring KevCoast and “Sheesh” by Genius Black featuring Drell & Suzie Assam. Available on all platforms: Apple Music, Spotidy, Youtube. Deezer. Both songs are mixed and mastered by Genius Black. Both singles will be on the forthcoming GEM CITY 2 album by Genius Black.
How has he managed to focus on this change? “One of the few things I can do to help round out your life, whether you know it or not, is to get a few more Black people into your sphere of influence,” he said. “You do realize that’s part of why Black Owned Maine literally exploded and went viral. It was a rocket ship.” He thinks it was because BOM was in Maine and people who “had a certain distance from George Floyd” saw him being murdered over and over and wanted something they could tangibly do. “What other ways can I protest? What can I do with my money? Put money into Black-owned businesses.”
That wouldn’t have been possible if he had left Maine. “It was about us filling the void that Maine was missing. That’s why it worked. Had I left in 2019 or 2017 or the first time I ever got evicted in the state of Maine, I wouldn’t have been here to help start Black Owned Maine,” he said.
“First and foremost, I’m not a person who is afraid to stand alone. This is from when I was a child. I won’t hesitate to think through my own path,” he said, admitting that he’s “kind of stubborn.” He also has come to love Maine. “I love Portland, I think Maine is beautiful, I think the people are rugged and beautiful. I’ve learned so much watching people live through the winters.”
Amjambo Africa will include Maine’s Black History in the podcast menu that soon will be added to www.amjamboafrica.com.