In the heart of the Rondo community, music comes alive at the Walker West Music Academy. Founded in 1988 by musicians Reverend Carl Walker and Grant West, Walker West Music Academy has created a safe space in the community, teaching people of all ages and backgrounds to play music. When the academy moved from its original location on Selby Avenue to a larger building across the street (a couple blocks west of Dale Avenue) in 2014, they renovated the inside of the building, but outside, the building still needed work to make it a true home for its students and community.
That’s where local artist Ta-coumba Aiken came in. After moving to Rondo as a young man, he found mentors in the community who looked out for him and kept him on the right track. Over the years, he has also seen the impact Walker West and other organizations have had on the community. He began working with former executive director Peter Leggett to create a mural that would reflect the spirit of Rondo and inspire Walker West students the moment they walk through the doors.
“Rondo has been my inspiration since I discovered the Rondo community in 1973,” Aiken said. “Some of the people there became my elders. There were people in Minneapolis too, but the whole community of Rondo felt like they kept their eye on you. They would call you over from the sidewalk that would lead up to their porch and they would say, ‘Young man,’ ‘Yes ma’am,’ ‘You’re doing good.’ Then I’d go away and that was all I needed was the affirmation.”
“I’ve been trying to put art in the community to help show people this is an important community,” the artist continued. “At the same time establish myself as an artist of note, but not by sacrificing my [ideal] of how art should work in the community. It should be an integral part of the growth, development and healing of a community.”
In the mural, Aiken reflected the rhythm, movement and heartbeat of the community. He included images related to Rondo music, African-American history, and the area’s rich community. However, making the mural happen didn’t happen overnight. The process, from initial meetings with Walker West and the community to matching matching a $50,000 grant they received from the Knight Foundation and then finally renovating the exterior of the building took four years. But to Aiken, all the work was worth it. He was able to create the mural in durable enameled metalwork.
When all the work was done, Walker West celebrated the completion of its new home last month. Aiken was at the event, where he interacted with members of the community. He wanted to make it clear to them that although he created the piece, it was their work, not his — and instead of telling them what was in the mural, he let them tell him. For him, it was important for people to interpret the mural in their own way and have it truly be a part of the community.
“I don’t want to have to be there and stand there like a billboard, because people’s experiences are very important to me,” Aiken said. “I won’t tell someone it’s an apple tree until they see an apple on it. I don’t need to do that, I jut need to get them to the tree. It could be shade, it could be just be beautiful, I don’t know. Everybody has a different story about the places that they are and the people they meet.”
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.