A chance encounter with a cosmic composer was a turning point in Rah Amen’s dynamic career as a musician, event producer and DJ. The founder of Diversity Productions, he draws on his cumulative experiences to curate a series of unique musical and educational events around Asheville.
“Is your space intuition up?” renowned bandleader Sun Ra asked Amen on New Year’s Eve 1985. Amen had loaned his percussion instruments to Sun Ra’s Arkestra for a show in Atlanta. When that band’s percussionist didn’t show up, Amen offered to fill in. Assured the drummer’s space intuition was indeed up, Sun Ra told Amen he could play and handed him a uniform. “They put me in a big robe with a bunch of stars and planets on it, and a big gold hat on my head with a big crystal in the third eye of the hat,” he recalls.
After the performance, Sun Ra invited Amen to come to Philadelphia to play with the Arkestra. “My life changed forever, needless to say,” Amen says.
In the most recent iteration of that life path, Amen’s Diversity Productions’ 2019 season will kick off Sunday, March 10, at Ambrose West, with an International Women’s Extravaganza, the first of three Concerts for Human Harmony to be held at that venue. That event will feature female-identified performers and presenters including Lael Brooks, Valeria Watson, Uma Hernandez, Cuddle in the Cosmos, Queen Momo, Sherri Lynn Clark and Linda Cammarata.
The season continues with Busker’s Plus at The Mothlight on Monday, April 1, an evening of music with Bobby Sax, John Donald, Landon Frost, Raeph McDowell and more. Then, on Sunday, April 14, the next Concert for Human Harmony, titled More Flowers of the Garden, will showcase musical acts including the Cosmic International Unity Arkestra and Kevin Spears. Additional events, such as a Healing Expo in late September, are also in the works.
Amen is currently soliciting sponsors and donors for this year’s season to present “the most beautiful, diverse music in Asheville’s music night scene,” he says.
It’s been a long road to being able to create such a scene. Amen played with Sun Ra for about a year, then he moved to New Orleans where, he says, “my musical education really went to another level.” There, he developed a lifelong musical collaboration with Bilal Sunni-Ali, a saxophonist who performed with soul and jazz spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron.
From New Orleans, Amen went to Austin, Texas, and, as he puts it, “everything exploded” after he formed his first production company, Cosmic Intuition Productions. He was motivated by the racial and cultural separation he saw in the city. “It just hit me one day,” he says. “I got a divine inspiration … that we could bring the town together through music.”
His first event as a producer, called the 100 Musician Improvisation Human Expression Music Night, drew a diverse crowd. Amen continued to produce large events in Austin, securing significant funding from the Austin Arts Council and sponsors such as IBM and Dell Computers. He eventually put on successful, well-funded events in Atlanta, as well.
As a musician, in addition to leading the Cosmic Intuition ensemble, the ensuing years have found Amen returning for stints with the Sun Ra Arkestra and playing with groups such as George Clinton and P.Funk and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. “My musical journey has been completely controlled by the creator of the universe, or the omniverse, as Sun Ra would say,” Amen says.
A call from his grandmother in 2001 brought him back to Greenville, S.C., where he grew up. For the first time, he found himself struggling to find financial support. “Here’s where conservatism showed up,” Amen says. Despite his impressive portfolio, “The big boys wouldn’t sponsor me because I had long dreadlocks down my back.” Some doors were closed to him; other times, people he met with put on their own events using his ideas.
Amid this frustration, he was invited to play a show in Asheville at the onetime venue Vincent’s Ear with Sunni-Ali. It was a freezing night in January 2004, yet the venue was packed, and the crowd overwhelmingly responsive. A late-night meal at Rosetta’s Kitchen added to the charm of the evening. Soon after, Amen moved to this city.
Since then, in partnership with the nonprofit Zamani Refuge African Culture Center, an organization that provides educational and arts programming related to Africa, Amen’s Diversity Productions has hosted concerts in Asheville. The purpose is to “bring cultures together to learn more about each other so we can have more harmony,” Amen explains. The concerts feature “diverse and international musicians who are under the radar.”
While Diversity Productions has some enthusiastic sponsors and support, Amen has yet to secure the funding needed to operate at the level he was able to in Austin and Atlanta. He attributes this to resistance based on his appearance and to funders who deny support, saying his concerts are duplicating the LEAF events, a concern he says is unfounded. Instead, Amen points to the ways his multicultural events “beautifully complement” both LEAF and North Carolina’s international folk dance festival, Folkmoot.
“Diversity is needed in all areas, not just on the stage,” Amen says. “What people have to realize is that, as far as people who are presenting music in Asheville — as a presenter, as a producer — there are very few people who look like myself.”
WHAT: International Women’s Extravaganza, diversityproductions.net
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Sunday, March 10, 6 p.m., $12 advance/$15 at the door