The term “Renaissance man” is often either overused or taken too lightly. Birthed (pardon the double entendre) by Leon Battista Alberti, the term converted from the family of romance languages to English means: “a man can do all things if he will.*” Master of all trades, jack of none.
“The culture,” Black culture in particular, just lost a quintessential Renaissance man in Melvin Van Peebles. An elder who became an ancestor on September 21st of this year, Van Peebles was a bilingual filmmaker (French & English), a recording artist, a composer of Broadway musicals, an actor, a novelist, a painter, a cartoonist, a U.S. Air Forceman, a stock market options trader, a cable car operator, a shop hand and a father. Known simultaneously as “the Rosa Parks of the [film] industry” and “the godfather of independent cinema”, Van Peebles is credited with inventing his own genre of film with his seminal work, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song”. The Blaxploitation flick genre has a somewhat conflicted history for nothing more than being the Black film noir set to a funk soundtrack (Courtesy of a nascent Earth, Wind & Fire); nothing but crime fiction where Black actors play the lead as heroes, however flawed. But even those in the Black community who didn’t jive with this kind of art,couldn’t help but dig Van Peebles activism.
The movie’s opening credits say “Starring: The Black Community.” The crew working on Sweetback was majority non-white, at Van Peeble’s insistance. Not only was this practically unheard of, but given the lack of opportunities for people of color on film sets, many working on the film learned on the job. The crew may have been poorly paid, but Sweetback, both symbolically and in a quite literal sense, seized the means of film production for Black filmmakers, carving a space of opportunity for many to follow.
Enter Trey Pickett, modern day Renaissance Black in the tradition of Van Peebles. Trey is a builder (literally, woodwork), a musician (literally, woodshed), a classically trained ballet dancer, a DJ, a performance venue owner, a videographer, a dance instructor, a Que Dog (shoutout to Omega Psi Phi), a griot, a father, a fiancé and founder of VIIIZON LLC...which also boasts an Academy.
It’s a lot being a lot. It’s both low brow, high brow, and wipe brow for the most part. Amidst his recovery from a patella tendon rupture (because… ummm… dancers are professional athletes), Trey and I jumped in ...pun intended… on the difference between being a duckling and a Black male swan.
“I am indeed a classically trained dancer. Much of my early career I was under the impression that as a black male dancer I needed to be respectable,” Trey begins. “This made me work overly hard to catch up in my late training of ballet, which I began at the age of 18. This affected my philosophy by giving me a framework to how I would begin to shape my version of storytelling.”
Trey earned his respect.
Here’s how it started. “I’m just going to put it on blast, the first time I showed up to the University of New Mexico to begin my actual formal dance training...” — he shares on the Melan+aid podcast — “I had on my Machiavelli** coat! I came in there with my Evisu Jeans. I had on my Timberlands, you know what I mean? I came in there straight raw. They looked at me like a hip-hop video had just walked in. And even my own people who were there, that had been so washed out by what the environment was breeding, they also projected that onto me. Like ‘Yo, you need to dress a little bit different or not make yourself look like that.’ And I was like, ‘Look like what?’”
Trey goes on to tell me that the director at his audition for dance college essentially told him that we don’t do “music videos and that kind of thing here.” Told him they require classical training and very strict modern training. He invoked Alvin Ailey as an inspiration. She told him he is “starting late.” Most professional level dancers begin their journey in single digits. Trey is 18 at the audition. Prior to that he was an athlete and a street dancer. Progeny of a family of West African dancers, but Trey...came for ballet.
Without toning down his Blackness, he turnt up. Quintessentially Krump. Quintessentially Crunk. He got his tights. Got his slippers. Got his dance belt. He took “it” personally and started to push, kind of like post-op rehab. He put in the work. He caught up. He caught past. Principal dancers around the state took note. They also sought Trey out for expertise in “other” styles. He created non-traditional choreography that created an Underground Railroad of sorts (my words, not his) for his contemporaries from the urban dance world to the blinding lights of center stage.
When the UNM Friends of Dance brought in a choreographer from New York City who wanted to experiment with “the funk,” they counted themselves lucky to have a Trey Pickett in company, arguably the Lin-Manuel Miranda of dance in the Southwest. Can I get a Hamilton!?
His codeswitch came in handy at a time when the very survival of classical dance hinged on its crossover appeal. The dance community nationally and locally realized that their affluent audience was both aging and monochromatic (for the most part). Most importantly, it was shrinking. And Trey, well Trey was dancing with the stars.
Trey chose respect over respectability. Like Van Peebles this many years since graduating UNM School of Dance, Trey and his future wife Vanessa Mathis have created a business by people of color, for people of color, paying people of color to learn craft. More specifically, VIIIZION Academy is an intentional space where young dancers of color (and others) can learn how to move in peace.
A multimedia production house, VIIIZION LLC is more than a dance school academy, it is the resurrection of the A & R. A lost art in the era of Youtube artists seeking Insta-fame, that long-ago time before MySpace and before Percy Robert Miller (AKA Master P) went platinum out of his trunk, back when music labels had an artist’s repertoire to find and develop talent rather than just signing artists whose social media following they could turn into customers and harvest for sales. In short, back when art turned a profit as opposed to profit turning into art.
Being from a family of educators, Trey can’t help but help young artists realize their potential. In that vein, VIIIZION LLC provides “wraparound” creative services for emerging dancers, recording artists, videographers, choreographers, costumers, set designers, you name it. Trey wants to teach up and coming artists all parts of the business (just like he taught himself), and surround them with a cohort of other young artists they can partner with and grow together as they produce the soundtrack for their generation.
And as we know from some of the greatest entertainers of our time, the Super Bowl Halftime show only comes calling if you can sing, dance, social media, look good, chew gum, catwalk AND sell records all at the same time.
“My company has broadened Its horizons and in short it is FUBU time! For Us and By Us. I’m not here to make friends anymore, per se,” says Trey. “I am here to make respectable stances for POC^ who identify with being better and doing more.”
There’s that word “respect” again.
Trey goes on to share, “This platform we have made is to elevate talent and push a new narrative of culture and empowerment. I see us helping shape a new wave of talent and culture. I see us being fully funded and staffed to have a larger impact and build generational wealth into the foundation of our community in New Mexico. I see us creating a template that inspires the world to do better and be better. Our story started at literally the bottom, so we see ourselves reaching back and lifting up as we climb.”
Can you hear it? I can.
That’s one Baadasssss Song.
Now please sing along.