In one of those twists that confirm the presence of a Divine Being, a random visit to Nordstrom Rack translated into a new friendship. That new friendship translated into an invitation to a musical performance at the Barnes Foundation.
Prior to the performance, I did some cursory research on the Barnes Foundation and Philadelphia’s art scene more broadly. I was dumbfounded and humbled to learn that I grew up in the shadow of a cultural Mecca and didn’t even know it.
Philadelphia, the States’ first UNESCO World Heritage City (and our first capital), is home to countless museums, over 4,000 public mass murals, and a dedicated Avenue of the Arts. One of those museums, the Barnes Foundation, houses one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist and modern art including works by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani. Juxtaposed with its creative heartbeat is the city’s thriving STEM community, comprised of some of the top tech and medical minds in the country. It is thus appropriate that the Brookings Institution named Philadelphia a top “Knowledge Capital,” giving equal credence to its left and right-brained talent.
I was privileged to experience some of the city’s homegrown talent against the backdrop of the Barnes Foundation's tranquil gardens and multi-color light displays on a recent Friday night. In their signature red dress, Daniel de Jesus sang Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry with flamenco-style vibrato over haunting original string melodies. Describing Garcia Lorca’s Sonnets of Dark Love as “cheeky, funny, and tragic all at once” de Jesus credited the theme of “deep love that cannot be” as their draw to Garcia Lorca’s writing.
After their first song, de Jesus explained the concept of “duende” (which they referred to as the “creative life force behind art”) to the largely English-speaking audience. That potent word was unfamiliar to me, while the meaning of Spanish words like “alma,” “esperanza,” and “milagro” resurfaced from the annals of my brain (pardon us Americans, you know we’re stereotypically not great at foreign languages!) during the performance. Ultimately, de Jesus’ facial expressions and guttural singing allowed me to intuit the meaning of their art with no translation required.
De Jesus also performed original works in English. I felt compelled to transcribe two lines in particular: “Praise be to the process of depression,” and, “How I long to be made of plastic,” both nod to the double-edged sword of pain, the artist’s best friend and archenemy at once.
As an emerging creative, I was inspired by de Jesus’ journey. They studied at two Philadelphia art schools and worked at the Barnes Foundation before becoming a headliner. Perhaps that is why de Jesus remained so poised on the Barnes’ stage as knives, forks and cackling patrons enjoying a Friday night out rudely rattled around them.
The fact that I am not a musician nor a Spanish speaker was irrelevant to my appreciation for de Jesus’ gifts, and I’d venture the same for the other members of the audience. Like me, de Jesus straddles multiple identities - American and foreign, artistic and entrepreneurial. Like any of us, they experience immense highs and lows. But unlike many of us, they have the courage to share their pain for the artistic community of Philadelphia and the world to see.