Born in Long Beach, CA, now living in Chicago for “the weather,” Willa Moore rambled the west, east, and mid-coasts – a shrimp-picker, bartender, factory girl, reporter, singer-songwriter, performance poet and Board-Certified Music Therapist working for many years with Elders in the startling world of nursing homes. The American Composers Forum honored her songs and community service with a grant to record her first album and create a one woman show “Let ‘Em Whirl,” performed in Boston and other rebellious New England towns. Her second album is Griffith Park, of which one late night reviewer wrote, “Brilliant, insightful, eloquent…like a good 15-year-old Scotch.” Willa’s latest performance art project is a collaboratively created music video of her song Walk With Us, a protest anthem and folk-gospel elegy written after the terrible murder of George Floyd.
As well as making performance art, Willa currently works to assist efforts to bring college classes and the arts to incarcerated youth; to support and establish bilingual afterschool family literacy programs in underserved schools; and to help distribute bilingual children’s books to refugee settlements internationally, and to immigrants and refugees in the USA.
The Song: "Walk With Us" is a protest prayer, cry of grief, and call to action I wrote after the terrible murder of George Floyd and after seeing videos of protestors in Lexington, KY. The protesters marched to the downtown police department chanting, calling out for Justice. Then the chants changed to “Walk with us, Kneel with us” repeated over and over. Gradually cops began to join them. Finally, they knelt down—protesters and police. Some bowed their heads. At the time it seemed a glimmer of hope, though I well knew the heart-wrenching truth—that long before and after George Floyd’s murder, May 25th, 2020, white supremacy and it’s institutionalized racist violence cut short the lives of countless other Black men, women, and children, causing untold suffering.
"Walk With Us" is directed by Hannah Westbrook, Kym Franklin, Willa Moore, and Darren Crisp. It is our pleasure to speak to Willa Moore about the making of the project,
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
Rather than “inspiration,” in the usual sense, I felt an urgent necessity, a duty to get the song Walk With Us, into the public sphere. The song is a protest prayer and elegy for George Floyd and so many others whose lives have been cut short due to white supremacy and its institutionalized racist violence. It is also a call to action especially directed to “white people like me” (lyrics from Walk With Us, 2020) to join and support the long effort, led by generations of great leaders of color worldwide, for racial, economic, and environmental justice.
After first writing the song, in the days after the terrible murder of George Floyd, I wasn’t sure I should keep working on WWU and publish it, but several friends urged me get it out, and thought a video would amplify the work. I’m thinking particularly of Kym Franklin, an old friend from Chicago and extraordinary Black gospel artist and teacher who composed the powerful gospel chorus accompaniment for WWU; and JQ Adams – a longtime friend and innovative Black educator and facilitator in non-violent communication.
Secondly, I was inspired, in the more traditional sense, by the idea discussed with the other “directors” of the film and all the artists involved, of trying to make a video that might respectfully, artfully, embody unity and collaboration across old hard boundaries of race, class, religion, gender, ideology, age, geography; and across artistic boundaries – folk and gospel protest traditions interwoven with contemporary dance. We wanted to try to create a piece that might, in its way, “help heal this ravaged world.” (lyrics from Walk With Us © 2020)
What is the most challenging aspects of working in this genre?
Can I change the question from “challenge” to “challenges?” ;) There were so many!
As I’ve said the question of intention was difficult and required reaching out to trusted friends and colleagues for help in examining motives and purpose. We had to make sure the film had integrity at its core – that it was truly our best collaborative effort to help one another grieve, heal, and move forward with resolve to make changes in ourselves and our communities towards a more just, durable, compassionate world.
Once we decided to move forward there were the physical challenges of managing such a “hefty collaboration.” During the making of the film some of the cast/crew met on Zoom and many of us have yet to meet in person. We are from seven different cities around the U.S. – North, South, East, and West – thirteen singers, six dancers and three video editors.
The challenges were compounded, of course, because of working during the pandemic. We had to find ways to record the music and make the film while keeping everyone safe and well. I had recorded the solo version of the song in my makeshift home studio. (Photo in file)
Kym Franklin, living in Little Rock, AR at the time, organized the recording and filming of the gospel chorus. She was familiar with Crisp Studios in Fayetteville, AR and knew that Crisp was/is a beautiful and safe studio which followed, and still does, all covid protocols, and that the owner Darren Crisp was a highly skilled recording engineer and videographer.
Stuart Rosenberg, Chicago icon/impresario, musician and producer mixed and mastered the final song with gospel accompaniment in his Chicago home studio.
All dancers filmed themselves out of doors, some with the help of friends including Hannah Westbrook, movement director on the project, and Maxx Kurzunski, videographer and lead video editor. Hannah Westbrook also took on the challenge of filming me, Willa, on the roof of an apartment building at sunset on a couple of “breezy” Chicago days.
Most importantly, as mentioned, there was the challenge of building trust among our collaborative across differences of race, age, class, personality, political ideology, geography. This is ongoing as Walk With Us has become not only a music video but a project that seeks to find and fund strong nonprofit organizations working for racial, economic and environmental justice. (FYI: poster included).
Afterall, I am a white woman of “a certain age,” asking young Black, Brown and white singers and dancers – to trust and work with her on intense material. Kym (composer and director of gospel chorus) and I discussed how to build trust with the singers she had invited. We agreed to hold a Zoom between the singers at Crisp studios and myself in Chicago. The purpose was for them to meet me and ask any questions they needed to ask to feel comfortable working on the project.
Hannah Westbrook (movement director) and I agreed on the same setup over Zoom to meet with the dancers she had contacted in hopes they would take on the project.
The singers and the dancers all asked great questions, as you are in this interview…how I came to write the song, where did the musical choices/ style come from? What were my intentions in writing the song? What kind of pushback did I receive when I first shared it? Why make a video? Why add dance? What was my story – my history, especially in relation to the movement for social justice? (A bit of that history included as addendum at end this doc). What would I do with the finished video?
It was an intense time, only a few months after George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide uprising that followed. The recording session brought up lots of feelings in everyone as Kym and I suspected it would. For that reason, we had decided beforehand, along with Darren of Crisp Studios, that it would be good to have some time for discussion and fellowship after the session, including time for each singer to say something about their own story, how they’d been doing over the last months, and how they were feeling after recording WWU. And, if the singers agreed, Kym thought it might be useful, historically speaking, to film the interviews. All the singers chose to be interviewed. Patrick Andrews, Kym’s assistant from Chicago, conducted the session asking careful sensitive questions. There are some strong hard truths in the footage. We may edit and share some of that material in another short film in future, if the WWU collaboration agrees that is a useful, respectful thing to do.
Note: Dr. Jeffry Murdoch of the University of Arkansas and 2021 Grammy award winner for Music Education came to our WWU live release gathering, July 10, 2021, held at Crisp Studios in Fayetteville (also attended by people around the country via Zoom). That evening Dr Murdoch told a story that was important to us all. He said that the murder of George Floyd and the months after were, to be sure, a tough time for his students. It was during that time that several of the students were asked to participate in our WWU video project. They were hesitant, and so brought the song to him to ask his opinion. He said that he had advised them to work on the project and that in fact it turned out to be a “healing experience” for them. For everyone that worked on the film Dr. Murdoch’s sharing that night was deeply appreciated as an affirmation of our effort.
In that regard everyone involved in the project agreed, over the course of the making of the film, that the integrity of the process was just as important, if not more important, than the final product.
Challenges, con’t ;)
Also, to be frank, for me personally was the challenge of Age and Image. I was a “homecoming queen” and now I get Medicare (thank goodness). I have several music videos out, but don’t appear in any of them – somehow not wanting to be seen or see myself. I kept trying to keep my image out of the film but finally accepted the group consensus that the song’s message required I ‘show up.’ And hiding is exhausting.
When did you realize that you wanted to work in media and make films and what was the first film project that you created as a director?
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a director. But about 5 years ago a musician friend and videographer Arlan Boll said he had an idea for a video for one of my songs. It’s a fun, half-rapped song about aging called Spa Rag. Arlan wanted to try one image per beat, so we worked on the video together. That process got me interested in video for more songs. For a silly, if you’d like, check out Spa Rag at youtube.com/willamooremusic.
How did you choose the cast and crew of the film and what was the most challenging aspect of production?
I chose artists I trust and had worked with in the past. Without Kym Franklin’s help and inspiration there would have been no video. She composed the gospel chorus accompaniment and brought all the remarkable singers to Crisp Studios. She introduced me to Darren Crisp whose expert sound engineering and beautiful videography of the expressive faces of the singers I think brought a deeply honest, personal presence to the film.
I’ve known Movement Director Hannah Westbrook for quite some time and seen her passionate clarity and powerful integrity as a human being and dancer and her considerate, insightful style of collaborative leadership. I knew she would bring the ability, dedication, and perseverance necessary to plan and follow through on what would be a super challenging project.
The choice of a videographer was a complicated process. My first choice was a wonderful musician, friend, and videographer I have worked with in Chicago. But I came to realize our previous videos were much simpler projects. As mentioned, I never appeared in the videos. WWU was proving to be a complicated film, with a large cast and footage that required complex, time-consuming into-the-cracks editing technique. We needed a videographer and lead video editor with high quality gear and experience using it. I had to make the tough decision after some months into the project to switch editors. Hannah has described the difficulty in her notes, so I won’t repeat. (Ultimately our first editor, also my friend, graciously told me he completely agreed with the decision given what he called his “consumer grade” equipment.)
We were very lucky that the extraordinary, much-in-demand Maxx Kuzunski of Oakland, CA was able to take over as lead editor when he did. His videography and meticulous editing allowed our vision to be realized more fully and I think/hope placed our film in a truly artful class. Others seem to think so as, at this juncture, we have been honored to have been selected for screening by over ten film festivals, which puts us in category of one of the most selected films on Film Freeway (or so they tell me ;) Just this December we won the award for Best Song at the Amsterdam International Film Festival! Our festival selections and awards include San Francisco Dance Film Festival, Chicago Indie Film Awards, Hollywood Women’s International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, European Shorts Film Festival, South Texas International Film Festival and the one-of-a-kind, uniquely welcoming Venice Shorts Festival which led us to this wonderful opportunity to meet you at LA Indies!
The festival selections and awards are gifts and we are deeply honored, certainly, but what matters most to us is that they mean our film will be seen by thousands around the world, hopefully encouraging more and more people to stand up for racial, economic and environmental justice.
What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a director and which genres do you prefer to work on?
By now you know that I have virtually no experience of the art of filmmaking. I have videos of some of my songs on YouTube mainly created by Doug Chamberlin of Chicago and myself. But we did not include live footage in any of our videos. WWU
is my first true film making experience and the first in which I appeared live. I would like to work in future with sparse, multi-dimensional visual design to accompany my songs, improvisations, spoken word poems, and short stories.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
I think the art of cinema wields immense power that can serve “conscious evolution” – encouraging our species’ capacity for empathy, unity, collective action for peace, justice, equality of opportunity, education, discovery, the preservation of our planet’s ecosystem, good will, good fun, healthy joys.
But also, it seems that cinema’s power, if used callously – for profit, power, greed, glory, or with intention to control – can intensify our species’ vulnerabilities: for example, how easily the human mind can be manipulated. Cinema can amplify our brain’s default fight or flight reactions, Us vs Them defaults, tribalism, our addiction to emotion and high drama, violence or simply our addiction to visual/high tech entertainment in general, no matter the quality. Appreciation, even access to slower, simpler joys can be lost.
We are aware that for many Walk With Us is an intensely emotional film. But our hope is that it can be an example of how to use emotion to help people grieve and as a motivation to make much needed changes in oneself and in one’s community, nation. We are pleased the film is already being used as an educational tool in Anti-Racist groups and in faith communities. For example, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fayetteville, AR is centering their service of January 16, 2022, around Walk With Us. Jules Taylor (singer and community liaison for WWU) is leading the program. She will be accompanied in person by Kristen Phantazia Smith (WWU singer) and Kym Franklin (composer and director) and myself on Zoom. I was also recently contacted by a community college teacher in Chicago who would like to use the film in her writing class.
While making the video we created a list of Twelve Action Steps people could take to help in fight for racial justice. We wanted to add them to the end of the film, but it seemed too much at once. We wondered if you might think about including them or a link to them in your article, should you choose to publish something re WWU.
In case you’re interested, below is a link to a short TV interview Kristen Phantazia Smith and Jules Taylor (two beautiful singers on WWU) did in Fayetteville, AR. The tv station included a link to the 12 Action Steps. Here’s the link to the interview and the Action Steps.
What is your next film project?
I am working with Stuart Rosenberg of Chicago flushing out our next project. Probably a series of short films/videos of my spoken word poems and stories accompanied by song and instrumental improvisation. We’d also like to film a live (small theater), multi-media one woman show, covid willing
Walk With Us has been called a “spiritual and powerful exhortation” and “a stirring folk-gospel protest anthem and call to action in the long struggle for racial justice, unity and peace.”
Genesis of song: I so wanted to be out in the streets of Chicago protesting but felt Covid vulnerable, old, and (as a friend said at the time) “I don’t run fast enough.” I go back a good many years now in the struggle for justice and peace – grew up during the Vietnam War and was active in the antiwar movement and the civil rights-racial justice and labor struggles of the 60’s and 70’s. (In high school worked with United Farm Workers supporting La Huelga and cut school in Long Beach, CA to picket with the workers at Herald Examiner strike in LA. At the time, I was deeply inspired, and still am, by the work and life of Angela Davis – ditched high school (yet again ;) to go to a demonstration in LA where she was speaking).
But in the days and nights following George Floyd’s murder, i read and watched lots of news online. one night i came across video of protestors in Lexington, KY. The protestors had marched to the police station chanting, calling out for Justice—then the chant changed to “Walk with us. Kneel with us” repeated over and over. Gradually cops began to join them. Finally, they all knelt down, protestors and police, and bowed their heads. At the time, that act of unity between protestors and some police seemed to offer hope, though I well knew the heart-wrenching truth: that before and after George Floyd’s murder, May 25th, 2020, white supremacy and its institutionalized racist violence cut short the lives of countless other Black men, women, and children, causing untold suffering. Only the night before a Black man, David McAtee, was killed by police in Louisville, KY. Apparently, none of the police on the scene recorded body camera footage of the incident.]