The faint fragrance of espresso lingered in the small coffee shop on Division Street in Wicker Park. The soundtrack was a mix of rap and hip hop. Cultural Producer Asad Ali Jafri was sipping his iced espresso while he talked about his latest project – overseeing 40 concerts in one week across all of Chicago’s eight CTA train lines.
“I’m helping organize the series of concerts called Iron Heart Chicago,” Jafri explained. “Iron Heart is actually a name that the poet Nelson Algren used as a term for the CTA.”
Jafri’s tool of choice is art – in all of its forms. Whether it’s music or poetry, he uses art to connect communities and people from different walks of life, he said. The Iron Heart concerts – which feature a range of musical genres, from blues guitar to Irish fiddle to folk clarinet – take place at CTA stations in neighborhoods around the city.
We caught up with Jafri in the Wicker Park coffee shop, where we asked him about Iron Heart, his international background and his life’s passion.
Tell us about Iron Heart. And why CTA stations?
The executive director at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which is the organization that’s putting this on, thought that was an interesting way to talk about the CTA. And in a way, [the CTA] is kind of that conduit that connects us all within the city. So the idea was to use the CTA to expose people to musicians who are part of Chicago’s cultural fabric but may not be as well-known within their own city. What better way to expose them to Chicagoans than to have them playing at CTA stations?
What is your role in this project? Why did you get involved?
This was the vision of the executive director at Old Town, Bau Graves, and he asked me to organize the whole thing. My background is in putting on festivals, everything from the curation (picking artists) to producing and presenting them. Old Town chose six musicians.
Since Chicago has been home for a while, I was looking to do something in Chicago again and this came up so it was a perfect fit. The inspiring thing was, I get to do something new, unique and different in my own city as opposed to going somewhere else. The other major inspiration is these musicians. They’re not musicians that I was necessarily familiar with beforehand. Learning about the things that they do really inspires me because I wonder how many more hidden treasures there are out there and how we can help expose these folks.
From your point of view, how does art connect communities, cultures and people?
Art, to me, is kind of a creative output of the human experience. So it’s something people can understand pretty easily and can relate to and it’s important in telling narratives and stories of all of the diverse kinds of identities that we have in the world. I feel like art allows us to translate those into something that is palatable to people.
Are the concerts a type of activism?
Officially, no. Unofficially, I would say yes, because I think that you’re taking over public space with music. Anytime you do that, I think that is an activist type of notion. It’s a statement – those spaces are peoples’ spaces at the end of the day and people should be able to do things that are either inspirational or creating change. I think having these specific musicians in different neighborhoods throughout the city, and making sure that we focus on certain neighborhoods that are underserved and train stations that people would not expect something like this to happen at, is important.
What’s your background?
I was born in Kuwait. My father was born in India and my mother was born in Pakistan. I was born as an American citizen. I moved to the Chicago area when I was 10. I was really involved in hip-hop culture and that’s where the art and social change comes from, and community or cultural organizing through the hip-hop framework was where I got my start. That kind of evolved. I would work with others and I just realized that art and culture for me are a pathway through which change can be made, communities can be transformed, young people can be empowered, and people can come together.
Can you describe either the funniest or craziest thing that’s ever happened to you?
We had a festival called “Takin’ it to the Streets,” and in 2010 we did a huge one. You hope and pray that it won’t rain because it’s an outdoor festival. And it didn’t until the night that we were setting up. It was coming down like crazy and it was muddy and a real pain getting everything set. It was so bad that out of the four stages, one of them you just couldn’t set up. So we had to order a stage on a truck that comes down automatically. We think we have the perfect solution and wouldn’t you know, the truck comes and gets stuck in the mud. So there’s this truck in the middle of the park, awkwardly placed. It’s at a weird angle, and it’s about time for the festival to start. We just dropped it down and it worked.
That was crazy! It sounds like you love your work.
Absolutely. I don’t even consider it work, it’s just life.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.