The Brown Arts Initiative teamed up with members of the student organization Brown Esports and a local artist-producer to create a virtual concert venue replete with whimsical details.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It’s been a year since most live music venues went dark to stem the spread of novel coronavirus — and performers and audiences alike are beginning to realize they miss more than just the music.
“I miss the community aspect of it,” said Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, a rapper and postdoctoral research fellow in international humanities with Brown University’s Department of Music. “I miss interacting with the crowd in real time, actually seeing how they’re responding to my words and gestures. And I miss being in the audience, dancing along with other people and moving around venues to find the best view of the stage.”
For the first nine months of the pandemic, Lumumba-Kasongo — who raps under the pseudonym Sammus — felt unable to replicate the heady experience of a live show on virtual platforms. But then came November 2020, when Providence musician and filmmaker B. Dolan invited her to perform as part of a concert in Minecraft — the ubiquitous virtual world sandbox game where players build alternate realities or reconstruct favorite real-life locations.
“I felt like I was really in a performance space in a way that I hadn’t felt with all the Zoom live-streamed performances I’d done in the spring and summer,” she said. “You can ‘see’ other people, you can ‘stand’ next to them, you can ‘dance’ with them and see them respond in real time. I knew instantly that I wanted to see more of these kinds of shows.”
This spring, Lumumba-Kasongo is teaming with the Brown Arts Initiative, Dolan and musicians on and off campus to present a series of Minecraft concerts open to the University community and the public. Performers include Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students, popular Ocean State acts and other musicians from across the country. Concertgoers can choose to participate in Minecraft or watch the livestream on YouTube or Twitch.
The concerts, which kick off on Saturday, March 27, are intended to provide a respite from Zoom, said Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, assistant director for programs at the BAI.
“Students at Brown were very interested in exploring alternative ways to host online events this semester,” LaCava-Bohanan said. “Earlier this winter, they mentioned a few different gaming platforms they thought might work. I reached out to Enongo for her thoughts, because I knew her to be an avid gamer.”
Music & Minecraft
The BAI began experimenting with Minecraft on March 4 with a concert featuring Brown undergraduate Belu-Olisa Sarkissian and alumna Becky Bass.
LaCava-Bohanan said Minecraft stood out as an obvious top choice when members of Brown Esports, a student organization devoted to online gaming, expressed willingness to work with the BAI. Previously, envisioning a virtual space where students could meet up with friends, students in the group had worked with dozens of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni to finish building a three-dimensional replica of the entire University campus in the gaming platform.
For the new series, the students “cut out” the College Green portion of their replica and teamed up with Dolan to transform it into a whimsical concert venue. They laid a stage on the grass near the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, set up a sound booth and even added a giant Blueno statue. They created some eccentric details they think will be popular with concertgoers, including a boxing ring and a porta-potty that transports users to a thrilling roller coaster ride.
“As a performer, virtual livestreams never excited me,” Dolan said. “To go from a concert venue to me, by myself, facing my webcam — the bigness and the spectacle and the excitement and even the intimacy are missing. It turns out Minecraft fills those voids really well. You have the opportunity to interact with others and observe their reactions. At my first Minecraft concert, people were really excited to visit the bathrooms and look at themselves in the mirror. It’s all those little details we used to take for granted that really bring the experience to life.”
Dolan explained that users will get the full concert experience by tuning in to an audio livestream on Twitch while simultaneously exploring the Minecraft venue. While all of the performers’ sets will be pre-recorded, many of them will still be present in real time, moving and “playing” onstage as Minecraft users.
There are wonderful examples of the ways games can bring unlikely groups of people together and bring new perspectives to complicated subjects.
Lumumba-Kasongo said the series has the potential to make Minecraft more accessible to people of all backgrounds and experience levels. With the hope that events like these might open many more minds to the endless possibilities of gaming, she and her colleagues created a website that walks users through the process of purchasing and downloading Minecraft, accessing the server and moving around the environment.
“While it’s true that many game environments have been hostile to queer communities, people of color and women, there are ways in which those communities have still managed to thrive and have fun in gaming environments and subvert traditional ideas of power,” she said. “There are wonderful examples of the ways games can bring unlikely groups of people together and bring new perspectives to complicated subjects. Discovering gaming has been empowering for me, and I want others to experience that same empowerment.”
The first concert in the series will take place on Saturday, March 27. The Minecraft server opens and the stream begins at 7 p.m., with performances by Moor Mother, Du Yun, Suzi Analogue and San Cha beginning at 8 p.m. After the show, the performers will gather for a discussion about developing an onstage identity and persona. More information is available on the Events at Brown website.