3 African-Americans Among Recipients of Prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants

Kyle Abraham
Kyle Abraham

The 2013 recipients of the famous MacArthur “genius” grants, one of the most prestigious awards in the nation, include pioneering African-American choreographer/dancer Kyle Abraham, 36, whose latest work uses dance to probe violence, and photographer Carrie Ann Weems, 60, who for over 30 years has used her talents to explore the intersection of black women, class, feminism and African-American history.

In the words of the MacArthur Foundation, this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows recognizes 24 “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future.” One of the most attractive features of the so-called “genius” grant is the large cash award: $625,000 over five years, paid out with $125,000 a year (an increase of $125,000 over last year’s grant). The money comes with no strings attached, as a recognition of past work and future potential, intended to give recipients the freedom to “follow their own creative vision.”

“This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity,” said Cecilia Conrad, Vice President, MacArthur Fellows Program. “They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage. Their stories should inspire each of us to consider our own potential to contribute our talents for the betterment of humankind.”

Abraham told the New York Times that he was relying on food stamps to eat just three years ago.

“It was amazing to me,” Abraham said of his reaction when he got the telephone call from Cecilia Conrad, who made most of the calls herself this year for the first time. “It was a shock. I was laughing about it; I was crying about it, it was so overwhelming. I’ve been trying to figure out how to pay off my student loans to this day.”

“Getting an award like this lets me know I can continue to make work and pay my dancers and I can pay my rent,” said Abraham, a resident of Brooklyn who is the founder and artistic director of his company, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion.

Tarell Alvin McCraney
Tarell Alvin McCraney

Another African-American recipient is Tarell Alvin McCraney, 32, a playwright and the author of “Choir Boy,” a play about competition and homophobia in elite all-black boys schools.

Vijay Iyer, 41, a jazz pianist and composer known for collaborations with poets, said, “I want to use the money for the greater good of the community.”

Iyer, who lives in Harlem and whose latest project was “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project,” an exploration of the dreams of minority war veterans, added: “A life in the arts is a life of service, Yo-Yo Ma once told me. That sits well with me.”

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