Humans tell stories for many reasons, but one of the most profound is to bring communities together. Livingston Steele is an artist and storyteller doing exactly that for his community in Newark, New Jersey where he is from. We had the privilege of sitting down with Livingston to discuss his artistic journey and his project The Theory of Brick City Music:
NECTAR NEWS: Livingston, you are a director, an actor, a musician, and a writer, a true multi-hyphenate. Where did you start your journey as an artist?
LIVINGSTON STEELE: I started as a musician first, I gravitated towards acting to step outside myself and my comfort zone after college. But originally, music is where I started. I went to an art school in Newark, New Jersey called Newark Arts High School and I was an instrumental major. I played trumpet first and then I went on to play upright bass and bass. I went to college for the music industry. Originally, I wanted to work in the music industry and work with artist development. Specifically, my vision was to help young artists develop into the superstars that you see today. I have always found the journey and work that goes into developing a new artist fulfilling.
After going to school for the music industry, I decided to get a minor in TV and Film, and that’s where I started my interest in telling stories on screen. I was seeing all of these connections between how we tell stories thru music and film and TV. I became really excited about learning how music influences TV in its composition. After college, I interned at BET Music Matters and Summer Stage, so I got good experience in festival internships, music internships, and working with music management companies.
As I was in college and leaving college, I had an interest in acting because I was a very shy kid. I always admire people being able to speak in public and lose themselves in a character, and I took that leap after I left college. I jumped into acting and I had gotten a supporting role right after school. Once I got that supporting role in an independent film, I got to see the behind-the-scenes of the process and I was hooked, so I guess you could say that I got the acting bug. After that, I went into Off-off-Broadway for a year, and then I got the opportunity to do a few more indie films. I did the New York Theater Festival. I was the lead in a play called Conscious that another Flobel Advisor Tony Wilkes, was producing that Advisor Kim Singleton wrote in 2018. And I recently did the New York Theater Festival last year, which was really cool. It was 12 Mo’ Angry Men, which was an adaptation of 12 Angry Men. And it had a lot of good reviews as Conscious did.
NN: Very cool. When did you start making your own work?
LS: So during that time, as I was working as an actor and learning filmmaking, I still was working in the music industry. I was assisting local artists trying to help them get their music out there and I started to see a new path for being able to market them. I foresaw Reels and TikTok because the visual element was becoming a really important thing on social media. So, I suggested creating a web series. Nothing too crazy, but a web series, because at the time people were indulging more on YouTube and wanting to watch stories or quick stories, but I thought that would be a cool way to get real music created by the artists seen. So, that’s what led us to create the web series, The Theory of Brick City Music. The series is based in my hometown and it follows a singer/sax player as he’s going through his ups and downs and striving to become a premier artist, while also taking care of his family and his sickly mother after the death of his father.
That’s the story that we came to after six years of development. The original story was very simple and it was mainly supposed to support and showcase the music. But, when we got into Newark International Film Festival in 2016 and we were nominated for some awards but did not win. We started to see the trajectory of other films from around the world, and who won and how they won. That got me interested in going deeper with our film. So, even though I didn’t go to school for film, I started because of that leap into it. I was able to find another love outside of music, still connecting to music. Originally The Theory of Brick City Music was more of a comedy and only five to 10 minutes. As we developed it became more dramatic and lengthened to an hour. I’m still playing around with the format and how I’m pitching it, but I want it to be something that can compete also as a film and as a story at festivals.
Another important element of this project for me was the realization that there aren’t many stories about my hometown, Newark, New Jersey, particularly about immigrants or about the art community that’s based there. I saw something that was needed so I dove into script writing. I joined OBS, the Organization of Black Screenwriters. And that organization has connected me with a bunch of screenwriters around the country and I started working on The Theory of Brick City Music from a technical standpoint.
As the project grew, I started gathering people and shooting. I never had any money or time to do this. But, I was lucky enough to pull the resources, and the privilege enough to have friends that grew and developed with me and grew into videographers, and cinematographers and helped me create the first proof of concept in 2017 and 2018. And once I was able to do that, I saved $2,000. And mind you, I didn’t have a job or anything. I was working in social media freelancing, and I was still doing plays, and still building myself as an artist, but I also was building myself as a filmmaker. And then, I got the opportunity in 2018 to spend $2,000 and I was able to create a 30-minute short, and I broke it up and I submitted it to The North Film Festival again, and I was able to win. The main character won the best actor award. And coincidentally, he’s not an actor, he is a singer-sax player in real life who has real music.
NN: Wow, what a great story about dedication to a story paying off. Congratulations.
LS: Yes, thank you. And once we won, I realized there was something here that the community really liked. So I started developing more with the community, and that led to me creating The Brick City Jam Festival in 2019. My drive to do this also came from the challenge of still facing producers and other people who were interested in the film but unable to fathom the concept of artists in the city of Newark. The festival would give a platform to those artists and make them more visible. I was able to get with some friends, a friend of mine is a big muralist and graffiti artist, and he had a location where he curates an outdoor gallery. I worked with him to curate 40 different types of muralist artists while I brought other visual artists, music artists, and dancers, and performers and we had a festival there. Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be a festival, it was supposed to be a way of me shooting them, filming them, and using that as content to show that this concept is a real thing upon with who I shot the 30-minute short. But, while I was shooting, I realized people were coming outside and indulging in it as a festival.
NN: Oh, I love that. So, it sounds like a lot of what drives you is also connecting your community to your work and showcasing the local talent you grew up with. Where are you at with the project today and how can our audience help?
LS: In 2020, I had a lot of steam coming from The Brick City Jam Festival and from The Theory of Brick City Music as a film, and as a series. So, going into 2020, I was listing up a bunch of events following it as well as premiering the series, and then Covid happened. And I was editing it by myself, so it wasn’t fully done. And there were just so many moving parts that fell to the wayside because of Covid that I had to restart. I released it in 2021 as a pilot series on YouTube as a proof of concept, if you will. And by releasing that proof of concept, I was able to get $10,000 to create another, actual film, a stronger version.
LS: Yes, and along the way, while I doing this, I was learning so much about the film, but I still had my mistakes here and there, but I never had a budget to do it. So, once I got that $10,000, I spent the next year building out the session, The Brick City Jam Festival but also creating Brick City Jam Sessions, which are more focused on the music. I want to be able to use that to showcase the music from the show.
This year, I started filming, and I’m trying to raise more money to finish filming, but along the way still have these sessions. So, once it’s done I can premiere different artists that come from it. And then, after I’m done filming this short, I would like to shoot a few more episodes or shorts if you will that complement this story, but also showcase different artists from the city of Newark. So, I also have actors, real actors in the show, but I have a lot of musicians acting. They may play a character or they may just be in the show to create that authenticity. So, where I’m at right now is raising money.
NN: That’s awesome. So, are you planning on crowdfunding?
LS: So, I launched the GoFundMe about two weeks ago. And I’m doing a campaign now to raise money in the next two or three months to see how much I can get to at least help. I’m applying to different grants right now just to see where it goes. But, I am in the midst of making sure, looking at my footage that I’ve already started shooting because I already started shooting in August, so I got more than a little less than half of it done. So, I’m trying to raise another $10,000 to get two to four more days of shooting to finish the film and then start getting ready to submit it to film festivals.
NN: Very cool. We will definitely be linking everywhere that you can support this project and the events that follow. I think that’s a really important strategy to not only think of this as just a film, but it sounds like it’s a movement. You have the film, but you have these live events and that’s so great. What have been one or two of the biggest challenges for you? And then, on the other side of that, what has been one or two of maybe the biggest surprises?
LS: I didn’t expect this to go this long. When I thought of the idea, when I was seeing the vision, I was like, this is a lot. There’s no way I’m going to be able to bring the whole community together to do this. And somehow, some way, I found myself now being able to create this story but also creating pockets within the story. I just did a visual with a dancer from Newark showcasing Jersey Club and showcasing dance, as most people don’t know there’s a whole dance movement from Newark.
And it’s like, I started this with, the idea for a web series about musicians but it all connects, because within that community when an artist is trying to make their music or trying to do anything, they’re working with graphic designers, or painters, visual artists, or graffiti artists, or they’re working with engineers, or they’re working with dancers, they’re working with videographers to help, they create their music videos. So, it’s so much collaboration that we don’t see in the struggles of how much we glamorize their lives. And additionally, there are the struggles that come with an immigrant’s point of view, coming from a Black American’s point of view, coming from someone who lives in a city that’s currently being gentrified right before our eyes. So, that was one of the biggest surprises that I didn’t expect was to get money the way I did to do this, to get a festival out of this.
One of my challenges was being able to motivate myself to push this every day because if I don’t get up and do it. it doesn’t happen. And that was very challenging to get up every day, to edit the film, to direct the film. And I’m not in this even as an actor. I’m not in it at all, because I didn’t see a need for it. I commend actors who are able to direct and act in their own work because that is a lot of work. I’m at a point where, wherever it goes, I’m grateful for where we’ve gotten thus far, and the fact that I’m even able to bring these stories to life.
NN: Any tips or tricks for people or advice for folks who are wanting to do this, who are where you were at the top of this and starting to dip their toe in, but they have a story, they have an idea they really want to follow through on?
LS: One is, never give up even when you don’t have all the resources. When I started this, I had a bunch of friends come together to help out. And that first day it was so easy to get a bunch of people interested in an idea, but what is important is learning to rely on discipline rather than talent. After that first day, it was very difficult to get people back out to finish that three to six-day shoot. We did it but, after the first day of 15, 20 people being on set, the second day you maybe get five, the third day, maybe three, and it’s still pushing yourself because a lot of people didn’t believe in the concept or didn’t help me. A lot of doors were shut in my face or it was a lot of rejections. And it was very daunting because I was getting rejected from acting, modeling, and submitting for grants, and jobs.
It was a lot to manage mentally. So, the ability to stay disciplined and believe in what you’re doing, reach out when you need help, and really look to your community for support is important. Because I never thought this community would come together, and rally the way they rallied around me. It was the resilience, discipline, motivation, and belief in the story that I was trying to create that got me thru the tough parts.
And I would say, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to have to go through that wall, that brick wall, and consistently do it day to day and be disciplined, because it’s not easy, it’s not going to be easy even where I’m at today, but because of all the things that I’ve faced, it’s like, well, why not? Why not now? Why not just see it through? Because, I didn’t have any money, or any resources, or anything to start it off six years ago, and I’ve done this project two or three times as a proof of concept. And the fact that I even had the opportunity to do that, that’s a blessing to have gotten that many people to help me restart this three or four times to see how it looks, to get people interested in it, to get people to want to help, to make it better. And believing in yourself, believing in what you’re trying to do, and then putting your foot on the pedal and doing it every single day.
NN: That is so beautiful. And, yes, resilience seems to be the theme here. I can’t wait to check out what’s up next for you to see where this project takes you. To finish up, I always like to ask, especially artists, is there anything just this week that’s been specifically inspiring to you, or motivating to you?
LS: I got a note from somebody today actually. And we just did a community event on Saturday. We worked with a local garden and we brought music there and we were able to bring the community together to get food and get health screenings and stuff like that. The organizer was so grateful for it and grateful that we were able to pull that off and be able to bring something that’s necessarily never had that type of experience before in the inner city. So, it was inspiring because getting notes like that shows that I’m on the right path, wherever this may take me.
NN: What a beautiful note and a great way to end. It was so lovely to get to sit down and chat with you in this way. Thank you so much.
LS: Thank you. And if you get a chance, definitely check out The Theory of Brick City Music YouTube page. There is a three-episode pilot series that shows you the concept.
For more information on Livingston Steele and The Theory of Brick City Music:
The Theory of Brick City You Tube: https://youtube.com/channel/UCgr_DLmC3YPQWTNAIfcDL7w