Sipping my first cup of coffee, I check my Inbox at work. Much to my surprise, I find this:
M .Ayodele Heath:
I hope you are doing well. We met last December at the My South Speaks contest in Decatur.
I am emailing you to invite you to appear in a My South spoken word performance in New York on September 1, 2004 Turner South is participating in an event called My South: A Celebration on Wednesday, September 1, 2004, 4:00- 7:00 pm/et at Splashlight Studios, New York, NY 529-535 West 35th Street (between 10th & 11th).
The theme of the party intends to celebrate the wonderful art, music & culture of the south - show it off to New Yorkers, other southerners, some CEOs of southern companies.
Your travel and accommodations would be paid for. You would probably need to plan to fly in either Tuesday, 8/31, or Wednesday morning, 9/1 and return Thursday, 9/2. We would love to have you participate and perform the My South piece you did for the Turner South contest along with a few of our other finalists. Please let me know your interest in this event as soon as possible.
My first thought: Why would anyone be having a Southern pride party in (of all places) New York City? Whatever floats their boat, I think, as long as they're paying for it.
My second thought: Great, a free trip to New York! I wasn't able to take a vacation this summer as I'd planned, and though this won't fulfill my craving of lounging on some Caribbean beach with a pina colada, a Big Apple might be just what my diet needs.
But my third thought: These dates seem suspiciously close to the Republican National Convention. In fact, they are during the Republican National Convention. But surely an organization as reputable as Turner would be forward and tell me, especially as a Black artist, if this were an event as such.
Which leads to my fourth thought: __t didn't mention compensating me for my performance. But this is for a good cause, right? Isn't part of my artistic mission is to be an ambassador for Southern culture?
So, that afternoon after a short deliberation, just before leaving for the day, I e-mail __t back and agree to make a Manhattan appearance.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 26, 2004
It's been nearly a week since I've heard anything from the Turner people and I'm beginning to wonder whether this thing is still on. But I also realize that in the entertainment industry, last minute is par for the course.
The event less than a week away, as I'm updating cases in my cubicle after lunch, my phone rings:
"Yes, is this Mr. Heath?"
"Yes, it is..."
"This is __e_sa from Turner." (It's funny how I conjure things up.) "I'm making your travel arrangements for the My South event next Wednesday in New York. When would you like to depart?"
"Tuesday evening - say 6 or 7. Enough time for me to get to the airport after work."
"And... when would you like to return?"
"Okay, I'll be e-mailing you your itinerary shortly. "
FRIDAY, AUGUST 27, 2004
I'm feeling very uneasy now about accepting this gig without requesting payment. Something just doesn't feel right.
The closer the date approaches, the more queasy I am about performing. News headlines are full of stories about tens of thousands of police being hired for security, the foiled bomb schemes, the countless streets blocked off, the protesters; and I am more suspicious than ever about this "South" party curiously planted in the middle of this Grand Ol Republican Party.
After Friday rush hour, I arrive home, and play my voicemail messages, when I receive this message from __t at Turner:
Ayodele, this is __t from Turner South. I am sorry for calling you so late in the day... I've told the other artists, but for some reason I don't think this message got to you.
This My South party is being thrown by the wife of a Republican senator - state senator Pickering from Mississippi. It is not a Republican rah-rah event. It is not part of the convention. It is just that the senator's wife thought that it would be a good idea to show off Southern culture - musicians, TV chefs, visual artists - to show New Yorkers that Southerners are more than just people in overalls with cobs of corn hanging out of our mouths...
I apologize for telling you this at such a late hour. And I really hope that this doesn't affect your decision to come join us. It really is going to be a wonderful event. Again, please call me at 404-8xx-xxxx if you need to discuss.
Something stirs in me like a pea soup, but I can't quite put my finger on it. But I know this for sure: I don't want to go.
So yes, Miss __t, I do need to discuss. Can we also discuss why you're calling me now to represent your organization when, in the $500 My South competition last winter, your people didn't select me as your winner? Why don't you call the h*nky Ted Turner look-a-like who did win and stole my $500? How about that, Miss __t?
But that would not be very Ayolike, now would it?
Still I do want to know what exactly has me feeling so uneasy. So, I call five people (friends and family) and play them the voicemail message, to get their reactions and see if I can to the bottom of what I'm thinking:
The responses range from M__u:
What's the problem? It's an all-expense paid trip to New York. There was a time when you were paying your own way to New York, finding your own place to stay, and now you have it all being taken care of for you. I don't see your dilemma.
If there's any dilemma, I think it's that you're becoming a diva.
I just saw a special on CNN today where they said they were having problems getting African-Americans at the convention. Not only will you be African-American, but you gonna be on a stage.
I'm not telling you what to do, but don't do it. I don't care what they say it is, they Republicans.
When will you ever have access to this group again? You couldn't even pay to be a part of this.
And you won't be the only Black person performing there. Beyonce and even Dre 3000 are performing.
So, yes, you should go, but make them pay you for it. I mean, really make them pay you for it. They're desperate. A young Black man on stage during the Republican National Convention. I say ask for $1500. They won't even feel it.
But, it was my Mom (gotta love her), that I think expressed my sentiment best:
Say, somebody invited you over their house for tomorrow.
Then, you show up at their house tomorrow and they tell you, I invited you over 'cause I really wanted you to mow my grass. How would you feel about that?
You'd tell 'em, I wish you told me you wanted me to cut your grass before I got in my car and came over here. Unless, of course, you just like cutting grass.
She equated what I was doing to mowing lawns. That was my ticket. I would go, but only if they paid me for it.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 28, 2004
After rehearsing the conversation with my wall, I call __t. Naturally, it is her work voicemail, saying that she is out of the office all day Friday, returning Monday, meaning: She never intended for me to be able to speak to her live until Monday! When my flight is leaving on Tuesday!
Is she trying to time-pressure me into this trip? I fume. I hang up.
And I call right back.
I appreciate you giving me this information, and yes, it does influence my decision.
Had you given me this information in advance, I would have negotiated differently. I have to take two days off from work to attend this event, and I in no way desire to donate my time to the Republican party. I know that you said that this was not a Republican rah-rah event, but the fact is that it is being thrown by a Republican senator, during the Republican National Convention.
I donate my time to work with children at schools around Atlanta, but I am not donating my time to help reelect George Bush. I look foward to speaking to you either at home this weekend, or at work first thing Monday morning to discuss a renegotiation of a performance fee.
MONDAY, AUGUST 30, 2004
"Hi, again I apologize for getting this information to you so late..."
"But we really would like for you to be a part of this event. Your piece, I think of all the pieces we reviewed, just really embodies the spirit of what we're trying to accomplish with this event... Everytime I watch the footage of your performance, I smile."
"That's great, thanks. But I'm not donating my time to this cause. If you had given me all of this information up front, I would have given you my performance fee up front. And I am sorry for doing this the day before my scheduled flight, but, again, if I had received this information earlier, I would have given you my fee earlier."
"Well, we really want you to be a part of this. B.B. King is scheduled to perform, there will be CEO's from Southern companies, the Today show is supposed to be shooting, lots of influential people will be there. It will be great exposure."
"That's great, but I'm not getting on the plane."
She tries a different approach, "Well, we're having four other spoken word performers from around the South in addition to some TV chefs from our network... and we're not paying any of them. If I pay you, then I'd have to-"
"That's great that they're doing it for free, but I'm not performing for free. Not for this. I have principles."
She pauses, "So, you're saying, that you have principles and you won't perform for free, but if we pay you, your principles will-"
"I have to take off two days from work for this. I am not donating my time for this cause. If you pay my performance fee, I will be on the plane tomorrow."
"Okay, then what is your fee?"
For a split second, T___sa's $1500 flashes across my tongue, but it won't come out.
"Is that just for one day, or for each day?"
Did she just say what I thought she said? Is it possible, that I can get double what I am asking for? For performing just one 3-minute poem? They really are desperate.
"That fee will cover both days."
"So, if we pay you that you will come?'
"Yes, $ _50.00 and I am on the plane."
"Fine. We'll see you tomorrow."