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Art of Life (review)

Derek Lamson
On Freedom (January 2022)
Art of Life
by Alivia Biko
reviewed by Derek Lamson

I am personally looking forward to reading the scholarly arguments about the significance of the Multwood Gatherings, which brought programmed and unprogrammed women Friends together in the Portland area in the 1990s. These were the gatherings where people like Carole Spencer, Margery Post Abbott, and Julie Peyton laid the groundwork for the internationally-recognized annual Quaker Women’s Theology Conference and which launched a through-line into the formation of SCYMF.

Any discussion of these pioneers should include Alivia Brightmaple Biko, follower of Jesus, activist, church founder and pastor, artist and speaker, guitarist, vocalist, song-writer, friend, lesbian, and Blazing Saddles fan. Biko’s music and life were right in the middle of those hopeful, excited, ecumenical gatherings in the 90s, whether she was physically present or not.

I remember bringing worship music a few times to Freedom Friends in Salem, OR, which Biko and Peggy Morrison co-founded in the early 2000s as a Christ-centered church that was LGBTQ+ welcoming and affirming. After worship one Sunday, I listened in while Morrison asked Nancy McLaughlin whether she knew of any other Friends meetings or churches similar to Freedom Friends. McLaughlin was traveling internationally then, as a representative of Friends World Committee for Consultation, and she was a Friend who knew Friends. She took her time, then finally said, “No. Not Christ-centered and also welcome, open, and affirming to gay people at the same time. One or the other, but not both. In the world of Friends, you are unique.”

There were less than a dozen people in the room that morning, and the number in the room is important, because now, six Friends churches in the Northwest proclaim that message of love and inclusiveness, embedded in their core identity and mission. Here in the Northwest, we remember Freedom Friends as the first. They are such a great model.

Alivia Brightmaple Biko has been a foundational person throughout these historic changes. While her story is hers to tell, she has shared some of it with me, and I get to talk about her a little bit here, and about the 20th anniversary of the release of her album Art of Life.

Let me just say first that we who follow Jesus are well aware of the irony that suffering, pain, loneliness, and trouble often lead people to the joy that is Christ. Let me just say here, gently, that Biko – Liv – has had her share of trouble: a trifecta of lupus, heart disease, and alcoholism (in recovery for over twenty years, but still). Oh, and being gay – not a recipe for an easy American childhood. Liv’s childhood was certainly mixed. Some of the adults in her life savagely abused her, but some taught her to sing and to love God. One bought her that first kids’ guitar. God only knows where she found the strength and determination, a few guitars later, to move to Oregon and enroll in Western Evangelical Seminary (WES), but she sure did. One fine day, Peggy Morrison, she of the silver-toed cowboy boots, came to WES to talk to the aspiring ministers about a local program for abused women that she was leading, and Liv offered to help. Peg’s acceptance of that offer led to a circuit-riding partnership in ministry. Peg brought the message; Liv brought the music. Soon, people started asking Liv, “Do you have a CD?” Eventually, she did.

Back in the late 90s, Liv and I met at Northwest Yearly Meeting doing Jesus music on the outdoor stage at George Fox University, under the oak trees. She was kind to me. She knew more about Quakers and Yearly Meeting than I ever would, knew people who knew people, knew all the Quaker code words and hand signals that I was just learning. She had a nice guitar then, too, though not as nice as the Princess, the Koa-wood Taylor she used for the album.

(Here, I find a CD player.) I can hear her through the big speakers: clear and clean and very full, great pitch and rhythm, immediately inviting listeners to move forward and listen close; a voice with no cracks, no rough spots, very strong, somewhere in a low soprano range. The very first song this voice wants to sing to you is Libby Roderick’s “How Could Anyone?” And Liv sings it acapella: the deeply sweet proposition that love is love is love, no more and never less, a proposition that is as radical today as it was in 1988 when the song was released, as radical as it was in 2001 when Art of Life was produced.

Biko starts this album acapella and ends it acapella with “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give Us Peace), a lovely round credited to Mozart but borrowed from plainsong. So . . . brand-new and brand-ancient, both acapella. In between these bookends, nine more songs: sweet folky praise to God, and sweet invitations to listeners into prophecy and justice, and into agape community, shalom, bhakti.

Props to Kevin Behr, Rich Ochoa, and Keith Schneider, who co-produced with Biko and Morrison, providing extra instrumentation and engineering on the project. Smart, discrete choices were made about framing and supporting these songs. It was done right: a little piano lead here, a sexy bass-line there, some very chewy electric guitar fills on another. Understated vocal harmonies are used throughout, never in the way of Alivia’s clean, simple finger-picking or her voice. There’s a quality to her voice, did I tell you? A quality I struggle to name. Sincerity? Authenticity? Ingenuousness? Alivia Biko’s voice on Art of Life creates a completely irony-free zone. She is the frankest apostle of love, means every damn word, and holds nothing back.

Art of Life is available online everywhere: YouTube, Amazon, Spotify, for free or for pennies. You can message Alivia on Facebook to connect with her and support her as an artist.  ~~~

Derek Lamson is a guitar-player and writer with a side-hustle as a substitute teacher. He is excited about his new graphic novel project (see: www.dereklamson.org/mark-v-the-opera). Derek is a member of Eugene Friends Church and Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Quaker musician Multwood Convergent Friends

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