Editor’s Note: ‘Backstage Heroes’ spotlights the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly, giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
But today, Bilal is the executive director of the African American Art and Culture Complex, where his resting state is hardly resting; he's still all hustle and sparkle. Even his hair sits energetically up, and there’s a zillion-watt smile to go with it.
“Maybe it’s a stage in my life,” he says of his new behind-the-scenes role, looking over the heavy, polished wood table in a conference room on one of the complex’s upper floors. We’re surrounded by a José Moya del Pino mural from 1926, older even than the artist's work in Coit Tower, and it’s a sign of the solidity of this place, and of the deeply San Franciscan impulse to make large-scale art on walls that might otherwise sit blank. The oblong room is lit by high, east-facing windows, through which can be seen the spire of City Hall.
As we talk about the center’s involvement with Restorative Justice, his friend and playwright Will Power (Stagger Lee!) and the state of art in general, I’m reminded that the executive director of the AAACC was famous, and clearly had a shot at more.
But the stage of life he’s talking about now is the one during which the desire to give back seems to seize people, especially those with children, a heart, memories, or hope. Plus, Soriano Bilal’s roots go deep here. He’s a San Francisco native, but more specifically, he’s from right here, the Western Addition, and in fact, from this very building.
“I used to come here when I was 11!” he laughs, remembering a teacher, Judith Holton, who’d been a dancer with the Sun Ra Arkestra. She loved what she did, he says, and demanded a lot of her students. Now, he walks to work and does the same.
Looking over Soriano Bilal’s job description, I’m by turns panicked at the superhumanity it seems to demand, and surprised he has time to sit down; it’s a litany of fundraising, management, outreach, public relations, facility maintenance, program development, and a line item that simply reads “Establish procedures and policies for all departments.”
But Soriano Bilal’s job doesn’t end where his job description does, and the real, worry-inducing work appears as we tour the building’s bright dance studios, desk-filled study areas, history room and more. He’s in charge of kids -- in the recording studio, the dance warmup room, the design-studio computer lab, they’re everywhere, sitting on the floor, tapping at consoles, wandering around. I reflect that it isn’t my job to keep them safe and busy and happy in addition to a million other responsibilities, it’s my host’s. I don’t know how he does it.
Or, crucially, why. Nobody’s getting rich (or famous) around here, plus there are painfully complicated political in-fights to weather and a drastically diminishing community to serve.
“So much has been lost,” he says. He estimates the percentage of African-Americans in San Francisco at about 13%, but admits it may be much lower, nearer 6%, and of course there’s the reality that San Francisco is the only county in the Bay Area that’s getting whiter over time. “My concern," he says, "is that the diversity which historically fueled San Francisco's innovation is being wrung out of the city.” Here’s a talented, experienced artist, as well as an MBA-holding executive, who could obviously do something a lot more lucrative and glamorous. Again, why do it at all?
“I’ll give you an example,” he says, brightening: his own daughter now takes ballet classes here. (In spite of the dizzying array of dance forms available -- hip-hop, Dunham technique, a general-performance class taught by Tania Santiago, leader of local Afro-Brazilan company Aguas — ballet it is.) And when Soriano Bilal describes the look of joy his daughter has when she dances, his own face is suffused with happiness; you can see what hers must look like.
This is why he does it; this is what keeps him here. Because whatever else happens, “She gets to be in touch with herself, to know how she feels moving across the floor.”
It’s that kind of opportunity he wants to bring to the whole project, he says, across divides within the African-American community, and accessible to everyone regardless of background. “How can it be everyone’s center?” he asks, the question clearly one he poses to himself daily.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chief of Program and Pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and a board member at AAACC, praises Bilal's ability to run the center "with the tenderness that a grateful acolyte would extend to his doting mentor, and also with the fierce acumen that a next-generation leader would extend to a slightly eroding family business." As for the center's role amidst the changing demographics of the city, "it's a signature moment of accountability for all of us," says Bamuthi Joseph, "in the face of San Francisco's dwindling African American population to preserve, refine, and inspire black culture by any means possible."
Mohammed Soriano Bilal may not be famous, but he’s better than that. He’s here, the right man at the right time in the right place -- in a city that needs him more than ever.