Sean Blackman can remember clutching his guitar before he went to bed and waking up in the morning with it still wrapped tightly in his arms.
“I got a guitar for my 12th birthday, and I haven’t put it down since,” Blackman says. “It’s one of those things that I knew, in the moment, that this is my favorite thing in the world.”
The Oak Park native grew up in a musical household. His mother was a personal secretary to Armen Boladian, founder of Southfield’s Westbound Records, most noted for the success of Funkadelic. Blackman’s mother would lug home promo copies of hundreds of records. The exposure ignited a zeal for diversity in the performing arts.
The house was “filled with Sarah, Nina, Billie, and Coltrane,” he says. She also had Harry Belafonte and Jose Feliciano. “Those guys were doing hybrid music, even back then.” Blackman also found solace in Judy Adams’ show on WDET-FM, which spun everything from Argentine tango to Ethiopian jazz.
“I started to gravitate towards anything that gave me the chills, basically,” Blackman says. “And even if I didn’t understand the words, it didn’t matter.”
Blackman has since strove to understand more of the words. After entering the local music scene as a teenager, the guitarist found success in his 20s, playing over 300 shows a year by the time he was 28.
Now 46, he’s one of metro Detroit’s premier world-music players, and he’s strumming with one goal in mind: to bring music from every corner of the world into light.
“I’m filling a very annoying void for me,” Blackman says. “Over all these years, I’ve met a litany of musicians from other countries living around town, and you can’t go see them play anywhere. It’s kind of almost silly that you can’t go see an Indian band play a public venue.”
Hoping to change the lack of musical diversity, Blackman started a concert series in February at the Garden Theater in Detroit. These shows, called Sean Blackman’s In Transit, are held the last Thursday of every month and spotlight a different country or culture each time around in order to de-stigmatize the unfamiliar and enlighten the community.
“I’m not trying to ride some diversity and inclusion wave. I’m not doing anything different today than I did 20 years ago,” Blackman says. “I’m just pushing it.
It is about diversity and inclusion through the performing arts. Every society needs that — especially one like ours, that’s packed full of all these cultures.”
In Transit shows are not, by any means, a solo effort. “I’ve created this platform to do my best to expose all this talent,” Blackman says. “When I meet these musicians, and I play with them, they’re not just OK. They’re virtuosic.”
Blackman also goes above and beyond to ensure ethnic authenticity is achieved: He features the cuisine of the culture he’s honoring, in addition to dancers, entrepreneurs, and, of course, musicians.
“We all kind of shy away from whatever’s foreign,” Blackman says. “If I do a show from India or from Armenia, I don’t want people to be scared.”
To put the audience in a comfort zone, a house band featuring a slew of local pros back up Blackman and ethnic musicians every month with what he calls “that Detroit stink.”
“(You’re) hearing the sounds, the scales, the modes, and the colors of these other countries, but there’s a familiarity for the Americano, so to speak. There’s that funky backbeat — and then … It’s not so weird anymore,” Blackman says.
So far, Blackman has taken metro Detroit to Armenia, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Senegal, Puerto Rico, and France. He hopes to include more countries — 10, in fact — in a new project slated for 2017 called Sean Blackman’s In Transit: East to West.
Its blueprint entails musicians being flown in from all over for one behemoth, collaborative concert at the Detroit Opera House. According to Blackman, PBS is in talks to film a documentary about the show and its preceding rehearsals, and legendary production designer Robb Wilson King is ready to help.
Blackman also keeps busy facilitating corporate diversity expos and events around town. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Mercedes-Benz, and General Motors have all hired him to riff on the vitality of staying hip with the world.
“GM calls me and they say, ‘Hey Sean, can you put China, India, the Middle East, and African-American on the same bill?’ I always giggle and say, ‘Yeah. That’s what I do, man.’”