Jason Brown is a chameleon with a spiritual core.
The Penobscot jeweler and designer operates the Bangor fashion studio Decontie & Brown with his wife, Donna Decontie-Brown. For more than two decades, they have designed and created haute couture clothes, accessories and jewelry that draw inspiration from their Penobscot heritage and sit firmly at the center of contemporary culture. Their work represents the duality of their world – rooted in tradition but fully modern.
Music is in the mix now, as well. Brown has created a performance persona known as Firefly, a stage name that he uses to present traditional drum-and-vocal music that looks and sounds modern with the heavy influence of Prince and pop culture in general. He will make his national debut as Firefly at 4 p.m. Monday, when the Kennedy Center’s new online series, “Arts Across America,” spotlights artists of color from Maine. In addition to Firefly, who will open the prerecorded program, the Kennedy Center also will feature the spoken-word artist Atiim Chenzira and poet Maya Williams. The Kennedy Center will present the performances on Facebook Live, YouTube and through its website.
Firefly emerged from the pandemic.
“COVID in a weird sort of way forced this all to happen, forced me down this path. Up until this point, everything had been 120 percent Decontie & Brown,” he said. “That is not to say Decontie & Brown has gone away. It hasn’t. But I am super creative, and I don’t like to stay in a box. Creativity is the gift of my creator.”
As a design studio, Decontie & Brown made its living on the road. The couple traveled to art and fashion shows across the country to promote and sell their lapidary and textile designs inspired by their tribal heritage. When the pandemic shut things down, they hunkered down at home in Bangor. With no markets or runway shows to attend, the couple began creating their own content and hosting live events on social media in their home to keep the work of Decontie & Brown relevant and fresh in people’s minds.
They had fun doing it, and upped the production values. Soon enough, they had a studio with lights and lasers. The content evolved, and Firefly was hatched. Music, which had been in the background of Brown’s life, became front and center. He took what had been a hobby and turned it into a mission. He sees music as part of his natural pathway through life.
“Going forward, I think Firefly is going to be a huge part of my creative life. It feels like a culmination of everything leading up to this point. The jewelry led to fashion, the fashion led to runway shows, which led me to feel compelled to create our own runway music,” he said.
As Firefly, he performs traditional hand drum, shaker and vocal songs, along with modern compositions. His stage presence involves colorful visuals and costumes. Brown described Firefly as a music keeper of the Penobscot Nation, and said his goal was to use music to both entertain people and educate them about racial injustice, historical trauma and collective healing.
In the spring, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Brown and Malonda Rich-Star, a Washington, D.C.-based fashion stylist and former BET producer and on-air host, collaborated on an online event called “Songs of Healing,” a 22-minute video that opened with Brown floating in a canoe on a digital lake while offering words of comfort and support to victims of bullying and beatings. He sang traditional songs, set to the beat of a hand drum, while wearing modern fashion and hand-beaded regalia.
Over the summer, he recorded and released more videos, including an original song that he wrote called “Love & Light (Whatcha Gon Do),” a contemporary pop song with a modern-electronic flair. “Fear of this, fear of that, you wear it like a bright red hat,” he intones over an electronica beat. “You’re scared and lost, without a way. Try love and light. You better start today.”
In October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, he and Decontie-Brown hosted the online event “End the Violence.” (Decontie-Brown is the outreach coordinator for the Wabanaki Women’s Coaltion.) And now in November, the Kennedy Center will present his work. The Kennedy Center partnered with Portland Ovations and Indigo Arts Alliance to choose artists from Maine to showcase. Brown said he was humbled by the opportunity to reach a national audience with his music so soon after introducing it.
“Considering I only started performing as Firefly on Facebook this spring, and here in November, I have the chance to perform nationally for the Kennedy Center, it is just amazing. It shows me that when I listen to my heart, when I listen to my creator and to what the spirit tells me and guides me, good things happen,” he said. “To perform with such a world-renowned organization – to share what I do, to share my culture – to me it feels like an acknowledgment. Sometimes when you are known for a specific thing, that is what people want you to do and not do anything else.”
Laure LaBar, curator at Maine State Museum, sees the evolution of Brown’s creativity as a natural course of events. She became familiar with the work of Decontie & Brown a few years ago when the couple asked to visit the museum in Augusta to research Maliseet beadwork for a commission project. Impressed with their work, LaBar added jewelry and clothing from Decontie & Brown to the museum collection, and has been following their careers since.
“It’s completely fitting that Jason is doing this, because he is so creative and everything he does is through the lens of his heritage. He had people in his family who were mentors, family members who were interested in early music,” said LaBar. “He was able to learn as a youngster, and it is a part of who he is. So, no, I am not surprised.”
What distinguishes Brown and his work as Firefly is his willingness and ability to adapt those traditions to contemporary culture. That is a hallmark of the designs of Decontie & Brown, and it was the first thing LaBar noticed this spring when she watched Brown perform as Firefly. “The thing I like about his jewelry and what I like about his clothes, he is using his culture as a touchstone and it is also very modern. You see Firefly and you hear Penobscot culture, but you see a little Prince in there, as well,” LaBar said. “It is something that is relatable and is something that can draw people who might not have ordinarily been interested. They can approach from the modern end as opposed to from the Wabanaki end.”
Brown foreshadowed this evolution in his art in 2016 when he performed a Penobscot welcoming song for the opening of the “400 Years of New Mainers” exhibition at Maine Historical Society in Portland. He showed up in custom-made full regalia and silenced the crowd with rapt interest when he began singing, said historical society curator Tilly Laskey. He provided music for Mr. Longfellow’s Cocktail Party in 2019, and the historical society commissioned him to record songs for the current “State of Mind: Becoming Maine” exhibition, but the musical element was removed from the exhibition because of pandemic restrictions involving shared headphones. “Dawnland Couture,” a colorful and elegant piece of clothing by Decontie & Brown, is the centerpiece of the exhibition and one of the first things people see when they enter the gallery.
Laskey sees Brown’s music as akin to his other artwork – based in tradition but completely futuristic. His shifting body of work is less about Brown assuming other identities and more about him embodying and fulfilling his aspirations and dreams, she said. “While some people might call Jason lucky, I tend to think that, in addition to working very hard, he is also one of the most intentional people I know. By this I don’t just mean he is devoted and dedicated, he sends out intention and actively seeks paths – be they small footpaths or super highways to spread his messages. Jason’s messages are more than simply putting music out for enjoyment. It goes along with that idea about intentionality. I think Jason is actually trying to heal with his music and his voice.”
Informally and socially, Brown has been singing traditional songs on his own and with tribal drum groups for many years. About a decade ago, he served as an apprentice with the late Penobscot elder Watie Akins of Brewer, who performed traditional music and worked to preserve tribal songs, language and culture. In 2014, the Maine Arts Commission named Akins a Traditional Arts Fellow. Akins died in November 2019.
Working with Akins, Brown learned traditional songs from old field recordings, made a hand drum and assembled a songbook. He uses that drum in performance today, as well as many of the songs that Akins taught him. He performs them with his own flair, infusing his performances with the influence of the musical artist Prince, whom he greatly admires, and others. In addition to lights and lasers and non-traditional musical effects, he often performs with dark sunglasses and headphones, looking very much like a contemporary pop star. “Things evolve and things change,” he said. “The way we sing a song now is not how they sang it 500 years ago, but we are carrying that same energy forward.”
Looking to the future, Brown is unsure of his path and is committed to following his heart.
He’s not interested in giving up his design work, because it has led to many great moments in his life. Four years ago, at the Santa Fe Indian Market, he sold a necklace made with natural druzy quartz from western Maine to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Actually, he sold two to her, because she lost the original and asked for a replacement. (“Of course I made her a new one right away so she wouldn’t have to be without it for too long,” he said.)
He doesn’t want to give up that part of his creative life. He just has to figure out how to make room for all of it.