Writing

My work, (primarily essays and reviews) has been published in Oxford American, Chicago Magazine, DownBeat, Bandcamp Daily, The Chicago Review, and The Chicago Reader, among other publications.

Energy Never Dies Cover

My first book, Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago, is scheduled for publication in December 2021 through University of Illinois Press.

From Afro Sheen to Theaster Gates and from Soul Train to Chance the Rapper, Black Chicago draws sustenance from a culture rooted in self-determination, aspiration, and hustle. Ayana Contreras embarks on a journey to share the implausible success stories and breathtaking achievements of Black Chicago’s artists and entrepreneurs. Past and present generations speak with one another, maintaining a vital connection to a beautiful narrative of Black triumph and empowerment that still inspires creativity and pride. Contreras weaves a hidden history from these true stories and the magic released by undervalued cultural artifacts. As she does, the idea that the improbable is always possible emerges as an indestructible Afro-Optimism that binds a people together.

Passionate and enlightening, Energy Never Dies uses the power of storytelling to show how optimism and courage fuel the dreams of Black Chicago.

“Contreras puts virtually every aspect of Black Chicago culture, music, business breakthroughs, and more on the table, then shows exactly how they are all interconnected. She writes the book as the Black experience is actually lived–this guy knows that guy, but the other guy used to work for the two of them. And none of it would’ve happened were it not for a certain audacious manner of hope and optimism found in Black Chicago.”–Lee Bey, author of Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

“In Energy Never Dies, Ayana Contreras crafts an intensely intimate and loving portrait of Black Chicago that will illuminate, even to lifelong South and West Siders, the distinctiveness of our cultural history and worldview. This book offers urgently needed blueprints for extending the work and actualizing the dreams of the Great Migrants.”–Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, coeditor of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

DownBeat, April 2020

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DownBeat, March 2020

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photo credit: peter ravenstel
My Bar Is The Promontory

Chicago Magazine (online edition), February 2017

I love the wall adorned with dozens of vinyl records at the Promontory. Each one has been signed by a performer who has graced the stage there: Slick Rick, Ramsey Lewis, Kindred the Family Soul, and Hailu Mergia; the spot’s hosted quite the range of musicians. And, like a vinyl record, the place crackles with excitement every time I go in.

I go there often for shows– one of my favorites featured the South Side Community Big Band, with their soaring horns and some of the most prolific producers and session musicians from the golden era of Chicago Soul. These were people who played on seminal records by Earth, Wind, & Fire, Tyrone Davis, Syl Johnson, Minnie Riperton, and more.

The booking, chiefly handled by native South Sider Jake Austen, is remarkably supple, yet true to the roots of the Hyde Park community it serves: a party for black creative millennials (Party Noire) by day, classic Chicago jazz come the night. And on Mondays, you can catch The Corner, which features fresh, under-the-radar musicians. I usually sit near the bar, sipping a potent amaretto sour (my cocktail of choice), sometimes within whispering distance of a SoundCloud star. Promontory keeps Chicago’s musical heritage alive—and propels it forward—all while pouring some particularly excellent drinks.

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