Lounging in his Brooklyn-based home studio, smartly dressed, smoking shisha and rocking some vintage frames, Amir Mohamed (aka Oddisee) looks every bit the dictator that he sometimes jokingly imagines himself being. Hours away from embarking on an epic, month long journey to Sudan, Oddisee was kind enough to sit down with me, smoke some cardamom shisha, and wax poetic about navigating the industry while still producing the music that matters to him. Too often, I find that music heads don’t get the opportunity to hear the voices of their favorite producers in regular conversation. So here he is. Raw and uncut. And please, don’t mind the noise from the hookah pipe. I promise you. It’s not a bong.
For more about Oddisee, peep his website. Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan
Kiky Thomanek has spent years city-hopping--acquiring cultural references through her senses--and fusing them into her art. When I met her through a friend up at The Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side a few years ago, I was enamored with her quirky, strongly accented Austrian humor--and later, after being introduced to her art--her clever and whimsical screen prints and illustrations. Her dark and silly characters, the rich and bold lines, and the ominous anecdotes, reminded me of early day Basquiat. The wonders of Skype chatting allowed us to surpass a few time zones and continents to talk about her globetrotting days, the many iterations of her art life, and how Francis Bacon changed her world.
How did you get started as an artist?
I’m a late bloomer so to speak. When I came to anything graphic design related, I was 20 or 21. I had some time abroad behind me. After high school, I went to London for a year. I just wanted to get away from home and see something new. I London I worked in a night club. I came back to Austria and was totally confused and didn’t know what to do. I started business school for half a year, which was a bad call. I don’t even remember why I enrolled, I never went to class.
Sort of by chance, I was talking to a friend who got interested in this graphic design school, and he brought me a brochure. I went to check it out with him and applied.
What about it locked it in for you to be an artist?
I took one illustration class. Actually, I think I begged the teacher to take me because there was no more space. I’m still very grateful for that decision. He gave us a lot of valuable information, but I think the most important thing was just the way that he was. He just kind of let us be.
There was one project that we did about typography, which was a real turning point for me. We had eight weeks time to complete it, and I did it all in five days and four nights, just drinking Red Bull.
Because you were so into it? I was so into it. That’s how I really found out what I am capable of, and what circumstances have to be like where I can produce something that is good, valuable, and that I really care for.
What about that changed the game for you?
It was sort of the first experience of just letting myself go, not fearing if I was going to make anything good, and just to go and do it. It was a big turning point for me that one project, and from then on, I just felt like I want to be an artist. I still like the work that I created then.
What did you do after you finished school?
I was living in London with my ex-husband Peter and had a waitressing job at a pub. I tried to be creative and I was drawing a lot. That’s when I started printing t-shirts and fabrics and sewing images on t-shirts. I sold them at a market. That was in 2003.
And you lived in a few cities from that point right?
2004 I was in Berlin for a year--pretty much doing the same thing--but a little more extensively. That was the only kind of income that I had--making t-shirts and little dolls and bags. I sold them at this really nice weekly market in Berlin, and then I came to New York.
What was living in New York like for you?
I already started a silkscreening business in Berlin, so I wanted to continue doing that in New York. Right from the beginning, I started taking classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for all of those 6.5 years in New York. I would take those classes, at least one per semester through continuing ed. That’s what kept my creativity going.
Did you come to New York for an art career?
Yes, but also--Peter--my husband at the time, was coming for work. Peter was working at Columbia and he told me that since he worked there that they had a deal and relatives could study for free, but the contract that he had didn’t have that privilege. I had no idea what sort of institution Columbia was. I said "okay it sounds good, I’m going to try to do that." But when I went to Columbia with my transcript, they just said no. They also don’t offer continuing education courses, or anything that is sort of available to the general public.
I was living in that neighborhood with Peter, working at a local coffee shop, sometimes I would walk through campus and see the art building and walk by that print shop that they have, because it’s on the first floor, and you can look in. And there was nobody there ever. Whenever I would walk by, I would think, this is so fucked up! That made me really grateful for the openness of SVA.
Did that experience change your perception of art school?
In general, the whole arts school thing is—from the outside—so scary and elitist to me. In Austria, Germany, and France I hear stories about people who apply 3 times, 5 times, up to 10 times. I just don’t understand why it's made so hard for people to go to school. It's easier to get into medical or law school.
How are artists viewed in Austria?
I think that [there are] probably two major distinctions: an artist who's in the spotlight and who [is] seen as interesting and looked up to, and there are artists that are viewed as crazy, or somebody who will never make it, who will always struggle to make money.
Yet in Austria, we have a big and important artistic culture. It is valued a lot. Vienna has the greatest density of cultural places in relation to the inhabitants; whether it's the museums, or theaters, concerts, music venues, there's really a lot of stuff going on. I feel like it's not just a lot of stuff, but stuff with quality, and I don't think people really recognize that in Europe. Everyone is going to Berlin. Everything is supposedly happening there--but I think there's a lot to explore in Vienna--stuff that I haven't even seen yet.
What are some aspects of Vienna's rich history?
Austria had its heyday around the 1900s through 1920s. Famous artists like Gustav Klimt came from that time. There wasn't just visual art--there was important literature, and science--like Freud. All those people were coming together. They weren't secluded in their paintings or specific mediums. People were meeting in the salons and they inspired each other and I think that was a really important time for Austria and art, and I think it still is.
In Vienna, are artists mostly working within their own creative enclaves now as opposed to that era in your own experience? I don't really hang out in artist circles. My circle of friends is so diverse. There are people who do all sorts of things. I think that's how I was a little bit different than my other friends who are mostly hanging out with artists. They do get together and talk about things that are a little bit interdisciplinary. There's definitely collaboration going on.
What’s next for your work?
Just the other day actually, I had a friend who came over and asked me to show my artwork, and I never really get to do that. It's always funny to pull out this stuff and look at it. I realize that although I am always putting myself down or feeling like I'm not doing enough, I have so much stuff that I discovered that have been lying around for years, and I really want to make an exhibition and see what it looks like up on the walls, and have people look at it.
What materials have you been digging into lately?
I haven't printed anything since New York. What I did the last half a year in Vienna has all been on paper, I also applied to The Academy of Fine Arts this year, and I was maybe thinking too practical, and thought ahead about how I have to put this into a portfolio, and not on a canvas, but that's the wrong way to go about it. People go to the application process with huge canvasses and lots of crazy things. Actually paper is good. You feel less intimidated to ruin anything, so you can just throw it away.
Are there times where you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing?
It's more like, how do I find the time and space to actually organize stuff, or get myself to be creative? It's not that I feel lost about my art or anything, I feel pretty good about it, and confident actually. I'm just trying to keep it easy. You can only do as much as you can, and step by step. I have this kind of faith that even if it's going to take another 10 years for me to have my first big exhibition or whatever, I'll do it. I'm not worried about that.
What's your ultimate goal with your work?
The goal is to have a studio, and just be able to work as much as I can in there. I really have this romantic idea of being a painter in my secluded studio with the paints flying around in, working until three in the morning and not caring what's happening tomorrow, and waking up with a picture that I created and being surprised by it.
What inspired that idea?
I took a trip to Dublin two years ago. I never really knew much about the artist Francis Bacon, but I saw this big retrospective at Metropolitan Museum and I was totally smitten. It was probably the one show that I will always remember based on that feeling it gave me when I looked at those canvases. I just wanted to have that feeling again. Maybe half a year later I thought to myself that I needed to see a Francis Bacon exhibition--I didn’t care where--so I just Googled it. He was Irish so there was this exhibition there to celebrate his 100th birthday if he were still to be alive. They transferred the studio that he had in London to Dublin for the show. They had a whole group of architects and archeologists, and they took every single item in his studio and photographed it and mapped everything out, and put it back together just as it was in that gallery. It’s now a permanent exhibit.
That studio almost brought me to tears. He was known for being very messy. Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady would not be allowed in his studio. She would try to keep his living space very clean because he had asthma, so it was important not to have it too dirty or dusty, but his studio—the dust would collect and collect, and he would actually incorporate it into his paint, which would give a really special structure. One day he didn’t have money for canvas, and he just turned around an old canvas, and used that one. He found out that he liked the backside of the canvas much better, so he did that from then on. It was a really emotional experience for me. That’s what art is really about. I’m not religious, but that’s like going to church for me. If I see a good art show, there’s nothing I can compare that feeling with.
Interview by Boyuan Gao
Check out Kiky's website, or reach her at email@example.com
When I first met Meghan Stabile, I was amazed at how one seemingly reserved (emphasis on the seemingly), petite woman was behind one of the most massively growing, cutting edge, music cultures in NY. Founder of Revive Music Group, Meghan has been responsible for some of the ballsiest music mash-ups on stages all over the world as a show and festival curator. She's known mostly for revisioning traditional Jazz and hip-hop idioms in tandem. In the beginning, her ideas were highly risky concepts with sometimes high stakes involved, but through relentless work, she's one of the most reputable show producers in the city. That's why live musicians flock to her in droves, eager to play truly challenging and exciting music, but also to learn how to survive in an otherwise grueling music industry. With the increased frequency of producing Revive shows, as well as the creative machine behind The Revivalist(Revive Music Group's editorial arm), Meghan's deepest passion remains being an ally to musicians. To her, being a true ally means being pragmatic and honest in the deepest sense of both words.
As evidence of that, I approached her to do this piece because of this post on her Facebook wall that completely blew up and went viral:
In the spirit of the Facebook conversation that impacted hundreds of musicians, Meghan breaks down her advice further:
There are less labels out there, which means that you must fill the void.
I work with mostly "Jazz" artists. There are only a few jazz labels out there that are alive and signing artists. Traditionally--and still to this day--jazz departments have the lowest budgets, obviously compared to most other genres. Nowadays, budgets are even lower, and what used to entice artists to get signed to a labels, just isn’t happening anymore. If it is, it's extremely rare. More artists are becoming independent, because they have to be. More artists are putting out their own self-funded projects, just to get their names out there. It's either Indie or DIY. Labels are becoming extinct.
The music industry has changed, and you need to adapt.
The biggest reality check that musicians need is that we are no longer operating under the music industry’s old model, where an artist would get signed to a label, and the label would supply you with artist development, a person working on your promotional campaign, someone on publicity, another handling marketing, an art design department, folks running the studio, an executive producer. That's not the case anymore, so therefore artists need to adapt. The question is how, and what are we adapting too?
The myth of the manager—No, they will not do everything for you!
I get contacted all of the time by musicians asking for assistance and guidance. Some think the solution is getting a manager or agent. They don't need a manager at stage one or even stage five. The thought process that having a manager means that they are going to do everything for you is simply not a reality anymore. Managers and agents opt in when they see a reason too, mostly beyond what they are hearing. Even if you get signed to a label, you still have to handle the majority of the business yourself. Some managers are really great at taking on the majority of the work, however, my point is, it's a partnership that succeeds. Also, labels aren't always the solution to help you handle all of your business. They don’t always have the capacity or resources to develop you every step of the way like they used to. Either way, you must be more involved with the work.
Have realistic expectations when working with a manager.
For some, they have so many steps that they have to do before a manager is even going to want to come in the picture. If a manager is going to start from stage one, That potential manager has got to be in love with you--in love with your music, in love with you from the jump. They have to want to go through that entire process with you, through thick and thin with you. With that being said, as an artist, you have to be prepared to be on the same page with them; if they go hard, you must go hard too. Most managers will not take on a new client from stage one. You have to build yourself up, to where they take notice.
You need to build your work to a certain level before others are going to be able to help you successfully.
Artists/musicians have to build themselves up to a point where industry professionals are going to take them seriously. As an artist, you have to come already prepared and ready to work. It's very rare that managers or agents will sign an artist without there being some kind of buzz already. The other factor that they look for is whether or not you're going to be making them money at some point. If they love you, they will invest, but they are investing in your success, which is ultimately their success. Many managers are stretched thin in this business. For them to invest their time into you, they are going to want to know what they are going to get back in return--even if it’s eventually. That's how managers and agents work. It is their livelihood to work on your behalf, and they have to see the value in your product. It sucks to even say it like that, but that’s the honest truth in how folks in the business think about it. Not all are machines, but again, when it comes to business, their are few that are in it for the art, the creative aspects, and the passion. For some, this is their JOB. Find the ones that love you first.
Creating the album is not enough.
Many artists think that after they put their work out on itunes, everyone’s going to want to buy it, and that everybody is going to know about you right away. Absolutely not. There is a level of promotion and marketing that artists need to be savvy to. Even artists signed to big labels come up with their own marketing campaigns that's later carried out by the label team. The point is, don't stop at the launch; be a part of the master plan.
Treat your music like it’s your business—because it is.
Many musicians think that all they have to do is create the music, and the audience will come. But to even be relevant in this fast pace, factory-like industry, where product is being pushed every second, treating your music like your own independent label has become more of a necessity. Musicians have to understand that their music as a business. A lot of musicians don't even want to think about that--they want to worry ONLY about their creativity, and that’s the biggest mistake they can't afford.
Do your research—What business are you in?
You have to think ahead of the game, and not just make decisions because you assume a certain outcome will happen, based on what you think you’ve seen happen for others. You first have to know what business you are in. You have to reflect on the things that you’re doing in that business, and if they are going to make you successful based on YOUR situation, and not anyone elses. There are multiple ways, many scenarios, and more roads than one to achieve success.
Be your own director: Take your work more seriously than everyone else.
You have to direct your own path. You’re the only one who is going to care 100% about your music and your craft. You may not know 100% how, when, who, or what--but you have to try. If you start at square one, or stage one--whatever you want to call it--then you're already on your way. No one is going to care about you more then you. That being said, you have to oversee everything on your project. Even if you are on a label and you have a manager, the reality of the industry is that everyone is stretched thin, and every project is important. Unfortunately, your project is not the only project out there that they're going to be dealing with. You have to push some buttons to make sure people are on point, but you also must be on point. The key to that is knowing at every level what is going on. Even if you have a team of people working with you, you have to be at the center of the decisions being made to ensure that the decisions are in your best interest. However, always be open to suggestions.
Get people to flock to you.
Once you have your shit together, other people will start to come in and want to work with you because they will see the value of what you've created. You don't have to chase people down. If you know your music will speak--then let it speak, and they will come to you. If this sounds like a contradiction from everything else I've said, it's not. You still have to do all of the work.
Be open to criticism, but also be aware of who you are dealing with.
It’s valuable for artists to seek advice and feedback, but more importantly, artists need to be open to the truth of both their limitations, and the realities of their environment. I once brought in a record to a label years ago. It ended up being a very successful record. At the time, this label didn't think so, then it blew up. Sometimes, that's the name of the game when you work with certain labels. On a label level, there are a few people who are the gatekeepers, and well--if they don’t get it--you may not get put on. Try a different way. Don't rely on a label as your end all and be all.
Find a balance between vouching for yourself and stepping back.
Musicians sometimes say, "I got the gig, I got the gig." That means they’ve gotten a gig that A) puts them on the road for a while and B) is their intro to the game. Often these gigs pay musicians shit money and for long periods gigging with the same artists. Most of these big gigs underpay musicians. Most musicians just starting out don't know or realize it until they've already signed on for the tour. Part of it is because they didn't know what they should be getting paid. There was nobody they could go to for advice, and they just wanted the gig. I'm not saying that if you are getting offered to play for huge artists, not to play. It's a great opportunity. You can't go in there with unreasonable demands either or you definitely won't get the gig, but at some point, don't feel you need to compromise what you deserve. You are making them sound amazing on stage and on their records. Your artistry is invaluable. They can always hire someone else that will accept the cheap check, but know that you don't have to do that. You must value your art, do the research on what’s fair pay, and negotiate when you can. It’s about finding that balance. The real gigs will demand real cats and you'll be happy in the end for not settling for anything less then what you deserve.
Business brainstorming is creative brainstorming.
I remember when my good friends Raydar, Jared, Lee and I used to sit down and come up with concepts for shows. We were in creative mode--using that other side of our brains. When it came down to business, it was a whole other story. Musicians especially need to be taught that you can do both, and through the act of doing it, you will start to deal with the business side much more comfortably. I think it would benefit musicians if they had more creative brainstorming sessions related to business strategies, like marketing. Musicians are naturally inclined to creatively problem solve, they have all types of crazy good ideas—and that can be applied to businesses. The key is to start seeing business in a creative light, because it is.
Things that you can start doing for yourself.
Musicians shouldlearn how to create strategic partnerships, and how to build a label around themselves. The tactical advice about acting as your own label is what artists need to put forth time and energy in learning. Again, that means understanding all departments, all divisions, all challenges you are dealt with, so you're able to not only understand what each thing is, but that you know how to engage each one separately, and together when needed. The time of becoming an entrepreneurial artist is NOW.
Be honest with yourself.
I know many musicians who would never take any of this advice. They are left field--creative geniuses who won't do any of this stuff. It's just not part of their thought process. I wish I could say there are many managers, agents, and label people who will be there for you from stage one, from just hearing your demo, and who will want to go hard and fight for you. I hate to say it, but they're not out there. If if they are, there are very few, and they are stretched thin! This is a calling for more people that are willing to take risks, follow their passion, and not just the pay check. Sounds unrealistic, but I've lived it. Be honest with what you want at the end of the day. Who are you? What is your purpose and what do you want? How do you want to effect people with your music? What are you trying to accomplish. Once you have answered that for yourself, then all else falls into place with the work ahead.
To learn more about Meghan's work, visit The Revivalist, and follow Revive Music Group on Facebook and Twitter.
By Meghan Stabile, Compiled by Boyuan Gao
Feature photo by Eric Sandler
I've been a concert photographer for years, and have seen my share of interesting subject matters to document, especially working in New York City. One thing about me is that I like to shoot subgenre/underground things to see what's happening beneath the surface of what we think we know. Sometimes the things you learn on a shoot will really surprise you. The craziest/most bizarre photo job I’ve ever done in my entire photography career was ICP--Insane Clown Posse. Everyone knows something outrageous about Insane Clown Posse. They've been in the media for a few decades now, and usually not for anything positive. I wanted to understand why they had such a rabid following.
A friend of mine is a promoter, and he does the Rocks Off Cruises for about ten years, which are basically rock bands on a boat. He somehow fell in love with the Insane Clown Posse, and decided to host them when they came into the city one year, and planned to promote a show for them at Hammerstein Ballroom. I said, "I have to go and shoot this!" He said, "Sure. Just make sure you wear a rain coat."
We'll come back to this point later.
Upon arrival on my big night, the first thing that I noticed was that everyone was wearing some sort of makeup. Folks were in the line, scantily clad, and dressed in all types of outfits. The thing that struck me as most bizarre was that there were people of all walks of life. Most of them were clearly not from New York. You can usually tell because of their accents and the way that they carry themselves. There were also a lot of hipster-type kids, who I assumed were just there to be ironic.
There were five opening acts that were all part of the ICP crew, and they too were all wearing makeup, with a really horribly cliché barrage of girls dancing around poles on the stage. In my opinion the rap was not very good, but everyone there seemed to be really excited about that.
In anticipation of ICP performing, they brought on stage gallons and gallons of Faygo (a popular root beer from the Midwest) in preparation of spraying the crowd. The initial conversation that I had with the promoter when he told me, “Just make sure that you wear your raincoat, otherwise you're going to get wet," crept back into my head. But I was prepared.
I came equipped with my raincoat. So did all of the security in the photo pit. As the sticky, sugary liquids projectiled into the crowd, we started shooting, and people just started going buckwild and moshing all over the place. A full Faygo bottle flew through the air and hit my friend. I saw it happening, and thought, "Oh no, she's going to get hit," but I didn't move her out of the way from a flying two-litter totally intact bottle of Faygo. She wasn't badly injured, but incurred a bump, and proceeded to hide under the stage for the rest of the set out of fear. She did catch a really cool shot of the front row from underneath the stage, which was good enough of a payoff.
I was mildly afraid for my equipment, but fortunately for me, I had been in other mosh pit experiences before. It was just the surgary aspect of it that would have fucked up my shit. You had to get that shot in the middle of the Faygo fight. That was the money shot, and the sole reason for going at the end of the day.
For all of the photographers out there, here's a tip for mosh pits (should you ever find yourselves in this situation): If there are flying limbs out there, keep the camera as high up as you can, or you just make sure that you're high enough where you're not actually in the mosh pit. There are photographers who do go in the pit and get bounced around, but do it at your own risk.
Side note: "I saw my first moshpit with my mom but we thought it was a riot so we ran the hell out of there. The first actual moshpit that I saw and didn’t run away in fear of was at a Nirvana show. I know I'm dating myself as I say that. That was the first proper moshpit that I had ever seen."
For ICP, I was on the outskirts. Contrary to popular believe, there are rules to a mosh pit. People are generally pretty aware of their bodies. That is of course, until I hit an ICP mosh pit. These people really didn't know what the hell they were doing. Maybe drugs? It definitely wasn’t just alcohol. And as a result, I too sustained an injury, and got punched by mistake. They were actually quite apologetic about it and picked me up because I was hit to the ground. It wasn’t all violence however; lest me not forget to mention that amidst all of this insanity, I got a few marriage proposals.
The interesting thing about that group of audience was that they were probably so ostracized from society that they are totally loyal to each other. There are surely ICP followers with conventional professions, such as doctors and lawyers, but for the most part that's not the case. I really think that these concerts, for the fans, are really gatherings where they can really be themselves. The notable sign of a true ICPer is the adornment of ICP-style make up--but there are many other ways to show your allegiance to the Posse.
I went to the bathroom and a black bathroom attendant lady looked at me and said, "Please tell me you are not here for this show." Granted, their music is incredibly misogynistic and violent, but when she went off on a tirade about how not only was the music terrible, but they were "bastardizing our music that we started." something about that statement just really irked me. The truth is that we often take different things from many different cultures and change them as we see fit. I actually ended up defending ICP. I strongly believe that by their expression of themselves, they are not hurting anybody, and shouldn't be so harshly criticized by anyone, let alone this lady. The interesting thing to note is that despite all of this violent music, not a single fight broke out at the show, or any inkling of violence—except for the accidental ones out of people’s clumsiness more so than from malice. There was, in all actuality, so much love in that room. I didn't feel any type of animosity, or even scared of anything that went on that night. I think it was one of the most comfortable situations, despite getting punched accidentally, that I've ever had at a gig.
I thought it was going to be a bunch of drugged up, angry, violent and aggressive people moshing. There were people getting out their aggression, but it was done in a really communal way. The music was not so great, and the rhyming skills were subpar at best, but it was a positive community. The most unfortunate aspect of the event was not being able to meet the members themselves.
Words by Deneka Peniston as told to Boyuan Gao
Deneka Peniston is a New York based (mostly) music photographer, who has photographed hundreds if not thousands of bands and performers, ranging from Alicia Keys, to The Bouncing Souls. Her work is in high demand and coveted because of her consistently eclectic, energetic, and daring money shots, which were sure she's risked her life for.
Remember your favorite high school teacher? He or she inspired you, motivated you, got all Dangerous Minds on your classroom and made you think that once you moved past your hormones, you could actually be the first woman/black/gay/transgendered/clown president? We have no doubt that Katie Wilson is that teacher to her students. A native of Canada, the New York City resident created the Global Studies Workshop with the City University of New York (CUNY) - a global exchange program that begins with an eight month long curriculum on the history of hip-hop before departing on a ten-day, life changing trip with her mostly Bronx born and bred students to Berlin, Germany. In addition to the cross-cultural experience, the students - both American and German – are all aspiring rappers, singers, and spoken word artists and are expected to collaborate and perform during their visit. CultureFphiles spoke to the brilliant and visionary Katie about the origins of the program, the social impact of hip-hop, and hearing Turkish German rap for the first time.
Tell us how the program started and what your involvement was.
I was having lunch with a professor from Fordham, Dr. Naison, and some of my colleagues. He was talking about this amazing half-German, half-American social worker in Berlin named Olad Adden who worked at the largest social service organization in Berlin for youth. Olad created a recording studio for young people focusing on rap and hip-hop. His project started to grow and he received funding from the Goethe Institute in Berlin to initiate [a foreign] exchange. Dr. Naison mentioned they were looking for an organization to host the American side so that the Germans would come to NYC and then six months later, the Americans would go to Germany. Dr. Naison started talking about it and I elbowed my way in and was like, ‘I’m doing it.’ I have a clear and evolving vision of the society I want to contribute to and this was an example of a serendipitous moment when a social interaction provided the opportunity to actually move in that direction.
What about the project piqued your interest?
I used to work as a wilderness guide. It was an international program based in California and I was taking kids whose parents paid a lot of money for 4-6 weeks abroad. I went to Fiji, Australia, Europe…all of this amazing stuff. I would do that during the summer and then I would work at CUNY Prep during the school year and I would think, damn, I want these students [CUNY Prep students] to have a similar experience.
Why did you want to share that experience with the CUNY Prep students?
[Because I saw] the impact on the students I worked with at the wilderness company. I’ve worked with teenagers for almost fifteen years and I see the types of transformation that happen between 16 – 20 years old. With the kids in the wilderness program, there was that experience of being abroad and understanding where they, as Americans, fit in a global spectrum.
Teenagers are asking questions like, 'Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I interested in? What am I good at?' That’s why I love working with teenagers because wherever they are experiencing the ages of 15-20 is going to answer those questions for them. So, a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world. I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it. My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.
Were most of the students who you were working with during the wilderness program mostly affluent, white kids?
Yes - and the students at CUNY Prep were mostly low-income, students of color. I would say 80% of CUNY Prep students are from the Bronx with the remaining students being from Harlem and Washington Heights. Mostly Latino, African-American, African, Caribbean, and all low-income.
Tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced prior to leaving.
We left for Berlin in 2010 with six students. We were in Berlin for ten days. Honestly, I don’t think anyone actually believed it was going to happen…that we would pull it off. We didn’t have funding for flights until three weeks before and I think I just had to say at some point, the money is going to come and then we finally got it. With the first group it was so powerful because we were scrambling to make it work. I partnered with a MC called Farbeond. So that first year, it was six kids and then we had two students who Farbeond worked with. It was a powerful first 48 hours where it set in like whoa, we’re actually here. This actually happened. The amazing thing was that the kids bonded so much - they really congealed as a group. I saw them peeling away layers of who they need to be to survive in the Bronx and what their capacities are as artists and global citizens representing the US, the Bronx, themselves and CUNY Prep.
How important and instrumental were all of these relationships to building the program?
It’s all about relationship-building. Especially in the field of education and youth development, relationships with colleagues with whom I am collaborating must be authentic. I am humbled by how important my role as a mentor and teacher to young people really is; therefore, I approach collaborations very seriously. We each have our individual talents and skills, but any project, business, or social movement is grounded in human beings working to communicate and collaborate with each other. We are social beings - we are dependent and connected - as families, communities, nations and as an entire planet. I think we forget that sometimes in psycho-individualistic NYC, but at the end of the day we need each other.
What was it like for the kids on a performance/artistic level. What was that experience like for them performing in Berlin?
Some of the students were performing for the first time ever in their lives. ]They were transformed by the experience of getting up on stage and performing their own work and their collaborative work for the first time in a different country.
It must have blew them away.
Yeah, it took them a while to get used to hearing German rap. They were like,“what the hell are they saying?” and, “they are rapping so fast!” They were amazed by it but also, like “haha that sounds funny” [laughs]. There’s also a large Turkish population in Berlin so hearing a Turkish kid rapping in German who spoke English with a Middle Eastern accent…it was like, what?! And that’s amazing - that confusion and having your mind blown - that’s what it’s all about. The kids also couldn’t get over how supportive, friendly, and non-threatening the environments [they performed in] were as opposed to where they grew up in the Bronx.
It’s important for young people to see hip-hop performed in a non-machismo, unaggressive way.
Exactly - and music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not. You can track historically, in this country, what’s happened in terms of social movements and what music has helped pushed that. As I build the curriculum for this program, it’s important to analyze the history of hip-hop and where it comes from and where it’s going…and hip-hop has just become more interesting globally. That’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, 'oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself' and so we have to facilitate that process.
What specifically got you interested in teaching the kids about hip-hop? What drew you to the music and made you interested in incorporating it into the curriculum?
Something I always say is that I’m Canadian. I was raised in the suburbs in the country. I listened to hip-hop in the 90’s but I was more into reggae and rock. I’m not a super hip-hop head and I don’t purport to be a hip-hop expert. I think it’s actually a benefit in building this program because I’m coming from a youth development perspective and as an educator and I’m really about transformative education.
My love for hip-hop music and culture has deepened over the past 15 years. To be an effective educator, it is essential to understand, give voice to, and build relationships with your students. Youth culture is - and always has been - synonymous with the culture of music. For the past 30 or so years, hip-hop has been a dominant sound in youth culture. Since the genre is also a complex culture, its impact is profound. It is not simply about enjoying the sound, it’s about a message and, in some cases, a resounding call for societal changes. Hip-hop messages range from simple to revolutionary to spiritual. As an educator, exploring this global culture - its past, present and future messages with my students is a very important and powerful lesson.
Many of your students are from the Bronx, what were some of the major cultural differences you all experienced?
The history of WWII, Hitler and the presence of the Berlin Wall is pretty predominant and I think it’s intentional that you’re made aware of that history. I think that in the US, we’re not made aware of what has gone on [historically] and a lot of the students were like well, how come there isn’t that same aspect of playing homage? I thought it was so brilliant that the kids were pointing that out. We went to the concentration camps and took a train way out to the suburbs and there are tons of beautiful houses and then all of a sudden you’re at the end of a lane and there’s a museum and a whole concentration camp with tours.
Many of the students you work with come from challenging backgrounds. Do you feel they were more hopeful after they returned from Berlin?
That was a mixed bag – one of my biggest challenges with this program was [that the kids] said they felt safe, happy, and free traveling but then they return to their struggles. I want to work really hard to make sure this experience is transformed into a lasting experience.
How do you make that transition easier for them?
Both times I had two students who returned and were depressed because they returned to sleeping on the couch and not having enough food in the fridge and were really struggling. Part of my work is to provide them with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens. It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community. Most of the kids are in college and have managed to maintain academically which is something I’m a huge proponent of. The testament is that the kids who went in 2010, I would say 5 of the 6 students are incredibly successful right now. One is DJaying, the other won all of these spoken word contests and was in Paris, another girl really discovered her self as a singer [in Berlin]. Another student has started his own business…and these are like 20, 21 year-old students. I’m interested to see this next round of students and what will be some of their accomplishments.
It sounds like you’re giving your students tools to become better leaders.
Yes, a common vision I have in my work as an international wilderness instructor and as CUNY Prep's coordinator for the Bronx Berlin Program has been to guide my students in thinking critically about themselves, the US, the countries we visited, the inter-connectedness of the planet and the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of our world.
In my opinion, much of the US citizens' relationship to the global community is based in the notion that we are the greatest country on the planet and every other country is somehow lesser than. That is just not true and is an incredibly problematic perspective, especially for youth to adopt since the planet they are inheriting is rapidly globalizing.
What do you envision long-term for the program?
I’m still thinking about the possibilities. I just love how it worked out so organically and I don’t want to decide on some outcome of what it’s going to become and then shoot for that goal. Right now, my goal is making sure it’s solid at CUNY prep. I would love to find a grant to fund it. I’m really trying to make the program sustainable and formalize it programmatically. Hopefully, I’ll be able to create other abroad programs at CUNY Prep.
To find out more about the Bronx-Berlin project click here.
Words by Jahan Mantin
Photo credit: Trey Wilder
El Curandero is Minneapolis based producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rico Simon Mendez' newest EP off of his imprint Cultura Love. I loathe saying things like that because this album is so much more than just the hotest new joint that just dropped. El Curandero is timeless, spiritual music that transcends so many cultural/genre constraints. Here are some things rather significant things that this interview + songs will make you question that will make you say "hmmm":
Does listening to too many artificial sounds have a negative impact on your psyche?
Does the camaraderie in musicians playing together actually give added benefit to the physical body?
What do you need to release your work and not hoard it?