Homeless youths find a way to connect the streets to art and emotion, with help from hip-hop duo Big Quarters.
The St. Barnabas apartment building near the Metrodome is a transitional zone to help young people who are homeless move toward stability. On some recent Wednesday nights, it was also a makeshift recording studio, where Zach Bagaason, aka Medium Zach of the local hip-hop duo Big Quarters, was laying down some fresh vocals over beats.
Super-fresh, actually, as they'd just been written and recorded by the local talent -- ages 16 to 22 who were taking part in the latest installment of the Kulture Klub Collaborative (KKC) artist-in-residence program. Big Quarters, a pair of Mexican-American brothers who have earned critical praise for their three albums and recently toured with Atmosphere, were engaged to help the group write and record their own hip-hop CD.
KKC has been connecting homeless teens with artists, including painters and potters, dancers, actors and musicians, for 20 years. It's a way to give a sense of accomplishment, along with camaraderie, to young men and women who could really use a dose of both. Most Kulture Klub participants find out about the program through YouthLink, a social-services nonprofit that also runs a crisis drop-in downtown.
"Some of our people are staying here in the apartments, but others will go to a shelter tonight after the workshop, or just stay outside, walking around all night because they don't feel safe sleeping," said program director Jeff Hnilicka. "Making art together helps young people without much of a community to build one."
Sam Grey, 20 (aka YoungNwise), one of the less-vocal guys in the room, described himself as a poet.
"I like writing words, but I haven't done much rap," said Grey, who has been sleeping in shelters including Harbor Lights on and off over the past two years. "This is good, hanging out with friends and doing freestyle."
Rappin' 'bout the avenue
The theme of the song being worked on at the moment was a certain prominent thoroughfare in downtown Minneapolis, a street most participants had spent quite a bit of time on.
"Hennepin Ave., where the party get elevated / a lotta haters so a lot of people player hating / all clicked up but everybody segregated," rapped a young man named Antwon, shortly followed by 19-year-old Shanice Mason, who summed up a common lament of young women everywhere in just a few bars:
"I'm struttin' down Hennepin / hair did with my lip gloss, shoes and bag, uh / feeling good, I'm checking my fresh, but all I catch is these dudes checking out my chest / I mean, what about my beautiful eyes? / Not breast, thighs, legs, this is not Popeyes, ha! / or even KFC / None of y'all dudes could ever get to know me, yeah!"
Seated around a big table, the group was already familiar with the recording terms chopping, snares and kicks, thanks to a prior session on production. In between taking turns making their rhymes at the mike or spontaneously freestyling, they whipped out cellphones to get in a text or two before Brandon Allday, Zach's brother, gave another musical order.
"OK, go around the table, this time each give me one bar only," he said, his tone that of a friendly drill sergeant.
This was the second-to-last session. Over the weeks, the group has fluctuated between a half-dozen to more than twice that, some of them newcomers, which added a bit more challenge to the instructors' lesson plan.
"We try to engage the entire group rather than single out one or two talents, so everyone gets to try something new while working together," Zach said. "We also encourage the ones who do have more experience or talent to help the others out, lead by example. Sometimes the quietest person might be the one who will surprise you."
The chance to hear the sound of their own voices, and also how great a synthed-up version of pencil-tapping on tables can sound in the hands of a master engineer, also had a confidence-boosting effect.
Mason smiled when she heard her voice.
"I used to rap with my brother all the time, but I've never heard it recorded before," she said.
Mason who just started cosmetology school, will move into an apartment in May. Right now, she's in a shelter, after leaving her mother's house in St. Paul for the third time in two years.
"I love my Mom a lot, she's helped me a lot, she helped me finish high school on time," she said. "But our relationship went downhill and there was a big battle. And out in the real world you can't depend on people to hold your hand."
Games spark creativity
Big Quarters have been teaching at various schools and programs for the past eight years, including, currently, the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul and the American Indian OIC Career Immersion High School. One technique they use to get their students started is making up games like the one they used to write "Low Highs," a track from their latest release, "Party Like a Young Commie."
The game involves one person making up a bar, but leaving the last word blank, which is filled in by the next person, who also comes up with a bar and leaves the last word blank, and so on.
"It's difficult, but it gets them going," Zach said.
The program gets to keep the recording equipment, obtained through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. It's been moved to the Youth Opportunity Center, a crisis drop-in downtown, so anyone receiving services there can use it. The KKC program overall is funded largely by Legacy Amendment dollars.
Artists participating in KKC are paid for their time and expertise, just as they would be in a typical artist-in-residence program. "It's important for [the youths] to see that people can actually make a living like this," Hnilicka said. "It's also one of the reasons we've lasted so long -- we're supporting the artists, too."
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