It Started With an Answer

By Hakim Bellamy, Carlos Contreras, Colin Hazelbaker, Urban Verbs, Littleglobe Affiliate Artists

It started with the answer to a question--an answer we still haven’t been able completely to define but are determined to defend. We asked each other, “How do a Black kid from New Jersey, a Brown kid from the barrio and a White kid from the foothills of Albuquerque’s Sandia Mountains—who’ve known each other all of five years—end up creating an artistic reality that we all feel we’ve known our entire lives?” It’s as if we grew up on the same block. The answer is and is not Hip Hop, though Hip Hop is a common denominator. Rather, the answer is in the beats, the rhymes, the “stories,” we remember from THAT summer, THAT prom, THAT loss. The soundtrack of our generation—like all generations—has us all grooving to a beat at one point or another; and if we look down we notice our feet doing a dance because it has brought us together. It drips the glue that keeps us together. Contemporary Hip Hop illuminates these relationships and connections for people from different sides of the wax.

But beyond Hip Hop, it’s the fact that all three of us (and so many others) have a “THAT” story—a picture, portrait, painting, a poem, a song, words we said, relied upon, spoken out loud, and words we didn’t. These stories, similar yet different, moved all three of us toward remarkably similar visions of who we want to be and the world we want to create together. The mission of Urban Verbs is four-fold: a) to create a progressive and redemptive narrative around Hip Hop culture; b) to fashion Hip Hop into a form of love, intelligence and a better way of living—a Hip Hop that builds rather than destroys, c) to facilitate the practice of others (especially youth) telling their stories through Hip Hop; d) to serve as viable examples of men who feed their families, raise their children, and live their dreams through restorative art. Like real Hip Hop, the emphasis of Urban Verbs is on the process of making—the ruminations that come with facing, challenging, inventing, accepting and re-inventing ourselves and our communities. Urban Verbs is always in process, maturing the lexicon and definition of what Hip-Hop is and can be, rather than what it cannot.

We write from unique, complex, sometimes incredibly simple, always genuine points of view:

When Mama said . . . ”The world is your canvas” we took her literally. We took her words, and put them in places that needed her perfect wisdom more than we did. We weren’t Samo, we were different. She called me her best work of art, so I put prints in conspicuous locations, at no cost. I brand my reality, like Lauren like Hilfiger, like Klein, but they charge me for it! I spend funds on community beautification projects. I spend MY money ’cause they don’t spend anything in the Projects. Time, Money, Optimism, Vision, We sacrifice meal money for aerosol and markers. We provide portraits, on the most forsaken of canvases. We bleed like peers outside the rigid frame that has been blocked out for us. Throw our name up on trains that will make it out of this cell block, that will travel to places we may not live to visit. Even the most cynical bootstrap advocates the most ignorant of institutional caste systems Who tell us, our “gangsta rap reality” comes from our life’s a bitch and then you die thinking. Those who chastise us most for making art when we can’t afford the class, who forgot that they too were once kids with crayon box crayons that had a magnetic crush on walls. We are the ones who ran out of walls and turned to our skin, tattoo buildings and muralized flesh because we are our city— Property, prime real estate, under-appraised and under-developed. No daisies grow here. We buy beauty, purchase colors to, instead, put in police holsters, so they can’t spray their guns at us . . . —from “Visual Peace”

Our performances (spoken word, music, video) are about asking questions of others and of ourselves, about critical reflection and ambitious projections. Performances often include individual and collaborative poems/performances, with music, that are interlaced with video testimonials by Hip Hop poets, artists and community activists. Each performance also presents a collaborative piece inspired by the village/town/city that houses the show. Every show that Urban Verbs creates provides space for the audience to be involved. We offer instances in which those watching can get up and dance, sing, or chant right along with us. At the end of each show there is a Q & A session, offering up discussion about anything brought up during the performance. In our efforts to provide art to underprivileged populations and communities, we also raise money so that we can add one free show alongside the nights we “ticket” an event and charge to get in.

We are big on building community. We are a band of educators (in addition to being artists) who know the value of art as an educational and therapeutic tool. In the days before and after performances, we teach classes and facilitate workshops in the communities we visit, often with youth. We share our work by reading/performing, show video of Hip Hop artists and others who inspire us, sparking discussion, engaging others in writing exercises, encouraging others to partake in the sharing/reading/performing and creating new work. We are always willing to talk about Hip Hop, its messages to the world, and how we make it, (“message the world”) in new ways. Each city we visit is, in essence, a discussion where we may have the first word, but the audience certainly has the last.

We always plan, promote and practice thoroughly, in order to best serve the communities we visit. You could call these our best practices. We see ourselves as a “build to suit” collaborative; in other words, if you want simply a performance, we can do it; if you want a performance and workshop, done, and anything else under the sun. It is important to us to respond to the needs of the communities, as presenters, educators AND collaborators. We consider ourselves to be “part of the discussion.” In this way, we are ALWAYS students. We like to be non-elitist and non-exclusive in our efforts to inform and work with the youth/students in our community. Part of maintaining this outlook is being sympathetic to their situations and cognizant of their abilities and interests, as well as practicing sympathy and empathy. We’ve been there and, if we haven’t, we do our best to imagine the realities of their lives. Luckily, encouraging writing and performance opens the doors to their lives as we open the doors to ours. It’s a give and take, matching what we bring in terms of our own abilities and preparation with the talents and abilities we encounter in each place we visit.

One thing we know is to be extremely sympathetic to the wandering attention span of younger audiences. All of us spend large parts of our professional and personal time working with youth in our community. We know that social media has shortened their (our?) attention span, in general. And we spend time with many from underserved and struggling communities. We know that not all are built for a 50-minute, traditional English Lit. course. Some may need to stand, dance, be heard or simply be given more time to formulate a thought. Our process is one of flexibility and facilitation, rather than rigid instruction, in anything that we do. As educators, we know that learners and all other kinds of consumers of information come in varying shapes and sizes. So our teaching is multimedia (visual, video, audio & verbal) and “something for everyone.”

Urban Verbs also strives to emphasize the generative part of creation. We don’t always delve into the full process of writing, audio engineering or video editing, but instead begin with the “how to get started” phase. The most important part starts within ourselves and in the expressing it. We do show our young people that there is a world of tools out there if they know where to find them, but our emphasis is the most important tool, ourselves. Because of this, our model for bringing art to the world is have a belief in DIY (Do It Yourself). None of us have had the luxury of an agent or other representation. None of us lives in the artistic vortex of New York or Los Angeles, so the hopes of being “discovered” are slim to none. We’ve always promoted our own work, our own art and ourselves. We are savvy enough to understand that via this model we can own more of our profits and career trajectory, retain our artistic integrity and promote the ownership of creative work. In the music industry there is this idea of artists “owning their own masters,” but it hardly ever happens. Urban Verbs will always strive to keep ownership of all our creations, in full, and this is what we share with young people.

This is very important because reclaiming our narratives is hard to do when someone else owns the rights to our story. This is the philosophy we share with the aspiring talent we often work. Urban Verbs understands that, often, the populations we work with aren’t met with the most encouraging and empowering support from the outside world. We try to model the responsibility that individuals have to believe in themselves, be proud of themselves and own their work—confidently.

We want to put our shows in front of youth to serve as a roadmap for how to pursue their art and make it a bridge to their dreams. We want to put them in front of their parents and our own parents’ generation to show them why Hip Hop speaks to us in a way that is not as new or as different as they’d like to think. We want to build bridges, or build stronger ones, between us, to say, “Though your music and movement is different from ours, we are the same because we both have OUR music and OUR stories,” the poetry and music that speak to us at the core.

We believe Urban Verbs shows bring people together and are necessary everywhere where people are falling apart. We three are a mix of faithful fiancés, proud parents and sons who are close to their own parents. We are men who have relationships with their fathers and actually LIKE them. We are lovers, the love-lost, the work-it-outers, God-loving, God-fearing, Agnostic, political, apolitical, rebellious, devoted, dedicated and nonconformist. Urban Verbs is an alternative interpretation of the brainless, heartless, materialist, violent, sexist, homophobic, self-involved incarnations of popular Hip-Hop. We believe that art can empower, emancipate and change lives—as it did ours. We make the time to create together because we believe our creations embody our sense of duty and responsibility to inspire change in people. We believe that NOT creating is akin to giving up on beauty, positivity and hope for a different kind of Hip-Hop, a different kind of world for ourselves, and our children.