Launching a Creative Space for Youth in Milwaukee

Vince: I grew up in this town called Waukegan, Illinois. I went into high school knowing that my parents couldn't afford to send me to college. The narrative that I grew up around was like, you have to work hard to get the things that you want. So I had it in my mind that if I wanted to go to college, I was gonna have to bust my ass through high school.

Photos by Megan Monday

Vince, Kane, & WebsterX | Milwaukee, WI

At the same time, all through high school, on the weekends, and quite honestly on some school nights, my friends and I would drive three hours to watch some punk band play for like ten minutes and then drive home afterwards. We were real road warriors. I started playing in punk bands and music became a big part of my life.

I still managed to get straight A’s, so I was able to get some help to go to college at Marquette in Milwaukee. I originally went into college as a bio major, because I was good at math and science. I thought science was really interesting because it was a vehicle for me to understand the universe and just how things work. But for a lot of the people that I was in school with, they were on a pre-med track, or they just wanted to work for pharmaceutical companies to make money and things like that. That didn’t feel like the right fit for me.

The most influential person to me in my entire life is my grandfather. He was a music teacher.

The more I thought about it, teaching was just something that made sense to me. It’s a job that gives you the space to explore the things that you love. So I switched my major to English and decided to become a teacher.

One thing punk rock taught me is that it’s always important to do something with a purpose, and for me that’s sharing ideas with people, connecting and learning. The thing that I love about teaching is that it’s so humbling. You can be smart as hell, but if you can’t connect with your students, that doesn’t mean anything at all.

I’m 27 now and I teach at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee. A lot of my love for teaching is really a love for urban education, where there are a lot of different cultures. My mom is white and my dad’s Asian. Growing up biracial, you just get all these like crazy competing narratives all the time, and in college, I was empowered with the vocabulary and rhetoric to understand my race and identity and whatnot. I feel because of the opportunities I’ve had, and my privilege, I have a responsibility to try to advocate for others who can’t always advocate for themselves.

In some of the classes I teach, we try to do group work but nobody wants to get into a group because nobody feels safe with each other. Culturally it’s kind of hard for people to relate to each other. What I’ve learned as a teacher is that the most important things we can do is to create a space where people can feel safe, and then they can have fun and connect.

Teaching has made me into the man I am; I think it’s made me a better person. I like to think of myself as somebody that’s patient, somebody that is an advocate, and somebody that’s not afraid to like stick up for what I think is right.

Become part of the Love Wisconsin

Kane: I think I was about five years old when my mom first told me that we’re not even s’posed to be living right now. She told me that when she was pregnant with me, she was in a car accident and it was so bad that the doctors told her either she wasn’t gonna live or she wasn’t never gonna be able to have me. But she said she felt me kicking inside her and she wasn’t going to give up. Then the doctor told her that if I lived I wasn’t gonna live for very long. After I was born, my mom couldn’t walk, so she had to learn how to walk all over again. Somehow I made it, too.

Ever since my mama told me that, I always felt like I was like put on this Earth like for a reason, ‘cause I’m 18 now and I wasn’t s’posed to live past a month. I never felt like I was like a waste; I felt like I had a purpose on this earth.

I grew up in a very urban neighborhood in Milwaukee, on almost every block on Center Street, like from 40th to like 51st. People call it the ‘hood, but I don’t like to call it that. I was just always different. My entourage, they all be wearing baggy clothes, but I’d be wearing the tightest Levis that I can find. I just always think a little different.

I have a love for music because I came from a musical family. I learned about Jimi Hendrix when I was three, most people in their 20s don’t even know who he is. I research a lot of music, I watch documentaries, I watch films. My grandma and my mom, they always play music. They play music when they mad, they play music when they happy, they play music when they get off work, they play it when they clean (laughs). So that’s a big part of why I am an artist now, why I rap and perform.

There’s new rappers coming up every day. It’s very competitive, it takes a lot of hard work. My mom, she supports me. She’s like, “You just gotta keep working, you just gotta keep growing, it’s gonna happen soon, you just gotta have patience.” I’ve had some opportunities, I’ve recorded some songs, I’ve performed in Milwaukee and Atlanta, I’m working hard to make this happen.

My mom is my inspiration. She never questioned anything; she just always pushed me and she always told me, “You gave me a reason to live,” and that’s why I feel like I got, like, a big responsibility.

I feel like I owe my family a better life. My mom is always telling me, “Don’t live for me, live for you,” but I be telling her, like, “It’s hard ’cause you are my life, you and my little sister, you all are my life. I love you.” So like everything I am doing I am just thinking about if this gonna get my mom and my sister into a better environment. I’m doing everything for them.

Vince: As a teacher, I feel some of the best opportunities we have are sharing the things we love with our students. I’m a big fan of this guy named WebsterX. He is a famous Milwaukee-based hip-hop artist. I was watching his videos and going to his shows all the time.

Over the summer, I was teaching senior English, and I had a good, small group of kids. It was honestly the perfect situation for a teacher. We had this very nice, Socratic type of atmosphere.

I was tasked to teach my kids narrative writing. I always thought that the study of literature was the appreciation of art, and the goal is to teach you how to break down the art that you’re consuming and hopefully, you can implement it yourself. At the end of this unit they have to produce their own narrative piece. And I was thinking, it’s summertime, so well…let’s study hip-hop.

For the text of one lesson, which I called ‘Milwaukee,’ we studied WebsterX’s songs ‘Desperate Youth,’ ‘Doomsday,’ and his tour video to South by Southwest. From there, we talked about a whole bunch of things. I remember the song ‘Desperate Youth’ starts out with this ‘Hey Arnold’ sample. It goes, “Stoop kid, get off your stoop.” It’s from ‘The Hey Arnold’ TV show. It was a perfect opportunity to teach the kids about allusions and references in narrative. The kids got super into interpreting WebsterX’s art.

There was 100 percent engagement in that class. They were just so excited about the actual content itself; they found it engaging. They got to study hip-hop, and it was something from their community so that made it really relevant to them.

A lot of them were asking questions after the lesson, like, “Hey, do you think you can get him to talk to our class?” So I put WebsterX’s email and Facebook link on the board and just told them, “Why don’t you blow up his inbox and see what he says?”

He probably got a lot of messages from my students. They were just so inspired to see somebody from the city doing something so cool.

Sam, a.k.a. WebsterX: I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee, 53rd and Burleigh, but through Chapter 220, I went to school in the suburbs. It’s predominantly white there, so I had a lot of white friends. Then I would come back to the north side where all my black friends would be, and then I also knew some Jewish kids, too, ’cause there was a synagogue in my neighborhood.

What that did for me is that it made me feel like I could always talk to any type of person. I’ve always gone through life just being able to treat everybody like my neighbor.

My parents are both Ethiopian. My mom’s a really strict Muslim; my dad’s a little more lenient. My dad was a famous musician in Ethiopia, he comes from humble, generous roots. My mom’s family is one of the wealthiest in Ethiopia. Her dad runs this big coffee bean importing/exporting company. My mom’s background is a little bit more aggressive. She will tell you straight-up to your face what’s up.

That background, that duality from both of my parents, that explains a lot about me.

I didn’t focus on art and music until I was 20 years old because I was really into sports, but I was writing random poetry and doing spoken word performances in high school and college.

In college I was obsessed with Lil’ Wayne, he was my favorite artist. I started writing some raps in my notebook. One of my homies read some of my raps and he was like, “Yo, you’ve got to record this, it’s super dope.” I was like, “All right, let’s get it,” so I rapped over Lil’ Wayne’s ‘6 Foot 7 Foot.’ That was the first song I ever rapped over. I kinda hated the sound of my voice but I was like, all right, this is kind of dope. So I kept recording more and working on my writing.

I was a shy kid growing up, but by the time I was in college, I was really social. I used to throw all these college house parties with my friends, and that created this big social network of people. When I started sharing my music online, it was that network that made it spread fast.

I created my stage name WebsterX when I was 21, and I released this music video called ‘Desperate Youth.’ The day I dropped that video it got such crazy reception. It was just so unexpected, I had no clue. And when I released the song on SoundCloud it had gotten about 25,000 plays in a span of six months and I was, like, just tweaking about that, you know? After that, music was all I would ever think about.

Eventually, I dropped out of college and started pursuing music full-time. I had all of this extra attention, and I wanted it, but I wasn’t sure how to navigate it. So I spiraled into this really dark phase because I didn’t understand what anxiety and awkwardness really were growing up. I wasn’t raised talking about that kind of stuff. The depression pretty much just stemmed from growing pains and dropping out of school, worried about what my parents were thinking, I don’t know how to validate this, I’m super broke right now. All of it.

That time period inspired a song called ‘Doomsday’ which really surged through Milwaukee and then it went national. It got picked up by Entertainment Weekly and all of these national publications. That was really when my stamp was sealed here as far as, you know, just being that one kid, that artist from Milwaukee who’s getting some attention. I just released my debut album ‘Daymares’ and am touring now.

The way I got into music was very DIY. And nowadays, hip-hop has that DIY type of identity.

I think it’s important that kids in Milwaukee feel supported and encouraged and realize that they can be artists, too. They can host parties and perform, they can drop tracks on SoundCloud. It’s always been important to me to do everything I can to support the youth coming up in Milwaukee.

So when I heard from Vince, this Milwaukee Public School teacher, that his kids were studying my music in his class and they wanted to meet up, I got back to him as fast as I could. I was like, “Let’s make this happen; let’s do a show for your students.”

Vince: When I reached out to WebsterX, I had no expectations. I just told him, “Hey, I’m a teacher at Milwaukee Public Schools and I taught your text in my classroom. My students loved it. If you’re interested in talking more, maybe setting something up, reach back.” He got back to me right away. He even offered to perform for my students. I was really excited, but I also knew, as a teacher I had to get this right.

I wanted to invite a student to come the first meeting because it was important to me that the youth were part of the process from the beginning.

I thought about Kane. He wasn’t in one of my classes, but I had seen him perform and thought he would bring an important perspective. We didn’t know each other very well when I reached out to him.

Kane: Vince was like the only teacher in the school who was fresh. I love clothes, so if I love your fashion sense, like I’m gonna talk to you. He’s a teacher but he’s always wearing like everything the cool kids wanted. Like people come to school talking about Supreme, and he had a Supreme shirt on, people come talk to school and talking about Vans, like he had Vans on.

I was checking out his fashion on the low. But then Vince approached me and he was like, “You do music, right?” And I was like, “Yeah of course,” and then he was like, “I want to set up a meeting with you, here’s my email.”

I emailed him as soon as I got home, and I was like,”‘Bro, I’m excited for whatever we got in store. Just let me know when and where you want to meet up and I’ll be there.” And then he was like, “All right, it’s gonna be me, you, and WebsterX.”

I was like, “Damn!” ‘Cause I never thought I was gonna meet WebsterX until, like, I put the work in, until I got, like, a huge following for my own music. So I was just really surprised and Vince was like, “Would you be down?” And I almost wanted to be like, “Hell yeah!” But I just told him, I just told him, “Um, yeah, of course I’ll be down.” You know, I tried to play it real cool.

WebsterX: We all ended up at Fuel Café, outside on the patio, and Vince walked up with a clipboard.

Vince: Yeah, I came to hang out with a rapper carrying a clipboard. But since a performance was on the table, I wanted to show this guy that I could organize stuff.

WebsterX: Itinerary, full on, and I loved it. He dished it out, and I just agreed with it all and it kind of sprouted into this plan for an event, a performance for Milwaukee youth. This was July 2015, and we planned the show for August. That first meeting went great. I think we were there for like two hours at least, just chopping it up.

Vince: I remember at one point Kane was like, “When can we talk about me playing at the event?” And I, of course, was playing it safe, doing the teacher thing. I was like, “Maybe if this event works out, we’ll do it another time,” and WebsterX was like, “No man, he should play, too.”

WebsterX: I think that the kids in Milwaukee are hungry. They want something. Kane is an example of that; he has that hunger. He’s got people he’s got to take care of. He needed an opportunity.

Vince: Our plans for the show were coming together. We got the Jazz Gallery in Riverwest to donate the space. Accessibility was so important to me. I called a bunch of students as soon as we had a date locked in and asked them if they needed a bus ticket or a ride to the Jazz Gallery that night.

I also wanted to be sure it was a safe, clean, and sober space. I don’t care what other people do for other shows, but this one needed to be clean, I was super serious about that. We need to have clear minds, clear hearts, and all that stuff.

WebsterX: Vince was just insanely organized, and me and Kane came in to provide the spirit. The night of the show arrived. We had this format where Vince interviewed each artist before they performed.

Vince: I know from growing up in the punk scene, there are a lot of people that could totally easily judge somebody and think all this stuff about them not really knowing what was behind the music, not knowing the person. I feel like the same thing is true with hip-hop. The interviews put a helpful context around the music.

For the students to just hear WebsterX talk about his music and then perform, it’s like breaking down that fourth wall. He’s right there with them. There is no green room, everybody’s in the same room together for that experience.

WebsterX: It felt so great to be in that space. I remember going as hard as I do at shows anywhere else. I was sweating my ass off.

Kane: For me, the show was a blessing, because that was only the second time I had performed for an audience. A lot of established artists were at that show, like everybody who I had been reaching out to, and they were kinda forced to pay attention to me. It really boosted my confidence, it let me know what I needed to work on, what I needed to improve on.

Vince: After the show, everyone was just so stoked that they started spontaneously rapping…all these boys were just standing outside the Jazz Gallery and they just started to freestyle; even Kane got into it.

WebsterX: The show just felt amazing, just having all the youth together in that space, not just the youth that already have stuff available for them, but the kids that really don’t, you know what I’m saying? And that’s why it felt so great. It made me want to do it again, create more opportunities for these kids. That’s what inspired me to text Vince the next morning. I was like, “We have to do that again, bro.”

I was like, “I think I have the perfect name for it, we can call it FREESPACE, just because of the fact that it’s always gonna be free, it was a free-spirit space, and we’re in the space together.

That was the start of FREESPACE.

WebsterX: Since that first show with Vince’s students, we’ve started doing a FREESPACE show every month for Milwaukee youth. Every event now is like 60 to 100 kids jumping up and down and there is all of this excitement and energy.

Vince: The big purpose of FREESPACE is really to expose Milwaukee’s youth to Milwaukee-based art and provide them with the opportunity to appreciate art with community members in a space safe for free-thinking and dialogue.

Also to encourage Milwaukee’s youth artists to use their craft as a means of developing themselves and their ideas, and then empower them with knowledge about themselves, their community, and the space they occupy in the world.

It’s essentially art appreciation as a means of building community centered around literacy and love.

It’s been having an impact, too. There was this boy who came to our first show, and I found out that he walked there from pretty far west. Fast-forward to a few months later, and he played HIS first-ever show on our stage and like…

Kane: He killed it.

WebsterX: That’s the f’real thing about FREESPACE. Anyone who attends the shows can have a chance to perform alongside bigger names we bring in. A lot of kids have had their first opportunities playing at FREESPACE, and that makes us feel crazy good.

We’ve had about 20 shows now and we’re still going. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough DIY and all-ages spaces out here in Milwaukee, so that’s why we’re on a mission non-stop to create those opportunities and encourage the next generation.

Kane: We’re really just trying to motivate them to DIY, like do it yourself. You all can have your all own FREESPACE, if you all really want it. You all can grab a venue and, like, have people come to shows. We just want to motivate people to really grow and always show love, ’cause that goes a long way.

-Vince, Kane, and WebsterX | Milwaukee, WI

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