A Trip Down to Detroit and the Urban Arts Academy: Our Reflections

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By: Daniel Hodgman and Justin Cook

Reflections and reactions to visiting the Urban Arts Academy. Full interview here.

Daniel’s Reflection

Since moving down to Florida a year ago, I’ve missed Michigan. Growing up in the mitten for 22 years and then living in Florida has shown me how distinctly special Michigan really is. I’ve been to wildly contrasting areas of Michigan such as Detroit, Traverse City, East Lansing, Alpena, St. Ignace, Holland, St. Johns and Flint, among other cities, and this is why Michigan is so special to me. One can look at any state or country they love the most and make this claim. They can throw their hands in the air and yell, “we have all these different places too,” but against my better judgment and reasoning, I can’t come to terms with any state trumping Michigan’s greatness. Call this the bias approach, but I’m always seeking a pleasant peninsula.

When I took a trip and visited Michigan two weeks ago and told people I was driving to Detroit for a day-trip, people looked confused. “Why?” and “be careful” were some of the comments I received, and at this it became apparent that the negative stigma behind Detroit was still the only thing wrapped around the minds of some of those outside of the city itself.

With Bonus Cut and our trip to Detroit, our focus was to get a perspective from the city itself. We sought out those who were actually living within the city limits, instead of those living in it through a perspective lens from hundreds of miles away. We sought out Detroit’s true voice, instead of the mainstream veil supported by news outlets covering the city in a dark cloud. We sought out the true artistic happenings in Detroit, instead of bankruptcy and decay. And we sought out the truth, something that’s hardly mentioned when talking about one of America’s greatest cities.

Most of what I took out of this trip can be heard on our interview with the Urban Arts Academy of Detroit. But to add to that, I must note how incredibly strong and powerful the people of Detroit really are. It goes without saying that everyone from everywhere, no matter the situation, has their own drive and agenda, but how many times can you recall mainstream media focusing on the people of Detroit and their resilience? How many times can you look back and say, “remember that feature they did on Detroit’s Puerto Rican Family Festival?” Or, “remember that story about Detroit’s farmer’s market and those helping to provide the city with a positive vibe?” When speaking with these great individuals at the Academy, it hit me that Detroit’s heart is the core group of people like the ones I had the honor of talking to. Here I would personally like to thank Christy Bieber (of The Raiz Up), Sacramento Knoxx (of The Raiz Up and the Urban Arts Academy), Lex Zavala (creator of the Urban Arts Academy), Isra Daraisch, Antonio Cosme (of The Raiz Up), Row (of The Raiz Up, The Urban Arts Academy), Gianni Carazo (student of The Urban Arts Academy) and Freddie Burse (student of The Urban Arts Academy).

We met Knoxx, Christy, Freddie and Gianni at the Academy, and they showed us some of the graffiti outside of the building. On the back of the building is the largest legal graffiti wall in Detroit, which featured artwork from artists around the country. The average time it took for these artists to complete some of the graffiti took three days, and they were flawless pieces of work stretching across a hip-hop sanctuary. Inside, Lex showed us the different spots for students, the studio, the Native American medicine wheel, the four square court, the graffiti walls and production room. It was an artistic display of hip-hop perfection. As we all sat in a circle to discuss the state of Detroit, the Academy and the strong individuals in the program, I had a sense of euphoria.

There are some things that just hit you, and if you don’t take a step back and process it, you will falter. I don’t know what triggered this in me during our trip to Detroit – it could have been many things – but all I know is that I came out of this a much more educated man. I think the most important thing that got me was that of the media and its portrayal of this great American city. Everything revolving around Detroit that comes out of the news is negative. Even more so, it’s a wall constructed to keep the very beings in Detroit with a voice quiet. When there’s a 100% look in on stories like Kwame Kilpatrick or the bankruptcy, the opportunity to focus on positive stories like the Urban Arts Academy, The Raiz Up, voices against the pollution of Delray and voices for change within Detroit’s education system are lost. The positive voice emerging from the city gets muddled and lost in the news because of their choice to block it out. What made me appreciate visiting the Urban Arts Academy and talking to real people of the city was the profound knowledge and drive they had to make Detroit a better place. In turn this also lead me to extreme sorrow, realizing that the news’ number one goal when reporting on Detroit is that of shutting these shining voices down. What gives me hope, and what gives everyone in Detroit hope, is that these individuals, groups and programs continue to strive, and that these voices are no longer silent. This in turn shines a positive light on Detroit and its future.

I hope I can return to Detroit again soon. It’s weird, because I’ve been to Detroit so many times, but it wasn’t until this trip where I fully understood the city and the wonderful people who keep it going everyday, and if I were to suggest taking a trip down to visit some of Detroit’s gems, I would. When people talk about Detroit, they tend to forget the ones who are actually living there and keeping it afloat. It’s not their fault, but what they can do is better educate themselves for the future. One thing we can start doing is educating ourselves in other ways besides the news, where most of the stuff that gets thrown at us on a dished platter of bias. We need to discover the truth through our voice, our actions and our research. So to quote the great Immortal Technique, “turn off the news and read.”

Justin’s Reflection

I was blessed to interview the folks at the Urban Arts Academy in Detroit. It gave me great hope for not only the future of our city, but the future of our world. Detroit is a perfect representation of government corruption and greed—the poster city for the failed American Dream. As a result, most of the Detroit residents are beginning to rely exclusively on themselves, without the help of the government or city officials. The Urban Arts Academy is one of those places created from the unwavering strength and support of Detroit’s passionate citizens.

When we arrived at the Urban Arts Academy, we were greeted with much love. They were excited to meet with us and talk about this place they created over the past few years. Knoxx, a member of Detroit Collective Raiz Up and mentor at the Academy, showed us around the building. We talked about how the building was created, who helped, where funds came from, and even small talk about happenings in the city. The outside walls were covered in some fucking awesome graffiti, from artists all across the county.  He explained how the hip-hop community supports one another no matter who or where. He also informed us of Detroit’s new “Stop and Frisk” policy, and how it feels like we are living in a police state. As the conversation continued, more people showed up to be interviewed, and eventually we made our way inside the building.

Lex, the founder of the Urban Arts Academy, gave us a tour around the building. He created this space to teach the youth of Detroit since the school systems are failing at a rapid rate—how people can no longer rely on government intervention and must build up their own city. He wanted to give the students a place to feel safe and learn skills they can use for the rest of their lives. The Academy just happens to be centered around hip-hop culture, which I think is a beautiful thing. They have a recording studio that is fully stocked with some of the latest equipment and various art supplies and mediums, giving students a chance to freely express themselves. We even got to meet a few of the students, who feel this place is a second home to them. I was so glad to find out these places do exist in the city of Detroit.

After the interview, which was eye-opening to say the least, Knoxx and the students took us around the city and showed us the places they call home. We ate at a taco truck, which was some of the best Mexican food that had ever graced my mouth, and then rode over to Clark Park. This is the area where they just chill, battle rap and throw small shows for their community. There was this little stage that we hung out at, and it in itself was a work of art: a tiled mosaic of the sun. It was such surreal experience. They were blasting beats through the park, ciphering, and just having a great time on a Sunday afternoon. I felt honored to be taken along this journey, to be in a place that has so much significance to all of them. It was fucking real. It was the magic of hip-hop.

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