by: Paige Lloyd
Feet perched upon the bar stool; hands wrapped around the microphone, Meraki pushes a strand of her short dark brown bob behind her ear, closes her eyes and belts out “HurtALittle,” an original song that allows her soulful voice to float over the strong beat. As students walk into the Jazz Gallery on the corner of Center and Weil, her powerful lyrics fill the room: “I allowed you to toy with me/tear me to pieces/I’m hurting/and in every song you’re the thesis.”
Meraki (v.): the soul, creativity, or love put into something, the essence of yourself that is put into your work.
The stage name was chosen with good reason for Meraki, 19, a Milwaukee singer who is doing just that with every line of lyrics she sings.
At a young age, Meraki began rambling through her grandfather’s tapes and vinyl and in no time, found herself with the bathroom door locked, a mini-radio in one hand and a hairbrush in the other as she belted her heart out to the reflection in the mirror. Russell had not perfected her stage name of ‘Meraki’ or a sound to call her own just yet. Her talent was evoked as she discovered the Jackson 5 and behind closed doors, she hid her voice for almost 12 years; a talent her family had no idea that she possessed.
Meraki was surrounded by an older generation of music as her grandmother was always playing Whitney Houston, Sade, Anita Baker and Tina Turner while her grandfather was found listening to jazz and blues. “Please Mr. Postman” was always played on repeat.
She detailed, “Besides hearing blues, and soul music around the house, my granddad would always take me to concerts. I was younger than 10 I think when he took to me a Frankie Beverly and Maze concert. I really enjoyed myself amongst all the old heads. He gave me old tapes, I’d rummage through his old vinyl and he gave me a radio to call my own.”
Finding her voice took time and developing lyrics to share her story took even longer. Once Meraki found her sound and created the deep, sultry vocals that would accompany them, it was time to showcase her skills.
A program in Milwaukee offered exactly that for her. It offered a space where she could grow as an artist. FREESPACE has evolved from an after-school hang out space to a tight-knit community where the collaboration of young artists is crucial to its survival. The energy that fills the room incites epic jam sessions where each artist feeds off vibes flowing from the audience who surrounds the small black-and-white tiled stage at the Jazz Gallery.
The creation of this program, from the ground up, started last summer in a Milwaukee-Pulaski High School classroom. English teacher Vince Gaa, 26, led students in a course about narrative technique. The 2012 Marquette alum shares his own love for music and during a week of the class, a unit of hip-hop was taught. Gaa introduced his students to a music scene in Milwaukee they had never imagined.
“What if I told you all that there is a really dope hip-hop scene?” Gaa said. “And it is in Milwaukee right now.”
“Okay, show us,” his students replied.
The students’ curiosities spiked as lyrics from local emerging experimental hip-hop artist, WebsterX, became the unit’s text. Sam Ahmed, 24, used the moniker as a young artist. Conversations began and Gaa saw an opportunity ahead of him.
It wasn’t until summer school graduation that Gaa figured out what kind of opportunity that would be. In the crowd was Darius Briggs, 17, an emerging rapper, known for his stage name, KaneTheRapper. He was not a student of Gaa’s summer school class but was there supporting one of his friends. Gaa recognized him from other classes, outside shows and decided to approach him.
“Hey man, don’t you rap?” Gaa asked. “I want to put together this show, for high school kids and you should come.”
“Would I be able to play in it?” he quickly replied.
So in August 2015, Gaa, WebsterX and Kane met at Fuel Café to discuss what was next and the vision they had in mind. WebsterX had seen the effect his music had on Gaa’s class and as a young rapper, Kane saw hope for flourishing artists like him.
FREESPACE resulted through the idea that those who came there could be free of everything in else their lives, functioning as a platform to for self expression and showcasing their art. It would be a way to shine a light on the youth of the city by creating a place for youth to meet, start conversations, and collaborate.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Kane had plenty of big dreams to go around. A lover of art: poetry, painting, music and fashion. If music doesn’t work out, Kane claimed that a cover shot on Vogue is the next venture.
A year has passed since the start of FREESPACE and within this time frame, there have been growth not only in the program but those involved. Gaa has seen a notable transition in Kane’s mindset since their first interaction last August.
“He went from being a scrub to a rock star,” Gaa says. “He has so many opportunities ahead of him. He used to want to play at the Miramar Theatre so bad last year. Now, he tells me he doesn’t care where he plays, that he doesn’t even need a stage. I feel as though I’m rewiring the neurons in that kid’s brain. I always look out for him. At 18 years old, he is a weapon in this industry.”
FREESPACE events never fail to fill every seat in the gallery. Word-of-mouth is the program’s main source of networking as Gaa chose not to create any social media aspects other than an informational website which includes the program’s mission statement and event updates.
Sharing the program’s mission and the talent of youth artists around him is something WebsterX takes great pride in. As an artist with a growing fan base, he understands the struggle of trying to get attention throughout Milwaukee’s music scene. His journey began in 2013, singing in a basement on Farwell Street.
While recording with a fellow rapper, Zombie, a conversation about music ensued and it all vibed.
“I realized how important it was for me to release material and have the chance to interact with others,” WebsterX said. “I left that basement feeling so dumb inspired, full of raw energy and with no obstruction of false intentions or fabrication. I took that and just ran with it.”
His only goal was to help the community and bring something of significance to Milwaukee.
“I wanted to push music and bring the community together with it,” WebsterX said. “It is so important to me because I love bringing people together; I think that’s the whole reason that I’m able to be a showman.”
Inspiration soared for WebsterX as he released the mixtape “Desperate Youth” in Sept 2013. The pressure from publications and his peers took the ultimate toll. Diving into a heavy depression, it took him a year to figure out what to do next and the sound he would encapsulate.
A live performance at the Locust Street Festival lifted him up, out of his depression and a creative rut.
“It was such a spiritual experience for me,” he said. “That is when I knew I had the juice. I was here, now, in Milwaukee and I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Connecting with Gaa and Kane was the beginning of an explorative journey for WebsterX into how he could affect the community surrounding him. To WebsterX, creating FREESPACE is all about giving opportunities to young kids who may have never performed live before.
“People have to realize what kind of background these kids are coming from,” WebsterX explained. “They come from places of love and smart decisions that need to be promoted. It’s a dog eat dog world for them. We can create a space where they can create whatever they want. It's a space that can feel like a studio to them.”
Allowing these students to have a space to express themselves is something co-creator Gaa fully understands. The relationships he develops throughout the program mean more than everything.
“These are not stellar students compared to what people think are ‘typical standards’,” Gaa noted. “Many of them come from alternative schools. These kids could be felons and I don’t care. I love you as a musician. We have created a relationship through that and honestly; it’s all I need.”
Building up a strong relationship has become the crux of what makes so many musicians feel comfortable performing for possibly their first time. Local rapper $uki and $unny of Vital E$$ence embraced this atmosphere fully.
$uki, 19, reminisced about the journey of becoming Vital E$$ence.
“We just randomly Google-ed some random words and those two words popped up,” he said. “It was so snatch, and it just rolled off the tongue. Our name is all about self-awareness and knowing as an artist, and as a person, who you really are.”
When Kane’s number appeared on $uki’s phone, he never expected what was to come: an invitation to perform at FREESPACE.
“FREESPACE became a total experience for us,” $uki said. “We were able to create so many connections with other people there.”
$uki is one of many artists who have found a place of collaboration in FREESPACE.
Connecting with this program and those involved has local musician Zechariah Ruffin, best known by her stage name Zed Kenzo, hopeful for the future.
Finding her passion for music, in her opinion, was just natural. As a young kid, Kenzo was singing in her church’s choir, playing piano at seven years old and hearing music around the house daily. When she was old enough to talk and control her fingers on a keyboard, she began loving music.
“My mom was super into middle to late 90’s rap,” Kenzo said. “There would always be music in the house or the car, whether it was Anita Baker, Puff Daddy or Little Kim, I loved the music that surrounded me.”
Creating her own music and pretending she was in her own band starting in elementary school, Kenzo had a good idea of how important music would be to her.
“I always knew that it [music] was going to be a constant in my life,” Kenzo said. “It was something that I was going to live off of. Like I said, this was all just natural to me.”
The quick realization of her love for music became reality when she became producing her own music. Picking a name for a song was one thing, choosing a stage name seemed nearly impossible.
Her search turned to names of designers as she spotted Kenzo, a Japanese fashion designer. It caught her attention and it has stuck ever since.
The young rapper’s involvement in FREESPACE began early in the program’s creation.
“I was so happy and grateful,” Kenzo explained. “It’s a place where I feel like I’m benefiting others by just being myself. It is a space that is positive and fun. It gives youth a platform to feel welcome and invited in a space where art is being curated, that is limited sometimes due to venues serving alcohol and not allowing the youth to be a part of the music, which isn’t fair.”
Her involvement in the community is crucial but there are a few minor ways that she hopes to help her first.
“I need to get down to business, really challenge myself,” she said. “ I need to start practicing my technical skills, adding something new to my act, my sound and really, my outlook on life. I just want to tour, get to other places and one day, have tigers on stage with me, that’d be pretty tight.”
Local Milwaukee artists and youth are finding their voices through FREESPACE with Gaa’s help and the support of many other artists. The program is only continuing to grow in Milwaukee. This type of involvement with the youth can be seen across the country, specifically in Chicago, IL and New York, NY with similar programs.
Chance the Rapper sponsors the program OpenMic in Chicago, an 'open mic for young creatives building the next generation of cultural community'.
Young adults share their talent and passion for music through spoken word, singing, and rapping.
Developing more each year by finding new ways to expand is a mission of Bridging Education & Art Together (B.E.A.T.), a 2010 program out of New York.
The program hopes to “transform the lives of youth by empowering artists and musicians to strengthen and build community through programs of creative self-expression.”
B.E.A.T. is made up of three separate sections: the Beat Breakers, the Beat Rockers, and the Beat Rhymers.
The Rhymers are challenged to share personal stories by writing their own music and sharing with others.
“Learning and sharing language arts through deeply personal stories,” the website stated. “Coupled with the immense power of music as a learning tool.”
Through its six years, the program has evolved and become a model for other cities, such as Milwaukee, a city that is striving to gain more community attention and involvement through artistic programs such as FREESPACE.
These programs allow for teachers, community members, students, local artists and the youth to come together to be educated, be introduced to new skills and topics. They work toward improving their own lifestyle and serving those around them as well.
“I’m in a position to take advantage of something unique: the sheer fact that many of these kids may be performing for the first time,” Gaa said. “I want to be the one who shows them rock music, rap, punk or other genres and show them why they should love music like I do.”
The structure of the showcases includes a greeting, a reading of the FREESPACE mission statement, and an interview with the artists followed by a performance from each.
“FREESPACE is not a political space,” Gaa explained. “I’m not there to put any artist on blast. My goal is to humanize you as an artist and I’m also trying to knock down that wall between the artist and the audience.”
As a fellow artist, Gaa hates the idea of a “rock star complex.” There is this hype and fame put on everyday people who sing or rap on a stage. Gaa uses the interview portion to show how these kids want to share music and have no worry about fame. It is funny to him that though he doesn’t understand this hype put on artists, that at the same time he wants that for the kids in FREESPACE.
“I have never thought anything like that in my entire life,” Gaa confessed. “I want all of these kids to become famous and music has never been like that for me but I see their talent and I know that they can do it.”
The fame that he now hopes to see for the kids involved in the program was not always on his radar.
“I remember when everyone would talk mad shit about Kanye,” Gaa said. “When I saw him live I realized that he is genius. It really took that interaction and listening to what he said to make me understand that. Rappers really get put on blast and it’s really just a reflection of the community, not them personally.”
Breaking down barriers between artists is what Gaa looks forward to most.
“We invested in the Gallery,” Gaa explained. “We made donations and actually installed new carpet. It was really a way to win over the owners. You have to think, I’m doing shows with hip-hop for the youth; plainly, there are a bunch of black kids hanging out in front of the building.”
After one of the first showcases, Gaa explains this crazy vibe of positivity that came over FREESPACE.
“We had a cypher outside,” Gaa said. “It was a time to freestyle because everyone was so lit from the show. I remember a few kids leaving early and seeing cops pull up. The cops had Kane against the wall, claiming he was loitering. Loitering! It was a really hard moment for me, I was on this high of energy and positivity from the show and then the cops came. It was stupid. It speaks volumes and honestly, I find it funny that the cops, just like the gallery owners, had no idea what just happened inside 20 minutes before.”
Gaa recounted how he pulled up a picture on his phone, a group picture from the showcase that just finished.
“You didn’t see this part of the night,” Gaa remembered thinking in the moment.
Moments like this prove to Gaa why he leads the showcases at FREESPACE. He is creating a place of the people, for the people; a space for talents to soar and dialogue to be inherently sparked.
The personal growth and community awareness of this program continues to become more apparent to its co-founders. That doesn’t mean they plan to stop anytime soon. With a mere one year under their belts, there is far more to accomplish and a ton more music to be heard.