by Elizabeth Vogt
Nature abhors a vacuum; surrounding elements move in to fill the emptiness. Human society, however, often does not even notice the voids in its systems. Here in Milwaukee, the interactive hip hop FREESPACE program has found a resounding need for youth to experience their music in a safe, sober, and fun environment. It has moved in to fill that void with powerhouse events that celebrate and inspire young energies in our city.
This all began in August 2015 when Vincent Gaa, an English teacher at Pulaski High School, was teaching narrative writing in summer school. Known for his inclusive approaches to instruction, Gaa shared examples in hip hop content. “What do you think is happening now in Milwaukee? Do you know WebsterX; would you want to see him?” His students rallied.
A meeting over coffee with Sam Ahmed (WebsterX), Gaa, and student KaneTheRapper unleashed a storm of energy and ideas. Kane wanted to perform. Vincent wanted his students to experience the music in new context; WebsterX was ready to fill the space with his Doomsday hit and more.
The resulting, inspired show propelled FREESPACE into being. Its mission: to empower young people to express themselves, providing them with opportunity and support. With three organizers, its structure is lean but effective. Vincent Gaa is the ‘head’, organizing and strategizing. WebsterX is the ‘heart’, driving passion with his music. Janice Vogt is the ‘hands’, crafting posters and graphic designs that immortalize the shows. It’s a mutually supportive team, both visionary and pragmatic. “It’s the best support system anyone could ask for,” Vogt says.
Head, heart, and hands, all busy building community. Building a network that breaks preconceptions and fosters free thought. Currently working out of the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Center Street, FREESPACE free-of-charge shows draw crowds. Upcoming artists and fans fill the venue with their characters and dreams. Some come to watch, others to perform. They come from all over town, even though snowstorms. One boy rides the bus for an hour and a half to attend.
A signature protocol marks the F/S shows: featured artists are interviewed by Vincent and then perform. “Interviews humanize the artists, break down walls,” Gaa explains. These intentional conversations bring new perspectives, a sort of art therapy session. Music is more than songs or money or shows, the team tells me; music is about art and the curation of culture.
Hip hop has changed significantly since the 90s. “There’s a new focus emerging,” says WebsterX, who could never relate to the older “over-masculine, misogynist style.” Ambient singing and jazzy elements are emerging. Here in Milwaukee, FREESPACE is helping fuel the genre shift. Meanwhile, Kane (Darius Briggs) is on a trajectory of success and rising star WebsterX is at SXSW in Austin.
“Art is not a thing, it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard aptly stated. A way to explore and grow—to see both our differences and common ground. A way for FREESPACE to make new things happen in Milwaukee.