I’m not sure how common this is in other scenes, but in hip hop, the phrase “local artist” is very often used pejoratively. It brings to mind that MC or producer who was never good enough to break out from his or her hometown, that starving artist playing the same sets at the same dive bars, year after year.
To be sure, that does happen. You’re never going to be famous and sell lots of records if you focus all of your energy on just one community. But the assumption that every artist’s goal is to “be famous and sell lots of records” is a dangerous one. The assumption that playing 200 shows in 200 cities has more inherent value than cultivating a substantive presence in your hometown is a dangerous one. And the assumption that anyone who talks about this stuff is just making excuses or “aiming low” isn’t healthy for the culture or for our communities.
When I think about the artists who have had the biggest impact on me, the artists who have actually changed my life, very few of them are nationally-known. Or if they are nationally-known, it’s just a side-effect of the work they do in their communities. Almost all of them could be classified as “local artists,” even if the locales are different. They’re people doing important, concrete work in their communities, using art not just to express themselves, but to carve out space within those communities for positive things to happen. They’re using their art to create platforms for other kinds of media, for organizing, for education, for a whole host of goals that go far beyond fame and fortune.
Obviously, being engaged locally and being famous are not mutually exclusive. Someone like Boots Riley of the Coup can have an international following while still doing great work in Oakland. Invincible in Detroit, the Figureheads in Milwaukee, Geologic in Seattle, Jasiri X in Pittsburg—this list could go on and on. None of these artists may be household names, but the impact they’ve had and are having is immeasurable.
Of course, the more famous you are, the more of a platform you have to spread whatever message you want to spread. I’m not arguing that being famous is bad. I’m just saying that I have a lot of respect for artists who consider fame as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. This isn’t about scolding anyone for not being “conscious” enough; this is simply about recognizing the potential that artists (from the most revolutionary slam poet to the most apolitical shoegazing indie band or party rapper) have to be changemakers in our communities, in ways that go far beyond the occasional benefit concert.
This is about re-imagining the possibilities. I don’t believe that the highest calling of an artist is to leave, to get famous and never look back. I don’t even believe that art is the most important thing artists have to offer.
What really inspires me is seeing things like I Self Devine facilitating community organizing trainings, Tish Jones mentoring the next generation of artist/activists in the Twin Cities, Bao Phi mobilizing communities around the Miss Saigon protests and much more, Brother Ali attempting to have critical conversations about race with his fanbase, poets from the Button Poetry collective using their platform to signal-boost other poets ten times further than they could go on their own, Tall Paul organizing the “Cold Flows for Warm Clothes” event last week at the Cedar, Adam J. Dunn shooting free music videos for dozens of local artists, all of the artists who donated their time, talent and networks to help defeat the marriage amendment in 2012, Wing Young Huie and B-Fresh, both of whom don’t just take brilliant photos, but make a point to share that knowledge and support other artists too, B-Boy J-Sun passing down the history and culture of breaking… not to mention Desdamona, Tou Saiko Lee, Kristoff Krane, Crescent Moon, See More Perspective and far too many other teaching artists to name all creating space for young people to express their authentic selves.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Some of these artists are nationally known, some of them will be someday, and some of them potentially won’t be. But what they’re building right here, right now, is important. Art isn’t just pretty pictures and catchy melodies. It’s the lifeblood of a community. It’s a platform to broadcast ideas. It’s a tool to frame issues. It’s a way to connect the past, present and future. It’s an excuse to bring living, breathing human beings together. I’m grateful to everyone who continues to do that. Keep building.