Feb. 22 2017 12:59 AM

New event series puts a spotlight on black artists

Local rapper Mikeyy Austin hosts the Black Arts Matter Celebration in REO Town Friday. The event is part of web of events designed to raise money for arts scholarships.
Courtesy Photo

While REO Town Sessions is only a few months old, local rapper and organizer Michael “Mikeyy” Austin thinks the monthly artist spotlight is already helping to build community in Lansing’s arts scene.

“Yeah, it’s definitely surreal,” Austin said. “This past event, I just kind of stopped at the end, as all the art was on the wall and as people where exiting out, and just had that sense of like — an extreme, proud moment.”

REO Town Sessions is part of a growing web of activities Austin is spinning out as part of his Art Matters project. The goal of the project is to not only promote local artists but also to further the arts education of students, especially minority students, in the Lansing community. Austin is gearing up for his biggest event so far, the Black Arts Matter Celebration, which comes to the Robin Theatre Friday. The event, organized in honor of Black History Month, will feature performances by Austin, as well as local hip-hop artists like Ozay Moore and Sareem Poems. Detroit rapper Jahshua Smith and local writer/spoken word artist Suban Nur Cooley will serve as hosts for the evening.

While this event falls at the end of February, Austin intends to keep the focus on black artists through the spring.

“We don’t want to just celebrate it because they tell us it’s Black History Month, so we’re going to plan to do another one in April, and it’s going to have the theme of ‘If black arts do matter, black arts don’t just matter in February.’”

All proceeds from the events will go toward a scholarship fund Austin hopes to have ready by May.

“The whole point of it is to raise the $5,000 for five Lansing seniors that are continuing their education in the arts,” Austin said. “We had the idea like the third week of November. I remember talking to James (Gardin) that this could be really cool.”

Local rapper James Gardin, formerly known as P.H.I.L.T.H.Y., is heavily involved in putting on the monthly REO Town Sessions events. According to Gardin, the three-month-old series has progressed quickly from a fledgling idea to well-attended events. He compared the positive level of community among artists in Lansing to that of Detroit.

“I think they have a really tight-knit community of artists. I know there’s places where I have performed where it’s not like that, where it’s very disjointed,” Gardin said. “I remember there were spots like Boise, and no offense to Boise, but there weren’t a lot of people there. Lansing’s had its had its ebbs and flows where we’re not as connected, but I think right now we’re going to a new resurgence of us actually working together and just working as one unit.”

The first REO Town Sessions event features local singer/songwriter Taylor Taylor, and next month highlighted the work of local rock vocalist Sierra Denae. But REO Town Sessions is not just limited to musical artists. Photographer and videographer Elzie Cannon, owner of LACED photography business, followed with a show of his own earlier this month.

“Once we realized the time frame and what we wanted to do about the arts in Lansing and celebrating the arts in general, it was cool to put it all together,” Austin said.

Adam Bingman, a member of the Adante Group, a soul/funk/jazz band that will be performing at the Black Arts Matter Celebration, stressed the importance of giving young artists an outlet, especially black artists.

“We see the athletes doing their thing, and we hear the academics doing their thing, but when it comes to being an artist and I’ve always been a young black artist — I feel like our talent is often taken for granted, and our contributions to the community are often taken for granted,” Bingman said. “And it shows other black artists to not wait to grow up, but do it now. I think that expression is everything.”

The addition of REO Town Sessions as an expressive outlet ultimately aims to create a more comfortable understanding of the arts among potential young artists in the Lansing area. Gardin said art is often misunderstood, though it's absolutely vital in society.

“It doesn’t seem safe. It doesn’t seem like a safe life road,” Gardin said. “I think it’s interesting that we look at the arts as something we do take for granted.”

Gardin compares events like the Black Arts Matter Celebration to the protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement.

“It makes me think about the fact that every social movement, probably in every culture, has some sort of soundtrack,” he said. “While people are marching, while people are fighting for those rights, there’s someone making music to document it or energize those people through it.”

Black Arts Matter Celebration
6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24
Robin Theatre
1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing