We Are Culture Creators
“Here, I’m learning how to become myself and talk about what I see and experience on a day-to-day basis,” Yeury said confidently. It’s a Friday afternoon and the young community organizer is seated at workstation filled with computer monitors, headphones and camera parts. Surrounding him are the fellow members of We Are Culture Creators, a media arts collective based in Southwest Detroit and one of six awardees of the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge organized by the Skillman Foundation and the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.
The young creatives are taking turns sharing their latest and favorite projects, including a few new music videos that are still being edited. Up next on the playlist is the video for “Flowers,” a track by Culture Creators member Demaciiio that was filmed in the living room of the home many of them live and create in. The track plays, heads bob and the young men recite their favorite lines word for word.
Ranging in age from 17 to 22, the group is a talented collection of musicians, producers, videographers, photographers and visual artists from around the city, each bringing a unique perspective and collection of experiences with them. While each individual is talented in their own regard, the collective gives the young artist an outlet and network through which they can explore and develop their creativity even further in a manner that is beneficial to themselves and the group.
But the label “media arts collective” doesn’t quite encompass everything that Culture Creators represents to its members. For young men like Yeury, it’s an opportunity to be a part of a family that pushes him to be active in something larger than himself and create a positive impact on his surrounding community. Culture Creators takes the sense of community a step further by also offering living space to its members to provide a stable, creative environment where they are surrounded by the people and equipment they need to improve their craft. Currently, there are 10 members living in residence with another 20-30 stopping by to work and collaborate on projects.
“Here, you’re not sitting down. You're pulled into a project, a song or video shoot. You’re always part of something,” Yeury explained. While other programs may simply provide activities to keep kids out of trouble, Culture Creators ensures that all of its members are important parts in the creative process. When it comes to that process, almost everything occurs in-house, with the various creatives supporting each other’s work. Music videos are shot and edited by members of the group, with album and promotional artwork and photography being handled by others. By the time a music video or mixtape is released by one of Culture Creators’ artists, almost every member of the collective has contributed in some way, shape or form, making each piece a unique, community effort.
This strong sense of community ownership can be seen as the music continues to play from the computer speakers. This time it’s a music video for Curtis Roach’s “Extra Fries.” The others huddled around the desk seem to know every word delivered by their fellow artist. The video’s conclusion is met with praise, encouragement and the brotherly jokes directed at one another.
In addition to their talent and bond, what really sets Culture Creators apart is the unique journeys each member has taken to be where they are today. Though they all currently do work in a creative field, not everyone thought that any of this was possible, let alone probable. Take Manny for example, a member of Culture Creators who recently discovered his videography talents almost by mistake.
“The reason we met Manny was because his mother asked us to go to school with him because he kept getting thrown out. When we went in, it became very apparent that they didn’t want him in school...Where Manny is at, he needs someone with him consistently,” Reyes, a founder of Culture Creators said. Luckily, the community and creative structure at Culture Creators gave Manny a way to channel his creativity through a medium he had never considered.
“Coming into a space like this and not knowing what he was going to do, really I didn’t know what talent he had. He ended up going with us to Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York in a 36-hour period. He picked up a camera, started filming and it was really apparent within two seconds that he knew how to film,” Reyes continued. With a camera in hand and no shortage of filming opportunities, “he’s been able to create his own space here.”
Even without any previous formal training or experience, members of Culture Creators can learn to hone their talents and produce professional quality content with the help of their peers. More importantly, they help build a community along the way.
That’s exactly what attracted Xavier to the group. Currently a film student at Michigan State University, Xavier got connected to Culture Creators through a series of chance meetings and mutual connections to other members while doing photography for cultural events on campus. As his connection to Culture Creators grew, so did his interest in improving his photo skills.
“Movies are just a bunch of pictures really fast, so you should probably learn how to take a good photo,” Xavier joked in regards to his love for both film and photography. The young photographer clicks through an album of his favorite shots taken from a party and concert held the previous night. The photos expertly capture the energy of the crowd and performers, despite the darkness of the blacklights. Not an easy task, Xavier comments.
As a member of the collective, he’s been an essential part of the creative process, helping to shoot artists’ album covers, promo materials and a variety of other creative projects. The hands-on experience he’s gained as a result of Culture Creators has deepened his connection with his fellow members and with the city as a whole.
After viewing a few more of Xavier’s shots, the group shifts to the front of the house, where they’ve built a recording studio that doubles as a filming area for their “whitewall” music videos. Desean, another member of Culture Creators, queues up the next track. This time the music has a different feel.
The artist is Robby Dizzle (48209ROB), another member of the group who frequently collaborates with other artists on songs and music videos. However, Robby’s music can often be perceived as more aggressive than what is typically produced by Culture Creators, something which Reyes noted as the song played. Regardless, the group still works frequently with Robby and similar individuals to help grow their own skills and provide professional-level work to some of the city’s up-and-coming artists. What started as business connections often end up as meaningful relationships between the organization and other groups in the city.
“If you listen closely, you’ll hear a lot of his music has similar themes of about self-esteem, about his family being in prison, and because of the field he’s in, he needs to be a little more aggressive,” Reyes said about Robby. Though people don’t always agree on the lyrical content of music like Robby’s, the theme of expressing one’s self and experiences through art is something Culture Creators stands for. As a result one of the most important challenges they tackle is determining the relationship between youth development and creative expression. While providing the opportunities and resources participants need to grow their professional and creative skills is an important part of the organization, they must also allow room for the true expression of each young man’s own personal story.
“People are not always going to understand the context of his reality,” Reyes continues. “Whenever you do hip-hop stuff, there’s always this scared feeling about what the imagery is going to be.” Regardless of how the content is sometimes perceived by those unfamiliar with the context, Culture Creators is determined to help artists share their work and grow their talents at a high level. More importantly, the organization serves as a familial support group that fosters the young men’s growth artistically and personally.
“This is one of the only places where he’s able to let his guard down and just be Robby,” Lizz Stone, a Culture Creators organizer, added.
Outside of its core members, the organization works with nearly 100 other local artists like Robby to help deliver creative content.
Robby’s story, like so many of the other participants and affiliated artists with Culture Creators, demonstrates how no two pathways to the organization are the same. “We usually don’t recruit,” Reyes says. “They usually find us and we figure it all out from there.” Regardless of how artists find the organization, the tight-knit community, support and growth they experience while there is shared.
In addition to helping meet the creative needs of Culture Creators’ members, there’s something else on the mind of the organization’s leaders: expansion. Their current location on Bagley Street, where they’ve been for the last three years, is beginning to get cramped with more and more participants coming through on a daily basis to work, collaborate, or just hang out. A sister initiative, Vinewood Magnolia plans to develop locations across 12 blocks that include multiple studios, scoring room, merchandising house, performance space and agricultural area. The new location will also contain dorms in order to accommodate more artists who want to live with the organization full time.
Through their success in the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge and their continued creative excellence, Culture Creators looks to keep their momentum going and remain a positive and constructive space for young men of color in the city.
As the final song comes to an end, the group breaks off in different directions. Some head with Reyes to perform for a group of elementary school students a few block away, while others get back to work editing, recording and creating. This is only the beginning for Culture Creators. There’s more work to be done.
Stay tuned for more spotlights featuring the My Brother’s Keeper Innovation Challenge awardees and captone even coming this September.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Sexton is a communications fellow at the Skillman Foundation. He recently received a bachelor of business administration and minor in Afro-American and African Studies from the University of Michigan where he was also involved in high school outreach and community building among men of color on campus.