Where is the people's spot?

Exploring intersectional representation in Gainesville's music scene

BY PEYTON WHITTINGTON

 

Gainesville’s music scene is rich with a glittering variety of genre and culture.

At least, that’s the impression I had prior to moving here last semester. Gainesville was named one of Expedia’s 12 best music towns this year, has a nationally recognized punk/indie scene, and was described by The Gainesville Sun as having “lots of different artists, genres and venues to fill any musical need”.

So, when I walked into the Starbucks Downtown one Friday afternoon to speak with local rapper Azazus about Gainesville’s rap scene, I expected him to echo that sentiment.

“To be honest with you,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, “I feel like it’s nonexistent.”

In my semester and a half here, I’ve been to a single rap show. But ask any downtown pedestrian, and they can tell you where to sip a PBR and watch an all-white punk band.

 
 

I. THE FACTS

Racism is a prominent part of Gainseville’s past and present. For evidence of this, one need only look as far as the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, named after the University of Florida’s sixth president and a self-proclaimed segregationist. Or perhaps the J. Wayne Reitz Union, named after the university’s fifth president and the man who oversaw the accusations of 22 faculty members and several students of homosexual conduct during his time in office. Or the fact that good Old Joe, the 113-year-old monument to fallen Confederate soldiers that once stood proudly outside the Alachua County Administration Building, was only moved in August of last year.

None of this reflects well on the fact that a quick scroll through the Facebook events pages of venues in town reveals lineups that are predominantly white. Does this mean that local venue owners are racist? Not necessarily. But it does demonstrate a noticeable gap in access for hip hop and R&B artists and their fans.

In both in-person interviews and online, the general consensus shared among UF students is confusion over where to find local live events. Nearly every respondent said they enjoy listening to rap or hip-hop, but didn’t know of any live events around town. Even multicultural fraternity and African Student Union members expressed a wish for either more acts to come through Gainesville or for better promotion for existing shows.

Either students aren’t very interested in seeing local acts, or they just don’t know where to see them. Both could be lurking reasons for Gainesville’s lack of representation, but the answer lies with the underrepresented performers themselves.

II. The artists

“I think there’s a problem with having a scene,” The Savants of Soul frontman Justin Jerome McKenzie said. “I’d like more of a scene, and when we have more of a scene, I think more diversity in the scene would be excellent.”

Justin cut right to the chase when I talked to him and bassist John Gray Kalloi Shermyen. He points to the lack of all ages venues around town for the scene’s shortcomings. Rowdy kids with messy hair and an ear for loud music are the foundation of music scenes, they said, but when shows’ age requirements are 18 or 21, it makes it extremely difficult for them to find their place.

“Kids aren’t allowed to go to shows, so kids aren’t starting bands.” Justin told me. “If [they were], you’d see a lot more diversity and people starting young. When you’re in high school and middle school and you’re really starting to get into your own identity, you can use music as an outlet. That’s what I did, and it’s just not encouraged anymore in Gainesville.”

He remembers a time when there was a good show going on every night in town, when starting bands with your school friends was just the thing to do and when all it took to get into a show was a well-placed lie to your parents about going to a friend’s house. It all changed when he was 16 or 17 and all ages shows were scrapped, except for at 1982, a bar that has since shut down.

“If you’re 17 you can still play at a 21 and up place, you just can’t drink,” John Gray chimed in. “But I’m not going to do that, because if my friends can't get in, who’s going to come see my band?”

Justin continues bouncing ideas off of his bandmate.

“At some places you can play, but you can’t go in until your band plays, then when your band’s done you leave,” Justin said. “If it was a situation where you can just show up, play and then leave and just by sheer talent be a name, then every band in Gainesville would be famous right now.”

They talked a bit about how they wouldn’t have ever gotten where they are now without the people they met at shows when they were playing in lousy, teenage-run ska or punk bands. It all came from being there and learning from seasoned players in the scene during their formative years, an experience that, in their view, is a thing of Gainesville’s past.

John Gray messaged me the day after the interview.

“I felt bad after we spoke, that we didn’t really give credit to the really amazing people working to rekindle the scene like Dave [Melosh] at Heartwood and Bill Bryson reopening the FL Theater. People are doing great work to foster a scene, but I guess Justin and I don’t see how it can continue with the same vibrancy without teenagers participating in a real way.”

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Azazus didn’t know anyone when he moved to Gainesville. Back home in Alabama, he was steeped in rap music. He speaks softly and chooses his words with care, intent on delivering truth without seeming abrasive.

“One thing I noticed by transitioning from the Alabama to the Florida scene is I was one of the few who knew how to get myself booked,” he said. “Before I tapped into the High Dive and The Jam, I couldn’t say I heard of any rappers getting booked in those places.”

The Jam, a live music venue that used to be between Midtown and Downtown Gainesville, was permanently closed in June of this year.

Once he found his spot in Gainesville’s rap scene, Azazus tried helping out others by renting places like High Dive and The Jam and booking local rap acts, just to get Gainesville rappers heard. However, that didn’t last long. He said that local venues were not accustomed to the frenzy that so often accompanies local rap shows, and that artists in turn weren’t comfortable adapting their shows to the venues. He lost more money than he made on the shows.

“I realize why some venues don’t reach out to rappers, because they don’t want to waste money if the artists don’t know how to promote,” he said.

Promotion can be the deciding factor of artists’ success, especially new ones. Venues might make a Facebook event for the show at best, so it’s up to the artists to spread the word about his or her show. He said most hip-hop artists in Gainesville don’t have the business side of their productions nailed down.

“They know how to make the music,” he said. “But they don’t know how to present themselves professionally.”

I confessed that I could count the number of Gainesville rappers I can name on one hand, and that I didn’t know of any venues around town that host rap events on a weekly basis. He nodded knowingly.

“The only time I feel like the community even knows hip-hop is alive here is when UF books Snoop Dogg or somebody for Gator Growl. I honestly don’t think they know any rappers in Gainesville.”

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If anyone in the Gainesville rap scene is committed to both the music and business side of things, as Azazus put it, it’s Saudi-born rapper Sully Geez. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy with a lot of energy and a lot of thought put toward his future in music. It was almost difficult to keep his answers focused on the Gainesville scene since his dreams lie in arenas, not dive bars.

Sully shares a lot of the same views as Azazus about the harsh reality of Gainesville’s rap and hip-hop scene, but it’s clear that it doesn’t get him down. He punctuates most of his statements about what the scene lacks with statements about what it could be.

Just like Justin, John Gray and Azazus, Sully cites better venues for hip-hop performers as a way to get them to the forefront of the Gainesville scene.

“If you go to a spot where everyone’s a punkhead and you’re doing some hip-hop, they aren’t going to vibe with it,” he told me over coffee, talking with his hands. “We don’t have any bars that play primarily hip-hop music. It’s all about giving that group of people their space, and hip-hop doesn’t have that.”

He doesn’t just think that a space for artists is needed. When I phrase the question in that way, he corrects me, saying that a space for all hip-hop and rap enthusiasts is needed. It’s not just about making the music, it’s about fostering a group of people who can enjoy and interact with it as well.

It’s no secret that in Gainesville, punk is king. However, venues like The Hardback — known now as a iconic spot for Gainesville punk — didn't sprout up until a community tired of covers decided to act on their frustrations. It’s possible the rap scene, showing similar symptoms to the early punk scene, could be on the verge of gaining a foothold in Gainesville.

But, things were pretty different then. (Re: all age venues.)

“If Gainesville had a bigger, more connected hip-hop scene, I really think artists would be able to live up to their potential,” Sully said. “Because we lack the connections here and we lack the scene, opportunities are not as frequently available. When people see a good artist and they’re impressed by their work, it’s not like, ‘How can I help you make money so I can make money?’ It’s more like, ‘If you need anything else, here’s the bill for the next show.’”

Which doesn’t make any sense. Some of the biggest names in rap and hip-hop right now have come from Florida: XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, Smokepurpp, Denzel Curry, Twelve’Len, Ski Mask — they all started in Florida. So, wouldn’t it just be common sense to start investing in small Floridian rap scenes, given their track records?

Apparently not.

“The hip-hop scene here is beautiful, but it’s something you don’t see too often. It’s like a shooting star. It’s alive, but very hard to detect unless you’re looking for it,” Sully concluded.

The shooting star analogy is kind of magical, but Sully’s efforts in the scene show that he’d prefer to equate the frequency of rap acts in Gainesville to all the stars in the night sky, rather than a passing occurrence witnessed if you happen to know where to look. Sure, rap and hip-hop artists in Gainesville are aware that cities like Orlando and Miami are probably better spots for their genre, so why stay here?

A lady waiting on her cup of coffee leans in and says, “Sorry, I just overheard your conversation. I’m a singer, and I just want to say that I really like what you guys are talking about.”

Sully looks back at me, shakes his head, and says, “Man, I love Gainesville.”

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DVWEZ (pronounced “Dames”) is a black, lesbian, R&B/electronic artist. If anyone has dealt with an intersectionality problem in the Gainesville music scene, it’s her.

She straddles the line between R&B and electronic, allowing her to tap into two fanbases. However, when she was building her presence in Gainesville as an undergrad, The Motor Room was still around. The bar was known for its Saturday night electronic dance party called Neon Liger. Today, that venue, too, has shut down.

“It’s so crazy because Gainesville’s home to UF, and I feel like students really know what’s in,” she told me over the phone. “That being said, I’m surprised there aren’t more nights dedicated to R&B or electronic. Swamp [Records] is a great entity because they are just representing artists that are current, no matter what the genre, but there’s still not really a venue or night that showcases that.”

It seems like every artist I talk to mentions a venue where they used to perform or attend shows, but has since closed. Specialty venues are pretty much extinct in Gainesville, despite musicians like DVWEZ looking to them as incubators for growing underrepresented genres.

“I love that venues are non-exclusive, but it would be really cool to focus more on R&B and electronic and hip hop as well,” she said. “Locally, it’s definitely up to the business owners and venues to seek that diversity and put [diverse artists] in the spotlight.”

For whatever difficulties a genre-specific venue presents, it would go a long way toward providing Gainesville with access to more diversified live music.

Until local rap, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, Latin and you-name-it artists become household names, specialized venues are a good starting point.

III. THE OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVES

Few people have looked into local Gainesville music with as much detail as Matt Walker. In 2016, he published a book called Gainesville Punk: A History of Bands and Music that took a long historical look at Gainesville’s punk origins. I called him up.

“I think there’s more awareness around the importance of diversity than there was a decade ago. That’s a good step,” he said with uncertainty. “I can probably speak more to the punk scene, which has always mostly been straight white guys, but I think Gainesville has also had a strong presence from women. Other areas have been less represented: people of color, LGBTQ, etc. There are certainly people in those communities involved in the scene, but they’re definitely in the minority.”

So if there has been an increase in awareness of diversity, does that mean there has been an increase in venues focusing on diverse music over the years? Not really, according to Walker. The scene ebbs and flows, and when one space closes, another usually pops up in its place. This sort of has a cancelling-out effect on the few inclusive venues that do pop up around Gainesville. One such space that opened its doors this past year is M.A.M.A.’s Club.

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M.A.M.A.’s Club stands for Music, Art, Movement, Action. Owner Faye Williams was born and raised in Gainesville’s Porters Community around South Main Street. She moved away from Gainesville 30 years ago to Washington D.C., but returned to find her hometown painted over by the gentrifying forces of UF residential segregation. She decided to open a place where black Gainesville residents could come to dance, sing, cry, laugh, learn and socialize.

When all the artists I talked to used blanket terms like “business owners” and “venues” to describe people who should help out local talent, they were referring to people like Ms. Faye. She is the face of a real effort to try and foster inclusive spaces in Gainesville.

When I showed up to M.A.M.A.’s one night and asked for her, she wordlessly motioned for me to sit with her outside at a table set up out back. You can tell that certain pieces of furniture are where people come to sit and let it all out. This table was one of those.

The hum of the cicadas mixed with the clatter of volunteers setting up for a jam over at the Civic Media Center set a nice backdrop for Ms. Faye’s electric personality. I asked why she opened M.A.M.A’s.

“Because I’m crazy!” she cackled.

And she is crazy, in the best way. She has the energy of a 20-year-old, but carries 10 times the wisdom. She didn’t even intend for M.A.M.A.’s to be what it is today, originally planning to open a jazz club. In D.C., she said old folks go to jazz clubs to socialize. In the South, they sit and twiddle their thumbs until Sunday morning. As much of a church woman as she is, she’s not too keen on sitting still for six days a week.

“When I came back home, I asked people, ‘Where do you go for jazz?’ They said, ‘Aw man, you have to go to Leonardo’s!’” She imitated her confusion with a suspicious side-eye. “Leonardo’s?! I used to go there for pizza!”

But alas, Ms. Faye is a woman of the people, and the people asked for more than music. They asked for GED, painting and sewing classes. They asked for a space for their grassroots organizations to meet and for black art shows. She had to give the people what they needed.

“M.A.M.A.’s is the people’s spot. I don’t know of another place where they can go,” she said. “Folks come in and next thing you know, they’re telling you their whole story. It’s like a safe haven for them to come and let it out, especially the men. When I sit them down at this table right here, they start crying and I say, ‘Let it out brother. You don’t have to be the man right now. Just let it out.’”

M.A.M.A.’s Club regulars appreciate that the most, she said. Here, they have a place where they feel comfortable dropping their guard.

If Ms. Faye thinks she’s crazy, then city commissioners probably think she’s from another planet. She regularly calls them out on their unwillingness to help black business owners as a member of the Mayor’s Community Response Council Advisory Board. She remembers a time when black people couldn’t even walk across Main Street, but now she’s the only black business owner on Main Street. It’s a source of pride for her, but also a call to action. She can name seven or eight black people who have tried to own businesses recently, yet failed.

“The city claims that they want to help small businesses,” she said. “I wrote a proposal, asked for help and they told me they don’t provide money for businesses. I said, ‘Why don’t you just stop lying?’” At this moment, I feel glad I’m not Mayor Lauren Poe. “I told the mayor, ‘You meant to say that you don’t provide money for small black businesses, because you just gave $5.3 million to Cade Museum. Don’t tell me you don’t give money if you don’t give money to people who look like me.’”

It’s people like Ms. Faye who recognize the need for inclusion in the community and create those spaces that artists want so desperately. The city’s disdain for black business owners trickles down to the artists who have to appeal to them.

IV. THE BOTTOM LINE

Almost every local artist I talked to said they used to go to/perform at X venue, but it’s gone, so now it’s just a matter of picking up the pieces.

This is just one element of the cycle that prevents equal representation in the local music scene. Diverse business owners face roadblocks to getting their businesses up and running, contributing to the lack of genre-specific venues. Artists don’t have those venues to perform at, so they try and make it at larger venues around town, but struggle with promotion and audience attraction. Finally, the lack of all ages venues discourages young people from making and listening to music, stifling the presence of young talent in the first place.

Everyone can find a way to break the cycle in one of these areas, be it attending more shows featuring unknown local acts, protesting the decisions of city commissioners, making venues more welcoming to young people or being the person to open a specialty music venue. But counting on the altruism of tides of individuals has seldom proved an effective means for ushering in social change. Systemic problems need systemic solutions.

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I take my seat in one of the Reitz Chamber’s huge office chairs 10 minutes before the weekly meeting for UF’s student run record label, Swamp Records. I glance around the room and, like always, Omar Howard is the only black guy in the room. Usually, it’s just him and Abigail Cherubin, a member of the Reprise staff. It’s not that uncommon a site, considering the black student population at UF last year was only 6.2%, according to CollegeData.

When I talked to African Student Union students for this story at one of their meetings, I felt like a fish out of water. This is a feeling black students know well, yet the rest of us are so oblivious to.

“Every time I’m in a classroom, I look around and I don’t see many people like me. When I come to Swamp Records, it’s the same thing,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel any type of way, it just motivates me to represent my people and do the best I can do.”

Swamp Records has yet to sign a rapper or hip-hop performer as a flagship artist. For Omar, that might be what it takes to draw in a more diverse crowd to work with Swamp Records, and ultimately to include that crowd as a permanent part of Gainesville’s music landscape.

“[Hip-hop] is the core of the African American community. It’s what we connect with the most. I feel like if we were to get a talented hip-hop artist that black people can relate to, that would definitely attract more people to want to be involved with Swamp Records,” he says. “When you don’t have anything you can connect with, you’re just not as passionate about it and you don’t want to put your energy into it.”