While it's an entertaining time for audience members, Caliyah Scott-Robinson says the monthly youth open-mic event known as The Underground is more than "just a mere place to hang out."
Scott-Robinson is a videographer and photographer with Ward 1 Productions, the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit that sponsors The Underground.
"The Underground is a place where people who want to express themselves can do that in the purest way possible," she says. "It's for artists that want exposure. There are a lot of talented people in our area that nobody knows about."
The Underground takes place the second Thursday evening of each month at Riverside Arts Center's (RAC) Off Center venue, 64 N. Huron St. in Ypsilanti. Funded by grants from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, it's a venue for musicians and spoken word artists aged 18-24 to hone their craft.
Several young people who work at Ward 1 Productions' youth-driven creative agency also make music with a sprawling set of friends in and around Ypsilanti, including a hip-hop group calling themselves The Hybrids. When the local groups lost their venue space, Ward 1 co-founder and RAC outreach coordinator Ariel Moore asked if the groups would like to take over the Off Center. The group began holding weekly music events in the space in July 2018.
"Doing it weekly that summer was a lot for us," says Sky Smith, who does camerawork for Ward 1 and promotions for The Underground. By the start of the school year, the team had decided a monthly schedule was more manageable.
Anybody interested in performing is asked to email the Ward 1 team with about 15 minutes' worth of music they expect to sing or rap over. Each musician can perform as many songs as they can fit into a 15-minute slot.
Youth who have participated in at least one Underground event are also invited to participate in a music workshop on the last Thursday of each month. The workshops are capped at 12 participants.
"We bring in older folks in the area who are accomplished in the arts, and they teach workshops on a particular topic," Moore says.
Topics have included recording and producing, writing lyrics, creating a media kit, and more. Incentives include free pizza and an hour of recording time in the studio of local producer Drew Denton for any participant who comes to at least three Workshop sessions. Ward 1 employees are also discussing an idea for rewarding anyone who comes to every Workshop session by putting their name in a raffle to have a professional music video made.
Scott-Robinson says the hope is that "with a little exposure, their careers will take off."
Moore notes that many of the young performers work a full-time job and pursue their music on the side, giving up sleep to come to The Underground and hone their craft.
"There's one guy whose shift starts at 5 a.m. at Home Depot," she says. "Another might pull a 12-hour shift at Walmart and still show up, because this is a place to perform and be themselves."
Just over 20 performers and audience members turned up for a recent Underground event scheduled on Valentine's Day. However, Moore says the event typically attracts more like 30 or 40 people. During several events, she was nervous the crowd was pushing the maximum capacity for the space.
The event began shortly after organizers unrolled a black curtain bearing the logo "Underground" in block letters over the Off Center's front window. Charles Peterson, co-founder of Ward 1 Productions and The Underground's DJ, cued up the bass-heavy beats for each set. As performers took the mic, audience members formed a semi-circle, bobbing their heads, dancing, or calling out encouragement.
Most performances are in the hip-hop genre, but artists performing in other genres are welcome. The Underground has collaborated with spoken-word artists and poets as well.
Moore says some people come to try out new material, while others are trying to fine-tune or "freshen up" pieces they've been performing for a while. The performers mostly come from Ypsilanti, but the event has drawn performers and audience members from around southeast Michigan.
Trevawn Turner, one of the young organizers, says word about the event is slowly spreading via flyers and social media.
"We're being linked with different artists from whole other areas like Belleville and Detroit," Turner says.
Sahara Tomlin, 20, commutes to The Underground from the Wayne-Westland area. Some of her pieces are standard rap songs, but she also performs in more of a pop vein sometimes, she says.
"I started performing as a way of trying to find my voice," she says. "A lot of my lyrics are about the pain, and they're dedicated to my mother who passed away."
Moore says the event remains popular because organizers try hard to be inclusive of a variety of musical styles, as well as being welcoming of all races and members of the LGBTQ community.
"We're not discriminatory," Moore says. "We're all about loving the artist. We're a non-censorship space, and you can say whatever you want."
While a core group of friends and performers call themselves "The Family," even those performers who came along later often mention the feeling of community and encouragement.
Narion Henderson, a 19-year-old from Ypsi who goes by the stage name Is0keese, became involved because he's friends with Smith and Scott-Robinson. He keeps coming because it's a place he can express himself.
"My music is me saying what I've seen, the hardships and violence, the things I've done that I regret, things I'd like to change," he says. "It's self-expression, almost like therapy. I use this as a platform to get all of that anger out of me. I'm trying to be a better person while expressing myself."
Hunter Mayne, 16, has performed three or four times at The Underground under his stage name Sir Soul. He says he likes The Underground better than the house parties he's performed at in the past. At other venues, it was clear that some audience members were there to support just one act, and then they'd leave or talk through subsequent sets.
"(The Underground is) very positive, and feels like more of a community event," he says. "They're not motivated by money, but to make people happy and celebrate music."
Tomlin also refers to The Underground's sense of community and the desire to build others up when talking about why she keeps coming back.
"I love it, seeing everybody's spirits, seeing all the different styles. I have so much respect for everyone involved," she says. "They really are looking out for the young people, and I'm so glad I got to be a part of this."
The next chance to catch The Underground is from 8:30-11 p.m. March 14. Those interested in performing may email email@example.com with up to 15 minutes of music in .mp3 file format and organizers will reach out to set up a date to include the performer in an upcoming set.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.