On a Wednesday evening this month, a group of African-American men ranging from teenagers to forty-somethings gathered at Grove Studios in Ypsilanti, where they responded to a prompt: "Having money means…"
"Options," one said.
"Being able to shape my environment," said another.
"Supporting the people I love," said a third.
The exercise was a warmup and icebreaker for a group of men who came together as a project of the Washtenaw chapter of My Brother's Keeper (WMBK), a national initiative that aims to address persistent opportunity gaps for young men of color. Over the course of many months, the group has been slowly recording an album called Formula 734 and documenting it on film, with the goal of releasing the album and documentary during a special event in May.
Jamall Bufford, who has served as project specialist for WMBK since autumn of 2019, says the project was in the works before he got involved with WMBK and has evolved over time.
"The idea started originally with documenting (Washtenaw County-based) young men of color's experience with their families, in their schools, and in their neighborhoods, talking about some of their goals and what they need to accomplish their goals," Bufford says. "But when I talked with (members of the) steering committee, we wanted to restructure how the documentary was done and add a music component to it."
Bufford has a background in music and is known in the local music scene as a rapper and songwriter, performing solo and with Athletic Mic League and The Black Opera. Before his involvement with WMBK, Bufford was the music coordinator for the Neutral Zone, an Ann Arbor-based youth-driven teen center that has its own recording studio.
When Bufford and fellow WMBK member Rod Wallace took over the documentary project, they broadened its focus to include musicians of all ages. The project has been attracting about 10 regular participants who meet every other Wednesday at either the Neutral Zone's studio or Grove Studios. Participants get a free dinner and a small stipend for their participation, funded by an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant.
Drew Denton, a local musician in his late 20s who sometimes performs under the name Druzi Baby, is one of the regulars. He says the experience so far has been "dope."
"This is the first time I've ever been paid to come and rap and be part of a project working with artists I've never worked with before," he says. "We're making a lot of cool music and it's putting us all out of our comfort zones."
The format of the twice-monthly meetups combines structure with flexibility. Each night starts with a prompt to get conversation going. Topics can range from race relations to what's going on in the community to having positive relationships with women. From there, participants decide who wants to record a verse, work together, or rap over another participant's instrumental.
Sam Watson was born in Muskegon but currently is an Ypsilanti resident. He stumbled upon the group while seeking studio engineer jobs at Grove Studios, and was recruited by Wallace.
Watson has been singing and making music since his teens, but now, at age 23, wants to get more serious about his music and network with other musicians and artists. The Formula 734 project is one way of getting serious about it and adding some "polish" to his music.
"What I enjoy about it is just the creativity and exploring everybody's talent, and seeing how much we have progressed through the weeks," he says. "Who wouldn't want to go to a studio on a Wednesday and make music?"
Chris Ekpiken, a senior at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, is one of the younger members of the group. He met the other men involved in the documentary project when his father brought him to one of WMBK's monthly breakfasts.
When he's not in school, Ekpiken runs his own video production company and has already shot music videos, commercials, and promotional videos. The project is a chance for him to practice his videography skills and prove his professionalism despite his young age.
"I've experienced times when people didn't trust me to make a good product, but then I send them a watermarked test video, and they'll say, 'Wow, that's good,'" Ekpiken says.
Bufford says the Formula 734 project fits with WMBK's mission in several ways.
"One way is that intergenerational community building," Bufford says. "We have young musicians in high school and musicians who have probably been recording and performing since high school that are now in their 30s. They can share that knowledge and trade information back and forth."
He emphasizes that it's not just about older musicians teaching younger ones, but about mutual learning. The older musicians can teach whatever tools they have to offer, he says, like "being a professional and working on the craft, making sure you put your time in." On the flip side, the younger musicians can teach some of the older musicians how to navigate and utilize social media.
Bufford says the project also fulfills WMBK's goals by helping participants build "social capital."
"There's broad networking and access to other musicians and studios, engineers, and producers, and they're getting paid," Bufford says. "Some of these artists rap and produce and can record other musicians, so there are work opportunities that can emerge from this project."
As of early January, the group had produced four solid songs, and Bufford hopes that the final album will contain at least seven or eight songs, though he's hoping for a dozen. He hopes this will be the first of many projects, and that participants will release a new album each year.
Details of the Formula 734 album and documentary launch event have yet to be announced, but anyone interested can watch for updates on the WMBK website.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.