The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Ypsilanti-based Washtenaw County chapter of My Brother's Keeper's (WMBK) plan to release an album and accompanying documentary this spring. But the album, called "Formula 734," finally dropped July 30, with the documentary to be released sometime in August.
My Brother's Keeper is an Obama-era White House initiative that challenged adults in communities of color to mentor youth, focusing on school readiness and success, preparation for college and career, and giving second chances to youth who have had run-ins with law enforcement.
Jamall Bufford, project specialist for WMBK, says the album and documentary project was in the works before he got involved with WMBK and has evolved over time. The original idea was to document the day-to-day life of young men of color living in Washtenaw County. When Bufford and fellow WMBK member Rod Wallace took over the documentary project, they broadened its focus to include musicians of all ages.
"It was originally going to be just more of a one-on-one, talking-diary-style documentary, and this has elements of that for sure," Bufford says. "But we added in the music creation and us working as a group in the studio. This also goes into a little more depth about what My Brother's Keeper does, our events and activities."
Sam Watson, Chris Ekpiken, and Jamall Bufford during a studio session for "Formula 734."
For several months, a group of about a dozen participants ranging in age from teens to 40s met every other Wednesday at either the Neutral Zone's studio in Ann Arbor or Grove Studios in Ypsilanti. Participants were eligible for a free dinner and a small stipend for their participation, funded by an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant.
The group had several songs completed and thought they had reached their last session, but in late February they decided to create a few more tracks to round out the album. Then the pandemic hit.
"That put an end to any ideas of trying to put together the album at that time, and we had to regroup," Bufford says. "A lot of people understandably had to prioritize their own wellbeing and their families' wellbeing."
The group members were given a month to take care of themselves and their families before coming back together for online discussions.
"Thankfully, technology allowed us to send files back and forth, communicate via Zoom, and get a few more songs done," Bufford says.
Wallace agrees that technology was helpful in getting the group back on track, but says the process has "definitely been challenging."
In addition to the pandemic, anti-racism protests across the country also influenced the feel of the final project.
"Even before the situation involving George Floyd, [police brutality] had already been alluded to in the music, but it did drive a little more of the creative imagery of the album," Wallace says. He calls the final result a "collage of thoughts, conflicts, issues, and worries that the young men had."
Complicating the situation, Grove Studios was closed during Michigan's Stay Home, Stay Safe order. When it reopened in June, Wallace mastered the album, putting the final touches on an album of 10 songs and two "instrumental interludes."
Before the full album was released, the group put out a single called "Proud of You" as a teaser for those interested in the project. That song grew out of one of the icebreakers and discussion prompts that started each studio session.
"One session, we talked about the women in our lives and the reputation that some hip-hop songs have about how they talk about women and how they represent treating women," Bufford says. "Hip-hop reflects what's going on in the world, and we wanted to make sure in this project we did not promote any hate speech toward women and wanted to express our true emotions about the women in our lives."
Bufford began rapping about his mother and his wife, and hip-hop artist Louis Picasso added a verse about the emotions he was feeling for a woman with whom he'd recently begun a relationship. Others in the group contributed their talents as well, from sampling to producing.
"Sam Watson is the R&B crooner of the crew, and he added the spice only he could," Bufford says.
Wallace says he was unable to make it to the studio the night that "Proud of You" was recorded, and was struck by the sample of a Sade song used in the group's newest track.
"When I heard it, it immediately struck a chord, because that sample was from the song that was playing for my wife when she came down the aisle when we got married," Wallace says. "I automatically connected with that song so easily because it represented a lot of the positivity that has come out of this project."
He says young Black men are experiencing a time of fear and uncertainty, but it was important that the first message people heard from the "Formula 734" project was a message of appreciation.
"We talked about the pain and trauma of being a man of color, and we felt it was only appropriate to show appreciation for the women who supported us," Wallace says.
Rod Wallace speaks during a "Formula 734" studio session.
Bufford and Wallace hope to make the project an ongoing one and to release a new album each year. Next time, Bufford says he'd like to network with more musicians and provide more of a professional development and mentorship component to the project.
The entire album is available here. Those interested in seeing the documentary when it is released online in late August can follow @formula_734 and @washtenawmbk on Instagram.
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 email@example.com.
Photos by Fred Culpepper for Creative Fluidity.