Last year, artist and UA student Zco—aka Zach Cohan—was a volunteer at the Tucson Hip Hop Festival.
This year, he's performing on its stage.
The Tucson Hip Hop Festival is an annual gathering that brings together elements of hip-hop, DJs, producers, panelists, graffiti artists, and break-dancers for performances, panels and other collaborative ventures.
Cohan, a California-based artist and UA junior studying arts, media and entertainment, started his professional journey as a rapper at the festival last year.
Cohan started rapping and writing lyrics during his middle school years. In 2014, he started actually recording and producing material in 2015, recording on a Go Mic, "the size of a pink eraser," Cohan said.
Cohan didn't start performing until his senior year of high school, where he would go to open mics at least once a week. Driving around LA, Cohan participated in open mics to get his name out and practice his lyrical style and verses.
Hip-hop as a genre became so influential to Cohan because he gravitated toward its message. Cohan's sound is described as a mix between Mac Miller and J Cole. Mixing alternative pop and hip-hop, Zco combines witty lyrics with an upbeat vibe in his songs. Zco explains he talks about real, relatable lyrics; it's not all about fancy cars and money for him.
Take, for example, one of his newest singles "Sunrise," which features a message of hope, more than anything else: "We all fall sometimes / Just wait for the sunrise / You won't know if you don't try / Just wait for the sunrise."
Cohan decided to take his rap career to the next level once he got to college. He had signed up for the Tucson Hip Hop Festival in 2018 in the hopes of being chosen to be a performer, but didn't make the cut. Instead of being bitter about not performing, he decided to take the opportunity to become a volunteer for the festival.
"I'm new here, I'm not from Tucson, let me humble myself and provide, give value to the community before I come in and expect everyone to put me on a pedestal," Cohan said.
Cohan took advantage of every learning opportunity that came his way as a volunteer: seeing panelists speak and linking up with as many people as possible for contacts in the future.
The festival is known for having an elite line-up of panelists speaking to attendees. This year, there are panelists on days leading up to the main festival on Saturday. The panelists provide an opportunity for the community and the artists participating in the festival to learn how to market themselves in the music industry. Panelists from previous years' festivals have come from big music labels and covered topics such as branding and marketing as an artist.
"We'll have KXCI, they're going to be talking about radio and how artists can get played on the air. We'll have another one by the UA College of Humanities, they're going to be talking about hip-hop culture in different parts of the world," said Jocelyn Valencia, one of the directors of Tucson Hip Hop Festival.
The learning aspect of the Tucson Hip Hop Festival is one of the most important elements, Valencia said.
"Because our festival is so community and culturally oriented, our panels' conversations and topics really encompass that," she said. "It's important for the artists or really anyone in the community to attend because they'll get to really get in touch with what's going on, not only within the Tucson community but also the hip-hop community as a whole."
There will be mentorship opportunities that will take place to provide artists and anyone and everyone to talk with a music industry professional, Valencia said.
"We have some pretty cool people for that, we'll have an engineer from Atlantic Records, some others from this company called Pace Creators, they help artist with brand development," Valencia said. "I would say the festival as a whole really encompasses in flipping the prejudice or stereotype whatever negative stigma is tied to hip-hop...Hip-hop is really the only genre of music where you can speak your truth even if it's something that's not so pretty."
According to Valencia, the festival is known for providing artists with as many resources as possible and helping further their development.
The festival is also where he met Alex Lopez, a friend he now works closely alongside. Not an artist himself, Lopez was interested in the behind-the-scenes marketing and business of the music. Lopez also attended the festival as a volunteer, soaking up information from the panelists and meeting contacts.
Cohan, as an artist, is most looking forward to meeting as many people as he can, because there's not going to be another time when the community who appreciates hip-hop is going to be out.
"It's awesome to go full circle, you know, a year later to be on the festival bill," Cohan said.
The 2019 Tucson Hip Hop Festival will take place on March 6-9 in downtown Tucson. There are workshops, kick-off parties, and one-on-one mentorship opportunities in the days leading up to the main day of the festival, March 9.
March 9 is THHF block party which features break-dancers, rappers/artists performing on six main stages, DJs/producers, graffiti artists spraying live, local food vendors, and lowrider cars. The festival is from noon to midnight. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Rialto box office.