Tucson Hip-Hop Fest is more than dope flow and strident rhymes

Tucson's hip-hop scene is growing, and the main players know that it's not just about the music. Hip-hop is a community for wanderers, inspiration for struggling youth and a mouthpiece of social justice for the disenfranchised. The Tucson Hip-Hop Festival 2017 strives to fully represent all that hip-hop culture has to offer. Starting at noon on Feb. 25, around the 191 Toole mainstage, this all-day block party will showcase over 100 acts across six hip-hop elements: break dancers, emcess, DJs, producers, graffiti artists and educators.

 "Hip-hop is an amazing culture that supports so many people from different backgrounds," says festival organizer Jocelyn Valencia. "Initially hip-hop started as a political voice—giving people a voice. It's just evolved into this thing that so many people didn't expect it to."

Educating Aspiring Artists

While music and dance goes off on various stages, the festival's educational component will be from 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the Exploded View stage. Five panels will discuss topics such as how artists approach media; get signed to a record label; and book shows, tours and promote.

Valencia graduated from the University of Arizona with a major in global studies and an emphasis on human rights. She minored in hip-hop, a program that's part of the UA's Africana studies.

"Hip-hop isn't just music," she says. "The festival would feel incomplete if there wasn't something where people could learn about the industry or learn from other artists."

Faculty from the UA's hip-hop studies will host a panel on the making and content of the program that delves into themes such as appropriation, race, class, gender and identity.

Another panel will discuss the Native American influence on hip-hop culture, with Arizona State University professor Charles Norton, radio-show host Daniel G and indigenous hip-hop group Shining Soul.

Pike Romero, who's been a hip-hop promoter and manager for 11 years, and in Tucson for three, sees a need for local artists to understand the business aspect, from making a press-kit to writing a professional email.

"We really just want to help the Tucson scene grow, not just as a community, but on a professional level," he says. "Especially if you're trying to do this for a living, there's fundamental stuff you need to learn."

Unifying Native Art, Past and Present

Sixteen graffiti artists will be graffing a bus from noon to 9 p.m., including members of Neoglyphix, an indigenous art collective. Martina Dawley, the group's cofounder, says their focus is culture and art for youth growing up on indigenous reservations.

Graffiti art is positive because it's done outside and doesn't take a lot of money, Dawley says. And with the art form gaining popularity, more establishments are making walls available to graffiti writers.

The Neoglyphix members see a connection between graffiti writing and the petroglyphs of their ancestors.

"We're just continuing the tradition of writing on walls," says Dawley, who is Navajo and Hualapai. "You don't have to be a silversmith. You don't have to be a rug weaver to be a real 'Indian artist.'"

Through graffiti art, indigenous artists can encourage others to see native peoples in a different way and to recognize their continued impact and presence.

Neoglyphix's other cofounder Dwayne Manuel, who's Onk Akimel O'odham and has a Master's in Fine Arts, incorporates Native American imagery into his art, like native words and his mother's traditional baskets.

"In the mainstream, hip-hop has shifted and graffiti has shifted, but we want to bring it back to its original roots of awesomeness. There's a lot of social justice messages," Dawley says. "This festival is needed. The youth needs this. The community needs this. They need it to express themselves."

Giving a Voice to the Youth

The festival's youngest performer, Woodro, first met Pike Romero a year ago at a hip-hop show. After four years of creating rhymes alone in his room, the 16-year-old was ready to get onstage. His dad reached out, and Romero got Woodro a set at a hip-hop show.

It was awful, Woodro says about that first performance. But Romero kept offering him gigs.

Creating music has become his therapy, and without it, Woodro doesn't know where he would be. Before he began performing, he was in a dark place, which he shucks off as "normal teenage stuff." But now he's found purpose, and he's on a mission.

"It's the first thing that no one can say I'm not good at it," he says, beaming. "I'm very confident in my ability, musically, and no one can take that from me."

Woodro hated Tucson before he found the hip-hop scene. Now he wants to be the voice for a demographic he doesn't see represented in hip-hop—middle-class youth, growing up in suburbia.

"There's a kid that does not have a microphone, that does not have a laptop, does not have the infrastructure to make the music, who's probably better than me," he says. "He could be going through worse things than I was."

Woodro will do a 20-minute set on the Studio ONE stage at 4:50 p.m.

DJ Wes, now 27, became involved in the hip-hop community while a Tucson High School student. She got involved in the Unity Festival, a family-friendly hip-hop event that's raised scholarships for Mexican-American studies students. The festival was founded by Wes' friend and mentor Consuelo Aguilar.

Wes started volunteering more and doing activist work, marching against HB 1070 and HB 2281, bills that targeted Arizona's Hispanic community. Around that time, she started DJing and doing youth work at Skrappy's.

Wes' heritage is Mexican and Peruvian, and she reflects that in her music. She also enjoys playing all-female sets.

"I feel inspired by it," she says about her music and being a woman in a male-dominated art-form. "I know that I need to be there and give that same inspiration that Consuelo gave me. That anything is possible. You can be whatever you want to be."

DJ Wes will perform a half-hour set in the DJ tent at 1 p.m. and accompany MC Top Nax at 5:20 p.m. on the mainstage.

Helping the Tucson Scene Progress

Romero's focus on Tucson came when he saw how much talent and diversity there was.

"There's hip-hop festivals in a lot of other cities, but I don't think they're as good as ours," he says. "It's not all about quantity, it's about quality. When we say there's 100 people performing, each one is something to see. Each one will bring a different attitude, a different outlook on what they think hip-hop is and where they live—their reflection of Tucson."

Big Meridox, hitting the Studio ONE stage at 7:50 p.m., is one of Tucson's first emcees. Along with DJ Alias and AquaFyde Boogie Brothers, he opened for the infamous KRS-One, at Hotel Congress, back in January 2015. But Meridox remembers a time when Congress, along with just about every other downtown venue, wanted nothing to do with hip-hop.

It was the mid-'90s and Meridox was a young rapper looking to showcase his art.

"Emcees started going downtown because that's where all the listeners were," he says. "We'd be out there freestyling, and people would come around and watch us."

The venues were skeptical that a hip-hop artist could draw a crowd, and they worried that hip-hop promoted violence, Meridox says.

"We were young, and they'd look at us like, 'Who are you? We need a demo tape,'" he says. "So we'd rush over to a bedroom somewhere and do a demo tape, let them hear it, and we'd never get any call back."

Meridox's parents told him about a time when there were no black musicians on Tucson's radio waves.

"Because it was about a black movement, they wouldn't play it," he says. "I love Tucson to death, but just now it's learning to open up its culture and embrace black music."

Skrappy's was one of the first downtown locations to showcase hip-hop acts. The venue and youth collective opened in the late '90s and had stints at several Tucson venues. Its last incarnation became 191 Toole at the end of 2013, which remains a prominent all-ages hip-hop venue.

"It's easier for someone to come out and rhyme now," Meridox says. "It's easier to jump online, download a program, go in your garage and record. You can record a whole album on your iPhone now. Back then, we were struggling to find someplace to record."

Festival organizer Valencia sees a difference in community acceptance even since she hosted a hip-hop charity event for Youth On Their Own, at 191 Toole, a couple of years ago.

"People are becoming more open to hip-hop here in Tucson," she says. "It was so hard to throw a hip-hop event because of venues not trusting it or people just not wanting to be involved."

Meridox and his old-school collaborators, Brody Ave. of Aquafyde Boogey Bros and Philly Mumblez, now all in their 40s, have seen the Tucson scene change over the span of a quarter-century.

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