‘The creative scene here is inherently rebellious’: Document meets a community of young musicians, photographers, and filmmakers shaping Baltimore’s creative future.
Search Baltimore in the news and you’ll get bombarded by radical headlines. Throughout much of the city’s history, and particularly over the past few years, Baltimore has received a flood of negative press coverage, featuring stories of arrests, riots, police killings, gang violence and a drug epidemic. But within the shadows, there is a beacon of hope; to take this spotlight and direct it towards something much more valuable to Baltimore and those who live in and cherish it.
The audacious, tenacious and creative souls that call Baltimore home are ready to shine, fueled by the limited outside perception of them and their city. This eclectic group of artists aim to reflect and revitalize the community by taking their lives into their own hands. They express themselves through music, filmmaking and photography, among other mediums, and break through the figurative and literal barriers at play. The artists in this black-majority (63.7%) city draw from their encounters with structural racism and daily life in Baltimore to create works that experiment with self-identity and propel the community in a positive way.
In a March 22, 2019 T Magazine article, Andrew Martin wrote, “The fact that such an eclectic group of artists has committed its life and work to an otherwise relatively inconsequential midsize city is rare in today’s cultural landscape.” To young Baltimore creatives, there is no question that the city is worthy of this distinction; to them, it is a city with character unmatched anywhere else in America. Baltimore, a city whose controversy and complicated history gave birth to a unique creative uprising, deserves the spotlight.
Here, Document speaks to Jurdan Bryant, Alonzo Hellerbach, Audrey Gatewood, Felix Abeson, and Austin-Taylor Richburg about what they think the world should know about their treasured city.
Lulu Yao Gioiello: How do you feel about the negative media coverage that’s dominated perceptions of Baltimore?
Jurdan Bryant: Growing up here, I feel like there have always been negative connotations associated with Baltimore, but we are fighting that. We’re like family. In the art scene, everybody knows each other, recognizes who’s doing something of significance for the culture. We’re all trying to change the narrative of negativity, of mishaps and police killings. There’s more going on here than what the media has depicted. Through art, we feel like we can help check this.
Alonzo Hellerbach: There are many sides of Baltimore not represented in the media or in films based here. One of our responsibilities as artists and as people who care about this city is to help show different perspectives and truths. When you come at the city from an outside perspective in the media, you tend to lose that sense of family, you don’t see the depth of the community and the culture within. You don’t usually see the happiness, the love.
Felix Abeson: I feel like the creative space has always been here, but has been floating in a sleepy bubble. It’s got its own atmosphere, its own gravity. The media presents ‘the woes of Baltimore’ in a very patronizing way. But if you live in the city and you’re watching what’s on the news, you know this isn’t exactly what’s happening. There’s so much good that’s been going on here. In a way, the negative media is bursting that bubble, waking people up here to challenge the outsider’s perspective of the city. The creative scene here is inherently rebellious, and takes form as a direct fight against the system and towards success and creative fulfillment. And there are kids watching what’s going on and seeing how we’re responding. They’re more inclined to go into the arts and create their own foothold. There’s a slow but constant build on the foundation of the arts.
Lulu: Still, there doesn’t seem to be a spotlight on the creative side of Baltimore yet. If this were to change, which it seems like it might, how do you think the city would change? Do you think it would follow a similar trajectory to New York or Berlin, where the spotlight has almost put a damper on the atmosphere for creativity?
Felix: The creative energy, that is currently unseen, is so powerful it feels like it’s going to burst. When it does, I think the attention it will bring will monetize itself and work for Baltimore, for the creatives who are here. Gentrification is happening. If some of that ‘positive attention’ comes to the black community, I think it’s going to energize the creative scene. The foundation here is from black artistry, from the jazz scene, with Billie Holliday and so forth. There was attention on these trailblazing artists back then, and it’s bound to come around again.
Lulu: Is black culture at the heart of Baltimore’s creative community?
Jurdan: The black community definitely put in the groundwork for creativity here. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was grungy, but displacement and redlining within the city also inspired a lot of people to react through art. I think our generation is now piggybacking and refining that voice. We have a lot to say. It can be threatening to some people because our voice is very anti-establishment, it’s built upon a reaction to economic disparity and racism. I feel like the rebellion is going to become stronger as the city gentrifies. Still, we need a boost to our platform for it to continue developing, we need resources. It’s hard because this kind of artwork is not really commercially convenient, the art here is literally against the system.
Lulu: Due to redlining and complex political dynamics, the city is known for being very segregated or divided. Would you say that the creative community surpasses these kinds of divisions between neighborhoods and race or do you think it is also still separated?
Alonzo: There are so many different realities within the creative community that you can’t really speak for it as one entity. What I can say is I do think a lot of artists from here have created communities across these lines, though I’m not sure if anything or anyone is able to ‘surpass’ the realities of segregation in Baltimore as a whole. You can, however, experience the merging of worlds in the many venues which have cultivated creative energy and brought people together here.
In the past, there were places like The Paradox, where people from all over the city would come because they played deep house and Baltimore club music. It was under a highway and was a legendary spot. But they got bought out and replaced by Hammerjacks, which is not designed for the same demographic. There was also the Bell Foundry, a DIY art commune which was also shut down… Shutting these places down feels like an attack against Baltimore culture.
Lulu: Is archiving the community, their lives and issues, a central part of your creations?
Audrey Gatewood: Having been able to travel to a few different places, I’ve seen how Baltimore has this rare energy that no other place has. It’s a huge privilege to be present for this ‘artist renaissance.’ Since I’m a photographer, it’s really explicit in my work. I’m capturing these places, the people here. I’m trying to archive the energy. We all bounce off of each other when we’re making things.
Felix: I inadvertently incorporate the community in my work; it has subconsciously become part of my visual and referential vocabulary. It’s part of my cultural vernacular. When I’m developing a film, I’ll refer to these spaces to film in or to inspire a space. I’ve always felt the need to pay homage to the people and things that are currently happening. This needs to be archived for the future. People aren’t hip to what’s happening right now. I want to spread that cultural vernacular. We know things about other places like Runyon [Canyon] Park in Los Angeles, but people don’t have that kind of reference for Baltimore. As artists of the next generation, it’s our responsibility to create and archive the things that we see in the city.
Alonzo: Yeah, I think it’s really about how we want to preserve the memories of faces and places that carry personal and cultural importance. Most of the people filmed in Words for Thomas I have known since I was a kid. Or we are close friends. Being able to make art alongside them was a really special experience. In a way, it was a form of personal archiving through art. It is very impacting to think about how that will evolve over time. Rather than relying on outsiders to take an interest in what is going on here, the story can be told by people who have a close relationship with the many sides of Baltimore. The existing communities can be deciding what’s important to archive and preserve as Baltimore history. For instance, Lexington Market. It’s possible the developers could close it down, renovate it, and never record what it meant to the community. If you don’t archive what something means to you, that history can be erased. It is important to document and preserve for evolution and growth. Maybe archiving is a way to preserve the essence, regardless of the forces trying to destroy. A way to show what is important to us and pass down knowledge.
Lulu: What do you think Baltimore’s role is in the American cultural conversation?
Felix: Right now, our president is choosing what our role is in the conversation. There’s a stigma against Baltimore. Baltimore’s been treated like a sick joke, people are just paying attention to the murder rate. I want people to listen to us, I want them to hear our side of the story. I think the great thing about our creativity is that we are simultaneously talking about very serious topics. They need to be talked about and our role should be supported in that way.
Alonzo: I think all Baltimore artists should continue to tell their side of the story. I think Baltimore could be an example to America, an example of the potential American cities have. I feel like Baltimore has the cultural heritage and opportunity to rebuild and develop a stronger infrastructure that can benefit the community as opposed to gentrify and replace. A lot of people talk about it as a place where politics from Washington go into effect. Maryland in some ways feels like a micro-America.
There are a lot of similarities between Baltimore today and how New York was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There was a boom of culture and art, where all these warehouses and places gave artists a space to live and create. Whether people like to believe it or not, New York is not entirely that place anymore because it’s so expensive. It’s not a place where artists can live. Baltimore is still that kind of place. The people of Baltimore have the potential to learn from what has happened in cities like New York. They can try and figure out a new way to approach the problems of gentrification. I don’t believe the system will correct any of these issues on their own, but I do believe in the spirit of the people here.
Lulu: What does Baltimore have to offer that other cities don’t?
Audrey: People automatically open up for you as long as you’ve got talent or have something to offer. The community is open, it’s not really about aesthetic or having a ‘cool factor.’ Can you come here and be authentic? Can you come here and contribute to the people and the community? If you can do that, then the Baltimore art scene is really accepting.
Lulu: The music video that Alonzo and Jurdan recently released, Words for Thomas, is an homage to your friend who committed suicide. How do you feel about Baltimore’s political climate and has it affected young people? Does it affect boys and girls differently?
Jurdan: For black men, because I’ve never been a woman, I feel like it’s tough, as far as violent encounters with authority and in the city. It’s a challenge every day. It’s something that can be worked on but there’s so much bad, people don’t even want to try. It’s tiring, every day waking up, thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got to make shit happen outside of this door, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to return.’ It’s crazy. It’s a shame but it’s the reality of the situation. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk outside the door and you have to make the best of what you’ve got.
Alonzo: We talked a bit about this in the film Outside, the piece me and Austin did for Jurdan before Words for Thomas. There are so many pressures from the outside world. We’re in a society that has militantly targeted the black community. Whether it is police violence, depriving [people of] resources, keeping people trapped literally through incarceration, or less directly through ‘catch 22’s and the illusions of choice. Who’s in charge of this society and what is their real goal? It’s not a coincidence that someone in this environment feels these limitations on their life and freedom. These pressures really do come from the realization that there are people in charge who don’t care.
What we try to express is that there are people out here who do care. It just can be so blinding sometimes. We want to show that it’s ok to express yourself. Each of us has found ways to express ourselves through music, film, and photography, to get out those negative feelings, those pressures. There needs to be more healing. A lot of it comes from within, but I think it’s also our job to create art that crosses these thresholds and channels the light.
Jurdan: There’s evidence of lack of trust within the community. It takes a toll on a person, daily waking up in that situation. My friend who passed away, you could tell there was a lot weighing on him, to the point that he couldn’t take it anymore.
Audrey: Baltimore can be a really difficult place for children and young people, depending on what neighborhood you live in. Look at the history of redlining in the city. How can a healthy space be cultivated with no resources, and power structures actively working against the people? The elementary school I used to work at never had hand soap in the bathroom, didn’t have enough desks for the kids. That’s political.
Austin-Taylor Richburg: I think one of the struggles black people in Baltimore have is the lack of exposure to self-love and exploration outside of what’s expected of you. As a black filmmaker, I think deep down I wanted to make films since I was 10. But I never saw someone who looked like me making movies. I didn’t even conceive that it could be a path for me. I didn’t meet another filmmaker until I was around 20 years old, which was when I met Alonzo. That’s why it’s important to uplift the people doing shit in our community, to give them exposure. There’s probably a 12-year-old kid right now who wants to rap, and if he knew about Jurdan, he might think, ‘Oh hey, I could do that too! I don’t have to do these other things I don’t want to do.’
Lulu: Where do you think Baltimore’s future lies?
Austin: We’ve all ventured out and been to other places, like LA, NY. But we’ve all come back. I think we’re the first group of connected artists that have ventured out and chosen to return to Baltimore. A lot of the older artists that I looked up to growing up would leave Baltimore once they got successful and never come back. Our generation doesn’t want to put forth that kind of stigma, that there’s no opportunity here. We’re going to make the opportunity. If there’s no shows happening we’re going to make shows. We all know it’s a special place, regardless of what opportunities are presented to us, there’s a particular soul in Baltimore that’s priceless. It’s our job to fight back the gentrification by maintaining our creative output in Baltimore.
Audrey: I think we’re all worried about how Baltimore is going to address the incoming gentrification, because like Austin’s saying or like everyone saying, there’s a culture here that’s been built up and is in danger of being tossed aside or watered down. Art scene or not, the way people live here is artful, it just flows. It’s a beautiful city. And when something like that is cultivated, it becomes a commodity and can be used to entice people to buy land and start businesses here. A lot of suburban white people who left Baltimore in the mid 1900s are starting to come back now that they see how vivid and exciting the cultural scene has become. I guess it all depends on who the gatekeeper is. Baltimore needs money in the hands of black creatives that live here, the ones that are essential to the vividity of the scene. I don’t know if that’s going to happen though. That’s partially why I try to photograph my surroundings. I think it’s a rare moment right now. The city is going to sell out soon. All the artists are going to end up having to live on communes in the countryside haha. Reverse white flight. I really have low hopes. I think it’s an unfortunate thing when people create a culture that is capitalized on by people with more resources. When resources aren’t in the right hands.
Alonzo: Yeah I think that is something that is frustrating for us. We’re all putting in so much work here, but where are the older generations who are supposed to pave the way, that can help bring these resources and mentorship? Where are the gatekeepers who are trying to prevent Baltimore from falling into the wrong hands or being invested in by the wrong people?