April Denée is the mother of BUSK!

“Busking” refers to artists performing in public places for tips. Unfortunately, “busking” all too often gets mistaken for begging, and buskers are treated by the police and public alike as pan-handlers.

April Denée has closely studied busking in Charlotte for several years. For her immediate post-college career she worked on the creative side of marketing, but, she says, “What I am and what I have always been is a writer.”

She went on to earn her masters in English, then worked as a freelance copywriter and journalist through her business March Blake Media. She found that her niche was in calling attention to the arts. “I’m not a painter. I’m not a musician. I’m not a dancer. I’m a writer; that’s my art,” she says. “I find so much light [in that]. It’s a way of understanding others.”

She found herself doing increasingly less copywriting and increasingly more journalistic coverage focusing on social and community issues, particularly in the arts.

“I was becoming hampered trying to communicate the importance of these art forms,” Denée says. “You have to see it. You have to be in that moment and see that real human moment.”

Since she had done some photography work in her marketing job, she decided her next evolution was to offer a video component to the stories she was writing – particularly appealing in today’s multi-media-driven media climate.

At the time, issues surrounding homelessness were a hot button topic in Charlotte. As Denée was spending a lot of time filming on the streets covering those issues, she became increasingly aware of a little pocket of “noise” in the otherwise quiet Uptown neighborhood. That “noise” was coming from buskers.

“I’m meeting them and getting to know them and realizing there’s so few of them and they’re all in this little pocket,” she says. “I realized that I’m not dealing with a little one-off [film] short anymore; I’m not dealing with a 500-word article anymore. This is a tapestry of an issue. It’s all related at that point. BUSK! is about a city and the people in that city.”

The 45-minute film she created, BUSK!, took three years for her to complete. In it she follows several buskers – musicians, singers, painters, a magician – in their daily lives and daily struggles, much of it as it relates to public acceptance, safety, and dubious law enforcement. The film explores “people in the city and their relationship to art and artists and street life.”

The film morphed a few times over those three years – Denée says she, as the storyteller, started out angry that buskers were being written off and treated as beggars and public nuisances, then evolved to the point that she viewed the project with a journalist’s remove and started also exploring the city’s issues that were also legitimate. “I’m grateful it took three years,” she says. “By the end of it I had a much better perspective and was much more well-rounded on the issue.”

Her work on the film led to her building relationships with the buskers and ultimately to her organizing Buskapalooza, a street art festival featuring buskers that ran every year for three years. There were musicians, stilt walkers, painters, b-boys, salsa dancers, sketch artists, a cappella singers – all different kinds of artists representing all different kinds of busking.

“It was a good time,” says Denée. “It was clean and fun. The point with it was not to start with that angry position that ‘We’re going to get out there no matter what.’ The problem is that the artists and the city government don’t know each other. I wanted to introduce them all to each other. I wanted it to be positive and have everyone see what things can be like.”

The festival also helped legitimate buskers in the minds of the public. Instead of being worried, “‘that guy is going to rob me if I stop and listen to him,'” Denée says, “‘he’s part of this beautiful thing that’s’ happening right now and there’s this big booth that tells me he’s legit. The city government is involved and that shows me this is legit.’ He’s just creating this beautiful thing for you.”

Unfortunately for the city of Charlotte, Denée says, “No matter how much we beat the bushes, have festivals, and have a documentary that premiered in the middle of the city, they’re still not getting it. There are a couple of people within the city government who are on our side largely, but there is still a lot of misinformation and lack of information.”

She has seen some positive results from the film, though. After the premiere of the documentary, she heard from the fire department that they loved the film, wanted to share it with their fellow firemen, and were not even aware of the fire safety issues related to busking before seeing it. Someone in Columbia, South Carolina – a city where buskers were treated under pan-handling and nuisance laws – reached out to her about putting together some talking points in an effort to create a unique busking ordinance that was then put into law.

Denée also got connected to the Busking Project, a worldwide organization dedicated to celebrating and supporting buskers and changing the public perception of busking.

At the end of it, she realized, “There are no devils and angels [in this situation]; there are just problems and solutions. Everyone [in Charlotte] now knows which artists and which city officials will work with each other, and they have banded together.”

Denée has since had to relocate to El Paso with her husband, who serves in the military, though they plan on returning after their three years in El Paso are over. “I kind of felt like a mom leaving her kids!” she jokes. “I became the ‘mother of busking,’ but my job was not to be mother hen. My job was to pave the way for other opportunities and be a catalyst.”

“Something like [busking] is a way to drive the arts and support it. It’s so good to help art in that way. I’ve been helping it through journalism. This was a different kind of help; it was about touching people where they are.”