Rapping in Vacant Lots, Repping the Neighborhood

In 2013, Springboard for the Arts launched the Artist Organizers (AOs) pilot program as part of Irrigate’s artist-led community development. Supported by the Surdna Foundation, the pilot planted artists in community-invested organizations to contribute their creative skills to make change and strengthen vibrant places. This is a series of case studies of those AO partnerships. Get the Irrigate toolkit here.

When the Frogtown Neighborhood Association chose Vong Lee as their Artist Organizer, they weren’t taking a flyer on an unknown quantity. “I knew Vong and his art through his brother, Tou SaiKo Lee,” says Sam Buffington, FNA’s Organizing Director. “I’d worked with the hip-hop group the brothers formed, Delicious Venom, on events I’d organized in the past. So in choosing an Artist Organizer, Vong was high on our list from the beginning.”

Vong, who uses the name Knowstalgic when he performs with Delicious Venom, grew up in Frogtown and has worked closely with the Saint Paul-based Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) for the last decade. With Delicious Venom, he’s appeared in many clubs and events, and cut tracks and made videos that range from “30-Year Secret”–a powerful lament for the fate of the Hmong in Laos, who face continued persecution for their role in supporting the CIA’s secret war there in the 1970s–to the metaphysical-existential angst of “Tequila Moonrise” (“When the afterlife’s a threat, who is gonna be calm? Forced to be paranoid for so damn long.”)

Start Small, Get Something Going

Despite the mutual familiarity factor, at the outset of their relationship neither Lee nor the FNA were certain how to define the Artist Organizer position. “We spent the first month just trying to figure out what I was going to do,” says Lee. “At first, I was doing a lot of extra office work that needed doing, and I felt sort of like a regular intern. I learned a lot about the organization, but I wasn’t really setting myself up as an Artist Organizer.”

Lee believes that part of the reason he felt stuck was that his initial idea of his role was too wide-ranging. “At first, I kind of looked at what I would do as one humongous year-long project,” he says. “I couldn’t decide what to do because there were so many options in my mind. Then I realized that I just needed to pick something that was very current, a first project, and one that was small and doable—to get my feet wet and get things going.”

The FNA and its executive director, Caty Royce, were concerned about the many empty spaces in Frogtown—vacant houses, vacant lots, and foreclosed homes—and wanted to call attention to these post-Great-Recession scars, while at the same time building community. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is find new and creative ways to connect people in Frogtown to the neighborhood, to each other, and to our organization,” says Sam Buffington. “A lot of our discussions centered on what role art and artists could play in doing that.”

Bring in Collaborators to Share the Vision

Lee assembled a group of artist-activists to join FNA in brainstorming a limited, doable, but exciting first project. The group, who dubbed themselves the Creative Thinkers, was made up of public artist Seitu Jones; Vong’s brother, Tou SaiKo Lee; political organizer Leroy Duncan; writer, spoken-word artist, and FNA staffer Sheronda Orridge; community organizer and spoken-word producer Justin James; and hip-hop poet Fres Thao. The project they came up with turned out to be the Lot Squats.

Lee contacted artists in the neighborhood and signed them up to lead small, weekly art-oriented events on city-owned vacant lots in Frogtown. Among the Squats: Sheronda Orridge performed her work at 422 Charles. Poet-playwright Katie Leo, Fres Thao, and spoken-word artist Donte Collins performed at 515 Lafond. Spoken-word artist and activist Chia ‘Chilli’ Lor led a poetry workshop at 540 Sherburne. And CHAT’s Youth Leadership Group sponsored a breakdancing class at 462 Edmund. Lee kicked off each Squat by gathering a crowd at the FNA’s headquarters, the West Minnehaha Recreation Center on Minnehaha near Dale Street. Then The Next Generation drum line led the group to each address with celebratory percussion.

“For the Squats I mainly called on artists who lived in the neighborhood or had some other connection to it,” says Lee. The events were an opportunity for engaging community members in conversations about what they wanted to see built on the vacant lots and, in general, what kind of a future they wanted for Frogtown. A side benefit, according to Lee, was that they helped the artists get better known on their home turf. “The Lot Squats helped to give them a platform in Frogtown,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of places in the neighborhood, currently, where artists can shine.”

Pretty much as Lee had hoped, this cluster of smaller projects led on to a larger one. Since 2012 the FNA had been in discussions with a number of community partners about how to use historic preservation to help revitalize the neighborhood—with an eye to purchasing, rehabbing,  and reselling historically and culturally significant buildings—including working-class dwellings—that were standing vacant. These initiatives led to the formation of Preserve Frogtown LLC, an alliance of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and Historic Saint Paul.

The Creative Thinkers, the “brain trust” of artists that Lee had put together, joined up with Preserve Frogtown to launch Frogtown Fresh, an artist-led scheme to call attention to, and celebrate, the rehabs. Preserve Frogtown bought 452 Thomas, a small pattern-book Victorian built in 1889. When the house was ready to be shown to potential buyers, Frogtown Fresh held a big event focused on an open house at 452 Thomas.

“But wasn’t the ordinary kind of open house where a sign goes up and people wander through,” says Buffington. Indeed it wasn’t–what Lee set in motion was more of a community celebration. It kicked off with a lunch at the West Minnehaha Recreation Center that included in open mic and spoken-word performances by Tish Jones, Leroy Duncan, and Vong Lee’s brother, Tou SaiKo—plus break dancing by The Crew.

“Then we had a march to the site led by The Next Generation,” says Buffington, “break dancers in the street, spoken word performances, sculptures installed there—including a giant frog! It was all to draw attention to the house, and get people thinking not only about the house as a positive and exciting thing, but the neighborhood around it too. People were coming to Frogtown and seeing all of these creative people, meeting their potential neighbors, and seeing a lot of positivity and excitement.”

Lee’s solo project under the Artist Organizer umbrella was Frogtown Beats, a 12-track anthology CD highlighting aspiring and emerging hip-hop artists from the neighborhood. He brought together top-ranking local talent to help: MC and educator Toki Wright from the celebrated local collective Rhymesayers; BK One, another Rhymesayers member and turntablist for Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali; Medium Zach, who teaches hip-hop production at the McNally Smith music school; and O-D, who produces for Minneapolis-based Ghanaian hip-hop star M.anifest.

Be Clear About Expectations and Communication

What did all of this shifting among project planning, liaison with artists, and dealing with the needs of a community organization teach Lee? First of all, the need for communication.

“At the beginning there should be a lot of conversation between the organization and the artist,” he says. “A lot of conversation! But once there’s basic agreement, the organization really should let the artist go out and be creative—and avoid micromanaging, because the beauty of this kind of arrangement is that if the artist has an opportunity to really get his or her creative juices flowing, something fresh will emerge.”

Lee adds, however, that there has to be precise accountability on the artist’s part too. “The organization needs to be informed about what the artist is doing,” he says, “and there needs to be a clear time line, with deadlines. Deadlines are benchmarks: if the artist doesn’t do what he or she has committed to by a certain point, what’s going on? Is the project going in the wrong direction, or is it just that the artist isn’t giving it enough effort and time? Some artists are kind of new to the practice of meeting deadlines.”

And what about handling serious differences of opinion between the organization and the artist? Lee recommends finding a mediator, “someone who’s neutral and can communicate each side’s ideas to the other side—and remind each side of things that they may have overlooked in the course of the disagreement. Then the task is to move toward agreement, in good faith.”

Lee had never managed projects—or groups of artists—before, and it wasn’t always an easy juggling act.

“There can be a lot of different schedules that you have to manage,” he says “and a lot of different egos to contend with as well. I think I was able to show that if, as artists, we get out of the mindset of just fending for ourselves and join together to help our community, it makes all of us more visible as artists and helps us as well as the people of the neighborhood or the city. I tried to balance artists’ self-interest and their interest in helping the community every time I appealed to them.

“There were times when I really struggled to figure out what to do next. But I think it’s the role of the artist organizer to face situations like that squarely and just get creative—just try something. That’s where our experience as artists comes in; we do that all the time.”