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UPFRNT Performance Series Pushes Social Justice, Fair Pay for Black Musicians in Cleveland

Deanna Jones
"UPFRNT" is a virtual variety show created to elevate Cleveland’s Black performers. Mourning [A] BLKstar, a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming band from the region, performed on episode one of the series.

Cleveland filmmaker Zoë Mountain and musician TJ Maclin came up with the idea of the UPFRNT virtual series that spotlights and supports Black artists during the COVID-19 pandemic and puts the racial justice movement on center stage.

For more information and links, visit wksu.org/shuffle. Have an idea for a Shuffle episode? Email shuffle@wksu.org

In 2020, Cleveland filmmaker Zoë Mountain and musician TJ Maclin conceived the idea for a virtual performance series that would support Black artists in Cleveland during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Black Lives Matter movement sparked protests and heightened awareness of racial inequality across America, the idea for the “UPFRNT” series took shape.

Season one debuted in January 2021 and consists of three, 30-minute videos that include a dance cypher with a live DJ, a comedic host, performances by Cleveland musicians, and a spotlight on organizations focused on racial justice work in the region.

The creators’ goal was to pay participating artists fairly and provide a platform for local Black talent to reach new audiences.

Planting the seed for a new online performance series

Mountain worked as an editor for Pixel Planet Studios, a Cleveland-based video production company, last year. The studio wanted to leverage the resources it has in the film industry to support Black artists in Cleveland in June 2020.

Kory Gasser
Filmmaker Zoë Mountain is the producer for the 'UPFRNT' series. She developed the idea in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.

“They gave kind of the seed of maybe doing some kind of concert or benefit concert, and I took that idea to TJ, and he kind of ran with it and developed it into a full series,” Mountain said.

Maclin writes, performs and produces rap and R&B music as Peachcurls. He also does voice acting for TV.

Mountain first learned of Maclin through social media and presented him with a video treatment idea for one of his songs. Since then, the two have collaborated on several Peachcurls' music videos.

The pair wanted to make an impact on artists in Cleveland who were affected by the pandemic and protests happening across the country.

“Me and Zoe, that’s just kind of the relationship that we have,” Maclin said. “She brought the idea down to me. It’s something that I’ve kind of always wanted to do and talking about … it was right up my alley.”

The initial idea for a benefit concert evolved into a repeating cycle of paid gigs for Black artists in Cleveland, Mountain said.

They agreed that a recurring series could be more sustainable in the long term.

Heightened awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement and injustice happening to the Black community was the initial motivation behind pursuing the concept.

“We wanted to keep that as a pillar of the show. It was a way of trying to create more equity for artists in Cleveland,” Mountain said.

Challenges artists faced during the COVID-19 pandemic became a focus of the initiative as well.

All three episodes were filmed on one 10-hour day in October 2020. Mountain said safety was top of mind during the video shoot, which took place at Creative House Studios in Cleveland.

Performers were scheduled throughout the day so there was never more than one act in the building at one time. Masks were worn and guidelines were in place to keep the artists distanced.

"It was a way of trying to create more equity for artists in Cleveland."
Zoë Mountain

The series gave musicians the opportunity to perform a set in a professional studio with high-quality recording equipment.

It was also a paid gig, which Mountain and Maclin said was key as lucrative tours and concerts were put on hold during the pandemic.

Scouting a wide range of Black artists

Artists featured on the first season of “UPFRNT” include Mourning [A] BLKstar, WesWill, Theron Brown Trio, Smith Taylor, Mina Aevum, Freshie, Theophllus and 10K Movement dancers.

The performers span music genres, from jazz to soul, R&B and rap.

The creators’ vision was to have the series reflect a diverse, accurate representation of what today’s Cleveland music sounds like.

“Oftentimes, when people have this resource and opportunity that we had, they just use this opportunity to put their friends on,” Maclin said. “Nothing wrong with that … but we wanted to make a point to not do that.”

He said he went outside of his network to book acts he thought were worth performing in the series.

TJ Maclin
TJ Maclin is a Cleveland musician who performs as Peachcurls. He is the curator of musical talent for the "UPFRNT" series and helped create the tone and aesthetic of the show.

“I been in the game a long time, as far as Cleveland music is concerned. So, like, all of the people on this list are people that I’ve seen grow and just like people that I really look up to, and people that I’ve gotten inspiration from and influence from,” Maclin said.

Maclin and Mountain intentionally booked a broad range of Black artists so every listener felt like their music tastes were represented.

They wanted many different types of people, whether residing in Cleveland or not, to connect to it.

“So somebody from the city can be like, ‘Yeah, this is how we sound.’ And then somebody from outside the city can be like, ‘Oh, that’s how they sound? Whoa!’” Maclin said.

Each episode includes two music acts that each perform a 10-minute set. Artists include full bands, classical instrumentalists and solo singer-songwriters.

“I also love that we pair up really different artists in each episode, and there’s this cross-pollination between fan bases that happens,” Maclin said. “The way we set the pairings up is we kind of wanted to hit people with some unexpected things. It was very carefully done that way.”

Creating the vibrant video visuals

The series is intended to look and feel like a variety show that spotlights different performance styles.

Mountain said they pulled references from 1990s television to develop the aesthetic of the show, which is centered around bright, saturated colors with a clean, minimalistic look.

They wanted the videos to look and feel like shows with mass appeal that include dancers, skits, a host and musical performances.

Mountain and Maclin were inspired by Nickelodeon’s “All That”, BET’s “106 and Park” and “In Living Color.”

Maclin said those programs are tied to music, and they created a whole culture around the show.

“You wanted to hear what the host had to say because they were funny or likable, you wanted to see the dancers because they had some new moves. We wanted to bring that feeling back,” he said.

“UPFRNT” episodes are hosted by emcee LolBrielle, a Cleveland stand-up comic, who introduces performers in a laid-back, charismatic style.

Maclin said they wanted a high-quality, colorful show that stood out from other streams and virtual performances that rose in popularity during the pandemic.

“Live performances got reduced to like somebody in their bathroom with terrible sound,” he said. “We wanted to create a musical experience that didn’t get boring, or the only draw wasn’t because it was your friends. It was because it was actually a good show.”

Mountain said they took advantage of the professional lighting setup at the studio to help boost the show’s bright visuals.

“We knew we had to bring all the elements from one, making sure the sound quality was great, to two, making it visually appealing,” Mountain said. “When you go virtual, you have to come 10 times harder because you’re trying to get through to somebody on a screen.”

During a live concert, a musical act can engage with the crowd for a 20-minute set, but keeping viewers focused on their screens that long can be a challenge, she said.

They decided on each performer playing two to three songs during the series to keep the variety and viewers’ attention.

Deanna Jones
Each episode of "UPFRNT" includes two musical performances, as well as a DJ set and dance cypher. The 10K Movement dancers add variety and visual appeal to the virtual performance series.

Paying performers fairly

The “UPFRNT” project was funded through Cleveland’s ioby, an online grassroots platform, and exceeded its initial fundraising goal. In total, the effort raised $11,320.

Unlike other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, ioby has a narrow focus on specific types of projects related to community organizing and social justice, Mountain said.

"If you’re about to be vulnerable and bare your soul and sing some songs you wrote at your lowest point, or your highest point, or whatever, you need to feel appreciated, at least."
TJ Maclin

Funds raised through the campaign were used to pay Black artists involved with the project, from performers to the studios involved in providing the recording and sound equipment.

“That quickly became the most important part of this entire endeavor,” Mountain said. “We felt it was extremely important to make sure people were getting paid.”

Mountain and Maclin wanted to address the issue of artists not getting compensated adequately for their performances, which they said existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic stalled live music.

“You might get a gig 45 minutes away, You’re getting paid $100 or something. You might not even know what you’re getting paid until you’re finished performing," Mountain said. "You use half a tank of gas to get there."

She said many artists spend money to get to their gigs and end up breaking even at the end of the night.

“So we really wanted to prove that you can do it differently,” she said. “And the way we figured we would achieve that was by raising the money to pay everyone not just a fair wage, but as much as we could, as generous of a wage as we possibly could.”

Deanna Jones
Mina Aevum, a Cleveland singer-songwriter, performed on the third 'UPFRNT' episode. The series pairs artists from different genres to represent the eclectic sounds from the city.

Maclin said he has played gigs where he didn’t know how much money he would make until after he was done performing.

“It’s high stress,” he said. “I know firsthand.”

Maclin said they wanted to show artists that they deserve to not only be treated fairly, but they also deserve to be paid well.

“If you’re about to be vulnerable and bare your soul and sing some songs you wrote at your lowest point, or your highest point, or whatever, you need to feel appreciated, at least,” he said.

The series is streaming for free on YouTube. The creators wanted to make sure anyone with an Internet connection could tune in during the pandemic.

“At this point in the game, it’s a bit more symbolic than it is anything else. But sometimes that thought goes a really long way,” Maclin said. “We tried to make sure that the gesture was not hollow.”

Writing the soundtrack to a social movement

Maclin said there is a disparity in representation between white and Black musicians.

“Black artists and Black creatives kind of get sequestered into playing only Black rooms,” he said. “It is something that we have to be cognizant of because of unconscious bias.”

He said when he performed with the blues-rock band Thaddeus Anna Green, he would often be the only Black artist at the event.

Maclin said there are so many artists in Cleveland making high-quality music and putting on professional performances, and they go underrepresented.

Creating an online platform to showcase this talent to all audiences was important.

“I know there are other Black bands out here, Black artists out here, that should have these big opportunities as well,” he said.

While the Black Lives Matter movement has gripped the country, giving Black artists an avenue to reach listeners and express themselves helps document this moment in history.

“If you look at any period in at least American history, there’s a soundtrack,” Maclin said. “There’s a celebrity spokesperson or a counterculture birthed out of it. It’s artists’ job to sort of encapsulate culture or summarize what it was like.”

Maclin said Black artists are important to the Black Lives Matter movement because, years from now, listeners will hear a song from this era and understand the context.

“Somebody’s listening to a song, then they’ll have the context of, ‘Oh, this song was going on after George Floyd was killed,’” Maclin said.

Elevating more Black voices

Maclin and Mountain plan to create a second season of “UPFRNT” but want to use the lessons they learned from producing the first three episodes to execute at a higher level of production.

"If you look at any period in at least American history, there’s a soundtrack."
TJ Maclin

Mountain said they’re going to look back at season one and identify what they can do differently to make the next season feel elevated.

“We went into the first season pretty blind as far as knowing what it would take and how much time and what resources we would need,” Mountain said. “We kind of worked ourselves to the bone.”

She said they plan to apply for grants, rather than relying on crowdfunding, to fund upcoming episodes.

“We did it through crowdfunding this time around because we couldn’t really prove ourselves,” Mountain said. “We had no proof of concept. But I mean, going forward, now that we’ve shown what we can do, we think there’s a lot of potential in earning grants, or even sponsorship, to be able to continue and sustain this model.”

She said there’s still more work to be done dialing in the look and feel of the show. They got slowed down in post-production.

The first episode was released in January, episode two came out in February and the final episode of season one premiered in March of this year.

“Because of the compromises we had to make just to get it done, and to prove this concept could work, we kind of cut some corners we probably would rather not cut in the future,” she said.

Currently, Mountain and Maclin are working on creating the visual aspects of the new Peachcurls album.

Maclin released the video for his song “Hopped Out,” which Mountain directed, at the beginning of April.

They intend to create a second season of “UPFRNT” once they have the right team in place, funding secured and time to focus their attention to it.

“The plan for round two is really just to flesh it out, to get the proper amount of funding, which is about twice as much as we raised for the first season,” Mountain said. “I think it’s just a matter of getting the money first. Last time, we did the whole production, then got the funding two months later.”

They plan to book another solid lineup of performers and elevate the production value. They hope to release the videos for season two faster this time around.

“We dove in head first because neither of us had done anything quite like this in our bodies of work," Mountain said. “And so we didn’t really know exactly how to get to the finish line, but we just committed to getting there.”

UPFRNT: Episode 01 w/ WesWill & Mourning [A] BLKstar

Season one of the “UPFRNT” series is streaming on YouTube.

Organizations dedicated to advancing social justice featured in the series include Shooting Without Bullets and Twelve Literary Arts.

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Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.
Brittany Nader joins All Things Considered host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene. As Shuffle Producer, she provides planning, scheduling, strategy and writing support for WKSU's weekly spin through local music.