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Alien Arts Uses Positive Hip-Hop to Inspire Akron Youth

Alien Arts on stage
Josh Land
/
LSquared Photography
Akron non-profit Alien Arts hosted its first in-person, hip-hop boot camp in July 2021 to teach area youth lessons about hip-hop culture, careers and positivity.

Children and their parents flocked to Akron’s Hardesty Park to attend a hip-hop “boot camp” this July.

The event was hosted by Alien Arts, an Akron nonprofit founded by Ameer Williamson, who performs as Minus the Alien.

The event was the second annual boot camp created to teach area youth the main elements of hip-hop and spread a message of positivity.

Williamson said Alien Arts works to inspire the community to be creative and pursue career interests, using hip-hop methodology as a way to connect to young people.

The organization was founded in 2020 and spun off from Williamson’s pursuits as a positive hip-hop artist.

He said hip-hop music and culture are often perceived as violent and negative.

”I’m just not about that, and I wouldn’t want the youth to feel like that’s their only option. I want them to hear some other positive music but not look at it as being corny,” he said.

He’s trying to break the stereotypes, interact with the local youth, and be a pathway to careers through Alien Arts.

Redefining the public perception of hip-hop

Williamson modeled the hip-hop boot camp after events in New York City in the mid-1970s.

AmeerWilliamsonAmandaR.jpeg
Amanda Rabinowitz
Ameer Williamson is a youth mentor and rapper, performing as Minus the Alien. He works to uplift the community and change perceptions about hip-hop culture.

“There was a DJ by the name of DJ Kool Herc who decided to do an after-school block party to give teens outlets or have an environment that was positive and away from the gang activity,” he said.

Hip-hop concerts and events are often stigmatized and stereotyped as dangerous.

“If you try to book a venue, and you tell them it’s hip-hop: ‘Uh-uh.’ ‘Cuz they feel like a lot of fights are going to break out. There’s going to be violence and things of that nature,” he said. “So, when I plan an event, or Alien Arts, the non-profit plans an event, trust me, there is no violence.”

The first Alien Arts boot camp took place virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic in September 2020.

After some initial hesitancy about hosting the event in person this summer, Williamson said he got so much community support from the connections he’s made performing around Akron that he decided to proceed.

“Sometimes when you do things, you feel like nobody’s paying attention or nobody cares about your mission. But this has proven me wrong,” he said.

Hosting an in-person community event

The 2021 boot camp included interactive, hands-on activities and breakout sessions focused around the four core elements of hip-hop culture: breakdancing, graffiti art, DJing and MCing.

Each element of the culture was presented at the boot camp as a way to push the local youth toward achieving their future goals.

“You can become a DJ. You can become a muralist, painter, a tattoo artist. There are so many professions that come out of these elements,” Williamson said.

Attendees learned how to breakdance and create mini murals—a component of graffiti—based on their interpretation of hip-hop.

“We’re going to teach this next generation something different."
Ameer Williamson

Williamson and other emcees taught rapping lessons, and DJs demonstrated how to scratch and blend records.

Motivational speakers lectured on succeeding in the professional world of hip-hop and entertainment.

“There’s so many careers and so many different occupations you can go into. You don’t always have to be the star. Sometimes the people behind the cameras are making more money,” Williamson said.

Williamson wanted to teach kids to create connections in the community so they can reach out to those people as they work toward their professional dreams.

The boot camp helped children explore the positive side of hip-hop culture, create a persona, write songs and see members of the local community who have succeeded in art, music, dance, producing or teaching.

“We’re going to teach this next generation something different,” Williamson said. “Something filled with substance and positivity.”

Leading by example

Williamson invited a large roster of local creatives and professionals to be part of the event, including his wife and musician La Butterfly, producer Junior Simpson, rapper Big Chedda and Ladies First Akron founder and head coach Kenny Jo Jo Smith.

Dray Evans led the visual art component of the boot camp, instructing attendees about the various ways they can express themselves visually.

Evans is an Akron-based painter, tattoo artist, writer, musician, filmmaker and motivational speaker.

“We [Akron] don’t have a lot of art districts, murals on the wall, visual, dance, all that culture,” Evans said. “I want to start a camp teaching kids art. Teach them to be free, have fun.”

Dre “Live” Borders, a member of the Akron hip-hop group Illstyle Rockers, led the breakdancing portion of the boot camp.

Dre "Live" Borders breakdances
Amanda Rabinowitz
Dre "Live" Borders demonstrates a breakdancing move for Alien Arts hip-hop boot camp attendees.

He wants to see more events like this happen at parks in Akron.

“I wish the rappers would just get around others at parks and rap,” Borders said. “They don’t have to have the sound man. Bring your music out, get loose and then have writer’s benches, b-boy benches. And if people want to come around and just see who are the local hip-hop stars, I think that would be great.”

When Smith took the stage at the boot camp, he led the crowd with a call-and-response motivational speech.

“I am strong! I am powerful! I am a genius! I am that I am. So, I wanted to make sure that you guys understand the power of the most powerful words in the world: I am. But additionally, parents, kids, there is no limits to anything,” Smith said.

Becoming a positive hip-hop artist

In 2010, the Akron organization Keepers of the Art hosted annual hip-hop concerts and ran a contest for local artists to open for a big-name act.

Williamson won the contest and opened for Rakim and Slum Village.

“I wasn’t always a positive hip-hop artist, and I heard this was going to be more of a family-friendly event, so I started working on some new material that was more positive and uplifting,” Williamson said.

Williamson said mainstream rap is just “one side of the coin.” The rap songs he writes and performs as Minus the Alien are clean and aim to spread an uplifting message.

“It really won over the crowd, and I remember when I got off the stage, parents were coming up to me after saying, ‘Kids really need to hear or see hip-hop this way, too,’” Williamson said. “Never do I want to put something out in the universe that could hurt someone. Because words are powerful.”

Ameer Williamson raps
Josh Land
Ameer Williamson shifts to more uplifting lyrical content in his rap songs after performing at a family-friendly concert and receiving positive feedback from parents.

He started an after-school program for a few years, working with Middlebury Academy and charter schools in Akron. He said it was successful.

Williamson is also an alumnus of the Neighborhood Leadership Institute of Summit County and received the 2018 Men of Champions Award presented by Mayor Dan Horrigan and the Joy Park Neighborhood Federation.

He took a hiatus from community outreach and youth mentorship to focus on his music for a few years.

“I wanted to get myself out there to a point where I could actually bring in more resources for the youth and community,” he said.

He started a record label, began making connections and performing throughout the city.

Continuing to spread the message

In 2020, he launched Alien Arts to continue his message of connecting with local youth through hip-hop culture.

"‘Where are all these hip-hop communities at?’ I would love to turn Akron into that mecca."
Ameer Williamson

The organization partners with other local nonprofits, schools and church groups to get kids interested.

“What made me really want to start Alien Arts was I had a lot of connections in the community, just from me in my free time, I did a lot of [free] community shows when I was first starting out,” Williamson said. “Just wanted to spread a positive message. The pandemic slowed me down so much I was like, ‘I really am missing that community connection.”

Now, he’s trying to tour Akron Public Schools with assemblies to boost morale. He plans to host dance parties and small versions of the hip-hop boot camp in the future.

“The culture was not meant to tear down the community. It was meant to uplift the community. And I want this new generation of younger kids, maybe starting in elementary school, to be able to learn about the history of that culture,” he said.

Williamson also wants to show Akron-area hip-hop artists that they can open more doors for themselves by writing and releasing more positive material.

“When you come with all that cussing, you’re shutting a lot of doors. You’re not going to have a lot of opportunities to showcase it because of your content,” he said.

Minus the Alien has been releasing new music and videos this year and continues working to spread positivity through rap.

He has plans for expanding his message and hip-hop culture throughout the city.

“My whole mission on top of that is to preserve hip-hop culture, and I kinda want to make Akron be the next pit stop to New York … like, ‘Where are all these hip-hop communities at?’ I would love to turn Akron into that mecca,” he said.

Stay Connected
Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. Her days begin before the sun comes up as the local anchor for NPR’s Morning Edition, which airs on WKSU each weekday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. 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 Morning Edition 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.