The musical and cultural influence J Dilla (born James Dewitt Yancey), the late hip hop producer and Detroit native, is undeniable. So when asked a simple question about the importance of Dilla Youth Day
, which will take place Feb. 8, 1-8 p.m. at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, event producer Piper Carter stresses its necessity.
Carter argues, that Dilla, who is regarded by many as a musical genius, has a legacy that is greater than the records he left behind when he passed away in 2006 at the age of 32. He was also an unparalleled pioneer in the field of sonic technology, and Carter believes that this aspect of his legacy can mean a great deal to future generations of young kids – kids who otherwise might not embrace subjects like math and technology because they don't think it's the cool thing to do.
That is what Dilla Youth Day is all about. As it says on the event's website, "[Dilla Youth Day] provides a fun and compelling, hands-on opportunity for young people to become makers and learn practical skills that can be applied to their own creative process that will inspire young learners towards S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math) disciplines."
A Detroit native who grew up in Conant Gardens with an opera singer mother and a jazz pianist father, Dilla was schooled in his craft by the likes of Amp Fiddler
before further expanding his skills at the now legendary Hip Hop Shop.
From these beginnings, Dilla went on to become a figure of global significance, legendary for his work with local group Slum Village, collaborations with a slew of famous hip hop artists, and a handful of solo records.
And yet Carter still can't figure out why, at this late date, J. Dilla continues to get so much more acclaim abroad and in other hip hop hotspots across the country than he gets right here in his hometown.
As a fervent supporter of hip hop culture and a producer of Dilla Youth Day, Carter also believes it is important for Detroit to be a part of reclaiming hip hop's original mission, which was socially conscious and political. By promoting and uplifting Dilla's music and his legacy here in his hometown, especially during Black History Month (which also happens to be the month of Dilla's birth and death), Carter hopes that the more positive and culturally uplifting aspects of the music and culture that she loves can once again move toward center stage and help young people discover their place in the world.
This will be the first Dilla Youth Day celebration held at the Charles Wright Museum and the first Carter has produced in collaboration with Women in Hip Hop
. Previously, Carter produced three Dilla Youth Day events in conjunction with 5E Gallery, an organization with which she is no longer affiliated. Before that, however, anyone who wanted to participate in a Dilla Day celebration would have had to leave town.
"They have Dilla Day in Paris, [Washington] D.C., New York, Japan, California. But Detroit didn't have one," she says.
But the fact that Dilla was not being recognized sufficiently in his own hometown wasn't the only thing that bothered Carter. "Everywhere else in the world, people are making money off of our culture – off of hip hop," she says.
Carter is proud of how the effort has come together for the upcoming celebration, and she is quick to credit the many sponsors that have stepped forward to assist, without whom Dilla Youth Day Detroit 2015
would not be possible. Those sponsors include the Detroit Institute of Music Education
, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
, Music Industry Academy, Whole Foods, the J Dilla Foundation
, Allied Media Projects
, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition
, Detroit Future Schools
, Detroit Future Youth
, The Heru Organization
, Modern Evolution, and DetroitRap.com
Scheduled to take place from 1-8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8, Dilla Youth Day will offer a variety of workshops, an exhibition, and an evening of performance that will give young people an opportunity to showcase their talents.
"People think that if you do music, you're a goof off. But it's a career," says Carter. "Hip hop is broader than rap; it has a visual component, a dance component, a technology component, a social justice component. There's community. And all those things are hip hop."
Keith Owens is a Detroit-based writer and musician. He authored the "Free Your Mind" column in the Metro Times, wrote editorials for the Detroit Free Press, and has published a science fiction novel, "The Mayonaisse Murders," for Detroit Ink Publishing, a company housed in Midtown's Green Garage that he co-founded with his wife Pamela Hillard Owens.
All photos by Doug Coombe.