“We got a couple hundred bands to keep our Black business out of gentrifying hands.”
When rapper and producer Bryce Detroit wrote these lyrics in late 2016 for “Rap Song,” off his newest album, "Structured Water," he and his partners had just secured a grant to bring back the Apex Bar in North End.
“One of the aspects of being an African storyteller, or jali, in addition to bring forth the rich historical legacies of our people through story and performance, (our responsibility is) also to tell stories that project the future that we want. So we hadn't even gotten the check for the grant yet. We had just been accepted like, hey, you just won. So that was me, as a futurist projecting what was going to happen. … We're going on three years later, (and the lyric) ‘to keep a Black business out of gentrifying hands’ has a very particular meaning.”
It was one of the first songs written for "Structured Water." Bryce Detroit (whose birth name is Bryce Anderson Small) started writing the album in late 2016 and one thing he’s particularly proud of is that “every lyric was written and composed in the North End. In a very real way, this symbolizes for me the resurrection or renaissance of Black music culture in the North End.”
Another track off the album, “Bout My City,” is his response to a number of things, including how many times people not from the North End would come to him with a story that centered people from outside of the neighborhood as the actual leaders of what was going on in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood has been a hub of cultural and music economy, and with revitalizing the Apex Bar, his vision is to build a “new hyper-local music economy.” If all goes according to plan, he's looking at a fall 2020 grand opening.
“Step one, we need spaces to be able to create and experiment. Step two, we need spaces to be able to take these refined experiments and then produce them and promote them at a scale because that's where economy begins to be generated. So that looks like the steady but surely development of the Apex Bar, bringing that back to life in the 21st century as this community cultural hub … as well as this international destination for Afrofuturist music and culture.”
One aspect of that is to redevelop the space so it is cooperatively operated and managed. For example, that means bringing in collaborators such as Piper Carter and her We Found Hip Hop organization (read more about it here) or creating an audio cooperative that will be "a new Black music business for the North End, but also serve the needs of the Apex from a technical production standpoint as well as be able to support my work as founder of Detroit Recordings in terms of music production.”
He says that there is a lack of knowledge regarding Detroit’s significance as an economy, especially with music.
“We had such a robust recording industry coming out of the mid-20th century that you could have globally successful Black record labels. You must have a certain kind of infrastructure in the ’50s to produce a global phenomenon like Motown. Motown wasn't an island or an anomaly. It existed within a robust ecosystem, so did Golden World Records. The evidence of that economy exists in some parts in the dilapidated buildings on Oakland Avenue.”
The intersection of art and activism has been a core part of his work for the past nine years as he has practiced what he calls “entertainment justice.”
After working in the conventional record industry as a production officer for an independent label, he realized that setting was not the right one to create the content he wanted to make. So he set out to create his own space.
“On one level, entertainment justice is a cultural organizing strategy from the framework of media-based organizing,” Bryce explains, adding “we're repurposing the entertainment artist as one who uses their content to emotionally impress upon the listener, different points of diasporic, African, and indigenous identity and ultimately influence the listener to behave and see themselves in ways that help them self-actualize and build sustainable lifestyles and futures for themselves.”
If it sounds like Bryce is professorial about organizing through entertainment, it’s because he is. That’s how Will See explains it. Bryce is like a professor who wrote the book on entertainment-based activism, and he’s spreading the word to others by sharing the framework, he says.
“I really appreciate the intellectual work that he's been doing about entertainment justice and new culture. It’s a paradigm that you don't see. You see things that are kind of similar, but … in addition to making music, he's done a significant amount of intellectual work.”
See, aka William Copeland, is a rapper, poet, and environmental activist, and after working more with Bryce over the years (Bryce produced his first music video for “Take Back Tha House”) he’s also used entertainment as a way to get the message out.
“It was something that I didn't have much appreciation for or value for. And now after about nine years of us working together and talking together and sometimes disagreeing and sharing our perspectives, it’s become central to what I do.”
Bryce is working on other cultural initiatives in the North End. In addition to the audio cooperative, he’s halfway in the preproduction process for completing “The AfroFutures!” Children’s Music Project, which is slated for a February release.
He’s also working on the Detroit Design Diplomacy Project. He sees his role as a “diplomat” to the neighborhood. With its proximity to development in the greater downtown core, the North End is primed for major change – and there are signs of it already. There are several housing and commercial developments in and around the neighborhood, and protected bike lanes and MoGo bike share stations have made its way into North End. And with skyrocketing real estate values in Midtown and downtown, North End has become very attractive to buyers, renters, and developers.
“There's a need for folks in the neighborhood to actually be cultivating an identity as a leader in the neighborhood as one who is responsible for managing the relationships with people who desire to come into the neighborhood,” he says.
For him, artists are in a position to “become a beacon of sorts for their neighborhood, and in particular become a focal point for these new narrative broadcasts, a focal point for dissemination of information regarding these are the new assets, these are the people in our neighborhood who are bringing resources in. And these are the opportunities for economic development, for neighborhood development, for personal, emotional, spiritual development. This is a way of looking at how artists can be these unique cultural brand agents and make folks in the neighborhood more aware of what's happening.”
This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the North End. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.
Presented by Detroit Recordings, the record release party for Structured Water is Wednesday, Oct. 23 at The Garage, 7615 Oakland St. The special event will feature a live performance by Bryce Detroit, African instrumentalist Efe Bes, violinist Ian Tran, and DJ Jungle of Spin Inc Detroit. In addition, Bryce Detroit will screen his first music visual from the track “Rocked a Room,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Kate Levy.