Standing outside the 3611 W. Cermak Rd. building, you would not know artists are setting up the stage for hip-hop presentations behind the vintage grey stone façade. Inside, it is almost like watching a family prepare for a party.
A few young men wearing chunky sneakers, ripped jeans and dreadlocks walked around testing the microphones and setting up small blank canvases on a few tables, covered with purple plastic tablecloths, scattered around the room.
Tea light candles flickered at the center of each table as the melodic sound of a piano fills the room, almost like in a speakeasy. This is Theatre Y, a Chicago-based international theater incubator that has operated in Chicago since 2006 to re-think theater as a tool of liberation and community collaboration.
On Monday, Chicago hip-hop artist and youth mentor PHENOM energetically took the stage to present the event he curated “We Lawndale,” part of Theatre Y’s weekly event series “Monday Night Buzz.”
“A theater that has just been generating beautiful arts and thoughts and emotions and experiences for people throughout Chicago decided to come to Lawndale,” PHENOM said. “Why? A bunch of reasons, one of the reasons are Lawndale is a very rich in community space.”
Unsurprisingly, he turned up the energy in the room as PHENOM has shared stages with artists as big as Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. He is now one of the four artists in residence curating the “Monday Night Buzz.” The series, running until the end of this year, was created to “try to engage with the North Lawndale community as close to the sidewalk” according to Melissa Lorraine, artistic director of Theatre Y, which opened the doors to its new building in Lawndale last month. Every Monday night, one of the four artists in residence will create a unique artistic event open to the public.
“We have this front space that has been dark for 40 years. … This is the first initiative of the space, having an extraordinary local performer curate their particular Monday night [event],” said Lorraine.
For his event, Teh’Ray Hale, who goes by the artistic name PHENOM brought graduates of his Emcee Skool program to perform and co-curate an artistic experience. On Monday, local hip-hop and visual artist Khing Kwon performed his own songs while directing the audience to paint art pieces collaboratively by taking turns in painting one piece, a method known as exquisite corpse in the arts, what Khing Kwon calls a “Franken-beauty.”
“You’re putting things together unknowingly and your amalgamation is a wonderous thing of two different identities, two different creativities coming together at once,” Kwon said as he demonstrated how to create these pieces.
Kwon is one of PHENOM’s first participants in Emcee Skool, a six-month program that trains Chicago youth who aspire to be emcees or rappers. Since its creation in 2018, five classes have graduated from the program.
“I am a weapon of mass construction,” PHENOM said in an interview, a unique way of describing his career as an international hip-hop artist and educator.
In 2017, PHENOM visited Iraq as a hip-hop ambassador with the Hip Hop Detoxx program. PHENOM said this trip helped him realize how far his craft had allowed him to go, so he decided to “train, teach and pass it on to the younger generations” in Chicago.
His work as a youth mentor dates to 1995 when he participated in Public Allies youth violence prevention program, then led by Michelle Obama. In 2019, he was awarded the inaugural “Brother Mike Award,” an initiative of the nonprofit Chicago Learning Exchange and Chance the Rapper’s Social Works to recognize mentors in the out-of-school space in Chicago.
On Monday, Emcee Skool graduates Khing Kwon and Mani Jurdan performed with local DJ and producer The Ambi/\nce for a small, but cheerful audience who listened to their hip-hop beats and powerful rhymes as they painted collaborative art pieces.
“I trained these young artists to use their art as instruments of peacebuilding,” PHENOM said in an interview. “That model solidified relationships that allowed for the proper diffusion of conflicts.”
PHENOM said Emcee Skool is rigorous so the youth learn to be disciplined in their artistic career. But the focus is also on building relationships that prevent youth from being exposed to or involved in violence. “It’s more than a program, it’s a family.”
More graduates of Emcee Skool will participate in the Monday Night Buzz events curated by PHENOM, taking place on the second Monday of each month. Phenom said attendees will engage in craft-making activities where they will create something to take home and something to leave behind at Theatre Y.
“When I got my training from Michelle Obama, they made sure that whatever we did had an element of sustainability,” PHENOM said, adding by the end of the year, there will be a collection of 10 collaborative art pieces created by the event participants, the same number of letters in his series name “We Lawndale.”
“We Lawndale made this. And that opens the idea for people who are not from Lawndale to come and have ownership in that community, to acknowledge that it’s real. Not we north Lawndale or we south Lawndale but we Lawndale, together.”