A venue for teens/ bud­ding in­die thinkers.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY KEVIN MUELLER

ON THE THIRD Wed­nes­day of ev­ery month, a thin fog coats the win­dow of The Jazz Gallery Cen­ter for the Arts in River­west. While pedes­tri­ans can’t see what’s hap­pen­ing in­side, they can cer­tainly hear it, as the deep bass of rap beats re­ver­ber­ates onto the street. Be­hind the win­dows, there’s an un­der­ground, youth-ori­ented art move­ment un­der­way, and it’s where the city’s new­est class of mu­si­cians – rap­pers, pro­duc­ers, DJs – is be­ing born, high school stu­dents tak­ing the same stage as more es­tab­lished lo­cal acts per­form­ing later in the night. It’s a no-cover, com­mu­nal gath­er­ing open to any­one who wants to come and lis­ten. They call it “Freespace.”

Pu­laski High School English teacher Vin­cent Gaa leads these monthly events, which feel one part ed­u­ca­tional, three parts cathar­tic. At the open­ing, Gaa reads off an agenda, calls on a reg­u­lar to read Freespace’s mis­sion state­ment and in­ter­views the artists be­fore each of three per­for­mances. While the anx­ious crowd re­spects these for­mal­i­ties, ev­ery­one’s there to see the show. Rows of chairs are cleared out with ur­gency and the younger seg­ments of the au­di­ence rush the stage. They hang onto ev­ery word, wav­ing their arms and bounc­ing with the beat.

The ge­n­e­sis of these youth-fo­cused events be­gan in a nar­ra­tive writ­ing class taught by Gaa dur­ing the sum­mer of 2015. He was in­cor­po­rat­ing music and videos cre­ated by lo­cal mu­si­cians into his cur­ricu­lum, and he reached out to a sub­ject of the class, hip-hop artist Sam Ahmed, aka Web­sterX, to see if they could set up a live pre­sen­ta­tion for the stu­dents.

These two and Pu­laski stu­dent and rap­per Dar­ius Briggs, aka Kane The Rap­per, ironed out the de­tails of the ini­tial, os­ten­si­bly one-off, per­for­mance.

De­spite Gaa’s reser­va­tions about invit­ing all these kids to a show in River­west (his teacherly in­stincts pop up fre­quently), the event was a hit. The kids’ en­ergy and cour­te­ous be­hav­ior gave the or­ga­niz­ers enough con­fi­dence that they de­cided to cu­rate sim­i­lar shows and de­velop the Freespace ethos.

“At Freespace we set no lim­i­ta­tions on what artists can say on­stage,” says Jan­ice Vogt, a co-founder and graphic de­signer who cre­ates fliers, prints the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s T-shirts and greets guests at the door. It’s her wel­com­ing spirit that sets the night’s friendly tone.

The emer­gence of Freespace comes at a time when the rest of the city of­fers few venues for an all-ages crowd. While the spa­cious the­aters and ball­rooms Down­town of­fer chances for ev­ery­one to see na­tional acts, the op­por­tu­ni­ties for un­der­age kids to ex­pe­ri­ence smaller, lo­cal shows have plum­meted over the past two years, par­tic­u­larly af­ter DIY con­cert venues like the Borg Ward in Walker’s Point and Co­coon Room and Lucky Cat in River­west shut­tered. Those scrappy venues – of­ten sit­u­ated in di­lap­i­dated build­ings – sol­diered on, but the or­ga­niz­ers op­er­ated in con­stant fear of noise (and other) vi­o­la­tions. The bright side is usu­ally when one all-ages haven is forced to close, an­other pops up shortly there­after. But out­side of Freespace, the city so far hasn’t seen a new cy­cle of all-ages venues.

“I wish there were more spa­ces where these kids could fol­low in our foot­steps, book their own shows and do their own thing,” Vogt says. “It’s kind of heart-break­ing that while we can em­power them through Freespace, they can’t re­ally reach an­other all-ages space like that.”

That’s the true ob­jec­tive of Freeespace – for these teenagers to es­tab­lish their own scene and blos­som as in­de­pen­dent thinkers and artists. “We’re just try­ing to plant the seed,” says Ahmed.

“Big­ger than that,” Gaa in­ter­jects. “I think that we’re try­ing to be the soil. We’re talk­ing about a gen­er­a­tion of fine crops here.”

Photo by Adam Ryan Mor­ris

Scenes from a mid-Fe­bru­ary Freespace con­cert in River­west.

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