That Sunday, at Soundset, the massive crowd at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds was not what I expected -- it was largely white, and very young. There seemed to be an unofficial uniform, as swarms of teenage girls appeared in the same ensemble of fishtail braids, a black top, denim shorts, and Kylie Jenner-esque makeup. As I questioned the apparent comeback of a goth-bare-midriff hybrid, I had to wonder if any of these young ladies could even begin to fathom -- or would even want to, for that matter -- the history of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears that went into such a celebration of music.
I wondered how many patrons hailed from North Minneapolis, and how many were even aware of any historical rift. Most of all, I wanted to know: how many people in the crowd understood the sheer significance of Soundset’s very existence?
While there wasn’t much opportunity to survey the audience’s socioeconomic cognizance, I did observe the continued sense of community. It was no coincidence, after all, that the vast majority of artists playing were local ones. Even local food vendors were shown priority -- Cora’s Food Truck, The Anchor Fish & Chips, and the famously delicious Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar (which has maintained a stand at the Fairgrounds for over 30 years) were in attendance.
That a locale with a capacity as immense as the Fairgrounds became the Soundset venue carried its own significance. Rhymesayers came into official existence in 1995, according to its website (founded by its now-CEO, Brent “Siddiq” Sayers), and hosted the first edition of Soundset in 2008, when it was so small that it took place in a parking lot.
This year, an estimated 30,000 tickets were sold. Some were purchased overseas, according to Rhymesayers General Manager Jason “J-Bird” Cook.
“To have that in Minneapolis, that’s amazing,” said Kevin (aka DJ Nikoless Skratch) Beacham, another manager at Rhymesayers. “That’s a special thing that we should celebrate.”
I spoke with Kevin about two weeks after Soundset, and asked for his perspective on what I learned during my time in Minneapolis. He expressed a desire to proactively reverse any lack of attention paid to North Minneapolis rappers, and invited artists to send him their music to play on The Current, where he’s a host.
“If you’re on the north side and you feel like you’re being neglected,” he said, “give it to me, and I’ll play it. It’s that easy!”
Hip-hop, he told me, could be examined as if one might study society at-large under a microscope. “You can really look at the things that are both the most beautiful and the most ugly about our society, not just through hip-hop, but through how hip-hop is treated.”
It stirred the earlier epiphany of music’s life-changing, life-saving nature. “At any point in time,” I asked, “when and how did music save your life?”
“Oh, that’s easy!” he said. “Around pre-teen, age 9, I had a pretty great life. My parents got me cool stuff and I was doing well in life, but I just hit a point when I was really sad all the time. I’m still not sure what caused it, but it was around age 9. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I wanted to be alone and figure out my own emotions.
“That was the year I discovered hip hop,” he continued. “Whenever I had those moments when I couldn’t handle living, music was what I went to to make me feel like I was part of something. And that saved my life. Literally.”
J-Bird emphasized the importance of the next generation experiencing live, local music. He vividly recalled the most influential moments of his own youth, many of which were at live shows. Music, he said, “definitely saved me.”
I went back and asked about the life-saving nature of music to some of the others I had interviewed via e-mail and it became evident that, in countless ways, music has saved everyone.
For Alexei, it came to fruition in the summer of 2011:
“I went through an incredibly painful separation and (and eventual divorce) from the mother of my daughter. What made this especially difficult was that it was not something I wanted, and it was a very public split, since we were in a relatively popular band in Minneapolis. I don't know if music saved my life, but it was one of the three major pillars that helped me keep my sanity and maintain my overall health (the other two being a therapist, and my close friends/family) because all of my demons from that breakup went into an album. This was the closest I've ever come to spiraling out of control, and it seemed like a good time to make some unhealthy choices that I would later regret. But for the most part, I didn't. I credit that to having a giant responsibility as a father, and also having a creative outlet to spill my guts.”
As for Mary, it’s a more frequent occurrence:
“I think it saves my life every day. My entire world is influenced by music and the musicians I've met and worked with, but in no way do I think you have to work in the industry to feel the lasting effect it has. It has shaped my life into what it is today, highlighting the good and getting me through the bad.”
Andrea even wrote about her own positive, life-altering experience with music for The Current’s blog. She told me:
“One that comes to mind from recent years is Jose Gonzalez, ‘Leaf Off/The Cave.’ I was suffering from a bout of severe depression last winter and went to see Jose at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. I was worried about attending because his music has a really profound effect on me -- it has a melancholy feel to it and I was worried it could make things worse. But when he sang this song, with the repeated lyric, ‘Let the light lead you out, let the light lead you out,’ they turned on these giant spotlights and cast a bright light onto the stage and around the room, and the whole experience lifted me up and gave me hope that I would be able to push through my depression and get myself into a better headspace again.”
Finally, Joe Adams shared his insights:
“Growing up in the church, we didn't get the opportunity to listen to anything other than gospel for [the] majority of our childhood. Except when we visited our father. Jazz was the second form of choice. The great, Miles Davis, has grown to be my favorite musician of all-time. James Brown, controlled and flowed with his band -- better than any performer to walk Planet Earth. Bob Marley, the Mellow Mood Prophet, spread nothing but love and wisdom to the World. Music is fuel to the soul.”
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