Time for an up-front confession: I hate St. Louis.
It’s odd saying this about my birthtown; I spent over 20 years there in its peculiarly icy grip, wondering if the rest of the world would be waiting when (read: if) I finally managed to get out. Various circumstances play into my visceral reaction to the hometown of the Cardinals: first, a strange disconnect between the various regions of the city; second, all manner of depressing cityscapes and images displayed on the news and in person; third, heniously bad mismanagement by the city’s government; fourth, and finally, several severe bouts of depression throughout childhood and continuing into adulthood. (Granted, the last point is hardly St. Louis’s fault, but we might as well list it for the sake of argument.)
Recently, a noisome, pustular secret about St. Louis was summarily thrust into the national spotlight with the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson last year: St. Louis can be a virulently racist town, when it really wants to be. Several of the city’s sectors are (still) mostly segregated, with the majority population of black citizens living in the city’s poorest and most blighted areas. Most of these areas that black folks live in are governed and policed by mostly white officials, who make the majority of their township’s incomes by strong-arming said black folks. All of this tension came to a head after the Mike Brown shooting, and…well, you’ve surely heard more than your fair share about that.
The fact is, now whenever I think about St. Louis, I can add this horrendous truth to the massive “cons” pile – and however much I dislike the city, it makes me sad. Perhaps the most offensive thing about St. Louis is that I know it can be better, and I know it can treat its black and other minority citizens with far more respect and character. These undervalued and underserved communities need more support – especially amongst younger people – in order to survive.
Of course, everyone has solutions to suggest, and there is no one catch-all, unfortunately. But for one night, at a small cafe in the Academy/Sherman Park area, I felt as though I stumbled upon the answer.
Whitherward was the featured artist for one night at WordUp!, a spoken word and open mic night hosted by a vibrant woman going by the name “InnerGy” and co-hosted by one of my childhood friends, going by his moniker “DJ Fred AKA Smoooth”. It’s held at the Legacy Books and Cafe (incidentally caddy-corner to my childhood church), and while it has only been going since December, it already had the feel of an event that had been going on for much longer; several of the artists had crowd favorite pieces to perform, and many of them seemed to know each other well.
We were not sure how this night was going to go down, to be brutally frank. WordUp!’s audience (judging from the night we were there) was almost exclusively black, and DJ Fred had given us a sort of a soft warning beforehand that many of the featured artists, as well as the open mic participants, play rap, hip-hop, R&B, and reggae. Our brand of indie-folk music would be quite a cultural shift from the norm, but he was confident that we would be well received. Still, we had our doubts.
To sum up our performance briefly, it was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tour; everyone loved it. They hooted and hollered, clapped voraciously, and many of the audience complimented us effusively after we were done, buying our merchandise and asking for autographs.
But as the night wore on, I sensed something different. As each artist stepped onto the stage and shared their talents with the room, they seemed to transcend the unenviable fate that was thrust upon them: being black in St. Louis. For two pieces – or roughly five minutes – they bare their innermost thoughts and feelings with a deft sense of urgency, sharing their excitement of the creation of a performing art with an abundantly eclectic room. One man played two of his favorite songs – a cover of an Eagles tune and the theme song from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. A woman brilliantly connected the dots on her feeling stuck in her dead-end job, and envisioned the ways out. Another woman incisively cut through the hardened stigma we, as a society, have built around domestic abuse. One man, a stand-up comedian, lamented the poor looting choices of his fellow citizens during the Ferguson protests, to hilarious effect. A Rastafarian priest moved himself to tears upon describing the beauty and mystery of the infinite universe.
The important distinction is this: these were not just black people who decided to put together an open mic for the hell of it. These were intelligent, creative, beautiful human beings who were empowering themselves and each other through the gift of song and spoken word. It is their haven; it is also their salvation. You could feel it throughout the room.
After the night is over and we’ve all said our goodbyes, these artists will wake up the next day and navigate the gauntlet that is being black in St. Louis. But this night gives them a huge shot in the arm that will get them through to the next week – or perhaps further. They have not given up on themselves, long after a city, a nation – and even myself – had. With more artistic outlets like WordUp! available, black citizens – especially the city’s youth – will have a reason to respect themselves and their fellow man. This – the free expression of art, without fear of reproach or reprisal – is what will save St. Louis.
I still have a strong hatred for the town that I reluctantly call home. But after seeing what InnerGy and DJ Fred have built, I now have something else: