This story was originally published in RVA 41 which can be in various locations around town, or you can read it right here. This is a slightly modified version formatted for digital distribution.
CHRISTIAN DETRES: Alright, I’m recording. Okaaaay… here with Mikemetic. Is that your real name?
MIKEMETIC: No. Well, my birth name is Michael Williams. Kemetic is kind of – it’s more like a title. Kemetic. A creative moniker. The complete origins of it is that Kemet is the original name of Egypt – in the northern Nile Valley in Africa. So originally the term Kemetic came from Kemet, of Kemet. Proto Egyptian.
CD: I’ve known you forever and I didn’t know that. I’ve known you for several different things for a very long time. My highlights for you are, one, as a DJ, obviously. Two, you’re THE progenitor, and host, of Afro Beta, which has a long legacy in Richmond. And I think it’s one of the coolest parties that this city has maintained and nurtured, for what, fourteen years now right? It’s part of the landscape now. Like “Richmond would be less Richmond without it” sort of thing. I’m glad you’re still doing that. But, you know, those are my greatest hits for you. What are the things you’ve been a part of that you feel that you’ve been most proud of?
MK: Well, I would start with Afro Beta. I think that’s kind of one of the biggest things I started, yeah, in 2009. I lived in Philly from 2003 to 2006 and then moved back to Richmond. I did a lot of events and stuff like that here in Richmond in the 90’s. When I went to Philly, I would see a lot of things that you don’t see here, you know, you have this repertoire of things that you’ve seen elsewhere, and that’s how a lot of times cultural ideas are transferred. So when I was in Philly, I’d go to events frequently, checking out what unique things the city had to offer. There was this spot that Questlove used to DJ called Fluid right on South Street, and they would have a percussion guy and there’s sometimes a guy playing, you know, congas. So when I came back, I wanted to start something similar and put my own twist on it. So I started Afro Beta which became a kind of cultural icon here. I’m really proud of that. I hear from a lot of people on social media that have moved away from Richmond when I post something about Afro Beta. I get a lot of “that’s like one of my favorite things that I miss about Richmond”. So, I’ve seen that it has created a fond place in people’s hearts. That feels great.
Most of the work that I do is really based on community based connections. So I’ve been working for the organization Art 180 for about 10 years or so, pretty much since I’ve been back in Richmond. I do a lot of youth programming around focusing on exposing younger kids to different types of music and different instruments and taking a little bit different approach to musical teaching than what people normally get. When people think about teaching music, you know, you think about sitting a kid down and giving them good posture, teaching them quarter notes and half notes and the scale and all this different stuff. With the program that I’m generating, we focused a lot more on just play, and interacting with the instrument. One of the things I tell people all the time is that the form of musical instruction that we commonly use right now – the sharps and flats etc, was just created within about the past 300 years or so. It’s a European invention that happened to come over here. All of that is very arbitrary to the musician. People have been making music for 1000s of years, even now, without scales and quarter notes on paper. I try to bring to musical education the perspective that these are instruments that are meant to be played, not necessarily studied and worked. I like to give kids exposure to stuff like that, while also teaching them about different types of music and expose them to new expressions. These youth programs are something that I’m most proud of.
As for my new project, the graffiti magazine Vapors; when I moved to VCU I was taking a lot of pictures. A lot of my friends that I came up with from middle school or high school were graffiti artists, so I was around taking pictures of their work then. So to be able to finally have a platform, you know, first on social media, and then to be able to put it into a physical publication, is full circle. I’ve seen so many artists really excited about the magazine. These are underground artists who create their work knowing it may be gone tomorrow. A lot of times graffiti artists don’t really document their work for a variety of ‘legal’ reasons. A lot of the guys have been happy to see their work in print, in a way they can archive. I feel pretty good about being able to do that for them and also be able to get my own visual artwork out there. The photography of the works is important to me.
CD: I’ve never heard anyone describe musical notation as a modern invention, a very European thing. Maybe I just don’t find myself in those conversations much. I’m sure people are reading this and rolling their eyes at my ignorance. But that notation, I think, has been a barrier to a lot of students, myself included. I swear we’re going to talk about Vapors in a sec, but this is too interesting to let go.
MK: Notes A through G? All of that is arbitrary. When Europeans came to the continent of Africa, they didn’t understand African music. Because African music is based on polyrhythms and they didn’t have a cultural history with that. Most of our modern music, most modern dance music anyway, is based on polyrhythms. That’s why the drums are so powerful. Modern dance music is beat driven as opposed to waltzes and minuets. It’s evolved from more of a feeling than an intellectual perspective. So with Afro Beta I wanted to set up a performance that honored the free “feel”-driven nature of African musicality. So first of all, there’s a DJ playing electronic music paired with the organic element of live drumming. I come from playing in bands. Nobody can convince me there isn’t a difference between hearing a DJ set and a live band. Sorry, just two different things like I mean, I’m a DJ. Yeah, I respect one thing, but live music just hits different. It’s more visceral, immediate.
This energy is being channeled through a person in a different way than it is through speakers. Right? I invited a couple DJ’s and other people to bring their drums to take part in the event. I also brought extra drums out so anybody at any given time that wants to sit in and drum with the other drummers has the opportunity to do it. So it’s a very participatory zone. A lot of times people are intimidated by instruments because they think they have to know something academic to play. It’s just play. Play comes from an instinctive place. Not from schooling.
CD: Let me stop my ranting and rambling about other things and actually get to Vapors. I’ll do this all day. So graffiti has a soft, very, very close place in my heart. I’ve been around it and practicing at it, you know and doing whatever my thing since I was literally eight years old. I had an uncle in the Lower East Side that was a graffiti artist in the early 80’s. He would take us to paint shit and I was fascinated by it. It was the coolest thing in the world, along with breakdancing and hip hop etc. Fast forward to now and I notice that a huge crowd of people are very interested in the subject, very appreciative of seeing new pieces come up. They can appreciate skill in it. Didn’t used to be like that. Now I’ve seen it documented 1000 times in documentaries and such. Graffiti in popular culture is low key celebrated and used as an ultimate shorthand for “this character is a maverick, cool, risky, and unique” in cinema and media.
At RVA Magazine, we’ve covered it extensively, covered graffiti artists we’ve known, championed the scene. We’ve been adjacent to it for a while, but we would never have put this out. Right. We originated the mural project. Vapors is a step beyond though. One of the things I love so much about it is that you feature bombs on trains. I feel Richmond’s relationship to trains is special with CSX being headquartered here and having so many easily accessible train yards. Trains are very much a part of our landscape and a natural canvas for artists here. They are our traveling gallery – an export from Richmond that gets national viewership. That , and painting trains is really easy to get away with. I really would love to see Richmond build on that and incorporate that fact into more legit exhibitions of artwork from the area. Maybe a train company will agree to do an official invitational to paint a full train. Just spitballing…
MK: Yeah, well, I think two things about that. First of all, I think it gets kind of tricky with graffiti because of all the pastimes, this is the most culture related. It’s not just something you pick up in a vacuum. Graffiti is the only one that I know is, by default, based in illegal behavior.
CD: Yeah, skateboarding is not a crime. But graffiti is.
MK: If you’re doing it right, haha.
CD: If you’re doing it right, exactly. But that is also the reason it’ll never go away. The rebelliousness of it is too compelling for the outsider.
MK: It’s the thing that makes it hard to embrace. Richmond wants murals, but they don’t want graffiti based murals. They don’t want names, don’t want burners unless it says “Richmond” or has some place name element. Richmond isn’t down with the artists’ self referential work. Self reference is at the heart of the artform. It can’t be too stylized. Gotta be like no foreign words or something like that. The normals need to be able to read it, to appreciate it. That’s another interesting part because part of the root cultural element of wildstyle graffiti is not being accessible for the average person to be able to read. As far as the artists are concerned, it’d be perfectly okay and intentional in some cases for the average person not to be able to read it.
It’s like knowing how to read another language and that’s what frustrates a lot of people about it, because they see it and they don’t understand it. It’s also a reason why the “initiated” enjoy it so much as it’s nearly an urban ‘code’. You see a lot more graffiti-based “throw ups” on buildings and bridges than you see actual high end, super colorful, burners, because those take time to do with the threat of getting caught. The trains have a different pace attached to them. You’re usually painting these in the middle of the night in some secluded dark place no one is bothering to secure. Better work goes up there.
Every aspiring graffiti artist goes through that initial phase where they’re like, there’s this building down the block from where I live and I have this can of spray paint from Lowe’s, right? And I’m gonna go throw my name up on the wall. And I’m sweating bullets because the Po Po is always lurking around the corner in my mind. It’s a rush for sure, but not exactly the best environment for high art. At least at first. Better you get, the quicker you get. But it more often than not just looks like trash.
There are some throw ups that are pretty fucking good. But a lot of times, really good throw ups look like shit to the random person. Wildstyle graffiti – and I’ll clarify that as stuff that’s difficult to read, stuff that based on names, characters and things like that are unappealing because the overculture doesn’t have control over it – it’s not for them. And that is the worst for the segments of society that need to feel they control or are represented in all aspects of experience.
CD: Do you spend a lot of time paying attention to pieces that are going up? I’m sure you have a network of people telling you what’s happening. What writers do you think that are coming up right now are good, but about to be great?
MK: Well, it’s a tricky question because it depends on what you consider being great.
CD: I mean within the scene, to the standard that persists locally.
MK: There are some local graffiti artists that are great. And I would not say everybody, but a good amount of people, would look at their work and be like, “wow, that’s really good.” Like, you can look at it and tell that it’s really good. People have different criterias for what good graffiti is, you know? Like the concept of placement versus artistic skill. You have people that are hitting all the insane, hard to get to, or highly visible spots — crazy graffiti spots. They may not be the best like artistic writer, but they’re getting ‘up’ and you see their name you just oh man, this guy is killing it. Sloppy text, but it’s like on a police precinct — hah!
CD: The audacity is part of the appeal. Let me rephrase though; who’s impressing you?
MK: Who’s impressive? Lobos is one of them. He has a lot of train pieces up and I think that’s kind of his main thing right now. Some of the crews that are really doing stuff are like the SMH crew. So those guys are very prolific. A lot of the older cats are choosing and picking where they go a lot of times. I think placement becomes a skill to embrace as you get more confident. But you know, there are a lot of people doing a number of different things depending on what you’re looking for. EJYPT does a lot of really good stuff. He’s a young cat. I’ve known him since he was a teenager and just seeing his style evolve is great. He’s done a lot of really good train burners. He’s probably one of our favorites of the younger cats. I’d say he’s probably under 25. Or like right around there. A lot of these guys also, I don’t know them personally. So I don’t know what you know, they’re younger people or something like that. Mimi is a big influence in the city. She works with fuel for crew, she’s actually one of the founders of that. That crew actually started out from the second RVA Street Art Festival, which is at the GRTC building.
CD: What do we have to look forward to from Vapors coming up? And where can we get it?
MK: I’m happy to say that you can pick up the first two volumes at the ICA museum on Belvidere and Broad. They were impressed with it. You can get it at the paint store, Supply. Now that I think of it, I need to restock them. And then there are a couple other places that are hopefully going to be happening once volume three comes out, which is at the end of August. But yeah, it’s um, it’s a magazine that’s coming out every two months or so.
CD: That’s awesome. Between seeing Go Fuck Yourself magazine come up and now this, it’s just, it just it kind of warms my heart to see this. This fire is still burning in the underground media world.
MK: Right. So yeah, and I think it’s important to have independent media stay put as so many bigger institution-size outlets are getting away from print. I wanted to have something that was really archival, that had like a real purpose. If you turn over and look in the back each of the first 100 issues of Vapors, each one of the issues is numbered one through 100. So if I ever have to go to a second pressing of an issue, they won’t be numbered. But always the first run of 100 will be numbered sequentially by hand. So it’s kind of like a collector’s item to some extent also.
CD: Thank you so much. I think you’re gonna go on to do some fucking crazy awesome shit with this.
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