By, Allie Semperger
Published February 2014: Michigan Nightlight
Hip-hop gets a bad reputation, but a look outside the mainstream, at a small but powerful program for Detroit youth, provides a whole different view.
Commercialized rap songs that glorify money and violence have no place at the 5 E Gallery, a nonprofit visual art and hip-hop culture gallery in Detroit that inspires a return to the roots of hip-hop as a peaceful, creative, and unifying culture.
The gallery’s name is a tribute to the five main elements of hip-hop culture: emceeing (rapping), DJ’ing, writing (aerosol art), dancing (including breaking, up-rocking, popping, and locking), and the connecting element of knowledge.
In addition to supporting local artists and featuring their work, 5 E Gallery offers a diverse array of artistic programs that helps youth in the Detroit community develop important creative and technical skills.
Piper Carter, director of public relations at 5 E Gallery, is an acclaimed fashion photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, French Vogue (Vogue Paris), British ELLE (ELLE UK), and Essence, just to name a few. She grew up between Detroit and New York, working in NYC until she moved back to Detroit in 2008 to take care of her mother who was suffering from poor health and needed 24-hour care. “Coming back was a blessing in disguise because we had a chance to connect,” Carter says, acknowledging that the distance impacted the time they spent together. “We ended up being good for each other – she helped me learn how to be a grown woman.”
5 E was founded in 2007 by renowned Detroit hip-hop artist and turntablist DJ Sicari. In 2008, Carter met Sicari and began attending 5 E programs and collaborating with him. “I thought [the gallery] was a genius idea and I’m such a hip-hop enthusiast,” she says. “To find a person and a place that loves and celebrates the real culture of hip-hop as much as I did, in Detroit – it’s wonderful.”
Carter’s passion and participation at the gallery continued to grow. In May of 2009, 5 E Gallery launched The Foundation, based on Carter’s idea for a weekly night dedicated specifically to celebrating and supporting the voices of women in hip-hop. The program currently runs on Tuesday nights and participants have included female artists like singer Jade Lathan, who recently appeared on American Idol.
5 E Gallery fosters a creative environment that also functions as a safe space which provides young people with the skills and confidence to become artists that truly live hip-hop culture. The gallery is open after school through the evening for young people to practice their creativity.
5 E also holds a regular youth program on Saturdays where young people get hands-on experiences in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math) work. This weekly program is based on 5 E’s big annual community event, Dilla Youth Day, celebrating the legendary Detroit music producer J Dilla and showcasing youth performances in the arts.
On Dilla Day and on Saturdays throughout the year, kids learn about music production, media literacy, art, and cutting-edge technology that empowers them to bring their creative visions to life in new and unique ways. “No matter where you go, hip-hop in its creation and inception is made for young people – to communicate with one another, express ideas, and relate what their culture is,” Carter says. She also cites the origins of hip-hop as created out of necessity by youth in the depressed Bronx in the 1970s. According to Carter, hip-hop was the path for young people of diverse cultures (Caribbean, African, Puerto Rican, and more) to “create a new reality for themselves.”
5 E Gallery works to support young artists through artist development and mentorship. Artist development includes classes, programs, opportunities to perform, and constructive critiques. Youth are also taught about the business aspects of their mediums and how to improve their skills. In addition, 5 E connects the kids with role models like music producers and community leaders.
“For us, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in impoverished communities of color there’s really no modeling – it’s important for young people to see what’s practiced, to see people who are successful,” Carter says. “A lot of us didn’t have models for anything we wanted to do – we realized that we really have to show young people what to do [and] give them guidance and instruction.” By interacting with successful people in their aspired fields, youth gain well-rounded worldviews with a balance of school learning and professional experience.
With a focus on ideals like truth, equality, unity, and peace, 5 E Gallery works to educate the public that hip-hop isn’t just the commercialized rap that is popularly confused for hip-hop today. Rather, hip-hop is believed to be the culmination of all cultures: a movement and a lifestyle. “We’re doing sonic justice,” Carter says. “It’s all about music that uplifts and music that heals and providing a safe space for people – youth, women, people of color – to come and learn from one another.”
Carter is a self-described positive and hopeful person, who believes that life is a journey and not a destination. She acknowledges that violence can take many forms – guns, self-hatred, gossip, bullying, etc. – and that it stems mainly from insecurity and a perceived “lack.” Hip-hop, with its focus on cultural literacy, has the power to overcome this harmful mindset.
“My hope for the children of Detroit is that they always realize and recognize their own value, that they see themselves as an important part of this world with fresh ideas and that their ideas are valuable and valued,” Carter says. “We’re in these times where we hear about abysmal circumstances, but it’s still a beautiful world and it’s important that we uplift our youth and community.”