Intimate all-ages venues are hard to come by. But that's only part of what makes Freespace special.
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 Duarius Briggs, aka KaneTheRapper, 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.” ◆
Go See It
Freespace fires up The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St., on the third Wednesday of every month. The shows are free, and doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Photos are scenes from a mid-February Freespace concert in Riverwest.