Life In Detroit: Piper Carter

Piper Carter 5E Gallery Detroit
My MEP girls recently requested a “cool” guest speaker.  I couldn’t think of anything cooler than a co-owner of a local hip-hop incubator.  Thankfully, Piper Carter accepted my invitation to come and talk to the girls about 5E Gallery and the history of hip-hop. Afterwards she stuck around to answer a few questions for the blog.

5E Gallery is located in Midtown Detroit and promotes the 5 elements of hip-hop: Dj (Deejay), Mc (Emcee), Gr (Graffiti), Bb (B-Boying), Kn (Knowledge).  Founded in 2008 by DJ Sicari, 5E hosts workshops and public events to cultivate and promote local artists.   

You grew up in Detroit, left and came back.  How has the city changed?

There is a lot more enthusiasm about development in the city.  When I left there was a lot of celebration around existing projects under Coleman Young.  People were living comfortably under the Young administration. I left Detroit in 1990, so that’s coming out of the boom of the 80s – there was a lot of money being spent.  When I came back in 08, that was as Obama was coming in and we’re coming out of a recession/depression, post-auto collapse, post-bank collapse.  It’s a different world – in general, economically, politically.  When I came back I noticed that there was a buzz in the city around 20 somethings and 30 somethings – the young professional type.  There was a lot of energy around how to attract younger talent.  A lot of conversations about how to make Detroit more vibrant and viable. 

What changes are you still waiting for?

I would like to see – I do see a lot more community engagement.  I would like to see business investing in entrepreneurs and youth.  I would like to see corporations creating opportunities for communities to create their own wealth. I’d like to see corporations invest in green spaces to help people engage with each other more positively.  

What inspired you to get involved with 5E Gallery?

I liked the mission. To me hip-hop is the number one culture for young people globally. It’s very influential.  I really wanted to make an impact, to be apart of something that I know will have a positive effect on people. 

An element of hip-hop is graffiti.  This city is blanketed in it. How do you differentiate graffiti as an expressive art form verses destruction of property?

There is graffiti that people would call graffiti that is not graffiti. It has nothing to do with art, it’s gang activity – messages they send each other. Some of it is just angry kids.  I think that stuff that will take transforming the neighborhood so that it is more economically stable.  That stuff is not necessarily graffiti – it’s an endemic of a socioeconomic issue that’s going on in a community.  

Graffiti on the other hand, I find to be art. There is pride that goes into the pieces that are made, thoughtfulness in the material use – it’s an art. That community is a different community than gangs.  There is some overlap but most graffiti artists are artists.  [Graffiti] is thoughtful, it is intentional, there are messages, design, form, structure, texture. A lot of it is community building because they may come together and build what they term “pieces”.  They may say “You’re going to do the outline”, “I’m going to do the color” and “You’re going to come and do the highlights.” It’s collaborative.  I would say that those thoughtful intentions make it different than someone taking a black can of spray paint and writing something stupid.
Detroit’s music scene is valued at over $1 billion; however, it’s not really the music city of the Motown era. What changes do you see or would you like to see happen to promote the city’s music industry?
Crain’s Detroit hosted a music conference but it wasn’t the typical music conference. It was a business music conference bringing heads of the music labels and the auto industry together. They came to our gallery as one of the places of grassroots business that revolves around music to see how we function.  I think in terms of structure we have to have an understanding of what the “business” is going to be.  How do we monetize the cloud? Because the music industry itself is under this transformative state, I’m seeing this new media industry as being liquid. It’s all changing.

Many people feel that hip-hop promotes violence, promiscuity, and illegal behavior.  How do you respond to criticism and what is 5E Gallery doing to quell these notions?

The stuff that is mainstream is all those things. What we’re doing is upholding the basic framework of hip-hop as a culture and as an educational tool. We teach the history of hip-hop and its relationship to community. Which I think we need to have more conversations about how does art relate to community. Not just art for art sake but how does art impact us and how we impact it. I think those are really important conversations to keep on the table. I believe in society we get lazy, turn on the radio, do whatever the mainstream is telling us to do. 

What 5E really strives to do is not fight against what’s happening but to offer another paradigm, to be that alternative that exist simultaneously.  That poetry those artists are reflecting is someone’s truth it’s just that there is too much of it.  There’s no balance.  We need more artists talking about enjoying life. Talking about being that nerdy kid – not everyone can be selling crack and living in mansions.  Somebody is going to college. Somebody is struggling with their grades. Somebody is feeling awkward and insecure. Somebody is getting bullied and teased. There are so many stories that we have as people.  Let’s get more of those kind of songs.  

When we reduce ourselves in that genre of music, I think it’s a disservice to try to pretend that those stories represent most of us.  Those stories don’t represent most of us. What happens is people hear those things, it becomes a meme and people start saying “Yeah, I’m from the hood”. Everyone is from the hood.  Everyone is not doing the things they’re talking about in those songs.  There are a lot of people who are just struggling to pay their bills. Rap about that.  Rap about paying back your student loans – that’s a struggle.  Immigration. Healthy self-esteem.  There is so much to rap about but it all gets recycled.

You meet and work with many local artists. Who’s name should we know?

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