It’s no secret: The people of Philadelphia love them some Roots. And why wouldn’t they? The Roots crew is easily one of the most skilled, widely respected groups—not to mention the only credible hip-hop band—in modern music. Not only have they earned enough statuettes and acclaim to forever seal their spot on the Illadelph’s sacred roster of native legends, they are immeasurably inspiring fans across the nation and worldwide to boot—and they’re doing it all while representing their hometown 24/7/365. It’s almost too fitting that the city officially respond in kind, erecting a glorious, finely detailed mural, designed and presided over by a local collective of passionate artists, one that captures the awesome history of, and lore surrounding, these iconic, South Philly-founded melody makers.
More than two years of panel discussions, community painting gatherings and “Roots 101” classes will soon culminate in the Roots Mural Project’s “big reveal,” as they call it, following the exhaustive planning and expert execution by the Amber Arts & Design team and their collaborator, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh—with welcome assistance from countless volunteers of all ages, and teens from the Mural Arts Program’s Art Education program and its Youth Violence Reduction Partnership. This Friday morning, mere blocks from where the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter met at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and launched themselves into the stratosphere, Mural Arts will unveil the Roots mural at a public dedication, scheduled for 11:30 a.m., at World Communications Charter School, where their legacy is now permanently affixed on the facility’s west-facing stone wall.
While ably creating the latest entry to the city’s estimable collection of public art, two members of the Amber Art & Design team, Charles Barbin and Keir Johnston, kept journals of their in-the-studio exploits—and were nice enough to share some of their undated entries with PW to help commemorate the occasion.
Charles Barbin: Roots Mural kickoff was a great success: live painting, Dice Raw killed it with the cello player, shit was like whoa! [Loved the] speeches from the parties involved, especially Jane Golden reminiscing about her times with Tariq back in the day with the Anti-Graffiti Network. The music was dope, the vibe was tight. People had options to “be the crowd” or participate in live painting, hand clappin’ or cold chillin.’ The camera flashes were like fireworks. To get Quest and Tariq in Philly these days is rare. Being a fan since the early days, when you could see The Roots playing at a Drexel or UPenn gymnasium … It is an honor to be a part of the visual legacy that will further commemorate these Philadelphia artists and possibly bring their long list of dope tracks, amazing performances and Grammy-winning albums to a larger audience. The day was a success. … Went back to the studio and got busy.
Keir Johnston: Our studio, Stew, is 2,500 square feet of sexy. We operate it with five main characters, plus one: Ernel Martinez, Willis “Nomo” Humphries, Charles Barbin, Linda Fernandez and myself. Theodore Harris, who has space upstairs, is also a constant presence. Poverty is also a presence, but we warm ourselves with ongoing success. A career in the arts is often of feast/famine; we battle every day to survive and build on the right side of the fence. … Today, we measure the wall.
C.B.: The second time I saw The Roots was in a gymnasium at Drexel or Penn, probably both at some point. I was still living in South Jersey and had heard of them from my Philly friends coming out of Fox Chase, the Northeast, Cottman Avenue area. I was there two weeks before and got jumped on the ave for my jacket, which my friend was actually wearing (I had his jacket on). The next day, his mom took me to The Gap to get a fresh denim hoodie, with my friend, Drew, staring at me with a black eye. Despite the drama, I was back in Philly 14 days later to see this hip-hop band that I was so proud to be the first to introduce to my small beach community—and last week, I saw those guys at the House of Blues in Atlantic City.
[At the launch event] I mentioned to Tariq that I would be in town for the show between Xmas and New Year’s, and my favorite rapper told me, “Yo, I got you, dog!” We exchanged numbers, and I put “Riq” in my new iPhone, grabbed a few Heinekens left over from the event, grabbed Keir, Ernel, Will and bounced. When I turned right left on 4th off South Street, I was like “Tariq just invited us to the show at the House of Blues!” “That’s what’s up!”
K.J.: Yesterday, Tatyana finally showed and will now have an ongoing weekly presence. Her feminine energy will only increase our good relations around the Stew and increase production. She told us about her assisting Mickalene Thomas and what [working with] an artist of world-renowned status entails. She is timely in her arrival.
C.B.: [Mural Arts’ YVRP Guild Program participants] started working at the studio this week, a good group of young fellas. They respect art; they’re proud to be a part of the project and are dedicated to doing their part to make sure the mural comes correct. There’s a healthy amount of clowning, true stories and opinions. This relaxed vibe helps the day go by with high energy and mass production. Sometimes the lines get blurred as to what’s fact or fiction, but when truth be told … he who says “real rap!” is speaking the truth. And as picky as the Guild is about their hip-hop, with all the new artists and how close they “stay to the streets,” after hearing Tariq spit a few verses, all that could be said was: “Real rap!”
K.J.: When we eat, especially when without money, which is often, we commune communist style. One person cooks—for a while, it was me, which earned me the moniker Dr. Richard Beans, Esq.—and cooks for all. Healthy food usually … When in season, there is a large garden across from my house, many a day the one-stop for a fresh bag of veggies that get cooked and distributed, usually with rice and beans. There are sometimes small portions of meat, of which I take no part. We all pause for a culinary break, where music and words are shared. After, Ernel is often straight into a siesta. Right this second, we listen to “Stone Junkie” by Curtis Mayfield.
C.B.: It’s amazing how many volunteers have stepped up to contribute their time and energy to the project, from students to senior citizens and everyone in between. Nice to see the range of fans The Roots have managed to accumulate! There’s a nice buzz in the city about the project, and people of Philly have not hesitated to ask to lend a hand.
K.J.: We possess power in numbers. As a group, we start to outpace the work that is in front of us, and we still have volunteers coming. I am setting up our first wall for painting, and we will start color mixing this week.
C.B.: The YVRP guys are holding tight. They come every Tuesday and Thursday and really put it in. The group has skills at art and are pretty damn funny with how they interact with each other, as well as with Amber. Having their help makes me confident we’ll finish on time, and it will be dope.
K.J.: Today is the fullest of full houses: Will, Ernel, myself, Logan (Willis’ son, who is sick), Gloria, Mike, Sam, Chris, Anthony, Brandon and Khamir. We started painting and are in the last run of projections. Power in numbers. [There’s] great social dynamics as well, as conversations vary. This week, Dice Raw’s new video came out [“Somebody Loves You,” featuring Raheem DeVaughn], in which much of the footage involves a shoot we did with him here in the studio. … He commissioned Ernel to make a drawing of this woman in the video, who he was infatuated with. There are many shots of Dice drawing on top of the drawing on a table designed and painted by Willis and Charles. Things are starting to pan out.
C.B.: The YVRP Guild painted in the boom box today. They’re in their early 20s, so they didn’t really come of age till after the millennium and have likely never seen an old-school radio box except for in a movie! But then again, did they even see Do the Right Thing? Radio Raheem who?!
K.J.: We have a deadline at this point: the end of May. Things have been moving right along, but there is a need for a definite final push. Got accepted to Yaddo residency, which is a great honor. Again, there is a question arising; for the same work that got accepted at a world-renowned program did not get project acceptance here in Philly at least twice.
C.B.: When we first applied and eventually landed the Roots Mural gig, people were somewhat skeptical about having so many cooks in the kitchen. But with all of our other projects in full effect, like the 3-D installation at Friends Select school, the interior mural at Audenreid, the residency at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a group of side mural projects through Mural Arts, Keir and Ernel will be leaving for their artists-in-residence in Tulsa at the end of the project, likely having to miss the final stretch at the wall—so I think us approaching the project formed as a “band,” as well as getting Tatyana on board, will be our strength, when all’s said and done.
K.J.: This week was supposed to be the [YVRP] guys’ last week working with us. We wanted to celebrate with a lunch and introduce them to a new cuisine. We all decided Indian, via Tiffin, was a good choice. Robyn, who runs the program, protested and said it would be too foreign, too spicy. We all let her know that the idea was to introduce them to a new food they would not normally get. I also said that there was a safe road in Indian—rice, tandoori chicken, samosas—that could be gone down with low risk. Truth be told, we all wanted some free Tiffin as well. Many, if not all of us, hadn’t eaten out in weeks. Not one of the guys—and it was a full house—had eaten Indian food before … many had said they were not excited and [mistakenly thought Indian food meant they would have to] eat rabbit. Even after it arrived, it was perceived as a spectacle and try-as-you-go basis. After tastes and confirmations spread, they were doubling and tripling up to grab seconds. A good time was had, many leftovers left. Later in the week, we get confirmation that they got their funding renewed for another month, assuring that we have another closing, cultural introduction meal to go.
PW's Music Issue 2014