It feels like any other ordinary Friday night in the heart of
Barrio Logan, except for a mingling of excited voices and
the sounds of an eloquent selection of hip-hop and old-school
R&B that’s drifting out onto the street. At La Bodega Gallery—
situated between the historic arts hub Chicano Park and a highly
acclaimed taco shop—Black Xpression, a weekly poetry and
spoken word event, is in full swing. Inside is a celebration that
many never knew they needed until they found it. Inside, they
gained a family they never expected to gain.
“You know that saying that’s like, ‘it takes a village’ or whatever? That’s Black Xpression,” says Cheryl Key, a musician, poet and regular performer. “They step in when you’re wrong, they encourage you when you’re right, they cultivate you, and they never discredit you. It’s a community that proves we can all get together and be on one accord, we can get things done, not just complain, but try to find real solutions to the problems we face. It’s a space where we can love each other and pour into each other without shame or judgment.”
Black Xpression, which just celebrated its two-year anniversary, was founded by Ronald Williams while he was attending Southwestern College. After recognizing his own passion and talent for poetry and creative arts—as well as the lack of spaces for he and his friends to openly express themselves—Williams decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I wanted to create a safe place where we don’t have to worry about work or school or anything else,” says Williams. “Where we can just come together and be completely ourselves while doing what we love to do.”
The event was created under Xpress, an organization designed to represent and uplift the Black community. Through their involvement in social justice work, their commitment to encouraging education and their desire to create opportunities for local businesses to thrive, it seems Xpress takes its motto of “for the community, by the community” quite literally.
“We have workshops highlighting important issues from hyper masculinity to sexual assault. We provide youth mentorship programs, we collaborate with local nonprofits and we create spaces for local business owners to sell their products at Black Xpression,” says Williams.
With its open mic format, seemingly bottomless supply of soul food and a DJ who plays music throughout the evening, the atmosphere at Black Xpression draws in audiences of all backgrounds, consistently filling every seat in the gallery. However, the journey didn’t come without its naysayers.
“When we first started, we got some criticism because of our name. People thought it was an exclusive thing for only Black people, but that was never our intention,” says Williams. “Quite a bit of our crowd is from different cultures and backgrounds, and I think it’s an opportunity for people to learn about Black culture, which, let’s be honest, isn’t being taught or celebrated in schools.”
This intersection of Black and Latinx cultures is part of the reason why this movement has grown to be so successful. What started out as a group of college students sitting around the Southwestern College library talking about possibly starting a YouTube channel has quickly turned into gatherings of hundreds of people coming together to celebrate each other and their Blackness.
“I think what makes us unique is that usually people go to an event and then just go home. There’s no additional conversation or relationship building, there’s no checking in, there’s no doing life together,” says Williams. “At least 80 percent of the people we started with or met along the journey, we are still in touch with them. We are updated on just about everybody who has ever stepped foot on our stage or been to an event. We are a family, and I think that really sets us apart.”
This particular family also boasts exceptional talent. From poetry and art to music and dance, the Black Xpression stage has seen it all. The audience welcomes everyone—beginners, professionals and special guests—with snaps, claps and shouts of “Go in poet!” or “That part!” making sure each artist feels right at home.
This encouragement and support is what keeps people like Key coming back every week.
“It has allowed me to truly sing the way I want to sing. One time, I performed something more spiritual instead of my usual modern or secular music,” says Key. “Everyone started clapping, a guy started playing the guitar and the room seemed to illuminate with light and love. By the end of the song, I was on my knees in front of the crowd, crying and singing, and they allowed me to do that, they allowed me that moment to truly express myself. It was incredibly healing for me.”
On one particular Friday night, a young man sporting dreadlocks and an “If you feel it, Xpress it!” T-shirt calmly stepped up to the mic and proceeded to lift the audience to their feet with his passionate poem about being a Black man in America. He was followed by a woman who shyly told the crowd the name of her song before filling the entire room with a soulful voice recounting stories of love, pain, hope and sorrow. Later, a young boy joined his mentor for an intricate dance combination of popping, locking and hip-hop dance that blew the crowd away.
It’s on nights like these where Black Xpression’s mission seems evident: to set a new standard when it comes to creative exhibitions and community.
“I feel like it’s a blueprint to the impact that community organizing can have,” says Williams. “Long term, I hope that we can continue to expand our vision and movement and hopefully get to a point where other communities will see our model and use it as a foundation to further themselves.”
For now, it does seem to be changing the lives of the individuals who walk through the doors every Friday night—greeted with love, creativity, good food and great music, and in a city where those kinds of creative outlets aren’t always available to them.
“Black Xpression was a restart to my creativity,” says Key. “It was a boost where I thought that I lacked. I thought it would just be another open mic event, but instead I found my family.”
Black Xpression is a
Voices thrive at Barrio Logan open-mic night.
By Tigist Layne / August 15, 2018
Originally published in CityBeat Magazine