By Harper Lee
Abdullah Powell, creative director at Elementz, Cincinnati’s urban arts and hip-hop youth center, came to the University of Cincinnati from Columbus with the intention of being a computer engineer. Behind the scenes, though, another interest kept tugging at him.
Raised in a musical family – his mother is a choir singer, and his father is a musician and producer – Powell had developed a love and respect for hip-hop as a teenager.
“Really, before I came to college, I got into hip-hop that had a message to it and was inspiring, and gave me a sense of – an understanding of – different perspectives for folks growing up in difficult circumstances, a more well-rounded worldview,” Powell said. “I got into that kind of hip-hop. I’m talking about groups like Wu-Tang Clan, Black Star, Gang Starr and Nas.”
In college, when he wasn’t studying engineering, Powell said, he was hard at work making beats in his dorm room, cultivating his true passion. Powell discovered the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s electronic media program and quickly abandoned computer engineering.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is boring,’ ” Powell said, laughing. “And I love making beats, so I got into that program.”
Today, Powell spends his time curating programming, teaching and producing at Elementz, where he volunteered even before he finished his degree at CCM.
Now in its 16th year, Elementz offers classes and programming in hip-hop, music, dance, electronic media, poetry, visual art and DJing for urban youths. The nonprofit has recently moved to its third home, settling on Race Street near Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.
The new building is roughly 2,200 square feet divided into state-of-the-art studio spaces specifically designed for each of its core disciplines.
Elementz at its core
Since opening in the early 2000s, the organization has served hundreds of young people – primarily teenagers ages 12 to 18 – seeking connection, community and creativity. Formed in the wake of the 2001 riots, the idea for Elementz grew out of activism and a strong need to empower teenagers, while also providing them with a safe space to express themselves. Today, young people can join Elementz for $12 a year, plus a one-time $20 sponsorship fee. Members have access to teachers and classes, but are encouraged to explore their creative work independently.
“We work with young people as we teach creative skills, and our goal is to help them see that they have a voice,” Powell said. “They have a creative voice. We believe that every young person has one, and that sometimes you need someone to help you foster that and cultivate it, or help you see that you have it. … And ultimately, the time they spend with us, we intend for it to be a means for them to be in a better place than when they came in the door from the beginning.”
Jeremy Griffin walked through the door at Elementz more than five years ago at the recommendation of a friend who knew of his interest in dance. Griffin, who is finishing his studies at UC, now interns at the urban arts center. When he arrived, though inexperienced, he quickly found himself dancing on a team with a coach, and even performing. “Things just started moving real fast,” Griffin recalled. “I’d never been on a team, but coming in, you know, the people were nice, and they knew about certain things that I didn’t. It was a space that we had where we could come to practice and to exchange ideas and get better as a whole. It was good for me, just physically and socially, just being around different people with the same interests.”
Engaged in and growing with the community
Now in the organization’s new home, Powell and Tom Kent, executive director of Elementz, look forward to the future – a future full of more music, more performance, more collaboration and more opportunity for Cincinnati youths to find their voice and their passion.
“Elementz has raised awareness in the city of hip-hop as a positive art form and introduced the arts community and urban youth to each other,” Kent said. “Elementz has given urban youth a voice in the community and a way to engage in community conversations. The future of Elementz is to expand our work in encouraging the development of creative skills in urban youth and helping them find their way to a career that utilizes their creative skills, enriching the fabric and culture of our entire city.”
Powell said watching Elementz connect young people to one another and to art is deeply rewarding. “I just love seeing people grow and have a support network through the (arts) center that I don’t think they would have had otherwise,” he said. “People need spaces like this that represent the things that are relevant to them. I just love the connection that we have. It’s a real connection. It’s like family.”