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The art and soul of hip-hop

The urban art exhibition Art, Beats + Lyrics hopes to inject new life into a troubled art form



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Jabari Graham, the founder of Art, Beats + Lyrics, visited Charlotte a few weeks ago to firm up some last-minute logistics for the event. But when I joined him for a tour of the Q.C., he didn't talk much about ABL; Graham, a resident of Atlanta, was too busy playing tracks by some new, unsigned rap crew from the "A" whose sound is reminiscent of OutKast's Andre 3000.

Graham flipped through the songs quickly on his iPod and then suddenly switched playlists so I could hear an unreleased album by D'Angelo.

"You ever heard this?" he asked. "It only came out in Europe I think." Graham is one of those cats who always gets his hands on the new-new before anybody else. (Marketing gurus would call him an "early adopter.") But, exuding an ultra-mellow, soft-spoken energy, he's far from pretentious.

And despite his appearance -- baggy jeans, Vans sneakers, and a funky hat -- the cat is a shrewd dealmaker. He earned a business degree from Jackson State University and after a short stint working at Foot Locker, went on to hold a marketing position with the African-American-owned-and-oriented UniverSoul Circus. The circus hit on hard times and laid him off. But instead of searching for another 9-to-5, Graham used his unemployment checks to stage the debut ABL.

Although Graham created ABL, he mounts the event with the help of his co-producer: the enigmatic illustrator known only as Dubelyoo. Like Graham, Dubelyoo lives in Atlanta, but he grew up in Fayetteville, N.C. -- a city that Dub describes as "a weird military town. A lot of bizarre things happen in military towns. It was cool growing up in some aspects. But if you're not in the military or work for one of the major factories there, you have very few options."

Dub -- an aggressively gregarious fellow who seemingly wears sunglasses 24/7 and rides around town on a low-rider bicycle -- attended Eastern Carolina University for what he claims was "a lengthy amount of time." After graduation, he went to work as a graphic designer for the Fayetteville Observer newspaper. "But I realized very soon that was not the job for me," he admits. So he quit his gig, moved to Atlanta to work for a Web design company and soon started a booming career as a freelance artist.

These days you can see his stylized, graffiti/cartoon-influenced drawings and paintings gracing CD covers and advertising campaigns for companies like Scion, Red Bull, Heineken and many more.

Graham and Dub met up after the ABL's splash at the High and they've been attempting to push the culture in a positive direction ever since. And as they prepare to infiltrate the Carolinas, it's obvious they aren't too thrilled with hip-hop's current condition, either.

"It's kind of hard to get behind a lot of the stuff that's out right now," Dub says. "Cause it's not really a reflection of where everybody is right now. Usually art mirrors the society. And I think sometimes, the art you get is what people are about. So if a lot of the people ain't about nothing, the art's gonna reflect that.

"And another thing," he continues, "usually great works of art and great artists don't come out of a vacuum. If you look at anybody who was great, there were good people around them. If you look at basketball, Jordan was a great basketball player, but he also played with the greatest basketball players of all time. And it's the same thing with music; it's hard to be the greatest MC of all time when everyone around you is weak."

"The media pushes out that bad stuff, but there's so much good stuff that no one knows about," adds Graham. "I guess [the industry] is just too caught up on ring tones and making money."

Despite their criticisms, the duo has made an investment in the future of culture -- literally putting their money where their mouths are. Through ABL, they hope to make hip-hop better. Works on display at the show -- by a diverse group of renowned artists like Gilbert Young (who created the now-ubiquitous "He Ain't Heavy" image), Tindel/Michi and Charlotte's own God City crew -- are designed to both celebrate and challenge hip-hop.

Images at past shows channeled "traditional" graffiti-styled lettering and figure paintings -- while others utilized more graphic forms to depict, comment on and subvert famous and infamous rap superstars (such as Dubelyoo's DJ Drama painting seen on the first page of this story). Mixed-media presentations, digital art pieces and installations that delve into typical (and atypical) topics discussed in hip-hop music (such as drugs, poverty, extreme displays of wealth, misogyny, homophobia and more) have also peppered ABL's exhibition spaces.