Nashville as a Creative Mecca & how the City Orbits its Artistic Community
Justin Causey x Evan Dale // April 22, 2020
Think Southern hip-hop; think American soul, and a long list of proprietary neighborhood names and their over-lording metropolises effortlessly cloud the mind. Bankhead, East Atlanta, South Beach, Hollygrove, North Memphis, South Acres, Ferguson; Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, St. Louis. Stretching backwards in time to the roots of Southern hip-hop, and in many ways to the foundational pillars of modern American Soul and R&B, these locales, with their traditions and subsequent creative scenes equal parts musical and otherwise, have been left permanently spinning beneath a whirlwind of experimentation, invention, and influence gone global. To this day, Atlanta is arguably hip-hop’s most established, sonically diverse, and wealthy mine of talent and innovation. Miami is an international city, constantly pushing the boundaries of global art and continuously testing the limits of music’s future. New Orleans is the bed rock of it all. Regardless of whether it’s jazz and blues, or rock and hip-hop, there is not a valid dispute against that. Memphis redefined; arguably defined what differentiated Southern hip-hop from the rest of the country; the world. And St. Louis has always straddled the line between the Midwest and the South, as well as the West Coast and the East, funneling endless influence in four directions – the Constantinople of underground American culture.
But, even including the Southern hip-hop and soul capitals that have rotated popular influence and existed as undeniable hotbeds for the myriad creativity that surrounds both scenes, what has always made the South so influential and unendingly experimental are the smaller markets. Virginia Beach brought the world Pharrell, Clipse, and subsequently Pusha-T. DC & Maryland are holding down future-soul and experimental rap with names like but not limited to Dijon, Brent Faiyaz, Ari Lennox, McClenney, and GoldLink. North Carolina has always existed as one of hip-hop’s most important mainstays: think Petey Pablo, J. Cole, DaBaby. Chattanooga is making their case as one of the South’s most fervent up-and-coming creative foci with a close-knit crew of friends and collaborators that includes Isaiah Rashad, YGTUT, and bbymutha.
But, if any scene deserves the kind of recognition not only that other small market cities have received, but that even the established cultural capitals consistently do, it’s Nashville.
Look past the mire of the associations most common with the Music City and realize that akin to the rest of Tennessee; to the rest of the South, Nashville is socially, racially, musically, and all-encompassingly creatively diverse. And that hand-in-hand with being a city bubbling over with universities, while also being the political center of one of the most diverse states in America, it’s consequently a creative hub unlike anywhere else. Much of it is owed to a communal feeling that is largely impossible to find elsewhere. Rooted in communal foundations from generations of American civil rights movements, history alone ensures that underrepresented communities are not labeled so in Nashville. Representation is strong in the city. Culture follows suit. And Nashvillians are more than astute to their strength in numbers.
“From student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the March on Selma, to the current movements happening now, Nashville’s young people have always been critical to the struggle for black liberation. Many of the key moments in black history derive from the culture of activism based in historic Nashville communities. National figures like John Lewis, Diane Nash, and James Lawson all organized in Nashville first. Because of our collective resilience and resistance, we know that in Nashville, we can move mountains.“
Today especially, creative collaborations band together to build up young talent. They work with one another to open up galleries, put on concerts, exhibit artists new and old; up-and-coming and established, and throw entire festivals celebrating the immense and all too often overlooked talent of their city. And in times of need, when the city undergoes something of significant trauma, it is the art, music, and fashion scenes that lead the road to recovery.
“Nashville is a city that peaks when things like support are needed. The sense of community that is instilled within this town is undeniable. The creative influence throughout Nashville carries the town on our backs. Even when adversity and tragedy strike throughout the city, we as leaders pinpoint ways to guide our city to overcome what we are faced. While we are now classified as a “boom town” we’ve always seen our value and worth.”
Educator // Creative Fountainhead
Fueled by togetherness and the power of their craft, Nashville’s artists and artistic community leaders have been at the heart of the city’s recovery efforts following the deadly tornadoes of March 3, 2020 and subsequently during the ensuing trauma spurred by the outbreak of COVID-19. There is something that creative cultures around the world can learn from as so much uncertainty continues enveloping society.
“I believe the difference in our community stems strongly from our Southern roots; You can feel the sense of community once you get to settle in here.
I think that’s a major difference-maker from most other hub cultural cities where the crab in a bucket mentality can be easily found in the creative community. We realize and appreciate the diversity in our backyard and understand there is enough room at the table for everybody to eat.
We are not afraid to collaborate and use each other first as resources within our ecosystem rather than outsource. The sense of community exists in our scene because we all know deeply that its gonna take our creative community to make efforts as a whole to make a lasting impression inside and outside of the Ville. It’s just in us and not on us to be this way.”
Ivan 'Ivo' Andrews
And at the root of that effort to build the city up in the wake of devastation exists the same drive and desire to push the city’s scenes and subsequently art, music, and community to places never explored before.
Musically, the city is known for country. But its true bedrock lies in hip-hop and soul. Just listen to any of the exciting up-and-comers working their way from the floorboards and hear not only the influence of Southern hip-hop and American soul, but their coalescence seamlessly stitched into something new.
In 2019, Chuck Indigo released a case-study on transcendental genre with iNDigo Café. The album – his third in as many years – is an exhibition of a young Nashville artist bending established sounds into his own spin on something altogether new. If anything feels most noteworthy and mentionable about the project, it’s its jarring switching of lanes. By the time the three-minute mark falls on iNDigo Café, a mellow-romantic ballad highlighted by both immersive rap verses and an addicting R&B hook (Mad Today), an intermissionary introduction to the album’s skit sub-plot, and the beginning of a hip-hop party anthem (Ugly) have all graced its presence. And everything about the stylistic multi-verse defining the album’s opening moments feels carefully curated. All are key and necessary components not only to understanding the project, but to appreciating Chuck Indigo’s artistry. So, as the album moves forward to its third track, Overtime featuring fellow Tennessee up-and-comer, Tim Gent, its stylistic coalescence between the high energy and the low; the hip-hop and the R&B, the silky and the hard-hitting; feels middle-grounded, outlined, and already defined. And that is a microcosm of what Nashville’s underground scenes are all about.
Earlier this year, Brian Brown – another figure of transcendent, boundless musical exploration – dropped an album that’s another example of the most professional, refined, experimental music coming from any underground scene in modern music. Brian Brown is a picture of range, community, and collaboration, and Journey is his dissertation on it all. From the moment the low-fidelity keystrokes open Come on In, there’s something – some things – familiar about its sound. A meditative, humorous hook concerned with closing the door so as not to let flies in; a quick dive into an homage to Brown’s chopped and screwed predecessors and contemporaries; a flow and twang as inescapable as it is addictive, lines up a sound equal parts Cilvia Demo, Bigtyme Way Slow’d & Tap’t, and Hustle & Flow Terrance Howard. It’s raw. It’s honest. It’s Southern. It’s Tennessee. It’s Brian Brown & it’s Nashville. And it’s a key example of just how uniquely distinguished Nashville’s young music scene is thanks to the collaborative effervescence of the city at a macro scale.
“You know the saying ‘it takes a village’ right? Well, that’s Nashville in a nutshell. Growing up here, everybody watched out for everybody. Hell, I come from the time where ya folk gave other authoritative figures the right to punish ya if you acted out in church & shit, lol. So, when we see our own in a position/space that’s lesser than where we see them or expect them to be, it’s nun for us to lend a helping hand & that’s exactly what took place with the tornado. The streets that got hit, there’s childhood memories attached to those. Folk, family still reside in those areas. Gotta reach back to move forward sometimes & I hope that, not only, we learned sum’n from it, but I hope this isn’t a one-off thing neither. It’s sum’n we should be doing as often as we can because our people were still in these same streets before disaster struck. Even still, I’m glad we were able to come together & show the true essence & spirit of the Ville for a moment.”
Rapper // Singer // Recording Artist
Fashionably, the city operates in the same communal way. Destroyed by the tornadoes, Music City Vintage – a local vintage shop – had been collaborating with local musicians and creative collaborators for photo shoots and cross-creative promotions in the months leading up to the disaster. And, in the wake of the tornadoes, the creative community is returning the favor, aiding in the clean-up process and doing what they can to get Music City Vintage back on their feet.
“Nashville is a huge melting pot of so many different types of people that bring all types of flavor to the community! We have been growing at an extremely huge rate and so many other cities are starting to notice. Back in the day, you would hear so people say, “I can’t wait to leave Nashville” or “I’m moving to ATL because Nashville got nothing to do”. As time has went on, you hear less and less people say that. I believe the reason for that is because Nashville is creating its own identity and so many creative people are lifting each other to do better! The scene here is like a snowball effect and we’re just halfway down the hill. No telling where it will go but all I know is we will continue to support one another as a family like we’ve done with the recent natural disaster that just hit. So many people came out and helped their neighbors without anyone even asking for help. People just showed up and said how can we help. It’s amazing to know that so many people have each other’s back here in Nashville in their time of need. Our business was affected by the tornado and was completely wiped out. We arrived to the scene at 7:00am with friends already there ready to assist and getting rid of looters. We didn’t hit anyone up when we heard the news or nothing. People just came out and helped in our time of need. I’ve been seeing this thrown around quite a bit this week, but it is very true. We are truly #nashvillestrong”
Owner, Music City Vintage
At a more individual level, Justin Causey – Operations Manager of local creative conglomerate, BlackCity – released an independent Nike model late in 2019. Wholly focused on community, creativity, and how to use the two together in a never-ending cycle of aid and art, Causey is representative of the power of the individual in Nashville, where no individual is really ever on their own, and where under the influence of constant collaboration and mutual growth, he has been able to do even more than his already wide-ranging creative palette would have led to.
“Nashville is a beautiful city. It’s has such a family atmosphere that everyone are country cousins. The city looks out for each other especially after the recent tornado. The city stood up and took charge, we weren’t waiting for instructions or handouts. We just did it ourselves. As far as our creative scene and it’s culture, it’s a melting pot. I mean we are in a renaissance of Black art and Music within the city. The scene is getting stronger, more supportive, and more eyes are on us. We just have to continue to be ourselves and be authentic and show the world what Nashville truly has to offer.”
Justin 'Cauz' Causey
Creative Manager, BlackCity // Sneaker Designer
When we took a day strolling around North Nashville in the Summer of 2019 with Causey, local rapper Reaux Marquez, videographer and producer, JosephFiend, and friend and creative collaborator, Myke – all of whom are seemingly in constant creative collaboration with one another – they gave us an in-depth tour of Nashville’s adjacent underground visual art scene. Spurred by socially charged street art that in many places have coalesced into celebrated outdoor galleries, local art factions, like North Nashville’s Norf Studios have taken what is considered less-than in most cities around the world and opened Nashville’s eyes to world-class, groundbreaking art, accessible to anyone willing to go to it and learn from it. And representative as they can be of the city that they’re from, Causey, Reaux, Joseph, and Myke were educated tour guides of the art, students of the streets they come from and all the messages and beauty that cover their neighborhood walls.
Coming together, the four – all direct or indirect parts of BlackCity – are a striking image of the collaborative power of Nashville. With Reaux’s impeccably old-school reminiscent rap delivery, saying more socially than just about anyone else in music with each subsequent single; with JosephFiend’s vision and underlying knowledge of Nashville’s artful and social histories, the result is always a stirring, thought-provoking piece of art superseding the relevance and importance of most artists in hip-hop. And, they’re doing it from a place that more and more people are coming to pay close attention to at a time in history when communities are more able than ever to take advantage of the attention.
“I honestly don’t think we’re that much different from the rest. We are growing like most other cities did at one point in time, it’s just that we’re growing during a time where spotlights are able to shine faster on us (via social media) other cities weren’t granted that opportunity to grow in the spotlight. So, I guess THAT is what makes us different… that & our keen ability to handle such a task…”
With each passing album by a world-class transcendentalist blurring the lines of traditional genre and redrawing the boundaries of music; with each new mural anointed to the side of a building on Jefferson Street, adding to the mosaic of celebratory black culture that has thrived there for generations; with each custom sneaker awarded by Nike to a local designer whose eye has been trained by the medley of Nashville’s cultural depth; with each timeless music video addressing racial issues and igniting social change; and with each creative conglomerate formed, spurring artistic fervor, and fusing Nashville’s creative and social cultures, the city grows, the community strengthens, and so, too, does its reputation.
“Nashville doesn’t purport to be anything other than what it is - a growing city that hasn’t lost touch with its warm, southern charm. What makes the city and its creative community so great are how everyone supports each other and everyone’s so connected that there are no strangers. Our natural inclination it to help a friend however we can when we see them pulling pieces together on a new venture or a good idea. The same can be said for the city as a whole. We see a neighbor struggling, we don’t stand back. We roll our sleeves up and help.”
From the strength and the hard work of so many creative collectives and individual artists through the years came Deep Tropics in 2019: an international music and arts festival that not only gave Nashville’s exploding underground a platform to come together and perform but also drew to it a seemingly endless list of internationally acclaimed artists wanting to be a part of the city’s renaissance. From EARTHGANG and Rick Ross to Lane 8, Cashmere Cat, and Bonobo, Deep Tropics is a testament to the ongoing, wide-ranging, awe-inspiring creativity finally breaking out from Nashville’s floorboards and exploding into the international limelight.
“You can turn on certain streets in Nashville and feel this energy and emotion at the same time. Whether you out North, South, East or West Nashville, we have this feeling like no other. Being from the Athens of the South, you hear all your life that it’s a special place. Maybe it could be from having Jimi Hendrix playing in clubs around our neighborhood, Oprah starting her career here, MLK walking down Jefferson Street. Nashville’s Southern Hospitality is something you can’t get everywhere, people come from all over the world just to see what we have to over. Nashville has helped plenty of influential people find their way in the world, but it’s only a matter of time before everybody knows where to come to get that magic!”
Carlos 'Loso' Partee
Built from the grass roots movements of the city’s histories as a hub for civil rights and the constant expansion of creativity, Nashville is a city thriving amidst the fusion of their passionate ideals, proving to be a blueprint – an oasis – for so many other cities and communities aspiring to become what Nashville continues to be. It’s a circulatory harmony of social, musical, artful, communal prowess, flourishing as a bouquet built of individuals instilled with the ideals that the city stands for. And when those individuals come together, led by their creative and civic heroes – often rolled into one – not a paniful history, a tornado, nor a virus can defeat the Ville.
“Nashville’s love is its own distinct feel and culture, and that’s what makes it different from any other cultural hub. Just a sense of knowing that we can do more in numbers than alone. Seeing everyone come together makes the community even bigger. Nashville’s got it & I think this will continue!”