To kick off Charleston Music Hall's new show-and-interview-style Charleston Live series, the venue will bring three local, independent hip-hop acts to its stage — Benjamin Starr, Anfernee Robinson, and Walter Brown. All three artists rap with clear-eyed sensitivity about the world around them.
The new bimonthly series and its welcoming stance toward local hip-hop does not come as a surprise given CMH's recent history, largely a credit to the Hall's Director Charles Carmody, who four years ago sought to reinvent the relatively staid theater as a place for a more eclectic array of acts and programming, and as a place that serves its local arts community more effectively.
"I've always wanted to stay rooted in the local music scene here," he says. "The Hall seats 950 people, so we've put tons of local shows in all kinds of different ways, album-release shows, special shows. We're always trying to find a way to make local shows work in here."
And it's true that many local bands have played gigs at the Hall in recent years, providing a more serious and intimate big-room experience that's so starkly different from the noisy barrooms around town that tend to host music. But it's still a difficult feat to pull off— operating costs for a venue of the Hall's size are considerable, and artists need to be able to draw decent crowds to make the show a comfortable experience.
"If you have less than 200, 300 people in here, it feels really weird for everybody," Carmody points out. "So we kind of slowed down on our local shows last year, because we just weren't getting the turnout to make the artists and everything work."
That's why the Hall is launching Charleston Live — to increase the draw and interest around these local shows by having unique programming. As for starting with hip-hop? For Carmody, it's about expanding boundaries.
"We haven't presented a whole lot of hip-hop in here, so I thought it would be really cool to kick off the series this year," he explains. "A lot of hip-hop shows don't want to be booked at a seated venue, so we've never done it. This space might not be conducive to all of that, but I think we can have fun with it and still make it work for a lot of things."
Carmody's ultimate goal is always "to bring progressive art and music into the city and push the boundaries, especially now, with so many artists genre-bending left and right."
To start the process off, Carmody tapped Benjamin Starr, a.k.a. Fitzgerald Wiggins, a rapper who he had previously worked with for the Hi Harmony concert after the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting.
"He [Carmody] had some artists in mind, but he also wanted some feedback on some other artists that would be dope to feature," says Wiggins, a socially conscious rapper who is one of the scene's leading voices.
"This is probably the first time independent hip-hop of South Carolina has been in the Music Hall, a specific hip-hop event," he adds. "That's pretty dope."
Wiggins has been vocal about the need for expanded recognition of the greater Charleston's area's fertile hip-hop culture, something which often feels walled off from the artistic and cultural scenes that feed the tourism-centric economy of the city.
"It's crazy, because hip-hop has always been going on," he points out. "There's lots of different people, hip-hop artists from Charleston and North Charleston, the rural areas outside of that, who have been doing events based on the culture — not just emcees rapping."
Given the tumultuous events of the past few years in the Holy City — the shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston policeman and the mass shooting of nine parishioners at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and even more recently the subsequent trials that came out of those events and the tension around last year's racist "Slave Baby" illustration — Wiggins sees the exposure of hip-hop via events like Charleston Live as especially important.
"People have realized that you can't just tuck yourself away and live in this bubble, untouched," he explains. "Tragedies like the Emanuel shootings, the whole trial process, the Michael Slager trial, the election — all of these things are kind of instances where you really have to look at this bubble y'all are living in. What are you doing to really be honest? Because it's not even revolutionary what's going on, as dope as it is. [And] when you start being honest in a place like Charleston, how honest is it to not recognize that hip-hop is an art in its various forms? How can you continuously tuck yourself away in a bubble and not see culture for what it is?"
The show will feature each artist performing a 30-minute set, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A with "Black Dave" Curry, a local DJ and emcee who also runs the website Charleston Hype and hosts a monthly hip-hop night at Compass on King.
Carmody says the host/interviewer will vary as the series continues, and featured artists for the next show in March will be announced this week. "We just want to try and celebrate our local musicians," he concludes. "You can see them in bars and clubs, but let's really put them on a new stage and introduce them to new audiences." t