The sign at the entrance to an old retail space, hidden behind shopping carts in an aging East Anchorage mall, declared: "Closed due to no heat."
George Martinez ignored the sign and unlocked the dark double-doors. He entered what looked like an abandoned restaurant, with a hostess counter and an empty buffet table. Nearby, a colorful set of graffiti-covered wood boards sat on a stack of soundproofing material. A cavernous room opened up above a newly-installed gray floor surrounded by chairs and a microphone stand.
Until recently, this front-facing space in Northway Mall next to Jo-Ann's Fabric and Craft was empty, stacked up with old furniture and used as a haunted house at Halloween.
This summer, Martinez wants to transform it into something Anchorage doesn't have: A center for urban arts education and hip-hop culture.
"We have a pretty nice office space," Martinez said, looking around. "Pretty raw and alive, alive with what we can bring."
Through the Global Block Foundation, the nonprofit organization he founded and directs, Martinez is scheduling weekly events for the big room, including yoga sessions and film screenings. He's recycling wooden cabinets for upcoming arts and crafts days, and envisions a gallery where local artists can showcase their work, a recording studio for radio broadcasts, and a Northway Mall "people's library" on the empty white bookshelves.
More broadly, he's setting the stage for an urban arts academy, one that would focus on the elements of hip-hop culture. The calendar is filling up with sessions for B-boys, or breakdancers, DJs and emcees.
That's one big goal this summer -- to rebrand hip-hop in Anchorage by emphasizing its roots in experience, values, politics and society, not the violence, crime and misogyny present in some commercial rap music.
"Hip-hop is not a genre of music," Martinez told an audience recently from a stage at Begich Middle School during a recent summit aimed at punctuating that very idea. "It's a culture."
The 41-year-old Martinez, an educator and community organizer recognizable for his shaved head, thick-rim glasses and energetic smile, has existed at the intersection of art, music and political organizing for years. He won election to a Democratic Party district seat in Brooklyn by rapping his policy ideas on street corners. In 2012, he ran in a congressional Democratic primary as an Occupy Wall Street candidate, though he lost badly to an incumbent.
He's spent the last decade traveling to countries like Bolivia as a cultural envoy with the U.S. State Department. His first visit to Alaska came in 2007, when he was asked by the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage Urban League of Young Professionals to coordinate a political literacy and get-out-the-vote effort.
He kept returning to Alaska. Last year, Martinez moved his family to Anchorage, as well as the headquarters for his nonprofit, which is funded through grants and donations.
Since then, Martinez has kick-started the Northway Mall urban center (without heat, he had to wait until this summer to start up operations), helped found the community organization We Are Anchorage, and is serving on Mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz's transition subcommittee on public safety.
The manager of the Northway Mall, Ma'o Tosi, is also a member of We Are Anchorage, and he shares with Martinez an interest in community organizing and youth development. Tosi said he saw an opportunity to breathe new life into a mall that has had trouble finding tenants.
"Right now, our mall has some vacancies," Tosi said. "And until those vacancies are filled … it gives me an opportunity to try to develop relationships with community groups I feel are making a difference, or going to make a difference."
So far, that also includes a woodcarver's group and a local artist, Tosi said. He said the space, now on a month-to-month lease to Martinez, was once a restaurant and then a beauty school.
For Martinez, it marks his nonprofit's first permanent "office space" in Alaska, a tangible step toward an urban arts academy, and a step toward creating a face for hip-hop as a political organizing and empowerment tool in Anchorage.
'Turntablism' and cultural heritage
Kima Hamilton, an Anchorage poet, emcee and DJ who has traveled with Martinez through the state department program, said he's watched hip-hop morph commercially over the years into something negative and adversarial. Hip-hop's roots, he said, were instead in a nonviolent empowerment movement of the Latino and black communities in New York City in the 1970s.
When Hamilton goes to academic institutions or juvenile detention facilities to mentor students, he avoids the term "hip-hop" when speaking to administrators, instead saying "spoken word" or "urban arts." He also said he works with Anchorage school teachers who love hip-hop, breakdancing and graffiti, but who don't feel they can speak openly about it.
Hamilton said there's some merit to the negative connotations, manifested in Top 40 radio hits and associations with gangs. But that's not hip-hop culture, he said, and the disconnect means educators are missing opportunities to involve students in positive ways. He said students are interested, but adults are afraid to talk about "hip-hop."
"I think being able to create a space where people are more comfortable sharing those parts of their lives would also help engage youth in the school setting and community setting in ways we've missed," said Hamilton, who also works with the Global Block Foundation.
He said the Northway Mall center's focus on engagement could help address public safety problems in the city. It won't mean "zero crime, zero foolishness," Hamilton said. But he said he thinks the center could help those problems decline, by translating energy into something positive.
At the center, the focus will be on civic engagement and responsible citizenry for youth and adults, and values of family, integrity and loyalty, Hamilton said. He and Martinez will also be working to bridge the commercial and the cultural sides of hip-hop, and teach about five components: emceeing or rapping, "turntablism" or DJing, break-dancing, graffiti art and what the artists call "knowledge," or cultural heritage.
Knowledge is a key piece of the puzzle. That will involve differentiating to the public between hip-hop, a multifaceted culture, and rap, a music genre, Hamilton said.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Martinez convened the summit at Begich Middle School that was funded by a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and served as the kickoff for the effort. Several dozen emcees, DJs, B-boys and graffiti artists joined cultural and political groups like the Alaska Black Leadership Conference and the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP. There was a lot of discussion about the five elements of hip-hop, and an emphasis on cultural heritage.
As a "city of transients," Anchorage hasn't yet found its grounding, Hamilton said.
"The parallel of the space being reinvigorated, rebranded ... on a parallel track, I think the same thing is happening here," Hamilton said. "That physical space represents the transition that's happening with hip-hop … right now it looks dirty and dingy. As that space develops, so will the context and branding for hip-hop in the city."
B-boys finding space
One of Martinez's collaborators this summer is Victor Mangrobang, a 30-year-old DJ and breakdancer who goes by Victamone. In 2004, he helped form the Illaskan Assassins breakdancing crew, which now travels to out-of-state competitions and also puts on events in Alaska.
There's few places to breakdance indoors in Anchorage, apart from local recreation centers and gyms, Mangrobang said. In the Global Block center, a newly-installed linoleum dance floor is designed for breakdancing.
Mangrobang called the space "a place where people can gather and share the art forms of hip-hop in a positive way." For his part, he's working to put together a regular "chop shop" event, where DJs jam on turntables. He's held one "turntablism" session in a rented space at an Anchorage coffee shop, but the next one will be held at the Northway Mall center.
He said he and Martinez are also talking about holding a monthly hip-hop freestyle session, called a "cypher."
In addition to shaping up as a connection for organizations that don't currently have a physical location, Martinez is also working with Ed Wesley, president of the Alaska Black Leadership Conference, on adding a cultural preservation component to the center. That idea is still evolving, but it could consist of displaying Anchorage art and literary works, Martinez said.
He said he also wants to build a soundproof radio studio for recording and broadcasting. It's an enormous space, part of the reason the mall has had trouble finding a permanent tenant.
Martinez's ideas are just as big. On peeling wallpaper in the center's main room, recently-graffitied words sum up those aspirations: Believe. Hope. One of the first events will happen Monday, an arts-and-crafts night for DJs and their families. Martinez is recycling wooden cabinets that he found in the Northway Mall space as frames and material for medallion carvings.
On top of everything, Martinez is trying to find funding for what he described as an urban arts and education academy in Anchorage aimed at providing after-school programming for Anchorage youth. He also said he wants to find a permanent home in Anchorage for the Global Block center in the community.
But a heatless former beauty school will work for now.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing