The inaugural first Earthwork Detroit Festival advocates for social justice

Nique Love Rhodes.
Nique Love Rhodes. Dan McDougall

Art can open up doors. Music can motivate the masses. And experiencing both music and art live — as an audience, as a community — can cultivate compassion, advancing causes and expanding our perspective. If that sounds lofty to you, then you've never been to an Earthwork event.

The Earthwork Harvest Gathering is an annual music festival that started up near Traverse City 18 years ago, orchestrated by singer-songwriter Seth Bernard to be a conversation-starting summit of diverse artists, activists, and community organizations. And now, Earthwork is now laying down roots in Detroit with an inaugural festival on July 10, with artists like Nique Love Rhodes, Will See, Audra Kubat, and Wayne Ramocan (as Juuni) performing live at the Dequindre Cut's Campbell Terrace Stage for a free, all-ages, all-day event.

The Earthwork Detroit Music Festival brings together several nonprofit organizations that embrace and utilize creative practice, such as D.Cipher (co-founded by Rhodes and Ramocan), as well as Title Track, a very new, albeit very energized umbrella-like association of artists and activists led by Bernard, and Collective Wisdom Detroit, which is Will See's network-building project of cooperative resource-sharing between artists in cities across the country.

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Earthwork Detroit's festival kicks off at 1 p.m., starting things off with a series of workshops geared toward youth and teens designed to illuminate the importance of agriculture, as well as providing them access into forms of expression like poetry and songwriting. There will be music throughout the day, continuing into the evening, past sunset: it's a free event, but donations will be encouraged, which will benefit the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

"We want this to be a free event that promotes accessibility and has universal appeal, and is something the whole family can enjoy," says Will See. "We'll have workshops early in the afternoon, and there will be several community organizations on site, as well as a few who will do some speaking between songs. It was a couple years ago that we first talked about starting (an Earthwork event) here in Detroit, and (this year) Seth (Bernard) connected me to Wayne (Ramocan)."

Will See is an emcee and social activist who first appeared around the local music scene back in the early 2000s with the Long Hairz Collective. He was first inspired to explore hip-hop (as well as spoken-word performances) back in the late '90s by his younger brother, who has since passed. Will See, (a.k.a. William Copeland) released his debut solo album in 2013 (The Basics) and followed that up recently with Detroit Diplomat. He's also worked with the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Clean Water Campaign for Michigan, and has programmed a Detroit-centric showcase of hip-hop artists at the Lake City-based Earthwork Harvest event for four consecutive years.

After attending several Earthwork Harvest events, it wasn't long before Will See aspired to establish a Detroit event — but it accelerated toward reality when See hooked up with Ramocan and Rhodes of D.Cipher. "Nique and I connected with Seth in Austin in 2016," says Ramocan. "We held a Cipher down in SXSW, and (Bernard) was one of the featured artists at the Michigan House. Since then, we've continued connecting parts of the state like this, with D.Cipher making more intentional connections to artists in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Collaboration has been one of D.Cipher's pillars to amplify Detroit music and Michigan music, strengthening the Detroit music economy and reaching beyond the city."

Earthwork has "obviously been a successful festival outside of Detroit," Ramocan acknowledges, "and I was able to attend, in Lake City, last year's event, and we loved their energy. Since our second season of the Dequindre Cut Summer Concert Series was coming up with the Riverfront Conservancy, we were able to connect (for Earthwork Detroit)."

Rhodes considered the opportunity to participate in Earthwork Detroit to be "amazing... because it aligns with what I believe as an artist: that we have a social responsibility to use our art to bring not only positivity, but also social change, social justice... and advocate for important issues. When I first heard about this, I felt we absolutely had to do this."

Rhodes and Ramocan, along with hip-hop artist Insite the Riot, founded D.Cipher six years ago, forged out of a shared frustration for the lack of artists' rehearsal spaces. Rhodes had just finished her debut album at that time and was forming her backing band, The NLR Experience, while Ramocan was, at that point in time, part of two ensembles (including OneFreq). They started hosting "Ciphers" at Rhodes' studio, and they soon "grew to be a knowledge-sharing kind of gathering," says Ramocan. "In hip-hop, the 'cipher' is a freestyle circle where emcees bring their best and latest lyrics. Other hip-hop elements, beat-boxing and break dancing are also present. Similarly, D.Cipher brings a variety of musical artists to build together. Even our workshops are framed as knowledge ciphers, not trainings."

Just as Will See has joined and supported several causes over the years, Ramocan's résumé applies the fitting title of "artpreneur," with lead roles for the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance and the Build Institute, the former of which enlightened him to the rewarding work of "place-making and place-keeping," which Ramocan says "are shorthand terms for a lot of the things we did in Osborn. Being able to bring in art with the work of community development, was a great way to activate the physical spaces and welcome a lot of people that might not otherwise think about these parts of the neighborhood."

Extending from "place-keeping," Ramocan says that the theme for this year's Summer Concert Series (which takes place on every Wednesday, starting with Earthwork Detroit), is "highlighting the place we're in, which is the Black Bottom neighborhood. The stage is actually within the eastern border of the original Black Bottom neighborhood, so we're highlighting how 'Black Bottom Lives' — it 'lives' with us, physically, and we're paying homage to the people that came before us."

Another aspect in which the artists featured here go beyond the typical music industry pursuits is Rhodes' Rise Up Higher initiative, arranged to use music as a tool for positive social change and to impact youth. Rhodes, who fuses her hip-hop lyricism to arrangements of rock, funk, and soul with her band, admits that she had to attain an extra-motivated entrepreneur-mindset from day one in order to survive and thrive as an independent artist. "But," she said, "everything has to have a purpose; it all should serve the greater good — that's always been an extension of who I am as an artist. Hip-hop is about being authentic to who you are, so I feel a deep sense of obligation and purpose."

During Will See's time with the Long Hairz Collective, the majority of their performances wound up being at rallies and community events. "So our gigs became less music industry driven and more about grassroots gatherings. My M.O. became more about why are people gathered together, rather than just the art itself, or trying to make money. So (community activism) has always been interwoven with the music I've made. I started making songs that could inspire a broader audience who may or may not be engaged in that activism." And so, in the early 2000s, the Long Hairz went up to Lake City for an Earthwork gathering, where Will See met Bernard. Fifteen years later, we now have the Earthwork Detroit Music Festival.

There will be several speakers addressing issues of social justice and the importance of recognizing social ecologies, but, as Will See said, the majority of the day's programming will be live music, including the Aadizookaan, BRYCE DETROIT, Audra Kubat, Spirits Rising, as well as sets from Will See, the NLR Experience, Seth Bernard, and Wayne Ramocan's solo project, Juuni, utilizing analog and digital instruments augmenting his rhythmic arrangements. The Earthwork Detroit Music Festival is sponsored by Avalon International Breads, along with Detroit Spaces, Detroit Is Different (with Piper Carter, of the Piper Carter Podcast), Hanging Out in the D, and the Halle Social Justice Fund (which is part of the School of Social Work at Eastern Michigan University.)

Earthwork Detroit Festival will be held from 1 p.m.-9 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10 at the Dequindre Cut's Campbell Terrace Stage at Lafayette Street and St. Aubin Street); Event is free (donations encouraged); Speakers include Malik Yakini and Monica Lewis-Patrick, and Audra Kubat is planning a songwriting workshop.

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