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FREESPACE: Connecting & Inspiring Milwaukee Youth Through Music

Photo courtesy of FREESPACE

Many high school English classes stress reading the classics of the Western Literary Canon: things like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or The Odyssey. But Pulaski High School English teacher Vincent Gaa wanted to give his students some material that they would connect to because it was based on their own interests.

"If you throw some Marx in front of a kid, they're not going to care," says Gaa. "I think the best teaching techniques are leading by example."

So Gaa gave his student hip hop songs, videos and text to explore in a literary way, using them to teach about narrative technique, allusions, and metaphor. But when he taught his students about the Milwaukee hip hop scene, he realized he could also take the lessons outside of the classroom.

Gaa also wanted to create a space where students and artists could be creative and learn from one another, so he wrote to local hip hop artist WebsterX (also known as Sam Ahmed) to ask if he would be willing to speak with the students. He was and FREESPACE was born.

FREESPACE is held monthly at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, located in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The concert series aims to connect Milwaukee youth with Milwaukee-based artists and their peers, in a space that encourages free-thinking and dialog. 

For WebsterX, getting the students in the same personal space with artists who travel and make a living performing is a positive thing.

"It's just so funny to see them get so gassed up in that moment, but that's what we want to do," he says. "It's an encouraging thing and it's giving them the proper tools to succeed."

Pulaski high school student and FREESPACE outreach member, Darius Briggs (also known as KaneTheRapper) notes that learning from other artists can level the playing field and encourage any aspiring artists.

"There's a lot of youth artists out there who look at the golden boys of the Milwaukee scene and they probably think, 'I'm never going to get close to this man or get to interact with them,'" he says. "And that's what FREESPACE is for, so everybody can share the spotlight and have that same attention."

FREESPACE will be celebrating its one-year anniversary with a show this Saturday (August 6) at Center St. Daze. Looking back on all that they have accomplished so far, founding member Janice Vogt has only optimism in continuing their outreach to improve the lives of Milwaukee youth.

"It's just important to me that we can reach more people and we can move more lives," she says. "We have this great system where you set standards, and the kids will rise to the occasion...Once your part of FREESPACE I think everybody feels the same responsibility to be respectful to everyone around them and to embrace what they have."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.