Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Last week I called Malik Flint, the rapper and producer who records under the name BLACK PARTY, and found him at home packing up all of his belongings as MTV Jams played softly in the background. An Army brat who moved all over the country before settling in Bryant in 2008, Flint has for the last few years been a scene-maker here in town, a tireless promoter and important force behind much of the radical creative energy in the city's youthful hip-hop community. Now he and his main collaborator, Kari Faux, are picking up and leaving, heading out to Los Angeles for bigger and better things (a management deal, for one). Their plane was leaving in three hours. "It feels weird," Flint told me. "It feels bittersweet."
Flint and Faux, whose real name is Kari Johnson, met at a skating rink in Southwest Little Rock when they were 16 (they're now 22). By then, both were already making music and shooting videos that they'd post online, and they soon started working together. Flint went to J.A. Fair High School and networked relentlessly, a strategy he recommends ("If you're in high school, capitalize on that," he said. "Spread your music around, turn it into a movement.") Faux went off to college in Atlanta and Flint stuck around, working odd jobs at places like McDonald's and Goodwill and Walmart. He saved his checks to buy microphones and mixers, while Faux studied audio engineering in the hip-hop capital of the world.
"Before us, young kids here didn't do their own hip-hop shows," Flint said. "There was no underground scene for younger people in rap. So we started our own." In high school, Flint had regularly reached out to artists in town he looked up to, almost all of whom ignored him, "like I was just some dumb little kid," he said. So he took inspiration from friends who'd been involved in the hardcore scene, accustomed to booking concerts and house parties, and began promoting shows for himself and Faux, who moved back to Little Rock after graduating, and their friends, like the rappers in the local collective Young Gods of America.
Faux served as the DJ for Flint's first big group in those days, Weekend Warriors, and now he DJs for her. They dated briefly a couple of years ago, too, but these days they're just friends. "We're together all the time, so I can see how people think we date," he said, adding that some people think it's strange he can work so closely with his ex-girlfriend. "I'm just a people person," he said. As a production duo, they call themselves Ameyeinvited, and spend the bulk of their spare time working together on beats, song ideas and videos.
This year something came together for them. Partly it was hard work, partly it was self-promotion and partly it was a song about cell phones. On two mixtapes, "Spontaneous Generation" and "Laugh Now, Die Later," both co-produced by Flint and released a few months apart, Faux emerged as one of the most exciting artists in the city, energetic and hyper-confident and funny. It was as though, in the span of a couple of months, her greatness became very quickly and widely accepted as a matter of course. And not just in Little Rock. Her songs started getting picked by national outlets like Spin, Complex and The Fader, and artists like Janelle Monae proclaimed themselves fans. Then last month, the rapper Childish Gambino (also known as actor Donald Glover from NBC's "Community") released a remix of Faux's biggest song, produced with Flint, "No Small Talk."
"No Small Talk," the song about cell phones, was the Little Rock anthem of the summer. You could find it on the Internet or see her play it live at the Good Vibes and Trill Clinton showcases she and Flint held in the River Market. But you could also find it in more unexpected places. Like on KABF, or after a screening of "His Girl Friday" presented by a film club downtown. Or at White Water Tavern, after a few sets of mostly indie rock and country bands; the crowd even seemed to know all the words. Since the remix, it's taken on a life of its own far outside the city's borders.
Glover's management, Flint told me, discovered the song on Flint's Soundcloud page after Flint started following one of them on Twitter. It was an innocent, arbitrary gesture — it just happened to work. After listening to the rest of their music (including Flint's own mixtape, "Prototype," released last month), they got in touch and offered to manage the two of them, offering the use of a house they own in L.A. They even brought Glover to Little Rock to meet them and hang out for a day. They all piled into Faux's mom's car, a Kia Soul, and drove around the city. Glover told them he liked Little Rock, said it was like a "smaller Atlanta." They took him to Chick-fil-A.
On the phone, I asked Flint what he thought would happen to the scene he and Faux helped build once they're gone. "I hope it continues to flourish," he said. "At the end of the day, I honestly think it's going to be the younger kids who keep the ball rolling here." I asked what he planned to do first, once he got to L.A. "Probably gonna go to the bar," he said. "I'll want a drink."
A few days later I was on the phone with Kari Faux, who was talking about a party she went to the first night they spent in L.A., some dance night full of mostly Filipino club-goers; she doesn't remember the name. She sounded tired. "It's a little weird, but it's cool," she said of her time out west so far.
There are things she'll miss about Arkansas, she said, things she already misses. "It's authentic," she said. "I like it cause the people are normal for the most part. There's not too much going on in Little Rock, and it's cool. Being in big cities is different. Everybody has something to prove. In Little Rock you can just be, and it's OK."
"I love Arkansas," she went on. "I'm a true Arkansan, I love Arkansas so much. If I could stay there, if there was real opportunity there, I would stay. But I have to be somewhere where I'm more accessible to more people." After a pause, she said, "I will come back. A lot of people think, 'Oh you're never coming back.' But all my family is there, I have to."
It's a problem that anyone who lives in Little Rock and wants to pursue any kind of creative endeavor (and make a living) faces eventually: How can you stay? Or, maybe, why would you stay? After one local artist moved to the Bay Area recently, a friend phrased the question this way, on Facebook: "What would it take, realistically, for Little Rock to become a supportive city for artists and musicians?" No obvious answer presents itself, and Faux and Flint, understandably, didn't feel like waiting around for one to emerge.
And anyway, for Faux, the stakes have risen. She can't help but notice there are scores of strangers discussing her on the Internet lately, arguing about her on message boards and comment sections. She doesn't mind criticism. "As an artist, you have to know that if you can't spark a debate or create a conversation, that means you're boring," she said. But this is something else, the random, unfeeling vortex of online hype. As Flint had darkly put it, "When the hype dies, you die."
"It's hilarious," Faux said, in a way that suggested she didn't at all find it hilarious. "Guys are sitting around talking about me all day. You know me, I'm normal as fuck. You've seen me in real life. I'm from Arkansas. I'm just like, dude, I'm normal, please stop. Don't treat me like that, I'm not like that. It's the whole celebrity thing — people are like, 'Oh, you're a celebrity,' and I'm not actually."
And she's right, she isn't. But who knows, she's only been in L.A. for a week. Before I got off the phone, I asked her the same question I'd asked Flint a few days before: What do you think will happen with the Little Rock scene you guys helped build? "Honestly I don't know," she said after a while. "I'm just as interested to know as you are. I really don't know."