Alex Smith and DeAngelo Samuel were more than 1,200 miles from Fort Wayne last week, but the distance only added to how far they’ve come in just a year.
The duo traveled to Austin, Texas, for Samuel’s performance at the South by Southwest music festival, which includes appearances from such well-known artists as Justin Timberlake, Green Day and Prince.
Samuel, known by his rapper stage name as Nyzzy Nyce, opened for 20-year hip-hop veteran Talib Kweli during the showcase.
I didn’t even know what South by Southwest was, says Samuel, 25. I always wanted to perform for award shows. I didn’t really know much about the festival scene.
It was more than a year ago that Smith and Samuel, both of Fort Wayne, were part of A Better Fort Organization’s HipHop4theCity campaign, which united local hip-hop artists to produce My City – an homage to Fort Wayne. The campaign quickly became a trending topic for the city’s millennials after a music video was released in February 2012. As the video spread across social media sites, it caught the attention of national websites such as The Atlantic Cities, which asked in the headline, Can a rap video make Fort Wayne cool?
As it turns out, yes it can.
From a city with a little more than 250,000 people, My City has nearly 240,000 views on YouTube. That’s not including Vimeo views and Samuel’s national version remix, which has garnered 10,000 views. Smith says that song has been downloaded more than 2,000 times on iTunes.
I think everybody came together and proved a point, Samuel says. It’s more than music, there are brains behind it.
After the initial success of the video, Smith tried to get all the artists from My City to the South by Southwest festival last year, but found out it was too late to register. Smith says that through the connections they made the first time, Samuel was invited to perform this year.
My City’ had a lot do it with it, Smith says.
The local project has been turned into a national campaign called the #MYCITY Movement. Feeding off its digital roots, the campaign directs visitors to www.mycitymovement.com to download a #MYCITY banner, take a picture at their favorite spot in their cities and post the picture to the website, on Twitter or Instagram. The hashtag symbol makes the photos traceable through thousands of other trending topics.
The long-term goal is to be able to provide money for charities in other cities with the proceeds from the national version of My City, Smith says.
The idea is to keep telling the story through the website, he says.
The music video for the national version features groups with #MYCITY banners in places such as New York, Macedonia and the Philippines. Smith and Samuel are shopping the project and Samuel’s other work in the hopes for financial backing from a record company.
Performing in a festival where 19,000 representatives in the music industry congregate for a week isn’t a bad place to start.
As a person who put out the project, I am super proud of it and its future, Smith says. Behind the scenes, I am able to show people in the music industry that these artists deserve more light shed on them.
Smith, the 26-year-old co-founder of the nonprofit group A Better Fort Organization, graduated from Indiana University in 2009 with a degree in public financial management. He returned to Fort Wayne to work as an investment adviser at Galecki Financial Management. He co-founded and now works for Panzit International, an online distributor of power transmission parts.
The only reason I wanted to come back was for my family, he says.
Working with Panzit business partner Shane Araujo, Smith began A Better Fort Organization to encourage young local residents to volunteer. Smith says that connecting young people to their community can slow down the brain drain and keep graduates local.
I was used to service work at IU, and when I came back, I wasn’t doing anything, he says. The more young people are connected to the community, the more likely they are to return.
A board of people between the ages of 24 to 28 was created for A Better Fort Organization in 2010. The board reached out to Samuel, who was part of the hip-hop entertainment group CertiFLYYed, to become the lead songwriter on My City.
I had envisioned what I wanted the project to look like and feel like, and it blew me way, Smith says. It was everything I could imagine and more.
Not only has the organization seen an increase in volunteers, the video helped raise awareness for programs such as the burgeoning urban farms project. The organization raised $1,000 through an online fundraising campaign to help buy two urban properties that will be used to plant and harvest food for the community. The organization has recently begun planting on the properties.
Smith says it has been important to be mindful of their original mission.
We are not trying to be categorized as one type of organization, Smith says. We have had to do a good job of not making it a music-based organization.
Smith says his experience over the year has showed him that it’s almost impossible for local artists to make hip-hop a full-time profession because they don’t always have the right resources to get access to record companies. He says he would like to see more local artists receiving opportunities like Samuel has gotten.
Samuel says he has seen his fan base skyrocket. He released his new album, Have a Nyce Day, in January.
Both men agree that this is just the beginning of a much bigger ride.
Samuel says, If you got one good thing and you continue to stand on that, it can only get bigger.