Abdullah Powell of Elementz: Cincinnati's youth are "a gift," not a problem

When asked what teenagers and young adults love about Elementz, the urban arts center on Central Parkway straddling downtown and Over-the-Rhine, Creative Director Abdullah Powell answers by recounting the allure art had on him as a teenager.
“It was always important for me to be able to express myself artistically, to know that there was value in something other than school and sports,” he says. “That there was value in being creative.”
Empathy is a trait Powell has in full. It shows that he hasn’t lost touch with what it’s like to grow up in an urban community, which is especially important when working with dozens of teenagers and young people every single weeknight, many of whom catch the bus downtown from such underprivileged areas as North Avondale and Price Hill.
“I think one of the most important things Elementz shows participants is that they are valued,” Powell says. “We don’t treat them as though they’re some kind of problem to be dealt with. To us, they’re a gift.”
The makings of a leader
Born and raised in Columbus by his church singer mother and saxophonist father (he played for Rick James’ Stone City Band), Powell is the product of musical creativity. His grandmother was a painter and his aunt an art teacher, so it’s no surprise that he dabbled in drawing for a period.
But childhood wasn’t all watercolors and melodies for Brandon Willis, his given name prior to his Muslim conversion.
“Growing up, I had a difficult time trusting adults,” he says. “I played basketball at the Catholic school I attended, and my parents and I thought that the coaches didn’t give me the same opportunity as the white players.
“Fortunately, I did have one coach who showed he believed in me and my friends had parents I trusted as well. So I learned that, while there were some adults who could be trusted, I needed to look at people carefully to see if they had my interest in mind.”
At the same time he was practicing his jumpshot, a friend introduced Powell to underground hip hop, a musical genre largely channeled through independent distributors.
“These artists were talking about different things than the normal ‘money, women and violence’ that are the subject of a lot of mainstream music,” he says. “Artists like (the Cincinnati/Brooklyn based) Reflection Eternal and Mos Def talked about hope for the underprivileged classes.”
This newfound love paired with an interest in music production led him to the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where he took up E-Media as a major. And that’s when he learned about Elementz.
When Powell first started volunteering at the center in 2005, he led the theme-related shows and assisted Elementz participants in music production. He subsequently released two albums of his own music, The Professor and the Mutant and Journey: The Sound of Life.

While he was no stranger to music, Powell initially didn’t have much experience working with youth.
“IsLord, our program director at the time, played a big part in helping me to grow comfortable working with kids,” he says. “I was an only child, so watching how he treated the kids like family had a pivotal effect on my interactions with them.”
Another lesson in learning to relate to the Elementz participants came when he became a father himself in 2011.

“Having children helped me to step into a higher realm,” Powell says. “It raised my confidence level, because if I’m able to keep my home in order, I should be able to help these kids.”
Maybe these empathetic feelings have helped him become such an influential role model for the Elementz kids over the past decade.
Trust issues
In the wake of local police/youth confrontations like those at Fountain Square and the Fairfield pool, Powell sees an opportunity to engage Elementz members in an area that needs the most improvement — building strong, trusting relationships with leadership.

“Our hope is that we can show these young people that there are some adults that they can trust,” he says. “Knowing that preempts any meaningful progression in police relations.”
Powell says that most of the Elementz youth aren’t very connected with the high-profile killings covered by major media outlets, what he says might consist of about 10 percent of Cincinnati’s violence. These stories simply aren’t on their radar. Instead, they talk about the other 90 percent — the friends, family members and neighbors they see killed right outside of their front doors almost every week.
Tafari McDade, one of Elementz’s more popular rappers, says in one of his songs, "They killed my brother Curt, they killed my brother Josh / Black on black crime, will it ever get squashed?" His music — so personal, so defining of what many of the Elementz youth are accustomed to — led McDade to become the subject of the 2014 documentary, The Spirit of Tafari. The documentary film, produced by Elementz and Temple Sholom under Powell’s direction, shows McDade’s determination as he studies for his GED in the wake of his friends’ deaths.

On the strength of that determination, McDade managed to land a job as receptionist at Elementz earlier this year.
Max Unterhaslberger is another former Elementz member who now works at the center, albeit with a much less violence-riddled childhood than McDade, having grown up in Pleasant Ridge. Powell encouraged Unterhaslberger to become Elementz’s graffiti arts instructor after graduating from high school, and since then he’s received much recognition for his art and sold pieces through fine art galleries such as the Phyllis Weston Gallery.

Unterhaslberger recently re-enrolled at the Art Academy of Cincinnati after dropping out a few years ago, largely due to the influence and academic encouragement he received at Elementz.
“The type of personal development that we see in the youth doesn’t come without establishing a foundation of trust,” Powell says. “In 2011 we did a survey to see how much the kids trust the Elementz staff. When they first come to Elementz, on average it's only 2-4 (out of 10). After that, it doubles for every year that they remain in the program.”
Stories like McDade’s and Unterhaslberger’s make Elementz a favorite of ArtsWave and individual arts organizations. Since 2005, Elementz has taken advantage of many opportunities to collaborate and create with mainstays in Cincinnati arts.

Studio Kre8v, the center’s dance instruction program, partnered with Cincinnati Boychoir and Cincinnati Ballet and performed with Concert:Nova during a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra event in April. Back in the summer, Elementz members performed at the Cincinnati Music Festival at Paul Brown Stadium.

A servant rather than a leader
With all of the success, however, Powell says that Elementz has to constantly reassess to make sure that it’s staying grounded in its original social mission.
“Society has marginalized these young people, so the visibility of these events helps them to see that they can be successful in the world,” he says. “Elementz started as a youth center that was all about community engagement, and we need to make sure we’re sticking to our roots.”
That’s why in 2014 Elementz, in partnership with DAAP and CCM’s E-Media program at UC, began offering college preparatory classes to student members. And earlier this year they began testing the participants according to national education standards.
In the decade since Elementz first opened its doors, leadership has managed to turn a center consisting mainly of high school dropouts into a creative, urban oasis with a 100 percent graduation rate and 50 percent pursuing higher education to boot. 

Earlier this year, Powell was listed as one of Cincinnati Magazine’s “Future of Cincinnati: Ones to Watch” among notable figures like Damon Lynch III and Alicia Townsend. But if you call him a leader, he’ll humbly decline the title.

“It’s just a little egotistical, don’t you think?” he asks. “I would much rather be thought of as a servant.”
And serving is something Elementz and staff does well. Since 2005, they’ve served over 3,000 city youth with close to 30,000 volunteer hours. The center has only three full-time employees.
When asked what he hopes for the future of Elementz, Powell is grateful for the many opportunities the community has offered the center but says he’d like more events that expose newcomers to the world of Cincinnati’s youth. One such event is Ubahn Music Festival on Oct. 17.
“We’re partnering with the underground music festival to do Heroes Rise, a hip hop dance competition and DJ showcase,” Powell says. “It’s a family-friendly event, so we want people from all walks of life to come out and have a good time.”
The event will be held from 3-9 p.m. in the underground Metro Transit Center at 220 Central Ave. between Pete Rose Way and Third Street downtown. Tickets are available online, and you can get more information about the Elementz program at its website.
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Nyon Smith lives in Colerain Township with his wife and three boys. With almost a decade of experience writing internal documents in the corporate sector, he now writes a professional development blog for the Dayton Hispanic Chamber. He also writes hip hop music reviews for Rapzilla.com. Follow him on Twitter @nygh