In spring 2020, Gray-Kontar invited 20 Cleveland youth connected to Twelve Literary Arts to share their poems over an open mic Zoom conference. Wallace, who was living near Washington, D.C., at the time, listened in on the call with the goal of selecting a range of poems representing myriad voices, cadence and tones.
“Hey Hood” by Tiyana Williams explored reconciling personal identity with others’ negative perceptions of their Cleveland neighborhoods.
“Red Line Kid” by Deija Vinson spoke to an individual’s capacity to dream in the face of the government sponsored divestment in Cleveland’s predominantly Black zip codes.
Wallace invited a few of these poets to a follow-up session to have them re-read their poetry over music he had prepared.
“I knew that when you read words over music like Lee Morgan and Alice Coltrane, it would evoke more layers of meaning and that’s exactly what happened with those poems,” says Wallace.
Gray-Kontar and Wallace emerged with seven recorded poems which served as their call for artists. They uploaded the recordings online along with instructions for contributors to use the poems as inspiration to submit work. Leveraging his many contacts across Cleveland, Gray-Kontar called, emailed and posted on social media to cast the widest possible net to bring in talent.
“I wanted everyone to hear about this project, from musicians to singers to beatmakers,” says Gray-Kontar. “We were hopeful people would take notice.”
They received a host of submissions from artists including Fernandez, Cleveland keyboardist Eli Hanley and hip-hop artist Tommy Sheridan, all of whom uploaded a wide range of possible sounds — from jazz to folk and soul. For Gray-Kontar and Wallace, it wasn’t about finding completed works, but instead searching for limitless possibilities for collaboration.
“Take Tommy Sheridan, who goes by Broken Keys,” says Gray-Kontar. “His musical dexterity floored us and that’s what these submissions were all about: What can you sound like?”
Through the submissions process, a web of interrelated Cleveland artists began to emerge. Though none of the initial songs that were submitted made it on the final album, Gray-Kontar and Wallace were introduced to a network of talent they immediately wanted to feature, from vocalist Jessica Yafanaro, to the melodic and funky Malik Hayes, known as 2ssaint, and Cathalyn Roberts, lead vocalist and bassist of The Katy, all of whom ended up performing on the album.
“There are a lot of extremely talented, skilled and gifted artists that are not heard enough because Cleveland to me speaks in whispers,” says Barrett. “This was an incredible opportunity to be part of an album that feels like Cleveland shouting for something.”