THE BLOG
08/09/2013 09:31 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013

The Most Important Thing I've Ever Done Had Nothing to Do With Me

The most important thing I've ever done had nothing to do with me, and honestly and humbly, I have done my share of important things.

That's the way it goes though doesn't it? Grow up, choose something to do, and do it so well that people will see it as important. Especially you, yourself -- you definitely better see yourself as important. Lucky for you, if you don't see yourself as important our society has been inventive and has (d)evolved with new ways and tools to be important or at least feel important. There was the Stone Ages, Dark Ages, Golden Ages, and now the epic Self-Important Ages!

I live in Los Angeles where many people have pictures of themselves on their business cards -- and, not just the actors and models! Even the guy that came to fix my dishwasher handed me a card with his face on it. I thought to myself, "Who are you, the 'Stud of Suds'?!"

Of course Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the bloodlines of the Self-Important Age. All three of these juggernauts have brilliantly cashed in on our insecurities and our need to be seen. They fly under banners of "connecting" "communicating" and being "social" but whateverrrrrrr! These sites rule because they make the insignificant -- significant. Who gives a, umm...self...about the lunch you're eating. I don't! But suddenly, I do. You know why? Because you just took a picture of the meal you're eating and posted it online and because I wanted to be seen and important I joined a social network and to validate my importance. I have to have "friends" and "followers", so now I'm looking at your damn tuna melt!

I digress...

One morning I wake up to an email from a super renowned contemporary art museum in LA. This was a very important person type of email, you see...

"Dear Mr. Lyfe,
We contacted the agency we found listed for you online and we were told that you are no longer on their roster. I was given this address for you and I am hoping that you can refer me to your current representative to discuss the possibility of your involvement in a project here at (insert super-renowned contemporary art museum in LA)."

I was surprised and excited! We arranged a meeting and hit it off right away. All the pleasantries were exchanged that feed our inner self-important monsters. I was the progressive artist being recognized by the commercial art world and they were the museum so bold, relevant, and daring that they'd commissioned an artist like me. The idea was simple and bold; an entire exhibit consisting of my poems and writings blown-up, life-size and featured in their experimental exhibition hall.

I wondered what they would offer me compensation-wise. An honorarium, I supposed. Honorariums are rarely honorable! As soon as I hear honorarium I start making my plans to buy a movie ticket and popcorn with my new earnings.

When we had a meeting to go over the next steps, the proposed budget and other documents were passed around. There was a line item for "Artist Commission" (that's me) and I followed the dotted line to the right side of the page just to make a mental note of the cute honorarium they'd be offering me:
Artist Commission ................................................................. $78,000

My butt cheeks clenched together. I kept it cool though! I agreed to the proposed terms and we began drafting contracts and outlines like important people do.

But alas, the great bold relevant project came to a screeching halt when I requested a call to discuss the accessibility of the exhibition to inner city communities. Both this institution and the people operating its programming are phenomenal -- my concern though was that these stories and poems that I would be exhibiting come from my experience and the experience of millions of others who live far from the physical building and figurative context of their museum. How would we outreach to those communities? How would we create spaces for open dialogue? And lastly, the cornerstone of accessibility: How much would the ticket price be?

It was clear that the conversation was just as foreign to them as the million dollar art on their office wall was to me. Now, ironically, there was an attack on our inner self-important monsters! Was I not as capable of bringing my art into these arenas as I thought I was? Were they not as cutting edge as they thought they were?

We couldn't come to terms on an accessible ticket price or an outreach plan to encompass low-income communities. Both sides of the table just tilted our heads at each other and nodded slowly, silently saying, "Interesting...interesting..."
So we extended our important arms and shook hands to say a friendly goodbye.

The deal was dead but now the idea was burning in my mind. I went back home to Oakland and asked City Council Member Desley Brooks to give me 50 walls in Oakland. After all, I was important you see! Surely, people would want to see what I had to say on walls all over the city! They would thank me and throw flowers at my feet!

Council Member Brooks is a sweet and terrifying woman with a no-nonsense attitude mixed with daring vision and a real love for Oakland. She's always up for an innovative idea and challenge, so I was more honored than surprised when she agreed to help me manifest the idea. "What about Oakland Housing Authority?", she asked. I was thrown off at first because when I hear "Housing Authority" my mind instantly thinks of a police subdivision I use to see when I was a kid in Oakland. What would they have to do with MY art? But she was referring to the services arm of public housing that works with residents to provide safe and vibrant living conditions for families. I wasn't totally sold but I was open to the idea. We sat down in the chambers of City Hall with two leaders within the Oakland Housing Authority -- Eric Johnson (Executive Director) and Patricia Wells (Deputy Executive Director for Property Operations) to discuss the idea. We wanted a few walls in public housing facilities to display some of my poems on. We were kicking around ideas and locations when somebody said, "What about the 77th and Bancroft site?"

I'm a super-Oakland native cat like the New York dude that can name every crevice of their borough, but this site wasn't registering for me. I kept trying to picture what housing project was on 77th and Bancroft?

We decided to jump in our cars and drive across town to check out the site. When we pulled up on the building I said out loud... "OHHHH, Greenside..."

Greenside was a notorious set and housing project from as far back as I can remember. One of those spots you didn't walk into if you didn't know somebody there -- a hot bed for drug abuse and violence -- overshadowing the other side of its soiled coin; families and a community striving to love and support one another in the midst of the crack epidemic.

This blighted public housing complex consisting of three multi-leveled structures has sat condemned and vacant for nearly a decade. Pressures from residents and even some select city officials demanding better living conditions in the complex stricken with rats, roaches, and other wayward conditions eventually led to the closing of the complex in 2003.

A mini-mammoth, painted a dull green with boarded up windows, it just sits there slumped over, poking fun at the community reminding us all of how this nation really feels about the ghetto.

The gates were opened and all of us important types walked into the complex looking around like we had just entered a tomb. Come to think of it, that's really what Greenside had become. A ghetto tomb, hollow and buried in plain sight. The first thing to pierce my soul was the bars that covered the windows. They were cage-like bars, like the ones they use for animals at the zoo, and if you lived at Greenside this was the prison you lived in without having committed a crime. Weeds reached through the cracks in the concrete and there was shattered glass and other gathered spots of trash on the grounds.

A number of the units were opened up for us. I walked into what were once homes of the people who lived here. It was hard not to gag when I walked into each unit. Many of them had been broken into over the years and were hard to bear. Feces on the walls and floor along with discarded drug needles were in many of the units. A swollen dead opossum in one of the units was extra gross and it was hard to fathom how such a health hazard was able to stay up for so long. "I'll do it", I said, not even fully sure of what "it" would be.
And just like that -- a collaboration between me and the Oakland Housing Authority was born.

Our mission:
Transform a blighted condemned housing project into a conceptual art exhibition.
We were all excited. I was super-excited! Then came the huge cloud of reality because with every mission comes obstacles. Here's what a few of them were:

• I would only have about 50 days to complete all the artwork. (The building was set to be demolished 30 days after we closed our exhibit)

• In the middle of that 50 day span of time I was already booked to perform in Berlin, Germany and then also booked to give a commencement speech at UCLA in Los Angeles.

• I recently moved to LA, so where would I build and store the artwork for an exhibit 300 miles away?

• We had no strategic marketing plan or even marketing materials.

• This would be an art exhibit in the "hood" -- how would we make sure that attendees were safe and the art was secure?

• This had never really been done before, so there was no handbook on how to get it done.

Nonetheless, we were doing it!

I named the exhibition Brighter Than Blight and developed a proposal for what the exhibit would look like. I would paint the entire building black for a bold contrasting canvas for the art as well as a symbolic head nod and tip of the hat to the people most impacted by housing negligence. Nine different installations would make up the exhibit and it would be free of charge to attendees!

We got the green light from California Affordable Housing Initiatives for funding, so I assembled a team, we designed a flier, started a Facebook event page and got busy! Yes, the obstacles were real, but immediately all the advantages and things in our favor became more and more apparent.

Off top, the community loved the idea and really wanted to see it happen. Of course, that energy and support took us a long way. Years of working with local media outlets enabled us to call in a dozen favors and the buzz about our event was in the air about 5 days into our 50 day battle.

Turned out that the housing authority had an old empty annex I could build the work in, so I setup shop right in the heart of Oakland, which gave me the environment I needed (far away from the Stud of Suds in LA) to build the work.

I needed a project manager that was willing to work 8 days a week for me for 50 days at a fraction of the standard pay and not complain too much. I called on the only person I knew that could and would pick up that load; my brother Michael! I figured he'd sure as hell complain about things, but I also knew he'd be committed to the task and get the job done. He's a talented and accomplished project manager, having managed big architectural projects, so I figured this would be a walk in the park! It turned out to be a walk in the jungle, but he rocked it and kept us all on task.

The Oakland Housing Authority invested even more time and resources and hired youth from their summer employment program to be docents. Residents that are aunties, mothers, and big sisters signed on as well and we had a pretty solid workforce.

Former residents of Greenside agreed to be interviewed and featured in the exhibit. Their testimony gave me great inspiration and insight to build an exhibit that was relatable to the unique experience of living there. Yes, I'm from the hood in East Oakland, but like any other community a difference in a few blocks can greatly impact the depth and texture of a people's environment. I didn't want to assume, omit, or generalize the way people often do. One woman, Ms. Norma, traveled from Stockton, CA to Oakland to meet with us. For the first time in 10 years she walked back onto the grounds of Greenside, crying immediately. "My tears are filled with the good times and pain that was here," she said.

We hadn't been able to garner mainstream media coverage yet, but the local outlets and word of mouth were permeating for sure and we were all beginning to feel more confident in the turnout. I had completed a few of the pieces, so every aspect was really starting to take shape.

We were on a smooth roll when an unfortunate and sad event would change the course of the project and in a twist of fate give us the larger media coverage we hadn't been able to get before...

On a hot May afternoon just a few weeks before our opening day, I was at the site painting and getting ready to showcase some of the work to the youth docents and volunteers when suddenly the sky filled with helicopters. Cop sirens went from being distant to blaring loudly at a close proximity. Police cars screeched onto the avenue in front of Greenside and I watched officers jump out of their cars with their guns drawn looking down the sides of homes, fiercely searching for someone. After a few minutes passed and they couldn't find whoever they were looking for, they casually walked up and down the street with their guns in their hands past young children. It was suddenly a war zone, but what I knew having grown up just some blocks away was that for us it was always a war zone with moments of peace and joy.

Allegedly, a group of young men were being chased in a vehicle by police after being seen with a weapon. They stopped at the intersection right by Greenside and started running, hence the police walking up and down the street. Tragically, one of the men was shot by the police and died later in the hospital.

Our story about converting a condemned housing project in the inner city into a full blown art exhibit that employed dozens of people and would be seen by over 1000 visitors wasn't really newsworthy to the news people it seemed. We were being virtually ignored by every big regional and national outlet but as soon as a high speed chase with guns involved, a real rare occurrence in Oakland, the whole damn western media conference shows up!

But get this! The cops setup a police barrier and wouldn't let the media anywhere near the perimeter where they were searching for the men. One of the news crews from a Fox affiliate wandered over to where we were. I was in the middle of my presentation with the docents and community members when a news reporter walked up asking if she could talk to me. Right there in front of everyone we shot a quick plug and it aired that night on the 6'oclock and 10'oclock news.

When I laid down that night, my heart was heavy thinking about what had happened earlier and all the complexities of race, toxicity, gun violence, policing, and media. The project had a new layer to it now. The news of that young man dying stuck with me throughout the duration of the project. Seeing the cops running with guns and learning of his death peeled back the artist zone I was in. It reminded me of how real the work we were doing was -- this was more than art.

The next morning after the small news clips aired, we were getting calls left and right from radio, print media, and television news. We received unheard of coverage for this type of event. We did a whole segment for the news where they walked through the exhibit with me filming the various installations as I explained them.

Then The San Francisco Chronicle gave us a huge spread on the front of their entertainment section.

The head of Oakland Housing Authority and I sat down for an in-studio television interview that aired across the entire Bay Area . It was a trip to see how this idea we had, really blossomed and manifested into a very REAL thing.

The gates for Brighter Than Blight opened at 4 pm on June 21, 2013 and the first art goers arrived. This wasn't some artsy-fartsy or hipsterish "Art Walk" in some fabricated sanctioned urban sheik corridor of the city. This was East Oakland, Baby! And we were LIVE!
I watched in awe as people walked in and looked at my poems blown up to scale and really stood there and read them from top to bottom.

It hit me right then and there. This had nothing to do with me. Sure, I built the art and had been doing all the interviews, but this wasn't about me. I wasn't the important one here. This was a space for people to come and see themselves reflected in art and to participate in a collective call for healthy living conditions for all people. Everybody that crossed that threshold into the exhibit was literally living proof that people care about housing as a human right.

What began as a slow trickle turned into groups of people coming in droves over the two weekends that we were open. Old people and young people, professors and hustlers, families and solo drifters all walked comfortably amongst each other through the exhibit.

A white family from Danville, CA (you cannot get whiter than Danville) showed up 3 hours before the exhibit was supposed to open one day. Dad, Mom, teenage daughter, 10 year old son. They misunderstood a story about Brighter Than Blight on talk radio and thought we were open in the early afternoon. I was real impressed with the parents because though they were super aware that this was totally different from where they were from, without exotifying the neighborhood or exhibit like a zoo habitat, they encouraged their children to walk through the project and take it seriously. By the time they were done they were taking pictures with me and asking what my name on Instagram was! (@iselyfe)!

Back when I thought I was important I told my assistant to tell the housing authority that "I (ahem) would only be there for an hour or two each day of the exhibit." (I think subconsciously I felt like me being there would take away from my credibility as the artist.) However, I found myself there every day for just about the full duration of the daily showings, not to be seen -- but to see. I wanted to be helpful, but found myself hearing stories and learning from the people visiting, viewing the art in a new way. I stood on my feet for hours and answered questions and hugged weeping attendees. I laughed and danced with the volunteers who I don't think knew that they were doing way more for my spirit and teaching me more, than I was them. At night I was anxious for the next day and wanted to be there for a question or inquiry about the art.

In retrospect I realize that I released possession of the art as "mine" and saw it as ours. All the poems, paintings, sculptures, everything -- was a reflection of all of us. I won't speak for them, but I felt like when I observed the staff from Oakland Housing Authority they too had stepped away from their official titles and seats and were amongst all of us, as well. This was a heart thing.

To be clear, of course I knew before doing this project that the work you do should serve other people more than it serves yourself. I've always attempted to live that way. But the new thing I learned is this: There is way more happiness in sharing an opportunity to do something important than accepting for yourself all of the importance people are trying to assign to you.

I think in this era of "status" updates and "selfie" pictures we should challenge ourselves to turn the lens back around towards the world around us and away from ourselves.