Critical Elements to Dreamer Studio as an Artistic Community
Participatory culture is a term Jenkins (2007) claims is “emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies which make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways (25).” Outside of mobile communication, Black youth in Chicago generally have less expansive access to the Internet and its related digital tools that have been shown to be valuable in everyday life and the workplace (Barron et al. 2014; Century et al. 2018). This issue not only limits their future employment options and income potential, but this also hinders their academic success and overall participation with digital media (Robinson et al. 2015).
In this study, participation refers to educational practices and creative processes facilitated by Dreamer’s social media ecologies. Overall, I found that Dreamer Studio encouraged its youth to develop the skills, knowledge, and kinship ties needed to be full participants in contemporary culture. I found that studio’s participants were actively given pathways for career development through three critical elements:
Corralling as a pod — developing friendships and group memberships, formal and informal, in online communities centered around Hip-Hop, such as Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram.
Collaborative problem-solving — working together in teams, formal and informal, to complete tasks, develop and exchange new knowledge (such as through Conversations on ClubHouse).
DIY circulation — Self-distribution and promotion of media among peers and mentors (such as livestreaming on Twitch or posting music to SoundCloud, YouTube, and/or social videos on Tik Tok).
Unintentionally, it was through the logic of these elements that youth themselves described how Dreamer’s online ecologies reframed the concept of artistic community and achieved program success.
A Team Effort: Corralling and Collective Affiliation on Instagram (IG)
In Hip-Hop, the process of career development relies heavily on developing convenient connections, and networking with peers in order to form a creative collective to release and circulate one’s creative work (Condry 2006, 88). Baym and Evans (2022) describe this using the term “corralling,” which refers to the necessity of the posse in being a rapper, the number of hours required to build/maintain a sufficient collective, the blurred lines of fandom, collaboration, and friendship within platforms and the amount of sheer effort involved in digitally promoting a product or person as a unit. In contrast to the pre-digital era which treated music fans solely as spectators, when they use corralling, musicians engage fans as equals, often mobilizing the most engaged to serve in more official roles within their professional support system.
Participants in the Dreamer program continually expressed that they collectively strived to make the studio space into a platform to promote their creative work online, construct and showcase their digital selves. Besides uploading music videos to YouTube and Soundcloud, Instagram was described as the primary platform that allowed them to communicate their artistic lives. The program’s Instagram account was started by Ka$h, songwriter/producer who framed himself as the studio’s official social media manager. When asked about the value of having this collective account, Ka$h explained:
I realized that if we all posted collectively, then the algorithm would push our posts to the top of our friends’ timelines back to back. Guerilla marketing just went from overpopulating the street to overpopulating Instagram.
What Ka$h is saying here is that Hip-Hop’s typical modes of word of mouth marketing have shifted from passing out flyers in the street to utilizing platforms for metrics, engagement and presentation. He speaks very astutely about how participants would gossip online about the algorithms that drive social media platforms and how to better gain visibility. In this quote he speaks of “overpopulating” Instagram as a strategy to combat lack of representation in search engine optimization and recommender systems in order to achieve visibility on Instagram timeline. When asked to elaborate on the significance of this work, Ka$h proclaimed:
Yeah, so like, Instagram doesn’t really support rap artists very well. So, one thing I was doin’ recently was tryin’ to find everybody’s second stream. Like, “cuz, hip hop, rappin”, whatever that is, producin’ might have been they first one. But I was like, what’s your second –your second avenue of talent you have, or interest? How can we use that to promote our collective?
In this moment, Ka$h was explaining that he and the other participants of the program held many conversations about Instagram that went beyond the promotion of their music and how to build a support system to develop themselves as artists. He emphasized that forming a creative pod was the optimal way to amass having the same resources of, say, a corporate tier record label’s artist development department.
Lamar, a rapper who was also a journalism student at a local university, also reiterated this teamwork sentiment:
I been goin’ to Dreamer for like about 5 years, I think since like the first year they opened, that’s when I started goin’. I’d say like, out of a five-day week, I’d try to go through the studio like, if not every day, about three or four days a week. And even if it’s not to record, even if it’s not you know, to lay somethin’ myself, I just go online and check in with everybody. See what everybody else has been workin’ on. If anybody else needs help with anything, as far as mixin’ and masterin’, critiquing, marketing, anything like that…
Recent research has shown that videoconferencing and social video platforms provide learning opportunities just as powerful as in-person experiential learning (Hassinger-Das et al. 2020). As both Lamar and Ka$h’s comments indicated, talking online with one another was not always tied to casual conversation but rather exchanging of knowledge in ways that might develop their creative skill, spawn constructive dialogue on a creative project, or improve their knowledge of local resources. DJ Gemini, 21, explained:
A person needs to have a vision for their brand more so than having the talent to do the job. You can make all the songs you want but people have to be in your corner for you to win. We don’t just build friendships, we find collaborations (through Dreamer).
One of the primary ways artists who participated in Dreamer’s community of practice collectively used social media to choreograph their professionalism was by holding digital networking sessions on Instagram Live and having listening sessions on the studio’s Instagram (IG) TV channel. During these events, artists would either solicit critiques for their new music, invite studio professionals to share resources about their facility, or hold conversations about different topics regarding professional advancement.
For example, Gemini used one of these sessions as a way to announce that she was opening a studio of her own that she would rent out for deejays (DJs) to rehearse, for novices to take lessons (in-person or virtually) as well as for private events or podcast tapings. During this session she streamed live from her new rental loft in Logan Square, giving a virtual tour and performing a live DJ set. She concluded her set by announcing that those who are affiliated with Dreamer could rent her space at an exclusive discount by following her on Instagram and commenting “Dreamer 4eva” on her most recent post. When asked about her motivations to announce her studio in this way, she stated:
I could have promoted my studio by myself over the next six months and I wouldn’t have been able to get the same amount of attention I got for myself online (through Dreamer) in less than an hour. Dreamer is my homebase and if it wasn’t for our community, I wouldn’t have been inspired to enterprise and build my own space. We need places we can graduate to when we just want to focus on our work beyond the program. The more places, the more opportunities. We are building something where we provide and support each other as resources. We aren’t in competition, we are in collaboration.
Lamar elaborated on how the artists in the studio found the most visibility for their work by promoting the Dreamer name as a social movement that anyone could join and feel important within:
We all just keep tryin’ to strike oil, really. But really just a legacy thing. We want everything to have some type of longevity to it. So, we ride for each other. Most of the people come here, like they still young mind. But the fact that we’re able to put all of that to the side and still make music, still do shows together, still find different ways to embrace each other. You know, what I’m sayin’? All of that makes a difference. And all of that helps – and that’s what makes it bigger than the music, because… We got a collective story to tell.
When Lamar says “tryin’ to strike oil,” it seemed he was speaking directly about seeking to gain financially from their creative labor. It was apparent that he and others at Dreamer were pursuing creative work that would qualify as aspirational labor. This meant that social media posting activities were such that participants believed they had the potential to pay off in terms of future economic reward. Additionally, his mention of having “a collective story” indicates that he viewed success for one of artists at Dreamer as a visibility that would raise awareness for their collective identity.
Friendship-driven practices on social media are such that young people of Hip-Hop find appealing but also necessary as they build social communities, peer relations and seek cultural capital (Watkins and Cho 2018). What participants like Lamar illustrated is that one of the strong points of Dreamer’s community of practice was that there were participants from a variety of age ranges (and knowledge bases) that came together from different parts of Chicago. Due to this level of diversity of thought and lived experiences, the participants felt a sense of belonging to a movement larger than themselves, and felt safer to be expressive, visible, and knowledge-seeking in online spaces.
Tik Tok and YouTube as Sites of Virtual Learning and Product Circulation
Collectively, participation was a process of trial and error for Dreamer participants seeking to engage themselves online. Even still, social video content produced by participants on both YouTube and Tik Tok served to produce an extended network of intimate strangers that legitimately expanded each other’s knowledge base. Ron talked about how watching Tik Tok videos shared by other participants using the Dreamer Studio hashtag taught him the most about how to use certain audio equipment needed to be an effective music producer:
So, originally, I was just like, okay, I’m just gonna work, get money to buy equipment and just, you know, self-teach everything. ‘Cuz, it’s not like the talent wasn’t there with the writing, or like I’m sayin’, with the production per se, but I was missin’ a lot of technical skills, and watching (my friend Re@L’s posts) have given me so much knowledge on the way that things go. How to build a home studio and make quality stuff at home, you know?
Beyond technical skills, Vel talked about how participants self-organized the studio’s social media initiatives and how having their creative community online was likely the most critical step for his students to professionalize their creative work:
I noticed that they were interested in how they could become more visible on social media. It used to just be about having dope music but that’s not enough anymore. In this era, having a funny personality on social media can take you much further than any song. That’s why Dreamer and the social media community we have developed is so vital to their artistic growth.
To his point, 16-year-old rap artist Meechy was a primary example. A sophomore in high school, Meechy already boasted over 9,000 followers on Instagram when we sat down and talked. When he put out a song on Dreamer’s SoundCloud called “Winners Never Lose,” he expressed excitement over how the collective rallied around him using platforms like Instagram, Twitch, Tik-Tok, YouTube and Twitter to share the song. The song garnered over 10,000 plays and over 1,000 downloads in 24 hours on the Dreamer SoundCloud page. This culminated in him gaining an opportunity to perform at a local skate competition sponsored by the shoe company Vans. Meechy shared his thoughts on how this transpired:
It was major. Just having that social media presence, From startin’ a YouTube channel to whatever it is. They learned how to brand me. You know what I’m sayin’? So, post – like pickin’ the right hashtag, figuring out the algorithm for who they are supposed to be on Instagram and Facebook and like makin’ a website. I saw real tangible results from the collective work of the studio. I feel like everyone treated the success of my song like it was their own.
In another example, when Lamar released his new single on his Spotify, he talked about now being able to secure shows in Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta based on a booking agent finding a snippet of his music video on the Dreamer Instagram page:
Since I put the single out on Spotify, stuff has just gone to a whole new level. I think we were able to figure out how playlists and algorithms can work for the collective and we’ve just been reaping the benefits of that. My music is dope but I understand that without an audience, I really can’t have a career. Social media is essential to that, so everybody just shares each other’s work and gives tips on how to work the system so everyone wins.
Overall, interviewees made it clear that social video platforms allowed them to address questions for skill development that existed within their larger collective while also supporting circulation of their creative works in the wider marketplace of attention. As is clear from the above examples, although not all Dreamer’s young people were able to articulate the importance of providing certain kinds of information to the larger collective, they understood the collective was a key to their development as emerging music professionals and entrepreneurs.
Critical Dialogue and Knowledge Exchange on Clubhouse
Though Vel was clearly the adult supervisor and primary teaching artist of the studio, Dreamer’s overall community was far more participatory than it was “top down.” The physical studio space was able to thrive as a place where these youth rely both on finding their truth and getting honest critique. Their conversations on the social audio platform of ClubHouse, similarly, were brutally honest and there was a dialogic process between the artists and their studio community members in choosing how to pursue production and promotion for their work. For instance, following quote was given by Lamar during a conversation with both staff, alumni and students of Dreamer Studio on the social audio platform of Clubhouse:
Like, music doesn’t have a user’s manual. There is no way to figure out everything you need to do with some type of text. You gotta study; you gotta talk; you gotta collaborate. That’s the only way you’re gonna figure out what’s gonna work, what’s not gonna work…We see rappers doin’ shows. We see rappers on TV. We see blah, blah, blah. How do they set those up? How do they get those opportunities? Where were they at when it happened?
In this particular quote, Lamar points out that there is an extreme level of mystery to the process of transitioning from aspirational creative laborer to being a paid professional artist. He speaks about parasocial relationships as not providing enough depth for an emerging artist to study and emulate. In that regard, Dreamer’s Clubhouse conversations provided him with advice from peers that collectively were going through trials and tribulations of pursuing career pathways in Hip-Hop music. MJ, an aspiring singer/songwriter, agreed with that point:
Honestly, I look at it as a family brand, like everybody, everybody in there from different hoods, everybody in there from like come from different backgrounds. This group is like Reddit. Like, any time I need to do something, it’s my Reddit or YouTube. It’s like kind of a live blog or somethin’ for me, so I can see what these people’s experiences are, and see if I can like, do somethin’ like it, or if I should try to replicate it, or just filter it out.
MJ comments here about having people from “different hoods and backgrounds” provided a “Reddit-like” resource showing that this spatial unbounding allowed them to more readily come together and make productive music, beats, select for opportunities, not only for ourselves, but with each other. As MJ’s comments indicate, Dreamer students often referenced the family atmosphere as being paramount to their learning experiences in the program. Given that today’s media tools and technologies have infinite amounts of connectivity and information to draw from, students relished the fact that they could all build off each other at any point of the day, in any location that had wi-fi.
In the various testimonials above, participants repeatedly used ClubHouse conversation to be engaged in connected learning. They were involved in a process that asked them to consider what issues were of importance, beyond themselves, to establish a meaningful ecosystem for young Chicago creatives from low-income communities of color. As Black (2006) and Jenkins (2007) have argued, digital cultures like these provide support systems to help youth improve their core competencies as readers and writers of new literacies. For example, through video blogs or live streaming, young people receive feedback on their music and to gain experience in communicating with a larger public, experiences that might once have been restricted to those with access to live concert venues or high-level commercial recording studios.
To that point, DJ Gemini further detailed the importance of these virtual meetups and how they allowed for low barriers to entry into networking opportunities:
Our Clubhouse channel is where iron sharpens iron. I had like 2,000 followers at one point and I think many booking agents perceived me to be local and not as skilled as I actually am as a DJ. Members of our Clubhouse looked at my IG and suggested I start from scratch and rebrand online. I deleted all of my posts that night and bought like 5,000 followers. From that point on I started putting my logo as a watermark on all of my pictures, I streamed me at home spinning different mixes and posted edited recap videos of all the events I did. My skill level as a DJ is the same but the perception of those skills is now different.
As Hip-Hop’s origins are from America’s low-income urban communities of color, (Perry 2004) work of young women like Gemini is often pursued as aspirational labor (Duffy 2018) with the hopes of creative acclaim, recognition, and financial rewards. Given this context, youth of Dreamer used their artistic practices to harness the power of clout to articulate a sense of self and establishment of a public reputation on their own terms. In Gemini’s case, that meant learning to financially invest in the logics of social media platforms (purchasing followers, creating a logo, and professionally editing content) in order to project a level of established presence to new audience members. Through peer dialogue, she came to understand that her impression management demanded treating her social media presence as something as serious as her investment in studio time and received specific directives to make personal improvements. In sum, these conversations on Clubhouse allowed her to compete, collaborate, connect within the larger Hip-Hop community of cultural producers and build a creative economy for her potential career pathway.
During one Clubhouse conversation held during the COVID-19 social lockdown, Antoine elaborated on why having creative conversations online were often more helpful than the conversations he was able to have in the studio:
It’s like, alright, you know, we’re gonna talk about like, career-wise, what moves you can make. How to improve your music, what you maybe can help in these portions of it. Like, if I be like, “Man, you could really put some live instrumentation here.” Or, “I like the way you mixed this song. Maybe lay off on the lows a little bit. Maybe to help this stand out some more...”’Just knowing someone has your back 24/7. It gives you the freedom to experiment and still have honest and safe dialogue of what another person might think, good or bad.
As Gemini, Antoine, and others depicted in this section, digital spaces empowered those in the Dreamer community greatly by offering a sounding board unbounded from geography. This is not to say that everyone in the community was thriving due to their involvement in the conversations that were being had because very few students actually had the tangible successes of someone like Meechie or Gemini. However, through their participation in the Dreamer social media ecology, interviewees felt that they had a trusted resource for which they could express their concerns and draw inspiration from. In the end, these emerging artists expressed that while the Internet has opened opportunities for their work, it has also created an overcrowded attention economy for which it is nearly impossible to break through by oneself. As such, interviewees pointed Dreamer’s social media ecosystem as a vital source of professional information, creative community and social support.