Saturday, June 22, 2024

Get to know the people and culture of Baltimore

Queer Forty discovers the queer charm of Baltimore.

Inspired by my recent chat with the legendary John Waters, I decided to take a trip to Baltimore, Maryland to see just what it is about Charm City that has him so enamored. I found the answer to be twofold: it’s the people and a thriving art scene.

Now it may sound cliché to site “the people” as a reason for championing a city but I assure you, in this case, it’s not. I was born and raised in Queens and us native New Yorkers have a built-in bullsh*t detector enabling us to cut through the pleasantries and read a person almost immediately upon meeting them. It’s rare that I’ve encountered such genuine people outside of the metropolitan areas of the northeast. Baltimoreans, at least the ones I encountered, combine all the grace and manners the south is known for with the realness that us New Yorkers are famous for.

Everywhere I went I was greeted with a genuine smile and fell into conversation with people I barely knew as if we were longtime friends. I am a person that has been told time and again how intimidating I look until I start speaking but none of this was a deterrent to the people of Baltimore. During a quick bite to eat at the Chipotle on Pratt Street a guy named Jerrod approached me to tell me how much he loved my Friday the 13th t-shirt featuring 80’s slasher Jason Vorhees. To set the scene, I had just come in from an exceptionally hot day outside and all six-foot-two of me was dripping with sweat and visibly exhausted, wearing a shirt with a fictional mass murderer on it! He was excited by the shirt because it was something he and his horror-loving friend would enjoy, and so we has a random 10-minute conversation about the movies we love.

Graffiti Alley I Photo Courtesy of Visit Baltimore/ Ken Stanek Photography

Earlier that day, my Lyft driver Daisha was taking me over to the B&O Railroad Museum and she struck up a conversation about music as Megan Thee Stallion and Lauryn Hill  were in town that weekend for Preakness, which I was also attending. She was telling me about the amazing music scene in Baltimore and recommended I check out the Otto Bar and The 8×10 for live hip hop and rock music. Much to my surprise and delight, Baltimore is a hotspot for up-and-coming rappers and hip-hop artists. I hadn’t really ever heard that before.

I also came to find out that Baltimore is a cultural mecca for poets and artists. I learned this from talking to Professor Unique Mical Robinson, Faculty in Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Chairperson of the Baltimore Pride Committee. Seeking their native Baltimorean insider perspective, and knowing their work as an educator and thriving artist, I asked Unique to provide us with the inside scoop on the Baltimore art scene.

Queer Forty (Q40): Hi Unique! Thanks for joining me again. We got a lot of great feedback on your interview for Baltimore Pride and knowing your involvement with the arts, I thought you were the perfect person to consult with for this article. Let’s get right into it!

During my brief visit to Baltimore, I had no idea where to start in order to see the work of the local artists. For a tourist looking to experience the local art scene- where would you recommend they start? What event or space should they visit to get a taste of it?

Professor Unique Mical Robinson (UR): I would suggest visiting the Motor House ( Motor House is centered in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District, which has become a cultural hub for visual arts & music. Motor House has a variety of dedicated and affordable events running every month, including an open mic, a live music jam session, sip & paints, a writing workshop (which I facilitate!), strong drinks, and some of the best empanadas you’ve had below the Mason Dixon line, courtesy of The Empanada Lady! 

Some of Baltimore’s best and brightest poets, musicians, and artists venture through this space, and you can have a full-on experience for under $30! This is where the various silos of artists in the city come together. It is the fusion of Baltimore’s BIPOC, White, LGBTQ+, heterosexual, older and younger communities. It’s a place where our voices and our magic is collectively uplifted and honored! 

The Motor House is also home to Baltimore’s Graffiti Alley – one of few spaces where artists can legally paint anything from tags to complete murals on the walls. It has become a popular colorful backdrop for many photoshoots and music videos! 

Q40: That sounds amazing! I found out about it just a little too late, but it is on my must-see list next time I’m in town! So, in that vein, what type of art thrives in Baltimore and how does the city itself inspire it?

UR: I believe art that is authentic, raw, radical, and passionate thrives here. We are not a city of commercial artists – yes, we want that type of notoriety, but not with the risk of compromising our voice, and our agency. Whether it’s poetry, visual art, dance, music, photography, or theater, each artist strives to be the best at what they do. The dedication to craft is of no less quality than what you would experience in, say, the MoMa in New York, or The Kennedy Center in DC. Our venues, such as the long-standing Eubie Blake Center, a jazz, dance, visual art and poetry venue – have provided space for artists to shape their works for audiences so that they walk away feeling deeply inspired by what they just experienced. 

Because Baltimore has often been overlooked until recently, our art has a certain radical and quirky nature – one that allows our sweat and tears to pour from it, and to speak truth to power. It is loud, it is dynamic, it is moving, it is unforgettable! 

Q40: I definitely felt that raw, uncorrupted energy in the art I saw during my visit. I hope you guys never ever lose that. As a native Baltimorean, what do you love about Baltimore and why should people visit in your opinion?

UR: The short answer is EVERYTHING! I love everything about my city. I love our food (especially seafood), our visual art, our poetry, our music, our venues, our slang, our accent, our need to put Old Bay seasoning on everything! I love the rawness of our culture, and the fact that we are one of the last cities left who’s culture has not been diluted by the out-of-town populations who move here. In fact, many transplants to Baltimore find that they have to bend to the culture that exists here instead of the other way around. We simply won’t!

We have been able to preserve our arts, culture and history in ways that other cities have not. From the history of the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania Avenue (now home to the nation’s first Black Arts District), to the underground arts, music and club scene, there is so much to see, to explore, to taste, to hear! 

Q40: I absolutely love that spirit and tenacity! Few places can claim such a thing.

Again, as a native, what is the biggest misconception people have about Baltimore?

UR: The biggest misconception I often hear is how violent we are. While this is true in some areas, it has been unfairly reported – with racist undertones. I believe the same energy used for creation here can be used for destruction, if not channeled into proper avenues. There is SO much talent budding here from our youth, as well as adults, that deserves to be recognized – not just how violent we are. We also don’t unpack the historical context of why folks have been forced to choose crime over creativity, and how the legacy of slavery and institutional racism has impacted these choices. For that reason, I choose to highlight just how gifted we are – and, if given the opportunities and support – how successful we can be as artists & entrepreneurs in this city. 

Q40: I’m glad you said that. I’ll admit that I did hear some of this prior to my visit but I did not experience any of it. It felt no more dangerous to me than any other big city I’ve visited, or NYC itself for that matter. Before we wrap up, tell us a bit about your art and where we can see it?

UR: Primarily, I am a poet and MC/producer. I have been performing for the last 20 years and am grateful that I’ve sustained a career as an artist! I have a poetic memoir entitled Four Wings & A Prayer: A Charm City Churn (2019), which is available on Amazon Kindle. My poetry can be found on YouTube.

In addition, my musical collection can be found on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and Apple/Spotify under kLefta*maniak. 

I am about to release my 4th musical project, Cosmic Drama, on July 27th on all music platforms! I’m excited because it’s the first project where I created the soundscape, as well as the vocals. It’s going to be absolutely weird, and exceedingly experimental! 

Q40: Count us in!!! Thank you so much Unique for sharing your insight with us. You are a true visionary, and it was a pleasure getting to know you. Good luck with the new music!

Start planning your visit to Baltimore here.

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John Hernandez

John A. Hernandez is a staff writer for Queer Forty with a focus on entertainment. He is also a writer for Vacationer Magazine and a contributor to Bear World Magazine and Gayming Magazine. He has a special love for all things horror and Halloween. He currently resides with his husband in New York City.

John Hernandez has 135 posts and counting. See all posts by John Hernandez

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