Kelly Sandberg/HIGHLANDER
Kelly Sandberg/HIGHLANDER

Rows of chairs stand throughout the Barn’s space, but few are being used. I walk through the glass doors, 15 minutes late, into a sound check. A graffiti-styled banner reading “Underground Vol 2: The Rebellion,” sponsored by African Student Programs, catches my eye. An artist, St. Von, sets up his paintings along the stage as display pieces in hopes for some sales. The host, Angelena, approaches the microphone and introduces the first act.

Throughout the first few performances, it becomes obvious that this show will be filled with a diverse style of art, ranging from poetry and spoken word to rap and graphic paintings. What disheartens me is how the crowd shrinks as time passes. Within the first 30 minutes, it seems as if for every one person who enters, three leave.

Since Underground is taking place at the same time as Winter Soulstice, potential attendees are drawn to the HUB instead of the Barn. But even with a small audience, Angelena makes sure every performance receives the same amount of support and appreciation — and the artists reciprocate the love. In a brief interlude, where the DJ is given a chance to play a quick medley, I have a conversation with an audience member. She tells me she engages in spoken word herself, but tonight she came with the intention to appreciate what others had to say. What amazes me is how much she soaked in from the performances, reciting lines by Maurisa Thompson, a UCR M.F.A. student. “I don’t believe in princes,” the student recites, “I was just looking for my freedom and found you.” This is something powerful art can accomplish: real human connections through the messages the words provide.

The event’s final performances include Angelena, who performs spoken word. She is joined by UCR’s own Nick Wright, Paris Finnie and Dennis Shin, all students performing their own original music. This is where the show finally picks up, not only in the morale of the performers, but also in the size of the crowd. Groups of people show up at once, as if they thought the show actually started at 9 p.m., instead of 7 p.m.

Wright, Finnie and Shin in particular feed off crowd interaction and participation throughout their high-octane rap sets. It is almost necessary for their performances to involve the audience, as the crowd is asked to clap their hands in rhythm to the beat or stand up in preparation for the bass to drop. Finnie — rap name Finnese — takes advantage of the Valentine’s Day mood by asking a girl to be his girlfriend (she says yes). “I want to borrow your energy,” Finnesse humbly tells the swooning crowd. His feet are firm on the stage with confidence like he owns it. With his outgoing persona, he creates a symbiotic relationship with the audience, inviting them into his world. He proves to be multi-talented, switching up his set from rap to a ukelele-led song, and ending with spoken word.

The most electrifying performance of the night belongs to Wright (rap name: Nostalgick). His passion and energy are unmatched as he takes full advantage of the stage, moving fluidly from corner to corner, letting his message and fast pace lead the way. His set even includes a live drummer, Lucas Aronson, which adds to the dynamic of the set, demonstrating the dedication and practice it took for each artist to share the stage. The mood is frantic, and Wright is unpredictable. He reflects on his own life and asks that his listeners do the same. Wright’s lyrical delivery includes heavy, multisyllabic rhyme schemes, showcasing himself as an underdog with something to prove.

“I didn’t grow up in a rough neighborhood,” Wright tells me after the show, “but I have a story to tell, to anyone who cares to listen. Hip-hop and rapping gave me that platform.”

And he is right. Throughout the night, I worried about the size of the crowd, which mirrored my feelings about the artists getting a lack of appreciation — when in actuality, it didn’t matter. What matters is who is willing to listen. Art is an open door that allows a person to peek in, and it is always welcoming. It’s about community, and bringing a person’s passion to life and sharing it with those who have the same passions.

The event was brought together by Angelena, stage name Poetic Moment, a poet and spoken word artist. Her sense of community provides a safe atmosphere for artists to share what moves them and fuels her drive to continuingly remain active with the Underground series. “There are so many people who actually care for the arts,” she says. “Why should we drive to LA to perform poetry, when we can do it right here in Riverside — in our community.”

The two pieces she shares shed light on minority discrimination. “I hope to give a voice to the voiceless,” she says, as her ultimate goal in writing and performing.

Even though I am happy that the crowd grew immensely, that isn’t what made “Underground Vol 2: The Rebellion” a success. What made it a success was its messages of unity, triumph and love — and in my eyes, hope. Hope that there will always be those who find a safe place for their passions, no matter if they get recognition or not. Because in the end, all that matters is that you are pursuing your passions for yourself.