The MC and poet steps out of his comfort zone with “Talking to the Buildings” project

“That's just what I be hearing when I'm walking through the city,” MC and poet Keith “Speak” Williams raps on the song “The City,” which he uploaded to YouTube in 2010 as part of his “Music Mondays” series. “The rhythm from the streets got me talking to the buildings.”

But the conversation actually started in 2007, when Williams began working in the King-Lincoln District, the location of the “buildings” he references in the song. He cites a past job booking rooms at the King Arts Complex as instrumental in his education about the Near East Side neighborhood, a historic African-American community once known for its thriving businesses and entertainment scene.

“I always knew about the area, but it was usually for something infamous,” Williams said, pointing out the Poindexter Village housing project, which is undergoing a contentious redevelopment following a period of decline, as one example. But then he saw classic photos of the neighborhood in the King Arts Complex archives.

“It became very intriguing,” he said. “[And] I met a lot of elders that helped build a lot of the stuff [in the neighborhood]. … And they would tell me those stories and I would see a lot of artists come through. I identified with it. I saw myself in that same vein.”

Since then, Williams has developed his own personal relationship with the area, which he will document in a photo exhibit, “Talking to the Buildings,” at Upper Cup Coffee. The opening reception is Thursday, June 22.

The images, which primarily feature buildings, represent Williams' extensive work in the King-Lincoln area — teaching at Champion Middle School, doing violence prevention at Beatty Recreation Center, helping youth find jobs at the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corporation (COWIC) and collaborating with the Lincoln Theatre, Jazz Arts Group and the Columbus Urban League, among others. He even moved to the neighborhood a couple years ago.

The exhibit marks the official rollout of Williams' new initiative, Urban Scribe, which he hopes to build into an organization.

“Urban Scribe is like the concentration of teaching individuals and teaching communities how to use creative mediums in a way to document their history,” said Williams, who also hopes “Talking to the Buildings” inspires “other people to get into things that they usually don't get into.”

Photography was a foreign art form for the wordsmith and musician, who borrowed a camera and solicited quick tutorials on shooting and editing from friends.

“I wanted to be involved because Speak is a very creative human being,” said Jamilla Kato, a visual artist and recent CCAD grad who advised Williams throughout the process. “This is very important for people to understand as far as what's going on in Columbus with the gentrification. … Speak's doing a really good job of making that more visual.”

“I've got a lot of construction, new builds [and] housing with the white paper on it,” Williams said of his images. “[There's] a lot of juxtaposition. You've got the blight and then you've got this new thing happening.”

“I want people to realize all I did was capture a moment,” continued Williams, who took the pictures over a two-month period this year. “Some of the buildings are totally different now from the time that I shot [them]. Some of them have been demolished. … So the neighborhood is always in fluctuation.”

Despite that fluctuation, and new people arriving “who don't respect what was already there,” it's an exciting time, Williams said, mentioning there are enough invested residents who speak up and work to preserve the neighborhood's tradition.

That also means preserving the area's original name, Bronzeville, which originated during the community's period of prosperity.

“If you remove Bronzeville, you remove the legacy of the people that made it Bronzeville,” Williams said.

He wants his exhibit to provide insight into the lives of the neighborhood people, despite its focus on buildings.

“You see an abandoned home, you see abandoned people,” he said. “The architecture tells you the condition of the people.”

Williams hopes his message translates; as a new photographer, he said he's giving up a bit more control over interpretation of his art. “You can always give context with a poem. With a visual, it's really up to [the viewer] to decide,” he said.

But there will be some words in the show. A few short poems will be displayed, and Williams will recite some poetry at the opening reception, which will also feature music. Other than that, attendees will just have to contend with the 40 photographs that Williams hopes will reflect a more nuanced neighborhood story beyond redevelopment and crime reports.

“Though the City of Columbus is the governing authority … they don't get to be the storyteller, exclusively,” Williams said. “This is counter-narrative.”