Atlanta rapper 21 Savage ambles back and forth across the Rialto Theatre stage. The bass pulsates through him. Metro Boomin's beats, brewed in the cartel psychedelia of Atlanta, are massive and undulating like a coral reef, and the audience seems less to move, than sway inside them, like seaweed or in the case of the glowing screened ones, like bioluminescent jellyfish. The rapper slurs a few lines, returns to silence, and seems lost inside them too.
The rest of the crowd are corralled in sloppy circles, passing smuggled blunts, and sloshing drinks, while nodding their heads, occasionally looking up at the stage, waiting for the hits to play. Deep in the back where the stoic OGs sip drinks, and their partners, glamored in tight dresses, dance in gravity-defying heels, stands 23-year-old Jocelyn Valencia surveying everything: The time between sets. The stage set-up. The demographic. How each performer moves, how the crowd reacts. Each detail, examined and processed as she sips water.
In shorts, and T-shirt, with her white kicks glowing, she looks like a coach at scrimmage. When most people see her, they'll see her lunar face, and her bright smile, and think, student. But as the border will teach you, nothing is what it seems.
Valencia along with fellow co-director of the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival, Pike Romero, have been instrumental in bringing Tucson hip hop together and the spotlight to it. Pike, described by DJQ as Tucson's Rick Rubin, is the higher profile of the pair, while Jocelyn has until recently, moved in the shadows, tending to business, forging connections, and, like tonight, researching.
If Tucson is a body, Jocelyn is the synapses connecting its creative faculties. Street or literary, you'll find her moving borderless through its scenes. TEDx Tucson. The Tucson Poetry Festival. Words on the Avenue. Check. Check. Check. She's an integral member in all.
Valencia is born of Tucson, raised in Nogales, Arizona with family on both sides of the border. She lost her father, her "best friend," and "biggest support" a month before she started class at the UA, and pressed that loss quietly inside, like a seed, and grew through the darkness, semester by semester, till she bloomed graduation blue. She graduated with a BA, a concentration in human rights, justice and social movements, and two minors, the second, an Africana studies' minor in hip-hop culture, as the program's first graduate. The summer before graduation she interned at HipHopDX in Los Angeles. Then returned to give back to the Sonora that held her greatest joy, and deepest pain.
Jocelyn and I meet up again, to speak in the quiet of a near empty Mercado courtyard. The heat has summoned everyone inside. Birds congregate in the shadows. It's event off-season, but Valencia is hard at work. Along with next year's Tucson Hip-Hop festival, there's her streetwear line Seven Hearts Later debuting this winter, and her The Bloom Freely Co. workshop, and new interviews to edit for her JRECOGNIZE site.
There's magic to how all these worlds and ideas, love and loss, funnel and swirl into JRECOGNIZE. Every Sunday, a newsletter rich with inspirational quotes and writing prompts, recipes, self-care tips, and personal stories, comes out. All reaffirming narratives of self-empowerment, and pushing forward as an entrepreneur and a young woman of color from a border town, in a white patriarchal world, and in an industry where women are referred to as great femcee's but rarely, great MC's.
Then Tuesday, interviews ranging from yoga teachers and chefs, hip-hop artists to fashion designers drop. The range, and the depth of the responses make them feel more personal than the automated Q&As of promotion cycles. It says a lot that former editor of HipHopDX, and current video production head for hip-hop website Ambrosia for Heads, Justin L. Hunte responding to his, tweeted, "One of my favorite convos ever!"
For those navigating the darkness of the music industry, the knowledge Mellow Music founder Michael Tolle imparts in her interview with him, provide much illumination. But the deepest jewels on her site are perhaps the interviews with fellow "girlbosses," and women of color in industries where success often requires defying expectation. Read the one with Vivian Nuñez. She imparts how to balance platform with self-care.
Valencia says growing up in a small town, like Nogales, you either become "close-minded or an extremely curious person." Armed, with a box-radio recorder, interviewing her family, and telecasting the news, she embarked early on the path of wonder.
Her second project, The Bloom Freely Co., launches this week. It's a workshop series, and each session features a new theme. The first focuses on self-care and body positivity with keynote speaker, Old Pueblo writer-activist, and body-love specialist Jes Baker, followed by creative exercises, snacks, and a guided yoga class (by Tucson's Jennifer Zimmerman). The aim is for attendees "to reflect deeply, get inspired, and take action," and, "to become their best self."
Valencia's own struggles gave rise to self-care. The death of her father was an "awakening of how precious and unpredictable life can be," bringing clarity, that all "that really matters in this life is love." And the trauma of kidney stones, surgeries, and a ruptured ovarian cyst, taught her self-care, and how to listen to her body. She says it made her, "analytical," questioning, "Why they happened, and prevent them from happening again." She wanted to create a space, "where one can delve deeper into themselves and discover what self-care looks like for them. As self-care looks different for everyone."
As the sun exhales shadows, Valencia notes an idea: "To bloom freely is to be aware of the seasons we have in life and accept both wilting and blossoming as a part of the process," she says. "To bloom freely is to be in full-acceptance of oneself and be on the path of becoming you at your fullest potential."
With ugly Tucson gentrification, and legal battles over TUSD ethnic studies looming, it's imperative—to avoid elimination of this city's original culture—that those born of the border and these barrios, are at the forefront of the movement. Jocelyn Valencia will be a torchbearer to watch, in that way that inspires, like Metro Boomin's beats on stage at the Rialto. Bloom Free