Through the corridors of The Station, a collaborative space for young adults in Springdale, Arkansas, the buzz of activity was palpable. As the local robotics team plugged away at their latest creation and area teens found after-school sanctuary, Epiphany Morrow, a.k.a. Big Piph, was helping a different group write verses and craft beats in preparation to record their own hip hop tracks.
Epiphany’s workshop teaches students that at its heart, hip hop is a community builder, and quintessentially an entrepreneurial endeavor. From self-produced mixtapes and sharing via online platforms like SoundCloud to in-person freestyle battles, rap has always been about honing a skill, finding an audience and making your voice heard.
“For a long time,” says Epiphany, “the establishment was really reluctant to respect and acknowledge hip hop as music, as art. But if you strip away the beats, it’s really just spoken word. It’s the poetry of an entire culture.”
As traditional arts and culture forms like ballet and symphony gain momentum in Northwest Arkansas, newer art forms like hip hop are also asserting themselves as equally vibrant, relevant contributors to the cultural scene.
And The Station is helping hip hop find its place.
With support from the Walton Family Foundation, The Station was created as a “teen collaboratory,” an extension of Northwest Arkansas’ Teen Action & Support Center. The facility, located in a former TV station, offers a constantly evolving range of programming for the most economically and ethnically diverse community in the region—from STEM, to counseling for students and parents, to arts education, to entrepreneurship skills.
In Epiphany’s four-day workshop earlier this year, 10 teens ranging from ages 14 to 19 met each night after school and work to write and produce their own hip hop tracks in The Station’s state-of-the-art recording studio.
Among the participants were a diverse group of Marshallese and Latinx youth, including a pair of brothers from Venezuela with a strong musical background but little English fluency.
“There is so much diversity in Springdale, and to be able bring these groups together, to share and make music, it’s really special to see the friendships that form,” says Maximiliano Perez, director of arts and cultural programming at The Station. Maximiliano found The Station several years ago as a teen in search of a safe creative outlet. He now works there helping others do the same.
“I think as creatives it can feel like our skills aren’t as valued or interesting or profitable as being really good at math or going to law school,” says Maximiliano.
“Coming from communities and families of color, it’s validating to come into a space that really responds to the art you are making and things you are doing. The Station is a space where people are safe to share, where they can find older people who they can trust and talk to, but won’t bother them too much,” he jokes.
Hip hop fits naturally into the vibe that’s been created at The Station.
“For my generation, hip hop culture and music is everything. We have an emotional connection to it,” Maximiliano says, “and seeing people in your community creating their own scene and giving something to this culture that is from here, it’s really cool.”
Beyond the mechanics of music production, Epiphany says the goal of his workshops is to help teens “understand the importance of their story, have mutual respect for each other and get them out of their comfort zone.”
Originally from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the Delta region, Epiphany graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. It was there that he first began rapping, using it to overcome a fear of public speaking.
Following years of touring as a performer, Epiphany became a global hip hop ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, using music to build community and strengthen what he calls “the global mindset” in countries from Gambia to Myanmar.
Back at home, the Little Rock-based artist uses hip hop as a catalyst for change.
“A lot of times this music comes from communities that are overlooked and disenfranchised,” Epiphany says. “Good or bad, this is their story, and it’s empowering. It’s an attitude that no matter where you come from, you can overcome anything, you are going to make it happen for yourself.”
Epiphany says The Station is a unique outlet in Northwest Arkansas that provides a place for youth to explore their creative sides.
“When I first visited in 2019, I couldn’t believe a place like this existed. It’s dope. I hope people understand how special it is.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, The Station has adapted to serving their community by continuing programming virtually. But they hope to have Epiphany back later in the year to continue working with Northwest Arkansas youth.
“At the end of the day,” says Epiphany, “If these kids never rap again, they will have created something from start to finish, and they can take these tools and apply it to anything they want.”