Q&A with Bring Black Up: A Fort Wayne group elevating BIPOC art and expression for a better future

Please pray for my city.
‘Cause somebody took another life yesterday.
To the streets another homicide,
And I couldn’t even cry, only could pray.
Because somebody done lost their baby.
And I know what that feels like.
To ask God why? But hear no reply,
So I just look to the sky, and I pray for better days.
Pray for better days.
Look yaself’ in the eye if you wanna make a change,
Why are we at war with each other?
We need peace in our community,
When all we see is racism and brutality.
In a drop of a dime, police are killing me,
I can’t breathe, I’m tryna stay alive.

About one year ago in Fort Wayne, the singer-songwriter Mylisa Kelly, better known as The Real MK, penned these heartfelt lyrics from her bedside after surgery as protesters filled the streets of downtown Fort Wayne. Mylisa Kelly, the Real MK

She wrote, reflecting on the fact that two nights in a row, groups of protesters, primarily consisting of people of color and youth, were dispersed by tear gas in Fort Wayne—a city where she has experienced firsthand inequities that repress local Black families as a result of systemic injustice.

In Kelly’s own life, she has experienced mental illness and molestation within the home, as well as domestic violence, homelessness, addiction, and the loss of children. While the cliché of sending “thoughts and prayers” to those facing hardship has become taboo, her prayers for Fort Wayne are not half-hearted sympathies, wished one moment and forgotten the next.

Instead, her prayers for this city stem from her own tumultuous journey as a Black woman here, rooted in knowledge and fortified by action.

While she could not attend the 2020 protests (due to medical reasons), she became an activist in a different way. Leaning into her talents as a singer-songwriter, she released “Pray for My City” in August 2020, and later that year, she answered this prayer her own way by founding a group called Bring Black Up.

To Kelly and other members of the group, the outcome of the 2020 protests in Fort Wayne has served as a gut-wrenching reminder of the ongoing trauma BIPOC and their communities face and a critical non-discriminatory call to action to elevate those voices here and to build a better future for BIPOC and their youth.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Kelly and two members of Bring Black Up, Cicelle Beemon and Minny Jackson, to learn more.

Mylisa Kelly, the Real MK, performs "Pray for My City" at Wunderkammer Company in Fort Wayne.

IFW: Mylisa founded Bring Black Up in 2020 in response to a pandemic inside of a pandemic. Tell us more about the organization’s beginnings and how you each got involved with it.


CB: My name is Cicelle Beemon, and after the protests last year, Mylisa reached out to me to help with Bring Black Up’s first event in November. Cicelle Beemon

I'm a frequent volunteer in Fort Wayne’s community. I've served for four years with the 21st Century Scholars AmeriCorps program, so my heart is in volunteering, and I was excited to help this all-female support group. Since I have experience with educational programming on the university level, Mylisa asked for my expertise in organizing her first three-day event in November at Wunderkammer Company, and through that first event, we made great connections with local artists and vendors.

Bring Black Up is really exactly what it sounds like. We’re bringing up the talent and the voices of Black creators here in Fort Wayne, so that statewide, and hopefully nationally, we can help these voices be heard. We have a lot of Black talent here. But also, we have a real concern—along with many people across the nation—that the voices of Black people, People of Color, and minorities are not being heard in cities, and we are going through a lot. A pandemic in a pandemic.

We feel blessed to have this opportunity to speak up and to say something. I have two boys, Mylisa has a son, and Minny has a daughter. Our goal is to show our children that you can do what you want to do as a young, Black person, from the micro to the macro levels. You can make it happen.

My hope in all of this is that more young folks will step up to the plate, and say, “Hey, let's make a change. Let’s volunteer, and do something great.” Because when you volunteer, you gain more skills like networking, communicating, computer skills, and writing skills. And you can use those skills to advance yourself, too.

MJ: I’m Minny Jackson. I’m a social activist, and I joined Bringing Black Up a couple of weeks after the three-day event that Cicelle described. Minny Jackson

I was one of the artists who performed, and like Cicelle said, it was truly amazing. The energy I felt at that event was exactly what Bring Black Up stands for. It brought me up as an artist, and my heart just gravitated toward the group from there.

There's so much change I want to see in my community, and by working together with these women, I know that we'll be able to accomplish very great things. This group is extremely powerful, and even though I'm the only non-binary one in the group, it is still such an honor and a pleasure to be working with them toward change.

Like Cicelle said, I have a five-year-old daughter, and that's literally who I do this for. She is a young leader in training.

IFW: Mylisa, tell us more about yourself and what inspired you to start this group in the first place.

MK: Where do I start? My name is Mylisa. I was born and raised here in Fort Wayne, and I'm an artist/ singer-songwriter. I'm the daughter of Amanda Brownlee and the late Doffice Kelly. I am also a mom, and I attended some college at IPFW, studying psychology. Kelly as a child in Fort Wayne.

I started singing at a very young age in the church choir, and that's where I’d say I found my voice and love for singing. I’m also a percussionist and was a founding member of the Three Rivers Jembe Ensemble (TRJE). We were a group of children ages 7-14 who would learn traditional West African music and dance and then travel and perform. Artistic Director of the group, Ketu Oladuwa, took me under his wing at an early age. Growing up, he was my mentor and a great father figure, as well. I'd say that experience in TRJE is where I found my passion for travel and performing arts.

I grew up in a family of musicians. All of the women on my mother’s side of the family have great voices. My mom sings, and my father was a well-known bass guitar player in Fort Wayne. He left great memories; I remember and can still see him, practicing with his band in the neighbor's basement. Those memories are still what drives me to pursue my music career. It’s inspiring, but the lifestyle that comes with being a musician can be very negative sometimes.

I experienced drugs in the home and the aftermath of addiction at a young age. Traveling on the road with his band, my father and his addiction to crack cocaine got worse. My mother suffered from anxiety and depression because of it, so there was a lot of pain in my household growing up.

Around age 11, my father started to get his life together. Then, he was brutally murdered by his stepdaughter. At that point, my world just shattered. He was my best friend. Despite his addiction and the things I saw, I was still “Daddy’s Girl.” At the time of my father’s death, my mother was dating someone else, but I remember her taking it hard. She finally gained some strength for me and would constantly remind me of how she wanted a better life for me.

Living on housing and welfare, my mother made the choice to move out and do better for me. She did; she tried, but I watched her struggle. I think she struggled to provide that life for me because she was a single, hard-working mom. She didn't have the best health, and I just remember us having so many disagreements.

The disagreements, I believe, came from our lack of understanding our similarities in our experiences. We went through so much together, but we didn't understand the damage, nor the crisis we were in. We also didn't have the resources we needed. So, as a teen, I rebelled and turned to the streets, eventually finding myself homeless and hanging with the wrong crowd.

In Kelly’s own life, she has experienced mental illness and molestation within the home, as well as domestic violence, homelessness, addiction, and the loss of children.

I went to South Side High School, where I was called a delinquent. Later, I was placed on probation and got into trouble there for too many failed drug screenings. I had to go to the Allen County Juvenile Center (ACJC), where I spent a lot of alone time because my mother was a believer in tough love.

So much time alone, I started to pick up my songwriting skills. I also discovered my own potential to learn at ACJC. I was sentenced with a “120 GED.” I had to either spend (120) days in ACJC or obtain my GED. I was just determined to get out. (laughing) Accomplishing that made me realize: “I am smart,” and it unlocked the potential in me I didn't realize I had. There was a force of power in me where I was like, “Okay, I'm going to do something.” Before I knew it, before 45 days, and I was out.

Mylisa Kelly, the Real MK, performs "Pray for My City" at Wunderkammer Company in Fort Wayne.

IFW: Did you become a musician after that?

MK: Not right away. Music has always been a part of my life, but after I earned my GED and started cosmetology school, I met an older guy, and I became pregnant. I dropped out of school before I was able to work and make a living. In that time of my life, I was very vulnerable because I was still young, living on my own with no guidance after release. Early on, during that first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with lupus and was told to be on bed rest the rest of the term.

Around seven months pregnant, my water broke, and I was rushed to the hospital where I went through an emergency C-section. My daughter lived in the NICU for 32 days before she passed. Her father, who was also mentally ill with a gambling addiction, left the relationship after our loss. I completely lost myself again, returning to old patterns I knew were comfortable. Depression, abandonment, and guilt were definitely issues that kept popping up in my life.

Two years later, I got back into church. I formed a relationship with another guy; we got engaged and had a son, whose name is James. My son is who keeps me going; He’s 9 now and in the 3rd grade. He has so much talent and character. That's who I do it for, and I can't wait till he blossoms. But after James was born, my relationship with his father turned toxic and abusive. (Mostly because of infidelity.) In 2018, we had an unexpecting pregnancy. We were both blessed with another son, but the relationship still wasn’t working between us. Going through our relationship issues, our new baby, Jeremiah, unexpectedly died of SIDS. 

That broke me ALL THE WAY DOWN.

I wanted to die. I didn't understand why these terrible things kept happening to me, these cycles of confusion. But in the midst of that deep, deep pain and grief, I don't know if it was a voice I heard in my mind, my conscience, or just me making a decision to say: “I want better; I can create better.”

This is the reason why Bring Black Up exists today. I see what other people like me are going through. I want to meet people right where they are and support them and help guide them to a better lifestyle, creating real change that works.

Kelly

IFW: You’ve been through so much in your life. What inspires you to keep going and helping others?

MK: My new mentor, Diane Rogers of the Omotayo Rite of Passage, often talks about taking action for your opportunity. I am also inspired when I remember those traditional African principles I learned with mentor, Ketu Oladuwa of TRJE, which helped mold and prepared me for the work.

In my life, there was a point where I realized it was up to me to make the decision, “Hey, you can make better choices. Whatever has happened to you before doesn’t determine how far you can go. If you find yourself repeating old patterns, it's because there’s a lesson you can learn there.”

When my son passed, I had to do something. I remember being so depressed and tired. I was not sleeping many nights, but instead of turning to my old ways of comfort, I started researching how to help my community, how to be successful, how to make money, and how to create change for myself.

I found strength in making myself available to process my own life and to keep moving forward. For a while, I wanted to be a YouTuber, but with no team, the work was draining to me. I was blessed to work inside Optimistics Enterprise salon as a full-time natural hair stylist and braider for Veronica Townes. Right after my son passed away, she opened her doors to me. That's when I picked up songwriting again, and I wrote my first single, “SunRise.”

Kelly performs "SunRise" in downtown Fort Wayne.

IFW: Tell us more about your music.

MK: With the song “SunRise,” I talk about my backstory and my life's experiences. The chorus of the song reads, “ When will I see the sunrise? Fall on me. After the storm, the sun shines. So, rain on me.” Basically, I'm singing about the struggle of going through things in my life, but how necessary it is to go through “the storm” or rain for the sun to shine. I wanted to give people a real glimpse of my life through the lens of The Real MK. I've learned: Our challenging experiences in life shape us into who we have the potential to become.

My most recent single is called “Pray for My City,” and I actually wrote that in two phases. First, when I kept scrolling through the channels on TV and kept seeing the breaking news of homicides in my neighborhoods. Second, was when our community activists were protesting downtown last year. I couldn't participate, due to medical reasons. However, writing that song was my way of being a social activist through music.

That song was a call to action for the community, the world, and the Bring Black Up movement. The idea had me thinking: How can I approach more social topics in a different way? What actions can I take in my own community that are relatable to me? How can I heal others? How can I elevate and celebrate others’ accomplishments?

I was reaching, but I felt the urge to reach harder. Replaying the song, the light bulb came on. The answer was music; Music is a form of art, which is also a language. Music and Art both have a major influence on the culture of people. I'm like, “The culture is what it's all about. The people make the culture.”

IFW: You are very intentional in your word choices when writing and talking about your work. Tell us what the words Black and BIPOC mean to you.

MK: Why Black? I chose the word Black because of its origin and how the world views Black as negative. The plan is to change the narrative and show the power of unity amongst each other throughout the Black community, so others can do the same. Like, how can we expect the “White Man'' to stop killing us, if we keep killing each other? It matters.

It’s important for our communities to know that we can be a positive light and reflection, as well as be a powerful force for our art communities to coexist without the “negative” label the media can sometimes give.

Why BlPOC? For generations and throughout history, BIPOC have been underprivileged and unheard. Many households in our communities suffer from low-income and poor resources, which many times leads to poverty and high crime rates. It's everywhere. The lack of knowledge is essential. We want to educate and give information on financial growth and stability. For struggling artists, it can be extremely difficult to create or promote in times of crisis. This platform can help change that.

So, I started talking about my ideas, formed an alliance with other women, and we started to create our first three-day event for Bring Black Up in November 2020. The event featured local artists and musicians of different styles around that common mission of elevating unheard voices and supporting BIPOC and their neighborhoods.

IFW: Tell us about your first event.

MK: Our strategy for the first event in November was to pool different audiences to Bring Black Up in different ways within Fort Wayne.

Bring Black Up hosted its first three-day event in November 2020.

On the first night, Friday, our theme was jazz, poetry, spoken word, and soul. Our vendors and artists for each evening matched each theme, and we had multiple artists perform each night. On Friday, local spoken word artists, as well as musicians, participated. Special guests, Prince of Poetry and Jeronimo Speaks from Chicago, Illinois, blessed the stage. Saturday night was hip hop and R&B night. Special guest Cam Brooks came out to sing alongside a performance by Mike Strong, a well-known local rap artist, and other local artists performed. Sunday, we gave it all back to God with a worship and praise theme. We invited congregations to come out and celebrate with us. We were able to donate money from the event and present BIG checks to a few local nonprofit organizations, including the Human Agricultural Co-op and the Oxford Community Association of Fort Wayne.

The whole idea for Bring Black Up events is to support local artists and promote them. But it’s also about raising money to host more events so we can donate and put money back into the local Black communities and Fort Wayne neighborhoods.

Right now, we have an Art Auction going on until June 23rd, which will re-open in July, showcasing “Black Art.” We have so many great local artists in Fort Wayne participating: Phresh Laundry, AfroPlump, Expression Studios, BonJo Art, ColoredCurlzz, and more. We want to help promote and showcase their talents.

A lot of times, art gets overlooked. Who doesn't love a good art piece, what it represents, and the story behind it? Everyone has a story; Hopefully, this platform can showcase the many stories that need to be told, especially from these artists and what they represent.

Bring Black Up hosted its first three-day event in November 2020.

IFW: How have the events and meetings for Bring Black Up been going so far?

MK: We are gaining a lot of great feedback from the community and support, and that means a lot to me. It makes me feel proud that we're doing the right thing for all the right reasons. Our ultimate goal is to elevate our youth and create more artistic programs for them. We're doing this for them. They are our future.  I'm so proud of Fort Wayne, and I’m so honored to have dedicated members to work with. Most of Bring Black Up’s members are all active. We appreciate the ones who aren't or can't be right now; We appreciate all of your support.

I hope my journey shows others that you can come up out of challenges and still succeed. I'm not where I want to be yet, but it's a start. I just want to help others figure out how to start. No matter what life throws your way, you can do this. Existing as a minority shouldn't stop you from looking up.

IFW: How have you processed this past year in Fort Wayne since the protests? Where are you, emotionally and creatively?

MK: Last year, when I heard about the protests, I saw a lot of things that I did not like, and I wish that I could change it. Creatively, that did a lot to me, and I was like, what else can we do? You know, I want to call this person and that person. We need to support and organize. We need to develop and structure a strategy. A solution made with proper guidance was needed. I'm proud my people stood firm; People were there with good intentions, but it didn't look like it ended well. 

MJ: As protesters, we feel that we are being blamed for what happened downtown last year. We are being lied on. A lot of the media is really only showing negative footage of protesters, and we feel the situation is being misrepresented.

It’s been said that we wouldn't have received the response (tear gas) we received from the police if we had acted differently at the protest. But based on my experience from being out there, that was not the case.

In some cases, we were prevented from leaving the protests. I know that from a personal standpoint because I was wanting to pick up my daughter from a birthday party, and I specifically said, “Hey, I'm trying to get through. Can I leave?” An officer told me, “No,” and pushed me back, and as I turned around, that's when the tear gas came out.

That was on Saturday, May 30, 2020. I believe it was the same day that Balin lost his eye.

The response we’ve seen as a result of the protest last year has pushed us in a different direction at Bring Black Up. It’s made me realize that there's a reason why mental health is becoming spoken about among a lot of people right now. If people felt that protesters last year were acting aggressively, the reason, in a lot of cases, is because we were scared. Many of us have experienced trauma like Mylisa described, and local leaders make it seem like we hurt them, but we are civilians. We're not trained to deal with these kinds of situations. If you're trained to de-escalate situations, then why are you using military tactics to escalate them?

Mylisa’s story and my story are somewhat similar, but I am bi-racial, so I have a white side and I have a black side. I have two stories to tell.

As activists, we’re concerned that the realities of many people’s stories here are being ignored. We feel like we’re being presented as being “ignorant,” but we have knowledge, and it’s born knowledge. Born knowledge comes from suffering, from feeling so defeated that you will never, ever be able to rise up, but you have this voice in your head that tells you that you can.

Some people call it consciousness. I call it your spirit. God made us in his image, and if he made us in his image, are we not like him? But our power has been so deformed and stripped from us, we don’t know it. That’s not just directed toward my Black community alone. Each one of us is an image-bearer. We believe this is a matter of good versus evil, and Fort Wayne can do better.

All I can say is be on the lookout for early July and this whole year because we’re definitely going to bring our people up.
 

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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