City Paper is not for tourists.
Art! Hurts. That’s the mantra the artist known as Wes Felton often repeats. Art! Hurts.
“The exclamation point is after the ‘Art’ and not the ‘Hurts’ part, and the reason why is because I’ve been one of those people who always believes that as artists, we are the only people who literally can have breakfast in the ’hood, in the projects. Lunch in the park, in front of the White House. And then dinner on Capitol Hill, for an awards [show]. Artists are the walking and breathing Ben’s Chili Bowl,” says Felton, laughing.
Felton is a multi-hyphenated human being. He’s a musician, singer, rapper, DJ, actor, and activist. Dude’s an artist. I’ve seen a meme with the words: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.” That’s true of Felton in so many ways. The son of D.C.-based Jazz legend Hilton C. Felton, Wes’ musical roots run deep. He is well known as one of the best hosts and dopest artists on U Street NW. Back in the day (I can’t believe I just used that phrase in reference to my own youth) he used to host shows at cool D.C. hip-hop spots like State of the Union and Bar Nun, often times alongside another one of D.C.’s favorite sons, R&B star Raheem DeVaughn, with whom Wes still collaborates as a member of The Crossrhodes. Wes also used to be a member of BET’s Teen Summit’s “Posse,” a news/talk program that was geared toward African-American teens. I remember watching the program myself, back in the day, when I lived in Pittsburg and when I first moved to the D.C. area (I was in my teens at the time). I’m old enough to remember an episode that featured a new rapper on the scene named Jay-Z. (That seems like eons ago. I wonder what happened to that guy?!)
Wes Felton isn’t just an artist, he’s the artist’s artist. He’s one of those artists other artists love. One who speaks his mind and shares his heart. You can’t spell the word ‘heart’ without the word ‘art.’ Maybe that’s why really good art hurts? Really good art touches us on a level where we feel it. We can touch the painting with our eyes, becoming a part of it on an emotional level. Our heads can be in the clouds while our feet remain on the ground.
Really dope artists know how to live that way, with their heads in the clouds while their feet are on the ground, and somehow explain the experience to the rest of us. We get their understanding of the common experience that we’re all sharing in at the same time—life and how we all live it. Are we pursuing happiness, or are we here now, being happy? Artists give us glimpses of that struggle. Some artists provide us a distraction, while other artists give us samples of their own introspections.
Wes and I sat down for an hour in April to discuss some of his introspections, his recent trip to Ghana, and why his art! hurts. Here’s some of that conversation:
What’s good with you, Wes?! You just got back from Ghana. How was it?!
It was my first time to Ghana. I’ve been to South Africa and Ethiopia before. But yeah, Ghana was quite a mind trip. Um, I can definitely say that it affected the core of my brain … I found out that my DNA has been on this planet for over 5,000 years. I find out that my DNA comes from Cameroon by way of four different tribes who migrated to that part of Africa. So that was pretty deep [laughing].
I found out that I come from creators like the Fulani tribe and the Tika tribe … So it was like, that was a mind bending thing because you know, for years I thought because my dad was a jazz musician that somehow that’s why I was drawn to [the arts], right?! You can limit yourself, you know?! You can [sometimes] leave it there…
Sometimes youcan carry on tradition without knowing that you are…
To have an African basically say to me, “You are a descendant of not [only] Africans, but you are a descendant of the strongest of them.” That right there, it was a mind trip because I had never heard anybody say it that way, let alone an African in actual Africa say it to me [laughing]. I never had anybody in America break it down to me [like that]. You always hear these things—“All of you come from queens” or “you are kings”—but if you really understand what the Africans who ended up on the boat, what they had to go through and survive before they even got on the boat?! And then what they had to endure even on the boat. If you don’t understand that—and I think that a lot of people in this country, black and white, they don’t understand it.
People don’t know what they don’t know, but once they do, some get to a place where they want to enlighten others.
Normally in situations like this, as a creative, I would have immediately like, created some art and immediately threw it up on the world. And this is like, I haven’t been able to do it … yet [laughs].
That’s cool, that’s good. What’s good with Art! Hurts?!
Art! Hurts, for me, isn’t about the “hurt” part. If you look at my actual logo, if I ever signed it, or write it, it’s an exclamation point after the “art” and not the “hurts” part. And the reason why is because I’ve been one of those people who always believe that as artists, we are the only people who literally can have breakfast in the ’hood, in the Projects. Lunch in the park, in front of the White House. And then dinner on Capitol Hill, for an awards [show] [laughs]. Artists are the walking and breathing Ben’s Chili Bowl [laughs] … you know, where we can [all] go. There’s places that certain people I’m associated with might not be welcome that I’m able to go to, and then I’m able to re-enter [where they are].
With that said, once you become aware and you have developed your, not just your creative personality but actual human life, like your beliefs, you consequently are drawn to, for lack of a better example, superheroes. It’s kind of how they say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ever since I was a kid growing up in Washington D.C., going to School Without Walls during the daytime, and then being snuck into certain clubs or bars to read my poetry [at night]. And being the only young person in there with all these people, I was 13 or 14, and I was so serious about expression. I really realized like, “Oh man, like art can really affect people!” It’s not just entertainment. I feel like I’m the voice of the voiceless generation. We’ve produced all types of artists in my generation and we’ve been kind of that bridge between the advancement of technology and society and you know, just all of that. [Still] we’ve done a poor job of using our powers responsibly. We let them just kind of a fly all over the place [laughs] … so “Art! Hurts” is that, you know. It’s really about: Hey, you might protest and scream about passing a bill, and I might be able to write a song about it. And if the hook is correct, it may change and shift the brain or the thought of that person who’s standing in the way.
I’d like to touch on something that you just said about technology, our generation, and society. Our generation has made a lot of technological advancements. What’s good to you about using streaming as a platform for sharing your art?!
I’ve always viewed myself as an independent person and independent artist, so when it comes to streaming, I’ve never looked at my existence relying on or depending upon anybody. I’m like, I just got back from Silicon Valley. I had to do a presentation on longevity in artificial intelligence. So I’m like,“streaming?! Ya’ll talkin’ ’bout streamin’?!” Streaming should be the least of [an artist’s] concerns because let me tell you right now, none of your shit is safe. [laughs]
So when it comes to streaming, to me that’s more of my life. That’s my platform, because it’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, OK, well I can’t blame a record label. Or I can’t blame a PR person for why my sales, or streams, or whatever [aren’t up]. It’s really on me. So streaming, I like it. I like it because it’s a numbers thing. For me, last year in 2018, I think I dropped maybe like 11 projects. That means, based upon how that works, if I got 10 horses in the race, and it’s a 15-horse race, hey, at least we’ll get a little something [laughs]. A consumer is going to see that and think, “He dropped like 8 records,” and then that creates a rhythm, and I gotta keep up that rhythm. My goal is to double that in 2019. I just gotta get through this Africa trip, in my head [laughs].
The hardest part of good conversation knowing when to end it, I think that’s a good place right there; We’ve talked about a few different things. Thanks for sitting and talking with me today. What’s good that you have coming up?!
I got a new record that’s coming out. I’m letting Raheem’s label put out. it’s called Dust and Unlimited Dreams. Other than that I’m going to be on the road, so I’m just kind of getting ready for that. I’m trying to find that happy balance between, you know, being like a craft beer connoisseur versus like a slim guy with a beer belly [laughing.]
Now that’s what’s good?! Summer is coming and we need good music to go with good times.