Diverse purveyors of culture and social entrepreneurship have popped up in places like Chicago, Boston, New York, Detroit, the D.C. area, and are becoming legitimate brokers of inclusive urban spaces. A new generation of PoC curators are crafting artistic, cultural programming on their own terms, without fear or shame. What separates them as space brokers—and ultimately points to where their success lies—is their awareness of the interrelation between what they are creating, who they are, and acts of community empowerment.
One such organisation is Providence based agency stay silent PVD, founded by Jason Almeida and Sabrina Chaudhary in 2012. Together with a talented inhouse design, marketing, and event planning team, they put on wildly successful annual day party Day Trill, run well-known Luv U Better and Bounce House parties monthly, as well as themed Eggz Over brunches up and down the coast.
In July, they brought me to Elephant Tea Room, a cosy tea spot in Pawtuxet Village, where we talked family-operated stay silent PVD, Fox Point-located Trade Pop-Up, hip hop, and shaping our neighbourhoods in our own image by establishing inclusive creative spaces.
Actions Speak Louder: The Genesis of stay silent PVD and Trade Pop-Up
“stay silent PVD came from the idea that our mantra is that our work speaks for itself… Our goal is never to be like, ‘Jason and Sabrina do this thing, you guys should know who Jason and Sabrina are.’ It’s like, people will come to the work as we continue to do it and as we stay consistent… It’s a reminder to always stay silent and let the work speak for itself.” - Sabrina
Jason and Sabrina have a holistic approach to onboarding talent, rooted in developing relationships with creative thinkers, producers, and inventors. This allows them to lay their individual egos to the side in favour of their larger vision: making space for other social entrepreneurs of colour to advance alongside of them.
Their ideology extends itself through their logo, originally a set of lips with a zipper inlaid. After a rebrand, they settled on the letter “s,” with a zipper closing it shut. As young social entrepreneurs of colour who’ve attained a level of success, they’re extremely cognisant of how their actions create their reputation. When dealing with agencies, political folks, event promoters and the like, they allow their work to represent their organisation and its philosophy.
“Trade Pop-Up is a space started by stay silent PVD to provide resources and space for upcoming creatives and brands, like small businesses, basically trying to deal with people on a full-service scale. So like, if you’re somebody coming in who doesn’t know anything about marketing or doesn’t know how to set up a pop-up shop, we can help give you the resources or just consult with you and say, ‘hey, try doing this,’ or, ‘try doing that,’ or at least laying down the ground foundation of like, you’re included on our monthly calendar, you’re gonna be on our instagram. Giving you at least that marketing exposure. But then sometimes, we deal with people who already have an idea of marketing and how they wanna present their stuff, so all they really need is the physical space...
Now, personally, I look at Trade more as an incubator/collaboration space like ‘cause, think about it, you get kids from RISD, kids from Brown walking in and just like, random people from the city can go in there and show stuff. You know, you’re spending like, two to three days with them, just talking and hanging out, you’re seeing their work, they’re asking for advice, so then it grows to like, okay, how can we work together outside of here. That’s not to say that it’s with everybody, but there are certain people you just connect to.” -Jason
Trade Pop-Up effectively allowed stay silent to put their money where their mouth is. Trade now functions as the non-profit arm of stay silent, but it began as a response to the dearth of receptive venues the duo encountered in Providence at the time.
Their first event was a Rockafella Art Gallery. It consisted of Jason, as DJ where’s nasty, spinning a Jay-Z/Kanye West/State Property mix–“Basically anyone signed to Rockafella Records,” he says smiling–with Rockafella-inspired artwork hung to drive the theme home. According to Sabrina, the local gallery that served as venue laid down many stipulations in granting them use of the space.
What transpired amounted to a critical learning experience for the pair. Though they found their vision hampered by cultural misunderstandings, they came to an early appreciation of the significance of space and its consequence to executing the type of programming they wanted to see in the city.
They describe this manifestation as a natural shift, in line with stay silent’s mantra of letting their actions speak. They acquired the space in December of 2014 with the idea of testing their concept. In the process, they found themselves devoting most of their time to developing systems and strategies to help others understand how to use the space.
Initially, they knew very little about how Rhode Island nonprofits work. After prompting from collaborators and associates, they began cultivating the education they needed to become an actualised non-profit business. Essentially, it was yet another thing they came to as they went. Trade opened in January of 2015, though, as Sabrina noted, that was the year of weekly super snowstorms, so their doors didn’t officially open until spring of that year.
Flash forward to the present and Trade Pop-Up is booked every weekend through the end of the year. Artists and social entrepreneurs are granted use of the space and of Sabrina and Jason’s know-how for four days at no charge. This undeniable accessibility has allowed for more inclusivity and an endless wellspring of creativity. They find themselves making many of the same dynamic connections that got them here in the first place.
Fox Point: The Meaning of a Black/Brown-Owned Business on the East Side
“Being in Fox Point is definitely something we take very seriously. Jason’s Cape Verdean American, I’m first generation Portuguese and Indian American, so we, as kids of immigrants like, we know the neighbourhoods that were settled by immigrants. Fox Point was a Portuguese and Cape Verdean neighbourhood… [and in that sense] we’re like cultural translators.” - Sabrina
Originally peopled with Cape Verdean and Portuguese immigrants, and rich with their cultural history, the Fox Point neighbourhood is now often viewed as an extension of the wealthy section of Providence’s East Side that it borders.
This wasn’t necessarily the case in 2014 when Sabrina and Jason were getting Trade off the ground. The Shop, an upscale neighbourhood coffee shop that has become a popular mainstay, opened its doors only a few weeks before Trade did. The Shop, Trade Pop-Up, PVD Donuts, and Tallulah’s Taqueria all comprise the new, trendy face of the neighbourhood. According to Jason, before their advent, the Neighbourhood Association didn’t even consider the Fox Point area as part of the East Side because, in their view, there was nothing going on there.
“I feel like Fox Point is a unique neighbourhood in the sense that… although a lot of the original culture has left... it’s interesting that you can see like, you have India Point Park where the Cape Verdean festival will be this Sunday. And you look at Six Star Bakery, still there, Cardoso Travel, Friendship Market, is still in the centre of all this stuff going on.” - Jason
Jason, who hails from Camp St. on the East Side, has lived in the area for nearly his entire life. He recalls, after returning home from college, once going for lunch at Noodles 102 on Ives St with a cousin who now works with stay silent. He found himself driving in circles around the neighbourhood while his cousin told stories, amazed at how much the neighbourhood had changed. Where Portuguese and Cape Verdean businesses and cultural hubs once dotted the streets, new posh boutiques and restaurants flourished.
Sabrina is also aware of the radical demographic shifts in the neighbourhood. Particularly, she notes the elevation of price points and property taxes in the area, and how these variables limited inclusion of the black, brown, immigrant settlers and their children. Essentially, they were becoming a casualty of gentrification, being pushed out of their neighbourhood altogether. That said, dogged immigrant-owned businesses and cultural traditions remain a neighbourhood linchpin. For now, those who know where to look can find the beating cultural heart of the neighbourhood intact.
In many ways, Jason, Sabrina and the stay silent PVD team represent a building upon the foundation of their forebearers. Their work has conspicuous national and local impact. They’ve created an essential framework for the development and construction of a sense of place. Rotating artistic and cultural exhibits, events, and spaces allow our communities to develop their own voices and their own narratives.
“Hip Hop Events”: The Formation of Black/Brown Identity in the White Gaze
“As much as we always talk about culture, and we do think that hip hop culture [created a] rift with communities we were bringing stay silent into, whether that’s through events or through Trade, I do think a big part of it is racial, so I don’t want to call it ‘culture,’ and call it like, ‘urbanism,’ if it’s not. It is very much attached to black and brown people so we do speak about hip hop because those are the terms that are being spoken to us. Hip hop is the Music, and so when we go to a meeting and someone’s like, ‘well, hip hop events, they do this.’ It’s like, what they aren’t saying is that black and brown people do this.” - Sabrina
Although hip hop music and culture comprise a diverse group of peoples and influences across the African Diaspora and beyond, the pair found that in conversations with gatekeepers such as venue owners and political types, hip hop functioned as more of a dog whistle. Thus, it becomes a signifier used by those at axises of power to connote a certain loaded understanding about black and brown people: our music, our clothes, our cultures.
The White Gaze hinges upon the notion that Whiteness (read: white values, culture and aesthetics) should be centred in all things. In this regard, art and culture produced by marginalised peoples should cater to the sensibilities of white folk, as if our contributions are somehow less valuable because they focus on us–our lives, our cultures, our aesthetics–rather than them. It has less to do with who’s consuming the work (anyone can do that) and more to do with whom and what the work concerns itself.
To the point, Jason notes that while the differences between, say, the music of Justin Bieber and Willie Nelson are commonly understood, the allowance of distinction across the genre-spanning label of hip hop are virtually nonexistent. Complicating things further, Sabrina points out that while an act like Justin Bieber can be viewed, sonically, as comparable to an act like Chris Brown, Justin Bieber can commit some of the same sorts of (often criminal) errors as Chris Brown, yet still be granted the privilege of appearing on magazine covers and in lucrative ad campaigns the world over. Further, in the mind of the White Gaze, an act like Justin Bieber can emulate and culturally appropriate black and brown folk, but our authentic expressions of art and style are often criminalised. As for the role white privilege plays in their business, Jason ascribes the microaggressions, though serious in their implications, to “cultural incompetence.”
Jason: “I’ll say this personally as a DJ, one of the biggest things I’ve noticed in Rhode Island and New England is that like, alright, you’re having these trap/hip hop parties as a trend that went on for like, three or four years.”
Sabrina: “They were like, trap/hip hop parties held primarily in white spaces with white DJs, and it was more of like, trap when [trap overlapped] with EDM for a moment...”
Jason: “... but, you know, they’re still playing Gucci Mane, Wakka Flakka…”
Sabrina: “... but they were playing, like, the remixes of it…”
Jason: “So the interesting thing that would happen, you know, they would say, you know, you have a local magazine who would say these are the best DJs, or these are the best dance nights, but there were things going on for five, six years, before those were even a thing that wouldn’t even get mentioned. So they weren’t even getting represented in the conversation, so you deal with a lot of that, it’s like, the incompetency of yo, we’re only gonna put our eyes on this thing because this is all that we understand.”
Basically, if the music (read: culture) is remixed and it’s got their name on it, it’s not only acceptable in the eyes of the White Gaze, it’s extremely profitable. See: The Kardashian/Jenner klan. In this instance, respectability politics seems to be in play, too: whether your pants are sagging or you’re wearing skinny jeans, there’s a clear difference in perception that boils down to whom need and whom need not be policed.
Two Providences: The Creative Capital and the “Cultural Disconnect”
“It’s definitely a full disconnect, like, they’re just two different worlds, and that’s what we try to explain, like even when we did our Providence Monthly interview… the conversation has been, there’s two America’s, well, there’s two Providences, and two Rhode Islands… The reality is that we’re dealing with people who have issues with each other. And [to] every single person who has a problem in their neighbourhood, you still have a right to go out and listen to music and enjoy a stress-free evening.
It’s really difficult, as people who throw the events, to look at it and not let the fears and the projections from the police and the city come down on us and [for] us [not to] police our own audience on a level that… because that has happened. Like there’s been times when I’ve been like, oh my God, J, these people are here, are we gonna be okay? And I’ve had to be checked like, ‘yo, you’re letting the projections of what they’re feeling come down to you.’ Like, if you don’t have an arrest warrant, you can do what the fuck you want. It’s really frustrating.” - Sabrina
Representation is important in all sectors and is critically important to the vitality of any metropolitan area. Providence became a majority minority city between 2000-2011, and as the city became blacker and browner, officials began an ambitious rebranding campaign to push “The Creative Capital” as a tourist destination. As Jason mentioned before, much of the creativity and culture featured in local publications has been appropriated by white folks and this can ultimately distort its true origin.
Taking this violent erasure a step further, these same local outlets can misrepresent community issues, often passively implying, through loaded phrases like “black on black crime,” that violence is endemic to communities of colour. Nearly two years to the day of this interview, I lost a childhood friend to gun violence while he was out at night in Providence. I looked on as his rich, fleeting life and untimely death was reduced, in print, to a “gang related,” incident.
Sabrina pushes back against the idea that gang activities and violence are at the root of these tragic incidents. Rather, she points to banal neighbourhood dramas that can become explosive when alcohol and a nightlife environment is involved. Jason concurs that these aren’t black and brown problems but in fact nightlife problems. Often the nightlife community bears the brunt of city backlash.
In this way, creators and social entrepreneurs of colour are further hemmed in by the White Gaze, as it crafts equivocations and half-truths to us, about us, pumping false imagery through every corner of the media.
“When you say there are two Providences, [with respect to] access to art, access to different things, if you think about a kid that’s originally from Providence [as opposed to] somebody who came here to go to Brown, or RISD, or Johnson and Wales; are [the kids from here] a part of the fabric of the community? No. When they’re marketing this ‘Creative Capital’ stuff, this isn’t about people from here, this isn’t about people who live in Mt. Hope, this isn’t about people who live in Chad Brown, this isn’t about people who live in Hartford Projects, it has nothing to do with any of that.
So it’s about, yeah, we’re marketing this as colleges and universities, but when we’re talking about people who are from here, some of them don’t even know ‘Creative Capital’ is a thing. How can you be from the East Side, Camp St., and you’ve never been to the RISD museum that’s five minutes from your house?” - Jason
Earlier this year, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed took his defense of the arts to a largely white audience at RISD rather than into the community centres and schools of black and brown neighbourhoods. As Jason points out, inclusion of local black and brown folks in these spaces is often an afterthought, if it’s thought of at all.
In essence, the local media has Colombused many of our contributions to the creativity they’re trying to monetise while erasing us from the narrative entirely. Our communities must be included and represented in the larger conversation. Jason, Sabrina, and stay silent are fighting an essential battle for a seat at that table.
“Safety Pin Culture”: Coalition Building in a Climate of White Liberalism
In the weeks and months succeeding Donald Trump’s election as our 45th President, many well-meaning white liberals ornamented their clothing with safety pins in order to perform their allyship. To many people of colour, myself included, this gesture, as well as the establishment of “safe spaces” across the country, came across as empty, not unlike Kendall Jenner’s infamous pepsi ad.
While Sabrina and Jason are clearly cultural space makers, the pair scoffed at the idea, agreeing that fun and safety are the bare minimums to be provided and planned for. In the event of a tragedy, years of good work and relationship-building could possibly be at stake, not to speak of individual lives. Both Sabrina and Jason are cognisant of the precarious height they’ve reached. Their audience’s safe and stress-free enjoyment is always paramount, more so than their spotless reputation. With no care to cater to the White Gaze, Sabrina and Jason shoulder this incredible responsibility while refusing to sacrifice authenticity in the name of respectability politics. According to Sabrina, they’re simply compelled to run faster, go harder and do more, exemplifying excellence in action. No Stepin Fetchit act required.
By the end of our conversation, it’s apparent that everything stay silent does comes directly from the heart. Though they often differ in approach, both Jason and Sabrina have a very real sense of duty to the communities they’re representing, and the local social entrepreneurs they’re blazing the trail for.
Perhaps most important about the spaces that stay silent PVD has built is that they open a channel for mobilizing networks and affiliations among PoC that are larger than recreation or sport. Space curation is ultimately cultural sense-making. Authenticity is a central part of their business model and other social entrepreneurs can learn from their example.
Sabrina and Jason’s work with stay silent PVD is an actualisation of the phrase coined by Dr. Maya Angelou: “When you learn, teach. When you teach, learn.” While they’ve established themselves as a marketing and event planning force in the city, stay silent is giving back by teaching some of the lessons they’ve learned, and allowing space for budding social entrepreneurs to articulate their vision. As a parting word of advice to those following in their footsteps, Jason says that if it isn’t built out of love, it won’t last.