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Modern Chat - Offbeat

Thursday, June 23, 2016

By Guest Contributor Shalina Chatlani, Jackson, MS native and rising senior at Georgetown University

This interview is part of the Museum’s Mapping a Modern Mississippi Initiative.

Wesley Avenue is a series of pothole chains that wind down to the city’s famously ominous railroad tracks, where most people in Jackson believe they “ought to turn around.” The railroad, once a symbol for travel and progress, has morphed into a ubiquitous indicator of where segregation in all forms is normal, even expected.

On this same road is Offbeat, one of my favorite stores. Upon entering, I am greeted by walls of beautiful, abstract artwork, stacks of alternative literature and comic books, hanging wooden furniture, shelves of music representing genres in jazz, rock, and hip-hop—much different from what the traveler might anticipate to find at the end of this street. I’m beckoned in by the store owner, a DJ named Phillip Rollins, spinning his own mix of contemporary beats.

After stepping inside, thoughts of the railroad tracks or the road outside completely melt away. Instead of “fear,” or “backwardness,” the space elicits a word that seems to have avoided the state for centuries: “modern.

I sat with Phillip in the corner of his store, while J. Dilla and Kendrick Lamar played in the background, and started off the conversation with a pretty easy question—What has your experience with art in Jackson been like?

“I grew up here my entire life, and I always wanted to be an artist. When I used to work in Fondren…I would often go and look at all the galleries. I realized I was seeing a lot of the same stuff, nothing really abstract. I saw a lot of water colors and acrylics, but nothing that really pushed boundaries. And, then I asked- ‘are there any minorities being shown?’ There weren’t any. I chalked it up to one or two things—either artists don’t know how to put themselves out there, or second, people aren’t looking for them or don’t care about them. It could be low-lying racism or not, but it does play a factor. A lot of people think Fondren is the artsiest part of Jackson… but really a lot of the art comes out of midtown.”

Midtown is the part of Jackson that juts up to those railroad tracks, and it’s where Offbeat, appropriately named for its stock of counter-culture products, attracts some of the city’s best young local artists. It’s also where, despite the misshapen streets and some dilapidated properties, there’s a thriving community of socially aware, active millennials, as well as, a budding creative economy. Peppered throughout the neighborhood are galleries, entrepreneurial centers, and small creative work spaces.

Photo credit Nicole Norwood

Do you think Mississippi has moved forward?

“Every time I want to say yes, I see something that makes me say ‘man, we are still in the 60s.’ I would say yes we have, but not by a lot. We’re dealing with not only racism, but classism. I wear a t-shirt and jeans everyday, so when I go certain places, I get looks that say I’m not welcome. I took my friend to a restaurant in Madison, and they told us it was closed, even though some people had just gotten seated and waited on. My friend said, ‘This is why I left Mississippi.’ In fact, that’s why a lot of people left, they just gave up. But, I don’t want to give up. That’s why I opened up this shop, to help move the culture forward.”

What do you try to accomplish through the store?

“A lot of people talk about going to Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and that’s because of the lack of exposure to culture here, especially in the arts. We give people something different, so hopefully they will gravitate towards it. We have to create something here for people to learn about it.”

Looking around the store, I could definitely see, from the pop-art of Muhammad Ali to the vinyl collection, that there was something different, which I hadn’t seen in Jackson before.

Do you think there are a lot of millennials that are trying to work toward moving Mississippi forward?

“There’s a good base of millennials but we’re outnumbered! I personally try to make sure all the artwork I keep here is by young minority artists in the state to give them an outlet they never had before.”

Offbeat has served several purposes, whether it comes to showcasing art or simply being a great place to hangout. Certainly, though, it is as a reflection of what forward-thinking Mississippians have done and are continuing to do in order to counter a prevailing reputation of helplessness and backwardness within the culture.