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First Wave wins state arts award

October 1, 2009

A top Wisconsin arts honor — the 2009 Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts — has been given to the University of Wisconsin–Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI), which oversees the First Wave Learning Community.

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“First Wave harnesses an artistic passion that students share across academic disciplines,” says Willie Ney, OMAI executive director. “They are a family of artists. To be not only recognized, but awarded, by the state’s art community is coveted praise and an affirmation that we’re reaching our goal of contributing to inclusion in the arts.”

This is the first time a university arts program has won the award. At 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8, in the Wisconsin Historical Society auditorium, OMAI will celebrate the award as part of the opening festivities of the annual Passing the Mic series.

Gov. Jim Doyle and his wife, Jessica, will honor this year’s Support of the Arts award recipients on Thursday, Oct. 22, at the executive residence.

Members of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip-Hop Arts Learning Community primarily describe themselves as UW–Madison students.

“We are students and we are artists,” says Karl Iglesias, a 19-year-old sophomore from Milwaukee who learned about the program two years ago while studying at Rufus King High School.

On stage, he evolves into an intriguing presence as his poetry paints the personal trials of his life. As an artist, he simply wants to share his story his way.

“The quality of art has nothing to do with the age of the lips its being spoken through,” Iglesias says. “You don’t have to be 25 to be legitimate in what you do, and the ability to express yourself isn’t age-related.”

But he’s still a student, says Iglesias, who is proud to be a dean’s list student as a freshman. Now, focusing on his poetry and expanding into dance, he’s moving toward a major in theater.

Working with the program’s instruction team — which includes School of Education-based faculty and creative director Chris Walker and Def Poet and First Wave creative director Rafael Casal — students learn the language, communication and performance skills of spoken word and hip-hop.

The cutting-edge multicultural artistic program for incoming UW–Madison students is the first university program in the nation centered on spoken word and hip-hop culture.

First Wave students have set a goal of changing how hip-hop and spoken word are viewed.

“Hip-hop has the connotation of being for street rats and dropouts,” Iglesias says, adding that stereotype is undeserved. “This isn’t a game or a fad. To be part of First Wave is definitely groundbreaking.”

William Giles, 20, didn’t discover the spoken-word community until about a year ago, when he joined the international Youth Speaks organization in his home state of Hawaii.

“I started writing because I didn’t know how to talk to people,” Giles says.

The nonprofit teen organization Youth Speaks opened a door into an unexpected world stage for Giles. He went from a shy and frustrated teen to a member of the winning Youth Speaks Slam team in Hawaii, then went on to win the Brave New Voices International Poetry Championship in 2008.

The spoken-word community drew Giles in, and he worked to earn a berth in UW–Madison’s program. From the beginning, he says, it was clear that UW–Madison’s First Wave Learning Community has nothing to do with the commercial hip-hop world.

“Commercial rap and hip-hop perpetuates negative stereotypes,” Giles says. “It traps a lot of youth into the negative roles it portrays. Spoken word is an art form. In First Wave, I’m working with the most conscientious artists I’ve ever worked with, and the art has sparked my pursuit of academics.”