Touring art show celebrates artists of color, marks 20 years with new film

Current tour and forthcoming Hulu documentary celebrate Art, Beats and Lyrics’ impact.
Art, Beats and Lyrics founder Jabari Graham and curator Dwayne "Dubelyoo" Wright have been working together for the past two decades. Courtesy of Jorge Sigala

Credit: Jorge Sigala

Credit: Jorge Sigala

Art, Beats and Lyrics founder Jabari Graham and curator Dwayne "Dubelyoo" Wright have been working together for the past two decades. Courtesy of Jorge Sigala

In 2004, Jabari Graham and Dwayne “Dubelyoo” Wright sat in Atlanta’s Apache Cafe, eating jerk wings, brainstorming.

Graham had just produced the first instance of his show Art, Beats and Lyrics (AB+L) at The 5 Spot in Little Five Points, and Wright was one of the featured artists in the inaugural event. The High Museum of Art caught wind of Graham’s show and pitched him on the idea of bringing AB+L to the Midtown institution.

At the time, Graham was 23 and recently laid off from UniverSoul Circus. Wright, an artist and North Carolina transplant was 27. In April 2005, the two brought Atlanta-based street artists UrbanMedium, Dosa Kim, New York designer Fuse Green and Michi Meko to showcase their work. “We were all young artists trying to get out there. And the street art scene wasn’t really big in Atlanta,” remembers Wright. “It was really a cool environment for all these people to get together, having a common goal of taking our work to a museum.”

When Graham initially conceived of the idea for AB+L, giving young artists of color inspired by hip-hop culture a platform was at the forefront. His event would celebrate established and up-and-coming contemporary artists that were overlooked by more traditional art houses. There was also the music element. The event would include a DJ and music headliner.

Now, AB+L is a traveling national exhibition that functions as an art show, dance party, concert and community gathering highlighting creatives of color. In addition to a 20th anniversary tour, there’s also a Hulu documentary, “Arts, Beats +Lyrics,” that will be available for streaming on March 29. The “Freaknik” documentary is driving up Hulu streams for folks wanting that sense of nostalgia, but the AB+L doc and story is also an archival look at a crucial movement in Atlanta’s Black culture trajectory.

Art, Beats and Lyrics typically draws 3,000 people, with the RSVP list reaching upwards of 10,000 responses.

Credit: Kat Goduco Photo

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Credit: Kat Goduco Photo

Graham bankrolled the first installment of AB+L with unemployment checks, and money from friends, family and his church. A few years after their show at the High, Graham and Wright were approached by Jack Daniels to become a sponsor. That’s when the duo took their show on the road to Charlotte, North Carolina, for “an away game” to celebrate local artists there and saw a long lines and high RSVPs. To see their concept take shape outside of Atlanta proved crucial.

“To see those same results in Charlotte, maybe we can fuel that or we can feed that to other creatives or other people in other cities,” said Graham.

In 2008, AB+L became a touring show. The partnership with Jack Daniels has been intact since. What started in a bar is now filling stadiums. AB+L has been hosted by Mercedes Benz-Stadium as well as other sports venues in Houston, Miami and St. Louis.

The corporate sponsorship enables AB+L to be a free event with RSVP and has led to an all-star list of musical performers including 8 Ball and MJG, a young Kendrick Lamar, Cee-Lo, Raekwon and Scarface. At the first show in 2004, roughly 300 people showed up. Today, the event averages 3,000 attendees, with the RSVP list climbing upwards of 10,000.

The RSVP list for the forthcoming Atlanta show is already full. Killer Mike is the musical guest, with DJ sets from Wavy Lachii, DJ Jaycee, Hourglass and DJ Wally Sparks. Concert host and emcee Dres Tha Beatnik will handle the night’s emceeing duties.

Graham and Wright serve as the event’s producer and curator, respectively. There are typically two weeks between tour stops to prep, where Graham is focused in on logistics, Wright is working with the artists. One of the coolest parts of watching their vision grow is that the event has gotten old enough to become a true family affair.

“There was a time where some attendees had to find babysitters to watch their kid. Now some of those kids are at the show,” said Graham.

With so much history, and so many stories and experiences during the past two decades, Graham and Wright felt it was time bring their story together in a documentary, so they pitched the idea of doing one. The collaborative effort between Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Cult Creative, Vox Creative and Spark Foundry is a film with a runtime of just under 90 minutes.

“A lot of people don’t get an opportunity to tell their story in their own words, in their own time,” Graham said. “We’re telling it ourselves. I think that is something you really don’t see a lot of, especially when it comes to art, and especially when it comes to Black creatives.”

DJ Quik performs at the Art, Beats and Lyrics tour stop in Detroit in 2024.

Credit: Kat Goduco Photo

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Credit: Kat Goduco Photo

In bringing the the AB+L story to the screen, independent filmmaker Bill Horace wanted to get away from a chronological retelling of Graham and Wright’s story. Instead, the film focuses on three artists — Sydney James, Lisette “Arrrtaddict” Correa and Shawn Stewart — as they prepare for the 20th anniversary tour. Their stories give viewers a sense of AB+L’s present, while origin stories for Graham and Wright offer glimpses of the show’s past.

“These guys are creating opportunities for artists, creating community. It’s like, ‘look, these are the artists that they are helping. This is the community that they’re building’,” said Horace. “I feel like that was really important and it kind wove together really well.”

Horace was not familiar with Graham, Wright or AB+L before beating out other directors for a chance to bring the story to life visually. To do this, Horace used anamorphic lenses to keep shots wide, giving viewers a sense of the large scale installations and colorful aesthetics that are signatures of the event.

Graham and Wright serve as executive producers for the film, actively engaged in the production process down to helping with clearances for archival footage and photos. More than anything, the process has been a reflection of AB+L’s influence on creative communities of color in other cities. The pair willingly shares peeks of their blueprint to others looking to bring similar concepts and gatherings to their hometowns.

On a more personal level, this year of celebration gives them time to reflect on life outside of AB+L. “The cool thing is when you work with somebody this long, you get to see them in different phases of their lives and you see them going from young dudes out trying to conquer the world to family men,” said Wright, who recently became a father.

Though Graham says he has watched the film more than 50 times, he hasn’t stopped to smell the roses growing from the seeds of their efforts.

“So, have I slowed down to think about day one to right now? No, I haven’t because the party’s still going.”


Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Presents Art, Beats & Lyrics

Saturday, March 30. Pullman Yards, 225 Rogers St. NE, Atlanta. RSVP is full.