Behind the Bars with Crystal Taylor, Co-Founder of the Beats n Bars Hip Hop Festival

by: Shumara Thomas

Hip hop has always spoken to the youth. Whether its message was to educate, inform or simply showcase a reality.  It has a dialect that energizes the listener and as a genre, been profitable worldwide. It’s the machine that inspired, infatuated and often regurgitated the truths and myths of a people in need of an authentic voice. So it’s no surprise that hip hop festivals arise so that hip hop lovers can commune and celebrate a culture (yes it’s in fact a culture) that has meant so much to so many. What’s surprising is when you get a dope one being relatively thrown in your backyard by a black woman steeped in the culture herself, looking to add-on for the next generation. Let me introduce you to the Queen Curator aka Crystal Taylor co-curator of the Beats n Bars Festival happening this August 24th-26th in Durham, NC.

Originally from Clinton NC, her name was one I heard consistently whenever the discussion of local Raleigh-Durham hip hop came up. Either as the one curating the event,  hosting the event, or attending just as a show of support; in some way she made her energy known with Durhamites. We never formally crossed paths but I was excited to see a black woman at the forefront of the local hip scene. Let’s not gloss over it, hip hop is that friend you love. That you are best friends with, thick as thieves inside the house but will shade and ignore you as soon as y’all are in public together. It has an uncomfortable duality with women, particularly black women who are often praised and destroyed in the same verse in hip hop. Crystal will tell you even for her “it’s crazy cause it tells you how brothas perceive women in the industry and what some women have let off too.  It didn’t take long for me to let folk know I ain’t about that shit and I mean business. I think I’ve done a great job of letting men know where I stand (about business) and that they either are on the same page or not.” That fighter attitude is exactly why her and her team’s curated festival Beats n Bars, a three-day educational and performance driven love affair with all things hip hop is on its 3rd consecutive year with no signs of slowing down. And it’s all-encompassing. There are even health and wellness discussions mixed in the panels covering all of the hip hop elements. “…you’ll hear real MCs, witness real DJ battles, see B-Boys/Girls dancing, gain some serious knowledge from the conference and see some dope art installations,” Crystal promises. The festival’s given praise is warranted since most festivals usually fall flat their first year out the starting line. Crystal credits the festivals success with having a dope team by her side. “It takes a strong team, serious planning and execution to do what we’ve done.  I’ve learned a lot from year one. Especially after traveling to other conferences and festivals to see what their playbook is, and then creating your own strategy that makes sense. I’m excited about the growth we’ve experienced and how much more we’ll see with the years to come. There’s things that John [partner John Laww] and I talk/dream about all the time that we have to ‘table’ cause we’re just not there yet — and that’s ok. As long as we’re on the path to getting it…” It’s her genuine affection for the culture I personally think that drives her success as well. The music lover in her is obvious when she discusses the first real album she heard, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

“I remember where I was when I first heard the whole project – it was crazy. I didn’t know who she was or what I was listening to but it was dope…Shortly after Lauryn I fell in love with Pac [Tupac], and then everyone else I love just came right in line behind that.” That love manifested into a brand: Underground Collective that over the last few years has hosted a steady supply of beat battles, open mics, and given a platform to local artists looking to make a name for themselves on the scene. Even though she moved to Durham in 2001 to attend college at NCCU, she supports the city like it’s her hometown.  “I love the city, everything thing about it makes me feel at home,” says Crystal. “My mom went to Central and I have family here so it’s dope. It’s culturally sound, constantly evolving and just a dope place to be.” That energy extends to the local artists as well though, making sure they also are included in the Beats n Bars line up. While big names like hip hop activists Dead Prez are headlining, Crystal and her team made sure local talent was well represented throughout the festival. “It’s what I started my brand [The Underground Collective] off of,” she explains. “It’s what John & Toon started the DURM Hip Hop Summit for: the local hip hop culture. A huge part of hip hop culture is the local artists, bigger names were local artists at one point, right? So why not still give them the platform to shine with names that have paved the way for them.  It’s about showcasing artists in North Carolina that represent hip hop the way it should be and proudly.” Having a great team, dope artists and a burgeoning city to put on the map have all worked hand in hand to make Beats n Bars a festival worth your coins. And if hip hop just isn’t the jam you dig on your toast, Crystal is also a co-founder of BAP, Black August In The Park, an event celebrating blackness and community which just had a another successful event this past Sunday. How does she manage it all without going insane?   For Crystal, it’s because “I love what I do — curating for The Underground Collective and Beats n Bars Festival.  While also being an active co-founder of Black August in the Park.  It’s not easy – that’s for damn sure.  I’ve got days scheduled for BAP and days for BNB, sometimes they run together where I’m doing both festival’s work on the same day – hell that’s most days.  But I make sure to lock in on what I’m doing when I’m doing it and get it done. I have my own measurements of what success looks like on every event, and its different.”

If you need more reasons why you should attend Beats n Bars on August 24th -26th, let Crystal herself tell you want you can and will take away from her event:

“I want people to feel challenged and inspired. I want them to see what was created for them – by them.  I’m a person that had a dream to do something that was dope just for me and my friends, and its lead me to be so successful in so many things that I love. It’s not work it’s my passion and purpose. I want people to know that if you really want something, create a plan, goals, and execute it. Stay focused on it and if it’s dope – people will support it.” Now go support Beats n Bars by buying your tickets here!

*Special shout out to the entire UGC and BnB team for all the hard work they’re doing to make this Durham event a success!! It takes a village: John, Issa, Jamie, Bishop, Tiffany, Lauren, Chelsey, Ari, Johnny and all the volunteers*