“Don’t call it a comeback! I’ve been here for years!”

Nearly three decades ago, legendary emcee LL Cool J brazenly launched Mama Said Knock You Out with this defiant proclamation that could further serve as the mantra for resolute artists who’ve stood by, in, and for Detroit without wavering.

A swirling resurgence worth relishing certainly exists. However, new construction clamor cannot over-crescendo the Motor City’s consistent choral keepers of the faith ⁠— Detroit’s powerful artist community. Colossal cranes cannot block the kaleidoscopic vision of a conscious continuum of creatives that have devotedly bestowed its beauty, protected its integrity, and propelled positivity against gratuitous poverty and ruinous reporting.

Creative energy is steeped in Detroit’s history. Dearly departed poet, writer, professor, and provocateur Amiri Baraka affirmed: “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”

Dequindre Cut | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

Artists made the first move.

Detroit’s creative commonwealth is ripe with thoughtful futurists who counteracted social stratification with innovation and community engagement.

Consider Mike Banks, who produced pioneering records and founded the globally respected group Underground Resistance. Mike acquired the dilapidated former UAW Union Hall on E. Grand Blvd in 2002, and then poured years of blood, sweat, and equity into renovating and assembling Submerge, a label, distribution company, and museum dedicated to the fascinating birth and galactic ascension of Detroit Techno. Preceding any substantial real estate prospecting, he firmly planted his flag in the neglected North End, east of the renowned Motown Museum, as a beacon of progressive ideology, jobs for veterans, workspaces for musicians, and even a safe haven for a few stray dogs.

Elements of the Submerge Techno Museum’s “Exhibit 3000” | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

A visual storyteller of more than 45 years, Olayami Dabls answered abandonment in 2003 on the opposite end of the same thoroughfare, west of Berry Gordy’s Hitsville, USA, with the MBAD African Bead Museum. Dazzlingly adorned with magical murals, modified mirrors, and mystic symbols, MBAD boasts eighteen outdoor installations and houses thousands of ancient beads from myriad African dynasties.

MBAD African Bead Museum | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

MBAD African Bead Museum | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

Lifelong Detroiter, second Detroit News female staff photographer, and Pulitzer Prize nominated Michelle Andonian opened her Eastern Market studio in 1990 — ages before it became a desirable redevelopment district. The fine arts professional and educator has been chronicling her beloved hometown for more than 20 years and publishing acclaimed editorial images in the New Yorker, National Geographic, Newsweek, and the Washington Post. Michelle courageously covered the devastating 1988 Armenian earthquake and recently addressed atrocities of the 1915 Genocide with a moving memoir called “This Picture I Gift.”

Consider Brooklyn-born Ismael Ahmed, who arrived in the Paris of the Midwest at age six and served in the military after high school. The University of Michigan-Dearborn graduate held several visible state positions before co-founding the world’s first museum devoted to Arab American history in 2005. The Arab American National Museum addresses misconceptions about Arab Americans and showcases the Arab world’s civilizational contributions. The affectionately dubbed “Ish” co-created and curates The Concert of Colors, celebrating 27 years of Metro Detroit’s diversity through multi-cultural song and dance. Among the country’s largest world music festivals, it features an all-star revue led by famed musician, Grammy-winning producer, and Blue Note Records president, Don Was.

Detroiters Engaged in a Concert of Colors Performance on the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History Campus | Photography Credit to Annistique Photography

Unstoppable poet and performance artist Jessica Care Moore established Moore Black Press in the 1990s to promote literacy and publish works from fellow emerging writers. Broaching its 23rd year, she presents Black Women Rock, an annual concert and traveling production honoring Betty Davis with magnificent muses relentlessly rockin’ out.

Jessica’s pen yielding predecessors include Detroit’s Poet Laureate, prolific author, publisher, esteemed ‘Godmother of African-American Poetry,’ and nonagenarian Naomi Long Madgett; and Aurora Harris, award winning poet, water rights warrior, advocate for students with special needs, President of the Michigan Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, and lecturer in Literature, Philosophy, Arts, African, and African-American Studies.

Couples Enjoying Campus Martius Park | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

Couples Enjoying Campus Martius Park | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

Devoted grassroots crusader Malik Yakini has been fighting food deserts in the City of Trees since 2006 with the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s four-acre D-Town Farms. The guitarist leads hard-hitting cross genre band Mollywop! as well.

Submerge Records | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

Mike Ellison and UR’s Cornelius Harris at Submerge Records

Rapper Invincible’s hip-hop career spans 20 plus years. Choosing gender neutral pronouns “they” and “them,” the Emergence Media co-founder and late Grace Lee Boggs’ disciple tours internationally, facilitates workshops, and fosters safe spaces for marginalized people’s expression.

Ozzie Rivera’s trailblazing activism dates back to 1971, preserving Wayne State University’s Latino en Marcha program to give Latinos lasting higher education access. The iconic civic leader, educator, and spectacular percussionist also formed staple music acts Bomba Rica and Orquesta La Inspiracion.

Aretha’s Rainbow over Detroit | Photography Credit to Michelle Andonian

For the Love of Art, Life, and Detroit

With over 125 languages supplementing Southeast Michigan’s sweet cacophony of connected and dichotomized corridors, very few figures, if any, can give you the definitive depiction of Detroit. The artists, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians highlighted herein are vivid threads within a vast, vibrant tapestry of creators whose endeavors rebuke redlining and positively permeate the multifarious populations flowering Rosa Parks’ final resting place. They are not validated by — but rather lend immeasurable credibility to — institutions, foundations, forums, and countless public platforms. Such luminaries are not measured by views and likes. They are treasured for their contributions to life.

Dequindre Cut | Photography Credit to Bill Bowen

While you discover The D’s unconquerable, communal culture for yourself, take in its textured artistry, explore the landscape that shapes it, and consider the artists that help force it into existence. You will enjoy its expression, comprehend its power, and appreciate its impact all the more.

Mike Ellison is a multifaceted artist: a musician, actor, poet, and public speaker. Mike was born in Ethiopia, raised in Reston, VA, and fully realized himself as an artist in Detroit. He’s released independent records and headlined national tours as well as registered acting credits that span film, television, and theater (IMDB Michael D. Ellison). Using “Edutainment” as a platform for community engagement, the University of Virginia graduate is also a creative strategist and produces original content for a range of companies and organizations.