February 23, 2024
Keith Washington and his art at the Peace and Justice Center

Keith Washington, a highly talented and passionate artist in Bangor, Maine, opened up about the lack of representation for minorities through his own experiences in the local art scene during our conversation. He recounted an impactful experience he had at the Main Street Cavern. It was there that he met a lady from Georgia, who shared her discouragement with how she was treated in Bangor. She revealed that the people here didn’t stand with her. This encounter inspired Keith to write a powerful piece titled “16 Years,” which addresses the harsh realities of racism, prejudice, and bias.

Despite the hardships faced by minorities, Keith remained resolute. He refused to run away from the challenges, understanding that it was essential to stand tall and hold his ground. Keith’s unwavering determination was fueled by a burning desire to address the injustices he witnessed. Not only did these issues personally affect him, but they also attacked his passion as an artist. The connection between art and individual expression was crucial to Keith, and he couldn’t fathom the deep hurt inflicted by limitations and prejudice.

Artistic expression is being stifled in Bangor

Keith highlighted the broader struggles faced by artists, poets, and musicians in Bangor. He emphasized the need for freedom of expression and the removal of obstacles that hindered their ability to be themselves. Keith spoke about the judgment and genre constraints prevalent in galleries, as well as the dismissive comments he had personally encountered. The pressure to conform and fit into societal boxes was disheartening, and Keith was determined not to compromise his artistic identity for the sake of acceptance.

The art world, Keith believes, should celebrate individuality and authenticity. He passionately expressed that true art came from the soul, allowing the artist’s unique voice to shine through. Keith lamented the fact that behind the scenes, many artists faced numerous barriers and obstacles to showcase their work. 

One of the current barriers for visual artists is the restrictive nature of today’s galleries. Rather than accepting work in which an artist truly expresses themselves, they limit their acceptance to art that conforms to standard styles and connected artists. Reflecting on the past, Keith reminisced about a time when artists could walk into any gallery and have their work accepted, regardless of its genre or style.

He also highlighted the struggle faced by musicians throughout history, as society’s limitations often led to failure and a life of poverty. Keith felt that society’s desire to suppress outspoken individuals was prevalent everywhere, making it a constant fight for freedom and equality.

Leading the charge for change

Despite the challenges, Keith and his partner, Nicole Roberts, embarked on a mission to support fellow artists, musicians, and poets. They organized independent shows and aimed to create opportunities for artists to express themselves freely. Keith expressed his frustration with local bars that seemed to discriminate against certain DJ artists, feeling that a smokescreen of favoritism and discrimination blocked opportunities for talented individuals.

Keith urges Bangor to embrace change and open doors for all artists, regardless of their background or connections. He believed that by allowing individuals to pursue their passions and express themselves freely, incredible opportunities and positive transformation could occur. Even in the face of opposition and skepticism, Keith affirmed that the movement for change was here to stay. Their purpose was clear, and they wouldn’t be deterred.

When asked if their movement had a name, Keith mentioned the Afro-Rootenetic movement, a term coined by his partner Nicole. The name symbolized the roots of African-Americans and celebrated their diverse heritage and cultural contributions.

As my conversation with Keith continued, his passion and determination in the fight for representation, equality, and freedom of artistic expression was evident. 

With encouragement, everyone can be the best version of themselves

Keith possesses an unwavering determination to bring out the beauty in people and their talents. His mission is to create a world where individuals can rise above societal judgments and embrace their true potential. He firmly believes that it all starts with one person who believes in the fight, igniting a spark that inspires others to believe in themselves.

Keith emphasizes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but so many people are scared to step out of their comfort zones. We, as leaders, have the opportunity to show them what is possible. We draw inspiration from great artists, musicians, and the remarkable achievements of our own families. Above all, we are motivated by the incredible things that God does.”

Unity overcomes adversity

Keith believes that unity is a powerful force against the tactics of division employed by those in power. When individuals come together with one voice, their collective strength becomes impossible to ignore. With this in mind, he envisions a movement that welcomes anyone suffering through similar challenges to join.

Keith reminisced about his days of performing spoken word poetry at the Brick Church Open Mic before the building changed ownership. He noticed a decline in artistic opportunities, leaving many talented individuals without a platform. Determined to change that, he desires to start a group called The Traveling Poets, which seeks enthusiastic and driven individuals to collaborate on artistic endeavors and business ventures.

“I’m looking for a few people right now to form this group,” Keith said, “but it hasn’t happened yet because I’m trying to get people who are just as enthusiastic as myself and Nicole and driven and about business.”

Mainstream media doesn’t always tell the right story

We discussed ways they’ve tried to get the word out about their movement. Keith has experienced challenges with the mainstream media’s portrayal of his message. He highlights the frustrating reality of news outlets cherry-picking sound bites and editing stories to fit their narratives. The true essence and motivation behind his movement often get lost in the process. Determined to have his voice heard, Keith envisions turning his message into live video footage, providing an unfiltered and authentic platform for his inspiring words to resonate with people.

It is clear that the mainstream media often prioritizes sensationalism over genuine storytelling and human connection.  Keith lamented the media’s disregard for true feelings and voices. He encourages individuals who want their voices to be heard to take matters into their own hands, whether it means speaking up through a bullhorn in the streets or delivering powerful truths on stage as he does with his poetry.

Keith’s vision for Bangor: a vibrant artistic community

Keith’s unwavering determination and steadfast belief in the power of unity and individual action serve as a beacon of hope. Through his movement, he aspires to inspire others to overcome fear, embrace their gifts, and work together to create a better world. Keith and Nicole’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of resilience, collaboration, and unwavering faith in oneself and the community.

Keith has a vision for a vibrant artistic community in Bangor, Maine. Keith envisions a future where the arts flourish, barriers crumble, and creativity prevails in Bangor. Despite facing barriers and naysayers, Keith and his partner Nicole are dedicated to breaking down the limitations that have hindered local musicians and artists. 

Keith vividly recalled the turning point when he approached City Hall to address the lack of performance spaces in the city. The iconic Brick Church, once a hub for artists, had been acquired by a motorcycle group, leaving musicians scattered and discouraged. Determined to bring back the music and creative energy on a larger scale, Keith and Nicole launched their foundation.

Their inaugural show at the waterfront marked a significant milestone in their mission. With a stage set up and the participation of former New York City musician Nick DeMulis and local poets, the event attracted over 100 people. Keith and Nicole didn’t stop at providing entertainment; they also cooked food on the grill for both the homeless and the general public. The event showcased their dedication to fostering community and spreading joy through the arts.

Financial support plays a vital role in bringing their vision to life. Keith acknowledges that the city’s recent allocation of funds overlooked the arts community. He firmly believes that some of the funds should be directed towards supporting artists, particularly those from minority backgrounds. Grants and individual support can make a significant impact, empowering artists to pursue their passions and contribute to the community.

A place where artists can be free to express themselves

Keith recognizes a void that exists in Bangor, Maine—a place where people could enjoy more than just a cup of coffee. His vision is a place of business where friends can gather to take in art of all kinds, as artists would be free to express themselves. 

Keith envisions a business and a building that can serve as a creative hub, encompassing a stage for performances, a cozy coffeehouse for intimate gatherings, and an art class space. His passion shines through as he describes their desire to operate the venue independently, free from external interference. All he needs is a team of dedicated individuals who share his vision and believe in the transformative power of art.  Patrons would be able to also enjoy delicious unique food as well, and experience it as another form of art.

When Keith isn’t spitting fire into a mic, he’s using fire to create culinary masterpieces. No stranger to fine cooking and grilling, and he envisioned a venue where guests could enjoy a wide range of delectable dishes. “I can cook it all,” he stated. His dream was to create a space that merged art, music, poetry, and culinary delights seamlessly, offering an immersive and transformative experience for the community. He will be creating a foundation where artists could find acceptance and a space to express themselves freely.

Keith reminisced about the loss of beloved venues like the Ipanema, where he had performed stand-up comedy. Those losses left a void that he was determined to fill. He believed that laughter, music, and art had the power to heal, inspire, and motivate individuals, offering an escape from the struggles of life. “People like to laugh, people like music, people like art, people like to be engaged, people like stimulation and motivation,” he explained.

Calling on the community to help overcome the challenges

Community is at the core of Keith’s vision. He believes in the power of community to bring about positive change and inspire others to unleash their creative potential. By investing in themselves and their community, they could create a positive ripple effect, inspiring change and spreading the message of acceptance and creativity.

While Keith recognizes the challenges in obtaining financial backing and outside support. He emphasizes the need for a collaborative effort from various sources, including organizations and individuals who are willing to invest in their vision. Keith’s carpentry expertise and unwavering determination assure him that once they secure the building, the rest will fall into place. Keith will be seeking passionate individuals who truly care about his vision and believe in it.

Creating a positive space for artists

Keith’s dream was not about surpassing others but about nurturing a supportive and uplifting environment. He aimed to create a space free from negativity and toxicity, a place where people could find encouragement and empowerment. His vision held the potential to not only impact his immediate community but also to inspire other businesses to adapt and reinvent themselves.

Keith recognizes that his dream alone would not solve all the existing challenges in the art scene in Bangor. However, he emphasized the importance of taking action and pressing for change. “Nobody’s going to pull you out of bed in the morning except yourself,” he asserted. Keith knows that change requires effort and motivation, and he is ready to lead the way.

Drawing inspiration from Portland

Some of the inspiration for Keith’s vision comes from Portland, Maine. The city had left an indelible mark on his spirit, igniting a fire within him that he was determined to bring back to his beloved Bangor. He eagerly shared his experiences, his words brimming with enthusiasm.

“You wouldn’t believe how these people are,” Keith recalled, “let me tell you, it was like stepping into a world of endless possibilities. From the moment we arrived, there was never a dull moment.”

He painted a vivid picture of Portland’s vibrant nightlife, where clubs and restaurants pulsated with energy, enticing visitors with their unique offerings. Keith’s voice lit up as he recounted their journey, from beaches and ferry rides to reggae festivals on Peaks Island. “It’s everything you can imagine beyond your wildest dreams,” he marveled.

But it wasn’t just the attractions that captivated Keith—it was the people. He spoke with awe about the warm and welcoming nature of the locals. They stopped to engage in conversations, sharing their stories and passions. Keith recounted meeting local fishermen and supporting seafood businesses. “People are actually out there doing this stuff,” he exclaimed. The passion and vibrancy he witnessed left an indelible impression on him.

“Why can’t Bangor have this kind of fire?” Keith pondered. He couldn’t help but wonder why his own community couldn’t embrace the same level of creativity and energy. Portland’s bustling businesses, lively music scene, and thriving arts district inspired him to seek change. He yearned for Bangor to break free from stagnation and embrace the possibilities that lay before them.

Keith firmly believed that the key to unlocking Bangor’s potential lay in pouring love and energy into the community. He expressed his disappointment with the current state of affairs, acknowledging the presence of homelessness, despair, and prejudice that plagued the city. But he refused to accept that as the status quo. He called upon his fellow community members to awaken from their slumber, to realize that they held the power to transform their city. “Bangor has to wake up,” he urged.

The vision of Portland’s thriving artistic haven had left an indelible imprint on Keith’s soul. He believes that Bangor, too, could achieve greatness if they embraced creativity, unity, and a shared love for their community. 

An inspired name

When asked about the name of his project, Keith shares the inspiration behind his business card, which reads “Leo 75 Kingdom Products Incorporated.” The name incorporates his family’s North Carolina roots and pays homage to his birth year and astrological sign, Leo. This name, Keith believes, embodies the essence of his project and the foundation laid by himself and his partner, Nicole.

Being the leader this moment needs

He understands that to make his vision a reality, he must orchestrate and align everyone involved on the same page. “If that one man pushes hard enough, he can make his dream manifest,” Keith passionately states.

For Keith, success requires focus, determination, and a bullheaded attitude. He knows that achieving his dreams demands working tirelessly into the late hours of the night. No matter the obstacles or the strength of the winds blowing against him, Keith believes in the power of constant movement and never stopping. “You have to go in and believe it to achieve,” he emphasizes.

Keith’s passion is infectious, as he speaks of his ideas as if they have already come to fruition. Unlike others who may approach their ideas tentatively, Keith’s certainty and unwavering belief in his vision captivate those around him. “You have to see it and believe it,” he asserts. His mind is his blueprint, the foundation upon which he constructs his projects. Whether it’s poetry, spoken word, sound systems, or furniture, Keith’s versatility and raw, heart-driven creativity shine through.

As Keith contemplates his project, he envisions not just the barriers and challenges but also the possible solutions. He wants to create a space that brings people together, where funds are raised and experts from various fields align behind his vision. His determination extends beyond merely telling a nice story; he wants to inspire and mobilize people to connect with him and contribute to his dream.

Change will come

Despite the challenges faced by the community, Keith remains resolute in his belief that positive change is possible. He emphasizes the importance of leading by example and wholeheartedly pursuing one’s dreams. “You’ve got to want it and make it happen,” Keith emphasizes. 

Keith encourages interested individuals to find them on Facebook or contact them via email or phone. For those who aren’t artists but want to contribute, Keith suggests finding like-minded individuals who are willing to support the cause. Financial support, in particular, plays a vital role in opening doors and amplifying their message. By pouring in love, support, and resources, others can help break down barriers and create a society where everyone’s potential can flourish. Financial support is a crucial need for the movement to thrive.

To learn more about the project and how you can contribute, please reach out to Nicole Roberts at nicole.roberts@maine.edu.

Featured image from the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine Facebook Page.