-Topic knows how to think outside the box. For the past two years, the Dallas rapper has turned his birthday into a giant party where all his friends play, called Cake Jam. He even made a mixtape and picture book to pay tribute to his favorite sweaters. But -Topic's latest idea actually makes for a small bit of history, and could open a major door for Dallas musicians: He's the first musician to receive a grant from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs.
"The gravity of it took a minute to kick in, because, 'Dude, your city just put bucks behind you to do what you were planning to do with you life. This shit is possible,'" -Topic says. "It proves that there's a chance for artists like me here to really do something amazing. Makes me super proud."
-Topic says the grant will primarily help to fund upcoming events that he's planning, including next year's Cake Jam. "With most events, we pull from our own pockets to make things happen, so this was dope," he says. Some of the details of the grant he prefers to keep under wraps until it's time for the events to be announced. "First thing though: I get a load of stress off knowing I don't have to front everything."
Up until 2015, such an opportunity wouldn't have been possible for artists in Dallas, musicians or otherwise. It was only last year that the OCA began issuing these grants. Ariel Saldivar, an at-large commissioner on the City of Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission, played an instrumental role in making the grants happen, along with then-vice chair Giovani Valderas and then-interim director David Fisher.
"We came up with the idea two years ago to say we need money in our current ecosystem, in our community, for Dallas residents," Saldivar remembers. "There really wasn't a lot going on in the arts community in terms of giving resources. Everybody loves to give free space to artists, but then wouldn't give them any money to do things."
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One of the first people to receive an OCA grant was Arthur Peña, a visual artist and the owner of roving music venue Vice Palace. He used the money to start Vice Palace Tapes, recording a series of live performances by Dallas bands which have subsequently been released on limited-run cassette tapes that are their own mini art pieces. But -Topic is the first musician to get a grant.
"I think in the beginning, visual artists just had more of a key in to these grants and as word started spreading musicians were like, 'Hey, we can apply to this, too,'" says Saldivar. To her knowledge, -Topic is the only musician to apply so far, although she's had at least one other express interest to her personally. "It's just a slow process of getting word out there and letting people know there is money and they can apply for it."
The opportunities to get that money have been growing. Ten grants were issued last year, but this year there have already been 43, with the grants themselves growing from $1,000 each to as much as $20,000. "The amount originally started with $100,000 and after the first 10 people got grants and they saw the success, they upped the budget to $225,000," says Saldivar.
The parameters for who is eligible have grown, too. "When it was originated, only nonprofits could apply, but now anybody can apply if they're an artist," she says.
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That's not to say that the city is simply throwing money at artists. "The application process was pretty brutal on the, 'Fill out, editing, re-editing, new set of papers, fill out, edit, re-edit, number crunch, waiting two weeks, more paperwork, almost done but I want to quit here' tip," -Topic says.
Fortunately, given his participation in the Red Bull Music Academy, he was prepared to do the work: "With the Red Bull Music Academy application being 17 pages, all I have to do is survive the application. Do that, the battle is 75 percent won. Seize this opportunity." Criteria are broad for what exactly artists do with the money should they receive a grant — "Essentially, make and do something in Dallas," Saldivar says with a laugh — but there is an expectation for community engagement. "Part of the criteria is to do something within the community and also create more of a diverse and cultural equity," Saldivar says. Recipients are given half the money up front and the remainder upon the completion of their projects or events.
-Topic, ever a force of feel-good (or more specifically, Be Good and Do Well) energy with his ever-present smile and messages of positivity and engagement, is convinced that more musicians are bound to start following suit. "At the meeting, five of my closest musician buddies were standing right there next to me," he says. "I see it becoming a popular reach for artists in the city to take, and duh, it's supposed to. We finally get a fair shot at making real things happen here."
"I would love to see more musicians apply," Saldivar agrees. She says there is room for all sorts of ways to make use of the money, including helping artists pay to have records recorded, pressed to vinyl, or given away for free at shows. "I just want to see a lot of creativity come out of musicians in general. … The sky's the limit, really."