In 2015, friends and college students Melvin Griffin, Lauren Williams, and Pelatiah Ishmael “I$H” Morgan, started a radio show on UAB’s student-run station Blaze Radio. Every week, they’d get together to talk all things hip-hop, from new music releases to their opinions on artists. Their passion for music was evident, but that passion grew to new heights once they shifted their focus from mainstream artists to local up-and-comers. When that passion outsized their humble college radio show, the three friends created The Kickback, a creative collective that promotes local talent through music showcases featuring local and regional rappers, R&B singers, and hip-hop artists. Their organization also supports other creatives through regular art exhibitions, pop-up shops, and events for local artists and makers.
On February 4 and 5, The Kickback will partner with Atlanta group Creatives After Dark to host a two-day music festival in the Magic City. Over two nights, 20 rappers and R&B singers from both Alabama and Georgia will perform at the Firehouse in Avondale. Local artists, clothing designers, and other vendors will also be on hand to share and sell their creations. We sat down with event organizer and Kickback founder Melvin Griffin to learn more about The Kickback and the important role it plays in Birmingham’s creative community.
Tell us about the origins of The Kickback? Why did you want to create something like this?
Melvin Griffin: A lot of our friends who made music—wrote, produced, sang—were interested in [our college radio show]. Seeing that we were talking about mainstream artists, they wanted to come on the show to talk about their art and music. We thought that would be a good market to go into to connect with our local scene that we have here in Alabama, and Birmingham in particular. We started doing a lot of interviews with them and playing a lot of their songs on the show, just meshing them into our weekly playlists. After that, we started doing what we do now, which are the showcases. We saw what we were doing with the radio show and thought we could do a better service to [local artists] by doing showcases so they could get in front of people and actually perform their music. Even on the creative side, we could have them sell their clothes, sell their artwork. It started out as a radio show, but it has now turned into a creative incubator as we like to call it. We ourselves are a creative collective, but we use that talent to help others in the city nurture and express their talent.
What is the mission of the Kickback?
MG: Our main mission is to shine a light on the talent here in Birmingham and in Alabama. A lot of people, especially in our circle, feel as if there’s nothing going on in Birmingham, that they have to go to another city to blow up or have the fun that they want to. We want to show people that that same amount of fun you’re chasing in another state where people may not know you, you can have that here in a state and a city that welcomes you because you’re a product of the area.
What is Kickback After Dark?
MG: Kickback After Dark was one of the event series that we were doing pre-Covid in 2019. We were doing one every month. It was different artists every month—different vibes, different sounds, just a different experience every time. So, for this event, we wanted to mesh that with a festival since we took a couple years off from doing anything because COVID was so bad. We thought with this event, it would be good to have two separate nights—one R&B and one hip-hop. So, the first night is R&B called “Lil’ Blue Room” and the second night is hip-hop called “Spectrum”. Both nights we’ll have some artists from Atlanta and some from Birmingham. Tickets are $11 for one night or $22 for a weekend pass and it’s at the Firehouse in Avondale.
What hole does The Kickback fill in the community?
With the radio show, a lot of artists would message us about wanting to be interviewed because they felt like there wasn’t much community in the bigger media markets here. They felt like if they weren’t signed to a major label, the radio stations here wouldn’t play their music. Or if they didn’t know someone who worked at a radio station, they couldn’t get their music played. So, we just wanted to fill that void to let people know that you don’t have to be signed to a major label and you don’t have to have a hit record on the radio. If you’re doing art, if you’re making music and it’s your passion, and we see that you’re passionate about it, we want to give you the floor to express that. I know I would want that if I made music. I would want an open vessel that I could express myself and pour into. We saw a void and thought that with our college radio show we could help them out. And then people really appreciated that, so we made really great connections and friends with the artists here.
How have you seen the hip-hop community grow in Birmingham over the years?
The community has grown vastly from what I remembered when I was in college and especially high school. When I was in high school, there really wasn’t too much to do around hip-hop unless you went to a concert that was coming here—like if Lil Boosie or Webbie came to Birmingham, or Wayne, or Jeezy, or Ludacris. If any of the big names came to do a tour here, that was really the only time we’d have [hip-hop] music events for the greater Birmingham community. We just saw a need in the underground college scene or for some of the high school kids who wanted to step out and make music but didn’t have an avenue to explore it. It’s really grown here, and that’s one thing that has kind of driven me to keep going is that so many people have told us, “Y’all do a great job here. I enjoy coming to your shows.” People were asking us all last year, “Hey, when are you going to do something again?”