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The Power of the People

Resource type: News

The Bermudian | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

The calling of Gavin Smith and the Chewstick movement


Chewstick founder Gavin Djata Smith and Carly Lodge


There is a corps of Bermudian creatives that, every Saturday night, makes its way into Hamilton to gather on Court Street and read poetry, tell stories, sing and play music, listen to each other without judgment or prejudice. Everyone there, black and white, young and old, is content to take in their fellow man’s creative catharsis; it seems the expression of pain, of happiness, of freedom, of truth, of love is needed in Bermuda these days. They call this gathering the Chewstick movement.

Gavin Djata Smith is a doer, somebody once said, one of those men who gets a mad idea stuck in his head and won’t let it go until the madness is realized. Chewstick was one of those mad ideas, a nostalgic and poetic harkening back to the days when story telling was left to the people, a “neo-griot movement,” as he calls it. Smith speaks with a soft Bermudian twang, interjecting his sentences with well-pronounced Bermudianisms. These days he wears a closely shaven haircut and the faintest semblance of a beard, presumably out of the need to project a more professional appearance than his previous chest-length dreadlocks. Though he retains the air of a wide-eyed musician, he shakes your hand and looks you in the eye and listens intently, well practiced at hosting guests, amiable to the point of charming.

He has been the face of Chewstick since it began in December 2002, and he acts accordingly. His mission, Chewstick’s mission, is to “break down the social barriers” that divide Bermuda through artistic collaboration, providing an environment where the “backatawn” beatnik can applaud and encourage the poet prepster and vice-versa. Performers are champions of self-expression through any medium, professing an ideology that encourages mutual respect as a member of humanity rather than the limitations of social class. For the Chewstick regulars who show up for the weekly open-mic lounge sessions, this has certainly been accomplished.

Since the movement started some eight years ago, Chewstick’s popularity and recognition within the community has steadily risen; however, it is now that Gavin Smith’s original vision is taking form. In 2009, recognizing the need for expansion, Smith took his movement to the next level, registering Chewstick as a charity and cementing it as the grassroots success story he had hoped it would become. The Atlantic Philanthropies donated the capital needed for Smith to employ himself as a full-time executive director along with part-time staff dedicated to the cause.

The result of this metamorphosis is manifested in the ever-growing popularity of Chewstick’s most successful and lofty enterprise, BeachFest, whose attendance levels at Horseshoe Bay on the first day of Cup Match this year may leave many scratching their heads over Premier Brown’s decision to spend millions on the always-underwhelming Bermuda Music Festival. Sparked in the most natural of ways, the idea for BeachFest was hatched by a few friends who recognized a gap in the Cup Match market: the need for entertainment beyond losing one’s life savings at Crown and Anchor and watching cricket teams play out to a draw.

BeachFest not only gives precious stage time to local musicians like Homegrown, Joy Barnum, K.A.S.E., The Narrows and Secret PoPo, it hosts five-a-side beach-football matches, tug-of-war contests, volleyball, and Crown and Anchor tables that give (prizes, not money) instead of receive, all of this to exuberant participation.

In 2006, BeachFest’s debut year, they estimated the attendance at two to three thousand people—what they guessed was the normal attendance at Horseshoe Beach on the first day of Cup Match.

“Because it’s a free event, we don’t have any hard numbers to go by,” Smith admits, “but we estimated the growth to be by about a thousand each year up until 2009, where we grew from attracting around three thousand in 2008 to over five thousand.”

This year, ignoring the rain that left the Somerset Cricket Club starkly barren of Cup Match revellers, Bermudians flocked to Horseshoe Beach; Smith estimates attendance at just under ten thousand, two thousand less than the attendance they had anticipated. Yes, you read that correctly—despite the pouring rain, somewhere between nine and ten thousand Bermudians and non-Bermudians went to Horseshoe Beach for BeachFest. With those numbers in mind, if there is ever hope for Bermuda hosting an internationally popular music festival, BeachFest is it.

In the dark recesses of a basement located on the corner of Elliot and Court Streets, Smith and a handful of his revolutionary faithful spend their hours plotting how, exactly, they are going to bring this island together at a time when the need for unity is growing increasingly dire. “Chewstick is the frontline of change…” their website reads. The front line, it seems, is Court Street. The reason Smith chose to situate his enterprise smack in the middle of Court Street is to show that the area isn’t what people have been led to believe it is at a time when Bermuda finds itself increasingly drowned by “ultra-violence,” as he puts it.

Just as they situate their headquarters in the middle of the perceived no-fly zone called Court Street, Chewstick often chooses venues for their events that are seemingly undesirable, places notorious for violence, yet chosen to prove a point. Such brazen rejection of a venue’s reputation for hostility has been the starting block for “breaking the social barriers” since Chewstick hosted its first open-mic night at Hilly’s, now Bootsie’s, back in 2002. But Hilly’s wasn’t quite taboo enough, and they soon shifted their venue to the shady Champions Club on Reid Street.

“Champions was notorious, and people were very much terrified,” Smith says. “They had someone murdered there, they had beatings, late-night brawls, it was a hot spot—police were always present. It was the first time we realized what the power of art and creativity and people can do. What we came to understand was that it’s not necessarily the space or the place, it’s what goes on in certain places that is the deciding factor, and we have proven that, time and time again.”

Since the first Chewstick event at Hilly’s some eight years ago, there has never been a violent incident. This even includes BeachFest, where the mass consumption of alcohol might lead one to expect tempers to flare, and still, not one fist has been raised.

Today, they stage their weekly open-mic nights at the Spinning Wheel on Court Street, “the ultimate venue,” Smith says, “at least for myself and most of the crew. It was seen as the big no-fly zone. No one wanted to go to Spinning Wheel, blacks or whites. Everyone had written Spinning Wheel off as an option because of its mid-nineties reputation when some gunplay took place.”

The day Smith spoke those words was the day after the notorious Raymond Troy “Yankee” Rawlins was shot and killed at the Spinning Wheel, the second time an attempt was made on his life at the club. The first time, Smith and his staff heard the gunshots. Though these are isolated and motive-driven incidents, the fact remains that Court Street and the surrounding area has played host to far more gunplay than any person, Bermudian or otherwise, would like to see. And herein lies the problem that Smith and the Chewstick family are trying frantically to solve.

“A lot of people sincerely, genuinely, ignorantly steer people away from [Court Street] when, I believe, it’s one of the most important areas in the whole country—definitely within the city,” claims Smith. “It’s one of the few areas where you see community business and camaraderie going on. For the vast majority [of residents], the area is quite nice, it’s holistic. You can get anything you want in the zone, unlike many other parts of Bermuda. You can do your shopping, get your medicine, get your clothes, your incidentals. You can go to class, you can go to church, anything you need…. You can even get your licence.”

The Bermuda Small Business Development Corporation (BSBDC) saw the need for the economic revitalization of Court Street back in 2008 when it became one of several Economic Empowerment Zones—the “zone” Smith refers to—designed to encourage and assist locally owned businesses. However, Chewstick sees economic empowerment as only half the battle; it is cultural empowerment they are fighting for.

“It’s not only in the interest of the Government anymore, or the BSBDC,” Smith asserts. “The people that live here are starting to come together, to ‘take back the neighbourhood’ and stop it from being demonized by the press and the public.”

It takes only an hour in the Chewstick headquarters, sitting on the black-leather sofas in a basement cooled by a single, rotating fan, to quickly realize how important their message has become to so many people. For a few, Chewstick has taken over their lives, transformed them even. Chewstick has become a surrogate family for the scuppered creative youths of Bermuda. It is the music teacher a poor musician could never afford, the encouraging parent a privileged poet never knew, a sanctuary for a kid caught up in the violence he so desperately wants to escape.

Throughout their working hours, Smith and his staff happily entertain the whims of whoever walks down their steps, visitors from all walks of life—privileged young white girls, old and wandering Rastafarians carrying carved and worn-down walking sticks, tattooed rappers, burned-out Bermudian reggae stars who ask you to buy their CD just so they can get the bus home—all sitting down together on the black-leather sofas, happy to talk about anything with whomever is there simply because of a mutual understanding.

One part-time staffer, Carly Lodge, became involved in Chewstick only a year ago, the summer of BeachFest 2009. Since then, Chewstick has dominated her life, especially the summers, as many of the responsibilities of BeachFest fell on her and a handful of others. “I had no idea, I wasn’t ready,” Lodge says. “I thought I was going to make a few phone calls, sit and sell drink tickets. I had no idea. I’ve never worked so hard in my entire life.”

“It’s a monster!” Smith interjects. Lodge laughs and nods in agreement.

“For me,” she continues, “the best part, the reward for all my hard work, came at about mid-day on BeachFest, just after tug-of-war. You step away, ask someone else to do whatever it was that you were doing, you walk down the beach and you just look…there’s thousands of people here! They’re black and they’re white and they’re skinny and they’re fat and, you know, nobody cares if you’re half hot or full hot. They’re all having fun in board shorts and bikinis and you have to smile! It’s this great, loving atmosphere. I mean, this year, when it really started pouring down in the evening, we thought we should close the bar, but people just would not stop dancing. They wouldn’t go home!”

It is here, in Carly Lodge’s simple description of BeachFest, that the vitality of Chewstick’s mission comes to life. “With Chewstick,” Smith says, “everything we’ve been doing in the arts is only the medium we are using to bring everyone together. It’s not really about the arts in the full sense, it’s about thinking, How do we break down these barriers? Music is the great unifier.”

 Winter 2010

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Chewstick is an Atlantic grantee.

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Chewstick, Gavin Smith