The penultimate performance of the 2020 Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series kicks off tonight! Co-presented by CREATE Portage County, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series, this live broadcast stars Minneapolis-based emcee Nur-D, whose lyrics span playful topics like geek culture and pro wrestling as well as complex social issues like racism and toxic masculinity. “He brings a wide perspective to his art,” says Greg Wright, executive director of CREATE. “Nur-D’s desire to make people re-think aspects of hip-hop music brings a layer to our programming we haven’t had before.” The show starts at 7pm ET / 4pm PT — catch the live stream on Facebook, or watch it over at levittamp.org/virtual at any time!
Re-framing the story of small-town living
Stevens Point is a small town in Central Wisconsin home to about 25,000 people. Located along a three-mile stretch of the Wisconsin River, the land, which belonged to the Menomonie people for over 14,000 years, became a vital stopping point for logging industry workers after European settlers colonized the area in the 1800s. As industrialization emerged in Wisconsin, paper mills and other logging-adjacent businesses flourished along the river, and Stevens Point, officially incorporated in 1868, eventually expanded into one of the region’s most robust communities.
Today, the town is known for its many local breweries, vibrant green spaces, strong arts scene, and emerging tech sector. The University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point, recognized statewide for its top-tier environmental science and fine arts programs, brings nearly 10,000 students to town each year and further invigorates community life with a wealth of activities.
While many other small communities in the region have experienced steep declines in both population and prosperity in recent decades, Stevens Point remains somewhat of an outlier. With a healthy economy and steadily increasing number of residents, the town has taken on an identity as a trendsetting, mold-breaking model for what life in a small Midwestern community can be. Diversity is also on the rise in Stevens Point, with frequent cross-cultural festivities celebrating the town’s Hmong and Latinx communities. Even so, the success of Stevens Point has mostly flown under the radar, and according to Wright, one of the goals of the Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series has been to raise the town’s profile. “We really wanted to get the word out about our community,” says Wright. “People who are looking for a smaller place that feels more progressive, more vibrant, they can find that here. We can prove that it’s possible to live in a small community without sacrificing quality of life.”
Making community-wide investments to create change
CREATE Portage County, launched in 2015, exists to better the lives of community residents through investments in arts, culture and creativity. Placemaking and public art projects are a major component of the nonprofit’s work, as well as programs designed to foster innovation, entrepreneurship and connections between community members. Back in 2016, after one of CREATE’s board members interned at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the nonprofit presenter of the Levitt AMP Sheboygan Music Series, the idea to bring a Levitt AMP series to Stevens Point began to take shape. “We saw the Levitt AMP grant as an opportunity to both add some live music into our vibrant arts scene and get our name on the map,” says Wright. “We wanted to reframe the story around small towns and show that they can thrive in the 21st century if they invest in creativity.” With buy-in from the City of Stevens Point, as the parks and recreation department would be pivotal to presenting the outdoor music series, CREATE applied for a Levitt AMP grant in 2016 and presented the first ever Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series the following summer.
Providing a stunning view of both the Wisconsin River and downtown Stevens Point, the picturesque Pfiffner Pioneer Park was a clear choice of venue for the series. The park houses a band shell that was constructed in 1977 as a centennial project, though outside of a handful of performances from local acts each year, the facility saw relatively little use. Through a Levitt AMP series, organizers sought to realize the full potential of this space while bringing in a diverse array of artists that the community may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience. The park is also easily accessible to residents across the city, with downtown Stevens Point within walking distance and the university just down the road, and reachable by just about all modes of transportation — a series of trails brings concertgoers to the park on foot or by bike, and a recently installed dock even allows residents to float over on boats. The park itself sits within the “Nortside” neighborhood, historically home to working class Polish immigrants, which has seen a resurgence in recent years spurred in part by the success of the series.
Wright describes a growing audience at Levitt AMP concerts each summer, with some performances drawing audiences of over 1,000. By booking college musicians as opening acts and intermission shows, an increasing number of attendees are students, helping to bridge the town and gown divide within the community. In addition to the music, CREATE has fostered a festival atmosphere on the lawn on concert nights that’s also become a platform for local businesses. “We bring arts activities, kids activities, good food, locally produced beverages…it’s a really relaxed and fun environment,” says Wright.
Overall, Wright believes the concert series has not only engaged the community and elevated the Stevens Point arts scene, but has also opened the door for profound growth within the community. “People are trusting in that culture change as a result of having a positive experience on the Levitt lawn,” says Wright. “We’ve been able to leverage that to make long-term, community-wide investments in inclusivity, in diversity, in creativity.”
Keeping the community safe and connected
In March, as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic began to sink in, CREATE Portage County quickly sprang into action to help keep the community safe. Utilizing the 3D printing facility at the organization’s IDEA center, CREATE began producing plastic face shields for medical workers, first responders, in-home care workers, and other frontline personnel. Word quickly spread through the town, and residents who owned personal 3D printers joined the effort, while partnerships with local manufacturers Worth Company and Gamber-Johnson helped expedite the assembly process. “At our peak, we had 23 printers running, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” recalls Wright. “We just cranked out as many as we could.” Through this community-wide effort, CREATE produced over 4,000 face shields, providing a critical boost to hospitals and clinics at a time when personal protective equipment was still in short supply. The project had a global impact as well — after sharing the schematics online, Wright learned that people in the UK, Japan and Germany were 3D-printing the same locally-designed face shields to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
In addition to helping the community stay physically protected from the virus, CREATE is also working to combat COVID-related loneliness. “One of our biggest concerns right now is the mental health toll of COVID-19,” says Wright. “Right now, it’s so important for people to still have access to social connectedness.” Following the success of several one-off concert livestreams in the spring, CREATE made the decision to bring the 2020 Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series fully online this summer. The series, which is funded in part through a Levitt AMP Bridge Grant, began in July and includes seven live-streamed concerts, including tonight’s performance from Nur-D. Participants are encouraged to watch the performances outdoors in small, socially-distanced groups, bringing the spirit of Levitt concerts out of Pfiffner Pioneer Park and into the community. “You can take your speakers outside, bring your close friends and family, wear masks, order takeout, and create a mini Levitt lawn right at home!” says Wright.
Another goal of this year’s series is to provide paid performance opportunities for musicians who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. According to Wright, some of the artists booked for the 2020 Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series hadn’t played a single show, virtual or otherwise, since March, with one artist reporting upwards of 100 of their concerts having been canceled. “We really wanted to make sure we honored our contracts and paid musicians,” says Wright. “It was important to us to do our part to support the arts economy.”
Wright is especially excited for tonight’s concert with Nur-D, whose unique perspective and left-field lyricism are already making huge waves in the Midwest hip-hop scene. Originally from the Bronx and based out of the Twin Cities, Nur-D first stepped into the rap arena in 2018, and has since earned accolades such as the #1 spot on City Pages’ “Picked to Click” list. Sporting superhero sweatshirts, bowties and thick, square-rimmed glasses, Nur-D is a striking performer with an arsenal of hilarious and insightful rhymes at his disposal. “He’s a really intersectional performer,” describes Wright. “We’ve had hip-hop artists every year of our series, but the specific messaging in his music really fits the goals of Levitt AMP.” Catch Nur-D in action tonight as part of the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series, and experience the rest of the series over at levittamp.org/virtual!