Words-Art-Music Fest 2016 welcomes Ice-T, Sway Calloway, Bill Stephney and more

Ice-T April Patrick WAMFest 2016

Above (L to R): April Patrick, director of the University Honors Program at the Florham Campus and lecturer of literature, and Ice-T, rapper and actor, in conversation at WAMFest 2016. (Photo by W. Scott Giglio)

By Kenna Caprio

All three speakers touched on the music industry — its current state, their humble beginnings, and what’s next for a new generation of musicians.

All three speakers talked about racial inequality, police brutality and charting a united course forward.

All three speakers were candid and reflective — whether offering students advice or sharing personal stories and histories.

But only one speaker managed to be Ice-T and make lemonade.

WAMFest 2016, “The Art of Change,” headliners Ice-T, Sway Calloway and Bill Stephney visited Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus for two nights of conversation, culture and candor.

“I’d actually never been to WAMFest before, so it was interesting to see the arts, music and conversations come together,” said Dami Sangobiyi, a Florham senior majoring in psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience. “Go to the events — you never know what you can learn.”

Ice-T with students WAMFest 2016In the Italian Gardens outside of Hennessy Hall, for instance, Ice-T got real. “Hip-hop,” said the rapper and actor, “was a vehicle to get out of trouble.”

Ice-T mingles with University students prior to the event. (Photo by W. Scott Giglio)

Until the rise of gangster rap, Ice-T said, “No one was talking about crime in the streets. I never tried to glamorize it, without showing the negative.” His rise to fame came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, first as a rapper and then as the founder of Body Count, his heavy metal band. “I write what I call fact-tion,” he said, describing his songs as fictional stories with factual moments.

During a wide-ranging conversation with faculty member April Patrick, Ice-T covered everything — his life on the streets of Los Angeles, Calif., his musical career, his acting career and lengthy role on “Law and Order: SVU,” his new “lemonade” commercial for GEICO insurance, his personal life, politics and legacy — all in his blunt and colorful signature style. Patrick interspersed questions, solicited from members of the FDU community prior to the event, into their conversation, including several about Ice-T’s acting career.

After he started on “Law and Order: SVU,” a role originally intended to last for four episodes, show creator Dick Wolf called him and said, “Play the cop we need.” Those words resonated with Ice-T, and so recalling the mix of respect and cynicism he felt towards police as a teenager and young man, he infused elements of himself into his character, Odafin “Fin” Tutuola. “I never hated the cops,” he said, “even when I was in the streets. You just think you’re going to beat them [and win].”

Patrick, director of the University Honors Program at the Florham Campus and lecturer of literature, said before going on stage that she was most excited to ask Ice-T about his advice to college students. He delivered in spades: “Only take advice from people whom you admire.” “A good person is good to everyone around them.” “Pick your own music. Pick your own thing. Be an independent thinker.” “Have the courage to be original. It takes a lot of courage to be yourself.”

Some of Ice-T’s calls to action and advice echoed what Sway Calloway, rapper, reporter, executive producer and radio show co-host, and Bill Stephney, former CEO of Def Jam Records, said earlier in the week at their WAMFest event.

Calloway and Stephney WAMFest 2016

Above (L to R): Music industry veterans Sway Calloway and Bill Stephney talk to a room full of students about their experience in the business. Professor Howard Libov moderates. (Photo by Dan Landau)

Howard Libov, chair of the visual and performing arts department and professor of film, moderated that discussion. Both men talked about getting their starts in the music industry — Stephney working on projects that combined music and political activism in college, starting out at Def Jam under co-founder Russell Simmons and launching Public Enemy, while Calloway’s early rap career took inspiration from that group and Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing.”

“All hip-hop wanted was to give people a fair shot,” said Calloway. Later, he became interested in engineering his own music, and then radio. “The Wake Up Show is to wake people up to information they aren’t privy to through mainstream media,” said Calloway. On the radio, and MTV News as a reporter and executive producer, he “takes advantage of the platforms, to tell the truth about hip-hop culture and help underdog artists.”

Calloway and Stephney also spoke about how hip-hop continues to push for change in the industry. “Prior generations of black artists didn’t have control. Hip-hop tried to cut that cord from being owned to ownership,” said Stephney. Sway added, “having worked in the industry as long as I have, I don’t understand how producers and creators of content aren’t the owners. We have a lot further to go to own what we create.” But, he said, “we’ve come so far, and that can’t be taken for granted.” With new tools and platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube, both men see future generations making even bigger strides toward owning their work and producing it on their terms.

All three guests answered audience and student questions at their respective events.

“The revolution is happening — it’s ongoing. The revolution is you,” said Stephney.

Other performers and guests this year included: Robert Randolph and the Family Band, alumna Brynn Stanley, Kathy Moser, SisterMonk, Dina Hall and Andy Kilcoyne, and a host of student performers — Michelle Foster, Abhi Tadakamalla, Anne Fillenwarth, Catherine Cooney, Breyton Croom, Ron Williamson, Sean Williams, Alyssa Lyman and Miles Britt.

Robert Randolph band

Above: Robert Randolph and the Family Band perform funk and soul during WAMFest 2016 in the Italian Gardens outside of Hennessy Hall. (Photo by Dan Landau)

“WAMFest gives us a chance to explore different arts,” said Sangobiyi. “It’s interesting to see what other students are doing on campus and how they’re implementing their majors.”

WAMFest is supported by the ongoing generosity of Bob and Patricia Pures, The Morris Arts Council, New Jersey Council for the Humanities and FDU.

The annual series of readings, interviews, talks and performances brings successful artists in a variety of genres to the Florham Campus to inspire and inform students and the community. Past guests have included musician Bruce Springsteen, poet Robert Pinsky, musician Rosanne Cash, comedian Eugene Mirman, director Jonathan Demme, musician Talib Kweli, choreographer Mark Morris and writer Neil Gaiman.