Friday, August 20, 2010

... a better story.

So, I'm finally sitting down and writing a new blog. I go through phases. I'll write one or two and then get some really great feedback and I'll think, "I could do it. I could be the new Perez Hilton." Then life gets away from me. Sans blogs.

A few of my friends turned me onto Don Miller's blog. It's virtually impossible, I think, to exist as a Christian artist and not have had a conversation with someone about one of his books. I didn't realize such a large part of his ministry was blogging, but sure enough; I'm now starting to have more conversations with people about his blog than about his books.

* The word "blog" still sounds like the birth name of "Slimer" to me.

Anyway, Don Miller is having this contest for people to win a trip to his "Living a Better Story" Conference in Portland. The more I read about it, the more I want to go. I've been self-employed in ministry since I was 17. I just turned 26 on Sunday and am about to turn the corner out of my quarter-life crisis. I have so many ideas. You have to when ideas pay the bills. Turning those ideas... dreams, really... into a reality is a painstaking, self-analyzing, challenging yet always beautiful process.

Here is the video and link required in this blog for submission... I really challenge the few of you that keep up with my blog to check it out!

So let's get started.

Honestly, my first question to myself when I decided to write this blog was, "Do I use capitalization?" Even before it became artistically cliche, everything i used to write would look like this. no capitalization and generous... um... punctuation. But now people tell me I should write a book. So I'm going to practice using it and see how it sticks. I am 26 now. I need to step up my game anyway.

Stepping up my game. Well, it's interesting that this conference is about storytelling since... I'm a storyteller. It's a strange living and I feel like I'm in the wrong century. Growing up, all I wanted to be was famous. Part of me still does. When I was 9 years old, I couldn't figure out why I wasn't famous yet. I had all the goods. I couldn't imagine why Steven Spielberg hadn't plucked me off of a street corner to star in ET2 yet. So, I did something about it. I found a local newspaper ad looking for "thespians" and forced my dad to take me to an "audition" where a drunk woman with no bra ended up portraying my mother and pulling me into her chest for five minutes. I had no idea what this place was, but the guy there gave me names of four children managers in the NYC area. I wanted my dad to call them for me... but he wouldn't. "If you want to do it, you make the phone calls." A couple years, a few toy commercials and hundreds of rejections later, someone explained to me how great my manager was. My manager was as old as dirt, hard as a rock and had the deepest, smokiest truckers voice I'd ever heard. She was incredible.

Me: "Are you really a big deal? People are always blown away that I'm with you."
Her: "Ya Miga-Schmiga, I really am that big of a deal. I have a four year waiting list."
Me: "How did I get with you then? I got signed really quickly."
Her: "Your the only kid that ever called me."

I realized then that all the times my dad waited with the rest of the kids while I waited in line to check myself in with all the Mom-agers... he was growing me up. These skills create opportunities and it's because my dad pushed me that I have been able to sustain my ministry all these years. Dad, I don't even think you'd be able to find this blog... because I'm not sure you know what a blog is... but if you're reading this somehow... thank you.

So, that was a few awesome years of life changing work and then ended when we just couldn't handle hitting the pavement in NYC anymore financially, tied in with a decline in my mom's health. But, I wasn't famous. And I still wasn't sure why.

So, I started a hip-hop dance team at my church. Started with nothing. My pastor's daughter, a 35 year old single mom, me and my sister (if you know my sister, you will understand why, as a "dance team", this really was the most humble of beginnings). Fast forward. That grew into a group of about 20. Started teaching around the Northeast, then the South. Graduated high school. Moved to Nashville to pursue music. Danced and sang for some Christian and Country artists, got networked into the industry, finally produced my own full-length album. Left Nashville. Still wasn't sure why I wasn't famous.

So, while I was in Nashville, I one day came to the realization that none of my friends knew what my specific ministry looks like, since I was always dancing behind them. So, I got a bunch of my dancer friends and put on my first self-produced production called "rEVOLution". This was a long time BEFORE you would have seen every other company (including my arch-nemesis Cirque Du Soleil) using the backwords LOVE concept in rEVOLution. So what is it exactly that I do? Storytelling is really the only word. It's a combination of street theater, hip-hop, audience participation, music and dance to convey redemptive stories in my generation's language. It's Cirque Du Soleil playing MTV songs while telling a story to a beat.

My show was a success (in response, not in attendance).

I soon realized that instead of just getting booked as a dance teacher or conference speaker, I could also now bring my theater with me. UPROCK, as it is now officially known, then started growing in talent, in gigs, in momentum and in heart. The resume of our dancers now is absolutely insane from Usher, Justin Beiber, Danity Kane, T-Pain, Trey Songz, Kirk Franklin, America's Best Dance Crew... the list goes on. Our friends who make our music have worked for everyone from Glee to Disney. We are now a strong group of artists that work in the "secular" industry and come together at church conferences, camps, anywhere we can get booked to use our gifts for His Kingdom.

And that's our role in and outside of the church. I am so tired of the mediocrity in the Church's art world and that's why I am so humbled by our standard. We say, "This is the standard of the arts in the world, we will push that standard for the cause of Christ." A foundational passion in my life has been to bring a high standard of excellence to the arts in (and out of) the Church, continuing the tradition of the stellar storyteller, Christ, and the ultimate creator God the Father. It burdens me sometimes to go see great art because the Church should be doing that. We have the best story to tell.

I recently went to the concert of an extremely popular female artist... like really popular... she's huge... she's breaking records... you know who she is. Anyway, I have never been more free during an hour and a half of my life. She actually said, "I wanted to create a place where the freaks could come just as you are. No judgement. Here, you can be whoever you want to be. Just as you are. And I locked the doors." I lost it. I, for the first time, was actually given permission to "be who I was" even though the church has been telling me to "Come Just As You Are" since Crystal Lewis recorded it. I finally understood some of the things that people have told me about my shows, I finally found and understood some of that freedom. And that's who I want to be. Not held back by people's opinion of me; to replicate an environment of acceptance like I experienced in Las Vegas.

I want to tell the greatest story through the artistic medium that is me... with no filter.


So, UPROCK has officially been operating for about five years now... and now, I want more. I want to go somewhere else. I want to start a new chapter.

Our mission is two-fold. To provide accountability and fellowship for Christians employed in the entertainment industry. And to raise awareness, both inside and outside the church, on issues of injustice that break my heart and should be breaking more.

Being responsible for a ministry compiled of artists is just as challenging as it probably sounds. "Brother in Christ", "Friend", "Boss", "Road Manager" and "Artist" are challenging hats to wear all at the same time. But, I love it. And hate it. But love it more. It's hard sometimes when I feel like I am accountable to the Church for everyone's FB pages and Twitter updates, but UPROCK has created an opportunity for us to come together and share our hardships, conversations and experiences that we have working in a pretty dark world. A beautiful amount of discipleship and accountability happens now with us, on and off the road. It has created a network for us to participate in each other's lives.

For anyone interested in a great book for any artist for discipleship and accountability, please check out "The Heart of the Artist" by Rory Noland.

But I can't just be a dancer. Or whatever it is that I do. A calling, I feel like, has to be more than that. So what is it? My church is The Salvation Army. My parents are pastors for the army and a passion and commitment to justice takes up a huge portion of the army's heart. So, I can't hear Haiti and the Invisible Children and Falling Whistles and Destiny Rescue and not want to do something about it. So, this is the direction we went in. Our shows raise awareness on social justice topics and then link our audience to non-profits that do that work. We are seed planters. People like seeds that come from hip-hop dancers... it's true. Furthermore, we want to be a resource to non-profits and tell their story in an artistically and culturally responsive way. Raise awareness for Christ and justice using the same tools the world does. I've never spoken many of these dreams, but I think that's the point of the blog... so here goes. I want big shows in Vegas, movies in the theaters, a FunnyOrDie-esque network for celeb artists and speakers (Christian and non-Christian) to cameo with for issues that they support, a music/dance/evangelism resource for the church to get material for effective, responsible and interesting evangelism... I want a Cirque/Tyler Perry empire that is changing the world through awareness and dang it; this group of artists has the talent to do it. They really, really do.


But all visions come with a long, upward road to climb. I won't lie. Self-employment is hard. Trademarking fees, merch sales, websites, show bookings, employee management, show creation... TAXES. It's not easy.

My best friend, Ed Escobar (also entering this contest, btw), is the only other full-time UPROCK employee. In order to try and take ourselves to the next level, we decided to get rid of our apartment in Nashville last October and have been sleeping on couches staying with friends and family when we haven't been on the road. It takes money to build something. Websites, Conference Booth rates, wages, having to pay for our own insurance soon (but that's for a whole different blog)... not having to pay rent really has helped. We hustle. We eat rice when we need to (well, Ed does all the time because he is Filipino) and network our rears of at conventions like Youth Specialties. Sewing seeds. Sewing seeds. I'm hungry for some fruit though.

But, now it is time to get rid of our 99 Honda Civic "Betsy" who hasn't had air conditioning for three years. People are blown away that we can pack luggage, merch and a whole shows set and lighting in this two door, hale-dented beauty. Ed and I have been on way too many hot, summer, overnight trips in her. We've decided to get an RV. It's going to be easier for us since we really don't have to live in one city specifically and are actually having a hard time trying to figure out which one we'd want to live in. It can double as a tour bus so I'll be able to bring more dancers on gigs since we wouldn't have to fly them in. But it would really serve as a house for me and Ed! But, as a huge Dave Ramsey fan, I have no debt... and no credit. So, we are having to save up in cash and that has been, well... challenging. We're about half way there. Hoping to have a used RV by the end of the fall. We'll see if we're living in trailer parks by then! I've really hit the pinnacle in my life when I'm excited about living in a trailer park!

I struggle sometimes feeling like I am not living my life "right" or by the rules that our culture has. I would think there have to be other young, self-employed people that aren't poor but haven't exactly "made it" yet. I came across this article that made me feel a little like I wasn't alone.

I agreed! I know that the planning I do now will affect my whole life. I am aware of how old my parents were when they had me. I know how unstable my career may seem, or dare I say BE, but I also know that God has something big and special planned and I don't want to miss out on it just to achieve all the things that I want in life; a wife, kids, a home, an office.

That's why I want to go to this conference. I know the story I want to write. It would be so beautiful to be surrounded by other motivated, passionate, wise believers. To see another model for a ministry that I sometimes do struggle operating (emotionally and business-wise). I want a time to put some of these bigger pieces together and be encouraged by those who have already done some of these things in their own journey.

I am now 26. Still not "famous". I want to move beyond the pain I've felt from others opinions. I want to grow my company into one that without shame declares justice for my world. I want to push the envelope for art and for artists.


Maybe not a whole book, but at least a really solid chapter in the tapestry of the Church's history.

A Semi-Homeless, Self-Employed, Blonde-Mohawked Dreamer

PS: UPROCK is currently working on it's first show with completely original music. Get ready for ASYLUM in 2011. It's going to be as crazy as it sounds.

PS2: I'm deciding to unveil UPROCKs logo for the 2011 season right here... tell me what you think!

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