Milwaukee’s Kellen “Klassik” Abston sees his role as a creative leader and mentor in the community as a rite that he chooses not to abdicate from.
Throughout his career, Milwaukee electro soul hip hop artist Klassik has achieved much acclaim for his unique productions and performance style. He’s been voted the best hip-hop producer multiple times by Shepherd Express’ readership. He received the Journal Sentinel’s nod for the album of the year in 2019 for his release QUIET (2019). He’s been called “prolific,” and “a force” by local music writers Allen Halas and Evan Rytlewski. He’s opened for touring acts including Ludacris, Talib Kweli, and Kendrick Lamar. He maintains connections to artists all over the country, including Milwaukee’s SistaStrings. But he’s still choosing Milwaukee as his home.
“The hook of my song Work2Do, suffice it to say, is that I still believe in the work that I'm doing, and that there is still work to be done,” Abston reflects, on the subject of his longevity in Milwaukee.
“I want to pour into this place with the same intensity and passion that someone would if they were to drop everything and pick up their life and like, move to New York, move to LA.”
Abston was raised on the North side of the city, and today as an established artist, he sees his role as a creative leader in the community as a kind of rite that he chooses not to abdicate from. He considers it his job and responsibility to “inspire, engage, and activate people.” In other words, to be a generative force as he moves through circles as an artist, arts administrator, teacher, mentor, friend and collaborator.
Despite his relatively young age, Abston has experienced profound grief. He lost his father as a child to an act of violence. Today, he finds solace working towards what he characterizes as a “constant alignment with purpose.” In life, his dad was “the cool camp counselor,” according to Abston. He was an actor and mentor for young people in Milwaukee. From Abston’s description, it’s clear that his dad was extroverted, gifted, and beloved in community. Abston remains inspired by the vivid memory of his impactful leadership. It’s a legacy that has encouraged him to embrace his own gifts and role as a mentor.
One of the many signature adornments that Abston wears daily is a dangling Melpomene charm earring, which represents his dad and his love of the arts. As a storyteller, Abston knows well how to collect compelling details, and draw from his experiences. This authenticity and sensitivity towards the details of place is part of how he has become a model for living and making art in the city of Milwaukee.
As he’s leaned in and established himself as a leader in the arts, opportunities have flourished around him like prairie flowers and grasses in high summer. Collaborators of all mediums spring forth to help him forge his visions. Abston has performed in the Milwaukee Art Museum, on Summerfest stages, in Milwaukee Public School classrooms, lunch halls, auditoriums, and on a speed boat on Lake Michigan at sunrise.
His music video for the song Active, produced by TankThink, features Abston dressed in white, leaping and bounding across a field under a cerulean blue sky at the abandoned site of Milwaukee’s A.O. Smith factory—a factory that once provided stable, prosperous work for many Black Milwaukeeans on the Northwest side of the city as part of manufacturing boom. But beginning in the nineties, A. O. Smith was acquired by Tower Automotive, and began outsourcing jobs. The shift contributed to a stark economic disenfranchisement of Milwaukee’s Black middleclass. In the video, Abston dances and appears to float above the mounded landfill where the factory once stood: an abandoned site that’s now a symbol of disinvestment and the scars of racial disparity in Milwaukee.
Despite drawing heavily from his environment and “pouring into Milwaukee,” he sees opportunity for evolution. Today, he seeks to effect change by influencing the standards that our creative community holds to, and how it holds power to account. After the pandemic, Abston envisioned a sea change in the way artists would be regarded in the future.
“We were unabashed for our love and need for the arts,” he remarks. “I remember at the time thinking ‘I don’t want to ever forget this,’ because we’re going to come out of this, and we’re going to be treated differently. When we had nothing, everyone was turning to us. To provide comfort. For context. To process. To document. To articulate things... all the things we turn to the arts for.”
As a result, Abston began having discussions with other artists about forming a Milwaukee creative workers union.
“We tried to get something in place where we can be transparent and communicate and get a better understanding of how to value ourselves,” he reflects.
While he has been very active across the arts ecosystem as a performer at every stage in his development, in recent years he has served as a leader on various boards and advisory committees, including at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Milwaukee Arts Board. But some experiences have left him questioning the ways organizations value—or don’t value—artistic programming. According to Abston, musicians in particular have work that is more and more taken for granted and seen as “a commodity.” Abston hopes that Milwaukee as a community can buck this trend and soon find new pathways to increased, livable wages for artists.
To support this shift, Abston is interested in sparking difficult conversations, and by doing so, hopes to establish new communication standards. He suggests that organizations need to consider thoughtfully how to build budgets that provide opportunities for artists and for diversity, inclusion and community engagement efforts—rather than as programmatic afterthoughts. I ask him for his take on how organizations can do better by the artists they seek to engage with.
“I want a way for both sides to be more transparent,” he offers. He’s been stung by a recent experience with an unnamed nonprofit organization that didn’t go well. According to Abston, he was approached to complete an ambitious artistic project by a performing arts organization he admired. Only after a couple of meetings and several hours of sunk time did he learn the compensation offered for the project. According to Abston, it was not a fair or reasonable offer, and there was no room for negotiation.
To avoid this kind of frustrating exchange, Abston suggests that when hiring, organizations might come into a preliminary conversation with the budget outlined, so that all parties can have their time respected. In a similar vein, he also suggests that organizations consider aligning their practices with the trend of publishing rates, salaries, and project stipend amounts, so that there can be more shared understanding at the outset of a prospective collaboration.
With his range of experiences, Abston has also adopted a protective stance towards other musicians. As a result, he’s not afraid to advocate directly to organizations to compensate artists competitively. According to Abston, he and members of his social network are in a practice of openly discussing the opportunities that are offered to them. So, when an organization doesn’t take seriously the feedback or needs of artists, or makes a lower offer for a creative service than previously offered, a negative perception may ripple out within the wider network.
At the same time, there are compelling examples of ways of operating in the Milwaukee community that have contrasted with disappointments. Abston himself has been employed at Lynden Sculpture Garden for six years. Since opening to the public in 2010, Lynden Sculpture Garden has been operating as an innovative arts organization that not only employs but builds-in opportunities for artists of all mediums.
“Lynden operates as a laboratory, and though it isn't technically an artist-run organization, it functions like one, centering artists in every part of its practice,” said Polly Morris, the Executive Director of Lynden Sculpture Garden, when asked about the employment of artists at Lynden. “This includes hiring artists in all areas, including land management and facilities/conservation: we want to benefit from the artist's way of seeing things and their way of thinking and problem solving. We spend much of our time working with living artists, as well as caring for the sculpture collection, so it is essential to include artist voice in all of our areas of operation.
One of the challenges Milwaukee’s creative class faces is a lack of standardization in the payment of artists. In the near-term, Abston hopes to influence the establishment of a community guideline for artists to refer to in their dealings with organizations—scaling the fee based on artists’ experience and organizations’ budgets. He also hopes to see the creation of a version designed for organizations to consult before they make moves to hire an artist for a creative gig. He cites the W.A.G.E. initiative as an inspiration. W.A.G.E. was established in 2008 as a dynamic online bank of data about arts institutions’ operating budgets, with a tool to calculate artist rates based on the data. According to its website “In the context of contemporary art, where the unpaid labor of artists supports a more than $60 billion-dollar industry, W.A.G.E.’s mission is to establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions that contract our labor, and to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy.”
Abston also wants to encourage arts administrators who are embedded within organizations to be more strategic, down to earth, and thoughtful about programming—focusing on quality over quantity, and putting less emphasis on the optics of programs and grant reporting.
“I think change requires a level of transparency with each other and within our organizations. It means being realistic about the scope and the scale,” reflects Abston. “You’re not serving the community by saturating it, or by showing up with recorders for kids to play without structure and intention.”
At the same time, he believes in the inherent value of the creatives who choose to make their home and work in Milwaukee. He sees a connection between that force and the momentum towards growth, competitiveness and increased prosperity for the whole community. From his position as an arts leader, he wants to challenge our elected officials to recognize how the creative class of Milwaukee is going to play an outsized part in the ability to reach the goals outlined in the city’s 2040 plan for downtown Milwaukee.
“If you want your population goal... then you’re going to have to be creative,” offers Abston. “In order for anything to be successful, it has to be creative,” he reflects. “Just business thinking alone is not going to create solutions. How are we creating solutions without creating?”
As for the artists who make Milwaukee’s culture so vital, colorful, and attractive: he urges them to do what they can to stay authentic and engaged.
“Find whatever ways you can to stay curious. When you stop feeling curious about life, or about your endeavors...that’s when you’re just in a routine; now you’re just in the machine.”
According to the most recent study by National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Wisconsin is currently ranked 50th in the nation in terms of our per capita public investment in the arts. The City of Milwaukee has only earmarked $250,000 for direct arts spending through Milwaukee Arts Board projects within its vast $1.92 Billion budget for 2024, which amounts to .013% of the overall budget. Despite the challenges of funding scarcity faced by the Milwaukee arts community, Abston remains inspired by the momentum, and the inflection point he sees within Milwaukee’s cultural ecosystem.
On Facebook, he recently posted a reflection:
...For the first time in a long time, I do not feel alone in my deeply genuine sentiments of care and investment into the place I call home. I’ve been told far too many times why I should have left a long time ago, and there were times I almost believed it, but my belief in something greater than what we were being offered never dissipated. And now things are really shifting. People are realizing the need for us to establish our own unique and captivating cultural and artistic identity in Milwaukee, and it would seem that more and more people are coming around to something I have believed, have KNOWN for years:
Milwaukee has something to say to the world. If you don’t want your city crowding you in stuffy subways and crushing you under astronomical rents, or breathing in smog in false paradises where “anyone can be a star”, come to Milwaukee. World-class talent and an unparalleled drive to exhibit light in all forms because it’s been dark and dry and mundane in this world, especially in this midwestern haven, for too long.
Abston continues to bring his full self to the creative business of Milwaukee’s future-building. With the visibility of the platform that he’s built, he’s willing to be an outspoken advocate, and to push for changemaking if it means he can empower those who follow in his footsteps to make it as artists in Milwaukee.
“This is my origin story. I feel like now I am a link in this,” reflects Abston. “I want to contribute to this story and continue the story.”