Hip-hop trio performing at PrideFest promotes positive messages for kids

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

The Figureheads is one of Wisconsin’s most popular hip-hop groups, but songs about ganstas and ’hos won’t be found on the trio’s playlist.

Unlike other hip-hop artists, The Figureheads play to a much younger demographic — as young as kindergarten age — with songs that promote positive thoughts, confidence and acceptance of self and others.

On June 8, the Milwaukee-based group makes its fourth consecutive PrideFest appearance, with an interactive performance of music and dance at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 8, on the festival’s Children’s & Family Stage.

“The purpose of our shows is, firstly, to activate the pure fun of a collective aesthetic experience, a moment to celebrate the joy that runs through our lives in the form of relationships and art, learning and loving,” says vocalist Jeremy Bryan, one of the group’s three co-founders.

But there is more to a Figureheads performance. Bryan, along with fellow cofounders vocalist Greg Marshall and multi-instrumentalist Dave Olson develop catchy beats and rhythms to present lyrics that promote making good decisions, discovering one’s voice and celebrating family and friendship.  The result is a joyful noise that all present can share, wrapped around positive messages that help kids in the audience develop positive attitudes.

“We never planned to create music for kids,” Marshall says. “It happened because we were working with kids, and as we tried to help them, it only made sense to connect through music.”

Marshall’s backstory includes stints as a volunteer with the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, serving an internship with Chicago’s Breakthrough inner-city youth program, and working as a therapist for children with autism at Madison’s Integrated Development Services. He’s also working on a master’s degree with Trinity International University and serves as a creative consultant to various nonprofit organizations.

Bryan, who’s enrolled in a UWM master’s program, also has a history of working with children. He’s helped kids with special needs as well as kids in transitional housing situations.

Olson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology from Bethel University, has extensive experience counseling disabled kids and runaway teens with drug problems.

Olson has diastrophic dwarfism, a bone-and-cartilage disorder that results in shortened stature. The condition, he says, enables him to better relate to many of the children with whom the group works.

The Minnesota native helped pioneer the techno and early electronic music scene in Minnesota and is the co-developer of HiPass, a Minneapolis record label that has international distribution. A producer and engineer of multiple award-winning albums, he serves as the Figureheads’ graphic and Web designer and technician.

The Figureheads has become increasingly popular since its founding in 2005. The trio has performed more than 700 concerts before more than 100,000 people nationwide. They also have won awards from the Parents’ Choice Organization, the International Songwriting Competition and the Wisconsin Area Music Industry.

“The messages we impart tend to focus on body regulation and body knowledge, a self-awareness that involves getting your energy level in a just-right place so learning is optimal,” says Bryan. “That’s a fancy way to say that we have dances associated with some songs and a lot of movement during the shows.”

Few audiences are as responsive as a roomful of kids. They have fewer inhibitions about getting up and dancing, belting out choruses and making a lot of noise — all of which the three musicians love to see. The hip-hop nature of the music makes it more accessible to all kids, who embrace the combination of meter and meaning that such music employs. 

“We find ways to make hip-hop accessible to rural, suburban and urban audiences,” Bryan says. “The key to each audience is the same — authenticity conveyed through personal stories and anecdotes between songs, as well as sharing passionately what we consider really good music.”

The Figureheads’ interaction with so many different kinds of social-service agencies has broadened the scope of its musical messaging.

“We wanted the community to be our record label,” Marshall says. “We believed that if what we did was valuable to the community, the community would invest in it. That’s what happened.”

And the community has had a good time making that investment.