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“The crew that started Chewstick waaaayy back in 2002 had been performing as aspiring rappers since they were kids, and, no doubt, the need for an organization like Chewstick was firmly established then.” – taken from Chewstick origins – Chubby and Da Faction archival footage circa 1996 – YouTube.

Talking to Gavin ‘Djata’ Smith is like trying to cram all the episodes of How I Met Your Mother into a one-hour watch session. As a cofounder of Chewstick Neo Griot Movement, there’s a lot of history to share.

“As a young boy, I followed my daddy around, as he was a promoter,” Gavin recalls. “I remember going to Clayhouse, Spinning wheel, the hotel circuit…Hubie’s Bar to check out the jazz scene, Leopard’s Club, etc. A big memory was seeing Smokey Robinson perform at Southampton Princess.”

These experiences afforded Mr Smith ample opportunity to meet up-and-coming artists, as well as already established personalities. So, soon enough, Gavin was influential in creating Bermuda’s first rap show, Rap on the Rock in the early 1990s. That show featured international artists like Naughty by Nature, Heather B, and a young Busta Rhymes, among many others.

Gavin perks up when he shares, “I remember being squeezed up in the car next to Busta Rhymes, who was hype from then! Big stars weren’t so big, to me.”

As a teen, he got to participate in an international student talent revue/showcase with “… students who weren’t that much bigger than me – they were reachable. I saw different levels of what was possible in arts and entertainment, and it impacted me a lot.”

Another major influence in Gavin’s life was the Youth-to-Youth programme. Ayo Johnson was one of Gavin’s mentors. “I got used to talking in front of people,” explains Gavin. “I got to know what happens for TV production, and what it takes to run a show – and other forms of entertainment.”

In terms of his academic education, Gavin transferred to The Berkeley Institute from Saltus, where, “…the Black boys hung together tighter.” Friends Daniel Frith and Haile Outerbridge were part of Gavin’s life from then. Gavin confesses that he has always wanted to be a singer, so it’s no wonder that, at Berkeley, he sparked a relationship with Tyrone Iris, who Gavin describes as having a “beautiful, natural, incredible, soulful voice”.

Gavin would always big up Tyrone, but Tyrone was adamant that there was nowhere to perform in Bermuda. “That conversation became quite pivotal,” Gavin recollects. “I asked him, if I found a place, would you do it? Yes? Okay. Challenge accepted!”

Soon, Gavin met Roddy ‘Rowdy Piper’ Nesbitt, through Camp Lovejoy, and Roddy’s talent for rap and freestyling quickly came to light. “He killed it!” Gavin exclaims enthusiastically.

Jonathan ‘JT’ Talbot was another mentor to Gavin at this time. As a hip-hop enthusiast himself, JT wanted to create a label and get Bermudian artists signed; with a view toward international recognition.

So, according to Gavin, “a bunch of young, hungry guys” formed the foundation of what Chewstick would become. Justin ‘Kofi’ Whitter joined in, along with Owen ‘Omega 9’ Millett, another friend.

“Despite seeing how far it could go,” Gavin emphasizes, “one of my bigger concerns was doing it at a high level, and not just ‘making it.’

“Every spare moment we had we were making music, practicing, performing at talent shows, waiting for an opportunity to come.” That’s where the footage at the beginning of this article comes from. “We were the top young performers at the time, pioneering, and breaking new ground,” Gavin asserts, with confidence.

There’s so much to share about this journey that I’m just going to list some building blocks to the structure that became Chewstick, and you can ask Gavin about them whenever you see him.

The Jack the Rapper Conference. Boarding school in Vermont. College breaks with Najib Chentouf. Ben Harper. Being gifted a guitar by a girlfriend. Flow Sunday. Nenu Letu.

It was the fall of 2002 where it was like “Voltron, Unite!” for the crew. They wanted Chewstick to be, “A safe space for emerging talent, for people to connect, learn, and grow. A true representation of Bermuda culture. Something that wasn’t being done anywhere else.”

Chewstick launched officially in 2003, and it started breaking down barriers within the community. “Arts and entertainment are some of the best ways to build bridges in the community,” Gavin is convinced. “The us-and-thems get to meet, and build relationships.”

This year marks 20 years for the group. One of their famous, fabulous retreats is planned for this year, so watch this space. They are also hosting monthly open mic sessions at the Blue Waters Angler’s Club on Front Street – the last Sunday of every month.

For those who have been waiting for it, on Sunday, February 26th, Mr Gavin Smith himself will, once again, be hosting the session.

“Chewstick is a part of the natural progression of things,” Gavin humbly acknowledges. “Clayhouse, Musicians’ Club, Hubie’s – they were all a critical part of the evolution of the arts and entertainment scene. What Chewstick became was a mashup of all those things into one sacred space.

“It’s a community thing. It has changed our culture and reinforced our identity. I would reckon that a big part of a lot of people’s networks are a result of the Chewstick community.”

Chewstick has indeed been both a launching pad, and a safe space for many Bermudian artists. Bermudian Poet and graphic artist extraordinaire, Stephan Johnstone, shares his thoughts on the importance of Chewstick to Bermuda, and Bermudian artists:

“Chewstick is the only place here – at this time period in Bermuda History – that promotes 100% free expression. It is the only place that has a consistent open mic, and the only collective that has a history and a story that runs so deep. Bermuda needs Chewstick to foster young artists, and to give our people a platform to share and express themselves in an environment that is encouraging and welcoming to all.”

Chew on, crew, chew on!

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