In 1983, a young break dancer sat on his bed in Shaker Heights listening to a radio broadcast of Run-D.M.C.’s new hit, “Sucker M.C.’s.” “That was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a rapper,” says Daniel Gray-Kontar, the creative mind behind the newly launched Twelve Literary and Performance Arts Incubator in Collinwood.
After winning Cleveland’s only National Slam Poetry Championships, recording more than 40 albums, co-founding the Black Poetic Society and chairing the department of literary arts at Cleveland School of the Arts, Gray-Kontar created Twelve to help develop aspiring artists, like the one he once was. The first dedicated literary arts space in Cleveland hosts poetry slams, film screenings, panels, staged readings and more. Attendees can buy a $10 monthly membership or tickets to individual events.
“[It] is a place where they can perform without having to go to a place that’s not specifically designed for them,” Gray-Kontar says.
Since the space opened in April, there have been eight events a month, drawing a small but steady crowd. Every Monday, Twelve hosts writing workshops, called Clearing Space, where youth, adults and seniors share their work and receive feedback.
“When you put together all the different voices in a room, really amazing things happen across generations,” Gray-Kontar says.
In addition, Twelve hosts Merge, which joins a beat-maker and poet in a dual performance, and monthly Methodology, an open mic and jam session for rappers, poets, musicians and DJs. “Confidence opens the door to so many other things,” he says.
Gray-Kontar is also using his network to reach the national literary scene by teaming with the Cleveland Youth Poetry Slam Team, which participates in the national Brave New Voices competition. “The next step is developing the relationships with institutions across the United States to help the artists be seen and read on a larger scale,” Gray-Kontar explains.
While Twelve focuses on writing and performance, its main goal is to inspire local youth. Local rapper, Twelve member and Methodology host Archie Green sees the impact in conversations with teens.
“The kids in the neighborhood need positive outlets as opposed to just running around in the street,” Green says. “So at Twelve, we give them a safe space where they can feel love and encouragement.”