It's Tuesday night at the Kulture Klub Collaborative. All eyes are directed at Brandon Bui.
It's hard to miss his bright purple ballcap, paired with purple tennis shoes and a shirt accented with purple plaid. But more captivating than the eighteen-year-old's attire is the way he commands the room.
Bui's arms carve the air as his spits out lyrics.
"Homie, I'm the boss of all paper. Chuck Taylors," Bui raps. "All flavors. Get money now, we'll talk later."
Bui, or Peoplez, as he is better known, is a member of the Collaborative. The Twin Cities program develops arts programs like this hip-hop workshop for youth who are, or who have been, homeless — like Peoplez.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Minneapolis non-profit, which helps bring art into the lives of struggling youth. For two decades, the Kulture Klub Collaborative has paired its members with accomplished artists — painters, filmmakers, dancers. In addition to songwriting, an intensive 12-week workshop hits on stage presence and multi-track recording, as well as life skills and goal setting.
"And it's real life redemption," raps Deaundre Dent, 19. "To see me in 3-D, you change your dimension."
Dent goes by the name Batman. He left home when he was 14.
"That's when my mom put me outta her crib and I was on my own," Dent said. "I didn't get to experience everything teenagers did because I was too busy trying to fend for my next meal or whatever."
When it comes to addressing the needs of disenfranchised youth, beatboxing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Kulture Klub certainly doesn't take the place of agencies that provide housing assistance or job training. What Kulture Klub can do, says executive director Jeff Hnilicka, is offer young adults an opportunity to explore their artistic sides, a chance to define themselves as something other than "homeless."
"We're able to access a young person in their creative life, which is so important for young people who are trying to build their identity," Hnilicka said.
Right now, it's working with the Twin Cities hip-hop duo, Big Quarters, made up of brothers Zac and Brandon Bagaason.
"Young artists often times are imitating major artists," Brandon Bagaason said. "What we do is encourage them to take it to the next step in terms of establishing their own identity, telling their own personal experience and sharing their voice."
In other words, the kinds of things aspiring rapper Peoplez didn't have the confidence to do when he was younger.
"I would talk about stuff — I ain't gonna lie — like stuff I never did, like talk about guns," Bui said. "I don't hold guns. I don't shoot people. That's not the type of dude I am. You feel me?"
Bagaason addresses the class: So what does it mean to you to make it?
For Bui, it means recognition.
"People to just know me, know my name and know what I do," he said.
"How do you know they know you? How do you measure that?" Bagaason responds.
Dent says success is reaching the heights of hip-hop icons Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.
"They didn't just have people in the hood talking, they had college professors talking about their wordplay. That is dope! That's what I wanna do, man," Dent said.
There is talk of world tours and their own clothing lines at Target. But for Dent, the bravado only goes so deep.
"Have you ever had so much passion that it, like, scared you?" Dent asks Bagaason, who responds with a laugh.
Dent explains himself, "Like, did your mom ever tell you, you were going somewhere and you couldn't sleep that whole night, like, dang.
"Anticipation: that's what scares me. The anticipation of my future. I wanna make it so bad, what if I don't?"
For a moment, the room is silent. Then Peoplez begins to rap his knuckles on the table. Lyrics instinctively follow.
"What they really know, how I flow, just the opposite of stop, so watch me go," Peoplez begins.
The class gathers around and Peoplez throws the floor to Batman.
"I'm sumpin' like different. Fit that description. Getting that dough like I'm quoting the Simpsons."
About lyrics and rapping, Dent says, "It makes me feel like the stuff I can't say in actual conversation or words, I could put it in a song and it'll carry over to the next person 'cause music is a universal dialogue.
"It's like math. Everybody speaks music. At the end of the day, all my music is just portraying who I am."
And that's everything for a teenager who worked his way out of homelessness into transitional housing and a high school degree; a young adult who worries about his future; an aspiring rapper who dreams that, one day, college co-eds will write thesis papers about his music.