The Fifth Element Of Hip-Hop
An artist pours their talent into their masterpiece, giving of themselves so that others may be inspired and moved by their works. But a mentor, and guide, will pour themselves into a person, offering that lucky soul a chance to view life from a different perspective. There are a rare few among us who can be both an artist and a guide, using their gifts to create lasting impressions on walls and paper while also creating a life-altering impact on many young members of their community. Artist Hermain “Herms” Ambriz, is part of that rare breed of humanitarians who feel compelled to not only share their creativity with the world, but also their guidance and skill, aimed toward uplifting others around them.
Hermain grew up in San Joaquin County, but his family’s roots go back three generations here in Brentwood. After making his way back to live in Brentwood in 1998, he never left.
“Growing up, we always lived in poorer neighborhoods, and those areas frequently had train tracks running through them. I would watch the trains go by and became fascinated by the cool artwork that rolled by me. It was graffiti, but for me, that was my own private museum, and that was the form of art I came to appreciate.”
Delving into the graffiti art culture broadened his world and exposed him to what he refers to as the four elements of hip-hop: breakdancing, MCing/rapping, DJing, and aerosol art. He became familiar with the culture that came directly out of the Bronx, New York area and spread like wildfire throughout the country.
“Artist Hermain “Herms” Ambriz, is part of that rare breed of humanitarians.”
Hip-hop as a culture was created out of love. It was a way to get gang members to stop fighting. There’s a 2015 documentary called ‘Rubble Kings’ that really illustrates the gang violence of the late 1970s in the Bronx, where all this began. The seeds of peace were planted there and became embraced in poverty and violence-riddled cities. How does an at-risk youth surrounded by gangs, drugs, and violence express themselves? They turned to their own form of poetry, rapping, to express their frustration and fears. They grabbed aerosol cans and painted murals illustrating their daily struggles or declaring their loyalty to their neighborhood. They couldn’t afford karate classes like their Manhattan neighbors, but they created their own form of the sport, incorporating dance moves and calling it breakdancing. These creative outlets were all positive tools to harness the good within these kids who faced big problems. They could let it out while staying out of trouble.”
One Day at a Time or ODAT was formed in Brentwood in 1997 by Johnny Rodriguez to help turn around the lives of underserviced young men and women who were at high risk of becoming involved with violence or gangs. ODAT recognizes the benefit of giving this group, at the critical age of development, guidance and an opportunity to believe in themselves by creating programs aimed toward improving self-esteem, encouraging positive social interactions, developing positive attitudes toward individuals and school, improving decision-making skills, expressing oneself through group activities, and learning skills to manage anger and to resolve conflicts using peaceful solutions.
Hermain has been volunteering at ODAT for about six years, working inside their YEP (Youth Empowerment Program) as an art facilitator for three years. Says Hermain, “Every student in the program is there because they sought us out. We are there to break these kids out of their shell and teach them how to intermingle. They all have a black book. Their job is to fill that book with writing and art. When I yell ‘switch,’ the kids trade their book with another person in the group. Maybe the other person reads their stories and leaves a comment, or they draw a picture inside the book, adding a piece of themselves to it. In any case, this has proven to be a great way to get them to open up to each other.”
The highlight of the YEP program is the Brown Paper Bag Conference. It’s an all-encompassing event that incorporates art instructors, video editors, photographers, poets, and even Hermain’s associate, DJ Quest, who comes in to teach scratching and mixing. It culminates in a gala dance for the participants. Hermain states, “This is where the four elements really come into play. We expose the kids to the sights and sounds that create the culture. I am very lucky to have my friend DJ Quest showing these kids the ins and outs of being a DJ, they are always magnetized by his demonstrations. I shared my artwork with him for his album and he shares his musical talents by doing this outreach through the program. That’s the beauty of this culture, everything mixes.”
Out of his involvement with YEP, Hermain caught the attention of a local dining establishment that asked him to create a mural. Brentwood Craft and Cider’s Joey Nardone reached out to Hermain, giving him the freedom to do whatever he saw fit for the interior hallway inside their establishment. Word of mouth carried even further, and Hermain was approached to do an even larger scale project in Antioch. A 215-square-foot masonry wall at the corner of Sunset and A Street in Antioch was transformed in five days from a tagged eyesore to a mural representing hope. “This work came out of me organically. I have a strong Chicano background behind me. In a spiritual sense, I feel my elders from generations before me, and that comes out in my work. The very best part of doing this mural was having my brother Josh Ambriz with me to help fill it in. He lives in Atascadero, so it was a bit of a reunion to have him side by side helping me. The abstract and multilayered colorful piece pops off the wall to everyone who passes through there. It’s been titled ‘Love Conquers All,’ and I believe that. With a little bit of open communication and understanding one another, we can come together. To me, this mural has a way of speaking to all who view it.”
““Hip-hop as a culture was created out of love. It was a way to get gang members to stop fighting.”
“There’s a 2015 documentary called ‘Rubble Kings’ that really illustrates the gang violence of the late 1970s in the Bronx.”
Since the completion of the mural, Hermain has been contacted to begin working on various other public art pieces for Tri Delta Transit and the cities of Brentwood, Antioch, and Pittsburg. Hermain’s artwork is frequently on display at a local business, CR Framing, who also promote the arts as sponsors of an event that hosts local poets called Flor y Canto.
This father of three former and current Liberty High School students shares, “I consider myself blessed to have a way to share my art with the community. I reflect a lot on the time I wasted in my past, where I could have been getting an education. I would’ve been able to teach full time. On Thursday and Friday, in my spare time is when I do my outreach work. I work for Xfinity full time pulling 12-hour days. It’s hard to juggle all of it, but I abide by the saying, ‘Where the Lord places me, that’s where I will do my walking.’”
With his volunteer efforts inside of YEP, Hermain is keeping the essence of hip-hop alive for future generations to use as a tool to unite. He is both teacher and artist, passing along his secrets and sharing his gifts with the world in order to make it better. He is one who transforms through allowing others to look at life through different eyes, and one who can make you understand a concept or thought through their art, dance, or music. If there was a fifth element of hip-hop, it would be achieving great notoriety and becoming a legendary star. In his own way, that’s exactly what Hermain serves as—a stellar representation of who these kids should want to be when they grow up.
Photos German Sui