1. Prologue
  2. Michael: "The Reason Why I'm Here"
  3. Elton: "A Place to Be, and Be Vulnerable"
  4. Sarah: "We are Family"
  5. Deshawn: "Bigger than Us"
  6. Epilogue

First Wave

UW's Urban Arts Program, Invisible to Many

First Wave
UW's Urban Arts Program, Invisible to Many

With heads held high, 15 college freshmen stand in their socks or barefoot on a plain black stage - a perfect dichotomy for the confidence and humility they exude the moment they open their mouths to speak words in rhythms and prose about topics many of us fear to mention. They speak eloquently and rhythmically about racial divides, stereotypes, homophobia, assimilation, culture and feminism.

“Sometimes, I feel invisible,” a short white girl says as she goes on to tell the audience, strangers and friends alike, a personal account of when she came out to her mother, and the pain she felt when she was rejected.

“My book bag makes me a dealer,“ says a tall, slender black man in a hoodie, reminding us of the problematic stereotypes society places on black men.

A young man challenges a pastor’s view that being gay is a sin, and says he doesn’t know if he wants to support a kind of faith that preaches more hate than love.

“Questions are better than assumptions,” a Filipino man and Latino man say after expressing their frustration regarding the stereotypes placed on their races – ‘an immigrant or a citizen mooching off the system.’

“We are two different force fires both being distinguished by men,” says a black woman and a white woman in unison kneeling on the stage, beneath a white man standing who covers the black woman’s mouth with a clenching grip.

A guy in a white t-shirt and sweat pants does an interpretive dance performance – his body practically convulsing on the floor, he keeps falling down, getting up, struggling with all his might – as if to illustrate the battles we all face inside ourselves.

“I did not let the quake in myself end me,” says a black woman in a green dress, standing strong and confident.

Their messages are conveyed through poetry, prose, rap, song and dance. They are so authentic and raw like no one’s used to seeing it makes the audience squirm in their seats, digging up questions long buried and repressed, because sometimes it’s easier to just not talk about those things. Those hard things like racism, sexism and homophobia. Those things that are easier to be silent about, to make them invisible.

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

Anyone who attends a show put on by First Wave, UW’s urban arts scholarship program, will realize their extraordinary artistic talent and their ability to captivate an audience. But many people will never know, because they’ll leave the UW without knowing that First Wave exists. And although there are about 70 current First Wavers on campus, walking alongside us, sitting next to us in Spanish or Chemistry class, many Badgers will never know the talent they bring to the UW. For many First Wave scholars, that program is the main reason they came to UW-Madison, a place that doesn’t always make sense for them, as most of them are students of color and the UW is largely populated by white waspy kids from suburbia.

First Wave is the first and most established hip-hop scholarship program in the nation. They aim to interweave performance art, academics and activism together for their scholars during their time in First Wave.

Once accepted to the program, First Wavers come to the UW the summer before their freshman year for a college bridge program where they begin college classes and build comradery. Freshman year, First Wave scholars live together on a UW dormitory floor, take classes together and participate in writers’ workshops with their cohort to create a large, collaborative performance for First Wave’s annual spring Line Breaks festival.

“Nothing exists like First Wave,” Michael Penn II, of the 5th First Wave Cohort, said. “Each year, First Wave people are getting more and more talented.” 

First Wavers are not easily categorized. They represent some of the top young artists in the country, with only 15 spots for well over 100 talented applicants each year. They come from New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Chicago – with roots ranging from Guyana, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Although each person has different academic interests, career aspirations and backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: they have the unique ability to perform in a beautiful, raw way that captivates an audience. The best way to understand First Wave, however, is to hear from the students themselves.

Michael: "The Reason Why I'm Here"
Michael Penn II performing

Michael Penn II performing

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

Michael Penn II, of the 5th First Wave Cohort, is a current junior studying Journalism originating, according to him, from “Nowhere important in Maryland.”

Michael always knew he wanted to be a writer when he was young, and started rapping in middle school. High school was when he really began realizing his artistic potential, when he started competing in poetry slams and releasing his own music. Both in and out of First Wave, he is a well-established artist. Most recently, he performed at Revelry Music Festival with Waka Flocka Flame in early May on UW’s campus.

In his three years here, Michael’s had a love-hate relationship with Madison. Growing up in a mostly black community back home, it was a big adjustment going to school in a majority white area. He says he had never dealt with racism until he got to Madison, and is still disgusted when he hears news about how Dane county is supposedly the “worst place to raise a black kid.”

“If you go to transfer point to transfer point, you can see there’s a problem,” he said. “If you actually talk to people of color that exist here, there’s a problem.”

Despite the challenges and racial issues Michael’s encountered from time to time in Madison, he says he feels like he’s found his place here and appreciates the resources and people he’s met along the way.

“If I hadn’t of gotten into First Wave, things would’ve turned out a lot different…” Michael said. “I had to be here to find where my voice lays, and continue to unravel myself… First Wave is the reason why I’m here.”

Being a part of the First Wave program has shaped Michael in many ways in the past few years.

“It made me a better artist, more mature, more collaborative…and [made me] believe in the collective good,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at and have the success that I have if it wasn’t through the program.”

Elton: "A Place to Be, and Be Vulnerable"
Elton Ferdinand III performing "Flounder" for Linebreaks 2014

Elton Ferdinand III performing "Flounder" for Linebreaks 2014

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

Elton Ferdinand III, of the 3rd First Wave Cohort, is a fifth year senior studying Chemistry. In fact, he is the only black man in his class graduating with a Chemistry degree this spring.

Elton grew up in New Amsterdam, Guyana in South America, and moved to Brooklyn when he was nine years old. He started performing in high school and quickly fell in love with poetry, and realized that his initial plan of being a doctor was being replaced by a new dream.

He was attracted to the First Wave program because it was the only hip-hop scholarship program in the nation that placed value on interweaving urban arts into academia.

“[First Wave] represented the fact that art and hip hop belong in the classroom,” he said.

As a student of color, Elton explained, “It’s hard to find your own community, to make your own space… the program gave us a place to be.”

Both artistically and personally, Elton has transformed in his past five years in First Wave.

“I used to be scared of being open, being a heterosexual male in this masculine culture, men aren’t emotional… I believed that for the vast majority of my life,” Elton said.

During CUPSI, a well-known national poetry slam, Elton remembers a monumental shift when he finally began to break down the walls he’d been hiding behind. He was performing a piece that reflected upon his strained relationship with his father. After his first run-through, the coaches urged him to “Get into the story” and take himself back to the moment his mom said, ‘You look like your father.’

“I took myself back there, and I just cried… bawling… it was the only time I’ve ever cried performing a poem…” Elton said. “I never knew I could be that vulnerable.”

Since then, Elton’s found that being brave enough to be vulnerable when performing is a powerful privilege. After one performance, he received an extensive Facebook message from a stranger who wanted to thank him because she was so moved by his piece.

“You never know who you reach,” Elton said. “All you need is one person to reach.”

In Elton’s most recent piece, “Flounder,” he did a solo performance that revealed the internal and external struggles he faced when he moved from Guyana to New York when he was nine years old. It dealt with themes of assimilation, culture and being in that place of “otherness” that only immigrants know – when they’re not accepted into the new culture but they’re not accepted when they go home, either, because of how they’ve changed.

“For me as a person, and an artist, it was letting people know me,” Elton said. And if Elton’s willing to be vulnerable, he wants the audience to be vulnerable too.

“I want to make art spark something that makes people think and make people uncomfortable,” he said. “All art should make you think.” 

Sarah: "We are Family"
First Wave's 7th Cohort at 2014 Linebreaks

First Wave's 7th Cohort at 2014 Linebreaks

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

Sarah Bruno, of the 5th First Wave Cohort, is a current junior studying Spanish Literature.

“My narrative isn’t one you hear a lot,” Sarah said. “I am a woman of color, I’m from an urban city, and I’m at a #1 research institution on a Ph.D. track.”

Raised in Chicago with roots in Puerto Rico, Sarah was part of Young Chicago Authors program since elementary school. She got serious about writing early in high school when she began competing in spoken word competitions. Her group even went on to win one of the largest slam poetry competitions in the world called “Louder than a Bomb.”

It was at her summer job at a Chicago-based hip-hop entertainment-education program called Kuumba Lynx that she heard about First Wave.

“They were passionate about art, academics and activism, which was the most important to me,” Sarah said. Before her First Wave journey began in the summer program before freshman year, however, Sarah faced a tragic loss.

All within a week’s time, “My dad passed away, I won a competition and then graduated high school… First Wave saved me… Poetry saved me because it kept me sane.”

After the death of Sarah’s father, while she was transitioning into the First Wave program and college life, she says her art changed immensely.

“I’m not afraid to write about being sad,” Sarah said. “I write a lot about loss, but I write a lot about respect, culture, friends, family… things that make me me.”

Sarah’s all too familiar with loss. In her few years in college, she’s had a handful of friends and family pass away. She says the most challenging experience she faced in First Wave was when her cohort brother died in a drowning accident in the lake her sophomore year.

“First Wave gave me a family that had to be around me when I was going through a lot,” she said.

Although Sarah’s known a lot of hardship, she maintains strong faith.

“I feel like everything has happened to me for a reason,” she says.

Sarah’s best experience with First Wave was meeting her cohort.

“They have taught me that if I can force myself to be open with people, they will love me like family.”

“First wave made me meet some of the best people I’ve ever met in my entire life. […] They’re the people who know my art, know me, support me and have my best interest at heart,” Sarah said. “We are family.” 

Deshawn: "Bigger than Us"
Deshawn McKinney (in white), performing in "Jungle Kings", 2014

Deshawn McKinney (in white), performing in "Jungle Kings", 2014

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

Deshawn McKinney, of the 7th First Wave Cohort, is a current freshman studying English with a focus on Creative Writing. Growing up in Milwaukee, he always enjoyed writing but didn’t begin pursuing it until later in high school when he joined his school’s Writer’s Club and started competing in spoken word competitions.

Deshawn went to First Wave’s annual “Passing the Mic” event with Writer’s Club his senior year, where he watched First Wavers perform and performed himself.

“I was really blown away, like this is a group of supremely talented individuals,” he said. From that weekend on, Deshawn knew he wanted to be a part of First Wave.

As his first year in the First Wave program comes to a close, Deshawn has a lot to show for it. He performed in Line Breaks “Fire Under the Skin” performance with the 14 other students from his cohort – something that took countless writing workshops, collaborative meetings and rehearsals. For many first-year First Wave students, it was the first time they’d worked on such a large, collaborative project.

Deshawn said that it’s almost easier for him to be vulnerable and share personal things with an audience full of strangers.

“I’ve gotten to a place with my writing where I value honesty above all else,” he said, “[It’s] understanding that we’re doing it for something that’s bigger than us, and to raise awareness about issues, and get people to start thinking about things.”

Deshawn’s most rewarding experience this year was acting in a separate production of Line Breaks called “Jungle Kings,” written by established playwright Rain Wilson. Although learning how to embody a character was a tough process, he says it was really rewarding after getting lots of positive feedback opening night.

“Being a part of [that], something that sends out a powerful, pertinent message is really important. Now there’s a demand for the play to be shown in other places, like in prison and to at-risk youth. […] Everything we do is bigger than us,” he said.


Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

First Wavers, most of whom are students of color, face unique challenges on the UW-Campus.

“A lot of minorities come into college and they can’t find communities like them,” Deshawn said. “They can go a whole day without seeing someone that looks like them, which can be tough.”

It’s a general consensus among First Wavers interviewed that UW’s recent decision to consolidate the Ethnic Studies program and the fact that students only need three Ethnic Studies credits to graduate raise serious concerns.

“[Many UW students] pretend to be open to discussion about race, gender, inequality and privilege but they’re not, because it makes them uncomfortable,” Sarah said. “First Wavers don’t care about being uncomfortable because once you’ve been stripped naked on the stage, you’re okay.”

Sarah expressed her frustration with the fact that a majority of students at UW don’t know what First Wave is. Is it because they don’t want to know? Because they don’t care to know?

“There are a lot more people on this campus who need to hear this stuff that we don’t attract,” Deshawn said.

Although many students may not ever know about First Wave, the important thing is that those incredibly talented individuals are here, making themselves visible and their voices heard to anyone who stops into one of their performances or open mic nights.

And First Wavers will tell you like they did in “Fire Under the Skin” honestly, standing in the spotlight in their socks, heads held high,

“We live in a world that will sometimes make you invisible, but you must never become that.” 


First Wave 7th Cohort's "Fire Under the Skin" Performance, Line Breaks 2014

First Wave 7th Cohort's "Fire Under the Skin" Performance, Line Breaks 2014

Photo Credit: Darline Morales, of UW's 5th First Wave Cohort

A special thanks to First Wavers who made this piece possible:

Sarah Bruno

Deshawn McKinney

Michael Penn II

Elton Ferdinand III

Sofía Snow

Darline Morales