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Yusuf Muhammad: The Original Veteran Freshman.

March 28, 2013

YusufTOCsmallText by Sofiya Ballin. Images by Michael Bucher. Snapshots courtesy of Yusuf Muhammad’s Instagram feed.

In a black hoodie reading “Young King” and an Africa pin on his snapback, Yusuf “Yuie” Muhammad wears his pride on his sleeve, chest and everywhere else visible to man.

The 27-year-old artist, photographer, booking agent and show managing powerhouse sits with a cell phone in one hand and fork in  another. He tweets, texts and talks simultaneously. He speaks fast and direct with the ease of a businessman used to giving an elevator pitch.

Marilyn Silva, his assistant of sorts, soaks it all in like a sponge. She’s a chef and a mother collaborating with one of Philly’s youngest, who’s doing it big.

“He’s straightforward and personable,” she says. “Every time I participate in an event with him, something great always happens.”

He’s worked with everyone from Musiq Soulchid to Cam’ron, from Marsha Ambrosius to Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and he’s the creator of the locally-focused Veteran Freshman concert series. Yusuf recently accepted the position as the Philly ambassador to A3C, one of the country’s largest hip-hop festivals, held annually in Atlanta.

YusufBlackThoughtsmallYusufElleVarnersmallYusufEsperanzaSpaldingsmallToday, however, he’s doing a photo shoot at the Dreaming Building in Northern Liberties. A friend of his is coming to update his headshots. The door opens and in steps a man of medium build in dark shades and basketball shorts. It’s Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought, the frontman of The Legendary Roots Crew.

The photo shoot is intimate. In between shots, the two talk business and upcoming shows. They laugh and discuss shoes like bonafide sneaker heads.

“What Yusuf represents for Philly is the art for the mind, the creative mind,” says Trotter. “He’s the kind of young person we need for Philly to remain a force to be reckoned with.”

Before Yusuf was a force, he was a student and freelance photographer who paid out-of-pocket to travel and cover events.

“He just wouldn’t go away,” Trotter says and then laughs heartily. “He would always be around. And he was very mature and very business-minded.”

“That’s right!” Yusuf says. “I had to make it known that I was around.”

Yusuf grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia but later moved to Southwest Philly. His father wanted him to see both worlds.

“I learned to adjust very quickly,” Yusuf says. “I could not change the way I talked. I actually got a lot of respect from the street people. I think the main reason was because I never tried to be anything I wasn’t. I never tried to be street or hard.”

He was homeschooled from the sixth to the ninth grade, in a household that stressed pride and self-awareness.

“I think that’s why a lot of people think I’m cocky, confident or arrogant,” he says. “I really, truly have pride and a knowledge of self.”

His father also stressed education. Yusuf remembers having to create sentences using every word in the dictionary. He graduated from high school at age of 14 and then attended the Community College of Philadelphia.

“My first friend in college was a stripper,” he says with a laugh. “That shows you how much of a 14-year-old I was. I used to notice people looking at her but I didn’t think anything of it. She was the only girl who talked to me in the class.”

Yusuf admits there was a time when school was the last thing on his mind. Then, when he was 17, his best friend of 15 years was murdered.

“He was like the brother that I never had,” Yusuf says. “He was very social, very business-minded and I was very nerdy.”

Yusuf began to take school more seriously. He doesn’t like disclosing too much when it comes to his long-time companion but that impacted Yusuf’s outlook on life, school and business.

“His spirit lives in me,” Yusuf says. “I hope he’s proud of me and what I’m doing right now.”

After finishing up at Community College of Philadelphia, Yusuf worked in the electronics field for three years. He then worked at the University of Pennsylvania Children’s Center as an administrative assistant. He was so good with the kids that he ended up becoming a teacher’s assistant.

“I was broke,” he recalls. “I was moving from my apartment to University City when I saw a commercial saying, ‘Would you like to go to the Art Institute? Would you like to become a filmmaker?’”

As a child who grew up loving Spike Lee films, that commercial was enough to reroute his life.

YusufInsideSmallYusuf enrolled in the Art Institute to study film. He immediately began making connections because of his photography.

He caught the eye of Leah Kauffman, the founder of Phrequency.com who is now the Executive Producer of Entertainment and Lifestyle at Philly.com. She gave him assignments for Phrequency, a steady dose of encouragement and contacts for life.

“I was immediately impressed by his friendly, outgoing attitude and his ability to form strong connections with people from behind the lens,” Kauffman says. “Yusuf is the kind of person who sees those opportunities and knows how to create something tangible from them. That’s a beautiful thing.”

On the verge of graduation, Yusuf sat on his couch and pondered the many connections he had made — The Roots, Bun B, people from BET News and Philly.com. He said to himself, “I want to throw a concert.”

Most of his friends laughed at him. Then he called up Philly DJ and event producer DJ Ultraviolet who simply said, “Tell me everything you don’t have and start from there.”

VeteranFreshman2013She lit the match that would spark one of Philly’s most successful, ongoing  concert series, Veteran Freshman. The concerts showcase young artists who are “veterans” in the Philly music game but fresh faces to the audience. The first show, held at The Blockley in March 2011, had 15 rappers on the bill and attracted more than 450 people.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Yusuf says with a laugh.

But it was a success, so he did another show at The Blockley in October 2011. For Veteran Freshman 3 last June, he worked with Live Nation and drew a crowd of 850 people to the TLA.

Now he wants bigger, better and bolder.

His plans vary from more sponsorships to laying down the groundwork for a Veteran Freshman tour featuring all Philly artists.

“No offense to Made In America but we don’t need them to have a music festival,” he states. “We can do our own. We don’t have our own. If no one else is going to do it, then I’m going to do it.”

His love for music grew out of his parents’ tastes. His father was into soul music and his mother filled their house with the sounds of jazz, Afro-punk, classical and oldies.

“When she was at work, I would sneak and get, like, 15 of her CDs and I would record the songs onto tapes,” Yusuf recalls. “That’s how much I loved the music. I was willing to risk my life.”

His varied musical background helped develop an ear that can’t tolerate much of the music on the radio today.

“You know how they say C.R.E.A.M.?” he asks. “‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me?’ For me, it’s ‘Cash Ruined Everything About Music.’ You don’t even have a choice. The choice is being made for you. If you listen to the radio now, all black women are strippers. All you are is your ass. Nothing more than that.”

When it comes to the local Philly music scene, however, he gets that same impulse that made him sneak into his mother’s room when he was a kid.

“I think the arts, culture and music here are so much broader,” he says. “I think it’s the city. We’re very hungry. Philadelphia has always played the underdog. I wish that Philly studied more. They would realize their worth. If they integrated all the aspects of what music is from a creative aspect, no one could fuck with Philadelphia.”

His love for his city is strong but it’s not always completely reciprocated. He’s aware of this and doesn’t skirt the issue. Since becoming something of a gatekeeper in the local scene, he has gained a lot of friends and a few enemies.

YusufCamronsmallYusufCommonsmallYusufBigKRITsmall“The main thing that I hear about myself is ‘Yusuf is cocky. Yusuf is conceited,’” he says. “I’m going to celebrate my accomplishments whether you like that or not. They feel it’s self-absorbed to speak your success into existence. You should speak it in everything that you do.”

It becomes clear this is an issue that’s been a major source of exasperation.

“How can you hate someone who tells an artist, ‘I’m going to give you the largest canvas to paint on?’” Yusuf asks, throwing his hands in the air. “I don’t get it.”

He insists that if you need to hate on him to be inspired, you are welcome to do so.

“There are people who probably hate me to the point they want to see me dead,” he says. “That’s crazy. I can’t give any energy to that. I’m not giving energy to negative people anymore. The same energy that I give to them, I could give to chewing gum.”

Success hasn’t come easy. His frequent twitter hashtag, #YuieStayBusy, comes with a detrimental price. Last year alone, he was hospitalized four times for exhaustion. The most recent case was after putting on four shows in three days.

“The doctor told me if I don’t slow down, I’m going to die at 28,” Yusuf says. “That’s a big flaw. I don’t know when to stop.”

He acknowledges that he doesn’t see himself living very long, yet everything he does is for the long-term. He’s working on his legacy and that includes having a child. He gets animated describing his ideal woman, who, based on the female comparisons he lists, would be named Beyoncé Obama-Badu Bassett with “a little Ciara when she was doing that nasty dance in that video.”

“A queen,” he says with a broad grin on his face. “A real genuine woman. For some men, they work their career to get the women. I’m working on my career to get the family.”

Despite his love for Philly, Yusuf says he will likely be moving on soon.

“I need to build bridges to Philly,” he says. “People don’t respect Philly as a music market. They don’t respect its artistry. They use it when it’s beneficial to them but they don’t bring anything back.”

After being name-dropped to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Yusuf is now planning a full-fledged music festival to be held at the city-run Dell Music Center. Veteran Freshman: Summer Session will focus on local music, as well as promote education, healthy living and non-violence.

He begins to list off other objectives, counting them on his fingers.

“I want to see Philadelphia be recognized as a true market in the music world,” he says. “I want Philly to have an A3C where people from all around the world come every year for a local, home-grown festival. I want Veteran Freshman to be worldwide. I want to be able to inspire a generation of adults who love what they do and do what they love.”

At this point, he runs out of fingers.

He quickly adds, “And I want to be known as an amazing, amazing father.”

3 Comments
  1. April 8, 2013 10:36 am

    Great article. Well done.

    • Sofiya Ballin permalink
      April 14, 2013 1:08 am

      Thank you!! 🙂

      -Sofiya

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