Poetry in Motion

Darius Clayton promoting city’s underground arts community

By Bill Dries

Darius Clayton was one of the few people at a recent NAACP political forum who wasn’t running for Shelby County office this year or working for a candidate.

Darius Clayton is working to promote the city’s underground arts community with his company, Hypelife Arts. Clayton, using his stage name Phatmak, is a spoken-word performer.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Clayton came to the event at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church as part of his immersion into the city’s political environment.

“I’m trying to learn and figure out how this city works,” he said. “I really was tagging along with someone else, and somebody happened to ask me what I did.”

He performed one of his spoken-word pieces about an issue some politicos touch on – chronic underemployment in the Memphis economy.

Clayton’s approach using his stage name, “Phatmak,” however, was anything but a subtle political pitch.

“Through urban eyes, I see urban life,” he began. “They say I’m lazy because they don’t see my double life.”

From there, he detailed, in rhyme, working several jobs – none of them paying enough on its own to make ends meet.

“There is a notion that because you are poor that you’re lazy, Clayton said later. “A lot of times, poor people work multiple jobs that don’t pay well, that don’t treat them well. It’s about giving you an insight into that lifestyle as well as trying to inspire people who work these jobs and aren’t getting anything out of it to do more, to do something better or find a different approach to finding income.”

“We are the creators of shortcuts,” Clayton wrote in “Workman’s Dream” of the city’s underground economy. “We profit from bootlegs. We are known for starting stuff. But choosing to lead, the way was paved. Somewhere we strayed. We are still enslaved. The only difference is now we are getting paid.”

Clayton’s imagery of the Memphis working world for many young African-Americans is intense and controversial.

“Whips are now pink slips. Field slaves are warehouse associates. House slaves are middle management,” he wrote. “Sambos or Uncle Toms are our leads. Master runs the executive board. And where are we? Still wishing for freedom.”

Clayton makes no apologies for the analogies.

“You end up just being a slave to these jobs, working them hopefully until you get to a retirement age. But a lot of times the retirement age doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “My grandmother worked until she was 70 years old.”

Clayton’s company, Hypelife Arts, is in the business of marketing with a tilt toward the arts, with his own spoken-word performances, as well as painters, dancers, rappers, singers and bands.

“We would take the arts and we would come to your business and bring attention and people to your business by us performing there, marketing your brand,” he said.

It is a type of arts and music that Clayton said doesn’t get as much promotion as it should.

“Memphis has all of these really big events, and it only promotes a certain type of music. All of the other pieces of performance art are overlooked,” he added, listing hip-hop artists, musicians and dancers from Memphis working with nationally known performers. “These people are not looked at at all. You do not know these people come from Memphis,” he said. “What I want to do is build a brand that promotes the underground arts – the stuff that’s overlooked. Where I come from, it’s just poorly promoted in my neighborhood.”

He began promoting and performing in 2005 and formed a limited liability company in 2008.

“I had no idea how to run a business, how to get a license, how to pay taxes on a business, how to fill out any paperwork,” Clayton said. “I had no idea how to do any of it in the beginning.”

Clayton hosts a weekly artists’ showcase Thursdays at Brinson’s Downtown, as well as open mic nights the last Saturday of each month at Starbucks on Winchester. His goal is to produce an outdoor music and arts festival called Uprise.

Clayton takes his approach from Jay Conrad Levinson’s 1984 book “Guerilla Marketing” and is rethinking the name of his company.

“Even sales is marketing because the first thing you do is tell about the product,” he said. “I wanted to kind of drift away from that name. I get a lot of people just thinking I should come up with marketing strategies for their business and stepping away from the art part. But that is the most important part.”

Take his television commercial for A 24 Hour Bonding Co., which includes more the bail bond company’s number and its pledge to act swiftly.

“Street don’t equal real. Grind does equal success, and crime does equal time,” Clayton says on screen. “And that may impress your peers today. But it may throw you off for the rest of your tomorrows. … You can do better than what you’ve done, and you know that. Tap into your God power and show that.”