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One for us

The story of Oklahoma’s largest hip-hop festival

Keenan Lane and Steph Simon, creators of World Culture Music Festival, surrounded by festival performers

Hans Kleinschmidt

This is the story of rap music in America: Unlikely weirdos with few resources and even fewer connections banding together to make a culture. Kids who couldn’t afford ballet shoes and private lessons created the art form known as breakdancing. Musically gifted teenagers without pianos and violins created a whole new type of symphony with their mothers’ old turntables and funk records, and young cocky wordsmiths turned the cadence of their voices into singable prose. 

Steph Simon and Keenan Lane (aka Keeng Cut) are two such characters using music, social media, and the resources they have to bring to life World Culture Music Festival, Oklahoma’s largest hip-hop event.

“Me, Keenan, Verse, Pade, Dial Tone, Keezy, Trak, and Ando. That’s the faculty of the festival this year,” Simon said. This list includes local rappers, producers, blog editors, business entrepreneurs, and DJs running the logistics of this year’s five-day festival. 

What began as a homegrown festival last year with 22 artists is now a multi-day showcase with more than 60 different acts. 

“One big difference this year is that it’s changed from one day to five. It was originally gonna be two days—Friday and Saturday—but we incorporated Burns’s show on Thursday. Then we incorporated Trillary Banks and DJ Dial Tone’s art show at the Soundpony Sunday, and we decided to end the weekend with The Situation that Monday.” 

Simon’s partner, Lane, said the festival’s reach is growing.

“This year we got more connections,” Lane said. “Last year it was a Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Texas type of thing, but now we got artists from places as far out as Boston and New York. Last year I promoted it myself driving from here all the way to Lawton. I would rent a car every week, and throughout that week put up posters in OKC and other places. This year social media is promoting it. With all of the people submitting from out of state it’s awesome.”

“It’s predominantly hip-hop, but I don’t like to put these artists in a box,” Simon said. “We have bands. We got producers. We even got Christian artists this year.”

This eclectic mix was deliberate. World Culture Music was born out of finding genres and styles of music that reflected less of a common aesthetic and more a shared sense of community and personal expression. 

“Back in 2013, 2014 is when I came up with the name World Culture Music,” Lane said. “I was writing music for other people, but I couldn’t really identify what it was I was doing. I would write a whole love song, and then a whole opposite of a love song. Then a ratchet rap song or even a rock song, but it was all me though. So, I called it World Culture Music and said that was my genre.” 

Simon took the brand and ran with it. 

“The festival was needed,” Simon said. “I knew the Center of The Universe Festival had just stopped, and I thought, we need to fill that void. It was easy to reach out to 20 or 25 rappers that I know and say let’s throw a festival because we need one. We need one for us. I always noticed our local festivals didn’t have as many hip-hop artists. 

“So I said we need a festival for hip-hop and to keep it positive at the same time. I know rap gets a bad name. Rap music—people hear it and automatically associate it with violence, but so much of the music and culture I see in Tulsa isn’t like that. I personally screened these artists this year to reflect that the type of hip-hop image that we want World Culture Music to represent.”

Steph Simon listed a host of notable artists to watch for this year. 

“I’m really excited to see the band Childish Adults from Kansas City, and the young CTS Crew. I’m really excited to see Blue Cato. He won the March Madness competition we held at The Shrine, which guaranteed you spot at the festival. Then there’s Young Cutty—I want to see him. He’s a young guy that’s kind of getting notoriety in the national form. There’s a whole bunch of beautiful R&B singers like Tea Rush, Sincere Grant, and Ninety-One. Of course I’m probably most excited for the artists on the ‘Favored and Flavored’ stage. That’s where you’re gonna see the artists I like to call the forefathers: Surron, Mike Dee, Verse, Tone, Pade, Thril, Keeng Cut.” 

The festival is also a formal introduction to the artist who gave it its name. Keeng Cut’s first full-length album, World Culture Keys, will be released on the opening evening of the festival, Thursday, May 18. The seven-track personal manifesto is built around classical piano, synth samples, and modern dirty South beats and features the infectious “Own It,” Cut’s first single. 

“I didn’t perform last year,” Lane said. “It was all about Steph. I worked behind the scenes with [Steph’s album] Visions of the Tisdale … I played the background manager type assistant. Now I’m about to put out an album, and he’s been playing the background and supporting me.” 

It appears the duo have turned this process of mutual support into a model they hope to spread to the wider community. 

“Ten years ago it wasn’t like this,” Simon said. “It was a dope scene back then, but it was too much competition. The scene kind of beat itself up. The other difference is what the Internet and the new technology has done to talent. I got an inbox full of joints with young people wanting me to listen, and they’re all dope. They got more access to studios and beats. You can go on YouTube and pick whatever beat you want. We didn’t have that back then. We barely had Internet. The Blackberries and Socket phones couldn’t do all this. Because of the Internet I don’t think the music is a limiting factor. It’s the talent. We have a talent pool that’s as big as any city you can think of. It’s crazy. You’ll see it. I think all of these artists are good enough to hold their own.” 

World Culture Music Festival
May 18 – 22 at Soundpony and The Yeti; Free
Full lineup, schedule, and stage/venue information available at worldculturemusicfestival.com

For more from Damion, read his article on Tulsa rapper Pade’s debut album, Best Year Ever.