EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
By Charles Curtis II | For AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN — Before each performance, Tanisha Marie leads the crowd in a group breathing exercise, “to get everyone on the same wavelength.”
During a recent event at the Parkside Learning Garden, Marie spoke into the microphone atop a stand adorned with brightly colored flowers, and instructed the audience to “Breathe in, breathe out.”
A calm settled as the crowd drew a collective breath and then exhaled in unison. Everyone was gathered on the small plot at 1220 Haddon Avenue. The Learning Garden is positioned between the well-known Donkey’s Place restaurant and Top Model beauty salon.
What would otherwise be an empty lot, has been transformed by the nonprofit Parkside Business and Community In Partnership (PBCIP) into a welcoming garden with a modest stage where Marie makes full use of her neo soul music set.
Tanisha Marie, a singer, songwriter, and self-proclaimed, “community artist.” She is also the co-host of “Good Vibes” open mic series, which invites local artists to perform and showcase their works.
Hosted on the last Saturday of the month between March and September, these events provide a space for Camden-based creatives – singers, poets, rappers, and even painters– to hone their talent and express themselves through artistry and conversation.
“I believe in supporting the youth,” says Good Vibes founder Ajeena Riggs. Born and raised in New York City, Riggs is a trained vocalist and classical pianist who attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Since moving to Camden eight years ago, Riggs and her husband, Troy Riggs, have opened the Camden Store, a custom print and embroidery shop. She’d been looking for ways to engage the community through their family-owned business, when she remembered one of her favorite programs growing up.
“I loved how they could have conversations about issues concerning them,” Riggs says of BET Network’s “Teen Summit,” a talk show that ran from 1989 to 2002. She wanted to create a similar outlet for the youth of Camden. So Riggs started hosting impromptu open mics and began reaching out to local talent for help.
She soon came across Taquan Allen’s social media content in 2014, and recruited the young poet and videographer to help draw artists to the open mics.
“I still needed a name for the event and asked Taquan to come up with one,” says Riggs. Within a half hour, Taquan called back and pitched ‘Good Vibes’ ’ The name stuck, and in September 2016, the first official Good Vibes was held at the Camden Store.
The events are free to the public. The only requirement is that attendees sign up to reserve a seat. The format has remained the same, for the most part: a one hour open mic, followed by a themed group conversation that runs about 20 minutes, and a closing performance from a featured artist.
Over the years Good Vibes has welcomed community members including vendors and guest speakers to amplify the event and showcase local businesses.
“We’ve invited entrepreneurs, caterers, young vegan chefs, and even [had] live painting!” said Christopher Charles Hampton, who started attending the open mics early on and now serves as director for the Good Vibes programming.
Hampton also works as the executive director of Camden Renaissance Leaders, a non-profit that focuses on youth leadership, civic engagement and freedom of expression. So, a driving factor for Hampton is: “I want to see young people in our city have a voice.”
In addition, Hampton, who is the chairperson for the Camden County Cultural Heritage Commission, brings to the event series his experience in promoting the arts and local history of Camden.
“I met Chris through mutual friends and was reacquainted with him when he attended Good Vibes. I know right away he’d be a great resource to involve; he’s passionate and recognized my vision early on,” says Riggs. With Hampton as a partner, she began taking steps to help realize the growth potential of Good Vibes.
“We recognized that Good Vibes had outgrown the store. Rutgers University even reached out to us to host Good Vibes on their campus. In 2019 we had a conversation about impact and power. We decided to make it a program,” says Riggs.
That year Open Vibes moved away from its impromptu shows in favor of scheduled-seasonal events. The venue also changed, with the open mic sessions moved from The Camden Store to The Learning Garden across the street. Good Vibes became a subsidiary of Camden Renaissance in 2020– a transition that facilitates access to grants and helps fund sustainable growth. Most recently, Ocean Bank awarded the program $4,000 to aid with operations.
Good Vibes also has funding support from local donations, and the personal investment of hosts and organizers. Rutgers University, Camden City, and PBCIP (Parkside Business and Community in Partnership) have all contributed regularly to Good Vibes over the years.
Good Vibes looks to make each open mic impactful and intentional.
“We include a topic or theme for each event. It can range from mental health, artist development, and self-improvement,” says host Taquan Allen.
“We are putting more purpose in our events,” Allen says of the programming, in which creatives are encouraged to have their pieces reflect the theme of the night. The open mic allows time for an open discussion and the sharing of personal experiences amongst attendees relevant to the theme.
“They hit you with gems. The conversations can be motivating,” says DeAndre Viloria, who has performed under the stage name “Drey Viloria” since 2016. He credits the program with his growth as an artist: “Good Vibes has been consistent and always following up. It gave me that platform to sharpen my skills and public speaking.”
“I was supporting them before I was doing music myself,” says videographer Khalif Holmes.
Seeing people that you wouldn’t expect [to] perform, motivated me to perform,” says Holmes.
“It opened me up. I’ve performed but never had the opportunity to talk to the crowd. It helped me grow as an artist,” says Holmes of the open mic’s themed discussions.
Good Vibes has also created spaces for artists’ growth beyond their open mic sessions by hosting workshops that look to educate and empower the artist.
“We have workshops which teach artists how to protect their music, creating LLCs around their work. We educate them about their talent and how to take it to the next level,” says Riggs.
For Riggs and Hamton, a good community is one in which you can give and also receive support. So as artists share their gifts, the Good Vibes program gives back and invests in their future success through education and mentoring.
“Good Vibes teaches them leadership and responsibilities,” says Hampton who doubles as a mentor to the open mic co-hosts. “I remembered Tanisha as quiet and timid now she has bloomed into the great artist that she is. I remember a younger Taquan, now I’m watching him own his own business.”
While the open mic has remained consistent over the years, it has adapted to embrace more community voices and tackle more difficult, but relevant themes.
“We have had some challenges like including suicide in the conversation,” says Riggs.
“We make sure that there are resources, and a professional available.”
Good Vibes is seasonal, so the fall and winter months are for organizing. The team has enlisted several local and South Jersey talents to create a mixtape this coming fall, encouraging local artists to build on their partnerships and craft.
“I can’t wait to expand. And to get out of my comfort zone by creating a great opportunity for everyone to get their shine. You’ll have something for everyone, we’ll make it extraordinary and different.” says Viloria, one of several artists invited to collaborate on the joint mixtape.
With its artist workshops and support for collaborative projects, Good Vibes has evolved to not only host open mics, but also connect local creatives with training and resources to support their talents. For some, it’s an investment that also inspires service.
“Good Vibes made me into the artist I am today. It took me out of my comfort zone,” says Allen. “It developed my sense of character because this is how I give back to the city.”
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