A Home for Hip-Hop and Art in Chestnut Hill: A conversation with Jonene Nelson of NoName Gallery - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Hip-hop culture is a combination of four elements: music, dance, DJ-ing, and of course graffiti. In fact, graffiti is the first element, so art — or street art — has played a huge part in the beginnings of hip-hop and helped define the culture I grew up in. But as the culture evolved, the music took center stage, and the other three elements were moved more toward the sides. But now that hip-hop is the most dominant culture in the world, we are finding a newfound love in all the forms that helped build hip-hop, and art is no different.

What was once considered something that was just defacing property is now fine art, and showing up in galleries. That brings us to NoName Art Gallery, and its founder and curator, Jonene Nelson. NoName spent Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary in the month of June exhibiting artists and art from the hip-hop community, and Wilson sat down and talked about the music and culture and artists that inspired the exhibition.

photo courtesy of NoName Gallery

Josh Leidy: Can you give us a little background on you and NoName Gallery? 

Jonene Nelson: I started out as a dancer for Montage Performing Arts comapny. We were all street dancers in Shampoo and those types of spots back in the day. But I always had a camera that my mother had given me when I was 12. When I was young, I was an athlete, so I started taking photos of sports, and parties. So when I was dancing, I still had it and I would take pictures of us practicing. That really became my passion, shooting candid shots at the BBoy BBQ, and places like that.

I found a home in hip hop, acceptance, a place I felt I belonged. I grew up in Bucks County, like the only Black child there. When I saw Beat Street at 11, I was like “these are my people, this is where I belong.” So hip-hop culture has given me a sense of belonging I hadn’t possessed before. The sad part is I gave up dancing because I developed an addiction to Percocet, and since we were performing for free, really just for the art, I couldn’t continue that and my addiction. But shooting shows and events were taking off, I even had a licensing deal with Urban Outfitters for my photos. But after about ten years I got clean and had a child, so my priorities shifted. Wanting to be on the scene in the mix died and my photography became more intimate. I did a series called the black and white bedroom series, where I invited folks to my new apartment that had these gorgeous high ceilings and we’d hang out and talk, let the subject relax and I’d shoot these really natural photos. I had people like DJ Aktive and Reef the Lost Cauze do it — so they aren’t models, I didn’t want poses. Just move naturally and I’ll capture it. I want to restart the series now in the gallery.

Jonene Nelson | photo courtesy of NoName Gallery

JL: So how did you get the idea to start the gallery? 

JN: It started as an idea for a pop-up art show. My friend Ya Ya put the battery in my back to try and put it together. We were coming out of COVID and I was doing some shooting, but I wanted to do more and the pop-up art show was perfect. Most of the people I knew were old graffiti artists, so giving them a place to present their work felt right. So I reached out to Richard Snowden, who owns a lot of the spots here in Chestnut Hill, and he loves the arts, so when I asked, he was like “You can do it next week.” [laughs] It took a little longer than a week, but we put on the pop-up and I had DJ Aktive and Lil Dave there spinning and we sold out of almost everything. And most importantly, the community loved it. That was the light bulb moment. The area here is very liberal but has the disposable income to support and buy the art. I basically came up with a plan and believed wholesale in myself and we opened NoName in September 2022.

JL: Have you found it hard to connect with artists to showcase? 

JN: Honestly, no. All the years I was hanging at Fluid or Club Fever, all these underground spots, I was making these connections, and now I have a brick-and-mortar, I can invite these artists here and bring them together. I can have DJs, and live art, and continue to make these connections in the hip-hop and arts and culture scene. All my life I loved being people together, in 2008 I had Philadelphia DJ day, so really this is a continuation of that work. Philly is also a small big city and the art community all know one another. Even if you don’t know them, you know someone who does, so connecting is easy.

JL: What do you think the importance has been for hip hop in the art scene? 

JN: Everything, hip-hop culture is art. Everything in hip hop from dance to emceeing, production, graf, street art, photography, it’s all art and fundamental to the culture. And I think that’s why in hip-hop we feel at home, because the culture envelopes all that we do. I think hip-hop is the ultimate expression of an experience, in every single element of it, and I think that’s why we’ve been celebrating it for 50 years now. I expressed myself in hip-hop through dance, and then photography, and now with the gallery. And with the gallery, I now get to give other artists a chance to express themselves and make money doing it. That’s my goal.

I also want to develop a relationship with Jenks Elementary a few blocks away and start bringing artists there. Show the youth that the art they may love and embrace is valid. We didn’t get that when we were young.

photo courtesy of NoName Gallery

JL: You have some legendary artists like the first graffiti writer Cornbread in this June exhibit. How did you go about finding artists? 

JN: Really, it just came down to reaching out to artists that excite me and people that I thought work was dope. B from Jersey was here for our first pop-up, Cornbread I just reached out to, Rame was a friend of a friend. Everyone was either people I knew through the community or was made aware of.

JL: So this exhibit goes until the end of June correct? What are the upcoming events? 

JN: Yes, every exhibit runs for the month, and every first Friday of the month we have a welcome mixer for everyone with the artist here, it’s really a nice time and a great energy. Next month we have Chuck D and his agency Mad Urgency, they are bringing in more hip-hop-based pieces from him and a team of artists under him. I’m really looking forward to that. And for the fall, the gallery has six rooms and I’m going to have the artist each design a room however they want. You can keep up with the gallery @nonamegalleryphilly.

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