My mom is reminiscing on the time Kris Kross packed the Westgate Shopping Center’s parking lot for a show in the ‘90s. A few businesses still operate in the complex, but looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine this was ever a lively place. She insists it was. Standing in the parking lot, she points out the former location of Mr. V’s Figure 8 Nightclub (also formerly My Brother’s Keeper), reveals the Atlanta Meat & Fish Market & Restaurant used to be a Dairy Queen, and gestures to a former apartment complex down the street, King’s Ridge, that she says hosted the best parties. This stretch of Campbellton Road in Southwest Atlanta was important to her teenage and young adult years. Now, it’s mostly neglected and deserted. Unless they have parents who grew up in the area, younger generations are likely unaware of the vibrant history of Westgate and the neighborhood it’s located in.
Elevate S.W.A.T.S. hopes to change that.
Camille Russell Love, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, said Southwest Atlanta is the first logical location for the annual public arts festival Elevate since its move from downtown. The free, week-long festival was created to highlight culture and art in underserved areas of Atlanta, and kicked off Sunday with signing of photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s upcoming book #1960Now at Arnika Dawkins Gallery, and a screening of the documentary Maynard.
“Southwest Atlanta is the home of politicians, religious leaders, and a lot of creative talent,” Love says. “Showing the culture of Southwest [Atlanta] to Southwest [Atlanta residents] is important to us.”
On Tuesday, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs hosted an event to unveil the “The Art of the S.W.A.T.S House,” a mural located in the Westgate Shopping Center. Created by Atlanta artist Austin Blue, it’s a visual representation of both the creative talent nurtured in the area and those who had an impact on it. Musicians from the Dungeon Family collective, including Organized Noize, Outkast, and Goodie Mob, are memorialized on the wall aside funk bands Brick and the S.O.S Band, hip-hop duo Kris Kross, R&B group Xscape, jazz musician Freddy Cole, and more. Author Pearl Cleage, photographers Doris Derby, and Sue Ross are also among the artists featured in the mural. Not every artist depicted in the mural is from Southwest Atlanta (Ludacris and 2 Chainz rep College Park, Shawty Lo grew up in Bankhead, and actor Samuel L. Jackson grew up in Chattanooga but attended Morehouse and is perhaps the most famous Falcons fan), but their influence has certainly resonated in the area and beyond. Rapper T.I., who has served as a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s transition team, helped bring the project to life.
Rapper and Goodie Mob member CeeLo Green says he grew up just down the street in King’s Ridge, the former apartment complex, so it’s surreal to be memorialized on the mural.
“I grew up right here as a child. I’ve walked these streets,” he says. “To be honored here is quite an accomplishment. It’s all about legacy. We need to be trying to reference the good and also the bad so people can be taught from it.”
Abdul Ra’oof, singer and trumpet player in the S.O.S Band, known for hit songs such as 1980’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” says he found out about the mural a few days before the unveiling. A former manager with knowledge of the initiative noticed it was lacking some of the older groups with ties to Southwest Atlanta and recommended the S.O.S Band and Brick, known for songs such as 1976’s “Dazz,” be recognized.
“It’s good to know exactly where things came from,” Ra’oof says. “We were one of the earlier groups [from Atlanta]. That can be overlooked.”
It’s certainly an important addition. Without Brick, the Dungeon Family as we know it wouldn’t exist. Sleepy Brown, a key member of Organized Noize, the production trio that developed Outkast and Goodie Mob and produced songs such as TLC’s massive 1994 hit “Waterfalls,” is the son of Brick member Jimmy Brown.
Singer Mary Davis says the S.O.S. Band started along this section of Campbellton Road at a former club known as the Regal Room. The band also frequented Mr. V’s and a former local club named Marco’s.
The Art of the S.W.A.T.S. is one of four murals that will be installed in the area as a part of Elevate. Another mural at 2265 Cascade Road Southwest will celebrate five Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients with ties to the area: Reverend Dr. C. T. Vivian, Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron.
Other upcoming Elevate S.W.A.T.S events include a performance of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women at the Southwest Arts Center on October 17, where tickets will be offered at a discount as part of the festival. Cascade United Methodist Church will host a free jazz concert with Kenny Banks Sr. and Jr. and poet Opal Moore, among others, on October 18. Ailey II and DanceMakers of Atlanta will host a free “Night of Dance” at Providence Missionary Baptist Church on October 19, followed by the Elevate Block Party on October 20, and a final free arts exhibit and performance at Cascade Springs Nature Preserve on October 21
Love said the Mayor’s office is hoping “The Art of the S.W.A.T.S. House,” and other Elevate initiatives, will eventually be a catalyst to nurture new talent in the area. The Westgate mural is up indefinitely, and Love says they’re hoping to host an event once a month in the shopping complex to coincide with economic development plans for the strip. They’re also hoping to work with the landlord to use the inside of the building where the mural is located as a creative hub for artists.
“In the ‘80s, this was a lively area. We didn’t have to go to Buckhead,” Ra’oof says. “We want to be a part of the revitalization and be able to tell our own story.”
My mom lingers nearby with a “I told you so” smirk on her face as Ra’oof, Davis, and Green reminisce about the area, confirming everything she has already told me. Next time, I’ll listen more intently when she ventures down memory lane.