Aaron McKinney, Executive Director at Hi-ARTS in New York. (Contributed photo)

Aaron McKinney has tunnel vision for 2025. He doesn’t know where Hi-ARTS will be when that year arrives, only that it’s on track to keep growing. “For me it’s a bragging point because, during the pandemic, most organization don’t get to say they experienced growth,” said McKinney, the executive director at Hi-ARTS. “For us to be an organization founded by people of color and Black led for most of its existence, it speaks a lot to the organization, that we’re able to survive the pandemic.” When McKinney first encountered the nonprofit organization known as Hi-ARTS, it was from the outside almost ten years ago, a little after the nonprofit had experienced another growth.

Founded initially as the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in 2000, Hi-ARTS was built to promote and spotlight the use of hip-hop music in the world of theater. Among the notable artists, Hi-ARTS cites involvement through the years with names like playwright Dominique Morisseau, the musical artist Common and the late-Chadwick Boseman. “Chadwick was at the founding of the organization,” he said, adding that Boseman and Kamilah Forbes–one of the founders, were classmates and attended Howard University.

After Hip-Hop Theater Festival’s founding, the musical genre of hip-hop became popular enough – and the organization prolific enough – that the nonprofit changed its name to Hi-ARTS in 2011 and expanded its reach to further artistic fields. “I’ve known of the organization since I came to New York in 2013,” recalled McKinney, who became executive director of Hi-Arts in July last year.

McKinney bounced between organizations for a few years after his first encounter with Hi-ARTS, ultimately taking a general management job there in 2016, around the same time the organization settled into its first permanent home at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in East Harlem. “We used to occupy a 600 square foot office space, now we’re in a 3,500 square foot office space, gallery space, rehearsal space in the same building,” McKinney noted. He added that music, dance, and visual arts dedicated to hip-hop and urban culture continued to align with the organization’s founding mission.

As programming grows, McKinney visualizes the Hi-ARTS like a salad bowl where the Hip-Hop Theater Festival is the base. Every aspect added over the years is ingredients mixed in, making everything more flavorful. That salad became a little easier to define for those not already involved in 2015, when the Lin-Manuel Miranda-made musical “Hamilton,” made waves on Broadway. Though hip hop on a theater stage had existed before then, McKinney noted that the ubiquity of “Hamilton,” perhaps, offered a framework to understand the Hip-Hop Theater Festival at a glance easily.

The most recent ingredient to the metaphorical salad bowl is the Hip Hop Center for Social Innovation, a program still during a soft launch with plans to take shape the next few years before a full, official launch. “We are testing the programming,” he said.

McKinney would like to see Hi-ARTS start touring shows again, an effort stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Difficult as it is to pin down the exact point of hip hop becoming popularized in the world of theater, it’s at least a little easier for McKinney to guess why Hi-ARTS has been able to grow. Having the right people in the right places, a focus on process over product, and a growing community presence are just a few. But to McKinney, perhaps the most pronounced factor has been the constant mission of the group.

“(We have) this undertone of hip hop culture and urban aesthetic – there aren’t many organizations in New York and around the country that solely focus on that,” he said. “I think it’s our mission and what we do and who we do it for, that has allowed us to have this moment of growth.”

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