There is something about the holiday season that heightens most people’s sense of compassion toward those less fortunate. But Hartford school teacher and local rapper Joey Batts doesn’t need the holidays to see that people in his community are in need.
“Five years ago I noticed that some of my students were struggling with being displaced from their homes or couch surfing, and it was the first time in my life I realized that homelessness affects different types of people,” says Batts. “The archetype of the old homeless guy with the big beard is not always what the face of homelessness really is. Being hungry affects so many people.”
So five years ago, Batts created the first Hip Hop for the Homeless tour, a two-weekend long run of shows through the state of Connecticut alongside roughly 40 other rappers, DJs and musicians. The goal was to bring together some of the best and brightest talent in the Connecticut hip-hop scene, while giving back to as many cities as they could muster. Not even Batts, a true optimist when it comes to his cause, could have imagined the success these shows have had and the donations they’ve generated.
“I think that when it first started people didn’t know what it was going to be or the effect that it could have,” says Batts. “There had always been shows or benefits but I don’t think anyone tried to do a string of seven shows in seven different cities within Connecticut. It’s been snowballing and getting better every single year. We’ve increased what we’ve brought in every year and in the last four years that comes out to more than $10,000 in cash, not counting all the canned goods and other donations.”
The full line-up of artists has yet to be announced, but Batts did tease the return of some of the brightest names in Connecticut hip-hop, including award-winning musician and Fake Four record label head man Ceschi Ramos. Other artists Batts tipped his hand on were New London rapper N.M.E. the Illest; Hartford duo AQMNI; longtime Batts collaborator Rudy; and Phat A$tronaut vocalist Chad Browne-Springer.
This year the concerts are compressed into 11 days — Dec. 5 to 15 — with return trips to Middletown, Simsbury, New London, New Britain, Hartford, New Haven and Jewett City. The first tour stop adds Manchester to the list (see schedule below.)
When talking about hip-hop music in Connecticut it’s hard not to think of Batts. The Hartford via New York transplant has been a fixture of the scene for well over a decade, taking home a Connecticut Music Award at one point as the state’s best act. So for Batts it was a no-brainer to lean on a scene that he was so entrenched in to promote a good cause.
“I thought about finding a way to give back to people struggling and it just made sense for that to be hip-hop shows and to lean on other people who supported me the most, being other musicians and venue owners,” says Batts. “Anywhere from 40 to 60 local musicians and rappers donate their services. They’ve never been funny about wanting to get paid for this. Everyone involved including the venue owners have been more than willing to do this for free.”
With so many amazingly talented people willing to donate their time and art for free, that allows Hip Hop for the Homeless to donate all the money off the door each night to a partner organization at each tour stop.
“In every single city we pair with a nonprofit or a shelter or food pantry in that respective city,” says Batts. “Then they get all the physical donations that come to the show that night and they also get the money that we raise for that night as well.”
It was easy for Batts to identify the needs of the larger cities in the state. Hartford, New Haven, and New London, for example, were immediately considered for tour stops, and although he’s admittedly had trouble maintaining a reliable venue contact in Bridgeport, he’s aware of the needs of Connecticut’s most populous city as well. Some have questioned his choices for other tour stops, especially in a relatively affluent town such as Simsbury or a smaller town like Jewett City. Batts is quick to point out though that how a town appears to those on the outside isn’t always the reality.
“Everybody who lives in Connecticut knows there are certain cities that have issues with homelessness,” says Batts. “A lot of people feel that Simsbury doesn’t have a big homeless population, and they don’t, but the food pantries in the churches get used in the winter time until there’s nothing left on their shelves. Jewett City is another city where by Thanksgiving the shelves in the food pantry are barren. We were able to really help them out last year and told them we’d be back to do it again.”
For some people five years may seem like a long time to be undertaking such a massive project, but not for a whirlwind like Batts, a man who seemingly always has his hands full with one enterprise or another. He already has big goals for the next five years.
“I guess what I envision is to raise enough funds and goods that we would be able to help actually place families in shelters or temporary housing [and] that Hip Hop for the Homeless becomes a separate, independent nonprofit organization where we can continue to receive donations and help throughout the year.”
For now though Batts and his cavalcade of talented musicians will happily accept your help over the next two weeks. Hip Hop for the Homeless dates and locations are Dec. 5 at The Main Pub in Manchester; Dec. 6 at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown; Dec. 7 at The Oasis Pub in New London; Dec. 8 at Hoops ‘n’ Hops in Simsbury; Dec. 12 at Café 9 in New Haven; Dec.13 at Alvarium Brewery in New Britain; Dec.14 at Chango Rosa in Hartford; and Dec. 15 at Altones in Jewett City.
All Hip Hop for the Homeless shows begin at 8 p.m. Although there is no official cover charge, all attendees are asked to bring either a cash donation and/or nonperishable items such as canned goods, clothing and toiletries. The shows in Hartford, New Britain, Manchester, and Middletown are all-ages. The shows in New Haven, New London, Simsbury, and Jewett City are 21-plus. For more information, including the full list of performers at each location visit the Hip Hop for the Homeless Facebook page at facebook.com/hiphopforthehomeless.