Despite the assumptions or stereotypes associated with it, the Natural State is home to diverse talent, delicious food and vibrant culture. Arkansas native, Osyrus Bolly is an artist, activist, and youth mentor from Southwest Little Rock.
The arts have always been deep-rooted in his identity and served as his refuge during his moments of self-discovery. He says, “I kind of went down the wrong path, got lost in a lot of foolishness and so the positive thing that kept me from focusing on so much negativity was poetry and hip-hop.”
What’s meant for you will find you and this is true for Osyrus. Through his work he amplifies Black experiences, educates others on Black history and is a voice for the voiceless. Not only that, but he speaks highly of where he’s from and states, “We got so much talent and so many dope artists from here and y’all really looking over us because y’all look at us like we just in the backwoods on some real country shenanigans.”
Pursuing music allowed Osyrus opportunities that were at one point unimaginable. His unintentional path to activism landed him a role as the Racial Equity Coordinator on the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, and he uses his story to better serve the youth that he mentors, break stigmas, and evoke change in his city.
Give me a quick rundown on your background.
I’m originally from Southwest Little Rock, grew up there my whole life. There’s not much I can really say about my childhood. I’ve always been into arts, always been into music. My first passion was visual art, that’s something that I played with for a while as well as theater. Growing up, art was a big part of everything I did from music, to drawing, to painting. I did a bunch of plays and stuff like that when I was young and had submitted my work to the Arkansas Arts Center when I was young because my art teacher thought I was really talented.
As I got older and I got out on my own, I tried to venture out and do some things. I kind of went down the wrong path and got lost in a lot of foolishness. So, the positive things that kept me from focusing on so much negativity were poetry and hip-hop. I gravitated towards them because I wasn’t feeling productive, and I was being negative in my community for sure. I wasn’t being an asset to my community. That kept me from going too far down the wrong path. I linked up with some guys who were all about art form and one of the guys that I linked up with, Joshua Asante, he’s a part of a group called Amasa Hines. They won an Arkansas Times showcase at one point and they started doing a lot of original music, but that was one of the first people I linked up with. Then I started working with a bunch of DJs and producers: my guy Cypher, Yuni Wa, DJ Swift, DJ Prophet and a bunch of different people. Also started throwing shows and all that type of stuff. I kind of mainly started focusing on my art form, really.
That’s nice to know to know that it first started visual then slowly progressed into pretty much all areas of what you can consider art.
Yeah, it’s dope because there’s so many different barriers when communicating with people, but art is a universal language. It’s essential no matter where you come from, your background, you know… the art form is always something that speaks to people and it’s left up to the viewer’s discretion.
I consider my music one thing, but the people who listen to me might consider it something totally different. Some call it conscious music, some call it Black music, some just call it true hip-hop or rap, and so that’s the one way I always stay connected. I’m always a big fan of all forms of art. I try to make sure that even when I’m not participating in a specific art, I always stay updated on it and pay attention because it’s just something that inspires me. I’m still into a lot of visual artists, cartoonists, music, documentaries, and all that type of stuff… thespians, everything.
What do you love about where you’re from and what are some misconceptions that others may have?
I love Arkansas, man, you know what I’m saying? It’s a lot of b.s. going on in Arkansas, but it’s going on everywhere. What I love about it, man, is anytime I go somewhere, people always be shocked when I tell them where I’m from. I’ve performed poetry and rapping all over the United States, and got to open up for a lot of different talented people and just a bevy of talent all around the nation. They talk to me after they hear me perform and be like, “man where you from?” and they expect some metropolis, like you must be from Houston or Chicago, Orlando or Atlanta, or something like that. I be like, Little Rock [laughing]. I’m like, yeah man, you know straight up, I’m from Little Rock.
I remember I opened up for Raekwon from Wu Tang Klan once. He came out on stage and was like, “I don’t know where that brother from, but shoutout to that guy that just got off the stage, Osyrus man, that was dope.” And I’m like, I’m from here! It just kind of shocks people.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is like, people look at Arkansas and Little Rock as like, we’re slow, it’s country, like we don’t have no culture it’s no diversity here, so I’m always pushing people to like you know what I’m saying, like aye y’all might want to check out what Arkansas got going on. We got so much talent and so many dope artists from here and y’all really looking over us because y’all look at us like we just in the backwoods on some real country shenanigans.
And then two, of course when I mention Little Rock it’s only a few things people mention. They might mention the Little Rock Nine or something about Bill Clinton or something like that. You hear about Gangbanging in Little Rock. They like, what are you, I’m like… Black! [laughing] I’ve never gotten involved with the gang life. I ain’t gon’ front I had one foot in the streets at one point, but like I never was into that. I was always into what me and my friends were doing as a crew. But, that misconception that we’re still living in a real big gang banging culture. A lot of it now is just more of a thing happening in the streets and that’s just the effects of what happens when you try to bring urban renewal and it don’t really affect the people. It affects the places more, but the people never got the same investment. Crime is an effect of poverty, basically.
I always try to bring people the message and let them know, just because you hear the word Arkansas, when I go up north they’re like Ar-kansas, I don’t know why. But I’m always just letting them know it’s so much culture here, so much diversity. Even within the city, people are always like, it ain’t nothing to do here. I’m like, you crazy! I can take you to an art show—before the pandemic of course—to the skate part, the museum, we can catch a play at the weekend theater, there’s hip-hop shows going on all the time, live music, and film festivals here. We got an entertainment district now, plenty of restaurants and historical landmarks. You’d be surprised what’s here in the city and in the state if you step out and go do some exploring. And of course, there’s a lot of natural beauty here, just to be chilling in nature.
On my end when people ask, what’s in Arkansas, they may mention Walmart. And I’m like, yeah… Walmart! But I’m like, it’s a beautiful place if you love nature and the outdoors—it’s the perfect place to be. But yeah, exactly what you said. We have a lot of things going on in Arkansas that people are unaware of or just not tapped in to what’s happening.
Yeah! [laughing] You’re an artist, a community activist, and a youth mentor. I’m interested in knowing what led you to each of these areas. In an earlier interview you said that you consider yourself a liberation artist, can you elaborate?
Yeah, most definitely. So, when I became like a teaching artist I was basically like, what is my platform and what is my expertise? And I just said: liberation arts. I know when I was in a dark place in my life and I was getting in trouble, you could mention my name and people wouldn’t bring up anything positive to say about me because I had the reputation of someone that was going to throw his life away.
A lot of that comes from being a young Black man feeling like society is against you, feeling like people don’t have faith in you or believe in your growth or change that can occur in your life. Liberation arts are basically— the arts, something that saved me. I was on my way to jail and I knew that whatever I was going to go to jail for, this situation was going to end up where I was going to end up with a felony and all that type of stuff. The artists in my community saved me from that situation. They stepped out on faith and was like man get your life together we got your back but you’ve got to stop doing this dumb stuff.
So, I was basically like what am I going to do with my time. I ain’t got no job, I can’t be in the streets making money like that, so I began to just work on my art form. I started hosting open mics and booking talent to come in and that became an income for me to book talent coming into Arkansas and Little Rock to perform. I started throwing my own shows and really didn’t know what to really do. I started reaching out to venues, walking in there like my name is Osyrus this is what I do, showing them a couple flyers, sending them links, bugging the hell out of owners of venues.
I felt like the arts liberated me. It went from open mics to performing with a national award-winning spoken word poetry slam team into dropping some music and touring with different bands as openers. And so, the arts really showed me a path to freedom and it liberated me. When I started becoming a teaching artist I said I was going to teach under the title and platform of liberation arts because liberation arts to me is getting people to go deep within themselves, express themselves artistically, use that as a form of therapy, and to get a piece of mind. It’s been so many people that I’ve talked to over the years that have talked about their deepest and darkest moments in a poem or in a song. That helped them have a rebirth as a new person.
I always encourage the youth that I teach to liberate themselves, the things that they’re going through whether it be issues at home, issues in the community, issues at school or just internal issues. Speak on it and use your voice to fight the demons in your life and the situations that you’re in so that you an do something positive with it. Turn your pain into your story of liberation.
There’s a recurring theme where you start somewhere and then along the way you learn these new things about yourself. You don’t necessarily have a path or instructions on how to get there, but you figure it out. What initially sparked your interest in pursuing a music career?
A poet named Jessica Care Moore. She’s dope! Back in the day, man, she had did this poem on Nas’ album, I can’t remember which album it was but it might’ve been his second or third album. When I was young, she went on the Apollo, she was the first person I saw come on there and do poetry and she kept winning over and over and over again. Years later, I was at this event and I didn’t even know she was in the room. I just saw this chick with a big fro in the room and I went up and performed poetry. After it was over, she introduced herself and gave me her card. She was like, “man you’ve got some talent! I don’t know if you’ve got some music out, but if you’ve got some music you need to send it to me. I want to put you on one of my projects,” and I was like man… I really ain’t got no music, so that’s when I started linking up with some producers. I had probably recorded one time in my whole life, and the quality was just trash so I never went back to the studio after that. After she inspired me to go record again, that’s when I started recording my music.
The messed-up thing about it is she gave me her card, and I lost her contact information. I tried to find her online and kept hitting her up, yet she never got my music. But she ended up seeing me later in life online and was like, I remember you so we linked up online and started following each other on Twitter. She doesn’t know that she inspired me. She probably forgot the whole story to be honest with you, but she’s hella dope and gave me a word before she even knew who I was to go record and that’s when I started recording music on a regular basis.
Dang! You lost her contact? That’s crazy, but it’s good that y’all reconnected, though.
Yeah, man I’m horrible—don’t give me your card, just give me your phone number, and put it in my phone. Don’t give me no card [laughing]. Someone at Virgin Records had hit me up one time and was like we’d be interested in talking to you and having a meeting [shaking his head]. I had opened up for DJ Paul from Three Six Mafia and I don’t even know where that card is. Don’t give me your card in the club, that’s all I got to say.
[laughing] How is your music fused with your activism? And tell me how you got started in activism, because I have a feeling that it happened gradually for you based on how other things are going.
Yeah, so becoming an activist man… I think everybody who becomes an activist, it just happens. You don’t know it’s going to happen to you. You just put yourself out there in the moment and then all of a sudden you realize that people are actually listening to you and that they look to you for whatever change needs to happen, or they some advice on what to do or how to support you.
It started off was when I was hosting open mics. I was like, we do all this entertaining and we give people messages through our art, but we don’t really educate them through an event. So, it was about education and not so much about performances and entertainment. Me and a group of people started throwing events that we felt were more productive. We did a Black Business Expo then we started doing events like the Black Family Reunion. We would do events outside of Black History Month and talk about people in history that you didn’t read about in the books. It started off as educating people about our history and evolved into educating them about what was going on in the community.
My first few times leading rallies and protests were during two different times. I did two protests for when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. I did them in Little Rock because I knew people weren’t going to be able to travel that far. And then I have a friend of mine that got killed, his name was Ernest Hoskins, he was a rapper. His name was Kid Fresh. He got killed— crazy story but by a white supremacist— we tried to get the prosecutor to reopen the case so we used social media to get the word out. I was tagging anybody that was a national activist or someone that worked in civil rights to get wind of the story. Once those things started happening every time something would happen people started sending me a link to an article asking if I heard about it. I started exposing the truth.
With the music side of it, I always wanted to have some messages, too. So, I’ll have fun in my music, but I’ll come back around and talk about financial literacy, the importance of having Black pride, or Black women embracing their natural hair. I would mix those messages in so people would see that I’m having fun, but also trying to convey a message. One of the artists I look up to is Tupac because he had the ability to balance the message in his music with the fun side. He had songs like “Hit ‘Em Up” and then he had messages like “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” “Keep Ya Head Up” and then he’d do something like “I Get Around.”
That’s how I use both. The activism is one side of me and the artist is another side of me. Often, I put it together in my music to where you can hear the activist on a song as well as enjoy something good, something lyrical.
That’s nice. Before you even mentioned Tupac, I was going to say that’s a healthy balance. People don’t feel like it’s oversaturated with one sound.
And at the same time, I enjoy so many different artists. People would be surprised at what I actually listen to. People think that I’m just cramming down revolutionary hip-hop and message music. I listen to a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the movement other than the fact that it’s something that I consider good art.
I would love to know more about your role as the Racial Equity Coordinator.
I started— man— I started working at Arkansas Public Policy Panel as the Racial Equity Coordinator about two years ago and my role is— really I’ll say this right here to you, when you talk about racial equity there’s a racial equity aspect to every issue that you could figure out in our lives as Black people. From education to the environment, to civil rights, to voting, economic justice… all over there’s a racial equity aspect to it. Basically, me being an activist is what led me to that role. I identify the racial equity aspect of all these issues, so when we talk about things that are going on in the community like school closures or state takeover in education, I talk about why that particularly affects the Black community.
I went to McClellan so I was sad to see McClellan close… McClellan High School. But then I look at the situation like how schools are funded and majority of the time it’s through property taxes, so when you look at the property taxes in the neighborhood you’re living in what’s considered the hood, the property value on a lot of these places are not the same as when you go out to West Little Rock. The school out in West Little Rock have more funding. They’re going to look a bit better and be ran a bit differently, but it’s based on the funds.
I talk to people about why funds need to be allocated for schools that don’t get the same type of funding because of the issues or demographics in their particular area. Same thing with the environment, talking about issues of economic justice and voting, you know. Even this year talking about the census and how it affects our community because they look at the population and that’s how they determine what type of funds get allocated.
I’ve helped and I’ve traveled around as a speaker and as an organizer to do racial equity workshops. Like, Black people don’t believe racism still exists or the issues from the 60’s don’t still apply to 2020… it’s still very real, but they try and conceal it a lot of times. We do racial equity workshops with people of color and white people, to let white people understand that there’s a certain thing called white privilege that is very real. You may or may not know anything about that, but let me teach you about that. We talk about white fragility and using your privilege in order to be an ally to the Black community. Once you realize your privilege you have to do something with it to be considered an ally, you can’t just say “I’m not a racist.” Like I tell people all the time, you have people that love you, you have people that hate you, but then you have people in the middle that are indifferent. Sometimes the people that are indifferent are just as harmful as the people that hate you.
Arkansas has so much history that they don’t talk about. We talk about 9th street in Little Rock and people don’t understand the significance of that was our Little Rock Black Wall Street. That used to be a thriving area for Black businesses. And talking about the hidden history of racism behind the Phillips County Massacre. Basically, my role is to one: promote racial equity, and two: to uncover the hidden history and talk about what’s going on currently. It encompasses a lot of things, but one thing that’s always constant in the process is education because you have to educate people about what racial equity is because equality and equity are two different things.
Have you had any moments where you’re just like I do not have all the answers, like I’m overwhelmed? What has been your experience through all this?
Every day. Every day I’m struggling with that! I told you how it all started, but I tell people all the time and I think that anybody that’s passionate about they career or they profession you’re going to struggle with this. I talk to teachers about this all the time. I’m like, yo… there’s no compensation for your emotional labor. You’re not going to get some six-figure check cut to you after struggling and trying to work with your community, and seeing very little back in return. I say teachers because teaching, I feel, is one of the most undervalued professions in the United States. Our teachers are superstars. Our teachers are our third parents. Our teachers are our people in the community raising our children along with us and I say that because I’m a youth advocate. I’ve had a better relationship with some teachers sometimes than I’ve had with some parents. I got more information from the teachers because they would be with that child eight hours from Monday through Friday, you know what I’m saying? And so sometimes you have to take a break. Sometimes you just have to go do something that’ll make yourself feel good.
Every day it’s a struggle because a lot of times people— it’s funny with social media because when you post about injustice, people look at you like you just came to mess up everybody’s party. You’re the person that shows up to the party with nothing but water and napkins [laughing]. You showed up with water, napkins, and an attitude. You ain’t provide nothing. There’s something going on every day, there’s injustice going on and people share with me in hopes that I share with others. People like to mute you online, they want to argue with you because you want to tell them what’s going on in the community. You have people that turn against you, they feel like you’re clout chasing because all you want to do is talk about stuff to the point that it reaches somebody and you get some attention from it. That’s that constant struggle right there and then some of your own people, your own friends don’t even understand that.
You put yourself in a real predicament a lot of times—especially a place like Arkansas—speaking about racial terrorism and injustice. There are cities and towns around Arkansas that when it’s dark outside, as Black people, we don’t need to be driving through them. They’re sundown towns, you know what I’m saying. You get a lot of threats and a lot of people in your inbox, troll accounts threatening you. They’ll call your job and talk about your online activity, they’ll dox you, they’ll try to target your family… there’s a lot of different stuff. Dealing with that you have to wake up every day knowing that some of those things are going to happen. You’ll be targeted by elected officials as well and people in your community, but you have to do stuff every day to do some positive reinforcement to get back on that level.
This is your purpose, there is a reason for you doing this and they wouldn’t be coming at you if you weren’t being effective. Just know that the right people are seeing the message that you’re preaching, so you have to constantly reimagine what you want society to look like and keep pushing. Also, take care of your mental health because that’s something you can’t take for granted. I try to meditate as much as I can. I try to do as much as I can on the positive end so that I don’t get consumed by the negativity and the hatred, because then I can’t go do what people need me to do after that.
On to your role as a youth mentor. What do you feel is the impact of not only having a positive role model that looks like you, but also someone that’s from your community?
When I was telling you earlier about when I was going down that wrong path, I wish I had somebody that I could talk to. To be real with you, when you’re in your teen years the most important group of people to you are your friends and your peers. Shoutout to my parents. I love them to death, but you care about what your friends think more than what your parents think. You may be willing to risk getting punished or yelled at by your parents just so you could still fit in with your friends.
With me, I never forgot what I was doing in my earlier childhood and my teenage years. All the crazy stuff that could have got me in trouble, that could have it for me, like it’s a wrap you’re going to do a couple years somewhere. I always try explaining to the youth that I know what you’re going through. I can feel your frustration, your anger, your pain, and I try to turn that hot anger and frustration into cold anger. Hot anger is what gets you to act out, it’ll come out as a tantrum or it’ll come out violent. But that cold anger I can manage and deal with. Let’s go to the studio, let’s hit the booth, let’s put it in our journal, let’s talk about it.
Just understanding the things that they go through—I wasn’t too far from that. So, just giving them that extra ear that they can talk to. Once the youth trust you, they’ll tell you anything. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t tell me stuff. Once they start opening up and become comfortable with you, there’s so many ways that you can help them out because you’ve got the information and the resources.
Once I started working with people in the community, it was easier for me to work with the youth than it was with other adults. I can be a good mediator between youth that are beefing with each other, but it’s hard to be the conflict resolution manager for two adults arguing. I be like, y’all adults… figure that out. Working with the youth is easier because they’re a little more honest and I guess I started doing that because that was the group that I wish I had somebody that I could have talked to back then. I was like, you know what, I’ve done enough to try and destroy my community, this is a way where I could be an asset and a role model to them and just have an ear and not be so judgmental, giving them the best advice that I could give them.
How do you balance all three roles from musician to activist to mentor?
Phew, man. I really don’t even have an answer for you for that. All I can say is I just try to make myself available. People know that a lot of times I’m up late at night, I’m up early in the morning. I have a little flexibility in my schedule and people know how to contact me. I try to stay organized, but at the same time it’s like when I’m getting calls to do certain things I have to prioritize things and make sure I’m there because I need it. And I actually like the fact that people look at me as someone they can depend on to help out.
The balancing part of it, I haven’t really figured out. I’m working on figuring out how to balance it but right now I’m maintaining that role the best way I know how to. That’s basically living by a schedule of how I put things on my calendar, taking notes and always following up with people as much as I can to make sure that I’m not disconnected. And listening to a whole lot of music!
When you reflect on where you began to where you are today, did you ever envision yourself in the roles that you currently hold?
It happened as I experienced life. By the time I graduated high school, I was thinking on some real loser mentality. I was thinking like I won’t be around by age 25 or 26, but I had to get up out of that mentality.
I never envisioned that I would be doing some of the stuff that I’m doing. It just all kind of happened. But the funny thing is that I always had an interest in it. An interest in being an artist. Reading about Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael when I was younger, I was like, man I admire them. I looked up to them, but you know… when you position yourself in a negative situation and you feel stuck, you don’t see your way out. A moment of clarity always appeared in my life to show me this may be a cool direction to go into. If I had never tried to do my thing as an artist, I would have got to meet the people I admired from music: Outkast, Ludacris, Ari Lennox, J.I.D.. Being an artist helped me meet those types of people. I never would have met Jessica Care Moore, Angela Davis, and these different activists if I hadn’t tried doing that type of stuff. A moment of clarity always lets me know that I was making the right decision to go down this path.
I don’t think anybody saw me doing this stuff. If you talk to my parents or some of my friends I was growing up with they’d say “Osyrus? Nah. Bolly? Nah. He wasn’t going to do all this man,” and I would have been like yeah, they right, I ain’t going to be doing none of that stuff.
What advice do you have for those who want to make change in their communities, but are unsure on how to go about doing so AND for those who feel that their voices won’t evoke change?
So, one of the first things I tell anybody that’s interested in doing something in the community like activism or being socially aware… I say one: either start a group or find a group. If you know you have some influence and you’re a leader, or you know your role in any situation in the movement, finding that group or institution is going to be essential because it’s going to be a lot of work. The worst thing you can do is try and put all that work on yourself.
Two, identify your talents, gifts, and strengths. Everybody ain’t supposed to be running for mayor, some of you gon’ be some bad mayors. I pick at the church a little bit. People get this misconception that they can just wake up and be a pastor. That ain’t everybody’s calling, man. You have to identify what your role is going to be. I have some friends that are ill with the paint and with the spray can, so they work totally on art and the visual side of it. I don’t call them to speak or lecture, so they know their roles in the movement. Some people are just support staff, you know. Some people are going to be volunteers, the person to pick up all the supplies and stuff like that.
Three: find somebody young to mentor. Again, it might not consist of anything but going to check on them, calling them every once in a while, or going to support them in the things that they do, but just find a youth that you can mentor. We need to see Black men and women in our communities doing stuff and working with youth and promoting the idea that once you’re not a kid anymore, it’s not over. Go back to the community and give back what you can. I became involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters because I knew it was somebody out there that needed a role model.
The last thing… the mental health aspect of it is so important. It’s a stigma in our community to not want to talk about the issues you’re facing mentally, but we know sometimes it’s overwhelming. Somebody like me who has lost some friends to suicide… ain’t nothing worse than losing somebody to that and feeling like you could have actually talked to them in that moment or gotten them some type of help. I vow to myself every day: no matter how much work I have and how tired I am, I’m going to do something that makes me smile everyday. I don’t care if it’s going to grab a smoothie somewhere, eating some cheap food, or playing video games for two hours. Just making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and working on being as happy as you can.
How can we stay connected with you?
Word! Alright, so on social media I’m not hard to find. I keep it real simple for everybody. My name is Osyrus Bolly on every social media platform. You can find me on Instagram, Twitter all that stuff. If you’re looking for the music… all under the same name. Real name no gimmick. Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, SoundCloud, YouTube… wherever you’re streaming music.