A community affair: Norman City Council responds to illegal Airbnb rentals, plans to mandate licensing ordinance in early 2020

By Abigail Hall

It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma. A sea of crimson marches from parked cars and tailgate parties on Boyd Street, men with beers overflowing in their hands banter about the game ahead of them in the Palace on the Prairie while children run around laughing in their Sooners sweatshirts. 

A weekly tradition from September to December, Boyd Street itself is closed to vehicles as thousands of OU football fans gather as a community to eat and drink before heading to Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to cheer on the beloved Sooners football team. 

The stadium seats over 86,000 people, some of which call Norman home, but many drive from across the state, and beyond, to attend the game and stay in town for the weekend events. 

The influx of tourists in Norman, a suburb of 123,000 as of 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, for OU game days used to mean an influx in hotel use — but over the last few years, this has changed. 

Many OU fans now avoid traditional lodging options, instead opting to stay in short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, an app that allows people to share their homes with traveling guests, who pay a fee per night to stay in a room or rent the entire house. 

Airbnb has been a controversial topic of conversation since their rise to popularity in 2008. What started as a way for a few roommates to make a little extra money by renting out rooms in their apartment to conference-goers in San Francisco, is now a thriving enterprise with seven million listings worldwide in 100,000 cities, according to its website.

While hosts and travelers across the globe have responded in kind to the business model, the cities they reside in are struggling to come to terms with the alternative lodging option.

Several popular tourist destinations such as Barcelona and Paris have outlawed the use of the app in order to prevent residential neighborhoods into temporary lodging districts. Other destinations such as Santa Monica, California have come to agreements with the company to operate within the city based on Airbnb maintaining the terms of the city’s ordinance and removing listings that don’t abide by those rules. 

“Nationally no city was prepared for this,” said Jeanne Snider, Norman assistant city attorney. “The share economy has changed things and all cities have been looking for ways to pass an ordinance that best fits their city.”

The traditional model of temporary lodging such as hotels are defined as a rental of less than 30 days and are taxed by the city, Snider said. Short-term rentals operate similarly to hotels, and often are more appealing to tourists because the cost is cheaper than the alternative and offer more unique and personal experiences, according to Harvard Real Estate Review

The issue, Snider said, is short-term rentals do not collect the hotel-motel tax for the city like hotels do.

“We want the licensing fee and we want the hotel-motel tax,” Snider said. “If you’re going to rent it out like a hotel, we want (the) tax hotels collect.”

Additionally, in Norman the current zoning laws prohibit businesses to be located in residential neighborhoods, making short-term rentals illegal within city limits, said Kate Bierman, 1st Ward council member. 

“Cities tend to be somewhat reactive to disruptive technologies — it’s simply the gears of government grinding slower than the gears of innovation,” Bierman said. 

While Airbnb has been operational for more than a decade, Norman’s city councilors didn’t begin to discuss the issue until February 2018 when the company contacted the city with a proposal to collect the hotel-motel tax on behalf of hosts operating in Norman, Bierman said. 

“We realized that we could not take them up on that offer to collect the hotel-motel tax because we did not have an ordinance that allowed them to legally operate within city limits,” Bierman said.

Since 2018, the council has met in a conference meeting once a month with Snider to research and draft a city ordinance to regulate short-term rentals operating within the city. After almost two years of this process, Snider said she hopes the finalized draft ordinance will be proposed and voted upon by the council by late January 2020. 

Today there are 200 short-term rentals operating in Norman illegally, 79 percent of which are single-family homes where the owner does not live in the residence, Snider said. Yet, despite the lack of an established ordinance, there has only been one reported complaint.

“We’re finally close,” Snider said.  “I don’t anticipate any trouble…it’s just getting it done because citizens have had legitimate concerns, but I’ve always understood (their concerns), so I’m just ready to get it goin.’”

Bierman said the biggest issues the council discussed were how many short-term rental licenses would be allowed per person or entity, the potential disruption of neighborhood character and aesthetic, as well as collecting the hotel-motel tax from all short-term rentals.

For some members of the council, the increased use of Airbnb over hotels, particularly for game day weekends, is an issue. 

“We’re losing money,” said Bill Scanlon, 6th Ward council member.

For Scanlon, the issue with short-term rentals is that it puts the city at a financial loss due to the decrease of visitors staying in hotels, preferring to stay in a short-term rental, which affects the city’s hotel tax revenue.

Council members Lee Hall, 4th Ward, and Stephen Holman, 7th Ward, agreed the tax-revenue issue should be a priority in the ordinance. Additionally, Holman said he didn’t understand why the public would prefer to stay in a short-term rental over a hotel.

“I’ve never used one,” Holman said. “Seems weird. Plus, hotel showers are nice.”

Bierman said some council members were concerned about allowing an individual or entity to purchase entire areas in a residential neighborhood to rent solely as short-term rentals, and thus short-term rentals should have higher regulations than other businesses. 

However, Bierman felt strongly that short-term rentals should be considered businesses and should be regulated as much as any other business.

“We don’t put that limit on any other type of business. You can own as many liquor stores as you like, you can own as many rental properties as you like, you can own as many hotels as you like — so why would we limit the number of Airbnb’s that you can hold licenses for?” Bierman said. “Really, the crux of the issue is, is an Airbnb more comparable to a rental property or more comparable to a business? And that’s really the grey area that we were trying to navigate.”

Bierman said at a conference meeting on Nov. 26 the council agreed that an individual or entity will be allowed to apply for four short-term rental licenses, with an individual property application fee of $150 and a $50 inspection fee. If an individual or entity wants more than four short-term rental properties, they will be required to apply for a special use permit, which the council will review and approve or deny.

Bierman said the council reserves the right to deny any applicant based on failure to provide the proper documentation, a failed inspection, complaints from the applicant’s neighborhood and more.

Snider said at the Nov. 26 meeting she was authorized to draft the finalized ordinance, which the council will vote upon in the new year. 

Once the ordinance has been approved, Bierman said the City Clerk’s office will notify short-term rental business owners of the new licensing process outlined in the ordinance, and they will be required to submit their property for an inspection. 

Some of the licensing requirements agreed upon by the council that a short-term rental host must hold appropriate property insurance and documentation about city ordinances such as noise levels, parking and trash and recycling days; notify neighbors that the residence is an Airbnb and provide a local contact to respond to any issues at the property within one hour, “which means they must live in the OKC metro area,” Bierman said. 

“This is not a unique situation that Norman finds itself in,” Bierman said. “But my hope is that we are not being overly restrictive on an industry that has clearly found a niche and there’s clearly a market for.”

Colin Krapff, a Norman resident and independent contractor for the oil and gas industry, and his wife Nina, have hosted an Airbnb in a small studio apartment near Crawford and Dawes Streets in Downtown Norman since September 2018. 

At the time, Krapff and his family lived in the main home on the property with the studio apartment in the backyard, which they rented out as a full-time rental property. In 2018, when Krapff was forced to evict the tenant and update the space with all new appliances, he said he decided to market it as a weekend get-away for OU football fans and other tourists.

“(I thought), ‘Hey, let’s try this short-term rental thing since we’re just on the cusp of football season.’ And that was going to be my test period, basically the last four months of the year, to see how it did and then re-evaluate if I should turn it back to a long-term rental or continue with Airbnb,” Krapff said. “And it did exceptionally well.”

Krapff said his studio is booked 17 to 20 nights a month, with increased bookings for football game days, graduations and other university events. Additionally, Krapff said game day weekends are booked months in advance.

Krapff said he recommends local eats and shopping spots to his out-of-town guests, who often walk the three blocks from the Airbnb to Main Street, exploring and patronizing local shops that they otherwise wouldn’t if they stayed in a hotel.

“I think the best part for me is it gives me a chance to show people what the City of Norman’s all about,” Krapff said. “Because of that location it really pushes people to try out those local places as opposed to hotel chains like Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn — they’re over there by all the chain restaurants — which, is still putting money in the community, but compared to supporting local business, I mean — you really can’t beat our neighborhood.”

Krapff said he would be supportive of a city-wide ordinance and would have no issues paying an annual license fee.

“I think it makes sense if we’re helping bring people into the community and keeping more money local, and even helping the city out in that regard to let us do that,” Krapff said. “I think it’s a win-win on both sides.”

Krapff said his property’s neighborhood is a “pro-Airbnb” area, with three to four fellow Airbnb listings on the same street, which he thinks is due to the layout of the properties, many of which have secondary studios and garage apartments that “allow for a good Airbnb culture.” 

“I know there are some that pop up in what I would consider more traditional neighborhoods,” Krapff said. “And I think it can rub neighbors the wrong way just for having more traffic in the neighborhoods, and maybe seeing people that don’t recognize every day in their community.”

While Krapff understands the negative perception of Airbnb rentals, he sees it as a positive for his family and community. As a host, he encourages community members with concerns about the issue to find a host and start a conversation.

“Sure, some (hotel) money will go locally to taxes, but most of that money is going to go to (a) private equity group or large corporations running these hotel chains, and is not going to stay circulating in Norman,” Krapff said. “In reality, it’s actually benefiting your community — it provides a good, steady income stream for my family and that money is being spent with people who live in your community, which in turn is going to be continued to be spent within that community.”

What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser? by Zach Baron/GQ

Zach Baron had a question.

What ever happened to Brendan Fraser?

The movie star was a popular cult icon in the late ’90s, appearing in cult classics “School Ties,” “George of the Jungle,” “The Mummy” and more, only to disappear from the big screen until Baron, a GQ staff writer, noticed Fraser suddenly pop back into the limelight in a supporting role in the third season of “The Affair” TV series.

“There was a time when the sight of Fraser was as familiar to me as the furniture in my parents’ house,” Baron writes in “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser,” a story that would be the most read story Condé Nast — the publishing company of GQ, The New Yorker (now owned by Vox), Vanity Fair and more — would publish in 2018, as well as one of the Top 100 most read journalism stories of the year, Baron said.

“I say that not because I’m particularly proud of it one way or another,” Baron said. “I think that virality is a weird and random thing. I mean, you can feel good about the reporting or the writing — and I felt good about both, — but there’s plenty of things that I felt good about reporting and writing (where) it didn’t go that viral.”

Fraser’s story is one of iconic talent, and subsequent tragedy — but for decades, the actor faded from public eyes without anyone asking the question why.

Until Baron.

A staff writer for GQ since 2013, and freelancer before that, the bread-and-butter of Baron’s work is “what I like to avoid calling the celebrity profile, but the celebrity profile,” he says.

Baron typically chronicles the stories of the big names and up-and-comers in the entertainment industry. But Baron said he wanted to tell the stories of those working in “weirder career positions.”

Maybe they’re on the back end of something, maybe (they’ve) been steadily working in an un-flashy way for a long time,” Baron said. “These kind of intermediate states that don’t get written about, and I’m always really interested in and I’m always kind of on the lookout for stories like that.”

While on the lookout for such a story, Baron came across a meme on Twitter poking fun at the disappearance of Fraser from the limelight. Around the same time, Fraser appeared on “The Affair” as John Gunther from 2016 to 2017, which became known to Baron and begged his attention.

“I remember thinking, ‘Hey, this is a guy who when I was younger was incredibly well known. There seems to be some kind of mystery about why he went away,” Baron said. “Movie stars don’t generally show up on like the fifth lead on Cinemax… and I was just curious.”

But the story didn’t happen just like that.

It took Baron six to nine months before convincing his editors at GQ to let him pursue the idea. After it was announced Fraser was cast in an FX crime thriller series, “All The Money in the World” in 2017, his editors finally gave him the thumbs up on the project.

Prior to speaking with Fraser, Baron watched every movie he’d ever acted in and read every available interview with him, he said.

When going into a profile interview, Baron says it should be apparent “that you actually have  taken the time to become informed about this person and in a non-superficial way, and that you’re genuinely sort of interested in them, and that you’ve worked hard to be prepared to talk to them,” Baron said. “And, you know, not always, but often people respond to that.”

Baron only physically met with Fraser twice. His story pitch was approved in March 2017, and after speaking with Fraser’s publicist to set up a time for an interview, he flew to Fraser’s home in upstate New York in October.

“A lot of times what I’m trying to do in the first meeting with someone who I’m profiling is just get a second meeting,” Baron said. “I wasn’t like, pulling punches. In fact, I think I was doing the opposite,” Baron said. “I was asking him some pretty deep questions right off the bat.”

The two spent the day together at Fraser’s home before parting until December in London where Fraser was shooting “Trust,” a motion picture film based on the same story as “All The Money in the World.”

Baron watched Fraser on set, and the two hung out in his trailer and had dinner. After only two meetings, and subsequent calls and texts, Baron’s story was “basically done” in January 2018, he said.

Then the story took a turn.

Right before Baron closed the draft in January, he got a phone call from Fraser alleging sexual assault by a titan of the industry, Philip Berk, the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, also known as the organization group of the Golden Globes.

During that phone call, Fraser told Baron what happened to him at a luncheon in Beverly Hills in the summer of 2003:

“‘His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around.’ Fraser says that in this moment he was overcome with panic and fear,” Baron writes.

Following the assault, Fraser’s trauma was one of many incidents that led to his disappearance.

“He had spent basically six months…getting a sense of who I was and how I did my job,” Baron said. “And ultimately, I think just made a judgment that it was a kind of safe place to share that.”

While Baron had to consider how to supplement his almost finished story with Fraser’s new information, he was firstly focused on making sure Fraser knew what he was doing.

“The first thing that happens is actually, I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'” Baron said. “What I had with him was a very honest conversation about everything that was going to need to happen next if we were going to keep going…and then the next thing that’s going to happen is you’ll be asked about this for the rest of your life.”

The two had a long conversation about how Baron would have to corroborate the events with Fraser’s ex-wife and alleged assailant, and prepare him for what might happen when the account was published in February 2018.

As for how Fraser’s assault changed his story, Baron says it didn’t — not really.

“The way the story was written, you could tell that there was maybe a couple of things he wasn’t talking about with me,” Baron said. “And I didn’t know what that thing was, but the story ends up being written in a way that kind of pointed to there’s some dramatic things that happen in this guy’s life.”

When Baron went to add the new information into the story, he discovered nothing really needed to change except to add an additional section at the bottom.

“Sometimes you get a little lucky,” Baron said.

There were three elements to the story’s reception, Baron says.

First: It went viral.

Second: The investigation.

Three: Fraser’s #MeToo moment

After the initial moment of the story reaching virality, the Hollywood Foreign Press responded to the allegation. While there was a back-and-forth between Baron and the organization — assuring they would investigate the claim — however, Berk is still a member of the organization and the alleged investigation never resulted in a statement or further actions by the organization, Baron said.

Additionally, an unexpected development that Baron didn’t plan on was the support from his peers and the #MeToo movement.

“The #MeToo stuff was pretty fresh at that point,” Baron said. “And this was like an interesting wrinkle in it, although it also was treated very differently in a way that itself was pretty interesting.”

Baron continues to work on profiling celebrities and writing human interest features for Condé Nast, “as long as that lasts,” he says.

Despite spending the last decade at Condé Nast in a work environment in “a constant state of turmoil and contraction and layoffs,” he is somewhat optimistic for the future of magazine and newspaper feature writing, he says.

Prior to Condé Nast, Baron wrote the final cover issue for Spin Magazine. A close friend of his worked at Blender, a music magazine, when it was sold, and another at Vibe, now defunct as well. His wife was a writer for Glamour Magazine prior to the switch to one issue a year, although she has now left for The Ringer.

“So I think that there’s got to be some realism about what the industry is right now. When I talk to…people who have been very successful at this work, I’m not sure if anybody is super optimistic about it. So I guess that would be the bad news,” Baron said. “At the same time I don’t really think the appetite for feature journalism is going away. I think that people always want that stuff. So on some level, I don’t know what the economic model will be, and I’m not sure if you should spend all that much time thinking about it.”

But Baron says, if you like it, just go for it.

“I think that if you’re interested in writing — write. And see what see where it takes you,” Baron said. “I do think there’s a market inefficiency for just people who are willing to pick up the phone and go out in the world and find stories.”





The Third Space – Abigail Hall

By Abigail Hall

“I believe in this community. 

I believe that we all deserve better. 

I believe we can do better.”

Suzette Grillot — a tenured International Area Studies professor at the University of Oklahoma, Ph.D, mother, co-worker, friend, academic and business partner — sits in a wooden chair on a brisk Thursday morning. 

Dangling, pink triangles painted on the back wall and warm rays from a window overlooking Campus Corner adorn the background as she shares the story of her previous year, fraught with contention at the University of Oklahoma, and the space she created for people like herself to find a safe, inclusive and supportive community.

Grillot opened The Third Space, an off-campus co-working space intended to foster community and inclusivity, with her business partner and friend, Jacque Braun, in September in the former offices of Harold’s Clothing Store at 331 W. Boyd Street. 

The Third Space is Norman’s only co-working co-op after the closure of The Coop, a former co-working space for local businesswomen on Main Street, in 2018. The Coop closed after operating from June 2016 to March 2018 due to financial and personal reasons said former owner Kylie Hill-Hubbard. 

The closure of The Coop left Norman without a co-working office for a year and a half, until The Third Space opened, filling an unmet need. 

Complete with a color-coded library, all-gender human bathroom, community office spaces, a recording studio and cozy living room-style hangout space with comfortable chairs, games, coffee — The Third Space offers a safe haven for many students and faculty in higher education. 

The idea of a “third space” is commonly discussed in higher education and communities with fast-paced lifestyles. Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his 1991 book “The Good Place,” the term “third space” follows the idea that humans have three spaces of importance in their daily lives — the home, the first space; the workplace, the second space; and the third space — a neutral, supportive space where people can gather and connect without agendas or hierarchies.

“Third spaces are really important in any kind of social environment to just be the place where you can be yourself,” Grillot said. “(Where) you can let things go, you can find the support that you need.”

For marginalized groups of people — supportive and inclusive community spaces are not always easy to find in established, hierarchical social systems such as higher education.

Harvard, the first American university was founded in 1636 by Puritan colonists as an exclusive institution of knowledge for Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper-class men to be educated in civil responsibility and religion. With succeeding American universities founded on similar premises, those from other backgrounds, genders or beliefs, often find it difficult to integrate into a system that was not built with them in mind. 

“Creating a non-toxic work environment, that is what I wish I’d had for years,” Grillot said. “And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have supportive, empowering, non-toxic work environments, in our secondary spaces, our work spaces and our school spaces.”

Friends and co-workers for more than a decade, Grillot and Braun met while working in OU’s International Studies department, Grillot as a professor and former dean, and Braun as a marketing and public relations specialist. 

Both feminists and academic professionals without an inclusive and safe space to create community around their passions — the friends discussed the need for an off-campus community space for years — and in September 2019, after a year of Grillot battling the Gallogly administration at OU and being forcibly removed from her position as dean of the College of International Studies, the duo finally decided to create what they lacked. 

For Grillot, creating The Third Space came directly from her experiences in higher education, as well as being the face of dissent against the university’s administration, ultimately branding her as a controversial figure on campus. 

“I firmly believe that what you allow will continue, and what I’ve seen happen at the university is not something that I think I can allow, and therefore I have to do something about it,” Grillot said. “And doing something about it makes you the noisy person around, and you become a little toxic, and people kind of run from you.”

But for Grillot, it comes from a place of love and respect for higher education, and a necessary reform to the system she believes needs to take place. 

“This is a project where I’m literally putting my money — and all my money — where my mouth is, but I believe in it. I believe in this community. I believe that we all deserve better. And I believe we can do better, and so I’m going to try to be a part of that solution,” Grillot said. “I’m in it. I’m not going anywhere.”

While Grillot is still a professor at the university, in June 2019 Braun quit her full-time position of 13 years to be the creative and operational director of the co-op. 

“I loved working (at OU,) but I’ve never been the kind of person who can go to work, do my job, and go home and leave my work at work — I give 100 percent to whatever I do,” Braun said. “So I wanted to do something that I have ownership in and something I believe in, and something that’s meaningful and that makes a difference. And that’s what this is.”

Braun is the creative mind behind all of the art and decorations in The Third Space making it the inviting and homey space that members know it to be. As Grillot still works at OU, she spends her days on campus teaching, visiting the space in her off-time, while Braun runs the day-to-day operations.

The co-op is intended to create an accessible and affordable space for students and locals to work, whether that be school or professional, as well as foster community for those in need, Grillot said. 

Use of the space requires a membership, but the membership comes at no cost.

When the space opened in September, the plan was for paid memberships to begin in the second month of operation. However, Braun and Grillot altered their business plan to be more accessible to the community, Braun said.

“We’ve actually changed our business plan because we want to make this space available forever to everyone,” Braun said. “So anyone can come in here and use the space for free to just hangout or study or work.”

To date, 55 people have acquired memberships at The Third Space, and while members filter in throughout the day, the atmosphere remains generally quiet and an intimate space to work or get to know other members, Braun said. 

“(Fifty-five) people don’t come in here a day. It’s not crowded — it’s still quiet and it’s still intimate, but we have people coming through,” Braun said. 

Those interested can sign up for a free membership online or at The Third Space’s front desk. Members receive free access to The Third Space’s common areas, coffee, water and WI-FI, with printing for 10 cents per page.

Use of the recording studio and private office rooms, or to rent out any space exclusively, comes with a fee, as well as the workshops and events hosted at the space, unless otherwise stated. 

Because of the educational background of Grillot and Braun, the space offers quite a few events and workshops catered to broadening the mind, as well as social justice and self-care. Upcoming events include a workshop discussion about immigration in Oklahoma, a Harry Potter trivia night, a collaborative art project and more. 

The Third Space has an alternative option to membership for those more interested in attending workshops through the workshop package. The package costs $30 per month and includes access to two workshops or lunch events each month. Individuals can purchase the package online or at The Third Space. 

“I think in any job it’s important that you work with people you love because that can make or break your experience,” Braun said. “So for me, this is my job, and working with Suzette is amazing because we’ve been friends for over a decade. But also people who come in here…studying or working with their friends… I think that connection is really important.”

Miles Francisco, political science and African and African American studies senior at OU, is one of the Third Space’s members.

Francisco, an International Area Studies minor, was familiar with Grillot through their shared college, and heard about The Third Space over the summer while he was at an internship in Washington D.C. 

“I was really excited that it opened so I went to check it out and immediately became a member after seeing the space and seeing how cozy it was, how close to campus it was, how beautiful it was,” Francisco said. “(I) Immediately thought about ways that I could utilize the space for my organizations.”

Francisco is the co-founder and vice president for Foundations for Liberating Minds, a group that strives to liberate those who are discriminated against through education. Through Francisco’s membership at The Third Space, the group plans to start a men’s accountability group for men to discuss toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and ways to work toward “a more nurturing masculinity,” Francisco said. 

Francisco said he also plans to use The Third Space’s recording studio to start a podcast for his group, as well as using the space to do homework, hold team meetings, and build community in an intentionally inclusive place away from campus. 

“It’s not necessarily that campus isn’t a safe place, (it’s) that all of campus isn’t always intentionally inclusive,” Francisco said. “Being at a campus as large as OU that is a predominantly white institution, there aren’t always those spaces where marginalized students feel safe and welcome.” 

Francisco said he looks forward to building an inclusive community in Norman through The Third Space, because that can be hard to find outside of big cities. 

“It’s just a really cool innovative and unique space that Oklahoma doesn’t have period — and it’s really cool that it’s here in Norman.” Francisco said. “To have this space that is in walking distance with campus, that’s really vibrant and colorful and it’s centered around creativity and justice — it’s just something to definitely take advantage of because a lot of places don’t have something like this.”

Jabee – Abigail Hall

By Abigail Hall

Jabee Williams stands underneath yellow, dangling lights illuminating dancing pink triangles painted on the wall behind him. Wearing a black hat with the embroidered Black Panther logo across the familiar text “Make America Great Again,” Williams picks up the microphone and begins to rap to an intimate crowd. 

“My brother got killed,

My cousin got killed,

My best friend got killed,

Man, this life is real.”

Williams, a hip-hop artist from Oklahoma City, shares the story of his life through beats and pauses, his words fill up the room, tangibly inviting the audience to share his experiences. 

On a Thursday in September, the third incident of the year of an individual wearing blackface occurred in Norman. Williams was scheduled to perform at a local venue the following week, and because of the incident, was warned not to step foot inside the town. 

“That’s exactly the reason I should play,” he responded to his followers on Twitter. 

Williams said, if anything, incidents of ignorance cause him to want to show up more, instead of staying away. 

“I think it’s important to always go out of my way to fight racism, and anyone who knows me or knows my music…(knows) that’s a big part of my mission,” Williams said. 

For Williams, the most powerful thing he can do is show up boldly.

“If I don’t show up because of something like that — they win,” he said. 

Showing up to share his life story through his melodies, addressing racism, poverty and the power of the black community, is Williams’ version of social justice. 

Williams proudly shares the values of the Black Panther movement, combatting the slogan that directly negates his existence as a black man.

“MAGA to me, it really is a symbol of hatred and racism — and for me the Black Panther logo is a symbol of hope and community and black people and minorities and people who don’t have anything,” Williams said. “(The hat) is saying really, if we’re Making America Great Again, then we’re the ones who built America. It was built on the backs of people who were slaves in this country and black people who were imprisoned.”

Growing up on the east side of Oklahoma City, Williams experienced gang violence by the time he was in middle school. By the time he was 18, his brother was shot dead. 

While his years of adolescence were filled with uncertainty — attending 11 schools by the time of graduation, moving between homes, sometimes crashing on a friends couch without a permanent place to stay — he sees the east side as home, a home he’s devoted his career to improving for future generations. 

“I want to be in a better position to help my people and take care of those people who took care of me when I was growing up,” Williams said. “To help build and enrich and educate my community.”

‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt at all’

From his early years of waking up to his mother listening to Tupac while she got ready for work, to school days, rapping with his friends while making beats from banging on their desks — for Williams, hip-hop has always been a way of life. 

Williams was 7 when he rapped into his first microphone. His mother saw his love of the craft, buying him studio time to record with his friends, encouraging him to nurture his passion.

“Rappin’ and hip-hop has always been there. It’s not something that just came,” Williams said.  “That’s just who we was — some of us rapped, some of us played ball, some of us gang banged, just everybody did something, so it was a natural progression.”

Williams younger sister, Elizabeth, recalls him rapping along with their cousin D’Angelo in their grandmother’s living room, while taking apart TV’s and stereos to make their own studio equipment.

By 15, he was performing across Oklahoma City in local clubs and house parties, making a name for himself. 

While his friends joined gangs or spent their nights smoking and drinking, Williams was rapping. 

“It’s crazy because most of his friends, like D’Angelo, and our brother Junie that was all around us when were kids — they’re all dead now,” Elizabeth said. 

Williams can recall countless friends from high school who are now dead, doing life in prison, and even on death row. If it weren’t for rapping, he said, the potential for him to be in a graveyard or behind bars, was tangible. 

Through the pain of losing those closest to him, Williams devoted himself to his rhymes and protecting his sisters, Elizabeth said. 

Williams took any opportunity to put his music out into the world. He began rapping with a Native American group and traveling to Dallas on the weekends for rap battles. 

He remembers the first time he made $100 from a show at a house party and thinking, “I could do this for a living…if I do this three times a week, that’s $300,” he said.

Williams spent his days working part-time jobs and rapping at night and on weekends, but in 2013, he decided to quit and focus on his music full-time. 

Pretending to be his own PR agent, Williams would send emails to press and venues, getting himself through the door, gaining equity and notoriety out of sheer force of will. 

He went from making $100 in a show to touring nationally and internationally with household names in the hip-hop industry, winning an Emmy Award in 2014 for his creation of a commercial for Science Museum Oklahoma, and in 2016 released his most recent album, “Black Future,” including a recorded track with Chuck D. of Public Enemy. 

“Jabee tells stories. He has substance in his rhymes in ways that are resemblant of the great hip hop artists of the 70s and 80s, when hip-hop was born as an art-form,” said Karlos Hill, Ph.D,  associate professor and department chair of OU’s African and African-American Studies department. “(He) represents the best of what hip hop is and what it can be.” 

‘This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you.’

Williams had a dream that he died. 

“I was thinking I want people at my funeral, you know if I’m not here, to know how they affected me,” he said. “I felt like my life was changing and things are getting better. I was being lifted up, (and then) I had that dream that I died. And it was like, ‘OK, how do I want to go out?’”

The dream inspired him to get back in the studio and record his new project, “This world is so fragile and cruel, I’m glad I got you,” which he plans to release in early 2020. 

Williams took a four-year hiatus between musical projects, and said he’s excited to get back into the studio. 

As for why he took the four-year gap, he said he has to experience life in order to write about it.

During his hiatus, he became an entrepreneur, a part-owner of Oklahoma City’s historically black Tower Theatre, a member on the Clara Luper Legacy Committee, a group that commemorates the life and legacy of Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City sit-ins, and a future adjunct professor of Hip-Hop at OU.  

Williams’ new album continues the story he’s been telling since he was 7 years old. 

“The idea is every day we encounter somebody or we know someone and they have affected our life or impacted us, whether it was good or bad,” Williams said. “Because of that, it’s helped to make us who we are… I’ve been through some really hard times, and because of that it’s made me who I am. I’ve been through some really good times, and because of that (it’s) made me who I am.”

The album is the story of Williams, the history of black people, the story of Ada Sipuel, the lives and times of those who have come before him and those who will come after him — all who inspire him to keep moving forward, he said. 

While he’s changed in social and financial status, he’s still the same Jabee that Elizabeth remembers protecting her from danger, she said. 

“It’s amazing to see what he’s what he’s done,” Elizabeth said. “I never would have thought that …he would even be at this point, and so it’s really a blessing.” 

Despite, and perhaps because of his notoriety, Williams said he has no plans to leave Oklahoma City. 

“I want to stay here forever — I ride and die here,” Williams said. “What good am I to Oklahoma somewhere else? What good am I to my people if I can’t touch them? … I just feel like if them fools who play for the Thunder can live here and pursue their dreams, then I can too.”

Q&A: Sydney Schwichtenberg – Abigail Hall

By Abigail Hall

If you ask Sydney Schwichtenberg what she believes in, she’ll say “I don’t know.” 

Growing up in the small Oklahoma town of Locust Grove, population of 1400, just outside the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the professional writing senior was surrounded by indigenous lore mixed with messages from the white, Protestant churches littered across the town.

Eating fry bread while listening to Cherokee storytellers, Schwichtenberg became sure of one thing — “we’re capable of magic,” she said. 

While she’s unsure of how life came to be, and what capacity of mysticism the universe contains, she believes in the impossible — that one day she could wake up in another form,  cherishes the healing practice of Reiki and firmly attests that fate foretold the loving relationship she has with her boyfriend, Jesse. 

Feminist, first-generation college student, a self-proclaimed believer in the “spooky” — Schwichtenberg sat down with the author to talk about her beliefs, being an assertive woman in a small town, and her future:

Do you think your beliefs in mysticism come from growing up around indigenous culture?

A: Yeah, I will say that. I believe in manifestation and everything. I think that we also get vibes and energy from other people. I think I can tell when there’s a good person around, or when there’s a bad person.

I think there was a narrative in my school — we had events and programs at our school that I’m really grateful for. People would come and make fry bread and would tell us stories. 

Storytellers from Cherokee Nation would come and tell us about how the earth began and all of these folk tales that came from the tribe. And so there was always this big storytelling component, and (narrative that) nature gives us everything. 

What was it like to grow up in Locust Grove, Oklahoma as a burgeoning feminist and liberal?

A: I feel like I had a different experience than other people.

I feel like growing up in Locust Grove was weird for me. Because one, I was one out of four liberals in the entire school, so that was always hard. A lot of people told me that I’m one of the most assertive people that they’ve ever met. 

And being an assertive woman in a small town — if you’re not in the right community, if you’re surrounded with the right people — it can be very isolating, and I think I was lucky because I was smart, and I was assertive, and I was pretty enough not to get bullied for being a bitch. 

So I think a lot of men wanted to punch the shit out of me. And I was really scared sometimes of the guys that I went to school with, and the guys that I dated. I actually broke up with one because he made a really scary comment about Hillary Clinton. And I was like, well you were just pretending not to be horrible for like three months. 

But I think I’m lucky that I grew up in that town, because now I know if I can stand up to the absolute worst of the worst, I think that I already have a head start on a lot of things. I don’t have a hard time standing up for myself, I don’t have a hard time telling people when I’m uncomfortable — I don’t have a hard time saying no when certain situations.

I got to meet older generations that are more progressive than some of the people that I went to school with, I got to meet a lot of strong, powerful older women — and I’m eternally grateful for them because I feel like I’ve gained seven different mothers. 

I’ve also met some crazy old men, so men just keep on getting worse, it doesn’t matter how old they are.

Was there a moment you remember when you had a realization that it’s okay to be an assertive person and be a woman?

A: An interesting conversation came up with me and my oldest sister, Ashley, and my mom, and my sister was like — you’re too assertive. 

And I was like, what’s wrong with being assertive? What’s wrong with getting what you want? And she was like, ‘Well, I’m more polite because I don’t want to be called a bitch.’

And I laughed because (being called a bitch) has never been anything I’ve worried about — like if a man wants to call me a bitch, they can call me a bitch all they want. I’m going to still get shit done.

Why is it so important to you for women to be assertive and outspoken?

A: It’s really vital for me to be an assertive person because I have seen too many times where women in my life have been run over by men. And as a younger person, I didn’t have that vocabulary yet to stand up. I’ve always been a very heavily empathetic person, and like, I feel like when I was growing up in the town, I had to stand up for them — to see shit happen to women,  it made me go crazy. 

And then I would do something right, and then men in my school would be celebrated for doing the exact same thing that I did. And that would piss me off so much. I get this comment a lot where they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re so humble,’ after I brag about something that I’ve done. 

Statistically, it’s proven that women definitely discount their successes an incredible amount. They don’t even acknowledge what they have done in their life, and men they say they achieve this much, but in reality, that’s not what they’ve actually done. 

Why does it look like I’m bragging when men do the same thing? And they’re known as leaders, or they’re known as highly successful, highly intelligent — I’m doing all the things that they’re doing, I’m working two jobs, I’m a first generation student. I’ve worked hard to be here. 

Why can I not brag when I like something that I do? I just feel like when people take away your power brag on yourself, what does that mean that someone else has to tell me that I’m good at something I know I’m good at?

I’m a bitch and I don’t give a shit.

As a first generation student, what was your journey in getting to OU?

A: I desperately wanted out of that town. I knew that I wanted to be educated. I always thought, ‘I’m going to go to school.’ A lot of people say college was a decision for them. For me it was always just the next step. I was like — this is mandatory, this is something that I had to do. 

Luckily I got I get a lot of help from my dad’s G.I. bill, I get a lot of help from my job as a resident advisor, I get a lot of help from my other job, I get a lot of help from loans, and I get a lot of help from scholarships. 

So it was definitely a pain to get here, and my experience is way different than a lot of other people that I know. But I’m glad that I had this experience, because I feel like a lot of my friends are first generation, and a lot of my friends have the same struggles as me and a lot of my friends and we can relate to each other.

What about your college experience is different than how you see the general college student’s experience?

A: For instance I didn’t come here with a car my freshman year because I wrecked my first car and I had to pay for that, and I had to pay for my new car. So I worked for an entire year, and I still have a car payment…I paid for my phone bill, I pay for all my gas. 

My parents are like, ‘If you want something, you’re just gonna have to buy it.’ But a lot of people that I know, they’re like, ‘I have to call my dad and he has to venmo me $100.’ And  every time I borrow money I have to get it back to my parents — and that’s not bad. I’m glad for that experience. 

And once you pay for a car, and you pay for where you live, or you work for where you live, and you have to pay your phone bill or you’re not going to have a phone, that changes you a lot.  

What could I do if I didn’t have to work two jobs? My gpa would be incredible, and I think about people that I know that are doing five million things, but they don’t have — a thing that’s been hard for me is I really wanted to be in a sorority and I just couldn’t do that.

Looking back, I wouldn’t want to be in a sorority now — and I knew that I couldn’t afford it. But I remember being so sad. I was just like, ‘this is part of college, this is what I’m supposed to do.’ 

I just always have to remind myself, they have these connections because they’re not first generation students, their parents have been going here forever, their parents donate here, their parents are engineers, their parents make triple what my dad makes in six months — they’re so insanely rich in ways that I can’t understand. 

Some people don’t have to have a job, I have to have a job, or I’m going to be in debt really quick. And there’s that added stress that happens when you are both a full-time college student and you have to make everything work. For a lot of my close friends, there’s not a ‘you just go to college’ option for them. And that’s not an option for me either. 

Do you think the system is rigged against poor people?

A: Yes. I think it sucks how much debt that I’m graduating with, I think it really sucks that I have worked a steady 30 hours since I was 16. I work so damn hard and it just feels like sometimes like I can never catch my breath. 

And then I have friends that just get money from their parents like they’re piggy banks. And I would kill to have that for one month, like I would kill to have that in December, just let me have that. I would love that. 

I think that the system is rigged. I think I got lucky.

I made a 25 on my ACT and that was one of the highest scores and my grade — 25 is not high at all, and I wanted to come (to OU) and take the ACT test because you can take the ACT as much as possible. And it only counts for here, but if you get a 28, I think it’s  a $4,000 scholarship. I couldn’t come up here because my parents couldn’t afford the gas money — that’s three hours from my hometown. 

People that live right around here, they can do that. That’s awesome, especially if you’re poor. 

Another thing is my school didn’t have any ACT prep classes, and then the ACT is $50 every time you take it. And for me who has been paying a steady $400 a month every month, $50 was like kind of a lot of money and that was hard. 

And then the fact is, I think in my graduating class right now, I think there’s about five of us still in college and it’s been three years. So all of them have dropped out. 

You can be successful without college, but I also know that Locust Grove is extremely poor and I know that some of those people aren’t ever going to get out alive in that town. And it’s because our education system failed them. 

With all of your struggles, you’re about to graduate college. What are your plans for what to do next?

A: I’ve looked into self publishing on Amazon, like filthy, little eroticas, because those are actually the most successful things. And in professional writing they tell us that we’re writing eternal books that are going to be popular forever, and erotica has a 15 day shelf life. 

But the fact is, is that they really haven’t told us how to sell book yet, so that’s kind of what I’m looking to. I’m trying to start a print business. I’m trying to be authentic to myself and my needs. 

I pushed off writing and pushed off art for a long time, and those are two of the most important things in my life. And I feel like I’m just now reconnecting with both of those things. 

I want to be a business owner, I want to be a successful writer — if that means being a journalist, if that means being an author, if that means being an erotica writer for 50-year-old women, by God that’s what I’m gonna be.

So my immediate plans after college — I’m going to live in Tahlequah with my boyfriend. And that’s only 15 minutes away from my mom. I’m going to wait for him to graduate, which will be next year. And then I’m going to try to get into grad school for either English, or I might go to law school. 

But right now I’m kind of in a mode where it’s hard to do things alone, so pairs sounds good.

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.