Eli Arbor is a vagabond in many ways. He is confident, however, about the community he wants to represent. The town of about 1 million residents is tucked between New York City and Toronto. Its horticultural excellence has earned it a the nickname “Flower City,” but Rochester, New York — a municipality 350 miles northwest of Manhattan — doesn’t really have a tried-and-true artistic identity of its own. Arbor, a Stanford grad who has also lived in and out of the San Francisco area since 2011, eventually wants to change the conversation by building a center that’ll allow young artists from his hometown to rent high-quality studio space on the cheap and practice their craft.
“I wanna push the people in the city to think more worldwide, show everyone that Rochester got something important to say,” he told CL. He loves the place so much that he got its logo — a five-pointed flower emblem — tattooed on his chest. The devotion is tangible, which is why it’s a treat to have caught up with the 24-year-old rapper as he nears the end of a month-long Tampa residency provided by Lector Social Club.
Lector’s community space and natural wine shop were supposed to open in Tampa Heights, but city and state regulations — combined with an extra wrench of bad, since nixed, counsel — led to the venue not being able to secure the approved parking necessary to open in the planned location. For now, Lector founder Michael Hooker is opening a “smaller version of the big vision” in a nook next to downtown Tampa dive bar The Hub. She and operations manager Amy Harnisch want to elevate the Bay area’s interest in natural wine by working with pioneering, “impeccable, conscientious, small producers” who are artists in their own right. The carefully curated selection of natty wine will be paired with various titles, short stories, and poems pulled from the mini-Lector’s 800-book lending library.
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On May 8, Arbor is being tasked with breaking Lector in by giving a talk — on “The immediate importance of grounded art”— and performing a song (anyone interested in catching a full set of music from Arbor can do so at Tampa Heights’ Shuffle on May 6). Hooker met Arbor last fall during a fundraiser for The MacDowell Colony, which is the oldest art residency in the United States. The emcee spent two months at MacDowell during the summer of 2017 and performed “Son of Slaves” a capella at the fundraiser.
“He was the only rapper on a list of other equally extraordinary yet commonly featured contemporary artists,” Hooker told CL. “I was so moved by the poetry of his words. When Lector's residency schedule opened up I reached out and invited Eli down with the caveat that he understand that ours would be pretty modest accommodations, especially compared to The MacDowell Colony.”
But powerful prose doesn’t need posh accommodations to make itself heard, and Arbor has spent his time in Tampa putting the finishing touches on his sophomore album, A Place You Can’t Find, which he’ll release on July 17. At surface level, the album, like “Slave,” is an exploration of what it means to be a black American. Place isn’t preachy, and there aren’t many blanket statements worked into its lyrics, but the effort — which is more observational than his introspective 2016 debut, IDols — does build new narratives around situations that are generally familiar to listeners. “Americana” opens with a reading of a 19th century American folk song, references a broken nation and hints at Arbor’s love of old Chevys — but it also turns tense as it puts blood in church eaves and contrasts past conflicts on the backs of buses to the modern-day perils of interacting with police officers and judges. Tender album highlight “American Girl” finds Arbor working to center black women as the archetypal American girl, as opposed to the typical blond-haired, blue-eyed archetype.
“I wanted to complicate the familiar — take ‘Shenandoah’ and put it with some 808s,” Arbor said, adding that he was listening to both American composer Aaron Copeland and revered rapper/producer Jay Electronica while making the album. Arbor wants to remind people that black people been here the whole time and that they’re just as American as anyone else. He also wants to tell black people that they don’t have to search for an international identity to be validated.
“We’ve done so much in this country that we should be proud of, that we should stand up on,” he said, citing black Americans’ contributions to math, science, tech business, education and agriculture. “We literally built this place brick-by-brick. We’ve distinguished ourselves in every major war, even when we knew we’d come home to subpar citizenship. The amount of courage we’ve shown in the face of such immense pain [just] to let people know that we are Americans is staggering — we should be proud of that and we should stake our claims to what we’ve built here.”
At the very least, Arbor can be proud of the work he’s completed inside of a duplex that sits near the shadow of the Seabreeze Devil Crab shack on North Boulevard. It’s a neighborhood that’s changing, and Abor says it affected him, too.
“[Tampa] rappers are real lyrical, but without sacrificing musicality or that bounce… I got to catch Dynasty’s farewell show and Record Store Day,” he said when asked about the local shows he’s caught during his residency. “Y’all have some cool bands and singer songwriters — I really liked Vacancy, and that cat Will Quinlan.”
Arbor even has plans to pivot toward feel good, still-complex pop songs once Place is out. “Nobody wants to hear sociocultural theory for an hour,” he said, laughing.
He’s right, but the way he’s mixed everyday themes into the record makes it one worth revisiting over and over again — it’s the kind of album that teaches you something on every spin. And while it may have been made by a Rochester boy, Place certainly has the power to reshape our own perceptions of what it means to be home, too.