FOKUS' annual block party to celebrate the organization and campus

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published April 10, 2014

After completing their first year at the University in 2003, Alma E. Davilla-Toro and Atiba T. Edwards felt a need to splatter some color on a somewhat bland campus culture. There had to be a driving force to bring together diverse art forms and communities, and thus FOKUS — “Fighting Obstacles Knowing Ultimate Success” — was born.

'FOKUS' Annual Block Party: Vanguards

April 12 from 12-5 PM
The Diag

“It was started, in part, because U of M’s campus was lacking the hip-hop acts that Atiba and Alma were used to, being from New York City — being able to go to a lot of urban art exhibits and hip-hop (performances),” said LSA Junior Elle Gover, the Co-Vice President of FOKUS. “They found that a lot of those acts were going to Michigan State and Eastern Michigan University instead of U of M, and so that was a huge thing in founding FOKUS.”

In its first year, FOKUS brought performers such as Janelle Monáe, Slum Village and John Legend to campus.

“We not only wanted to meet the world's greatest emerging artists, but also wanted to introduce them to our worlds,” Davilla-Toro recently wrote in a message to the FOKUS Facebook page.

Though the group has been highly successful with their presentation of musical artists, FOKUS events seek to shed light on every conceivable genre of marginalized art or cultural activity.

“Every year we have an event called ‘Artifacts’ which is a showcasing of lesser known — underrepresented in our opinion — art,” Gover explained. “We’ve done food art, industrial art, and then this past fall we did tattoo art; it was called ‘Inked.’ ”

With “Inked,” FOKUS engaged people from all over campus and Ann Arbor to submit tattoo designs and the stories behind them. The following panel discussion with tattoo artists was further encouragement to discover, reconsider and share.

“We are influencers, taste makers, activists, and vanguards who sought balance in our everyday lives on campus,” Davilla-Toro wrote. “We needed a space where we could foster this creativity that normally took a backseat to the academically rigorous university climate. The goal was to design our own avenue for change, so we came together to educate, empower and unite communities through the arts!”

Creativity is infectious, and with spring in the air the group hopes to spread the FOKUS bug (no, not the one that plagues us as we study in the library) with Vanguards, its annual block party, this Saturday in the Diag from 12 p.m. - 5 p.m.

In the past, Vanguards has been shaped by different themes. One year, the block party was “circus” which played with the idea of exploitation and stereotype. Another year, the Diag became a portal to our childhood —’90s galore. Saturday, however, forgoes a concrete theme, and rather embodies the history and evolution of FOKUS.

“This year we went with ‘Reflekt10ns’ ... we’re reflecting in general on the last ten years; we’ll have posters and other (visuals) showing things that have happened in the past decade on campus, in our club and worldwide,” Gover said. “It’s a celebration of FOKUS and celebration of being on this campus.”

The block party’s headlining performers are Noname Gypsy — an artist who not only has been admired among FOKUS members as they’ve been playing her music at meetings, but recently by the larger campus as well, who loved her music when she opened for Chance the Rapper at Hill Auditorium last month — Detroit rapper Kopelli and several other incredible artists.

The day will be filled with temporary tattoos, an interactive chalkboard that prompts: “ten years ago; in ten years,” gigantic bubbles and a 25 foot-long sandwich all set to the backdrop of a DJ and studded with performances by the University’s Pure and Encore dance groups, and this year’s FOKUS Beat Battle winner Jonah Gray.

Gover hopes to teach people about FOKUS and its history; she knows people often see the eye-catching aesthetics of their poster designs, but may still wonder “what do they actually do?” Most importantly, she hopes everyone coming to Vanguards just has a really great time.

“Our entire planning for this particular Vanguards revolves around making it a really fun day for everyone involved — introducing people to new musical artists and to each other.”

With Davilla-Toro and Edward’s establishment of a Brooklyn chapter upon their graduation in 2006, FOKUS’ influences now spread far and wide. It is important to celebrate the University community that fostered the group’s growth and who probably needs to charge their solar panels and de-stress before finals — what better way than a block party?

“FOKUS awakened our souls and taught us how to be curators of life,” Davilla-Toro concluded in her message. “It brings great joy to see so many ideas come to fruition throughout the years. We’re going ten years strong and still fighting obstacles knowing ultimate success.”