We spoke with Trap Music Museum co-founder William “Bem” Sparks and general manager Krystal Garner about honoring dirty south hip-hop.
Hip-hop has been alive and well since the late ’70s. Its emergence swept America by storm, electrifying communities and giving the youth a stance, purpose, and voice. As it grew, so did its sound. As it spread West in the ’80s, it acquired a gangster aesthetic and energy. In the East during the ’90s, it remained rugged, touch, and full of style. And then in the 2000s, it traveled South, amped up with heavy 808s and all things trap. During those years, southern hip-hop — more specifically trap music — was a style of rap that was often maligned and not taken seriously. Only within the last decade has trap music become a more respected genre of music.
Founded by rapper T.I. and business associate William “Bem” Sparks, Trap Music Museum (TMM) became the first hip-hop museum ever to celebrate the reality of southern-based trap music. The idea came when Sparks, who is a brand activation specialist, visited an Escape Room with T.I. and the rapper’s wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris. “This is dope… I wish they had a trap version of this,” Sparks said, according to a profile in Red Bull Music Academy in 2019.
Opening in the fall of 2018, the “trap version” of an Escape Room meant rooms stacked with cocaine pots, dirty walls, and other imagery related to drug dealing. But more so than an exhibit that fetishized drug dealing, the experience was a homage to dirty south rap and the “trapping” lifestyle. The Trap Music Museum is full of monuments to Dirty south legends like 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, 21 Savage, Migos, and more.
In just three short years, TMM has been able to go from a short stint in Atlanta to touring the country, with pop-ups in Los Angeles and now Miami. Despite the ongoing pandemic, Lil Trap House launched last month in Overtown, a historically Black town in Miami. (Tickets are $20 a person.)
We recently spoke with Sparks and general manager Krystal Garner about the Trap Music Museum and the legacy it’s leaving behind.
What is your role and input at TMM and Lil Trap House?
Bam: I specialize in strategy, strategic partnerships, branding, marketing, experiential activations. One of the things that I help bring to the museum is a lot of our major partnerships. That’s been my expertise for a while [and] that’s what I focus on.
Krystal: I’m the general manager of TMM, and I also am the project manager for Lil Trap House and its tour. I’m spearheading what’s going on with Miami, alongside Mr. [Bam]. As a general manager, my day to day pretty much looks like making sure that everything in every department is functioning accurately. It also consists of taking on new opportunities and new partners, networking, connecting, and strategizing with different brands and partners on how we can just continue to grow the brand of TMM.
So Bam, you’re then responsible for the partnership with Red Rooster in Miami? Tell me more about choosing Overtown, Miami as the location and building with Black-owned businesses and its importance.
Bam: I mean, it makes sense because it’s very similar to what we’re doing here in Atlanta. I thought, the best-case scenario if you come down and continue their Black tradition as being known as the Harlem of the South, and helping them create this Black entertainment district — where you can go to The Rooster and have a great dinner, stop by Lil Trap House and have an experiential experience where you can take pictures, then go next door to The Urban for the nightcap, for a vibe, and have cocktails and listen to good music. We just wanted to add to that great combination and to be able to attract more Black people to Overtown. The history there is so rich, just like how it is here in Atlanta, where TMM is in The Bluffs, which is a predominantly Black neighborhood.
I know there was a pop-up in LA, the standstill in Atlanta, but what makes this Miami an experience of its own?
Krystal: With Lil Trap House, you have the opportunity to see other exhibits that we don’t have in Atlanta. Right now, our newest exhibit is City Girls. We expanded on Rick Ross, and then we added some elements and memorabilia from Trick Daddy, Trina, Uncle Luke, and we’re going to do some stuff for DJ Khaled. It’s more of a Florida influence based exhibit.
What has been the reception from attendees at Lil Trap House in Miami?
The love has actually been great! The community businesses around us have been supporting, they’ve been sending their teammates, their customers and everyone wants to support another Black-owned business. Especially one that is coming to an area that is in the process of redevelopment. They want to stay true to their culture and that’s what we represent. I feel like the love is going to open up even more once we start fully pushing what we got going on.
What does it mean to the community and what was your intention behind doing it for this specific community?
I’m from New York City and I remember when gentrification happened in Harlem, I’ve seen how things shifted, same with Brooklyn. Some places were being created, that I didn’t feel welcomed in and these are neighborhoods that I grew up in. I go to these neighborhoods now, and I don’t feel like I’m welcomed or I’m not comfortable walking into the spaces that are created. So now with Overtown, what they’re doing and what they’re focused on is making sure they create spaces that we still want to go and attend. We like art. We like a good meal. We like cocktails. We like to turn up. All of this is being created in Overtown so we believe that our part is to be able to one give the opportunity to actual visual artists that create to get their art showcased because it’s very hard to get Black art showcased, and allow them to be able to bring their family and friends and say, “Look what I did.” Giving people the opportunity to learn how people overcame their negatives and turn them into positives that were from this very same area. You know, being able to show what improvement can be.
Bam: The resemblance of Overtown and Atlanta is really what drew us in. I mean, there were opportunities to go to Wynwood or go to South Beach, but it just didn’t feel authentic. So the best way for us to represent what we’re trying to bring to the community is to be involved in the community and be a part of the community. So our partners that are there with them, drawing the amount of revenue and customers back to Overtown, and shine that light back on Black excellence, we had to be a part of it.
Bam, as a co-founder of TMM, how exactly did this build into what it is today, and what was the overall goal?
During summer , we actually were looking to create almost like a crazy space and have a studio and all kinds of things incorporated based on an old concept that I had from 2015 I believe, which was to do a trap themed escape room. When we finished doing the tour of the building, it hit us like, man, this is it. This is the location and we can finally put this trap themed escape room. We were already having discussions on how we could educate people on how trap music started, because, of course, around the time people were trying to figure out was it Jeezy, Tip, [or] Gucci. So, we went out, had discussions with several people and there was really no bias if you really look at the history of it. We just told the story with actual facts. In 2003, Tip put out Trap Muzik, the album and that’s when the genre was created. Yes, trap has been around as far as the terminology and the lingo, but it’s Atlanta slang. It’s an Atlanta term that Tip coined and the phrase trap music. So we just want to make sure they were able to tell the story creatively and involve local artists and the community. Honestly, that was the goal and we’re still doing it.
How does it feel for you to know that you were a part of a foundation that decided this specific genre deserved recognition on such a large scale? The idea of not waiting for the moment, but creating the need for such a timepiece.
It’s just important to tell your own story. I’ve been in the entertainment industry for over 15 years and this isn’t the first good idea. It’s just unfortunate sometimes that other people beat us to the punch or someone else as far as the marketing, they just don’t tell the story the correct way. I think we’re doing it correctly. That’s what makes it important to me that it’s from our perspective. It’s for our people; everyone can enjoy it and agree that we did it right. That’s the biggest part for me.
Krystal, how does it feel for you to be a part of this moment?
Krystal: t’s just an honor. In general, as a Black woman, it’s not always the easiest path to have a seat at the table. Being awarded the opportunity through my experiences and my adversities is an honor and a true blessing. The one thing that’s a huge takeaway for me being a part of this experience, is having an opportunity to be a part of a team that allows for other people to come up, allows us to reach down and grab those who have experience or have the desire to be a part of a team, a part of the experience, and give them the opportunity to have time to shine. From regular teammates on our team to graphic designers, photographers, aspiring artists, to set designers, you know, allowing them to show that Black and brown people are able to tell stories. [That] we’re able to organize and tell it the way we want to tell it and make sure that it’s told correctly through our lens. Oftentimes, things are created about us, but it isn’t created by us and it’s time for us to start telling our stories.
As there are so many ways to display the culture and genre — why art installations?
Bam: To shine a light on Black visual artists in our community. We are not respected as art connoisseurs or people that can create and sell art pieces for a million dollars. It’s just a difference between us and our white counterparts where you can go to Art Basel, stick a banana on the wall and sell for a million dollars but we can create the most beautiful piece of Black art and they’ll sell from $5,000 if that. So to be able to change that narrative was one of the things that we really wanted to do because one of the guys who helped curate the museum is D.L. Warfield, who was Tip’s first photographer at Arista [Records] and he did the album cover for I’m Serious, Trap Muzik and Jeezy’s first album cover. So for him to be able to transition and become a visual artist to where now he’s creating $15,000, $30,000 pieces. One of our goals is to make it where he is known like a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. Where he’s creating a million-dollar piece of artwork and he’s selling it to some world-renowned art collector. I think that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to tap into that market. It’s also just an opportunity for [artists] to display their work and yes, it’s for sale. Our ultimate goal is to help [artists] continue to grow as we grow. I mean if D.L. Warfield ends up becoming one of the top artists and he has pieces worth a million dollars, we have five of his pieces in the museum. It increases our value. Now, our gallery is just as big as some big fancy gallery in New York, LA, or Miami. It’s really putting our community on the map.
[Editor’s note: This piece was written before rape and sexual assault allegations against Trap Museum co-founder T.I. and his wife Tiny were revealed. Read more about those allegations here.]
Saybin Samone Roberson, is a LA-based writer and founder of one x three media. Born and raised in the Midwest, she built a lifetime of love for the arts, music and Black culture, which is the same energy she keeps in her writing. Keep up with her Instagram @saywooord or saywooord.com.