Art for the people: ZFG’s quest to revive the streets

How the members of ZFG aim to change Sacramento one word, beat and dance move at a time

Truth: The entire ZFG crew is too big to fit inside this frame.

Truth: The entire ZFG crew is too big to fit inside this frame.


Check out the ZFG mobile stage at the Crocker Art Museum's Block by Block party, noon to 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, at Steve Jones Park, 2331 Casa Linda Drive. Admission is free.
Learn more about ZFG at

La Garnacha is semi-notorious in Midtown for the drunken late-night activity that sometimes takes place at the outdoor-seating-only, 24/7 taqueria. Yet, tonight feels different.

There are about 50 people quietly hanging out, and they don’t seem particularly interested in their burritos, nachos and carne asada fries. That’s because something that isn’t supposed to happen is about to happen.

They’re young, mostly black and slouching in chairs with a sense of purpose. The vibe is electric, like a protest, on this chilly Monday evening in January 2014. When the clock strikes 8:08 p.m., a slender, scruffy and slightly hunched white guy climbs onto a chair. All eyes are on the man known as Andru Defeye.

“Some of you guys know what’s going on right now. Some of you have no idea,” he says. “You have now entered the performance-arts dojo of Sacramento.”

With that, he lays out a few bars, and someone else picks up the flow. Then someone else. Then someone else. There’s no sign-up sheet, no moderator, no rules—only respect. Poets like Dante Pelayo pour out their souls. A group of singers and rappers spontaneously collaborate on a spirited rendition of Kanye West’s “All Falls Down.” After a couple of hours, a brass band shows up, igniting a dance party in the parking lot.

The La Garnacha visit marked the third edition of #TheMostOpenMicInTheCity, the first signature event by a new collective of artists known as ZFG. Up until a few months prior, they congregated at Defeye’s Microphone Mondays at Sol Collective, but that open-mic ended after a kid set off fireworks outside. Its regulars were devastated. They called it their church.

Defeye tried to find it a new home, but venue after venue declined.

“No one would touch it because it was hip-hop,” he says.

So, Defeye took his open-mic to the streets and started a movement. ZFG, which stands for Zero Forbidden Goals, quickly set out to prove that hip-hop could do great things for the community. The group worked directly in schools to inspire the next generation of artists, all the while battling its own perceived image as a hoodlum rap crew.

Now, ZFG is ready to debut its latest project: a mobile stage and art gallery, which will be a key part of the Crocker Art Museum’s Block by Block party Saturday, June 11, in Meadowview’s Steve Jones Park. It also marks the first time ZFG received any serious funding—a $10,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation—and the group plans to use its stage to pop up in random neighborhoods in Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and south Sacramento long after the Block by Block parties are over. With dwindling resources dedicated to arts education, the members of ZFG have made it their mission to make art more accessible by taking it out of its traditional settings—museums, concert halls, art galleries—and bring it straight to the people.

“The system isn’t providing for our kids,” Defeye says. “If we see that the city isn’t gonna take care of it, the government isn’t gonna take care of it, the system that’s in place isn’t gonna take care of it, then isn’t it on us? If we don’t do anything about it, aren’t we cosigning that failure?”

Words as survival

Defeye penned his first poem at 12 years old. It was a suicide note. After reading over his metaphors one last time, he decided the piece—his clear writing talent, to be exact—was a strong enough reason to keep living.

“Writing has literally kept me alive at many points in my life,” he says, now 32 years old.

Defeye’s childhood depression stemmed from a super-rare disease he’s wrestled with since birth. Characterized by weak abdominal muscles and urinary tract problems, Eagle-Barrett syndrome, also called prune belly, kills off many babies within a few months. Despite his chronic kidney issues and regular visits to the emergency room, Defeye says he’s a biological miracle. At age 16, his parents told him he was supposed to die by 15.

“I lived knowing that I was already on borrowed time—that’s kind of the fabric of my entire life,” he says. “I’ve always looked at things with this deathbed complex.”

The Bakersfield native moved around as a kid, first to Stockton, then Manteca, where he finished high school, inherited his first beat machine and eventually got fired from his first job, doing man-on-the-street interviews for the Manteca Bulletin. In typical Defeye fashion, he wanted to ask people about the Iraq War and social-justice issues. His editor, however, wanted him to ask people whether they were buying real or fake Christmas trees that year.

At age 18, he left for San Francisco with the goal of becoming a rap star. He breathed in the neon lights, drugs and fast-paced entertainment lifestyle both on- and offstage for several years before it all became too much. He wound up homeless, bouncing from couch to couch while he tried to figure out how to escape. He chose Sacramento for no real reason other than that it was somewhere else.

It took him a while to find his footing, first dabbling as a writer-of-all-trades. He composed resumes, polished off homework for students he found on Craigslist and even freelanced for SN&R for a couple of years under the name Andrew Bell. Once he stumbled into Sol Collective, though, he says he knew he found salvation. That’s where he cleaned up and realized that giving back to the community—working toward something he believed in—was the only thing that would fill him with purpose and joy. That’s also where he launched his open-mic series and connected with so many artists who would become his family.

Microphone Mondays lasted about five years, and by the end, it was seeing 80-100 people every week. Among them: Luke Tailor, SpaceWalker, Aerial, Esso P and other now-ZFG members who were just starting their music careers—and had no idea what they were doing.

“No one in the existing hip-hop scene was opening any doors or putting them on or teaching them how the game goes,” Defeye says.

With his entertainment background from his San Francisco days, Defeye coached them on the fundamentals: how to book shows, how to make a press kit, how to properly hold a microphone. From that bloomed ZFG as an incubator for some of Sacramento’s best young talent—and the local music scene quickly took notice. ZFG dropped a compilation, aptly titled 8:08, to a fervent following in February. ZFG members Luke Tailor and Cam appeared with the Element Brass Band during the jazz ensemble’s Concerts in the Park set in May, freestyling with speed and expert flow over Element’s New Orleans-style sound. These sorts of collaborations are common, and the crew will get its very own set at Concerts in the Park on Friday, June 24.

“They’re bringing up a lot of great artists who wouldn’t normally get the attention they deserve,” says Byron Colborn, bandleader of Element Brass Band. “[ZFG] gives me more confidence in the music scene as a whole.”

Cam, also known as “the freestyle king of Sacramento,” says when he first moved to town, he felt lost trying to navigate the hip-hop landscape. And few established rappers appeared willing to advise a newcomer.

“It was a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality,” he says.

But, there were Defeye and ZFG, who helped him quickly ascend from the battle rap circuit to regular gigs and, ultimately, a Sammie nomination for Artist of the Year. Experimental live-looper SpaceWalker tells a similar story and now seems to have no trouble landing on bills. She, too, received her first Sammie nomination this year.

“That’s why I personally do this,” Defeye says. “To see folks reach their potential. To see people get to where they should be.”

ZFG members regularly say there aren’t many role models for black youth in Sacramento—that ZFG and Defeye, a white guy, helped give them direction. Defeye tends to play down his role. He’s very careful to say that he never speaks for the black community; rather, he’s an example of what a white ally should look like.

“I think there are a lot of people who see the injustice, who see that these communities don’t have any resources, but don’t know how to have that conversation or don’t know how to get involved because it makes them feel weird, like there is that white savior complex,” Defeye says. “There has to be an honest dialogue about what being an ally means.”

Defeye’s passion for social justice rings loud and clear and true, according to Sol Collective founder Estella Sanchez. Sure, she shut down Defeye’s open-mic years ago, but Sol Collective still collaborates with ZFG regularly. Besides, it wasn’t entirely because of neighbor complaints after the fireworks incident. The open-mic was also growing too big for Sol Collective, which starts feeling awfully cozy with 100 people in the room.

To Sanchez, Defeye is a team player with natural collective leadership—and one of the most kindhearted people she’s ever met.

“He has empathy and compassion with others, which is why I think he’s been able to have such an impact in such a short amount of time,” she says. “It’s been amazing to see how much he’s done. … He’s a completely different person. Not only has he helped transform the city, I think the city has really helped transform him.”

The unicorn on the dance floor

On paper, those flash-mob style open-mics marked the beginning of ZFG. In reality, it happened a few months earlier inside a bougie, K Street dance club. Defeye doesn’t even remember where it was exactly, but he does remember the scene: DJ Whores was spinning and no one was dancing.

Defeye hadn’t actually been there to dance, but instead to talk business with other Microphone Mondays regulars who suddenly had nowhere to work on their craft. Witnessing the crowd of people too stubborn to become the first ones grooving, Defeye moved their meeting to the dance floor, seamlessly continuing the discussion while doing the two-step. A song-and-a-half later, everyone in the club felt secure enough to join them.

That night, Defeye drafted the commandments of ZFG. One is that they are the strength in numbers.

“We understand that if there’s five of us on the dance floor, it becomes a party, and everyone else loses those inhibitions,” Defeye says. “It’s the same as when we stand on the street corner and start spitting our poems. Someone will come along and be like, ’All right, I’ve been waiting to do this poem forever, but I never had the guts before.’”

Andru Defeye (center) says he aims for ZFG to help people reach their potential.

Another commandment? Unofficially, Zero Fucks Given.

“It’s not that I don’t give a fuck about my community,” Defeye says. “It’s if people are staring at you because you’re dressed like a unicorn on the dance floor, who cares? They’re one of the 85 percent of people that are gonna die wishing they danced more.”

Kaila Dougherty, ZFG’s graphic designer, interprets it another way: Zero Fears Granted.

“I was not one to dance on a street corner,” she says, recalling the “Love Yourself” series of ZFG dance flash mobs all over Midtown inspired by rapper Kendrick Lamar. “Soon, they had me in a fur vest dancing in a laundromat.”

At the same time, the Zero Fucks Given mantra speaks to ZFG’s stance on the law. The cops repeatedly showed up at ZFG open-mics, expecting trouble. At an open-mic staged at Cesar Chavez Plaza in March of 2015, police threatened to arrest the poets for loitering after dark. Defeye says he doesn’t believe in following “unjust laws.”

“We follow justice,” he says. “If it’s for the community, it’s for the people, you do what you gotta do. If the system doesn’t like it, then we’re the rebels.”

Yet, it’s this very spirit that won ZFG that $10,000 grant for the Crocker’s Block by Block initiative, which aims to engage communities underrepresented at the museum through a series of block parties funded by the James Irvine Foundation. According to Lorenzo Baker, an Art Corps Fellow and the coordinator for the south Sacramento Block by Block event, awardees were chosen not solely for their artistic ideas, but also for how they inspired the community in a socially conscious way. He hopes the ZFG mobile stage will make a lasting impact across the city, arguing that it’s a stronger, more engaging form of public art than, say, a static mural.

“It creates consistent art access,” Baker says. “You can be an active participant. … It’s extremely powerful.”

Defeye hopes ZFG’s link with the Crocker presents more and bigger opportunities for the collective in the future. Still, Defeye doesn’t plan to apply for city permits to take ZFG’s mobile stage in neighborhoods after the Block by Block parties conclude. Needing to go through all that paperwork over and over again to perform for people doesn’t make sense, he says—ditto to the city’s stance on buskers not being allowed to play with any amplified sound.

“I don’t want every hippie with a guitar on a street corner bumming change, but I keep hearing people talking about a ’world-class city,’” he says. “You know what all world-class cities have? Street performers.”

It’s all about bringing art into public spaces—something Defeye says he’s been noticing more and more in Sacramento in the past couple of years. He cites the Portal, the art installation temporarily living on R Street, and the Sacramento Ballet’s occasional flash mobs. While Defeye appreciates these efforts, he also hopes folks think about who they benefit: people who have little access to art, or people who can already afford to pay an entrance fee? When Defeye puts on events in Midtown, he says it’s so communities—namely, young people of color living in south or North Sacramento—have a reason to travel to the central city.

Defeye remembers going into an Oak Park classroom recently and asking the kids if they’ve ever been to the Crocker Art Museum. Four raised their hands. Then, he asked how many students have a museum in their own neighborhood. None. Art galleries? None.

“I was 21 before I went to an art gallery, because they didn’t have them in my community,” Defeye says. “I feel that struggle.”

But ZFG’s school activities aren’t solely focused on art. Sometimes, they utilize art to dive into another topic, like anti-bullying. One recently developed workshop has SpaceWalker and Cam teaching students raps that promote positive thinking.

“People’s general attitudes are dismissive of hip-hop,” says ZFG rapper Paul Willis. “Hip-hop is the most powerful tool to engage students. … Think of something as simple as call and response. That’s a hip-hop tool.”

For younger kids, there’s Gorilla Storytime, a theatrical spin on traditional library storytime, with sets, props, costumes, morals and a pink gorilla suit. Dressed as Ms. Unicorn, SpaceWalker creates beats and live loops to make children’s poems come to life in a whole new way. Cam, wearing a cap and gown, goes by Professor Vocab and happily freestyles bars about puppies and kitties on demand. When Nicole Powell, a library supervisor at Sacramento Public Library, first saw it, she knew she needed to bring ZFG to the Del Paso Heights branch.

It finally happened in April, though instead of Gorilla Storytime, ZFG brought its Chainlink Poetry program, which resulted in a public art installation. Drive by the library right now and see words floating on the fence, which can be rearranged by passersby to form new inspirational phrases or poems. ZFG supplied the crafts as well as live music, deejays and spoken-word artists at no cost to the library. Powell says the event drew 84 adults and 40 kids. Compare that to the best turnout for an event in May: five adults and 25 kids.

“They had to come from the heart and want to come to Del Paso Heights,” Powell says, noting that ZFG engaged some teens who have been particularly difficult to reach during that Chainlink Poetry day. “They brought Midtown to us, and that was very special.”

Fighting the stigma of hip-hop

It’s 8:08 p.m. on another Monday night, but this time, the ZFG crew isn't spouting poems inside an unsuspecting business. Now, the time slot is reserved for meetings in Defeye’s Midtown living room, also known as the ZFG lair. Art lines the walls: a Sol Collective poster, a Guy Fawkes mask, a small photo of a mural by local graffiti artist Shaun Burner and a large, black-and-white still from Breakfast at Tiffany’s with gold Zs painted over Audrey Hepburn’s eyes.

This is where ZFG organizes as well as communes—as a family, not just co-workers.

A white board carries the evening’s agenda, and a quote: “Sing the pain of the people. And give them hope to overcome. Simple. Nothing else matters.” A Defeye original.

First order of business: check-ins. Members go around, share what they’re up to, ask for advice and show support. Compliments abound, as do unrelated tangents.

“You know what would be funny? Gorilla burlesque,” Defeye says out of nowhere.

“You still gotta put tassels on ’em,” Cam says, as if he’s been contemplating the same idea all night as well.

Defeye knows that if anyone is going to say something bad about ZFG, it’s that the group seems cliquey and exclusive. But, this is where interested folks can drop by, show interest and, with enough commitment, get initiated. Tonight, for example, there’s Matt K.O., a former battle rapper hoping to officially join ZFG, as well as the group’s newest recruit, David “AndYes” Loret de Mola, an improv comedian and spoken-word poet.

Regardless of backgrounds and specialties, the dozen people who make up the core of the roughly 50-person collective all have one major thing in common.

“We’re a bunch of broken humans, every last of us, from the emo-ass poets to the hardcore-ass rappers—every one of them has sat on my couch and cried with me,” Defeye says. “Everyone has used their art form to heal themselves and now uses it to heal the community, to heal what’s broken in our families, our relationships.”

And these broken souls are battling a very real stigma surrounding hip-hop in Sacramento. There haven’t been any violent outbreaks at ZFG events, but the shooting outside rapper Nipsey Hussle’s show at Ace of Spades in early 2015—coupled with Sacramento rising star Mozzy’s gang activity—continues to make people wary about the genre. To ZFG’s members, that’s not fair, so they’ll keep working even if they never see much money for their efforts.

Ever since ZFG began, its members have paid for everything out-of-pocket. Defeye admits that’s not sustainable, but, perhaps, the group is on its way. A couple of regular ZFG events recently started turning a profit. With Sol Collective as ZFG’s fiscal agent, it can continue to apply for more grants. About $50 per month comes via subscriber-based website Patreon, made up of fans from across the country inspired by ZFG’s online videos. Sol Collective’s Estella Sanchez hopes ZFG grows similarly to her own collective, with burgeoning national recognition for its artists.

“It’s crucial for the arts to be funded in order for them to grow and have a larger impact,” she says. “But Andru is an artist. He’ll continue to do this whether there’s funding or not.”

Defeye realized he couldn’t ask the communities he directly works with for money when he tried to crowdfund for extra features for ZFG’s mobile stage. After two weeks, the campaign only raised $20—from ZFG’s very own Willis. That doesn’t mean people don’t care, though.

“Anytime I say, ’I need cardboard,’ or ’I need a ride,’ or volunteers, there’s never a shortage,” Defeye says. “Everything I need is here. I can’t ask people for money—they don’t got it.”

Apart from funding, ZFG members say they only face one other hurdle in their quest for widespread support.

“We’re a collective of young people of color,” Willis says. “Access is a barrier and a challenge. … A lot of people don’t want to do anything with us because of who we are and what we bring.”

But that’s also precisely why ZFG puts in all this work—so the next generation of young artists of color don’t have to shout so loud to be heard.

“It’s changing the culture—letting people understand it’s OK to be you unapologetically and think outside the box,” Defeye says. “We built our own sandbox, gave ourselves a slide, some monkey bars—”

He pauses midsentence. Esso P’s stonerific song “43 Bucks” off the ZFG compilation just came on the speakers, and everyone must sing along together. Esso P smiles silently in the corner, feasting on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

“It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing,” Willis says, picking up where Defeye left off. “It’s that constant pursuit for something very fleeting. Ideally, the kids we’re working with will take the mantle. They can build something even bigger and better.”