From painting to battle rap, Leevon Matthews ’23 is an artistic figure on campus. Known for founding Mic Check, a series of musical events on campus centered around hip-hop and R&B musical performances, Matthews has dedicated much of his energy to fostering meaningful communities on campus and beyond. More than anything, he has strived to cultivate change at the University. This week, Matthews spoke to the Argus about his time at the University, his relationship with music, and his fifth class.
The Argus: What is your name, your major, and your class year?
Leevon Matthews: My name is Leevon Matthews Jr. I am a studio art major with a painting concentration. I’m a senior.
A: Why do you think you were nominated for WesCeleb?
LM: I think I was nominated because I’ve done a lot of work on campus essentially to build communities centered around music, centered around collaboration. That kind of transformed into the popular organization Mic Check, in which we are dedicated to creating a hip-hop and R&B platform at Wesleyan. I think I am a WesCeleb because I created a community that didn’t exist before. And I think it’s a community that is currently flourishing, and I think [it made] Wesleyan’s creative experiences a lot better.
A: What motivated you to start Mic Check to build that community?
LM: Absolutely. Before Mic Check was created, I had this thing called “With as Many Features as Possible.” That concept started from me trying to create a community where all creatives in music could access each other at one place. I tried to get all the producers, all of the songwriters, all of the instrument players, all of the vocalists, all of the people who do music videos in one Discord server to get them all to be able to access each other to boost collaboration between creative projects. But it didn’t really go well. Not too many people were genuinely interested.
I did a small music festival at the end of [my] sophomore year, and it went very well. At some point before 2022 in December, Abbi [Abraham ’23] reached out to me. She asked me, [if I would be interested] in collaborating on a hip-hop and R&B event with her. Her and The Shed wanted to do something, and I was like, “Hell yeah!” That one collab turned into Mic Check. Once I saw how important that event was, I just ran with it. I didn’t want to let it die down. I didn’t want to let the energy go away. I felt like the name Mic Check was good, [so] I just kept the aesthetic going. Then I held the next concert and then the rest is history.
A: Obviously, Mic Check has become a really big event at Wesleyan. What kind of legacy do you want Mic Check to leave? What do you want to happen to it after you graduate?
LM: I want it to continue to create a platform and a community for hip-hop and R&B music. That music just so happens to be music that is centralized around the student of color experience. At a predominantly white institution, I want Mic Check to encourage other groups on campus to also feel like creating communities of hip-hop and R&B artists, communities of artists who don’t get that platform. I don’t want Mic Check to be the only place where you can go to hear a hip-hop artist perform. That’s not the point. The point is to create a platform that allows people to shine, but also influences other people to change the way they consider who they want to book. No matter what type of music you make, no matter who you are racially, ethnically, or socially.
A: What about your personal experience with music? What has your experience with making music been like?
LM: It’s been fun. It started with my roommate, Gib Bernath [’23]. I started making music ’cause he was my roommate and he had a studio in his room. So that’s how I started, but at this point I’ve kept going through my own passion for music. I love making music. I love writing songs. I love performing. I feel like what I’ve been able to do now is just create a sense of community and a place where I can share my work with people.
A: Do you see yourself pursuing music in the long term after you graduate?
LM: Not music. [In the] music [industry], I’ve realized it’s really hard to build yourself up. It’s a lot to work hard on a project and then put it out. And then you gauge your success of that project based off of how many people listen to it. And then if you’re not really popular, you might get discouraged. It becomes this cycle of disappointment. And for me personally, I don’t know why I would want to make or pursue music professionally. I think stuff like battle rap, stuff like cinematography, stuff like painting are professions that I feel more passionate about.
A: What are you studying and what drew you to those majors?
LM: I’ve always been an illustrator in some form. Ever since I was a kid, I was always drawing. I was always doodling in class, getting in trouble, making comic books. When I came to Wesleyan, I knew that I would do studio art. I knew that I would do painting. I was always just making sure that I could articulate the messages that I want to get across. I’ve studied a lot of art history. I’ve studied a lot of psychology to kind of understand how people think. I’ve done a little anthro as well, [and] a lot of AFAM [African American Studies] courses to kind of help break apart different mediums of art. I’ve taken Black poetry classes and philosophy and stuff like that.
A: What sorts of subject matters do you focus on with your artwork?
LM: Right now I’m working on a thesis project that’ll be displayed in the Zilkha Gallery in April. It’s mainly [centered] around performance art. It’s mainly around creating a community through the visual manipulation of the community that I create in the outside world. A lot of the paintings I create are film stills from Mic Check concerts. They’re photos from battle raps, photos from performances that I’ve witnessed myself in which I try to replicate the energy that’s being depicted and bring it to painting in its own way.
A: What has been your favorite art project that you’ve done?
LM: My favorite art project, I would say, [is] Mic Check. Mic Check is definitely a project. And it has become more than a project. I’ve attempted to establish a different way of running a club that felt like a project at first, because it felt like not a lot of people approach the certain way of leading that I do. I try to be as prompt as I can. Like at our event on Saturday, I had a battle. And in a battle I said, “If you guys were taking four classes, Mic Check was my fifth class.” And that’s exactly how it is. Every day I am working on Mic Check as if it is a class of mine. And I’m taking it as seriously as my very own education. Some people might feel like that’s ridiculous.
A: No, it’s not. It’s very impressive, especially considering how much it has progressed.
LM: I think the reason why it kind of popped up out of nowhere and it is what it is right now is because I care so very deeply about building that community and about changing Wesleyan for the better.
A: It really shows just how much passion and caring can go a long way. Let’s talk about passionate people that have cultivated you. Are there any professors or academic experiences that have really impacted your time here?
LM: Yeah. I don’t know if you know [Assistant Professor of African American Studies] Khalil Anthony Johnson Jr. His classes have really impacted me. He’s an AFAM professor here. He’s the type of teacher where he allows his personality to shine a lot. He diminishes that really restrictive wall between [a] professor and [a] student where you feel like you can’t be yourself with your professor sometimes, or you feel like class is such a formal space that discussing a sensitive topic—like African American studies can be—is not possible. But with him, he just always made learning about Black people, Black music, Black cultures, [Black] community, so easy at Wesleyan. And he’s helped contribute to my overall attachment to building a better platform for us here. I appreciate him. I hope that we can possibly partner with him to sponsor Mic Check as an organization. Because once you get a professor’s partnership, you get funding and a lot more stuff.
A: I was gonna ask, has he ever been to Mic Check?
LM: No, he hasn’t. We should definitely get him to come.
A: Let’s switch gears a little here. What’s your favorite thing to eat on campus?
LM: I have a horrible taste of food. A horrible, horrible taste of food. It has to be on campus?
A: Middletown is okay too.
LM: Okay. Middletown. I like Perk on Main. I always go there and get an egg-and-cheese on a croissant and home fries. But if I’m eating somewhere on campus, I really like the grilled cheese sandwich from Swings with a fried egg inside of it. It’s like an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich, but it’s like a dinner, you know what I mean? It’s okay. It’s very dairy.
A: Where do you see yourself after graduation and what do you hope to achieve in the long term?
LM: I hope to continue to help other people realize their artistic potential. I hope to do work in event organizing. There are so many art things that I feel like I’m good at and I can do. I want to continue to paint. If I continue to work with music, I would be a songwriter instead of [an] actual song maker. I would rather write songs for other people. I would rather film battles, film different productions, [film] people who are involved in hip-hop culture, [film] interviews. Just be available as a visual media resource for certain types of communities.
A: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
LM: Whoever nominated me, thank you. I’m very happy about it. I’m very proud of how much I’ve been able to grow and change at Wesleyan. There’s been times here where I’ve felt like I wasn’t a very liked person. And I didn’t like people very much. My relationship to the school [as] an institution, it’s filled with pain and anger and frustration. And that’s still there. But with Mic Check, I’ve been able to view Wesleyan as something that has a potential to be better—potential to be less harmful to people of color. As an educational institution, there’s a lot of shit that goes on at Wesleyan behind the scenes that makes it hard for people like me, who look like me, to attend this school. With Mic Check, I just want to continue to make that easier.
A: In a dream world, how would you want to change this school?
LM: I mean, in the dream world, I would say Wesleyan wouldn’t be a thing. In a dream world, people wouldn’t have to attend college institutions that have to do land acknowledgements because of colonial history. And [in a dream world], learning wouldn’t be in the hands of the elite rings of money and politics. But in a situation where I didn’t get rid of Wesleyan altogether, I think I would love to see Wesleyan people [that] are honest, and people [that] are open, and people [that] talk to each other, and people [that] aren’t afraid to be wrong, and people [that] aren’t afraid to get each other mad, and people [that] aren’t afraid to be vulnerable in a way that is consistent and real. I think a lot of people are weirdos, and we love it and we accept it. But when things get difficult and there’s time for people to be wrong, a lot of people are afraid of that, are afraid of looking like the bad guy, and afraid of telling others “No.” In a certain way, that has become intertwined with respectability politics and liberal fallacy. This is an entirely different conversation. But I just want people to just be more honest and open with each other and okay with things not always being perfect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eugenia Shakhnovskaya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.