For many artists, making a name for themselves can be a challenge — but Chadwick “Niles” Phillips, founder and CEO of The Avant Garde, is working to change things by putting a spotlight on up-and-coming artists in the Twin Cities. He’s now been named one of the Growler’s 25 Trailblazers of 2017.
Originally from Lansing, Mich., Phillips grew up in a musical family and was inspired to go into the arts from a young age. After starting out as a visual artist, he got into hip-hop in high school and has never looked back.
“I had all this inspiration around me, so in high school I took a swing at it and ended up becoming an artist,” Phillips said. “I got my name known being in battles and things of that nature, but I’ve always had that thirst to do more than that as well. I moved up to be able to be a singer, a poet, and even an actor, so I wanted to take more of a renaissance approach towards the arts.”
After graduating from Michigan State University in 2006, Phillips took some time to further pursue his own career in New York City, where he found success being signed to Koch Records, winning a talent search by radio station Hot 97, and working as a production assistant for several other media companies in the entertainment industry. Since moving to Minnesota seven years ago, he has worked hard to help grow the Twin Cities arts and culture scene and founded The Avant Garde in 2014.
The Avant Garde supports artists from all disciplines, but its focus is primarily on eclectic, neo-soul artists whose music is inspired by the traditions of African-American culture. Phillips started the production company to honor the black musicians who came before him — like his father, Sam Gill, a bassist who played with some of the most influential jazz musicians of his time before joining the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and retired after 48 years, making him the longest-tenured African-American bassist in the country.
“I felt like that element of carrying on the traditions of the artists that came before us from the Harlem Renaissance to the bebop era of the 1960s and the inception of hip-hop when it first started [was important]. When it was about what was going on in the community, uplifting and guiding people to the right way,” he said. “Avant garde is French and means bringing new or unusual ideas to the world of the arts, so the first of anything is the avant garde of that genre or of that field. I look at what I’m doing as carrying on the tradition, but at the same time setting a platform or standard for the different scenes that come after the avant garde.”
This past year, The Avant Garde won a $10,000 Artist Initiative grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) to help put on a concert series that focuses on artists of color in the Twin Cities. That’s something Phillips is excited about, as he is now able to provide more opportunities for artists of color, and he hopes people will be inspired by the depth of diverse talent the Twin Cities has.
“I want people to walk away inspired. I want them to know and understand just how powerful music with a message can be when it’s performed live. I want them to know that the Twin Cities has some absolutely incredible, amazing artists that are on the rise,” he continued. “The Avant Garde, I am very proud of it being a great representative of that. So to bring all these artists together to showcase in front of our society, in front of our community, I want them to be inspired and just on a natural high of what we have here in the Twin Cities.”
In addition to the MRAC grant, Phillips also won a grant from Intermedia Arts, giving him the funds he needed to produce his debut album To Remain, which he expects to release this coming year.
But even though Phillips has had a lot of success as an artists and a promoter, life hasn’t come without its challenges, and he has had to work hard for what he has. That’s why to him, putting a spotlight on up-and-coming artists also included the next generation of young people. He teaches a course called “Hip Hop History and the Arts” and puts on workshops at different schools around the Twin Cities — where he says the demographics reflect his background.
“When I was younger poverty was a part of my upbringing, like being homeless at times, and it was tough but at the same time I was always told that I would be great in different outlets — that I had with sports like basketball and track,” Phillips said. “But mainly my education gave me so much because when I got good grades, I was able to be put in programs designed to keep me going and keep me interested in being successful. That kept me motivated when I would go back to the situation I was in, when I got to see another side of who I could be. As much as I am an artist, I will always be enthralled in education and uplifting our youth. I’m able to tell them my story and there’s no better person to give them that story than a person who went through it themselves.”
Going forward, Phillips is looking forward to growing as a musician, promoter and educator. To him, the future of the Twin Cities arts and culture scene is looking bright and he’s excited for what’s to come.
“There are so many incredible artists here and there are a lot of people moving here looking at the Twin Cities as the next big thing — and that comes down to music, the arts and theater. It’s a beautiful thing for me to be here, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in my career.”
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.