Brothers From Hilltop Make Their Marks in Art

Born to soar

Photos by Rachel Coward

Nicki Minaj may be the face of the platinum-selling song “Fly.” But the hook, “I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive,” was written by a shy young man from Tacoma’s Hilltop named William Jordan.

He and his brother Chris, a visual artist and community organizer, already have left lasting marks on the city — though their careers are both just starting.

To understand the Jordan brothers, you have to start at the beginning, when they were little boys discovering community in a neighborhood that was notorious for violence.

There’s an old junkyard in Hilltop where a rusty fence with thorny rose bushes tangled within its chain-linked center closes it off from the view on South Wilkeson Street. Inside, doors and windows are stacked high, and toilets are clustered together in the gravel. Tiny pieces of broken glass are sprinkled everywhere. When the sunlight hits them just right, they sparkle — like jewels among the havoc.

Across the alley is where the Jordan brothers grew up. For years they’d look over their low fence and into the junkyard with minds full of questions. It was their own Sandlot, a place brimming with mystery and often the setting of their childhood dreams. They had been inside its fence before but could never explore it fully. It was their childhood urge to adventure into its wasteland.

But the Jordan brothers had to be careful where they went. They lived in a blue one-story home with two apple trees perched on their front lawn. On its own, it was a typical American scene. But their neighbors were “crackheads” as William put it, and their home sat in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Northwest. According to the Jordans, their drug-addicted neighbors weren’t the scary ones. Their parents knew everyone on their block on Ash Street. The danger was a few blocks away, where they weren’t allowed to ride their bikes because they didn’t know all the faces or names that lingered down those streets.

It was a time when Hilltop was synonymous with drug and gang violence.  Gunshots fired off in the night regularly as addicts staggered along the streets and prostitutes flirted with disaster. Hilltop’s drug epidemic peaked in 1989, when off-duty Army Rangers and gang members sprayed bullets at each other for a solid 10 minutes. They went through about 300 rounds each. That event is still known today as the Ash Street Shootout.

This was about the same time William was born, his mother’s fourth child. A year later, Chris arrived. The boys’ first steps would be taken in a neighborhood known for dissolving stability. During their childhood, they had to think twice about things most kids never consider.

“My neighborhood, you can’t wear red or you could die,” William said. “It’s a thing you don’t even think about. It’s like, oh yeah, I never wore a stitch of red clothing until the eighth or ninth grade because of the Bloods and Crips, the feud that was going on.”

But Hilltop’s problems were part of life for the Jordan brothers. They look back on their childhoods without resentment
or shame. They remember the good things, like the food and the music and their loving family, especially their parents, who raised all six children together. Most of their friends had a parent in prison or a family divided by divorce, they said.

“We didn’t realize that we were not middle class. We were living in a consciousness of privilege, to a degree, because we had both of our parents,” Chris said.

20150519_JordanBrothers_0178-REPLACEThe Church and Family

When William and Chris’ parents first left Florida to help out at a church in Tacoma, people thought they would never make it, that they would starve out West. To outsiders, they were two 20-somethings in love with dreams so large their judgment was clouded. But they knew better. They had faith. The boys’ father was on a quest that landed him as a preacher at what’s
now known as True Harvest Baptist Church in Hilltop.

The church looks like a white one-bedroom home on the corner of Grant and 17th. There’s no noticeable address or sign out front. There’s no cross hanging over the door. The outside walls are so white they make you have to squint your eyes. Inside there is no more than a dozen benches, a podium and some instruments sitting on the red, stomped-down carpet. There are only a few decorations hanging inside beside a wooden plaque that reads, “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declared the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Jeremiah 29:11.

The small structure became a home away from home for the Jordan brothers. On a good day it would hold about 20 people. But sometimes it would mainly be the Jordan family inside, singing or performing as a little family band. They operated as a unit, often guided by the powerful words of their father.

“There are lies that are sold to us about what we’re capable of,” he would tell his boys. “But there are things that are greater than that we can achieve if you push and hold out.”

The church was one of the few places the boys were allowed to go alone. William would escape to its quiet space at night to practice music by himself. When dusk fell and the streets of Hilltop rumbled, William sat inside, teaching himself how to play a melody on the organ. Alone with his thoughts, he’d fill the vacant space with beautiful sound.

The church was not only a safe escape and a source of insight for the Jordan brothers; it also was a part of all the conflicting influencers that helped make the boys so dynamic. Being raised by liberal Christians in a conservative church on Hilltop gave them a diverse point of view on the world.

“There are just a lot of layers to who we are. And I think that has a lot to do with how we came up and how we ended up. There are no limits. You don’t like the idea of boxes when you’ve never been put in a box before,” William said.

The Jordan brothers were always different. They didn’t exactly fit in anywhere. Both attended high schools outside of Hilltop (Curtis High School in University Place and the School of the Arts in Tacoma), which made them feel like outcasts among their peers who could slip into a social group and stay there.

“You’re too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids. But then you kind of learn to not really fit in anywhere; you have no choice but to be yourself because nothing else works,” William said. “I think we both spent a lot of time by ourselves. But that time by yourself forces you to find yourself. We were very aware of who we were very early on.”

Today, the Jordan brothers still don’t fit into a particular mold. They’re sweet with big smiles, but they can be serious, especially about their work. When Chris ordered tea at a café, he looked for a coaster before setting his glass on the worn table. They don’t swear. To them, honesty is more stinging than any curse word.

“[As a kid] I felt like a manual car in a world full of automatics where everybody was social. They just knew how to have small talk. But as you get older, in a manual car you have more control of how you drive. You have more freedom. So you’re not stuck,” William said.

In their blue home on Ash Street the brothers shared a room where their artistic talents took shape. They had gotten a computer through a guy they knew at church, and in seventh grade they made their first beats on pirated programs. Chris started to develop a knack for graphic design as well.

“Our room was our place to be ourselves and do what we wanted to do. It was like our own little kingdom,” said Chris.

20150519_JordanBrothers_0449Driven with Grace

William barely graduated from high school. Grades were never his priority. He was a smart kid and did fine on tests but would spend his free time working on music instead of doing his homework. Chris was the same way with his art.

After high school, William started to gain a reputation for his beats. He started working with rappers in the area, and that led him to his first trip to Platinum Reign, a recording studio off Fawcett Avenue in Tacoma. Ruford Henderson, a charismatic man from Oklahoma who goes by the nickname “Nudie,” owns the place. He would let William record there for $15 an hour. But when William started calling Henderson asking if he could sweep his floors or clean around the studio, he got the deal of a lifetime — Henderson let William use the studio space for free.

“He said it was because I was trying to bring something to the table and I wasn’t asking for anything,” William said. “He said a lot of people come in and they just say, ‘What can I get? How can you help me?’ Instead of, ‘How can I help you? What can I contribute?’”

It was a skill he had learned growing up. To this day, if someone in the Jordan family starts singing a song, the rest will catch on and start to harmonize. They grew up making music and progress as a group, not alone.

William took full advantage of his studio deal. He was living at his parents’ house, making music day and night.
But his song-making was paused when his girlfriend revealed she was pregnant. He was only 20 years old. He considered getting a well-paying job, but William’s girlfriend (now wife) told him to stick with music for three months. Maybe some flicker of luck would grant him his dreams.

Together with artist and songwriter Clemm Rishad, William started making connections with production studios in L.A. He poured his heart into his music and slept on the floor of the studio because he didn’t always have the gas money to get home. Eventually, William and Rishad established a relationship with Beluga Heights Records. The label liked a song they had written called “Pretty Girls,” so they kept writing them new material, most of which was rejected. Then there was “Fly”:

I came to win, to fight,
to conquer, to thrive

I came to win, to survive,
to prosper, to rise

To fly
To fly

The song reads like an anthem for those trying to beat the odds, to thrive in a world that is not always kind. Its message is similar to that engraved plaque that hangs in the brothers’ tiny Hilltop church. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

“Fly” was handed over to R&B artists Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, who recorded and released the song. It hit No. 19 on the Billboard charts and went platinum. The success was almost surreal. Suddenly William was sitting in Hollywood, hanging out with Lil’ Wayne and Drake and had inked a deal with Universal. One of his best friends from Curtis High School helped him negotiate the contract.

“You feel like you earned it, but you don’t feel like you deserve it in a way because it’s so huge. If you’ve never had anything like that before, it’s hard to get used to it. I would wake up in the morning smiling because I went from broke and nameless, and now I’m signed to Universal and I have a platinum plaque.”

20150519_JordanBrothers_0468A Voice for Public Art

When Chris had an internship at Russell Investments as a graphic designer, he quickly learned that he didn’t want to work for anyone. He wanted to be an artist. When he met Kenji Stoll at the School of the Arts, his world opened up. Stoll taught him how to paint with spray cans. It was his first time working with a tangible, visual art and his love affair took flight. Together, Chris and Stoll started creating murals around Tacoma that reflected the voices of their city. Through their community involvement they began leading Fab-5, a nonprofit, hip-hop organization that works to empower young people as creative leaders to inspire change in their communities. At The FABITAT Expressive Art Center on South Martin Luther King Avenue, they DJ, break dance, and experiment with graffiti art. Sometimes kids transitioning out of homelessness like to go there to feel normal and free. It’s a safe space.

“I work in a really community-based art that’s about decentralizing the creative process and getting as many people involved as possible,” said Chris.

Chris believes in public art that’s open to diverse sets of eyes. One of their proudest pieces is on the corner of Ninth and Market streets in downtown Tacoma. It’s a vibrant, colorful mural that spreads across the back of the Rialto Theater. It used to be a bare wall without an ounce of character. Now it’s a piece of art that mixes graffiti with Moorish geometric design, two approaches that proved controversial for public city art. It created a stir when it was first proposed in 2009.

“When the news first came out that we were doing graffiti on this historic building, they called it ‘Islamic terrorist graffiti,’” Chris said.

But to him the mural was always meant to be beautiful and a way to challenge people’s perceptions of beauty. When it was finished, many in the community saw it as that. People embraced it, Chris said, looking up at its colorful glow.

“It’s become almost like a welcome mat for Tacoma … I still love it. It gives me the chills to look at it and see that we did this.”

In May, Chris won the Foundation of Art Award from The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. His art is all over the city. It hangs in University of Puget Sound’s quiet Weyerhaeuser Hall and on the noisy walls of Manitou Trestle near South Tacoma Way. He also has murals in Trinidad and Taiwan.

But after all his success in recent years, that mural on the Rialto still gives him pause. He was 19 when he painted it. It was always more than a way to light up the block. It challenged people to accept a different kind of art. It opened their eyes to see the world from a more complex point of view, something Chris has been seeing since he was a little boy.

Just Fly

When strangers travel up to Hilltop, they see the Jones junkyard — a place full of trash, rusty cans, and doors with paint peeling off the sides. But Chris and William see it differently. It’s rooted in their childhood memories as a playground of possibilities.

“A lot of places in my imagination are tied to this place,” said William on a recent trip back to the yard.

Like those two little boys who used to gaze over their fence into Jones Glass and Used Material, Chris and William are still out there looking at the world full of questions and dreams. They’re not afraid of the thorns, the rusty nails, or the broken glass. Risk comes with the territory. They see slivers of promise in all of it. And the beauty that lies in a wasteland where no one else is looking.

Chris and William still go to that tiny church up on Hilltop every Sunday, too. They still play the instruments and sing with their family. One spring day when Chris couldn’t make it, he came home and his mom repeated pieces of the sermon to him.

“We are past the point of any template,” she said. “There is no more framework for what you’re supposed to do, and there is no more model for where you’re going. It’s time to step out. And just fly.” 

is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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