In the last month of 2018, the city of Boston flocked to the House Of Blues for the Boston Music Awards, the music scene’s biggest event of the year, especially for artists hoping to break out beyond New England’s cozy border. That year’s edition saw artists like Clairo, Cousin Stizz, and Sidney Gish heading home with awards, but arguably the most coveted one of all — New Artist Of The Year — went to someone else: Cliff Notez.
Anyone living within a 100-mile radius of Boston already knew Cliff Notez, and it was obvious that his win was a long time coming. The Boston Globe and NPR described it as a “victory lap” that “[reflected] hip-hop’s revival” in the city. None of the praise was hyperbole. The rapper spends just as much time perfecting the art of his live performance as he does working on philanthropic causes outside of music, and 2018 saw him doubling down on both. As one of the most remarkable music figures in Boston, Notez constantly strives to use his platform to help others, shifting the focus of his career to contribute to the betterment of his community while still pursuing what he loves: creating music that can lift others out of a hard spot.
Notez is a rarity in Boston’s music scene. As someone who was born, raised, and stayed in the greater area for his entire life, he didn’t just watch the city slowly evolve; he lived through it. In the wake of his parents’ divorce, he ping-ponged around Boston as a preteen, living in upwards of 15 different apartments from Somerville to Dorchester to Roxbury. He found himself struggling with depression, a battle that would always linger in the background of his life. As a self-described hyperactive child, he took part in as many activities as time allowed, bouncing between sports teams, church choirs, and dozens of after-school activities to keep his mind active. Yet his idea of community was fragmented at best.
Once Notez began pursuing basketball, things changed. His skill as a player got him into a prestigious prep school and, shortly after, a four-year undergraduate program at Wheaton College. It was his first real taste of a devoted community. But after three years of college-level basketball, he tore his ACL and was glued to the bench, forced to watch the game go on without him. “If you’re any good at a sport in college, then you become sheltered in that world,” says Notez. “Suddenly I couldn’t play, but I wanted to connect more with a community once I got a sense of what that was like.”
Instead of taking it easy during his last year of college, Notez went into overdrive. Being away from Boston only made his heart grow fonder for the city he called home, and he spent previous years driving back from Wheaton College for an internship at the Center for Teen Empowerment. Now, he continued studying as a double major in Psychology and Music, recorded seven mixtapes in rap duo The ValidDictorians, became an audio/visual contractor for All Def Digital, and picked up a research assistant position at Boston University in their Domestic Violence Prevention program.
“I want to help make change with whatever I do. Part of that means being multifaceted,” says Notez. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be a musician or a filmmaker or a poet back then, but I knew that I wanted to try. I had to be on top of my game if I wanted to be educating people because it’s rare to find Black males who work in arts fields, and I felt the need to be a role model for others within that.”
When graduation rolled around, he joined AmeriCorps nonprofit Massachusetts Promise Fellowship and chose to work at the Boston Public Health Commission. It was there that Notez began doing community work through workshops about healthy relationships, domestic violence prevention classes, and diversity, equity, and inclusion training. His days were spent in public school classrooms and community centers talking to people whose worlds were shaken up. “I had no idea what an effect it would have on my life: the world of racism, violence, training, and community. It changed my life,” says Notez. “It was what got me to realize that masculinity can be toxic and it’s not benefitting anyone. We need to break this down.”
The Fellowship’s Program Director, Jess Adler, still remembers Notez’s interview for the role like it was yesterday. “During his interview, he commented that he loves to write poetry and sing, so naturally, the youth [who sit in on the interview] asked him to sing his favorite song,” she says. “Without skipping a beat, Cliff stood up out of his chair and sang. He then followed the song by encouraging us to write our own poetry, capturing how we felt in that moment. The interview was priceless and left us with goosebumps. Within a short amount of time, he had not only broken the ice, but demonstrated his ability to be brave and vulnerable in new spaces. To connect on such a visceral level in such a short time speaks to the organic greatness that Cliff embodies. He hasn’t worked with us in over five years, but people still speak of his work as if he was in the room — that’s how powerful his impact is.”
Energized by his fellowship, Notez did what anyone obsessed with creativity would do: find even more things to do. The next few years were spent juggling numerous after-work volunteer shifts while attending graduate school at Northeastern University. He became a Spoken Word Teaching Artist at RAW Art Works, a Lynn-based youth organization rooted in arts therapy, where he introduced children to the loving, cultivating, honest poetry that he fell in love with in college. He joined Boston-based music blog Allston Pudding as a hip-hop-focused journalist, eager to learn about the local music scene beyond the church choir bubble of his childhood, which led to regular nights of attending concerts, meeting new friends, and reading local music journalism. With what little free time he had left, Notez volunteered at youth slam poetry organization MassLEAP and their local Louder Than A Bomb event, too.
“At RAW Art Works and MassLEAP, I saw hundreds of kids who were so youthful and open being pushed to realize their potential,” says Notez. “Kids came in with extreme trauma, ones who wouldn’t even talk, but they left articulating their truth onstage and being embraced by an entire community. Toxic masculinity is rampant, and getting to break that down early on is important. As a kid, I didn’t have that emotional validation through other male friends. It’s crucial to teach young men about life and that it’s okay to feel something and be human. It’s such a beautiful thing to see happen.”
Then, in 2015, his trajectory evolved. Notez created HipStory, a loose outlet for all music-related ideas, back when he formed his rap group The ValidDictorians. But now, after working alongside kids constructing music-related projects, children finding their voices through poetry, and everyday people striving for stability and safety, Notez had a better idea: HipStory could become something bigger than just himself. Numerous stacks of paperwork and word-of-mouth hype later, he established HipStory as an LLC 14 digital media production company specializing in audio-visual production and event curation. HipStory’s new mission? Offer a platform for marginalized voices whose stories are never heard, told, or seen.
“Cliff is pretty modest when it comes to talking about what he does, so I’m certain he’s done much more for Boston’s music scene than I can mention. To be honest, I don’t even know if he sleeps,” says Nick Martin, HipStory’s Production Artist. “When Cliff first started HipStory, it was a group of musicians and could have easily been seen as just another musical group, but Cliff knew he didn’t want to stop there. He supported each individual’s passions and broadened the team. He brought in photographers, filmmakers, poets, dancers, and artists of all kinds — to the point that now we are prepared for almost any creative endeavor someone could think of. He had the vision of what we could all do together and his drive pushes each of us to achieve more than what we thought possible.”
Today, HipStory is a staple of Boston’s music scene. It’s helped over 50 local artists and rolled out seven albums, all pro-bono, for fellow musicians and creatives looking to share work for the greater good. Through the organization, Cliff has organized some of the city’s biggest events, including Boston Answering, a mini-festival of exclusively Boston-based acts in response to a dismal Boston Calling lineup, and Late Nights at the MFA, a music takeover of the city’s most prestigious art museum where fellow rappers perform in front of over 4,000 people. From massive turnouts to high praise from the press, HipStory has helped Boston bridge the gap between music circles, segregated neighborhoods, and high- and low-brow cultural institutions.
“The stereotypical movies about Boston blur what the real Boston is actually like,” says Notez. “It’s a cultural mecca with universities paired with people under the weight of subtle structural racism. If you can understand the city’s larger picture, then you can bring the different scenes together within it and help change the city in the process. Once I learned about our different music scenes, I wanted to try to connect those worlds, especially when I saw that other people want that to happen, too — and now it feels like that’s actually starting to become the new normal.”
After re-launching HipStory, Notez landed his first staff role and salaried job at the Institute Of Contemporary Art. As the Teen New Media Programs Associate, he helped create more opportunities for public school children to get involved in the arts and discover their potential. Notez pushed the museum’s teen education efforts, which focused more on film than music, to include new programs like Advanced Music Production and Advanced DJing. Because the majority of students were kids of color, Notez also took it upon himself to emphasize his presence as a Black employee, helping the traditionally expensive, white culture of an art museum to become a gateway experience into an artistic, educational world for the city’s lower-income, non-white students.
“Having grown up in Boston, he had a deep understanding of our student’s lives and they felt a strong connection with him in important ways,” says Gabrielle Wyrick, former Associate Director of Education at the ICA. “He had an extremely lasting impact, including on me as an educator. I learned from him on a daily basis. ICA teens looked to him as a family member, too, and still consider him that way. He truly believes in the power of the arts to mount social change, and lives that in everything he does.”
These days, Notez can be found giving back to the city’s student population. He’s taught at Harvard, MIT, Emerson, and Northeastern, and often extends his lessons beyond the classroom by helping students find opportunities outside of school. Most notably, he was invited to teach Social Justice and Hip-Hop Songwriting as an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music. As a school notorious for distinguished music education, Berklee has been surprisingly slow to offer a Hip-Hop BA. Among those chosen to help construct the Hip-Hop BA Program is Notez, whose classes and advice directly feed into the future of their program. “It’s undoubtedly going to be a learning curve for any institution that has historically not had the Black experience at the forefront of their minds, like most every college,” says Notez. It’s a lot of pressure, absolutely, but Notez is up to the challenge, especially given he can prioritize marginalized identities and honest representation within a hierarchical structure rarely open to modification.
“Cliff brings his multifaceted background to the institution, which speaks to the reality of most of our students’ careers,” says Tim Hall, Assistant Professor in Berklee’s Professional Music Department. “Particularly, there’s been a gap in the Hip-Hop curriculum at Berklee, and he brings a passion for the art form that connects to the students’ eagerness to explore it. I think he shows people that art is limitless.”
Most people learned of Notez through his solo albums, like 2017’s When The Sidewalk Ends and 2019’s Why The Wild Things Are, but Boston residents know of him from so much more. It’s hard to fathom how much time he puts into non-profits, organizations, and creative outlets that uplift Boston residents, not to mention the on-the-ground work required to unite various corners of the local music scene. But if one thing’s apparent, it’s that Notez is as committed to his career as a musician as he is to helping everyone else around him grow, too.
“I have a lot of experience with various trauma, and I would never want others to go through that,” says Notez, looking back at his trajectory. “In feeling like I’m not valuable, I’ve realized I’m most valuable when I’m able to help other people. My father lives to help other people, where it feels like he’s not doing anything unless he’s helping other people. He will drive 100 miles to get you from the airport, to offer you his own bed to sleep in, and I wanted to do that — to help anybody who needs it for as long as I can. I don’t know how I’ve gotten the privilege to do that, but here I am, and I don’t want to stop anytime soon.”