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Hip-Hop, Herbalism And Cryptid Glass Art In Appalachia

Pookie and geonovah hiphop
Nicole Musgrave
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Pookie (left) and geonovah (right) work on a song together in Pookie’s bedroom studio. Pookie first got into making music in high school when his dad taught him to play piano. Pookie’s dad played piano in church, and this background influences Pookie’s beats.

When people talk about Appalachian music, banjos and fiddles are often the first things to come to mind. But what about hip-hop? Hip-hop lives all over, including in small towns and hollers across Appalachia. In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll meet hip hop artists in southwest Virginia. Folks like Geonoah Davis, aka geonovah, who discovered rapping by way of poetry. “I always wanted to sing, but I was also a really shy kid,” David said. “Then poetry became an outlet for me to get my feelings out.”

And we’ll hear why herbal remedies are experiencing a renaissance. But those remedies have been a tradition in Appalachia for centuries. “Appalachia used to be the pharmacy of the United States,” said Crystal Wilson, who grows herbs on her farm in East Tennessee. “That’s always been part of who we are here. We just forgot it.”

We'll also learn how Blenko Glass, a historic West Virginia artisan business, based in Milton, West Virginia, managed to stay open during the pandemic by retooling a mythical monster into art.

In This Episode:

Hip-Hop Appalachian Artists

When people talk about Appalachian music, banjos and fiddles are often the first things to come to mind — but what about hip-hop? In the United States, rap and hip-hop are usually associated with big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. But hip-hop lives all over, including in small towns and hollers across Appalachia.

Geonoah Davis and pookie
Nicole Musgrave
Geonoah Davis a.k.a. geonovah (left) and Kelly Thompson a.k.a. Pookie (right) make hip-hop music together in Wise County, Virginia. geonovah writes and raps while Pookie makes beats and engineers the sound. Pookie was inspired to learn to make beats in 2019 after watching geonovah and some local producers at work.

Folkways reporter Nicole Musgrave spoke with a group of hip-hop artists in the coalfields of Wise County, Virginia. The group is drumming up attention for the music, but they’re also supporting other artists in the scene.

Poetry Out Loud Finalist

Ben Long from Clarksburg, West Virginia is one of nine national finalists to compete this year in Poetry Out Loud — a competition for high schoolers where they recite the words of classic poets. He’s a senior at Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Eric Douglas spoke with Long to learn more about the program and how an unusual year of pre-recorded performances and masked audiences has made things different.

This week on the show, we hear Ben Long read Edith Wharton’s “An Autumn Sunset.” Poetry Out Loud recently announced Rahele Megosha as the 2021 Poetry Out Loud champion.

Kathy Mchalczo Erin’s Meadow Herb Farm
Heather Duncan
Kathy Mchalczo, owner of Erin’s Meadow Herb Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, explains the uses of some of the herbs growing in and around her greenhouses, pollinated by her own bees.

Herbal Remedies Offer Path To Wellness

Herbal remedies are experiencing a renaissance with industry trackers reporting an explosion in sales — and prices — last year. Those remedies have been a path to wellness and independence in Appalachia for centuries. Folkways reporter Heather Duncan brings us the story from Tennessee.

Blenko Glass Teams Up With Local Artist

The pandemic has made it extremely hard for businesses to stay afloat over the past year. According to a report from Facebook and the Small Business Roundtable, nearly a quarter of small businesses nationwide were closed as recently as February. Despite this, a historic West Virginia glass-blowing company has managed to stay open. Blenko Glass is based in Milton, West Virginia. Initially, the company took a huge hit and had to lay off nearly all of its employees. But thanks to a federal loan and some clever marketing, it has rehired almost everyone back and had one of its most profitable years in decades.

flatwoods.jpg
Courtesy Liz Pavlovic
Liz Pavlovic is an artist based in Morgantown, West Virginia. They teamed up with Blenko Glass Company to create a Flatwoods Monster piece.

Unexpectedly, Blenko’s comeback involved a collaboration with a graphic design artist based in Morgantown. Liz Pavlovic is regionally known for their creations featuring cryptics — mythical characters like Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster, a West Virginia cryptid that’s thought, according to legend, to be green with a fiery red head.

Freelance reporter Molly Born recently wrote an article about the collaboration for The Washington Post.

 

Needle Exchange Sparks Controversy

There’s an HIV epidemic in West Virginia, and there’s controversy over whether needle exchange programs are the answer. To understand what’s going on, we take a look outside of Appalachia for context. Six years ago, a rural Indiana county found itself in an outbreak of HIV. Local leaders in Scott County responded by setting up a needle exchange program in their community — and it helped. Public health officials studied the case and they found that many Appalachia communities are also susceptible to the kinds of outbreaks that happened in Indiana. They also say the needle exchange program was the main reason Scott County was able to stop the spread of HIV. But now the program is closing.

HIV Epidemics Share Struggles

The situation in Indiana mirrors the outbreak of HIV in Appalachia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kanawha County, West Virginia currently has the most alarming HIV outbreak in the nation. Like in Indiana, needle exchange programs here have become controversial.

Amid public outcry, Kanawha County’s health department closed the Charleston needle exchange program in 2018. Then, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that more or less made needle exchange programs illegal. The law restricts how many needles can be distributed, and some say that puts up a lot of barriers to getting people tested for HIV. Now, a small team from the CDC is spending time in Kanawha County studying the outbreak of HIV. The CDC recently released a report outlining their preliminary findings from the study. The investigation identifies barriers associated with services in the community including low access to sterile syringes, challenges in accessing substance use disorder treatment and people at highest risk for HIV not regularly receiving HIV testing.

Remembering Francis Fisher

We also take time to remember one of our colleagues at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Mountain Stage chief engineer Francis Fisher passed away earlier this month at the age of 79.

90.jpeg
Francis Fisher was the man behind the curtains of Mountain Stage.

Fisher was the man behind the curtain of Mountain Stage. What most listeners don’t know is that Fisher was responsible for building West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s network as we all know it today.

To those who knew him well, Fisher was truly a unique human being — a man of wit and kindness who helped build up WVPB and its flagship show, Mountain State. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich has this remembrance.

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Blue Dot Sessions, geonovah, and RK Mitch.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.