North Neighbors: Niles flows upstream

Niles performs at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tribute event that he produced at the University of Minnesota on January 18.

Niles performs at a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tribute event that he produced at the University of Minnesota on January 18.

Creativity runs in Chadwick “Niles” Phillips’ blood. He grew up in Lansing, Michigan alongside artistic brothers. His father, Sam Gill, the longest tenured African American in a United States symphony orchestra, has inspired Niles since he met him as an adult. 

After graduating from Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park and then Michigan State University, Phillips moved to New York City, was signed by a major record label and worked for a string of well-known media entities: BET, CBS, and NYC Fashion Week among them. 

This month, Niles talked to North News about moving back to Minnesota, starting his own production company, The Avant Garde, paying homage to his historical heroes through his work, and his unwavering belief in the power of positive thinking. He plans to release his first album later this year.

By Kenzie O'Keefe | Editor

Describe yourself in a couple sentences. As a person, I am a personification of art. I am a believer in optimism, in the better things in life, regardless of what’s presented. I always believe in the bright side of life. I filter that out artistically through the gifts that I was given. I’m a historian too.

How so? I look at everything I do as paying homage to the people who have sacrificed so much for the next generation. Without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have what we have.

Who are some of those people for you? My mother. My brothers. My uncles. My family. My older brother, Segrin Phillips, was a very prominent hip-hop artist when we were young. He was like 14, and he was already recording. He introduced me to hip hop, to style, to how to carry yourself and still be influential without compromising yourself, musically. My brother Sebastian is an amazing painter. There was a lot of inspiration around me in my household. Outside of that, Miles Davis inspires me. So does Josephine Baker, Bruce Lee, John Lennon, Nas, Common, and Queen Latifah. 

You’re from Michigan. You lived in NYC for a while. How did you end up here in Minneapolis? I lived here my senior year of high school. I graduated from Park Center. I have family here. It’s always been a second home. I went back home to go to Michigan State University, and after I graduated I moved to New York. Then I wanted to start a new chapter, building my own enterprise. I picked Minnesota because it was the best place in terms of support and price of living. I knew my next step would take time and I wanted to be in a place where everything was balanced. Seven years later, here we are.

That enterprise you started is The Avant Garde. Tell us about it. It’s a music, arts, and entertainment production company that gives light to the eclectic artist on the scene – neo soul singers, R&B singers, conscious hip hop artists. I used to host an open mic called the Poet’s Groove at the Blue Nile restaurant. I met so many talented artists there. I wanted to start The Avant Garde to preserve and showcase that side of the scene.  It ended up growing. We’ve been presenting at so many different places: Bedlam Lowertown, the Amsterdram, Como Dockside Pavilion, the U of M, The Dakota. We presented for Black History Month last year at the Machine Shop for US Bank. It has gradually grown.

Your stage name is Niles. Where does that come from? My artist name means going upstream in life like the Nile River in Africa. I’m Caribbean (Barbados), but my origin is in Africa. The land that is near the Nile is some of the most fertile in Africa, and I see the art that I do as fertile ground for the people to consume. I’m a big connoisseur of ancient Egyptian life. I’m a historian. A lot of the ways of life of the Ancient Egyptians have revolved around the Nile River. Also, my alias is Niles Davis and I’m a fan of Miles Davis. 

Niles teaches an after-school class called "Hip-Hop, History and the Arts" at several Twin Cities schools. Photo by David Pierini

Niles teaches an after-school class called "Hip-Hop, History and the Arts" at several Twin Cities schools. Photo by David Pierini

Why is paying homage to the past so important to you? I look at the past times, times like the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, and it’s like, wow.  People’s sacrifices and inventions have kept the world going. We’re creating history now for future generations to be fueled by. My dad says, “He who exalts himself the same will be humbled; he who humbles himself the same shall be exalted,” It’s about the admiration of greatness that you’ve been blessed with because of what you've been inspired by. It’s very important to keep that in mind because history can be forgotten so easily.

You put on an event for MLK day at the University of Minnesota this year. Tell us about that. The U of M contacted me to present this production to show different elements of art being presented in homage to Dr. King. It was the 37th annual tribute event. It’s something that’s very special to the University. From the first one to now, it’s always been a unifier of a lot of different ideologies, generations, and cultures of students and staff on campus. When they contacted me I was flattered because I put Dr. King to a very high degree of admiration. When you’re in elementary school, he’s the first person you learn about. Ashley DuBose, Jovonta Patton, Delphin Starr, Daonna Lewis, Meah Ismail, music director Ryan Bynum, and I all came together to pay homage to Dr. King through music, visual arts, and dance. 

You seem like a fundamentally optimistic person. Where does that optimism come from? My foundation is God. That optimism comes from a deeply rooted bright light that I have. It’s not me, it’s through the creator. My salvation.

Why is positivity so important to you? I think life is meant to be lived on that side of the tracks. Tests are meant to be brought to you, but you’re supposed to be on the bright side of it. You have to work to maintain that. It’s the best experience you can have to be among positive people. It makes life worth living. 

Who inspires you? You! People who document. We need newspapers. We need television, film, photography, and transcription. We need snapshots of times. It’s very very important to document what’s going on now. Art will remain when the smoke clears. Art is always going to unify. It’s going to inspire. 

Who else inspires you? Joe Davis. Because his art is very bright. He brings a similar perspective of “we can prosper” regardless. He’s a friend and a brother.  Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan is another one. She is an incredible virtuous woman. She personifies art and strength and empowerment. She goes the extra mile to make sure the presence of dignity is felt.  Casey Golden too. He is a music engineer. Very very creative, different and unique. Jesse “Big Jess” Semanko. He’s a music producer who has been on the scene for a very long time. He’ll work with anyone and shift to make sure those situations are completed. Stacey and Tryenyse Jones, they’re a married couple who has been doing incredible things on the arts scene. They’re so positive.

Where do you see yourself five years from now? I see myself touring, releasing another album, expanding The Avant Garde nationally and internationally. I see myself motivational speaking and teaching the youth. I developed a “Hip Hop History and the Arts” curriculum that I have taught all throughout the Twin Cities. I plan on expanding that globally as well. 

What words of advice do you have for young people who want to get into the music business? Be yourself. Remain who you are. Don’t change for anybody. That same thing that makes you unique is going to be the same thing that’s going to inspire the world. Stay educated too. Stay in school. Don’t succumb to peer pressure. Always know that you’re a star. You’re unique. You’re chosen to be something great in life. Never change who you really are. 

Find Niles online at www.theavantgardeis.com and on Instagram @theavantgardeis.

Kenzie O'Keefe