As soon as you learn about Boston wunderkind Cliff Notez, it’s hard to look away. When he’s in the zone, he’s all smiles and bright energy, the kind that you swear reverberates off of him like an invisible but undeniably palpable sunshine. You can’t help but marvel at what he’s doing because he’s doing so much… and seemingly all at once.
The 27-year-old artist is a modern Renaissance man who’s helping Boston’s music and arts scene glow up. He swaps hats often, as he’s a musician, filmmaker, photographer, writer, producer, and more. Most know him as the founder and owner of media company HipStory, which was recently awarded a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation. Others know him as a staff writer for local music blog Allston Pudding. Some of you know him as an employee at the ICA. Or maybe he’s most familiar from his role as a spoken word teaching artist at Lynn organization Raw Art Works. No? Well, maybe it’s his work in a handful of other arts-related professions that first put his face on your map.
The thing about Cliff Notez that rubs off on you is his energy. There’s this aspiring, hopeful, spirited exuberance that drives everything he does. When in a group, he helps bring people together—and that’s part of why Notez is one of the rising pillars in Boston’s music and arts community. He may shy away from the title, but Cliff Notez is the type of leader who walks the walk and encourages others to join in. It works. Eventually, you want to join in and figure out how to help Boston’s scene.
That spirit comes from a weathered upbringing where he had to fight for what he wanted. Shifting between Boston neighborhoods, primarily Dorchester and Somerville, Notez spent most of his youth zoned in on a potential basketball career. Scholarships and cross-country trips made the sport seem like an obvious career path, to the point where his side interests in music, drama clubs, and film classes got shade for being uncool—even though he became a self-taught producer by age 11. It wasn’t until he attended Wheaton for music that he began developing friend groups for each of his hobbies. His complex interests began overlapping. Juggling opposing interests wasn’t as impossible as he was made to believe growing up. By living his truth and enjoying multiple activities, he’s shattering that false truth for himself and for others. Part of that takes shape in his most recent album, When the Sidewalk Ends.
“My goal is to bring all of the things I do into my music, my theater/film, passion for racial and social justice, my different musical influences and above all my blackness,” says Notez.“That shapes this entire conversation about who I am, honestly.” The record makes good on that. Music was his first love before he even realized it was. It was the support system that never bailed each time he moved to a new school. It was the reminder that individuality is a good thing. It was the urge to become comfortable with himself to stop wasting time feeling otherwise. While his music takes inspiration from the usual artists like Kendrick Lamar, David Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean, and beyond, it also taps into unexpected sources like Rod Stewart, Whitney, Gershwin, and the War on Drugs. As long as it rides a feeling, the music bears importance to him. It’s one of the many creative outlets he has, sure, but it stands out among the plethora of work because of that emotion.
“All of this isn’t to gloat about doing so much, but to recognize that feeling estranged from my community made me want to be so deeply embedded in it. So much so that it almost caused my own self-destruction. I, without question, overworked myself, and I’m still picking up those pieces today,” says Notez. “That’s what a lot of When the Sidewalk Ends was about: pushing myself to that brink, thinking that I was doing it for the betterment of community, subconsciously unaware of my selfish need to fill that gap of community that I personally had, breaking almost entirely, and taking a step back and trying to figure out how I can do this better for myself and my community.”
In an effort to help those looking to get involved in their communities without overwhelming themself, we spoke to Cliff Notez to see if he had any advice. As to be expected, his life experience proves there’s plenty of work to be done in Boston, and you can help make it happen—as long as thoughtfulness and carefulness play a role. Then feel the real-life inspiration by watching him perform a headlining set at ONCE Lounge this Sunday. It will be the meeting point of his talent and his effort, and yet you know there’s even more he has to offer beneath the surface. Maybe you do, too.
Don’t Downplay Your Hobbies
“[Making music, making videos, writing, etc.] had always taken the backseat because I wasn’t privileged enough to think they could turn into a career. The only thing I thought I had a shot at as a career was basketball—and I’m not the only one who is sold that narrative. I didn’t see many kids from my neighborhoods who were ‘making it’ in film, theater, music, the arts, or anything computer nerd related. So when I blew out my knee twice in sophomore year of college, I was like, ‘Oh shit, now what? Am I really gonna be a musician?’ I had to have backups. Over time, every backup grew in equal priority. By the time I graduated, I found a fellowship where I was able to do a lot of those things in my work and be a part of the community that I wanted to be a part of again. Then I found another opportunity at RAW Art Works in Lynn, and another opportunity, and another—I never really knew how to stop. Because of each of those different communities, a different piece of me was accepted and I felt at home.”
Growth Stems From Making Space
“Before anything, people looking to get involved with the music and arts scene need to know that if they come into a scene just looking to get something out of it, but without knowing how to contribute to its growth, then they will not (or at least shouldn’t) succeed. Don’t talk down to or discredit the whole ‘scene’ that’s still trying to build itself; you were isolated from that community to begin with. I strongly believe in that, especially in a city as small as Boston. Because of gentrification and our massive collegiate community, the city is rapidly growing and changing. It’s important to realize that you can always get involved, if you are willing to make it grow, that’s how you make space.”
Start Small to Make Big Change
“Boston is too small to live in a silo and think you’re going to be the lone wolf that makes a major impact without the help and support of the community. Boston, because of gentrification, is slowly fading, and the only way it can grow is if we are building with each other instead of on top of each other. There are a lot of spaces that are looking to grow and deserve to grow. All the homies at Zumix, X Academy, the Record Co., BAMS Fest, Allston Pudding, Transformative Culture Project, Black Cotton Club, Mass Apparel, Haley House and House Slam, MassLEAP, and KillerBoomBox. Every one of these programs is looking for help. When I was coming out of school, I just looked for the communities and places I wanted to be around and tried to figure out how I could help them grow if there was space for me. If it’s a space I really believed in, then it was important for me to be involved, even if it was just as a volunteer or donating.”
Your Plate Can Only Hold So Much
“I recently left my full-time role at the ICA because I was burnt out. It was the first place where I saw the different forms of art I practiced combined with the city I love, but done on a global scale. It taught and exposed me to so much, and I was fortunate to endure some rapid growth. But by mid-2017, the world was covered in shit, and it made it harder to do all of the things I was doing. I had to start peeling away some of the layers I threw on myself once I got out of college. I needed to find out where my plate was before I could figure out if there was too much on it.”
Supporting a Community Includes Self-Care
“We are only going to be better if we are all at our best. Sadly, I know it’s not as simple as a sentence. This is the first time in my entire life where my full-time job is being myself. I want to grow and learn about who I am and who was I all of these years I suppressed who I wanted to be. How can I make that person a better person, so I can make the impact and change I want to make with my artwork? Above all, I’m trying to grow to love myself. My whole life I was trying to get people to love me as a basketball player, or musician, or actor, or writer. I learned a lot of different ways to be somewhat successful, but in none of that did I learn how to love myself. That’s where I messed up. So I’m learning about self-love these days. Community can still be community if you decide to take a day off to take care of yourself.”