Same Last Name, But New Vision for City Lights Under Braun Hill

City Lights Studio on Washington Street has a huge imprint from founder Duggan Hill all over it, but now the new leader will still have the same last name, but a new and revived vision for the long-time arts sanctuary.

Braun Hill, the son of founder Duggan Hill, has taken over the City Lights organization and is looking to put a new imprint all his own on the studio that has served kids and adults – mostly people of color – from the community since the 1980s. His father, Duggan, will still be involved to an extent, but is taking a step back to let his son move the needle on the new vision.

Braun Hill and his business partner, Russell Ferguson – who got his start at City Lights and won Season 6 of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ – hope to keep Duggan Hill’s imprint on the place, but make it into more of an incubator for talent in the area, with kids learning alongside working professionals in the arts.

“He was tired of travelling and being a show piece all over the world,” said Hill. “He and I want to transform the existing dance area so we can do a lot of shooting and filming, which is what a lot of the new studios do now. We want to offer music production, performance, visual design, videography and photography. A lot of this place is my dad, Duggan. Every inch of it is my dad. That is great and I want to keep it that way. However, my aesthetic is I want it clean and re-do the lighting so everything looks great for a performance.”

Hill and Ferguson want to move from a full-on teaching space that has been the focus for several years now, to more of an incubator for talent with intensives that help young artists from the area hone every aspect of their craft.

“We really want to be an incubator for talent,” he said. “We lost sight of that in teaching and having kids in here. My father was always looking for something. He would say he wanted to find the next Elvis Pressley. I would say the next Bruno Mars. It is a non-profit and we’re doing this for the community, but we are professional artists too.”

The idea would be to have about 10 to 15 students participating in the program every three months. Professional artists, music producers, DJs, dancers and others would instruct the students, focusing on all aspects of a career in the industry.

“I really just want to be an open resource too so kids can come and work on their craft – especially after the complete the program,” he said. “There would be a lot of open labs where you can come in and work on your stuff. A lot of our kids don’t have the ability to do that every day because many don’t even have a computer.”

A major piece of the plan are renovations to the existing space, which is very large. The front part of the studio would be reconfigured for a photography studio that could be rented out – making good use of the front windows and ample natural light that exists. The rentals for the photography space would pay for the operations of the rest of the program. He plans to put a new professional dance floor over the existing floor, upgrade the lighting, and put a music production studio in the basement space. They have already added new bathrooms adjacent to the dance space.

“I would like to have us all in here with a glass of wine, schmoozing and giving tours by September,” he said. “I would really like to be able to show it off then.”

Duggan Hill gives full respect to the plan by his son, and said he is really glad to see the new energy put into the studio by Braun. He said he is reminded of how he started the Studio so many years ago on Washington Street when there wasn’t much around – long before any neighbors really ventured to live in the area.

Braun said he recalls being a student at City Lights as well, and noted that his father was a tough and demanding teacher as he had been a professional director in the 1970s and knew what it took to be good. Braun studied there from 6th grade to his college years, and then ventured off with Esoteric and DJ7L. He was involved in the underground hip-hop scene in the late 1990s. From there, he was able to get on the professional DJ circuit and toured the country making a living in the industry. After that, he began curating music for companies.

“When you have all these companies that want to be cool, but no one there is cool, they outsource the coolness,” he said with a laugh.

Now, Hill said he is excited to take the baton and run with it – but in his own way. He said he wants to motivate kids, and he believes there is a ton of talent in the area that just needs some resources and professional guidance.

“It’s a very thick and rich culture here,” he said. “My dad’s biggest thing was to put money in their pocket. That’s one thing, but they need to see they’re getting better a lot sooner now. You have to start them in a way so that they progress quickly and see themselves get better. In that way, they’ll be excited and keep going on. If you start them with something hard, it’s easy to get discouraged. You have to start them easy, and then they can see their progress and that’s motivation…We want this to be a sanctuary for that.”

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