Life-long music lover Element Everest-Blanks has seen the Milwaukee music scene from all angles: as a listener, as an artist, as a radio host and an influencer.
She hosts the afternoon and evening drive shows for HYFIN, an 88Nine RadioMilwaukee station dedicated to celebrating and supporting Black music and culture. She also serves as a brand ambassador for HYFIN, showcasing her passion for supporting Black creators in Milwaukee on her social media.
She sat down with Milwaukee Magazine to talk about working in radio, the Milwaukee creative scene and (of course) music.
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Milwaukee Magazine: Has music always been a big part of your life?
Element Everest-Blanks: Music has literally been in my life since I could remember. It was family reunions, birthdays. My mom would put her 45 or her album on. You know, just the sound of the turntable, like the needle hitting the album – all that stuff is embedded in my brain from such a small age. Music has been like this additional sibling throughout my entire life.
MM: What inspired this love of music? Was it a nurture versus nature type of situation?
EEB: Being from Motown, I grew up with music everywhere around me in Michigan, and all of the artists that people have known and grown to love. Hitsville was in my neighborhood: the Michael Jacksons, The Supremes, the Diana Rosses, Stevie Wonders. The family that owned the corner store in my neighborhood were the Simpsons, and their son ended up being Donnie Simpson from BT. Donnie Simpson was unforgettable, because he was a Black man with green eyes. When I turned on the TV in Milwaukee years later, and I was like, is that Uncle Donnie? That was the kind of place I grew up in.
MM: What was your move from Detroit to Milwaukee when you were a kid like?
EEB: It was the cultural shift. I was around nothing but Black people growing up in Michigan. There was a feeling of acceptance and being okay with who you are and not feeling that walking in the room that you were different or strange. That was not something I ever experienced at home. Because I was around so many people of color. When I came here to Milwaukee, I was immediately struck by the fact that I was viewed different. And it wasn’t by an individual, it was just like, there was a cultural shift that I had to adjust to.
MM: How did that cultural shift impact you, and how did you adjust?
EEB: [What] I’m trying to do is swing somewhere back in the middle, where Milwaukee has an identity with the cheese curds, but there’s Black people that love those things. You know what I mean? The great thing that we can do here at HYFIN is to amplify that, to amplify that Black people are a part of the culture in the city. Milwaukee is not a white culture – it’s a mix of all cultures. There is no dominant culture here.
MM: As an adult, how did your relationship with music change or grow?
EEB: I was the lead female hip-hop artist with a group called Black Elephant. It took a lot for us to be seen and recognized locally. We would [go] to college tours and tour locations, and we would get so much love and reception. But working here in Milwaukee was really a challenge. Becoming a part of the media machine here musically was a challenge.
MM: What drew you to working in radio?
EEB: Radio was a career that I never ever would have imagined, but it made perfect sense. You know, once I got in here, it was like riding a bike. I knew all of the artists, and I was willing to learn about artists I didn’t know, learn about finding local artists, and how to do all these different things. And it just made sense.
MM: What has it been like to be a woman working in radio?
EEB: The great thing about it is when you are working in radio and you’re a woman, your voice is amplified because your opinion is drastically different from everyone else’s in the room. Because HYFIN plays 60% women and 40% men, my voice is valued. Because guess what? It’s 60% me. I don’t always ask permission. Sometimes you need to do what you need to do, and then ask for forgiveness if it doesn’t work out. But as a woman nowadays, we don’t have to always ask for permission. That’s something that’s not only valued but intentionally pushed.
MM: When you’re hosting your show, is there anything specific you try to focus on or include?
EEB: I try to make my show a little bit different every day. Sometimes, it might be a little bit more funk, R&B or hip-hop. We try to go through the spectrum, but you’ll never hear a show that’s all hip-hop and R&B. Never. Because that’s not what the spectrum of Black music is. It is everything. It’s rap. It’s funk. It’s jazz. The music industry has really pushed this idea that Black people make a certain type of music.
MM: Do you believe that part of your role as a host is to educate people about Black music?
EEB: Yes. It’s for us to keep those stories going, to continue to educate people and to tell the legacy of Black music because it’s important. And it’s not that the music can’t expand. But at the core and the foundation, we need to honor the artists that gave us our sounds. And that’s what I’ve been planning to do: to honor those artists.
When you hear a Black country artist, it feels strange. But country music is blues music, right? The origins of country music came from blues and negro spirituals and Africa, and all of these different things are at like the core of how bluegrass came to be. And now, they have this Americana version of country. If you don’t know the history of music, then it will feel foreign to you. But all of that music is Black music. Our job is to play the music, but also to educate throughout our shows, because that’s important to let people know that this music isn’t something that’s new – it’s always been here.
MM: How would you describe the music scene in Milwaukee?
EEB: Growing. We’re constantly growing, and we’re constantly evolving. I think that’s a great thing because we’re changing with the time. Sometimes I feel like we’re a little bit behind, but we are still growing. And that gives us a leg up on a lot of things. We have the world’s largest music festival, so we can’t be doing too bad, right? If we stay on the culture, we stay abreast to the new artists we support the new clothing designers, we support the new makeup artists and support the new bands and groups and sounds, then I think will be doing the culture justice.
MM: What kind of music do you find yourself gravitating toward lately?
EEB: I’m really into music from the global south. I love this whole pairing of American artists with Afro beats, reggae artists or reggaeton artists. I think even French artists pairing with Jamaican artists or Afrobeat artists, and the idea of this universal global sound that translates to everyone is really interesting. The idea of showing that you can have two completely different songs, and it still works and can make money, that’s what TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook [are] kind of pushing nowadays – artists being individuals again, creating something new instead of that cookie cutter image of what artists are supposed to be that’s going to be played really soon.
MM: When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
EEB: Oh, don’t laugh at me. But I love to go to concerts. I love to see artists display their heart [and] do what they do. I like our nightlife. I love to go to bars and have good food. You know, I like to be around people. And then at the same time, I like to be my own Netflix and chill. I’m a weird person that way. It depends on what weekend it is [and] what’s going on. But I do like to support my city. I will, you know forego Amazon Prime and shop local any day. When I get a chance, I do this thing every single Friday where I put out a video introducing my followers to a brand or company owned by a Black person. That way, you can shop Black every Friday, so it’s Black Friday every Friday. I want to encourage people on all aspects to support what’s local.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.