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U5: The making of a social enterprise

The year was 1987. Five different graffiti crews, all based in the New York area of the US: That is how the now global phenomenon U5 came into being, launching itself from a mere Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood into a social and business enterprise spreading worldwide.
U5 traditional dancers at a performance at the American Embassy. (Moses Opobo)
U5 traditional dancers at a performance at the American Embassy. (Moses Opobo)

The year was 1987. Five different graffiti crews, all based in the New York area of the US: That is how the now global phenomenon U5 came into being, launching itself from a mere Bushwick, Brooklyn neighborhood into a social and business enterprise spreading worldwide. 

U5 stands for United 5, an umbrella for the five different graffiti outfits that merged to make up the infamous U5 Crew. As standard practice, the groups each had three letter acronyms for names: WWC – Writers With Class; RSV – Risky Subway Vandals; MOM –Masters Of Madness, NSK –Non Stop Kings; and KIC – Kids In Control.

 

Each of the groups had its own ‘president’ and typically comprised between 10-35 members.

 

In 1989, two of the members were killed after being run over by subway trains while doing what they did best -writing graffiti. They were; Rubin Fernandez (17) aka Slick and Daniel Gomez (17) aka Soni whose deaths sent an aura of shock and mystery after being massively reported in the US media.

 

In 1991, US author Jim Dwyer wrote a book, Subway Lives, inspired by the incident.

“We didn’t like the book, because much of it was baseless and fabricated, so in 2008 I wrote my own book; U5:

The Truth Behind The Lives,” explains Jay Torres, U5: Enterprises’ Chief Executive Officer. Before the era of U5, Jay led the group, WWC.

The book cover actually reads “U5: The Truth Behind The Lives”, with the ‘V’ in ‘Lives’ deliberately struck out, such that it actually reads; U5: The Truth Behind The Lies.

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Jay Torres leads a U5 performance at Fantastic Club.

What made the U5 phenomenon catch on so fast back then, recalls Torres, was the tightness of the bond among members. “People didn’t really know if we were family or crew. Many people thought we were family, because we were always together at all times. The truth eventually came to be known after a fan joked that “they look like family but there is no such large biological family anywhere.”

Currently, the U5 portfolio spans across 79 countries across the globe. Of these, ten are headed by Chief Operations Officers (COOs). “Having a COO simply means that there’s money and merchandise being made in that country,” Torres remarks.

A US Army man with 22 years of military service under his belt, Torres was posted to the US Embassy in Kigali in January 2014, on diplomatic duty as the Operations Coordinator in the Defense Attache Office.

Immediately, he embarked on the process of “moving U5 in the direction I wanted. I needed people to work with, so I started looking around. I got a handful, (5-6), and by July, I was already thinking about a global U5 community. I was excited to see this thing unravel. I’d never thought it would happen so quickly.”

He describes U5 as “a beautiful family networking together”.

“I’ve never seen a white or black person, because that’s a fabrication of what does not exist, and as human beings we supersede all that.”

To prove his point, he pulls a sheet of white A4 paper out of a table printer, hoists it up and says: “This is white, right? Now show me someone who looks like this.”

The enterprise grows through membership, which stands at 3,500 people of diverse artistic talents from across the globe at the moment. Of these, 275 hail from Rwanda, (100 from Kigali), and one can only expect the numbers to keep growing in the new and subsequent years.

“We will become the biggest company in the world, the only true global network; the only company that grows exponentially, because at U5, every member finds a new member every week. By the end of 2016, we hope to attain the figure of 1 trillion U5 members worldwide.”

U5 bears all the markings of a youth-oriented social enterprise, an artists’ collective forged on youthful energy and ambition. In it are musicians (mostly traditional music and Hip Hop), instrumentalists, jewelers, painters, designers, and anything in that artistic mould. From their collective efforts, U5 generates substantial quantities of merchandise for sale both locally and abroad. These range from caps, baggettes, sweaters, jackets, shirts, hoodies, vests, to coffee mugs, pillow cases, bumper stickers, jewelry, and key chains.

“Our artists are the best, and in Rwanda, there won’t be competition for them, because how can you compete with a trillion people?” Torres asks rhetorically.

Though the crew started in 1987, the company was officially registered in 2008.

Every month, they hold about three social gatherings, during which members get to meet and greet new members, share ideas, have some good clean fun, and forge the way forward.

It could an outing to the movies, a nightclub, camping facility, or a nice restaurant. They’ve held gigs at dozens of locations here in Rwanda to include clubs: One Love, Pasadena Murugo, Fantastic, KBC, to the American Embassy. The latest was a performance at Red Rocks Campsite in Musanze on Christmas day.

There, U5: Entertainment artists Sintex U5, Rocca Boys, and visiting U5: Uganda saxophonist Emma U5 performed for a crowd of mostly tourists on the Red Rocks property. U5: Chief Operations Officer Robinah Nalumu and Rated performed various tracks along with traditional dance by Push U5.

Jay stresses that the U5 is a private enterprise, membership to which is open to people of all walks of life.

This membership is subject to two conditions: “Loyalty, and being able to get a new member every Monday. You must be sincere, and not just a person of lip service or one who wants to be ‘cool’, because we are not a fad. U5 is for life. You can’t put a price on loyalty, and as U5, we don’t want our company festered with negativity.”

He describes U5 as “an intangible concept”. “Some get it, some don’t. It’s about camaraderie –the spirit of giving, as opposed to taking and receiving. More than anything, U5 is a volunteer entity.”

By his own admission, Torres lives and breathes U5, and offers an explanation: “I really do it for the two people we lost along the way. I believe there is no more admirable thing one could do for the deceased.”

He describes himself as “just one spoke in the U5 wheel, but it’s also a business that needs structures, rules, and method. How do we conduct ourselves? We work hard, play hard, but always remember we have to be the best.”

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