Takin’ it to the Streets

Performers from Detroit’s small busking community face an unclear city ordinance — and some friendly competition

It’s been an unseasonably cold and rainy Flower Day at Detroit’s Eastern Market, but that doesn’t make Ziam Penn bat an eye — or barely even move a muscle.

Thousands of shoppers swarm around Penn, some unaware that he’s a “living mannequin” standing among them in the middle of the street, cloaked in a black suit splattered with neon paint. His face is covered in thick, colorful makeup. Tights and gloves complete the look.

Some shoppers do take notice, and that’s when Penn comes alive, practicing his best Vogue poses in the selfies they snap with him. The shoppers crowd around, marveling at his unique getup. Some drop a few dollars in the box in front of his milk crate pedestal and amble on.

Penn reverts to his statuesque position and awaits the next interaction.

The reactions are exactly why Penn became a busker (another word for street performer) in the first place. He and other street performers not only entertain the public in hopes of eliciting some voluntary donations, but they also want to connect with Detroiters and support the revitalization of the city.

Despite their good intentions, Penn and others in Detroit’s small busking community face a number of challenges, including an unclear city ordinance, some friendly competition, and, occasionally, an unwelcoming public.

Penn has been a performer of sorts for nearly 30 years. Raised in Detroit, he left the city to work as a model in New York City and Paris, returning here for the birth of his daughter in 1991.

After that, it didn’t take long for Penn to re-enter the Detroit art community. In 1992 he began producing a live art cabaret titled “Liquid Silver,” which generated a cult following. After the show ended in 2007, he turned to busking, something he’d gotten a taste of when modeling as a living mannequin in New York City storefronts.

Penn wanted to recreate the real, human connection he felt with passersby in Detroit. “I feel like, in a way, that I’m a servant to the public, that I’m supposed to do it on a spiritual level,” he says.

Unfortunately, the public doesn’t always agree. Penn’s been assaulted and robbed of his money and costumes. He sometimes fears going home at night, not just because he’s carrying money, but also for simply “being different.”

”I’ve had people kick my stand; I’ve had people kick me off the stand. I’ve had people try to take my money and run down the street,” Penn says.

When negative situations arise, Penn tries to focus on the positive, stepping off his stand to speak to hecklers and hear them out.

“I’m not a counselor; I’m a performer,” Penn says. “But I try to understand that sometimes we all need a hug, or we all need someone to talk to, even if it’s the statue that’s standing on the corner that has to get down and talk to you for a minute.”

Performing in Detroit can be challenging in other ways, too. Last summer, Penn and other performers were kicked out of Greektown; the police stated that they needed a permit to perform.

The problem? Permits for street performers don’t exist in Detroit.

“They told us we could not come because we don’t have a license, but how can we come if we can’t go get a license?“ asks Penn. “It’s a Catch-22.”

Earlier this year, street drummer Deon Forrest and saxophonist Aaron Mcafe — a duo that often performs outside Comerica Park — were asked to leave their spot on Monroe Street. Forrest attempted to obtain the permit he was told he needed at the City-County Building, but all he received was conflicting information.

“(I) went all the way up to the third and fourth floor, and they said I don’t need a license to do what I’m doing,” Forrest says.

At the moment, city ordinance allows street performers such as jugglers, mimes, and musicians in public areas, so long as they don’t obstruct vehicle or pedestrian traffic. The confusion lies in a part of the ordinance that states: “The members of a band shall not give any vocal or instrumental concert, or musical exhibition, while stationary on any of the public streets of the City …”

It’s supposed to apply to larger-scale concerts, but the definition of “large” is not specified — and therefore subject to interpretation.

The city of Detroit has recognized the inherent confusion and has responded to buskers’ concerns, but a solution is still in the works.

“Based on its currently written form, these particular ordinances do not reference any permitting or licensing process,” says Sgt. Michael Woody, a spokesman with the Detroit Police Department.

Going forward, Woody says the department will focus on teaching officers how to differentiate between what is and what’s not allowed.

The department says street performers and permitted concerts both have a place on city streets.

“When we have street performers in the downtown area, they actually add to the culture and the nightlife,” Woody says, adding that requiring performers to wade through too much permitting or licensing could detract from that.

Confusing busking ordinances aren’t unique to Detroit. Buskers in major cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco have also faced challenges regarding regulations and wrongful ticketing.

Solutions in other cities include designated performance spots and performer schedules, such as the 2008 Public Expression program implemented in L.A., or the 2009 Fishermen’s Wharf Street Performer Program created by the San Francisco Port Authority.

Eastern Market is one of the only areas in Detroit implementing a similar program. The market’s busker program requires performers to register. In turn, they are set up in designated spots that have high visibility but don’t impede customer traffic. Performers rotate after a set amount of time, making it an even playing field.

There is a fair bit of competition among street performers. Last year, Forrest got a glimpse of it when saxophonist Mcafe first showed up in Greektown, one of Mcafe’s usual performance spots.

“We almost battled,” Forrest says with a laugh.

Instead, the two joined forces, and they’ve performed together ever since.

While there’s competition, there’s also cooperation. Last year Penn helped Forrest revamp his drumming act during what Forrest calls a “rough patch” in his life.

“We stick together, the street performers out there,” Penn says. “We have a camaraderie. If someone messes with you or we see (another performer) in danger, we go to rescue the other one.”

This brotherhood, as Penn describes it, can help in other ways, too.

“I’ve been homeless before, and I’ve had some weeks where I wasn’t far from it,” Penn says. “If one of us needs a couple extra dollars to get drumsticks or just get the bus home … some of the other performers will tip you and make sure you have food for the night.”

Those who pass by their usual spot in front of one of Comerica Park’s roaring tiger statues can’t help but dance at the combination of Forrest’s tinny beats and Mcafe’s sax, playing hits from Drake, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, and more. Collaborations like theirs are common in the busking scene, but it’s still a competitive trade by nature. Some corners and locations are determined by seniority, but others can require a duel.

Forrest says he and Mcafe have secured their prime real estate in front of Comerica Park simply “by being the best.”

He’s not joking. When confronted with competition, performers “battle” for disputed territory. The rules are simple: Whoever draws the biggest crowd wins. At press time, the Forrest and Mcafe team were at an impressive 12-0 record.

Despite vying for space, Mcafé says he wishes there were more street performers in Detroit.

Penn agrees, also noting the lack of female performers in the area. In fact, when asked about female performers, Penn could only reference one: violinist Kym Brady.

During the summer, 14-year-old Kym can be found in Eastern Market or on the RiverWalk playing her violin, with her dad close by.

Instead of Beethoven or Vivaldi, she tears through material by bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Imagine Dragons.

Kym is not only one of the few female street performers in Detroit, but she’s also one of the youngest. She takes pride in being both.

“It’s a little bit of pressure,” says Kym with a smile. “It’s a big deal to me.”

Even as a young busker, Kym understands the challenges of public audience. Kym says she performs to “heal the city,” and bring people together, but of course, other people don’t always see it that way.

“Sometimes you have people out there who don’t appreciate music as much as you do, and they kind of judge you because you don’t play music they particularly like,” she says. “But I try to have a smile on my face every time I go down there because people who do actually enjoy it — I play for them.”

Kym hopes to one day pursue a music career as well as become a doctor, and although she’s only been playing violin for four years, she’s already earned her place in Detroit’s small fleet of street performers, attracting crowds and catching the eye of other buskers.

But even with younger performers like Kym joining the fray, Penn says the Detroit busking scene still has a long way to go.

“I would like encourage everybody to get involved in any petitions or movements to keep our street performers,” he says.

“They are the gateway keepers to culture.”