Arts & CultureArts Features

Ricky Singh Balances a Life in Art and Education

Investing in the future for Charlotte's youth

A photo of Ricky Singh
Artist Ricky Singh. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Ricky Singh remembers having no future.

“I could see tomorrow,” Singh says about growing up in Brooklyn’s embattled Bushwick neighborhood in the early 2000s. “But I couldn’t see 10 years, five years, one year down the road. To be honest, the people around me weren’t prioritizing that either.”

It’s a remarkable admission coming from the 37-year-old artist, educator and mentor who now spends his days building a better future for countless Charlotte kids.

An acclaimed muralist and education consultant, Ricky Singh has been an assistant principal for the innovative Charlotte Lab School, an organizer in the Beatties Ford Strong movement, a master teacher and coach for the New York City Department of Education, a professed hip-hop connoisseur who launched NYC’s first rap-themed after school program, a devoted husband and father of four, a teenage spoken-word artist who appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a guerrilla street artist who tagged supposedly unreachable Big Apple landmarks, and much more.

A seemingly tireless community builder and educational leader, Singh is currently marshaling two projects that perfectly encapsulate his high-wire balancing act of art and education. In April, he began curating the Mural Garden at Charlotte Art League in north Charlotte, and in September is partnering with the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African- American Arts + Culture to organize and shepherd Youth Residency: At the Table, the museum’s first-ever youth residency.

Through the residency, Singh will collaborate with the Mecca of Digital Arts studio (MODA) to create an experience that focuses on and fosters youth leading youth. Singh says he’s been pushing the power of “youth-to youth” mentoring and collaboration for the past 4 years.

“Youth can hear from adults all the time. That’s great, but they’re still adults,” Singh says. “There’s power in a 17-year-old speaking to a 15-year-old, because they’re still in the same peer group.”

That peer group, however, is widely varied, because Singh is committed to bringing everyone to the table. Kids from across the scholastic spectrum — traditional public, charter, private and independent schools as well as home-schooled kids will come together at MODA, a cutting edge digital art studio and lab, to create, collaborate and learn.

“Our hope is that the residency gives [kids] a bigger taste of what the city is, what arts and culture plans exist, how they fit into that, and then provide them with opportunities to lead other youth,” Singh offers.

The residency is a bold conception that jibes with Singh’s hands-on approach to his twin guiding lights of education and art, but how did he get to the point of masterminding an innovative plan to foster and fulfill kids, when his own precocious yet directionless youth was admittedly considered at-risk?

Early struggles in Bushwick

Simply growing up in post 9/11 New York was a risky proposition for a Black kid, Ricky Singh remembers. Decades before being indicted and disgraced for participated in a conspiracy to subvert the will of American voters, then NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani enjoyed a burnished reputation as “America’s Mayor” for his administration’s response to 9/11.

In truth, the New York Police Department under Giuliani’s watch repeatedly persecuted, assaulted and killed Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, using unlawful stop-and-frisk policies to jail the city’s citizens.

In public schools, cops arrested and beat kids for offenses like being in the hallway without a pass. Out of 34 First Amendment lawsuits brought against the Giuliani administration, the New York Civil Liberties Union prevailed in 26.

“I remember he was arresting all these people,” Singh says. “I needed to get out of that neighborhood, because people were dying left and right, and going to jail. There were too many things happening and I was always in the middle.”

One positive outlet that kept Singh occupied was his early interest in art.

“I went from a pencil to a permanent marker to a spray-paint can,” he says.

The city streets became Singh’s canvas. By his early teens, he’d joined a group of older kids who became famous for tagging inaccessible bridges and buildings. Smaller and more agile than his peers, Singh could climb and get to those places.

For a kid with a rebellious streak, school was a boring waste of time. That changed in 2000, Ricky Singh’s freshman high school year at The Renaissance School in Queens. There Singh’s Global Studies teacher, who also was his basketball coach, grabbed the 14-year-old’s attention in a meaningful way. Kenyatta Belcher, who continues to teach in the U.K. today, was Singh’s first Black male teacher.

A photo of Ricky Singh spray painting outside with bright orange, stringy sculptures in the background.
Ricky Singh spray-paints on plastic wrap. (Photo by Jim Dukes)

“He pushed me and challenged me,” Singh says.

Belcher was a rapper, and Singh started doing album art for his teacher. A burgeoning interest in social and political issues emerged in Singh’s street art. He also developed a facility with language. He became such an adept wordsmith that he won a contest and landed an appearance on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

“That was through [my teacher] reaching me, [helping me] see the world outside that I didn’t know,” Singh says.

Singh also started to see past tomorrow.

“I realized [that] if I really wanted to have a future, I needed to get out of New York City,” Singh says.

A full student athletic scholarship brought him to Buffalo State University, where he majored in Political Science. He started his teaching career with a part-time position at St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church.

“I always ended up working with youth,” Singh says, “even when I was a kid.”

In 2005, the death of his older brother brought Singh back home to Brooklyn. Art took a backseat. Following his first year of college, Singh saw his work featured in a at an NYC lounge. Soon thereafter, he took a sabbatical from making art for 15 years. He also opted out of returning to school. Instead, he got a restaurant job, working 24 hour shifts at Tropical Smoothie Café, where he eventually rose to manager.

“Then I realized that I could get money for college because I was so poor that I could get a TAP [Tuition Assistance Program] refund,” he recalls.

The program sent Singh refund checks, so he started juggling classes at Brooklyn College with working 48-hour shifts at his 24-hour restaurant. He graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in Political Science and Government, then earned a Masters degree in Special Education, followed by a second Masters in Education Leadership.

“I just kept on going to school, because … I knew that if I stopped school I wouldn’t go back,” Singh says.

Singh became a special education teacher for the NYC Department of Education in Brooklyn, where he launched New York City’s first rap-themed after school program, Get on Something Innovative and Positive (GOSIP).

“We started it in a closet at the school,” Singh says. “Bushwick was a very gang-centric neighborhood. Community centers were closing … so, [kids] didn’t really have any place to go. We wound up basically running [our own] record label.”

Singh created the program to fill a void, and wound up giving kids an avenue to express themselves. Hip-hop continues to be a thread running through his life.

By this time, Tropical Smoothie shut down, so Singh started working as a vegan chef and juicer at Perelandra Natural Foods in Brooklyn. There he served clientele including Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli. More importantly, Singh met his future wife Liz at the food store and café.

By the time he had earned his double masters, Singh was married with three kids and living in a 500-square-foot sub-level basement apartment in Bushwick.

“The ceiling was falling down,” Singh says. “You’d look outside the windows and just see feet.”

Though Singh and his wife were both die-hard New Yorkers, they knew it was time to get out of the expensive city. After briefly checking out Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the family moved to the west side of Charlotte in 2012. They fell in love with it.

“It reminded me of Queens,” Singh says.

After a year with the Mooresville Graded School District, Singh’s family realized they could actually afford private school in Charlotte. While attending his son’s interview at Charlotte United Academy, Singh unexpectedly received a job offer from the school. After a year and eight months at that institution, Singh became an education consultant.

Meanwhile, Singh’s wife Liz came across an article about a New Yorker wanting to start a charter school in Charlotte.

Singh met with that fellow New Yorker, Charlotte Lab School co-founder Dr. Mary Moss, tossing around ideas for an innovative, tuition-free public charter school that focuses on reading, writing and real-world problem-solving skills.

When Moss offered Singh a ground-floor position with Charlotte Lab School in 2015, he jumped at the chance to “get his hands dirty and actually cause change.”

A photo of Ricky Singh with students and staff in a gymnasium from Charlotte Lab School.
Ricky Singh with LaMelo Ball of the Hornets and students and staff from Charlotte Lab School. (Alvin C. Jacobs)

“I chose Lab because I was really steeped in the notion of ‘What if?’” Singh says. “That’s still what continues to drive me today.”

At the time, Singh was fielding offers to become principal at several schools, but he doesn’t regret helping to build and shape Charlotte Lab School from conception to its new campus at Suttle Avenue near Bryant Park, which consolidates the three previously separate facilities. The new campus opened for the 2023-24 school year.

“We’re finally at K-12 this year,” Singh says. “I’ve done every kind of role you can imagine, and it’s been exciting.”

After more than eight years with the progressive institution in roles ranging from director of student services to head of upper school, Singh moved away from day-to-day operations in August. A month earlier, Singh had become executive director of nonprofit My Brother’s Keeper Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

“I think that opportunity was a great one,” Singh says. “[The] organization focuses on helping … support organizations doing the frontline work with boys and young men of color.”

Singh is still involved with special projects at Charlotte Lab School, but his more flexible schedule dovetails neatly with his revived engagement with making art.

A return to art

Ricky Singh’s 15-year hiatus from art ended in 2020 with the advent of the COVID-induced quarantine.

“I starting to get back into [art], messing around with my iPad,” Singh says.

A good friend of Singh’s, activist and photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., was touring the country documenting Black Lives Matter  marches and protests. After Jacobs sent Singh his photos, Singh returned them, artistically altered and augmented.

Then Singh partnered with educator, muralist and sneaker artist DeNeer Davis in a project with Charlotte Art League. Singh and Davis helped turn the wooden boards placed on windows in Uptown Charlotte during protests that summer into art murals. Since then, making art has been a marathon, Singh says.

Following a mass shooting on Beatties Ford Road that left four people dead during a block party to mark Juneteenth 2020, community leaders including Singh banded together to uplift the community through public artwork. The Beatties Ford Strong movement was born with the creation of two murals, the first at the site of the shooting. Three years later, the movement is still happening, Singh says.

“I think we’re up to nine murals,” Singh says. “Anyone can be a part of Beatties Ford Strong. It’s the idea of having moments to uplift the west side, because there is so much history and new fabric that continues to grow there.”

It turns out that shining a positive light on the Beatties Ford community put Singh’s art endeavors into overdrive.

“Once I said that I was doing that project and that mural, it was — and still is — 90 miles an hour,” he says.

Community art is successful, Singh says, because art is effective at shifting perceptions.

“Art is a great entry point, an opportunity for folks to share pieces of their unique and authentic self,” he explains. “You … share a very vulnerable version [of yourself]. Anyone who has ever picked up a spray can cannot manufacture how to present themselves with that spray can. It’s not like an email or a proposal. You can’t get feedback on it. You can’t run it by your team.”

With Singh’s art projects and educational endeavors proliferating, friends and colleagues have been asking him how he balances his two passions.

A photo of Ricky Singh spray painting Jay-Z on a large canvas outside on a sunny day.
Ricky Singh at work. (Mookie)

“Once I figured out that I could fit art into my schedule, I didn’t want to go back [to] day-to-day [work],” Singh says. “I’m schedule-based, and I compartmentalize a lot, which plays into the whole [art vs. education dichotomy].”

Singh says when people see him suited up as an educator, only to catch him an hour later in paint-spattered coveralls, it plays into their perception of him as a tireless multitasker.

Instead of settling on a label like “artist,” “activist” or “educator,” Singh has come up with another job title.

“I’m just a farmer,” he says, likening farming to pouring himself into others: students, collaborators, artists and communities. Like crops, a teacher’s harvest comes in seasons.

“Some things come immediately with students, some things take time,” Singh says. “Sometimes you see fruitful seasons over 15 years. Sometimes you wait 20 years [until you] meet the kid you poured into who is now an adult.”

“To me, that’s the thread between [artist and educator],” Singh says. “I want a better world for us. I want better communities. I want that for [people] from places like where I come from — west Charlotte is a Brooklyn to me.”

Singh says that’s why he is driven to help younger people.

“My purpose in this world is … to provide avenues for youth, provide them runways, because that is literally what investing in the future is.”

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