Honestly, after speaking with social entrepreneur and multimedia producer Jeff Billingsley for two days, I am still not sure as to how many ventures he is working on. CEO of award-winning Cobblestone Multimedia, his projects and up-and-coming programs, span from Newark to Cannes.
But there are three things that are certain about Billinglsey: 1. His bone marrow is composed of break beats and Jersey House music. 2. His creative work seeks to change and empower. 3. He has lived about 20 lives.
If you live in Newark, you either know Billingsley, know someone who knows him, or have seen his six-foot-plus frame and signature dark sunglasses in the many nooks and crannies of the city.
His knowledge of Newark and the inner-workings of getting things done is a necessary ingredient in a city that sometimes sleeps on brilliant talent teeming in its five wards. With a fervent commitment, Billingsley makes sure that the opportunities for local residents; especially creatives, remain steadfast and flowing.
Currently, one of four Entrepreneurs in Residence at The Newark Business Hub, he serves as a consultant and mentor to Newark residents whose ventures are in media and arts. The Newark Business Hub ― launched by Rutgers Business School (Newark campus) via their Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development ― is a networked accelerator program dedicated to cultivate positive relationships between Rutgers University in Newark and local media and arts entrepreneurs and creatives.
Technology, Billingsley insists, sits at the heart of Newark’s value. He has worked through three City Administrations and still pushes media ― and survived, so I think he knows some things.
“Technology is critical to the conversation about what will make Newark different. Apparently, Newark has the most or one of the most extensive fiber [optics systems] running through the city in the country … through The Newark Business Hub and other key partnerships, its about making sure that we are intricately involved in generating economics and using our creative work to be the storytellers of the city.”
Born, built and educated* in Newark, Billingsley’s three decades of work in music, film, video, digital technology, youth advocacy, re-entry and community development make him one of the few in the city who has intimate knowledge of the major transitions occurring ― and has learned to re-invent himself with every rough curve.
Indeed his first love is music, but his calling is in community advocacy; specifically dealing with youth who were locked up and at-risk populations.
During the Bill Clinton Administration in the early 90s, he was picked to participate in a summer program that trained college students to oversee summer youth employment programs in cities. This was the beginnings of what would be Americorps.
Billingsley’s supervisor, Ted Davis would end up promoting him to supervise the program in Newark while providing mentorship.
“Ted told me later that he thought that I was going to be a troublemaker and that he would have to fire me, but I became one of the most successful.”
This venture began his lifelong work in youth advocacy and community development in which he curated and launched programs offering transitional and educational programs for juveniles.
So successful his programs in Essex County, his work expanded to Union, Passaic and Hudson. After he began to garner grants to run both federal and state funded initiatives, Rutgers-Newark asked him to direct several programs assisting formerly incarcerated in educational and vocational training; specifically in music, entrepreneurship and the digital industry in its Rutgers Transitional Education and Employment Management.
Later on, Billingsley would learn how to merge his love of music with his advocacy work. Working with youth and music in mind, he directed Ceasefire Allstars, a compilation album of local hip-hop artists that promoted peace; unity amongst rival gangs; increased awareness of gun violence; and used music as an avenue to express ways in using creativity as a productive outlet.
The Ceasefire Allstars concept originated as a way to combat issues of violence and the gang-related crimes surge in Newark in the late 90s and early 2000s. By gathering local at risk youth and artists, the compilation album was more effective than a traditional PSA or fliers. The CD served as a promotional tool used at various communities events. As a result, local youth gained exposure and learned professional vocations in the entertainment industry as they worked to better the blocks they grew up.
Moving forward, Billingsley procured a partnership with Berkelee College of Music to send youth to their summer program.
For five years, he was able to acquire funding from several local organizations and Newark-native, Ray Chambers (another one of Billingsley’s mentors), to enroll about 10 students per year in a highly sought after summer intensive working with emerging young artists from all over the world. Earlier this month, Newark hosted Berklee’s City Music Summit, an annual conference helping its students in professional development. Billingsley, of course, was behind that too.
To this day, Billingsley works with the City of Newark, providing educational programs and consulting various local organizations to run effective programs bridging community with institutions.
The Golden Era
Flipping in the ghetto on the dirty mattress.
Lauryn Hill, “Everything is Everything,” The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill
From the South Ward, Billingsley grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time he said in which he caught “the last of the village” in Newark.
“We always had a sense of community growing up,” says Billingsley. “People in the neighborhood would watch out for you and if you got into some trouble they’d chastise you and then your parents would chastise you.”
Reared by his mother and grandmother on Chadwick Avenue, he recalls a time where he and friends created ad hoc playgrounds in the street. Flipping on mattresses and running balls games on vacant lots, they satisfied early wanderlust inspecting and running through abandoned buildings that dotted the city landscape.
It wasn’t the derelict scenes often portrayed in movies or blared in news; it was a childhood he fondly remembers. The freedom to explore and play, even in concrete jungles, he found sanctuary.
Billingsley never denies his exposure to the harsh realities of inner city life during that time: such as the crack cocaine epidemic and the car jacking surge in Newark; however, he wraps that around his most salient sentimental memory ― witnessing and participating in the birth of hip-hop.
“I grew up in the golden era. Me and my generation were part of something that we felt we owned and fiend for ― from the clothes, the shoes, the music, the hats, the graffiti ― it was ours.”
Living and going to school with people who eventually would be involved in the music industry , Billingsley’s involvement into entertainment was inevitable. His entrée was through hip-hop; however he always loved music ― a genetic disposition because his father, a music aficionado, amassed an impressive collection.
As a young man, Billingsley began to host and promote parties which led to managing artists and planning events then turned into a second full-time career that complimented his work with youth.
A collector of music himself, Billingsley opened a music store in Union, New Jersey upon the suggestion of his the high school-aged daughter. The only music store in town at the time, his small business positioned him to broker stronger relationships in the music business while opening his world to access in full, the entertainment industry. Within five years, music distribution and sales dramatically shifted when online peer-to-peer sharing became a pipeline for bootlegged media.
When the industry began to change in warp-speed rhythms, Billingsley saw a need for studio spaces that catered to commercial and independent artists. Hence, Cobblestone Records, the precursor the Cobblestone Multimedia was birthed.
“I had a friend [Marcel Green], who owned a dry cleaners. His business dried up after September 11 . People lost airport jobs that required uniforms because screenings got tighter … We turned the cleaners into a studio because we were tired of renting other studios and needing access at all times at night when our creativity would peak.”
Using the name Cobblestone derives from Newark’s initial infrastructure. “We didn’t want to name the company using Brick City because that was played out,” explains Billingsley. “We were in the street, and underneath all of these roads is Newark’s original road, made of cobblestone, so we chose that.”
Initially, the studio served as a site for music production, but became a venue offering wraparound artist development. He educated artists on being savvy businesspersons and trained them in music production so they in turn could work on the various projects he received from the various re-entry, vocational and media projects he oversaw.
Billingsley cites seeing the beginning of Power 105.1, the JaRule and 50 Cent Beef and being the numerous industry events and stories that connect him to both major and independent music companies.
He even recalls the first time an artist had to use a bullet-proof car for extra security because he and his partners had to do so in the early 200s for 50 Cent performance in Newark. His management requested that Fiddy’s safety so they leased an armored truck from a New York jewelry who then turned that idea into a business.
From Music to Multimedia
Billingsley saw the rise of hip-hop and was part of its decline, and still maneuvered through the changes because the core of his work was assisting formerly incarcerated juveniles enter back into society and setting up effective vocational apprenticeships.
He switched his focus on solely music to incorporating film, TV, and digital. Already overseeing production shots of video and TV during the early stages of hip-hop, the expansion was natural. In turn, Cobblestone Music became Cobblestone Multimedia.
In 2007, asked to do a marketing campaign for Several Sources Shelter, a non-profit offering services to pregnant and homeless young women, Billingsley proposed to create a series of educational PSAs as part of a curriculum to be placed in schools. The project evolved into a short film shot in Newark and in the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota called Confusion Burning. Managing the Newark shoot and the score of the film, Confusion Burning won awards at film festivals.
Confusing Burning buffered more support for Billingsley to build a comprehensive program teaching film to students in-and-around-Newark.
Later Billingsley teamed with another Newark filmmaker and educator, LeRon Lee for the production of , Ugly, a short coming-of-age film (filmed in Newark) in 2015 that has been winning awards throughout the film festival circuit and will be released on HBO in 2017. Billingsley was also a part of the production team.
The work in music then other facets of media catapulted Billingsley in his current role to assist others in creating and sustaining ventures and projects via entrepreneurship. His ability to re-invent himself in times of extreme change is a key factor; that and his insistence for people to learn how to make their product and services move throughout the globe.
“Your work must travel outside of this city, this state, and even this country,” advises the entrepreneurial sage as hurriedly gathers his sunglasses and cell phone to make a 12 o’clock meeting.
Email Jeff: email@example.com
*Billingsley attended the following Newark institutions: Clinton Avenue Elementary; Avon Middle School; Malcolm X High School; Essex County College and Rutgers University)