Baltimore artists and photographers are regularly drawn to the city’s vacant houses. They can represent grit, perseverance, bureaucratic failures and countless other symbols applicable to a city with its fair share of problems.
But Lawrence Burney, who grew up in East Baltimore around these uninhabitable spaces, is ready to present his home in a new light.
“I don’t really want to see another vacant house,” Burney, 25, said during a phone conversation this week. “I always wanted to make Baltimore look like a desirable place."
On Friday, Burney aims to make an impression on Baltimore’s music and culture scenes with the debut of his magazine, True Laurels. Previously a zine (the type of inexpensive pamphlet DIY-ers have made for decades in underground communities), this version of True Laurels is a full-color, approximately 40-page magazine with striking photography and editorial features on artists and collectives not typically covered by mainstream media. In the process, Burney hopes to remind readers there’s more beauty in Baltimore than crumbling structures.
“Some of these pictures, people are in a bed of flowers. People are by a cherry blossom tree,” he said. “This is not what you would normally think of Baltimore, but it is Baltimore, and that’s all I really care about.”
From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, Burney will host an “Issue 01 Celebration” at Impact Hub Baltimore, where the issue will be on display and for sale ($15).
In a short period of time, Burney has come a long way since studying journalism at Long Island University-Brooklyn, covering volleyball and women’s basketball for the school’s paper. Along with founding and editing True Laurels, Burney has written about music for Complex, The Fader, Vice’s Noisey, Pitchfork and Baltimore City Paper (which is part of the Baltimore Sun Media Group).
A member of a musical family, Burney was the guy in high school making and selling custom mixtapes of rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Gucci Mane to friends, all in the hopes of convincing them his taste was right.
“I always felt pride in my taste in music, so I figured why not join the writing and music thing together,” Burney said.
Burney returned to the city in 2009 after transfering to the University of Baltimore. Through a friendship with then-student (and now experimental rapper) Abdu Ali, he was introduced to punk, DIY and other underground scenes where zines are common forms of communication and promotion.
From 2013 to 2015, Burney produced six issues of the True Laurels zine, featuring rising artists here and around the country like Lil Bibby and Junglepussy. Burney called the product “sloppily done” because those were the influences he drew on at the time.
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.
“It wasn’t giving me the feeling of how I felt as a kid when I would go to the grocery store and I’d pick up Slam magazine or XXL,” Burney said. “I knew deep down that I had to make a transition, but I didn’t have the money.”
He cleared that hurdle in March when True Laurels received $5,000 from the Contemporary museum's Grit Fund. While a portion of the budget went toward production and camera equipment, much of it went to paying contributors. With his background as a freelancer, Burney said he knew good work does not come free.
“I knew if I wanted people’s best work, I had to pay them,” he said.
True Laurels’ photographs are confidently shot and composed, aiming to draw a reader in through candid imagery. (Readers of The Fader will notice similarities.) The debut issue features two Baltimore cover subjects: avant-garde rapper Grey Dolf and YBS Skola, a young rapper from Edmondson Village in Lor Scoota’s clique.
Other features in the issue focus on Secret Weapon Dave’s Baltimore rap mixes from the ‘90s and Amiga Skate, an all-female collective of skateboarders in Cuba. There are also diaries — first-person narratives from artists that allow them to write about anything on their mind. Diaries were a hallmark of the True Laurels zine, and a form of journalism important to Burney.
“The diary is the part I take the most pride in because that’s what people — at least that’s what they’ve told me — like the most about True Laurels,” he said. “They can really get a feel for who this artist is.”
This direct-from-the-source writing (Burney calls it “from the field”) largely informs True Laurels’ editorial voice, he said. Because he’s a product of an environment similar to that of the many of the artists he covers, Burney said he avoids certain clichés some mainstream media outlets have clumsily used in the past.
“I found that a lot of my peers in media, Baltimore and beyond, rarely come from the culture that they cover. That’s a major disconnect,” he said. “[But] I can relate. There’s certain things I wouldn’t do. I would never publish photos of rappers and their friends cooking crack or holding up a gun because I know what can come from it.
“I’m not obsessed with that. I’ve been in neighborhoods where that was normal. I don’t want to be glorifying it,” Burney said.
True Laurels will come out quarterly, with the next issue dropping in August, he said. The magazine taking on this expanded form has energized Burney, and his goal is to push the brand as far as it will go while keeping the focus on Baltimore.
And to think, he almost dropped the emphasis on his home. Last year, Burney was ready to focus on national acts, in part to extend the reach of the True Laurels' name. Then Freddie Gray died and the uprising occurred, which, as Burney addresses in the first issue's editor’s note, changed everything for him.
“Because of what happened, I feel a lot of purpose in my pride now,” Burney said of his feelings for Baltimore. “I’ve been able to write about people from this region for national publications, and it must be because people have an interest and respect for where I come from. So why wouldn’t I?”
Gray’s death made him look inward, Burney said. Instead of standing on the front lines of protests, he recommitted to his magazine — his best outlet for presenting the Baltimore he wants others to see.
“People like to look great in pictures. People like their stories to be told. People like to be proud of their work and feel validated by somebody recognizing that they’re trying,” Burney said. “My role is what I’m doing. My role is to present people well.”